The Goddess Hekate by Antaia M. A.
Hekate is a Goddess that has been shrouded in mystery and debate since her arrival on the Greek religious scene in approximately 700 bce – No one has been able to confirm the origin of Her name, place, or function. I will attempt to convey what Hekate means to me as well as some of her history.
Hekate is a triple Goddess – she has three faces (four sometimes if you count the side that you cannot see) – and in Rome was referred to as “Trivia”. At alternate times she has been grouped with Persephone and Demeter and also Artemis and Selene. However, in the beginning, she was just Hekate of the three faces – one of maiden, one of mother and one of crone. Her depiction in most of Greek religion is in the Maiden form and frequently carrying torches. This is the Hekate that was the companion of Persephone guiding her throughout the Underworld. The ability of Hekate to transverse the boundaries of all the worlds was also a unique function to Her and one of the reasons that She is known as the Goddess of Transitions. Zeus himself granted Her this access according to Hesiod, making Her as powerful as He was. Zeus singling Her out was interpreted by mythographers that She was indeed much more ancient than the Olympians and that Zeus himself respected Her powers.
Greek mythology lists Her parents as Titans, which has never been verified and it seems much more likely that She came from outside of Greece. Her greatest cult was in Karia (Southwestern Anatolia which is present day Turkey) and in Sicily. In Mytilene on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea, near what was Troy, there are Temples of Demeter, where the women would go to the annual festival of Eleusis to celebrate fertility rites. There is ample evidence that Hekate was honored there too, perhaps as a guide for initiates into the Mysteries.
There are few legends about Her and no fixed genealogy. Some say that Hekate is the daughter of Erebus and Nyx, ageless Goddess of the night, while others believe that She is one of the Furies or the last surviving Titan except for Zeus. Hesiod claims that She was born of the Titan Perses and the star goddess Asteria. Musaeus claims She was born to Asteria and Zeus while Euripides says She is a daughter of Leto and Thessalian legend has it that Hekate is the daughter of Admetus and a Pheraean woman. It’s likely that Hekate’s attributed birth changed as different social groups adopted Her worship, but no Greek Clan or Tribe ever claimed descent from Hekate. These facts support the theory that She originated outside Greece.
Hekate probably originated in the mythology of the Karians in southwest Asia Minor, and was integrated into Greek religion around the sixth century BCE. However, there is evidence that Hekate evolved from the Egyptian midwife goddess Heqit, (alternatively spelled ‘Heket’ or ‘Hekat’.) The frog headed goddess was one of the Egyptian Primordials and Heqit assisted with the daily birth of the Sun and was associated with the apparently magical germination of the seemingly lifeless corn seed. In pre-dynastic Egypt the matriarch and wise woman of the tribe was called the ‘heq’. The Egyptian word for magick is also “heka”. She is certainly known as “Great of magick”.
Hekate’s name has several possible meanings. ‘She who works Her will’ is the most commonly accepted, but ‘the far-off one’ or ‘far-darting one’ are also suggested. Such names suggest that Her power is far reaching.
An alternative derivation, ‘most shining one’, is seen in representations of Hekate from the fourth century BCE which show a young goddess of both beauty & power, carrying a torch & wearing a headdress of stars.
Hekate was worshipped as Goddess of abundance & eloquence & She is still generous to those who recognize Her. Her ancient worshippers also invoked Her protective attributes but placing guardian statues outside of their homes and on the threshold of many temples, there was a sanctuary for Hekate. It is possible that because She protected the people from evil spirits, they also began to believe that She controlled them. The ancient depiction of the Bright Shining Maiden who lit the way for the initiates in Eleusis and gave succor to Persephone in the Land of the Dead began to be replaced by Hekate the Crone who traveled the land followed by a ghostly procession of various demons and displaced spirits and accompanied by Her baying hounds. This is the Hekate that most know as Goddess of the Dead & Queen of Witches.
Edith Hamilton’s Mythology says of Hekate: “She was associated with deeds of darkness, the Goddess of the Crossways, which held to be ghostly places of evil magic. An awful divinity.”
