Offerings to Hekate

By Ellen Lorenzi-Prince 

Copyright © 2002

   

 

How Hekate Became Queen of the Ghosts

     Their one delight is in libations of blood poured to them by the living: when they drink they feel themselves almost men again.

                    from The Greek Myths by Robert Graves

 

       It was a good day for ghosts.  With a major festival in the upper world, the sacrifices were numerous enough to relieve all but their most insatiable hungers.  Several lay among the asphodel, licking their various appendages.  The outpouring blood and smoking fat swelled their sense of importance and inclined them to remember conversation.

     “I know what Hekate was in her former life, before she became Queen of the Ghosts,” one boasted.

     “You!  I doubt that.  Now my people knew Her truly.  She lived among us!  So I believe I have more authority than you to discuss the matter.”

     Another dead one, who resembled nothing so much as a scorched scarecrow, sucked essence of goat off one sticklike finger. “I knew Hekate personally before she was our queen.  We were sisters-in-arms in the great battle between the Amazons and the Athenians.”

     “She was no Amazon,” said the second ghost, who looked vaguely reptilian.  “You don’t know any better than that one.  She was the Mother of us Libyans, a most ancient and respectable tribe, living in what is now the great southern desert.”

     “You’re both wrong,” hissed the one who’d spoken first.  “Hekate was the most powerful witch in Thessaly.  Even you lot must have heard of the witches of the northern mountains.  Even the gods fear to tread there.”  This shade was the most sinister in appearance of them all, like coagulated black blood in which only the suggestion of a tortured face occasionally appeared.

     “Hey,” said the scarecrow, “You may have brought it up, but I started telling my story first.  You two wait your turn.”

     “All right.  But when all is told, you’ll see that I have the truth of it.  We’ll soon see your boasting is as hollow as your head.”

     The ghosts surrounding the three speakers shook, a few almost disintegrating in excitement.  But the scent of fresh ram’s blood settled them down to listen.  The burnt ghost coughed significantly and began.

     “In Hekate’s former life she led an Amazon war band and was killed in battle.  Her enemies honored her strength and bravery against great odds.  They built her a shrine, sacrificed to her, and called her the She-Bear for her ferocity in protecting her people, and the Huntress, for all the Greek soldiers she’d sent to death. In building the shrine, the Athenians thought they’d possess her power at last.  Of course they only honored dead Amazons, and did not respect the rights of the living ones.  The murderers!”  The ghost clenched a charred fist and shook it, scattering bits of fingers.

     “I thought this was supposed to be a story about Hekate, not a political diatribe.  You do know that was an Athenian goat you were smacking your jaws over a moment ago.  Now, if you’d let me get on with my story...”

     “As I was saying,” the scarecrow continued, glaring at the other, “The Amazons honored their fallen sister in their own fashion.  I remember it well.  Many tears were shed, for she was the greatest war leader we had at that time, and we had been losing ground and losing heart.  So many years of war.  The Greeks couldn’t seem to accept the one-for-one exchange that our other neighbors lived by.  One dead Greek and only a massacre satisfied their need for revenge.  I myself fell to their swords shortly after, leading an attack on their camp in Macedonia...”

     The second ghost cleared its throat.

     “Yes, yes, as I was saying, Hekate as a new ghost observed her funeral rites, listening to the songs, the stories and the cries.  As each warrior spoke in remembrance, so she too remembered and let go, saying goodbye to each dear friend and cherished memory.  For she knew she could not go on to the next world still burdened by this one.  She followed the procession out into the desert.  She watched as they erected the scaffold, laid her body upon it and returned to the village.  She did not follow as they withdrew.  She knew they would be back after her skeleton had been picked clean, to fetch the bones and place them in the walls of their homes, alongside those of her mothers.  She remembered how secure she’d felt as a girl to be always within their embrace.  And it pleased her to offer this last gift of herself to her people.

     “Then she released that thought to the past as well, and turned her mind to her future. In her village, the next world was said to be a joyous place, a paradise of fruit and flowers and song.  And it was said that the vultures who came to feast on her flesh were her guides into this world.  Unfortunately the birds themselves did not seem to know this.  They came, ate, slept, and did not speak to her at all.  Still, as a warrior she had learned both patience and endurance.  She waited.  She waited, and her skin became black and cracked by the sun.  She waited, and the wind ripped the clothes from her back and the hair from her head.  She followed the vultures as they flapped from meal to meal, looking more and more like a big scraggly bird herself.  But for all the vultures’ travels, they never led her anywhere beyond the world she already knew.  And she finally accepted that the vultures knew nothing about death except how to make a meal from it.”

     “Like you,” sniggered the inky ghost.

     The scarecrow shrugged its splintered shoulders.  “Can I help it that I’m always hungry?  Now quit interrupting, or you’ll miss your chance to tell your story, not that that would be a great loss.

     “Now where was I?  Oh yes.  She set off on her own to find the passage to the world beyond.  She journeyed to the farthest North, where the ice winds tear flesh off bones, though of course she didn’t have to worry on that account.  And she journeyed through the steamiest, most tangled jungles to the South, where the claws of unnamed monsters do the same.  Oh, she was so brave, so resourceful.  She didn’t shirk from descending into the deepest canyons or scaling the highest peaks.  She saw many wondrous and amazing sights.  But nowhere did she find a way into another world. 

     “In her journeys however, she met other ghosts wandering as she did.  She found me.  I was lost like all the rest.  I don’t know if she knew it or not, but after her death I’d led a raid to avenge her.  Of course the mothers had advised against it.  They were tired of the loss of life.  So was I!  I burned with hatred against the Greeks.  How dare they bring our proud nation to this pass!  Cough all you want, you, but this is a part of the story and I’m going to tell it. 

     “I was killed in the attack.  My ghost returned to my village, but it had been burned to the ground.  There was no one left, so staying meant nothing, but I had nowhere to go.  Hekate found me there, mourning and seething in the ashes.  I told her what happened and she asked me to come along with her if I wished.  I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t more grateful for my actions on her behalf.  I almost didn’t follow then, out of spite, but I didn’t want to be left alone.  Now I know she must have been preoccupied with her new duties.  For she collected all of us wandering ghosts and led us to this underworld through a cavern she’d discovered.  Hekate organized the first dark moon raids into the upper world, where we drive men to their deaths with fear and madness instead of axes and arrows.  She forces the Greeks to feed us ghosts with their propitiations.  She is our Queen because she has given us, who once had nothing but our grief and hatred, all of these things.”

     The scarecrow leaned back with a satisfied sigh.  It had been worried that it wouldn’t be able to get to the end.  Now the other two could fight it out over who went next, and it wouldn’t care.  Neither of them knew Hekate like it did.  It only hoped the rest of the ghosts hadn’t finished off that ram.

     The scale-skinned ghost spoke up.  “I’ll tell my story next.”

     “Fine,” said the dark one.  “I’m glad to see you’re saving the best for last.”

     The second one glared at the other as well as it could, not being able to meet, or find, its eyes.

     “Listen now, and hear the true story of Hekate.  My tribe was the greatest and most ancient of all.  Once all the tribes were united, and all lived in great Mother Africa, though I believe this has mostly been forgotten now.  My tribe did not forget its beginnings.  And this was due to Hekate, our own Mother.  She taught us the old stories, she taught us the wise ways.  She presided over all births and deaths.  She lived in a hut apart from the rest of the village, and the newly born and the newly dead were brought to her for her blessing.  She also presided at the death of our childhoods.  At that time, our rite of passage consisted of going into the wilderness to gain a vision, then returning to Hekate’s hut where we sat before her and were given our true names.  With the name came the knowledge of one who’d had the same name in the past.  This was your spirit ancestor who guided and protected you.”

     “So what does this have to do with the Queen of the Ghosts?”

     “I’m coming to that.  My initiation was difficult.  I was afraid of leaving my mother.  I was afraid of being alone.  I enjoyed the attention I received during the ceremonies of preparation and I didn’t want them to end.  When my people walked me to the edge of the village to say goodbye, I didn’t want to leave.  I knew I wasn’t ready.  I think my mother did too.  But I also couldn’t bear being the only one my age still called by her baby name.  At the edge of the village I walked away without looking back.  It was what was expected.  But at the first copse of trees I stopped and hid.  Most people headed for the mountains.  There were ancient caves there inscribed with magic from long ago.  But I didn’t want to see a vision.  I’d had dreams where power called to me, and wanted to speak and act through me.  I refused to be called to that.  I wanted a normal life!  I wanted babies of my own some day.”  The ghost raked its narrow chest with its claws and squeezed out a few blood-tinged tears. 

