The Greek word ‘hestia‘ means the hearth, the place in the house where the fire was maintained. The difficulty which primitive man experienced in procuring fire easily explains why he tended it with care and also venerated it. Moreover it was around the hearth that the family gathered. When one of its members departed to found a new family he took with him a parcel of fire from his parents’ hearth, which thus symbolised the continuity of the family. When families began to form groups in towns, each town had its communal hearth where the public fire was maintained. Finally the fire of the hestia was used in sacrifices. For these various reasons the hestia, like the Vedic Agni, very early took on a sacred character. This character was afterwards personified in a deity who took the actual name of the object she symbolised.
Hestia, then, was, like Hephaestus, a fire-divinity. But while Hephaestus represented the fiery element in its celestial and subterranean manifestations, Hestia symbolised the household fire fire, as it were, domesticated. Hence the homely and social character of this goddess, whose province was to protect not only the house and the family but also the city. Later Hestia, by analogy, represented the fire in the centre of the earth and the earth itself; but this conception was less mythological than philosophical.
Hestia was venerated in all Greek towns; she had her altar in every prytaneum – or Public Hearth. The Hest’ia of Delphi was the object of an especial cult, because Delphi was believed to occupy the centre of the universe and its hearth was therefore the common hearth of all Greece. Temples of Hestia were characterised by their circular form.
Representations of Hestia are rare. Glaucus of Argos sculptured one for Olympia. There was also a very celebrated one in Paros. The goddess was depicted sometimes seated, sometimes standing, but always in an attitude of immobility.
Hestia did not spring, like the other divinities, from popular imagination, and legends about her are few. According to Hesiod – for Homer, before him, did not know of the goddess Hestia – she was the first child born to Cronus and Rhea. Thus she was the oldest of the Olympians and always maintained her precedence. Men understood this well and when they offered sacrifices consecrated the first morsels of the victims to Hestia and in festivals poured her the first and last libations.
On Olympus Hestia’s dignity was unquestioned and her rights as the eldest were recognised. She seems to have taken little advantage of this and played a minor role in Olympian drama. ‘In the dwelling of the gods,’ says Plato, ‘Hestia alone maintains repose.’ We only know of her that both Poseidon and Apollo sought her hand in marriage. She would have neither one nor the other. In order to put an end to their attentions she placed herself under Zeus’ protection and made a solemn vow, touching the head of the master of the gods, to remain a virgin for ever. Zeus accepted her vow and ‘instead of marriage offered her a handsome recompense: seated in the midst of the celestial dwelling-place she receives the richest part of sacrifices, and among men she is of all the deities the most venerated’.
Hestia thus shared with Athene and Artemis the prerogative of chastity. She was one of those over whom Aphrodite never succeeded in exercising her power.