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The Nature of Sacrifice: Offerings to the Goddess Hekate in the Ancient World
© Vikki Bramshaw 2012-13
Modern occult practices have more in common with the ancient methods of ritual sacrifice than most modern pagans would like to admit. Many elements of ancient tradition have made it into modern practices – some consciously integrated, others subconsciously, perhaps – and the use of sacrifice and offerings is just one of these things. There is a distinct undertone of sacrificial symbology in modern paganism. In those days when I first started my training, things were particularly strict in terms of how things were done, and many of the offerings that were given would have been seen to the outside world as rather extreme, outside the box, something we didn’t really want advertised to the world, but yet they went on all the time (such as blood offerings, flagellation, and binding to name just a few). They acted as personal sacrifices but also offerings to the gods – or group you were being initiated into. The author Walter Burkert writes that ‘secret societies’, —- (so by that, we can mean anything from ancient cults to modern freemasonry, to wicca) — ‘made the initiate into the sacrificial ‘victim’.  At the mercy of the hunter, the initiate is made to feel weak and powerless, and the initiate is pushed away from the group initiating him. In effect, the initiation is an encounter with death, to experience the will to live.
The topic of sacrifice in ritual and magic can be quite a controversial subject, due to the sensitive ground this subject covers. Yet we cannot deny that there are many historical accounts of sacrifices and offerings within the ancient world, particularly in relation to magic. I am not just talking about the obvious topics such as animal sacrifice, but also offerings of herbs and incense, and other types of personal gestures. But certainly, animal and human sacrifice is something which doesn’t get a great amount of coverage – quite understandably due to the potential misunderstanding about ‘what modern pagans do’. Certainly, I do not agree with the sacrifice of a life in any sense in modern workings but I do feel it is an important part of our history nonetheless— and where those can see the benefits of studying this topic, it is something that we can learn from.
Certainly, Hekate is fond of blood, and Tara Sanchez tells me that Hekate is rather partial to raw liver. Many of you will know of Hekate’s connections to vegetarianism, and that is something we will cover in more detail later but at this stage it is probably important to say that this was something which was carried out in later cults of the goddess. But she also adores nuts and dried fruit, especially when they are burned on charcoal blocks; and she likes dancing too – particularly serpentine dancing, chanting, decorative items, and various libations (in the form of drinks and cakes); and even forms of charity. So there’s much more to sacrifices and offerings than blood alone – in fact, there are actually very few examples of blood sacrifice to Hekate in comparison to many of the other gods.
So what is a fitting sacrifice? To Hekate, or any other deity for that matter? I personally feel that as occult practices have become more popular in the last 10 years the quality of offerings (and the meaning behind them) has vastly changed. Now, many of you will recognise one particular offering which has become a standard part of the modern occult or pagan rite: that is the cakes and wine. This is something which has become a rite of celebration, often used to lighten the mood. However in the ancient world, the wine and cakes was taken as a sacrament – partaken with the gods and sometimes representing the gods, depending on which cult you belonged to or deity you followed.
Due to this shift in the ritual meaning of cakes and wine, some could argue that the purpose and importance of this part of modern ritual has been lost. I went to a ritual a few years ago which was quite solemn affair; but it was followed with the blessing and sharing of a most sacred and ancient libation food ….. the pink doughnut! Now whilst I recognise that the gods must have a sense of humour too, these 99p Tesco doughnuts were offered in ‘all seriousness’. I think we need to consider the practices of the ancients, and what they considered a fitting sacrifice to the gods, before we can make a judgement about what we should or should not be offering in a modern setting. Now if the doughnuts had been made by hand, by the person who was making the sacrifice – I think there’s a distinct difference there.
Incidentally, I was invited to a Winter Solstice dinner last year with one of the High Priestesses who I trained with, and as their festivals are seen as family events my atheist (or perhaps agnostic!) other half was invited along. We were are sitting around the hearth fire when my teacher emerged from the kitchen with a plate of about 15 freshly home cooked mince pies. Now my other half loves food, especially anything home cooked and I saw his eyes light up when they came in. Now, one single mince pie was divided between the 4 of us as we sat around the fire – and you should have seen his face when the rest of them were dramatically thrown upon the fire as an offering to the gods! In the same way, this particular lady bakes a whole loaf of bread for the Rite of Housle; some of you might be familiar: a loaf of bread is placed into a bowl and a whole bottle of wine poured over it, and the whole bowl is offered to the soil. Some might say a waste of a good loaf of bread and bottle of wine – others might say, what a fitting sacrifice.
Ancient Offerings and Sacrifice
So, we’ve talked briefly about offerings and sacrifices in a sort of modern sense, I’d quite like to talk about its most ancient manifestations, particularly relating to Hekate and those goddesses who are known to have been akin to her. Certainly, one of the most ancient origins of Hekate is the Magna Meter (‘Mayta’) or Kybele, who was later identified with the Grecian Rhea. We now know that Kybele or ‘Meter’ spread her nature far across the globe and became known by many names; perhaps most obviously is Demeter, Dea-meter. Incidentally Statues of Demeter have been found in the Anatolian region upon which her torso appears as a face between two torches, something which is of course very direct Hekate symbolism; and later in antiquity, we consistently see images of Hekate with Kybele, hinting at their connection.
