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Get to Know a God/dess

Hecate (Ἑκατη)

Goddess of Magic

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"Hecate" art by Barbara

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Welcome to the first article in the new series, "Get to Know a God/dess"!

 

Like many Greek kids, I cut my teeth on the ancient myths. I devoured Tanglewood Tales and The Iliad, with gorgeous mid-century illustrations by Alice and Martin Provenson, sadly now out of print but available secondhand. I geeked out over any tv shows or movies that featured Greek myths. I adored them.

 

And to be honest, I've never really grown out of it. 

 

With Halloween coming up, I thought this was a good time to start. Someone who fit the spirit of the holiday, but who? Hades - lord of the Underworld and all that dark and creepy stuff - seemed like an obvious first choice. 

 

But then I thought of someone even better. Hekate (or Hecate), goddess of magic and witchcraft!

Hekate (Ἑκάτη) is the prototypical witch. But that wasn't necessarily a bad thing to the ancient Greeks! Sure, there was "dark magic" afoot in some places. Lead tablets have been found with curses written into them, as well as figurines that were used for cursing, not unlike voodoo dolls. 

My own photo from the Kerameikos Museum in Athens, depicting on the left, a curse inscribed on a sheet of lead, which reads "I bind their tongue and their mind and soul and body, as well as their acts and mind, spirit, intellect and their own will, too." The item on the right is a lead figurine in a case, which contains the names of adversaries at law and the phrase "and anybody else whoever is a fellow-accused or witness in favour of them".

However, there was also good magic...protective magic. 

 

Hekate had in her purview both light and dark magic, but she was so well-known and revered for her beneficent magic that she was one of the main deities worshipped in Athenian households as a protector and bestower of daily blessings. She also had home shrines set up at doorways to protect the family from restless spirits who might cause harm to the household. 

 

Homer calls her "Tender-hearted Hekate (Hecate), bright-coiffed, the daughter of Persaios (Persaeus)."  in the Hymn to Demeter.

Due to her wide-ranging powers, she was often associated with other goddesses; with Demeter, with Persephone, and sometimes due her role as a moon goddess, with Artemis and Selene. Lucius Apulius conflates her with Roman Juno (Hera) and Egyptian Isis. 

Image from Wikimedia Commons

She was the triple-faced goddess of the crossroads whose familiars were a black dog and a polecat - an animal much like a ferret. She is frequently depicted striding through the night holding two torches. 

 

The dog is said to be Queen Hecuba of Troy, who was captured as a slave by Odysseus. She killed the king of Thrace for murdering her son Polydorus and was transformed by Hekate in an act of mercy when the grief-crazed queen in turn was murdered by the Thracian mob. 

 

The polecat is said to have once been a witch called Gale, who was a "dealer in spells and a sorceress". Unlike Hekate's kindness in turning Hecuba into her dog familiar, Gale was punished with the transformation for her evil dealings. 

 

Hekate is shown in ancient art as a woman holding a pair of torches. She is portrayed as young to middle-aged, however there are at least two images of her that show her in the knee-length dress of a maiden, like Artemis is portrayed wearing.

 

She was the only divinity other than Helios, the sun, who witnessed the abduction of Persephone by Hades, god of the Underworld. She helped Demeter search for her abducted daughter, leading the sorrowful mother goddess through the night by the light of her twin torches. Once Persophone was found, Hecate remained with Demeter as her companion and attendant. 

 

Later in Greek literature, her more infernal aspect comes to the fore. She is depicted as a formidable deity; a spectral goddess of sorcery who haunted crossroads and sent out from the Underworld all manner of ghosts and phantoms. Her approach was announced by the howling of dogs, and her description transformed from the helpful, torch-bearing woman of the previous era to a terrible apparition with three heads. 

 

Her origins are thought to have been in Thrace, and she had cults in Asia Minor, including a powerful following in Byzantium, where she is said to have saved the city from invasion by lighting the sky up at night, revealing the attack to the inhabitants.

 

Her sacred plants were the yew, as well as a number of poisonous plants such as aconite, belladonna, dittany and mandrake, and her sacred animal was the dog. Dogs were sacrificed to her in solemn rituals in Athens, Thrace, Samothrace and elsewhere.

"I am she that is the natural mother of all things, mistress and governess of all the elements, the initial progeny of worlds, chief of powers divine, Queen of heaven, the principal of the Gods celestial, the light of the goddesses: at my will the planets of the air, the wholesome winds of the Seas, and the silences of hell be disposed; my name, my divinity is adored throughout all the world in divers manners, in variable customs and in many names, [...] Some call me Juno, others Bellona of the Battles, and still others Hecate. Principally the Ethiopians which dwell in the Orient, and the Egyptians which are excellent in all kind of ancient doctrine, and by their proper ceremonies accustomed to worship me, do call me Queen Isis."

                                                                               - Lucius Apuleius, The Golden Ass     

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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