This post was originally written and presented as a talk given to my local PF moot; The Ravens Rest in January 2017.
Hekate is a goddess of many parts. To some, she is the Infernal Queen of the Underworld and handmaiden to Persephone, heading a host of witches and restless dead. To others she is the wise counsellor of both man and gods, carrying petitions from the mouths of men to the ears of the gods on wings of silver moonlight. To other still, she is the celestial saviour goddess who is responsible for creation and all things made manifest in this world. Her parents are the Titans Asteria and Perses, and Her name means “from afar”, a likely reference to her association with both hunting bows and hunting dogs.
Her worship appears to have originated in the land of Thrace, the southern regions of modern day Bulgaria, although there is some indication that her cult originated further east in the Anatolian region of modern day Turkey. Certainly, she returned here in the company of the Greek Olympians in who’s pantheons she was included. As the Greeks, and later the Romans, spread their culture around the Mediterranean and Europe Hekate travelled with them, taking on the prejudices of each age leaving us with the various images that influence modern devotion today.
Ask four devotees “who is Hekate and what does she look like?” you will likely get four, if not five, different interpretations. There is no right way or wrong way to encounter or perceive her but whilst all experiences may be valid they cannot overwrite historical context. Hekate has journeyed from a time before Christ through many centuries and each age has left its mark on in a process I have come to call the Crone-ing. So my intention isn’t to tell anyone that their experience of Hekate is wrong but to take you through a few of the sources; primary, secondary and tertiary, which have informed people’s perception of the Goddess, sometimes in subtle and unseen ways.
One of the earliest written sources for Hekate and her origins is Hesiod’s Theogony written sometime between 750 to 650 BCE. Of his many works Theogony represents his attempt to present the reader with a unified sense of what it was to be Greek and the process was so successful that it is this story of Creation and the rise and fall the Heavenly races that we learn in school today. We often forget that rather than being one single nation as we might see today Ancient Greece was a collection of city-states and regions each with their own interpretations of, and local myths regarding, the Gods which in of itself gives rise to some of the many interpretations and conflations surrounding Hekate.
Hesiod, who was potentially a devotee of Hekate, turns over 40 lines of his poem to defining the powers, honours, and attributes of Hekate. In comparison, her primaeval and Titan kin are described using on average 3 lines each and this, in conjunction with the fact that his brother shared the same name as the father of Hekate, is often cited as evidence of his personal or familial devotion to Hekate.
In addition to describing her parentage and importance as a counsellor; to not only Zeus but the judges, kings, and sportsmen of the Greek world; Hesiod is the first to confirm her sovereignty within the three realms of influence found in Greek Cosmology. Notably, he states that she is confirmed and maintained in controlling a portion of the Earth, Sea and Sky, the three realms traditionally associated with the brothers Hades, Poseidon and Zeus. Hesiod is clear that she does not sit in conflict with these powerful Gods, indeed she is treated as an equal and allowed to maintain her roles as inherited from her parents Perses and Asteria.
Whilst Hesiod does not give much indication of her appearance the concept of a triple form begins to emerge in the statues and reliefs which are associated with this period. During the period that the text is believed to have been written reliefs and statues of Greek Gods were created in such a way which portrayed the subject as being whole in body and as a being of beauty. Hekate is usually represented as an as a triple female figure holding torches or other objects associated with her or as a solitary figure in hunting garb, carrying torches and sometimes in the company of hunting hounds. In both cases, it is not possible to determine the age of the subject because the classic indicators of age that one might see in a more modern rendition are lacking. These earliest depictions are consistent with other written sources such as the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. It is in the Hymn to Demeter that the first hints of her visage appear;
[of Persephone] He caught her up reluctant on his golden car and bare her away lamenting. Then she cried out shrilly with her voice, calling upon her father, the Son of Cronos, who is most high and excellent. But no one, either of the deathless gods or of mortal men, heard her voice, nor yet the olive-trees bearing rich fruit: only tender-hearted Hecate, bright-coiffed, the daughter of Persaeus, heard the girl from her cave…
The epithet used to describe Hekate here is Liparokredemnos (lipro-ke-dem-nos) which can also be rendered as of the bright headband. This is hardly the description of a dark forbidding crone. In fact, Hekate goes on to comfort the grieving Demeter who has donned the image of an old woman to allow her to wander the barren earth to bewail the loss of her daughter. In this instance, Demeter better represents the Disney-fied image of the Old Crone which is more often associated with Hekate.
