What is home?

      I’m so excited that I’ve been invited to speak at East Shore Unitarian Church tomorrow! They are having a service on “The Poetry of Place,” and I was asked to speak about this topic from a mythological perspective. Here’s what I’m going to say:

Hestia, Hermes, and the Poesis of Home

            When we speak about the poesis of a place, we are acknowledging our psyches’ need for there to be a creative and sustaining spirit in order for a geographical location to be considered a home. In fact, the word “home” (which, by the way, in not from Latin but from the Germanic languages, particularly Old English) was clearly very different from the words for “house” and even “land.” Home referred to a village, or a place of permanent dwelling, that included a center for domesticity, family and culture. What I really want to talk about, though, is the Greco/Roman mythological tradition, and what a central role the idea of “home” had for them.

In Greek Mythology, many of the characteristics and relationships between the gods represent many facets of human life that are woven together to create the fabric of which we are made. Hestia and Hermes are the two deities who represent both the foundation of home, and the experience of being out in the world. And Hestia and Hermes are an interesting pairing, since they are neither brother and sister nor lovers. Hestia was the goddess of the home, responsible for the nourishment of the family and the health of the community. The hearth was not only the center of the home, but was also the center of the religious and secular buildings in the cities; it was this fire that provided warmth, a place to prepare food, and a place to perform ritual sacrifices. It was considered a grave disservice to the entire community to allow the fire in Hestia’s temple to extinguish. In mythology, Hestia was immovable; she could not leave the hearth. However all sacrificial rites, including family meals, always began with a sacrifice to her.

Now, Hestia’s counterpart is the god Hermes, the messenger god whose realm of influences include (but are not limited to) communication, commerce, travel, invention, and activity. He moves freely between the mortal and immortal worlds, and is responsible for making connections and exploration possible. He is most certainly one of the gods who would be considered a god of technology. In their mythological tradition, Hestia’s influence ended at the threshold of the home, and Hermes’ began on the other side of this division. Hestia held the center of the home and Hermes directed into the outside world.

We all know that in today’s world, this threshold of the inner sanctum of the family and the outside is not clearly defined. Most certainly, the hearth is no longer the symbolic center of our homes. It is important to note, though, that Hestia and Hermes had a very harmonious relationship. This particular aspect of Greek mythology gives us no reason to expect that the intrusion of technology into the home erodes its core. In fact, it is in the home where we first encounter exposure to the outside world, and is the very place where the necessity for balance between Hermes’ exploration of the outside world and Hestia’s desire for “family time” is experienced.

Hestia is not about solitude; she is about the “we” of family, the “we” of community, and the “we” of humanity. She is also the goddess associated with concerns of the environment, probably because this planet is humankind’s ultimate hearth. And what better way is there to promote the preservation of our home than through global communication, which, by the way, is impossible without Hermes. Such vigilance is already afoot in community efforts, at educational institutions, and on government agendas: Hestia’s cause is not lost in the modern world.

But the power of Hestia’s commitment to the core of the home can easily be lost. We need to be very mindful about what the symbolic “hearth” is in our home, because we don’t want it to be a screen, and we don’t want it to be someplace different for each member of the family. I think, however, this is something we all intuitively know. Our power to honor Hestia comes in recognizing what we intuitively know: that it is through discussion and rituals that we can reinforce the power of our concept of home. I don’t think Hestia would mind the internet; I think she’d mind the loss of a sense of family, community, and humanity.

My brother and his wife are a thoroughly modern couple, and were it not for technology, they wouldn’t have much of a sense of family between them. That is to say, they would have no Hestian serenity without the power of Hermes. They most definitely need airplanes and satellites to keep a sense that they are near to one another. My brother lives and works in New York City, and for now, my sister-in-law is living and working in Abu Dhabi. We recently received an invitation from them to join them in celebrating their first year of marriage at a party in Philadelphia. Family and friends gathered from all over the country. But I loved their invitation: it had pictures of the two of them all over the world. Here, they were in the Middle East, here Africa, here in Amsterdam and here Paris. As I write this they’re in Singapore before returning to their lives literally a world apart from each other. But as my brother said on the invitation, “We don’t know where we live, but we always know where home is.” And I’m pretty sure that Hestia would be OK that the hearth they have lain for themselves seems rather mobile, carried away by Hermes, because it is also completely rooted in their home.

4 thoughts on “What is home?

  1. What a brilliant and informative essay! The connection between Hestia and Hermes, particularly as it applies to technology, is fascinating. Myth and the modern world collide!

  2. Dear Elizabeth , I enjoyed reading your What is Home article. Great comparison between hearth,home and the globe. For myself , I thought I would never use cell phone or I pad. Well I must eat my words. With Marion being so far, we are able to communicate freely. It makes it so much easier to take the distance. Same for Mary Beth in Charlotte ,NC. (Skype etc). It’s home in my heart when we connect. Your last paragraph is very touching and true. Thank you. Much Love , Mary R Wrenn (mother wrenn)

    • I think you’re right Mick, that for many families the kitchen is the central gathering place. But I’ve also seen a bunch of people gathered in one place and the kids are on the computer or the phone or playing a game, Also, with busy schedules, often an entire family isn’t in the kitchen at once. But our kitchens are definitely the place that is the center of nourishment and conversation!

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