Hestia (Vesta)

Categories: Gods > Household Gods
Gods > The “Twelve” Gods

I have previously written about the goddess in a series of (somewhat unfocussed) blog posts on Medium: Who is Vesta? (archive) | Who is Hestia? (archive) | Who is Hestia/Vesta? (archive). I intend to repeat all relevant information, but not the arguments made there, on this page.

1 Introduction

“What shall I say about Vesta”, wrote Paulinus of Nola* (Poema ultimum 137–138), “when even her priest (sacerdos) denies knowing what she is?” I think the question is based on a truthful observation, but while I am no priest (much less would claim to know better than a priest), still I cannot let stand Paulinus’ sarcastic argument, that a goddess whom her own priestesses and priests do not understand is absurd and unworthy of reverence. With the philosopher Sallustius, I will claim the opposite: “the first benefit” of the obscurity of sacred traditions is that it forces us “to investigate rather than be lazy in our thinking.”

*Assuming the modern ascription of the poem to him is correct.

6th-century CE hanging of an enthroned Hestia Polyolbos (‘Hestia of Great Wealth’ or ‘Rich in Blessings’), image from Dumbarton Oaks (off-site link [archived], also featuring a comprehensive discussion of the hanging).
She is surrounded by six figures carrying her gifts, Wealth (Ploutos), Joy (Euphrosynē), Blessing (Eulogia), Abundance or Good Feast (Euōchia), Virtue (Aretē) and Prosperity (Prokopē). To the side stand two more figures, a masculine being whose label has been lost, and a feminine one who carries the inscription Light (Phōs).
As the genders of the labels does not match those of the figures, I do not think they strictly represent the attributes whose names they are carrying.

2 The names ‘Hestia’ and ‘Vesta’

First, to investigate the name, or rather names. The ancients regarded the Greek word (ἡ) Ἑστία [Hestía] and the Latin word (haec) Vesta as mutually translatable. Thus ancient bilingual word lists gloss the goddess “Ἑστία : Vesta” (Hermeneumata Leidensia 2, section On Gods), and her festival “Ἑστίαια [Hestíaia] : Vestalia” (ibid., section On Festivals). Differently put, while distinguishing the Greek and Latin languages, and Greek and Roman traditions, they did not make a distinction between a Greek and Roman goddess in this case. Thus Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes: “Hestia is the guardian of the city of the Romans” (Roman Antiquities 2.68.4).

They did note, however, that the Greek word had another meaning, ‘hearth’ (lat. focus), not shared with the Latin Vesta, which is purely a proper name. Thus they also glossed “foci [pl.] : ἑστία [sg.]”, (Charisius, Art of Grammar 1, section On the Noun) or “focus [sg.] : ἑστία” (ibid., section on nouns Which are masculine in Latin, feminine in Greek). Note that the modern convention of writing the common noun ἑστία in lower case while capitalizing the proper noun Ἑστία does not date back to antiquity. Then, people simply wrote ΕΣΤΙΑ and VESTA / FOCVS / FOCI.

In any case, the name Vesta too was strongly associated with the hearth, and regardless of the discrepancy, the two words were regarded as so similar as to really be the same word: “Vesta (is), as it were, the city’s hearth (focus), as she is called with Greek name – and we have almost the same name as the Greeks, not a translation” (Cicero, On the Laws 2.29).

The Latin grammarian Terentianus Maurus regarded the Latin Vesta as adapted from Greek in a dialectal form which had a /w/ instead of a /h/ sound at the beginning of the word (De litteris, syllabis, metris 651). Servius simply notes that a /w/ sound is added in Latin, without explanation (On the Aeneid 1.292). In reality, the Latin word is not actually borrowed from Greek, but it is entirely plausible that they both descend from a common root, *h₂wes-, as the two languages had a common ancestor, the so-called Proto-Indo-European language.

(Which is not to say that the Greek people and the Roman people descend in any straightforward sense from a common, Proto-Indo-European people. Ethnicity is not reducible to language, and any language integrates many influences.)

