Hestia and Me
September 24, 2014 2 Comments
A large part of my devotional activities focus on working with the Greek gods. This goes well beyond Hermes, of course, though he does take up the major focus of my work between the new field of mathesis as well as being the god of guides and a guide of gods, men, spirits, souls, and heroes. I also honor Aphrodite, who’s arguably my celestial mother in astrological terms, as well as Hephaistos for my crafting work, and Dionysos because he came into my life for an as-yet unclear purpose and who am I to turn down He Who Comes? There are yet other gods I honor and work with, enough so that it helped me out to develop a ritual calendar for making monthly offerings based on lunar cycles and grammatomancy.
One of the gods who made that list is the hearth goddess Hestia, lady of the hearth flame and arguably the definition of domestic deity, whose name itself literally means “hearth”. Hestia is a daughter of Kronos and Rhea, of the same generation of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hades. She is probably the least dramatic of all the Olympians, not having many stories of her exploits since she didn’t really have any, and the only one that comes to mind is how she got her position as goddess of the hearth. Basically, Apollo and Poseidon both wanted her hand in marriage, but she wanted nothing of them nor of marriage in general, and so begged Zeus to remain a virgin all her days; Zeus agreed, and instead of giving her in marriage gave to her the hearth of the gods and, thus, of all mankind. And since in older times the hearth was the focal point of domestic life, providing warmth and light and food and protection for the family, Hestia became the goddess of all of these.
Moreover, as the household hearth was also often the shrine to nearly all the other household gods, as much as it was in Greece as it was in Rome, Hestia presided over all offerings and worship made at her hearth. Indeed, since she was both first-born of the original six Olympians as well as last-born (recall how Zeus ripped out or forced his father Kronos to vomit his other children, and how Hestia was eaten first and therefore escaped last), it was custom for Hestia to receive both the first offering and last offering made at any ancient Greek ritual. Going to a scale larger than the family, Hestia was often viewed as the goddess of the city hearth itself, with a central fire from which all other hearts burned and took their fire, and from which other colonies of a given city could trace their hearthfires back to as well. Even more unusual for a Greek deity, she had no processions of her own, no parades to celebrate her; as the hearth was an immovable part of the household, so too was Hestia’s worship and honor solely situated on the hearth itself. In spite of Hestia’s lack of epic poetry or exploitations, she’s kind of a big deal to the ancients.
I associate Hestia, according to Agrippa (book II, chapter 14), with the zodiacal sign of Capricorn, and thus with the Greek letter Rho according to the stoicheia of the letters. Her day is the 21st day of the lunar month, which I would normally set aside to make special offerings for her as I do the other gods, but Hestia is different in many ways. In fact, up until earlier this year, I didn’t really honor Hestia at all. Sure, there was the genius domus and genius loci, the spirits of the house and land where I lived, and I referred to them as “children” of Hestia and Gaia, and worked with them to make my residence better for myself and my neighbors. That said, there was no real hearth to the place; it was a second-story apartment in a suburb of DC, our living room was nearly bare and only my roommate spent any amount of time in it, and our kitchen was small and cramped. It was only when I moved to my new house this year that I decided to formally welcome Hestia into my life and my new house, especially since this new house has an actual wood stove placed against a stone wall with built-in stone shelves.
Now, before I proceed any further, let it be known that while I work with and honor the Greek gods, I am not a Hellenist in the sense of belonging to Hellenismos, the Greek neopagan reconstructionist religion. I do not follow all the rules and customs that survive to us from ancient writings, nor do I follow the rules and customs of other Hellenistic communities; I generally do my own thing, inspired by the rules and customs as well as by my own experience and interactions with the gods themselves. After all, times and cultures change, and it’s a given that most traditions change with them. I’d love to make more offerings of piglets and pigeons to Hermes and Hephaistos, for instance, though I need to build and consecrate a proper altar outside for that, and most neopagans would revile me for even entertaining the thought of blood sacrifice, though I have nothing against it.