Whilst the description of Demeter during her Wanderings may seem at odds with the earlier statement regarding the depiction of Greeks Gods it is not. The Greeks believed, as many modern pagans do today, that the God’s were able to take on any form or image they chose to regardless of whether that was humanoid or animal but at their core remained divine and whole. In the Wanderings Demeter throws off her disguise as an Old Woman and resumes her Heavenly image once her daughter is released.
(nb There are exceptions to this within Greek Mythology, the prime example being that of Pan, but the unkempt visage of this God serves a particular function within Greek society and should be considered separately.)
The slightest indication we have as to the mental picture that the Greeks can be gleaned from the Orphic Hymn to Hecate
… Guide, Bride, Nurturer of Youths, Mountain Wanderer. I pray Thee, Maiden, to be present at our hallowed rites of initiation…
In this instance, the key epitaphs are Nymphen (Bride) and Kore (Maiden). Both imply a youthful demeanour consistent with the Ancient Greece practice of women typically marrying at around 14 to 18 years old. This is circumstantial evidence but taken as a whole with the Greek understanding and conceptualisation of what deity looked like it is rather telling.
The Roman Crossroads
The years turned and the Roman Empire rose, bringing its understanding of Hekate to the table. A new assortment of traditions, magical practices and renderings of the Greek myths and legend began to influence the appearance of the Goddess in very different ways.
The Chaldean Oracles are a collection of oracular texts, compiled during the 2nd century CE which sought to explain how creation was structured in relation to the Divine. The Oracles separate existence into three realms Material, Etheric and Empyrean in which resides the Divine Creators from who’s thoughts all things were formed and all creation passed from the realm of the Empyrean into the Material realm by way of an agent known as the World Soul. It was through this process that all life comes to be and how the human body becomes imbued with a soul ahead of birth. The Oracles consistently identified the World Soul as being female, specifically with Hekate. The most commonly occurring epithet used in the Oracles was Soteria, or Saviour, a title which links to her role in translating the souls of both the soon to be born and recently dead between the Empyrean and Material Worlds (and back again). Another epithet which is consistent with this function is Kourotrophos: Child’s nurse, nurse of youths. This epithet is sometimes rendered as Midwife. The Neoplatonist’s, contempered to the Chaldeans. Have their own variation of the World Soul, although this concept is not identified with a single deity and is better described as a mathematical concept.
The Neoplatonist’s did incorporate Hekate into their world view as the mediating deity who resided in the lunar sphere of reality, found between the material Earth and divine Sun. She is described as being a mediator between the Gods and their mortal worshipers, carrying with a cohort of messenger spirits, or daemons, to act on her behalf. Daemons are not inherently good or evil but are spirits which carry messages and which can be bribed to act on a mortals behalf. Such beings were often called upon in magical traditions such as those which can be found in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), a collection of spells, formulae and rituals ranging in date between 2nd century BCE and 5th century CE, a number of which specifically invoke Hekate. Many of the spells within the PGM involve leaving offerings for the recently dead in order for them to work on the behalf of the caster. The preferred spirits were those who had died violent deaths, either in war or as a result of murder, or those who had died before achieving a socially expected milestone such as, in the case of women, dying before marriage or having children. Such spirits were seen as being part of Hekate’s court and being through which the goddess could be communicated with.
Another of these influences can be found in the classical texts of Medea, Metamorphoses and the Argonautica and when read a darker potential becomes apparent. These later classical tales featuring women of uncommon power and influence, all who are often referred to as witches. Circe, daughter of Apollo, and her niece Medea are both women familiar with magical herbs, spells and dark powers. Circe is most famously known as turning the men of Odysseus into pigs and directing the men of the Argonaut to the Oracle of the Dead however she appears in others sources in her own right. Most relevant to this discussion is a passage from Ovid’s Metamorphose in which she invokes Hekate in her work.
