Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (An Eclectic Hellenist’s List to Remind Himself What Matters)

I haven’t posted anything personal in awhile, so perhaps this will fit the bill. This is not a poem. This is a list. I tend to make a lot of lists. It’s something I do. The past few months of my life have not been easy, and a number of events have made me extremely disheartened, a bit more disillusioned and disappointed in the quotidian world than usual. Some of these events would be obvious to the regular readers of this blog (like the death of my grandmother, which I’m still struggling with); others are so subtle I’m not sure if I could really explain them to anyone. One subject in particular has been bothering me: I find it downright staggering how many useless distractions pervade our lives. Almost everything out there in the mainstream culture seems so meaningless, so shallow, so completely devoid of wisdom and beauty and inspiration. Utterly fed up with it all, I decided to make this list for myself, to remind me what matters. It’s really long and I don’t actually expect anyone else to read it. But here it is anyway. If nothing else, it should at least provide a window into some of my tastes in literature, art, music, etc. For those who are interested, it includes a series of snapshots about my spirituality in general, some scattered insights into my beliefs and practices, some of my primary gods and spirits and heroes and ancestors, and examples of the many cultural and philosophical traditions I draw from. I list quite a few writers and books, so I suppose this could also be seen as my stab at generating an “Eclectic Curriculum” or “Eclectic Canon” or “Eclectic Great Books Program,” from the perspective of a multicultural queer feminist, epic poet and ardent bibliophile who happens to be an eclectic Hellenist and devotional polytheist (say that ten times fast). I had to limit myself to the number of items I included on each list-within-a-list, as this whole thing could easily have been 100 times longer than it is now. It is therefore necessarily incomplete (as all such lists always are).

The title and the refrain (yes, this list has a refrain – I see no reason why a list can’t have a refrain) were inspired by the title of a book by Harold Bloom. I’ve read almost all of Harold Bloom’s major books, even though I vehemently disagree with his rather Eurocentric/Western slant (which, to be fair, is also his area of expertise). He’s a self-proclaimed Gnostic (and his books are filled with Orphic and Hermetic themes), but I’ve also noted a distinct bias for the Abrahamic traditions, often to the detriment of the Greco-Roman Classics (one of his blind spots). All that being said, Harold Bloom is a brilliant gem in the otherwise rather dross world of literary criticism, and he remains one of the few contemporary literary critics who I constantly return to for inspiration. I’ve discovered countless authors – books that changed my life – from his insightful commentaries and introductions. And I have always admired his uncompromising commitment to literary excellence, regardless of mainstream trends. As Bloom explains in his introduction to Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?: “I have only three criteria for what I go on reading and teaching: aesthetic splendor, intellectual power, wisdom. Societal pressures and journalistic fashions may obscure these standards for a time, but mere Period Pieces never endure. The mind always returns to its needs for beauty, truth, and insight. Mortality hovers, and all of us learn the triumph of time. ‘We have an interval, and then our place knows us no more.’”

Which pretty much says it all, as far as I’m concerned. The following list was directly inspired by the above quote, by the mind’s eternal hunger for beauty and wisdom and inspiration. In an era where meaningless distractions pervade everything, I wrote this list to remind me what matters.

Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?
(An Eclectic Hellenist’s List to Remind Himself What Matters)

