Hecate n : (Greek mythology) Greek goddess of fertility who later became associated with Persephone as goddess of the underworld and protector of witches
EtymologyFrom the Greek hekatos (far-shooting), Hecate meaning "she who has power far off."
The earliest known monument is a small terracotta found in Athens, with a dedication to Hekate (Plate XXXVIII. a), in writing of the style of the sixth century. The goddess is seated on a throne with a chaplet bound round her head; she is altogether without attributes and character, and the only value of this work, which is evidently of quite a general type and gets a special reference and name merely from the inscription, is that it proves the single shape to be her earlier from, and her recognition at Athens to be earlier than the Persian invasion. The second-century traveller Pausanias stated that Hecate was first depicted in triplicate by the sculptor Alkamenes in the Greek Classical period of the late fifth century. Greek anthropomorphic conventions of art resisted representing her with three faces: a votive sculpture from Attica of the third century BC (illustration, left), shows three single images against a column; round the column of Hecate dance the Charites. Some classical portrayals, such as the one to the right, show her as a triplicate goddess holding a torch, a key, and a serpent. Others continue to depict her in singular form.
In Egyptian-inspired Greek esoteric writings connected with Hermes Trismegistus, and in magical papyri of Late Antiquity she is described as having three heads: one dog, one serpent, and one horse. Hecate's triplicity is expressed in a more Hellene fashion, with three bodies instead, where she is shown taking part in the battle with the Titans in the vast frieze of the great Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin. In the Argolid, near the shrine of the Dioscuri, Pausanias saw the temple of Hecate opposite the sanctuary of Eileithyia; "The image is a work of Scopas. This one is of stone, while the bronze images opposite, also of Hekate, were made respectively by Polycleitus and his brother Naucydes, son of Mothon. (Description of Greece ii.22.7)
A fourth century BC marble relief from Crannon in Thessaly was dedicated by a race-horse owner. It shows Hecate, with a hound beside her, placing a wreath on the head of a mare. Her attendant and animal representation is of a bitch, and the most common form of offering was to leave meat at a crossroads. Sometimes dogs themselves were sacrificed to her (a good indication of her non-Hellenic origin, as dogs along with donkeys, very rarely played this role in genuine Greek ritual).
In Argonautica, a third century BC Alexandrian epic based on early materials, Jason placates Hecate in a ritual prescribed by Medea, her priestess: bathed at midnight in a stream of flowing water, and dressed in dark robes, Jason is to dig a pit and offer a libation of honey and blood from the throat of a sheep, which was set on a pyre by the pit and wholly consumed as a holocaust, then retreat from the site without looking back (Argonautica, iii). All these elements betoken the rites owed to a chthonic deity.
MythologyDespite popular belief, Hecate was not originally a Greek goddess. The roots of Hecate seem to be in the Carians of Asia Minor. She appears in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and in Hesiod's Theogony, where she is promoted strongly as a great goddess. The place of origin of her cult is uncertain, but it is thought that she had popular cult followings in Thrace. In Thrace she played a role similar to that of lesser-Hermes, namely a governess of liminal points and the wilderness, bearing little resemblance to the night-walking crone she became. Additionally, this led to her role of aiding women in childbirth and the raising of young men.
There was a fane sacred to Hecate as well in the precincts of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, where the eunuch priests, megabyzi, officiated. Hesiod records that she was among the offspring of Gaia and Uranus, the Earth and Sky. In Theogony he ascribed to Hecate such wide-ranging and fundamental powers, that it is hard to resist seeing such a deity as a figuration of the Great Goddess, though as a good Olympian Hesiod ascribes her powers as the "gift" of Zeus:
- ''"Hecate whom Zeus the son of Cronos honoured above all. He gave her splendid gifts, to have a share of the earth and the unfruitful sea. She received honour also in starry heaven, and is honoured exceedingly by the deathless gods.... The son of Cronos did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both in earth, and in heaven, and in sea".
Her gifts to humans are all-encompassing, Hesiod tells:
- "Whom she will she greatly aids and advances: she sits by worshipful kings in judgement, and in the assembly whom her will is distinguished among the people. And when men arm themselves for the battle that destroys men, then the goddess is at hand to give victory and grant glory readily to whom she will. Good is she also when men contend at the games, for there too the goddess is with them and profits them: and he who by might and strength gets the victory wins the rich prize easily with joy, and brings glory to his parents. And she is good to stand by horsemen, whom she will: and to those whose business is in the grey discomfortable sea, and who pray to Hecate and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker, easily the glorious goddess gives great catch, and easily she takes it away as soon as seen, if so she will. She is good in the byre with Hermes to increase the stock. The droves of kine and wide herds of goats and flocks of fleecy sheep, if she will, she increases from a few, or makes many to be less".
