Hekate and the three-headed dog of Hades
In writing my novel, I have viewed it as a tapestry, with the various colorful threads representing the characters, Alexander being the 'golden' thread that runs through it. The 'theme' of my novel is "How a blind ambition and greed destroyed a world power." The story is a tragedy of epic Greek proportions, told in a Homeric way. Sometimes, unknowingly we use symbolisms in our writing that become part of the 'theme', and I have discovered that one of the dark threads running through this tapestry is one of sorcery. And of course, in ancient times, sorcery and oracles were a very important part of daily life.
One of the 'black threads' woven into my tapestry, is Hekate, the dark Queen of the night, the One who had contact with the Shades of the dead. I've just been writing a short piece in Olympias' point of view in which she is conjuring the Goddess, and I realized that Hekate has appeared throughout my novel, that sort of shadowy creature foreshadowing the tragedies that are to come.
The following three excerpts all include the rites of Hekate.
This first is from Part I of the novel when Alexander has recently died and the army is still in Babylon. One of the generals has tried to overthrow Perdikkas, who took over the army after Alexander's death. In this scene the army is gathering in the field outside Babylon where the traitors are being held.
This part of the scene is in the point of view of Philip Arridaios, the idiot half-brother of Alexander who has been named joint-king with Alexander's infant son, Iskander.
Arridaios saw the men bring the dog down for the sacrifice, a sleek ebony-coloured hound, the long-haired aristocratic breed used by Persian nobility for hunting. Last winter Alexander had given him a brace of them for his birthday. It was a powerful dog, used to bring lions down on the plains. It took more than two men to hold it as it tore viciously at the sacrificer’s arm. He thought it was one of his own dogs and he cried out in protest.
“They’re hurting it!” he cried.
He cringed as he saw the flash of a blade and heard the dog’s long, high-pitched yelp. He clapped his hands over his ears, shouting for the men to stop. Peithon rolled his eyes and muttered a curse. Leonnatos reached out to quiet him.
“Never mind, Sir,” he said gently. “There are plenty of other dogs like that one.”
“It was mine!” Arridaios wailed, his eyes streaming with tears.
“It was only a lion-hound,” snapped Peithon. “You shall have a proper Molossian hunting dog when we get back to Macedon.”
“Now that I am King I forbid them to kill dogs,” sobbed Arridaios.
“Be quiet!” glowered Peithon. “The beast is an offering to Hekate!”
The dog was splayed in two, drenching the ground with its blood. The sacrificer made the libations and cut its body into pieces which four horsemen carried to the corners of the field. The field was divided and blessed. The rites to Hekate were done. The generals finished making their offerings at the blood-drenched altar and went off to join their battalions
This next is a scene from Part III when the kings and the royal household stop at the sacred island of Samothraki to make sacrifices to the Great Gods. Adeia-Eurydike has married Arridaios and is on a quest to seize the throne for herself in revenge for the murders of her parents, her mother Kynane, who was killed by Perdikkas' men, and her father Amyntas, who was executed as a traitor after the assassination of King Philip (Alexander's father.) There was a cave for Hekate on Samothraki.
It was a cloudless night, the damp air penetrated to her bones. She looked for the moon but it had not yet risen over the crest of the mountain. She climbed the steep cobbled street past the little stone houses of the town. Behind the shuttered windows came muffled sounds, Thracian voices: the soft cadences of mothers singing to daughters, the rougher tones of fathers talking to their sons. She had been living in army camps for so long she had forgotten these homey sounds. She remembered what it had been like when she was a child at the hearth-fire with her parents. She lingered there awhile, listening, then hurried away when the memories brought a lump to her throat.
A small black pup followed at her heels, a stray or one cast out to fend for itself, still wobbly on its podgy legs. She picked it up and stroked it.
“Why, you’re hardly more than a suckling!” she exclaimed, laughing as it nuzzled against her throat with its wet nose. She held it out in front of her, contemplated keeping it for company, then tucked it inside the folds of her mantle.
Behind the town as small gate opened to a well-beaten track lit by torches held in sconces speared into the ground, a path of bright pebbles and crushed shells that
zig-zagged up the slope through the trees. She followed this path, which wound through the trees until it forked. One way led into the Great God’s Sanctuary, the other ascended the rocky slope of the mountain.
Adeia stood silent, hardly breathing. Shadows leaped around her. She listened to the ghostly hooting of an owl, heard the fluttering sound of wings. Her spine tingled but she told herself: This is the Great God’s Sanctuary. There can be no danger here.
