Who is Hekate?
This article was originally
written for 'Pagan Dawn', the magazine of the UK Pagan Federation.
Who is Hekate? The search for an answer leads us on a strange journey of distortion and mystery that leads into the Underworld and back in search of wisdom. I have worked with Hekate for over seven years, and want to take this opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and stimulate debate around this most misunderstood of Goddesses.
Today Hekate is generally understood as a Crone goddess or ‘dark Mother.’ But if we look back to earlier time, Hekate is worshipped in a very different form. In Classical Greece Hekate was often grouped with Persephone and Demeter, but contrary to modern Pagan assumptions, this is no Maiden, Mother, and Crone trio. Demeter is obviously a mother, and Persephone becomes a wife, but Hekate is consistently represented as a young woman. In fact early Greek representations Hekate as a young Goddess of beauty & power, carrying a torch & wearing a headdress of stars.
Later She appears triple-formed, with three bodies standing back to back, probably so that she could look in all directions at once from the crossroads, but She is still far from the ‘Dark Crone’ of modern perceptions.
The image of a bright and youthful Goddess may be expresses in the name ‘Hekate’ which has several possible meanings. 'She who works Her will' is the most commonly accepted, but an alternative derivation, 'most shining one' is given some credence by the poet Sappho (630 BC), who describes Hekate as a handmaiden of Aphrodite, "shining of gold".
So how did this Maiden Goddess become a Crone? To try and unravel the mystery, we need to explore the history of Hekate.
Hekate originated in south-west Asia Minor, and became integrated into Greek religion around the seventh century BCE as the last surviving Titan except for Zeus. The Olympians 'adopted' Her after they had defeated the Titans, but She was clearly not of the same kind, & never lived amongst them. Hekate's power was still recognised: Zeus gave Her dominion over Heaven, Earth & Sea, & they alone shared the right to grant or withhold gifts from humanity. In these early days, Hekate was understood to have a variety of roles, the most important of which seem to have been as guardian against evil spirits and as a guide through difficult transitions. Hekate is typically represented as a Goddess of the liminal: She guards doorways and at crossroads and guides people through change. This ancient Hekate was worshipped as Goddess of abundance & eloquence who bestowed generous gifts upon those who honoured Her.
Hekate’s' best known role in Greek myth appears in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, written around the late seventh century BCE. Demeter’s beloved daughter Persephone, the goddess of spring, was playing in the meadows when Hades emerged from the Underworld and captured Her. Hekate knew what had happened:
"the tenderhearted...Hekate with the bright headband, who heard from Her cave".(Translation by Robert Von Rudloff)
Hekate visited Demeter carrying a torch, and revealed the truth. Together they went to try and rescue Persephone. It was finally agreed that Persephone would spend part of the year in the Underworld with Hades as His Queen and the rest on Earth with Demeter. Hekate would henceforth act as guide for Persephone on Her journeys between the worlds.
But Hekate's power was to fade. By the Classical Greek Period (500 to 300 BCE), Hekate is represented as a daughter of Zeus who rules the Underworld & the waning Moon. Her darker aspects become increasingly emphasized, so that by the forth century BCE Hekate was often portrayed as a fearsome figure, roaming the earth on moonless nights in the company of baying dogs and the spirits of those dead who were murdered or not given appropriate burial rites.
What is most notable about this shift in emphasis is that it is archived largely through misogynstic stories that began to circulate in Greece around the Fifth Century BC. Various literary sources at the time refer to the ‘Thessalian women’ as dangerously expert with magic and drugs. Medeia, who is referred to as a Priestess of Hekate, is often associated with the ‘Thessalian women’, and features in increasingly sensational stories. Ovid writes that Hekate could be conjured from darkness "with long howls", while female characters in both Euripedes play Medea and Theokritos’ second Idyll rely on Hekate for their magical powers. But the women in these works are stock characters and in successive accounts Hekate and Her associates become darker and more fantastic.
Although the male literary aristocracy wrote plays and poetry depicting Hekate as a ‘dark goddess’ there is little evidence that anyone was actually working with Hekate in this way. On the contrary, there is ample evidence that the common people understood Hekate as a positive force of good within the community.
Why would people present Hekate as menacing? Hekate certainly had dark aspects. Greek deities are generally described as being primarily ‘Olympian’ or ‘chthonic’. By this time Hekate was understood as a chthonic goddess, which in simple terms means ‘of the earth’: A homoerotic love spell dating from the third century describes Hekate as "Mistress Ruler of all mankind, all-dreadful one, bursting out of the Earth".
Chthonic deities had low-altars where offering were made into the ground, whereas Olympian deities altars were higher and the offerings made into the air. Chthonic deities generally dwelt beneath the earth and were concerned with the things of everyday life – fertility, childbirth, crops and death. The association of death and fertility might appear to the modern mind as a contradiction, but the two naturally go hand in hand with as powers of the earth.
Many of Hekate’s key roles involved private personal rituals: Rituals of fertility, childbirth, or death, invocations to Her as protector against evil spirits or as guide through difficult transitions. It is also likely that many of Her worshippers were women, especially given that in Ancient Greek society it was women who cared for the dead. It is not hard to imagine that women working alone with Hekate in a patriarchal culture during a time of literary misogyny might be seen as threatening.
