Join me in some explorations in chthonic sorcery. Lace up your boots and climb with me into the caves of the Greek cults. We'll keep our journey short. We even might be back for lunch.
This page is a work in progress. Newly written material will be added as it becomes available; previous chapters will be reworked according to new insights or readers' feedback.
γοητεία is an Ancient Greek word which literally translates as goêteia (sorcery). The latinised version goetia reads more familiar to most modern practitioners. Here I am using the phonetic transcription of the original Greek word to reference the spirit of this work - to return to the origins of this form of chthonic spirit work, stripping away more recent additions or re-interpretations of it.
Finally, the explorations on this page are dedicated to the wonderful Jake Stratton Kent and all the spirits his work has brought back 'from the dead'. It am also deeply thankful to my uncle - the only one between us who has a proper education.
I. Historic Context of Greek Goêteia
Goêteia is a curious word. Partly because of how it is remembered today and partly because of how eager already the Ancient Greeks were to make it irretrievably forgotten.
Mageia, the term that began to replace it from the 6th century BCE onwards is an Iranian loanword and different than goês originally foreign to the Greek language. As Walter Burkert pointed out in his critical 1962 essay 'ΓΟΗΣ. Zum Griechischen Schamanismus' the introduction of the terms magos and mageia can be read as a deliberate means to suppress and replace the older, genuinely Greece terms goês and goêtia. In the following chapter we'll examine some of the driving forces behind this shift in language and paradigm.
Greek in the late sixth and early fifth century BCE was a place of significant political turmoil and radical societal change. Early on in the fifth century two Persian invasions by the Achaemenid Empire were defeated between 492 and 479 BCE - providing the insurgent backdrop to the increased exposure of Greek thought to Iranian and particularly Zoroastrian influence. Later on the emergence of the Athenian empire lead to domestic rebellions, all put down by force by the dominant Athenian force. This in turn gave rise to the Spartans and brought about the Peloponnesian War in 431.
Yet despite these significant changes the Greek city-states experienced during this time, the fifth century BCE is called their 'Golden Age'. And that is because it was precisely at this time that Athens - followed by other city states later on - introduced a new form of government.
In the late 6th century the Athenian leader Cleisthenes had implemented a system of political reforms that he called demokratia, or 'power for the people'. Cleisthenes later on was remembered as 'the father of Athenian democracy' and was followed a few decades later only by Pericles who was also called 'the first citizen of Athens'. It was Pericles who brought about the Golden Age of Ancient Greek: During his rule from 461 to 429 BCE he turned a loose network of city states, the Delian League into the Athenian empire, he led his countrymen during the early years of the Peloponnesian War and turned his home country into the educational and cultural centre of the ancient world still remembered in every college class today.
Liberated by the shackles of slavery and inequality in front of the law, the fifth century gave rise to an unprecedented amount of new paradigms, philosophies and socio-political developments that would shape the Western world to come: the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all lived and worked during this time as did the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the physician Hippocrates, and the philosopher Socrates.
But how did this context influence the rise of the Persian term magos and the suppression of its infamous precursor goês?
By the end of the fifth century BCE goes was used as a swearword mainly, indicating someone who could not be trusted, a liar, cheater and someone of complete lack of social confidence. Only in this sense was it still used widely at the time: Lucian of Samosata uses it on Pythagoras, the antisemites of the time on Moses, the 2nd century AC philosopher Celsus on the Christians and the Christians on the Gnostics, and so on.
'Once something was unmasked as goetia the verdict was spoken.' (Burkert, 1962, p.50)
There were two main reasons for such deterioration of the term and both can be traced back to the above historic context.
Firstly, during the sixth and fifth century the emergence of Greek philosophy as we know it gave rise to rationalism as a foundational tenet of the new orthodox thinking (Burkert, 1962, p.51). In light of this ancient pagan spiritual traditions in particular proposed an obstacle that needed to be overcome: A rag rug of diverse mystery cults, a reliance on personal divine revelations and people accounting more for the whispered words of the dead than the bright light of the logos seemed archaic obstacles to building a new and more enlightened kind of society.
Secondly, due to the social reforms in pursuit of a democratic state vision, Greek society was coming together in a newly re-envisioned 'polis'. For these changes to occur old power structures which were much more orientated towards privileged or gifted individuals needed to be overcome. Every single person in society needed to take its predetermined place in the new whole of the polis. In a society that was on a revolutionary mission to overcome its age old class system, everyone was meant to be part of its newly formed centre. People and individuals - such as the goes - who operated from the the margins of society by definition were undermining the emerging new social contract.