If this is so, the two names could be construed as two variant forms of the same original word, *(h₂)west(i)a. But even if this is not the case (and it really may not be), what should count for us is that the ancients thought they were effectively the same word, designating one goddess, regardless of semantic and phonetic differences, regardless of the divergences in customs. How much of what is shared may be inherited from a theoretical Proto-Indo-European culture versus borrowed or explainable in some other fashion, I leave to minds of a more speculative bent than mine.

3 “From Hestia”

There was a loose proverbial expression in ancient Greek, phrased apò tês hestías, aph’ hestías, ek tês hestías or the like, meaning either ‘from Hestia’ or ‘from the hearth’ (or rather both indifferently). It means ‘from the beginning’, as in ‘begin from the beginning’, or ‘from the most important point’. In Plato’s Euthyphro, for instance, the eponymous character says that those prosecuting Socrates for impiety “are beginning to corrupt the city from its hearth”, that is, from its heart and center – its foundations, as we might say.

This is because the hearth, the stove-fire, was so central to the ancient household that it was its conceptual center – in fact its encapsulation, so that hestía sometimes has to be translated as ‘house’ or ‘household’ (as we will see again below). As the hearth is to the house, so the beginning is to any undertaking, and Socrates (says Plato’s Euthyphron) to the city of Athens.

A different (but compatible) explanation takes the proverb to be “transferred from the actions surrounding sacrifices. For it was the custom to make first offerings (aparkhaí) to Hestia” (Zenobius, Epitome of the Collections of Proverbs 1.40 = Hesychius s.v. ἀφ’ Ἑστίας ἀρχόμενος), that is, to be more precise, “to sacrifice to Hestia first before the other gods. And a certain myth about her is current, as follows: they say that after the rule of the Titans was dissolved, when Zeus took over the kingship, he granted Hestia to have whatever she wished; and she asked (to retain) her virginity (and ‘unmarried status’) and (to receive) the first offerings from humans” (Gregorius, Proverbs 1.63; the myth is sourced to a certain Aristocritus in the Scholia on Aristophanes’ Wasps 846)

While one encounters this idea of offering first to Hestia/Vesta frequently enough in ancient literature, evidence for its observance in practice are relatively rare. The testimony of the two Homeric Hymns to her must stand against all the others in which she is not mentioned. Likewise, while the scholiasts on Pindar (Nemean Ode 11.6) and Aristophanes (Wasps 846) both cite the phrase “O forepart of libation, Hestia!” from Sophocles’ Chryses, the vast majority of the many devotional scenes in Attic drama make no mention of the goddess.

Moreover, Pausanias’ Description of Greece only once mentions one group of altars of which Hestia’s receives first offerings (5.14.5), and in the inscriptions that make up the Collection of Greek Ritual Norms (off-site link), she only appears as one deity among many, not as the first to be worshipped. Finally, in so-called magical rites she seems to play virtually no role at all (although, admittedly, we have a skewed sample).

All this indicates that beginning from Hestia may have been an ideal more than a reality, or practiced only in specific contexts – perhaps especially when making offerings at the hearth fire, but less in other circumstances. Still, we do have some clear instances, such as the hymnic lines “Beginning from Hestia, I pray to the gods” (ἐξ Ἑστίας ἀρχόμενος εὔχομαι θεοῖς) and “Beginning from Hestia, I call Zeus, the ruler of all” (ἐξ Ἑστίας ἀρχόμενος καλῶ Δία πάντων ἀρχηγέτην).

These fragments are both preserved in the ancient scholia (explanatory comments) on Aratus’ Phaenomena 1. The opening words of that poem, “From Zeus let us begin” (ἐκ Διός ἀρχώμεσθα) acquired a similar proverbial status and meaning of ‘beginning from the most important point’. For instance, in giving a list of canonical authors, Quintilian ‘begins from Zeus’ by listing Homer first (10.1.46). This also indicates that beginning from Hestia was only one of several possibilities.

