Why do I do this to myself? Why? Why? Why?
What started out as a bit of a twee tumbler challenge to rewrite a favourite bit of Mythology ended up being an exercise in challenging my interpretation of Hesiod’s Theogony as handed to me by various mass market sources.
The theory of Hesiod as a singing peasant, or at least a noble who wishes to highlight and elevate this social class, is a strong one amongst many. Coupled with the idea that the length and disruptive nature of the passage, which is best described as being a hymn due to its form, length and structure, is a display of either family or personal devotion and the so called biographical interpretation is a rather neat one which answers three important “why” questions;
- Why Hekate?
- Why is the passage so long and detailed?
- Why is it located in the middle of the poem?
As for the first, the explanation is simply that Hekate is the Goddess most venerated because she is the personal deity of Hesiod and his kin, as evidenced by the naming of his brother Perseus, thus she is deserving of such recognition.
Secondly, if the first is true then it is understandable that the personal praise of a beloved Goddess could become a hymodic in nature, explaining the length and detail accorded to Hekate throughout. The explanation runs that Hesiod seeks to promote either a regional or personal cult to the Goddess to the audience to further her appeal across the pan-Hellenic world by presenting Her as the Goddess of the Everyman, even as Hesiod attempts to present himself in the same manner.
Finally, as the last born Titan Hekate appears in a rational chronological order within the text however the strength of devotion and desire to elevate her status is so strong that Hesiod has chosen to disrupt the flow of the poem to include it.
Now I will admit that this is a rather nice package, and it is one that I have presented to people in both this blog and talks but it is always good to challenge your understandings of familiar concepts and there are a couple of issues with the bibliographical interpretation.
- There is no really strong evidence that Hesiod did hold personal veneration for Hekate. The statement assumes a lot about a historical figure.
- If we undermine the idea that the hymn represents personal devotion we immediately eliminate the possibility that the length and detail are explained away by the same. Hesiod the Everyman is not in evidence, particularly given the time he spent in the royal houses and honours he received from them, and beyond his hymn there is no evidence that Hekate was considered the Goddess of such either.
- Similarly, if there is not no reason to honour Hekate above all others there is no reason to hitch her star to the centre of the piece and significantly disrupt the flow. Even if you want to hold to the idea of personal devotion the location of the hymn can still be questioned because she could have easily been included in the opening Hymn to the Muses at the beginning of Theogony.
But What Now?
It’s always good to challenge your understandings of concepts but there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The biographical explanation is weak on examination, and results from a rather old school interpretation of the character and identity of Hesiod which is increasingly unsupportable. That being said, there is no reason to devalue the importance of the Hymn to Hekate, particularly if an alternative interpretation can be found. Any alternative interpretation has to readdress the three above questions and some of the more recent hypotheses not only do they address the issues better than the biographical one, they do so in a way which magnifies Hekate to a whole new level.
There are a number of different proposals from more recent scholarship and whilst I could try and summarise them I would do it badly, so I would encourage the dear reader to read The Narrative Voice in the Theogony of Hesiod by Kathryn Stoddard (pages 6-15) for themselves. This section is handily available to you via Google books here.
What I will do is pick up on one or two elements which particularly jumped out at me as I read it, in particular Hekate’s role as a Wilful Goddess and her relationship between the old and new orders of the Titans and Olympians.
Hymn to the Wilful Goddess
For those in the back that may have missed it, ancient Greece was not always a single homogenised state. It was a collection of city states which were more often in conflict with each other than in harmony. The concept of a pan-Hellenic identity did not really start to emerge until around the time of the 7th – 8th Century BCE and Theogony was likely Hesiod’s response to this emerging identity. All the gods and concepts contained within Theogony would have existed around the Greek world, but each region would have had identified the gods involved slightly differently, holding some in higher veneration than others. Hesiod wanted to create a level of unity, and where once there were many myths telling of the birth and lives of the God’s Theogony presented a single explanation for the creation of all things from Chaos, the rise of the races of Gods and the eventual succession of Zeus. So successful was he that it is Hesiod’s Theogony that we teach in school today.
Having said that, Hesiod didn’t create his Theogony out of thin air, if he had it wouldn’t have been so readily accepted or easily preserved for posterity. The names, motifs and stories had to be consistent and recognisable across the disparate city states and one of the explanations for the content and duration of the Hymn to Hekate revolves around this point. In particular the proponents highlight the following passage as evidence that Hekate was not simply a deity of local importance but was actually a Pan Hellenic Goddess without whom sacrifice was doomed to fail.
“ For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich sacrifices and prays for flavor according to custom, he calls upon Hecate. Great honour comes full easily to him whose prayers the goddess receives favourably, and she bestows wealth upon him; for the power surely is with her. For as many as were born of Earth and Ocean amongst all these she has her due portion. ”
According to the theory Hekate is presented as a pan-Hellenic deity who, in one form or another, was invoked by all men participating in sacrifice as a standard part of the ritual form. No sacrifice within the Greek would could conceivably take place without reference to her because without the aid of Hekate the petition would not reach the ear of the Gods. It is from this ability to decide whether or not a request is fulfilled the term “wilful” is drawn from as the interpretation relies heavily on the etymological explanation of the word ἐκητι as meaning ‘by the will of’.
