Hekate’s deipnon

Finding myself making yet another comment on a blog just now, correcting a common misconception about the monthly deipnon for Hekate, I figured I really ought to just make a full post about it, which I can then link to in the future. (And hey, just in time for this month’s ritual, which is on Friday.)

This rite is simple, powerful and ancient. The deipnon (“dinner” – plural deipna) is an offering left at a crossroads on the dark moon (the last day of the lunar month, by ancient Greek reckoning) for Hekate and the spirits of the dead in Her company. Common foods include cake or bread, garlic, fish, eggs and cheese. Conventional wisdom is that one should leave these offerings and then walk away without looking behind them. The whole offering is left for Hekate; the meal is not shared as in most Greek sacrifices.

For years in the modern Hellenic polytheist communities, a misconception has been floating around about the idea of the deipnon having been a roundabout way to feed the poor. This has become so prevalent that many people are now donating to homeless shelters and food banks in lieu of making proper deipna, and that’s something I’d like to see changed. There is only a single passage responsible for this issue, and it comes from a comic play (that should tell you something) by Aristophanes called Plutus. His character says:

“Why you may ask this of Hecate, whether to be rich or hungry be better. For she herself says that those who have and to spare, set out for her a supper once a month, while the poor people plunder it before ’tis well set down: but go hang thyself, and mutter not another syllable; for thou shalt not persuade me, even though thou dost persuade me.”

If you understand the context of this conversation, you will see that Aristophanes is not referencing an acceptable religious practice of helping the unfortunate, but rather mocking the fact that the hungry poor are so desperate that they will even steal food from an ominous goddess like Hekate. (I’ll note that even in more traditional sacrifices where the resulting meal is “shared” between gods and worshippers, there are still parts that are expressly reserved for the gods alone – one would never set those out for Them and then eat the same items without fear of serious consequences.)

While I wouldn’t want to discourage acts of charity in the gods’ names, in this case I feel it is potentially problematic – in that if you offer food on Hekate’s night, in Her name, but someone else receives and consumes that food, they are unknowingly partaking of an offering that should have rightfully been exclusively reserved for the goddess, and may suffer ill-effects from such. Gifts to the homeless would more appropriately be offered in the name of Hermes, or perhaps Zeus Xenios – but even if in the name of Hekate, they should not be considered the deipnon as such. They certainly shouldn’t be made without a corresponding proper food offering to Hekate directly, for Her consumption alone, at a crossroads (or other liminal place, if necessary, but not at one’s shrine indoors).

Since I’m discussing this, I’ll also mention that there were a couple of other elements to the rites for Hekate at the dark moon that aren’t practiced much anymore to my knowledge (though I do them, personally):

Oxuthumia are household purifications in Hekate’s name – the house is swept and smoked, and pollutions are carried away in a potsherd to the crossroads, thrown away there without looking back. Katharmata are portions of household sacrifices not used (such as waste water and blood), and katharsia are the remains of sacrifices (bones, etc.) – both of these, along with the clay censer used in fumigating the house, were also deposited at the crossroads.

I incorporate these practices by (a) doing a large monthly house cleaning prior to the deipnon, and (b) collecting old offering materials, bone dust (from my work with bones) and other appropriate items and depositing them where I leave the deipnon (by my back gate, which I discuss here).

I also light beeswax candles and incense there, and recite the Orphic Hymn to Hekate in ancient Greek. I then usually pray to Her to also take with Her whatever non-material pollutions I need to be rid of that month. None of these things are attested to in ancient sources, but neither do they seem to conflict with the spirit of the rite.

A good, thorough overview of the deipna and related practices is the essay “Hekate’s Suppers” by K. F. Smith, which can be found in The Goddess Hekate edited by Stephen Ronan, and I believe also in Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

ETA: For those who might want to use it, here is the Orphic Hymn to Hekate, in ancient Greek and then English (Athanassakis translation, which is the best and most accurate, in my opinion):

Lovely Hekate of the roads and crossroads I invoke;
In heaven, on earth, and in the sea, saffron-cloaked,
Tomb spirit, reveling in the souls of the dead,
Daughter of Perses, haunting deserted places, delighting in deer,
Nocturnal, dog-loving, monstrous queen,
Devouring wild beasts, ungirt, of repelling countenance.
You, herder of bulls, queen and mistress of the whole world,
Leader, nymph, mountain-roaming nurturer of youth, maiden,
I beseech you to come to these holy rites,
Ever with joyous heart  and ever favoring the oxherd.