Some of these dynamics of ostracism we can still observe at play in Western societies today: For any democracy the ungoverned periphery of society is the enemy of its centre. The goal is to ensure everyone is represented and included in its organisation and no oppositional forces are left untamed as outsiders. The subversive nature of the goes and their self-reliant, charismatic magical practice, however, was the prime example of someone operating from the fringes of society.
'Just like soldiers in the Hoplite phalanx had to march in a clearly defined row, no one advancing or being left behind, so the entire social life of the polis depended on the cooperative union of its people. Just like a king had to be discharged or removed from his political offices so the sorcerer did not have any place any longer; even the relationship to the gods had become a matter of community, the priest is representing the polis and not a charismatically gifted individual. Goes and the order of the polis are direct opposites.' (Burkert, 1962, p.52/53)
II. The Etymology of the Greek word goês
'The history of the meaning of a word such as goes leads back to the prehistory of the Greek mind, to a state which overcoming meant the actual beginning of the genuinely Greek.' (Burkert, 1962, p.55)
This historic context already allows us to deduct a few critical features of the original goêteia. We have learned that the term was pushed into oblivion or re-coined as swearword when the Greek state went through a revolutionary transition: Continuity and stability of the collective order could no longer be maintained through the sovereign power of a single king, but it began to depend on a social contract including everyone in the polis. Thus it was essential that all forms of power were bound into official institutions which could be democratically governed and regulated. The practice of the goes, however, depended on the complete opposite: it required the immediacy and intimacy of personal spiritual experience. Similar to the eruption of a natural force it expressed itself differently through each of its practitioners, but always with complete unpredictability and through spontaneous revelation of the divine.
Thus the officially organised oracles replaced the practice of individual shamans, funeral and death practices were clipped and institutionalised, sobriety and rationalism were held higher than the voices of the dead and ecstasy turned into the enemy of social order (Burkert, 1962, p.54/55).
Now, the etymology of the term goes sheds an important light on why these social dynamics by definition meant that goêteia would need to be abandoned from the place it previously had held in Ancient Greek society.
The root of the word goes can be traced back to the Greek verb γοάω (goáo) which can be translated as 'groan, bewail'. This linguistic root not only gives us the first reference to a more original translation of the term goes as 'incantator', but it also points to the a place in Ancient Greek society where it was of primary relevance (Frisk, p.317).
A post-verbal form of γοάω (goáo) is the Greek term góos which can be translated as wail or lament (Frisk, p.317). When looking for textual evidence of it in Ancient Greek literature we find it mainly used in the context of the old funeral rites. Accompanying the dead from the physical to the spiritual realm and from bier to grave is the background from which we first find the root of the word goes emerge. It's noteworthy that this context alone - the involvement of supporting safe passage from life to death - establishes a parallel to the spiritual being of the 'psychopomp', the Greek word for 'guide of the souls'.
Now, the góos in particular had a very specific function to fulfil in the strictly organised funeral and burial process. In particular goos took place during the stage of laying-out the dead body, called prothesis:
'The prothesis is already presented on Late Mycenaean sarcophagi, and then time and again on the large Geometric grave vessels. Washed and dressed by the woman and with a fillet or wreath wound about his head, the dead man is laid out for viewing in his house, surrounded by the lamenting relatives. The lament, which it is the duty of the woman to perform, is indispensable. It can be bought or it can be coerced. Wailing woman from Caria could still be hired in Plato's time. (...) The shrill cries are accompanied by tearing of hair, beating of breasts, and scratching of cheeks. The relatives defied themselves: they cut their hair, strew ashes on their heads, and wear filthy, torn clothing. The whole house has fallen from the state of normality.' (Burkert, 1985, p.192)
As part of these highly ritualised funeral procedures roles of women and men were sharply differentiated. While it was the women's responsibility to perform the góos, the role of the men was one of praising the dead's heroic honour, deeds and accomplishments. Even during the actual procession from the house of the deceased to the their place of funeral this difference in ritual roles was maintained:
'The ritual formality of the men, who enter in procession usually from the right with their right arm raised in a uniform gesture, contrasts sharply with the wild ecstasy of the women who stand around the bier in varying attitudes and postures.' (Alexiou, p.6)
It is important to call out that such formally organised burial rites represent the output of centuries of development. By the time we find the term góos first mentioned in Greek literature it had already undergone many organic changes and evolutions, both with regards to its meaning and practice.
In fact the term does not appear on its own, but emerges from a background of multiple funeral related terms. The following image provides a brief overview of the many words that equally took their formal place in the Greek funeral rites and experienced further definition and articulation over time:
Thrênos and góos are both words of ancient Indo-European origin, referring to a shrill cry. However, over time it was the latter that was clearly associated with the spontaneous, unrestrained and highly individualised ecstatic performance of the women. Thrênos on the other hand began to be used for the set dirge of the man, often accompanied by music, solemn and calm in tone, composed and rhetorically polished in performance (Alexiou, p.102/103).
