Offerings to Hekate
By Ellen Lorenzi-Prince
The Uninvited Guest
The Olympians assembled on the mountain for dinner. Zeus sat in the high seat, lording it as usual. “More ambrosia!” and “Pass the nectar!” and “To me! To me!” Athena quickly refilled his chalice, anxious to speak with her father about the latest disturbance among the tribes. But “Later,” he growled, and waved her away. He roared at the jokes of Hermes, but his fondest glances were for Apollo, who tuned his lyre and blithely ignored them all.
The big man’s brothers were in grudging attendance, at Zeus’s “invitation.” But Hades made use of the opportunity to discuss with Poseidon a new underwater entrance to his realm, for easier access to drowned sailors and cliff jumping suicides.
Ares and Hephaestus purportedly talked of new weapon designs, but kept half an eye on each other and both eyes on the erotic dance of Aphrodite.
Hestia gazed into the fire, Artemis paced and looked out the windows, and Hera gave orders to the servants. Demeter lazed in a corner, it being winter below. Altogether it was a typical family dinner.
Into this room of shining alabaster and perfect proportions shuffled a crone in black rags. The mighty ones gaped at her, speechless. “I’m hungry,” she announced, “And I’ve come to eat with you.”
“Impossible,” declared Apollo. “How did she get in here?” muttered Hermes. “I’ll throw her out,” said Ares.
But Zeus hesitated. There was something about this hideous hag. Something he didn’t want to disturb, or discover.
“Now, now,” he said. “I’m sure Cook can fix you a plate of something in the kitchen.”
“No thank you,” the old woman replied. “I’ll eat here with you.” She continued her approach.
“But,” sputtered Zeus, “but we’ve only service for twelve.”
“You’ll get no cup,” added Apollo.
“That’s all right,” she said, “I can drink from the flagon.”
No one hid his groans of distaste, but the crone seemed not to hear. Hera smiled at her husband’s discomfort. She stood and held out her hand. “Welcome, old mother. Come and sit by me. You may share my cup and dish.”
Zeus glowered but didn’t say another word. He chewed on his beard and worried. What was it about that woman, and how did she get in here?
Since the thunder god did not act, the others shrugged, tossed down their drinks, and called loudly for more. Privately, Apollo planned to instruct his priests concerning the unsuitability of old women, the color black, and the number thirteen.
After the meal was done, the crone smacked her lips. “Thank you, great ones. That was delicious.” She smiled, baring her teeth. “May you always find yourselves as welcome as you have made me.”
The assembled deities shifted their feet and glanced sideways at one another. The men coughed, rose abruptly, and retired to another chamber, where they might inhale sacrificial smoke and recall how worshipful they were.
The old woman spoke again, gravely. “I thank you truly, Hera, for your hospitality.” She fixed her good eye on each lovely goddess in turn. “But I ask you, all of you, how do you come to be in this god’s place? And as sisters, daughters, and wives? You who were once great queens, subservient to none. Why are you here?”
Artemis said, “You know, you’re right? I don’t need this. I’m outta here!” And she ran back to her beloved woods, running for the joy it gave her to feel so strong and free.
“Enough drama!” Demeter said, but did not get up from her couch. “What does it matter? The Earth remains as it always has, and what these gods may do makes little difference to me.”
“There may come a time when that is no longer true, my Lady,” said the crone.
“Well, I’ll deal with it when I have to. In the meantime, I’ve got plans to make. Hmmm…” Demeter’s eyes turned inward. “A new vegetable, now. Dull and prickly on the outside, hearty on the inside. Make people look twice. Yes,” she murmured, “I think I’ll call it Artichoke. A funny kind of name.” And she drifted back to sleep with a little smile on her face.
Hera had had enough. Being reprimanded in her own home? By someone she had let share her cup? She stood and spoke with dignity.
“Perhaps I am not as great as I once was. But you must be aware of the new order in the land. Once mothers were revered, now fathers are feared. Those of us on Olympus cannot help but reflect the beliefs of our people. And so I am bound in marriage to this Zeus. But what would you have me do? The women who pray to me are bound just so, having no choice in their partner, nor in the children they must bear. I, at least, give them a glimpse of some authority within this bondage, some hope of retribution for their pain. I, at least, hear and understand their prayers. Would you have me abandon them? Leave them with nothing and no one at all?” Hera took a deep breath and set her jaw. “Even you, old one, could not be so cruel.”
