Hecate Greek Goddess of Witchcraft : The Complete Guide
There might not be any figure in Greek mythology that is as misunderstood as Hecate.
She has long been associated with witchcraft and the occult, even necromancy. Her name has been connected to dark magic and disturbing rituals in the works of Shakespeare and well into modern times.
But the version of Hecate that appears in Greek texts is not so straightforward.
She was a goddess of magic and the underworld, but she was also a protector of the home and a guardian of borders. She was also associated with some of the most revered and respected goddesses of Olympus.
Most of all, Hecate was a goddess of mystery. Her origins and powers were unexplained and changeable.
In fact, Hecate might have been another goddess altogether!
Read on to find out more about Greece’s most mystical goddess!
The beginnings of Hecate’s worship are shrouded in mystery.
Like most of the Olympic pantheon, Hecate predates the written mythology of Greece. Long before Hesiod and Homer began writing their poetry, the stories of the gods were passed on through oral tradition.
As these stories were passed on, though, they often changed. There is evidence that this may have been the case with Hecate.
Some scholars of ancient Greek religion have noted that Apollo was occasionally given the name Hecatos, which they interpret to mean “one who reaches far.” These academics believe that Hecate, therefore, may have once been another name for Apollo’s twin sister, Artemis.
As the worship of Artemis evolved over time, the Greeks began to focus more on her purity and positive aspects. The aspects of the goddess that had darker connotations were separated from her to create another goddess altogether in the character of Hecate.
A competing theory says that Hecate did not develop in Greece at all. Instead, some believe that the goddess originated in Asia Minor.
Anatolia, which covered most of what is now Turkey, was a region that had close ties to the Greek world. Trade, colonization, and migration resulted in a great deal of cultural exchange between the two regions.
Many Anatolian gods had their roots in the Greek pantheon. The Greeks likewise borrowed many deities and legends from their eastern neighbors.
Some scholars believe that Hecate was one such goddess. They claim she originated in Caria, a region in southern Anatolia on the Mediterranean, and was adopted into the Greek pantheon.
The Carians were devoted to Hecate, and she was the primary deity worshipped in the town of Lagina. Names derived from hers were common, including Hecatomnus, the father of the ruler Mausolus who built the famous tomb.
While Hecate’s temples in the area are from a later period, she bears a resemblance to a more ancient goddess in Caria. Local sun goddesses from before the Greek era have many of the same attributes as those later associated with Hecate.
Still another school of thought links her, at least linguistically, to Egypt. The Egyptian fertility goddess Heqet was associated with magic, which the Egyptians called heqa.
The Greeks, too, had many different theories about Hecate’s origins. Her parentage was given differently by various writers.
The most commonly repeated story of her birth was that Hecate was the daughter of Perses and Asteria, two second-generation Titans.
Some later stories agreed that Asteria was her mother, but claimed Zeus had been her father. The Orphic Mysteries said that Hestia was the daughter of Demeter instead.
At least one story, however, gives the goddess a much more human origin. Some early writers claimed that Hecate was actually the princess Iphigenia, saved from death by Artemis and transformed into a goddess.
The conflicting origins of Hecate were only the beginning of what made this goddess so mysterious.
Hecate was a goddess of boundaries and “in between” spaces. In the physical world this could mean anything from doorways to city walls and state borders.
Like Hermes, who was also a deity of liminal spaces, statues of Hecate were often placed at crossroads and borders. She was often shown holding two torches, such as would be found beside gates, to allow her to illuminate both sides of a boundary.
The boundaries she oversaw were not limited to the physical world, though. Hecate also presided over more mystical boundaries.
One of these was the boundary between life and death. To the Greeks this meant not only the moment at which the soul crossed between those to states, but also to a literal place.
Hecate was believed to be a goddess of both the living world and the underworld. She is often pictured holding keys because, as the goddess of boundaries, she held the power to open and close the doors to the realm of Hades.
This made her one of the few deities to have the power to move freely between the world of the living and the underworld. Not only could she move between the realms, but she had power to control the passage of others.
Even in her origin, Hecate moved between two places. She was born into the world ruled by the Titans, but continued to be influential and powerful in the Olympian pantheon.
Because she was associated with borders, gates, and doorways, Hecate took on a protective role. She acted as a sort of guardian because she watched over the places that allowed passage into homes, cities, or even states.