Though I live with my fiancé and our mutual close friend, none of us are particularly into cooking large meals. When we cook at all, we tend to cook for our individual selves, and regardless of whether we cook for ourselves or for all of us, we do it in the kitchen with our fancy modern stove and oven and microwave and cooking supplies. We don’t use our woodstove to cook (though we may experiment with it foolishly come the winter), nor do we keep it burning (we’ve not used it yet and should probably get the chimney cleaned first), nor do we rely on it for warmth (we have a HVAC system for that) nor for light (since we have electric lightbulbs and not torches or firepits). We live out in the country, so there’s no big municipal center with its own central hearth, since hearths and common grounds both are generally missing in most of modern urban, suburban, exurban, or rural America. Even if there were a local community hearth fire, I strongly doubt most people in this neck of the woods would think to honor an ancient Greek goddess with any amount of reverence. Most of how the ancient Greeks honored Hestia simply doesn’t work for me, and indeed, most of the relevance Hestia had to the ancient Greeks is missing for me.
Still, that doesn’t mean I should just ignore Hestia; she’s an Olympian for a reason, after all, and although many of the amenities of houses have changed, the things for which she stands never have. We still need light, heat, and food, which Hestia provides through an old-fashioned hearth or through modern lightbulbs and HVAC systems and ovens. We still need shelter, protection, and a place to call “home”, which Hestia abundantly provides. We still need a place to gather and celebrate our lives and rituals, which Hestia allows us to do. Hestia, though she is the goddess of the hearth which is becoming rarer and rarer to find these days in active use, is also the goddess of the home generally, and we definitely have one of those. It is thus right for me to honor Hestia, giving her a spot to call her own, her own simple shrine in the place she’d feel most comfortable and honored: right by our fireplace. At the very minimum, I acknowledge her every day as the goddess of the hearth, house, and home itself, and thank her for letting me live there and watching over the house.
Still, I don’t honor Hestia as the ancients did, nor how Hellenists tend to do. For one, Hestia is an outlier to me; she was one of the original Olympians, yes, but recall that there are 12 Olympians. There’s Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Demeter, who form 11 of the 12, but there’s both Hestia and Dionysos to deal with. Although we don’t have a surviving story that says as much, it’s believed that Hestia gave up her seat at the table of the Olympians to give to Dionysos when he was (re)inducted into the Olympian ranks; Hestia did this to prevent upsetting a balance or causing drama, always the arbiter of peace and prosperity in the home, and took her eternal place by the hearth of the gods. Likewise, I have my temple room on the other side of the house from the hearth where I do all my spiritual work, with all my shrines and altars and prayer tools. Hestia, on the other hand, is separated from all that, kept by the fireplace in the living room, isolated from both my spiritual work as well as that of my fiancé and housemate. My gods are not the household gods, and they’re kept in their own little temenos apart from the public spaces in the house.
Further, while my other gods get their monthly offerings (or, depending on the god, weekly), and although Hestia has a day set aside for her in my lunisolar grammatomantic ritual calendar, I do something different and make offerings to Hestia much more frequently. I buy novena-like 8″ glass-jar candles from the dollar store near where I live in bulk, and they last about 5 days each; I keep one burning for Hestia at her shrine, and when it goes out, I light her another one along with making her an offering of wine, oil, and incense, and sing out her Orphic Hymn and (short) Homeric Hymn. The only other shrines I light this type of candle for are my primary devotional altar (which serves as a symbol of the Eternal Infinite Light of God) and for my ancestors, though neither shrine gets special offerings when I light them a new candle (the ancestors have their own trimonthly schedule of offerings). Hestia gets a large amount of attention from me every five days or so, amounting to about six offerings a month, which is more than the other gods. Even Hermes gets weekly offerings in addition to his larger monthly offerings, so about five offerings a month.
