Hecate: Greek Goddess of Witchcraft, Sorcery and Magic
Many Greek mythology buffs could tell you that there are some gods that play quite significant roles in the mythical narrative, while others do not get as much credit for the work they do. A case in point is the Greek goddess Hecate. As the goddess of the night, witchcraft and sorcery, Hecate was very important to ancient Greeks, particularly to the famed author and scholar Hesiod.
The goddess Hecate is generally depicted as either an old woman in a long dress or a young woman in a knee-length skirt with hunting boots. Due to her dominion over the night, statues of Hecate were placed at the entrance of homes, temples and major cities.
What other myths are known about Hecate? What does her name mean? World History Edu digs deep into the origin, family, depictions and powers of Hecate – the ancient Greek deity of the night, witchcraft and protection.
Hecate in Greek mythology
Goddess of: witchcraft, necromancy, boundaries, and
Children: None, or in some cases Circe, Empusa, Scylla
Abode: Hades (Underworld)
Symbol: keys, torches, dogs, polecats, Hecate’s wheel, daggers, serpents
Epithets: Mistress of the Night; Triple-bodied Goddess; Apotropaia (“she who that protects”), Chthonia (“of the underworld”), Kourotrophos (“nurse of children”), Trimorphe (“three-formed”), Phosphoros (“bringer of light”), Triodia (“who frequents crossroads”), and Klêidouchos (“holding the keys”).
Other names: Hekate
Worship place and cults: Athens, Selinute, Caria, Byzantium, and Eleusis
Roman Name: the goddess Trivia – goddess of crossroads and guardian of roads
So far, it is unclear as to where her name or where her worship first began. There have been some scholars that have proposed that Hecate’s worship first emerged in ancient Greece.
Others have claimed that Hecate’s worship emerged in ancient Egypt, citing hqt (the Egyptian goddess of fertility and childbirth) as the possible source of her story.
There have also been claims that her worship originated in ancient Anatolia, specifically among the Carians. What this means is that: upon arrival, Hecate was likely incorporated into some of the roles that were performed by the likes of Artemis (goddess of the hunt and the Moon) and Selene (goddess of the Moon).
Did you know: The Theogony by Hesiod is the first known literature that makes mention of Hecate?
Birth and Family
It is commonly held that Hecate is a pre-Olympian goddess of the underworld. She has been described as “Chthonia” – a reflection of her role in the underworld.
Hecate is believed to have been born in the period between the Titans and the Olympians. She was born to the Titans Perses (Titan of destruction) and Asteria (deity of fallen stars and divination). Her maternal aunt was Leto – the mother of Olympians Apollo and Artemis.
In some accounts, Hecate is seen as the daughter of Asteria and Zeus. She has also been seen as the daughter of the primordial being Nyx – deity of the night.
Even though she has been described as virgin goddess and without any consort, she has been seen as the mother of deities such as Circe, Empusa, Scylla.
Meaning and Epithets
The name “Hecate” has been suggested to mean “willing”. The goddess/Titaness has been described as “she whose will gets done”. Others have stated that Hecate’s name stems from the Greek word Ἑκατός, which means “the One who reaches far”. This meaning gives prominence to the notion that Hecate and Artemis are associated with each other.
Popular epithet of the goddess Hecate include: Apotropaia (“she who that protects”), Chthonia (“of the underworld”), Kourotrophos (“nurse of children”), Trimorphe (“three-formed”), Phosphoros (“bringer of light”), Triodia (“who frequents crossroads”), and Klêidouchos (“holding the keys”).
Symbols and depictions of Hecate
Generally, the goddess Hecate is depicted as either an old woman in a long robe or a young woman wearing knee-length skirt and hunting boots. The younger Hecate was usually associated with the Moon, and in some case her role in the pantheon overlapped with that of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt.
In almost every depiction of Hecate, the goddess can be seen holding two torches. It was believed that she used the torches to navigate through the night, or in some cases, she used the torches to guide the path of people in need at night.
It is also not uncommon for her to be shown as three headed goddess. This depiction is in reference to her role as the goddess of crossroad. Hecate is believed to have very strong powers of premonition. She could see the past, future and present. Thus each head of hers represented a time period, allowing her to see in all three directions.
For her companion, several animals have been sculpted or painted beside her. Examples of such animals are dogs, polecats and serpents. Many of those animals came to be associated with modern day witches. Other symbols of Hecate include daggers, Hecate’s wheel, torches, and keys.
Powers and significance
The Greek goddess Hecate is often described as Triodia – who frequents crossroads and borders. Similar to the likes of Hermes and in some cases Persephone, Hecate was revered for her role in standing guard at borders, city walls, doorways, and crossroads.
She could move back and forth between the land of the living and the afterlife. Her ‘between’ role came to bear when she tried to broker peace between the Olympians and the Titans. She also facilitates interaction between mortals and the immortals/gods. This role of hers is generally referred to as the liminal role.
As chthonic goddess, she could interact with the dead and ghosts in the Underworld. According to the myth, she holds the keys that open the gates between the realms of the living and the dead.
She has been described as having power in both heaven and hell. Many stories have claimed that she holds the key to Tartarus – a hell-like place where the Titans are imprisoned.
