Of Woods And Words: Hestia

Statue of Greek Goddesses: From Left, Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite
Statue of Greek Goddesses: From Left, Hestia, Dione and Aphrodite

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If you were asked to name a few of the ancient Greek gods, chances are you’d throw out names like Zeus, Athena, and Apollo. You might think of Aphrodite and Hera. But if the name Hestia isn’t on the tip of your tongue, don’t feel too badly. This oft-forgotten goddess of the hearth didn’t even have her own throne on Mount Olympus. She gave up her seat with the Olympians to playboy Dionysus, the god of wine and good times. Instead, Hestia, known as Vesta in the Roman tradition, opted to sit on a small stool in front of the Olympic thrones, tending the fire.

Yet during the long Minnesota winter, I find myself thinking of Hestia more than any other Greek god. After all, it’s certainly not Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who comes to mind when I’m tromping out to the woodpile for a load or three of firewood every afternoon.

I grew up reading the Greek myths but, as a child and teenager, I never identified much with Hestia. Her life just seemed too, dare I say, boring. But with the passing years, I’ve grown better able to discern between boring and simple. Sure Hestia wasn’t out gadding about on misadventures with the rest of her Olympic counterparts. Instead, Hestia must have rolled her eyes from her perch by fire when the rest of the gods came home with stories of their latest antics. Hestia didn’t marry; in fact she rarely, if ever, left her post by the eternal flame. This was a lady with commitment.

And she was extremely important to the Greeks and Romans. Every hearth was considered Hestia’s temple and the fire was not permitted to go out. When I visited Rome, I could hardly wait to get to the Forum to see the remains of House of the Vestals. Sworn to 30 years of celibacy and service, the Vestal Virgins were charged with maintaining the temple’s fire. It was fascinating to think of fire being so important to the ancients that they would incorporate its safekeeping into some of their most extreme ceremonial roles.

No matter how many thousands of years pass, whether we’re wearing togas or Smartwool, there’s always seems to be a fire to tend. We heat with wood at the cabin and as I dump each armload of firewood into the rack beside the stove, I’m reminded of that familiar saying: wood is the heat source that heats us many times, as we chop it, stack it, bring it to the house, and finally, burn it. Bringing in firewood ranked up there with my least favorite chores as a teenager, but now it’s part of the rhythm of my own winter life.

I keep our temple to Hestia blazing brightly by raking the bed of coals, stuffing the stove with birch and watching a fire roar into life. When I turn my back on the starting of the evening’s fire, perhaps to punch down a batch of rising bread dough or to start in on the last night’s dishes which I usually neglect until the daylight starts seeping away the following day, I can almost feel Hestia nodding her approval.

Hestia knew all along: Life doesn’t demand constant fireworks, but it does call for a steady fire.

Airdate: February 16, 2011

Photo courtesy of Yair Haklai via wikimedia.

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