In their late, fully formed meaning the two terms then were clearly distinguished: as still captured in the English word threnody, the thrênos signified the poetically performed appellation to the bereaved to remember the deceased in good spirit and in light of their good deeds. The góos instead was aimed in the opposite direction, not towards the living but towards the dead. It signified a temporary bridge established between the living and the dead (Burkert, p.44), conjured up by expert practitioners, over which they led the soul of the deceased into the chthonic realm.
Critically, however, the term góos was not only used to describe a particular spiritual (burial) practice, but more importantly to describe the actual experience it induced in the living who observed such performance.
Earlier on we discovered some of the socio-political reasons that led to the suppression of the term göês in the fifth century BCE. Uncovering the linguistic root of the word has led us to a striking continuation in the experience associated with both terms: a spontaneous, uncontrollable, ecstatic practice, loosely framed by ritual structure, aimed at the realm of the dead, and deeply disrupting to the social sense of normality and order.
The famous scholar of religions Rudolf Otto (1896-1937) in his magnum opus 'Das Heilige' (The Sacred) coined the twin terms of 'mysterium tremendum' and 'mysterium fascinosum' (Otto, p.13ff). The former describing the experience of the sacred inducing fear and tremor; the latter signifying the opposite experience: the mystical secret whose experience led to delight and rapture.
Beginning already in the 5th century BCE, continuing over centuries and resurfacing again during the pagan revival of the Renaissance in the 15th century, Western thinkers and philosophers stylised a badly biased and one-sided view of our pagan past: that the ancient gods themselves just as much as their genuine experience by humans stood for 'vitality, beauty and lucidity' (Snell, p.41). By definition the more pleasing and appealing experience of the mysterium fascinosum became the sole indicator of a mystical experience and ultimately of a genuine state of gnosis.
In this sense the göês truly represents a shadow suppressed in our collective memory: their person was the prime example of the kind of direct experience of the divine which resulted in tremor and fear, not in rapture and delight. When Bruno Snell in his seminal book 'The Discovery of the Mind' postulated the Greek had unlearned to be afraid, he really sang praise to the domestication of the divine and to the successful suppression of the ars goetia.
'A foe of the intellect who wishes to cite Greek views in corroboration of his stand must base himself upon the gloomy concepts of chthonic powers; he may point to some cult celebrated with ecstatic abandon; but he may not call to witness the great works of the Greek genius (...)' (Snell, 39)
As Burkert pointed out, this context leads us to the most likely, literal translation of the word goes. Instead of translating it as 'the one wailing for the dead', he suggests for it to be read as 'the one conjuring the dead'.
Thus, while connected to it by its linguistic root, the art of the goês can not be misunderstood as a professional lamenter at funeral processions. Instead the goês was an expert practitioner of the chthonic cults, a spirit guide taking possession of souls whose magical incantations and celebration of the mysteries were not polished and elaborate but instead ecstasy, fear and tremor inducing and which left them acquiesced rather than embraced on the fringes of the communities they still served (Burkert, 1962, p.39/44).
iii. Goêteia - the work of the daimones
The previously discovered characteristics of what marked a goes as such bear the risk of being deeply deceptive. At the heart of this demonic charlatan-sorcerer sat an unshirkable ambiguity. No particular tools or ornaments of craft were required to be perceived as a goes. One could argue the spontaneous and erratic nature of their spirit-work carried over into the term that aimed to describe them - and made it escape any fixed categorisation or man-made order.
'Not potent drugs or potions, not mysterious paraphernalia, but crucial is the power of personality; the goes 'conjures' quasi by virtue of themselves, goeteia.' (Burkert, 1962, p.43)
As Jake Stratton-Kent pointed out in his magnum opus 'Geosophia: the Argo of Magic' the name of the craft goêteia is derived from the personality of its practitioner, the goês, not the other way around. Indeed this leaves us with a curious conundrum and a strangely vague definition which best might be illustrated by the following example.
Traditionally Londoners are the people who have taken residence in London. That is, the act of living in London creates the boundary of this group. Anybody moving out of London permanently would have a hard time claiming they'd still belong to this particular group. Now imagine, a situation where this logic was inverted: Imagine the term Londoner being applied to an ambiguous group of people irrespective of where they lived - or what they actually did. In other words: wherever these people chose to live, whatever they chose to do London would be with them.
