The idea of a feast to the Goddess Hekate in the middle of August, when I first encountered it, seemed like a modern invention, but it turned out it is based on an ancient festival - to the Goddess as Diana and Hekate, known respectively as:
The Hecatean Ides
The Festival of Torches
In this short article I will introduce some of the key places and ideas associated with this festival. At the end I provide an outline for a modern ritual, drawing on some ancient ideas which can easily be adapted to your circumstances, wherever in the world you are.
I would love to hear from you about how you celebrate this festival, or indeed why you don't at all - so do post comments or pm me! This is just an introduction - Hekate's Feast deserves a lot more attention!
Our journey towards understanding this festival starts at Lake Nemi, Italy.
The Speculum Dianae
At Lake Nemi stood and was celebrated perhaps the most important temple and festival of the Goddess Diana, a goddess who is never far from the centre in the modern Pagan witchcraft revival:Diana is the goddess of Leland's 1892 Aradia: Gospel of the Witches. Diana is named in documents linked to the European Witchcraft trials too, for example, King James I of England's Daemonoloy in 1597 this discussion about Diana and the Faeries we read:
"That fourth kinde of spirites, which by the Gentiles was called Diana, and her wandring court, and amongst vs was called the Phairie (as I tould you) or our good neighboures, was one of the sortes of illusiones that was rifest in the time of Papistrie: for although it was holden odious to Prophesie by the deuill, yet whome these kinde of Spirites carryed awaie, and informed, they were thought to be sonsiest and of best life. ..."
Diana's legacy is enduring and permeates the magical revival.
Lake Nemi was known as Speculum Dianae (The Mirror of Diana) by the Romans, both because this was a sacred place of Diana's and because the Moon - associated with Diana - reflected so beautifully in the lake.
Above: Map showing the location of Lago di Nemi (Lake Nemi) which is south of Rome, Italy.
The lake and temples at Nemi enjoyed the attention of treasure hunters for many centuries, including the excavations of 2 full-sized ships (in fact very large considering they were both on a small inland lake with no access to water ways) which were - seemingly deliberately sunk (possibly as offerings, but there are also other theories) during the Roman period. These ships were excavated and put on display during the early part of the 20th century, but as a result of WWII work stopped and most of the finds, including the ships, went up in flames on the 31st of May 1944. Reports on who was responsible for the fire vary, but the museum was hit by US army shells aimed at getting Nazi occupiers to leave the area two hours before it went up in flames. Either way, a lot of information has been lost forever as a result.
What we have are some blurry b&w photographs of the hull of one of the ships which was recovered from the lake, taken in 1930 by an unknown photographer it shows the ship and to the left and to the front of the photo - for an idea of scale - there are people. The ships were destroyed in the fire.
The use the ships had are a matter of debate, it is very possible that one or both functioned as floating temples, they were built during the reign of the Emperor Caligula who favoured some of the Isian cults (of the Greco-Egyptian Isis) and that of Diana at Nemi. Like other Romans of his time he equated the two goddesses through a process called interpretatio romano, a way through which the culture and gods of another place were understood from a Roman perspective - not all deities were considered equal, but those with significantly similar qualities or origins were equated. Of course both Isis and Diana were also equated to Hekate in this way.
More work is being done to record and document what is left of the site in recent years, and hopefully we will be able to learn more from the work being done here and elsewhere to document finds.
Hekate & Diana
Although the goddesses Diana and Hekate at first appear to be quite different, when we scratch the surface we find that they are intrinsically tangled. For the Romans Diana was also Trivia (Of the Three ways - Latin) like Hekate was Trioditis (Of the Three ways / roads - Greek). Diana was a triple goddess, worshipped as Artemis-Selene-Hekate, so much that a triple image of a goddess appeared on the coins in the local region. #
Here is a little extract from my article "Diana's Moon Rays" originally published in The Faerie Queens (Anthology, 2013).
