Hekate: The Dark Goddess?

Diotima Sophia

1“Hekate, Cerridwyn, dark mother take us in

Hekate, Cerridwyn, let us be reborn”

(“Hekate, Cerridwyn”, Inkubus Sukkubus)

So begins the simple chant on the “Wild” album: first with a single voice, then with others added in obvious but still pleasing harmonies. The song is evocative, in most senses of the word. But, listening to it, I was moved to muse – is it accurate, in terms of what we know at least of what the Greeks thought about the goddess of the crossroads? The follow on question, of course, is whether or not such accuracy matters?

Hekate is one of those goddesses who has been adopted by many in the Neo-Pagan movement; generally as a “dark goddess”, redolent of death, evil, and the underworld. How accurate is this, for one described as “bright coiffed” ? As she is described as “maiden” , can she really be a (or our) mother, of whatever hue? And, perhaps more importantly, does it matter if it’s accurate to what the ancient Greeks thought, if it’s what is thought by people now2?

The first question might seem straight forward: how did the Greeks view Hekate? We know she was “highly honoured” by Zeus, , but what else can we say with any certainty at all? Unfortunately, as anyone who has ever really delved into the fascinating and frustrating study that is Greek mythology will know, things are rarely straightforward.

Hekate is no exception to this lack of clarity. By this I do not mean that the Greeks were unclear about her, but rather, that we are unclear about what they, themselves believed, where, and when. Partially, this is a function of not being a “people of the book”: having one, central tome – but rather being a people of many books (and poems and hymns and tablets and plays and stories and….). But mainly, it’s a function of the fact that the Greeks didn’t feel any need to come to a straightforward conclusion about who and what Hekate was, as they didn’t see the point in trying to pin down even something as obvious as a human person, much less something as ephemeral as an old, old god3.

And Hekate is old – in the sense that she clearly predates the Olympians. She is a titan, daughter of Titans . She is given her portion of the earth, sea and sky by the leader of the Olympians, Zeus – or to be more exact about it, she is allowed to keep what is already hers – which points again to her antiquity as a god.

In the chant mentioned above, Hekate is reckoned to be a “dark mother”. And indeed, at times she is recorded as being a mother (if not dark), as being the parent of the sea monster Skylla, who so frightened the Argonauts , or even of Kirke4 (Circe) and Medea (which, considering the fairly constant relation given between Hekate and witchcraft or magic, makes a good deal of sense). Certainly Medea counts herself as one of Hekate’s priestesses, and sees Hekate as her goddess .

Unfortunately, even one of the same authors seems to fluctuate on this point, calling her “maiden” in another passage ; and she is also called maiden in another source . The simple explanation, of course, is that these references are made to her before her marriage, (which may have been to Hermes or to Aeetes .

To confuse matters even more for modern readers, Hekate is sometimes associated with other deities, such as Artemis (who is at times called Hekate or Diana or Athena . At least these associations lend weight to the idea that she may have been a virgin goddess, as do the representations in which she wears the maiden’s short chiton rather than a matron’s longer gown. So she is seen as both maiden and mother. Any suggestion of the threefold maiden, mother, crone triplet, however, should be negated at this point: while there are numerous triple gods or gods with three (or more – often many, many more) versions or types in Greek mythology, Hekate certainly does not present anywhere as the tripartite maiden-mother-crone.

But what of the “dark goddess” image?

And does it matter?

Certainly Hekate is associated with darkness and the night, and the dead …eventually. It is possible that these associations only grew with time, as Marquardt suggests ; the early mentions of her have no chthonic overtones, while by the end of the fifth century BC, in Euripides, they are certainly there .

Chthonic deities – from the Greek word meaning “earth” – were those associated with the earth, with the dark, with the underworld. For some deities, the chthonic “version” of themselves is obvious and well known: Hades, for instance, the ruler of the underworld; Kore (Persephone), who spends half of the year underground is another example. However, a “dark” side could be found to most of the well known gods – Hermes is the select messenger to Hades, designated as such by his own father, Zeus , and often functions as a psychopomp (guide of the dead) while Hermes’ father Zeus also received chthonic sacrifices. Dionysus, best known today for his love of wine and revelry, has a chthonic side, as being associated with that-which-comes-from-the-ground in spring. The connection between these gods is not involvement “dark” workings, such as curses or blood work, but rather, their association with the agricultural cycle. They are “dark” because the earth – and what lies under it – are dark. “Chthonic” and “dark” should not be interpreted as being in any way equated to some simplistic delineation between “good” and “evil”, for a number of reasons.

The first is that the Greeks were far more sophisticated than to make such a distinction of deities with whom they felt they interacted on a fairly frequent basis: if individual people are rarely all good or all evil, why should gods be any different? (The concept of a god as being the “best of everything”, some sort of superlative human, is not a Greek one).

Secondly, the Greek gods were not moral agents – they were neither bound by human morals nor were they particularly interested in whether humans felt bound by them, either . Certainly, some of the gods were interested in particular mortals (often as not, as mates, whether willing or no), or in human families. And certain crimes were likely to annoy some of the gods (especially ignoring the proper sacrifices or crimes against family). But for the most part, the gods let humans get on with things and didn’t get all that concerned about them – and certainly don’t appear to have worried about fitting in with moral codes. (And, when you think about it, it is a pretty conceit to think that our ways of understanding how things “should be done” might apply to those who are more than human….).

