Hestia and Me

A large part of my devotional activities focus on working with the Greek gods.  This goes well beyond Hermes, of course, though he does take up the major focus of my work between the new field of mathesis as well as being the god of guides and a guide of gods, men, spirits, souls, and heroes.  I also honor Aphrodite, who’s arguably my celestial mother in astrological terms, as well as Hephaistos for my crafting work, and Dionysos because he came into my life for an as-yet unclear purpose and who am I to turn down He Who Comes?  There are yet other gods I honor and work with, enough so that it helped me out to develop a ritual calendar for making monthly offerings based on lunar cycles and grammatomancy.

One of the gods who made that list is the hearth goddess Hestia, lady of the hearth flame and arguably the definition of domestic deity, whose name itself literally means “hearth”.  Hestia is a daughter of Kronos and Rhea, of the same generation of Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, and Hades.  She is probably the least dramatic of all the Olympians, not having many stories of her exploits since she didn’t really have any, and the only one that comes to mind is how she got her position as goddess of the hearth.  Basically, Apollo and Poseidon both wanted her hand in marriage, but she wanted nothing of them nor of marriage in general, and so begged Zeus to remain a virgin all her days; Zeus agreed, and instead of giving her in marriage gave to her the hearth of the gods and, thus, of all mankind.  And since in older times the hearth was the focal point of domestic life, providing warmth and light and food and protection for the family, Hestia became the goddess of all of these.

Moreover, as the household hearth was also often the shrine to nearly all the other household gods, as much as it was in Greece as it was in Rome, Hestia presided over all offerings and worship made at her hearth.  Indeed, since she was both first-born of the original six Olympians as well as last-born (recall how Zeus ripped out or forced his father Kronos to vomit his other children, and how Hestia was eaten first and therefore escaped last), it was custom for Hestia to receive both the first offering and last offering made at any ancient Greek ritual.  Going to a scale larger than the family, Hestia was often viewed as the goddess of the city hearth itself, with a central fire from which all other hearts burned and took their fire, and from which other colonies of a given city could trace their hearthfires back to as well.  Even more unusual for a Greek deity, she had no processions of her own, no parades to celebrate her; as the hearth was an immovable part of the household, so too was Hestia’s worship and honor solely situated on the hearth itself.  In spite of Hestia’s lack of epic poetry or exploitations, she’s kind of a big deal to the ancients.

I associate Hestia, according to Agrippa (book II, chapter 14), with the zodiacal sign of Capricorn, and thus with the Greek letter Rho according to the stoicheia of the letters.  Her day is the 21st day of the lunar month, which I would normally set aside to make special offerings for her as I do the other gods, but Hestia is different in many ways.  In fact, up until earlier this year, I didn’t really honor Hestia at all.  Sure, there was the genius domus and genius loci, the spirits of the house and land where I lived, and I referred to them as “children” of Hestia and Gaia, and worked with them to make my residence better for myself and my neighbors.  That said, there was no real hearth to the place; it was a second-story apartment in a suburb of DC, our living room was nearly bare and only my roommate spent any amount of time in it, and our kitchen was small and cramped.  It was only when I moved to my new house this year that I decided to formally welcome Hestia into my life and my new house, especially since this new house has an actual wood stove placed against a stone wall with built-in stone shelves.

Now, before I proceed any further, let it be known that while I work with and honor the Greek gods, I am not a Hellenist in the sense of belonging to Hellenismos, the Greek neopagan reconstructionist religion.  I do not follow all the rules and customs that survive to us from ancient writings, nor do I follow the rules and customs of other Hellenistic communities; I generally do my own thing, inspired by the rules and customs as well as by my own experience and interactions with the gods themselves.  After all, times and cultures change, and it’s a given that most traditions change with them.  I’d love to make more offerings of piglets and pigeons to Hermes and Hephaistos, for instance, though I need to build and consecrate a proper altar outside for that, and most neopagans would revile me for even entertaining the thought of blood sacrifice, though I have nothing against it.