She threaded her way up the winding trail. The path grew steeper. She was out of the torch light now. It was almost too dark to see, a clear moonless night, the sky blazing with more stars than she’d ever seen before. As she looked, a meteor streamed down falling in a red-gold streak toward the west.
Inside the folds of her cloak, the pup began to whimper. She stroked the silky flesh of its belly and let it suckle her finger until it grew quiet, nestled against her breast,
She hurried on, quick, light-footed, experienced in climbing the mountain track. Her heart pounded with excitement as she followed the path, as if some unseen Power urged her on. The pine woods thinned the higher she climbed. Ahead she saw a great rock face and in its jagged cleft, lit by votive lamps, the sinister black mouth of a cave.
She stood still, her heartbeats thudding from the climb. Could this be the Grotto of Hekate where the people of Samothraki celebrated mysterious nocturnal rites? The place seemed deserted, yet she could feel a Presence, something ominous, a dark sorcery. Behind her she heard a footstep. She turned to see a bent old crone dressed in a ragged cloak, her wizened face half-hidden in the folds of a black hood. Adeia caught in her breath, then dared to speak.
“Who are you, Mother?”
The hag leaned on her staff and peered at her sharply with eyes that glinted like firestones. Her voice crackled like wind through dry leaves. “’Tis the Oracle of Hekate you’ve come to, the Goddess of Darkness who guards the Crossroads and rules the Night. I am Her attendant. Have you brought Her an offering, Child?”
Adeia wondered what to do. She had not thought to bring anything. She had come upon the cave unexpectedly, though in truth the Goddess must have led her there, for such things do not happen by chance.
The pup wiggled against her chest. She put her hand inside and drew it out by its scruff. An offering for Hekate, she thought. A dog, black as pitch, unblemished.
“I have brought Her this,” she said, and she handed the pup to the crone.
The old seeress beckoned her forward with a hand like a claw. Adeia followed her into the cave. The place was clammy, the air mouldy, sharp with the tang of sulphur and bats’ dung. The cavernous interior flickered with eerie shadows. From the ceiling, spikes of yellow limestone hung like icicles that oozed with moisture, red in the torch-glow, as if it were moon-blood seeping right out of the Earth Mother’s womb. An altar set with clay cups and a stone mixing bowl stood in the centre of the chamber. Next to it, on a lichen covered plinth, was a garlanded statue of the fearsome three-faced Hekate, the dreaded Divinity who reigns over ghostly places of evil magic.
The crone approached the altar and threw a handful of acrid-smelling powder on the embers that burned in a tripod beside the it. Smoke ascended, wisps wound around the ceiling spikes, clung along the wet stone walls. Something stirred on the edge of Adeia’s vision, a glitter of red daemon eyes. Bats! In the dark places among the dripping stalagmites the ceiling of the cave hung thick with them.
The seeress placed the pup on the altar and began to summon the power of the Goddess. The words were unintelligible, an ancient tongue, darkly mysterious. Her screeching, cackling voice rose until it became the sound of Hekate’s hounds baying in the night.
After the ritual words were spoken, the pup was washed for the purification and the crone cut a piece of its hair to burn on the tripod. When she handed the pup back to Adeia, it whined but did not struggle.
“In the rites of Hekate, it is you who must kill the victim,” the crone said. “After the offering is made, I will augur your fortune.”
Adeia bowed her head and surrendered herself to the Power. She thought of her parents, how she had sworn a blood-oath to avenge their unjust deaths. Here in Hekate’s cave, it was safe to name the Dead. She spoke their names slowly.
She made herself breath slowly, listening to the hollow echo of her voice as it resounded from the stones.
She cried their names aloud again and again, sounding each syllable, the vibrancy of her voice shrill in the silence of the night. The Dead were here. Their voices whispered to her from the dark bowels of the cave.
“Peace to you, my Father, in your unmarked grave. And to you, my Mother, your ashes strewn in a foreign land. Be my strength, and show me how to bring order and respect to our house.”
She laid her offering on Hekate’s altar. The pup struggled and she stroke it until it lay still. She willed herself to raise her dagger and made her supplication.
“Come to me, O beloved Mistress, three-faced Hekate.
Kindly hear my sacred chants.
Hail goddess, I bring for your this sacrifice.
Hear my supplications and fulfill for me this matter.”
The dagger blade flashed silver in the torch-light. The up gave out a sharp yelp, then went limp. Blood oozed from the deep gash in its neck and splashed into the mixing basin. Adea stood silent, feeling a tightness in her skull, a pounding in her ears. Her hands and the front of her tunic were bloodied, her scarred breast throbbed as if the old wound had opened. She thought of that other time in Troy, when she had made a blood offering. Somehow it had been easier to give of herself. This was the first time she had killed for the Goddess.
She wiped the blood off her dagger and replaced it in the sheath. The crone shuffled up to examine the body with victim. Adeia caught in her breath and waited. Her throat felt dry, her stomach ached. She watched as the old woman took a sacrificial knife and cut through the animal’s distended belly. As she waited for the crone to take the omen, the rapid pounding of her pulse throbbed in her ears.
The blade slit through the skin easily with a gush of blood. The seeress bent her face close over the disembowelled carcass and peered into its innards. She poked her claws into it, gave a long sigh, and turned to Adeia, shaking her head.
“No good. Parasitos.”
Adeia looked into the bowels of the victim and saw the thick greyish maggots wriggling in the bloodied entrails. She gagged, and clamper her hand over her mouth, swallowing bile as she fought back nausea.
“What does this mean?”
“No good,” the crone repeated. “Bad omen.” She turned away from Adeia. “You will sleep here tonight. “You sleep there. In the morning I will tell you the meaning of your dreams,” she commanded, pointing a bony finger toward a heap of greasy black bull-skins. Then, as if she were an apparition, she disappeared into the obsidian blackness of a side chamber.
Adeia lay down on the reeking hides and stared up at the fangs of stone that hung over her head. She could hear the squeak of bats and drip of water splashing into some hidden pool. The taste of death was in her mouth; she smelled its stench. Everywhere she felt the ominous Presence of Hekate, as though she were being pulled to a place where she might look straight into the dark side of the moon, Hekate’s domain, that unearthly place of evil and magic, the Underworld.
She tried to drowse, but the vermin in her bed of hides kept her awake. She lay watching a single star that appeared suspended above the black silhouette of the pines outside the mouth of the cave. She thought of her triumphant return to Macedon when she would take up residence in the palace at Pella. It had been years since she had been in the royal throne room. No King had occupied it since Alexander had gone to conquer the world. Now it would be hers! She could see herself in arms, leading the cavalry down Pella’s broad avenue to the palace gates.
Somewhere in the forest outside, she heard a nightjar’s shrill cry, then all was still.
She dreams she is returning home. Many people come to greet her. A woman wearing a costly purple rode comes toward her. Around her waist is coiled a golden serpent. The woman’s eyes are red like the serpent’s eyes. Her hair coils and writhes as if alive. Her mouth is open and her tongue darts out, a serpent’s tongue. In her hands is a stone mixing bowl full of blood. The apparition lifts it to drink and as she does, she looks down and sees that where her breast was cut off, a fountain of blood is spurting. This is the blood the woman drinks. She tries to stop her but the woman mocks her and says: ‘You will never defeat me. The Evil doer will destroy herself.” She screams but nobody hears. The people have disappeared. She is alone.
She must have screamed aloud, for when she woke, startled by the nightmare, the crone was crouching beside her, squinting at her. She struggled to sit up but she could not catch her breath. Though it was cold in the cave, her body was clammy with sweat.
“What have you dreamed, Child? You must tell me every detail,” the crone urged.
Adeia could not speak. When she was finally able to form the words, her voice was no more than a hoarse whisper. “There was a woman with serpents in her hair...She was drinking my blood...”
The crone narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “You have sought to avenge your parent’s deaths,” she said in a quavering voice. “Vengeance alone can not appease the Shades of the Dead. No good can come of it.”
Adeia scrambled to her feet. “What do you mean?” she shouted. “It was only a dream. I’m not afraid of dreams. I’m not afraid of anything.”
The hag clawed at her arm and held her in a desperate grip. “Hekate will only protect you if you obey Her will.”
Adeia pulled away and bolted from the cave. Once she was out of that strange stone tomb she sped quickly down the trail, resolved not to look back.
This following passage is from Part V, and it's the part I've been working on this week. This time it is in Olympias' point of view. She was known to be a sorceress and a devotee of dark magic. Philip met her at the shrine of Samothraki and fell in love with her there but their marriage was tumultus and in the end she grew to hate him and tried to influence Alexander against him. Olympias was well known for wreaking vengeance on her enemies. This time, she is turning her venom against Kassandros, who is on a quest to seize the Regency of Macedon.
Outside the new moon hung low over the mountains, the moon sacred to Hekate, Queen of the Night, Goddess of witchcraft and ghosts, She who dwells in the inner chamber of Hades. Three nights remained before the bright horns of the Moon would meet; when She shone in fullest radiance. Barefoot, her long robe unfastened, her hair falling loose on her shoulders, in the deep stillness of the midnight hour, Olympias stretched her arms to embrace the moon and stars, and turned about three times wailing a cry to the Goddess.
