Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hekate in Early Greek Religion

Hekate (spelled Hecate in Latin) is probably the most misunderstood deity of ancient Greek religion. Dramatically different views of Her roles and the activities of Her followers exist. For my M.A. thesis in Classics, I analysed all of the earliest evidence of the worship of Hekate in the early Greek world, in an attempt to understand what Her worship really entailed and why the portrayal of Her followers became so complex. A brief summary follows, including some thoughts on why the most common descriptions (both ancient and modern) are so divergent and inaccurate.

Stereotypes and Misuse of Evidence

The traditional view in most popular and academic books is that She is benefactor of malevolent sorceresses and queen of restless ghosts and other nasty creatures of the night; in short, a Goddess of "witches" (in the pejorative sense). Recent books written by and for modern Pagans, on the other hand, tend to portray Her as a beneficent, grandmotherly Goddess of the Moon, magic, and Witches (in the positive sense). Supporters of both of these viewpoints cite seemingly contradictory evidence. An example of this is the difference between the writings of Hesiod, of Archaic Greece, and Horace, of Imperial Rome: Hesiod honours Hekate for Her powers over the Sky, Earth, and Sea (but not the Underworld), which are seemingly second only to those of Zeus, while Horace presents Her as the object of debased worship of grotesque, supernatural, fairy-tale women who work evil necromancy in graveyards. However, the context of these extreme representations is usually ignored.

So which was She: the evil Goddess of fairy-tale witches, or the goodly Goddess of real Witches? In short, the answer is "neither." The evidence has been seriously misused by the majority of researchers prior to the last two decades: it is simply too scant to justify such sweeping conclusions, and often requires far more analysis of its context than is usually given. What the two images reflect more accurately are some of the biases involved in historical research.

A significant underlying problem is that it is wrong to assume that there was a single "form" of Hekate. There is a long-standing tendency to pigeon-hole deities of ancient cultures, such as "Apollo the Sun-God" and "Aphrodite the Goddess of Love." While these labels can be appealing, the evidence usually shows a much greater diversity than they allow for. The followers also show considerable diversity: NO Greek deity was conceived of in the same way by everyone at any single time or place in antiquity. Thus there often was considerable variance between cities concerning divine attributes. As an example, at Ephesos Artemis was very much an all-encompassing Great Goddess, while at Athens She seems to have been far more restricted to being a minor Goddess of the Wilds, with limited regard for "civilized" life. Ancient religions also changed with time, albeit gradually: over the twelve or more centuries of recorded Hekate worship (from the eighth century B.C.E. [Before Common Era] to the fourth century C.E.), it is unreasonable to assume a completely static picture. Furthermore, much of the later evidence comes from Roman sources and sites. As Hekate was absorbed into the Roman pantheon when the Greeks were absorbed into the Roman world, this material therefore reflects in part a different culture.

Another contributing factor in the creation of these simplistic views of Hekate has been the fascination in ancient and modern times with Her most famous legendary follower, Medeia. She was the central figure in at least ten Greek and Latin plays (of which only two survive in more than fragmentary form), and was prominent in many more. Nearly all of the references to Hekate after c400 B.C.E. are through Her relationship with Medeia, who was usually (but not always) portrayed as an "evil and dangerous" foreigner with magical skills and supernatural powers. Many scholars still insist on calling Medeia a "witch," because of their acceptance of the fairy-tale definition of the word. Based upon this stereotype, many researchers naively conclude that Hekate is a dangerous, nocturnal Goddess of ghosts and evil magic, whose worship came to Greece by the seventh century B.C.E. from some foreign land (anywhere but their beloved and idealized Greece). However, this picture of Hekate is based solely upon a literal interpretation of a literary tradition.

Seeing beyond Medeia

Archaeological evidence of Hekate's worship is not nearly so fixated upon Medeia. Unfortunately most of it is quite limited, with nearly all early material being in the form of short inscriptions such as altar dedications. It does, however, come from regions as widespread as Sicily and Asia Minor, as well as mainland Greece itself. Very few temples to Hekate are known to have existed and all are poorly or not at all documented in early times. Most sanctuaries to Her were small and have yielded very little meaningful material. Statuary exists, but many pieces are Roman copies of earlier, unidentifiable Greek works; it is very hard to determine how accurate these reproductions are.