Kybele is known for her connection with wild animals, in particular wild cats, and we can see this in the usual iconography of two cats sitting on either side of her. Now this might be a far cry from the image that comes to mind when we think of Hekate, but in fact Hekate herself was known as the mother of creatures, and of course she would later be depicted with 2 hunting dogs accompanying her either side – in a similar position to Kybele’s 2 big cats. Certainly, the significance of the wild cats not only shows Meter’s designation of the mother of all things, but also as the great huntress; something that would later become evident in other goddess associated with Hekate, such as Artemis. We should also remember that there are also later records of Hekate being associated with cats, although it is an often neglected fact. In some accounts, she is invoked as a lioness; and in the PGM we find Hekate invoked during the drowning of a cat to make it an ‘Esies’ which in Greek means ‘praised drowned person,’ or ‘sacred dead’ – a vessel, if you like, for the cat goddess.
Deities like Kybele, who were associated with animals, symbolised the connection that could be forged between mankind and the natural world; so as well as being the mother of all things they also embodied the force to overcome nature, and dominate it – which of course seems in many ways in a direct contradiction to modern pagan ways of seeing things. So Meter’s hands laid upon her two cats not only symbolises her connection with the wilds (and obviously an association with the hunting ability of the big cat) but also a control of it – domination, and the ability to domesticate, and destroy.
One interesting site to look at is Çatalhöyük in Turkey, part of ancient Anatolia, a settlement dated around 7000BCE which is recognised as one of the most important sites in relation to insight into ancient religion and particularly sacrificial practices. The people of Çatalhöyük showed a great veneration of their ancestors – that is, a recognition of the processes of life and death and the beyond. Now in Çatalhöyük we find evidence of the adoration of this goddess; she’s known as the ‘seated woman of Çatalhöyük’. The position of this figure is very similar to the iconic image of Kybele – and she even has the 2 big cats by her side. In fact most historians conclude that this goddess is in fact Meter, or Kybele; we have very few early depictions of her, and this is probably one of the earliest.
Çatalhöyük is of particular interest in terms of sacrificial practices in relation to Hekate, or at least one of the prime goddess who would influence her nature. It was common place to bury the bones of your family within the foundations of your house, but it was also known for animal bones to be used in this way, and evidence is found of bull bones which have been placed within household shrines. In some of the shrines, statues of the seated woman were placed over the top of the bones of the dead, again showing that death is part of her dominion. In this position, she is a governor and guide to the dead, something we know Hekate was very much associated with. Incidentally, another statue was found at Çatalhöyük which shows the usual, voluptuous woman at the front – but an eerie skeleton form at the back. This might well be one of the first depictions of the liminal goddess, who sits between the worlds of life and death.
The appearance of bull bones here is quite significant; I expect many of you are familiar with the iconic images of Çatalhöyük with the mounted bull skulls on the walls. Certainly, cattle were first hunted as wild prey before their domestication and this is something that is remembered at Çatalhöyük. One wall painting from the site shows hunters preying upon wild cattle – a group of wild cattle all around them and several hunters pursuing them. What’s interesting is that historians conclude that these men are dressed in disguise – they are known as the ‘leopard men’ – and throughout the wall painting you can see spots upon their bodies. The hunters are identifying themselves with an animal known for its hunting ability, the leopard. These disguises can also be seen as hand in hand with ancient shape-shifting, the ability to become an animal in order to take on its abilities.
Artemis the Hunter & Hekate
So what of Artemis? Her name has been mentioned a couple of times so far in this essay, so let’s look at her now in terms of connections with Hekate and her offerings and sacrifices. In essence, Hekate and Artemis are generally considered to be ‘of the same origin, or source’ – and we see the name “Artemis-Hekate” mentioned in various texts showing that a conflation between these two deities was accepted. Certainly Artemis has ‘recorded’ connections with Hekate as recently as 5cBCE— and it is very likely that this connection goes back much further. They most definitely share a common source, who is of course Meter or Kybele, and she also finds links with Bendis, the Thracian goddess of the hunt, and possibly the Minoan Lady of Beasts. The similarities are instantly obvious when we look at some of the earlier depictions of Artemis in her iconic royal pose, with two animals either side; this time in one hand she holds a big cat – the hunter – and in the other a stag – the prey. Also, when we look at statues of Hekate, we see definite ‘hints’ of Artemis.
In mythology, the two are referred to as cousins, and they are also linked by a mythological character named Iphigeneia who laid upon an altar as a willing sacrifice for Artemis and was transformed into Hekate. Both of them are also known as both creatrix and destroyer, source of life yet also chthonic guide to the dead. And other statues, globally recognised as Artemis, look particularly ‘Hekate like’ with hunting dogs behind her. So, here we see the hunting symbology shift from the wild hunter – the lion – to the domestic hunter, faithful consort and friend – the dog.
Hekate is seen as being accompanied by and identified with dogs and in particular, black dogs. In the first instance, they are hunting dogs – like the 13 dogs of Artemis and Bendis – they are typical hunting hounds, lurchers and pointers, and we can see this is the case as both Hekate and Artemis’s dogs are depicted with the distinct pointy whippet-shape nose of the hunting dog. However, their prey can be considering as reaching beyond deer and other wild animals and into the spiritual realms of souls, as Hekate acts as mediator between the mortal world and the realms of the dead. And in some ways, we can also see these dogs as guides; like the mountain rescue dogs, and guide dogs for the blind. These breeds help and guide people; like Hekate, who guides Persephone and the countless mortal souls who journeyed into the underworld. We also see Hekate depicted with Cerberus, the 3 headed dog that stood on the threshold of Hades and guarded its entrance. Certainly, black dogs have retained this ominous reputation, with a whole array of folklore — such as black phantom dogs which incidentally, are almost always seen at crossroads.
