Early this morning while it was still dark, my kitchen was perfumed with the scent of warm chocolate, coffee and fennel. In the oven was a Triple Chocolate Cheesecake with a buttery chocolate graham cracker and almond crust, a culinary offering to the ancient Goddess Hekate or Hecate. Tonight, November 16th is popularly known as Hekate’s Night and in many parts of the world food offerings of bread, grains, garlic, eggs, and cheese, fish, fruits, almonds, and a kind of ceremonial cheesecake lit by candles are left by modern devotees at crossroads to obtain her favours. This sacramental meal has ancient origins and was traditionally offered in Greece on the night of the dark moon (the end of the month). And if Hekate was pleased, she would grant you and your loved one’s good fortune and protection from harm – in this world and the next!
I wanted to bake an offering that would not only feature her favourite foods and spices but honour November, the month of the ever-deepening dark. So I thought a dense, luscious cheesecake, perfumed with coffee, cardamom, wild fennel seeds and liquorice fern root (for an appropriate touch of the wild) just might do the trick. If you can’t find licorice fern root, a tsp of ground anise seeds will work just fine.
While Hekate has become known as Queen of the Witches, renowned for her knowledge of the dark arts, for the Ancient Greeks, Hekate was a Titaness with a share of the earth, sky and sea and Hesiod describes her “honoured most of all by the immortal gods”. One suggestion for the origin of her name comes from the Greek root “willing” -“she who works her will”. She guided the city-state, gave rulers wisdom in their judgments and provided protection, family harmony and wealth to the common people.
On the night of the dark moon, Hekate emerged from the underworld with her retinue of baying hounds, owls and toads. She gathered the souls of the recently departed, guiding them safely to the land of the dead. And it was the duty of every private citizen to light lanterns and leave offerings for Hekate either at the city gates or at home shrines just outside the front door. These offerings of food were not only meant to nourish the dearly departed on their journey to the Underworld- but to entreat their future favours & blessings for the benefit of the living left behind.
These foods offerings were laid out and one would leave – without looking back. And while Hekate’s Supper was not traditionally meant to be consumed, these offerings likely also functioned on the material realm to feed the poor. In a play by Aristophanes, Plutus says to Poverty – “Ask Hecate whether it is better to be rich or starving; she will tell you that the rich send her a meal every month and that the poor make it disappear before it is even served.”
The dark moon is the night the moon disappears from the sky closing the month’s lunar cycle – an important time for cleansing the household of any bad and stagnant energy (called miasma) before the new moon appeared and the new month began. Like many ancient goddesses, Hekate approved of domestic order and so the ritual of Hekate’s Deipnon began with cleaning and purifying the home. One would sweep the entire house, keep the dust and debris and take it to the crossroads to be disposed of by Hekate. And if Hekate found your home well-kept and tidy and your food offerings suitable she would protect your doorway, guard your threshold from harm and grant many happy blessings of happiness and good fortune to the household in the coming month.
Scholars generally agree her “cult” was likely imported to the Greco-Roman world from Thrace (modern-day Northern Greece and Bulgaria) or Anatolia (modern Turkey) and date back as far as the 8th century BCE. One possible origin for Hekate is from the cult of the Anatolian great mother goddess Kybele, with whom she shared many symbols such as keys, dogs, lions, serpents, torches and caves. References to Hekate found in the Orphic Hymns and The Chaldean Oracles describe her as “irresistible”, as the “Keeper of the Keys of the Whole Universe” “the source of all virtues”. She is Nature herself, “she who ensouls all things”.
Her many depictions on stone pillars or statues show her as Lady of the Crossroads, the place where the worlds meet. Her three heads are said to represent her dominion over the underworld, the earthly world and celestial realm. And because there is no light without darkness, Hekate’s torch casts away shadows, brings the light of psychic vision, and illuminates the soul. This light is thought to symbolize the light of the moon and morning star, Venus, the bringer or bearer of light, and so Hecate’s symbols include the star and the moon.
