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The most prominent female deity in ancient Mesopotamia was Inanna (also known as Ištar). Monotheistic religions have a way of leaving out women (or making them ancillary characters like Mary). Polytheistic religions often divide their goddesses into fertility goddesses (like Aphrodite) versus power goddesses like Athena or Artemis. Inanna reflects no such omission or dichotomy: as Queen of Heaven, she was both the goddess of sex and the goddess of war. In fact, saying that she was the most prominent female deity of the Babylonian/Akkadian/Sumerian pantheon might be unfair: arguably she was the most prominent god of any sort in that pantheon.
Worship of Inanna seems to have begun in the city state Uruk around 6000 years ago. Her sacred symbols were the eight pointed star and the lioness. She is especially affiliated with the planet Venus (which, obviously, was known instead as “Inanna” to the Mesopotamians), the third brightest object in the sky which, bafflingly, can rise in the East and the West in both the morning and evening (we realize that his is because Venus is our closest neighbor, but to the Babylonians it was uncanny). Inanna was not just the day star but also storm, flood, wrath, and war. Additionally, she was a goddess of fertility and unbridled sensuality. Inanna had many lovers (and was always looking for more) but her actual husband was the beautiful shepherd god, Dumuzi. There are several unabashedly graphic poems about the physical nature of the pair’s marriage (which you can look up on your own).
In addition to personifying forces of nature, Inanna possessed all of the secrets of civilization. She beguiled ancient Enki, the first god, with her charms and made him drunk on beer. Then she convinced him to give her the Mes, clay tablets which represented fundamental truth and all the blueprints for power and civilization. When Enki sobered up, he sent his attendants after Inanna to fetch back the Mes, but it was too late. Uruk blossomed and outshone Enki’s city, Eridu, in glory.
Probably the most famous story about Inanna concerns her trip to the underworld (ruled by Inanna’s sister, the dark and jealous goddess Ereshkigal). One day Inanna left heaven. She abandoned her seven cities and emptied her temples. She donned the seven sacred objects symbolic of her queenhood and set out for the realm from which no traveler returns. Before leaving, however, Inanna left explicit directions with her faithful vassal, Ninshubur, concerning what to do if she (Inanna) did not return in three days.
Arrayed in splendor, Inanna came before the great bronze gate to the underworld and announced herself as “Inanna, Queen of heaven.” She claimed to be visiting the underworld to attend her sister’s husband’s funeral. The doorkeeper of the dead, Neki was amazed and he sought Ereshkigal’s orders. To enter the underworld, Inanna had to give up her crown and, at each subsequent gate she was forced to part with another of her treasures/garments. One by one she set aside her lapis earrings, the double strand of beads about her neck, her breastplate (called, “Come, man, come”), her golden hip girdle, and the lapis measuring rod. She walked on and on through the dreary lands of spirits, ghosts, and wraiths. Whenever she tried to talk to Neti, he answered, “Quiet Inanna, the ways of the Underworld are perfect. They may not be questioned.”
Finally at the last gate she had only her royal breechcloth. Surrendering this last garment she came to the final depths of the realm of the dead naked and stripped of power. As she stepped before the throne of Ereshkigal she was knocked to her knees by the annuna, the monstrous judges of the underworld. They surrounded her and judged her. Here is a translation of the actual Sumerian text:
They passed judgment against her.
Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death
She spoke against her the word of wrath
She uttered against her the cry of guilt
She struck her.
Inanna was turned into a corpse
A piece of rotting meat
And was hung from a hook on the wall
After three days Inanna did not return. Ninshubur became worried. She was a goddess in her own right who sometimes served as a herald or a messenger for the other gods, but her true devotion was always to Inanna (some myths even describe her as one of Inanna’s lovers). Acting on Inanna’s instructions, Ninshubur went to various deities to ask for help rescuing Inanna.
Inanna’s father and paternal grandfather were unmoved by her death (having warned her against sojourning in the land of the dead). However ancient Enki, still loved her, despite the fact that she had taken the Mes from him. In order to save Inanna from death he summoned kurgarra and the galatur, demon beings, to whom he gave the water of life. Assuming the guise of houseflies, the two demons flew into the underworld and descended to Ereshkigal’s throne room where Inanna was suspended dead and decomposing on a hook. With magical powers they rescued Inanna’s corpse from suspension and poured the water of life upon it. Inanna returned to life and proceeded back through the underworld, gathering her clothes and treasures as she went.
