It seems only right to begin this series of posts on My Personal Pantheon by writing about Hestia – the Queen of Fire, the Goddess of the Hearth and Home, the Keeper of the Flame, she who is honored both first and last in all things. I have always begun my rituals and festival celebrations by honoring Hestia. She and Hermes (my patron) are two deities with whom I feel an incredibly deep connection, and they themselves are also quite closely connected, as the following Homeric Hymn beautifully demonstrates. I love my little green Loeb edition of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns, which has its own special place on my home shrine. I carry it whenever I travel or go on a spiritual adventure, and if I were ever asked to swear on a sacred text, this would be my book of choice (as it was the choice for Melissa Gold when she became a citizen of Canada). Every evening before dinner, if we are eating at home (which is most days), I read the Homeric Hymn to Hestia (and Hermes) – which I have now memorized – and pour a libation of wine into the wooden offering bowl on my household shrine.
The Homeric Hymn to Hestia (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, 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! Now I will remember you and another song also.*
(translated by H.G. Evelyn-White)
*When reciting this hymn aloud, I always change it to say “Now I will remember you and another song too.” This phrasing comes from the Thelma Sargent translation of The Homeric Hymns, which is one of the first editions of the Hymns I found in a used bookstore long ago. Sargent ends many of the hymns (including this one) with “and another song too.” And I’ve always liked the rhythm of that phrasing better.
This beautiful hymn has become the touchstone of my daily household practice. Since I mostly work from home as a writer and an educator, the juxtaposition of Hestia and Hermes is especially appropriate. I’ve always enjoyed the idea of these two gods, friends of mortals and givers of good things, working together for the household.
Claudia Trophime’s Epigrams to Hestia
Claudia Trophime (Ephesian Priestess of Hera and Prytanis/Chief Priestess of Hestia, 92/93 CE): Two Epigrams (Inscr. Eph. 1062. G)
(In prose) Claudia Trophime the prytanis wrote this song of praise to Hestia: (in verse) she [the goddess] both gave satisfaction to the gods in their feasts, and tends the blooming fire of our country. Sweetest divinity, flower of the universe, you tend the eternal flame of fire from heaven on your altars.
(In prose) The same priestess wrote this: (in verse) The [mountain] Pion secretly drinks within himself the moisture from the mist and draws it into his sides towards the vast sea. How then can one describe you [goddess], who keep and hold within yourself the god-sent fire, a remnant of the harmony [of the universe]?
[from Women's Life in Greece & Rome: A Source Book in Translation (2nd ed.), by Mary R. Lefkowitz and Maureen b. Fant]
The above two epigrams are by Claudia Trophime, one of the rare women writers whose work survives from antiquity. Claudia Trophime is therefore not only one of my Poet-Heroes, but was also a priestess of two of my favorite goddesses, Hera and Hestia. These two epigrams contain some incredibly powerful imagery for Hestia, and “flower of the universe” is a potent image for the Queen of Fire. I imagine her hearth-fire burning in the form of an orange or yellow flower at the center of the cosmos. I also love the idea of Hestia holding the divine fire within herself, which is perhaps one of the many reasons I associate Hestia with the creative fire that inspires all poetry and art. Building and tending a fire, maintaining a steady flame, is symbolically akin to the process of writing poetry, composing music, painting, sculpting, or any other form of expression where we must hone our creative fire, “the god-sent fire, a remnant of the harmony of the universe,” to bring light and warmth into the world through our art. Hermes certainly represents the power of words and language and communication, but I personally believe that Hestia, too, is a poet.
