The following essay is one that I originally wrote several years ago about the Greek goddess Hestia. In my personal opinion, she is probably one of the MOST important of the Greek pantheon for dealing with the core of family life. This opinion of Her has not changed even after I became a parent. So, without further ado….
Hestia — The Overlooked Olympian
When most people think of the Deathless Ones of Olympus, they think of the more well-known deities such as Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Apollo and Athena as well as the others who sit on the golden thrones. Yet, even though Hestia is the eldest of the Olympian Goddesses (with the possible exception of the Foam-Born Aphrodite) she is rarely even mentioned, much less shown for the profound role she truly plays in our lives.
She is the far more than simply Mistress of the Hearth, content to sit in the ashes as if she was the “Cinderella” of the Gods, displaying no real personality of her own. Her role has always been central not just to the family home, but to the greater community. The hearth not only is where the every-day business of life such as cooking and meal-times occurs, but in ancient times was the source of heat and light during the nighttime hours. It was the light and warmth that lead it to be the center of family life instead of merely being an area of lesser importance. The domestic hearth served as both sacrificial alter and gathering-place around which the basic unit of community was formed.
As the Hearth-Goddess she is the guardian of both familial unity and the sacred duty of hospitality providing us with a deep and abiding sense of personal security. Robert Graves in his book The Greek Myths even goes so far as to point out that the center of Greek life, even in the city of Sparta where the family was subordinate to the state, was the hearth-fire. When settlers went out to establish new colony cities, they would bring fire from the central hearth of their home city with them. Notable among the Olympians as the only one of the Great Gods who never engaged in war, she fosters a sense of community both in the Divine realm and in the mortal lands. She acts in ways that not only preserves the peace, but actively fosters agreement in conflicting parties.
When (according to some scholars) she cedes her throne to Dionysus upon his ascent to the Halls of the Gods, it is with the knowledge that she would be a welcome visitor in any of the city-states of Hellas. She was granted the right of receiving the first and last offerings at any ritual or feast after refusing to choose between Poseidon and Apollo when both asked for her hand in marriage, preferring to maintain her virginity and her neutrality. This mirrors the importance that was placed on philoxenia, or hospitality, in the Hellenic culture. The traveler was given the place by the fire, the place closest to the Goddess’ domain. But truly, her domain was, and still is, the entire home, the entire community, and the ties that bind us one to another.
Even to this day, she is remembered by the name of Vesta, who in ancient Rome was honored by virgin priestesses sworn to keep her sacred flame, thought of as the living spiritual strength of the city, alight. To tamper with the one of the Vestals brought with it a death sentence as this was seen as tampering with the bonds that made the community whole and strong.
The spirit of community she fosters is still evident in the modern incarnation of the Olympic Games. At them, “the youth of the world” gather for peaceful competition every four years bathed in the light of the central Flame that is lit at the beginning and lasts to the end of the festival. What better example can there be for her enduring power?