Unfortunately the galla, the demons of the underworld, discovered her as she was leaving. Unable to prevent her egress, they nevertheless demanded a substitute life to take her place and they followed as the goddess made her way back through the underworld and back out into the world of life. As Ninshubur joyfully greeted Inanna, the galla asked for the attendant’s life (which Inanna angrily refused). The underworld demons then asked for Inanna’s sons, Shara and Lulal, and even for Inanna’s beautician Cara as sacrifices to take Inanna’s place. However the goddess was firm: since all of these people were dressed in mourning for her, she refused to let them be touched. However when the Queen goddess came home to her palace, she found her husband, Dumuzi (who was once a shepherd but now lived as a god-king) dressed in rich robes, drinking and feasting merrily. Infuriated, she pointed him out to the galla and the demons sprang at him. Dumuzi appealed to the sun god Utu for help and was transformed into a snake, but the demons were remorseless and they found him in his new form and dragged him away to the depths of the underworld in place of the resurrected Inanna.
The gods cared little about Dumuzi’s fate, but his sister Geshtinanna remained loyal to him. She begged Ereshkigal to take her in her brother’s stead and the death goddess (impressed by such love for a sibling) relented and allowed her to spend half the year as a stand-in for her brother. Their annual place changing was believed to drive the seasons. As for Inanna, she went back to war and sex. Yet something had changed, reborn, she had knowledge of the underworld and the ultimate mysteries.
Norse mythology featured two possible versions of the afterlife. Odin, the chief of the Æsir, needed heroes to fight beside the gods during Ragnarök, the final battle. Thus whenever heroic warriors died in battle, Valkyries carried their spirits to Valhalla to enjoy fighting, feasting, and quaffing among the company of gods and heroes. The majority of souls did not have such a glorious end though. The dark goddess Hel gathered up the spirits of non-heroes and held them forever in a cold realm named after herself. Of the many gods and goddesses of the underworld, Hel is one of the most chthonic and horrible.
Hel was the child of Loki who (like Echidna in the Greek canon) spawned many of the worst monsters in the Norse pantheon. Hel’s dismal kingdom was located in the frozen realm of Niflheim, the deepest and oldest part of creation where ancient monsters and primordial gods gnaw at the roots of existence. A dismal and unhappy goddess, Hel is portrayed as half beautiful maiden and half-rotten corpse. Contemporary artists tend to show this split as a left/right juxtaposition, but older sources portray her with a hag’s living head and torso—and as a filthy rotting corpse from the waist down.
In temperament Hel was indifferent, and quiet. She sat in haughty silence on a raised dais in the immense cold hall of the dead. Stretched in ranks beneath her were all the souls who died of sickness, old age, misadventure, and murder. Whenever Hel appears in myths she is implacable and stern–not evil, so much as beyond the concerns of morality and heroism. In the troubling tale of Balder (which describes how the god of happiness was killed) she ends the story by imprisoning the dead god in her gray kingdom with the statement “Hel holds what she has.”
Loki’s other monstrous offspring, the Midgard Serpent and Fenris wolf, are Hel’s half-siblings. During Armageddon, all three entities play a part in destroying the world. The last battle will commence when Loki escapes the dungeon where he was confined for his role in Balder’s death. After countless centuries of frozen emptiness, Hel will lead all of her subjects to the field of Vígríðr, where she will join forces to fight for her father Loki. The Midgard serpent will eat the sun, but be killed by Thor (who will himself take a mortal wound). The Fenris wolf will break free and kill Odin only to fall before his sons. Amidst the unimaginable slaughter of the apocalypse all of the spirits of all the dead will finally fall in furious battle. At the end, Hel herself will perish along with the world and all things in Surtr’s fire.
Archery seems to have been invented at the end of the late Paleolithic period. Thereafter the use of bows and arrows for hunting and combat was widespread throughout most human societies up until the invention of firearms. Subsequent to the popularization of guns, archery was (and still is) practiced as a recreational activity, but sometimes it is more fashionable than other times. Right now there is a craze for archery in America thanks largely to the best selling dystopian fantasy novel, The Hunger Games, which features an Appalachian heroine who is forced to use her bow-hunting skills to prevail in an epic gladiatorial contest (that’s her up there at the top of the post as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the blockbuster film). However archery has become popular as a pastime in other eras and other places thanks to similar fads and crazes. For example, in the 18th century, big swaths of the European aristocracy became obsessed with pastoral fantasy—the idea of living as milkmaids, shepherds, and rustic hunters. To celebrate recreational archery (which just finished a star turn at the Olympics), here is a mini gallery of three 18th century masterpieces concerning archery and pastoral ideas of beauty.