Such is the definition of the term goês and it makes it rather unique. It clearly stands out from most religious definitions; as most orthodox religions require at least a minimal amount of practice from their followers. Such may come in the form of active spiritual practice or in passive avoidance of certain behaviours that are considered at odds with orthodox values. E.g. Catholic women who disclose to have aborted a child are still excommunicated by the Catholic Church.
We can see that the definition of a goês is much more aimed at a state of being, than a particular practice. It's indicated to be much less of a choice (at least once people are considered to be part of the group) than a stigma. Unsurprisingly such ambiguity in practice and yet direct tie to the essence of the people marked by it, is central to the term goes from the first time we find it mentioned in Ancient Greek literature.
'. . . where the goetes of Ida, Phrygian men, had their mountain homes: Kelmis, great Damnameneus, and haughty Akmon, skilled servants of Adrastea of the mountain, they who first, by the arts of crafty Hephaestus, discovered dark iron in the mountain glens, and brought it to the fire, and promulgated a fine achievement.' (Apollonios of Rhodes, Phoronis - Henderson, p.283)
Somewhen between the seventh and the fifth century BCE Apollonios of Rhodes was the first to mention the term goêtes in the above quote of his Phoronis, a work which today only remains in fragments. He uses it to refer to the Idaian Dactyls, three demonic brothers - Kelmis (anvil), Damnameneus (hammer) and Akmon (iron) - dwelling at the mythical mount Ida.
We are given just enough detail to identify them with the discovery of iron. Yet, from other sources we can piece together further detail of their origin and nature: They were three brothers, or maybe they were five; their homeland was Cyprus, or maybe it was Crete; they were born by the imprint of Rhea's hand in earth during the birth of Zeus, or maybe they were born by the dust Zeus' nurse threw behind her during his birth. Their name - etymologically referring to the word 'finger' - relates to the crafting skills of the human hand, or maybe it relates to the toes of the mythical mount Ida, the foothills where mining occurred. They were associated with caves, with iron, smelting and forging, but never with the creation of any specific goods and no text reveals what it is they craft. They were said to have invented the poetic rhythm of the same name as well as the mystical Ephesian letters; later on they began to blur further with other daimones such as the Telchines, Kouretes, Korybantes, and Kabeiroi (Blakely, p.13-15). Yet different to their sibling categories of daimones the Idaian Dactyloi were never depicted in image.
As the first goês captured in literature they already perfectly reflect the seeming key characteristic of the entire related craft: Rather than referring to a particular practice, tool or function, they seem to indicate a daimonic state of being, or better even, a state of spiritual emergence.
Their Greek names contain the key to the riddle: The Idaian Dactyls do not represent a particular kind of magic or practitioner; rather they embody all of the substance (iron), potency (hammer) and agency (anvil) that enable magic as such. They not only represent the forces any goês works with, but the actual forces of emergence any aspiring goês needs to subdue themselves to in order to be smelted, forged and polished into the actual tool of the craft themselves.
Here now we encounter the essential counterbalance to the spontaneous and wild performance of the goês: There is no randomness to a rhythm and no deviation from a choreography. There is no second-thought to the flame that smelts the iron and no mercy to the hammer that hits the anvil. The work of the goês instils fear in the human heart. Because crossing the threshold between the living and the dead is not for the fainthearted. In order to emerge as a goês - marked for life and beyond - we need to face our own fears first. The living forces that carry us into and through this process are as much goêtes as the being that will emerge from it.
We essentially become one with the spirits. That is why the term goês will always remain radically ambiguous to the outsider: It signifies daemonic spirits just as much as the human they forge within their iron fires. That is also why a more liberal and yet still literal translation of the craft called goetia would be 'humans playing with fire'.
'The term daimon is amongst the most fluid in Greek religion, applied to gods known as theoi and identified by name, to foreign gods, to abstract qualities, and to a divine power that can be felt but not named. Daimones are generally considered a corporate group, without identifiable myths or individual personalities. The daimon differs from a theos in the intimacy of its connection to men: It may refer to human fate, an indwelling genius, or the dead (...). Daimones may be either destructive, or helpful; they may make the evil prosper, and impede the good; they can possess a man or be magically controlled by him.' (Blakely, p.22)
IV. The Mother of the Goês
'Great goddess, goddess Cybele, goddess and mistress of Dindymus, may all your insanity, Lady, be far from my home. Drive others to frenzy, drive others mad.' (Catullus 63.91-93)
The word 'chthonic' stems from the Greek word for earth, khthon. If we add the suffix -ic as in 'chthonic' we arrive at the Greek word khthonios which denotes anything 'of the earth, or in the earth'. (source) To further explore the origins of chthonic sorcery in the Ancient Greek world we have to better understand what the chthonic realm meant to our ancestors.
