“Like the Thessalian witches, who, as they say, draw down the Moon from heaven…”
[Gorgias, 380 BCE]
For many modern Pagans, Witches and Wiccans, Hekate is primarily thought of as a Goddess of the Moon who is closely linked to all things magical and although there is a historical precedent for these principles, the historical Hekate is most certainly a more complex, multifunctional and remarkable deity. A goddess who was never forgotten, who could and continues to adapt herself to each generation and find ways of inspiring awe and change in those whose lives she touch.
Even a superficial examination of the myths and legends associated with Hekate in the many cultures and religions of the ancient Mediterranean illustrates that there is something uniquely different about her. Not only do her history and her origins stretch back into the hazy swirling of recorded history, but her myths and worship crosses 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, the underworld, love, oracles, herbs, poisons, protection and guidance. Her torches provided light in the darkness, much like the Moon and Stars do at night, taking the seeker on a journey of initiation, guiding them as the psychopomp, like she guided Persephone on her yearly journey to and from Hades. Hekate helps those who choose her Mysteries by encouraging them to overcome the restrictions and obstacles they find in their way and she protects those who are devoted to her by averting evil and misfortune.
Hekate is most often depicted in her triple, three bodied form, facing in three directions simultaneously, amongst modern Pagans today. This is the image which is believed to have first emerged of her 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.
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, but 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. A few years ago I had the honor of editing a small anthology of essays written by modern day priests and priestesses in the UK who had experience of working with Hekate, mostly within the Wiccan Tradition and in 2009 my book Hekate Liminal Rites (co-authored with David Rankine) was published making available some of the research we have been doing on the magical, mystical and spiritual practices associated with her in the ancient world. Later this year I will be publishing another anthology of essays from Hekate Devotees, Priests and Priestess and Magicians, this time from all over the world and from a very wide range of magical and spiritual traditions. This anthology Hekate In Her Flames will, I believe, illustrate just how manifold her roles and manifestations are in the modern world and how enduring her mysteries and symbolism are, just as the first anthology Hekate Keys to the Crossroads illustrated in its tremendous ability of this Goddess to open doorways and enact change on those who hear her calling.
The witches of Thessaly were often linked with Hekate in the ancient world as expert practitioners of the types of questionable magic particularly associated with her, such as nekuia (‘divination from the dead’), goēteia (‘sorcery’) and pharmakeia (‘herbal/poison magic’). To the Greeks, the witches of Thessaly were foreigners and the idea that such dubious practices should be carried out by ‘foreigners’ is a common theme in ancient Greek literature. Thus in Idylls in 230 BCE, the Greek writer Theocritus has the woman carrying out the curse on her unfaithful lover using drugs she learned ‘from an Assyrian stranger.’
In Lucan’s play Pharsalia (60 CE), the Thessalian witch Erictho declared:
“Persephone, who dost detest heaven and thy mother, and who art the lowest form of our Hecate.”[i]
This is particularly interesting, both in Persephone being equated to Hekate and also the implication that Persephone enjoyed the underworld, detesting both heaven and her mother, the grain goddess Demeter. The association of Thessaly with magic was emphasized in the Greek Magical Papyri (2nd century BCE – 5th century CE), with several necromantic charms using ingredients like human skulls attributed to a Thessalian king called Pitys.[ii]
By the 1st century BCE the term Thessalian was synonymous with ‘magical’, as seen in the Epodes of Horace where the Italian witch Folia “brings down the enchanted stars and the moon from the sky with Thessalian voice.”[iii] Today, ‘magical’ is synonymous with illusionism or the eccentric fringes of society, a far cry from the near universal belief of the ancient world even if it was sometimes viewed as negative.
Hekate too experienced major shifts in perception through the centuries. From the first recorded perception of her in Hesiod’s Theogony in the 8th-7th century BCE as the Titan goddess greatly honored by Zeus, she enjoyed several centuries of being viewed positively. After all she was part of the initiation process of Eleusis, one of the greatest mystery schools ever to have existed! It was not until Roman times that the image of the graveyard frequenting death goddess really took hold. Even this image could not encompass such a major goddess and the second century CE Chaldean Oracles Of Zoroaster presented her as the supreme goddess second only to Zeus, as the world soul, source of souls, ruler of angels and demons.