Longhi was famous for painting scintillating little scenes of private life in 18th century Venice. Usually his paintings abound with lovely blushing courtesans, lecherous lords, bumbling servants, and sly procuresses (those paintings are a treat and you should go check them out). Here a foppish lord is duck hunting in a red jacket with gold embroidery! The boatmen all seem to be staring at him with mixed expressions of disbelief, contempt, and envy. Despite his graying hair and outlandish looks, the nobleman seems pretty proficient with his longbow and has already shot three ducks.
Jean-Marc Nettier mostly painted the royal family of France. Here he has portrayed Princess Marie Adelaide, the sixth child of Louis XV pretending to be the goddess Diana. The guise proved to be prophetic, for the princess was never married (there were no eligible bachelors of her station alive in Europe). Dressed in leopardskin and silk the princess/goddess stares haughtily down from the canvas as she fingers her arrows. It is as though she is deciding whether it is worth her effort to shoot the viewer.
Pompeo Batoni made his living painting wealthy European lords who were visiting Rome. Although he was a superb portrait painter he did not paint any first order masterpieces–except for this very beautiful painting of Diana tormenting Cupid. The virgin goddess has taken Cupid’s bow away from him and she playfully holds it out of his reach as he clambers (arrow in hand!) across her lap. The work features superbly rendered hunting dogs, magnificently opulent scarlet and pink drapery, and a gorgeous triangle composition. All elements point toward the goddess’ exquisitely painted face which bears a strange intense expression of wry amusement with a hint of wistfulness. This painting is currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum in New York and you should look for it if you are ever there. Because of its beautiful execution, its luminous color, and its superb condition it is one of those paintings that seem like an actual portal where you could step through into a world of nude goddesses and eternally verdant forests.
After the discovery of Pluto in 1930, there was a long hiatus in discovering objects of comparable size. Then in 2003, a team of astronomers led by Mike Brown of Caltech discovered a distant icy sphere which was quickly heralded as “the tenth planet.” Mike Brown announced the discovery on his website along with his team’s rationale for naming the object. He wrote “Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the Solar System, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna, the Inuit goddess of the sea, who is thought to live at the bottom of the frigid Arctic Ocean.
It turns out that Sedna is only one of many similar snowball-like planetoids beyond Neptune. In fact, Ferrebeekeeper has already described the dwarf planet Eris (named after the Greek goddess of Strife) which is the largest currently known Kuiper belt object. Sedna was the first to be discovered since Pluto and it sparked a debate about such objects which ultimately resulted in Pluto’s downgrade to dwarf planet. Sedna also has some unique features which make it remarkable in its own right.
Sedna takes 11,400 years to complete its orbit around the sun and its bizarre highly elliptical orbit has given rise to much conjecture among astronomers. Although some astronomers believe it was scattered into a skewed orbit by the gravitational influence of Neptune, other astronomers believe it originated in the inner Oort cloud and was never close enough to Neptune to be affected by the giant’s gravity. Some scientists speculate that its lengthy orbit may have been caused by a passing star (perhaps from the sun’s birth cluster). A few theorists have gone one step further and conjectured that Sedna is from a different solar system and was captured by our Sun billions of years ago. A final school contends that Sedna is evidence of an unknown giant planet somewhere in the depths of space (!).
We don’t know much about Sedna except that is probably 1,200–1,600 km in diameter and that its surface is extremely red. After Mars, Sedna is one of the reddest astronomical objects in our solar system. This color comes from the profusion of tholins covering the methane and nitrogen ice of which the little world is formed. Tholins are large, complex organic molecules created by the interaction of ultraviolet light on methane and other simple hydrocarbons. It is believed that early Earth (prior to obtaining an oxidizing atmosphere) was rich in Tholins and they are one of the precursors to the rise of life.
Like the Arctic landscape, Inuit mythology is austere, cruel, strange, and beautiful. Just as the dialects of the Inuit language differ based on geography, so too many of the sacred stories of the Inuit share the same elements yet also vary from one region to the next. One such story is the myth of Sedna—the goddess of marine mammals, the frozen depths of the sea, and of the spirit’s realm below. There are many versions of the tale. Here is my favorite.
Sedna was a beautiful giantess. Her great size was a hardship for her father, who had to spend most of his time hunting in order to feed himself and his daughter. However, because she was so lovely, she had many suitors. Sedna was proud of her looks and her strength, so she rejected every suitor as unworthy of her.
