Who is Hecate? Insight into the Goddess of the Witches
Author: Helena Domenic
Who is it that we think of when we think of the Goddess Hecate? Is she the Goddesses to whom the three Wyrd sisters in MacBeth cry to? Is she a fearsome creature who aids in cursing as in Medea? From Appolonius Rhodius we get this description:
“…. Hearing from the utmost depths, the dread Goddess approached … all entwined with fearsome serpents and leaves of oak, amidst a shimmering blaze of torchlight, while all around her chthonic hounds bayed shrilly, all the meadows trembled at her footfall and the nymphs of the marshland and river cried aloud.”
A review of all the literature surrounding Hecate yields very conflicting images of Hecate. Early sources from as early as the seventh century BCE present a very different Hecate then the one described by Appolonius Rhodius. In Pre-Classical Greece, she was portrayed as a young woman in a long robe holding burning torches. Later, we find the triple formed statues – three female figures back to back. These statues were found at temple entryways and crossroads – facing three different ways so she could see in all directions.
Evidence from nearly every century can be found that presents a much gentler image of Hecate – a beneficent Deity who guarded gateways, acted as Divine Attendant to Persephone, one who presided over birth and death as well as personal interaction between humans and deities. In the Chaldean Oracles, Hecate is viewed as being synonymous with Soul and considered the Savior of humanity as she acted as intermediary between humanity and the Divine in the crossover point between life and death.
The earliest references to Hecate can be found in Hesiod’s Theogony>/I> where she shares special honors with Zeus and in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter where she hears Persephone’s abduction from her cave and assists Demeter and Persephone both.
Somehow through time, Hecate has received a very unfair bad rap. One thing that can be said for Greek cosmology is that if a Deity presided over a particular area – say birth and death – then they presided over all aspects – positive and negative – of that area. If a Goddess could heal, then it followed that she could also curse. All of the attributes associated with Hecate evolved through time from the Pre-Classical era into the late Classical era, and now she has been adopted once again by modern Neo-Pagans.
One theory of Hecate’s origin places her in Karia – actually in the hinterlands of Asia Minor and the homelands of Hesiod’s family. One theory of Hecate’s preeminence alongside Zeus in the Theogony is that Hesiod created her importance and prominence for personal reasons. (Although from the research I’ve done, I disagree with this) . Hesiod actually only mentions Hecate once – perhaps there may have been no special attachment to Her, and he only placed her in the Theogony to acknowledge his own origins.
The Theogony was not written until the 8th century BCE – knowledge and worship of Hecate was not prevalent until the 6th century BCE. Looking closely at all the evidence – both literary and archeological – presents us with a very complex Goddess of incredible depth.
As I’ve noted, there is a great deal of debate over Hecate’s true nature, from her nation of origin to her genealogy. In Hesiod’s Theogony, she is, among other things, the daughter of the Titans Asteria and Perses; she is honored by Zeus above all others; is invoked at every sacrifice; and bears the title of “Kourotrophos” – nurse to all living beings. This version of Hecate does not bear great resemblance to later versions of her – and the absence of better known traits such as torch bearing and guardianship of the crossroads – have led some scholars to believe Hesiod fabricated the whole thing for his own ends (i.e., bringing favor and honor to his hometown Karian Goddess) . Bacchylides has her as daughter of Asteria and Zeus, Euripides says she is a daughter of Leto, and Thessalian legend has it she is the daughter of Admetus and a mortal woman.
In the Chaldean oracles, Hecate has many interesting attributes that are only now being fully explored by Classical Scholars. According to Sarah Iles Johnston, “She ensouled the Cosmos and the individual men within it, forming the connective boundary between man and god as could lead eventually to the individual soul’s release. She was celestial and potentially beneficent, rather than chthonic and threatening.”
What makes Hecate so interesting are these changing attributions – whether in reference to her origins or her magickal aspects – she changed as different regions and groups adopted her worship. No Greek clan or tribe ever claimed descent from Hecate, which makes good the case she originated outside of Greece.
As mentioned before, it is likely Hecate came from Karia in southwest Asia Minor, and she was incorporated into Greek mythology around the 6th century BCE. Hecate has also been connected with the Egyptian frog goddess Heqit. In pre-dynastic Egypt, the matriarch and wise woman of the tribe was called the “Heq” which echoes the attribution of Hecate to childbirth later on. An Asian name which may have been confused with Hecate is Hekabe – the wife of King Priam of Troy.
