Hestia / Vesta



Hestia (Greek) / Vesta (Roman) --- Lady of the Fire --- guardian of the home and keeper of the hearth fire. In mythology, Hestia/Vesta is a minor deity, but in the Pagan religions of the Mediterranean, she is one of the oldest and most enduring powers. There are relatively few statues of this goddess, and few myths. However, it is not in images or tales that Hestia lives, but in the fire. The hearth-fire that bakes the bread of life --- the fire that combines the nourishing support of earth with the transforming flame that turns its products into food, and by extension, the whole fabric of civilized life. Not only did each home have a hearth (which was the focus of family life and of family worship) but each city had a civic hearth in the prytaneion (town hall), which served a similar function. When a city sent out an expedition to found a new colony, they carried fire from the hearth of the parent city to kindle life in the new. Hestia's flame is not the lightning strike of Zeus that falls from heaven, but the warm heart of the earth herself. Her flame is the miraculous power that instead of devouring, comforts and feeds both body and soul.

In this day of central heating and electric light it may be difficult to fully appreciate the significance of the family hearth in ancient times. Heat and light were a miracle in a primitive culture. The hearth provided warmth as well as food, and was the center of family life. Once ritually kindled, the fire would be kept going, the coals banked and covered each night and kindled to new life in the morning by the woman of the house, with appropriate prayers.The women of a household functioned as priestesses of the family religion, making offerings at the hearth and tending the shrines of the ancestors and the spirits who guarded the storeroom.

It is probable that statues and personification of the goddess were a relatively late development. When images of her were made, they showed her as a noble woman dressed in flowing robes and veil. Her regalia included a chalice, torch, scepter, and in Rome, and image of Pallas, the Palladium which was the luck of Troy. She is far more than a simple domestic goddess. As keeper of the hearth of Olympos, Hestia was the sacred center for the gods as her hearth was the center of the private and civic family. She received the first and last libations at feasts and festivals no matter who else was being celebrated.

In the Homeric Hymn #29, her position is made clear:

Hestia both of immortal gods
and of men who walk on the earth,
you have attained an eternal abode and the highest honor,
together with a fair and honorific prize: for without you
there can be no feasts for mortals, if at the beginning
your is not the first and last libation of honey-sweet wine.

In Greece, she was honored as guardian of the home along with Hermes as guardian of those who traveled away from it. According to the Greeks, Hestia was the eldest child of Rhea and Kronos; the first to be swallowed up by her father, and the last to be given up when Zeus forced his father to regurgitate his siblings.

To quote Karl Kerenyi,

.... after the defeat of the Titans she had asked
of Zeus the dignity of remaining a virgin and
of receiving the first victim of every sacrifice;
and Zeus had granted her this. She obtained as
her sacred place the central point of the house,
the hearth --- which is also the meaning of her
name. Moreover, she received not only the first,
but also the last sacrifice at every ceremonial
assembly of mortals.

In Rome, where she was called Vesta, she was paired with Janus, guardian of the thresh hold. The goddess Vesta tended the sacred hearth of the city and later of the Empire. There are very few myths about Hestia, most of them relating to how she defended her virginity against various seducers. It is important to remember that in the ancient world, virginity was not necessarily a physical state, but was a legal and psychological one. In Rome, however, physical virginity was required of the priestesses of Vesta, who were inducted as girls and served for thirty years. A Vesta who allowed the sacred fire to go out was beaten, and if she violated her vow of chastity, she was buried alive. This, however, was rare, as a priestess of Vesta had a freedom and status denied other Roman women until late in the Empire. As later the high altar of a Christian church would become a place of sanctuary, in Rome if a fugitive could reach the hearth, whether that of a family or the city, he could claim safety. To be taken under the mantle of one of the Vestals was enough to save a criminal. Because of their sterling character, the Vestals could give evidence without taking oath, and were the keepers of important documents such as treaties and wills. The sacred fire was the most ancient and powerful witness and guarantor of oaths.

The ruins of the temple of Vesta survive today in the Roman forum. At Vesta's festival on June 9th the women of the city brought offerings in archaic-style dishes to the temple to join with the priestesses in worship.This was also a festival for the millers and bakers of bread. As the cult of Vesta was among the most ancient in Rome, it was one of the last to be suppressed. The holy fire was not put out until 382 CE, some sixty years after constantine had made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Rome's hearthfire was extinguished, and the Empire fell. But in Catholic churches, the fire of Divine Presence still burns. The concept of the eternal flame reappeared as the lamp that burns on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and wherever men wish to affirm their faith in the survival of the spirit.

Very few of us depend on a fireplace, or even a woodstove, for food and warmth today, and you will find no holy hearth at City Hall.

How, then, can we honor Hestia today? Well, for that one needs a fire. For the very, very fortunate, an outdoor hearth can be made by building a fire within a circle of stones, or piling stones up and making a fire on top of them. Most of us, though, will honor Hestia in our homes. If we are fortunate enough to have a fireplace or woodstove, we can make offering to the goddess by throwing a handful of barley onto the flames. This can be done with a cauldron fire or candle flame, as well, since the size of the flame is not as important as the intention.

When working with the Greek pantheon, one should begin and end any ritual by honoring Hestia. Hestia should also receive the first and final libations of wine with the words, "Hestia, thine is the first and the last." Traditional offerings are olive oil, small cakes, or a paper plate with food from the ritual feast. For small altars a drop of oil, a few grains of barley, or a crumb of bread can represent the sacred meal.

The worship of Hestia should be as simple and homely as the goddess herself. As a guardian of hearth and home, she expects you to have a busy day.

Prepare and open your ritual in your usual way. If you normal ritual is a 5 minute meditation period before bed, that is just as beautiful and powerful.

Light your ritual fire (or candle) and contemplate the flame for a few moments, then say:

Hestia, you who tend the sacred dwelling
of the far-shooting lord, Apollon, at holy Pytho,
from your tresses flowing oil ever drips down.
Come to this house! Come in gentle spirit
with resourceful Zeus and grant grace to my song!

(Homeric Hymn #25)

Those who wish to invoke Hestia's continuing presence in the home face challenges, too, since even those with fireplaces do not usually keep a fire constantly burning. If a fire-safe site can be created, Hestia might be represented by an oil lamp, which is replenished each day. And many prefer to set her shrine near the stove. The pilot light of a gas stove may serve well as an eternal flame. Even the wiring of an electric stove has symbolic significance. The point is that the stove, like the ancient hearth, is the place where food is transformed into meals to nourish your family. Rather than making an offering by dropping a morsel of food onto the burner, simply using the flame as a focus for contemplation and prayer as you cook, asking Hestia to bless your food.

We eat every day, and whether or not we actually go to the stove to prepare a meal, we can ask Hestia's blessing whenever we eat.

Blessed Be!

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