On Modern Practices and Perceptions in the Worship of Hekate

Lykeia

When taking into consideration the majority of general pagans out there who worships Hekate, it is disturbing to see how many align Hekate within a very narrow function. Hekate is granted Queen-ship of the Underworld; the temptation is there of course to ask what happened to Persephone but that will generally be met with a firm belief that Hekate ruled the Underworld before Persephone. Regardless of the fact that evidence indicates that she was not a true underworld goddess. In the rape of Persephone Hekate was not located within the underworld, but rather within her cave. A cave is a moderation point between the worlds of the living and dead; and therefore associated with many chthonic pastoral gods (think cave of Pan). It was at this vantage point that Hekate was a witness. Other than declaring herself as Persephone’s handmaiden later in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, and with Hermes aid guiding the goddess back to the world of living, Hekate doesn’t have a lot of direct influence over the underworld. Another example would be her function in the Aeneid where she had to be drawn from her caves that lay at the passage into the underworld so that Aeneas could slip past and within. More commonly she is associated with ghosts instead, and is seldom mentioned as literally being in the underworld other than in reference to the Hekate’s lunar light traveling to the underworld and the moon absent from the sky.

Rather than an underworld goddess Hekate is more likely a goddess of transition between life and death. Her Deipnon, or feast, was offered not in either traditional chthonic or celestial practices. Neither buried nor burned, but rather left out in a manner appropriate to a goddess between the worlds, and offered at the crossroads where the spirits lurk. At birth Hekate is there, and at death Hekate is there. There must be a reason why dead women accompany the goddess. Why wouldn’t they if she were leading them to their place of rest. They are spoken of very generically in a manner that would suggest that it is not the same group of women accompanying her everywhere, unlike Artemis and her specific nymphs and hounds. It is unlikely to be a permanent thing, but rather as she wanders the night she draws the souls of dead to her train. She doesn’t rule over the Underworld but she is queen over those earthbound ghosts that exist between the worlds, even as she leads others into the next world. Those who died violently before their own time was up, much as Hecuba is in her company, the grieving wife of Priam whom Hekate took in the form of a night black dog. But even these angry spirits are unlikely to stay with her forever.

Even dogs themselves are connected to both the land of the living and that of the dead. Friend of men, the baying hounds of Hekate and Artemis, and the guarding Kerberos. Dogs are very much a part of our living lives, unlike dragons which have a history associated with chthonic goddesses such as Gaia and Demeter. The fact that dogs were offered in sacrifice to Hekate says much about this. Hekate has been linked to the whelping bitch as a fertility symbol bearing her litter of pups, who nurses and nurtures. This is highly represented of her nature in presiding over fertility, as much as goats (who get a bad rap for their later associations with Satanism). Hekate appears as both, and received sacrifices of both. That the fertile earth gives way to death and life renews again.

However the crossroads seems to be the most well known component in Hekate worship. And why wouldn’t it be since the crossroad goddess looking in three ways is very popular in Hekatean art. Though it does seem to be stressed primarily as the spot where Hekate lurks more than anything else, for one would leave feasts to the goddess at these crossroads. These feasts were given to the goddess in preparation and purification for the coming of the new month. By the very nature of the feast belonging neither wholly to a heavenly god nor the chthonic gods below, it invited the hungry poor to feast at her plate. Whether this was viewed as acceptable can be debated, but there were those who took advantage of the goddess’s feast. With this in mind, there is a grisly fascination with the crossroad goddess and her feast as it inspires the imagination of wandering spirits, snarling hounds, and the goddess with the serpentine hair wandering on her darkest night.

Still this image persists, accompanied by her control of sorcery. When you get right down to it Hekate is not really depicted as a sorceress. However as a goddess that illuminates the hidden it would be common knowledge for her. She is presented more frequently in teaching the arts to those who are favored by her. As a goddess of the sea she can whisper about the powers of the sea that can be harnessed. As a goddess of the earth she can whisper of the growing things that can be gathered and used. In her connection with the moon she can tell of how to ensnare the moon, and as such and her starry heavenly realm she guides the course of good days for planting, gathering and this guide can be equally useful in sorcery. So while she aids and instructs the sorceress, it is more in her revealing and all knowing capacity rather than as a literal goddess of sorcery. Though despite this there is no denying that she does preside over the magical and mystical.

Overall there is little support for the doom and gloom Hekate that is valued by so many as a terrible goddess. Yes she is an awesome goddess, with a primal power that will invoke fear into those who are not familiar with her. Primal is the best description for her as it illustrates her nature as being one of wilderness and natural laws. The raw power of a titaness connected intimately with the natural world. We depend on her to eat, whether in gathering fish or having fruitful herds for these things are within her hands. Fertility, life, and death. The sexual urge to mate and reproduce. The mother to nurture from her own flesh. In these things she shares her world with Hermes, who, like her assist the dead back to their final abode, masters the herds, and travels between the worlds. He is also one who shares in the chthonic snakes, goats and barking dogs.

She exists outside of civilization even as she is at our roads and homes. And there she exists walking all roads of the earth, below, and between us and the gods. Civilization can not exist without the consent of the wilderness. The Latins claimed Diana as goddess of civilization even as the Romans recognized the contribution of Silvanus. Hekate straddles both worlds: civilization, and wilderness, as she straddles the worlds of the living and the dead. Probably not such a far stretch in associations considering that forests were considered dangerous places filled with predators.

But what then of the night? Isn’t the night under her domain and associated with death and danger? True she is associated with the night but as the nocturnal light. The bright light of the full moon sheds enough light to see comfortably by, enough so that particularly bright moons are called Hunters Moons. She illuminates without dispelling the darkness. Even her governing of the starry heavens is governing of the brilliance of light sparkling. She does not dispel the dark for it is in the night that she shields the lovers embrace, and in this fashion has been called the Handmaiden of Aphrodite; for Hekate can conceal even as she reveals. She is both the brilliant light and dark blanket of night.

This is the nature of Hekate, one that is both simple and complex and the same time, often contradicting; and one that needs to be taken into more account by the general pagan populace of those who claims to worship and serve her.

Bibliography
Virgil The Aeneid
Apollonios Rhodios The Argonautika. University of California Press 1997
Erwin Rhode Psyche. Ares Publishing Inc 1925
http://www.theoi.com

 

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