That said, I’ve only recently started up the process of making an obligatory initial offering to Hestia before the monthly offerings of my other gods. Before I do any offerings to, say, Zeus on his day of the month, I set out a small amount of wine and oil by her image, thanking her for allowing me a place to live, love, rest, relax, and honor the gods, then I go back to my temple and resume my usual song and dance. This doesn’t apply to my weekly offerings; those I find more intimate, casual, and off-the-cuff with individual deities I share a very close relationship with, and not everyone gets both a weekly and monthly offering. Overall, making a preliminary offering to Hestia is a nice gesture, and it helps me prepare myself mentally to do anything else with the gods. Sure, it’s a little more wine and oil spent, but it’s worth it. I don’t, however, make her an offering after my other monthly stuff; it suffices for us that she get the first pour of wine. Plus, this only applies when I’m working with the Greek gods; different traditions necessitate different rules, and some traditions (like Santeria) specify that one of their deities must be fed first; in order to prevent a conflict of interest when one might arise, I keep Hestia before offerings to Greek gods and other deities before gods of their own kind. (This is one of the problems with having your fingers in so many spiritual pots.)
When it comes to food, well, none of us are big cookers or bakers, though we are known to prepare some large dishes from time to time, or host an occasional dinner party. When we produce a large amount of food (and I’m talking something substantially more than a pot of macaroni and cheese for an after-work dinner), we set aside small portions for our ancestors, and I set aside another small portion for Hestia. After all, if the hearth is where food is cooked, then it can be argued that the kitchen is one such hearth for us, and since Hestia allows us a home to live in and cooked food to live on, it’s proper to honor her too. This follows no schedule, of course, beyond whenever we happen to make a large amount of food or bake a loaf of bread. When it’s time for the food to be removed, a day or more after I make the offerings, I do with the food the same as I do all the other spiritual offerings; throw it into the pit in my backyard. That way, we feed the land with the actual material food, which in turn provides more for us both materially and spiritually and helps out the fae and other flora and fauna, both physical and metaphysical, in our area. In other words, we compost.
Of course, Hestia isn’t the only household spirit we work with. As I mentioned, we have a big fae population where we live out in the woods, and we feed the fae once in a while, perhaps giving them offerings of their choice (usually red wine and berries with whipped cream). Plus, in addition to Hestia, I also have a household guardian, a coywolf spirit I’ve been working with for some time now. The coywolf gets offerings along with Hestia, and a smaller candle lit just for her. If we get other spirits who decide to take up residence with us as household spirits or guardians, we’ll likewise honor them in a similar way; that said, I don’t exactly intend to call on them the same way as I did the genii I did in my old flat; Hestia and the coywolf guardian suffice for my needs. It’s not like I need to ask them for much, either; they keep the household running safely and soundly, and all goes well. When I offer a candle to Hestia, I often dress the candle with oils that encourage peace, prosperity, and fortune in the home for me and my housemates.
So, when I actually do make offerings to Hestia, what is it I seek from her? I mean, honoring the gods in and of itself is a virtue that should be inculcated, but in my Hermetic and Hermaic mind, nearly all worship and honor is a transaction. Of course I honor her because she’s Hestia, but I also honor her to ask for her blessing. When it comes to Hestia, I think my goals are pretty straightforward: I want to live in a place that is safe, stable, and secure from those who would try to harm me intentionally or unintentionally; I want to live in a place that helps me obtain peace, prosperity, and protection from the world, both natural and humane; I want to live in a place that gives me tranquility and takes away tension. I want a place where I can live, learn, love, rest, relax, study, store my belongings. I want a place where I don’t have to be evicted or come under threat of it. I want a place that won’t be destroyed by plague, earthquake, fire, or flood. I want a place where I can be warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, dry when it’s raining, fed when I’m hungry, rested when I’m fatigued, and safe when I’m persecuted. I want a place to call home.
Of all the sacred places in ancient Greek thought, from Gibraltar in the West to the Indus in the East and all the shrines and temples in between, probably the most sacred one of them is the oikos, the home itself, which itself is the sanctuary beyond all sanctuaries and temple beyond all temples, the one to which we ourselves belong. Hestia has much to provide for us, even in our day and age.