Today is a rather interesting minor festival in our Ekklesía Antínoou calendar, namely the Dies Natalis of Hestia as celebrated in the city of Naukratis in Egypt. It’s been a while since I’ve marked this day properly–two years, in fact–but it has a particular relevance today, which I hope to outline below.
I wrote a bit about this holy day in an essay from the anthology Unto Herself: A Devotional Anthology for Independent Goddesses, which some of you may find interesting. It is intriguing that in this relatively dark and cold time of year, that is when a certain Graeco-Egyptian community celebrated the birth of the goddess of the hearth and of fire. Perhaps, since people are gathered around the hearth more at this time of year than others (though I’m not sure how the climate was in early December in Egypt in late antiquity…?!?), the suggestion of an acknowledgement of Hestia’s birth at this time of year makes more sense, possibly even to kick-off the season of being gathered around the fire more regularly and necessarily each night. Who knows? Athenaeus, who was from Naukratis, talks about the festival a bit and how it involved particular feasts, and then it does get mentioned as a festival on the calendar that records various Hadrian-related festivals taking place during November through January in Egypt.
But, even more than the late antique origins and significances of this festival, and what connections it may or may not have to Hadrian in particular, or to Antinous and Antinoöpolis (since that holy city’s constitution was based on that of Naukratis), I’m thinking more and more this year on what it means to me specifically, and my own life on a very physical and direct level. I’m thinking of all of the hearths, actual or symbolic, I’ve been around throughout my life, and over the last twenty years in particular. I shall now recount a few of those…
I don’t have much memory of the first home I lived in (a mobile home), but the second one I remember quite well. There was a fireplace upstairs, but I don’t recall having roaring fires around it as much as the wood stove on the lower level. The house that I lived in for the majority of my life growing up did have a fireplace, which we then replaced with a wood stove several years later. My older brother burned his arm on it one time, but none of the rest of us ever had any injuries associated with it (other than, perhaps, falling into it when a fire wasn’t going). We were very thankful for that wood-burning stove one winter, when just a few days after Christmas, the power went out, there was a small amount of snow on the ground, and the power stayed off for about three or four days. We pretty much camped around the stove, and had to make all of our food on it. My mom said repeatedly during that time, “I wouldn’t have been able to make it as a pioneer…”
My collegiate years (1994 to 2005) did not feature very many “hearths” as such; when I was home over the summer, there might be one, but it wasn’t in common usage. For many of those years, it was not even a “real” hearth, so to speak, because it was a gas fireplace that could be turned on or off at will with a light switch or a remote control. In the house I lived in the longest in Ireland, there was no fireplace, or at least none that worked; it was barely boarded over, and the couch I usually sat on was against the wall over it. In my final year (technically about eight-and-a-half months) in Ireland, I lived in a “two-up, two-down” small house, and spent the majority of my time in the front room that actually did have a fireplace, but I never used it.
Ironically enough, the hearth-fires I most remember in Ireland were at places that I went to, including ones that I only visited a handful of times. There was a place that existed in Cork only during my first year there (though for who-knows-how-long before I had arrived) called An Cupán Táe (“A Little Cup of Tea”), where one could get breakfast, and they always had a peat fire in the fireplace, which gave a very distinctive and what I would consider a quintessentially Irish smell and atmosphere to the place, as I’d eat my eggs and black pudding and have a cup of tea and conversation with one of my friends. It was not only “like” sitting in the front room of your Irish granny, it was quite literally that: I think the gentleman that seemed to run it was the son of an older woman who was probably his mother, and they lived upstairs, and the older woman would always come out from the back of the place carrying the plate with one’s food on it, because she’d presumably just made it herself in their own kitchen! It was eventually replaced by a more “official”-seeming restaurant, but the old An Cupán Táe had a charm that was inimitable and much missed, because even though it was a business, it was literally being welcomed and fed around a traditional Irish hearth (perhaps minus the pipe, the dram, and the lengthier blessings–if I recall correctly, the old woman would usually say “God love ya” when she put the plate on the table–but oh well…!?!).
Perhaps the warmest hearth I can remember from the last few years was that at Erynn Rowan Laurie’s house, around which we actually had ritual fires on several occasions accompanying all-night vigils. As Erynn (and myself, though to a lesser extent) is a devotee of the Irish goddess(es) Brigit, of course this makes sense on a variety of levels–hearth-goddesses often share certain characteristics in common, though they’re far from interchangeable or equivalent. Hestia has no associations with poetry or healing or smithcraft, to my knowledge, and is a virgin, which cannot be said about any version of Brigit other than her Christian saint manifestation…but, I digress! I recall Erynn saying that the working fireplace was one of the reasons that she ended up getting that condo, and I fully appreciated why that was the case during the time I lived there. After we unloaded all of the boxes and bags that I brought with me initially to live there, she embraced me and said “Welcome home!” Now that’s hospitality. And, that’s what a hearth and a home is
all about, as far as I’m concerned, from a modern polytheist perspective.
Since leaving there, I’ve not had quite the same thing since. My first place of residence after Erynn’s was a one-room “efficiency” apartment in Michigan, which was one of the coldest places I’ve ever lived. On my first night in that apartment, I had only two blankets I had brought with me in my suitcases, and had to make the best of it on the very uncomfortable pseudo-couch/futon that came with the place. While the heaters were on, they weren’t quite as warm as I would have hoped, and I wasn’t used to living in a place where there was a large amount of snow on the ground. I had to use the curtains (which I had brought with me but wasn’t able to use on the windows there) as an additional blanket that night, along with my coat as a pillow, because I didn’t have bedding and such yet. And I distinctly remember thinking: gods, how can I make this work? In the end, it was not ideal, but it did work out, as I somewhat turned it into a continuous ritual space while I inhabited it, with the Obelisk of Antinous on each wall and an active shrine to Antinous and several other deities encompassing most of the closet. In the four months I lived there, I only ever had one person over, and never for long…and while I couldn’t do much with the place itself to improve it, I completely understand why. Places like that, which do not have hearths to speak of, are never as inviting or as comfortable as those which have them, availability of nice furniture or otherwise notwithstanding.
I also have to make mention of my dad’s house, where there are multiple hearths–one both upstairs and downstairs, as well as two outdoors. There have been many parties and gatherings and more informal meals and such around those, in addition to a few Solstice Mummings. I hope there may be others in the future…
I’m reminded of, and am fond of, and miss a great deal, all of these hearths of the past, because I’m painfully aware at present that I don’t have such a place now, and know that I won’t feel complete until I do have one of my own, however humble it might be. I suppose, if nothing else, it is good to know that this is a strong desire for me at present, and it will be something that directly impacts my choice of future living spaces…and hopefully sooner rather than later.
I am also aware that amongst my closest friends and co-religionists, it is not just Erynn who is in the process of moving hearths at present, nor has been for the past several months: both Sannion and Anomalous Thracian are in this process as well. It’s hard not to have a hearth of one’s own…
So, with that, I offer the following prayer.
To Hestia On Her Birth-Feast
Goddess Hestia, primordial fire of the hearth,
without whom “home” cannot be:
may you be born anew on this day for all those
fortunate enough to have a hearth of their own;
may you be born anew now, soon, quickly, quickly,
for those who do not have a hearth at present;
may you shine brightly and guide to your hearths
those who are without shelter at this time of year;
may your warmth be kindled in the hearts of all
who honor the gods, your kindred and co-equals;
in every spark, in every flame, in every source of heat
may you be praised and thanked for your blessed presence.