One day a well-dressed stranger came to visit Sedna’s father. Though the visitor’s clothes were opulent and his language was cultured, he kept his hood pulled down so that his face remained in darkness. The stranger talked of his great wealth and the life of ease which Sedna would enjoy if she were his wife. Then he appealed to the father’s greed with gifts of fish, animal skins, and precious materials. Since hunting was bad and his stores were running out, Sedna’s father felt he had little choice but to comply–so he drugged his daughter and presented her to the stranger. As soon as she was loaded on his kayak the elegant stranger paddled off into the frozen ocean with unnatural speed.
When Sedna came around to consciousness, she was in a great nest on top of a cliff. The only furnishings were dark feathers, fish bones, and a few clumps of skin and fur. The elegant stranger cackled and threw back his hood. He was none other than Raven, the capricious trickster deity who had arrived second in the world, soon after the creator had shaped it. Raven kept his beautiful stolen wife trapped in his nest and he fed her on fish (although she kept her ears open and listened to his magic words).
In the mean time, Sedna’s father became unhappy with the bargain he had struck. He set out on his kayak to find his daughter and rescue her from the mysterious suitor. Night and day he paddled, till finally he heard her cries for help intermingled with the howling winds.
Sedna’s father arrived while raven was off pursuing his other ventures, and Sedna quickly climbed down to his kayak so they could start back to the mainland. They paddled hard, but before they could reach land, Sedna spotted a distant pair of black wings in the sky. Raven had returned home to his nest and found his bride was missing. In anger at being cheated, Raven called out magic words of anger to the sea spirits. The winds rose to a gale and huge waves pounded the kayak.
Lost in terror, Sedna’s father cast his daughter into the ocean to placate Raven and the water spirits. Despite the storm and her father’s imprecations, she clung to the gunwale of the kayak. Then, in fury, her father pulled out his flint knife and hacked at her fingers. Sedna’s first finger came off and, amidst blood and saltwater, was transformed into narwhals and belugas. Her father hacked off her second finger which transformed into fur seals and ringed seals. Finally the knife cut through her third finger which transformed into the great walruses. Unable to grip the kayak with her maimed hand, Sedna fell into the sea. Rather than submit to her raven husband or her greedy father, she let herself sink beneath the waves down to the icy bottom of the ocean.
Beneath the waves she found Adlivun, the Inuit underworld where spirits are purified before they wander on to other worlds. With the help of her powerful new children she made herself ruler there. Her legs gradually changed into a mighty tail. Her humankind ebbed from her and was replaced by divine power and wrath. Sedna is still worshiped as the underworld god by Inuit peoples. She hates hunters both because of the wrongs she suffered at the hands of her father and because they continue to kill so many of her children—the seals, whales, and walruses. From time to time she raises a terrible storm to drown seafarers, or she gathers together all of the marine mammals within her long beautiful hair where the hunters can never find them. It is at such times that the shaman must travel down into Adlivun to beg with her and to praise her beauty and strength. Only then will she reluctantly let the storms abate and allow all of the marine mammals to go back to the coasts–where they are again in danger from Inuit spears.
Kindly accept my apologies for the lack of posts on Thanksgiving week: I was hunting and feasting in wild forested hills far away from the city (and my computer).
When writing about mythology, this blog traditionally concentrates on stories of the underworld and the dark beings and divinities which exist beyond the mortal veil. However to celebrate the wild joys of the forest, I am dedicating this week to Artemis/Diana–goddess of the hunt and protector of animals. Even though Artemis was primarily a virgin goddess of unspoiled wilderness, wild creatures, and of hunters and hunted, she had a dark underworld aspect as well. In stark opposition to her role as protector of children and women in childbirth she was a plague goddess who killed swiftly with afflictions which struck like divine arrows.
Artemis was the twin sister of glorious Apollo. Both siblings were the children of Zeus and Leto (a daughter of obscure Titans). Hera/Juno was angry about Zeus’ philandering and tried to prevent the birth of the twins by cursing the land they were born in, but Leto found a floating Island, Delos, which escaped Hera’s wrath by being unmoored. After the birth of the twins, Delos was cemented to the seafloor and became a sacred location.
