Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Death & Supper


Sannion has recently returned to unleashing (barbed) mockery and raising the question of whether one should be concerned about giving Hekate's Deipnon to the poor; there is a trend of bypassing the offering given at the crossroads, and instead directly donating to the meal to the poverty stricken in the name of Hekate.

The question of whether or not this is wise... is actually a rather good one. Dver over at the Forest Door blog is of the opinion that this tendency is wrong:
For years in the modern Hellenic polytheist communities, a misconception has been floating around about the idea of the deipnon having been a roundabout way to feed the poor. This has become so prevalent that many people are now donating to homeless shelters and food banks in lieu of making proper deipna, and that’s something I’d like to see changed. There is only a single passage responsible for this issue, and it comes from a comic play (that should tell you something) by Aristophanes called Plutus. His character says:
“Why you may ask this of Hecate, whether to be rich or hungry be better. For she herself says that those who have and to spare, set out for her a supper once a month, while the poor people plunder it before ’tis well set down: but go hang thyself, and mutter not another syllable; for thou shalt not persuade me, even though thou dost persuade me.”
If you understand the context of this conversation, you will see that Aristophanes is not referencing an acceptable religious practice of helping the unfortunate, but rather mocking the fact that the hungry poor are so desperate that they will even steal food from an ominous goddess like Hekate. (I’ll note that even in more traditional sacrifices where the resulting meal is “shared” between gods and worshippers, there are still parts that are expressly reserved for the gods alone – one would never set those out for Them and then eat the same items without fear of serious consequences.)”
As I also give regular offerings at the crossroads of precisely this sort, I must admit that I agree with Dver generally. However, my outlook is a bit different than the one Sannion is sarcastically presenting. Over the years I've gotten to know individuals who give to the needy in precisely the manner being criticized. I've never felt the need to correct them because – while I am of the opinion that we are not performing the same act – I do not think their actions are necessarily offensive to either the spirits of the dead, nor the Goddess Hekate.

In Restless Dead, Sarah Iles Johnston establishes the context of the Deipnon beyond rites involving Hekate (Chapter 2, “To Honor and Avert: Rituals Addressed to the Dead”). She first addresses the Deipnon in the context of Funerary Rites (p. 40 – 43):
“Offerings were made at the grave at the time of the funeral. These always included choai, libations made of honey, milk, water, wine, or oil mixed in varying amounts. There was also a “supper” (deipnon or dais) of various foods; the dead who partook of these sometimes were described as eudeipnoi, which we best can translate, perhaps, as “those who are content with their meal.” The word, a euphemism, seems to reflect the hope that, once nourished, the dead would realize that they had nothing to complain about. There is some evidence that water was also given to the dead person so that he could wash, just a host would give a living guest water in which to wash before a meal. Offerings to the dead might also include jewelry, flowers, and small objects used in everyday life such as swords, strigils, toys, and mirrors (although gifts, like lamentation, were sometimes restricted by funerary laws). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that these gifts were expected to be useful in the afterlife, particularly when ghost stories tell of the dead demanding objects that were forgotten or omitted at the time of burial.” (P. 42)
But then again, individuals who had been given proper funeral rites were not as likely to become 'Restless' and act upon the living. The deipnon given at the crossroads during the dark moon phase in honor of Hekate was a means of averting the attention of the Restless Dead. One of the ways by which one could end up in this situation was to not have proper funerary rites. Other ways involved failing to be finished with one's life: violently dying – leading to one entering existence as a Biaiothanatos Daimon (“Violent Death Spirit”), or dying during childbirth (generating what S.I. Johnston refers to as an “Aorai”), or dying as a child, or dying before one married. While distinct, all of these spirits were seen as restless and a plague amongst the living. Daniel Ogden, in Greek and Roman Necromancy, notes that some suicides were noted as such on their grave markers. These were warnings so that one would not end up acting cheerfully next to them, thus angering the spirit and bringing their wrath upon one's person.

Hekate can be seen as ruling all these spirits. The
Aorai have a rather natural sympathy with other spirits she travels with, such as the Lamia and the Mormo. There are PGM spells which explicitly utilize the Holy Names of Hekate to compel Biaiothanatos daimons (typically for “compulsive love-curses” – in this regard the Mistress of the Netherworld was also considered the Demon of Love-Madness by late antiquity). And she is referred to as surrounded by these ghosts in her Orphic hymn.

In Dver's entry, there is the apt reference to Aristophanes' Plutus. The mockery of the hungry and destitute, and their willingness to risk Hekate's wrath for a meal is... Well, I cannot help but contemplate that those enduring starvation will pretty much eat anything. I also found it interesting that the character declares one should go hang thyself in response to the matter discussed. Given that this is a rather precise way to end up amongst the dead who are Unquiet, I wonder if there isn't a double-joke going on.

For example:
- The poor – particularly the homeless – were less likely than those of other classes to have proper funerary arrangements made for them. In fact, one might argue that the homeless are amongst those most predisposed to ending up in the ghastly condition of restlessness after death.
- The homeless already live amongst the restless dead, side-by-side. While I won't argue that California is even remotely similar to areas of Greece in antiquity, I have personally observed the homeless in my city sleeping just outside – and if it is raining, occasionally inside – local cemeteries.

As I noted in my comment on one of Sannion's entries, I see the sympathy of the street reflected in both. And given that some of those being given meals by well meaning pagans may very well end up amongst the tides of spirits Governed by Hekate after death, I have a hard time feeling inclined to indicate that they stop.

For me, the question of whether the practice is questionable or not comes down to how the meal is consecrated, and how it is given. It becomes questionable when you a preparing one of
Hekate's Suppers to deal with and attract a spirit of the restless dead and explicitly pay homage to Dread Triformis so that she takes that spirit into her Horde after the delivery of the meal to the crossroads. On the other hand, if that is not the what the individual is doing, then they are giving a meal in the name of Hekate. They may be inaccurately describing their offering as something else, but that doesn't make it less meaningful, or more dangerous. It may be ahistorical, but there's still plenty of good reasons to do it. One of them means that sinister Goetes have fewer spirits to deal with (or compel to ruin your life).

The question of whether or not the meal can be used to honor only Hekate is another matter; the historians I've consulted on this matter seem to indicate that wasn't the point of the
Supper, but I again don't feel the need to tell people to stop. My personal divination on the matter has indicated that it is a good practice. (I try to give to both, along with cleansing routines.) 

I must admit to being somewhat disappointed by those who work with Hekate and ignore the way the dead play into one's work with her. After all, if we were to start acknowledging the ghosts that can become part of her Horde, we might have to honor them properly and seek to give them an end to their suffering.

 Which, funny enough, is also the goal of providing offerings to the needy in the name of a Goddess they might come to know. I don't know. I guess I'm just never comfortable with any side of the conversation. I see the merits in multiple viewpoints, as well as (what I perceive as) downsides in multiple aspects of such a discourse.

1 comment:

Io said...

Nicely done, especially this:

Well, I cannot help but contemplate that those enduring starvation will pretty much eat anything. I also found it interesting that the character declares one should go hang thyself in response to the matter discussed. Given that this is a rather precise way to end up amongst the dead who are Unquiet, I wonder if there isn't a double-joke going on.

Yes, yes, yes. The ways of the living shape a mode of access to the dead.

If you haven't read it, I would suggest William Sax's God of Justice to you. It provides a contemporary ethnographic view on how class issues play out in Hinduism, most especially how the elite tend to deliberately distort and downplay the religious life of the poor.

Aristophanes mocking the destitute doesn't seem too different from the Brahmin distaste for the Dalit. Especially when you consider the aura of hucksterism sometimes associated with the Greek mantis...