A scholiast on Aristophanes says as much: “In libations they begin from Hestia, and likewise from other gods.” The same scholium refers to the convention as a matter of the past (perhaps classical Athens as opposed to the Roman imperial period?) when they say, “‘Begin from Hestia!’ is a proverb, because it was the custom to make offerings and sacrifices to Hestia first” (Scholia on Wasps 846). So the scholiast on Pindar who writes that “they often appease (Hestia) with libations first before the other gods, and often also with sacrifices” seems to hit the mark (Scholia on Nemean Ode 11.5; this is specifically about the town magistrates in the prytaneía, discussed in section 6 below, where we would most expect Hestia to take center stage).

Besides, we know that sacrifices to Hestia were understood to be distinct from those to other deities, giving rise to the proverbial expression ‘sacrificing to Hestia’:

  • “To sacrifice to Hestia: (applied) to those who do things in secret. For when sacrificing to Hestia, they used to share nothing of the sacrifice” (Diogenianus, Proverbs 2.40).
  • “He sacrifices to Hestia: (applied) to those who do eat a lot. Insofar as, when sacrificing to her, they used to share nothing of the sacrifice” (Diogenianus, Proverbs 4.68).
  • “He sacrifices to Histia: (applied) to those who do not readily share with anyone” (Diogenianus, Proverbs 2.95).
  • “He sacrifices to Histia: the proverb is assigned to those who do not easy share with anyone. For it was customary among the ancients, when they would sacrifice to Histia, not to share of the sacrifice with anyone” (Zenobius, Epitome of the Collections of Lucillius Tarrhaeus and Didymus 4.44).

The past tense here indicates that pagans of the Roman imperial period no longer made this distinction in practice, although “the ancients” (probably meaning the people of classical Athens) had done. Probably the point at that earlier time was that the meat of animals offered to Hestia was to be consumed only by (the hearthfire and) the family, not members of other households (unless, presumably, if present as guests at the sacrifice).

Whatever the precise explanation of either proverb, then, it has to be acknowledged that Hestia was not as consistently invoked at other gods’ rites as was sometimes said, but did play a central and unique role in household worship, as conceptual center and startingpoint. Perhaps it may be said that she was also implicitly included in all sacrifices by virtue of this. Through this explanation, at least, we can be true both to what the ancients show themselves to be doing and what they claim to do, and not accuse them of self-delusion.

4 Hymns to Hestia

As two hymnic fragments were quoted in the last section, it is worth pointing to the extant Greek hymns here, both for their intrinsic value and because they describe common acts of worship: Homeric Hymn 24 (asking Hestia, who tends even the home of Apollon at Delphi, to come, along with Zeus), Homeric Hymn 29 (really to Hestia and Hermes, demonstrating and explicating the honor of Hestia to be honored first, with hymn and libation of wine), Aristonous to Hestia (which expands the idea of a connection to Delphi, but also spells out the goddess’ other domains and something of the logic of sacrifice and prayer), and Orphic Hymn 84 (colored by philosophical speculation about the goddess and specifying fragrant herbs as incense). There is also the opening line surviving from a lost poem by Simias of Rhodes: “Holy Hestia (Histía hágna), between the guest-friendly walls” (quoted in Hephaestion, Handbook on Meters, p. 26).

5 Hestia and hearth: the semantics of ἑστία [hestía]

But let us return to the meaning of her name. As one lexicographical text says, “hestía means many things:

  • “household;
  • “fire;
  • “the place where the fire is;
  • “funeral pyre;
  • “altar;
  • “the stand for a pot (khytrópous) or for a tripod (pyrostátēs)”
    (Additamenta in Etymologicum Gudianum, s.v. Ἑστία 2).

Another: “hestía:

  • “dwelling,
  • “housing,
  • “altar,
  • “stand for a pot,
  • “fire-place“
    (Photius, Lexicon, s.v. Ἑστία).

These are largely transferred meanings. Hearth and altar are similar, thus the altar can be called a hearth; the hearth is the center of the house, so pars pro toto, it can stand for the house as a whole; the funeral pyre too is a fire; etc.

