Hestia, The Queen of Fire – Part Three

“Young men, praise Hestia, the most ancient of goddesses.”

[verse preserved in Proclus’ Commentary on Plato’s Cratylus, quoted in Greek and Egyptian Mythologies by Yves Bonnefoy, translated under the direction of Wendy Doniger]

This will be my last installment (for now) on Hestia, before I move on to the many other members of My Personal Pantheon. This post will focus on Hestia in relation to philosophy, with a focus on the Pythagoreans and Neoplatonists.  [Edited to add:  Please keep in mind that this is not my only view of Hestia.  Part One and Part Two contain pictures, personal anecdotes, mythological lore, a link to a Mary J. Blige song, and far fewer references to ontology.] If you are completely new to Neoplatonism, I highly recommend starting with my post on Proclus, which links to a number of resources to help the newcomer navigate through this type of material.  Also, a number of these quotes were found on the *fantastic* Hestia page at HellenicGods.org, which is an incredible resource for Hellenic pagans/polytheists and one of my favorite websites in general.  Many of these quotations will require further commentary and elaboration, which I honestly don’t have time to provide at this moment (though I will probably return to later), so if you have any questions on this admittedly difficult material, please let me know in the comments!

Hestia and the Pythagoreans:  The Fire in the Middle

“The Pythagoreans offered significant cosmological observations . . . It is also noteworthy that the early Pythagoreans denied the geocentric and geostatic model of the universe. According to the testimony of Aristotle (De caelo 293.18), they placed *fire* and not earth at the centre of the universe. The earth became a celestial body, which creates day and night by its circular motion around Hestia (hestia meaning ‘hearth’). Ten divine celestial bodies – ten being the perfect number, which encompasses the whole nature of numbers – rotate rhythmically around Hestia in the following order: the dark counter-earth (antichthon), the earth, the moon, the sun, the five planets (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, Mercury) and the sphere of the fixed stars (aristotle, Metaphysics 986). This new cosmological model is usually attributed to Philolaus (B7 and A16) and explained through the importance of the Monad in Pythagorean metaphysics. Since the Monad is the divine source of all numbers and is identified with, or represented by, the purity of the fire, the source of the celestial bodies should be a divine fire in the centre of the cosmos (Aristotle, Metaphysics 986).”

[p. 38-39, Introduction to Presocratics: A Thematic Approach to Early Greek Philosophy with Key Readings by Giannis Stamatellos]

Pythagorean Fragments of Philolaus
[full text here]

“10. (Stob. Eclogl.1:5:7:p.360) The world is single; it began to form from the centre outwards. Starting from this centre, the top is entirely identical to the base; still you might say that what is above the centre is opposed to what is below it; for, for the base, lowest point would be the centre, as for the top, the highest point would still be the centre; and likewise for the other parts; in fact, in respect to the centre, each one of the opposite points is identical, unless the whole be moved. b.(Stob.Ecl.l:2l:3:p.468) The prime composite, the One placed in the centre of the sphere is called Hestia.”

“11. a. (Stob.Ecl.l:22:l:p.488) Philolaus has located the fire in the middle, the centre; he calls it Hestia, of the All, the house [policeipest] of Jupiter, and the mother of the Gods, the altar, the link, the measure of nature. Besides, he locates a second fire, quite at the top, surrounding the world. The centre, says he, is by its nature the first; around it, the ten different bodies carry out their choric dance; these are, the heaven, the planets, lower the sun, and below it the moon ; lower the earth, and beneath this, the anti-earth (a body invented by the Pythagoreans, says Aristotle, Met i: 5) then beneath these bodies the fire of Hestia, in the centre, where it maintains order. The highest part of the Covering, in which he asserts that the elements exist in a perfectly pure condition, is called Olympus, the space beneath the revolutionary circle of Olympus, and where in order are disposed the five planets, the sun and moon, forms the Cosmos world; finally, beneath the latter is the sublunar region, which surrounds the earth, where are the generative things susceptible to change; that is the heaven. The order which manifests in the celestial phenomena is the object of science; the disorder which manifests in the things of becoming, is the object of virtue; the former is perfect, the latter is imperfect. b. (Plut. Plac.Phil.3:ll). The Pythagorean Philolaus located the fire in the centre, it is the Hestia of the All, then the Anti-earth, then the earth we inhabit, placed opposite the other, and moving circularly; which is the cause that its inhabitants are not visible to ours. (Stob.Ecl.l:21:6:p.452). The directing fire, [of] Philolaus, is in the entirely central fire; which the demiurge has placed as a sort of keel [to] serve as foundation to the sphere of the All.”

