Hidden Hestia, Goddess of the Hearth and Home

It was too hot for me, long acclimated to the long grey winters of the Pacific Northwest. Although it was only April, Rome felt more like a midsummer day beating down on me with an intensity made worse by the pounding of fierce jet lag. I wanted nothing more than to find a cafe and have a long leisurely meal accompanied by several large bottles of water. But I was on a quest, a personal journey to see the storied home of one of the most revered yet unknown Goddesses of the Ancient Pagan world: Hestia.

I am the core
the center
indescribable, elusive

I am the living presence
every building
each dwelling.

I am the transformation
of marble, stone, wood
and with its hearth fire lit
I make it a home.

Hestia was the first-born child of Cronus and Rhea, and the first swallowed alive by her father when his fear overwhelmed him. Deep in his guts, Hestia was the one calming and organizing her siblings until the day came for their inevitable release. Even after their return to life, Hestia remained a solitary figure, choosing to act in the role of elder sister, then maiden aunt to all her nieces and nephews. She eschewed the scheming and petty squabbles that marked their lives and never took sides, preferring instead to tend the hearth and watch over the home.
A woman I once worked with had an altar to Hestia in her kitchen. It was a small red glass oil lamp that she lit daily for at least an hour. As she lit it, she offered up a prayer for a blessing on the house and all within. A stick of incense would work equally as well, perhaps scented of wood for the fires once lit in her honor.

As a child I was captivated by her. I resonated with her as the eldest and the one who preferred to stay in the background. Along with Artemis and Athena, I had a triptych of independent intelligent Goddesses to model myself after. She was mysterious, with few stories told about her, no matter how hard I looked. In my tattered History of Greece, I read how every sacrifice was made first to her and then to the deity who festival was being celebrated[1]. My new copy of Made from Scratch also talks about Hestia and her importance to the continuance of the species itself: “Simply put, every hearth on earth, whether in home or temple, was Hestia’s altar. And her power lay simply in her presence — in the existence of the hearth fire . . . From the perspective of her worshippers, Hestia just . . . was.[2]”

There are no known images of Hestia; her worship was so pervasive, so ubiquitous that she was essentially invisible in one of the greatest representational cultures in history. It wasn’t until the Romans acquired her and gave her the name Vesta that a few statues were created, most notably the Giustiniani Hestia in the Villa Albani and a ‘mantled goddess’ in the Naples Archeological Museum. These lovely ladies have one attribute in common — we aren’t sure it really is Hestia (or Vesta) we’re looking at. All are mantled modestly, heads covered with high necklines on their chitons and all are unencumbered by any symbolic objects, which is probably the strongest reason why they might be Hestia.

Now, here I was in Rome with a terrible case of low blood sugar after a long morning wandering all over the Colosseum and Forum and Palatine Hill . . . and I had yet to see the place. Her place.

Her Roman Transformation
The Roman version of Hestia, Vesta, was worshipped as early as the 7th century BCE although only as a household deity in the homes of Roman families. She became a state goddess after being brought to Latium by Aeneas, Her priestesses embodied the very heart of the city and were honored above all others.

The people of Rome built the Temple of Vesta in the Forum Romanum (Roman Forum), her only temple. Inside the round temple burned the eternal fire, the symbolic hearth of Rome and all the Roman people. They believed that if the fire was extinguished it would have grave consequences for the Romans, and so six vestal virgins (the only ones allowed access to the temple) tended the fire at all times. Also kept inside the temple were the objects that Aeneas was said to have brought with him on his flight from Troy. There was no cult statue in the temple, although Augustus had a statue placed on an altar in his house on the Palatine Hill in 12 BCE.

The hearth of the Prytaneum, the headquarters of the standing committee of the senate, was regarded as the common hearth of the state; a statue of Hestia was in this hail, and in the senate-house was an altar of that goddess.[3]

Vesta’s priestesses were called “Vestal Virgins” and were the only female priests within the Roman religious system. They were selected from distinguished patrician families at an age from three to ten and served for thirty years. The first ten years they served as novices, then ten years as Vestal Virgins proper, and at last ten years as supervisors. Led by the senior member, the Virgo Vestalis Maxima, they were under the direct protection of the Pontifex Maximus and lived under a vow of absolute chastity for the thirty years of their tenure. As compensation, they had many privileges not given to ordinary Roman women. They were not subject to the pater potestas (authority) of their father, they could handle their own property and write a legally binding will testament, they had special seats in the front row at the games (where women normally were relegated to the back seats) and they were allowed to move around in the city in a carriage. A person sentenced to death who met a vestal virgin on the way to the execution was automatically pardoned if she wished. After they left their service they could marry, and marrying a former Vestal was considered a prestigious and fortuitous choice.

Their persons were inviolable and sacred, and their blood could not be spilled. Vestals were executed, but very infrequently. The punishment for breaking the vow of chastity was death by being buried alive, the only way to kill a vestal without shedding her blood. They were interred privately in a place known as Campus Sceleratus, or the Evil Fields, found just outside the Servian Wall. Their lover would be flogged to death on the Comitum, the political center of Rome, making an example to all. The order of the vestals was only disbanded in 394 CE, when non-Christian cults were banned.

