Who Is Hestia?
Hestia is the older sister of Zeus and the eldest born child of Cronus and Rhea. This means Hestia is one of the original Olympian Gods, however there are some traditions that no longer hold her as an Olympian but instead have Dionysus as an Olympian instead of her.
Hestia is also siblings with Poseidon, Hades, Hera, and Demeter. She was the first one to be devoured by Cronus, out of paranoia that his children would overthrow him because of a prophecy, and she was also said to be the last one pulled back out of him by Zeus.
Once freed, Hestia fought alongside her other siblings to defeat Cronus. The battle against Cronus and his allies is called the Titanomachy. Hestia and the other gods won this war, which put them in charge as the Olympians.
What Is Hestia The Goddess Of?
Hestia is the goddess of the hearth and of the home. This means that Hestia has a very extensive role to play with the entire aspect of the family, as the home is something that is integral to the family.
However, the importance of the hearth cannot be overlooked at all. In the most ancient of days, the hearth was essential to any shelter for mankind. The hearth provided warmth, safety, and a place to perform sacrifices.
To have the fires of your hearth go out meant the spiritual strength of your family was weak or in danger. To have the fires of your community’s hearth go out meant that your community was heading down the wrong path or even possibly doomed.
Hearths were common all over ancient Greece in every temple, every city, and in many homes. This means that Hestia was basically everywhere and involved in everyone’s lives.
What Are Hestia’s Symbols?
Hestia’s primary symbol is the hearth and the fire that would be within the hearth, and the animal that is usually supposed to be sacrificed to her is a domesticated pig. Hestia is usually given the appearance of a modestly clothed woman with a staff in hand and a fire nearby, her throne is plain and wooden and she does not bother to create any large emblem for herself.
Despite this, there are not a large number of visual depictions of Hestia that actually exist besides the few that tell us the aforementioned information. Also, there are only three known temples in the ancient world that were dedicated to her.
According to Pausanias, there are two temples for Hestia. One of the temples is found at Ermioni and the other is found at Sparta. However, Pausanias says that there are no images at the temples dedicated to Hestia, instead there is merely an altar where sacrifices to Hestia are made.
Xenophon writes that there was a temple dedicated to Hestia that was at Olympia and he tells us that it was near the senate building and the theatre. There are no more details mentioned about this temple besides who it was dedicated to and what buildings it was nearby.
What Is Hestia’s Role In Mythology?
Hestia does not really appear in a lot of mythology compared to the rest of her siblings. However, Homer does write two hymns that are directly addressed to her.
His 24th hymn, albeit a brief one, is purely dedicated to Hestia. His 29th hymn, a longer one, is also dedicated to Hestia but is dedicated to Hermes as well.
In addition to appearing in those two hymns, we learn in a hymn that Homer wrote for Aphrodite that Hestia is one of the few beings that Aphrodite does not have any power over because she is an eternal virgin.
How Did Hestia Become Goddess Of The Hearth?
Hestia became the goddess of the hearth because she took a vow of eternal maidenhood. Hestia, from what we do know about her, seeks to keep peace among the gods.
One day, Poseidon and Apollo both came to her wanting to seek her hand in marriage. Poseidon and Apollo are both Olympian Gods, both have really big responsibilities, and both could bring about big consequences if snubbed.
Hestia did not want to disturb the balance of the heavens by making a choice, but the other deities kept pressuring her that she would have to choose someone. So, finally, Hestia walked over to Zeus and placed her hand on his forehead.
Doing this act signified that Hestia chose no one, and that she would therefore marry no one and take no one to be her lover. As shocking as this move was, Zeus respected it because he knew why Hestia was really doing this–to maintain order in the cosmos and stop the possibility for conflict between gods.
Out of respect for Hestia’s choice, Zeus reaffirmed her right to eternal maidenhood–thus taking her out of even Aphrodite’s grasp–and gave her the huge responsibility of controlling the hearth. Hestia even personally maintains the hearth at Olympus itself, powering it with the sacrifices made to the Olympian Gods.
