In 2020, as the world sheltered in place, many of us suddenly found ourselves obsessed with kitchen life. From sourdough starters to baking experiments, our ovens were working overtime as we all adjusted to fully homebound lives. But before Martha Stewart and Ina Garten became the domestic goddesses so many of us look to for inspiration, there was an actual domestic goddess presiding over the heart of the home: Hestia.
"Hestia oversees the single most important part of any pre-modern house — the hearth, the source of heat for warmth and fire for cooking," says Richard P. Martin, the Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University, in an email interview. "In the case of ancient Greek houses, the hearth was also the place for domestic sacrifices (which then become meals — cooking and sacrifice are totally wrapped up together in Greek religion). And the hearth is a place where you would pour libations of wine or milk or honey, as a way of paying homage to the gods, especially before and after meals."
Born to parents Kronus (sometimes spelled Cronus) and Rhea, Hestia was the sister of Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Demeter and Hera. The Greek goddess of architecture, family, and the state, in addition to the hearth, home and family, Hestia presided over bread baking and meal prep, but, as Martin mentions, she also oversaw the sacrificial flame and received a share of every sacrifice to the gods. "You would call on her at the top of the list of recipient divinities whenever sacrifices were being made, and even 'give' her the first part of the meat or other offering," he says. "So she was regulating or guaranteeing proper ritual behavior — if you remembered her, and made the right offering, you were doing things right and maintaining order in the larger world."
Considered a protector of the family and political community, Hestia played an integral role in both private and public affairs and she continues to be celebrated as a queen of hospitality. Here are five facts to know about the gracious goddess:
1. Hestia's Domain — the Hearth — Was the Ultimate Safe Space
The hearth was a big deal in the Greek home, representing the center of the household and symbolizing its heart and soul. In addition to cooking, the hearth was the setting for birth and death ceremonies, and the place to introduce new brides. It was considered such a sanctuary, even authorities couldn't cross it.
"The hearth — her special realm — was where people on the run, maybe for crimes they committed elsewhere, or people who were innocent and looking for refuge, perhaps for political reasons, would come to seek asylum," Martin says. "It was considered sacrilegious to drag anyone from an altar, and the hearth basically was goddess, fireplace and altar all in one. It was the ultimate safe space."
An excerpt from Homer's "The Odyssey" illustrates the sanctitude of the hearth. "There is a scene where the hero, in a new strange land, on the island of the Phaeacians, after years of wandering the seas, enters the palace of the local king and goes right to the central hearth," Martin says. "He sits down in the cold ashes and from there begs the royal family to send him home to Ithaca. Ritually, getting down in the ash of the hearth is a way of signaling your lowered status in the situation, your pure need, and your dependency as an outsider on the family who owns the hearth. And it also plays on the idea that by entering Hestia's realm, you are going straight to the symbolic center of the whole community. They really can't reject you, without paying the price in angering the goddess."
2. She Was in Charge of Kicking Off New Colonies
Any time a new Greek colony was established, residents took fire from the hearth in the prytaneion (otherwise known as the town hall) and brought the flames back to their new locations.
"When an overflowing population led people to move outward from central Greece around the 8th to 6th centuries B.C.E. and to establish new settlements all over the Mediterranean (even as far west as Marseilles), the new settlers took the fire from their home city-state (the "metro-polis" — literally "mother city"), carefully guarded the glowing coals, and lit the fires of their new homes from the original hearth back where they came from," Martin says. "There can hardly be a better image of the continuity they were aiming for — the daughter-city was like a spark from the mother's hearth."
According to Martin, in all 800 or so ancient Greek city-states, there was a central, civic "hearth" which served as a shrine to Hestia and helped make "the entire community basically into one big family."
3. She's One of Three Virgin Goddesses
Along with Athena and Artemis, Hestia is a virgin goddess. She remained celibate throughout her lifetime, despite the " amorous attentions" of gods like Apollo, Poseidon and the fertility god himself, Priapus.
"An ancient poem called the 'Hymn to Aphrodite' tells it best," Martin says. "When the rival gods Poseidon and Apollo were both seeking to wed Hestia, she stubbornly refused. She touched the head of Zeus (her brother, but also the head of the 'family' of Olympian gods) and swore an oath to remain a virgin all her life. Again, we are dealing with a powerful set of symbols: Hestia is totally devoted to patriarchal power. In any culture where the new bride comes to live with the husband's family ('patrilocal' as the anthropologists say), Hestia represents the rootedness of the ancestral husband's home."
According to ancient Greek practices, young brides left their original homes (where they were under their father's guardianship) to move to their husband's home and " pass into his control and guardianship." Martin explains that because of Hestia's central role as the heart of the home, she couldn't leave quite so easily, so she was unable to get married at all. "We hear stories about all the other gods and goddesses leaving Zeus' palace temporarily, for instance, to go view events in the Trojan War or to help or harm mortals on earth," he says. "But Hestia always stays home."
4. Her Father Swallowed Her
Hestia's dad, Kronos, had something of a strange complex about his legacy: He feared his children would dethrone them, so, well, he ate them. But don't worry — as far as gruesome Greek myths go, this one has some semblance of a happy ending (for the children at least).
"Hestia was the first-born child of Kronos and Rhea — parents of the Olympian gods — but her father swallowed her (as he did all the rest) because he was afraid a child would come to overthrow him," Martin says. "Then his wife Rhea tricked Kronos, gave him a rock to eat instead of the latest kid — Zeus. Kronos swallowed the rock and vomited up all the other children he had eaten in reverse sequence — first in, last out. Therefore, Hestia, the 'oldest' (born first) was also the youngest (ejected last from Kronos' gullet and thus re-born)."
5. Hestia's Roman Counterpart Is Vesta, Which Makes Perfect Sense
Hestia's Roman equivalent is Vesta, which according to Martin, makes perfect sense. "The 'Vestal Virgins' in Rome were priestesses of Vesta, who was the Roman goddess of the hearth," he says. "In fact, the names Vesta and Hestia come from the same ancient root, dating back to a time when Greek and Latin were more or less dialects of the same now-lost mother language (which we call 'Indo-European' today). The Vestals' job was to see to the sacred fire in a shrine in the middle of the Roman Forum, keeping the flame alive (which they managed to do even up to the 4th century C.E.)."
According to Martin, the importance of virginity in ancient times is crystal clear in the case of the Vestals. "With the Roman priestesses, you see the importance of being a virgin (which in the case of Hestia seems to be mainly a matter of myth) played out in real social terms," he says. "They were chosen from high-born families, between the age of 6 and 10, and then they had to remain chaste for 30 years, after which they could marry."
Rumor had it that not abiding by those societal expectations meant facing devastating consequences. "The Romans told stories about the few Vestal Virgins who failed to keep their vows — how they would be buried alive or at least put into an isolated room, after being caught, and allowed to starve to death," Martin says. "Most likely these were myths meant to scare people into complying with the rules and at the same time aimed at impressing everyone with the seriousness of the symbolic virginity of the office Vestal."