The use of hestía for ‘altar’ also reflects that, within the home, the hearth served as “the altar of the gods, the receptacle for daily sacrifices and libations” (Proclus, On the Works and Days 733). At the same time, “the (dinner) table is an altar of Hestia and all the gods who give sustenance; therefore it is customary to make sacrifice and sing a hymn before beginning to eat” (ibid. 342).

Seeing this elasticity of meaning beyond ‘hearth’, it will be unsurprising to hear that, equally, the goddess Hestia was not necessarily understood as identical or primarily connected to the hearth. One lexical text, already quoted above, has a separate entry on the deity: “Hestía: the goddess.

  • “(Derived) from heísasthai, i.e., ‘being set up’ (hidry-), because she built the first house; or because she is set up (as a statue) and worshipped everywhere.
  • “Or because her cult statues are set up as seated, from hêsthai.
  • “Or from hestánai, that is, being set up in a place; for anciently, they also called houses hestíai; Homer: ‘hestíē of noble Odysseus’ (Odyssey 14.159, etc.).
  • “And a good feast* (euōkhía) is called hestía because it holds together and sets up all bodies.
  • “And histía** is from hízō (‘to seat’) – hestía from hézō
    (Additamenta in Etymologicum Gudianum, s.v. Ἑστία 2).

*Euōchia is also named in the Hestia Polyoblos hanging, see section 1.
**Really just a dialectal form, which does not have a separate origin.

Another lexicographer, Ammonius, explicitly distinguishes hestía in the sense of hearth and home from the goddess: “In Hesiod, there is also the corporeal goddess: ‘Hestiē, Demeter and golden-sandalled Hera’ (Theogony 454)”. Here, corporeal means ‘anthropomorphic’, the manner in which poets and the visual arts represented her. This does not mean, however, that hestía could only be understood materially (as a hearth) or mythically (as human-like); ancient scholars considered the realm of discussion about the true nature of the goddess to lie elsewhere, in philosophy.

6 Philosophers and grammarians on Hestia–Vesta

The first thing that must be clarified is the relationship between the goddess herself and the synonymous hearth, not just in a grammatical sense but with a view to real being. Now, in an idealized sense, Greco-Roman worship involves an altar in the vicinity of a temple in which there is an image of the deity, and offerings are made into a fire kindled on the altar. In practice, there were many altars without an associated image, or even temple, and most “temples” were just little household shrines with a censer (instead of an altar) before them. Still, the conceptual principle holds.

WIth Hestia, by contrast, there is no real need for a statue. Pausanias refers to a temple at Hermione which had an altar, but no image (Description of Greece 2.35.2). In the temple of Vesta at Rome – by far the most prominent temple the goddess ever had –, a fire was constantly kept burning, and it was this very flame which was considered the image. Analogously, it seems that households usually did not keep a statuette of the goddess beside the hearth, but treated the hearth as the medium for offerings and the object of worship.

But does this mean that the goddess Hearth is nothing more than the fire that burns at such a hearth or altar? The answer is a resounding no. Eustathius, the great Homer commentator, puts the matter very clearly: “He calls the hearth (eskhára), which is also called hestía, histíē. The former is from hestánai (‘to have made stand’), the latter from hístasthai (‘to make stand’). For this is the cause of the house’s being stable and standing, through the daily sacrifice in it. Whence there is also Zeus Ephestios (‘set over the hearth’) and Hestiouchos (‘hearth-keeper’), and the goddess Hestia in Attic; and the whole house is called hestía after its vital part, just as the temple is called altar after the altar in it” (Eustathius, On the Odyssey, vol. 2, p. 137).

This explains why Hestia was usually not worshipped in temples, but in the household, or in the prytaneîon (gr. ‘town hall’), which was considered the hearth of the city (Julius Pollux, Onomasticon 9.40). Here too she often had a fire, not a statue: “The cities used to consecrate the unextinguishable flame in the town hall to Hestia” (Damascius, On the Phaedo A 536, a pagan writing after these fires had been extinguished).