Aristophanes and Euripides have both connected her with Hecate. Perhaps more likely is a connection to a Goddess named Hepat. Hepat was a major Goddess of the Hurrians, a Bronze Age people of eastern Asia Minor who would have had contact with the Karians.
Hecate’s name also has several possible meanings. Among them ‘She who works her will’ is most commonly accepted, but also the ‘far off one’ or ‘far darting one’ are also suggested. She has had a variety of titles attached to her name which seem to extend its meaning:
Antaia: to whom one makes supplication.
Propylaia: Guardian of Gateways – Aischylos writes of ‘Lady Hecate, the one before the doors.’ Aristophanes refers to “just as a Hekataion is everywhere before doors.”
In this form, the boundary serves three purposes: 1) to establish a boundary and to protect inside from outside; 2) helping travelers setting out or returning; and 3) to watch over the actual transition that the entrance entails.
Apotropaios: Averter of Evil
Kleidouchos: Key holder (Is she the Key Master? Oops, sorry for the tacky Ghost Busters reference) .
Kourotrophos: Nurse, possibly referring to a nurse of child rearing, not necessarily involved in childbirth. Many Goddesses who bore this title were specifically associated with a city. Hecate is the oldest known Kourotrophos, which is where the association ‘Nurse of all living things’ comes in. There is also a possible connection with this title to marriage, as Hecate presided over transitions, and marriage most definitely is a transition.
Goddess of Roads: protector of travelers at crossroads where her statues were erected.
Goddess of Transitions: Hecate helps people cross difficult boundaries of all sorts, where the significance or risk lies in the crossing.
In the Theogony, she is the intermediary link between the mortal and immortal world during sacrifices. Hecate is present at Persephone’s abduction and leads her back from the Underworld. She is also associated with young women who fail to make the transition to womanhood.
Hecate Propolos: Guide and companion. In the Hymn to Demeter, Hecate becomes Persephone’s Guide. She appears in this role on a number of artworks and vases, usually bearing torches. She may also have served an initiatory role in coming of age rituals for women.
Hecate Phosphoros: Light Bringer, Torch Bearer.
Hecate as Moon Goddess: She was sometimes paired with Helios, a Sun God, and her torches show the way at night.
Hecate Soteira: Hecate as Savior of both the Cosmos and the individual souls within it. This will be examined in more detail a little later.
Another derivation of Hecate’s name, “Most Shining One” can be seen in depictions of her as a young beautiful Goddess who carries torches and wears a head dress of stars. She has been associated with both Helios and Apollo – and Apollo sometimes bears the epithet Apollo Hekatos.
Although the Olympians adopted Hecate after defeating the Titans, she never lived among them. They dwelt in Olympus. She, on the other hand, was considered a chthonic deity – that is, of the earth. In the Theogony, Zeus gives her dominion over Heaven, Earth, and Sea, and with Zeus, she had the ability to grant or withhold gifts to humanity. Interestingly, in the Demeter/Persephone myth cycle, Hecate is always the Maiden, Persephone the Wife or Mother, and Demeter the Crone. This is just one example of Hecate’s function as a Triple Goddess. There is evidence that point to her being honored in the Rites of Eleusis – possibly in her aspect as Guide or Nurse.
Hecate’s best-known role in Greek myth is in Homer’s Hymn to Demeter. After Persephone is abducted by Hades, Hecate reveals the truth to Demeter, and together they try to rescue Persephone. Home says of Hecate, “Hecate, with the bright headband, who heard from her cave.” Once Persephone’s fate is determined, it is Hecate who acts as her guide between the worlds. This is very much a different image from the one that later developed.
In the fifth century BCE, we begin to see a new, frightening side to Hecate. She is associated with restless, violent spirits, with sacrifices of dogs and offerings of food left at the Crossroads at the Full Moon. Now she is Hecate Chthonia. Chthonic means “of the Earth” as opposed to the Olympian Gods who lived on Mount Olympus. In this aspect, we see the use of low altars on which offerings are made into the earth as opposed to the air; also the sacrifice of whole animals. Chthonic deities would have been associated with fertility, childbirth, crops, fate and death.