~ by Dver on June 29, 2011.

13 Responses to “Hekate’s deipnon”

  1. […] over at A Forest Door addresses the persistent misnomer that offering charity to the needy is an acceptable substitute for Hekate’s deipnon with an insightful discussion on the symbolism and background of this practice which demonstrates […]

  2. I really enjoyed reading this today. I’ve never thought of learning the Orphic hymn to Hekate in ancient Greek, but I love the idea as a devotional activity. Now I’m going to have to make it a goal to learn it that way.

    Oh and I’m jealous that you have the Stephen Ronan book. Just saying!😉

    • I have memorized two ancient Greek hymns so far (one for Dionysos, and the Hekate one) and regularly use the one for the nymphs as well. I find speaking the ancient prayers in the original language significant, and the memorization process (very difficult, in a foreign language) is quite the devotional exercise! I just went back and edited this post, btw, to include the hymn in Greek and English, for anyone who wants it.

      I don’t own the Ronan book, but it’s in our university library and I took copious notes when I originally read it. I am fortunate that our university library prevents me from having to purchase most of the hard to find, expensive books I need for reference.

  3. In ADF we have had frequent conversations about the relationship between sacrifice and ‘charity’. Modern sensibilities seem to be offended by the notion of simply abandoning or destroying ( in fire, for instance) items given to the gods and spirits. However, I think one of the core qualities of religious sacrifice is that the given object (or the proper parts of it) must be removed from human benefit.
    Nice analysis!

    • I agree wholeheartedly. Walter Burkert called Greek sacrifice “an act of sublime wastefulness.” Though personally even that somewhat misses the point for me. The thing is, if you believe in the actual existence of the gods and spirits, and that over the millennia they have made their wishes pretty clear as far as wanting (at least in part, and to varying degrees) material substances as offerings, then it is NOT wasteful to give these things to Them. I think a lot of people have a problem with this precisely because they are not fully committed to the literal reality of the entities on the receiving end of such offerings. It becomes no longer a pleasant metaphor, but something tangible. Which is exactly why it’s important.

  4. I’ve always been a bit curious about the giving of donations to homeless shelters/food banks for the deipnon. I’m glad that you cleared this up.

    I basically do what you described, cleaning and clearing the house and gathering up biodegradable altar waste (ash, plant material, etc.) and homemade food offerings left at the crossroads. I begin the house cleaning a few days before the deipnon, like today, I have a ton of cleaning ahead of me.

    Thanks again for the better translation of the Hymn to Hekate! I was able to find the Athanassakis translation of the Orphic Hymns via a google search.

    • I too usually start the cleaning a few days ahead, depending on how much needs to be done. But the ritualized parts are at least done on the dark moon. Glad to hear someone else is working in this manner!

  5. I think you are making a strawman argument here. Offerings to food shelves on the Deipnon are not made in lieu of the traditonal offering of food to Hekate – they are made in addition to.

    I don’t find this problematic as Hekate is a household Goddess that grants us increase and prosperity. As part of the relationship of reciprocation, we give offerings to Her and we give to others what we what we would like to receive. Giving a donation to a food shelf is certainly in the spirit of the ‘law’ of not in the letter of the law – to borrow an analogy.

    You are correct that making donations to a food shelf was not done in ancient Athens, but we don’t live there or then. Traditions can and do and should evolve. I’m not going to have my family pet a dog and then kill it on the Deipnon, I’m fine with having that bit of praxis go by the wayside…and I’m more than happy to add making a donation to a food shelf as part of my religious practice in addition to the offerings left to Hekate and the restless dead and the purification of my home.

    The Deipnon is also when I empty my Kathiskos (and that is left as offering to Hekate) – which is filled again on the Noumenia in honour of Zeus Ktesios.

    • First of all, you may not be doing it that way, but I’ve definitely seen people say that the *only* thing they do for the deipnon is the charity work, so it’s not a straw man.