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the poets:
in Homer and Shakespeare and Walt Whitman,
in Hesiod and Sappho and Ovid,
in Enheduanna and Li Po and Rumi,
in Matsuo Bashō and John Keats and P.B. Shelley,
in Friedrich Hölderlin and Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire,
in Emily Dickinson and C. P. Cavafy and W.B. Yeats,
in Rainer Maria Rilke and Fernando Pessoa and Yannis Ritsos,
in Mina Loy and Ezra Pound and H.D. (Hilda Doolittle),
in Antonin Artaud and Langston Hughes and Robert Duncan . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the sages:
in Socrates and Plato and Diogenes,
in Lao Tzu and Confucius and Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha,
in Marcus Aurelius and Plotinus and Proclus,
in Montaigne and Emerson and Thoreau,
in Thomas Taylor and Nietzsche and Black Elk,
in Edward Carpenter and Emma Goldman and Carl Jung,
in Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thích Nhất Hạnh,
in Jiddu Krishnamurti and Eknath Easwaran and Harry Hay,
in Iris Murdoch and James Hillman and Gloria Anzaldúa . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the novelists:
in Petronius and Apuleius and Lady Murasaki,
in Cervantes and Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens,
in Herman Melville and George Eliot and The Brontë Sisters,
in Leo Tolstoy and Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka,
in Thomas Mann and James Joyce and Nikos Kazantzakis,
in Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston,
in Marguerite Yourcenar and Jean Genet and Yukio Mishima,
in William S. Burroughs and James Baldwin and Gore Vidal,
in Mary Renault and Toni Morrison and John Rechy . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the storytellers:
in Chaucer and Boccaccio and Scheherazade,
in Aesop and The Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang,
in Edgar Allan Poe and Lewis Caroll and Arthur Conan Doyle,
in Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield and Jorge Luis Borges,
in J.M. Barrie and Kenneth Grahame and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry,
in Lloyd Alexander and Rosemary Sutcliff and The Golden Treasury Readers,
in J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman,
in Guy Davenport and Leslie Marmon Silko and Roberto Calasso,
in John Crowley and Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the epics:
in The Iliad and The Odyssey and The Aeneid,
in The Metamorphoses and The Argonautica and The Dionysiaca,
in The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Enûma Eliš and The Shahnameh,
in The Mahabharata and The Ramayana and The Heike Monogatari,
in The Táin Bó Cúailnge and The Mabinogion and The Poems of Ossian,
in The Eddas and The Nibelungenlied and The Kalevala,
in Beowulf and Parzival and Le Morte d’Arthur,
in The Sundiata and The Popol Vuh and The Diné Bahane’,
in The Epic of King Gesar and The Lusiads and The Faerie Queene . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the classics:
in The Seven Sages and The Nine Lyric Poets and The Greek Anthology,
in Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides,
in Aristophanes and Herodotus and Plutarch,
in Dante and Milton and Goethe,
in Rabelais and Voltaire and Oscar Wilde,
in The Harvard Classics, The Great Books Foundation and The Lifetime Reading Plan,
in The Western Canon and The Pāli Canon and The Global Literary Canon,
in The Norton Anthologies and The Longman Anthologies and The Heath Anthologies,
in the many shelves of anthologies and literary collections that line my home library . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the margins of literature:
in Anyte of Tegea and Claudia Trophime and Christine de Pizan,
in Nezahualcoyotl and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and Phillis Wheatley,
in Wu Tsao and Mark Akenside and Richard Henry Horne,
in Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt and Skaay and Uvavnuk,
in Zitkala-Ša and Radclyffe Hall and María Sabina,
in Witter Bynner and Mary Butts and Adelaide Crapsey,
in Melvin B. Tolson and Aquah Laluah and Marguerite Young,
in Harold Norse and Kate Bornstein and Will Alexander,
in Leslie Feinberg and Werewere Liking and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the sacred texts:
in The Upanishads and The Bhagavad-Gita and The Dhammapada,
in The Lotus Sutra and The Pure Land Sutras and The Questions of Milinda,
in The Tao Te Ching and The I Ching and The Analects of Confucius,
in The Homeric Hymns and The Orphic Hymns and The Rig Veda,
in The Hermetica and The Chaldaean Oracles and Plato’s Timaeus,
in The Egyptian Book of the Dead and The Bardo Thodol and The Orphic Fragments,
in The Navajo Night Chant and The Odú Ifá and The Kumulipo,
in The Emerald Tablet and The Stanzas of Dzyan and Leland’s Aradia,
in Crowley’s Liber AL vel Legis, Yeats’s A Vision, and Jung’s Red Book . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the mythographers:
in (Pseudo) Apollodorus and Hyginus and Pausanias,
in Jane Ellen Harrison and Walter F. Otto and Karl Kerényi,
in James G. Frazer and Robert Graves and Giorgio de Santillana,
in Franz Cumont and E. A. Wallis Budge and Leo Frobenius,
in Hilda R. Ellis Davidson and Heinrich Zimmer and Joseph Campbell,
in Franz Boas and Thelma Adamson and Robert Bringhurst,
in Georges Dumézil and Jaan Puhvel and Alex Fantalov,
in Mircea Eliade and Michael Witzel and Wim van Binsbergen,
