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Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia. Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers. Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley. Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses. Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16: 17-18
And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)
While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman). Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry. The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond. Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.
A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing, testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church. Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies. Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included. The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons. Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces. If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith. Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.
Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men. Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.
Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws. In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed. A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).
The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life. After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister. During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining. After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee. He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties. During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes. The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face. After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite. When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.
Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement. Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).
The world’s largest hornet is the Asian giant hornet (Vespa mandarinia). An individual specimen can measure up to 5 cm (2 inches) long and has a wingspan of 7.6 cm (3 inches). Giant hornets have blunt wide heads which look different from those of other wasps, hornets, and bees and they are colored yellow orange and brown.
The Asian giant hornet ranges from Siberia down across the Chinese coast into Indochina and lives as far west as India, however the hornet is most common in the rural parts of Japan where it is known as the giant sparrow bee. The sting of the Asian giant hornet is as oversized as the great insect is. Within the hornet’s venom is an enzyme, mastoparan, which is capable of dissolving human tissue. Masato Ono, an entomologist unlucky enough to be stung by the creature described the sensation a “a hot nail through my leg.” Although the sting of a normal honey bee can kill a person who is allergic to bees, the sting of an Asian giant hornet can kill a person who has no allergies–and about 70 unfortunate souls are killed by the hornets every year.
Armed with their size and their fearsome sting, Asian giant hornets are hunters of other large predatory insects like mantises and smaller (i.e. all other) hornets. The giant hornets do not digest their prey but masticate it into a sticky paste to feed to their own offspring. A particular favorite prey is honey bee larvae, and since European honey bees have no defense against the giant wasps, all efforts by Japanese beekeepers to introduce European bees have met with failure. Japanese honey bees however have evolved a mechanism (strategy?) to cope with hornet incursion. When a hive of Japanese honey bees detects the pheromones emitted by hunting hornets, a crowd of several hundred bees will form a gauntlet (carefully leaving a space for the hornet to enter). Once the hornet walks into the trap the bees rush on top of it and grasp it firmly. They then begin to vibrate their flight muscles which raises the temperature and produces carbon dioxide. Since giant hornets cannot survive the CO2 levels or high temperatures that honey bees can, the hornets put up a titanic struggle to overcome the mass of bees, killing many in the process. However honey bees have a fanaticism which would do credit to the most ardent practitioner of Bushido, and they usually kill the invaders.
The Adenium genus is made up of tiny evergreen tree from the dogbane family. The succulent trees come from Africa where they can be found in the Sahel (the semi-arid strip running along the south of the Sahara) and similar dry scrublands down the continent to South Africa. The most famous species is Adenium obesum, a little shrub which grows from 1 to 3 meters (3 to 9 feet) in height and bears dazzling five petaled flowers that look like glowing stars of pink, red, and white. The flowers are widely cultivated as houseplants known as the desert rose (although they are in no way closely related to true roses). A whole group of enthusiasts hold contests to determine who can hybridize the prettiest flower or cultivate the most striking ornamental bonsai trees.
In addition to their dazzling flowers, Adenium plants are known for having bulbous interestingly-shaped caudexes. A caudex is the woody barrel-like stem/trunk in which certain desert trees and shrubs store precious liquids. Adeniums are very lovely but their loveliness should not obscure the fact that the wild specimens survive in one of the more punishingly competitive ecosystems on Earth–where all sorts of hungry grazers are desperately looking for meals. To survive in Africa’s scrublands, Adeniums are not only hardy plants which can live almost anywhere on very little water, they are also poisonous. Adeniums produce a cocktail of cardiac glycosides-compounds which affect the electrophysiology of the heart. Although these molecules (and other related cardiac glycosides such as those found in the foxglove) can be therapeutic in very tiny doses for certain heart conditions, in larger doses they are poisonous and cause the heart’s rhythm to fail altogether. Thus, a plant known to American housewives as an frou-frou ornamental houseplant is known as the source of horrifying arrow poison to many of Africa’s toughest native hunters, who use the compound to kill big game.
