In Greek mythology, virginal Hestia (ancient Greek Ἑστία) is the goddess of the hearth and of the rightly ordered household, who received the first offering at every sacrifice made by the family members. In the public sphere, her official sanctuary was typically found at the Prytaneion (a public hearth that was often part of the town hall). In both cases, the cult of Hestia can be seen as a ritual system whose primary purpose was the creation or maintenance of boundaries (i.e., public/private, secular/sacred, kin/stranger).
Though Hestia's presence within the surviving mythic corpus is somewhat minimal, she was still understood to be one of the original six Olympians (the children of Kronos and Rhea), making her a sibling of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, and Demeter. However, her close association with the physical hearth (which was also termed hestia) meant that she did not develop the intricate mythic persona possessed by her more storied relations.
Name and Characteristics
Unlike the numerous Greek deities whose names and etymologies are relatively obscure (see, for example, Apollo or Aphrodite), the meaning and origin of Hestia's appellation is strikingly straightforward. At the most basic level, her name literally means "hearth": a fitting title for a goddess who represents interiority, community, and family values.
In Mikalson's accessible introduction to Ancient Greek religion, he notes that young Athenian men, upon taking up arms to defend the polis, swore an oath to various deities, including Hestia. Describing this practice, he states that "Hestia is the hearth of the city-state, maintained with a perpetual fire in the Prytaneion, the state's official dining building." This is not a metonym or poetic hyperbole. Over and above any anthropomorphic religious beliefs or mythological references, Hestia was understood to be quite literally be the related hearths of home and state. For this reason, some scholars argue that the representation of Hestia signifies an older stratum of Hellenistic belief, a "pre-animistic" faith in the sacred power of the hearth itself (rather than in a humanized apotheosis of those powers). Further, this theory also suggests that the direct identification between the goddess and the eminently physical hearth-fire was responsible for the failure of any notable mythology to develop around her Olympian incarnation (as discussed below). As evidence of this, one may note that Hestia (as a deity) is entirely absent from the writings of Homer, though "he uses the term hestia … as a common noun, designating the 'hearth' or the 'fire of the hearth,' but [even so] the word has at times a certain sacred association for him; for he regards the hearth as the natural place for the suppliant and as a thing that might serve as the pledge of an oath."
In contrast to Homer's lacuna with regards to Hestia, Plato's Cratylus offers a fanciful etymology of the goddess's name—one that assumes her preeminence among the pantheon.
- Her theological primacy is evident in her being the first deity to whom you sacrifice. It will therefore be of great significance if her name signifies that most basic of philosophical concepts, ουσια, Being itself. Socrates observes that, in one Greek dialect variant, this association is strongly favored, since the word for ουσια [ousia] is εσσια [essia], which closely resembles Hestia. The message appears to be that Hestia is definitely to be associated with Being and symbolises the primacy of Being.
For the reasons introduced above, the Platonic account was evidently informed far more by religious practice than by mythic accounts.
In general, this dichotomy between the deity's near-absence in the mythic corpus and her prevalence in ancient Greek religious life will be a recurring theme in the following analysis.
Of all of the Olympian gods, almost none are described in as few surviving tales as Hestia. Indeed, it is for this reason that Barry Powell (rather unkindly) characterizes her as the "most colorless" of the Olympians. Though absent from the writings of Homer, she is attested to in the literary output of Apollodorous, Hesiod, Ovid, various playwrights, and the anonymous authors of the Homeric Hymns, albeit in a haphazard manner. From these scattered references, it is possible to assemble a brief biographical sketch.
Hestia is seen as one of the elder Olympians, a sibling of Demeter, Hades, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus. As both the oldest and youngest of the three daughters of Rhea and Cronus, sister to three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. As the firstborn child in this potent family unit, she was also the first to be devoured by her villainous father Cronus, who feared being displaced by his offspring. She remained in the monster's belly until the trickery of Rhea allowed Zeus to be born. This, in turn, permitted the Sky God to formulate a plan to force his pater to expel the other five Olympians. In this way, Hestia, the eldest daughter, "became their youngest child, since she was the first to be devoured by their father and the last to be yielded up again." This paradoxical inversion is explicitly commented upon in the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite (ca. 700 B.C.E.):
- "She was the first-born child of wily Cronos—and youngest too."
