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Hestia, Forgotten Goddess

by valerie walker
©2005
Previously published in Witch Eye magazine

Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both deathless gods and men who walk on earth, you have gained an everlasting 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. --Homeric Hymn to Hestia

In my life I have gravitated toward the goddess Hestia, who is not one of the Feri gods, and not even one of the more storied or famous Greek gods, at least in the modern world. Scholars often refer to Hestia as "the forgotten goddess." She was, and is, the goddess of the hearth fire; in fact, she is envisioned as the fire itself. Her name, , means "the essence," the true nature of things.

Hestia's legend is simple: she was the first-born of the Olympians, children of Cronos and Rhea, and the first to be swallowed up again when Cronos realized he would be overthrown by one of his offspring the way he had overthrown his own father, Ouranos. When Zeus conspired with his mother Rhea to set his siblings free, Hestia was the last one to be released. So she is both the first- and last-born.

Aside from the circumstances of her birth, there are remarkably few stories about Hestia other than her refusal of marriage to either Apollo or Poseidon, who both wanted her. She swore before Zeus that she was determined to remain single. Zeus not only supported Hestia's decision (probably relieved that he wouldn't have to oversee a contest between the two gods), but also decreed that Hestia's name should come first in any prayer and that she should receive the first portion of any sacrifice and be honored in the temples of each of the Olympian deities. From this point, Hestia is not associated with deeds, but with simple existence. This is so foreign to contemporary thought in the Western world that she has been virtually forgotten, even though she was vital to the Greeks, and, as Vesta, to the Romans. She was offered tribute first and last among the Greeks; in fact, there is a saying, "first, start with Hestia."

When Zeus wished to give a place among the Olympians to Dionysus, the accommodating Hestia gave him hers, so that the Olympians would still number twelve. Thus she had no throne--but she didn't need one, as every hearth-fire was hers, and indeed, was her. She was welcome in all the other gods' temples, and her sacred fire was kept burning in every home and in every city. The source of Hestia's sacred fire is the interior heat at the center of the earth. Her fire was tended constantly and never allowed to die out, for it represented the energy of all life. When a woman married, she brought Hestia's flame from her mother's home to begin the creation of a new family with a new hearth lit from the old. "The Olympic Torch is just one example of the living flame that has survived to modern times, though it is seldom recalled that it originally honored ... Hestia."

In a fascinating online article about Hestia in which she compares the goddess to the Tarot trump the Chariot, Iona Miller says:

The goddess of [the] deep center or introversion is Hestia. She helps us find that quiet state of consciousness which characterizes contemplation and meditation. ...Hestia helps us lead a balanced life by providing a sense of center. The holy precinct makes communication with the divine forces possible. Thus we can harmonize inner and outer reality through her power.... A modern phenomenon, the househusband is coming to know Hestia in himself through the endless repetition of archetypal household chores. But they can be healing like the Zen prescription to "Chop wood; carry water."

Hestia symbolizes to me the fire of mana, originating in the center of the earth, and traveling upward through the chakras to meet the fire of the Gods and blend with it. There is a wonderful description of this power in a book on Celtic shamanism, Fire In The Head:
The net of divine power...is similar to the divine power the Polynesians call mana, the Algonquin manitou, the Lakota wakanda, the Iroqouis orneda, the Pawnee tirawa, and the !Kung ntum. It is very much the same idea expressed as brahman in India and the tao in China and Japan. In the European esoteric tradition, it is often called magick. It is the God-without Form, the great spirit or wondrous mystery behind all that is and, in fact, it is All-that-Is.


In the Feri Tradition, Hestia's closest counterpart would be the Guardian of Below, Fire in the Earth; but I see her as also representing the power of the Guardian of Above, the Heaven Shiner. Hestia thus represents the power of the vertical, a concept which is recognized in Feri in that we cast a sphere rather than a circle, calling on seven, not four, directions; the horizontal four, Above, Below, and the Center, which is each one of us.

Chop Wood...

Hestia is the Goddess of the sacredness of the ordinary, Our Lady of Everyday Things. Her relevance to people in the 21st century CE is beginning to be better understood. After the feminist movement of the 1970's brought many women out of the kitchen and into the boardroom, the lack of Hestia's hearthfire at the center was felt in the dislocation of the family, and the longing for something missing which nobody could define. American women in the 1980's and '90's began to realize that "having it all" merely meant doing it all, as they had to cope with both the stresses and demands of the business world, and the same old unmade beds and dirty dishes when they got home at night; and somehow the concept of the househusband didn't become as popular as the feminists had hoped. Social conservatives found their solution in trying to push women back into the old pre-feminist roles; but a profound and thoughtful view of the sacredness of holding house was still lacking.

...Carry Water

It was out of the psychologically aware and transformation-minded end of the Pagan movement that a return to Hestian values began to creep back into post-feminist sensibilities. Books such as Ginette Paris' Pagan Meditations and Jerilee Cain's Hestia Come Home, which are directly concerned with Hestia; and Kay Turner's Beautiful Necessity and Kathryn Robyn's Spiritual Housecleaning, which are more about the effects of the Hestian spirit in the home while not mentioning her specifically, are only a few examples of the rebirth of the Hestian sensibility today.

A Daily Salute To Hestia

Put on a pot of coffee (Tea is an acceptable substitute.)
Put the dirty dishes in the sink or dishwasher and wash them.
Do a load of laundry. Make the bed(s).
Dust, mop, vacuum. Tidy up.
When finished, pour yourself a cup of coffee and enjoy your home.