Though I live with my fiancé and our mutual close friend, none of us are particularly into cooking large meals.  When we cook at all, we tend to cook for our individual selves, and regardless of whether we cook for ourselves or for all of us, we do it in the kitchen with our fancy modern stove and oven and microwave and cooking supplies.  We don’t use our woodstove to cook (though we may experiment with it foolishly come the winter), nor do we keep it burning (we’ve not used it yet and should probably get the chimney cleaned first), nor do we rely on it for warmth (we have a HVAC system for that) nor for light (since we have electric lightbulbs and not torches or firepits).  We live out in the country, so there’s no big municipal center with its own central hearth, since hearths and common grounds both are generally missing in most of modern urban, suburban, exurban, or rural America.  Even if there were a local community hearth fire, I strongly doubt most people in this neck of the woods would think to honor an ancient Greek goddess with any amount of reverence.  Most of how the ancient Greeks honored Hestia simply doesn’t work for me, and indeed, most of the relevance Hestia had to the ancient Greeks is missing for me.

Still, that doesn’t mean I should just ignore Hestia; she’s an Olympian for a reason, after all, and although many of the amenities of houses have changed, the things for which she stands never have.  We still need light, heat, and food, which Hestia provides through an old-fashioned hearth or through modern lightbulbs and HVAC systems and ovens.  We still need shelter, protection, and a place to call “home”, which Hestia abundantly provides.  We still need a place to gather and celebrate our lives and rituals, which Hestia allows us to do.  Hestia, though she is the goddess of the hearth which is becoming rarer and rarer to find these days in active use, is also the goddess of the home generally, and we definitely have one of those.  It is thus right for me to honor Hestia, giving her a spot to call her own, her own simple shrine in the place she’d feel most comfortable and honored: right by our fireplace.  At the very minimum, I acknowledge her every day as the goddess of the hearth, house, and home itself, and thank her for letting me live there and watching over the house.

Still, I don’t honor Hestia as the ancients did, nor how Hellenists tend to do.  For one, Hestia is an outlier to me; she was one of the original Olympians, yes, but recall that there are 12 Olympians.  There’s Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hephaistos, Ares, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, and Demeter, who form 11 of the 12, but there’s both Hestia and Dionysos to deal with.  Although we don’t have a surviving story that says as much, it’s believed that Hestia gave up her seat at the table of the Olympians to give to Dionysos when he was (re)inducted into the Olympian ranks; Hestia did this to prevent upsetting a balance or causing drama, always the arbiter of peace and prosperity in the home, and took her eternal place by the hearth of the gods.  Likewise, I have my temple room on the other side of the house from the hearth where I do all my spiritual work, with all my shrines and altars and prayer tools.  Hestia, on the other hand, is separated from all that, kept by the fireplace in the living room, isolated from both my spiritual work as well as that of my fiancé and housemate.  My gods are not the household gods, and they’re kept in their own little temenos apart from the public spaces in the house.

Further, while my other gods get their monthly offerings (or, depending on the god, weekly), and although Hestia has a day set aside for her in my lunisolar grammatomantic ritual calendar, I do something different and make offerings to Hestia much more frequently.  I buy novena-like 8″ glass-jar candles from the dollar store near where I live in bulk, and they last about 5 days each; I keep one burning for Hestia at her shrine, and when it goes out, I light her another one along with making her an offering of wine, oil, and incense, and sing out her Orphic Hymn and (short) Homeric Hymn.  The only other shrines I light this type of candle for are my primary devotional altar (which serves as a symbol of the Eternal Infinite Light of God) and for my ancestors, though neither shrine gets special offerings when I light them a new candle (the ancestors have their own trimonthly schedule of offerings).  Hestia gets a large amount of attention from me every five days or so, amounting to about six offerings a month, which is more than the other gods.  Even Hermes gets weekly offerings in addition to his larger monthly offerings, so about five offerings a month.

That said, I’ve only recently started up the process of making an obligatory initial offering to Hestia before the monthly offerings of my other gods.  Before I do any offerings to, say, Zeus on his day of the month, I set out a small amount of wine and oil by her image, thanking her for allowing me a place to live, love, rest, relax, and honor the gods, then I go back to my temple and resume my usual song and dance.  This doesn’t apply to my weekly offerings; those I find more intimate, casual, and off-the-cuff with individual deities I share a very close relationship with, and not everyone gets both a weekly and monthly offering.  Overall, making a preliminary offering to Hestia is a nice gesture, and it helps me prepare myself mentally to do anything else with the gods.  Sure, it’s a little more wine and oil spent, but it’s worth it.  I don’t, however, make her an offering after my other monthly stuff; it suffices for us that she get the first pour of wine.  Plus, this only applies when I’m working with the Greek gods; different traditions necessitate different rules, and some traditions (like Santeria) specify that one of their deities must be fed first; in order to prevent a conflict of interest when one might arise, I keep Hestia before offerings to Greek gods and other deities before gods of their own kind.  (This is one of the problems with having your fingers in so many spiritual pots.)