Immediately following this miraculous rebirth, the members of the new pantheon (including Hestia) rebelled against the older generation of deities in a massive, internecine battle known as the Titanomachy, from which they eventually emerged victorious. In spite of the fact that she had been numbered among the original twelve Olympians, Hestia was eventually displaced by Dionysus: a patron of wine and madness who easily overshadowed his more taciturn predecessor.
In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Hestia is described as one of the three goddesses who managed to successfully renounce romantic love (the other two being Athena and Artemis). Intriguingly, the hearth-goddess's virginity is described as a conscious choice, resulting from an explicit vow of celibacy made when she was approached by both Poseidon and Apollo, each of whom sought her hand in marriage:
Nor yet does the pure maiden Hestia love Aphrodite's works. She was… a queenly maid whom both Poseidon and Apollo sought to wed. But she was wholly unwilling, nay, stubbornly refused; and touching the head of father Zeus who holds the aegis, she, that fair goddess, swore a great oath which has in truth been fulfilled, that she would be a maiden all her days. So Zeus the Father gave her a high honour instead of marriage, and she has her place in the midst of the house and has the richest portion. In all the temples of the gods she has a share of honour, and among all mortal men she is chief of the goddesses.
In addition to providing some details about the goddess's life, this account is notable for offering an etiological explanation of Hestia's primacy at the various sacrifices performed by the ancient Greeks (discussed below).
Despite her vow of chastity, the sexual safety of the goddess was not always assured. In his account of the Fasti of the Roman year, Ovid twice recounted an anecdote of Priapus's foiled attempt to rape a sleeping nymph: once he told it of the nymph Lotis and then again, calling it a "very playful little tale," he retold it of Vesta, the Roman equivalent of Hestia. In the anecdote, after a great feast, when the immortals were all either passed out drunk or asleep, Priapus—a god characterized by his grotesquely large (and permanently erect) phallus—spied Lotis/Vesta and was filled with lust for her. He quietly approached the nymph, but the braying of an ass awoke her just in time. She screamed at the sight and Priapus immediately ran away.
The final notable mention of Hestia in the extant source material is in the second Homeric Hymn to Hestia, which (in a similar manner to the text quoted above) describes the goddess's relationship with human banquets and sacrifices. Intriguingly, however, it also posits a potential affiliation between the virgin goddess and Hermes:
Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both deathless gods and men who walk on earth, you have gained an everlasting abode and highest honour: 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.
And you, slayer of Argus, Son of Zeus and Maia [i.e., Hermes], messenger of the blessed gods, bearer of the golden rod, giver of good, be favourable and help us, you and Hestia, the worshipful and dear. Come and dwell in this glorious house in friendship together; for you two, well knowing the noble actions of men, aid on their wisdom and their strength.
Hail, Daughter of Cronos, and you also, Hermes, bearer of the golden rod!>
Commenting on this affinity, Shiner suggests that "if we consider Hestia together with her usual consort, Hermes, who represents the open space of the world of shepherds and traders as she represents the closed space of familial gathering, we have a comprehensive image of both the masculine and feminine aspects of Greek spatial experience." In this way, Hestia's import in Greek culture becomes more clear. She (especially when considered in tandem with Hermes) represents a type of symbolic anchor, defining the borders and boundaries of familial, cultural and religious experience. This relevance is further attested to by the goddess's ubiquity in traditional Hellenistic religion.
As mentioned above, Hestia's import in Hellenistic religion is not made clear by her admittedly paltry coverage within the surviving mythic corpus. Despite this, one could argue that she was a central cultic deity, in that she was associated with sacred fire, and was resultantly present in all sacrifices. It is likely this understanding that prompted the religious faithful to offer the first and last of each sacrifice to the hearth goddess, a fact that explains her characterization as "chief of the goddesses" in the Homeric Hymn quoted above. In general, Hestia's religious roles can be divided into three categories (familial ritual, community ritual, and temple ritual), each of which will be discussed below.