Hestia and Plato, Part I:  The Essence of Things

“Socrates: “What may we suppose him to have meant who gave the name Hestia?…….that which we term οὐσἰα (ed. ousia) is by some called ἐσἰα (ed. esia), and by others again ὠσἰα (ed. osia).  Now that the essence of things should be called ἑστἰα (ed. estia), which is akin to the first of these (ἐσἰα=ἑστἰα), is rational enough.  And there is reason in the Athenians calling that ἑστἰα which participates in οὐσἰα.  For in ancient times we too seem to have said ἐσἰα for οὐσἰα, and this you may note to have been the idea of those who appointed that sacrifices should be first offered to Ἑστἰα (ed. Hestia), which was natural enough if they meant that ἑστἰα was the essence of things.  Those again who read ὠσἰα seem to have inclined to the opinion of Heracleitus, that all things flow and nothing stands; with them the pushing principle (ὠθουν; ed. othoun) is the cause and ruling power of all things, and is therefore rightly called ὠσἰα.” 

[Plato’s Cratylus, 401, translated by Benjamin Jowett –  quote with editor’s notes appears on the Hestia page at HellenicGods.org]

Socrates’ convoluted etymology of Hestia = Ousia, (aka Hestia = Essence, Being Itself, the Essence of All Things) is an important idea that the later Neoplatonists will pick up and run forward with into intricate realms of cosmological speculation, with Hestia as one of the principle or essential components of the cosmos itself.

Hestia and Plato, Part II:  She Who Abides

“Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all; and there follows him the array of gods and demigods, marshalled in eleven bands; Hestia alone abides at home in the house of heaven; of the rest they who are reckoned among the princely twelve march in their appointed order.”  [Plato, Phaedrus 246 (trans. Jowett)]

This description of Hestia as the goddess who abides at home on Olympus (while Zeus leads a procession of the other Olympians in their chariots) will later become the key image and the cornerstone for later Neoplatonist interpretations of Hestia. If there’s one image from Plato most relevant to Hestia, it is this one:  Hestia, She Who Abides.

Hestia and Plotinus:  The Intellect of the Earth

“Plotinus, who denominates the intellect of the Earth, Hestia” [Ennead IV, 4, 27]

Hestia and Porphyry:  Essence, the Source of All Being

“Hestia, existing within the Father as a source and cause of all being, equals ontotes [Being itself]”

[Lydus, Mens. 4.94, referencing a treastise attributed to Porphyry, quoted in Porphyry and the Gnostics: Reassessing Pierre Hadot’s Thesis in Light of the Second- and Third-Century Sethian Treatises by Tuomas Rasimus, in Plato’s Parmenides and Its Heritage: Its reception in Neoplatonic, Jewish, and Christian texts p.89]