When it comes to food, well, none of us are big cookers or bakers, though we are known to prepare some large dishes from time to time, or host an occasional dinner party.  When we produce a large amount of food (and I’m talking something substantially more than a pot of macaroni and cheese for an after-work dinner), we set aside small portions for our ancestors, and I set aside another small portion for Hestia.  After all, if the hearth is where food is cooked, then it can be argued that the kitchen is one such hearth for us, and since Hestia allows us a home to live in and cooked food to live on, it’s proper to honor her too.  This follows no schedule, of course, beyond whenever we happen to make a large amount of food or bake a loaf of bread.  When it’s time for the food to be removed, a day or more after I make the offerings, I do with the food the same as I do all the other spiritual offerings; throw it into the pit in my backyard.  That way, we feed the land with the actual material food, which in turn provides more for us both materially and spiritually and helps out the fae and other flora and fauna, both physical and metaphysical, in our area.  In other words, we compost.

Of course, Hestia isn’t the only household spirit we work with.  As I mentioned, we have a big fae population where we live out in the woods, and we feed the fae once in a while, perhaps giving them offerings of their choice (usually red wine and berries with whipped cream).  Plus, in addition to Hestia, I also have a household guardian, a coywolf spirit I’ve been working with for some time now.  The coywolf gets offerings along with Hestia, and a smaller candle lit just for her.  If we get other spirits who decide to take up residence with us as household spirits or guardians, we’ll likewise honor them in a similar way; that said, I don’t exactly intend to call on them the same way as I did the genii I did in my old flat; Hestia and the coywolf guardian suffice for my needs.  It’s not like I need to ask them for much, either; they keep the household running safely and soundly, and all goes well.  When I offer a candle to Hestia, I often dress the candle with oils that encourage peace, prosperity, and fortune in the home for me and my housemates.

So, when I actually do make offerings to Hestia, what is it I seek from her?  I mean, honoring the gods in and of itself is a virtue that should be inculcated, but in my Hermetic and Hermaic mind, nearly all worship and honor is a transaction.  Of course I honor her because she’s Hestia, but I also honor her to ask for her blessing.  When it comes to Hestia, I think my goals are pretty straightforward: I want to live in a place that is safe, stable, and secure from those who would try to harm me intentionally or unintentionally; I want to live in a place that helps me obtain peace, prosperity, and protection from the world, both natural and humane; I want to live in a place that gives me tranquility and takes away tension.  I want a place where I can live, learn, love, rest, relax, study, store my belongings.  I want a place where I don’t have to be evicted or come under threat of it.  I want a place that won’t be destroyed by plague, earthquake, fire, or flood.  I want a place where I can be warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, dry when it’s raining, fed when I’m hungry, rested when I’m fatigued, and safe when I’m persecuted.  I want a place to call home.

Of all the sacred places in ancient Greek thought, from Gibraltar in the West to the Indus in the East and all the shrines and temples in between, probably the most sacred one of them is the oikos, the home itself, which itself is the sanctuary beyond all sanctuaries and temple beyond all temples, the one to which we ourselves belong.  Hestia has much to provide for us, even in our day and age.

Clarifying Magic, Religion, and Ways of Life

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making good use of some of my Christmas presents (books on magic, religion, and the like) and heartily absorbing some of the points they make.  While many of the texts talk about specific ways to implement ritual practices or the general cultural milieu occult practices take place within, the overarching theme that’s being presented is that it’s really really hard to make clear distinctions between magic and religion based on the evidence we have of ancient cultures.  Sure, we might call ourselves “magicians” or “priests” nowadays, but the worldview we have when we apply these labels to ourselves is kinda weird when we consider what the ancients and our ancestors would have done.

For instance, a magician nowadays might set aside some time every day for magical work, but beyond that doesn’t do a damn thing; no prayers, no offerings, no involvement of “magic” beyond their set rituals.  Someone we might call devout or religious might go to church every week and occasionally get involved in scripture study with their friends, but outside of that barely involves themselves in religious activity.  We basically consider ourselves part-time magicians; part of the time we’re magicians, and the rest we’re just our normal mundane selves.  This is such a modern way of thinking, and so prevalent around us, that it’s hard to consider that it might have been any different for the people who have gone before us.