Hecate was carefully attended:
- "For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich sacrifices and prays for favour 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".''
Hesiod emphasizes that Hecate was an only child, the daughter of Asteria, a star-goddess who was the sister of Leto, the mother of Artemis and Apollo. Grandmother of the three cousins was Phoebe the ancient Titaness who personified the moon. Hecate was a reappearance of Phoebe, a moon goddess herself, who appeared in the dark of the moon.
His inclusion and praise of Hecate in Theogony is troublesome for scholars in that he seems fulsomely to praise her attributes and responsibilities in the ancient cosmos even though she is both relatively minor and foreign. It is theorized that Hesiod’s original village had a substantial Hecate following and that his inclusion of her in the Theogony was his own way to boost the home-goddess for unfamiliar hearers.
As her cult spread into areas of Greece it presented a conflict, as Hecate’s role was already filled by other more prominent deities in the Greek pantheon, above all by Artemis, and by more archaic figures, such as Nemesis.
There are two versions of Hecate that emerge in Greek myth. The lesser role integrates Hecate while not diminishing Artemis. In this version,
As a triple goddess, she sometimes appears with three heads-one each of a dog, horse, and bear or of dog, serpent, and lion.
It was asserted in Malleus Malificarum (1486) that Hecate was revered by witches who adopted parts of her mythos as their goddess of sorcery. Because Hecate had already been much maligned by the late Roman period, Christians found it easy to vilify her image. Thus were all her creatures also considered "creatures of darkness"; however, the history of creatures such as ravens, night-owls, snakes, scorpions, asses, bats, horses, bears, and lions as her creatures is not always a dark and frightening one. (Rabinovich 1990)
The yew has strong associations with death as well as rebirth. A poison prepared from the seeds was used on arrows , and yew wood was commonly used to make bows and dagger hilts. The potion in Hecate's cauldron contains 'slips of yew'. Yew berries carry Hecate's power, and can bring wisdom or death. The seeds are highly poisonous, but the fleshy, coral-colored 'berry' surrounding it is not.
Many other herbs and plants are associated with Hecate, including garlic, almonds, lavender, thyme, myrrh, mugwort, cardamon, mint, dandelion, hellebore, yarrow and lesser celandine. Several poisons and hallucinogens are linked to Hecate, including belladonna, hemlock, mandrake, aconite (known as hecateis), and the opium poppy. Many of Hecate's plants were those that can be used shamanistically to achieve varyings states of consciousness.
PlacesWild areas, forests, borders, city walls and doorways, crossroads, and graveyards are all associated with Hecate at various times.
It is often stated that the moon is sacred to Hecate. This is argued against by Farnell (1896, p.4):
- ''Some of the late writers on mythology, such as Cornutus and
Cleomedes, and some of the modern, such as Preller and the writer
Lexicon and Petersen, explain the three figures as symbols of the
three phases of the moon. But very little can be said in favour of
this, and very much against it. In the first place, the statue of
represented Hekate Επιπυργιδια, whom the Athenian of that period
regarded as the warder of the gate of his Acropolis, and as
associated in this particular spot with the Charites, deities
of the life that blossoms and yields fruit. Neither in this place
nor before the door of the citizen's house did she appear as a
- We may also ask, why should a divinity who was sometimes regarded as the moon, but had many other and even more important connexions, be given three forms to mark the three phases of the moon, and why should Greek sculpture have been in this solitary instance guilty of a frigid astronomical symbolism, while Selene, who was obviously the moon and nothing else, was never treated in this way? With as much taste and propriety Helios might have been given twelve heads.''
However in the magical papyri of Greco-Roman Egypt there survive several hymns which identify Hecate with Selene and the moon, extolling her as supreme Goddess, mother of the gods. In this form, as a threefold goddess, Hecate continues to have followers in some neopagan religions.
FestivalsHecate was worshipped by both the Greeks and the Romans who had their own festivals dedicated to her. According to Ruickbie (2004:19) the Greeks observed two days sacred to Hecate, one on the 13th of August and one on the 30th of November, whilst the Romans observed the 29th of every month as her sacred day.
Cross-cultural parallelsThe figure of Hecate can often be associated with the figure of Isis in Egyptian myth, mainly due to her role as sorceress. Both were symbols of liminal points. Some scholars ultimately compare her to the Virgin Mary. She is also comparable to Hel of Nordic myth in her underworld function.
Before she became associated with Greek mythology, she had many similarities with Artemis (wilderness, and watching over wedding ceremonies) and Hera (child rearing and the protection of young men or heroes, and watching over wedding ceremonies).
