MYTHIC & PSYCHOLOGICAL THEMES
HESTIA (Roman, Vesta),
Goddess of Fire and Hearth
As of New Year's Day 2008, the Greek series,
"Mythic Themes Clustered Around," includes
Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Centaurs, Demeter & Persephone,
Hecate & Other "Dark" Goddesses, Hephaestus, Hestia, Icarus, Medusa & Pegasus, Pan,
Prometheus [others are forthcoming -- for a complete listing, check my Home Page]
© Greg Spalenka -- used with his kind permission
The Archetype of Hestia:
Workpoints In Light and Shadow
By Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
[7 May 2007]:
Hestia's name means "fire" in Greek. As the oldest child of Rhea and Cronos, she was also the first swallowed by Cronos, who feared being overthrown by one of his children, just as he had overthrown his own father, Uranos. After her came her sisters Demeter and Hera, and their brothers Hades and Poseidon. Cronos swallowed each of them, holding them frozen in stasis, denied any opportunity for further development.
The last child born was Zeus. By then, Rhea, who seems a bit dim-witted, if we are to trust the patriarchal myths that have been handed down to us, had figured out what Cronos was up to. So she managed to rescue Zeus by tricking Cronos into swallowing a swaddled stone, telling him that this was their sixth child. That she succeeded, suggests that he too was lacking a few brain cells. But then this is mythology, which tends to hide deeper meanings beneath the obvious, meanings which, after so many millennia, are hopelessly obscure. Psychologically, however, we see here a domineering father who regards his offspring as threats -- unfortunately, this is not an uncommon phenomenon in human history. Even today, in rigid, narrow-minded, patriarchal societies, whether in rural America, the Middle East, India, or elsewhere, a father has the power of life and death not only over his children, but also over his wife.
Zeus, however, would grow to manhood safely hidden from his father. Rhea (some say Gaia, others Zeus) would eventually trick Cronos again, getting him to vomit up the older five children. Reunited with Zeus at their head, the six would become the first Olympians.
Hestia, firstborn, first swallowed, was the last to be freed, which made her both the oldest and the youngest of the six. According to Greek mythology, both Hades and Poseidon wooed their modest, beautiful sister, seeking her hand in marriage. Rather than giving her hand to either of them, however, she placed it instead on her youngest brother Zeus' head and vowed to remain a maiden forever. It is said that she did this to avoid conflict between Hades and Poseidon. Zeus, pleased by her decision, gave her great honor and placed her in charge of his own royal hearth on Mount Olympus. One might suspect, however, that after all those eons cramped with her siblings in their father's oppressive, unnatural womb, it is no wonder that Hestia chose to remain a virgin. She had, after all, seen it all. Her now-powerful brothers held neither charm nor mystery for her. And if they did not, who else could? Zeus' hearth, at least, offered warmth, honor, and security.
I personally never felt any attraction to Hestia until late in life -- she was connected with the hearth, which was the center of every ancient Greek home, and she never went beyond the home's threshold. I don't cook (except at a very minimal level), I have no family in my home, I would dislike being confined within its walls, unable to work in my herb gardens or to explore the larger world outside. So, for me, Hestia seemed dull, placid, boring -- like a spinster aunt.
But then, for seven months beginning in February 1995, I became the Acting Chair of the Mytholgical Studies Department at Pacifica Graduate Institute near Santa Barbara, CA. There was a certain amount of trauma connected with this temporary position because of the unexpected circumstances that necessitated it. I was thrown into the forefront and had to "hold the center," as we say, or tend the "hearth" of this new program, which had begun only a few months earlier. Many students were upset and, in addition to teaching, I spent countless office hours with them, listening, soothing, reassuring. I did not want them to withdraw from the program, for then everything would fall apart before it had even had a chance to begin.
In addition to teaching and serving as Acting Chair in the Myth program, I was also anchoring courses in two other programs: Clinical Psychology and Counseling Psychology, which meant that I had more than 300 papers to comment on and grade each quarter. It was a very vulnerable time and I rarely left my office much before 10-11pm.
