Over and over again, we are told that prominent Goddess figures are somehow ‘foreign’ to the Indo-European world – that these ‘have’ to have been picked up from various non-IE groups, and in any case ‘must’ be merely peripheral to the actual Indo-European religions, much less the archaic Proto-Indo-European belief from which it all descends.
And yet … everywhere we look, we see evidence which directly countermands both propositions. Evidence which occurs not only inside particular Indo-European spheres themselves, showing the importance and integrality of these Goddess figures to the belief of this or that Indo-European people – but which also co-occurs across multiple and independently congealed Indo-European canons … showing that these elements cannot have simply come about due to contact with a single local pre-IE group, and instead must arcen back to still more archaic, even Proto-Indo-European times.
Consider the shining exemplar that is Hestia.
Now while it is true that we do not tend to so frequently see major ‘standalone’ devotional elements to Hestia – individual dedicated Temples, for instance, of which for Her there were few (albeit with a very major exception when we consider the Aedes Vesta in Rome) … that is NOT because Hestia is somehow a ‘peripheral’ figure condemned to the sidelines.
No, quite the contrary!
It is this way precisely because She is central, integral, and vital to the entire exercise of both faith and civilization within that sphere.
She is stated, in the Homeric corpus of Hymnals to be present in all Temples of the Gods where fire-sacrifice is carried out. And, for that matter, in all the Homes of pious Men as the essential hearth-fire upon which household offerings could be carried out as well.
As one of those Hymnals dedicated specifically to Her puts it:
“Hestia, in the high dwellings of All, both deathless Gods and men who walk on earth, You have gained an everlasting abode and highest honor: glorious is Your portion and Your right.
For without You mortals hold no banquet, – where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last.”
The Hestia Hymnal found in the Orphic canon goes somewhat further:
“Daughter of Kronos, venerable dame,
Who dwellest amidst great fire’s eternal flame;
In sacred rites these ministers are Thine,
Mystics much blessed, holy and divine.
In Thee the Gods have fixed Their dwelling place,
Strong, stable basis of the mortal race.
Eternal, much formed, ever florid queen,
Laughing and blessed, and of lovely mien;
Accept these rites, accord each just desire,
And gentle health and needful good inspire.”
So, to put the matter directly: what we see with Hestia is a Goddess Who is so vital to the Hellenic religion that without Her, many major forms of offering are simply not possible. Without Whom, the sacral fires cannot become ‘living’ and consecrated for receiving that which is to be sent to the Gods; and therefore, to Whom, a significant share and placement (the first share, in fact) of the offerings in question ought be made.
It is therefore no wonder that She is so directly correlated with not only the hearth-fire which makes a Home, but also with that more august flame which centers a City, a Nation. Indeed, we might go so far as to suggest – a Cosmos (in multiple senses of that particular ancient Greek term).
Yet some might suggest that such a situation could be the result of the Greeks going down a particular trajectory of development – and therefore departing from the archaic Indo-European custom.
They would be wrong to do so.
For we find strongly cognate understandings in the Vedic sphere.
There, we should likely know Hestia as Vak Devi – the Goddess of Speech [Vak, as in ‘Voice’, ‘Vox’, etc.] – here ‘Divine Speech’ … that most vitally integral of elements for any ritual observance or pious (or, for that matter, meaningfully ‘civilizational’) undertaking.
To quote from the Janasvami rendering for the famed DeviSukta (RV X 125) –
“1 I move along with Rudras, the Vasus, the Adityas, also with the
Vishvadevas. I hold both Mitra and Varuna, both Indra and Agni, and both the Asvin brothers.
2 I bear the pressed out Soma, also Tvashtri, Pushan and Bhaga. I grant wealth to the possessor of oblation, to the mindful institutor of sacrifice and to the performer of Soma sacrifice.
3 I am the Queen, the gatherer of vasus (treasures), knower of Brahman, the first (chief) of the object of yagna (worship). The Gods have dispersed Me in many places, having many abodes, causing Me to pervade (or overpower) many.
4 He who eats food, he who sees, who breathes, who hears the
spoken word does so through Me alone. Even the non-perceivers of you dwell near Me. Hear me! he who is capable of hearing me! I speak to you the credible.”
The Hymnal itself continues for another four verses, and contains some of my favourite conceptry in the RigVeda – which we have discussed at length elsewhere, along with the seemingly quite direct cognate expressions for such in the Hellenic (and broader Classical) as well as Germanic / Nordic, and other IE spheres.