Hestia and Sallust:  The Guardian Power

Farther still, of the mundane Gods, some are the causes of the existence of the world; others animate it; others again harmonize it thus composed of different natures; and others, lastly, guard and preserve it when harmonically arranged. And since these orders are four, and each consists of things first, middle and last, it is necessary that the disposers of these should be twelve. Hence Jupiter, Neptune, and Vulcan, fabricate the world; Ceres, Juno and Diana animate it; Mercury, Venus, and Apollo harmonize it; and lastly, Vesta, Minerva, and Mars, preside over it with a guardian power. But the truth of this may be seen in statues as in enigmas. For Apollo harmonizes the lyre; Pallas is invested with arms; and Venus is naked; since harmony generates beauty, and beauty is not concealed in objects of sensible inspection. Since, however, these Gods primarily possess the world, it is necessary to consider the other mundane Gods as subsisting in these; as Bacchus in Jupiter, Esculapius in Apollo, and the Graces in Venus. We may likewise, behold the spheres with which they are connected ; viz. Vesta with earth, Neptune with water, Juno with air, and Vulcan with fire. But the six superior Gods we denominate from general custom. For Apollo and Diana are assumed for the sun and moon ; but the orb of Saturn is attributed to Ceres; aether to Pallas; and heaven is common to them all. And thus much concerning the mundane Gods in general, the sources of their progression, their orders, powers, and spheres.

[Sallust, On the Gods and the World, VI, quoted in The Platonic Theology of Proclus (Book VII, Chapter 1) translated by Thomas Taylor]

 Hestia and Proclus, Part I:  The Fountain of Virtue

Hestia is described as “the cause of the virtues”  [Proclus, Commentary on the Timaeus of Plato, Book III p.539, trans. Thomas Taylor]

Hestia as “the fountain of virtue” [ibid, note on p.675, cf. Chaldaean Oracle fr. 51 & 52]

Hestia and Proclus, Part II:  The Fixed Hearth – Permanency and Stability

“But if as some say, the assertion that “Hestia alone abides in the dwellings of the Gods” (p. 848, quoting Plato’s Phaedrus 274a), is spoken of this earth, Plato will be very far from giving motion to the Earth.  If however we do not admit that the Hestia there mentioned is the Earth, yet it must be granted, that there is a guardian power in the Earth of the nature of Hestia.  For as we say, that in the Heavens, the poles are connectedly contained by Hestia, thus also among the elements, the Earth.  And as the supermundane Hestia, is to the great leader of the twelve Gods, so in mundane natures is the Earth to the Heavens.” [ibid, p. 848-849]

fixing the earth indeed, as a firm seat or Vesta” – [Proclus, Platonic Theology of Plato: Book V, Chapter 20, translated by Thomas Taylor]

“Plato however, apprehended that the number of the dodecad is adapted to the liberated Gods, as being allperfect, composed from the first numbers, and completed from things perfect; and he comprehends in this measure all the progressions of these Gods. For he refers all the genera and peculiarities of them to this dodecad, and defines them according to it. But again dividing the dodecad into two monads and one decad; he suspends all [mundane natures] from the two monads, but delivers to us each of these energizing on the monad posterior to itself, according to its own hyparxis. And one of these monads indeed, he calls Jovian, but he denominates the other Vesta.” [ibid, Book VI, Chapter 18]

“Since therefore, as we have before observed, there are twelve leaders of all the mundane Gods, of all daemons, and farther still, of such partial souls as are able to be extended to the intelligible, again in this dodecad, the mighty Jupiter and Vesta are allotted the more ruling order. But the principality of the rest is coarranged with these, and has a secondary dignity. And Jupiter indeed, being neither the intellect of the universe, as some say he is, nor the intellect in the sun, nor in short, any one of mundane intellects or souls, but being expanded above all these, and preexisting among the liberated Gods, elevates the choir of Gods, and of the genera superior to us that follow him, and imparts paternal goodness to the multitude converted to him. But he is the leader of all the other numbers that terminate under the twelve Gods. Again however, Vesta indeed governs an appropriate multitude, but she neither has the order of the first soul, nor is that which is called the earth in the universe. But prior to these, she is allotted a ruling power among the supercelestial Gods. She imparts however, her own peculiarity to the numbers of the other leaders, in the same manner as Jupiter. For the leaders that are suspended from the decad, participate also of these two monads. Jupiter however, being indeed the cause of motion is the leader to all things of a progression to the intelligible. But Vesta illuminates all things with stable and inflexible power; though Jupiter also abiding in himself, is thus elevated to the intelligible place of survey ; and Vesta on account of an inflexible and undefiled permanency in herself, is conjoined to the first causes. The emission however of a different peculiarity, affords the difference of dominion. For since there are twofold conversions in the Gods (for all things are converted to themselves and to their principles) each form of conversion indeed, was impartibly in king Saturn. For according to Parmenides he is demonstrated to be in himself, and in another. And the latter indeed, pertains to a conversion to a more excellent nature, but the former implies a conversion to himself. In the secondary however, and more partial Gods, both these forms shine forth in a divided manner. And Vesta indeed, imparts to the mundane Gods an undefiled establishment in themselves; but Jupiter imparts to them an elevating motion to first natures. For Vesta belongs to the undefiled, but Jupiter to the paternal series; but they are divided by a subsistence in self, and a subsistence in another, as we have before observed. It must be said therefore, that every thing stable and immutable, and which possesses an invariable sameness of subsistence, arrives to all mundane natures from the supercelestial Vesta, and that on this account all the poles are immoveable, and the axes about which the circulations of the spheres convolve themselves. It must also be said, that the wholenesses of the circulations are firmly established, that the earth abides immoveably in the middle, and that the centres have an unshaken permanency [from this supercelestial Vesta.]” [ibid Book VI, Chapter 21]