It has been a while since Ferrebeekeeper has presented a post about color. Therefore, to liven up the gray monotony of midwinter, today’s post features one of the most vivid colors out there. International orange is a brilliant deep orange which is in widespread use throughout the world. Strangely enough, this eye-popping color was created and adopted for practical reasons. International orange (a dark orange with hints of red) is the contrasting color with sky blue (pale blue with tinges of green). The military and aerospace industry use international orange to make planes and personnel distinct from their surroundings. Many famous test planes have been painted international orange including Chuck Yeager’s X-1 (above). The color is also commonly used for flight suits, rescue equipment, and high-visibility maritime equipment.
Thanks to the high contrast of the color against the background, crews were more able to track the progress of test craft against the sky. Additionally, if something went wrong, rescue and recovery became easier if the craft stood out against the sky, ocean, and land.
Aside from its use in spacecraft and supersonic test planes, international orange also makes tall structures stand out against the skyline (and therefore protects against accidental collision). A darker “architectural” version of the color is instantly recognizable as the orange of the golden gate bridge. The Tokyo Tower was painted in international orange and white in order to comply with safety regulations of the time. The bright orange of both structures has become an integral part of their recognizability and appeal.
Although it is not branded as such, the natural world also has a use for international orange and a surprising number of poisonous creatures can be found in similar shades. Bright orange makes the creatures visible and advertises their toxicity to potential predators. It is funny to think that tiny frogs and huge towers share the same color.
This week’s theme on Ferrebeekeeper is “Flowers of the Underworld.” So far we have featured a ghostly-looking flower which is actually edible and a demonic looking flower which is actually medicinal—hardly plants from the depths of hell. Today therefore we are proceeding in a scarier direction and featuring a flower of delicate beauty…which is profoundly poisonous. Aconitum is a genus of about 300 flowers belonging to the buttercup family (a family of flowering plants, notable for the number of toxic plants therein, which has been extant since the Cretaceous). The aconites are hardy perennial flowers which grow throughout the Northern Hemisphere but largely prefer mountain meadows and rich cool forests. The plants have many common names which range from whimsical to hair-raising: “blue rocket”, “monkshood”, “wolfsbane”, “woman’s bane”, “devil’s helmet”, “mourning bride”, “Hecateis herba” (which means “the herb of Hecate”, to whom the aconites are sacred) and so on. All aconite plants are extremely toxic. You should not eat them, touch them, or even write about them without taking precautions. Seriously—Pliny the Elder (absurdly) wrote that the smell of aconite could kill a mouse from a substantial distance! When something is so toxic that it hoodwinked the greatest naturalist of the Roman era, you know it is really a fraught topic (although, frankly, Pliny made some other errors as well).
Aconite plants have dark green leaves in a spiral pattern and a radish-like root. In the wild they live in rich soils, preferring those which are moist but well drained, however they can be cultivated easily in a variety of locations. The real glories of aconites are their flowers, which are lovely but difficult to describe–the tall upright stems support numerous blossoms each of which has five sepals. The posterior sepal is in the shape of a cylindrical helmet or hood from classical antiquity (the source of many of the aconites’ common names). The most common aconite in Europe is the common monkshood (Aconitum napellus) which is known from its brilliant blue-purple flowers and from endless mystery novels, but other species look somewhat different. For example, the yellow wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora) lives in the Alps and bears pretty yellow blossoms.
Since I am an avid flower gardener and do not have children, dogs, or livestock, I decided to plant monkshood in my old garden. Unfortunately, for all of their reputed hardiness, the flowers were no match for the toxic soil and the dreadful machinations of the Norway maple. Perhaps their failure was a good thing. Because aconites are so toxic, I became prey to paranoid thoughts that agile children would somehow steal into my (walled) garden and eat the (unappealing tasting) plants.