Artemis was the elder twin. Although Leto bore Artemis quickly and painlessly, Apollo’s birth was a terrible ordeal of prolonged painful labor which lasted nine days and nights. By the end of this time, Artemis had grown into a full goddess and she helped her mother bring her twin into the world—hence her connection with childbirth. Thereafter Artemis was identified with the moon and the wilderness while Apollo has always been a sun god associated with civilization and society. When Artemis met Zeus she asked to always remain a virgin and a loner, a request which the king of the gods quickly granted to his lovely daughter.
Artemis had several attributes: a bow and a quiver full of arrows, a knee-length tunic, and packs of attendant hounds and nymphs. The sacred animal of Artemis is the deer, and she is often portrayed caressing a deer, being carried in a chariot drawn by deer with golden antlers, or hunting stags in the forest. One of Hercules’ most challenging labors was to capture a golden-antlered hind sacred to the goddess. The magical deer could outrun arrows (and anyways Heracles knew that shooting it would bring him the disfavor of the goddess and disaster). For a year he unsuccessfully pursued the deer on foot and he only succeeded in catching the doe when he fell down in desperation and groveled before the goddess (who transferred her wrath to Eurystheus). Another myth involving deer and Artemis does not end so well for the mortal protagonist. Once when she was bathing–nude, chaste, and beautiful—she was accidentally spotted by the unlucky Theban hunter Actaeon. In fury that a mortal had espied her loveliness, she transformed the hunter into a stag, whereupon he was torn to shreds by his own dogs–which did not recognize their master or know the anguished voice trying to call them off with the tongue of a deer. For some reason this scene is a timeless favorite of artists!
This last story hints at Artemis’ dark aspects. When wronged, Artemis was a fearsome being and her wild vengeance rivals that of any underworld deity. Several of the more troubling stories from classical myth involve her wrath. For example, her anger led directly to the Caledonian boar hunt, the defining heroic event of the era just prior to the Trojan War. One year King Oeneus of Calydon disastrously forgot to include Artemis in his annual sacrifices. To punish the King, she sent a monstrous male pig, a scion of the primal monster Echidna to ravage the countryside. This in turn brought the greatest hunters and heroes of Greece together with sad consequences. In other tales Artemis was even more direct with her vengeance. She visited plague upon Kondylea until the citizens adjusted their worship of her. She famously slew the many daughters of Niobe with painless arrows and turned their mother into a weeping stone.
Artemis is a self-contradicting figure–a virgin who was the goddess of childbirth; a protector of wild animals who was also goddess of the hunt; and a friend to maidens, mothers, and children who wielded the plague to smite down mortals. Her temples were frequently on the edge of civilization—at the end of the croplands where the forest began or at the edge of useable land where terra firma gave way to swamps and morasses. This highlights the main fact about Artemis—she was a nature goddess. wildness and inconsistency were parts of her. Worshiping Artemis was how the Greeks venerated and sanctified the savage beauty and random gore of the greenwood.
The Aztec goddess of death was Mictecacihuatl. According to myth she was once alive countless ages ago—a member of an ancient pre-human race of beings who lived when the world was new. But her time in the living world was short since she was sacrificed to the underworld as an infant. After her death, she grew to adulthood as a magical skeleton deity of immense power. She has lived through countless cycles as a goddess of bones and death and the dead, rising ultimately to become queen of the underworld. One of her foremost duties as the ruler of the dark realm is to guard the skeletal remains of extinct earlier races. In the past Mictecacihuatl failed in her duties and Xolotl, god of sickness and lightning, stole one of the sacred corpses of those who lived long before–which the gods of the sky then fashioned into living modern human beings. Now Mictecacihuatl must also guard the bones of dead humans, for she believes that our remains could be used by capricious sky gods to build an even more ruthless group of alien new beings.
Wow! Aztec religion really does not hold back on the bizarre, the macabre, and the unfathomable–but what does all this have to do with flowers of the underworld? Well, it turns out that Mictecacihuatl has a weakness for flowers. The brilliant yellow cempasúchil–today known as flor de muertos–was sacred to her, and Aztecs believed the smell of the blossoms could wake the souls of the dead and bring them temporarily back to earth for the great autumn festival in their honor. Huge altars laden with food were erected and festooned with the flowers. It was one of the most important traditions of the Aztecs, and even after the Spanish conquest, the tradition continued. Despite the long efforts of the Spanish church to eradicate the festival of the dead it lingers to this day (though now as a church holiday), celebrated on November 2nd as Dia De los Muertos, or “day of the dead”. The graveyards are filled with yellow cempasúchils which for a time reign supreme among flower markets throughout Mexico. Along with candy, jaunty toy skeletons, and liquor, the flor de muertosare an inextricable part of this festive time.