Medea has a strong connection with Hekate, being referred to as being a priestess and handmaiden of Hekate in many texts, particularly in the Argonautica, but she is a particular character. By dint of her being of foreign birth (ie not Greek) she is often treated with suspicion and derision, particularly when she returns with Jason. She was familiar with herbs, both healing and harmful, and was familiar with chthonic and even necromantic rituals. She ultimately betrays her own family to aid the hero Jason and return with him to be his queen but when she is eventually abandoned by him her response is dark and extremely violent.
The Witches of Thessaly are another example of “foreign” witches who are both linked with Hekate and who have influenced literature, this time Roman. Hekate’s associated with these Witches comes primarily from their use of the ritual known as the Drawing Down of the Moon but the Roman description of them has marked our classical view of Witches. Where are Circe is capricious and Medea outcast and bitter the most notable Witch of Thessaly Erichtho is old, twisted and the darkest of them all. Described as having breath that was like poison and wicked she lived around graveyards, gibbets and other locations, all of which we associate with Hekate, where she could gather body parts for her spells. The is described as old, haggard, and sacrilegious (the greatest crime in the eyes of the Romans) yet she was often called upon by great men to give council through her necromancy.
The Romans largely followed the same stylistic conventions that the Greeks did, in fact they often copied Greek statues, however it is their literary contribution which has influenced later interpretations the most. The written word was much easier to transport around Europe and the works of Ovid, Cicero and Lucan have been studied throughout the Medieval period and were revived during the Renaissance.
Crowley and the Crone-ing
It is perhaps because of her appearance in the classics that Hekate did not fade away into obscurity. Her association with the Witches of Thessaly, Medea and Circe gave the writers of the Renaissance and later times plenty of material to draw from and the most enduring image of Hekate is that born of Shakespeare’s Scottish Play. Although there is some debate as to whether Hekate was incorporated into the original play (many thanks to my friends from the moot for introducing me to this idea, I wasn’t aware of this debate when originally writing the talk) or was a later addition Her appearance alongside the Witches is so iconic that it is this form which is most recognisable.
She has been portrayed as everything from a woman dressed in dark rags; haggard and aged, to a dark etheric beauty but still the viewer intrinsically understands her Dark power and purpose. She capers alongside the dark and troublesome witches, alternatively praising their dark works against Macbeth and condemning them for not receiving Her blessing first.
And I, the mistress of your charms, The close contriver of all harms, Was never called to bear my part, Or show the glory of our art?
The writer (be it Shakespeare or some other) was undoubtedly influenced by the image of the Witches of Thessaly when he penned the three witches and their Goddess, and with that the stage is set and the association between Hekate, “evil” witchcraft and the haggard appearance of witches at midnight is brought forward into in the modern mindset. This meant that by the time that the philosophers and classical scholars of the 19th century, such as Ludwig Radermacher, Erwin Rohde and Robert Eisler, were writing on the subject the image portrayed by Shakespeare was at the forefront of their mind.
It is now that that Hekate’s visage becomes more fearsome as these men begin drawing parallels between Hekate and another figure from the Eleusinian Mysteries, Baubo. Baubo is the Greek Goddess of vulgar and off colour jokes, famous for flashing her genitalia at the Goddess Demeter in an attempt to cheer her. She is often depicted as a grotesque and appeared in many apotropaic contexts, similar to the way Sheila-na-nig features in British architecture. This apotropaic aspect led these scholars to place Baubo within Hekate’s entourage, alongside other spirits of the ancient world such as Gello, killer of unmarried women and infants, and Mormo, who would threaten and kill young children. As time has moved on this association became conflation and the attributes of Baubo became those of Hekate and a sense of fear was built up around Her and her association with the Dead.