Artemis was well known for her rather bloodthirsty demands; for instance, sacrifice of 100 cattle at particular times of the year as a communal religious ceremony. But sacrifices to Hekate tended to be more private; in some ways, Hekate was always a mystery goddess, her rites and sacrifices done in secret. I think there has always been this feeling around the goddess Hekate, she really is a goddess of the individual, of the solitary practitioner or the sole magician – indeed, she is referred to in several texts as the ‘patron goddess of magicians’. Whilst the sacrifices to other gods of hoof stock animals such as cows and goats can be considered as interlinked with sympathetic magic to encourage fertility or abundance, the sacrifice of dogs cannot be so; it provides no meat to be divided up between the community, nor did it fill the bellies of the temple priests. The sacrifice of the dog was purely devotional and for religious or magical reasons, symbolic of both the underworld and Hekate herself, the ability to traverse the worlds and journey between this life and the next.
So, perhaps we can say that the magician or priestess who worked with Hekate did not really as rule participate in the ‘usual’ communal rites or celebrations; this is something which is further supported when we find that Hekate was known to prefer offerings of honey-based drinks rather than the usual wine offerings of the communal street ceremonies. In many ways, these differences set Hekate and her followers ‘apart from the crowd’ not so much in an elitist way, but by that I mean apart from the usual way of life – individuality, and into a realm of mystery.
Sacrifice to a chthonic deity such as Hekate would have generally been made into a pit in the earth; either a man-made cavity or a natural chasm. One of the most common sacrifices in Eleusis was the piglet which was sacrificed to both Hekate and the daughter of Demeter, Kore. Sometimes these would be sacrificed first and thrown into a fire pit to the goddesses, and other times, they were cast into a pit full of snakes. Hekate is significantly connected with snakes and no doubt this was meaningful to the ancients in some way; casting the offerings into the domain of Hekate. However, it’s important to mention here that in general the pig was not considered an ideal offering, especially in the realms of magic. It was one of the cheaper sacrificial animals available; however it was still worth around 3 drachmas which in ancient Greece was about 3 days’ wages for a middle class worker — so perhaps £150 modern pounds. But it was common; and as we have already identified, the magician who worked with Hekate aimed to be anything but that.
The purposes of Offerings and Sacrifices in the Ancient World
So what are the purposes behind sacrifice? In a modern setting, sacrifices are usually given as an offering of generosity or thanks. Generally this is an offering of mead or wine or something along those lines. Certainly this happened in pagan history, we have a lot of information about offerings of mead and wine. However, in terms of reasons for offerings in ancient history, in particular sacrifices, the motivations tended to be a little more complicated and varied than that; in general, within the realms of ritual magic, offerings were all about different ways to gain benefit from the gods involved.
In the Greek Magical Papyri, we see Hekate appear many times in several in different guises – and we are introduced to 2 different sorts of sacrifices; these are the ‘Beneficent Offerings’ sacrifices to supplicate and please the gods, and the ‘Coercive Offerings’ which are found within spells to Coerce or Manipulate gods, spirits and mortals, sometimes used together in one spell, in the case of PGM 4 for instance, working with the goddess Selene, although later this is revealed as Hekate. Selene is often considered part of the ‘triad’ of Hekate, that is Artemis-Selene-Hekate – and she is often referred to as such in the PGM; as well as in many other texts written by well known writers; in fact Nonnus refers to Selene in his epic Dionysiaka as, ‘thou art Hekate’, and ‘thou art Artemis’.
Now these two types of offering ‘Beneficent Offerings’ and ‘Coercive Offerings’ are quite interesting and say quite a lot about the way people viewed their relationship with the gods. On reviewing their use throughout the PGM, the first thing we notice is that these offerings are used within the spell as part of the spell, vital ingredients to make the spell work. They are being used in the same way as we might nowadays use ‘correspondences’ or ‘ingredients’ such as certain herbs, precious stones, and so on. So the first thing we see is that the materials which make up a spell are seen as being offerings and sacrifices in themselves. Indeed, the spell was as an offering in itself in terms of its preparation and spells were usually quite an undertaking; in addition to this offerings or rites were made over long periods of time, often over 3 or even 9 days. Preparations for ritual and sacrifice included bathing, dressing, ornamentation, wreathing, and abstinence; sacrifices in themselves – and animal sacrifices were likewise treated and decorated.
Many of the ingredients would have been hard to obtain, or expensive, and if the spell didn’t work then it would have been a good indication that you’d measured the ingredients incorrectly, or hadn’t obtained the right sort of material. This is expensive, rare, imported ingredients, and costly libations. There’s no cheating or short cuts in ancient magic! For instance there are many accounts of offerings of gold, silver, and jasper although actual physical evidence is rare as many of these offerings were worth stealing. Looking at Hekate, we see a lot of saffron offered – a rich commodity, which would have been expensive to obtain. Of course we know Saffron was one of Hekate’s favourite colours, she is described as wearing saffron robes. However we have plenty of images of Hekate’s priestess, Medea, who is sometimes also described as Hekate’s daughter, wearing Saffron robes. Have a look at the painting of Medea by one of my favourite artists, Waterhouse. If you look in the bottom left hand corner there you’ll also see the ritual tripod which is of course reminiscent of the tripods used by the priestesses of Delphi. I also refer to a very famous painting of Medea, this time by Frederick Sandys; certainly Medea’s connection with both Hekate and the gathering of herbs and roots for magical spells is interconnected, and in this painting we see Medea with various objects that she is using within her spell including what looks like the sacrifice of a chick and toads; whilst in the very bottom right hand corner there is what looks like a little Egyptian statue of Sekhmet which is intriguing – and obviously the red beads or cords around her neck linking her again with Hekate and the Sybil or prophetess of Delphi. The method of collecting these herbs and roots for sacrifices and offerings was also considered as important; the PGM outlines an operation for gathering herbs in which the herb is dedicated to a certain god or goddess whilst it is being harvested, to make the herb to be more effective for the use for which it is required; and both the Greek and Egyptian rootcutters are known to have burnt incense, and poured offerings of milk, at the place where a plant has been removed or cut.
