Quick Reference

The goddess of the hearth, closely related to Vesta. Respect for and worship of the hearth are characteristic of the Greeks from earliest times. In the Mycenaean age the king's throne‐room (megaron) was the architectural centre of the palace, and in the very centre of that room was a low, round hearth. After the fall of monarchies, the kings' hearths as political centres and sites for asylum and the entertainment of foreign visitors were succeeded by official state hearths housed in public buildings called prytaneia. There, at least in some cities, the fire was kept continuously burning. To unify Attica (see synoecism) Theseus reputedly eliminated the various local prytaneia in favour of a single prytaneion in Athens. As a token of continuity a metropolis sent to a newly founded colony fire from its own hearth. Similarly, each family had its own hearth where small offerings were placed at meal times. Newborns, brides, and new slaves were initiated into the family by various rituals at or around the hearth. After the Persian occupation of much of Greece in 480 bc, Delphi ordered the Greek states to extinguish their fires, because they had been polluted by the Persians (see pollution), and take new fire from the prytaneion at Delphi.

Although one of the twelve Olympians, Hestia has little mythology, unable as she was to leave the house. She is not mentioned by Homer. Hesiod and authors after him make her a daughter of Cronus and Rhea. She ‘liked not the works of Aphrodite’, rejected Apollo and Poseidon as suitors, and swore herself to lifelong virginity. So Zeus granted her ‘to sit in the middle of the house, receiving the “fat” of offerings’, to be honoured in all temples, and to be a goddess ‘senior and respected among all men’. Even at sanctuaries and sacrifices of other gods Hestia regularly received a preliminary offering; in prayers and oaths she was usually named first. ‘To begin from Hestia’ became a proverb. Hestia's extremely close tie to one physical object, the hearth, is uncharacteristic of Greek gods and probably limited her development in both myth and cult.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries