We’ve covered Hecate before as part of the series on queer, and queering, folklore. Co-queen of the dead and goddess of outcast women Hecate is a champion of the downtrodden and those at the margins of society – qualities exemplified by her monthly festival, Hecate’s Deipnon.
In Ancient Greek the word Deipnon referred to the evening meal, and Hecate’s Deipnon was a quiet domestic festival, designed to purify the household and allow it to atone for any wrongdoing in the month gone by. Hecate had the power to grant good fortune to households that pleased her, as well as command of the restless dead, which made her Deipnon essential for the spiritual and material well being of the family.
The festival would begin on the dark of the moon with a thorough cleaning of the house. Then a meal would be laid out for the dead at the place where the family’s property met the street. This junction between public and private spaces served as a miniature crossroads, spaces that were sacred to Hecate as the goddess of boundaries, transitions and all things liminal. Like nearly all sacrifices in this time and place the contents of the meal were only for the dead in the spiritual sense, though they consumed the essence of the food still living humans ate the rest. Unlike most sacrifices however the material substance of this meal wasn’t eaten by priests and worshippers, instead it served to feed the poor of the city who went around collecting up Hecate’s offerings after dark.
This wasn’t an unintended side effect of leaving the offerings in a public place, rather feeding the urban poor was a well established function of her Deipnon – albeit one despised by the wealthy Athenians, who resented having to help support the less fortunate for so much as one meal a month. Hecate may have cared about the disenfranchised, a group which would have been largely made up of sex workers and non-citizens in classical Athens, but for her privileged worshippers feeding them was merely a religious obligation, carried out under threat of divine retribution.
The Deipnon would traditionally have been made up of strong smelling foods including leek, garlic, onions and fish, to meet the tastes of the dead. Eggs, still raw and in their shells, were also included in this supper, as were staples like bread or cakes. Through Persephone grain was also connected to the underworld and the cycle of life and death, of things going into and coming out of the earth. Similar offerings, along with oil and wine, would be left at ancestral tombs throughout the year, and Hecate’s Deipnon ensured that the dead with no one to properly provide for them were still taken care of.
Later the Deipnon became a party game, known as the Dumb Supper due to our ancestors deep commitment to ableism and the requirement that the ritual be carried out in total silence. Hecate had transformed since the advent of Christianity from Queen of the Dead to the Queen of Witches, retaining her mastery of magic and called on whenever young people wanted to scare themselves senseless during a Halloween party – a night, despite its Irish origins, that she was held to hold particular power. In some places the Dumb Supper involve making special divinatory Dumb Cakes or corn pudding, while in others it was a more complicated affair often requiring the participants to prepare and eat a meal in reverse. Starting with dessert, chairs sat the wrong way round, doing as much of the preparation backwards as physically and chemically possible – as with many things in magic, it’s the intent that counts. If done correctly, belief held that phantom forms of the participant’s future spouses would walk through the door at midnight, though sometimes worse things like coffins or mysterious dark figures would ominously float in instead.
Though the Dumb Supper had largely died off by the 1950’s variations of Hecate’s Deipnon still survive today among modern pagans, albeit in very different forms than anything found in ancient Athens or 17th century Scotland. Given that we’re living in the midst of a global pandemic, with a wave of crushing poverty that could, and should, have been prevented, honouring the goddess who cares for the wronged and forgotten dead, who punishes evil doers and feeds the disenfranchised, feels particularly appropriate this year. So for those who are new to Hecate, or just looking for a way to celebrate her Deipnon that’s true to the spirit of the original but still meets today’s evolving needs, here are some suggestions for how to hold a Deipnon Covid style.
Cleaning your home thoroughly, and making sure you empty and throw out the contents of the vacuum is a must, but in addition to that why not go through your things and see if there is anything you no longer need that someone else might. Even some things that normally can’t be donated, like bras, can find new homes or be usefully recycled through specialist groups, so it’s always worth checking online before throwing things away. These donations can be considered useful offerings to the goddess, particularly if they’re given to pregnant or nursing people, as midwifery and care of the pregnant and post-partum was yet another of Hecate’s purviews.
The most important part, however, is the meal itself, and the first thing to consider is the spiritual offering for the dead. Some Hecateans lay out a traditional Deipnon somewhere in their house or yard, and then either throw the food away the next day or eat it themselves as a means of consuming it for the goddess. Others prefer to light incense instead of leaving out food, seeing it as a less wasteful alternative that’s equally pleasing to the restless dead because of the strong smell. When it comes to the counterpart food offerings for the living there is a great deal of flexibility available, as I would argue that the spirit rather than the form of the offering is what’s important here.
The first thing to ask yourself is what do the people near you actually need? Little free pantries, a riff on the little free library, have started appearing as people realise their neighbours need help due to the pandemic. While they may seem like the most direct modern translation of the Deipnon their effectiveness is going to be limited if you live in a more affluent area. That’s not to say don’t set one up – you never know who’s going through something, who’s lost their job or has parents that refuse to feed them (and many little free pantries also include sanitary products and hygiene supplies) – but look beyond the people who live right beside you, into the wider area and see what’s needed there. Cooking meals directly for needy people and either delivering them yourself or letting people pick them up from your door are a good option, and something you can do either via local organisations or on an independent basis through social media posts. Then there are food banks, free lunch/breakfast programs and similar initiatives. Making regular monthly donations to them are all reasonable and practical alternatives in a society where aid programs have evolved past leaving food in front of your door one night a month. Ritual has meaning and importance, but it’s also meant to serve a purpose, and in any living tradition those rituals evolve to meet current needs.