Hecate, goddess of the Underworld and Witchcraft

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Triple Hecate (1795).  William Blake.  Public domain.

Hecate, also known as Hekate or Hekat, whose name means ‘far shooting’ was a virgin Titaness who remained unmarried. Daughter of the Titans Perses or Zeus and Asteria the ‘Star Goddess’. Some say she was the daughter Coesus and Phoebe and others say she was the daughter of Demeter. She was the grand-daughter of the Titans Phoebe and Coesus and was honoured by Zeus as a deity. Originally she was a goddess of the wilderness and childbirth.  Hecate was a powerful pre-Olympian and Underworld deity for evil and good in heaven and earth, and the reason she was at time referred to as the ‘infernal queen’. Hecate is also regarded as the mother of Scylla  by Phorcus, the mother of Medea (a priestess of Hecate) by Aetes, and also mother of Circe.

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Triple Hecate. Unknown, British Museum.  Public domain.

In origin Hecate was not a Greek goddess. She was adopted from Thrace and Mycenae but may have been Hellenic in origin, possible Carian. The Carians of Asia Minor had a cult centre for Hecate at Lagina which was a theocratic city state. The cult centre was the Carian sanctuary in Anatolia where she is believed to have originated.

The known period of Hecate’s worship was between around 800 BC and 400 AD  until the advent of Christianity, therefore from the time of Hesiod (circa 8th century BC) until late antiquity. The monumentalised cult of Hecate was known from Asia Minor, Phrygia, Samothrace, Aegina, Athens, Argos, and Colophon. In Thessaly, as a moon-goddess, she was revered and worshipped privately and publically by occult groups of female moon devotees.

Hecate habituated the vicinity of crossroads, doorways and grave-yards as the deity of roads and protectress of travellers. In this role she is known as Hecate Triaditis. She was worshipped where three roads meet and where statues or Roman trivia or ‘three ways’ were erected.

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Hecate, Greek goddess of the crossroads (1880). S. Mallarme.  Public domain.

The duality of Hecate appears as both terrible and benign. As the triple goddess Hebe, Hera, and Hecate, she also conferred success, wealth, good luck and benevolence, in contrast to he role as an infernal deity terrible in aspect. As a goddess of earth, fertility and protectress of childbirth, she was the ‘nurturer of the young’ and animals. In this sense Artemis is Heketa when associated with young animals and childbirth. Hecate was thus reconciled with her opposite and companion cousin Artemis, as goddesses of moonless nights at crossways. This also equates with the appearance of Phoebe as a moon-goddess.

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Hekate triformis. Circa 0 to 100 AD.  Dutch National Museum.  Public domain.

Hecate was an omnipresent and popular deity with diverse and fundamental powers. As a triple deity she was often depicted as a three-headed, and three-bodied, goddess representing the moon and darkness, fertility, the highways, enchantments, as well as witchcraft and the Underworld. In this portrayal of Hecate with the three heads of dog, horse and lion, she is described as trimorphous or trimorphic. Hence her description as Diva triformis, tergemina, and triceps.

Called Luna in heaven, called Diana on earth, and Proserpine in Hades, the frog is her totemic emblem. Henna was sacred to Hecate, as was the willow tree. Portrayals of her on vases and with statuary often show her carrying a torch, a basket, a serpent, a key and a scourge. She is also showed at times in her serpentine aspect.

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Hekate (1893).  Maximilian Pirner.  Public domain.

Hecate was a great goddess of magic, inner lore, and prophecy, and considered more important than Circe, her supposed daughter. Indeed, the greatest magical spells and charms in antiquity are connected with Hecate. As the keeper of the keys to Hades she was associated later with Persephone as a deity of magic, the Underworld, and the darkness of the moon.

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Hecate: Procession to a witches Sabbath (1620).  Jusepe de Ribera.  Public domain.

As a mistress of ‘Black Magic’ and goddess of sorcery in Ptolemaic Alexandria she emerged as a more sinister divinity in the 5th century BC. Hecate was an influential supporter of Medea and modern goddess of witches and witchcraft. Hecate has been appropriated by the contemporary Neo-pagan religion of Wicca. As the ‘Queen of Ghosts’ she became the divine figure of night creatures and night-time apparitions of devilish and noisome hellhounds and revenants. Hecate was worshipped in liminal locations and revered with cathartic and omophagic dog sacrifices.

References and Sources Consulted

Coleman, J. A.  (2007).  The Dictionary of Mythology.  Arcturus Publishing Ltd, London.

Goodrich, N. L.  (1989).  Priestesses.  Franklin Watts, New York.

Graves, R.  (1979).  The Greek Myths, vols 1 & 2.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Hesiod.  (1973).  Theogony.  Penguin Classics.  Harmondsworth.

Jordan, M.  (1992).  Encyclopaedia of Gods.  Kyle Cathie Ltd, London.

Leach, M. ed.  (1972).  Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend.  Funk & Wagnalls, New York.

Leeming, D.  (2005).  The Oxford Companion to World Mythology.  OUP, New York.

Lempriere, I.  (1994).  Classical Dictionary.  Bracken Books, London.

Murray, A.  (1988).  Who’s Who in Mythology.  Bonaza Books, London.

Pausanias.  (1979).  Guide to Greece.  Penguin Classics.  Harmondsworth.

Price, S. & Kearns, E.  (2003).  The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion.  OUP, Oxford.

Shapiro, M. S. & Hendricks, R. A.  (1981).  A Dictionary of Mythologies.  Granada, London.

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