V is for Vesta

When I was writing about Juno, I mentioned how astrologers often use mythology to figure out what a newly discovered asteroid or other body might symbolize. But unlike the other Olympians, the few myths featuring Hestia don’t have much of a storyline. Over the years, I’ve read that Hestia was the first-born of Kronos and Rhea, making her the first swallowed and the last regurgitated. She had a throne on Mount Olympus, but when Dionysus came and there weren’t enough thrones to go around, she voluntarily surrendered hers, saying that she was content to sit by the hearth. I’ve read that Apollo and Poseidon wanted to marry her, but she turned them down, vowing to remain eternally a virgin. (What myths might have been told had she accepted one of those proposals?) The Roman poet Ovid tells a myth of Vesta, in which the goddess was almost attacked by Priapus as she slept, and was saved only because a nearby mule brayed loud enough to wake her. (He also describes her as Saturn and Ops’ youngest daughter—mythology is rarely consistent about details.)

Vesta. (Photo credit: nasa.gov)

Looking over Vesta’s rulerships, I started wondering how many of them came directly from the mythology of the goddess and how many came more from what we know of her Roman priestesses, the Vestal Virgins. Now one way or another, every planet and asteroid has something to say about your sexuality, but issues involving virginity, celibacy, sublimation, and so on tend to be Vesta’s territory. Certainly Hestia was a virgin goddess, but when writers describe her, they usually start with “goddess of the hearth” and get to her virginity later. But the very title of the Vestal Virgins puts their virginity front and center, as do the descriptions of the priestesses’ lives and their roles in Roman society. By comparison, Athena is also a virgin goddess, but I haven’t read much about virginity in descriptions of the asteroid Pallas except for occasional references to sexuality sublimated into creativity.* Whether it’s from mythology or archeology, Vesta’s astrological meanings often have a sense of the spiritual threading through them: dedication, devotion, solitude, sublimation of sexual energy into spiritual practice.. Vesta is perhaps most often summed up as “focus,” which comes from her principal role as goddess of the hearth: the Latin word for hearth is focus.

The astrological glyph for Vesta.
The astrological glyph for Vesta.

I’ve only recently started understanding how Vesta may work in charts. It’s one thing to read about focus, dedication, and self-integration, or Vesta’s downsides of alienation, burnout, and inhibition. It’s another to try to see how that plays out in real people’s lives, including my own. My Vesta conjuncts my Midheaven, but it took me the longest time to realize that that might mean that I needed solitude and opportunities for single-minded focus in my career, not that I should be considering becoming a nun. In general, I think Vesta’s house location shows areas of life in which we need to be alone periodically, areas in which we commit ourselves without reservation to what we’re doing, in single-minded focus. Vesta’s sign has been harder for me to understand in charts. My Vesta is in Scorpio, and various astrological writers have said that means focusing on discovering secrets. Sure, I’ve been known to try to ferret out secrets; I’m sure many people have, regardless of how many planets they have in Scorpio. And I’m also capable of focusing on my knitting—which isn’t a specifically Scorpionic activity—as well as many other things in life. So I have a ways to go yet in understanding the astrological Vesta, but I figure at this point, it’s a matter of quietly paying attention and watching for the insights. Which sounds completely appropriate to Vesta.

*I don’t know enough about the minor asteroids to know if Artemis’ virginity has anything to do with the asteroid Diana’s astrological meanings.

O is for offerings

…for there is no banquet of mortals without thee, none where, Hestia, they be not wont first and last to make to thee oblation of sweet wine. (Homeric Hymn XXIX, trans. Andrew Lang)

For much of my life, “offerings” have meant “money.” In the churches I’ve known, people offer money, laid in a plate during the service or tithed via check or credit card. This is used for church expenses and charitable works, and the churches I’ve visited as an adult haven’t said much about these being offerings to God. (Of course, this might have something to do with the fact that most of these churches are Unitarian Universalist.)

As a Wiccan, I learned to save a portion of the food and drink from a ritual and leave it outside for the Goddess and God. There were other kinds of offerings, of course, usually left on an altar, although I rarely managed the altar, much less the offerings. My romantic imagination latched onto these offerings as it did to the rest of Wicca. It’s kind of hard to explain; something like real gods, real magic, real offerings—a package deal of the best sort. I didn’t think the Goddess and God needed these offerings, not in the way I needed, say, a paycheck, but I had the sense that Someone was receiving them and that sense gave them meaning.

After letting my spirituality go dormant for several years, I’m being drawn back to Paganism. But even without actively practicing my spirituality, my beliefs grew and changed. What’s relevant to this post is that I’ve become a nontheist, which makes offerings both a philosophical and a practical issue for me. With no sense that there are gods as such, why make offerings at all? If I did so, would it be out of habit or superstition, or can I do it without losing my integrity? And if I’m going to make offerings, what should they be and how should I do it?

Hestia statue and candleTime, pondering, and Google (“why make offerings”) gave me some answers to the philosophical dilemma to think about. One Buddhist site explained, “We make offerings to create positive energy and develop good qualities such as giving with a respectful attitude and gratitude. Moreover, the offerings remind us of certain teachings of the Buddha.” I also realized that theists consider these issues as well—why do you offer a libation to a god who doesn’t need it? So on a Hellenic site, I read that we are attracted to the beauty and goodness of the gods, and offerings express that attraction. I can see making offerings that remind me of qualities of the gods that I want to emulate. And while I am not convinced that there are actual gods out there, I see beauty in what they represent. I’ll need to think about this more, but I’m starting to see reasons that I might make offerings nowadays and mean it. And these were just the reasons I found on two sites; there were pages of results I haven’t gotten to yet.

However the philosophical angle comes out, the practical aspect continues to challenge me. Right now, I feel drawn toward specific gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman mythology. One of those goddesses is Hestia, and one of the best-established facts about Hestia is that traditionally she receives the first and last parts of any sacrifice in the household. If I decide to honor her (or the idea of her) with physical offerings, I’ve got to figure out what to do with them. Many Pagans pour drinks out on the lawn and leave food for the local wildlife. This works if you live in a house, but I’ve never figured out how to do that while living in an apartment. My current apartment building has no backyard, just a parking lot connected to an alley. There are a couple of patches of grass out back, but they’re directly in front of the garden-level apartments, and I don’t want to be practically standing in the neighbors’ living room while leaving offerings. So I’ve ended up waiting until well after sunset, going out to the far end of the parking lot, and slipping offerings under a tussock of grass hidden from view by the recycling bins. Any devout thoughts of gods, nature, the seasons, beauty, or whatever is driven out by the practical concerns of trying not to trip or slide on anything in the poor lighting and worrying that someone will see me and start asking questions. As a religious practice, it lacks something. A daily offering to Hestia? Ha. I tried taking a single flake of breakfast cereal, leaving it in front of her statue until I left for work in the morning, and then tossing it in the bushes lining the alley as I headed for the bus. It felt like littering. I quit.

So the issue of my making offerings (or not) isn’t resolved by any means. But if I choose to make offerings, it will be because doing so means something to me spiritually, which is more than placing a bit of money in an offering plate has ever managed.

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.