in the myths and legends and folklore from every land and every era . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the visual arts:
in Praxiteles and Michelangelo and Caravaggio,
in Antoine-Louis Barye and Katsushika Hokusai and William Blake,
in William Morris and Harriet Powers and Hosteen Klah,
in Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon and Erté,
in Evelyn de Morgan and Vincent Van Gogh and Séraphine de Senlis,
in Sonia Delaunay and Marsden Hartley and Frida Kahlo,
in Man Ray and Salvador Dalí and Joseph Cornell,
in Romare Bearden and Jess Collins and Herbert List,
in Ana Mendieta and Judy Chicago and Jean-Michel Basquiat . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in music:
in Hildegard von Bingen and Henry Purcell and Hector Berlioz,
in Frédéric Chopin and Fanny Mendelssohn and Richard Wagner,
in Gustav Holst and George Gershwin and Miles Davis,
in Édith Piaf and Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone,
in Miriam Makeba and Cesária Évora and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,
in John Lennon and Jim Morrison and Patti Smith,
in Brian Eno and Ryuichi Sakamoto and The Master Musicians of Jajouka,
in Sandy Denny and Kate Bush and Sainkho Namtchylak,
in The Cocteau Twins and Rozz Williams and Dead Can Dance . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in film:
in Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau,
in Carl Dreyer and Charlie Chaplin and Jean Cocteau,
in Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles and Jean Renoir,
in Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa,
in Satyajit Ray and Michael Cacoyannis and Ousmane Sembène,
in Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Derek Jarman,
in Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage and Stanley Kubrick,
in David Lynch and Peter Greenaway and Jane Campion,
in Pedro Almodóvar and Julie Taymor and Darren Aronofsky . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in my fellow pagans and polytheists:
in H. Jeremiah Lewis and Sarah Kate Istra Winter and P. Sufenas Virius Lupus,
in Edward P. Butler and Kallimakhos and Lykeia,
in Isaac Bonewits and Ian Corrigan and Skip Ellison,
in Raven Kaldera and Galina Krasskova and Kveldulf Gundarsson,
in T. Thorn Coyle and Starhawk and Scott Cunningham,
in John Michael Greer and Poke Runyon and John Opsopaus,
in Alexei Kondratiev and Erynn Rowan Laurie and Ceisiwr Serith,
in Valiel Elentári and Brian A. Kenny and M.A. Rivera,
in all the bloggers and podcasters and columnists who inspire me daily . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the loved ones of my Grove:
in the poetry, music, art, cuisine, and impeccable taste of my beloved Star-Prince,
in the quilts and cloth sculptures and textile creations of my wonderful Mother,
in the writings and photography of my best friend and ally Pandora,
in the handmade jewelry and the amazing green thumb of Clover,
in the constant creativity and ingenuity and aesthetic sensibility of Scarlett,
in the quests and adventures and inventions devised by Will,
in the magnificent garden and the poems and countless talents of Pam,
in the homespun crafts and the illuminating astral charts of Capella,
in all the eccentric denizens of The Island of Misfit Toys . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the Hellenic Gods:
in Hestia and Hera and Demeter,
in Zeus and Poseidon and Hades,
in Hermes and Apollon and Dionysos,
in Artemis and Persephone and Athena,
in Hephaestus and Aphrodite and Ares,
in Hekate and Pan and Gaia,
in Asklepios and Herakles and the Dioskouroi,
in the Muses and the Heroes and the Nymphs,
in the Olympians and the Titans and the Protogenoi and the entire Hellenic pantheon . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in all Deities:
in Thoth and Isis and Horus – and all the Gods of Egypt,
in Freyr and Heimdall and Loki – and all the Northern Gods,
in Brighid and Lugh and Sequana – and all the Gods of the Celts,
in Ganesha and Mitra-Varuna and Krishna – and all the Gods of India,
in She-Who-Watches and Raven and The Changer – and all the Gods of Cascadia,
in Perkūnas and Veles and Mari – and all the Gods of Old Europe,
in Antinoüs and Oya and The Rainbow Serpent – and all the Gods of the World,
in the Unnamed Gods and the Unknown Gods and the Gods of our Ancestors,
in All Members of All Pantheons, All Goddesses and All Gods . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the Heroes and Heroines:
in Narkissos and Achilles and Patroclus,
in Orpheus and Abaris and Pythagoras,
in Harmodius and Aristogeiton and Diotima,
in Polydeukion and The Emperor Julian and Hypatia,
in the Sages and Teachers and Leaders,
in the Mystics and Prophets and Visionaries,
in the Poets and Artists and Scribes,
in the Musicians and Performers and Sacred Fools,
in The Men Who Loved Men, The Women Who Loved Women, and The Gender Nonconformists of all eras . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in my Ancestors:
in my maternal Grandmother – my second mother, who gave me the myths,
in my paternal Grandmother – my third mother, the storyteller and palm-reader,
in my two Grandfathers – my fathers, the gardener and the cowboy,
in my Aunt Vi and my Uncle Ray, whose spirits have guarded me since childhood,
in my Greek Great-Grandfather, born in Arcadia and buried beside his best friend,
in my Norwegian Great-Grandmother, the seer who was raised by a witch,