With ‘the Beneficent Offering’, the god or spirit was regularly appeased and offered things by their followers in kindness and generosity. However, whilst it wasn’t intended to be directly coercive, this was also expected to produce benefit – it was a means to an end — in sacrificing to the gods, it was believed they would in turn be protected, or blessed. (Incidentally, it also produced benefit for the temple priests, who would receive meats and grains on a regular basis as offerings to the gods which actually ended up on their table, and gems in their pockets!) Other types of offerings, such as song and dance, would also be carried out during that time in benevolent generosity to the gods to please them.
And then we find the ‘Coercive Offering’. Now this is less common but we do see it used in private rites of magic, especially throughout the PGM, where certain offerings, sacrifices or ingredients are used to manipulate the gods and spirits into doing what the magician says, without question. In the PGM, ‘Slander Spell to Selene’ which involves the image of Hekate, we find a ‘hostile’ spell which curses a woman; this includes 3 days worth of offerings – beneficent offerings are made during the first two days of ingredients like frankincense, myrtle and cinnamon, mixed with wine and honey, and then Coersive offerings are made on the third day, of goat fat, dog entrails and faeces, wormwood and garlic. These are crushed and moulded into an incense tablet with an image of Hekate stamped upon it. Often during malevolent spells, rather grim ingredients are listed such as animal excrement or entrails, and when spells involve Hekate and Selene in the PGM, the excrement or entrails of dogs and horses are very common. It seems that whilst these ingredients are ‘offered’ to the gods, they are not given because they will be pleasing to the deity – this is more about ‘like attracts like’, or in this case, a vile spell, full of vile offerings, will produce a vile outcome. In a way, this is a bit like, ‘take these offerings and receive them gratefully, you gods’, and then on the third day; ‘here’s the power and motivation, and magical material to curse this woman; and bring to her the vileness that lies within these vile ingredients’. Offerings such as this appear to me to influence or coerce the gods into acting a certain way, and cause a reaction in the cosmos, rather than winning the gods over with ‘pleasing’ offerings.
This ‘like for like’ practice would also be used in offerings of purification or cleansing by way of a magical averter, or so-called scapegoat. Whilst in malevolent magic an offering might be given to coerce a god or goddess into causing a change beneficial to the magician, so too would other materials be offered during a spell to attract and absorb negativity. Again in the PGM, we see something called a Squill being named as one such scapegoat, fending off trouble and offering protection. Squill is a type of bulb, found naturally across the Mediterranean. There’s quite a few references to Squill throughout the PGM including beating human scapegoats with Squill as they were chased out of town but also in reference to Hekate, where it is used for purification, possibly in a powdered incense form, or wash. The squill was not seen as pure itself, but as attracting and absorbing negativity. Squill’s classical name Scilla, which is derived from the greek word meaning to ‘excite or disturb’ and it is accounted as having a bitter, acrid juices which cause inflammation of the skin, and if taken internally it can cause nausea and vomiting, perhaps supporting its occult designation as a sort of cathartic purification.
Offerings as part of Spells & Curses
An image of a six-armed Hekate was found upon a lead curse tablet from Athens, and depicted in the PGM. Lead was typically used as it was known to be heavy, cheap and of poor quality, which of course were just some of the ills that you wanted to inflict against your victim. The curse would be written upon the lead as a sort of ‘letter’ to the gods of the underworld, depicted with the injuries the victim was expected to receive and the name of Hekate, and then rolled or folded up and nailed together. It would usually then be buried in a grave, so to make use of the ghosts of dead men to take the request to the gods of the underworld. This curse tablet calls for justice to discover thieves, and directly asks Hekate to issue punishment to them. It reads: “I hand them over to Hekate…and to Hermes the helper…I transfer the thieves who stole from this little house — a chain, three bedspreads, gum Arabic, tools, linseed oil, mastic, pepper and almonds. I hand over those who know about the theft and deny it. Lady Hekate of the heavens, Hekate of the underworld, Hekate of the crossroads, Hekate of the triple face, Hekate of the single face, cut out the hearts of the thief who took the items…wield upon them your bronze sickle.” So in this case, not only was the curse tablet an offering in itself, but the person who was being cursed was offered as a sacrificial victim.
Charity & Personal Sacrifices
It is interesting that some of these food offerings made to Hekate after a ritual or spell had been performed would be offered as the Hekate Supper at crossroads, and is believed by many historians that this food was actually collected by the poor (and probably the neighbourhood stray dogs). Now whether this was intentional or not, it does pose an interesting suggestion of charity as an offering to the gods. As our money is so precious to us, perhaps it is a more beneficial offering to make a donation to a charity of our choice than spend our money on incenses or candles. As well as an offering of our wealth, a sufficient offering could also be something sacrificed from ones personal life – such as abstention from sex, food, or alcohol – all common in the PGM quite anciently. The purpose was not to prove that these things were bad or evil, but more that they exhausted the energy. Dietary restrictions were also a common element of cult life particularly in temple environments; for instance at Eleusis; certain fish were not allowed to be brought into the temple area or eaten by the priests and initiates such as the Mullet which was linked to ill-health and thought to bring ‘bad trances’ and ‘troublesome digestion’.
