Hestia is the uniquely sound-of-mind, passive, voice of reason in the popular pantheon of Greek mythology. She is the sole attendant to the celestial hearth of the gods, and is held with high esteem amongst both the undying gods and mankind, being known as “Chief of the Goddesses.”
Although not a central figure of many famous myths, Hestia’s undeniable influence on ancient Greco-Roman society establishes her as a celebrity in her day and time.
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Who is Hestia?
Hestia’s parents are Cronus and Rhea, the Titans of the old order of gods. She is the eldest daughter and simultaneously the eldest sister of the five mighty deities Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, Hera, and Zeus.
When Zeus forced the five ingested children to be thrown up by Cronus, they came out in the reverse order. This means that Hestia – the first-born of the brood and the first to be swallowed – was last to escape the bowels of her father, making her feasibly “reborn” as the youngest.
In general, there is little record of the whereabouts of Cronus’ daughters during the war, although it is plausible that Hestia’s pacifism played a role in her distinct absence. Further evidence of Hestia’s pacifistic approach is that while Demeter and Hera have had acts of wrath and violence, Hestia…not so much.
Again, she is thought to be one of the kindest goddesses and the most forgiving. To have her avoid the earth-shaking conflict of the Titanomachy would bring emphasis to her most admirable traits.
Hestia’s name in Greek, Ἑστία, translates to ‘fireplace’ and relates back to her role as the guardian goddess of the hearth and the interpretation of fire burning as a cleansing, purifying act.
What is Hestia the Goddess Of?
Hestia is the Greek goddess of the hearth, domesticity, the state, and of family. Prior to Dionysus’ induction into the Mount Olympus hall of fame, Hestia was listed to be one of the 12 Olympians.
To sum up the low-down on Hestia, the kind-hearted goddess ensured balance in domestic life and an agreeable government on top of her many other demanding roles. She rules over (and is said to reside within) the hearth at the heart of the family home, the hearth in public houses, and spent her days tending to the ever-burning hearth on Mount Olympus where she fuels the flame with remnants of sacrificial fat.
On that note, it was up to Hestia to make sure that the sacrifice offered was well-received, since she was charged with monitoring the sacrificial flame.
Thanks to her laundry list of critical realms and oh-so-important tasks, the goddess of the hearth held a high station and was permitted the best portions of the sacrifices as a result.
What is a Sacrificial Flame in Greek Mythology?
To prevent any possible misinterpretations, it should be clarified that Hephaestus is indeed the god of fire in Greek religion. However, Hestia rules specifically over the sacrificial flame of a hearth.
In ancient Greece, a hearth was a crucial aspect of any home. It provided heat and a means to cook food, but more than the seemingly obvious reasons, it permitted a way to complete sacrificial offerings to the gods. Specifically, domestic gods and goddesses – household deities that protected the family residence and members – received offerings through the central hearth.
More than anything, as the goddess of the hearth, Hestia was the divine personification of domestic hearth fire, sacrificial fire, and familial harmony. Since she was the fire itself, she received the firstmost offerings before it was sorted out amongst the other gods and goddesses.
Was Hestia a Virgin Goddess?
Hestia has been counted as a virgin goddess since her first appearance in 700 BCE, in Hesiod’s Theogony. Her eternal chastity places her amongst the ranks of Artemis, Athena, and Hecate: compelling goddesses in their own right who Aphrodite – the goddess of love – has no sway over.
As the tale is told, Hestia was actively pursued by her younger brother, Poseidon, and her nephew, Apollo. On top of those already complicated relationships, it is thought that Zeus also had proposed to his big-little sister at some point.
Unfortunately for her suitors, Hestia wasn’t feeling any of them. Poseidon couldn’t sway her, Apollo couldn’t woo her, and Zeus couldn’t win her: Hestia remained unmoved.
In fact, Hestia swore a vow of eternal chastity to Zeus. She swore off marriage and dedicated herself wholly to her role as the guardian of the hearth and home. As she was intensely invested in the management of and the upkeep of her realms of influence, Hestia was cherished as a hard-working, loyal guardian.
Hestia and Aphrodite
On acknowledging Hestia as a virginal goddess, it is worth noting that – in many ways – Hestia was the antithesis of Aphrodite.
From a cultural standpoint, Hestia was the embodiment of Grecian womanly virtues: chaste, honest, dedicated, modest, and the backbone of the home. Later, she would be adapted to the Roman lens to complement their ideals as well.
