The Greek goddess Hestia watched over domesticity and the family, and was honored with the first offering at any sacrifice made in the home. On a public level, Hestia’s flame was never allowed to burn out. The local town hall served as a shrine for her — and any time a new settlement was formed, settlers would take a flame from their old village to the new one.
Hestia the Hearthkeeper
As the equivalent of the Roman Vesta, Hestia was known as the virginal daughter of Cronus and Rhea, and sister of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades. She tended the fires of Mount Olympus, and because of her devotion to her duty as hearthkeeper, she managed to stay out of a lot of the shenanigans of the other Greek gods. She doesn’t appear in too many of the Greek myths or adventure stories.
Hestia took her role as a virgin seriously as well, and in one legend, the lustful god Priapus tried to take advantage of her. As Priapus crept to her bed, planning on raping Hestia, a donkey brayed loudly, waking the goddess.
Her screams woke the other Olympians, much to Priapus’ great embarrassment. In some stories, it is said that Priapus believed Hestia to be a nymph, and that the other gods hid her by turning her into a lotus plant.
Ovid describes the scene in Fasti, saying, “Hestia lies down and takes a quiet, carefree nap, just as she was, her head pillowed by turf. But the red saviour of gardens, Priapos, prowls for Nymphai and goddesses, and wanders back and forth. He spots Vesta… He conceives a vile hope and tries to steal upon her, walking on tiptoe, as his heart flutters. By chance old Silenus had left the donkey he came on by a gently burbling stream. The long Hellespont’s god was getting started, when it bellowed an untimely bray. The goddess starts up, frightened by the noise. The whole crowd fly to her; the god flees through hostile hands.”
Hospitality and Sanctuary
As a hearth goddess, Hestia was also known for her hospitality. If a stranger came calling and seeking sanctuary, it was considered an offense against Hestia to turn the person away. Those who followed her were obligated to provide shelter and food to anyone truly in need. It was also emphasized that female guests given sanctuary were not to be violated — again, a grave offense against Hestia.
Because of her role over the hearth, she was allocated a special role in household ritual. Cicero, the first-century Roman rhetorician, wrote, “The name Vesta comes from the Greeks, for she is the goddess whom they call Hestia. Her power extends over altars and hearths, and therefore all prayers and all sacrifices end with this goddess, because she is the guardian of the innermost things. Closely related to this function are the Penates or household gods.”
Plato points out that Hestia is theologically significant because she is the one who is invoked, and to whom sacrifices are made, before any other deity in ritual.
Honoring Hestia Today
Hestia is traditionally represented by an image of a lamp with a perpetual flame. Today, some Greek reconstructionists, or Hellenic Pagans, continue to honor Hestia and all that she stands for.
To honor Hestia in your own rituals, try one or more of the following ideas:
Early worshipers offered young cows to Hestia, but that may not be practical for you. Instead, offerings of wine, olive oil, and fresh fruit are an acceptable substitute.
Keep a candle dedicated to Hestia burning on your hearth or mantle – if you don’t have a fireplace, your kitchen can be representative of the hearth.
When you’re working on any sort of domestic, home-focused project, honor Hestia with prayers, songs, or hymns.