One choice of abstention for some followers of Hekate was of course, not eating meat. This subject is somewhat a bone of contention between researchers as there is, as we have already seen, a large amount of evidence for animal and blood sacrifice in the name of Hekate and animal sacrifice was undoubtedly part of nocturnal rituals and festivals for the chthonic gods and goddesses such as her. However there is also evidence to suggest that some later followers of Hekate, including the scholar Hesiod, the philosopher Empedocles and even Pythagoras, were devout vegetarians. But animal rights were not the only concern for those embracing vegetarianism in a religious setting; it could be said that it was more a ‘trend of the time’ – the focus of many cults and religions had shifted towards absolution of sin and the purification of the body to aid them to ‘transcend’ to a purer state of being. In many cases, it was perceived that animals were unclean or ungodly — so as the aim of the initiate was to become closer to god, it became detrimental to eat flesh. Even eating beans considered cannibalistic by Pythagoreans as they resembled ‘little foetuses’; beans also belonged to the dead, and these newer cults did not consult with the dead.
Dance & Speech
It is interesting that in the modern world, one of Hekate’s most favoured offerings seems to be chanting and dancing. One of the most important offerings you can make, so I was taught, was to offer up your inhibitions – to offer a dance to the gods. And for Hekate, it is the serpent dance, similar to the Kordax of Artemis: a circular or serpentine masked dance where the feet stay in one place whilst the upper body dances. In the ancient world, there also existed the Paeans – songs of gratitude or propitiation which were sung to the gods. In fact Artemis was known as ‘O song and dance’, and it therefore makes sense that Hekate, often referred to as the Chthonic Artemis, was the mistress of more nocturnal and ecstatic forms of dance and expression. The 5th c poet Nonnus paints a colourful picture of dance and song to Hekate on the greek island of Samothrace when he writes: ‘Korybantes were beating on their shields…leaping with rhythmic steps .. while the double pipe made music, and quickened the dancers…lions, with a roar from emulous throats mimicked the triumphant cries of the priests, sane in their madness; the revelling pipes rang out in tune in honour of Hekate.’ Speech and sound was also an important offering to Hekate; many of the odes and epics are believed to have been written about the gods for the gods, and Hekate is particularly fond of ritual sounds – such as the hypnotic whirring of the Strophalos, which acted as a vehicle to alter the consciousness and assisted the practitioner to communicate with otherworldly beings during invocations to Hekate, and perhaps also the warbling of the Wryneck bird. And then of course there are sacred incantations, such as the Ephesian letters which were used within magical formulas, ‘Askei Kataskei Eron Oreon Ior Mega Samnyer Baui’ which occur a number of times in the Greek Magical Papyri in charms which call on Hekate such as initiations, protective charms and charms of power. Today, it is being used as an offering to Hekate, but also to protect and empower magical rites.
© Vikki Bramshaw 2012-13
 Homo Necans, Walter Burkert
‘The fates made him perfect … the god with ox’s horns, crowned with wreaths of snakes – that’s why the Maenads twist in their hair wild snakes they capture.’ The Bacchae, 129-135, Euripides, c 400BCE
Dionysos, dancing his many-formed pattern of rebirth, challenge and liberation, is one of the most intriguing and intoxicating gods of the ancient world. In my new book ‘Dionysos: Exciter to Frenzy – A Study of the God Dionysos in Mysticism & Lore’ I explore the numerous facets of his personality and worship, revealing the hidden faces of the thrice-born god and the extent of his influence in the mysteries of the ancient world – and even in modern mysticism.
Dionysos: Exciter to Frenzy is due for publication with Avalonia Books in 2013.
October marked one of the perhaps most memorable moments for Paganism in the last decade, as Druidry was recognized as an official religion and awarded charitable status by the Charity Commission. Following this, an article was written by Melanie Philips of the Daily Mail entitled ‘Stones of Praise Here We Come’, which sparked off a huge debate both within pagan communities as well as on the Daily Mail website. Now considering the time of year, we should really have expected another controversial article to reach the headlines! And we were not to be disappointed, as this time the Daily Telegraph writer Damian Thompson posted his own view on Paganism and witchcraft on – (you guessed it) – the 31st October, entitled ‘The BBC Sucks up to Pagans’.
My initial reaction to both of these articles was amusement. Both were so badly written and biased to their own personal perspectives that it was no wonder that the articles only made it to a blog, and never to actual newspaper print. It also became obvious with a very brief amount of research that both journalists were renowned for writing controversial, biased and bigoted articles. The first reaction of many in the Pagan community, including myself, was to retaliate on the newspaper forums – but I think it is important that as a community, we try not to resort to a victim mentality in these cases. We could argue about whose faith is older or more genuine – or more persecuted !! – until the cows come home. These journalists are paid to write articles which are going to get attention – they are rewarded for coming up with the most controversial stories in order to get more web-time. And we should remember that we were NOT alone! Just two days before writing this article about Paganism, the same Damian Thompson of the Daily Telegraph released another article, this time studying the trend of the name ‘Mohammed’ in Muslim families and expressing quite clearly his ‘views’ towards Muslims; although perhaps in a slightly more ‘shadowy’ nature than he had expressed his dislike towards Paganism. Sadly, these journalists are rarely interested in truth or education, it seems. But their articles did get me thinking about the media and our relationship with it – and particularly, our increasing presence in the public eye.