The scholiasts on Pindar enlarge on this: “He says Hestia is allotted the town halls (prytaneía) insofar as the hearths of the cities are set up in their town halls, and the so-called sacred fire is kindled upon them. And since the sacred fire is kept in the town halls, a prytaneîon would really be a pyrotameîon (‘fire-keeping place’).” More succinctly put: “Hestia is set up in the town halls” (both Scholia on Nemean Ode 11.1), although this could conceivably refer to anthropomorphic statues.

In any case, poets describe her in anthropomorphic terms […]

-Bacchylides, Fragment 148 (trans. Campbell, Vol. Greek Lyric IV) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) : „[Invocation to Hestia as the goddess of the public hearth in the town of Larissa :] Gold-throned Hestia [goddess of the hearth, here the public hearth in Larissa], you who increase the great prosperity of the glorious Agathokleadai (Agathocleadae), those men of wealth, as you sit in mid-city by the fragrant Peneios (Peneus) in the glens of sheep-rearing Thessalia (Thessaly).“
-Pindar, Nemean Ode 11. 1 ff (trans. Conway) (Greek lyric C5th B.C.) : „Daughter of Rhea, guardian of parliaments, Hestia, sister of all-highest Zeus, and of Hera who shares his throne, welcome with goodwill to your sacred hall Aristagoras, and his fellows with goodwill, beneath your glorious sceptre. For they in honouring you keep watch and ward on Tenedos island and secure her weal. First of all other gods they worship you with many a gift of wine and many a victim, and the lure sounds for you, and song. And at their well-spread tables, never bare, the rites of Zeus, the hospitable father, receive their due.“
-fire from a pure house: Proclus. Vs. new fire
-Dion. Hal. ii. 65.

As the hearth was to the household and the town hall to the city, so the temple of Vesta at Rome was to the whole empire, and the famed Vestal Virgins – Hestiad Virgins in Greek – were the hearthkeepers of the state. In his Laws, Cicero writes: “Let the Vestal Virgins guard the eternal fire of the public hearth in the city” (On the Laws 2.20.6). When the public funds for the Vestals had been temporarily cut off, the pagan politican Symmachus warned the Christian emperors in 384 CE, there was a poor harvest, caused not by a disease but by the sacrilege (Relatio 3.14).

Now, not all ancient authorities put forth such a direct connection between the fire and the fortunes of the house or state. Many philosophers favored a symbolic interpretation, whereby the fire represents the deity by way of some analogy, and disregarded the question of ritual efficacy.

[Filolaos pur en mesw. Damascius: pur asbeston th estia kaqieroun ai poleis. Plutarch, Numa Romulus Camillus; Anatolius]
[Serv. 4.201 ~ Lydus 4.149, incert. 6.]

[Dionysius of Halicarnassus 2.64.5; 2.65.2?; 2.66.3!
Dio Chrysostomus: estian de enomize … ghn … anqrwpwn estia kai trofos
[Suda/Codinus: <Γῆς ἄγαλμα·> γυναῖκα πλάττουσι τὴν Ἑστίαν, οἱονεὶ τὴν γῆν, τύμπανον βαστάζουσαν, ἐπειδὴ τοὺς ἀνέμους ἡ γῆ ὑφ‘ ἑαυτὴν συγκλείει.]
[Scholia on Theogony
-454(?): Ἱστίην. τὴν στερεάν V τὴν ἱσταμένην καὶ ἀκίνητον γῆν M2.
-117: <εὐρύστερνος:> ἐπειδὴ ὡς θεὰν αὐτὴν ἀναπλάττει, εὐρύστερνον εἶπε. R2WΛ διὰ τοῦτο [καὶ] Πλάτων ἑστίαν τοῦ κόσμου τὴν γῆν φησι ἐν τῷ Φαίδωνι (108 e sqq. ut vid.)· R2WT ὅθεν ἐπαγόμενος (Conv. 178b) ἀθετεῖ τοὺς στίχους. R2WLZT
[Plutarch, de primo frigido
Cornutus, Heraclitus the Younger]
Scholia on Lycophron 710: Persephone is also Isis, the Earth and Rhea and Hestia and Pandora, and myriads others (n.pl.) of that sort.

