Hecate’s association with fish is linked with her dominion over the ocean as stated by her genealogy in Hesiod’s Theogeny 80 composed in the 7th century BC, and her epithet in the Orphic Hymn composed between the 3rd century BC – 2nd century AD 81.
In the Theogeny, Hecate bestows the seas bounty to fishermen, but can also take it away. Hecate therefore provides a source of nourishment, indirectly by governing the breeding of animals, in this case of fish (as a Goddess of nature and wild animals) and directly, by allowing fish to be caught 82. An image of Hecate as a Goddess of nature and wild animals is depicted on a Boeotian vase of the 8th century BC showing a goddess with an image of a fish on her skirt defining one of her realms 82.
In the Classical world the symbolism of fish came from the myth of Atargatis. While there are variations as to why Queen Atargatis threw herself and her son Icthys into a lake/ river (Ascalon or Euphrates) 83 and 84, she was subsequently deified and worshipped as the Goddess of Fish who became known in the Greek world as Derketo and was equated with Aphrodite associating fish to sexuality and fertility. The ocean was viewed as a liminal place between the mortal world and the Underworld and in some Greek myths fish were known to carry the dead 84. Fish that were thought to consume human flesh 85 and inhabit the oceanic depths (with large oceanic monsters) were considered to be close to the Underworld and became associated with chthonic deities and by implication death 84. Fish were commonly offered to the dead and consumed in rituals that took place in graveyards 84.
Red Mullet (Mullus barbatus and Mullus surmuletus)
At the Eleusinian Mysteries, where Hecate acts as a pyschopomp for Persephone, red mullet was banned from consumption, as Melanthius (Athenian historian) writes between 350-270 BC because of its association with Hecate. Reasons for abstinence of specific foods varied within cults: they may be sacred to a deity, or they may be considered unclean 85. In the case of red mullet, both somewhat apply. It became etymologically linked with (three-formed) Hecate (τριγλε) 85 and it had exceptional fertility procreating three times a year 84. Therefore, it was considered sacred to Hecate to the point where in Athens (Trigla) offerings of it were left to a statue of Hecate Triglathena 86: “δια του ονοματος οικειοτητα, τριμορφος γαρ η θεος” “in the sacred name of familiarity, the three formed Goddess” [Note: Hazel’s translation, not Leake’s]. The colour of the fish signified blood and it was thought to feed from corpses. This attached elements of pollution to the fish and consequently its chthonic association with Hecate. The reasons for red mullet as an offering serve to reinforce the similarity behind the symbolic meaning of fish with Hecate.
As a demersal and benthic fish, red mullet live on and feed from the bottom of the sea occupying sea floors near bed rock and the continental shelf. It has barbel sensory organs to detect food.
80 Evelyn White, H.G. trans. 1914. The Theogony of Hesiod. From: Hare, J.B. 1999. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Available from: http://www.sacred texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm Accessed: 2 July 2010
81 Taylor, T. trans. 1792. The Hymns of Orpheus: 1 40. University of Pennsylvania Press. Theoi E Texts Available from: http://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns1.html (Atsma, A. 2000-2011) Accessed: 25 September 2013
82 Marquardt, P.A. 1981. A Portrait of Hecate. The American Journal of Philology 102 (3), 243-260.
83 Burket, W. 1983. Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth. Translated from German by Bing, P. USA: University of California Press.
84 Kant, L.H. 1993. The Interpretations of Religious Symbols in the Graeco-Roman World: A Case Study of Early Christian Fish Symbolism. PhD Thesis submitted to Yale University, USA.
85 Parker, R. 1983. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford:
86 Leake, W.M. 1841. The Topography of Athens: With Some Remarks on Its Antiquities, Volume
1 [ebook] J, London: Rodwell New Bond Street. Available at Google Books
Accessed: 17 September 2013.
The Symbols of the Goddess Hekate