The sheer volume of retaliations against these bigoted articles on the newspaper forums alone has made it clear that Pagans do want their beliefs to be recognised and understood. Many of us share a sheer frustration with the media’s attitude to our beliefs, an uneducated attitude which is echoed by a large percentage of the general public. However, I am also aware that not all pagans want our faith to be recognised at an official, national status – and perhaps for good reason. Many of us would prefer that the religion remained at a more personal and unofficiated level; there is a fear that our religion would be institutionalized, and power taken away from our community.
But that being said, I think it would be safe to assume that all followers of paganism would prefer things to be at a stage where Paganism is at least be respected – and not openly ridiculed. The recognition of Paganism (and other associated practices) within the Police and the Armed Forces is testament to our faith becoming more accepted – and in my opinion, our inclusion in respected organizations such as these has been perhaps one of the most important steps made so far in the effort to integrate Paganism into modern society. Similarly, many of us celebrated Druidry’s elevation to charity status – but if we truly want this recognition, we must accept that (like anything which comes into the public eye) we will have to be prepared for criticism. But there is a difference between criticism, and downright ridicule. Newspapers are quick to criticize all faiths – freedom of speech, which so many of us rely upon, allows this to be so. But many journalists are cautious that they don’t over-step the line; the outright ridicule, intimidation and blatant mocking of a religion as they have to ours would usually be seen as downright dangerous. Clearly, we are not significant enough or powerful enough to be treated so cautiously.
I would suggest that the best way to deal with such criticism is to face the reasons behind the ridicule head on. As modern Pagans, we seriously need to ask the question – what is it – really – that still sets us apart from other belief systems?
It’s definitely not the number of people practicing. PEBBLE, The Public Bodies Liaison Committee for British Paganism, present data from the 2001 census on their website which indicates that almost 55,000 people specified their religion as pagan or as a sub-pagan belief system (such as Heathen, Wiccan, Druidism etc) – and this doesn’t count people who were not old enough at the time to take the census, or those who decided not to declare their faith. According to PEBBLE, ‘combined, this made us the seventh largest faith in the UK’ – and, ‘if figures for British Pagans rose as much as those in Australia, we could be looking at 280,000 Pagans. In the 2001 census, there were 150,000 Buddhists, and just 270,000 Jews’. Perhaps, it is simply that the general public are not made aware of these figures!!
Nor can it be the credibility or reasoning behind our beliefs in comparison to others – for instance, how can the beliefs of Abrahamic faiths be any more ‘believable’ than the faith of Paganism? Well, they’re not – ultimately, both Paganism and Abrahamic faiths are based on a belief in something that cannot be proved – that’s what makes it ‘faith’. Yet in this age of science and reason, Abrahamic faith is somehow still seen as a perfectly ‘reasonable’ part of life and politics – which according to Melanie Phillips, brought us ‘reason, and the bedrock values behind Western progress’.
So if other faiths such as Christianity are really no different to Paganism in terms of credibility, or (potential) numbers, or even sound judgment – what still sets us apart? Why are so many religions considered acceptable in business and politics (and even our children’s education!!) whilst the beliefs of Paganism are mocked and downright ridiculed? How can this be, when the origins of our beliefs have been recorded by academics for thousands of years, and continue to be written about as historical fact? When evidence of practices similar to our own is found in archaeology? When many of the theories behind Pagan esoteric/occult practices are even supported by modern scientific research, cosmology and hypotheses?
My initial feeling is the lack of academic and reliable information made available to the general public during the rise of interest in Paganism, in particular BTW (British Traditional Wicca) between the 40’s – 70’s. In my opinion, the act of bringing BTW out into the open (and into the eye of the media) was also a catalyst to bring many other forms of Paganism out of the woodwork. Whilst still hotly debated, it is generally believed that several other types of Paganism were being practiced in this country during, and before, the 1940’s (such as Druidry and Old Craft) but these probably only started surfacing and receiving new interest after the initial coverage and growing popularity of BTW.
Whilst their intention was no doubt good, and led to the boom in popularity of Paganism, much of the initial promotion of Wicca by some of its earliest practitioners was taken out of context by the newspapers in examples of sensationalist journalism. ‘The Manchester Evening News’ headlined ‘Amazing Black Magic Rites’, as they investigated rumours of black masses and witchcraft rituals on the Cheshire hillsides, which were being run by Alex Sanders. To a BTW initiate, the reality of what this ritual really means is quite clear – to the outsider, it sends a very different message. In another article, Gerald Gardner attempted to portray Wicca in a more positive light when he was interviewed by ‘Weekend’. Yet the photograph shows Gerald sitting within a magic circle and pointing a sword at a gargoyle (which the caption describes as a ‘weird image’) and Gerald is quoted saying, “a spell was cast – and the house was mine!” The article is entitled ‘I am a Witch’. Even the most hardened defender of Wicca cannot deny that the word ‘witch’, cannot have helped the initial reaction of this faith by the general public. A great shame – because otherwise, this misunderstood (and deeply profound) mysticism might have been taken a little bit more seriously.