And what sort of flower is the cempasúchil, which has so much power over the spirits of the dead and Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld herself? The botanists call it Tagetes erecta, one of about 75 members of the marigold family– those omnipresent orange and yellow flowers known to every American schoolchild! The English name for the flower of the dead is the Mexican marigold. The plants grow wild in a belt running across central Mexico.
In the preconquest Meso-American world, the flowers were valuable and were used as a dye, an antibacterial, a foodstuff, and a skin-wash/cosmetic. Additionally, when planted with maize crops, marigolds in general (and the cempasúchil specifically) prevent nematode damage. Even today, there are industrial uses for the cempasúchils which are an ingredient in perfumes, salads, and as food colorings. In agriculture, extracts of the plant are added to chicken feed (to give the yolks their yellow color) and are used to enhance the color of shrimp and other edible crustaceans. The other fascinating plants we have examined this week—the asphodel, the devil’s hand (another plant sacred to the Aztecs!), and the deadly aconites are not grown or produced in any quantities remotely approaching the enormous annual cempasúchil harvest. Cempasúchils have benefited from their association with the dead–they are a huge success. The little yellow Mexican marigold is one of the most popular flowers in the world.
This is the Ferrebeekeeper’s 300th post! Hooray and thank you for reading! We celebrated our 100th post with a write-up of the Afro-Caribbean love goddess, Oshun. To celebrate the 300th post (and to finish armor week on a glorious high note), we turn our eyes upward to the stern and magnificent armored goddess, Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
Athena’s birth has its roots in Zeus’ war with his father Cronus. In order to win his battle against the ruling race of Titans (and thus usurp his father’s place as the king of the gods), Zeus married the Titan Metis, goddess of cunning and prudence. Her wise counsel and crafty stratagems gave the Olympian gods and edge against the Titans and the latter were ultimately cast down. Metis was Zeus’ first wife and the secret to his success… but there was a problem. It was foretold that Metis would bear an extremely powerful offspring: any son she gave birth to would be mightier than Zeus. To forestall this problem Zeus tricked Metis into transforming into a fly and then he sniffed her up his nose so that he could always have her cunning counsel inside his head. But Metis was already pregnant. Inside Zeus’ skull she began to craft a suit of armor for her child to wear. The pounding of her hammer within his temples gave Zeus a terrible headache. Insane with pain, Zeus begged his ally Prometheus (the seer among the Titans) to cure him of this misery through whatever means necessary. Prometheus seized a labrys (a double headed axe from Crete) and struck open Zeus’ head with a noise louder than a thunderclap. In a burst of radiance Athena sprang forth fully grown and clad in gleaming armor.
Athena was Zeus’ first daughter and his favorite child. For his own armor, Zeus had carried an invincible aegis crafted out of the skin of his foster mother, the divine goat Amalthea. When Athena was born he handed this symbol of his invincible power over to her. Similarly throughout classical mythology Athena is the only other entity whom Zeus trusts to handle his lightning bolts (there is an amazing passage in the first lines of the Aneid where she vaporizes Ajax’s chest with lightning, picks him up with a whirlwind, and impales him on a spire of rock in revenge for an impiety). Her other symbols were the owl, a peerless predator capable of seeing at night, and the gorgon’s head, a magical talisman capable of turning humans to stone (which Athena wore affixed to her armor). Although she was first in Zeus’ esteem, Athena did not forget her mother’s fate and she remained a virgin goddess who never dallied with romance of any sort.
Wisdom, humankind’s greatest (maybe our only) strength was Athena’s bailiwick as too were the fruits of wisdom. Athena was therefore the goddess of learning, strategy, productive arts, cities, skill, justice, victory, and civilization. She is often portrayed as the goddess of justified war in opposition to her half-brother Ares, the vainglorious deity representative of the senseless aspects of war. In classical mythology Athena never loses. Her side is always victorious. Her heroes always prosper. She was the Greek representation of the triumph of creativity and intellect.
Metis never bore Zeus a son to usurp him–but when I read classical mythology such an outcome always seemed unnecessary. Not only did Athena wield Zeus’ authority and run the world as she saw fit, but Zeus was perfectly happy with the arrangement (a true testament to her wisdom). The one slight to the grey eyed goddess is that she does not have a planet named after her (nor after her Roman name Minerva), however I have always thought that astronomers have been secretly saving the name. We can use it when we find a planet inhabited by beings of greater intelligence, or when we travel the stars to a second earth and apotheosize into true Athenians.
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!