Another later aspect is Hecate Enodia, Hecate at the Crossroads. How did Hecate begin to be associated with the darker aspects? It is possible that there so many images of young, maidenly Goddesses that some artists felt compelled to depict her in a different way – hence the three Hecates back to back, which we see in the Hekataion statues. It was also not unusual for Greek Gods and Goddesses to have many inconsistent qualities.
The stories of Medea may have propagated a negative image of Hecate. In Euripides’ version of the tale, Medea was a priestess of Hecate – she had helped Jason get the Golden Fleece and was subsequently dumped for someone younger. She kills their children in revenge. A misogynistic concept around witches and women was built up around these stories, and around Hecate.
Another story associated with Hecate is that of Iphigenia – a young woman sacrificed by her step-father, Agamemnon at the outset of the Trojan War. Young women who died before their time were associated with Hecate, and Iphigenia is said to have been transformed into Hecate by Artemis. Hecate governs the souls of these young women who die before their time.
An epitaph from the Roman era reads, “I lie here, the Goddess Hekate, as you see. Formerly I was mortal; now I am immortal and ageless. Julia, daughter of Nikias, a great hearted man.” Perhaps because of her association with dead young women, Hecate became associated with the restless, angry dead.
As an aside, Greek mythology can be confusing in that deities can be both Chthonic and Olympian. Hecate is actually both, as are Hermes, Demeter, Zeus, and Gaia. She hears Persephone’s abduction from her cave, after all.
In later Classical times, Hecate became associated with a practice known as curse tablets. These were lead tablets inscribed with curses, which were to be taken by the dead souls to deities such as Hecate and Hermes. Most of these tablets are associated with Hermes, but Hecate is also called upon by some of them. Interestingly, her name never appears alone on these tablets – it is always in association with Hermes.
The rise of thought involving Hecate as a Savior figure came during a time when philosophy and religion were finding more common ground than previously, and Neo-Platonists became involved in discussions of theurgy, philosophy and magic. In her identification of the Platonic Cosmic Soul, some scholars have interpreted Her presence in the Chaldean Oracles as an omnipotent Goddess.
Hecate as Cosmic Soul comprised what the Platonic philosophers called the “Sensible World” – the world of the Gods and the Cosmos – and the “Intelligible World” – the world of humanity, and as such was able to cross both boundaries at will. It was thought that the Cosmic Soul generated the physical Cosmos. (Although stated explicitly in any literature I have come across, this aspect of Hecate does suggest a Creatrix of some sort at the very least) . This ability of Hecate to cross easily between the world of the Gods and the world of humanity does connect well to her earlier association with crossroads.
Platonic thought placed the Moon at the crossroads of life and death – that is, when humans died, they were thought to enter the Moon as an intermediary place before going on to their ultimate destination – either re-birth or joining with the godhead. Chaldean thought placed Hecate as being on or in the Moon as part of that intermediary process – she was called the Mistress of the Moon. Again, in this particular connection between Hecate and the Moon, we see her association as mediary between humanity and divinity. Plato saw the Moon as Hecate’s “lot” – that is – the place in the Universe most suited to her. The Moon’s role in Platonic thought was to receive and nurture and then send forth souls.
Hecate was also connected to the race known as “Daemones” – not demons as we know them today, but a golden race somewhere between the Divine and humanity that watched over humans. Traditionally, daemons were understood to be the souls of humans who had not had proper burials, and as such, wandered between the worlds – an attribute they shared with Hecate. These souls were assigned the task of watching over the recently dead and guiding them to their proper resting places. These souls, along with Hecate, could either aid the ascent, or force the descent of the recently departed.
Another interesting component to Hecate’s worship during this time was the use of the “Hecate top, ” or iynx wheel. This instrument was used in magic to aid the working at hand. A Hecate top was actually more like a bullroarer, and the sound it made while being operated was considered crucial to the success of the operation.
Iynges might also be found hanging from the ceiling around a king’s throne to symbolize man’s separation and subordination to the gods, as well as the division of the universe into human and divine portions. The revolutions of the iynges represent the turnings of Hecate herself – the whirling and sounds of an iynx serve to symbolize and strengthen the sympathetic magic invoked by the theurgist.