Emily Dickinson and Hestia
Which may be why I’ve always associated Emily Dickinson with Hestia. Think about it . . . is there any poet more associated with the home than Emily Dickinson? For most of her adult life, she never left the home at all! A recluse and a hermit, who took to wearing all white in her later years (the above photograph is apparently an exception), she mostly kept her own company and quietly wrote an incredible corpus of verse (1,789 poems) that is one of the most powerful expressions of intellect, beauty, and wisdom in the English language. And many of her poems have a connection to fire . . . and also volcanoes. Adrienne Rich wrote a famous essay on Dickinson entitled “Vesuvius at Home,” (a line from Dickinson’s poem, “Volcanoes be in Sicily”) which is a particularly apt phrase to describe the poetess. The following poems by Emily Dickinson have a particularly Hestian feel to me, though there is certainly a volcanic/Hephaestian element in there as well. [Note: I use the Franklin edition of Dickinson's poems as it is much closer to her original handwritten poems than the earlier editions, which were often "fixed" by conservative editors.]
Ashes denote that Fire was —
Respect the Grayest Pile
For the Departed Creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile —
Fire exists the first in light
And then consolidates
Only the Chemist can disclose
Into what Carbonates —
- Emily Dickinson
Dare you see a Soul at the “White Heat”?
Then crouch within the door —
Red — is the Fire’s common tint —
But when the vivid Ore
Has vanquished Flame’s conditions —
Its quivers from the Forge
Without a color, but the Light
Of unannointed Blaze —
Least Village, boasts its Blacksmith —
Whose Anvil’s even ring
Stands symbol for the finer Forge
That soundless tugs — within —
Refining these impatient Ores
With Hammer, and with Blaze
Until the designated Light
Repudiate the Forge —
- Emily Dickinson
On my volcano grows the Grass
A meditative spot —
An acre for a Bird to choose
Would be the general thought —
How red the Fire rocks below
How insecure the sod
Did I disclose
Would populate with awe my solitude.
- Emily Dickinson
Volcanoes be in Sicily
And South America
I judge from my Geography
Volcano nearer here
A Lava step at any time
Am I inclined to climb
A Crater I may contemplate
Vesuvius at Home
- Emily Dickinson
These are a few of the many poems that have led my strange brain to imagine Emily Dickinson as a priestess of Hestia (and I have much to say on the subject of Emily Dickinson as a pagan/polytheist – which I’ll save for a later post, but in the meantime here’s a link to one of the better essays on the subject - Emily Dickinson: Pagan Sphinx by Gary Sloan). And just as I see Emily Dickinson as a Priestess of Hestia, I like to envision Hestia as an Emily Dickinson-esque poetess, secretly writing poems as she tends the Cosmic Hearth . . .
Aristonoos’ Hymn to Hestia [third quarter 4th c. BCE]
Holy Queen of Sanctity,
we hymn you, Hestia, whose abiding realm
is Olympus and the middle point of earth
and the Delphic laurel tree!
You dance around Apollo’s towering temple
rejoicing both in the tripod’s mantic voices
and when Apollo sounds the seven strings
of his golden phorminx and, with you,
sings the praises of the feasting gods.
We salute you, daughter of Kronos
and Rhea, who alone brings firelight
to the sacred altars of the gods;
Hestia, reward our prayer, grant
wealth obtained in honesty: then we shall always
dance around your glistening throne.
[from Greek Hymns: Volume I by William D. Furley and Jan Maarten Bremer]
I don’t have too much to say about this lovely hymn except that the idea of Hestia dancing round Delphi makes me smile!
A Few Personal Associations with Hestia
There are so few myths connected to Hestia. Poseidon and Apollon apparently courted her at one point, and she asked Zeus to remain a virgin to preserve the peace . . . this story feels like an elemental or aetiological myth to me, a love triangle between fire and sun and sea.
Asses/Donkeys are the only animal I know that were ever officially associated with her (actually associated with the Roman Vesta), but I’ve decided that the Turtle, the Snail, and the Hermit Crab should all be sacred to Hestia, for the obvious reason that, like Emily Dickinson, they never leave their homes. Our pet turtle is certainly sacred to Hestia.