      Second, I’d argue that it’s not really in the spirit of the law either, as the clear intention of the deipnon was to propitiate a fairly scary goddess with very specific food offerings (not the usual meat sacrifice, and not things you would necessarily give any other god) and leave Her and the dead spirits the refuse of your sacrifices and purifications. None of that implies a wish for prosperity and bounty, it is more of an apotropaic gesture. Hekate may be a household goddess in a certain context, but this was done under the dark sky at night at the crossroads, not in front of a home shrine (even though some today insist on using their home shrine for the deipnon, which seems totally inappropriate and even polluting to me).

      I think if one wants to use the “increase and prosperity” approach, the deipnon is not an appropriate place to just tack it on. In fact, the next day, the Noumenia, would be far more appropriate, as it is a time of honoring household deities (Hekate included), and begins the time of increase in lunar terms. Symbolically, it would make more sense with your re-filling of the kathiskos on that day too, and ritually, it would make a LOT more sense and properly honor the different aspects of the gods involved.

  6. I know this is an older post, but its been tickling my mind so I am going to comment. While I understand that historical accuracy is important for Reconstructionists, it is important to remember that history is a series of changes, not one static act. If your argument is simply that food donations are a more recent change to the worship of Hekate, I think the evidence supports you. If your argument is that this practice is somehow less legitimate because feeding the hungry was never the intent, then the evidence you present is insufficient.

    Hekate is a very old diety. She understands change quite well, I think. Perhaps you remember that many of Hekate’s more “ominous” qualities were something the Greeks, Romans, and later Christians added to her character. Neither Hekate, nor the practices surrounding her, have ever been fixed in one time, one place, or one culture. However, if you choose to worship one aspect of Hekate, as she was worshipped at a particular time, in a particular place, and by a particular people, that is perfectly valid. But please do not tell others that their charity and worship is “problematic” simply because it does not fit your view. I would also recommend that avoid implications that Pagans who use charity as a devotional act are simply ignorant.

    The practical fact is that the hungry DID consume suppers meant for Hekate. How do we know that those poor people didn’t also have a respectful relationship with the goddess – not as thieves, but as her beneficiaries? Perhaps they ate her food because she chose to allow it, chose to feed those whom her own wealthier worshippers ignored. I choose to thank Hekate for the plenty I receive by sharing with those who once ate at her feet.

    • I agree that history means change, and that practices for the gods can and do change over time. That being said, I think we should not forget that the ancients built their practices on thousands of years of collective understanding and experience of the gods, which is unlikely to change *only* due to our modern sensibilities. For change to occur, I think there needs to be a direct experience with the deity prompting it (that’s certainly how things changed in ancient times). From what I understand, the origin of the modern tendency to donate to food banks for Hekate’s deipnon was simply a misunderstanding of the ancient practice, rather than any divine revelation. Thus, I don’t think that shift is warranted in general (barring, perhaps, individual gnosis, as long as it affects only that individual).

      We’re talking about the deipnon, which is an ancient Greek practice, and therefore in this context it’s not relevant how Hekate may have appeared in earlier incarnations. To the ancient Greeks, She certainly was ominous. It would have been terrifying to a pious Hellene to consider stealing offerings from this goddess. We can’t just ignore that because it suits us but keep calling our practice the deipnon because we like the connection to history. If people want to start an entirely new practice, with a different understanding of the deity and a totally different purpose behind it, then they should absolutely do that – but call it something different to clearly distinguish it from the ancient practice.

      Maybe you’re right, maybe those poor that stole Her food weren’t smited for it, were even blessed. But unless Hekate makes that crystal clear to all Her worshippers, I would err on the side of caution, especially when you’re involving unwitting recipients of these “dinners”. There is nothing wrong with donating food or anything else to those in need, or in doing so as a devotional act (I would question *why* it would be done for Hekate in particular, but I don’t see anything wrong with it in general). But to claim that doing so suffices as “the deipnon” is simply incorrect, and to give food meant as Hers to people – especially when they have no idea of the context and possible dangers – is irresponsible.

      Why not just call it charity in the name of one’s goddess? Why must it be accepted as some new but equally valid form of the deipnon when it bears almost no resemblance to it (in content, intention, tone, etc.)? This is what I cannot understand. It’s seems like people want the credibility of tradition, but none of the restrictions or mindset.

  7. […] Although this is not supported by everyone: https://forestdoor.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/hekates-deipnon/ […]

  8. […] the intent behind this innovation is, especially since information about Hekate’s deipnon is so readily available that you cannot legitimately claim to be ignorant of it. And if you are ignorant of the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s