Hestia was the goddess of the hearth and the patroness of all household activities. Because she was the eldest child of Rhea and Cronus, Hestia was the first of the five siblings to be swallowed up by her father.
When the time came for Cronus to do battle with Zeus, he recklessly accepted a magical potion from his sister Metis. The mixture was so unpleasant tasting that the titan violently began to retch until all of his children were expelled from his stomach.
Because Hestia was the last to be disgorged, she was considered to be both the eldest and the youngest of the Olympian gods.
Hestia was a peace loving goddess who never took part in wars or disputes. After the fall of her father Cronos, both Poseidon and Apollo expressed a desire to have her for their wife.
Hestia politely turned down her two suitors and adamantly professed her desire to remain a virgin. Because she kept the peace between the two gods, Zeus awarded her the honor of being offered the first victim at every festival and public sacrifice.
Though Zeus entrusted Hestia with the duty of tending to the divine hearth on Mount Olympus, according to some accounts she freely gave up her seat to accommodate the induction of the young god Dionysus into the pantheon.
I have only touched briefly on the tale of Cronus and his children. If you would like to read a more detailed account of the story please see my commentary on The Birth of Zeus.
The Importance of the Hearth in the Ancient World
Though she does not take center stage in any of the myths, Hestia played an extremely important role in the daily life of mortals. In the ancient world the hearth was the symbol of the home and an exact representation of the goddess herself.
Because every dwelling was equipped with some form of hearth, Hestia had very few community shrines dedicated to her. The glowing flames of the family fire gave everyone the feeling that the goddess was alive and present inside of their home.
All meals started and ended with an offering to Hestia, and every new born baby was carried around the hearth in order to secure her blessing.
Because the goddess was so strongly attached to domestic duties, it was believed that she invented the art of house building.
Every town had a public hearth dedicated to the worship of Hestia. The familiarity of its eternal flame provided a feeling of comfort to the misplaced and to the weary. For any hearth, whether it be public or private offered sanctuary to all those seeking protection.
When a new colony was started, it was customary to remove a bit of the coals from the mother city and use them to rouse the flames in the hearth of the future settlement.
The Tale of Hestia and Priapus
There is a very short story involving Hestia and a lusty fertility god by the name of Priapus.
It seems that Priapus, though always in the mood for some female attention had been cursed by Hera with the affliction of perpetual impotence.
One night after a wild bout of feasting and drinking, the randy god happened to find Hestia quietly sleeping and attempted to have his way with her.
Just as he was about to ravish the virgin goddess, a donkey started to bray very loudly and woke her from her slumber.
Startled and confused, Hestia let out a piercing scream which roused the other Olympians and brought them to her bedchamber door.
Priapus was so embarrassed that he fled back to the woods and hid himself for days amongst the trees and bushes. Never able to forgive the donkey for calling attention to his bad behavior, Priapus developed a deep-rooted hatred for the animal.
This is why an ass was predominately offered when sacrificing to the god, especially in his patron city of Lampsacus.