Hestia in family ritual
Given Hestia's nature as a personification of the sacred hearth (hestia), exploring her role in private familial rituals first requires the one extrapolates upon the Ancient Greek understanding of the hearth. As Shiner notes,
- One of the most characteristic manifestations of Greek sacred space was the hestia, the circular hearth which formed the center of the house and around which various rites such as marriage and the deposition of the infant took place. The hestia was also the seat of the goddess Hestia who accordingly symbolized the solidity and immobility of the cosmos as well as the centeredness of enclosed, domestic space. Not only did the hestia anchor the house to the earth but through the roof opening over it the god's portion of the meals cooked on the hearth rose to the world above.
This perspective caused Goddess and hearth to become conflated in the popular imagination, such that Hestia came to represent the sacred bond of family (as understood by its members). To that end, "children, brides, and slaves were formally accepted into the family by being led to or around the hearth, often in a shower of dried fruits and nuts, a ceremony no doubt performed by the father with all the other family members present."
Hestia in community ritual
At the more developed level of the polis, Hestia was interpreted on two levels: first, she was understood to symbolize the alliance between colonies and their mother-cities; and second, she represented shared space, the communal hearth-fire of friends, relatives and strangers dwelling in close proximity to one another.
The Athenian state, which was in essence a large extended family into which its citizens were born, had a state cult of Hestia in the Prytaneion, the state dining room. Just as a single Athenian family entertained guests at its hearth, so the Athenian state entertained and fed foreign ambassadors, official visitors, and Olympic victors at its hearth in the Prytaneion. The state Hestia of the Prytaneion is the Hestia of all the individual families writ large. With Hestia, we probably have a familial deity for whom the state, reputedly under Theseus (Thucydides, 2.15.2) established a centralized, national cult to develop the sense of the state as itself a family.
In this way, rituals surrounding the communal hearth (and, resultantly, the goddess Hestia) came to be important for creating community solidarity, and for defining the corporeal and symbolic boundaries of the polis. However, nowhere was this purpose more evident than in the religious rituals that invoked the goddess.
Hestia in temple ritual
The antiquity of belief in Hestia (suggested above) is attested to by the construction of the earliest Hellenic temples. Indeed, one of the earliest forms "of the temple is the hearth house; the early temples at Dreros and Prinias on Crete are of this type as indeed is the temple of Apollo at Delphi, which always had its inner hestia."
Intriguingly, the prevalence of these beliefs (as demonstrated through their historical antiquity), is also evidenced by their geographical ubiquity:
- In many poleis the common hearth of the polis, the koine hestia, which was also an altar-hearth for Hestia, was located in the prytaneion, a building which was also, though not primarily, religious in character. Its religious function was not limited to its primary association with the koine hestia and Hestia; at Naukratis, for example, part of the annual festivals of Dionysos and Apollo were celebrated in the prytaneion. At Kos the hearth-altar of Hestia was in the agora, clearly not in a building, and it was the focus of an important ritual during the festival of Zeus Polieus. In the agora of Pharae a prophetic hestia stood in front of the statue of Hermes.
These archaeological findings accord nicely with the scant written records from the period that describe the centrality of Hestia to all religious services, given that she was to be both the first and the last recipient of sacrificial offerings. As summarized by Jean-Joseph Goux:
She is assigned primacy in place, and also, especially in Greece, primacy in the very time of the ritual. Hestia was always, as I have mentioned, invoked first, no matter which god or goddess was the main object of the ceremonial. Hesiod, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Euripedes, and Plato are unanimous in indicating that every meal and every ritual should begin with a prayer or a sacrifice to Hestia. The first Homeric Hymn to Hestia says that without her it would be impossible to have feasts or festivals, because they could neither be started nor brought to a close.