As the goddess of witchcraft, magic, and sorcery, Hecate is often accompanied by ghosts in her travels. She has been described as the “Rotting goddess” with decaying body. And whenever she goes to Mount Olympus, she wears a mask.
Hecate and Queen Hecabe
Dogs were of sacred importance to the goddess. The female black dog that accompanied her was once the Trojan Queen Hecabe. Following the destruction of the city of Troy, Hecabe is believed to have jumped into the sea. Hecate took pity on the queen and transformed her into a black female dog. In honor of this, some of her believers took to taking care of stray dogs. Some of them rather volunteered at a dog shelter.
In some cases however, the followers of Hecate sacrificed and ate dogs in her honor.
Hecate and the City of Byzantium
In Greek mythology, Hecate is generally seen as a kind deity, devoting herself to helping those in dire need. She once helped save the city of Byzantium from the attack of Philip II of Macedon. The goddess was credited with alerting them to Philip’s surprise attack. She did this by lighting up the night sky. In remembrance of her kind gesture, the city erected a statue in her honor. The statue was called Hecate Lampadephoros.
Hecate and The Two Demeters (Demeter and Persephone)
As a testament to her helpful nature, Hecate was referred to as “tender-hearted” in the Hymn to Demeter. The goddess was very helpful when Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, lost her daughter Persephone. Hecate helped by lighting up the path Demeter took in her search for Persephone.
Hecate was also the one who advised Demeter to consult Helios, the god of the Sun. Helios would then reveal to Demeter that Persephone was abducted by Hades, the lord of the Underworld.
And even after a peace deal was struck between Demeter and Hades for the release of Persephone, Hecate continued to offer help to Demeter and Persephone. While Persephone was in the Underworld, Hecate served as her companion. She did her best to ease Persephone’s transition in and out of the Underworld. In this role of hers, she is believed to help people prepare for a new life after death.
Owing to her service to Demeter and Persephone, Hecate was considered an important deity in the city of Eleusis, featuring prominently in the Eleusinian Mysteries, alongside Demeter and Persephone.
Generally, Hecate was worshiped alongside other deities in shrines and temples across ancient Greece. She was often associated with deities such as Hermes, Apollo, Demeter, Zeus and Persephone. Collectively, those gods were main gods in the homes of ancient Greeks. Her worshipers prayed to her for protection against restless dead spirit that could do them harm.
Food offerings were left at the cross roads in her honor. Much of her cult centers started springing up around 430 BCE in Athens. Other major worship centers include Lagina, Selinute (modern-day Trapani in Sicily) and Argolis. There were also Hecate worshipers in Western Anatolia (modern-day Turkey). At Hecate temples in Selinute, eunuchs were the preferred people to attend to the goddess.
The statues of Hecate
According to the famed travel writer Pausanias, the sculptor Alcamenes was the first person to depict Hecate in a triple form. Pausanias went on to say that Hecate’s statue was erected in front of the temple of the goddess Nike.
“Hekataion” is the term for the depiction of Hecate in a triple form standing around a pole or a column. In ancient times, hekataion were placed at almost every crossroads. In some cases the faces, which faced in each road direction, had masks placed over them.
The goal of Hecate’s statues was to invoke the protective spirit of Hecate at the crossroads so that travelers can be given the guidance they needed in their journeys.
It was also not uncommon for her statues to be placed at the entrances to homes and temples. The statue of Hecate was meant to protect people from evil and dark spirits of the night.
In one 3rd century BCE statue from Attica, the Greek Charites can be seen around Hecate.
Aside from the triple faces, she has also being depicted in three bodies. The most famous example of this depiction can be seen on the frieze of the Pergamon Altar. Hecate is seen in three bodies as she fights along with her fellow Titans.
Did you know: the earliest known statue of Hecate is reasoned to be the small terracotta statue that was found in Athens? Archeologists date the statue to around the 6th century BCE. The statue shows the goddess seating.
Other interesting myths about Hecate
- Because she was born in between the Titans and the Olympians, she hardly receives as much attention in literature as the other Greek gods. Considering how unconventional Hecate is described in the mythology, it is most likely that she herself would not mind being left out on some occasions.
- During the Titanomachy – the great battle between the gods and the Titans – Hecate is believed to have either sided with Zeus or taken no sides at all. This explains why she did not get banished to Tarturus like her fellow Titans.
- When the Olympian gods came under threat from the giants, Hecate came to their aid, defeating one of the giant with her flaming torch.
- She was so committed to caring for the neglected and abandoned that she remained childless and had no spouse.
- One time a midwife named Galinthias attempted to interfere with the birth of the Greek hero Heracles. Galinthias was doing this on behalf of the goddess Hera, who often exacts revenge on the children born from Zeus’ extramarital affairs. The Greek goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, found out and turned Galinthias into a house cat. Hecate took pity on Galinthias and invited her to be a companion.
- With regard to dogs, some people believed that dog’s howls often preceded her arrival.
- Famed English writer William Shakespeare makes mention of Hecate in his works – A midsummer Night’s Dream (1594-1596) and Macbeth (1605).