Robert Graves invented a myth that Hestia gave up her throne on the Olympian council of Twelve for Dionysus, and while no one has been able to find an ancient source for that myth, I’ve always liked the story. It’s the type of thing that Hestia would do. I imagine those twelve thrones in a circle, with Hestia in the center tending the hearth-fire.
Which reminds me of a line from the Hermetica [though I know this quote later shows up elsewhere, perhaps in Thomas Aquinas?] – “God is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.” This is how I theologically interpret Hestia. Hestia is an infinite circle or sphere of warmth and light and cosmic fire . . . her hearth-center is everywhere, in every home and every heart . . . and the circumference of her light is nowhere, since her influence extends throughout all being as she illuminates all things. I often associate Hestia with the Platonic Form of the Good . . . though I will write about her Neoplatonic associations in a later post.
I find Hestia in all shades of orange and yellow and red, as well as white (the color of the robes worn by the Vestal Virgins). I see Hestia in candles and torches and bonfires, and even in the tiny blue flame of the propane stove that heats our home. My group of family and friends have been celebrating the Pagan Wheel of the Year, and I choose to honor Hestia at the four Celtic fire festivals (Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh, Samhain). I can see Hestia being friends with Brigid and Isis and Grandmother Spider, swapping stories over the fire. I see Hestia in the faces of many elderly women, crones, spinsters, maiden aunts, and various types of nuns. Hestia often has the wrinkled face of my maternal Greek grandmother, who sat me on her lap and first told me the myths. Hestia is there in the smell of a home-cooked meal or anything delicious baking in the oven, and I feel Hestia in the warmth of a home-made quilt or afghan (my mother is an incredibly talented quilt-maker and textile artist, so home-made quilts have always represented comfort and home).
The poet Robert Duncan often writes of “The Household” to describe his relationship with his partner, the collage artist Jess (the two were together from about 1950 until Duncan’s death in 1988). Since I am a man married to a wonderful husband (we’ve been together over twelve years now), and we have chosen not to have or adopt children, I find “The Household” is a perfect term to describe the intimacy of our particular family (aka two men, one pet turtle, and about 10,000 books). Honoring Hestia is one way I can honor the household and partnership we’ve created together.
Hestia is represented on my household shrine with a small, circular, gemstone-encrusted jewel-box I found years ago when I first started actively honoring the gods. It can hold a necklace and a few other tiny objects, like rings or coins or little stones. I carry it whenever I travel and it carefully protects my other small sacred objects. When it sits on top of my Loeb edition of Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns, it forms the center of my portable shrine, a representation of my household that I can bring with me wherever I go.
Orphic Hymn To Hestia*
[The Fumigation from Aromatics.]
Daughter of Kronos*, venerable dame,
The seat containing of unweary’d flame;
In sacred rites these ministers are thine,
Mystics much-blessed, holy, and divine.
In thee, the Gods have fix’d their dwelling place,
Strong, stable basis of the mortal race:
Eternal, much-form’d, ever florid queen,
Laughing and blessed, and of lovely mien;
Accept these rites, accord each just desire,
And gentle health, and needful good inspire.
Translated by Thomas Taylor
*In the original, Taylor uses Vesta and Saturn. If it doesn’t substantially alter the rhyme or rhythm, I usually mentally substitute the Greek names for the Latin when I read these aloud.
I love the Taylor translations of the Orphic hymns, especially the phrasing in the first edition (which can be slightly different in places from the versions featured elsewhere on the web). That final couplet is a particularly strong ending to a prayer. And I love that Hestia is described as laughing – the laughter of the Olympian gods is one of the most joyous aspects of the Hellenic spiritual experience.
Resources for Hestia
That’s all for now . . . I still have a great deal about Hestia to discuss, such as the Neoplatonist interpretations of the goddess, more personal associations, more of the ways I honor Hestia in my spiritual practice, and some interesting and unusual representations of Hestia, Vesta, and the Vestal Virgins in art history, but I will have to save those for Part Two . . .