Hekate moves in her own way.
After posting my opinion on Hekate as a Goddess of Witchcraft and that as such may be invoked for political reasons, thinking that I should write about Hekate as the Goddess of Witchcraft I found I was invited to give a talk to the members of Morley Moon in West Yorkshire on Hekate as the Goddess of Witchcraft.
I am not the worlds greatest speaker, but what I lack in presentation skills I make up for in passion and research so I always make my notes and materials available after a talk in the form of a post. So without further ado I will skip the usually introductory preamble about Her origin, parentage and other interesting information and get right into the heart of the matter.
Goddess of Witchcraft
The association of Hekate, Witches and the practice of Witchcraft does not begin with the capering of Shakespeare’s Witches but her appearance in the Renaissance classic has certainly gone a long way to filter the modern imagination about this role. In the sources she has always had an association with Crossroads, graveyards and caves as passageways to the underworld. Her association with witchcraft really began with the Roman Empire but even in the older Greek myths she was associated with herbs, both creative and baneful, and the women that practiced these arts. Some of these women were healers and midwives, others were witches and sorceresses, but their stories all add to the tapestry which is shows Hekate as the Goddess of Witchcraft.
“ She [the witch Kirke] sprinkled round about her evil drugs and poisonous essences, and out of Erebos and Chaos called Nox (Night) and the Di Nocti (Gods of Night) and poured a prayer with long-drawn wailing cries to Hecate. The woods (wonder of wonders!) leapt away, a groan came from the ground, the bushes blanched, the spattered sward was soaked with gouts of blood, stones brayed and bellowed, dogs began to bark, black snakes swarmed on the soil and ghostly shapes of silent spirits floated through the air.”
Ovid in his Metamorphose book 10
Circe (or Kirke) is described by Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century BCE as the daughter of Hekate and King Aeetes and was a sorceress renowned for her familiarity with powerful spells and magic. As indicated by the opening text she was said to have employed baleful plants in her spells, as well as conjurations and invocations to Hekate and as the aunt of Medea, who we will cover next, it is often implied that she learned them from Hekate herself.
The most famous portrayal of Circe is as the ruler of a magical island encountered by the hero Odysseus in his long journey home. Circe, ruler of her own house and island, was distrustful of men and would transform any that strayed onto her island home into pigs. Odysseus was able to avoid that fate by threatening Circe, causing her to drop her potions and return all the remaining pigs back in to men. Circe’s other role in the Odyssey, and the reason for his visit to the island beyond the interesting diversion in of taking Circe as his lover, is to instruct Odysseus on using a particular Oracle of the Dead, a necessity should the Hero wish to discover the cause of his misfortunes. Again, the knowledge of how to use this Oracle has been given to Circe by Hekate, touching I the necromancy that is often associated with Her.
Following the Diodorus Siculus genealogy Medea is Hekate’s second daughter by Aeetes, though others which place Circe and Aeetes as brother and sisters with Helios as the divine parent of Circe make Medea her niece. In either case Medea is described as having received her knowledge of herbs, magic and necromancy directly from Hekate. Reading from Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica;
“[Argos, nephew of Medea, to the Argonauts:] ’There is a girl [Medea] living in Aeetes’ palace whom the goddess Hekate has taught to handle with extraordinary skill all the magic herbs that grow on dry land or in running water. With these she can put out a raging fire, she can stop rivers as they roar in spate, arrest a star, and check the movement of the sacred moon.”
Like Circe, Medea has an encounter with a Hero of Greece but whereas Circe has a sweet encounter with Odysseus which ended peacefully Medea’s tale is much longer and ends in tragedy and betrayal. Medea is often presented as the villain of the piece, a foreigner woman with knowledge of sorcery and baneful herbs, though all she does is through love of Jason. First she aids him in his search for the Golden Fleece by giving him magical instruction and potions to overcome the guardians of the Fleece.
“[Medea prays to Hekate]: And yet I wish he [Jason] had been spared. Yes Sovran Lady Hekate, this is my prayer. Let him live to reach his home.” “[Medea to Jason:]There, kill a ewe and after heaping up a pure over the pit, sacrifice it whole, with a libation of honey from the hive and prayers to Hekate, Perses’ only daughter (mounogenes). Then, when you have invoked the goddess duly, withdraw from the pyre.”
