Hestia, The Queen of Fire – Part Two

For Part Two of my initial reflections on Hestia (Part One can be found here), I want to first examine Hestia’s role in politics, followed by the details of an ancient Hestia festival which seems perfect for a creative reconstruction.

Since there are so few visual representations of Hestia, I decided to embellish this post with paintings from one of the more overlooked minor themes in art history:  portraits of aristocratic women depicted as Vestal Virgins:

Vestal Virgin by Jean Raoux

Hestia and Politics

While much of the focus of contemporary pagan worship of Hestia has understandably centered upon the private sphere and the domestic household cult, we should keep in mind that Hestia is connected to the public sphere of politics as well.  Just as every home had its central hearth-fire, likewise most cities had a civic hearth in their Prytaneion, or City-Hall, which served as the seat of the city’s government.  Just as the domestic hearth-fire represented the warmth and life of the home and family, the civic hearth-fire represented the sacred light that united the community. Marcel Detienne has a fascinating chapter on Hestia in The Writing of Orpheus: Greek Myth in Cultural Context, which focuses on “the political Hestia” and her relation to the notion of autonomy:

“The figure known to the Greeks as Hestia provided the city with one means of exercising and building up its own autonomy.  Her name was commonly understood to mean “fire,” the fire in the hearth or the fire on the altar, which was connected both with eating and with sacrifice:  with sacrifice because it marked out the fixed center of a cult, rooted in the earth yet at the same time a human construction, the work of an architect.  But for this hearth or altar to become the Common Fire, Hestia Koinē, it was necessary for it to absorb the values developed from the idea of the equidistant center and focal point of fair distribution.  Various practices and new liturgies, creating a whole new ceremonial, were evolved to proclaim the special powers of Hestia.” (p.62)

The idea of the hearth-fire as “a fixed center, rooted in the earth and yet at the same time a human construction, the work of an architect” reminds me from a euhemeristic line in Diodorus Siculus (Historical Library, 5.68), in which Hestia was the woman who first “discovered how to construct dwellings, and for this benefit she has a consecrated place in every home among practically all peoples and receive honors and sacrifices.”  Previously I discussed my view of Hestia as a poet, but the notion of Hestia as an architect also makes thematic sense.  But as for the political Hestia, Detienne continues:

“For those who took part in public affairs, the politeumenoi, the sight of Hestia as herself and as represented by her statues, her agalmata, meant the city council, the Boulē, and also the place where the city’s wealth was stored, the public treasury. For ordinary individuals, idiotai, Hestia represented the fact of living, life itself.  And for a king, basileus, or a governor, archon, she was power, the dunamis of his own power, his own archē. The symbolism extended from the individual life of each separate household’s hearth to the collective and public power personified by Hestia in the three manifestations of her single being: the city council, the public treasury, and the power of authority itself. The political Hestia, who was linked through her power to the life of each individual, established around her a space for the exercise of her autonomy, a space that took the material form of not only the Prytaneion, the home of the magistrates in power, but also her altar and her particular attributes. The “first” Greek democracies were set up under the sign of Hestia.” (p. 63)

I am fascinated by this notion of the political Hestia, and I even think it’s reflected in her surviving mythology.  The myth of Hestia rejecting the marriage proposals of Apollon and Poseidon could actually be interpreted as a shrewd political move.  Poseidon and Apollon may have avoided battling each other in the Iliad, but the idea of an outright war between these deities would destabilize the pantheon and throw Olympos into chaos.  Hestia was able to avert a conflict and maintain peace, all while negotiating with Zeus to achieve a position of absolute autonomy, a presence (via the hearth) in every god’s temple, and reserving both the first and last offering of all sacrifices and libations for herself.  This type of political savvy reminds me of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, who navigated her way past many potential suitors, all the while officially preserving her virginity in order to retain her sovereignty, preserve the peace, and preside over a Golden Age of culture and prosperity.  Sounds like Hestia to me.  And while Elizabeth I was often compared to Artemis/Diana or Athena/Minerva, there is one portrait representing her as the Vestal Virgin Tuccia:

