Feeding the Poor to Honour the Dead With Hecate’s Deipnon

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.

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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.

Siobhan has degrees in information management and medieval history making her lots of fun at parties. She's written for Dirge, Biscuit and Diva and is currently working on a book on the supernatural women of Ireland for Wolfenhowle Press (and if you want to help feed her while she works on it you can check out her patreon here.

Siobhan has written 34 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. At the formerly homeless recovering drug addict who is now a mother and still feels the marginalization of being Outcast by Society for my past I’ve found some solace in finding paganism. When I first read if Hecate, I cried. Much of my suffering was a result of being a rape survivor and domestic abuse. Reading that she witnesses all silent crimes with the victim made me feel, for the first time ever, that someone might know how I felt. thank you for writing this article, it brought me to tears. I will be leaving an altar at the crossroads behind my house where I live near the Centre of the city and many homeless wander and women who have to stay out at night. when Halloween comes and the big full moon is here she will be watching over us. Thank you again:)

  2. I agree that contributing to food banks and free lunch/breakfast programs and similar initiatives is an excellent alternative and meaningful approach for a 21st century Deipnon. Thank you for writing this article

  3. Thank you for this—I’ve always loved Hecate, and the idea of her as a guardian of the wronged and forgotten dead really resonates with me. These days I have accumulated quite a number of Ghosts Who Deserved Better among my departed friends and family. It comforts me to think that Hecate is there to honor them and bear witness. There is a beauty in the Deipnon, that a ritual meant to soothe those who died without justice should also provide food for those living without justice. The only way I know to honor my beloved, outraged dead is to pass the love onward. By caring for the living, I care for them.

    Re: the Dumb Supper, are there any historical sources to connect that ritual with the Deipnon? It’s a tantalizing idea but seems like a big jump in terms of geographical and historical context.

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