A FEW OF THE HEARTH GODDESS
The goddess of hearth and fire dwells within every hearth, whether large or small. In many ancient religions, a fire was kept constantly burning to represent the presence of the goddess. These would be put out and relit with great ceremony on special occasions.
In Greek myth the hearth goddess is Hestia. She refused a throne on Olympus to look after the hearth, and never took part in the wars and arguments of the gods. Instead she was the calm centre, the safe haven of the home, where people could seek refuge and shelter. She was worshipped as that centre, whether the centre of the city, the house, even the centre of the world, the omphalos (‘the navel’) at Delphi. As the domestic hearth is the centre of the home, the hearth of the gods is the centre of the cosmos. According to Plato the twelve Olympian gods – who represent the twelve constellations of the zodiac – circle the House of Heaven, while Hestia remains at the centre, tending the hearth, which is called ‘the Everlasting Place’, the still heart of creation around which everything else revolves.
She is the gentlest and most principled of all the gods, and the hearth is both her altar and shrine. She represents security and the solemn duty of hospitality. She presided over all hearth and altar fires, and was worshipped every day with prayers before and after meals. Her hearth was in the care of the woman of the house and before each meal an offering thrown onto the fire. Each city had a public hearth dedicated to her, and in new cities the public hearth would be lit from that of another city; this ensured that every city had a living heart and spirit (which is something that new cities often seem to lack today).
Hestia was the first born of the Olympian deities and last to be released by her father Cronos (Father Time), who had swallowed all of his offspring to prevent them from usurping his throne. Thus it is said that she is both the beginning and the end- alpha and omega. Her name, according to Plato, means ‘the essence of things'; a formless core symbolised by the flame, an essence that flows through everything that has life.
Vesta is the virgin fire goddess of Rome, equivalent to the Greek Hestia. She refused a place in heaven, preferring to remain on Earth, tending the fires in homes and temples. She was worshipped in private households and every day, during a meal, a small cake was thrown on the fire for her; it was good luck if it burnt with a crackle. She was also worshipped in an important state cult, maintained in a sacred building on the Forum Romanum with a circular chamber housing an eternal flame that was never allowed to die out. It is said that the cult was founded by king Numa Pompilius (715-673 BCE) and the sacred fire burned until 394 CE. Vesta is usually depicted as an austere woman, wearing a long dress and with her head covered. In her left hand, she holds a sceptre. She represents shelter and the safety and security of life.
Vesta’s temple was served by six chaste priestesses called the Vestal Virgins. When a position became vacant, the Pontifex Maximus (‘high priest’) would select a girl from candidates offered by the best Patrician families. She had to be between the age of six and ten, fair of face and without physical defect or blemish. The new priestess was then taken by the hand with the words “I take you, you shall be the priestess of Vesta and you shall fulfil the sacred rites for the safety of the Roman people”. Her hair would be cut, and then she would be dressed in bridal white, with a white fillet binding her hair and a white veil. During the period she was to serve as a Vestal, the priestess undertook to keep a vow of chastity. After thirty years, Vestals were able to leave and marry if they wished; their elevated positions and personal wealth ensured that they were much sought after as wives.
While in service the Vestal Virgins enjoyed enormous privileges: their person was sacred, they were free from the control of the pater, and they were allowed to own and dispose of property as they saw fit. They even had the prerogative of freeing criminals sentenced to death. When they went out, fasces were carried before them to symbolise their authority.
The Vestals’ chief function was to tend the ignis inextinctus (‘undying fire’) and the priestess who neglected her duty was flogged. The Romans regarded hearth and home as sacrosanct, the foundation on which the stability of Roman society rested. The Hearth of Vesta symbolised the spirit and permanence of Rome itself: to offend against it was to bring bad luck to Rome. If the fire went out, it had to be rekindled in the ancient way, by the use of friction. The cult of Vesta probably originated in tribal society when a fire was the central focus of the village. This may have been attended by women chosen as its priestesses, forerunners of the Vestal Virgins. Vesta symbolises the purity of fire, so it is appropriate that her priestesses should be virgins.
Brighid is pan-Celtic goddess, appearing as Brighid or Brigit in Ireland, Brigantia in Northern England, Bride in Scotland, and Brigandu in Brittany. Her name is variously interpreted as meaning ‘Fiery Arrow’, ‘The Bright One’ and ‘the Powerful One’ or ‘The High One’. She is a fire/dawn goddess born at sunrise when immediately a tower of flame emerged from her forehead that stretched from earth to heaven. She is the daughter of the Dagda (‘good god’) and the wife of Bres. Her face is either pied, half youthful and half crone, or half beautiful and half ugly.
Brighid is a triple goddess: the Brighid of poetry, prophecy and inspiration who invented Ogham; the Brighid of healing waters and midwifery; and lastly the Brighid of fire who oversees the hearth and the forge and who is the patroness of craftsmen and women. This triplication was represented by the Druidic sign of awen (‘inspiration’), known as the fiery arrows of Brighid since it is represented by three shafts of sunlight. It was likely Brighid who inspired the line in the famous Song of Amergin: “I am a fire in the head.” She also has aspects as a goddess of fertility, livestock and warfare.
Her festival is Imbolc (2nd February) also called Oimelc (‘ewe’s milk’) which marked the first stirrings of spring when young sheep were born and when ewes came into milk. On this day, the first of the Celtic spring, she was said to use her white wand to “breathe life into the mouth of the dead winter” meaning the white fire of the sun awakened the land. In Christian times the festival became Candlemas, when church candles were blessed. Imbolc remained a popular occasion in Celtic areas and most of its customs are plainly Pagan. Brighid was invited into the home by the woman of the house in the form of a doll or corn dolly dressed in maiden white. Oracles were taken from the ashes of the hearth fire which people examined for a sign that Brighid had visited i.e. a mark that looked like a swan’s footprint: if found, it was a lucky omen (the swan was an ancient attribute of the goddess Brighid). Many Irish homes still have a Brighid’s cross hung up. This four equal-armed cross was originally a solar symbol.
The goddess’s chief shrine was at Kildare (Cull Dara = ‘Temple of the Oak’) where a perpetual flame was kept burning behind a circular hedge of shrubs or thorns. It was tended by a college of nineteen virgin priestesses called Daughters of the Flame. Each day a different priestess was responsible for maintaining the flame from sundown till sundown. On the twentieth day, Brighid herself tended the flame. No man was allowed to enter the shrine or have contact with the priestesses; any male who did went mad. With the coming of Christianity, the priestesses became nuns of the abbey said to have been founded by ‘Saint Brigit’ and kept the flame burning for another thousand years, until the Vatican decreed it was merely a Pagan ritual and ordered it extinguished. During the Vatican modernization program of the 1960’s St. Brigit was decanonised.
Hearth Witch (The Eight Paths of Magic)