I worked in a handsome, just completed building called South Hall -- it held a spacious lecture hall with a massive, impressive stone fireplace dominating the wall at one end; at the other end, a hallway led to restrooms and four small offices, the corner one of which was mine. Alone in that building late one night, I realized that in accepting my new position, I had moved into a very unfamiliar archetypal energy -- it felt veiled, elusive, and yet I resonated with it. It seemed to buoy me up despite my exhaustion and I was learning to trust its mysterious presence. "But who are You," I asked that night. I looked across the moonlit lecture hall to the dark fireplace and suddenly understood: it was Hestia's energy. It was she who was enabling me to hold the center during those troubled months.
That was a shock. I thought of her as matronly, solemn, somber. I thought of myself as writer, scholar, gypsy, storyteller, oracle-woman. We had nothing in common.
And yet we did. Somehow, perhaps because my moon and ascendant are in the fire sign of Sagittarius, I seemed to understand how to hold the energies of fire in a tranquil manner. Until that moment, I had not recognized that as a Hestian role. After that, I almost did not know myself as I moved through the tensions of those seven months and yet I felt more myself than ever. I must say that I was grateful when the seven months ended and a permanent chair was appointed (I would never have wanted that position and did nothing to snag it), but I have never regretted those seven months either.
Hestia's Roman counterpart, Vesta, is a very different archetype, by the way. Vesta is also a goddess of fire but her domain is within temples where vestal virgins tended her eternal fire. I am quite comfortable within fire-goddess temples, whether in Greece, India, Ireland, or Nordic countries. I have certainly served within many of them in many lifetimes. Hesta, however, was not known for temples because her central hearth was in every home and every townhall. She seemed more an introverted "home-body" than a cosmic goddess.
It was only last spring that I began to suspect that Hestia's too-carefully circumscibed role indicated that originally she must have held immense power -- power as vast as that depicted in the opening artwork by Greg Spalenka on this page. Compared to her, Zeus' thunderbolts were child's toys. Male-focused cultures, in Greece as elsewhere, inevitably finds ways to demote such potent goddesses. Although often revered and accorded great honor, they were nevertheless kept safely "at home," under control. This is why Hestia, whose true fires roar at the heart of the universe, was assigned to oversee the household hearth. It is a common patriarchal "move." I should have spotted it sooner.
What first aroused my suspicions about Hestia was the provocative doctoral work of one of my advisees, psychologist Laurence Lyons. He was looking at the positive as well as the negative "shadow" sides of various Greek goddesses, including Hestia. His dissertation drew me back into her realm for the first time in 12 years as I explored her anew. Below are several edited, revised excerpts from my e-mails of that period:Subject: Question on Hestia
Date: Fri, 27 Apr 2007 18:00:54 -0400
I realized late last night that I couldn't remember anything in your Hestia section on her shadow, even though you deal really well with that aspect for all the others. So I went back and checked and, indeed, except for Ginette [Paris]'s point about women who need to work outside the house to escape depression once the hearth-fire has gone dead (e.g., during WWII), there's no discussion of Hestia's shadow.
So I asked myself, what does she "do" when she goes shadow? Actually, I found it difficult to think about what her shadow-side would be since we have no stories about her interactions with others. And that's usually where shadows-issues are exposed.Then I remembered back in 1995 when suddenly, out of the blue, it dawned on me that, for me, the archetypal role of Hestia had quickened into vibrant life because of my role as Acting Chair. I realized to my amazement that I, who have no hearth, dislike cooking, live alone, and thus had no viable connection to this goddess, was nevertheless "living" her. Through her, I was nurturing, not my students' spirits or souls, but the Fire of the larger realm of what myth is all about, making sure it burned brightly and that all was well in the physical/intellectional/emotional/psychic space in which it burned. I wasn't tending humans, I was tending Fire, which in turn tended the humans. I was functioning for those 7 months as The Hestia, as another might function as The Pythia, or The Demeter, or The Aphrodite. It was sobering and deeply moving.