As well, Zeus gave Hestia the honor of having the first sacrifice to always be given to her when one is making sacrifices to their deities. However, as is seen in the Odyssey, this was not universally observed as one of Odysseus’s crew members dedicates his first sacrifice to Hermes instead.
When Cyrus the Great asked the magi who he should sacrifice to for aid, they told him to first sacrifice to Hestia and then to Zeus before moving on to any other deity. This account is documented by Xenophon in his biography of Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire.
Hestia’s eternal maidenhood has only really come under attack on one occasion. As told by Ovid, Hestia was invited alongside the other goddesses, the nymphs, and the satyrs to have a feast in Phrygia hosted by the goddess Cybele, known to be the national deity of the Phrygian people.
After having a lot to eat and drink, Hestia went to retire for a nap. While she was napping, a minor fertility god named Priapus attempted to force himself upon her while she was sleeping.
However, when he got close to her, a donkey that was watching nearby began braying loudly. The noise caused Hestia to awaken and when she saw Priapus she screamed and ran away.
Because of this, Priapus gained a deep hatred of donkeys and wished to see them made extinct but that did not really work out for him. Priapus was also cursed to forever be erect, like a Satyr, as a permanent sign of his lust. This actually undid a previous curse given to him by Hera that he would suffer erectile dysfunction at the most inconvenient times–truly traveling from one extreme to the other.
As for Hestia, she found safety with the rest of those attending the party who sheltered her and sent Priapus away in shame. Besides this, there are no other instances of anyone attempting to break the guarantee that Zeus granted her.
An inconsistency existed in Athens as to who was the twelfth member of the Olympians. It was either Hestia or Dionysus that stood with the other eleven. In the altar at the agora in Athens, Hestia was included with the other eleven. In the Parthenon’s depiction of the Olympians, it is instead Dionysus.
There is no real given explanation for how this inconsistency was viewed by the Athenians, but there is a guess that it may have something to do with Hestia’s nature. As Hestia is known to be one who wishes to avoid disrupting the balance of the heavens or causing conflict between deities, it is possible that Hestia simply gave her seat to the wanting Dionysus to avoid any need for a disagreement in the heavens.
However, there is no source or myth that tells of an action like this occurring. More than likely, it has to do with the nature of how Athenians compiled their mythology around popularity rather than consistency.
Are Hestia And Vesta The Same?
Vesta is the name of the Roman goddess who represents the hearth and the home. This automatically gives her very similar functions to Hestia.
According to tradition that the Romans held, Vesta is Hestia. They say that Vesta was among the first gods brought to Lavinium, the city founded and named by Aeneas–the Trojan hero who settled in Italy after the Trojan War and whose descendants would later found Rome.
This origin means that Vesta, along with the Di Penates, are at the very core of the Roman religion. The Di Penates are a collection of local deities related to Vesta that link families, communities, and colonies of Rome all to the broader collective of being Roman.
If this origin is to be believed, then yes, Vesta is directly Hestia. The etymological root, however, suggests some complications.
While they seem to have an Indo-European origin like most other deities around them, it appears that there is influence from another unknown language involved. The implications that this could have are anyone’s guess.
How Did Worship Of Hestia/Vesta Develop?
Covered above has included a lot of the extent of known worship of Hestia that existed among the ancient Greeks. I will mention a few additional things here before discussing the length of Vesta.
In addition to the Homeric hymns that are dedicated to (or even just mention) Hestia, there is also an Orphic hymn that is dedicated to her. In the Orphic hymn to her, it details an elaboration on titles for her, offerings for her, and her beloved place as a supporter of mankind.
There are also various military oaths from the 300s BC that have been found dedicated to many deities. Hestia is among the many deities that these oaths are dedicated to.
At the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens, there is a special place reserved where priestesses of Hestia can sit to observe the theatre. However, there are not a lot of records at all about priests or priestesses for Hestia–but there are a few known to confirm they did exist.