Fnally, the Greeks didn’t make that kind of dark-bad (sinister, illicit…), light/good (licit, allowed) bifurcation of either their gods or, come to that, their own magic. Yes, there are sacrifices to chthonic gods, which are rather different from those to the “Olympians” – the chthonic ones tended to take place at night, to involve rather more blood, black or dark sacrificial animals and often, the entire animal was offered to the god as a burnt offering (holocaust) rather than merely the thigh and a bit of fat (as per “Olympian” sacrifices) . What is absent, however, is a sense that there was something wrong, or furtive about such offerings – they were merely for a different purpose. There are curse tablets (which are fairly “dark” by modern standards) addressed to a very wide range of deities, indeed – not merely the “dark” ones.

Nor was magic (with or without its attendant and modern “k”) something seen as “dark” or menacing in and of itself. Yes, magic tended to be seen as something that was rather exotic and slightly foreign (hence Mithras’ typical “Persian” cap and the idea that witches come from Thessaly5); but ordinary citizens were very likely indeed to carry amulets, carry out rites, invoke and sacrifice for their own ends as well as for the ends of simple worship. So although Hekate was renown for her use of magic, this alone would not have made her a “dark” god.

Hekate’s powers over the earth, which are said to be wide-ranging, have to do almost entirely with inhabited earth (men, fish, animals, cf. the young dogs presented to her at crossroads ) rather than with grain, which was the province of Demeter – yet one would expect the cultivation of grain to be important to a chthonic deity, “the corn comes from the dead”, after all – any society dependent on cultivation realises the importance of what is in and under the earth . This merely highlights the fine differentiations made by the Greeks in relation to their own relationships with the divine.

But she is also presented as almost a saviour of humanity. Hesiod (the earliest to mention her at any length) places her in counterpoint to Prometheus, whose works are responsible for our separation from the gods. Propitiation of Hekate, however, can bring us some measure of comfort here in our “earth bound” existence . She is involved directly and intimately in human lives, in general presented as being benevolent but certainly capable of punishment and withholding favour as well as granting it .

This involvement continues when she takes women who have been transformed into animals as her familiars or companions: Galinthias, Gale and Hekabe become a weasel , pole cat and black dog , respectively, serving Hekate.

Her connection to the dark and the night are unquestionably ancient, . And her association with the dead, that is with those who are dead, ghosts, is well also well attested; Virgil’s journey into the underworld begins with a sacrifice to her . But perhaps we owe most of our view of Hekate as the mistress of magic and witchcraft to Ovid, who depicts her as just as willing to hunt humans as beasts, as the discoverer of poisons (including aconite), and as demanding human sacrifice. Truly a dark, brooding goddess… but (and here, I suspect, we find the reason for the interest in her) one of great power, and able to dispense that power to her devotees, even as the Theogony maintains.

Yet we are still left with a chant that has an incongruous part to it, “let us be reborn”. There is little, if anything, in the ancient conception of or cult to Hekate that leads to any suggestion of rebirth or resurrection – in general, the Greek dead stay dead. (Indeed, the differentiation between the gods and the dead is one of the very marked aspects of Greek religion ). While it’s possible that the mystery cults offered some measure of hope for rebirth in some form, these were the exception rather than the rule . Does such an imposition matter, though?

While the Greeks might not have understood the concept of rebirth in this way, we certainly do, and it makes sense to the modern mind to connect death and rebirth (in a way that might not have made sense to the Greeks, particularly those not involved in mystery cults).

Do we do damage to the lore, to the myth of Hekate, the goddess of the crossroads, when we impress upon it (or, perhaps, upon her) modern ideas such as rebirth from death, or “the triple goddess”? (There are indeed depictions of Hekate as having three faces or indeed three bodies – but these are not in the mode of maiden, mother and crone – though one might be forgiven for not realising that, reading some texts and websites).

Yes, if we represent our interpretations as valid for the originators of the lore: if we present Athenian views of Hekate as being maiden, mother and crone, we are certainly playing fast and free with the sources; the same holds true if we interpret her actions in favour of humanity in the Theogony as somehow being of the same ilk as those who would raise the dead to life (an action which after all earned Zeus’ rather great displeasure when Asclepius attempted it).

If we say, rather, that this is what this goddess represents to us, that seems to me to be a very different matter. Yes, it is a change from the “original” but then, Euripides’ portrayal of the goddess is certainly different from some of what proceeded it, yet we accept his work as source material (or at least, I have done so in this article). It would seem that views of the divine change and grow (one is tempted to add, “mature”, but that seems to court the charge of hubris – who are we to say that we understand the gods better now than our forebearers?). If we take what we know of Hekate from the lore – that she is powerful and defended as such by the ruler of the gods; that she is associated with the night, the dark; with magic, witchcraft and black dogs – and add that to our current conceptions of life (in this case, the conception in the song that death is not the end of life), surely we merely continue the process which had been going on for centuries by the time Euripides picked up his pen?

1 Published in Pagan Dawn, 2006

2 Does it matter, moreover, what Hekate might make of it? Or how she and Cerridwen feel being so yoked together? This question, while important, is not the focus of this particular article, being better served by other means…

3 I see no need to use the diminutive term, “goddess” – yes, Hekate is female but she’s still a god.

4 This may point to yet another connection with Hermes, for it is the messenger god who gives Odysseus the herb (mole) that allows the advernturer to resist the magic of Krike

5 Yes, this *is* why Gaiman’s witch is called Thessaly in The Sandman – we are told, after all, that this is not her real name…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s