The Nature of Sacrifice

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’. [1] 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

[1] Homo Necans, Walter Burkert