Hestia is best known as the Greek goddess of the hearth. But she also holds providence over many domains, as the protector of the home and the state. Referred to in a Homeric hymn as “chief among goddesses” (Hymn 5 to Aphrodite), Hestia was a very important goddess in the everyday life of the Greeks.
However, there are few myths and stories about the goddess despite her importance in both the private and public domain of Greek society. Thus, many do not realize the large role Hestia and her Roman equivalent, Vesta, played in the ancient world.
Hestia was oldest daughter to ruler of the Titans, Cronus, and his wife, Rhea. Cronus was afraid that one of his heirs would dethrone him, so in order to protect his reign, he ate his children. Only one managed to escape, the future king of the gods, Zeus. When Zeus overthrew his father, he forced him to throw up all the children he had devoured. Hestia was the last sibling to be thrown up (Hymn 5 to Aphrodite). Thus, she is sometimes referred to as both the oldest and the youngest child of Cronus. As she was content to tend to the hearth in Olympus, Hestia gave up her throne for Dionysus. This means that technically she is not included in the pantheon of the 12 Olympian Gods, just like her brother Hades, the ruler of the underworld.
Hestia was one of the three Greek goddesses to be a virgin, never marrying or having children. Both Poseidon and Apollo asked for the goddess’ hand in marriage, but she rebuked them both (Hymn 5 to Aphrodite). Statues of the Greek goddess often represent her veiled and modestly dressed, seated on a simple wooden chair while tending to a fire. These depictions reinforce her image as a domestic virgin goddess.
What Was Hestia the Goddess of?
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Hestia’s most significant role was as the goddess of the hearth. Actually, her name itself means ‘hearth’ or ‘altar.’ Hestia was associated with the physical object of the hearth and is often represented as one, or as a woman sitting next to one.
Every hearth, whether for private or public use, was deemed a sanctuary for the Greek goddess. All of Hestia’s other domains stem from the associations between the hearth, the home, and the state.
A hearth was a fire pit that provided both warmth and the ability to cook food indoors. It served as a focal point within the home, dating back to the Mycenean period. The Mycenean palaces had a megaron (central hall) which included an open porch and a throne room with a hearth. The presence of a hearth in such a prominent place provides evidence of Hestia’s worship back to at least that time period.
Greek Goddess of the Family and the Home
Hestia also extended her domain over the family and the home, as in Ancient Greece the hearth was such an important aspect to the home that the two became synonymous. It was because of this association that Hestia became the Greek goddess of the home and domesticity. Zeus was said to have placed Hestia “in the midst of the house” when she chose to stay unmarried (Hymn 5 to Aphrodite).
The family hearth also served as the religious center of the household. Via the hearth, one could send offerings and small sacrifices to Hestia. Besides, it was considered bad luck for the fire to go out, as it was seen as a sign that the goddess had removed her favor from the family. Greek women were expected to carefully tend to their family fire both in reverence for the goddess and for their own personal use.
Greek Goddess of the State
Many Greek cities and states had their own patron god. For example, Athens had Athena. However, Hestia was the goddess of the state in general. Her domain tied back to the role of the hearth in public life and the idea of a city as an extended family. Each city had a sacred fire dedicated to Hestia for use during festivals. The fire of this public hearth was also used for all state sacrifices and offerings. The maintenance of the hearth was an important duty as an extinguished fire was a bad omen for the city.
The home to each city’s sacred fire was called a prytaneion. These prytaneia served as the religious and community centers for a city. Pindar refers to Hestia as the protector of these city halls. Furthermore, the hearth at Delphi was seen as the public hearth for all of Greece (Plutarch, Aristides 20.4). Hestia was connected to Delphi in the Homeric Hymn 24 to Hestia when she was described as “tend[ing] the holy house.” The population of a city could take from the sacred fire to restart their own home’s hearth and, according to Plutarch, the sacred fire from Delphi was used to replenish the fires in other Greek cities when they were extinguished.
Hestia’s Roman Equivalent: Vesta
Like many Greek goddesses, Hestia had a Roman equivalent; Vesta, the goddess of the hearth and home. Ovid recounts that it was the legendary king of Rome, Numa Pompilius, who introduced the cult of Vesta to the Romans (Fasti Book IV.9). According to Cicero, Hestia was also closely associated with the Penates, the Roman gods of the home. Similarly to how the Greeks would perform household offerings to Hestia, Romans worshiped the Penates in an analogous fashion.
The Roman goddess shared the same importance for the state and home as Hestia, especially through her priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. These priestesses took a 30-year vow of celibacy, and getting buried alive being the punishment for being unchaste (Ovid, Fasti VI.9). Celibate priestesses were designated to tend to the sacred fire of Rome. If the fire were to extinguish, it was a bad omen for the Roman state.
Vestal Virgins played a large role in both the founding and history of Rome. Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus, was a Vestal at Alba Longa when she was impregnated by Mars (Livy, History of Rome I.4.2-3). The Vestal Virgins held influence on Roman politics and the state, including having the power to pardon criminals. After Sulla’s Second Civil War, Julius Caesar was pardoned by the Vestals (Suetonius, Divus Julius, Julius Caesar, Chap. 1).
The cult of Vesta and the Vestal Virgins had an important function in the upkeep of the state. Located in the Roman Forum, the Temple of Vesta held the sacred fire of Rome. This fire played a similar role to those of Hestia as a source of fire for public sacrifices and for households. The Vestal Virgins were designated to tend to the sacred fire of Rome. If the fire were to extinguish, it was taken as a bad omen for the Roman state and a sign of impropriety by the Vestals.
Worshipping Hestia and Vesta
As sacrifices to the Olympian gods were made over an open flame in a hearth, Hestia was intrinsically tied to all sacrifices (Cicero, De Natura Deorum II.27). This is especially true for public sacrifices, for which the fire was drawn by a city’s central fire hearth sacred to Hestia. Roman sacrifices also worked in the same way, with the Temple of Vesta providing the fire for all of the city’s public sacrifices.
When Hestia decided to remain a virgin goddess, Zeus bestowed onto her the honor of being recognized at every sacrifice. The Greek goddess was given the privilege of receiving the first offering of each sacrifice, and during banquets, the first and last pour of wine were dedicated to Hestia (Hymn 29 to Hestia). Pausanias notes that the Eleans always sacrificed to Hestia first among the Greek gods. Xenophon claims that Cyrus the Great also sacrificed first to Hestia, then Zeus, and then the other gods.
Despite each city having a sacred fire and hearth associated with the goddess, there is not evidence of many temples being erected in the Greek goddess’ honor. In his Descriptions of Greece, Pausanias only gives two references to temples dedicated to Hestia. In Corinth, the temple of Hestia did not contain a statue of the goddess but only an altar for sacrifices (Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece 2.35.1). However, the Temple of Vesta held a prominent place in the Roman Forum and was known for its unusual round shape, said to be reminiscent of ancient huts where Romans used to reside (Ovid, Fasti VI.9). Similarly to the temples described by Pausanias, the Temple of Vesta did not contain statues of the goddess, only holding a hearth as an altar.
Vesta was worshipped in a more explicit fashion by the Romans. The Vestalia, celebrated from June 7 to 15, was the yearly festival for Vesta (Ovid, Fasti VI.9). During the festival, violets and bread were hung in garlands onto donkeys. As the hearth is used to bake, the bread was representative of the goddess. The donkeys symbolized the story of the god Priapus who attempted to rape the goddess, but was frightened by the braying of a donkey. At the end of the festival, on the 15th of June, the Temple of Vesta was cleaned (Ovid, Fasti VI.15).