My paranoia was not groundless–aconites contain virulent neurotoxins. Inchem.org describes the mechanism of aconite poisoning in the typically bland language of pharmacology stating, “Aconite alkaloids activate the sodium channel and have widespread effects on the excitable membranes of cardiac, neural and muscle tissue.” In translation this means that alkaloid compounds found in all parts of the plant (but particularly the root) are potent neurotoxins which disrupt neural and nerve-to-muscle signals and usually prove fatal by stopping the heart. Because it is so dangerous, aconite has a substantial place in history. Chinese soldiers used the poison for their arrows and Greeks poured it into water supplies as an early form of bio-warfare. The roots were most infamous as a gastronomically administered stealth poison. Emperor Claudius was probably killed by aconite poisoning, as too was Emperor John I Tzimisces. These emperors were joined over the years by numerous other victims from all walks of life. Aconite has also been used as a medicine (and still is part of Chinese traditional homeopathy), but since it is so easy to kill patients with a slight overdose, Western doctors abandoned compounds derived from the plant as soon as other subtler neurological drugs were found.
Aconite flowers have an equally dramatic place in myth and literature. According to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, aconite plants first came into the world when Hercules dragged Cerberus, the monstrous canine offspring of Echidna, up from the underworld into the world of life. The poison drool–or “lip-froth” as it is written in my translation–fell from the hellhound’s three gnashing mouths, landed on the ground in Scythia, and transformed into aconite flowers. Ovid recounts the tale as an aside while recounting how the poison was a particular favorite of Medea (the citation is Ovid, Metamorphoses 7. 412 if you want to read the dramatic passage for yourself).
It was not just classical poets who wrote of the plant. In Ulysses, Bloom’s father died from a (deliberate?) overdose of aconite which he was self-administering as a homeopathic remedy for neuralsia/depression. Presumably the character failed to heed the counsel of Keats, who prominently alluded to aconite in the first stanza of his Ode on Melacholy which, in the second stanza, counsels the reader how to avoid despair through appreciation of the natural world, study of classical values, and delight in love. On the other hand, the third and last stanza of the poem seems to indicate that sadness is a requisite part of mortality which allows us to savor beauty, love, and joy—indeed by counter-example melancholy guides us towards these transcendent (but transient) feelings. Keat’s complex message steps far beyond thoughts of flowers and the underworld so I will leave you to read the entire poem on your own. Here, however is the first stanza, entreating you away from aconite (and from other forms of self harm). It goes without saying, gentle reader, that I am entirely of a mind with Keats:
NO, no! go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kist
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
Behold a dreadful strangling monster! This entity cannot be easily killed by conventional means and it reproduces both by asexually spawning duplicates of itself (at first attached to the parent by runners) and by releasing tens of thousands of wind-born flying pods. When these pods land on something they take root and start to grow—even if it is another tree or a roof or a bit of concrete. This monster comes from the primeval forests of China, indeed it is mentioned in the most ancient Chinese texts, but today it has spread everywhere. It eats toxins and is not affected by most pollutants or even by high doses of toxic metals. It produces a poison which kills plants. If you live in a major city there is probably more than one outside your door right now!
Thanks to the title at the top of the page, perspicacious readers will probably already have guessed that the monster I am writing about is Ailanthus altissima, aka the tree of heaven. This is one of the most successful invasive species out there. People unfamiliar with the plant are probably chortling at my rhetoric, whereas people who do know this tree, especially gardeners, are most likely making murderous gestures and exclaiming wild oaths. The tree reproduces like crazy and it grows with seemingly supernatural speed. Anyone who has tried to garden anywhere near a tree of heaven has spent a great deal of their time pulling up saplings or sawing them down only to see them rise again and again like the fearsome horde of hellspawn which they are. When chopped down the tree grows back with redoubled vigor and produces suckers (basal shoots which grow from the roots and produce independent trees). The tree of heaven may not be a massive clonal colony like Pando, but fighting the suckers and the seedlings and their many offshoots makes it seem like a single malevolent entity. And it is everywhere—when you see a tree growing on top of an abandoned building or sprouting improbably from sheer concrete, it is most likely the tree of heaven.
