Myth Monday: Hecate, the Witch Goddess (Greek Mythology)
By Kara Newcastle
The gods of ancient Greece were numerous and powerful, but there was one deity they all trembled before; she was Hecate, the dark goddess of magic, ghosts, animals and the night, a goddess still worshipped to this day. She was one of the oldest and one of the most powerful deities in the pantheon—some say she was second to Zeus in power. Hecate, a chthonic (subterranean) and liminal (straddling the border between dimensions) goddess, was so regarded that a portion of every temple was set aside for her, even if the temple was dedicated to a totally different god.
Naturally, there are dozens of variations of the myth, but generally, Hecate was said to be a Titaness, one of the original rulers of Olympus and the Earth before Zeus and his squabbling family members took over. Hecate (“she who works her will from afar”) was the only child of the Titan Perses (destruction) and his wife, the Titaness Asteria (nocturnal oracles and falling stars), and had the power to control magic. When it was clear that Zeus would win his war against the Titans, Hecate sided with him. When the Gigantes attacked Mount Olympus, Hecate killed the giant Clytius with a pair of flaming torches and, as a reward, Zeus allowed her to keep her place as a goddess, though she was not awarded a throne.
As it turns out, Hecate was something of a wanderer anyways, traveling frequently at night. She was linked to the phases of the moon, which also symbolized the menstrual cycle of mortal women (the full moon rises every twenty-eight days, a woman has her period every twenty-eight days.) In time, Hecate was seen as a goddess of childbirth and midwives and the frog, often used as a symbol for an unborn baby, became one of her totem animals (this is a reason why frogs and witches are often shown together. Remember how in Macbeth, one of the witches remarks that her frog is calling for her?)
Since Hecate was a guardian of menstruation, she was often shown as a three-fold or triad goddess—in other words, she could appear in three forms: a young girl, an adult woman, and an aged crone—representing each stage in a woman’s life. The rising of Hecate’s moon saw the stage of the young girl or maiden, the apex was the stage of the woman and mother, and then the setting of the moon was the old woman descending into the Underworld, which we’ll get into a bit later.
In artwork Hecate is frequently shown with three faces or as three women, all staring out in three directions. Statues of Hecate were set up at crossroads, each face staring down one of the roads, serving as a protective entity for travelers (both on the road and in life.) Food and offerings for her were left at the point where the roads met.
Because Hecate was the goddess of menstruation, she was also seen as a fertility goddess and goddess of animals. She was frequently depicted as the older version of Artemis, the maiden goddess of the hunt and of the moon and was thought to control the population of wild animals that the Greeks hunted.
Hecate’s role as an underworld goddess and goddess of magic likely predates all the recorded myths we have of her, but it is the most prominent feature. As I said before, the ancient people who worshiped Hecate saw the setting of the moon as Hecate descending into the Underworld. There she reigns as queen and has the power to release vengeful ghosts into the world if she so chooses, and if all the dogs in town howled, the Greeks knew Hecate and her ghoulish entourage were near. The thought of this terrified the ancients, and they hung images of her three-faces above their doors and the gates to their cities, begging her through prayers to spare them from angry spirits. Every new moon the Greeks dedicated the evening meal to her and her ghostly followers. A slightly more complicated version of how Hecate came to be queen of the Underworld states that, after helping a woman give birth, Hecate went to bathe in the river Acheron, which carried her down to the Underworld where she then married Hades.
Occasionally, Hecate was also shown with the head of a dog, horse and a snake, lion or a boar, all animals sacred to her and that were believed to have magical ties to the underworld. Dogs were guardians of the home, but were often seen scavenging dead bodies after a battle, so it was believed that they had come to take the souls of the dead to the afterlife. Early Greeks and some of their neighboring countries sacrificed horses so that their dead relatives and friends could ride into the afterlife—plus horses and dogs were associated with the goddess Demeter, who was a goddess of destruction as well as crops. Snakes traveled to the underworld and back, so they knew all the secrets the fortune-telling ghosts revealed. Boars and lions terrified the ancient Greeks and were responsible for many deaths and might have been seen scavenging among the dead as well.
Hecate largely shunned the company of the Olympian gods, preferring to spend time with her dogs and puppies, but she did have a close friendship with the fertility goddess Demeter. After Demeter’s daughter Persephone was kidnapped, Hecate heard the rumor and went to Demeter straightaway. Hecate lit her two torches and she and Demeter searched the earth for the missing girl. During this time, Demeter was attacked and raped by her brother, the sea god Poseidon, and Hecate took away the daughter that was born afterwards, raising her in secret and teaching her magic. Later, when it was discovered that Persephone had married Hades, the god of the Underworld, Hecate joined the young goddess during her six-month stay there, being her confidant and attendant, as well as a guard at the gates of the Underworld. It was there that Hecate cast a spell on the three-headed monster dog Cerberus and created aconite from its saliva.
Hecate could be cold and fearsome, and when she walked the earth she was trailed by her huge, snarling black hounds. But Hecate wasn’t totally unfeeling; when Hercules was about to be born, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, was sent by Hera to prevent the birth. The midwife Galinthias realized who she was and tricked her into allowing Hercules to be born. Eilitheyia was so furious that she turned Galinthias into a polecat (a kind of weasel), and Hecate felt sorry for the poor creature and adopted her as one of her sacred animals (another variation was that the witch Gale so disgusted Hecate with her incontinence and sexual deviations that the goddess turned her into a polecat, and then adopted her.) After the sack of Troy, the Trojan queen Hecuba was turned into a black dog and, again, Hecate adopted her out of pity.
Most stories state that Hecate had no children and remained a virgin goddess, but some others have suggested that she was the mother of the nymph-turned-monster Scylla, fathered by the primordial sea god Phorcys, and Circe, Medea and Aegialeus by King Aeetes of Colchis. Circe and Medea were Hecate’s most skilled and devoted followers, powerful witches that upended the lives of heroes such as Odysseus and Jason, respectively. They often used potions made of belladonna, mandrake, aconite and dittany—along with garlic, plants sacred to Hecate—and used wands made of yew wood, a tree holy to Hecate as well.
Worship of Hecate continued well through the Roman era up until the Medieval period, when the horrific Burning Times took place. Megalomaniacal Christian European clergy, undereducated, misogynistic men and monarchs fearful of losing their power began to blame all the ills of the time on witches and witchcraft. They cited Hecate as a queen of Hell, the queen of witches, the infernal three-fold goddess (girl, woman, crone) that was the polar opposite of the three-fold Christ (father, son, Holy Spirit), and anyone that revered her was a heretic and witch. Unfortunately, their definition was pretty broad, and hundreds of midwives and female healers were rounded up, convicted and burned at the stake for witchcraft. The prosecution forced the worship of Hecate and other pagan religions deep underground.
In recent years, witchcraft and other pagan religions have emerged from hiding and Hecate is being worshipped again. Certain Wiccan groups celebrate “Hecate suppers,” where, much like in antiquity, they feast in her honor, but this time trade secrets and tips on magic-working. Leftover food from the feasts are left outside as an offering to Hecate and her hounds.