One of her epithets, Apotropaia, references the protection she gave in these spaces. From the Greek word for “to turn away,” apotropaic magic is that which defends by turning away evil or harm.
One of Hecate’s frequent animal companions, and the one that she’s most often depicted with, was a black dog. It has been suggested that this arose from the use of watchdogs, particularly at night, to scare away intruders and warn their owners of danger.
The dog was so closely tied to her than in many ancient stories people could hear the howling and barking of her sacred animal when her magic was used nearby.
A popular story among the Greeks was that the dog that accompanied Hecate was the Trojan queen Hecuba.
When her city fell, the queen was taken captive and lept off a cliff to her death. Hecate took pity on her, though, and brought her back to life as a dog to be her companion.
Of course, as the goddess of boundaries she had the power to let things in as well as keep them out. Those who failed to win the goddess’s favor could expect her to invite evil and misfortune into their lives.
In a hymn to Hecate, Hesiod detailed the ways in which the goddess could both allow good fortune and deny it:
Whom she will she greatly aids and advances: she sits by worshipful kings in judgment, and in the assembly whom she will is distinguished among the people. And when men arm themselves for the battle that destroys men, then the goddess is at hand to give victory and grant glory readily to whom she will. Good is she also when men contend at the games, for there too the goddess is with them and profits them … and to those whose business is in the grey discomfortable sea, and who pray to Hekate and the loud-crashing Earth-Shaker [Poseidon], easily the glorious goddess gives great catch, and easily she takes it away as soon as seen, if so she will. She is good in the byre with Hermes to increase the stock. The droves of kine and wide herds of goats and flocks of fleecy sheep, if she will, she increases from a few, or makes many to be less.
-Hesiod, Theogony 404 ff
Although much of her power appeared generally dark or menacing, Hecate could also be a merciful goddess.
In aiding Demeter during her search for the missing Persephone and transfiguring Hecuba to spare her captivity or death she showed a level of compassion that might not be expected from an occult figure.
Another story of Hecate’s protective nature also involves another of her sacred animals. It is the story of how the polecat became one of her companions.
By the 2nd century AD, a story had developed around Galinthias, a daughter of Proteus and friend of Alcmene.
When Alcmene was in labor with Heracles, Hera attempted to stop the child’s birth. She convinced her daughter Eiliethyia, the goddess of childbirth, and the Moirai, the Fates, to prevent the birth.
The Moirai crossed their arms and Eileithyia refused to help the laboring woman. Seeing her friend in pain, Galinthias tricked the Moirai into thinking the child had been born despite their interference.
When they heard this the Moirai uncrossed their arms, releasing the bonds that kept the infant Heracles from the earth. In revenge for the trick, Eileithyia turned Galinthias into a polecat.
This was a terrible fate. Polecats hid in dirty holes and, it was believed by the Greeks, had a grotesque and unnatural way of mating.
Hecate, however, took pity on Galinthias. She could not undo the curse, but she made the polecat her sacred servant.
Of course, as with many stories of Hecate there was also a darker version. Another story said that Hecate herself had cursed a witch named Gale to be a polecat for disgusting her with incontinence and abnormal desires.
As a protective goddess, it was common for statuettes of Hecate to be placed in the doorways of homes in Greece in the hopes that she would intervene to prevent bad fortune from passing in.
These statues took on a distinctive appearance. As early as the 5th century BC, the image of the hekataion was the standard way of showing the goddess in sculpture.
The hekataion depicted Hecate as three women encircling a central column. The three-part goddess was able to keep watch in all directions, and became standard in both written and visual representations.
The triple Hecate represented three aspects of a single goddess.
Such triple goddesses were common in ancient religions. While Hecate was described as a single goddess with three parts, the tripartite goddess in other instances was shown as three separate but intrinsically-linked beings.
Greece itself worshipped many trios of goddesses or goddesses with three forms that fit this archetype.
The Moirai, or Fates, were one such trio of goddesses. They were often associated with the three stages of life – youth, adulthood, and old age.
The Charites (Graces) and Horai (Seasons) were also trios of minor goddesses in Greek mythology. Female monsters also often came in threes, as was the case with the Gorgons and Graea.