Then she joins the Argonauts in the reminder of their quest on the condition that he marry her. The journey starts in misfortune, with death of Medea’s brothers leading to the voyage home being cursed with a similar his fortune to that experienced by Odysseus in the Odyssey. Like Odysseus the couple and their companions visit Circe and her island as they attempt to release a miasma associated with their escape.
The Witches of Thessaly
Thessaly is a land long associated with Sorcery and Witchcraft with the association beginning with Medea herself. On returning to Jason’s home she is said to have rejuvenated the life of Jason’s aged father through her knowledge of planets and magic and from here the image of Thessaly being associated with pharmaka and witchcraft grew and grew.
The Greek word Pharmakis and Latin word Venefica both mean witchcraft or witch. The names are applied to both men and women who, according to the sources, are approached by men of power to predict or influence the outcome of mundane affairs of war and politics. Here are many references to seers and witches throughout Latin classical writings but the most well known appear in the works of Horace and Apuleius. The seeress Erictho was said to both skilled and fearsome in her abilities, and though she aids the great men that approach her aid is not pleasant in nature, involving necromancy and corpses. More often than not these writers describe acts of magic taking place in the graveyard or upon a recent battlefield where death is fresh and strong.
Whilst they are treated with respect they are also treated with fear, though the physical descriptions used are not always the most flattering possible. It is from the Roman authors that the a-typical image of the crone and hag emerge in association with Witchcraft. The fear of the power of the Witches of Thessaly was extended into a fear of their appearance.
The Witches of Thessaly are associated with Hekate through a number of different links, none more recognisable that the ritual of Drawing Down the Moon. As a lunar Goddess and part of the Trivia-Diana, and her own role as a Goddess of Witchcraft Hekate is said to have taught the ritual to Her Priestess Medea when then passed it on to the Witches of Thessaly, and indeed this ability was seen as a trademark of a Which from Thessaly, or of someone who had trained under one. The author of the Argonautica suggests that by drawing the moon from the sky was an attempt by the Witch to work her craft hidden from mortal sight whereas Sarah Iles Johnston suggests in her book Restless Dead that the act of drawing the moon closer to the earth was to aid their search for herbs and plants during the full moon.
As Selene cries to the Hekate’s priestess Medea in the Argonautica
`How many times … have you [the witch Medea ] disturbed me with your incantations, making the night moonless so that you might practise your beloved witchcraft undisturbed.”
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4.55
Gale and Galinthias
Gale the Witch is referred to by Aelian in his book On Animals as “a dealer in spells and a sorceress (Pharmakis)” describing her as being “incontinent” in nature (that is….) and holding if abnormal sexual desires. For her transgressions against her Goddess and her sex, she was transformed into a land-marten or polecat, an animal Aelian describes as evil.
Antoninus Liberalis refers to another Polecat in his book, Metamorphoses. Galinthias the Nurse was punished by Hera and the Moiria after she distracted their efforts to withhold childbirth from Alkmene, mother of Herakles. As in this transformation Galinthias is described as being forced to live in dark crannies, mating in “grotesque” ways as “she is mounted through the ears and gives birth by bringing forth her young through the throat” though this is probably better taken as misunderstandings of how polecat carry their young from one place to another. After her transformation, according to Antoninus Liberalis, Galinthias is taken by Hekate as a sacred animal.
Both of these women are Pharmakis, concerned with magic spells and childbirth and are linked to Hekate in their punishment for transgressions against the Gods. Both writers portray the creature, and by extension the transformed women, in a very negative light, making much of the pungent musk of the animal, its preference for small dark places and its polygamous nature. This is consistent with other cultural interpretations of an animal sometimes known as the fowlcat.
PGM and Curse Tables
In addition to the characters of the myths and legends there is the archaeological and literary evidence of Hekate being invoked as part of magical practices.
The Green Magical Papyri or PGM are a collection of magical spells representing a blending of Greek, Egyptian and Chaldean magical practices and beliefs compiled between the 1st cen BCE and 2nd cen CE. They are best described as the magical manual of a jobbing sorcerer and represent both his interests and the interests of his customers. Operations for increasing magical power, love curses, binding spells etc fill the papyrus fragments but relevant to today’s discussion are the 14 spells which invoke Hekate either directly, by epithet or in conflation with another Goddess including Selene, Persephone and Demeter.