In Roman mythology, Hestia's approximate equivalent was Vesta, who personified the public hearth, and whose cult (symbolized by the ever-burning communal fire) bound Romans together into the form of an extended family. However, the similarity of names is somewhat misleading, as "the relationship hestia-histie – Vesta cannot be explained in terms of Indo-European linguistics; borrowings from a third language must also be involved." Despite this linguistic proviso, the translation of form and function between the Greek goddess and her Roman equivalent are still seen to have been relatively straight-forward.
- H. J. Rose. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959), 167; Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 73-74
- Jon D. Mikalson. Ancient Greek Religion. (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 155.
- See, for example, Lewis Richard Farnell. The Cults of the Greek States, Vol. V. (in Five Volumes). (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 359-361).
- Gantz, 73.
- Farnell, Vol. V, 345.
- David Sedley, "The Etymologies in Plato's Cratylus." The Journal of Hellenic Studies 118 (1998): 153.
- Barry B. Powell. Classical Myth, Second Edition. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), 151.
- See Gantz, 73-74 (or  www.theoi.com. Retrieved February 19, 2008.) for a comprehensive listing of these mythic citations.
- Karl Kerenyi. The Heroes of the Greeks. (London: Thames & Hudson, New Ed., 1997), 91.
- These events are described in Hesiod's Theogony 453; Homeric Hymn V to Aphrodite 18; Apollodorous i. 1§5.
- Powell, 243.
- "Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite" (V:22-32), in Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, edited & translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classics, 1914). Accessed online at Online Medieval and Classical Library. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
- Ovid, Fasti, 1.391ff (on-line text).
- Fasti 6.319ff (on-line text).
- "Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite" (XXIX:1-12), Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica, edited & translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classics, 1914). Accessed online at Online Medieval and Classical Library. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
- Larry E. Shiner, "Sacred Space, Profane Space, Human Space." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40(4) (December 1972): 433.
- Ibid., 432-433.
- Mikalson, 136.
- Ibid., 160.
- Walter Burkert. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, Translated by John Raffan. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), 61.
- Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, "Early sanctuaries, the eighth century and ritual space: fragments of a discourse" in Greek Sanctuaries: New Approaches, Edited by Nanno Marinatos and Robin Hägg. (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 12.
- Jean-Joseph Goux, "Vesta, or the Place of Being." Representations 1 (February 1983): 93.
- Burkert, III.3.1 note 2.
- Apollodorus. Gods & Heroes of the Greeks, Translated and with an Introduction and Notes by Michael Simpson. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1977. ISBN 0870232053.
- Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, Translated by John Raffan. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985. ISBN 0631112413.
- Dillon, Matthew. Pilgrims and Pilgrimage in Ancient Greece. London; New York: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 0415127750.
- Farnell, Lewis Richard. The Cults of the Greek States. (in Five Volumes). Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907.
- Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. ISBN 080184410X.
- Goux, Jean-Joseph. "Vesta, or the Place of Being." Representations 1 (February 1983): 91-107.
- Kerenyi, Karl. The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames & Hudson (New Ed edition), 1997. ISBN 050027049X.
- Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. ISBN 0631232222.
- Nilsson, Martin P. Greek Popular Religion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1940. Also accessible online at .www.sacred-texts.com.
- Parke, H. W. Festivals of the Athenians. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1977. ISBN 0801410541.
- Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth, Second Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998. ISBN 0137167148.
- Price, Simon. Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ISBN 0521388678.
- Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959. ISBN 0525470417.
- Ruck, Carl A.P. and Staples, Daniel. The World of Classical Myth. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 1994. ISBN 0890895759.
- Rutkowski, Bogdan. The Cult Places of the Aegean. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. ISBN 0300029624.
- Sedley, David. "The Etymologies in Plato's Cratylus." The Journal of Hellenic Studies 118 (1998): 140-154.
- Shiner, Larry E. "Sacred Space, Profane Space, Human Space." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 40(4) (December 1972): 425-436.
- Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. "Early sanctuaries, the eighth century and ritual space: fragments of a discourse" in Greek Sanctuaries: New Approaches, Edited by Nanno Marinatos and Robin Hägg. London and New York: Routledge, 1993. 1-17.
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