So last night, with the indelible memory of what all that had felt like in 1995, I asked the Kathleen of that period what would have activated the shadow-side of Hestia within me, for that might give me a clue about the archetype's own shadow-side.She thought and thought and couldn't come up with an answer. Finally, she suggested that maybe if she had actively fought to keep that Acting Chair position instead of letting them give it to [X], maybe that would have represented Hestia's shadow side. But she took that back at once because she honestly didn't want any administrative position and was grateful that [X] was taking over (he and I were friends in those days -- or at least I thought we were, but it wouldn't have mattered). Unlike so many of the deities, Hestia isn't at all tempted by power. She is fire. Those who serve her tend Fire -- that suffices.
So I was no closer to knowing what Hestia's shadow might be. I looked at fire itself. Did Hestia, in shadow-mode, turn into a pyromaniac? If so, how would that relate to most of us?Slowly, I realized that each deity seems to have an extroverted and an introverted shadow side. Hestia, extroverted, does become a pyromaniac, but not on a literal level (perhaps that's an erotically thwarted shadow-Ares activity?). Instead, like a cranky, neurotic spinster, she lights fires all over by meddling in everyone's business. Highly critical and judgmental, she "heaps hot coals" on people's heads and "holds their feet to the fire." As energetic as a wildfire, she keeps everyone "all-fired up," on edge, nervous, jumpy. She wears people out as they try to protect themselves from her fiery, intense meddling. Denied access to her true power, shadow-Hestia makes the lives of everyone around her miserable.
On the other hand, shadow-Hestia, introverted, is the woman who turns off, shuts down, and stays in bed all day. Much as the goddess withdrew and left her throne on Olympus vacant, shadow-Hestia also slowly withdraws from her home-circle. She goes totally inward, burning down to a cold ember. I knew then what would have turned 1995's Kathleen into a Hestian-shadow: if I had been asked to be the permanent Chair and if I had ignored my own feelings and agreed, following a "sense of duty" instead of my own heart, the price would have been total burn-out.This morning I also realized that Hestia in shadow-mode, whether extroverted or introverted, probably chain-smokes too -- i.e., tending the lethal malice of a cigarette's fire is "tending" the shadow-Hestia. From this comes lung cancer, because the precious "bellows" of our body are reduced to tending something ridiculously puny, yet poisonous, and lungs often cannot survive being so debased. Ironically, women only started getting addicted to cigarettes during and after WWII, after they left their homes and went out into the work force in huge numbers. So it fits. Many such women were/are "lived" by Hestia's shadow-side.
The crux here is that the Greeks saw Hestia as the core of every ritual and the recipient of its first blessings. That makes her the over-arcing, "inner-form" of all rituals, lying at the veiled threshold of each. When such rich rituals vanish from our lives, replaced by petty routines, obsessions, or addictions, those secular substitutes may eventually activate Hestia's shadow-side.
...It's no accident, I think, that earthy, woman-loyal Dionysos eventually took over Hestia's vacated throne on Mt. Olympus. He's probably the child she would have liked to have.
I woke this morning understanding why he's that child. Hestia, as you note in your section on her, IS fire. She's indistinguisable from it. When the child's mother, Semele, insisted that poor Zeus keep a rash promise and show himself to her as he truly is, it was Fire/Hestia, always so careful to keep herself veiled, who was nevertheless forced to be Zeus' anguished, unwilling partner in turing Semele to ash, for no mortal could survive looking upon the face of the divine. Hestia's heart must have broken over the fate of Semele.
