This is the final paper I wrote for my Ancient Goddesses class last spring. You are welcome to quote from it or critic it, but please cite credit. If for some reason you want to cite it in something academic, email me first please, but if it’s just for the interwebz you can just quote me as Nym or Nymphaea. Some of my opinions in it are pretty strong, I was writing it explicitly from a Classical Studies/Religious studies point of view. I’m totally open for modern interpretation and application of the gods into your life- just please know the history and don’t entirely change them, because, guess what? If you call an orange an apple, it’s still an orange. Also, this is a longer paper, just shy of 3k words. It’s of course not a fantastic scholarly work, just a final paper, but perhaps you’ll find some sort of enjoyment out of it.
From her origins in Asia Minor to her presence in the modern pagan movement, the goddess Hekate has long been the subject of both scholarly and popular debate. While her presence was found throughout much of the ancient Greek world, its changing nature throughout the centuries created difficulties for academics to discern her ‘original’ relevance within ancient Greek religion. This has continued to the present day, where the goddess has gained a following among the modern pagan (sometimes referred to as neopagan) movement. By comparing the historical evidence of the practices of the cult of Hekate during the Hellenic period to the modern interpretations found within the pagan movement, one can find both similarities and differences, most based within the inclusion or exclusion of different forms of identification to the goddess and those practices associated with her. Understanding these differences can be very important to documenting the future shifts in the ever constant changing nature of this elusive and mysterious goddess.
Hekate’s origin has been the subject of considerable debate, but the current consensus places her origins in Caria in Asia Minor, in the area that is now south-west Turkey (Ronan 5). Her home of Lagina was the origin of her cult, but it was a vastly different portrayal than the Hellenistic period (which will be the primary focus of the comparison here, as the Hellenistic period gives us the greatest amount of evidence in daily worship). After the Hellenistic period, her cult did continue into the Chaldean Oracles, which vastly changed much of her symbolism, and will not be majorly explored here either, although it is important to know that her cult did have different stages even in ancient times. Our first large literary mention of the goddess is found within Hesiod’s Theogony, where in the middle of his genealogy of the gods he has a large section praising Hekate. He places her as the child of Asteria (the sister of Leto) and Perses, and immediately places her in a place of high accord: “And she conceived and bare Hekate whom Zeus the son of Cronos honoured above all. He gave her splendid gifts, to share of the earth and the unfruitful sea. She received honour also in starry heaven, and is honoured exceedingly by the deathless gods.” Here, we see Hesiod placing her in the domain of three realms, taking shares of them, to which he further adds other honors. She is associated with kings and battles; her will decided victors, good performance in competitions, linked to horsemen, giver of great catches of fish and one who takes them away, and similarly with flocks and herds. Finally, he associates her as a nurse of the young, appointed to her directly by Zeus,
Scholars attribute the lengthy addition of this passage to the Theogony as a result of Hesiod’s home village having a large following of the cult of Hekate. In addition to these origins, she is also found within the Homeric hymns, in the Hymn to Demeter. Here she comes to Demeter’s aid after the grieving mother has been searching for her daughter for nine days. She comes specifically from a cave, and she bears a torch along with Demeter to help in her search, and together they go to Helios, whom Hekate believes saw the kidnapper of Persephone (Hekate was said to only have heard the cries of the young Kore). After Persephone is rescued and once it is known that she must return to the underworld each year, Hekate becomes her handmaiden, with her in the underworld.
It is from the Homeric hymns we first get insight into the common origins of the Hellenistic Hekate, although Hesiod’s portrayal, while lacking the underworld association, shows the nature of the goddess to both grant fortune and take away (it is important to note that wealth in ancient Greece was often associated with the underworld- one may pray to Hades, although he was rarely approached so boldly, but also to Persephone, who often functioned in the minds of the people as the more ‘reachable’ ruler of the underworld). The expansive power attributed to her is often considered one of the reasons that she is so readily identified with other goddesses (Artemis and Selene as the most common, but also the Arkadian Despoine, Thracian Bendis/Kotys, Eleusinian Daeira and the Boiotian nymph Herkyna) (theoi.com). She eventually became incorporated into the household cult in both Athens and rural areas, where thresholds because a sacred place for her. Literary evidence points to the existence of statues outside the home for Hekate (the Athenian poet Cinesias was one that mocked religious traditions in the 5th century BCE, and was said to have defecated on such statues) (Mikalson 175). A common practice began in placing the leftover offerings from the home at the end of the month (the remains of offerings taken place over that time) along with food from the floor and other offerings such as a sacrificed dog or raw eggs, and placing them at the crossroads (Ronan 60). Her association with the crossroads seems to have evolved over the time from her introduction to Greece and the time of the Hellenistic period, for it is in this time we find her being associated with magic as well, in fragments from Sophocles and Euripedes, where she is consulted for power with spells and magical knowledge.