Essentially these connotations can be condensed into eight topois, or foundational patterns which together reflect the tension of our human experience in-between life and death.
More than anything else the chthonic realm to the Ancient Greek represented the realm of the uncanny. Yet in this quality it also represented a quintessentially female realm. For a more academic in-depth study of this fascinating and multi-faceted subject we recommend Lynn E. Roller's groundbreaking 1999 book 'In Search of God the Mother: The Cult of Anatolian Cybele'.
The book presents the first comprehensive study of the entire extant evidence concerning the worship of the great mother in the ancient Mediterranean world. Avoiding the 'archetypical trap' of previous generations of researchers Roller is able to identify and highlight the fine distinctions and particular difference in the diverse cults and cultural milieus amongst the Phrygians, Ancient Greek and Romans.
While she discovers clear historic ties between the different cults it is of critical importance to point out that the female goddesses they each worshipped are mutually related, but different enough in nature that they must not be blurred into one. The Phrygian 'Matar' (mother) has to be examined distinctly from the Greek Cybele; and still even Artemis, Hecate, Persephone or the three Moirai all show clear ancestral relation to the more unified female goddess of possibly Thracian origin.
In the present study, however, we do not aim to follow all these lineages and divine ancestral relations. Instead - as this material is not targeted at an academic audience, but at practitioners of the chthonic realm - we aim to highlight and possibly help to clarify the practical, i.e. goêtic implications of this problem.
As a first step a brief glance at this modern version of a family tree of the Greek gods will help. It was designed by the Swedish artist Emily Ryan. What we see is a continued evolution from a (more or less) unified centre into an increasingly distributed periphery.
This is precisely how magical practice has worked over many millennia. Aiming to work with the centre means exposing yourself to incredibly ancient and atavistic currents of consciousness and power. Just consider that even e.g. Zeus, the alleged 'father of the gods' is only found in the third ring from the centre. Before him come the Titans and before them again we find the great mother, in this pantheon disguised under the name Gaia.
As we are visionary magicians mainly it might be easiest to explain this by use of a metaphor: Think of a giant water damn wall. Behind this wall resides a massive amount of power in potential. Over millennials of evolution smart humans managed to build valves into this massive wall, which now allow us to open and close these individually. Thus humans learned to leverage the water pressure behind the wall through specific power access points which in return have become controllable and can be harnessed to accomplish all kinds of man-made plans. Depending on which valve is opened and for how long we get a certain kind of pressure and quality of water. And with that we can work in whatever kind it pleases us.
Now attempting to work with 'the mother' in an unconditioned manner would equate to turning ourselves into such a valve. Rather than leveraging specific later god-forms to mediate and channel the raw atavistic power that sits at the centre, we'd choose to expose ourselves to this unshaped and raw consciousness.
This metaphor aims to illustrate why we find so many diverse names around the centre of the divine family tree above. Because it is so much easier to leverage, control or simply form a somewhat 'human' relationship with the distant offspring than with the atavistic source of power of the gods. Yet, the latter is possible. And it is precisely what the first goês were known for.
Before we can explore their chthonic practice in more detail though it is essential we first form a better emotional understanding of the actual uncanny nature of the Phrygian 'mother'. To accomplish just this, allow me to take you on a brief vision.
Relax. Sit back. And think of a cave. From times immemorial animals have come here to give birth. As well as to die. The cave is part of a mountain. And a mountain is a mysterious thing, as it has no beginning and no end. Its peak extends high above surface of the earth and touches the sky; and yet its invisible belly forms the depth of the chthonic realm and stretches out far into the underworld.
When we walk into a mountain, we enter a world that no longer knows a sky. Instead the mountain remembers the world in its infant state, long before the separation of the sky. A world with no direction, no up or down, embalmed in darkness. If we dare to climb deep enough, this is what we still experience: the chthonic realm robs us of any sense of direction. In its claustrophobic blackness any sense of direction, of day or night, of living or dying fades out like a distant echo. There even is no gravity in the deep salt lakes far beneath the surface of the earth. Now we have returned to the womb of the mother. All directions converge into one, no future nor past, no forward nor backward. We have reached the centre of all life, where death and birth coincide. This is the heart of the underworld.
Now stay in this place and do a simple trick - think of this deep subterranean mountain-cave as a conscious being. A spirit so ancient and eternal it still recalls the origin of life. Life long before the first claw left a track on soft sand. Think of this mountain-cave as a woman. A mesmerising woman. A hag in one moment, and a bride in the next. Lushly spreading the seeds of life in one instant and poisoning them all and taking them back in the next. Think of this woman not as being one but many; and yet all these many are one in her own black belly again. Think of this woman as the eternal contradiction. And yet most importantly, above everything else, the thing you may never forget: think of this mother as the one you may never oppose to.