Hestia glanced from the queen to the hag, her eyes wide with concern. She didn’t like this new trouble. But then, she hated all the recent troubles. If only everyone would focus on what truly mattered. The fire that filled a room with warmth, the fire that changed the inedible into the nourishing, the fire that turned any hut into a home. Hestia drew closer to the hearth, and shed the form that caused her pain. She melted into the flames, finding peace and purity at last. Only the crone saw her go.
Hera still waited for a response. The old one bowed her head to the queen of the gods.
“I believe I understand, Great Lady. You have chosen to be their companion in misery.”
Hera half nodded and sat, suddenly tired, a small frown creasing her perfect forehead. Athena stood next.
“It is true I have existed for ages untold, when the world was a very different place than it is today. Now it is also true that I have become my father’s daughter. I have done this so he will listen to me. Because I am the only female he can respect or care for.” Athena looked down.
“I’m sorry, Hera,” she said. Hera shrugged, not looking up, and Athena continued.
“I temper his violence with my reason. I speak out for justice. And what if I did not? Shall our people’s lives be blasted further for the sake of his games or his lusts? You have no idea of what I have sacrificed for this cause; so do not judge me, old woman!”
“I merely asked a question,” the crone said. But Athena seemed not to notice.
“I have brought civilization to these wild tribes. Improved all their lives through craft and cultivation.”
“Chaining women to the spindle and the loom, now that’s progress,” the old one muttered, no longer expecting to be heard.
“The tribes came to this land. The Acheans. The Dorians. None of us could stop that from happening. And they brought their gods with them. We could not prevent that either. I have remained in order to teach and guide them. For goodness knows, they have great need of temperance and wisdom.”
“Yes, there is certainly need.”
Athena stared into the distance. “I have done what I can. I have done what I must. I have done what is right. And someday I know justice will prevail.” Her gray eyes misted with a vision only she could see.
Athena sat down, her chin high and firm; it was the crone who bowed her head. A single tear splashed on the marble floor.
“I see you’ve saved the best for last!” Aphrodite said merrily. The crone looked up and found a smile again. The love goddess stretched out her arms in a movement of compelling grace.
“I am not controlled by these gods. I can control them! For I can make anyone dance to my tune… except perhaps for Miss Priss here,” Aphrodite waved a rose and ivory hand at Athena, who ignored both the comment and the speaker.
“The passion that is my particular power is by its nature beyond control. This power has been mine in ages past and is yet mine today.”
“Once you had more powers than that,” the old one said.
“Yes,” replied Aphrodite. “But passion is the most important. For it can bring people out of themselves and connect one to another like no other power on earth. Passion can soften the stoniest heart, and sweeten the lot of the meanest slave.”
“And yet the slave remains a slave, and the heart still hard towards all else outside the object of its affection.”
“We can inspire, but the people must learn and choose and act. That is their power.”
The hall grew quiet. Even the fire whispered, and did not crackle or hiss. The goddess had nothing more to say, and the crone did not speak. Until, after an eternity, she sighed.
“Ladies. I will say goodbye to you now. You have shown me what it means to be a goddess in this place, in this time. One who may create dreams, but not make them come true. But I do not accept this.” The old one drew a deep breath. She straightened and her rags became a dark shining robe. “So I shall not be a goddess, but a witch. For a witch may do as she likes. I will cast my spells, and I will make change happen in this world.”
The crone’s voice echoed, stronger and stranger than any thunder. “I say that magic will exist. My power will exist, without temples or priests. And I will be remembered, long after your temples have crumbled to ruin.”
Then she turned and left the halls of the mighty to go her own way.
Zeus poked his head into the room. “Is she gone?”
“Yes,” said Hera.
“I don’t want her coming back,” the god said.
“Neither do I.”
“But we don’t know how she got here,” said Hermes, joining the others.
“But we do know why she came,” Zeus said, not seeing his wife’s expression. “So let’s make sure she never gets that hungry.” He inflated his chest with authority.
“I decree that food shall be left wherever the roads cross, so that no matter what way she takes, she will find something to satisfy her. That hag need never disturb us again.”
And since the great god spoke, it was so. Pleased with himself, he called for more wine.