[Arnobius: Quod si ratione profertur et asseveratur certa, trina pariter nomina vobis interpretibus nulla sunt: non Ceres, non Vesta deorum esse computabuntur in fastis: non ipsa denique mater deum, quam Nigidius autumat matrimonium tenuisse Saturni, dea recte poterit nuncupari: siquidem unius terrae haec sunt omnia nomina, et his sola praedicationibus indicatur.
-Terram quidam e vobis, quod cunctis sufficiat animantibus victum, matrem esse dixerunt magnam: eamdem hanc alii, quod salutarium seminum frugem gerat, Cererem esse pronuntiant: nonnulli autem Vestam, quod in mundo stet sola, caeteris ejus partibus mobilitate in perpetua constitutis.
[Augustine: Eamdem terram Cererem | in focis domesticis Vesta | Vestam quoque ipsam | Vestam quod vestiatur herbis.]

And Porphyry writes (On Cult Statues = Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 3.11, tl. E.H. Gifford, slightly modified): „The ruling faculty of the earthly power is called Hestia, a virginal statue of whom is usually set up on the hearth; but inasmuch as the power is productive, they symbolize her by the form of a woman with prominent breasts.“ This duality also resonates with Latin sources, which on the one hand call the goddess “mother Vesta” (Verg. Georg. 1.498; Servius, Georg. 1.163), but on the other, describe her as “the chastest deity” (Serv. Ecl. 8.29). (also Cicero)

Tertullian: Ipsa quoque vulgaris superstitio communis idololatriae, cum in simulacris de nominibus et fabulis veterum mortuorum pudet, ad interpretationem naturalium refugit, et dedecus suum ingenio obumbrat, figurans Jovem in substantiam fervidam, et Junonem ejus in aeriam, secundum sonum graecorum vocabulorum; item Vestam in ignem et Camenas in aquam, et Magnam Matrem in terram seminalia demessam, lacertis aratam, lavacris rigatam.

[estioux- in Proclus and Hermias. Asclepius, In Met. p. 36. Hermias: aition ths enidrusews. Plato + Proclus, Porphyry, John Lydus 4.94 & 4.149; Hermias. (Plotinus, Porphyry, Hermias, Proclus, Damascius on Hestia). Chalcidius.]
Hermeneumata, Apuleius, Sallustius.

Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.23.5–8
Lydus 4.30
Nonius: De compendiosa doctrina 1.258
Ovid, Fasti 6.249f; 251-256;267;291-299;303-310;640 ( Who is Hestia/Vesta?)
„Take Festus: “Jupiter Herceus used to be worshipped inside the enclosure of each house, and they also used to call him the deus penetralis” (p. 101 Müller), i.e. the interior god. The word penetralis leads us to the gods called the Penates, of whom Macrobius says that “Vesta is clearly of their number, or at least their companion” (Saturnalia 3.4.11)“ (Who is Vesta?)