Or do you dare to? -- Well. Now we begin to uncover the essential dynamics behind the work of the goêtes.
V. Primal Chthonic Sorcery
'She was the great goddess, the mistress to whom men owed absolute obedience, a vengeful lady who could, and did, destroy those in power. (...) The notion of a maternal deity who was a nurturing, comforting, kindly figure seems remote from the Mother Goddess of ancient Mediterranean society.' (Roller, p.1)
To understand the dynamics between the great mother and her daimones we shall return to the first goêtes captured in Ancient Literature. These are the ancient hybrid beings explored in Chapter III, the Idaian Dactyls. To refresh our memory we repeat the quote of Apollonius of Rhodes:
'. . . where the goetes of Ida, Phrygian men, had their mountain homes: Kelmis, great Damnameneus, and haughty Akmon, skilled servants of Adrasteia of the mountain, they who first, by the arts of crafty Hephaestus, discovered dark iron in the mountain glens, and brought it to the fire, and promulgated a fine achievement.' (Apollonios of Rhodes, Phoronis - Henderson, p.283)
We are introduced to the Idaian Dactyls as 'mountain dwellers' and more importantly as 'skilled servants of Adrasteia of the mountain'.
Now, unsurprisingly in light of our above reflections the Greek name of the mountain spirit Adrasteia (Ἀδράστεια) is translated as 'the inescapable'. In later times this female spirit was believed to be a mountain nymph. Previously, however, her name was used as an alternative designation for the Greek magna mater, Rhea, who was also called 'mother of mount Idaia'. Recent research furthermore established that Adrasteia originally was a virgin mountain deity with close ties to the Phrygian mountain and forest goddess 'Matar' (mother) who later evolved into the better known form of Cybele. We also know today that the name Cybele was never meant to be a noun but an adjective ('kubileya' = of the mountain). In Phrygian language it was used to qualify that the great mother dwelled in the mountains (Roller, p.2).
For our current exploration, however, it is important to capture what we learned from Apollonius of Rhodes about the Idaian Dactyls, the first goêtes: they were archaic male daimones born by the great mother goddess from inside a mountain. They were great and proud beings and yet worked in service of the chthonic realm they emerged from, during Apollonios' times personified by the powerful and inescapable Adrasteia.
But what kind of service should we imagine they provided to the mountain-mother? In effect, what kind of service could be of any use to a being so ancient, so powerful and old that it was still called 'the inescapable' even in its degenerated form as mountain nymph?
'An association with the dead also informs the daimones' ritual power in magic and mysteries. Johnston has noted that the Greek mysteries characteristically relied upon successful negotiation of the boundary between the living and the dead; the daimon, as the deified spirit of the dead offered an ideal mediator.' (Blakely, p.24)
Ironically, the one thing a being so boundlessly powerful like the consciousness of earth cannot do easily is to uphold its own boundaries. It is in its very nature to constantly expand - whether that is excessive expansion into life or into death. 'Nature abhors the vacuum', we still say today. Our goêtic ancestors might have qualified more precisely: 'Nature abhors anything constant', the absence of movement, such as a boundary it's ought to respect.
And so this was the primal sorcery of the first goêtes: to establish and maintain boundaries between the realm of the dead and the living, to uphold the threshold between the chthonic and the human world. Equally, they were the very forces through which human priests also would cross these thresholds - and interact with forces and beings from the other side. The Idaian Dactyls all in one represent the door, the key, the threshold as well as the guardians who watched over it.
Now, looking through this keyhole from the human realm, behind that door we see the world of unleashed chthonic forces: tides of death and life clashing into each other, new forms constantly emerging and yet just as quickly falling back into atavistic states. It is the realm of the dead just as much as of the unborn. It is the mysterious and menacing place where graves are turned into wombs, bones into seeds and death into renewal.
This is the 'deifying power of the underworld' (Stratton-Kent, Vol II, p.11) that we explore in Jake Stratton Kent's 2nd volume of Geosophia. But let us be clear: it is deifying only for as long as the hero manages to emerge from it reborn - and avoids being swallowed and forgotten, like a pebble thrown into an ocean.