Here Diana Nemorensis (Diana of the woodlands) was celebrated. Stratius wrote describing this, saying that:
“It is the season when the most scorching region of the heavens takes over the land and the keen dog-star Sirius, so often struck by Hyperion’s sun, burns the gasping fields. Now is the day with Trivia’s Arician grove, convenient for fugitive kings, grows smoky, and the lake, having guilty knowledge of Hippolytus, glitters with the reflection of a multitude of torches; Diana herself garlands the deserving hunting dogs and polishes the arrowheads and allows the wild animals to go in safely, and at virtuous hearths all Italy celebrates the Hecatean Ides…”
Lake Nemi was also named Speculum Dianae (Mirror of Diana) by Virgil and was a wealthy centre where Diana was worshipped as a goddess for at least 1000 years. Here Diana was served by the Rex Nemorensis (King of the Woods) who was both Priest and guardian to the temple, fulfilling an important role of office, one which started and ended with bloodshed. The British historian Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) in his translation of The Battle of Lake Regillus poetically describes Lake Nemi and the cruel reality of its priest:
“From the still glassy lake that sleeps Beneath Aricia’s trees– Those trees in whose dim shadow The ghastly priest doth reign, The priest who slew the slayer, And shall himself be slain.”
Strabo’s The Geography provides us with further insights on the Rex Nemorensis telling us that the position of priest was held by a man who was a run-away slave, who having successfully attacked and killed his predecessor, took his place as King of the Woods. As a result the serving priest was always armed with a sword and on the look-out for would-be attackers in order to defend his life and his position. Thus the Priest-King of Diana was a hunter who was hunted in turn, a King who had to prove him-self to be the best against each challenger in order to maintain his position as servant and guardian to the goddess.
Diana, like Hekate and Artemis, was depicted and described as a virgin goddess. Like Artemis - and on occasion Hekate - she is depicted or described as a huntress. All three these goddesses had significant links to childbirth and the well being of women during conception and pregnancy. All three are associated with the Moon and depicted with dogs. It really is rather complicated separating them from each other completely!
Curiously, the festival known as the Nemoralia was also known as the Hecatean Ides; and though at this time we know very little about it there was a festival celebrated that the Temple of Hekate at Lagina which also took place during the Ides of August. The poet Ausonius remarks in his Idyll, that the Ides of August is dedicated to Hekate of Latonia [Leto]: “Sextiles Hecate Latonia vindicat Idus.” (for more see the 4th century CE Idyll 5.23).
Nemoralia or the Hecatean Ides
We don't have information to prove exactly when this festival started, but it might have been as early - or earlier - than the 6th century BCE. The "Ides" of a month are the middle days, usually the 13th to the 16th, which are why these are the dates still celebrated today. While this is not technically wrong, the calendar dates during the Roman period would have been calculated by the Moon, rather than a fixed calendar of days - so this would have corresponded to the Full Moon period, as the first of the month was marked by the New Moon. Today it is typically the 13th or 16th of August that is celebrated.
The historical festival lasted for three days. People travelled from all over the region, often on foot. Torches were lit, participants wore wreaths and also tied string to trees near the water - all of it with offerings of song and prayer. Votive tablets (tabella) and objects representing body parts that needed healing were also brought to the site and left, presumably with prayers.
Celebrating Hekate's Feast or the Hecatean Ides today
When we celebrate an ancient festival today, especially when there is not much clarity on what our ancestors actually did or believed they were doing, we have to do the best we can with the information available. What follows is a simple outline of what I typically do myself when marking this point in the yearly cycle of festivals to my gods. You can celebrate this over the course of three days (if doing it on the full moon, or otherwise go with the modern days of 13th or 16th of August).
As a polytheist I want to view Hekate and Diana as separate deities, but because they are so intertwined, the lines do get blurred sometimes. For this reason, when marking this particular festival I refer to them as Diana-Hekate or Trivia.
Preparation: On or before the day:
Ensure that you have a clean set of clothing, I usually wear white.
Gather materials to make your own wreath - this is part of your devotional work, so don't buy one, make one from what you can find in your garden or by taking a walk in a nearby park or woods. Even a simple ivy wreath with colourful leaves or flowers added will do.
a length of natural string preferably cotton or wool, if you are able to find it in white or red or golden yellow that is ideal. Make sure you have something to cut it with, such as a small pair of scissors.