In the Byzantine controlled Egypt, during the 500s AD, a beautiful tapestry was made that was dedicated to Hestia. It is made out of wool, and depicts Hestia but also depicts her much more bejeweled than she usually would be and includes a lot of pomegranates around her. This tapestry is currently in a collection hosted in Washington, D.C. but is not usually out for public display.
Now, onward to Vesta. In the time of Romulus, the founder of the city of Rome, the Romans had established a worship of Vesta as an established cult: the Vestals. Priestesses of Vesta were known as the Vestal Virgins.
However, it may be possible that the Vestals existed before even Rome itself. In Alba Longa, the city that served as the intermediate between Lavinium and Rome, it is suggested that the Vestals and even the Vestal Virgins existed there pre-Rome. Romulus’s mother, Silvia, is suggested to have been a priestess of Vesta.
The Vestals cult and worship of Vesta persisted throughout early Roman history and then gained a hefty boost in prestige at the dawn of the Roman Empire. In Rome, there was an office called the Pontifex Maximus which was given to the head of religion in Rome.
According to tradition, the Pontifex Maximus had to reside in a house that was owned by the public. When Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, took on the title of pontifex maximus in the year 12 BC, he gave part of his private home to the Vestals. This strengthened the Vestals as a cult and gave them a direct connection to the emperor, the pontifex maximus, and both of their residences.
Following Augustus, various other emperors would show their support for the Vestals in various ways and reaffirm worship of Vesta. From 12 BC to 300 AD, Vesta remained very central to the Roman religion and the faith of all Romans.
An office for the leader of the Vestal cult even existed called the Vestalis Maxima or Chief Vestal. From 200 AD to 300 AD, it seemed as though the power of the Vestalis Maxima was growing due to various promotions of the cult and dedications.
The Vestals were very important to Roman culture. According to Cicero, the Vestals were the key force that ensured Rome kept a connection to the gods.
Vestal Virgins were also held in very high regard. If one became a Vestal Virgin, they were entirely emancipated from the authority of their father which is huge since the pater familias was the head of the household in Roman culture. They also took a thirty year vow of chastity, and the punishment for breaking it was being buried alive.
Vestal Virgins also had to make sure that the fire was constantly burning. If the fire went out on their watch, they were whipped severely.
A festival was held for Vesta on Vestalia. The festivities lasted from the 7th of June until the 15th of June, and during it women would go to the temple barefoot and leave sacrifices–which were usually donkeys and flowers. There is a possible relation of Vesta, the Vestal Virgins, and Vestalia to various female Chthonic deities.
Decline of the Vestals
Unfortunately for the Vestals, everything came to a crashing halt in the 300s AD with the rise of Christianity. In 312, the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great converted to Christianity. Emperors after him would follow in his footsteps and this would inspire large swaths of the public and military to follow suit.
Because of this, the cult of Vestal joined many other cults in being under attack by the new growing religion. However, the Vestals were a particularly strong cult and their membership did its best to not decline.
In 379 AD, the Roman Emperor Gratian stepped down from the office of pontifex maximus–no longer wishing to represent Pagan faith–and in 382 AD he confiscated the Atrium that served as home to the Vestals and eliminated their public funding. But despite all of this, the Vestals kept strong and even got officials to flock to their aid.
In 391 AD, the Roman Emperor Theodosius closed the temples and extinguished the sacred fires. The public protested and rioted for three whole years against it, but finally, in 394 AD, Coelia Concordia stepped down as the last Vestalis Maxima and the cult was considered over.
A Final Note
This post in particular is dedicated to one of my best friends. Firstly, because he suggested the topic. Secondly, because he constantly inspires me with the energy and enthusiasm that he always brings with him. I think that in the spirit of writing about Hestia, and in the spirit of the holiday season, it is important to remember those that mean a lot to us. And I am very thankful for everyone that supports me and my site, and to all my friends that generously help me do this.