We also have to consider that a great deal of research has been undertaken since the revival of Paganism and associated belief systems, since the days of Gardner and Sanders. We know a lot more about the origins of our practices than our forefathers/mothers who wrote about the Craft, and with very little study we can quickly sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of pseudo-historical here-say from those who followed on from them. But how much old and outdated information is still circulating within the Pagan community? We know more now about the true reality of our history than ever before – and for those that seek it, there is a considerable amount of material which both compliments and supports our beliefs and practices. In my opinion, one of THE most important books in the attempt to overcome these issues is David Rankine and Sorita D’Este’s Wicca: Magickal Beginnings, a study of the possible origins of this tradition of pagan witchcraft and magick. This book aims to dispel pseudo-historical claims and discover the true meanings and origins of practices, which have been reinvented or debased due to misinformation. It really is a must read for the beginner and the experienced practitioner alike.
As the author of a book which is specifically designed to teach the practices of paganism and witchcraft, I find myself resigning to say that in truth, the best books for us to learn about the origins of our beliefs and practices are in fact historical academic books, written with no biased interest towards the positive promotion of Paganism! Because we don’t actually need to engineer any practices or create a pseudo-history – it’s there, in black and white. Some of it might not be exactly what we want to hear – but its historical fact, all the same. And suddenly, the study of Paganism becomes respectable, and the reality of our practices much more reasonable.
But this aside, many books (and later on, websites) specifically about the practices of Paganism and Wicca started to be published. Several excellent and historically accurate books were written in the early 1980’s – such as material by the Janet and Stewart Farrar – but other than these writers (and a few memorable others) it seems there was a huge amount of recycled misinformation and here-say being published (particularly via the internet). One such inherent vice within wicca and paganism is the tendency to lean towards the victim mentality; the 9 million women tortured and burnt to death on the charge of witchcraft; the persecution of pagans by the church; our holidays being misunderstood, etc. But there were no 9 million women (it was more like 40,000 throughout the whole of Europe, although that’s no small number). And yes, Pagans have been persecuted by the church; but it would be fair to say that it’s been on about the same level, if not less, than Pagans persecuted early Christians. And yes, our holidays are most likely misunderstood – but that is probably because there is very little real, historical information being circulated about them. Let’s start educating, but lets get some well research facts behind us first.
The Daily Telegraph article was clearly bigoted and uneducated, however it did get me thinking about pseudo-historical claims, and as a pagan/occult writer and researcher I am happy to be the first to admit that I have probably rewoven some of these claims in my time !!! There is a wealth of interesting historical material out there to draw from, but so much of the information that has been reproduced in books and the training material of group leaders has been ‘recycled here-say’, with little or no basis in historical truth. In other cases, meanings and origins of practices or beliefs have been reinvented. Unlike most religions, we don’t have a specific sacred book that we all follow, and perhaps in some ways, this is part of the problem; the structure of the Abrahamic faiths and the rigidity of their very specific practices and beliefs seem to create a package of consistency that modern Paganism just doesn’t have yet. Whilst having some commonality, we Pagans are all pulling in different directions trying to achieve different things. We are in danger of teaching our beliefs, history and practice like Chinese Whispers, appearing incoherent and inconsistent.
However the fact that we don’t have a single, guiding holy book or a specific hierarchal structure is also exactly what gives us the flexibility to change and transform – so lets use that freedom to keep studying the exact reasoning behind practices and the historical basis for our beliefs, rather than restricting them to outdated pseudo-history. And as for the practices – how much further would have Wicca developed if Gardner or Sanders had lived another 20 years?
So perhaps the first step to getting Wicca and all Pagan faiths respected by the public, media and authorities is a re-education from within – our own communities. A questioning of the pseudo-history, and a study of the very real, very interesting origins of our practices and beliefs. An exact study of everything we say and do – because there is something very real out there to historically support almost every pagan word and gesture, if we just search a little bit deeper. And this has to start with each and every individual. This process of ‘re-programming’ needs to be embraced by every student or follower of Paganism, in heart and mind. This doesn’t mean losing the spiritual and mystical aspect of our faith; quite the opposite. And when confronted with bigoted and uneducated criticism and ridicule, each and every one of us are in a position where we ourselves can react with an educated and historically accurate response.
A comment was made in another recent Daily Mail article, ‘Pagans on the march: Harmless Eccentrics or a Dangerous Cult?’ in which The Daily Mail was told by one ‘witch’ that ‘we sometimes use the cauldron to mix spells’ and that ‘we hold moots in graveyards’. Are these the people we are leaving to promote our faith? How can we encourage the general pubic to accept us as anything but uneducated and fantastical?
I don’t believe that people should have to change their practices or culture in order to be more accepted into society. I’m no conservative – my youth was spent rebelling against the system !! But I do believe in progression. If we wish to be respected (which many of us clearly do) then we have to respond in a positive and progressive manner. Perhaps this very criticism is giving us food for thought on our philosophies and the way that we present ourselves to the general public? We need to stop allowing television stations to film our rituals, no matter how much we think it might portray us in a positive light – they wont. These are our private ceremonies – they are not for show. We need to stop giving newspapers and the general public blatant excuses to sensationalize. We need to look at what this practice truly brings to our lives. We need to get shot of the eccentric image. Perhaps its time to cast off the remaining velvet cloaks (which, lets face it, are hardly practical – and do absolutely nothing for the anti-potter campaign!!) and start picking up some history books. Let’s start researching the very true and utterly fascinating origins of our practices. Lets write some educational and historically accurate articles. Let’s sharpen up our game.