This is not too dissimilar to the neo-platonic concept of Hekate as an intermediary deity associated with the realm of the Moon, where she ruled over the daemons who carried communications between men, within the realm of Earth, and Gods, located in the realm of the Sun.
The remaining portion of the hymn also goes some way to supporting the “wilful” nature of Hekate, indicating that not only was it in her power to allow or deny a petition to pass to the ears of the God by her own desire and opinion but that she had the ability to remove the favours once granted should she so wish. As Theogony says;
“Easily the glorious goddess gives great catch, and easily she takes it away as soon as seen, if so she will.”
If it is the case that Hekate already held a pan-Hellenic identity that could serve as a point on which to unite the people of Greece it makes sense that her identity and presence within the poem is highlighted by an poet who was striving to create such an identity. Even though the concept of Hekate as wilful, even capricious, goddess isn’t one that might immediately resonate with the modern devotees, it is entirely consistent with the Green understanding of the personalities of the Gods. Lets put these perhaps uncomfortable notions to one side for the moment, but don’t discard them as they are relevant to some of the other scholarly opinions regarding the role of Hekate within the wider poem.
Hymn of Transition
The placement of the hymn is a strange one. It appears roughly at the halfway point in the poem overall and at the end of the genealogy of the race of the Titans. Although there are other deities born of the Titans following this episode in a chronological sequence Hekate is the last Titan to be born prior to the rise of the Olympians and the ascent of Zeus to the role of rule of the Gods. In a sense Hekate becomes a transition point between the old order, in the form of the Titans, and the rise of the new, Olympian order. Hekate becomes a representative of Her race, summing up all that went before whilst casting her into a bridging role which was acceptable and honoured by Zeus and therefore the Greeks as a whole.
Of all the Titanesses Hekate might well be compared with her ultimate Grandmother. Gaia is the first female power to be mentioned in the cosmology that Hesiod is spinning and one which spends a lot of her time in opposition with the masculine principle, as represented by Zeus. Even though she eventually enters the Olympian sphere it is in a weakened form with many of her aspects, such as role as a oracular goddess, passed on to other deities. In comparison Zeus not only honours and upholds the dominion accorded to Hekate as a Titaness he enriches them.
In truth, of all the Gods it is Hekate which most closely resembles Zeus in her range of powers and honours and some scholars have seen her as representing all the benevolent functions of Zeus in a female form. As a goddess upon who all levels of men, be they kings or paupers, can prevail upon to enrich their lives she is performing a similar role to that of Zeus, who bestows honours and dominion to those gods and men he finds favour with. Case in point; Hekate herself.
That’s not to suggest that Hekate’s relationship with Zeus is one born of duty or subservience due because of these honours. Although she is described in some mythologies as his daughter this kind of relationship is not evidenced in Theogony. Instead there is the suggestion that she has received confirmation of her due because she has given Zeus something that he needed – a connection to and therefore ability to superseded the Titans. To quote Boedeker;
“Moreover, she does not even serve Zeus’ interests, like Styx (397-98) or Gaia (883-85). All Hecate does is accept the timai [honor] Zeus adds to her original lot, without losing any of her earlier honors (421-28). We might conclude that somehow Zeus needs her more than she needs him, although undoubtedly his own power and prestige are increased when he bestows timê on another god.”
D Boedeker Hecate: A Transfunctional Goddess in the Theogony?
I have rather enjoyed following through on the sources highlighted in Stoddart’s piece, such as Jenny Straus Clay’s The Hecate of the Theogony, as far as I can (not being a fluent reader of French and German was something of a hindrance) because it gave me the opportunity to reassess my understanding of my favourite piece of mythology. The biggest blow to my understanding of the Hymn was having to regretfully give up the biographical explanation as to the hymns form and existence. It is a really neat package, but easy doesn’t always equal right.
I will be honest, I rather like the suggestion that perhaps the Olympians needed Hekate rather than the other way around, but I doubt Hesiod was trying to make a statement which was that strong. Rather, I think Hekate presented a convenient point at which to hang the transition from old order to the new and that the hymn like quality was a poetic device to both bring the attention of the audience back to the story and create a pan-Hellenic unity amongst what might have been a divergent audience. Whether Hesiod was doing this from the perspective of personal devotion, poetic aesthetics or even because of the politics of culture or social structure in Greece at the time the end result is a hymn which presents a strong aspect of Hekate on which to draw.
My opinions about the importance of the hymn to modern devotees hasn’t really changed all that much if truth be told. Looking at Hekate through the lenses of scholars such as Boedeker has shown her to me in a different light, but it is a light which has been magnified through the confirmation of my own personal bias. The description of Hekate as a pan-Hellenic goddess, with the power to ensure the voices of men might be heard by the Gods and that her ability to bestow honour and glory set her on a level with Zeus himself, enriched my understanding of Her in new and interesting ways.