The final nail in the coffin came when Aleister Crowley began to write of Her. His first work, the Invocation of Hecate, which is widely known and used by many modern devotees, speaks of a dark, blood-dripped Goddess with a tone of reverence and awe. He is fearful, yet reverent; horrified yet drawn to her and willing to give her worship. This was in 1905 but by the time he was writing his book Moonchild in 1929 his tone had dramatically changed and any positivity found within the Dark Goddess was gone;
… she is Hecate, a thing altogether of Hell, barren, hideous and malicious, the queen of death and evil witchcraft…Hecate is the crone, the woman past all hope of motherhood, her soul black with envy and hatred of happier mortals… Others may indeed be chaste unto Artemis, priestesses of a holy and ineffable rite; but with this exception, failure to attain the appointed goal brings them into the dark side of the moon, the cold and barren house of Hecate the accursed.
Crowley seems let willing to offer his soul to the Goddess or hold her eye for too long. She has become a Crone in every sense a caricature of her former self. It is not clear why Crowley changed his view of Hekate but his presentation of her stuck as his work was referred to and referenced by later occultists and the pioneers of modern Witchcraft and Pagan traditions.
Hekate in the New Age
I think the most iconic image associated with modern paganism today is the image of the Maiden, Mother and Crone. This Jungian model of womanhood is a problematic one, and a discussion within itself, but in short it presents the three stages of womanhood in terms of fertility and the ability to nurture life in the most biological sense of the word. The cycle begins with the burgeoning Maiden followed by the fruitful Mother and ending with the wizen old Crone, devoid of life but filled with wisdom. Pick up any new age book today or search the online lists of Goddesses who personification the Dark Moon or Crone will include Hekate. Type “Crone Goddess” into Google and the first search suggestion tacks “Hecate” on the end.
The Neo-Pagan Crone different from Crowley’s dark goddess of baneful magic filled hate for all things life, Hekate as the Crone is presented as a potentially more positive figure with any shadow influences being shown in the best possible light (sic). Broadly speaking in this context she is benign. She is dark, yes, and presented as old but these are representations of her wisdom and skill as the Goddess of Witches as well as her association with hidden knowledge about the occult and self.
Another way Hekate has been associated with the MMC model is as representing the all three of the aspects. Drawing on the ancient depictions of her She becomes represented in all three forms in a single image and a grand conflation. We have already mentioned how the Greeks portrayed their Gods and Goddesses as being ageless so this conflation is without historical basis. Even where Hekate is discussed or depicted alongside other Goddesses; such as Selene, Artemis, Persephone etc, the concept of depicted each face as a different age is a modern convention, not an ancient one.
Here the tone is of love and nurture but Crowley’s demonic Goddess lingers still and there is an undercurrent of fear amongst some in the pagan community. Her connection to evil deeds and daemons, which many misunderstand as being demons in a Christian context, are strong in the minds of many and I have been warned more than once that I am dealing with malicious forces which will destroy me just for the fun of it.
It can’t be overstated that Hekate is a powerful goddess who does not pull her punches. She is a goddess who forces her Devotees to face their fears and make changes in their lives to bring them to a better self and the process can be quite brutal at times. She is not, even in her most chthonic and fearful guise as the Queen of Hell, is willfully malicious and the only thing she intends to destroy is the devotees ego. She will knock you down, not because she can but because sometimes it is the only way we can grow.
She does not fit the bill of the benign mother goddess figure we are introduced in many New Age books and some people feel threatened by this because it does not fit in with what they are seeking from a Pagan Path. She threatens the desired sense of universal acceptance and love which often gets projected onto Pagan and Craft paths which I believe is a good thing. Those who find their fingers burned are generally those who are unwilling to provide the level of commitment to self-development and improvement that She demands. She does not administer punishment or judgment but she will force you to face the consequences of your actions, and she will make no move to soften the blows of errors of judgment. In that respect she is like a mother grizzly bear; protective and nurturing of her young in every way possible but is willing to let them learn the lessons of life the hard way.
I will come to talk about this is later weeks but I feel too many come to paganism seeking an outlet for some very unhealthy mindsets and behaviours and we just keep on providing validation after validation. Hekate will not stand for this, indeed, it is a common understanding amongst devotees and various magical practitioners that Hekate is one of the deities/spirits which have arisen in the last 10 years or so seeking to instil a revolution in the Western Mystery Traditions. Hekate has the ability to embody many different personas but also guide adherents towards the various mystery traditions she has been associated with.