The Goddess Hestia
Hestia is one of the three great goddesses of the first Olympian generation, along with Demeter and Hera. She was described as both the oldest and youngest of the three daughters of Rhea and Cronus, sister to three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, in that she was the first to be swallowed by Cronus and the last to be disgorged. Originally listed as one of the Twelve Olympians, Hestia gave up her seat in favor of newcomer Dionysus to tend to the sacred fire on Mount Olympus. However, there is no ancient source for this claim. As Karl Kerenyi observes,”there is no story of Hestia’s ever having taken a husband or ever having been removed from her fixed abode.” Every family hearth was her altar. Of the Olympian gods, Hestia has the fewest exploits “since the hearth is immovable, Hestia is unable to take part even in the procession of the gods, let alone the other antics of the Olympians,” Burkert remarks. Sometimes this is assumed to be due to her passive, non-confrontational nature. This nature is illustrated by her giving up her seat in the Olympian twelve to prevent conflict. She is considered to be the first-born of Rhea and Cronus; this is evidenced by the fact that in Greek (and later Roman) culture ritual offerings to all gods began with a small offering to Hestia; the phrase “Hestia comes first” from ancient Greek culture denotes this.
Immediately after their birth, Cronus swallowed Hestia and her siblings except for the last and youngest, Zeus, who later rescued them and led them in a war against Cronus and the other Titans. Hestia, the eldest daughter “became their youngest child, since she was the first to be devoured by their father and the last to be yielded up again”—the clearest possible example of mythic inversion, a paradox that is noted in the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite (ca 700 BC): “She was the first-born child of wily Cronus—and youngest too.”
Poseidon, and Apollo of the younger generation, each aspired to court Hestia, but the goddess was unmoved by Aphrodite’s works and swore on the head of Zeus to retain her virginity. The Homeric hymns, like all early Greek literature, reinforce the supremacy of Zeus, and Hestia’s oath taken upon the head of Zeus is an example of surety. A measure of the goddess’s ancient primacy—”queenly maid…among all mortal men she is chief of the goddesses”, in the words of the Homeric hymn—is that she was owed the first as well as the last sacrifice at every ceremonial assembly of Hellenes, a pious duty related by the mythographers as the gift of Zeus, as if it had been his to bestow: another mythic inversion if, as is likely, the ritual was too deep-seated and essential for the Olympian reordering to overturn. There are theories (by modern neopagans among others) that Hestia, as goddess of “home and hearth”, was one of the most ancient of all gods later worshiped as Olympians; as a maternal goddess of humans finding safety and homes in caves around a fire, worship of Hestia, by other names, may literally be hundreds of thousands of years old and has continued through classical Greek times to the present day.
“The power worshipped in the hearth never fully developed into a person,” Walter Burkert has observed. Hestia evolved into a lesser goddess in the same ranks of Pan and Dionysus, who was incorporated into the Olympian order in Hestia’s place. At Athens “in Plato’s time,” notes Kenneth Dorter “there was a discrepancy in the list of the twelve chief gods, as to whether Hestia or Dionysus was included with the other eleven. The altar to them at the agora, for example, included Hestia, but the east frieze of the Parthenon had Dionysus instead.