Elizabeth I of England. The Sieve Portrait by Quinten Massijis

Hestia and the Ordered Cosmos

Elizabeth I naturally leads me to Shakespeare, and the role of Hestia in both the public and private spheres reminds me of the concept of macrocosm and microcosm found in Shakespearean tragedy.  I believe the idea first appears in E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture, in which he describes how all of Shakespeare’s major tragedies display four levels of being that are thrown into violent disorder in the course of each play:  The Individual, The Family, The State or Community, and The Cosmos.  This reflects the psychological crises and breakdowns experienced by the individual tragic hero (madness, paranoia, nervous breakdown), turmoil within the (now dysfunctional) family unit (husbands vs. wives, parents vs. children, siblings vs. siblings), political chaos and uprisings impacting the state (usually a war, coup, or invasion), and even signs that something is wrong in the fabric of the cosmos itself (an eclipse, strange omens, uncanny weather patterns or strange behavior in the animal kingdom).  If you think about Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar, or Antony and Cleopatra for a moment . . . each play contains examples of how all four of these levels are thrown into disorder at some point (and many college essays are no doubt written on this topic).  In fact, most tragedies in our lives reflect conflict and disruption on all four of these levels.  The macrocosm reflects the microcosm and vice versa.  As above, so below.

I see Hestia, in contrast, as representing order and harmony in all of these spheres.  At the level of the Individual, I believe Hestia represents the divine spark or light within us, the immortal and unchanging part of ourselves, the Higher Self (the Atman of the Upanishads).  In terms of the Family, Hestia represents the warmth and light provided by the central fire and the shared meal.  For the State, Hestia is the public hearth which embodies the ideals of the community.  At the Cosmic level, she is the central fire within the Earth’s core, the Sun’s fire at the center of our solar system, and she tends the sacred hearth at the center of Olympos.  I will go so far as to associate Hestia with Plato’s form of the Good itself.

When we carefully tend to Hestia’s hearth at each of these levels, we are rewarded with warmth and light, harmony and illumination.  We find unity in ourselves, our homes, our communities, and our relationship to the cosmos.

It’s no wonder there is so little surviving mythology about Hestia – universal harmony does not make for a tragedy (or even a comedy, for that matter), and all good stories involve a conflict of some kind.  Hestia is the antithesis of drama. Mary J. Blige even wrote my favorite contemporary Hymn to Hestia on this subject, which I can imagine Hestia singing to herself after she resolved the conflict between Apollon and Poseidon 😉 .

Portrait of a Woman as a Vestal Virgin by Angelica Kauffmann

Portrait of a Lady as a Vestal Virgin by Angelica Kauffmann

The Prytaneia – An Ancient Festival in Honor of Hestia’s Birthday

I haven’t seen that many contemporary festivals, reconstructed or otherwise, dedicated to Hestia (and if you know of any, please tell me in the comments!).

But I recently found a remarkably detailed description of a festival in honor of Hestia at the Greco-Egyptian city of Naukratis, which was the first permanent Greek colony of Egypt.  The description comes from Athenaeus quoting a Hermeias, which I found in the following dissertation:  Naukratis, A Chapter in the History of the Hellenization of Egypt, by E. Marion Smith p. 53-54, found in Ancient History Pamphlets, Vol. 2: Dissertations.

The Prytaneia in honor of Hestia Prytaneia or Prytanitis:

“For the cults of Dionysus and Hestia at Naukratis, we have the evidence of Athenaeus, himself a native of Naukratis.  He is quoting from the book which Hermeias wrote on Grynaean Apollo, and says that at Nauktratis they dine in the Prytaneion on the birthday of Hestia Prytanitis, and at the Dionysia.  The ceremony on these occasions was a follows:  All of them came “in white robes, which even up to the present time they call garments of the city-hall (Prytaneion).  And when they have sat down, they rise upon their knees, making a libation, while the herald of the sacrifice repeats the prayers which have been handed down from their fathers.  After this, they sit down, and each of them takes two cups of wine, with the exception of the priests of Pythian Apollo and Dionysos; for to each of these is given a double quantity of wine and of the other portions.  Then a loaf of white bread is set before each one of them, made wide and flat, on which another loaf is placed, which they call ‘Cribanites’ (i.e., baked in a pan), and pork, and a little dish of barley or some vegetable which is in season, and two eggs and a cheese and dry figs and a cake and a garland.  And whatever maker of sacrifice prepares anything beyond these, is fined by the magistrates . . .”