Hestia and Proclus, Part III:  She Who Imparts Permanency, Stability, and Essence

“Hence it is necessary that in all things there should be each of these [essence, motion and permanency], and that essence should subsist as the first of them, this being as it were the Vesta and monad of the genera, and having an arrangement analogous to The One.” [Proclus, Commentary on the Timaeus of Plato, p.560]

Essence, as we have said, has the first order in the genera, because it is as it were, the Vesta of being. [ibid, p. 581 – cf. Philolaus fr. 7d]

For essence itself is the summit of all beings, and is as it were the monad of the whole of things. In all things therefore, essence is the first. And in each thing that which is essential is the most ancient, as deriving its subsistence from the Hestia of beings. – [Proclus, Platonic Theology, Book III, Chapter 9]

“And thus much from Proclus, concerning that great mundane divinity, the earth, who in the language of Theophrastus is the common Hestia of Gods and men; and on whose fertile surface reclining, says he, as on the soft bosom of a mother or a nurse, we ought to celebrate her divinity with hymns, and incline to her with filial affection, as to the source of our existence.” – [ibid, Book VII, Chapter 23 reconstructed/written by Thomas Taylor and quoted on HellenicGods.org]

“That Saturn (ed. Kronos) in conjunction with Rhea produced Vesta (ed. Æstia) and Juno (ed. Ira or Hera) who are co-ordinate to the demiurgic causes.  For Vesta imparts from herself to the Gods an uninclining permanency, and seat in themselves, and an indissoluble essence.  But Juno imparts progression, and a multiplication into things secondary.  She is also the vivifying fountain of wholes, and the mother of prolific powers; and on this account she is said to have proceeded together with Jupiter the demiurgus; and through this communion she generates maternally, such things as Jupiter generates paternally.  But Vesta abides in herself, possessing an undefiled virginity, and being the cause of sameness to all things.  Each of these divinities however together with her own proper perfection, possesses according to participation the power of the other.  Hence some say that Vesta is denominated from essence (απο της εστιας; ed.ahpo tis æstiahs) looking to her proper hyparxis (ed. approx. essential being).  But others looking to her vivific (ed. life-giving) and motive power which she derives from Juno say that she is thus denominated ως ωσεως ουσαν αιτιαν (ed. os osæos oosahn ætiahn) as being the cause of impulsion.  For all divine natures are in all, and particularly such as are co-ordinate with each other, participate of, and subsist in each other.  Each therefore of the demiurgic and vivific orders, participates the form by which it is characterised, from Vesta. The orbs of the planets likewise possess the sameness of their revolutions from her; and the poles and centres are always allotted from her their rest.