Decide on where you will be doing your rite. Ideally you will make an effort and go to a local pond or lake; alternatively the sea or a river and include plans for a walk to the site as part of your preparation. It doesn't have to be a long walk, but the longer the better as Diana of Nemi was a goddess of both the forest and lake, so connecting with nature should be part of the process. If for whatever reason you are unable to do so, use a bowl of water to represent a lake and spend time before your ritual learning more about the natural world where you live to improve your knowledge and understanding of it - and focus your devotion in a place you consider to be the hearth of your home.
If you would like to offer a votive for healing you should make this in advance. These rely on the principle of sympathetic magic. You can also make requests for help with getting pregnant, being pregnant or giving birth.
If you would like to offer a devotional tablet, this should also be made in advance. A simple alternative is to write your prayer and dedication on a piece of paper, though of course this will not have the same longevity.
Write or decide on at least three hymns or prayers you can offer as part of the rite. If you like singing or chanting, this can include prayers you will be chanting or singing.
Decide on an offering - this can be an object, food or drink for both the local spirits (genus loci) and Diana-Hekate. Please note that offerings should always be chosen carefully so that they never end up as litter, something biodegradable is best - and make sure that it won't be toxic to local wildlife too. The wild animals are also Diana-Hekate's domain, so we should be extra mindful!
A candle made from natural in a suitable container, or a small natural wax floating candle. [If you are creative, you can put time into making and experimenting with your own biodegradable floating oil lamps or even experiment with origami vessels! ]
Something special to eat afterwards, something that is both healthy and natural is ideal. No need to eat like an ancient Roman for the occasion, and as an aside (because I have seen this!) the people who honoured Diana at Nemi did not have pizza or spaghetti ;-) so please, just please don't be weird - eat it if you want, I do, but don't pretend it is Roman !!
On the day:
Prepare yourself by having an intentional ritual bath or shower, taking care to also wash your hair. Put on your ritual clothing.
Make your way to the ritual site with a bag or basket containing all the things you prepared. Wear your wreath!
Walk to the site in silence (even if you are going with others, use the time to listen to the natural world all around you) or if you prefer sing a song or chant to Diana-Hekate as you walk.
Upon arriving greet the spirits of the place and make an offering you have brought with you.
Offer your first hymn/song to Diana-Hekate.
Take your thread and tie it around a tree branch (if indoors, find a suitable small branch for your altar to do this with) going around the limb 9 times - ideally you should walk around the three while doing so, but I know this is not always possible. Cut the thread and tuck in the ends. Do this while taking deep and slow breaths, focussing your mind on the goddess and how you perceive her, and what she means to you.
Optional: Make your devotional votive or tablet / written offering. Do so with prayers to Diana-Hekate during which you state your intention, your request and offer thanks. This is also when you should make requests for healing, help with pregnancy / childbirth etc, if that is part of what you will be doing.
Offer your second hymn/song to Diana-Hekate.
Light the candle you have brought with you. Light it and float it out onto the body of water, and while you do so offer a prayer to the Goddess dedicating the light to her. This is a good time to ask for her light to guide you in your actions, knowing if you ask this of her you need to be mindful to watch for such guidance in whichever form it might take!
[please please please take care to only work with fire in ways that are safe both to you and the environment, personal responsibility first please!]
Offer your third and final hymn/song to Diana-Hekate.
Spend some time in quiet contemplation watching your flame drift on the water.
Offer your food to Diana-Hekate asking for her blessings on it. Eat the food mindfully and with gratitude for its production.
Remove your wreath and leave it on the tree you tied the string to.
Walk away as you came, chanting or in silence, not looking back.
I hope to hear about your celebrations and suggestions, and leave you with this verse from Ben Johnston (1573-1637):
Hymn to Diana
QUEEN and huntress, chaste and fair, Now the sun is laid to sleep, Seated in thy silver chair, State in wonted manner keep: Hesperus entreats thy light, Goddess excellently bright.
Earth, let not thy envious shade Dare itself to interpose; Cynthia's shining orb was made Heaven to clear when day did close: Bless us then with wished sight, Goddess excellently bright.
Lay thy bow of pearl apart, And thy crystal-shining quiver; Give unto the flying hart Space to breathe, how short soever: Thou that mak'st a day of night— Goddess excellently bright.
With many blessings for your celebrations ,
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