Hecate in literatureHecate is a character in William Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth, which was first performed circa 1605; she commands the Three Witches, although whether she is a witch, a demon or a goddess is not known. There is some evidence to suggest that the character and the scenes or portions thereof in which she appears (Act III, Scene v, and a portion of Act IV, Scene i) were not written by Shakespeare, but were added during a revision by Thomas Middleton, who used material from his own play The Witch, which was produced in 1615. Most modern texts of Macbeth indicate the interpolations.
William Blake portrayed Hecate in a number of his paintings and poems.
In popular culture
- Hecate figures in the novel The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hecate is often invoked by witches such as Willow Rosenberg and particularly Amy Madison during their spells. When Willow visits Angel in the Angel episode "Orpheus," she rambles mindlessly about Wesley for a moment before commenting "For the love of Hecate, somebody stop me."
- In the first season of Charmed Hecate is the Queen of the Underworld who comes to earth every 200 years to find an innocent man and put him under her spell so she can create a demonic spawn. She must marry the innocent man in a sanctified wedding before impregnating herself. Her child would look human on the outside but would be evil on the inside. Her spell can only be broken by a declaration of true love and a sealed kiss. A fourteenth century Italian dagger is the only way to vanquish Hecate and her demonic companions back to the underworld. She is showed with horns, old hands and long, sharp nails.
- Hecate also appears in Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron voiced by Cree Summer. She is referred to as the Queen of Witches. Hellboy ends up battling Hecate herself, who has been watching him for some time and desires him to embrace his true destiny: one that includes the destruction of mankind. She appears in a serpentine form.
- In the anime series Shakugan no Shana, Hecate is the name of the supreme leader of Bal Masqué. Her exact title is Itadaki no Kura (literally: Supreme Throne).
- Breakcore artist Rachel Kozak performs as Hecate.
- Burkert, Walter, 1985. Greek Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) Published in the UK as Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical, 1987. (Oxford: Blackwell) ISBN 0-631-15624-0.
- Lewis Richard Farnell, (1896). "Hecate in Art", The Cults of the Greek States. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
- Johnston, Sarah Iles, (1990). Hekate Soteira: A Study of Hekate's Role in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature.
- Johnston, Sarah Iles, (1991). Restless Dead: Encounters Between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. ISBN 0-520-21707-1
- Mallarmé, Stephane, (1880). Les Dieux Antiques, nouvelle mythologie illustrée.
- Johnston, Sarah Iles. Hekate Soteira: A Study of Hekate's Role in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature. 1990.
- Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. 1951.
- Rabinovich,Yakov. The Rotting Goddess. 1990. A work which views Hekate from the perspective of Mircea Eliade's archetypes and substantiates its claims through cross-cultural comparisons. The work has been sharply criticized by Classics scholars, some dismissing Rabinowitz as a neo-pagan.
- Ruickbie, Leo. Witchcraft Out of the Shadows: A Complete History. Robert Hale, 2004.
- Myths of the Greek Goddess Hecate
- Frequently Asked Questions about Hekate
- Encyclopaedia Britanica 1911: "Hecate"
- Hekate: Guardian at the Gate
- The Rotting Goddess by Yakov Rabinovich, complete book included in the anthology "Junkyard of the Classics" published under the pseudonym Ellipsis Marx.
- Theoi Project, Hecate Classical literary sources and art
- Hecate in Early Greek Religion
- Hekate in Greek esotericism: Ptolemaic and Gnostic transformations of Hecate
- Cast of the Crannon statue, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Hecate in Asturian: Hécate
Hecate in Breton: Hekate
Hecate in Bulgarian: Хеката
Hecate in Catalan: Hècate
Hecate in Czech: Hekaté
Hecate in Danish: Hekate
Hecate in German: Hekate
Hecate in Modern Greek (1453-): Εκάτη
Hecate in Spanish: Hécate
Hecate in Esperanto: Hekato
Hecate in French: Hécate
Hecate in Italian: Ecate
Hecate in Lithuanian: Hekatė
Hecate in Hungarian: Hekaté
Hecate in Dutch: Hekate
Hecate in Japanese: ヘカテー
Hecate in Norwegian: Hekate
Hecate in Polish: Hekate (mitologia)
Hecate in Portuguese: Hécata
Hecate in Romanian: Hecate
Hecate in Russian: Геката
Hecate in Serbian: Хеката
Hecate in Finnish: Hekate
Hecate in Swedish: Hekate
Hecate in Ukrainian: Геката
Hecate in Chinese: 赫卡忒