The tree was not always despised. Eighteenth century European gardeners (under the spell of Chinese gardens and all things Chinese) were beguiled by its swift growth and elegant looks. They brought the tree to Europe in the 1740s and to the United States in 1784, but, as soon as the tree was planted, the honeymoon ended. In formal gardens Ailanthus trees tendency to sucker and set seed became very apparent as did the abominable smell of the male trees which produce a urine-like stench to attract unsavory pollinating insects (European botanists should probably have translated the Chinese name before planting: 臭椿 literally means malodorous tree). The tree’s prettiness though undeniable is not as great as that of other Chinese invasive trees like the lovely Empress tree (which is not nearly as aggressive or malodorous).
Aesthetic concerns were not the sole motivating factor which caused European gardeners to import the fearsome tree. Although the finest silk comes from the silkworm, Bombyx mori, which feeds only on the mulberry tree, a more durable and coarse silk can be produced from the cocoons of the ailanthus moth (Samia Cynthia) which, of course, eats ailanthus leaves. Ailanthus silk is distinctly inferior to true silk in that it does not readily take dyes, but it is durable and pretty in its own right. Unfortunately it proved to be too labor-intensive for western production. Ailanthus moths, the huge saturniid moths, which produce these cocoons also went rogue and are now spreading across North America and Europe in tandem with the trees.
The discerning reader may have apprehended that I am no fan of the tree of heaven. Even literary allusions to the ailanthus are problematic (it is the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel about alcoholism, poverty, cheating, and misery in early twentieth century immigrant life). However, having said that, Ailanthus altissima demands respect as a supremely effective life form. It is probably the fastest growing tree in North America and is able to grow 2 meters (6 feet) in a year (as I know from cutting down 15 foot tall suckers in my tiny garden). Additionally the tree produces a chemical, ailanthone, which inhibits or prevents the germination of other seeds and is toxic to other trees. Ailanthus altissima can live in locations that are dry, salty, or toxic and can survive on water as acidic as tomato juice. For these reasons as well as its staggering number of wind-born twirling seeds it can be found in industrial or urban wastelands where nothing else grows. It is impossible not to feel a bit of awe for a 50 to 90 foot tall weed.
Not only is the tree is an opportunist which can live by itself in places too dry or poisonous for other trees but its incredible rate of growth allow it to compete with other deciduous trees by quickly growing into unoccupied canopy space (although adult forest trees in healthy woods can probably out-compete it in the long run). The tree of heaven pays a price for its quick growth and heavy suckering. Its life is short and specimens rarely live past 50 years. However one individual tree is not the problem—if you have one tree you already have many. Like the Lernaean Hydra, the tree of heaven is a exponentially increasing monster, but something so tough must have a use. Perhaps a future generation of space colonists living in Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s fantasy will spend their time wrinkling their noses and wandering why anyone chose to plant such a thing.
Woodblock prints of ages past show giant octopuses ripping apart boats and feasting on sailors like popcorn. These artifacts of ancient sea-lore make for rousing images, but they are quite wrong: octopuses are fierce and cunning hunters but they present little danger to humans—with a noteworthy exception. The truly dangerous octopuses are not giant monsters (perhaps the artists of yesteryear were thinking of the mighty giant squid?) but rather tiny jewel-like beauties from the genus Hapalochlaena which includes only three or four species. Known as blue-ring octopuses the tiny creatures swim in tide pools and shallows of the Indo-Pacific Ocean from Japan down to Australia (where they are most prevalent). Blue-ringed octopuses live on shrimp, crabs, minnows, and horseshoe crabs. They are tremendous hunters who use camouflage, stealth, and guile to catch their prey. However, these tools pale before their greatest weapon: the little octopuses are among the most poisonous creatures on planet Earth.
Like the flamboyant cuttlefish, the blue-ringed octopus does not like to bite without giving warning but advertises its toxicity with vivid coloration. The octopus can conceal itself with tremendous prowess however, as soon as it becomes aware of a predator or some other threat, it dials up its coloration changing from muted reef tones to brilliant yellow with iridescent blue rings. If you see something like this in the ocean, for heaven’s sake don’t touch it. The octopus’s warning colors let ocean predators know to leave it alone but immediately attract humankind’s magpie urge to grab shiny things. Although blue-ringed octopuses are good natured and have been known not to bite people who were provoking them rather intensely, their bites have caused more than seventy recorded fatalities in Australia. The octopus has a tiny beak and often a victim does not realize they have been bitten until they began to fall into paralysis and their respiration starts to fail.