Her Sacred Fires : A Journey to Hekate
This month has been extremely exciting. Myself and at least 40 other contributors from all around the world have been working towards our essays, prose and artwork for the new anthology ‘Hekate: Her Sacred Fires’, which is edited by Sorita d’Este of Avalonia Books and is a very personal study of an extraordinary Goddess. The spectrum of material covered in this anthology is as diverse as the forms of Hekate herself, emphasising her role as Light Bearer, Key Bearer, Initiatrix, World Soul, Mistress of Crossroads and the Serpent Mysteries. From the re-establishment of the ancient worship of the great mother goddess as Hekate in Thrace to meteorites and pilgrimages, Hekate’s presence around the world is vividly described and illustrated by her torchbearers.
The book is available now for pre-order at http://www.sacredfires.co.uk/ .
I was also given the opportunity to take part in the radio interview with Karagan, an Alexandrian Priest who runs the radioshow ‘Witchtalk’. With close to 20,000 listeners, Witchtalk aims to help people understand and have contact with paganism and witchcraft. The 3 hour interview was the first of its kind, and Karagan interviewed Sorita d’Este: of Avalonia Books; Maggin: a Hekate devotee and artist who has contributed to several books on Hekate; Mark Allan Smith: a contributor to Hekate: Her Sacred Fires and who has just released his new book about Hekate called ‘Queen of Hell‘; and myself, author of ‘Craft of the Wise’, and contributor of the essay ‘Swaying with the Serpent’.
‘Swaying with the Serpent’, is a study of the serpent-girdled Hekate: an aspect of the Goddess which embraces both Hekate’s chthonic aspects and her role as Mistress of Life. We find Hekate portrayed in ritual-trance prophesies as a ‘solar’ or ‘fire’ deity – the origin of the vital life force, which is often portrayed as a spiraling serpent-like energy. This type of symbolism is in many ways more in keeping with her original character, and Hekate’s roots can be found in such deities as Hekate of Lagina in south-west Turkey who was accompanied by serpents and worshipped as a deity of fertility and dance; the Syrian Goddess Atargatis who was originally revered as a serpent-girdled tutelary deity; and the chthonic aspects of the fertility Goddess Mater Magna of Anatolia. My essay also touches on the possible mysteries behind the cista mystica, Hekate’s role in trance prophesy, her association with Dionysos Sabazios and Bacchic frenzy, her role as feminine equivalent to the solar Gods Apollo and Helios, and her fitting role as the Wilful Goddess: ‘the one by whose will prayers are fulfilled and success granted’. The essay also looks at the serpent aspects of Hekate’s tool the Strophalos and its association with sacred sounds, and Hekate’s importance in the Eleusinian mysteries.
The idea for the book was conceived when Sorita d’Este had a vision of a thousand torches being lit for Hekate all over the world, and so it was fitting that on the 27th May 2010 I joined thousands of other Hekate dedicants from all around the world in ‘The Rite of Her Sacred Fires’, a ritual which was written by Sorita and which petitioned Hekate to allow the practitioner to explore Hekate’s mysteries. My ritual working partner Pete Ralls and myself were asked by Sorita to put together a contributor video a week before the ritual date, to show how the ritual might be adjusted to suit two people. This ritual can be found at the HerSacredFires YouTube channel.
We decorated the altar and set to undertaking the ritual. No circle was cast; we find when working with individual rites such as this that a circle is not necessary. Our group practices initiatory witchcraft, which does not claim to be an old tradition – in fact, it is a very modern one, which finds its influences in British Traditional Wicca, Esoteric Magical Traditions, and the earlier historical Pagan beliefs and practices of such cultures as Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece and Europe (whose practices form the basis of many magical techniques and pagan rites today). Initiatory Witchcraft is largely based upon intuitive messages and subsequent historical research and reconstruction, blending experiential and intuitive work with due reference to historical practices. We base our rituals upon certain themes, magic and mysteries of ancient pagan mystery cults; most of these themes are normally received intuitively and then reconstructed with serious historical research into that particular mystery tradition or practice. However Initiatory Witchcraft does often use elements of Traditional Wicca as a structure for its practice of the mysteries, either magical or theurgic (we are happy to use what actually works, and change or discard that which does not !) You can find out more about initiatory witchcraft and read or contribute associated articles at http://www.initiatorywitchcraft.co.uk/
The Rite of Her Sacred Fires was a true reflection of Hekate’s nature, and its role in bringing together thousands of pagans and occultists from all around the world was, I believe, unrivalled. If you would like to perform the Rite of Her Sacred Fires, you still can – the PDF can be found in several different languages, including Hellenic, at the Sacred Fires website. I hope that everyone will enjoy the book as much as I have enjoyed being involved in its inception. I for one cannot wait to see what all the other essays, prose and artwork have to offer! I am privileged to have met several of the contributors, and can vouch for the sheer dedication that so many of Hekate’s devotees have to Hekate. No doubt this book will be an inspiring expression of their dedication.
Hekate is alive: she is mistress of life, the source of the world soul, and keeper of blazing torches. She is empowering, enlivening, guiding, clever, liminal, and demanding. She is counterpart to Dionysos, god of ecstasy, and she is mistress of trance prophesy; she is the arbitrator who stands on the threshold between the material and the astral, and guides her devotees through the heights of the heavens and the depths of the underworld. Sway with Hekate, Mistress of Fire; Dance in her Flames!!
Vikki Bramshaw – May 2010
The Primordial Image: Archetypes