     “So I waited in the trees.  On the second night, my thirst and hunger became unbearable so I crept back to the village to take what I needed.  During the time I spent in the copse I had no visions.  All that grew in me was shame.  And that grew great, but not enough to drive me to the caves.  Finally I felt I had been away long enough.

     “When I came to Hekate’s hut, I was afraid she would know what I had done.  Inside, the hut was draped with rich but dusty hangings.  The air smelt of age and incense.  In the dim light I saw her, also in rich dusty draperies.  She was hooded; I could not see her face.  She sat in silence.  I sat on the ground in front of her.  I knew what I was supposed to say.

     ‘Mother, your new daughter is here.  Please give me my name.’

     “Still she said nothing.  Her silence pressed into my eyes and ears.

     ‘Mother, I have been to the wilderness.’  Her continued silence forced the lie from my throat.  ‘I have seen the eagle flying in the dawn, bringing danger and majesty into the new day.’

     “I also fell silent.  I had told my story, now she must give me a name.  Dawn Eagle would be a good one.  My sisters would be impressed.  The silence breathed darkness into my mind.  No more fear, but waiting and brooding and shadow.  I don’t know how long I was there, but it seemed longer than the time in the copse.  Finally I felt a stirring in her draperies that ran down my spine.  Into my mind the words came.

     “‘I name you Crocodile, the One Who Deceives.’

     “‘No!’ I shouted.  ‘I beg you Mother, do not name me thus.  I am not Crocodile.’

     “But she spoke no more.  I sat in misery.  How had I imagined she would not know my lie.  Hekate, who presided at all births and deaths, who knew all.  Who must have been watching me all along.  The shame turned and twisted inside me.  How dare she judge me?  How dare she hold me up to ridicule before my people?  I could not bear it.  I feared her, yes, but the shame was stronger.

     “I crept forward.  ‘Hekate… Mother… please.’  I tugged on her robes.  ‘Please Mother, I cannot bear this name.’  I clenched the fabric in my fist.  ‘I beg you!’  I tugged again. My hand shook.  I could not stop it. 

“I heard her voice again.  ‘Crocodile.’ 

“‘No! I can’t bear it!  I won’t!’  My hand yanked hard on her draperies.

     “She fell down on me then, in a tumble of rags and bones.  Her skull rolled out.  It grinned up at me from the dusty floor.  ‘Crocodile,’ it whispered between ivory teeth.

     “‘No!’ I screamed.  I ran from her hut.  But not back to the village.  I couldn’t let the people see me, or know what I had done.  My mother would be so angry.  My least favorite sister would laugh.  I ran back to the copse.  But it wasn’t far enough.  I still heard her voice.  ‘Crocodile.’  ‘Deceiver.’  I ran like a crazy thing, not looking where I was going.  I only stopped when my left leg went numb.  A cobra had bitten my foot.  I lay where I’d fallen.  I gazed up at the stars as the poison crept to my heart.  Good, I thought, now my people will pity me instead.

     “Of course when I died, Hekate was there too.  She had been there all along.  For She rules over all, birth and death.  Mostly death now, I think, since those other gods have crowded in.  But She is the Mother, the One Who Knows.  The living may no longer call her name, but all ghosts know Her.  But it doesn’t matter that She knows me now.  Here in death She makes no demands.  Here in death I have no name.”

     “A pretty fable, though you never said exactly how Hekate became Queen, Crocodile,” the dark ghost said. 

     “You’re a brute, and stupid as well.  I told you.  There was no becoming, for She has always been.”

     The scarecrow furrowed its blackened brow.  “But is this it?  Is this the place you expected to come to when you died?  For it’s no Paradise!”

     Several ghosts murmured a sleepy assent.

But the reptilian shade crossed its short stubby arms and would not speak another word.

     The congealed ghost oozed forward.  “Never mind the lizard lipped one,” it said, “and prepare yourselves for the true story about our Queen. And it’s not such a pretty one.

     “As I said, in her former life Hekate was a Thessalian witch.  The best we ever had.  She made the mountains sing!  But her greatest gift was healing.  She knew the preparations for a thousand potions. 