But those four lines that I have quoted in translation above nevertheless give an excellent testimony for, as I say, a directly correlate understanding for Vak Devi relative to Hestia when it comes to the Vedic relative to the Hellenic ritual metaphysics (and associated cosmological imperatives necessitous for same).
In both spheres, we find that this Goddess is to be found immensely pervasively – stationed so broadly by The Gods Themselves, and emplaced thusly precisely because She is so incredibly, inherently vital to Their ongoing saliency in the religion … and the world … itself.
The DeviSukta makes this more expressively explicit in some ways – beginning with a name-checking of an array of the (male) mighty and prominent deifics of the Vedas, whether as individuals or as entire clades, and stating simply that it is Vak Devi Who supports and underpins these all.
Whilst also, per the second half of the second line, bestowing the fruits of sacrifice upon the pious worshipper (these, in particular, including the Soma – and c.f what we see for a certain Hellenic Goddess bringing the Ambrosia and Nectar elsewhere in the archaic (and actually by him this time) Homeric corpus).
Not for nothing is She in the next line stated to be ‘Prathama Yajniyanam’ – ‘First / Foremost of Those Who Merit Worship’ (to briefly slip into the Griffith rendering).
However, the discerning reader may be left with an obvious question – namely, if there is such a directly cognate relationship between Hestia and Vak Devi … then where is the Flame? Surely this is the purview of Agni?
And the answer to that is to be found both inferentially in the aforementioned fourth line of the DeviSukta – concerning the Fires which sustain life, even internal to us … but also, in rather greater explicitness in the Shatapatha Brahmana ritual manuals and commentary.
To quote a few verses:
“22 Being willing to go over to the Gods, She [Vak] said, ‘What would be Mine, if I were to come over to You?’–
[Agni:] ‘The offering shall reach Thee even before (it reaches) Agni.’ She then said to the Gods, ‘Whatsoever blessing Ye will invoke through Me, all that shall be accomplished unto You!’
So She went over to the Gods.
23 And, accordingly, when he [the sacrificer / ritualist] pours ghee on the high altar, while the fire is held (over it)–
since the Gods said to Her on that occasion, ‘The offering shall reach Thee even before Agni’–then that offering does reach Her even before (it reaches) Agni; for this (high altar) is in reality Vâk. And when he raises the high altar, it is for the completeness of the sacrifice, for the sacrifice is Vâk (speech) and that (high altar) is Vâk.”
[SB III 5 1, Eggeling translation]
8 […] Because She (Vâk–the altar) on that occasion became a lioness and roamed about unappeased, he thus dismisses from the sacrifice that sorrow of Hers […]
9 Now as to why he pours ghee on the high altar, while the fire is held (over it). Because the Gods said to Her [Vak] on that occasion, ‘The offering shall reach Thee before Agni,’ therefore the offering now does reach Her before (it reaches) Agni.
And because She said to the Gods, ‘Whatsoever blessing Ye will invoke through Me, all that shall be accomplished unto You!’ therefore the priests now invoke through Her that blessing upon the sacrificer, and it is fully accomplished unto him.”
[SB III 5 2, Eggeling translation]
It is also good to note the direct linkage of Vak with the ‘high altar’ of the rites under discussion – as this comports with the etymology for ‘Hestia’ : which directly comes from an Ancient Greek term for a fireplace, ‘Hearth’, or altar : ἑστίᾱ (‘Estia’).
We might further look at the potentiality for Nordic Gullveig in light of this apparent typological situation – as, once again, we have a female figure of noted metaphysical potency and might (as expressed through speech / song in particular) that winds up in a ‘hearth fire’ directly connected with what should seem to be an offering (hence the triple occurrence of the phenomenon – which may resonate with the frequent ‘triple fire’ sacrifice pattern in evidence in various portions of Indo-European ritual praxis).
However, the nature of Gullveig’s presentation in the Voluspa both simultaneously militates further investigation in order to better (at)test this theory, as well as making the actual depth of exploratory inquiry no doubt required to properly probe the matter most difficult to encompass indeed.
[There is some further mytholinguistic speculation we could indulge in as to just why the terms ‘Hestia’ and ‘Estia’ may ultimately derive from a PIE designation for a ‘place to be’ – whether it’s due to the hearth being at the center of the dwelling, or indeed the other way around … with the fire being, as in Vedic terms, where the Goddess is invoked into and therefore ‘dwells’, as we have seen elsewhere – and with particular reference, per the Orphic hymnal, for the Gods having been invoked Themselves into the flame of Her. But we shall not seek to get too heavily into that at this particular point in time. Let us return to the Shatapatha Brahmana verses under active discussion then … ]
Now the former of these pairs of verses is of interest to us for another reason – as what is actually depicted in the section that those lines are from, is a situation of Agni propitiating the mighty Devi so that She shall carry out the required role in the Fire of the Altar.
