Hestia is the Greek goddess of the hearth, one of the original Twelve Olympians. Cronus’ and Rhea’s first-born child, she was pure and peaceful. However, since she always had to stay at home, tending the fireplace, Hestia is not involved in many myths. Consequently, at a later stage, she would be replaced in the Pantheon with the much wilder Dionysus.
Hestia’s name means “hearth” or “fireplace,” and her status shows how important the hearth was in the social and religious life of Ancient Greeks. Making and preserving fire was both essential and difficult for more primitive societies, which made the household fire a sacred element at a very early stage of history. In later days, Hestia became its embodiment.
However, there are very few pictorial representations of Hestia. Usually, she is portrayed as a modest middle-aged veil-wearing woman. Sometimes, she stands by a large fire, carrying a staff or holding some flowers in her hands.
The Ancient Greeks didn’t use too many epithets to describe her. “Beloved,” “Eternal,” and “She of the public hearth” were probably the most common.
Hestia was the first-born child of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. Since she was also the first one to be swallowed at birth by her father – and, consequently, the last one to be disgorged – Hestia was oftentimes called the youngest of Cronus and Rhea’s children.
She had two sisters – Demeter and Hera – and three brothers: Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
Since fire is a pure and a purifying element, Hestia was worshipped as a virgin goddess. And they say that she became a virgin in order to keep the peace at Olympus. Namely, both Apollo and Poseidon wanted to marry her; fearing that choosing either of them may result in turmoil, Hestia swore to an eternal virginity by placing her hand on Zeus’ head. As a reward for maintaining the order and in place of marriage, Zeus granted her the central place in the house and the first and richest portion of humans’ divine offerings.
Only once was Hestia’s chastity subsequently put in danger. At a rustic feast, the drunken god of fertility Priapus tried to rape the sleeping goddess. Fortunately, a donkey started braying and woke up both Hestia and the guests, who chased Priapus away in contempt. Ever since, donkeys were rested and garlanded on Hestia’s feast-day.
Gentle and peace-loving, Hestia doesn’t appear in too many myths other than these two. Plato says that this is because she has to remain in the house of the gods, all alone, tending the eternal celestial fire even when all the other Olympians ritually pass in processions through heavens. This is both her privilege and her predicament.
Consequently, Hestia’s only manifestation among humans was the crackling of the fire. Aristotle says that it is the sound of the goddess laughing.
You can read the myth about Hestia’s vow to remain a virgin in the 5th Homeric Hymn dedicated to Aphrodite, starting at verse 21 and ending at 32. Both the 24th and 29th Homeric Hymn are dedicated exclusively to her. Pindar evokes Hestia in few beautiful verses – the first seven in his 11th Nemean Ode.
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