The two clearest, most visible, and frequent signs of the divine in the ancient world would have been fire and lightning. Hestia was the firstborn, the lady of fire. In pre-patriarchal times, she may well have been heaven's queen, reigning over everything. To turn to comparative mythology, India's divine feminine is Shakti, the underlying fire, or life-force, in everything. It is said that Shiva without Shakti is a corpse. Something like this may have been true of Hestia in Greece's related Indo-Aryan culture. She, the eldest, was fire. Zeus, the youngest, the newcomer, was lightning -- but lightning is also fire. Hestia's celestial fire-role was displaced as she yielded to her youngest brother, the new ruler of the gods. Yet, in a sense, he could never be without her. They are two oscillating poles made of the same energy.She was virginal and ever-veiled because her fire really doesn't "relate" to mortals on a personal level. Unlike Zeus, she doesn't bond with humans. There may well have been an unspoken taboo about depicting her in art, just as there was a taboo about speaking her much-feared brother Hades' name. The great honor given Hestia's kindly aspect probably concealed an element of terror lest she ever run amuck and turn into a raging wildfire. She was, after all, stronger than any weapon -- the best weapons, in fact, became so only when forged in fire. Hestia in patriarchal times was very, very carefully circumscribed fire as well as sexuality -- just as Greek women were. Her realm was the round hearth. Her realm ended at the front door. Hermes' realm began just over that threshold. She could gracefully veil her reality on earth just as Zeus had originally veiled his from Semele; but he was the baby of the family and lacked Hestia's self-control and discipline.
Perhaps she vacated her Olympian throne because Zeus needed to be the only Fire-lord up there. No myth tells us whether she left willingly or not but it's no surprise that it's Dionysos who eventually sits on her throne -- he is after all the god of "fire-water." Fire in the grape can be as beautiful -- and dangerous -- as fire in the sky, or fire in the hearth.Again from comparative mythology I am reminded of the pillar of fire that accompanied the Hebrews on the Exodus. There too, the divine Shekinah-fire (analogous to India's Shakti energy) was eventually carefully circumscribed and "tamed," if you will, in the Ark of the Covenant.
^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^*^O my! -- a brief hiatus there while I checked the Homeric Hymns for Hestia. When I was writing above about how Hestia and Zeus "are two oscillating poles made of the same energy," I was working from the mythic fact that both are forms of fire, one is eldest, one is youngest. I love the times when one finds evidence supporting what one has already recognized and "grokked" through circular, mythic "reasoning." This is one of them.
Here is what Apostolos N. Athanassakis (my favorite scholar/translator of this material) writes about Hymn 24, "To Hestia." First, here is the line to which he refers:...Come in gentle spiritAnd here is his brief commentary:
with resourceful Zeus and grant grace to my song!It was not uncommon to invoke Hestia together with Zeus; in Homer the hearth is invoked along with Zeus (Odyssey 14.158-59), and in time the two deities merged in the concept of Zeus Ephestios, "Zeus of the Hearth...."Note how smoothly and cunningly patriarchy works! We get "Zeus of the Hearth" but do we ever get "Hestia of the Lightning Bolt"? Bah. Still, it is recognized that she, as lifeforce, also functions as "muse-fire" and can thereby "grant grace," or infuse one's song with magical vitality.
From Hymn 29, "To Hestia" -- a few lines also stand out:...for without youGiven the crucial importance of fire as well as wine-libations in ancient Greek rituals, again, it's no surprise that Dionysos eventually occupies Hestia's Olympian throne, probably with her loving blessings.
there can be no feasts for mortals, if at the beginning
yours is not the first and last libation of honey-sweet wine.
Further Thoughts -- 3pm New Year's Eve 2007:
I thought I had finished this page last night with the above e-mail excerpts from last spring, but it seems I have not....
Perhaps the Greeks were right after all. An erotic or martial Hestian fire allowed to spiral out of control would have undermined their civilization. So they created a story, or myth, in which she voluntarily chose to stay next to the hearth. But they never forgot or ignored her power. They never lost sight of her. That's the crucial difference in her case. Thus, anchoring her vast energies to the central hearth of home and city was not actually a demotion. It was a strategic necessity for the sake of civilization. And the wily but wise Greeks backed it up with action, not just talk: at each daily meal, there was a continual honoring of the reality of Hestia's warmth and lifeforce flowing through the family; at the hearth in each town's central hall, there was the same awareness -- it was Hestia who held the center and nurtured the deeper dynamics of the societal fabric; even when a well-established city chose to start a new colony elsewhere, fire from the founding city's central hearth would be carefully carried to the new site, preserving the sacred connection.
