I’ve been thinking today about Hestia, Greek Goddess of the hearth. My strongest images of her come from my favorite childhood book– D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths. Hestia didn’t show up much in the stories. A family tree affirmed her to be Zeus’s sister. Beyond that, I remember only one image of her. It was an image of Mount Olympus. All of the Gods and Goddesses sat radiant on their thrones. Zeus, with his thunderbolts. Athena with sword, shield, and owl. Demeter, with daughter Persephone and crown of wheat.
But Hestia had no throne. Dressed in a plain robe of brown, she sat by the hearth fire, tending the sacred flame.
When I was a child, Hestia never interested me much. She seemed drab. Overly peaceable. Whereas her immortal siblings passed their days frolicking in diaphanous tunics, inspiring poets, and enjoying scandalous affairs, Hestia didn’t get out much. She was the sort of person it was easy to overlook, sitting amidst the ashes. And she was there by choice! No act of injustice had bound her there, no evil spell, or wish gone wrong constrained her. Why would anyone choose thus, let alone a Goddess? Who would give up a life of adventure to sit beside the cinders?
So went my thinking as a young artist. In my teenage years and early twenties, I lived for wildness. I read Rimbaud, Baudelaire, the French symbolists. Like Aries, I was tempestuous, warlike, quick to anger, flighty in my desires. Like Aphrodite, I was seduced by creativity– and lived to pass on its seduction to others. Like Dionysis, I loved to experience any alteration to my state, to lose myself in life’s intensity.
I look back on that person and on those days, with fondness. So it’s interesting now to find myself at this new place in my life, where I too find myself sitting hearth side, and finding peace there. Hestia’s place. Where I once saw plainness, now I see warmth, love, and hidden colors. Hestia as a quiet muse. Hestia as still center. Hestia, a small, constant star, holding steady amidst the ferocious pantheon of action and desire.
Hestia holds the space. Amidst the pomp and showy beauty of her siblings, it would be easy to overlook Hestia’s her simple work– to tend this sacred flame– the flame of quiet presence. And yet, without her, where would the Gods and Goddesses be? Where would any of us be?
Every day, outside our Brooklyn apartment, at least twenty ambulances go by, often waking my little son from his slumber. We step outside, into the clamorous world. Trucks barrel by, spewing exhaust. As we walk, billboards tell me what to do, what to buy, who to be. Carrying my child, I try to shield his sweet eyes from dark images on all sides. Graphic pictures of people with lung cancer. A poster for “Saw II”. Another movie poster shows a woman cowering in terror, trying in vain to shelter her two children from an approaching shadow. My child stares wonderingly as we hurry by them. I long for a great wing, wide enough to shelter him, strong enough to hold him close to the mystery from which he so recently came.
Hestia reminds me that amidst the clamor, there lives the point of return. She invites me into quiet, the still center of the world. I come with my child in my arms. Together, we go in quiet, to sit beside her hearthside. There, we know peace. “Stay as long as you like,” she says gently. And we do.
At times, dear friends come to me, also shellshocked from the mad world outside, refugees seeking the shelter of a listening ear. Here, Hestia is again my teacher. I imagine the sacred hearth of Olympus. How it must have glowed as a place to circle round, to gather, perhaps to sing. Ovid, Plutarch, the other Bards focus on the God’s action packed exploits. But each misadventure had a morning after. The stumbling home. Who else would be awake? Only one, maybe– Hestia, beside the fire. Hestia’s quiet peace. Hestia the listener. Hestia, warm friend.
But was Hestia only a listener? Perhaps not! Thinking about the hearthside, perhaps I focus too much on the strength and solidity of stone. I haven’t explored the fire itself. The fire! What tireless dancing! What hidden life! Hestia as a dancer! For as she watches the flame, it dances in her. She lives into it, becomes it, as we all inevitably become what we cherish.
But it is yet more than this. For Hestia’s peace is a particular kind– it is the peace of loving, intentional surrender. In this surrender lies the deepest form of empowerment.
Hestia warmed a space for others to gather. Not only with her flame, but with her listening, and her still, loving quiet. Drab, invisible Hestia as a connector (!) Invisibly, perhaps, she drew and held them– these too bright, careening stars of Gods, burning in all directions. On Earth, amidst mortals, gods like Zeus were both enmeshed and aloof. They were bound by desire and by duty to the world of human kind. But at the same time, they were above it, dangerous in their powers. Their gift was to have whatever they wanted. Their curse was to never be satisfied. But around the sacred hearth, maybe things were simpler. They belonged. Together in their absolute power. Together in absolute powerlessness against desire and impulse. Huddled around the warmth of Hestia, who in her implausible contentment was the only one who was truly free.
* * *
I look at my son, Ember– a longed for, wished for, prayed for child. Each day with him, I reflect on the miracle of his coming to us. I watch him sleep. His beauty overwhelms me.
I feel the peace of landing. The easy beauty of a simple home. A home small enough that we can easily ensoul it, that our warmth may penetrate its every corner. A space small enough to keep tidy, without much fuss. A space without too many things in it. A space with room to dream.
Such simple things I’ve come to focus on, of late. Food, shelter, love. The joy of kinship and long conversations. The pleasure in taking our time. I seek now the still center. In this space, I taste peace. I listen, learn. I warm my hands over the belly of the hidden fire.