The goddess Hecate is one of the lesser-known goddesses of the Greek pantheon. Child of Perses and Asteria, she was the only Titan to retain her control under Zeus’ reign. Hecate’s powers transcended the boundaries of the sky, the earth, the seas, and the underworld.
Although there are few myths about the goddess Hecate, her tales reveal a lot about her spheres of influence. During the Roman era, many of her attributes fell in the realm of the underworld. Yet, she also controlled elements that placed her firmly in the light. The goddess possessed extensive powers, which were later assimilated by other deities. Hecate could bestow wealth and blessings on her worshippers, yet she could also withhold these gifts if she were not adequately worshipped. This article will explore who Hecate was and what her attributes and symbols were.
The Origins of Hecate
Classical scholars dispute the origins of Hecate’s worship in Ancient Greece. For many, the goddess’ worship has a pre-Greek origin, while for others, it originated in Thrace. Among the theories, the most popular is that Hecate was accepted into Greek religion from the Carians in Asia Minor. According to scholars, it is believed that the goddess came to Greece during the Archaic age. The presence of Hecatean worship in Caria is attested by the number of cult sites dedicated to the goddess. The most prominent of these was in Lagina. However, due to these Anatolian cult sites’ late dates, other classicists argue that an Anatolian origin is impossible for the goddess.
In the ancient sources, Hecate first appears in Hesiod’s Theogony in the 7th century BCE. Hesiod only mentions her parentage and role in the Gigantomachy, where she slew Clytius. However, she is conspicuously absent from the Homeric epics.
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Hecate’s depiction in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is perhaps her most well-known literary appearance. In the hymn, Hecate and the sun god, Hyperion, hear Persephone’s cries when Hades abducts her. After Demeter had searched for her daughter for nine days, Hecate came to her on the tenth with a torch in her hands.
The goddess told Demeter all she had heard but did not know who had taken her daughter. Once Persephone was reunited with Demeter, Hecate embraced the girl. She would become Persephone’s companion in the underworld when the girl returned to Hades each year. A standard iconographic reference to this myth is Hecate carrying a torch.
Hecate’s Divine Duties
Hecate’s scope of divine duties was extensive in Ancient Greek religion. She was most notably the goddess of magic, witchcraft, the night, light, ghosts, necromancy, and the moon. Further, she was the goddess and protector of the oikos, and entranceways.
In her form as a triple-goddess, Hecate was strongly associated with the crossroads. She was portrayed as a liminal goddess who can cross from the underworld to the physical world with ease. Her liminality stemmed from her parentage and mythology, where she was able to move between her position as a Titan and a goddess. This liminality is attested to by her epithets and cult titles such as: Enodia (on the way), Trodia (frequenter of the crossroads) and Propylaia (of the gates).
By the first century CE, Hecate’s role as a goddess of magic and witchcraft was well established by Lucan’s Pharsalia. The witch, Erichtho, in the Pharsalia invokes Persephone as the lowest aspect of Hecate. It is in the Pharsalia, that we find the hag-like attributes given to Hecate.
Her retinue included the Lampades, or nymphs of the underworld, and ghosts. According to mythology, the Lampades were a gift from Zeus after her loyalty to him during the Titanomachy. The Lampades carry torches and accompany the goddess on her nocturnal travels.
Depictions of the Goddess
Hecate was commonly depicted in Greek pottery in singular form wearing a long robe and holding burning torches in her hands. Pillars of the torch-bearing goddess called Hecataea stood at crossroads and doorways. Later, Hecate’s most prevalent iconographic representation is as a triple-formed goddess with each form standing back-to-back looking at each direction of a crossroads.
Some of her statuary votive offerings included the addition of the Graces dancing around the goddess, such as in the image above. In other representations, she is accompanied by a pack of dogs. In his Description of Greece, Pausanias posits that Hecate’s triple-form representation was first depicted by the sculptor, Alcamenes in the 5th century BCE. He also states that a sculpture of the goddess called Hecate Epipurgidia (on the tower) was in Athens beside Wingless Victory’s temple on the Acropolis.
On the famous Pergamon Altar (c. 2nd century BCE) Hecate is represented as trimorphic, while attacking a serpent-like giant with a dog’s help. Throughout antiquity, Hecate’s triple form was portrayed as three separate bodies around a central column. Yet, in late antiquity, this representation transformed into a single goddess with three heads. Esoteric literature from this time describes Hecate as having three heads – that of a dog, a snake, and a horse. Hecate was also identified with many goddesses from surrounding pantheons.
Identification With Artemis
The name of Hecate or Ἑκατη means “worker from afar” from the Greek word hekatos. The masculine form Hekatos is a common epithet used for Apollo. According to scholars, this Apolline epithet links Hecate to Artemis, a goddess with similar spheres of influence. The goddesses were characterized in much the same fashion.
