Baby-steps in altar creation

My kitchen has this nifty built-in shelf over the sink. It’s a great place to keep herbs and spices (ignoring the recommendation that you should store them in a dark place) because they’re right there at eye level for grabbing during cooking, yet out of the way of splashing water. I also store some teas there, again, conveniently located for browsing through when I’m in the mood for a cup. And so it didn’t take long for the shelf to fill with these herbs, spices, and teas, often stacked two and three high.

As it happens, my move to this apartment roughly coincided with my growing interest in hearthcraft. The apartment doesn’t have a fireplace, so I can’t make a literal hearth its spiritual center, so I’ve been trying to suss out what the center really is. While I’m not ready to commit to any location yet, I’ve realized that the kitchen shelf wants to have an altar.

It’s been a bit of a challenge. Despite years of being Pagan, I’ve never gotten into having a permanent altar, so I lack that sort of altar experience. I wasn’t sure what I would do with a kitchen altar. The shelf was too enclosed to safely burn candles and even if I cleared it off, too narrow to let me put up a lot of stuff. Whatever went there would have to be simple.

Kitchen altar to Hestia
The shelf and the altar.

And finally it hit me: don’t make a generic altar, make one to Hestia. This is hearthcraft, right? A goddess often pictured simply as a flame probably doesn’t require a super-ornate altar—indeed, Hestia surrendered her throne on Mount Olympus to Dionysus and took a seat close to the hearth. A single candle would be a fine symbol—or in this case, a single battery-powered LED tea light. I’d love to leave the candle burning 24/7, echoing the eternal flame in the ancient Temple of Vesta, but that wars with my concerns about wasting resources. For now, being a beginner at this whole altar thing, I’m just trying to mindfully light the fire when I’m starting to prepare a meal and extinguish it when I’m done with the dishes and ready to leave the kitchen.

Kitchen altar to Hestia 2
The tea light, balanced on top of a canister of tea, is just at the right level to see easily.

Christopher Penczak writes in The Outer Temple of Witchcraft, “By making a space for [an altar] in your home, you are symbolically making a space for the life of a witch in your life.” A tiny altar may not take up a lot of space physically, but symbolically, I may have constructed Stonehenge.

Vesta, Vestalia

In the early 19th century, astronomers discovered the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter. Many of these asteroids were named after Roman goddesses. The fourth of these asteroids was Vesta, which may have been named for the goddess of the hearth fire because it is the brightest of all the asteroids, visible to the naked eye under the right conditions. Well, what astronomy discovers, astrology adopts. Astrologers who chose to work with the asteroids concluded that Vesta represented one’s capacity for commitment, focus, and personal integration.

The keyword “focus” links Vesta to its divine namesake. The Latin word focus means “hearth.” As the Greek goddess Hestia, Vesta’s name had also meant “hearth.” Over the centuries, though, as the needs of her people changed, Hestia/Vesta’s  own focus changed. Hestia had been the goddess of the hearth fire that was the center of individual Greek homes. Eldest of the Olympian deities, she received the first share of any sacrifice conducted at home. Barely appearing in myth, rarely depicted in art, she was nevertheless the heart of Greek domestic life. By Roman times, Vesta’s responsibilities had expanded to include the welfare of the empire as well as that of its citizens. The Temple of Vesta was the hearth of Rome, and the sacred flame, tended by the Vestal Virgins, was the vitality of Rome itself and could never be allowed to go out.

Vesta’s annual festival was the Vestalia. Beginning on June 7, the Temple of Vesta was opened to women. The high point of the festival was June 9 and it concluded on June 15, when the women would clean the temple before it was closed to the public for another year. There seem to have been a variety of activities associated with the Vestalia, including making offerings to Vesta which involved sprinkling bits of a special salt-cake over the sacrifices. As hearths were where bread was baked before ovens took over, the Vestalia was also a holiday for bakers and millers, and millstones and the donkeys that powered them were garlanded with flowers.

With my growing interest in Vesta/Hestia and hearth witchery in general, I didn’t want to let the Vestalia slip by unnoticed, but I wasn’t sure how to observe it. Since I don’t know what the salt-cake meant to the Roman women celebrating the Vestalia and it means nothing to me, making one of my own would be pointless. I have neither a millstone nor a donkey to garland, and anyway, honoring baking really does seem to be a better fit with the Fornacalia. And while cleaning my apartment might echo the temple cleaning of centuries ago, I’m not enlightened enough to see it as anything more than housework.

It was Frances Bernstein, author of Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome, who pointed out another option: as Vesta is the goddess of the hearth fire, invoke her by meditating—focusing—on fire. Specifically, Bernstein recommends meditating on a candle flame, which delights me as an idea. My apartment is just as devoid of hearths as it is millstones, and substituting a candle would be entirely in the spirit of apartment-style Paganism. Plus, meditation is often seen as an effective means of developing the personal integration that the asteroid Vesta is associated with. A quiet time with a small flame may be a perfect-sized Vestalia for the modern home.

O Fornax!

Last month, I learned about the ancient Roman festival of Fornacalia. This was a festival held in the date range of February 5-17, when people honored ovens (fornaces) and the goddess of ovens, Fornax. Fornax had some important responsibilities: she kept ovens from starting fires, kept bread from burning, and in general, made sure that baking came out right.

Clearly, this is a goddess after my own heart. On the baking-cooking spectrum, I prefer baking, although I end up cooking more frequently. There’s just something wonderfully magical about baking. Put together a selection of ingredients. Get them into a pan or Dutch oven or casserole dish. Put that vessel into the oven, close the oven door, and the alchemy happens. You don’t just have hot, sweet liquid batter; you have a light and fluffy cake. Your sticky, damp, inedible bread dough has metamorphosed into a golden brown loaf of scrumptiousness.  Form has changed; texture has changed. Cooking—at least the mostly vegetarian, rice-and-beans style cooking I do most often—doesn’t usually transform the ingredients so drastically. Oh, sure, the onions get translucent and the rice grains and beans swell up, but mostly, a bunch of raw mixed ingredients doesn’t look all that different than a bunch of cooked mixed ingredients. Delicious, yes; magical, not quite as much.

Of course, the magic here is science. I have several books that explain at great and fascinating length how leaveners work, how gluten is formed, and what low, prolonged heat does to the collagen in meat. I love reading those sorts of cookbooks. On top of which, in researching Fornax, I learned that she’s a bit more artificial than many deities, probably invented after the fact as an origin for the Fornacalia. I’m guessing that there isn’t any mythology about her, no tales of lovers taken or spurned, no stories of her having spared Rome from destruction by preventing an oven fire from getting out of control. I can remember all that, though, and still consider baking to be magical and think that maybe there are worse perspectives I could have than thinking of my oven as a shrine to a minor, yet important goddess.

Non-bakers have reason to honor Fornax as well. Surely fornaces reminded you of the English word “furnaces.” Furnaces: very important to those of us in the Upper Midwest, especially at the time of the Fornacalia.