Firmicus Maternus, Lactantius
temples: Rome; Vestalis focus (Augustine); her sacred objects; Vestal virgins (Hestiades)
Sidonius: Non divos specialibus faventes Agris, urbibus, insulisque canto, 357 Saturnum Latio, Jovemque Cretae, Junonemque Samo, Rhodoque Solem, Hennae Persephonem, Minervam Hymetto, Vulcanum Liparae, Papho Dionem, Argis Persea, Lampsaco Priapum, Thebis Evhion, Ilioque Vestam, Tymbrae Delion, Arcadem Lycaeo, Martem Thracibus, ac Scythis Dianam: Quos fecere deos dicata templa, Thus, sal, far, mola, vel superfluarum Consecratio caeremoniarum.
Manilius: Capricorn
Ovid, Fasti
Serv. Aen. 1.292; 2.296,297,469,592; 3.12; 6.273; 7.150,153; 8.190; 9.406; 11.339
Georg. 3.1, 4.383
Buc. 8.29
Cicero DND
Cicero de domo suo?
Velleius Paterculus, very ending?
Vesta mater, vestaque mater, dea terrae (scholia bernensia Verg.); Brevis expositio (vestaque mater)
Adnotationes super Lucanum additamenta
Apuleius, Martianus
Pauli diaconi epitome! Prodigiorum liber
Eternal fire: Lydus? Zosimus?
Explanationes bucolica CERERIQVE idest Deae Terrae, quae eadem est et Proserpina, eadem est et Vesta.
Lactantius Placidus quia triformis est aut quia eadem Deum Mater creditur et Proserpina uel Terra uel Vesta.
Numa: Plutarch, Florus, Aurelius Victor
Commenta Bernensia: vestibulum!
Fragmentum Spangenber: Vestia married to Caelus!

7 Mythology

The most common prism through which the gods are seen today, mythology, is decidedly the least insightful when it comes to the goddess Hearth. Still, since it plays some role in her hymns, this too is not irrelevant. Firstly, let it be noted that she is not mentioned at all in the Iliad or Odyssey, and only once in the Theogony of Hesiod, as the first of the children of Rhea and Kronos: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. Without a doubt she is the least prominent of these deities in poetry of the Archaic period; and some eight centuries later, the mythological compendium ascribed to Apollodorus, the Bibliotheca or Library (2nd century CE?), still mentions nothing about her except her birth; nor does the Latin compendium, the Genealogiae of Hyginus.

A central character trait, as mentioned above, is her virginity. According to Homeric Hymn 6.24–32, she refused the advances of Poseidon and Apollon, swearing to remain forever unwed. At this, Zeus “gave her great honor instead of marriage. / She is seated (hézeto) in the middle of the house and receives the fat (of the offerings); / she is honored in all the temples of the gods, / and among all mortals, is the most reverend of the gods”.

Her central intervention in human affairs is the invention of the house: “Hestia is said to have invented the construction of houses, and on account of this good work, she is set up in all houses among almost all people, receiving honors and sacrifices” (Diodorus Siculus 5.68, and mentioned above). This story (in which she may be understood as either a goddess or a mortal woman deified for her invention) is clearly a different explanation of the same state of affairs that is also explained by the myth of her wooing by Poseidon and Apollon. But neither explanation is repeated very often or greatly elaborated anywhere, apparently because there was a feeling that no mythical justifications for her worship were necessary.


Quid loquar et Vestam, quam se negat ipse sacerdos
Scire quid est? imisque tamen penetralibus intus
Semper inextinctus servari fingitur ignis.
Cur dea, non deus est? Cur ignis femina fertur?
Ista quidem mulier, sicuti commendat Hyginus,
Stamine prima novo vestem contexuit olim,
Nomine de proprio dictam, quam tradidit ipsa
Vulcano, qui tunc illi monstrarat opertos
Custodire focos. Hic rursum munere laetus
Obtulit hanc Soli, per quem deprehenderat ante
Martis adulterium. Nunc omnis credula turba
Suspendunt Soli per Vulcanalia vestes:
Utque notent Venerem, tunc et portatur Adonis:
Stercora tunc mittunt, ipsum pro stercore jactant.
Omnia si quaeras, magis et ridenda videntur.
Additur heic aliud: Vestae quas Virgines aiunt
Quinquennes epulas audis portare Draconi,
Qui tamen aut non est, aut si est, diabolus ipse est,
Humani generis contrarius antea suasor.
Et venerantur eum, qui nunc in nomine Christi
Et tremit, et pendet, suaque omnia facta fatetur.]

[I may at some point add a seciton on (quasi-)historical anecdotes and such, based on sources like Seneca Rhetor, Valerius Maximus, Aulus Gellius, Parallela minora.]

Status: under construction