The 29th Homeric Hymn To Hestia seems to be addressed equally to Hestia and Hermes. There are many reasons why these two should be linked together, mostly surrounding the ideas that both are focused on a local existence - earthly, not heavenly or chthonically (Phillips, Virgin Goddesses). The two appear, at first glance, to be flip sides of the same coin, as together they fully represent everyday life: the home and outside. This contrast is heightened by their gender differences. But this surface glance is misleading; it seems, through this view, that the female role, Hestia/home, and the male role, Hermes/outside, are pretty equal in their power (forgetting, for a moment, that "outside" is a lot bigger and more influential on a larger scale than the "home"). However, though Hermes may be the epitome of man, Hestia does not equally represent the epitome of woman. Because of the patriarchal society, the power of Hestia is engulfed by that of Hermes, and in the places where her power remains strong it is made to be "unfemale," thus separating the power of Hestia from the power of women.
Both Hestia and Hermes were named for important symbolic objects in Greek life, respectively, the hearth and herm. The boundary-marking herm cannot be mistaken for a feminine symbol with its genitalia on prominent display, but the hearth is a different story. The hearth has many uses: it is the symbol of the root of the family and religion in the home, as well as the symbol of the root of the city. It is more difficult to see this as exclusively female. Certainly, the hearth of the home is the place of the woman, and just as Hestia remained by her fire when the other Olympians left to wander Earth, the woman is expected to remain in the home while her husband fights battles and does politics and goes "outside." However, family dynamics are not the only symbolism of the hearth. The femininity of the hearth is significantly diminished when it is the center of a state residing in a city hall, since that was a place where women rarely went (Phillips, Virgin Godesses). Hestia had power there, but that power did not transfer to other women.
As was already mentioned, the hearth in the home was a symbol of a woman's place, but even that distinctly feminine symbolism is not "as good as it seems." The hearth, though the root of the home, is not actually the home itself, but something within. To help explain this concept, take the two main words for "house" in Greek: ? ????? and ? ????a. The masculine, ? ?????, is more "house," as in property or boundary, and the feminine, ? ????a, focuses more on home and family (Helm, lecture). The hearth of Hestia represents ? ????a within the masculine ? ?????. The feminine realm remains within the boundaries (which Hermes symbolizes) of the masculine realm, and so never actually has a "separate realm" at all, as it may have first appeared. To make matters worse, in ancient Greek literature the home hearth was referred to mostly through the patriarch (e.g. "my father's hearth" in Euripides' Hecuba, rather than "mother's"), thereby losing any "ownership" by the female powers.
As if there weren't enough problems with the hearth itself, Hestia continues to lose power over her realm through her own "personality." Hestia is a virgin. She remains loyal to the man of the house and only him - unlike the women she represents (who have father and husband), Hestia never marries and so she remains absolutely and undividedly devoted to the patriarch. She also, as a result, cannot, or will not, have children, thereby depriving herself of the most obvious female attribute, fertility. And so, again, she is unwomanned.
So sadly, despite her obvious influence and power in ancient Greece, Hestia is not as strong as one might think. Hermes and Hestia may share a temple, as suggested by the format of the 29th Hymn (Allen and Sikes, Commentary), but it is not an equal partnership. Far from being the epitome of woman in a gender equal society, Hestia is shown merely to be a man's "perfect vision" of womanhood. The power that is female is quickly swallowed, and what cannot be swallowed is made to be unfemale through denial of female presence.
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Written Fall 2001 at Oberlin College
Last Updated April 19, 2005
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