As with most of the Dark Goddesses who represent that which humanity fear, a demonization of Hekate and Her Priestesses was undertaken by the misogynistic male philosophers and poets of Greece. Hekate was no longer She who would protect you; She was what brought the evil spirits to you. Her Priestesses were portrayed as power hungry mad women who invoked Hekate to perform evil deeds against their husbands and other men. Medeia is the most famous of Her Priestesses – She was the central figure in at least ten Greek and Latin plays (of which only two survive in more than fragmentary form), and was prominent in many more. Nearly all of the references to Hekate after 400 bce are through Her relationship with Medeia, who was usually (but not always) portrayed as an “evil and dangerous” foreigner with magical skills and supernatural powers. Clytemnestra, the twin sister of Helen of Troy, was also a Priestess of Hekate. She was the wife of Agamemnon, a hero of the Trojan War, and she murdered him when he returned home. In Clytemnestra’s defense, Agamemnon had ritually sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, at the beginning of the Trojan War to stir a breeze for his fleet of ships. He was also responsible for the kidnapping of the Priestess and Oracle Cassandra who he brought home with him. The enchantress Circe, the lover of Odysseus, is also closely associated with Hekate worship; Circe who had the ability to enchant men and turn them into swines and other animals and is referred to as a “Daughter of Hekate”.
In Book 6 of the Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the underworld with Sibyl of Cumae. It was Hekate who originally took Sibyl there and showed her all the punishments of Tartarus. Hekate gave Sibyl the power to control and tend the Avernus Wood, the passageway to the entrance of the Underworld. To allow passage for Aeneas, Sibyl sacrificed four black bullocks to Hekate, who then allowed Sibyl and Aeneas passage through the entrance and across the Styx.
In the fourth book of the Aeneid, Hekate is invoked by Dido. Aeneas had left her heartbroken, so she called upon Hekate 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, but, when they finally reached Rome, Aeneas was killed in the fighting.
There is no doubt that by 400 B.C.E. the image existed of female followers of Hekate working magic, alone at night in remote places. While they were intended as evil figures, it is interesting to note that one can easily reinterpret them as positive role-models, heroic workers of magic in a society that dreaded powerful women. The issue with all of the legends and myths about these women and others is that they were written by men who would be naturally much more sympathetic to the men’s plight of being married or associated with these “evil women” and would have understandable unease about women devoting to such a powerful Goddess. The Priestesses of Hekate were strong women, potent witches, and had complete confidence in the protection and responsiveness of their Mother, Hekate.
Hekate is awesome & can be terrifying, for She rules all that is outside our ken: Death & the dark intuitive wisdom that is beyond the conscious mind. Such wisdom comes through dreams & whispers, mediumship & divination. It is the inspired vision of oracles & seers. For some it may be too much & bring the madness of lunacy: Hekate’s power can poison as well as heal. She is one of the few Gods that are able to induce madness which is the reason for the instructions to leave Her offerings at the Crossroads and depart without looking back.
Hekate is most properly worshipped in limited places, especially at a crossroad where three roads meet (as HEKATE ENODIA – of the crossroads). The Ancient Greeks would erect statues (hecataea) of Hekate Trevia (‘Hekate of the Three Ways’) at crossroads in Her honor. Here travelers may ask for protection on their journeys or witches meet to learn Her mysteries.
It’s commonly suggested that the crossroads symbolize Hekate’s triple nature & all seeing ability, but there are deeper mysteries. After crossing the Styx, a newly dead ancient Greek soul found themselves at a place where three roads meet to be judged. One road led to the Elysian Fields, one to the Fields of Asphodel, and the third road to Tartarus. So any crossroads where three roads meet might symbolize this place of judgment, and be seen as a sacred place.
But crossroads are also seen as ominous and dangerous places. In many traditions this is where suicides and criminals were buried. Were the two aspects associated or confused in some way? It’s notable that it is specifically crossroads where three roads meet that are sacred to Hekate, whereas any crossroad is deemed as ominous. She also absorbed the souls of those who committed suicide into Her ghostly Horde until she could properly place the soul.
All wild animals are sacred to Hekate & She sometimes appears three-headed as dog, horse & bear or dog, snake & lion. But the creatures of darkness & of the earth are most sacred to Her; ravens, owls, crows, snakes & dragons. The frog, significantly a creature that can cross between two elements, is also sacred to Hekate and the Egyptian goddess Heket.
The yew, cypress, hazel, black poplar and the willow all belong to Hekate. The leaves of the black poplar are dark on one side & 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. This ability may be why it is so often found in graveyards as a symbol of eternal life. In Brittany it is believed that the yew sends a root to the mouth of each corpse, allowing the spirit to escape and be reborn. The yew has strong associations with death as well as rebirth. A poison prepared from the seeds was used on arrows, and yew wood was commonly used to make bows and dagger hilts.
The potion in Hekate’s cauldron contains ‘slips of yew’. Yew berries carry Hekate’s power & can bring wisdom or death. The seeds are highly poisonous, but the fleshy, coral-colored ‘berry’ surrounding it is not, and if prepared correctly can bring inspirational visions.
