Hekate is one of the most unique and interesting Goddesses of the ancient world, her worship reaches backwards into pre-history and continues to thrive in the modern world. Even at times when the shrines and temples of the old Gods were forgotten old ruins, her myths continued to thrive, remaining alive in the hearts, minds and dreams of poets, artists and mystics who promulgated her mysteries. As such her name did not join those of the forgotten Gods who are being rediscovered today, but instead was one which continued to be uttered by each generation, infused with awe, fear and mystery through the centuries, continuing its journey onwards through history into the modern day.
For the majority of Witches and Pagans today, Hekate is a Goddess associated with the Moon and with Magic and she is often cited in popular Pagan literature as being the Goddess of Witchcraft. The depictions of Hekate as being triple formed, which first emerged around the 5th century BCE have gained huge popularity amongst Pagan revivalists, as indeed has her associations with dogs, the underworld, crossroads and ghosts. Although these associations are all indeed true for Hekate, they only provide us with the tiniest possible glimpse into the world of one of the most multifaceted and complex deities of the ancient world. Yes, to some today she continues to be a ‘Dark Goddess’ but for those who seek out the mysteries and embrace them as their way of life, one of the first lessons on that path is often the lesson that nothing is ever completely what it seems and that ‘darkness’ cannot exist without ‘light’, as one cannot be perceived without the other. Understanding this will help those who find themselves face to face with Hekate to also gain very important insights into her mysteries.
When we make even a superficial examination of the myths and legends associated with Hekate in the many cultures and religions of the ancient Mediterranean it soon becomes clear that there is something uniquely different about her. Not only does her history lead us backwards into the hazy swirlings of time, but her myths and worship cross the boundaries of tradition, religion, pantheon and country borders, sometimes in rather remarkable ways. Whilst at certain times and places some of her mysteries were considered a closely guarded secret, open only to a small elite, at the same time she was venerated by ordinary people with shrines outside their homes too. This practice was so popular that the ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes commented on it in his play The Wasps in 420 BCE. Hekate’s magic was that of death and the underworld, but also of love, oracles, of herbs, poisons, protection and guidance.
The most popular depiction of her today is that of Hekate in her triple form, three young women standing back to back, holding the symbols of her mysteries, with three heads, three bodies and six arms. This is the image of her which is believed to have first emerged around the 5th century BCE through the work of the famous sculptor Alkamenes. According to the ancient Greek writer Pausanias writing in Description of Greece in the 2nd century CE:
“It was Alkamenes, in my opinion, who first made three images of Hekate attached to one another, a figure called by the Athenians Epipyrgidia, it stands besides the temple of the Wingless Victory…”
The oldest known image that survives today of the Goddess Hekate is in fact a small 20cm high terracotta statue dating to the 6th century BCE. This image depicts Hekate crowned and enthroned in a pose which is similar to that of the Goddess Kybele, with whom Hekate shared the title of Brimo (meaning ‘angry’ or ‘terrifying’). The name of Brimo is particularly significant, being one that has been found recorded on Orphic Funeral Tablets as a password to be spoken by the initiate on death at the gates of the underworld (where Hekate holds the keys) to gain safe entry. This password was combined with the Orphic Oath of “I am a child of earth and starry heaven, but my race is of heaven alone,” which is also particularly appropriate in the context of Hekate, daughter of the stellar Goddess Asteria.
Hekate is often shown wielding two torches. This is symbolic of her role as guide and companion in the Eleusian Mysteries, where her role as guide and companion to Persephone played an important role in both the myth and in the ceremonies enacted there each year marking the seasonal changes and the growth and harvest of the grain of the Mother Goddess Demeter. Her torches provided light in the darkness much like the Moon and Stars do at night, taking the seeker on a journey of initiation, helping them to overcome the restrictions of the obstacles they would find in their way. The torches continue to be an important symbol of her mysteries, the fire and the light of illumination, not of darkness, but of light.
It is possible that some of the later ‘dark’ descriptions and attributes of Hekate originates with earlier cults such as that of Kybele and that in fact Hekate may have once been seen, long before her incarnations in Hellenistic Greece as the Great Mother herself. This is something which some smaller groups of devotees are slowly starting to discover in different parts of the world today both through careful historical research and also through experiential work with this enduring Goddess.
My own personal introduction to Hekate came through literature, art and poetry but I have since then been able to explore her mysteries in manifold ways, both as a researcher, author, a modern practitioner of magic and a Priestess. My work as researcher and author has lead me to produce the anthology “Hekate Keys to the Crossroads” (2006), and with David Rankine the historical study of the magical rituals and practices associated with this Goddess in the book “Hekate Liminal Rites” (2009). As a Priestess I have facilitated more than a hundred ceremonies honoring Hekate, through which I have had the honor of meeting many dozens of other devotees from around the world. I am currently working on another collection of essays and devotional work “Hekate: Her Sacred Fires” which will be published in the Summer (2010). All of this has made me acutely aware of the many different faces which Hekate presents to the world, how much passion she engenders within those who discover her mysteries and just how much she continues to permeate the practice of magic today, whilst at the same having the ability to awaken deep and powerful theurgic experiences in others.