     “She had a lover, another witch like herself, that Hekate cherished more than her power or her skill.  One day this other became caught in a rockslide, and her skull was crushed.  With all her magic, there was nothing Hekate could do to save her beloved.  She’d died before Hekate could get to her, and with her died Hekate’s heart. 

     “She was inconsolable.  In her rage she brought most of the rest of that mountain down.  No one could come near her.  Nor the other’s body, for Hekate set bonds that no one might touch it save her. 

     “She went into the room with the body and shut the door. She blamed herself, for the lover had been out gathering herbs at Hekate’s request.  As a healer, she had always battled death, and had often won.  She was unused to being its instrument.

     “But she did know death, almost as well as she knew life.  And so she prepared for her greatest working ever.  She would bring her lover back.

     “No one knew exactly what went on within that room, or if they knew, they also knew better than to speak of it.  Strangled sounds and nasty odors escaped, but Hekate herself was not seen for seven days, then seven more.  When at last the door opened, two witches stood on the threshold.  And the living eyes of the one whose head was misshaped were no more frightening than those of the white haired one beside her.  For Hekate had aged decades. 

     “Still she smiled, and asked the people to celebrate the return of the beloved.  No one dared refuse her.  And so the feast was prepared.”

     “Hekate was such a fool, trading her life for love!” the shade interrupted itself to exclaim.  The others gasped at the blasphemy, and a few of them dissolved in shivering fits.  The reptilian ghost expected additional snide remarks, but the horrid one seemed lost in its own pain.  After a moment, it continued.

     “Because of course her love was as doomed as she was.

     “The restored lover sat quite still at first, staring at the people, the fire, the food.  The look of confusion and consternation on her face grew blacker and blacker.  When Hekate noticed, she hurriedly motioned for silence.  But it was the lover’s tearing scream that brought the party to a sudden and complete stop.

     “It took four people to carry the raving witch back to Hekate’s room. 

     “Alone, Hekate managed to quiet the other. But she could not get her to say what was the matter, nor any coherent speech from her at all.  So once again, Hekate opened the door to death.  And found the rest of her lover’s dismembered soul on the other side. She had only been able to call a part of it back into the body, the part most attached to the body.  The part that belonged to the gods would not be relinquished.

     “Hekate almost broke apart herself then, realizing what she had done.  But could not leave her beloved as she was, both pieces suffering unbearably at their split.  The fragment remaining in the body had to be released. 

     “But the body, already dead, could not die again.  So Hekate performed her last great working, and exchanged herself with the broken one.  The lover, now in the wracked and aged body that was once the most powerful witch in the world, slipped away gratefully to her final death.  And Hekate remained, in a body that could not die, and with a soul that now longed for nothing else.”

     The inky one’s form bulged and contracted horribly. But its story was not yet finished.  

“We ghosts, who are trapped here because of the evil that we’ve done, are the same, neither a part of life nor free from it.  And Hekate is Queen because she knows firsthand the cruelest of jokes that Fate may play upon us.”

     “No!” the scarecrow cried. “No! You may be a wicked one, but not me. And certainly not her.”

“Face it, you stinking pile of sticks! There is no Paradise, at least none that you’ll ever see.”

     “Monster!”

     “Shhh! Hush up now, both of you!  Here comes our Lady.”

     Hekate glided by, a few favored shades in her train.  The gathered ghosts trembled and turned away at her approach, for aside from blood, she was what they most desired.  And aside from true memory, she was what they most feared.

     But the burnt one grasped at a bit of old bravery, and peeked out from behind its twigs.  And seemed to remember another feast, another blood time, another glimpse of the Queen with her retinue. 

“You know,” it said to itself, “Those ghosts close to her aren’t the same ones as before.”  It scratched its head.  “Could they be gone from here?”  It thought as hard as it could. “Could it be Hekate really does know the way to the next world?  And she’s just not telling me?”

     The hurt and anger it had felt just after its death returned in strength, and shattered it to black dust. But none of the others noticed. 

     For in the upper world, the seeming peace of evening had come.  The ceremonies were over for the day, and temple drudges cleared the remains.  In the world below, the ghosts melted in the rising mists, towards a seeming peace of their own.

 

 

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