What would the ancients have done?  Rather than set aside times for doing magic or being religious, they involved these things literally all the time in everything they did.  Not one single thing was separate from magic or the gods or religion; not one single act had explicitly mundane purposes completely detached from the spirits.  Every herb picked, every meal served, every trip made, every speech spoken invoked the gods or spirits in some way, or was performed for some spiritual purpose no matter how small.  Rather than clearly thinking of something as magical or non-magical, or religious or non-religious, their entire lives were lived by incorporating the spirits in every action.  Of course, there were atheists and people with different beliefs doing the same thing as others who might be more canonical or traditional in their works, but that didn’t matter.  Everything actually done was the important thing, and even those who didn’t believe in a particular spirit or the efficacy of the spirit still performed the rituals just as everyone else did.

We might call this all the “religion” of ancient peoples, but it’s unclear whether they would have considered it so.  To an Athenian, their style of Hellenistic belief was simply what was always done; there was no set reference of texts, no central hierarchy, no canon.  The only things that were set were the festivals, the rituals, and the observances of the gods that, as far as they were concerned, sustained them in their livelihood and lives. There was no “religion” beyond daily life itself, and all the observances and stories that gave importance to their lives.

What do we consider “religion” nowadays for ourselves, though?  We might consider a set of canonical scriptures, a defined set of beliefs, some sort of priesthood or hierarchy, and regular observances of ritual or significant times.  We generally consider religion to follow an orthodox (literally “right teachings”) model, where belief is the core part of religion.  After all, given the past 2000 years of Christian development and influence on Western culture and philosophy, where Christians were more concerned with “what is the real word of God” or “what is heretical and against us”, this isn’t too surprising.  Christians have had a set of four gospel texts with a number of other texts appended on and deemed canonical by central authorities, with any deviance from these texts considered heretical.  A central authority deems whether a particular text is worth studying, or whether a particular person has been initiated into the priesthood, or whether a particular ritual is acceptable or not for use within the church.  It’s all very centralized and set in stone, and any deviance from the approval of the authorities is bad.  What the authorities believe is “religion”; what they don’t is deemed heretical or magical.

But this sort of central authority simply didn’t exist for most of human history, or even in a majority of world cultures.  Take Hinduism for instance; while there are a few central texts crucial to the understanding of Hindu philosophy and beliefs, there is no central hierarchy to determine what’s right and what’s wrong.  Local communities might practice their festivals or rituals differently, or might place more emphasis on one practice than another.  Different communities might hold different stories or myths to be more important than others.  They might add more scriptures, or consider fewer.  None of them dispute the correctness of each other, since other practices can augment or reflect one’s own in useful ways depending on need and practice.  The ancient Greeks are another good example; they might have had the Odyssey and Iliad to reflect ancient myths, or other bodies of myth and stories, but there was no central hierarchy to determine whether this temple had illegitimate practices or priests initiated incorrectly.  Even within the same city, the same god might be worshipped any number of ways, and that was alright.

Rather than following an orthodox model of religion, many cultures place more importance on orthoprax models, literally “right practice”.  So long as you do the rituals to spec (whatever that “spec” might have been), you’re in the clear.  You might think that the god is really some other god, or that the ritual has this importance and not the one others think is important, but that doesn’t matter so long as you actually get your hands dirty and do the work.  Even if the community is just a tightly-knit family with ten people, the rituals and practices and customs done would be considered legit by them, and that’s all that matters.  There is no standard to determine which practices or beliefs are right or wrong, beyond what’s done for a good reason.

Partially, this lack of orthodox standard is influenced by the presence of “set texts”.  Oral traditions, like the classical Hindu or modern Santería or other religions, don’t have any particular set texts.  They’re all spoken aloud, passed down by word from one generation to the next; while the songs may be the same, they’re ephemeral, and require people to memorize them.  Changes, especially if the songs are lost or misheard or inappropriate for further use, are organic and allow different communities to develop their own flavors of the original religion that reflect their own cultures and communities.  There’s nothing to compare against besides each other, no “canon”, to say that something is right or wrong.  If something simply isn’t done anywhere else and contradicts every other surviving practice, it might be weird, but if it works and gets the same stuff done, it’s hardly “wrong”.  It might not be acceptable to one group, but if it works within the group in which it developed, there’s nothing “heretical” about it, so long as it pleases their gods and gets the job done.