Mystery surrounds Hekate. Her most famous role as a guide for Persephone reflect the a deeper truth that Hekate served a key role in the Eleusian Mysteries. In Mytilene on the eastern coast of the Aegean Sea were Temples of Demeter, where the women would go to the annual festival of Eleusis to celebrate fertility Rites. Hekate is depicted as the guardian of the doorway to the Sanctuary on a Greek vase found at Eleusis, and shown carrying torches in a sculpture just outside the Sanctuary. This may be evidence that Hekate acted as spiritual guide for the Initiates in the Mysteries, and my personal work with Hekate over the last few years has increasingly borne out Her role in mystical initiation.
Just as Hekate guides Persephone on Her journey between the worlds, so She guides the dead, and witches who seek to make the journey to the Other World.
In Virgil’s Aeneid Aeneas travels to the underworld with Sibyl of Cumae. It was Hekate who gave Sibyl responsibility for 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.
With this background the portrayal of Hekate as a ‘dark Goddess’ closely associated with witches becomes easier to understand. She is a pre-Olympian chthonic Goddess who is closely associated with Persephone, the Queen of the Dead, and has a key role in mysterious rituals involving liminal states. Hekate is patron to all who stand on the boundary between life & death, midwives, healers & witches. So the emphasis on Hekate’s dark aspects seems to have developed out of a combination of factors that included Her close association with women and the liminal within a culture that was increasingly misogynstic.
As the the Solar Gods rose to power, Hekate became increasingly demonized, until the Middle Ages reduced her to a parody of an evil crone. The Christian Church, & those it serves, always feared Her, for She has power they cannot comprehend. Hekate is an ancient deities from a primordial time before the Olympians & the Solar gods of the patriarchs.
Today there are several views of Hekate. Most people who know the name think of a version of the ‘evil crone’ Hekate, possibly with a few extra details tagged on from Shakespeare’s famous representation of Her in Macbeth. Pagans usually adopt a revised view: Hekate is a dark and terrifying Goddess of death, but that’s OK. Those who get a buzz from this Gothic image of Hekate even think it’s ‘cool’. But the perception remains the same: Hekate hangs around in graveyards on dark nights with a pack of baying hounds looking for lost souls.
But this distorted image originates in the twisted minds of those who fear Her power: Those sad souls who have lost their connection with the chthonic, who shun their own shadow, & fear what they do not understand.
Even though some emphasise Hekate as ‘wise crone’, rather than scary ‘Dark Goddess’, the fact remains that most modern pagans are drawing on a view of Hekate that resulted from hundreds of years of misogynstic distortion.
Part of the fault lies with the modern need to classify everything. An influential variety of psychologies find it convenient to allocate the three roles of Maiden Mother and Crone to a Goddess energy that is actually far more complex. In the original story of Demeter, Persephone and Hekate there is no Crone, but psycho-pagan theory requires that there is, and because of historical misrepresentation, Hekate fits the bill.
I don’t want to ‘whitewash’ Hekate. The Ancient Greek conception of divinity was almost certainly very different from ours, which tends to oversimplify. Greek deities had several roles, most of which were not unique to any particular God or Goddess. More confusingly for us, these roles sometimes appear contradictory, and every Greek deity has both beneficial and destructive functions, which are often paired opposites: Apollo, for example, is both healer and a sender of plagues, while the Late Greek Hekate is a guardian against evil and also invoked in curses. The ancients did not share the modern obsession with consistency and there is evidence for an Archaic 'irrational' mode of thought which does not strive for one precise conclusion, but offers a medley of possibilities.
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 artists & seers which can also bring the madness of lunacy: Hekate's power can poison as well as heal.
Hekate knows death & does not fear it, for death is a transition that brings renewal through the fertility of decomposition. But our culture denies Her realms; death is a taboo subject, & the old are hidden away.
So has Hekate aged, or is it wrong to understand Her as a Crone Goddess? If the way we perceive and worship deities helps to create who they are, then Hekate has changed, because She has been understood as ‘Dark Crone’ for hundreds of years. But if Hekate exists as an eternal independent entity, then presumably She remains the bright Maiden.
Either conclusion seems simplistic. I believe that there is a spiritual essence that that is interpreted by human consciousness as ‘Hekate’. We portray that essence in a way that makes sense to us, so how Hekate appears at any time to any individual tells us far more about that person and their culture than it does about Hekate.
Hekate brings us to face death and change, which our culture finds terrifying, hence we see Her as ‘Dark Crone’. The Archaic Greeks saw Her as Maiden, because as spiritual guide She made sense to them in that form, and perhaps they did nor fear death as moderns do. The spiritual essence that we know as Hekate is like the light within a lamp with coloured glass: The colours that we see are from the glass, not the light itself.
Hekate is much more than Dark Crone: It is Hekate who guides the Soul and the Seeker, Hekate who blesses a child's birth and Hekate who brings abundance to those who honour Her.
If you have any feedback or information please e-mail me.