In Cratylus (400d-401b -- see Aaron Atsma link below), Plato does a very creative riff when he "constructs philosophical etymologies for the names of the gods." For Hestia, he creates an etymology stemming from the Greek word for "essence," essia, and although this might not be good linguistics, it does indeed express her deeper role as the "essence," or "inner form," holding cities and families together. We should not forget that Hestia is said to have been the architect, or inventor, of the first house; her sacred fire is carried to each new colony; a bride carries fire from her parents' hearth to her new husband's hearth. This gives a sense of continuity. These are peace-making activities. This is civilization at its best.
We have lost that. We live in an era of fast-food eaten in noisy restaurants or in front of a loud TV. Because of government subsidies, junk food is now cheaper than healthy fruits and vegetables, which means that impoverished areas are locked into ongoing cycles of worsening health. The consequences of fast-food lead to exploding statistics on obesity, diabetes, and a wide range of afflictions, both physical and mental.
Since we rarely anchor anything in simple, earthy, daily rituals, we do seem to have catalyzed the potent shadow-side of Hestia. Our continued indulgence in the imbalances leading to global warming also reveals her, for surely, as Lady of Fire, global warming lies within her purview. Perhaps all these imbalances reveal the shadow-side of an archetype, an essence, a patterning-force, that has been severely devalued for too long. Denied her ancient place of honor at the hearth of our world, Hestia is now unraveling our lives.
My former dissertation advisee, now Dr. Laurence Lyons, whose work started my exploration of Hestia's shadow-side, writes in his eloquent dissertation, Changing for Dinner: The Psychological Need for Ritual in Daily Life, the following passages:...It is broadly accepted that the dining table is one of the great civilizing places of life, yet most of us do not realize what terrible psychic cost we are paying by replacing rituals connected to food with "fast food".... In some ancient stratum of the psyche, Hestia surely weeps and her flame grows smaller (19-20).In conclusion, the Greeks never "tamed" Hestia -- instead, they freed her to focus on what she did best. Unlike the other gods, she required neither eros nor war. She, the cosmic hearth of the universe, was content to dwell by the small round hearth of each family, for she would not have made any distinction between them. It was all fire, nurturing a peaceful connectivity. For this, she was honored daily -- sincerely and genuinely. She needed nothing more.
...It is difficult to locate Hestia in modern life. In many ways her fire has been allowed to die out, and with problematic consequences. I equate Hestia with the kitchen in the modern home. Although acknowledging that the pace and stress of today's world have strained our efforts to "make a home," I insist nevertheless that the buying, preparation, and cooking of food, and communal eating at the table are the modern equivalents of the ancient hearth. This gathering can occur, though less effectively, in other less demanding ways: in a family room, outdoors at a barbeque or picnic, or even in a restaurant. The key to the rituals associated with Hestia lies in the gathering together in a relational family way.... (123).
...The cold hearth of Hestia's shadow has an ever-widening grasp on today's society. One of the most dangerous growing trends in the culture of the early twenty-first century is obesity. I would argue that the rise in childhood obesity comes, at least partly, from the decline in rituals of the kitchen and the table. When one is deprived of the civilizing effects of the table -- and this includes food preparation -- and thoughtful eating habits, the result is overeating. The combination of the overwhelming cultural emphasis on speed in all activities with the lack of the warmth of the hearth and the congenial atmosphere of eating together while seated contributes to this national problem. The lack of hearth fire in fast food encourages overeating as compensation. Both adults and children routinely eat on the run, as it were, and therefore need to eat more to make up for what is missed by not ritualizing the process of nutrition. As a result, the current generation is the first to have a shorter life expectancy than its parents. The difficulty lies in knowing how to combine the external world of work and responsibility with the inner work of hearth-tending and family relational union. Again, ritual enactment is the way.... It is the act of coming together, without haste, to enjoy each other's company and the fruits of one's labors, that causes the ritual moment to occur. The more often this can happen in the life of the family, the better for the psychic well-being of that family. This simple act will insure that the fires of Hestia's hearth will be kept brightly burning (125-127).
No one is suggesting a return to worshipping Hestia. One need not even know her name. But she stands for a ritual that honors "our daily bread" -- and, as part of this ritual, she asks for a relaxed time in which our precious bodies can be nourished within the circle of our families, or our friends, or those "invisibles" we hold dear, or, simply, with ourselves. Through restoring such earthy rituals, our inner hearth will surely glow anew, healing body and mind, empowering us in unexpected ways.
