Hymn to Hestia

The forgotten goddess of the hearth
Hestia is the virgin goddess of the hearth, family, home and the state in ancient Greek religion and mythology

Not all goddesses travel through time. Some ancient deities continue to appeal to us while others are long lost: everyone from Bananarama to Lady Gaga has recorded a song about Venus – the Roman goddess of love and sex – but there isn’t yet a chart topper about Cardea, the Roman goddess of the door hinge. The poet Ovid tells us that Cardea’s power was to close what is open and open what is closed. The origin of her powers is obscure, he adds. But the Romans had strong views on boundaries and the dividing line between public and private space: not only did they have this goddess of the hinge, but they also had a god of doors and another of the threshold. The act of leaving and arriving at home was important enough to require multiple deities to watch over it. So by all means pray to Venus if you’re hoping to meet a cute boyfriend, but don’t forget to mention Cardea if you want to be sure you don’t lose your keys while you’re out kissing.

No goddess has fallen out of fashion more comprehensively than Hestia, older sister to the biggest names in Greek gods: Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. When the Greeks of the fourth century BCE wanted to say that they would start something from the beginning, they said they would start from Hestia. She was at the centre of their buildings: Hestia literally means hearth, and the fire that burns within. The Greek notion of a hearth had the same metonymic quality that the English word has: “hearth” is often used to mean house or home. It can also stand for the people who make somewhere our home: so “Hestia” can be the household, as well the house. It is the hearth of a god when found in a temple (and so is sometimes used to mean altar), and it is also a civic location, the hearth of a town hall that provides the focal point for a city’s administrative life.  The word “focus”, incidentally, is the Latin word for hearth.

No goddess has fallen out of fashion more than Hestia, older sister to the biggest names in Greek gods

Although we may not be as familiar with Hestia as we are with her siblings, we might know her better under the name the Romans gave to her: Vesta. Vesta’s priestesses were highly regarded during the Roman empire. The Vestal Virgins, as they were known – echoing the rejection of marriage made by their goddess herself – were responsible for maintaining a sacred flame that protected the Roman people. The priestesses served the goddess for 30 years, receiving considerable public recognition. And this continued: in the nineteenth century, Vesta gave her name to matches. Sherlock Holmes famously finds one in The Adventure of Silver Blaze.

As the ancient Greeks perceived the world, if you have ever come home and found warmth – literal or metaphorical – you have had an encounter with the goddess Hestia. In other words, every Greek home contained a shrine to Hestia: if you lit a fire, cooked food, burned a sacrificial offering to any god or goddess, you were using her name, recognising her divinity. In this polytheistic society, it’s hard to imagine any deity could be more central to daily life – domestic, civic and religious – than Hestia. She was the goddess who received the first part of a sacrifice to any god, and heroes swore by her name just as they did by her brother, Zeus.

There is a short poem known as the Homeric Hymn to Hestia. “The homes of all the immortal gods (ie temples) and of all mortals allot you an everlasting seat,” it begins, “and the highest honour. Without you, there are no feasts for mortals. The first and last offerings of honey-sweet wine are made to you.” This phrase reflects Hestia’s own strange birth: Rhea – daughter of Earth and Heaven – gives birth to six children, but the first five are immediately consumed whole by their father, Kronos. By the time Zeus is born, Rhea switches him for a stone and Kronos swallows that instead. He regurgitates his children in reverse order, which is why Hestia is born first – from Rhea – and last from Kronos.

But it is undeniably true that Hestia is missing from the grand sagas in which other gods play a pivotal role. She doesn’t involve herself in divine interventions in the Trojan War, for example. The Iliad shows us Hera, Athene and Zeus plotting on Mount Olympus, it shows us Apollo, Ares and even Aphrodite appearing on the battlefield to protect their favourites. Athene intervenes to break the truce which nearly brings the war to a premature conclusion, disguising herself as a Trojan warrior and encouraging another to fire an arrow at the Greek Menelaus. She then flits across to protect Menelaus, deflects the arrow like a mother swatting a fly away from her child.

Hestia never interferes in mortal affairs like this. She doesn’t even seem to take part when the gods battle for their own survival: she is usually absent from depictions of the Gigantomachy, the cataclysmic battle between gods and giants. The staggering Pergamon Altar shows a vast array of gods fighting off the upstart children of Gaia. But Hestia doesn’t appear to be there. And perhaps this offers a clue for why we might have lost track of her. If she isn’t in the great narratives or huge sculptures, where is she?

She is at home, is the answer. Although she is not keeping house for a husband: like Artemis and Athene, she doesn’t marry. Or, as another Homeric Hymn puts it, she is one of three goddesses that Aphrodite couldn’t persuade or cheat. Though Hestia is not without admirers: she rejects offers from Poseidon and Apollo. Which means that this one placid goddess manages to say no to three hypersensitive egomaniacs (those two gods and Aphrodite), and somehow she falls out with none of them.

But Hestia doesn’t live alone. She has a friend – and housemate – in the messenger god, Hermes. The Homeric Hymns are quite clear about Hestia refusing sex and marriage. Yet she shares her home with her opposite: Hermes is always in motion, Hestia is always still. It is difficult to think of a similar relationship anywhere else in Greek myth. The whole thing feels like a cosy flatshare sitcom.

Hestia thrives for a long time before we lose her: Pompeii had numerous shrines to her, especially in bakeries. The patron goddess of the hearth is connected with ovens and food, of course. Just when you thought you couldn’t like her more, she turns out to be the goddess of carbs. Pompeii has also revealed a couple of wonderful frescoes of Vesta with her favourite animal, the donkey. Ovid tells the story of the grimy Priapus (a god with a perpetual erection) attempting to assault Vesta one morning while she is sleeping outside. A nearby donkey brays loudly, waking Vesta and summoning other gods to protect her.

Later Christian writers were appalled by the notion that a goddess could owe her chastity to a guard-donkey, but I have always rather liked the idea that Vesta has a soft spot for these courageous creatures. This disapproval gives us an inkling of what may have happened to Hestia when monotheism spread across the Roman empire. A goddess who was apparently present in every home, every temple, every place where fires were lit might well have troubled a church trying to establish its own omnipresent deity.

But perhaps there is more to it. Fire has a dual nature: it is both purifying and filthy. Odysseus calls for fire to purge his halls of the blood of the suitors, but his son has moved his weapons away from that same fire under the pretext of keeping them clean from soot. Fire is lifesaving on a cold winter night, life-threatening on a hot summer’s day. And the work of maintaining a fire might go to high-status priestesses, but the dirty work of collecting and chopping wood was done by slaves. The sacred flame of Vesta was eventually extinguished by Christianity, but the sacred temple of Vesta had – unsurprisingly – burned down many times before then. Hestia is understandably but undeservedly forgotten, because she lives a quiet, introverted life. But she is the goddess of home and family, of warmth and baking bread. Her name, according to Plato, means being. She is the very essence of things.

Natalie Haynes is a writer, classicist, broadcaster and comedian. Her most recent book is “Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth” (Picador)

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Arts & Culture, October 2023

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