Hecate was involved in three major mysteries: at Eleusis, Samothrace, and Aiginia. By their nature, little has been revealed of what went on in the mysteries, but given the role in the story of Demeter and Persephone, Hecate may have been a guide to Initiates. At Eleusis, thick nails were driven into the ground or altar, piercing through a piece of parchment rolled into a flattened tub, on which was written the name of someone to be cursed – most commonly politicians. Hecate was to be invoked as the parchment was ritually burnt. Hecate had a great deal more associated with her then curses, however. There were a variety of animals that were sacred to her.
The animal most commonly associated with Hecate was the dog. In the later Hellenistic and Roman works, Hecate’s approach is heralded by the barking of dogs. Dogs have a bad reputation in Greek mythology – they were considered polluted and impure, symbols of shameless behavior. There may have been an old belief that souls of the unburied dead could appear as dogs. Dogs were sacrificed to Hecate in purification rituals. A female dog would be sacrificed to aid in childbirth, in the belief that dogs gave birth with ease. The image of these sacrificed dogs may explain the later picture of ghostly dogs accompanying Hecate.
The image of dog as guardian – a much more positive association – echoes Hecate’s role as guardian. Plutarch wrote that dogs as well as Hecate were credited with excellent night vision. Aischylos and Plutarch both wrote about dogs barking to frighten intruders, but how they were loving and loyal to those they protected.
There were also herbs attributed to Hecate. Aconite (also known as Hecateis, Monkshood, or Wolfsbane) was a highly poisonous plant that was sacred to Hecate. According to myth, the plant sprang up where drops of saliva from Cerberos fell to earth when Hercules dragged the dog beast from the Underworld.
Hecate appears as a daughter of Zeus and Hera in later myths. Hecate was sent to the Underworld after incurring the wrath of Hera for stealing a pot of rouge for Europa, one of Zeus’ lovers. Hecate fled to earth and hid in the house of a woman who had just given birth. In late Classical Greece, childbirth was impure, so Cabiri plunged Hecate into the Underworld River Acheron to cleanse her. From then on, Hecate remained in the Underworld. There may be connections between the red rouge in this myth and the red henna used by worshippers to stain their hands and feet.
In the Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the Underworld with the Sibyl of Cumae. It was Hecate who originally took Sibyl there and showed her all the punishments of Tartarus. Hecate gave Sibyl the power to control the Avernus Wood, the passageway to the entrance of the Underworld. To allow passage for Aeneas, Sibyl sacrificed four black bullocks to Hecate, who then allowed Sibyl and Aeneas passage through the entrance and across the Styx.
In the fourth book of the Aeneid, Hecate is invoked by Dido. Aeneas had left her heart broken, so she called upon Hecate to curse the Trojans before she flung herself on her dagger. Her curse was effective; not only did the Trojans wander around for many years, when they finally reached Rome, Aeneas was killed in the fighting.
Athenians were especially respectful towards Hecate and she was often invoked in midnight rituals. Her worshippers gathered at crossroads at the New Moon to share Hecate suppers and then placed leftovers outdoors as offerings. Honey, black female lambs and dogs were sacrificed to her.
The yew, cypress, hazel, black poplar and willow are all sacred to Hecate. The leaves of the black poplar are dark on one side, and light on the other, symbolizing the boundary between the worlds. The yew has long been associated with the Underworld. It is the longest living creature in Europe and naturally resurrects itself – as the central trunk dies, a new tree grows within the rotting core.
As can be seen from ancient writings and modern scholarship, Hecate is a many-faceted Goddess indeed. She is much more than the dark, dreaded “Goddess of the Witches” that we see in some television accounts of Wicca, and indeed, she may be older than the Greco-Roman origins she is usually attributed with.
However modern media may choose to paint Her, She is indeed a true “Goddess of the Witches”, a complex and interesting Goddess with many stories and rituals yet to be told and created.
Johnston, S. I. (1990) . Hekate Soteira: A Study of Hekate’s Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature. Atlanta: GA: Scholars Press.
Von Rudolf, R. (1999) . Hekate: In Ancient Greek Religion. Victoria, B.C: Horned Owl Publishing.