For this weeks offering I’m presenting something of a redux of an article that I had published in the Covenant of Hekate’s publication Askei Kataskei in 2012/13. It is essential the same article although I have refined some of the wording and removed most of the references to Heket as I covered that in greater depth in a separate article. I have also added some more recent musings on how three of Hekate’s most commonly repeated symbols; the dagger, cord and torch, relate to childbirth on a magical and mundane level.
Hekate and Childbirth
Hekate is often associated with the act of childbirth and the nurturing of youth and this association is supported by examples in mythology, archaeology and history. She is invoked by the living to protect both mother and child during the dangerous rite of passage that childbirth represented in classical Greece and in the name of the deceased to honour both the Goddess and the departed woman. There are many reasons for this and some can be see within Her titles and mythologies.
Childbirth in Ancient Greece
Hekate is a liminal Goddess and this role is brought into focus when considering the nature of childbirth in Ancient Greece. It is both a time of creation and birth and a time when the veil between life and death is thinned to breaking point. The possibility of the death of not only the child but the mother as well was very real and the act of bringing forth life often invoked death.
It is not possible to extract exact mortality rates for either mother or child because of the social standards of the time. Many infant deaths were not recorded clearly if at all. Similarly deaths of women were not fully recorded, although this was at the discretion of the husband and or father. It is possible, from the anecdotal evidence, to infer that rates would be much higher when compared to modern mortality rates. Standards of sanitation, hygiene and medical care were much lower than modern standards and caused major risks to the health of both mother and child.
There is evidence in the play Hippolytus Crowned by Euripides of the pressures exerted on women of the time, firstly to provide heirs to their husbands and secondly to face the medical dangers of childbirth. The symptoms of pre and post-natal depression are described as affecting Phaedra, wife of King Theseus and are acknowledged by other women in the play as being something that was common amongst “breeding women”. Later commentators infer that her symptoms were initially due to social pressures and then later post partum infections. The dangers of childbirth can be further illustrated in Hippocrates Epidemics I, Case ix which described the illness and eventual death of the unnamed wife of Dromeades. The case outlines how, six days after giving birth to a presumably live daughter, this lady experience fever, delirium and rigors eventually dies as a result of her illness. Her symptoms mirror some types of post partum infection. From the fact that of the of females represented in Epidemics one third were recorded as having suffered from birthing complications it is possible to infer that such complications were common.
Given these social pressures it is possible that Hekate’s association with the restless death could have emerged from her association with women who died before fulfilling their socially acceptable roles of marriage and motherhood. It was believed that those women had failed in these primary social functions would roam the underworld in despair and were accepted into Hekate’s train during her time in the Underworld. It might be to this end that she was the subject of this grave marker from Rome “I lie here Hecate as you see me, formally I was mortal; now I am immortal and ageless, Julia, daughter of Nikias a great hearted man”.
In Mythology and Epithet
In mythology Hekate plays the role of midwife for Rhea and a part in hiding the newborn Zeus from Chronos by handing Him a rock in swaddling bands. In another myth she took refuge in the house of a woman giving birth, using the associated impurities the hide from the wrath of Hera after stealing her cosmetics for Zeus and his lover Europa. In this tale Hekate was immersed in the river Acheron to cleanse her of the impurities of childbirth.
Many of Hekate’s epithets can be related to her role as a Childbirth Goddess, the most obvious being Kourotrophos. Meaning “nurse of the young” and sometimes “midwife” she is the force that brings new life into the world where she nurtures and protects. When taken as meaning midwife Hekate can be seen as wielding her symbol the knife in order to cut the cord binding mother and child as well as the soul to the Intelligible World. Statues of Hekate are often associated with the entrances of homes but in the case of childbirth she was invoked in order to protect the home and guard those within it during the impure time of childbirth.
Her titles Antaia (the one in front) and Apotropaious (evil averter) reflect that Hekate was called upon to turn the impurities and dangers away from the household within and would be ideal aspects to call upon at such a time. As Prothyraia (of the doorways), Propylaia (before the gates) and Kleidouchos (key-bearer) her role as guarding the transition from the state of childhood to womanhood, from the time before to birth and equally from life to death, is recognised. Enodia (of the ways), Phosphorous (light bearer) and Propolos (guide) all acknowledge that Hekate acts as a guide at this time, in this instance the transition of the child to the world, leading the way from the darkness of the womb to the light of day, although she can also be seen as leading the soul of the departed woman and or child into the Underworld.
