Greek mythology is one of our richest sources of ancient tales. The gods, heroes, and spirits who populate the mountains and cities of ancient Greece throng our collective consciousness. Whether or not one reads or watches media about the Hellenic gods, almost all of us have absorbed bits and pieces, and are familiar with the names and some of the stories.
But we run into a wall when we try to research the most widely-known and worshipped goddess of the pantheon. Hestia was at the center of each campfire, family dwelling, city structure and municipal office. The family prayers began and ended each day with libations to her. No feast or public meeting or religious ritual could begin without invoking her favor at the beginning and thanking her at the end. Her most famous epithet is “First and Last” because she was so very ubiquitous in every facet of Hellenic life, from the poorest hovel to the grandest palace.
So why the dearth of myths about her?
Let’s start with what we do know. She is the oldest daughter of the Titans Kronos and Rhea, and sister to five of the most important Olympians—Zeus, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera and Hades. Her “first and last” designation comes from the gruesome myth of Kronos devouring his own children. Fearing that his offspring will follow his example and depose him as he did his own father, Ouranos, he seizes each baby as Rhea bears them, beginning with Hestia, and gulps them down. Keeping them safely contained within his own body ensures his continued dominance, or so he thinks. Rhea is none too pleased with this treatment of her children. After bearing her youngest, Zeus, she offers her husband a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, while the baby is whisked off to Crete to be raised in secret. Blissfully unaware, Kronos gulps down the stone. When Zeus comes of age, he conspires with his grandmother Gaia to sneak an emetic into Kronos’s wine. Kronos proceeds to vomit up his children in the backwards order of their swallowing, so firstborn Hestia emerges last. This is where we get the epithet, although it’s far more likely that the myth came into being to explain the cult practice rather than the other way around.
The same is true about one of the few other myths we have about Hestia, the one explaining her status as “parthenos” or eternal virgin. Like her nieces Athena and Artemis, Hestia eschews sexual activity. Both her brother Poseidon and her nephew Apollo are enamored of her and seek to seduce her. She petitions Zeus to grant her permanent unmarried status and he grants it to her. It should be noted that some modern scholars translate “parthenos” as a woman not under male control, one free to make her own choices, rather than being in a state of permanent chastity.
The only other story associated with Hestia comes from Ovid’s Fasti, thousands of years after her worship was established. Rhea gives a great banquet, inviting all the gods, satyrs, nymphs and nature spirits, including Priapos. He is a minor god who protects gardens, beehives, and flocks, and is known for his comically enormous phallus and erotic proclivities. Hestia withdraws from the festivities to nap in the garden where Priapos spies her. He tries to sneak up on her but is spotted by a donkey who brays loudly and wakes the goddess. At her shriek, the other gods come flying to her rescue and lascivious Priapos is soundly beaten for his presumption. But it must be noted that Ovid tells almost the exact same story within the same work, but names the nymph Lotis as the object of Priapos’s unseemly desire. There are no Greek works that tell this tale.
For any other goddess, this lack of stories would indicate lack of importance. But Hestia is a civic goddess without parallel. The centrality of the hearth from the rudest cave to the most lavish palace cannot be overstated. When colonists set forth from their own towns to found new settlements, they took flame from their community hearths and used it to consecrate their new homes. The birth of children was celebrated with the “amphidromia” ritual by carrying the baby around the hearth, introducing them to the goddess. It was the job of town and city officials to tend the communal flame, and considered a terrible omen and dereliction of duty if it should go out. If the central fire died a new one had to be kindled from a lightning strike, a “burning glass” i.e. sunlight magnified through glass, or rubbing sticks together. A family could relight their own hearth fires from the municipal hearth, but the public hearth required wildfire.
My scarcity of source material led to much hair-tearing when it came to writing this blog post. Other than my daily practice of offering my first cup of coffee and final prayers to Hestia every day, I had little on which to hang my authorial hat. So I did the next best thing. I contacted two friends whose devotional practices revolve around this elusive goddess.
I chatted first with Anne Hatzakis of the greekrevivalistmommy blog who has been writing about Hestia and her importance in ancient Greek culture for years. Anne’s blog, linked at the end of this post, isn’t solely about Hestia but a simple search yields a wealth of posts and essays that emphasize how vital the goddess’s influence was in every facet of rural and urban life. She also wrote the excellent essay, “Hestia: the Overlooked Olympian,” also linked below.
Then I had a long and fascinating conversation with Melitta Stafford, a devotee of Hestia whose involvement with the goddess goes all the way back to her childhood. While much of the conversation involved the facts of Hestian worship discussed in this post and more extensively in Anne’s work, Melitta has some unusual insights about how Hestia’s centrality to life and association with the hearth had an unexpected impact on her life.
As a child, Melitta was homeless and queer, a combination uniquely able to make a young person feel unsafe. A vision of a simple fire came to her during a prayer of desperation. Research led her to Hestia, to whom she prayed for a home and family of her own. But Hestia began with helping Melitta find her home in an even more personal way, within her very skin. The realization that she is a woman and her subsequent transition meant that Melitta could finally be at home in her own body. Or, as this very Southern gal puts it, “Home is where the heart is” in the most literal possible sense. Melitta also pointed out the unusual fact that Hestia’s temples were not only the first stop for new arrivals, but places of sanctuary where refugees and criminals could claim sanctuary. Unlike many gods, Hestia’s compassion extends to people without arete, the Greek concept of excellence (or even goodness.) All are welcome to partake of her warmth.
Hestia was so intrinsically associated with the hearth that the names become conflated. You often find references to the “family hestia,” where light, warmth, cooking, and fellowship all took place. It is interesting that there are so few statues or artistic renderings of her, in light of her importance in all family and community activities. She is usually depicted as a young woman, modestly attired and often veiled, with a gentle face. The many hymns written to her underscore attributes of gentleness, grace and kindness. Some writers even claim that she gives up her seat upon Olympos to Dionysos, the later and more ebullient arrival, in keeping with her desire to live a quiet life out of the limelight. Others push back against this interpretation in light of her importance to humanity.
Maybe it’s easy to overlook the quiet goddess with few famous statues or epic tales. The Greeks in whose society her worship arose seemed content to enjoy her perpetual presence in their midst without requiring much beyond the first and last libations at feasts, first fruits, or an occasional offering of her sacred animals, the pig or a year-old cow.
But one should keep in mind what beginnings and endings entail. There is the pain and blood of childbirth juxtaposed with the fear and finality of death. Or, on a larger scale, the cataclysm of the Big Bang set against the potential cold silence at the end of the universe.
When I ask her about these matters, all I get is a secret smile.