READ MORE: The Life of Women in Ancient Greece
Then, in comes Aphrodite: lustful, bold, assertive, openly breaking her marriage vows and bearing children out of wedlock. The two are certainly opposites: Aphrodite with her approach of “all is fair in love and war,” and her meddling in the romantic lives of everyone around her makes her a stark contrast to Hestia, whose subtle approach to maintaining familial harmony and “stubborn” rejection of all romantic notions makes her a pantheon favorite.
Continuing with the above, there is no reason to believe – and certainly no indication – that the ancient Greeks held one goddess at a higher value than the other.
Outside of it being a generally poor decision to insult any of the Greek deities, let alone the goddesses (good job, Paris), the goddesses are not thought to be entirely different and separate. Instead, scholars interpret Aphrodite as a natural force while Hestia is the societal expectation, with both worthy of honor because of their respective contributions to the individual and the wider polis.
What are Some of Hestia’s Myths?
Hestia was a notably pacifistic goddess, so there is no shock that her involvement in the family drama was limited. She kept to herself and rarely made an appearance in mythology
There are very few myths where Hestia has a significant part. The two most important and most telling myths involving the Greek goddess are the myth of Priapus and the donkey, and the myth of Dionysus’ ascension to Olympianhood.
Priapus and the Donkey
This first myth acts as an explanation as to why the donkey gets the day off on the feast days of Hestia and why Priapus is a total creep that no one wants at their parties anymore.
To begin, Priapus is a fertility god and a son of Dionysus. He was attending a party with the rest of the Greek gods and just about everyone there was under the influence. Hestia had wandered off to take a nap away from the revelry. At this point in time, Priapus was in a mood and was searching for some nymphs he could chat up.
Instead, he came across his great-aunt taking a snooze and thought it was the opportune time to try and have his way with her while she was unconscious. The god probably thought that there was no way he would get caught since all the gods were off living it up, but one thing Priapus didn’t consider was…
Hera’s all-seeing eyes? Zeus’ crazy sixth senses? Artemis being the guardian of virgins? That this was literally his unconsenting great-aunt?
Actually, Priapus didn’t factor in donkeys. Before anything happened, nearby donkeys began braying. The noise both awoke the sleeping goddess and notified the other gods that something funky was going on at their righteous party.
Priapus was – rightfully so – chased off by angry gods and goddesses, and never was permitted to attend another divine jamboree again.
Next up is perhaps the most consequential myth of Hestia, as it involves the god of wine and fertility, Dionysus, and deals with Olympian succession.
Dionysus had a rough start in life. The god suffered immense loss at the hands of Hera – who robbed him of his first life, his mother, Semele, and was the indirect cause of the death of his much-adored lover, Ampelos – and the Titans, who were said to have torn him to pieces in his first life at Hera’s behest when he was the son of Persephone and Zeus.
Once the god had traveled the world and created wine, Dionysus ascended to Mount Olympus as a worthy Olympian. Upon his arrival, Hestia willingly abandoned her golden throne as one of the 12 Olympians so that Dionysus may become one without any objection from the other gods.
In Greek superstition, 13 is an unlucky number, as it immediately follows the perfect number, 12. So, no way could there be 13 sitting Olympians. Hestia knew this and abandoned her seat to avoid familial tension and argument.
From that pivotal point on, Hestia was no longer viewed as an Olympian, as she took on the trying role of attending the Olympian hearth. Oh – and, things honestly got a whole lot crazier with Dionysus on Mount Olympus.
How Was Hestia Worshipped?
As far as worship goes, Hestia got tons of praise. Honestly, the goddess was fantastic at multi-tasking and was praised from the lofty halls of Olympus to the “Center of the Earth,” Delphi.
For such a popular goddess, it may be interesting to note that Hestia had very few temples dedicated to her. In fact, she had very few images constructed in her honor, as she was thought to instead be personified hearth fire. The impression of the goddess of the hearth embodying both domestic and sacrificial flame went far, as the famous philosopher Aristotle once remarked that the sound of a crackle from a burning fire was Hestia’s welcoming laughter.
Even if effigies of Hestia are few and far between – and limited temples dedicated to her – the populace made up for it by having Hestia worshipped in a variety of accessible, commonplace locations. Never before seen in the worship of other Greek gods, Hestia was glorified and offered sacrifices at all temples, each having its own hearth.