Nevertheless, evidence consistent with a benign picture of Hekate can be found in nearly every century of antiquity. Some noteworthy examples are: Her portrayal in two major literary works of the Archaic period, Hesiod's Theogony and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter; the favourable reputation over many centuries of Her (undocumented) roles in the great Mysteries at Eleusis, Samothrace, and Aigina; the popularity of Her sanctuaries and festivals in Roman times at Aigina, Argos, and especially in Karia (where She was the primary deity); the popularity of personal names such as Hekataia and Hekataios based on the stem Hekat- in certain regions such as Ionia and Karia; the public display of statues of Hekate made by famous sculptors and of altars dedicated to Her by local aristocrats; Her apparent role as a personal saviour in the highly technical philosophical tradition surrounding the Chaldaean Oracles of the second and later centuries C.E.; and the devotion to Her recorded in an epitaph from late antiquity of a prominent Roman senator and his wife.

Of particular importance is the fact that this evidence reveals the public nature and acceptance of Her worship, which contrasts with the typical literary picture of secretive, solitary, and dangerous figures at night. However, these positive examples do little to illustrate what functions Hekate actually served; this may be why the simplistic, Medeia-based stereotype has remained popular.

A Better Interpretation

So what CAN one reasonably conclude concerning Hekate in Greek religion? For my thesis I attempted to sort out the confusion by trying to determine the early aspects of Hekate: Her origins, Her early roles and interactions with other deities, and the early attitudes expressed towards Her. I concentrated upon the earliest material concerning Her to minimise problems involved with extrapolations made backwards over centuries of cultural evolution. Thus a cutoff date of about 400 B.C.E. was chosen for most evidence, roughly the midpoint of the Greek Classical period (c480 to c330 B.C.E.) and the one-third point of the entire record of Hekate in antiquity. In particular, Roman material was not included; it dates to many centuries later, and belongs to a world much changed from Archaic and Classical Greece.

In brief, I have found that the limited record indicates that in early times Hekate was a secondary figure who could serve one or more of several specific functions, none of which were unique to Her. These can be categorised under the ancient titles Propylaia, Propolos, Phosphoros, Kourotrophos, and Chthonia. The first three of these are Her most distinctive functions, and generally involve attending upon more prominent deities such as Demeter, Persephone, Artemis, and Kybele. Individually they are not unique to Her, but no other deity can claim all of them. The last two titles, on the other hand, are shared with numerous other deities. It does not seem possible to rank these functions as to their importance; different ones were emphasised at different times and locations. However, it is likely that She continued to serve all of them throughout antiquity, simultaneous with the negative (and perhaps quite fictitious) literary portrayals of Her followers.

The One Before the Gate

As Propylaia, literally "the one before the gate," Hekate offers protection against outside evils, perhaps specifically unseen daimonic and magical ones. Most of the early archaeological material suggests this role. Statues or small sanctuaries were located at the entranceways of several major sanctuaries of other deities, most commonly Demeter. Small statues of Hekate were reputedly erected at doorways of houses. As it is common for Greek deities to serve beneficial and destructive functions that are paired opposites (for example, Apollo as healer and sender of plagues and Artemis as bringer of comfort or death to women in childbirth), Hekate's reputation for governing fearful ghosts might be the "flip side" of Her ability to offer protection against them. The famous statue form of Hekate as three youthful figures standing in a tight circle facing outwards (see illustration above) may have evolved from a simple ward consisting of three fearful masks hung from a pole. Medusa, with Her serpentine hair and frightening face, bears a resemblance to some descriptions of Hekate and likely originally served a similar guardian function: the demotion of Medusa to the status of a monster for "heroic" men to vanquish may have only been an early misogynist perversion of this.

The Attendant who Leads

As Propolos, "the attendant who leads," Hekate serves as a very personal, caring attendant and guide for other deities in myth. This is most apparent in Her association with Persephone, whom She leads back from Hades to Her mother, Demeter. This is amply recorded in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and in art (see illustration below). It is possible that Hekate's role in several Mysteries involving Demeter and Persephone was as a similar, intimate guide and attendant for mortal initiates: this is highly speculative, given the obscure nature of these Mysteries, but I personally think that it is likely.

The close connection between Hekate, Persephone and Demeter is also interesting in that the threesome is probably the earliest (and perhaps only indigenous) example of a triple-goddess involving Hekate. They represent the usual three stages of a woman's life that are found in Greek art: Maiden (Hekate), Bride (Persephone), and Mother (Demeter). This is in keeping with every ancient portrayal of Hekate as a girl or young woman, and contrasts completely with the common modern image of Her as a crone. The better known Moon-Goddess set of Artemis, Selene and Hekate is poorly documented until Roman times, and rarely ever found in Greece itself.

With Artemis, the division between attendant and the one being attended-to blurs to the point of confusion, and one sees a complex interplay of victim, animal, and deity. Hekate can be Propolos for Artemis, but both can themselves have propoloi consisting of deceased humans and dogs. Both are often involved in localised legends concerning young women who are sacrificed by others or by their own hands in defence of their people and become supernatural guardians. One legend has a woman of Ephesos transformed by Artemis into a dog just prior to her death, and then afterwards into Hekate. In another legend, Iphigeneia is sacrificed by her father, the "great" king Agamemnon, to appease Artemis: the latter changes the young woman into a deer just at the point of death, then whisks her off to the northern shore of the Black Sea and transforms her into Hekate. A pair of intriguing details in this last story is that an earlier name for Iphigeneia was Iphimedeia, and the Black Sea region was the traditional homeland of Medeia.


Phosphoros, the "light-bringer," is one of Her most common titles, and probably is linked to Her most important image in art, that of torch-bearer. Other deities were sometimes portrayed carrying a single torch, but few were identified so clearly with torches or commonly bore two of them. The actual function that She serves in this case is uncertain, however. The popular view is that this symbolizes Hekate as Moon-Goddess, but the evidence is very weak for Her having such a role before the third century B.C.E., and far from prominent at any time. It is more likely that the title and torches were originally, and continued to be primarily, associated with a guiding and attendant role in Mysteries and thus the function was related to, if not identical with, that of Propolos.

An interesting point is that Phosphoros was also the Greek name for the "morning star," or the planet Venus when it is in the early morning sky. Venus was called Hesperos when in the early evening sky. These two "stars," the brightest objects in the sky other than the sun and moon, could be said to herald the end and beginning of night. As one known genealogy had Hekate as a daughter of Nux, Goddess of Night, could the two "stars" be Hekate's torches?

Child's Nurse

The title Kourotrophos is applied to nearly all Greek goddesses, as well as a few gods. Literally meaning "child's nurse," it is often applied to goddesses that govern childbirth. It can also imply a more general maternal caring for all mortal beings. Despite it's widespread usage and considerable significance, the function was rarely highlighted in Greek art, literature or architecture, and thus it is very difficult to analyse. In Hekate's case, it may indicate a more sweeping role as a "Women's Goddess," but such a conclusion draws heavily upon the stereotypical representations of Her female followers.

Goddess of the Earth

Hekate's chthonic function is the most difficult to analyse. The title Chthonia translates simply as "of the Earth," but implies much more than that. Nearly all Greek deities can be chthonic, usually in respect to matters of basic living, such as fertility, crops, childbirth, fate and death. Many researchers tend to view this function quite negatively, and use "chthonic" as a label for harmful religious and magical practices. This is a vast simplification, and likely stems from the researchers own fears of natural processes. To the ancient Greeks, chthonic forces were awe-inspiring and at times frightening, but no more so that any other supernatural elements of life. Even Zeus and Apollo, who are commonly labelled Sky- and Sun-Gods, had significant chthonic aspects.

Hekate Chthonia is poorly attested in the Archaic evidence, but came to be strongly emphasized and associated with extreme and fantastic magical practices in literature by the end of the fifth century B.C.E. Some scholars feel that Her chthonic side must have been present all along, and was brought to the forefront in the fifth century when superstitious fears and magical practices became widespread among the common-folk. It is also possible that in Athens, from where most of the surviving literature comes, Chthonia was emphasised at the expense of Her other functions in order to help differentiate Her from Artemis. At least some of Her chthonic traits could have been derived from, or were the source of, the other four functions: a Medusa-like guardian with serpents for hair that guides Persephone to and from Hades (and perhaps guides mortals through an initiatory rebirth) is not an unreasonable source for the grim picture of Hekate that began to emerge in fifth century literature.

Hekate's chthonic aspect could also have been enhanced through Her relationships with other chthonic deities. In particular, Her guardian function is shared most commonly with Hermes, with whom She later shared many chthonic activities, and the deity that She was most commonly portrayed as guiding, Persephone, is the Queen of the Dead.

However, it may have been through Hekate's association with Medeia and other fantastic, mythical females that Her chthonic function was most strongly enhanced; and their portrayal likely reflected an exaggerated and misogynist literary tradition rather than prevalent religious and magical practices. Furthermore, Hekate's other functions continued at the same time that Her chthonic side was being emphasized: real people continued to worship Her in positive ways that did not provoke negative reactions.