Whilst some continue to fear her, others wish to embrace her as Wisdom, the Great Mother and as Soteira (‘Saviour’). Whilst some describe her as a hag Goddess, old and fearfully ugly, others are having visions of her as a beautiful woman, radiant, with three-bodies, bearing her torches and living up to her title as Phosphorus (‘light-bearer’). Like all deities, there have always been some who have feared her, but depictions of her from the ancient world always portrayed her as a beautiful woman and literature described her as a maiden.
To part the veil we have to look at various aspects of this complex Goddess at different times in history, we need to look at the literature of the ancient world, but also at the objects left behind by devotees over the millennia to see what clues these can provide us with. This is of course not an easy task, but one which is extremely rewarding for the insights that can be gleaned.
When we weave our way through the works which portray Hekate in ancient literature, we see that they emphasize both her importance and also her liminal nature. Indeed some of the most significant writings of ancient Greece were written by philosophers who were either her devotees or clearly influenced by the mysteries of Hekate. Thus we see Hesiod in his Theogony (8th century BCE), which is the best known genealogy of the Greek Olympian and Titan gods, emphasizing the importance of Hekate amongst the Greek Gods and her many roles. We also see Empedocles hinting at being her devotee in his actions and writings (5th century BCE), which also include the creation of the doctrine of the four elements of air, fire, water and earth. Even more emphatic in his writings was the third century CE Neo-Platonist Porphyry, who wrote of her role as oracular Goddess and source of souls. Interestingly, all of these philosophers also wrote strong words in support of vegetarianism, with the latter writing a piece called On the Impropriety of Killing Living Beings for Food.
Hekate is the main Goddess in the Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, the significant theurgic work from the 3rd century CE which emphasized her nature as Soteira, the world soul and benevolent source of souls and virtues. The Chaldean Oracles are fragmentary, but some sections were clearly recording Hekate’s words emphasizing her oracular nature. Hekate as an oracle and bestower of prophecy to aid her followers is an important role which has been largely ignored. Perhaps this is because in ancient Greece prophecy was often the domain of the gods with Apollo, Zeus and Aesculapius all having sanctuaries where priestesses gave prophecies for them. The most famous of these is of course the Delphic Oracle where Apollo gave forth his wisdom.
The Chaldean Oracles also emphasized another important but often overlooked facet of Hekate that of ruler of angels. This text described the three orders of angels (messengers, as the word angelos meant messenger) who served her and aided her followers. These are the Iynges (wrynecks after the bird), the Synochesis (Connecters) and Teletarchai (Rulers of Initiation). These orders of angels also provided the basis for the hierarchies of triads of angelic orders subsequently found in the early sixth century CE writings of Pseudo-Dionysus. In his writings Celestial Hierarchy and Divine Names he laid the basis for the hierarchy of angelic orders which has been used in Christianity ever since. To demonstrate this was not an isolated connection I would also like to draw attention to the Greek Magical Papyri, an amazing collection of spells, charms, prayers and conjurations dating from 2nd century BCE – 5th century CE. In these too Hekate was asked to send forth her angels to assist the magician.
What is depicted on coins can reveal a great deal and this is true of the images of Hekate on old coins. She was most commonly shown with her torches and a lunar crescent on her brow or a crescent and star. It is no coincidence that all of these are light-giving symbols and it is also significant that the majority of these coins were minted in the 3rd or 4th century CE, at the time when Christianity was gaining strength and some writers were starting to portray her with an emphasis on her being more associated with death and the restless dead. Numerous amulets from this period also portrayed Hekate in her positive roles, mainly as protectress, in combination with Hebrew divine names and even on one occasion that of Jesus in a childbearing charm.
One thing certainly becomes clearer with the light of Hekate’s torches and that is the vast scope of her wisdom and its manifestations throughout history. In the shadows and in the light, Hekate awaits those who seek the mysteries and is the guide and initiatrix of all who approach her with a pure heart.
Bonner, C. Studies in Magical Amulets chiefly Greco-Egyptian. Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1950
d’Este, Sorita (ed). Hekate: Her Sacred Fires. London, Avalonia, 2010
d’Este, Sorita (ed). Hekate: Keys to the Crossroads. London, Avalonia, 2006
d’Este, Sorita, & David Rankine. Hekate Liminal Rites. London, Avalonia, 2009
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Hekate Soteira. Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1990
Rankine, David, & Sorita d’Este. Practical Planetary Magick. London, Avalonia, 2007
Ronan, Stephen (ed). The Goddess Hekate. Hastings, Chthonios Books, 1992
[Written by Sorita d’Este and first published in Anna Franklin’s Silver Wheel Anthology 2010]
Further recommended reading:
Hekate Liminal Rites, by Sorita d’Este & David Rankine
Hekate Her Sacred Fires, various contributors, edited by Sorita d’Este