On that note, the most frequent way in which Hestia was worshipped was through the hearth: the hearth acted as an accessible altar for the worship of the goddess, whether it was at a domestic or a civic hearth, as they are seen in innumerable government buildings across the Greek city-states. An example of this is the Olympian town hall – known as the Prytaneion – that likely housed an Altar of Hestia or the Mycenaean Great Hall which held a central hearth.
What is Hestia’s Relationship with Other Gods?
Hestia was the family’s peace-maker and avoided conflict when she could. Her neutrality led to her close relationship with other deities, especially those whose realms are close to her own. As a result, Hestia was worshipped in the temples of and alongside gods like Hermes.
Of which is implied in Homeric Hymn 29 “To Hestia and Hermes,” the offering of wine was significant in the worship of the goddess: “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.” Therefore, the first and last libations of wine were performed in her honor.
Likewise, while it may be easy to conclude that the wine is tied to Dionysus, it was instead related to Hermes, whom the other half of the hymn praises. Whereas Hestia is the goddess of the family hearth, Hermes was the god of travelers. Therefore, the pouring of wine was honoring of not only Hestia, but of the guest that Hermes watched over.
The hymn is a perfect example of how Hestia’s relationships were with others in the pantheon, as they are intrinsically tied through their meshed realms.
Another example can be viewed in Hymn 24 “To Hestia” of the collection of Homeric hymns, Hestia is described thus: “Hestia, you who tend the holy house of lord Apollo, the Far-shooter at goodly Pytho, with soft oil dripping ever from your locks, come now into this house, come, having one mind with Zeus the all-wise —draw near, and withal bestow grace upon my song.”
What Was Hestia’s Domestic Cult? What are Civic Cults?
Hestia had a domestic cult, effectively restricted to the privacy of a Greek house with worship led by the family’s patriarch – a practice that carried over to the Roman Empire. In domestic cults, ancestral worship was also commonplace.
Meanwhile, civic cults were within the public domain. Hestia’s political ties were flexed as her rites were carried out by those who held civic power, usually in the location’s prytaneum – an official building that had its own public hearth. The building acted as the ritual and secular focus.
Usually, it would be up to priests to maintain Hestia’s public fire and while it is possible for the flame to be ritually extinguished, accidental or negligent extinction could lead to one being accused of betraying the community at large and act as an unredeemable failure to one’s own duty.
Last but not least, not only was Hestia’s residency in the home thought to bring a peaceful domestic life, but the availability of a public hearth in a town hall or other community centers encouraged the image of a peaceful town. While not exactly a city god by any means, Hestia was thought to maintain harmony within public and private life.
Does Hestia Have Any Sacred Animals?
Before moving on, yes, Hestia did have animals that were sacred to her.
Primarily, the pig is Hestia’s most sacred animal since it was actually pig fat that was used to keep the great fire at Olympus burning. On top of being her sacred animal, Hestia’s personal sacrificial animal was the pig as well.
It was believed that the goddess would eternally tend to the fire, using the fat from sacrifices to keep the fire roaring.
Was Hestia Worshipped in Ancient Rome?
Hestia’s Roman equivalent was known as Vesta. Her name means ‘pure,’ implying her virginity through her name alone. In Rome, Vesta acted as an invisible link. The Roman goddess held the people together, from Rome’s meager colonial hearths to their grand public ones.
As far as cult practice goes, the Vestal Virgins, six priestesses at the Temple of Vesta, were selected at impressionable ages and served in civic functions for 30 years before they were released from their services. They would maintain the temple’s continuously burning fire and officiate Vesta’s festival, the Vestalia among other duties.
Hestia in Art
While some part of Hestia’s visage has been immortalized in later Roman works and during the Renaissance, there were few images of Hestia from the early Greco-Roman periods. Most of the time, only an altar would be present at her minimal places of worship.
The ancient Greek geographer, Pausanias, reported statues of the goddesses Eirene and of Hestia at the Athenian Prytaneum near the public hearth, although no such artifact has been retrieved. The most famous depiction of Hestia today is the Hestia Giustiniani, a Roman replication of a Greek bronze cast.
While the statue is indeed of a matron-esque woman, there have been debates as to which goddess it actually depicts. Besides Hestia, some argue the statue could instead be of Hera or Demeter.