Now let's also take a look through that keyhole the Idaian Dactyls watch over from the other end. What do we see from the side of the mountain-cave-mother when looking at the human realm? We see ourselves and the created world around us; but in a very different light. What we really see is a world that requires tearing down. A world that is taking the place of a million unborn worlds. We see beings protected by daimones that have outlived their lifetime, that have no words to speak left and yet keep on speaking. We see the chthonic forces domesticated and tamed by hybrid beings, half made from clay and half from divine sparks. Looking from the side of the mountain-mother we see a world that has lost its purpose by falling in love with life and falling out of love with death.
The work of the goêtes was to stand firmly in the middle. To be present on both sides at once. Not to work on but to become the threshold. Here we discover the goês as the first hagazussa, the riders of the threshold, the beings that walk on the edge of the knife, cutting through death and life - in service of the great mother just as much as of creation.
VI. The Male Goêtic Revolt
'goês, (...) a complex figure through which the deeply archaic seems to be reaching into the Greek world.' (Graf, p.27)
But our exploration doesn't stop here. In fact this is where it begins. In the previous Chapters IV. and V. we explored the great mother in antiquity, what it meant to work with her through a primal goêtic lens as well as how her perspective on the human realm starkly contrasted with our very own.
In this chapter we will shift our perspective further. Rather than taking the viewpoint of the divine mother or our human ancestors, we will rest our lens now in the space in-between - and assume the perspective of the first goêtes themselves, the Idaian Dactyls.
In doing this it is critical that we recall the nature of a daimon according to the Ancient Greek. As we explored above, it is one of the most fluid terms their sophisticated language knows, and sits at the heart of understanding their mythical view of reality. As established in Chapter I., in the 5th century BCE we are encountering a Greek world that was on the cusp of changing its pivoting lens from numen to logos, from myth to rationalism and from chthonic sorcery to Greek philosophy. Thus the Ancient Greek had no problem at all to see cohesion in the term daimon where we might see contradiction today: It both represents a class of mythical spirits as well as ancient human beings that once were believed to have walked the earth. If applied to a certain category of daimones, such as the Idaian Dactyls it thus at the same time describes an ancient historic tribe as well as a current class of spirit.
The following two quotes might help to illustrate this foundational aspect of Ancient Greek thinking further. Both quotes - according to our modern understanding - walk a mesmerising path on the verge of mythical and historic reality:
'Yet the dealings of the Dactyls is curiously portrayed in more detail: they were goêtes, we hear from Ephoros, they professed in the sorcerous incantations, the consecration into the mysteries and their celebrations; they also came to Samothrace and did not scare the locals little, during this time also Orpheus became their disciple and he became the first to bring the mysteries, their consecrations and celebrations to the Greek.' (Burkert, p.39)
'"Wild of mood and difficult of access" these reputed sorcerers and magicians lived on the wooded slopes of Mount Ida, and, working through the night before their glowing furnaces, whose lurid glare lit up the dark ravines around, seemed like evil spirits.' (Perkins, p.160)
While being daimones the Idaian Dactyls also are introduced to us as of male gender. It should come with little surprise that for men working in constant service of an uber-mother bore an essential difficulty: there was simply no space they could call their own. While they literally were the iron (Kelmis), the anvil (Akmon) and the hammer (Damnameneus) it was still the forces of the great mother which directed all aspects of their work. It was Mother who made them dance to keep the land fertile (Blakely, p.82), mother who directed them to tear down certain structures of creation, and mother who instructed them to forge new forms of emergence.
The truth is as simple as harsh: When faced with the great mother all men turn into boys, and all heroes into sons. Unfortunately there is little male adolescents hate more than being treated like boys. Which is why we hear of the revolt of the Idaian Dactyls against the great mother; in particular the one of Kelmis. As with all great disputes, however, what triggered the revolt is easily forgotten. Its consequences though are not.
So we find Kelmis offending the great mother and rebelling against her with an unknown act. Mother in her inescapable wrath in return speaks her cruel judgement over him: In a shorter version of this fragmentary myth the brothers are ordered to kill Kelmis by their own hands.
'For Kelmis, one of the Idaian Dactyls, having been insolent to Mother Rhea, and not having received her kindly, was slain by his brothers on Mount Ida.' (Zenobis IV,80 after Perkins, p.161)
In a slightly longer version the judgement of the great mother is even crueler: As punishment his brothers are ordered to lock him back into the chthonic realm he emerged from, a remote cave below the mountain. An earthquake follows - the materialised wrath of the great mother - and Kelmis is metamorphosed into the material that most reflected his difficult, unbending personality: the first iron (Blakely, p.1).
This fragment of a Phrygian myth - the rest of which was entirely forgotten by classical authors - is of critical importance to our present study. We rediscover it much later in its hellenised form in the famous myth of Cybele and her male companion Attis who - after having betrayed the great mother who is also his lover - is emasculated to regain her trust.
