Hesiodic Hymn to Hekate
"Out of Erebos and Chaos she called Nox (Night) and the Di Nocti (Gods of Night) and poured a prayer with long-drawn wailing cries to Hecate ... a groan came from the ground, the bushes blanched, the spattered sward was soaked with gouts of blood, stones brayed and bellowed, dogs began to bark, black snakes swarmed on the soil and ghostly shapes of silent spirits floated through the air."
Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.403
Hekate is the Greek goddess of crossroads and thresholds, witchcraft and magic, the night, and of ghosts and necromancy. She is said to have power over the sky, the earth, and the sea, and also has strong ties to the underworld (which the Greeks called Hades).
Hekate’s origins are unclear. Some suggest she originates from Heket, the Egyptian goddess of childbirth, but there is very little evidence to support this. It is perhaps more likely that she has Thracian origins, but there are also other theories. Despite the debate surrounding her exact origins, she does appear to be a fairly ancient goddess of pre-Olympian origins. It is believed that when the Olympian pantheon displaced the Titans, Hekate is one of the few Titans who was allowed to keep what was hers (dominion over land, sea, sky, and underworld), as Zeus respected her power.
Although Hekate is a Greek deity, she is not an Olympian, but instead she is often regarded as a chthonic deity – that is, a deity relating to the underworld. Even so, as a goddess of thresholds, she did not fit neatly into that category at all times.
The meaning of Hekate’s name is not entirely clear, it seems most likely that it means something like ‘worker from afar’ (Hekatos). Hekate is a more accurate Greek spelling, where Hecate is the Latin spelling, either spelling is acceptable.
The earliest depictions of Hekate show her as a young woman holding either twin torches, or a key. Frequently she is dressed in a short tunic, similar to Artemis. In later periods, Hekate was often shown in triple form, but she does not really fit neatly into the modern Maiden-Mother-Crone archetype. In Greek thought, she was shown in triplicate form to symbolize the wide range of her rule, her mystical nature, her ability to see into the past, present and future, and her link to the triple crossroads. When depicted in triplicate, she is often still holding her twin torches, a key, and a knife.
The Greek Magical Papyri, a series of writings from Graeco-Roman Egypt, often describe Hekate as having one or three animal heads, or as having the head of a maiden (sometimes horned), and two animal heads. The animal heads could be that of a dog, cow, bull, goat, horse, or serpent. It is likely that in addition to having specific links to these animals, she is shown with animal heads to symbolize her link to the wilderness, and to the wild and primal.
Hekate rules over the crossroads. We usually think of a crossroads as two roads coming together to form a cross, but it is actually a triple crossroads (three roads forming a T or Y sort of shape, for example) which is most closely associated with her. It is said that her triple form faces three directions so she can guard the triple crossroads. It was common to find wayshrines dedicated to her erected at the crossroads.
Hekate was also associated with borders and thresholds of various sorts, such as the city walls, doorways, and so on – the crossroads also fit into this pattern. As a liminal goddess, she also stands between the two worlds (upper and lower, or those of the living and the dead), as well as serving as a mediator between the Olympians and the titans, or the Olympians and the Chthonic deities. Hekate was thought to guard such thresholds, and was said to be able to protect them (be it by not allowing evil to cross the doorway into a house, or by not allowing the dead to wander the world of the living), and as such this also meant she could refuse to protect someone against these things, and even send them against people should she wish to do so.
Her threshold associations can be seen in the myth of Persephone (among other myths), where she was a witness to Hades’ abduction of Persephone from her cave – a threshold to the underworld.
Hekate is also a goddess of witchcraft and magic – which also includes the creation of potions, tinctures, poisons, salves, and so on, and the knowledge of herbs required to do such things. The witch Medea is said to have gotten her power from Hekate (and she was also a priestess at Hekate’s temple), and Medea practiced magic that is frequently described as nocturnal in nature, or necromantic. Hekate is also said to have given Medea incredible knowledge of, and skill with, all the herbs that grow on land, and all the herbs of the water.
Hekate is a goddess of the night. She has some lunar ties, especially when she becomes more identified with Selene, but it might be more accurate to say that she is the goddess of moonless nights – especially moonless nights where the stars are fully visible.
Hekate is also a goddess of the dead, and of the underworld. She rules over necromancy, allowing the living to contact the dead for information or aid. She is said to lead the ghosts of the dead around the world of the living during the night, and that howling dogs is a symbol that she is passing by. In addition to leading the earthbound ghosts, she is also sometimes said to lead the spirits of the dead to the underworld. Being that she has the power to let the dead loose, she is also sometimes invoked to keep the dead from wandering.
Hekate was also related to the keres, female death-spirits who were daughters of the goddess Nyx, which include the Moirai (the fates), among other figures.
Hekate was not only associated with the dead, but also had some ties to childbirth as well. Additionally, she also had some associations with purification.
Animals sacred to Hekate include the dog, who have ties to the underworld in Greek mythology (and indeed, often in Indo-european myth in general), as well as having ties to the living (as companions/guardians of humans). Additionally, dogs were thought of as being threshold guardians – be it in guarding human homes, or Kerberos, who guarded the entrance of the underworld. Hekate was often accompanied by dogs, and there are a few myths where a human woman was turned into a dog (for various reasons), and became one of Hekate’s.