Many other herbs and plant were associated with Hekate, including garlic, almonds, myrrh, mugwort, cardamom, mint, dandelion, and hellebore. Several poisons and hallucinogens are linked to Hekate, including belladonna, hemlock, mandrake, henbane, aconite or wolfsbane (Classically known as hecateis), and opium poppy. Dandelion tea is used to call spirits and is said to enhance psychic ability.
In ancient Greece snakes were the creatures most commonly associated with the dead, and it was commonly believed that the dead could appear as snakes. Several images of Hekate show Her holding a snake. Snakes have long been connected with chthonic powers and the uncommon wisdom of the Otherworld. The snake is also transformative which is representative of Her powers.
The dog is the animal most commonly associated with Hekate and She was sometimes addressed as the ‘Black She dog’. Black puppies were once sacrificed to Her in purification rituals, and at Colophon in Samothrace Hekate could manifest as a dog. The sound of barking and howling dogs is the first sign of Her approach in Greek and Roman literature:
“The Earth began to bellow, trees to dance
And howling dogs in glimmering light advance
Ere Hekate came.” The Aeneid, book VL. Virgil.
Ovid writes that Hekate could be conjured up from darkness “with long howls.” There is evidence of an old belief that the souls of the unburied dead could appear as dogs. Hekate is sometimes identified with the three-headed dog Cerberus, who guards the entrance to Hades. Dogs were also associated with deities like Hekate who watched over childbirth, probably because of the ease with which the bitch gives birth. The dog is also well known as a guardian of the house, standing at the font door to stand watch, and this seems to relate to Hekate’s role as guardian (Hekate Propylaia).
Samhain is especially significant to Hekate, but several Festival days are celebrated in Her honour: The 13th August is the time to ask for Her blessing on the coming harvest, for as Goddess of Storms, Hekate has the power to destroy the crop before it can be cut.
Sunset on November 16th marks the beginning of the Night of Hekate. In Ancient Greece animal sacrifices would have been made, but leaving a Hekate’s Supper at the Crossroads is a more appropriate offering today. But some things haven’t changed: In the past and the present those who follow Hekate are often initiated into Her mysteries on these nights. November 30th is the Day of Hekate at the Crossroads.
Hekate is traditionally worshipped on the Dark Moon (the eve of the New Moon) or the 30th of the month, when ‘Hekate’s Suppers’ would be prepared. The Greeks originally reckoned time by lunar months, so this day originally fell on the 30th. Later, when Greece adopted a reformed calendar which no longer took account of the lunar cycle, the 30th remained sacred to Hekate. The 30th of the month was also sacred to the dead. This was the time to purify the house and to take offerings to Hekate and, of course, leave them at the Crossroads.
OFFERINGS: In the past a black puppy dog, black bull or a black ewe lamb was seen as a suitable sacrifice, but personally I would recommend an offering of food, traditionally known as ‘Hekate’s Supper’. Appropriate food for these feasts include red mullet, (a scavenging fish that was taboo in other cults), bread (similar to pound cake consistency), raw eggs, cheese, garlic, cake and honey. In Ancient Greece none of the household would touch the food for ‘Hekate’s Supper’, and I recommend that for a Supper, the Priestess of Hekate is the one who prepares it and brings it to the offering place. The offerings are left at a crossroads and you should leave without looking back – it was said that to look upon the face of the Goddess as She arrives with Her Horde to feast would cause insanity.
This practice has a very long history. The Christian Church was still trying to stop people leaving offerings at the crossroads as late as the 11th Century, and it is certainly carried on today so it is entirely possible that there is an unbroken tradition.
Several symbols and objects are particularly associated with Hekate, some of which appear on my altar to Her. She is almost always shown carrying torches, often has a knife, and may appear holding a rope or scourge, a key, a phial, flowers or a pomegranate. The Greek cross (one with equal arms) is a symbol of Hekate at the crossroads. She also has Her own symbol called the Hekate Wheel.
At Hekate’s main Karian sanctuary at Lagina, the ritual carrying of a sacred key was part of Her cult. According to an ancient hymn to Hekate, She keeps the keys that ‘open the bars of Cerberus.’ Sophocles wrote of a key on the tongue as an element of the Eleusian mysteries.
Hekate not only reigns over witchcraft, magick and death, but also birth and renewal. She is a guardian against evil and invoked in curses; She is a protective guide and light bringer, but also the ‘Dread Goddess of the Underworld’. She is the epitome of duality.
The Ancient Greeks understood that a deity gives as well as withholds; Hekate can protect from evil spirits if She so chooses, but can also visit them upon you. It may also be that the ancients did not share the modern obsession with consistency. There is evidence for an Archaic ‘irrational’ mode of thought which does not strive for one precise conclusion, but offers a medley of possibilities. But perhaps there is no contradiction here, for death inevitably goes hand in hand with fertility as a power of the earth.