Ephesian Letters

Many of you have asked for a translation of the phrase “Askei Kataskei Eron Oreon Ior Mega           Samnyer Baui Phobantia Semne” which is used in the Rite of Her Sacred Fires and the Rite of the Devotee.  Whilst no accurate translation exists and can therefore not be provided, this page       provides information which will provide you with information on its origin and some of its possible meanings
This page has been compiled from extracts of the book Hekate Liminal Rites by Sorita d'Este and David Rankine (with permission) and blogs entries written by Sorita in 2011 (no longer available). 

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The Rite of Her Sacred Fires include the use of the “Ephesian Letters” and a number of people have asked about this so I decided to put together the following for those unfamiliar with its use. I hope that it explains its inclusion in the rite.

“Askei Kataskei Eron Oreon Ior Mega Samnyer Baui Phobantia Semne.”

One of the oldest and most significant sets of voces magicae (a term used for magical words of unknown meaning and origin) was the Ephesian Letters or Characters, a group of six words. These words were askion, kataskion, lix, tetrax, damnameneus and aision (or aisia). We cannot be absolutely certain whether the Ephesian Letters were specifically connected with Hekate, though from the evidence it does seem likely. Their first known appearance was in a Mycenaean inscription from the fifth century BCE.

The Ephesian Letters occur a number of times in the Greek Magical Papyri in charms which call on Hekate (Betz, 1996). Thus the first two of the Ephesian Letters were used in a Hekate charm associated with initiation (PGM LXX.12) as part of a string of voces magicae being:

“Askei Kataskei Eron Oreon Ior Mega Samnyer Baui Phobantia Semne.”

The fifth word, damnameneia, was used in the Bear Charm, which included reference to Hekate as Brimo (PGM VII. 686-702). A second-third century CE lead defixione tablet to Hekate as torch bearer of the crossroads also uses this word repeatedly (SM 49) (Betz, 1996).

An early fragmentary protective charm on a lead tablet from Phalasarna on Crete included the Ephesian Letters with phrases indicative of Hekate like ‘She-wolf’. It is also interesting to note that they are called the Orphic Formula in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM VII. 451) (Betz, 1996). Considering the connections between Hekate and the Orphic Mysteries this is another hint which suggests a specific ritual connection with Hekate and these words.

The Ephesian Letters were also referred to by the Greek poet Anaxilas in his lost 4th century BCE play The Harp Maker when he wrote “[unnamed person] carries around marvellous Ephesian letters in sewn pouches.” Various qualities were attributed to the Ephesian Letters including          endowing the wearer with great power (particularly wrestlers as described in Eustathius, Photius and the Suda) and protecting newly married couples (mentioned by Menander,           fragment 371).

It should also be noted that when Plutarch commented on the powers of the Ephesian Letters (Moralia 706E), he referred to daimones who were specifically under the rule of Hekate:

“For just as sorcerers advise those possessed by daimones to recite and name over to themselves the Ephesian letters.”

The Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria, who was well known for being the teacher of the theologian Origen, recorded suggested meanings for the Ephesian Letters in his work        Stromata (Miscellanies) in the early 3rd century CE:

“Androkydes the Pythagorean, indeed, says that the so-called Ephesian letters, which were well-known among many, were of the order of symbols. And he said that Askion is darkness, for this has no shadow; and Kataskion is light, since it casts a shadow with its rays; and Lix is the earth, according to the ancient name; and Tetrax is the year, according to the seasons; and Damnameneus is the sun, the tamer; and Aisia is the true word. And truly the symbol signifies that the divine things have been set in order: darkness to light, the sun to the year, the earth to every kind of genesis of nature.”

(d’Este & Rankine, 2009, pg 65-69)

Returning to the words used in the Rite of Her Sacred Fires, “Askei Kataskei Eron Oreon Ior Mega Samnyer Baui Phobantia Semne” as voces magicae we cannot know for certain what they meant or when they were used, but we can draw together likely speculations. From Clement of          Alexandria we can see that the phrase starts with Askei Kataskei which could mean ‘darkness, light’. Mega in Greek means ‘great’, and it has been suggested that Baui may refer to the barking of a dog (Betz 1996, pg 297, fn.7). All of these speculations hints at Hekate’s associations both darkness and light, greatness and dogs. As such it is possible that this phrase was a coded         sequence which called on Hekate’s powers.

Today the Ephesian letters continue to be used in rites honouring Hekate. I have been using it for many years in a form of chanting and honouring Hekate, much like the pujas found in           spiritual traditions such as Hinduism. It is being used to honour Her, but also to protect and         empower magical rites.

References:

Betz, H-D, ed. 1996. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: University of
Chicago Press.

d’Este, S. and Rankine, D. 2009. Hekate: Liminal Rites. London: Avalonia.