So what’s the big difference between magic and religion?  Honestly, there isn’t one as far as I can see.  Even to define the two is difficult enough, but might better both be put under a broader header of “spiritual customs” that a group or individual makes use of to accomplish certain goals.  Whether gods are invoked by name or a simple announcement of intent is made, these customs are something “extra” to the purely mundane causes and effects that somehow make the action fit in better with one’s life.  It would seem that religion is simply the approved practices of the majority or a central hierarchy, and magic is anything outside that realm within the same culture, but this definition is kinda weak.  What would we make of a curse tablet that invokes the gods of the underworld in a purely prayer format?  Is that magic, or religion?  Many people employed curse tablets, and there’s nothing overly disapproved of the wording.  The grey area between magic and religion is so large that it incorporates both magic and religion.

Within a particular pantheon or philosophy, so long as you do what’s done, you’re pretty much set.  Just because some central authority detached from your culture and need says that your actions are wrong doesn’t make it so, but not all authorities are completely detached on the matter.  For instance, if you try to invoke the Santería orisha Chango in a ceremonial magic working or use symbols and offerings that are more appropriate to the Greek thea Aphrodite, that’s probably not going to end up too good.  Why?  Because that’s not how Chango has ever been treated, nor how Chango ever grew by those that worship him, and it’s also likely that Chango himself wouldn’t agree with the practices.  It’s not bad to innovate, but it’s also not bad to listen to custom and tradition.

Those two words, “custom” and “tradition” have important etymological roots that can clarify and guide our practices.  Custom ultimately comes from the Latin word “consuescere”, meaning “to become used to with oneself”.  Anything that is done over time that has been adopted or integrated into a community, family, culture, or even individuals is a custom.  Tradition comes from the Latin word “tradere”, meaning “to hand across, to hand down”.  Anything that we are taught to do, or picked up from others, or passed down from one generation to the next is a tradition.  Between these two, we already have a good body of things that can help us build our practice and educate us: the stories we’re told from birth, the tricks and quirks our parents show us in the kitchen or around the house, the polities and courtesies we show others that we were taught to show, all these things are customs and traditions that help us build ourselves into the people we are.

Neither customs nor traditions preclude changes to them or innovations of new practices, but customs and traditions should guide us and offer a sounding board for these new practices.  Thus, if a particular kind of fruit offered to Chango in Africa cannot be found in Cuba where he’s also worshipped, a substitute can be made if the new fruit is appropriate (similar color, taste, texture, etc.), or the practice might be eliminated entirely.  Offering Chango something entirely different with no connection or relationship to the original offering or anything Chango is known to like, however, may not be recommended unless Chango asks for it.  Similarly, if one’s traditions involve calling upon Chango with another set of gods that have been passed down by one’s family or culture (e.g. native American religions or pre-slave trade Caribbean faiths), asking for Chango’s presence with another god can be good if the two gods are known to get along well.  On the other hand, asking for Chango’s presence with a Celtic or Slavic god, when these gods are new to the family or culture and no connections between them have been formally made yet, may not end up too well unless one asks Chango and the other god how they might interact with each other.  Overall, it’s a respect thing.

In a sense, ritual acts might be considered “wrong” only if they’re disagreeable with the forces that they call upon.  If other people don’t like it, they don’t have to practice it or go along with it, especially if their traditions and customs dictate they act in certain ways that don’t agree with this other ritual.  If the spirits are okay with something and its continued use, there’s nothing wrong with taking that and passing it on for others to use.  If a ritual act gets something done or spiritually completes an act without harm and with benefits, it should be maintained and practiced by those who can use it.  That’s really the only difference between “wrong” or “heretical” acts and “right” or “proper” acts when it comes to ritual.  Acts that are deemed heretical and magical by central authorities, then, can be of no less use and efficacy than those that are deemed religious and proper, so long as the acts themselves don’t conflict with the customs and traditions that help build someone up into the person they are within the community that was also shaped by those customs and traditions.

So what’s the difference between magic and religion?  There isn’t one besides what’s deemed “proper” by someone who probably doesn’t matter.  What’s the difference between these and ways of life?  There shouldn’t be one for those who are serious about either.