Both goddesses were generally portrayed as wearing hunting boots, carrying torches, and accompanied by dogs. They were often conflated to make a dual goddess, for example in Aeschylus’ Suppliants. In Aeschylus’ play, the two goddesses are called to as one by the chorus. This consolidation of the goddesses occurs again in Aristophanes’ Frogs (1358f), in which the character of Aeschylus invokes the goddesses.
Identification With Artemis-Selene
In the Roman era, Hecate became amalgamated with the goddesses Artemis and Selene, particularly in Roman poetry. Apart from her combined triple form, she became known by her Roman name, Trivia. The Roman poets encouraged Hecate’s trimorphic depictions by calling her Hecate-Selene and similar variations. Seneca often refers to Hecate in conjunction with her lunar counterparts and even connects Medea to the goddess.
Identification With Iphigenia
Early ancient sources connected Hecate with Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon. According to Pausanias, Hesiod stated that Iphigenia was not killed but rather became Hecate by the will of Artemis. In this identification, Hecate was sometimes associated with a goddess whom the Tauri worshipped as Iphigenia.
Hecate and Hermes
Hermes similarly occupied chthonic characteristics, and some ancient sources described Hecate as being the consort of this chthonic Hermes. Both Hecate and Hermes were gods of the dead and could transcend liminal spaces and boundaries between worlds. The connection between these two gods was first offered by the Roman poet Propertius in the first century BCE.
Hecate’s Sacred Animals
As previously mentioned, Hecate’s most sacred animal was the dog. In a description offered by Apollonius of Rhodes, Hecate’s presence is accompanied by the sound of dogs’ barks from the underworld.
Ancient authors, such as Ovid and Pausanias indicate that dogs – particularly black dogs – were sacrificed to the goddess. Scholars have also suggested that Hecate’s association with dogs points to her role as a goddess of birth. This is because dogs were also the sacred animals of other birth goddesses, such as Eileithyia and Genetyllis.
In later antiquity, Hecate’s dogs became associated with the restless souls of the dead who accompanied the goddess. The myth of Queen Hecuba’s metamorphosis into a dog is linked to the goddess Hecate. According to the legend, Odysseus received Hecuba as his captive after the fall of Troy. But the Trojan queen murdered a Thracian king on her voyage to Greece. As punishment, Hecuba was transformed into a black dog and became the companion of Hecate.
Another sacred animal of the goddess Hecate was the polecat or weasel. According to the myth told by Antonius Liberalis, Alcmena’s midwife Galinthias had deceived the gods during the birth of Heracles. While seeing Alcmena in labor pains, Galinthias went to the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, and the Fates – who prolonged the labor as a favor for Hera – told them the child had been born. In retribution for deceiving the gods, Galinthias was transformed into a polecat. Hecate pitied her transformation and appointed Galinthias as her servant and companion.
Worship of the Goddess Hecate
The cult of the goddess in mainland Greece was not as popular as the worship of other Olympians. The goddess had few dedicated temples throughout the ancient world. Smaller household shrines for Hecate were commonplace in the ancient world. These smaller shrines were erected to ward off evil and protect the individual from witchcraft. In Greece, Hecate’s most prominent cult centers were in Caria, Eleusis, and the island of Samothrace.
In Samothrace, the goddess was worshipped as a goddess of the Mysteries. Evidence of her worship has likewise been discovered in Thessaly, Thrace, Colophon, and Athens. The latter two cities bear evidence of sacrifices of dogs in the goddess’ honor. Pausanias offers that Hecate was the goddess most worshipped by the people of Aegina who believed that Orpheus established the rites of the goddess on their island. Pausanias also describes a wooden image of Hecate located in the Aeginetan temple.
Although Hecate does not have a Homeric Hymn in her honor, she has several Orphic Hymns. In fact, the collection of Orphic Hymns opens with a hymn dedicated to the goddess. This is significant because of her role as a goddess of entry-ways. The Orphic Hymn to Hecate reveals a lot about her spheres of influence as perceived by the Orphics. In their mysteries, she was the goddess of roads and the crossroads, and invoked as such.
Most notably, she is also called the goddess of the dead, who presides over deserted places. In this hymn, her sacred animals include deer, dogs, and wild predators. She is described as the herder of bulls and a nurturer of youths, as well. The hymn beseeches the goddess to come to the holy rites in a favorable mood with a happy heart.
The goddess Hecate proves to be more interesting the more we learn about her. Her position as a liminal figure and a goddess of roads and entryways illuminates her position as a protector. Yet her role as a nocturnal goddess of magic and witchcraft reveals a darker side. Hecate is a multi-faceted figure deserving the same attention level as the more popular deities from the Greek pantheon.