I was hot, tired, and hungry; moreover as I looked at the map I realized I was going to have to go almost all of the way back to where we’d started our tour after leaving the Colosseum.I looked longingly over the edge of the hill, down to the street below. It would be so much easier to just go get a bottle of water, a slice of pizza, maybe a bit of espresso and have a bit of a rest. “You won’t come back,” the small voice inside told me. I knew it was right, as it so often is.
I slogged my way against the crowd, my husband doing his best to run interference for me, trying to make it easier. There weren’t any signs, so we tried to remember the things our guide had told us. “Didn’t she say this was the Temple of Saturn?” And the odd phrase overheard from other visitors helped orient us, it was a very peculiar kind of scavenger hunt. Down a narrow passage behind a crumbling building and into an open area and . . . there it was. I knew it before he said anything.

Hestia was a vital part of ancient Greek life; She was an ancient goddess even for the Greeks. (There is evidence She was worshiped by the Scythians, who called her Tabiti[4]. ) In her role as the protectress of the fireplace, the most important place in a house, She is a direct link to Magna Mater, or Great Mother. It is clear that Her pervasive role in everyday rites of the ancient Greeks is so taken for granted that few writers felt the need to describe them. Her name, according to Plato, means the essence of things, and since She is the essence of everything that moves and flows and has life and personality, She is herself the most anonymous, the least personal of all the goddesses.[5] She was worshipped as the center: the center of the city, the center of the house, even the center of the center of the world, the omphalos, the navel, at Delphi.

Bringing Hestia/Vesta Home
Not much remains of the temple itself: a few degrees of the circle; three columns and a bit of a fourth. Yet here She once stood, once walked, Her power filled the temple and graced Her priestesses. Just to the southeast lies a lovely peristyle (garden with colonnaded cloister) complex where Her priestesses lived. A series of statues line the walkways, heads gruesomely missing for the most part, as well as hands; some of them have labels and histories we can read about even now. I forgot my hunger, my fatigue and lost myself in contemplation of this forgotten Goddess and Her handmaidens.

The house that Hestia/ Vesta inhabits provides the boundaries for our soul, protecting it from the invasion of the outside world and from the chaos of everyday life. Hestia, the guardian of our homecoming, nourishes the depths of our being, leavens our lives and provides a center in which to contain our disconnected experiences. The essence of this forgotten goddess has a profound relevance for modern women caught up in “doing” and activity. In “doing,” all of the time, we have forgotten how to “be.”

Tourists hurried past — I could hear them on the other side of the remains of the rooms where her priestesses once lived, slept, sang, cooked, and dreamed; while I took the time to sit, to breathe, and to just be. Finally, after a while, I looked up a poem and read it aloud to my bemused husband:

Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both deathless gods and men who walk on earth, you have gained an ever-lasting abode and highest honor: glorious is your portion and your right. For without you mortals hold no banquet, – where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last. [6]

Hestia was the goddess of the hearth fire, of family life, household activities (“housework” to some), harmonious interpersonal relationships, and hospitality, the very center around which the city’s solid foundation was built. It’s not surprising that when life and outside activities take over and dominate our existence, Hestia becomes the forgotten goddess. She is not about striving and straining, competing and succeeding; she is about being. Stephanie Demetrakopoulos believes we should “resacralize Hestia” because to make Her as culturally central and apparent as She was in ancient Greece would give public recognition to the worth of private household work done mostly by women. In doing so, we might recover the connections between mind and body, private and public, currently so separate [7].

Hestia’s fire warms, kindles, illuminates. She is the gathering point, the source and the center that sustains our place of return. When we are “off base,” “off balance,” or “out of sorts” we have fallen away from this goddess, who reminds us of Her power to bring the soul into a state of dwelling, in accord with our truest nature. Hestia reminds us to make our home a priority—whether we live with others, or in a space we do not like, or have no space of our own, or live in such a busy whirlwind that our dwelling is not our home, but merely a place to change clothes and sleep.

Now is the time to come home.

A Visualization To Invoke Hestia
Begin each day with this visualization: Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and relax. See yourself on a hearth, see the tiles and stone around you. From within your heart, visualize a flame that bums any anxieties, preoccupations or negative feelings into ash. Let the flame’s warmth expand until you become completely immersed in it, until you are the fire in the center of that hearth. Enjoy the warmth, protection and sense of security until you are ready to face the day. Say “I am the eternal flame, daughter to you, Hestia” and open your eyes.
Her festival is the Vestalia, which was observed from June 7 to 15; perhaps take that week off, next time it comes around again, and spend it honoring Hestia/Vesta, as well as any time of the year you might decide to clean house, clear clutter and rearrange furniture. Make a formal space-clearing ritual by smudging everywhere (even the closets and under furniture) or opening all the windows and doors on a breezy day. Create a ritual to welcome Her into your home by laying a fire on the hearth (or cooking a special meal if you don’t have a fireplace). Begin to burn a votive candle daily, each time you are home.

Additional References


[1] History of Greece: From the Earliest Times, etc., Volume 1 by Max Duncker, p. 183.
[2]  Made from Scratch: Reclaiming the Pleasures of the American Hearth by Jean Zimmerman, p. 32.
[3] Aeschines, English translation by Charles Darwin Adams, Ph.D. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1919, section 45.
[4] Macaulay, G. C. (1904). The History of Herodotus, Vol. I. London: Macmillan & Co. pp. 313–317
[5] Plato, “Cratylus,” 401b, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Plat.+Crat.+401&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0172.
[6] The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
[7] Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, Listening to Our Bodies: The Rebirth of Feminine Wisdom, Beacon Press, 1983.



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