It is more contemporary writers in recent centuries who have portrayed Hekate as being the hag or crone witch goddess. Thus the famous scene in Macbeth with the three witches and Aleister Crowley in his novel Moonchild calling her “a thing altogether of hell, barren, hideous and malicious, the queen of death and evil witchcraft.” Shakespeare can be forgiven for his poetic and dramatic licence but Crowley’s bizarre comments come across as misogynistic ignorance from someone who should have known better. Such remarks have undoubtedly contributed to the perception found in some modern Neo-Pagan circles of Hekate as a crone goddess completely at odds with the depictions of the beautiful maiden of ancient Greece.
Returning to the moon, the Neo-Platonic philosopher Porphyry wrote in the 3rd century CE describing Hekate as the phases of the triple moon which may have been the original template and inspiration for the idea of the witches’ triple goddess that has been popularized since the mid-twentieth century:
“But, again, the moon is Hecate, the symbol of her varying phases and of her power dependent on the phases. Wherefore her power appears in three forms, having as symbol of the new moon the figure in the white robe and golden sandals, and torches lighted: the basket, which she bears when she has mounted high, is the symbol of the cultivation of the crops, which she makes to grow up according to the increase of her light: and again the symbol of the full moon is the goddess of the brazen sandals.”[iv]
The Christian theologian Eusebius, writing in the early 4th century CE and quoting Porphyry, reinforced this concept, mentioning that white, red and black were associated with Hekate:
“The symbols of Hecate are wax of three colours, white and black and red combined, having a figure of Hecate bearing a scourge, and torch, and sword, with a serpent to be coiled round her“[v]
However these were not only colours that would come to represent the Wiccan triple goddess, but also have a long history of esoteric union, such as in alchemy. Likewise Hekate also made appearances in the literature of the Renaissance in the works of writers such as Ben Jonson and as part of a necromantic ritual to summon a suicide given by Ebenezer Sibly in his book A New and Complete Illustration of the Occult Sciences, Book 4 (1795).
Eusebius, again quoting Porphyry, wrote of the detailed instructions for creating a Hekate shrine and its special incense for censing it at the New Moon.
“’That they themselves suggested how even their statues ought to be made, and of what kind of material, shall be shown by the response of Hecate in the following form:
“My image purify, as I shall show:
Of wild rue form the frame, and deck it o’er
With lizards such as run about the house;
These mix with resin, myrrh, and frankincense,
Pound all together in the open air
Under the crescent moon, and add this vow.”
‘Then she set forth the vow, and showed how many lizards must be taken:
“Take lizards many as my many forms,
And do all this with care. My spacious house
With branches of self-planted laurel form.
Then to my image offer many a prayer,
And in thy sleep thou shalt behold me nigh.”
‘And again in another place she described an image of herself of this same kind.’”[vi]
It is interesting to note the use of rue in this structure as rue was crushed in water with cedarwood used in the Babylonian ointment for anointing skulls and figurines used to communicate with ghosts, as described in the Incantation to See a Ghost in Order to Make a Decision. This earlier use from Babylon may have been transmitted through to this later Greek use particularly as Hekate ruled ghosts, or restless dead as they were also known.
In the last twenty years as archaeology and interest in the ancient world have before continued to grow, so too more accurate information on Hekate has been presented and a truer image of her has come to light, or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say as true an image as she wishes to display under the silvery moon.
D’Este, Sorita; Triple Horns of the Greek Magical Papyri; 2008; in Horns of Power; p189-94; Avalonia; London
D’Este, Sorita, & Rankine, David; Hekate Liminal Rites; 2009; Avalonia; London
Gifford, E.H. (trans); Eusebius of Caesarea: Praeparatio Evangelica; 1903; Horatio Hart; London
Graf, Fritz, & Johnston, Sarah Iles; Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets; 2007; Routledge; London
Taylor, Thomas; Select Works of Porphyry; 1823; Thomas Rodd; London
Various; Plays of the Greek Dramatists: Selections from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes; ND; Puritan Publishing Company Inc; Illinois
[i] Pharsalia, Lucan, 60 CE, trans. J.D. Duff
[ii] PGM IV.1928-2005, PGM IV.2006-2125, & PGM IV.2140-44.
[iii] Epodes, Horace, 30 BCE, trans. M Meyer.
[iv] On Images, Porphyry, C3rd CE, trans. Taylor.
[v] Praeparatio Evangelica, Eusebius, early C4th CE, trans. Des Places.
[vi] Praeparatio Evangelica, Eusebius, early C4th CE, trans. Des Places.
(c) 2010, Sorita d’Este.
All rights reserved. Reproduced here with permission.
Further recommended reading:
Hekate Liminal Rites, by Sorita d’Este & David Rankine
Hekate Her Sacred Fires, various contributors, edited by Sorita d’Este