in my Irish ancestors, descendants of The Liberator, so many of whom died in the mines,
in my English ancestors, The Plantagenets, descendants of Queens and Kings,
in my Bohemian ancestors, my French ancestors, my African ancestors, and all my Blood-Kindred . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the Spirits:
in my Agathos Daimon and The Torch-Bearers and our Household Lares,
in my childhood guardians – The Cat, The Owl and The Eagle,
in The Dandelion Faerie, The Pine White Butterfly and The Oreads of the Island,
in The Old Man of the Mountain, The Basket Ogress and The Rain-Makers,
in The Wounded Sentinel and The Nooksack River and The Salish Sea,
in The Thunderbird and The Sisiutl and the Stl’eluqum,
in the Elves and the Elementals and the Faerie Folk,
in the Spirit Guides and Animal Totems and Greenwights,
in all the Nymphs and Spirits and Daimones and Sidhe . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the animal kingdom:
in the Barn Owl and the Red-tailed Hawk and the Bald Eagle,
in the Raven and the Bluejay and the Hummingbird,
in the Seagull and the Cormorant and the Chickadee,
in the Mountain Lion and the Coyote and the Raccoon,
in the Black-tailed Deer and the Squirrel and the Rabbit,
in the House Cat and the Box Turtle and the Tree Frog,
in the Orca and the Salmon and the Jellyfish,
in the Butterfly and the Dragonfly and the Honey Bee,
in the Cricket and the Spider and the Ladybug . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the green world:
in the Douglas Fir and the Red Cedar and the Western Hemlock,
in the Grand Fir and the Bigleaf Maple and the Pacific Madrone,
in the Shore Pine and the Sitka Spruce and the Pacific Yew,
in the Quaking Aspen and the Paper Birch and the Willow,
in the Rhododendron and the Wild Hyacinth and the Blackberry Vine,
in the Stinging Nettle and the Sword Fern and the Bull-Head Kelp,
in the countless Mushrooms and Mosses and Lichens,
in the Fairy Slipper and the Pathfinder and the Forget-Me-Not,
in the Slender Hawkweed and the Hairy Cat’s-Ear and the Dandelion Puff . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the stars:
in the Sun and the Moon and the Milky Way,
in the Morning Star and the Evening Star and the Pole-Star,
in the Red Planet and the Jovian Planet and the Senex,
in the Messenger and the Magician and the Mystic,
in The Virgin and The Bull and The Twins,
in The Lion and The Eagle and The Dragon,
in The Bears and The Swan and The Lyre,
in The Hunter and The Dog-Star and The Seven Sisters,
in all the planets and constellations and celestial objects . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the symbolic teachings:
in The Fire, The Well and The Tree,
in Yin and Yang, The Two Substances and The Two Powers,
in The Three Realms, The Three Worlds and The Three Kindreds,
in the Four Noble Truths, the Five Elements and the Six Cardinal Directions,
in the Seven Chakras, the Seven Principles and the Twelve Natural Laws,
in the Neoplatonist Triads and Hebdomads and Dodecads,
in Gematria, the Zodiac, and the Planetary Spheres,
in the Runes and the Ogham and the Tarot,
in all the systems of esoteric correspondences created to comprehend the Ineffable . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in many spiritual traditions:
in Paganism and Polytheism and Animism,
in Hellenism and Heathenry and Kemeticism,
in Druidry and Witchcraft and Shamanism,
in Hermeticism and Neoplatonism and the Orphic Tradition,
in Buddhism and Taoism and Shinto,
in Vedanta and Theosophy and Transcendentalism,
in Devotional Polytheism and Local-Focus Polytheism and Eclectic Reconstructionism,
in Hard Polytheism and Polycentric Syncretism and Religious Pluralism,
in Classical Humanism and Romantic Modernism and Visionary Mysticism . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in ritual:
in my thrice-daily devotionals – morning and evening and night,
in the recitation and composition of hymns to the gods,
in burning incense and pouring libations at our household shrines,
in creating sacred space and raising magickal energy,
in trance journeys and astral dreaming and pathworking,
in meditation and mantram and prayer,
in the mask and the bonfire and the drum,
in offering a sacrifice, walking the labyrinth and dancing round a maypole,
in celebrating the lunar cycle, the festival calendar and The Wheel of the Year . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty in the simple things in life:
in a fresh-baked loaf of bread and a good bottle of wine,
in the sound of crashing waves and the patchwork colors of sunset,
in a pocket full of beach stones and the feel of rain on my face,
in a hike through the forest and the notes of birdsong,
in a potluck feast followed by a game of cards,
in the laughter of friends and the smile of a beautiful soul,
in a shelf of well-loved books and a notebook full of scribblings,
in a home-cooked meal and a table set with candles,
in curling up under a blanket and the kiss of my Beloved . . .

Where shall wisdom be found?

I find wisdom, inspiration and beauty all around me:
in the North and in the South,
in the East and in the West,
above me and below me,
before me and behind me,
and deep in the center within me.
I walk in wisdom.
I walk in inspiration.
I walk in beauty.
I walk in beauty . . .

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

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

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