It is probably as Chthonia that Hekate has become seen in modern times as a Crone-Goddess. This, however, is not how the Greeks saw Her: even the most fearsome presentations of Her in post-Classical literature do not describe Her as old. On the contrary, the normal image of Hekate, chthonic or otherwise, is as a young woman. In association with Persephone and Demeter, She is portrayed quite clearly as a maidenly young attendant. Hekate as Crone only begins to appear in late Roman literature, and even then it is far from universal and likely was derived from Her portrayal as being hideous: old age and ugliness was (and is) a common stereotypical pairing. It is debatable whether many of Her actual worshippers ever envisioned Her as a Crone.

Is Hekate really Greek?

As for the homeland of Hekate's worship, the early archaeological evidence is concentrated about the Aegean Sea and in western Asia Minor. Peripheral "barbarian" lands such as Thrace (on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea) or Karia (in south-western Asia Minor) have often been proposed, but the evidence there is almost nonexistent. Together with the nature of many of Her associations with other deities, this suggests that Hekate originated, at least in part, as a close but minor associate to the "Great Goddess" figure common to Asia Minor. In particular, Hekate may have been one name for the daughter figure of the Mother-Daughter-Son triads that may have been widespread throughout the eastern Mediterranean world, examples being Kybele-Hekate-Hermes and Leto-Artemis-Apollo. However, I feel that there is insufficient evidence to confine Her homeland to Karia, the region favoured by modern scholars such as Nilsson, Kraus and Burkert. Furthermore, so much cultural exchange occurred throughout antiquity between the lands about the Aegean Sea that to focus too much upon the question of Her homeland obscures just how at home Hekate was in Greece.


There is no doubt that by 400 B.C.E. the image existed of female followers of Hekate working magic, alone at night in remote places. While they were intended as evil figures, it is interesting to note that one can easily reinterpret them as positive role-models, heroic workers of magic in a society that dreaded powerful women. However, all of the evidence for such is from the literature of the male aristocracy, in the form of what we now would call "fiction:" poetry and plays. The women were stock characters, not identifiable, real people, and the accounts grew more and more fantastic and graphic with time, as if each successive writer was trying to out-do their predecessors. No account exists of a historical person doing these things in Hekate's name. On the contrary, the evidence shows that throughout antiquity there were public displays of devotion to Hekate, often for the common good of a community. It is thus quite possible that these negative images were simply a literary motif, a reflection of prevalent misogynistic fears. Even if there were some followers who acted in this way, they could only have been a minority and were no more representative of the common views than those expressed by devotees of the Chaldaean Oracles who saw Hekate as Soteira ("Saviour").

Nevertheless, I would not say that it is wrong to honour Hekate as Soteira through highly sophisticated rituals, nor as Moon-Goddess, benefactor of solitary night rituals and protective Matron of women; I doubt that She would be offended, nor lacking. These and other images of Hekate that are atypical of the evidence are definitely very powerful ones. Even after years of research and having a greater interest in the religion of the Archaic Greek world over that of later centuries, I am still attracted to Her three-fold image and Her relationship with Medeia, and I am fascinated by the theory (put forth most strongly by Johnston) of Her as a Goddess of Transitions. However, I feel that anyone intent on honouring Hekate at least owes Her acknowledgment for Her older, more basic and less glamourous roles in Greek culture.

A Select Bibliography

  • Berg, W. 1974. "Hekate: Greek or Anatolian?" Numen 21: 128-40.
  • Boedeker, D. 1983. "Hecate: a Transfunctional Goddess in the Theogony?" Transactions of the American Philological Association 113: 79-93.
  • Burkert, W. 1985. Greek Religion. English ed. Cambridge.
  • Clay, J.S. 1984. "The Hekate of the Theogony." Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 25: 27-38.
  • Edwards, C.M. 1986. "The Running Maiden from Eleusis and the early Classical Image of Hekate." American Journal of Archaeology 90: 307-18.
  • Farnell, L.R. 1896-1909. The Cults of the Greek States. 5 vols. Oxford.
  • Fullerton, M.D. 1986. "Hekate Epipyrgidia." Archaologischer Anzeiger: 669-75.
  • Johnston, S.I. 1990. Hekate Soteira. Atlanta.
  • Kraus, T. 1960. Hekate. Heidelberg.
  • Marquardt, P.A. 1981. "A Portrait of Hecate." American Journal of Philology 102: 243-60.
  • Nilsson, M. 1967. Geschichte der griechischen Religion, 2nd ed, 2 vols. Munich.
  • West, M.L., ed. 1966. Hesiod: Theogony. Oxford.

Robert Von Rudloff, M.Sc., M.A.


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