While very few actual stories of Hekate survive- most are references within myths or within plays and histories- the ones that give great insight to how the Greeks perceived the behavior of the goddess outside her host and away from the crossroads. The story of Queen Hekabe can be found throughout many different authors, but Ovid’s version in Metamorphosis is the most striking. As the Trojan Queen Hekabe sees the corpse of her son, slain by the Thracian king Polymestor, who was supposed to keep watch of him, after the fall of Troy, she goes to the king in a fit of rage and murders him. As the citizens throw stones and sticks at her, she snaps at them and begins to bark, and thus is transformed into a black dog by Hekate and stays beside her as one of her hounds. This accounts for one of the ways that black dogs are associated to the goddess. A secondary but similar story is that of Gale the witch, found in Aelian’s On Animals. Aelian describes Gale as a sorceress who possessed great power but had ‘abnormal sexual desires’ and used her power for poor decisions, and such the anger of Hekate turned her into a polecat, which then became one of the goddess’ many familiars.
Another important, although sometimes overlooked, aspect of Hekate is her portrayal in the tunic of a maiden throughout much of the art depicting her, which is used as evidence she was considered a virgin goddess. While there are other accounts for her bearing children, these are generally considered rarer and less reliable. In the Argonautica, the monster Skylla is called the child of Hekate as Kratais, born to Phorkys. A secondary set of children is sometimes ascribed to her, most often by Diodorus Siculus, who ascribes Hekate as the mother of Circe and Medea (again, a rare occurrence). Throughout most of the literary sources, however, Hekate is considered a virgin goddess, never engaging sexually with the other gods. In terms of nonsexual associations with masculine deities, Hekate is sometimes pictured with Zeus on coins in his hand. The other main association found is with Hermes as the pair possibly being described as consorts in their Khthonian aspects in the cults of Thessaly and Eleusis, as they both were associated with the travel of Persephone to and from the underworld.
This is only a small portion of what is known about Hekate, but to fully cover everything would take years (particularly because many details concerning her are still being debated over). With the modern pagan movement growing over the world, particularly within Europe and the United States, Hekate has taken once again involved in the lives of worshippers, instead of just a name associated with magic within ancient literature. Yet, because of both the shifting nature of the historical and scholarly interpretations of her relevance, there is much information within the modern pagan movement that leads to associations that are not traditionally relevant or lacking in essential qualities of the goddess. Two different modern aspects will be considered- one attributed to the modern Wiccan and one attributed to modern practitioners of Hellenic reconstruction.
Wicca, being a relatively modern religious movement (established in the 1950’s by Gerald Gardner) is widely influenced by many different modern literary works. One of the prominent works that influenced Gardner was Grave’s The White Goddess. It is widely thought that this is the main reason that the triple goddess movement has influenced so much of Wiccan thought and, as a result, the pagan movement as a whole. It is possible to find dozens of websites and new age books on the shelves that have references to many different gods and goddesses. From here, we can glean some of the modern thoughts of Hekate that lie within the Wiccan-influenced part of modern paganism.
A popular author within the pagan movement, Silver Ravenwolf, showcases some of the ideas in Hekate’s modern interpretations. In her widely available book To Ride a Silver Broomstick, Ravenwolf describes the dark moons to Hekate as well as listing her under a ‘goddess list’ (not associated with any specific culture, but of many widely known and popular divinities) as a “Moon goddess, as in Crone or Dark Mother” (51). There are ‘correspondence’ lists littering both the web and books (such as Ravenwolf’s or other authors, like Anne Moura) that identify Hekate with specific trees or plants, but rarely give sources for this information. Even sites such as Wikipedia only give the slightest information on her, although it is at least more relevant than many of the books and websites that mention the goddess.
For a secondary perspective, we will look at a different interpretation- that of the Reconstructionist and of those specifically devoted to Hekate from that stem from the Hellenic branches of paganism. Devotional works are found online, in forms of websites or books, such as the work Bearing Torches, an anthology of devotions for the goddess. Different types of works are present, from experiential religious encounters to poetry and prose. Many of these reference historical aspects of Hekate, such as her dinners (sacrifices at the crossroads) or her associations with ghosts. They do not generally mention her as a ‘crone’ or ‘dark mother’ and tend to take a slightly better researched perspective. Another similar work is Kharis, which is an exploration of modern Hellenic polytheism. Specific sections are devoted to daily and monthly practices, which include Hekate, as well as general information on some of the mystical practices of the Greeks outside of prophecy and oracular activities.
These are just short examples of two of many different types of interpretations one is able to find of Hekate, and of course the others may include or not include different associations or practices. However, when we compare the modern to the historical and ancient, several differences become immediately apparent. Even though Hekate was often primarily associated with crossroads and ghosts, and later drifted further and further into the realm of magic and sorcery, she usually held the powers of fortune- in whatever she influenced, she gave or withheld freely based on her will alone. Her expansive power was held in esteem by the Greeks and by the other gods in literary works. Sorceresses who called her power (Medea, Circe) were excessively powerful and could accomplish great tasks, even if some of them were not for the greater good. Hekate was also associated, as was seen with Hesiod, with nurses and birthing, even though she was rarely considered to be a mother herself. She, in later times, took on an identity of a triple goddess, but it was usually with three different animal heads, to face the three crossroads. The ancient Greeks did not have the same conception of a ‘crone’ and ‘dark mother’ goddess- all the gods and goddesses were capable of great good or evil to humans, because the gods generally did not operate within the same form of morality that mortals did. Each of the individual gods were often associated with different miracles or tragedies- in Hekate’s case, she could withhold fortune or harvests, allow ghosts to roam rampant and cause misfortune to fall upon the home, but she could also grant great wealth, resources and guard the home securely. This identification with a crone aspect is quite harmful to the integrity of modern sources of knowledge on the goddess- it has spread to many different realms, not just within the groups directly linked with Wicca and its closest branches.
The result of identifying Hekate as one of the modern ‘pagan’ deities ends up as a Wikipedia-esque entry of information- this goddess is goddess of x, y, z. When one discusses deities without allowing for more than just a paragraph entry on them, it greatly limits the reader’s understanding. As these works circulate, more individuals become under the impression that Hekate exists just as a crone goddess or one of witchcraft and magic, instead of the multifaceted and complex deity that she was depicted as in the ancient literature. The fault of this though is not just with the authors, but the general format of the ‘new age pagan’ books. These are often full of the most basic concepts involved within most modern pagan/wiccan influenced traditions, and they tend to lump different religious traditions together to show the different religious influences that one can have within their systems, but they ultimately create a ‘plug and chug’ system where one can insert a name of a deity into a blank spot in a prayer and expect it to be an accurate imitation of the historical practices of worship for that deity.
In comparing the better-researched Reconstructionist works, one can see that more effort was taken to preserve some of the original aspects of the goddess. It does not present itself in such a basic format as the other, and usually goes into a more in-depth explanation of the historical relevance of the deities it includes. This movement also tends to have unique bodies of personal research done on individual deities and attempts to take into account some of the more common historical practices (usually in the form of household aspects and the festivals within the calendar). The works within are often written for a more sophisticated audience than the relatively simplistic ‘new age’ volumes, and are known for generally having exceptional bibliographies, allowing the reader to continue research on their own after reading.
However, there are still some disparities between the Reconstructionist approach versus the historical interpretations of Hekate in that they still do not capture the broader aspects of the goddess, although they cover more than just the witchcraft associations. They usually include some aspects of household worship, including the associations with the threshold and the outdoor shrines as well as the dinners and sacrifices. Missing, however, are still the ideas of her broad domain into other areas outside of household worship. Indeed, many of the Reconstructionist sources dismiss the witchcraft associations, claiming that since magic was not common place within much of ancient Greece and only a fringe that it has no place within the modern revival of Hellenic traditions. In addition, the further within the Recon sphere one delves, the less and less relevant Hekate becomes. Between the debates of origin, relevance in everyday worship, associations with other deities and the frequency in which she appears within Wiccan sources, many members of the Recon community simply write Hekate off as an irrelevant new age fad.
Even without considering the finer points of her origin and earliest worship or the Chaldean oracles, much less her portrayal within early Christian influence and the medieval period, Hekate remains one of the most complex and obscure goddesses. Her influences, described in classical sources, range from prosperity and famine to household worship, to crossroads and the cult of the dead. Yet, it some ways, her resurgence among modern worshippers bring up just as complicated views of this goddess, whether they be a Reconstructionist or a Wiccan or wiccan-influenced branch of paganism. Hekate’s mysterious nature, having perplexed many scholars, has caused many to say that further research into her relevance is unnecessary, seeing her as relatively unimportant in the larger role of Greek religion, but this is a ridiculous notion. The everyday practices of the citizens as well as the fringe cults within the religious climate are vital to understanding the whole picture of the religion in the Hellenistic period. Furthermore, it is necessary to understand the full historical importance of Hekate to the ancient Greeks in order to understand the later complexities within her transition throughout the centuries. This in turn allows the further study of modern religious movements, and broadens the amount of information publicly available so that, hopefully, the pagan movement can base their modern interpretations upon primary sources instead of secondhand information from new age books that do little to express the vast nature of deity.
Mikalson, Jon D. Ancient Greek Religion. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.
RavenWolf, Silver. To Ride A Silver Broomstick. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 2003. Print.
Ronan, Stephen. The Goddess Hekate. Hastings, U.K.: Chthonios, 1992. Print.
Sannion, ed. Bearing Torches. N.p.: Neos Alexandria, 2009. Print.
“THEOI GREEK MYTHOLOGY & THE GODS.” THEOI GREEK MYTHOLOGY, Exploring Mythology & the Greek Gods in Classical Literature & Art. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2013.
Winter, Sarah Kate Istra. Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored. United States: S. Winter, 2008. Print.