The operations are largely referred to as being ‘necromancy” because they involve the death of an offering, in one case a cat in order to create an idol/talisma dedicated to a conflated deity known as Hermekate, or binding the spirits of the dead to enact spells such as love bindings, curses of sickness and slander. There are also spells that are intended to avert evil and death as well as to ensure victory. one interesting instructs the magician on how to coerce a goddess bearing two torches, implied to be either Hekate or Persephone but only named through epithet, to fulfil a petition by extinguishing her torches and promising to re-light them on delivering the desired outcome. Operations are either to be conducted at the graveside, and often the remains of spells, including lead tablets, are discovered in the graves of people who died violently or very young, presumably before they could fulfil socially accepted norms such as marriage and child bearing. These spirits are particularly associated with Hekate and are referred to as the Restless Dead.
Come, Hekate, of the three ways, you who with your fire-breathing phantoms oversee the dreaded paths and harsh enchantments. Come Hekate, I invoke you with those who have untimely perished and those heroes who have died wifeless and childless, whose souls hiss wildly with yearning hearts.”
Excerpt PGM IV 2708-2784 (2714-2734)
The anger and force behind those unfulfilled souls are part of the power behind these spells.
Another example of Hekate appearing in magical operations are in relation to curse tablets or defixio’s. These spells are usually incised on a sheet of lead, which was rolled up and usually hammer through with at least one nail, presumably the same one used to inscribe the spell. The spell was then placed in a sacred or liminal space such as a well or hot spring, as is the case in Bath, in graves or in the walls of a temple in much the same way petitioners to the Western Wall in Jerusalem are known to do.
A Greek example of a curse tablet can be found in a curse excavated from the burial of a young woman from Piraeus in Greece which calls forth curses upon Demetrios and Phanagora “…in blood and in ashes, with all the dead, Nor will the next four-year cycle release you.” The pair appear to have been tavenkeepers and were possibly business rivals of the people casting the curse, which calls uping Hekate Chthonia and Hermes Chthonios and in addition to a binding calls down bad luck in gambling games, a mainstay of alehouses throughout the ages.
The Bologna Defixio invokes the Mother of Witches, depicted as a snake haired figure, to bind a man called Porcellus who is portrayed as being bound and mummified beneath her feet. Part of the curse reads “Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …” and it indicates that Porcellus was a veterinarian of some kind so it may be possible that he was responsible for the death of an important animal, this causing the hatred of the creator of the Defixio.
“Hekate Brimo . . . hearing his words from the abyss, came up . . . She was garlanded by fearsome snakes that coiled themselves round twigs of oak; the twinkle of a thousand torches lit the scene; and hounds of the underworld barked shrilly all around her.”
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 3. 1194 ff :
Curse tablets represent the magical will of everyday people within the Roman Empire, more so than the PGM in some ways. Lead was a cheap and readily available material which could be easily worked by anyone who was literate and the spells don’t appear to have involved costly offerings of incense or other forms of sacrifice. The lead also offered an apparently imperishable surface. Even if the petition could afford papyrus and parchment it would fade and degrade over time, weakening the efficiency of the spell. Even if the person for whom the tablet was created wasn’t literate and it could be written by a magician or priest with the words and imagery of the client will have been incorporated in to standard magical forms.
In addition to talking about the women and practice of ancient times I also covered subjects like Deipion, the various forms of Hekate’s Might (one of which is referenced to in my post “The Rite of Heakte” and others which I will pick a part in another post), and my own personal practices such as the Ephesian Compass and I talked about the various modern groups which constitute the modern Heketean Community. We also talked about Hekate’s relationship with the Moon, Spirits and Daemon’s of the air and sublunar realm and using scrying with bones and building relationships with spirits. All of these elements build, layer upon layer, with other things unmentioned in any depth to confirm the Hekate as a Goddess of Witchcraft; to the discomfort of many, particularly those who feel uncomfortable with the idea that both Hekate and Witchcraft are political in nature.