SB III 2 1 carries this in an intriguing direction which we have discussed elsewhere : that of, effectively, a romantic partnership which features Both deities involved in the process.
I mention this here, because both Homeric Hymnals to Hestia make interesting reference to a male God as well:
In the case of Hymn 24, this is Apollo:
“Hestia, You Who tend the holy house of the lord Apollon, 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.”
And in the case of the second portion of Hymn 29, it is Hermes.
The reason that these occurrences are of interest to us, is because Agni is, canonically, Rudra.
This is worth mentioning here, as there is a well-known and strong coherency between Apollo and Rudra, as we have discussed elsewhere. Along with a certain potential coterminity between Hermes and the same deific in various manners.
The co-invocations displayed in these Hymnals, therefore, may point toward a similar saliency for these Hellenic deifics to what we find viz. Agni in the Vedic sphere in various ways. But more upon that some other time.
Of additional interest to us is the mention in Homeric Hymnal 29 for Hestia as ‘having one mind with Zeus’ – as Rudra is, per various RV attestations (as well as general comparative Indo-European theological analysis) Dyaus Pitar (the Sky Father – Zeus Pater / Jupiter Himself); and there is a similarly correspondent understanding for Vak as, in essence, the Wife of the Sky Father (hence Her direct linkage with Aditi elsewhere in the canon (a situation which makes the linkage of Hestia with Scythian Tabiti all the more sensible), and the potential application of this typology to, for instance, Nordic Freyja, etc.).
Yet these are matters that can be explored in greater and grander depth elsewhere in the future.
For now, it is enough to observe that there is a clear coherency between deifics attested independently (insofar as anything in the broader Indo-European realm is ever ‘truly’ ‘independent’ – having all sprung from the same ultimate Urheimat originations) in the Hellenic and Vedic spheres, thousands of kilometers and perhaps a thousand years apart (in terms of the RV hymnal we have cited in relation to the later Classical corpus of texts for the Hellenics).
One which goes well beyond simply having a Goddess figure that is ‘prominent’ – and directly establishes that She is, in fact, integral to the mythos and the religion for which it stands.
This does not obviate the fact that there are clear ‘differences’, too.
For instance, Plato’s Phaedrus may make memorable mention of, to quote directly:
“Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all; and there follows him the array of gods and demigods, marshalled in eleven bands; Hestia alone abides at home in the house of heaven; of the rest they who are reckoned among the princely twelve march in their appointed order.”
Or, to present in the paraphrase of the concept by that well-known purveyor of fiction, Rick Riordan; in dialogue which he ascribes to his rendition of Her:
“I am here because when all else fails, when all the other mighty gods have gone off to war, I am all that’s left. Home. Hearth. I am the last Olympian.”
This contrasts rather heavily with the Vedic understanding – wherein Vak does most definitely go ‘wandering’.
Both directly accompanying those other bands of Gods – and, for that matter, particular Gods in specific circumstances (the situation of Her assistance to Lord Indra with His dragon problem, as related in RV VIII 100, springs instantly to mind – particularly as it finds a direct resonancy with Athena’s assistance to Herakles and Iolaos in confronting the Hydra, as we have covered at quite some length elsewhere);
As well as acting as an eminently formidable War Goddess in Her Own Rite(s) – directly charging forth and smiting down with great vengeance and furious Ugra [‘Ugra’ literally being the term for ‘Furor’ utilized in RV X 125 5]; as well as taking an overt (and likely rather ‘commanding’) role on the front line of warfare [per RV X 125 6, inter various alia].
Yet given that we can identify with reasonable directness, Hellenic Goddess(es) Who also comfortably resonate with Vak in these regards – as well as expressing other elements to Her typology – it is therefore entirely unlikely that such understandings are a unique ‘innovation’ on the part of the Vedic sphere. And instead, once again, speak to something indelibly archaic and Proto-Indo-European in ultimate origination.
Something which therefore should seemingly suggest that in a very important sense – Proto-Indo-European religion was quite literally Goddess-centric. At least, in terms of the Altars and Invocations and Their accompanient ritual understandings that were most assuredly involved therein.
Perhaps we may say via way of closing:
“Bravery will take you into the most dangerous of places. Overwhelming firepower will see you safely through them.”
That and, of course:
“Fire, Walk With Me”.
Jai Mata DI !