Hecate is an interesting and complex goddess from Greek and Roman mythology. She is associated with magic, death and the underworld, and was said to be a benevolent goddess who happily assisted and protected mortals. This may seem somewhat unusual as the ancient Greeks had an aversion to all things death-related, but Hecate seems to walk the boundary of many contradictions. A brief overview of her character and nature is provided below.
According to Greek mythology, Hecate is a Titan: one of the gods who ruled the world before the Olympic Gods overthrew them. The battle between the Titans and the Olympic Gods was called the Titanomachy and lasted for ten years. It is covered in more detail in this previous PAN post. The Olympians won the battle and imprisoned most the Titans in the deepest depths of Hades but no one dared do this to Hecate. She is said to be ‘most honoured among all the deathless gods’ and was given dominion by Zeus over a share of the earth, the barren sea and the starry sky (Hesiod 2006; Hekate Goddess Of 2017). So respected was she by Zeus that he never refused any requests made by her worshippers and he did not interfere when Hecate taught them the secrets of witchcraft. Conversely, Zeus punished the Titan Prometheus for giving fire to the mortals which enabled them to advance their civilisation (Hesiod 2006). There is not a lot of information about why Hecate was so honoured when the rest of the Tians were not. She is a multi-faceted goddess that walks the boundary between many contradictions which may be apt considering she is the Goddess of the Crossroads.
Hecate is the daughter of the Titans Perses (The Destroyer) and Asteria (Starry One) (Roman & Roman 2010; Hekate Goddess Of 2017; Apollodorus 1921). As will be discussed later in this post, Hecate’s nature may be attributed to her parentage.
Dominion and worship
Hecate is said to have dominion over a portion of the earth, the starry sky, the barren sea and a part the underworld. In particular, she rules the areas of the underworld associated with judgment and punishment which ‘wreak vengeance on the wicked and sends then straight to hell’ (Virgil 1994). She is said to spend most of her time in the underworld or in graveyards where is accompanied by a procession of ghosts and the sound of barking dogs (Roman & Roman 2010).
She is associated with crossroads, the night, witchcraft, graves, ghosts, the underworld, torches and barking dogs (Roman & Roman 2010). As discussed in the blog post about Hades, the ancient Greeks avoided saying Hades’s name as they feared that doing this would lead to an untimely demise. Conversely, Hecate who is also associated with death and the underworld, is often portrayed as a benevolent goddess who receives prayers gladly and is happy to aid those who ask for her assistance. She is a generous Goddess who can grant many favours including (Hekate Goddess Of 2017):
- Being a nurse for newborn children
- Increasing fertility in livestock
- Ensuring a good catch at sea
- Awarding victory in battle
- Bestowing good luck in games of chance
- Bestowing honour and wealth on mortals whose sacrifices she receives
To witches in particular, she is said to grant the following knowledge:
- How to obscure the moon so that they may practise their craft in private
- Herbology including how to concoct poisons
- How to perform necromancy
The majority of myths which feature Hecate do so as a supporting character who provides assistance to others. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (n.d.), she takes up her torch and helps Demeter search for Persephone in the underworld. In Virgil’s Aeneid, she bestows Sibyl with dominion and knowledge of the underworld. In Rhodius’s Argonautica and Euripides’s Medea, the sorceress Medea asks for Hecate’s help in concocting poisons and casting spells. However, Hecate is sometimes also depicted as a self-serving and pitiless goddess who cares little for mortals.
According to Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian from 100BC, Hecate was a cruel and cunning goddess who was skilled in the manufacture and administration of poisons. She is said to have poisoned her father, Perses, so that she could claim his throne. She is also said to have turned to hunting humans when she grew tired of hunting animals (Hekate Goddess Of 2017).
Hecate is usually depicted as either a single woman with three heads or as one women in a trilogy with two other women. She is often shown holding the keys to the world, a torch and a snake (Hekate Goddess Of 2017). In the Argonautica, Hecate is depicted as wearing a crown made of oak sprigs and snakes, and is accompanied by the flashing of torches and the baying of dogs (Rhodius 2008).
Hecate is often depicted as being part of the maiden-mother-crone trilogy but there is some ambiguity regarding which third of the trilogy she represents and who the other two members of the trilogy are. Some state Hecate to be one third of the triple goddess with Demeter and Persephone but it is unclear which third her portrays. Some say that Hecate was a virgin and therefore depicts the maiden aspect of the trilogy while Persephone, as the wife of Hades and the mother of Melione and Zagreus, represents the mother aspect of the triple goddess. This theory is supported by the fact that Persephone’s return from the underworld each year marks the beginning of spring which is the season of fertility.
Others suggest that Persephone represents the maiden in this trilogy as she is also known by the name Kore which means maiden. Demeter is her mother and therefore represents the mother aspect, and Hecate is the crone.
Hecate is also represented in a triple goddess union with Artemis (Goddess of the Hunt) and Selene (Goddess of the Moon) in Greek mythology. This union is reproduced as Hecate-Diana-Luna in Roman mythology.
There is also some confusion regarding whether or not Hecate and Artemis are the same person. Artemis is said to be the daughter of Zeus and Leto which is separate and distinct parentage from Hecate who is the daughter of Perses and Asteria. This is consistent with the Hecate-Artemis-Selene trilogy where all three goddesses are separate entities. However, both Artemis and Hecate are associated with hunting, childbirth and virginity and this has led to the two names sometimes being used interchangeably (Hekate Goddess Of 2017).
Apollodorus 1921, The Library volume 1, Trans. JG Frazer, Theoi Texts Library, viewed 8 November 2017, <http://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus1.html>
Euripides n.d., Medea, Trans. Kovacs, D, Perseus Digital Library, viewed 17 November 2017, <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0114%3Acard%3D364
Hekate Goddess Of 2017, Theoi Project, viewed 19 December 2017, <http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/HekateGoddess.html>
Hesiod 2006, Theogony Works and Days Testimonia, Trans. Glenn W. Most, Harvard University Press, Massachusetts
Homeric Hymn to Demeter n.d Trans. Gregory Nagy, viewed 2 October 2017, <http://www.uh.edu/~cldue/texts/demeter.html>
Rhodius, A 2008, Argonautica, Trans. WH Race, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
Roman, L & Roman M 2010, Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology, Facts On File, New York, NY
Virgil 1994, The Aeneid, Trans. Dryden, J, The Internet Classics Archive, viewed 17 November 2017, <http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/aeneid.html>