By late antiquity, Hekate begins to take on her darker aspect. The playwright Aristophanes wrote, “Hekate’s magic was that of death and the underworld, but also of love, oracles, of herbs, poisons, protection and guidance.” To the Romans, Hecate was also known as Trivia, Three-Ways who stands at crossroads, attended by the Restless Dead and hounds. Many historians believe the worship of Hekate was absorbed into the cult of the Roman Goddess Diana who was also associated with the moon and the night, attended by a pack of hounds and left offerings at crossroads.
Diana’s worship persisted well into the medieval period across Europe and was associated with gatherings of women, the moon and witchcraft. For the medieval church, the practise of leaving offerings at crossroads is on the record as one of the hardest pagans practices to stamp out. And if we are uncertain about what women were really up to on these nocturnal rites, this question from a German Bishop in 1015 reveals much. “Hast thou come to any other place to pray other than a church or other religious place which thy bishop or priest showed thee: to springs or stones or trees or crossroads, and there in reverence for the place lighted a candle or torch, or carried there bread or any offerings, or eaten there, or sought there any healing of body or mind?”
So on Hekate’s Night, in honour of She who Ensouls All, I will offer this Triple Chocolate Cheesecake. Made with a blend of dark, milk and white chocolate, ricotta cheese and featuring a dark chocolate almond crust, it is lightly spiced with cardamom and lavender (some of her traditional offerings) and the not so traditional addition of wild fennel seeds and (just a touch) of the earthy, loamy flavour of freshly ground Licorice Fern Root. And of course, it’s adorned with the bright crimson jewels of barberries – commonly known as “Witches Sweets”. I think its a pretty witchy offering for the Queen of the Witches – and I hope it curries her favour.
Of course, you can make any kind of offering you like, many foods like cheese, garlic, almonds, lavender, myrrh, mugwort, cardamom, mint, dandelion, apples and pomegranates are said to be some of her favourites. I also made a Triple Chocolate Bark (using the same blend of dark, milk and white chocolate) and loaded with crunchy almonds, chewy raisins, dried cranberries, wild fennel seeds, a few sprinkles of lavender and cardamom and a generous topping of barberries. (This Chocolate Bark Recipe is the Winter Edition of The Gather E-Cookbook for Gather Patrons)
Hekate’s Triple Chocolate Cheesecake
Ingredients for crust
- 1/2 cup melted butter
- 3/4 cup dark graham cracker crumbs
- 3/4 cup of ground almonds
Ingredients for filling
- 1 & 1/2 cups ricotta cheese
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup dark cocoa powder
- 4 eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup of mixed chocolate wafers or chips (white, dark and milk chocolate)
- 1 tsp. cardamom powder
- 1 -2 tsp. dried lavender buds
- 2 tsp. ground fennel seeds
- 2 tsp finely ground coffee bean powder
- 2 tsp. very finely minced or ground fresh liquorice fern root (or one teaspoon of ground star anise)
- a handful of candied almond slices (for garnish)
- Preheat your oven to 350 F. Butter an 8 inch round pan, preferably springform. Dust well with cocoa powder. Mix ground graham crackers and ground almonds with melted butter. Press firmly into bottom of springboard pan. Bake for 10 minutes.
- Melt the chocolate in a double boiler (or microwave oven). Put aside.
- Separate yolks from whites.
- Whip up whites with one tablespoon of the sugar to firm peaks.
- Beat the rest of the sugar and yolks until fluffy.
- Add the ricotta, melted chocolate, cornstarch lavender, cardamom, fennel seeds, coffee beans and liquorice fern root. Beat until smooth. Fold in the egg whites into this mixture.
- Pour batter into the prepared tin, tap against counter to release air bubbles and bake for 40-45 minutes.
- Turn off the oven, open the door slightly and let the cake remain in the oven for 30 minutes to set.
- Unmold when cool. Dust with cocoa powder or icing sugar and sprinkle with candied almonds. Very nice with whipped cream.
More Hekate’s Supper Recipes in the Gather Victoria E-Cookery book at Gather Patreon