When I was young I received a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I loved. I memorized the characters and stories from the book and suddenly the world of art and poetry opened up to me. The book remains a delightful mythology primer for any child. However, later when I read actual Greco-Roman literature, I realized that D’Aulaire’s had left out a goddess of great importance to the Greco-Roman world (among other things…). The omission seems fitting however, for the missing goddess was Hecate, the goddess of magic, poison, night, thresholds, boundaries, and crossroads. The Oxford Classic Dictionary asserts that Hecate “is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.” This seems correct. Even in classical passages which hold her in high esteem, Hecate seems to be an outsider among the gods. Her very name means “the distant one”.
Hecate may seem like a strange outsider in the Greek pantheon because she was an outsider in the Greek pantheon. Some scholars believe she was originally a Thracian moon goddess based, in turn, on an ancient and powerful Anatolian goddess. Unlike other outsider gods, who frequently worked their way into the Greek canon as animal demons, Hecate struck a chord with the Greeks and became a focus of their mystery cults. Additionally she had an influential worshipper early on in Greek culture: there are few if any references to Hecate before she appears in the works of Hesiod (a major source of Ionic thought who was active sometime between 750 and 650 BC). Yet in Hesiod’s Theogeny she is a major force of the universe. Perhaps this is because Hesiod’s father was reputedly from Aeolis (a region of Anatolia). It could be that Hesiod was honoring a local goddess, and his writings became instrumental to securing her place in the Greek canon (where she nonetheless remains an alien).
Hesiod wrote that Hecate was the only child of two Titans, Asteria (goddess of the stars) and Peres (god of might). Hesiod seems to have regarded her as beautiful and powerful. In Theogeny, he wrote,
For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich
sacrifices and prays for favour according to custom, he calls
upon Hecate. Great honour comes full easily to him whose prayers
the goddess receives favourably, and she bestows wealth upon him;
for the power surely is with her….
The son of Cronus did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that
was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as
the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both
in earth, and in heaven, and in sea. Also, because she is an
only child, the goddess receives not less honour, but much more
still, for Zeus honours her.
Greek writers of the 5th century, maintained Hesiod’s respect for Hecate but they saw her in a darker light. Euripides writes about her as the patron deity of the sorceress Medea and quite a few of that baleful witch’s invocations are directly to Hecate.
Whatever Hecate’s origins in the near east and ancient Greece, Hecate had morphed from a moon goddess and protector of the young into underworld queen by the era of Alexander, and that is how she was subsequently worshipped by the Romans (who held her very dear). In Hellenic times and afterwards, Hecate is pictured as a triple goddess. Sometimes she has been portrayed with three young beautiful faces, but other times she is depicted as simultaneously being a maiden, a mother, and a crone (which seems to be how her contemporary worshippers see her). Likewise, in one or more of her six arms she always holds a torch. The other items vary between serpents, keys, daggers, ropes, herbs, and mystery charms. Speaking of serpents, she was occasionally portrayed with serpent legs or serpent limbs.
The snake was by no means the only creature affiliated with Hecate. Like many chthonic deities of the Mediterranean, she was associated with dogs (particularly black female dogs). She is said to have had two demon hounds which did her bidding (although it hardly seems important since she was a sorceress of matchless puissance). Additonally, dogs were sacrificed to her and eaten in her honor. Snakes, owls and other nocturnal creatures were variously seen as sacred to the goddess as was the red mullet, a blood-colored goatfish (which wealthy Romans kept in salt water pens to pamper and train as pets). In terms of botanical symbolism, all manner of poisons were her bailiwick and she was invoked by poisoner and victim alike. The yew, with its dark symbolism, was particularly sacred to Hecate, and her worshippers planted them around her temples and mystery cult sites.
As goddess of thresholds she was called on to help people through the two greatest thresholds. She was worshiped both as a midwife (some say the knife and rope in her hands were for tying umbilical cords) and as a sort of supernatural hospice nurse (some assert that her knife, rope, and herbs could be used to slip into the next realm). Like Athena and Diana, Hecate was a virgin goddess.
I mentioned Hecate’s contemporary worshipers earlier. Unlike the other Greek gods, who may still inspire artists, poets, and antiquarians but rarely elicit prayers, Hecate continues to have a worldwide following. Neopaganism has suited her admirably and she has even appeared in a number of hit TV shows. Her mysterious protean nature seems to appeal to the diffuse and highly-individualized practitioners of Wicca. One can only imagine how the surly and chauvinistic Hesiod would feel if told that his beloved Hecate had outlived his beloved Olympian Gods to be worshiped and called on as a feminist icon!