Hekate Soteria, as the Cosmic World Soul and Creatrix of the human souls, is one of the most appropriate titles associating Hekate with childbirth. In middle Platonic doctrines and commentaries the responsibility of the creation and translation of the soul is placed with Hekate as the “ensouler of all things”. Hekate becomes the means of translating the very materials and ideas that constitute the soul between the Sensible World and the Intelligible World. She straddles the boundary between mortals and gods and imports the soul into the inanimate body. Her role as the ensouler of the cosmos is established in fragments 32 and 96 of the Chaldean Oracles and commentators such as Proclus and Porphyry. Porphyry quotes Hekate as proclaiming “I am such a one as is able to ensoul the highest world” whilst Proclus states that the goddess is “right and true” when she says that she ensouls the cosmos and all within it. In this role Hekate not only establishes the soul within the body but ensures that the cord connecting it to the Intelligible World is severed. Just as Hekate Kourotrophos severs the physical cord that binds mother and child Hekate Soteria severs the cord that binds the souls to the Sensible Worls so that the soul may fully reside in the body it has been born into.
Hekate is often depicted carrying, amongst other things, the cord, the dagger and touch. These three symbols are most easily associated with child birth, and conversely death. Here are my thoughts on the spiritual and practical symbolism of these three items in relation to childbirth.
The dagger is the midwifes tool used for many tasks in the process of life and death. It is not a weapon as one might assume, thought it can surely be used as such, but the means by which the midwife can prepare herbs and swaddling ahead of the birth, can cut the cord linking mother and child and can bring a complicated birth to a conclusion one way or another. A practical tool it has its spiritual connection in being the implement that severs the spiritual cord between the time before birth and life itself. It also serves the same function in severing the cord between life and death.
The cord we have already mentioned but in addition to being representative of the spiritual cords of life and death it can also be seen as representative of the trials and pains of ancient childbirth. In ancient times there was often little to stand between a woman and the pain of labour beyond herbs and prayer and transference through a physical act. Two common ways of mitigating the pain of childbirth through transferase was to invite a woman in labour to pull down on a heavy rope or cord attached to the ceiling or to bite down on one. Many devotees of Hekate recognise Her as a nurturing goddess who will lead us to trial and tribulation to the end of allowing us to gain experience and lessons or even reward of some kind. Though she leads us to these things she never leaves our sides or without support. Perhaps the cord, on a practical and mundane level, is represernatitve of this when considering childbirth in an ancient context, even at times of greatest pain She offers us strength and a way to endure.
The torch is another of Hekate’s primary symbols which has a practical as well as spiritual use in childbirth. Spiritually it is the light that guides and greets the newborn as they enter into the world. Hekate is well known as a guide and the torch her symbol of this. On the practical level the flames bring purity either to the water or the midwives blade. Although purity isn’t something associated with childbirth, Hekate was considered impure for having resided in a house where a birth took place and women would be separated from the rest of society immediately after the birth, to have a clean environment and tools was one of the few ways infection and death could be avoided.
Hekate and Heket
Hekate’s association with childbirth and the cutting of the natal cord, both spiritual and physical, is one reason that parallels are drawn between Hekate and the Ancient Egyptian Frog Goddess, Heket. Whilst it is possible to draw superficial similarities between these two Goddesses there is no evidence of actual links and common origin. For a more detailed argument on this point please refer to my earlier post on Heket however it is unlikely that Hekate’s associations with childbirth are a result of any later association with Heket.
Hekate has many titles which are associated with a motherly figure; such as nurse, midwife, protector, guide, and she serves a liminal role which reflects the dangers of and base nature of childbirth. These titles and roles made her association with childbirth not only understandable but undeniable. Her Devotees and followers know her as a nurturing goddess, who values life as much as death, but historical Hekate has a long association with the transitional events of childbirth.
Hekate Soteria – Sarah Iles Johnstone
Hekate Liminal Hekate – Sorita d’Este and David Rankine
Hekate Keys to the Crossroads – Sorita d’Este and David Rankine
Postnatal Depression in Ancient Greece – Alan Greaves Midwives Magazine 2009 – http://www.rcm.org.uk