That Vesta does not manifest essence, but the abiding and firm establishment of essence in itself; and hence this Goddess proceeds into light after the mighty Saturn.  For the divinities prior to Saturn have not a subsistence in themselves and in another, but this originates from Saturn.  And a subsistence in self is the peculiarity of Vesta, but in another of Juno.”

[An extract from the Manuscript Scolia of Proclus On the Cratylus of Plato, found in The Theology of Plato: Proclus, trans. Thomas Taylor, Prometheus Trust (Somerset, UK), Vol. VIII of The Thomas Taylor Series (TTS), pp. 680-682 and quoted on HellenicGods.org]

Hestia and Theosophy:  Gravity, The God of Modern Science

These last quotes are essentially a summation from all the above, found in G.R.S. Mead’s book, Orpheus, which draws heavily from Taylor’s translations of Proclus, but with some late-19th-century theosophical speculation and comparative spirituality thrown in for good measure.

“Therefore Vesta and Juno are distinguished as follows by Proclus (Crat., p. 83): ‘Vesta imparts from herself to the Gods an uninclining permanency and seat in themselves, and an indissoluble essence. . . .

Now ‘in her mundane allotment’, that is on this physical plane, Vesta is the Goddess of the Earth. Thus it is that Philolaus (apud Stobæum, Eclog. Phys., p. 51) says: ‘That there is a fire in the middle at the centre, which is the Vesta [Hearth] of the Universe, the House of Jupiter, the Mother of the Gods, and the basis, coherence, and measure of nature.’ All of which puts us in mind of gravity, the god of modern science. . . .

Microcosmically, again, Vesta is the ‘ether in the heart’ of the Upanishads, the ‘flame’ of life; and he who knows the mysteries of Tapas, that practice which calls to its aid the creative, preservative, and regenerative powers of the universe, as Shankarâchârya explains in his Bhâshya on the Mundakopanishad (i), will easily comprehend the importance of Vesta both macrocosmically and microcosmically. . . .”

In lieu of a detailed commentary, here is my own extrapolation of these ideas in the form of a philosophical hymn/adoration/collage to Hestia:

A Philosophical Hymn to Hestia

I sing of Hestia,
the most ancient of Goddesses,
the Fire in the Middle,
the Centre of the Cosmos,
the Centre of the Sphere,
the Prime Composite,
the All, the Source, the Good,
she who maintains order,
she who is the Essence of All Things,
The Goddess of Being,
She Who Abides,
she who alone stays at home in the dwellings of the immortals,
tending the central fire in the heaven of Olympus,
the intellect of the Earth,
the Source and Cause of All Being,
she who presides over the universe with a guardian power,
the fountain of Virtue,
she who fixes the firm seat of the Earth,
who stabilizes the poles,
a ruling power among the supercelestial Gods,
imparting permanence to All,
illuminating all things with stable and inflexible power,
she who contains an inflexible and undefiled permanency in herself,
she who is conjoined to the first causes,
she who is responsible for everything stable and immutable,
she who imparts order to the cosmos,
she who fixes the circulations of the heavenly spheres,
bringing an unshaken permanency to the centre of the Cosmos,
she who is the summit of all beings,
the monad of the whole,
she who imparts from herself to the Gods
an uninclining permanency,
a seat in themselves,
an indissoluble essence,
she who abides in herself,
possessing an undefiled purity,
the Essence of All,
the Cause of Impulsion,
she who subsists in the self,
she who embodies all gravitational forces,
the Ether in the Heart,
the Flame of Life,
She Who Creates, Preserves, and Regenerates the Universe,
she who is honored both first and last in all things,
All hail Hestia, the most ancient of Goddesses!
[And now I will remember you, and another song too . . .]

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!

Hestia, The Queen of Fire – Part One

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.

In my Pythagorean Tarot deck, Hestia is The Queen of Wands.  In my Classical Mythology deck, there is a charming affirmation for Hestia:  “I find home within myself and create sacred space in my life.”

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

Hestia page at Theoi.com

Hestia page at HellenicGods.org

Hestia page at Neokoroi.org

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 . . .

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