“O Mother of Mysteries, and all the stars who with Selene, the Moon, succeed the light of day, and Thou, divine three-formed Hecate, who knows all my enterprises and the
arts of magic, be with me now! Enable me with Your power!“
She had first worshipped Hekate on the sacred isle of Samothraki, when she was a young girl, dancing to the revelling of the double-pipes with the torch-bearing Mystae among the whispering trees in the sacred cave of the goddess to whom black dogs are slain. What could she do now but petition Her?
She bolted the door. No one must hear her or disturb the rituals she would prepared for the immolation. Out of her secret chest she took the potions and amulets: the mushrooms that gave her mystic powers, precious frankincense and myrrh, sage and salt, and pieces of asphodel roots sacred to the Underworld deities. She had many drugs and potions of exceptional potency, though she rarely used them to destroy human beings. This time, she would wreak vengeance upon the man who most deserved punishment. There was still blood in the basin from her last sacrifice but this time she had no black bitch pup to offer. She prepared the sacrifice for a death, and with a stick of olive wood she mixed them together. To this she added her poisons words.
`I supplicate you, Gods of the dark dwelling-place, the abysses of dismal Death, I summon You by my sacred rites, Thou Hekate, put on Thy most evil face and come!”
Then she placed a wax figure of her enemy, Kassandros, on the altar and impaled it with a sliver of hawthorn.
“May his accursed name be buried in oblivion!“ she muttered. She made a reverent prostration to the statue of the goddess whose face is turned in three directions so She can guard the crossroads, the dark goddess who had the power to communicate with the dead. She bowed to the idol as she bit into one of the mushrooms, savouring it’s familiar musty flavour. She put her offering on the altar and lit the embers pouring on a handful of the incense. The embers guttered then flamed, sending the sacred smoke curling heavenward as she spoke the name of the goddess and Her powers, in reverence as decreed.
With folded her hands she made her supplication. “To Thee, Hekate, I make these offerings. Thou who doest show Thy bright face as witness of the silent mysteries, O Selene and three-formed Hekate, give me a sign.”
Her voice was low, like the throaty gnarl of a mountain cat. “Come Hekate, Goddess of transformation. Speak to me, tell me how to save Alexander’s empire from those who seek to destroy it. Ward off the malevolent powers. Show me what I am to do, O Hekate.”
She sank to her knees and invoked the Spirits of the Dead, the swift hound of Hades who feeds on souls and haunt the lower air to pounce on living men, calling upon the spirits of the Underworld three times in song, three times with spoken prayers, steeling herself as she flung the full force of her malevolence on Kassandros, and in an ecstasy of rage beset him with images of death. She uttered terrible curses to ensure that Kassandros and his allies would be destroyed. “I wish Kassandros to be devoured by dogs, a death befitting one who murdered my son and now seeks to usurp his throne! May the Furies hound him and his allies to the depths of Hades. May the Eater of Souls devour them. The will of Hekate will be fulfilled,” she moaned.
There was an unnatural stillness in the room, as if a dark shroud had fallen enveloping her and her surroundings. The faces of the goddess had grown into a dreadful image of her own face. A chill crept through her body and her skin prickled.
As she prayed she heard nightmarish sounds, the screech of an owl and the braying and bellowing of dogs. The potent magic of the mushrooms created visions of black snakes swarming at her feet and ghostly shapes of silent spirits floated around her.
She prostrated herself and lay still, hardly breathing. Each moment took her farther from her present world. She could hear the hiss of her own breath and the pounding of blood in her ears. On the edges of her vision she saw shadowy stirrings, heard the faint thrum of magic as if it were the distant sound of thunder.
She listened for Hekate, her guide, She who only came in the night when the new moon rose over the darkened hills and the souls of the dead could be seen like shifting shadows. The Goddess would give her the answers she sought. She waited long, lying motionless, but there was only silence. At last she drew in a slow breath and raised herself up.
“Silence is your answer then,” she said. “And your silence bids me to be patient.”
* * *
It's been a lot of fun dabbling in sorcery. I've always been fascinated, though a bit intimidated, by fortune-telling, tarot-cards and anything that might hint of the 'dark' magic. But it's interesting to research it and imagine yourself being in the position of these characters. Adeia-Eurydike and Olympias are probably two of the most powerful women in ancient history and yet the historians haven't given them much press, so I've taken it upon myself to give them some life and let them tell their stories. Just watch what happens next when these two formidable women clash!
The Temple of the Great Gods, Samothraki