The venom of the blue ringed octopus is a complicated pharmacological cocktail which includes tetrodotoxin, 5-hydroxytryptamine, hyaluronidase, tyramine, histamine, tryptamine, octopamine, taurine, acetylcholine, and dopamine. The most active ingredient tetrodotoxin blocks the sodium channels which conducting sodium ions (Na+) through a cell’s plasma membrane. This causes total paralysis for the octopus victim, however if clever and persistent rescuers are present at the time of the bite they can rescue the unfortunate soul with continuous artificial respiration. This is no small matter as bite victims are often rendered completely unresponsive by the paralytic victim. Although completely conscious they are unable to communicate in any way or even breathe. If artificial respiration is initiated immediately and continued until the body can metabolize and eliminate the toxin, bite victims can survive (although it sounds like rather an ordeal).
Blue ringed octopuses are tender and solicitous mothers. The mother octopus lays a clutch of approximately 50 eggs in autumn which she incubates beneath her arms for about six months (during which time she is unable to eat). When the eggs hatch, the mother octopus dies. The baby octopuses reach sexual maturity in about a year. Despite their cleverness and beauty, the animals are as ephemeral as they are deadly.
In Norse folklore the universe was envisioned as Yggdrasil an immense tree with roots and branches winding through many different worlds and realms. An immense serpent, Níðhöggr, forever gnawed at the roots of the tree thus threatening to bring the entire universe down– however Níðhöggr was not the only gigantic serpent in the Norse pantheon.
Between the chthonic roots of the tree and its lofty branches (at ground level, as it were) lay the world of humankind, called Midgard. Midgard was protected by the gods and, to a lesser extent, by humankind, from the ice giants who were always attacking and from Loki, the strange trickster god, who was forever plotting. Loki knew the ice giantess, Angrboða, and together the pair had three children. One was Hel, who went down to icy Niflheim to rule over the damned and lost (our word “Hell” comes from her name and her realm). Another was Fenris Wolf, the all-devouring giant wolf who was chained by magic fetters to an immense stone thrust deep into the roots of Yggrasil. The last of the three children of Loki and Angrboða was Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent also known as the Midgard Serpent. When Odin perceived how quickly the serpent was growing, he cast it into ocean which the Norse believed ringed the whole world. There the serpent grew to colossal size, eventually surrounding the entire world and swallowing its tail. In some ways the monster became synonymous with the world-girding ocean.
Jörmungandr is ever opposed by the god Thor. Twice the two met in the Norse mythical canon. The first time, Thor was fooled into thinking the world-sized ocean monster was a large indolent housecat (it should be noted that Thor was not only drinking heavily but also being magically fooled by a trickster king of the Jötnar). Despite using all his divine strength, Thor was unable to lift the cat off the floor and only managed to heft one paw up for a moment. The seemingly trivial feat of strength was revealed as more impressive when the nature true of the cat was manifested (the entire story is a very amusing one). Thor again encountered the serpent when he was fishing for monsters with the giant Hymir. Thor had struck the head off the great ox belonging to the giant in order to catch two whales. Against Hymir’s protests, the two proceeded farther out to sea, towards the edge of the world. Thor hooked the Midgard serpent and dragged the creature’s head to the surface. The monster’s fanged mouth was dripping with poison and blood and it was moving towards the boat to finish the two off. Before Thor could lift his hammer to kill the serpent (or the serpent could devour the two fishermen), Hymir cut the line and the creature escaped.
Thor is slated to encounter the monster one last time at Ragnarök. When the last battle comes, the serpent will swim towards land poisoning everything it touches and causing huge tidal waves. This will be the signal for Naglfar to sail, bringing the hordes of walking dead back to the world of the living. Thor will finally fight the serpent and, after a great battle, the thunder god will triumphantly kill the mighty creature. Thor will then walk nine steps before dying from his poisoned wounds as the mortally wounded Fenris Wolf swallows the sun and the world comes to an end.
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!