Smith then clarifies with commentary:  “It is hard to understand the birthday festival of Hestia in the Prytaneion.  In the proper personal sense, Hestia had no birthday at all, since her anthropomorphic tradition was never sufficiently developed.  She was a relic of animism, the spirit of the hearth, and Farnell accordingly interprets the festival given in her honour as “the feast commemorating the foundation of the Prytaneion or of the public hearth,” i.e., “the birthday” of the public hearth.  Every Prytaneion cherished such a hearth fire.  Farnell seems to be mistaken in regarding her birthday feast as part of a festival of Apollo, for Hermeias implies that it is a distinct festival.”

If this festival marked the foundation of the public hearth with a celebration of Hestia’s birthday, why not celebrate a festival of Hestia Prytanitis in conjunction with the founding of our own households and communities?   While the original Prytaneia was a civic festival celebrating a public hearth, very few of us live in a community of pagans large enough to support a large public festival.  Since most contemporary pagan worship consists in the private sphere, I think the Prytaneia would be an appropriate way to honor Hestia by celebrating the birth/foundation of your own household and hearth, wherever you live.  If you rent, this could be the anniversary of when you moved into your current home or moved to your current city.  If you’re a home-owner, this could be the anniversary of when you purchased your home.  Or it could be celebrated in conjunction with a wedding anniversary, the birth or adoption of a child, the dedication of your household shrine or altar or hearth, or any other significant date which connects to the beginning your current household (however you define it).  I can also envision the creation of a Prytaneia festival in which you celebrate the founding of your city or a local community organization, or even to mark the foundation of an online community.

One item of note:  The original Prytaneia festival in Naukratis was restricted to males unless you happened to be one of the flute-player girls.  I think this has much more to do with the rights of citizens at the time (only upper-class males could vote) than the creation of a “male-only space” (otherwise why would they allow the flute-playing girls?).

Which brings up an important point in reference to reconstructing ancient festivals.  I think the idea of a festival honoring Hestia’s birthday by celebrating the foundation of our household or the foundation of our community could be a powerful and positive experience for an individual, a household, or a group.  But I DO NOT believe that non-flute-playing women (or any gender for that matter) should be excluded from a contemporary reconstruction of such a festival.  We do not live in ancient Naukratis, and I’m glad that the women in my community have the right to vote (thanks to Susan B. Anthony and so many others).  I do not want to own slaves or be enslaved by another human being.  I could go on and on and on about this topic, but for now I just have one thing to say:  If we’re going to look to the past for inspiration and wisdom and beauty, then we also need to learn from the past and not repeat the errors and limitations of our ancestors.  We need to draw from the best and leave the rest behind.

Maria Giuseppina Teresa di Lorena with her sister Charlotte (Artist Unknown)

Portrait of Charlotta Sparre as a Vestal by Donatien Nonotte


In Part Three I will take a look at the various philosophical and theological interpretations of Hestia, especially among the Neoplatonists!

Leave a comment


  1. brian

     /  May 10, 2012

    thankyou so much for this. i really learned a lot from this post, there is so much detail about ancient greek culture that i knew nothing about, and i agree that a ceremony or some such event on the day the household is set up is a great idea, to remind us what we have.

    • Thanks for commenting and sharing this post on your Facebook! The vast amount of information out there on ancient Greece can be overwhelming, which is why even a single write-up on the major goddess we know the *least* about has already grown into three separate posts. Glad you like the idea of the Prytaneia festival!

  2. brian

     /  May 10, 2012

    your welcome, ill admit that i didnt know much about hestia, and think many people can benifit from the information here.

  1. Hestia, The Queen of Fire – Part Three « Pagan Reveries

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