Hestia is the eldest of the six original Olympians, the six children of Khronos and Rhea and her cult is probably one of the oldest of all the Greek gods, going far back into the time of the wandering Indo-Europeans. Hestia is also the youngest of the Olympians, she was the last released from Khronos’ grasp, the final of the civilizing Olympians to be freed from the chaotic powers of Titan-ruled earth.
The fire, the central hearth seems to be a defining characteristic of a people- ‘we’ use this fire, the ‘others’ can not share in ‘our’ flames. Perhaps that is one reason why Hestia is a virgin goddess- if she took lovers, one might be a god of another people, another culture the way Zeus found conquests among all the people the original Hellenes encountered. In ancient Greek thought, as in many other cultures, females were subordinate to males, and in many cases this was no less true of gods and goddesses. If Hestia took a husband, her ‘possessions’, her power would, in some way become his. Hestia’s fire is the fire of the community, the kingdom, the city-state- the symbol of unity and the physical reminder of who a people are. That symbol could not be risked passing into the hands of one outside the community.
Hestia is one of three virgin goddesses of the Olympian pantheon, though to some she is the only one who is chaste as well as virgin, for the ancient definition of the term virgin is unpossesed by another and not defining a sexual state of being. It is this chasteness, her asexual nature that many find most difficult to understand about Hestia, especially in modern times with female sexuality loosing much of its demonization. But just because one may not understand her satisfaction in her virginal state the power of it can not be denied. She does not leave off physicality out of a sense of asceticism, as in so many paths that vilify the flesh, but as a way of internalizing power, the fire of her passion may be banked- but it does glow, and that glow is love for all humanity.
Hestia’s love for humanity is one of her defining characteristics. She does not have her own myths and great tales, she shows up very rarely in stories and cult, but that does not display any unimportance. It is said that when Dionusos entered Olympos Hestia gave up her throne to him and left to dwell among the hearths of humans. There are some who argue that Hestia did not step down, that she retained her throne to keep the male-female balance of the Olympians while others see Hestia at the center of Olympos, not on a throne but seated at the central hearth making Hestia the unifier of the great council of the gods just as her flames cement the bonds of family and community on earth.
The same way that Hestia binds together community she binds together individuals in worship and in ritual, and so the first and last offerings given in all Greek ritual were always made to her. While her fire is lit in sacred space all those gathered together are bound in a unity of purpose- not only to each other but to the gods as well. This carries over even today in the flames of the Olympic torch that when lit is supposed to represent the pledge of fourteen days of peace shared by all countries of the world.
There are few temples, few statues, and few pieces of art dedicated to Hestia. Her altar is the hearth of every home; her temple every house humans dwell in. She is present in the desire to build a home- to set out and create our own space and she is in the desire to return back to our roots. In ancient times her flames were carried from the mother hearth to the place of new colonization to forever keep a connection from where we came from, and to be a light to where we are going. She is the comfort of family, the need to settle and to love, and if needed to defend. She is safety and she is shelter, and she is the quiet listener who will hear all your woes and cares, and who will wrap you in warmth while you cry out your sorrows.
Hestia has many near cousins in the families of pantheons related to the Greek- Vesta of Rome, Brigd of Ireland, Tabiti of the Scythians and based purely on my own keenings, Saga of the Norse- there is something distinctly hestian to me about Saga sitting beside the flames on a cold northern winter night with all the community gathered round listening to her spin history.
I honor Hestia while I clean, while I knit and sew and stitch and when I feel homesick for my family and loved ones. Her eternal flame, sculpted of clay and painted with bright reds, yellows and oranges sits on my altar in a position of honor to serve as a constant reminder of the gentle gifts and mighty power of this heavenly queen.