Yet in its earlier Phrygian form the message is even more obvious: The great mother of the mountain is the inescapable one. In her raw and unshaped form she is the essence of destruction as well as the force behind all forms of creation. The original goêtes worked their craft and sorcery through her empowerment, leveraging their position as dwellers on the threshold between humans and the divine. But the original goêtes also failed to stay true to their divine purpose. They were led astray by hubris and vanity - trying to break free from the bond that is called working in service. The punishment of the great mother was imminent: either death by the hand of one's own brothers or being turned to cold iron instead.
'In sum, the masculine gender of the noun goēs and the consistent association of the word with men is probably more than accidental: the heart of goêteia - invocation of the dead - seems to have been a male vocation.' (Johnston, p.113)
This male goêtic revolt for boundless freedom coupled with full empowerment by the fertile forces of nature continued to poison the heart of Western Magic ever since. The wrath of the great mother stayed with our craft - or possibly with mankind? - just like a spell we failed to break loose from: Men in pursuit of their personal agenda and freedom breaking all bonds of service to the chthonic sources they emerged from - turning themselves into rigid iron instead.
Let's step back and look at the marginal role the female has played in the goêtic tradition ever since (if we even can speak of such a tradition)? A quick review of the Greek Magical Papyri provides the inescapably answer: Only a fraction of the surviving material bothers to work with female divinities at all. And where we find them directly addressed the goês stays true to their infantile role as a male adolescent: in the five surviving hymns the only reason to call upon Hekate-Selene-Artemis is for instant gratification of erotic male urges. The goês ultimately turned their craft not into art, but into porn.
'Come, giant Hekate, Dione's guard, o Persia, Baubo Phroune, dart shooter, unconquered, Lydian, the one untamed, sired nobly, torch bearing, guide, who bends down proud necks, Kore, hear, you who've parted gates of steel unbreakable. (...) Go stand above her (NN) head and take away from her sweet sleep. And never let Eyelid come glued to eyelid, but let her be sore distressed with wakeful cares for me. And if she lies with someone else in her embrace, let her thirst him away and take me in her heart. Let her abandon him at once and stand before my door subdued in soul air longing for my bed of love.' (PGM IV 2714-2744, quoted after Betz, p.89)
In the 2nd century AD Alexandrians still called an arrogant man 'Kelmis in iron'. Behind this proverb obviously lies knowledge of our three brothers and the myth of Kelmis' cruel metamorphosis in punishment for rebellion against the great mother (Blakely, p.1).
Without judging whether in the end this revolt turned out successful or not, the rebellion of the Idaian Dactyls has turned generations of goês into shadows of Kelmis. Their vanity, coupled with the unbroken wrath of the great mother, cast and held themselves captives in the gestalt of the hot-blooded adolescent hero. And so goêteia as a craft turned from a divine empowerment over death and life, into a pitiable device to satisfy human desires. The men who turned themselves into iron, however, managed to not only rob Western Magic but whole societies of centuries to come from the foundation that used to create balance between the living and the dead: the acceptance to work without ego and in service to the chthonic forces that uphold us.
The great mother might have turned us into iron; but we come down upon her like a sword.
- Alexiou, Margaret; Yatromanolakis, Dimitrios; The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition, 2002 (1974)
- Betz, Hans Dieter, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Vol I: Texts, University of Chicago Press 1992
- Blakely, Sandra; Myth, Ritual, and Metallurgy in Ancient Greek and Recent Africa, Cambridge 2006
- Blakely, Sandra; Daimones in the Thracian Sea: Mysteries, Iron, and Metaphors, DeGruyter 2013 (published online)
- Burkert, Walter; ΓΟΗΣ. Zum Griechischen 'Schamanismus', Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge, 105. Bd.1. (1962), pp. 36-55; link
- Burkert, Walter; Greek Religion, Harvard 1985
- Frisk, Hjalmar; Griechisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, Heidelberg 1960
- Henderson, Jeffrey; Greek Epic Fragments, London 2003
- Johnston, Sarah Iles; Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece, University of California Press 1999
- Ogden, Daniel; Greek and Roman Necromancy, Princeton University Press 2001
- Otto, Rudolf; Das Heilige, Breslau 1920; link
- Perkins, Charles; Ancient Literary Sources of the History of the Formative Arts among the Greeks. II. The Idæan Daktyles (Continued), in: The American Art Review, Vol. 1, No.4, 1880, p.160-162
- Snell, Bruno; The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought, Oxford 1953; link
- Stratton-Kent, Jake; Geosophia: The Argo of Magic, Vol I and II, Scarlett Imprint 2010