The polecat (a sort of weasel) was also one of her sacred animals. Again, in some myths she is accompanied by a polecat that was once a person, but was either turned into polecat by Hekate, or was turned into weasel by another, and Hekate took pity on them
The red mullet, a type of fish, also carried some loose associations to Hekate. As did serpents, cows and bulls, and horses, all to some extent.
Plants sacred to Hekate include aconite, mandrake belladonna, saffron, garlic, dittany, yew, cypress, and oak. Ebony was also said to be sacred to Hekate, as was bronze.
Some of Hekate’s titles include:
- Night Wandering
- Lady of the Underworld
- Queen of the Dead (or Queen of those Below)
- Angry/terrible One
- Tender/delicate (hearted) One
- Of the Crossroads
- Of the Wayside
- Nurse of the Young
- Leader of Dogs
- One That Turns Away/protects
- Holding the Keys
- Before the Gate
- Light Bringer
Hekate had a few public temples, but household shrines were often erected in her name, often in hopes to ward off witchcraft, or otherwise to protect the house from all manner of evils and ills.. A Hekataion was a little shrine placed at the front door, which was dedicated to Hekate, and were very common in Athens.
Offerings to Hekate were said to often be made to during the night, and at the crossroads. As a Chthonic deity, offerings to her might have also been burned whole, or buried in the ground (unlike offerings to the Olympians, which were often communal meals).
In one epic, a man named Jason placates Hecate in a ritual given to him by the witch Medea. He was told to bathe at midnight in flowing water, and to dress in clean, darkly colored robes. He was then to dig a pit, and to erect a pyre next to the pit, so that an ewe could be sacrificed within the pit, which should then be burned whole on the pyre with an offering of honey. He is then instructed to leave the offering site without looking back, even if he hears the sound of people, footsteps, or barking dogs – which would all indicate the presence of Hekate. The elements of this particular ritual are all very chthonic in nature. However, not all of Hekate’s traditional offerings were done in this manner.
A common sacrifice to Hekate would be that of dogs (or puppies). When dog meat was offered, it would usually be offered at a crossroads, and it would often be shared in a communal meal with those present.
In some locations, notably Athens, the end of each lunar month brought a festival dedicated to Hekate called the Deipnon - or sometimes Deipna Hekates (Deipnon is the Greek word for the largest meal of the day, Deipna is the plural of Deipnon).
This festival contained two parts. The first was to fumigate and cleanse the home. The home and household shrines were cleaned out, and the cleanings were gathered up to become part of the offering (the cleanings often contained dropped food, leftover offerings, waste blood, dirt/dust, ashes from sacrifices or incense ashes, and so on), and the home was purified. This ensured a fresh start for the beginning of the month.
The second part of the festival was to offer a meal to Hekate, which could include cakes, eggs, garlic, leeks or onions, fish, and cheese. At the end of the evening, the cleanings and the meal were usually left at the end of the path connecting the house and the main road, which of course formed a triple crossroads. The offering was placed there, and it was not to be looked at as one went back into the house. It’s not sure what was done with these offerings the next day, but often the food would be taken away by the poor in the night.
"Ask Hekate whether it is better to be rich or starving; she will tell you that the rich send her a meal every month [i.e. food placed inside her door-front shrines] and that the poor make it disappear before it is even served."
Aristophanes, Plutus 410 ff (trans. O'Neill) Greek comedy C5th to 4th B.C
Hekate is often said to be one of the virgin goddesses, much like Artemis and Athena. Many myths say she is unmarried, and she is often said to be without children, but occasionally myths say she is mother to the sea monster Scylla.
Hekate is usually regarded as the daughter of Asteria (“Starry One”) and Perses (a deity of destruction and war), who were both Greek Titans. However, a few sources say she is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Sometimes said to be a daughter of Leto (a Titan who was sister to Asteria, and the mother of Artemis and Apollo), perhaps because of her association with Artemis.
Hekate assisted Demeter in her search for Persephone, and became Persephone’s companion during her time in Hades. Due to this, she became a key part of the Eleusinian Mysteries, and served as a guide to the initiate of the mysteries, as well as perhaps serving other roles (little is recorded of the mysteries).
Hekate, in later times, was often heavily identified with Artemis and Selene. Eventually these three formed a triad deity, Hekate-Artemis-Selene, who was fairly popular in the poetry of Roman era Greece. Sometimes she would be linked to just one or the other, forming Artemis-Hekate, and Hekate-Selene.
Hekate was also identified with the Thracian goddess Bendis, who was a goddess of the moon, hunting, and witchcraft. Bendis was also associated with Selene and Artemis, and indeed the Greeks essentially saw her as a combination of those three deities. It is likely that this is the source of Hekate becoming linked to closely to both Artemis and Selene.
The Romans equated Hekate with their goddess Trivia.
"Hekate Einodia, Trioditis [Trivia], lovely dame, of earthly, watery, and celestial frame, sepulchral, in a saffron veil arrayed, pleased with dark ghosts that wander through the shade; Perseis, solitary goddess, hail! The world’s key-bearer, never doomed to fail; in stags rejoicing, huntress, nightly seen, and drawn by bulls, unconquerable queen; Leader, Nymphe, nurse, on mountains wandering, hear the suppliants who with holy rites thy power revere, and to the herdsman with a favouring mind draw near."
Orphic Hymn 1 to Hecate
Hekate on Theoi.com
Hekate Liminal Rites, by Sorita d'Este and David Rankine
Bearing Torches: A Devotional Anthology for Hekate, by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina