In Greek mythology Hestia (Roman Vesta), first daughter of Cronus and Rhea (Ancient Greek "hearth" or "fireside"), is the virgin goddess of the hearth, architecture, and of the right ordering of domesticity and the family. She received the first offering at every sacrifice in the household. In the public domain, the hearth of the prytaneum functioned as her official sanctuary. With the establishment of a new colony, flame from Hestia's public hearth in the mother city would be carried to the new settlement. She sat on a plain wooden throne with a white woolen cushion and did not trouble to choose an emblem for herself.
In Roman mythology, her more specifically civic approximate equivalent was Vesta, who personified the public hearth, and whose cult of the ever-burning hearth bound Romans together in the form of an extended family. At some primitive level her name means "home and hearth," the oikos, the household and its inhabitants. "An early form of the temple is the hearth house; the early temples at Dreros and Prinias on Crete are of this type as indeed is the temple of Apollo at Delphi which always had its inner hestia" Among classical Greeks the altar was always in the open air with no roof but the sky, and that of the oracle at Delphi was the shrine of the Goddess before it was assumed by Apollo. The Mycenaean great hall, such as the hall of Odysseus at Ithaca was a megaron, with a central hearth fire.
The hearth fire of a Greek or a Roman household was not allowed to go out, unless it was ritually extinguished and ritually renewed, accompanied by impressive rituals of completion, purification and renewal. Compare the rituals and connotations of an eternal flame and of sanctuary lamps. At the more developed level of the polis, Hestia symbolizes the alliance between the colonies and their mother cities.
Homeric hymn to Hestia
Hestia figures in few myths: she did not roam nor did she have any adventures. The Homeric hymn To Hestia is consequently brief, simply an invocation of five lines, a prelude:
Hestia, you who tend the holy house of the lord Apollo, the Far-shooter at goodly Pytho, with soft oil dripping ever from your locks, come now into this house, come, having one mind with Zeus the all-wise: draw near, and withal bestow grace upon my song.
In the hymn, Hestia is located in ancient Delphi (rather than at the hearth of Zeus on Mount Olympus), which was considered the central hearth of all the Hellenes. In classical Greek art, Hestia was depicted as a woman modestly cloaked in a head veil.
Account from Ovid
In his account of the Fasti of the Roman year, Ovid twice recounted an anecdote of Priapus's foiled attempt on a sleeping nymph: once he told it of the nymph Lotis and then again, calling it a "very playful little tale", he retold it of Vesta, the Roman equivalent of Hestia. In the anecdote, after a great feast, when the immortals were all either passed out drunk or asleep, Priapus—who had grotesquely large genitalia—spied Lotis/Vesta and was filled with lust for her. He quietly approached the nymph, but the braying of an ass awoke her just in time. She screamed at the sight and Priapus ran away.
Hestia as an Olympian
Hestia is one of the three great goddesses of the first Olympian generation, along with Demeter and Hera. She was described as both the oldest and youngest of the three daughters of Rhea and Cronus, sister to three brothers Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades, in that she was the first to be swallowed by Cronus and the last to be disgorged. Originally listed as one of the Twelve Olympians, Hestia gave up her seat in favor of newcomer Dionysus to tend to the sacred fire on Mount Olympus. However, there is no ancient source for this claim. As Karl Kerenyi observes, "there is no story of Hestia's ever having taken a husband or ever having been removed from her fixed abode." Every family hearth was her altar. Of the Olympian gods, Hestia has the fewest exploits "since the hearth is immovable, Hestia is unable to take part even in the procession of the gods, let alone the other antics of the Olympians," Burkert remarks. Sometimes this is assumed to be due to her passive, non-confrontational nature. This nature is illustrated by her giving up her seat in the Olympian twelve to prevent conflict. She is considered to be the first-born of Rhea and Cronus; this is evidenced by the fact that in Greek (and later Roman) culture ritual offerings to all gods began with a small offering to Hestia; the phrase "Hestia comes first" from ancient Greek culture denotes this.
Immediately after their birth, Cronus swallowed Hestia and her siblings except for the last and youngest, Zeus, who later rescued them and led them in a war against Cronus and the other Titans. Hestia, the eldest daughter "became their youngest child, since she was the first to be devoured by their father and the last to be yielded up again" — the clearest possible example of mythic inversion, a paradox that is noted in the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite (ca 700 BCE): "She was the first-born child of wily Cronus — and youngest too."
Poseidon, and Apollo of the younger generation, each aspired to court Hestia, but the goddess was unmoved by Aphrodite's works and swore on the head of Zeus to retain her virginity. The Homeric hymns, like all early Greek literature, reinforce the supremacy of Zeus, and Hestia's oath taken upon the head of Zeus is an example of surety. A measure of the goddess's ancient primacy — "queenly maid... among all mortal men she is chief of the goddesses," in the words of the Homeric hymn — is that she was owed the first as well as the last sacrifice at every ceremonial assembly of Hellenes, a pious duty related by the mythographers as the gift of Zeus, as if it had been his to bestow.