The fire-goddess, Vesta, Hestia's counterpart in Rome
© Sandra Stanton -- used with her kind permission
This is Aaron Atsma's impressive compilation of many ancient sources concerning Hestia. From the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, he offers a passage that especially struck me in light of what I have already written above:http://homepage.mac.com/cparada/GML/Hestia.html...If ever the fire of her hearth became extinct, it was not allowed to be lighted again with ordinary fire, but either by fire produced by friction, or by burning glasses drawing fire from the sun. The mystical speculations of later times proceeded from the simple ideas of the ancients, and assumed a sacred hearth not only in the centre of the earth, but even in that of the universe.... (Orph. Hymn. 83; Plut. de Plac. Philos. 3, 11, Numa, 11.)Atsma also offers 4 rare, beautifully displayed examples of Hestia in ancient art.
Less comprehensive than Atsma's site, this bi-lingual (English/Spanish) site from Carlos Parada nevertheless provides additional fine nuances and a really gorgeous color photo of the "Hestia Giustiniani," a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze, ca 470 BC.Perseus Project at Tufts
This is the Hestia page from the renowned digital Perseus Project. Here you'll find a few more images, older scholarly articles, and ancient sources.http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_myth_gods_grecoroman_hestia.htm
From N. S. Gill, the Classical/Ancient History guide who, after many years, still patiently graces about.com, comes this brief page on Hestia. In all the usual emphasis on Hestia as guardian of domestic hearths, Gill points out that:Google Scholar Links...Her sacred fire, at the Delphic Temple, was the center of Greek religious life....That connection with Delphi, the ancient navel/womb of the earth, is profoundly significant and ties in with deeper themes concerning this fire-goddess.
The page also includes links to related articles on (and images of) Hestia and Vesta.
Alas, there are nearly 600 often tantilizing links here but some (e.g., JSTOR) can only be accessed by subscribing libraries, and many of the others require individual paid subscriptions. It's frustrating that the academic world is so restrictive, but it is, and that's that. If you have the funds & patience to subscribe to these, you'll find some real treasures. For the rest of us, we'll need to find a friendly, well-heeled library. (Note: among the links are some that go to amazon.com or directly to book publishers -- these will let you in for free. I found a few others here and there that will also give you access. So don't dismiss this link out of hand.)
SEVERAL OTHER RELEVANT
MYTHING LINKS PAGES:
Common Themes: Fire Deities
Common Themes: Nature Spirits
Ancient Greece: Prometheus
Crone Papers: Presence Lamp
Up to Europe's Opening Page
Up to Western EuropeWestern Europe's Subdivisions:Ancient Greece / Ancient Rome / Celtic Traditions /
Icelandic, Nordic, & Teutonic Traditions /
Medieval Life & Times / Arthurian Themes / Grail Lore /
Alchemy, Gnosticism, Hermetics / Fairy Tales & Folk Lore /
Down to Indigenous Peoples
Note: I cannot help with homework but for those wishing to contact me on other matters,
my e-mail address will be found near the bottom of my Home Page.
This page created with Netscape Gold 4.7
Text and Layout:
© 2007-2010 by Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Page designed & created 4 am-ish, 7 May 2007.
Continued: 12/30/07 until 3:45am (when I turned in) & then later that afternoon and evening;
finished essay & then added 4 closing links before turning in at 2am, 12/31/07.
New Year's Eve 2007: added more from 2-9:30pm-ish. Then put the page online unofficially.
Officially launched 1:05am New Years Day 2008; 6pm: added Perseus Project link.
6 June 2010: corrected 2 typos in my email excerpts; also added, for the sake of clarity,
a new transition-clause from emails to continuation of essay .
25 December 2010, Christmas night, c. 5pm: finally had time to add photo of hearth at Pacifica --
my thanks to Robyn Cass for capturing this mysterious, otherworldly moment.
With special thanks to Laurence Lyons, Ph.D.