Have you ever noticed that at parties people generally end up in the kitchen much of the time? I think it's an unconscious desire to be near the hearth, the center of the home, the source of nourishment. In our house, the kitchen is not my domain as much as it is my husband Ron Miller's. Ron was a professional chef for some years, and still enjoys cooking nightly; and the kitchen is definitely his turf. He has his own style of Hestian order, with his many knives, spatulas, strainers, and other tools either stowed neatly, or hanging from the ceiling rack or the magnetic strip on the wall. He keeps it orderly, and I keep it clean. We agreed informally years ago that we each have things we prefer to do, and for the most part neither of us infringes on the other's territory. The line isn't drawn along strictly gender-stereotype roles, however; I'm the one who empties the garbage, and Ron takes care of the garden. We each approach and honor Hestia in our individual ways.

Altar-Building

My natural proclivities are toward making altars. As Ron has joked on more than one occasion, "No horizontal surface is safe." Well, talents differ, and it's probably just as well that we aren't both into the art of altar-making, or the house would be unlivable in short order. In any case, the feelings I have when building an altar, even a little portable one in an Altoids tin, are that this microcosmic space must express the macrocosm of our life together, of my life as an individual, and of home as the center whose circumference is everywhere. All altars are to Hestia, in some part, just as among the ancient Greeks. Other gods are happy to share with her.

An altar can be as simple as a few family pictures on a shelf, or a shell and a bowl of flowers on a table. For an unreconstructed Hardwarian like myself, these gatherings of objects have come to include god and goddess statuettes, pictures, stones, plants, shells, ritual tools, beautiful pieces of fabric, crystals, candles, Tibetan singing bowls and prayer wheels, feathers, plastic toys, stuffed dolls, decks of cards, boxes of runestones, dishes of salt, cups, beads, dried flowers, bottles of scented oils, incense burners, tiny little constructions of my own, bits of jewelry, masks... well, you get the picture. I have altars for all the directions, and several specifically for love, the ancestors, and gathering psychic power. An altar to Hestia can be made with things which symbolize her -- over our kitchen stove we have a clock with its hands stopped at a quarter to eleven ("time for a little something," according to Winnie-the-Pooh ) and a magnetic wall strip holding Ron's kitchen knives. There are also several pictures of pigs nearby. Simple, but Hestian. Depending on your personal aesthetic, you may wish to choose among the symbols in Table 1 for a Hestia altar of your own; but a simple candle will do, or even the kitchen stove itself, unadorned with anything except cooking pots.

I have found that a very inexpensive way of making a small altar is to start with a bamboo drawer insert, divided into three parts. (You can get these at the Container Store. Similar drawer inserts are also available at Bed Bath and Beyond.) Stand the drawer insert either horizontally or vertically, and find small objects to put into the compartments and on top. Small toys, mementoes, statues, beads, tiny bottles, pictures, a little vase for flowers, a bowl of water, playing or Tarot cards, personal mementoes... your imagination is the limit. Your altar can be mounted on the wall by attaching a picture-hanger to the back, or simply stood up on a shelf. And it's nice to find a piece of material which you like and fasten it to the wall behind the altar, either flat or draped. You can either glue the objects into place or simply place them for rearrangement at will. If you live in earthquake country, a little museum wax under the more delicate objects would be prudent. One advantage of shelf-mounting rather than wall-mounting is that you will have room for a votive candle at the front. Hestia likes fire...she is fire.

hestiaaltar

Small box altar (6" across): part of a larger altar. Multimedia (brass, stones, plastic and fabric toy figure, printed transparency, porcelain vial, glass cube, rubber snake, brass and glass spider, clay disk, bamboo box)

Symbols of Hestia

General: Hearth, home, living flame, architecture, bowl, veils, pantry, and keys
Animals: Donkey (ass) and pigs
Plants: Angel's trumpet (Datura), California poppy, goldenrod, hollyhock, purple coneflower, and yarrow
Perfumes / Scents: Angelica, iris, lavender, and peony
Gems and Metals: Amethyst, garnet, gold, silver, and brass
Colors: Gold, dark rose, lavender, silver, and black

from Goddess Gift website, http://www.goddessgift.com/goddess-myths/goddess_symbols_Hestia.htm

Sources:

"Hestia, Greek Goddess Of Hearth And Home," anonymous online article at Goddess Gift website

Miller, Iona, "Synergetic Qabala" 2002, online article at http://Zero-Point.tripod.com/pantheon/Hestia.html

Cowan, Tom, Fire In The Head: Shamanism And The Celtic Spirit, 1993, San Francisco, HarperSan Francisco

Paris, Ginette, Pagan Meditations: The Worlds Of Aphrodite, Artemis, And Hestia, 1991, Putnam CT, Spring Publications

Cain, Jerilee, Hestia Come Home, 2001, Danbury, CT, Rutledge Books, Inc.

Turner, Kay, Beautiful Necessity: The Art And Meaning Of Women's Altars, 1999, New York, NY, Thames & Hudson. The seed of the book was originally planted in a feminist publication, Lady-unique-inclination-of-the-night, each issue of which appeared yearly with a different theme. One of the last, sometime in the early 1970's, was all about altars and altar-making, a very Hestian occupation, to my mind.

Robyn, Kathryn L. Spiritual Housecleaning: Healing The Space Within By Beautifying The Space Around You, 2001, Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.