Sometimes, as was the case with Hecate, it was a single goddess who was shown with three aspects. While Hera was considered a singular being, she was given three names to represent her different stages in life – maiden, wife, and mother.
In other Indo-European cultures, the three-part goddesses included:
- The Norns – These three goddesses were the Norse equivalent of the Moirai. They spun the threads of fate at the base of Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
- Brigid – The Irish goddess associated with poetry was said to have two sisters, Brigid the Healer and Brigid the Smith. This suggests that she make have been a goddess with three forms.
- The Matres – While little is known of their exact function, over 1,000 images of the three goddesses have been found in Northwestern Europe.
- The Morrigan – Another Irish deity, the goddess of war and fate was sometimes referred to in the singular and sometimes named as The Three Morrigans.
- Zorya – The Slavic goddess of beauty and light took three forms corresponding to morning, evening, and midnight.
- The Tridevi – The triad of goddesses in Hinduism often represents the three states of creation, preservation, and destruction.
The archetype of the triple goddess is so common that it’s considered one of the fundamental aspects of Indo-European religion.
It even appears in Christianity, with the gospels placing three Marys at both the Crucifixion and Christ’s tomb.
The triple goddesses are often referred to as the Maiden, Mother (or Matron), and Crone. Many depictions, such as those of the Moirae, show the three goddesses corresponding to the three stages of a woman’s life.
This concept became a central figure in many later versions of polytheism. Modern neopagan and Wiccan religions often include worship of a triple goddess, and of Hecate herself.
Hecate, however, was not just a goddess shown in three parts. She was also bound to other goddesses in a closely-linked trio.
Many historians believe that the Greek pantheon was once much smaller than we know it today. Over time, some of the Olympians changed form and function.
Each of the Greek gods has a few specialized functions. They are associated with certain ideas, occupations, or stages of life.
Earlier, though, there may have been fewer gods with more complex functions. As worshippers began to focus on one aspect of a god more than others, that god’s secondary purposes were separated into another deity altogether.
Proponents of this theory believe that this may have been the case with Hecate.
Hecate is closely associated with several other goddesses in the Greek pantheon, with symbolism and function seeming to overlap.
In literature, there is a clear link between her, Demeter, and Persephone. When Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades, Hecate was the only witness willing to help Demeter search for her daughter.
When the marriage of Persephone was finalized and she became the queen of the underworld, the bond between the three goddesses was strengthened. Demeter descended to the underworld every spring to bring her daughter back to the surface, making the three goddesses share an association with the underworld.
These three goddesses are also linked in the Mystery cults. As goddesses that straddled the boundary between this world and the afterlife, they were believed to be the keys to uncovering the secrets of what lay beyond that boundary.
There is a belief, therefore, that the three goddesses may be aspects of a singular, earlier deity. They are sometimes represented with the familiar aspects of the maiden, mother, and crone.
Hecate is also sometimes interpreted in association with Artemis and Selene.
The moon goddess and the huntress were often linked, and it is believed by some that as Greeks focused worship on the more protective aspects of Artemis they shifted her darker characteristics to Hecate.
In fact, the earliest depictions of Hecate can only be differentiated from those of Artemis by inscriptions. The iconography had not yet come to include her usual attributes, such as her keys and torches or her three aspects.
As Apollo was sometimes known as Hecatos, it is still possible that this feminine form of the name referred to his sister and not a separate goddess.
Hecate is remembered best not as a goddess of boundaries, but as a goddess of magic. She was associated with witchcraft, necromancy, and poisons.
It is unclear exactly when Hecate became so closely linked with magic and witchcraft. Hesiod, for example, seemed to hold in in high regard and makes no mention of this darker association.
It has been suggested that the idea of magic coming from Hecate was an evolution of the many gifts she was capable of bestowing upon her favorites. The blessings she gave them were eventually seen as magic, while prayers were seen as incantations.
Her association with dark magic is also tied to her identification as an underworld goddess. As one of the deities capable of passing between realms, she had access to the secrets of the dead.
Moving between the barrier between life and death explains Hecate’s connection to both ghosts and necromancy. Controlling who moved through the border between the earth and the underworld gave her a unique power to summon spirits and raise the dead.
In a few cases, Hecate was said to have shared these powers with her most devoted followers. The most famous witch in Greek mythology received her knowledge of magic from Hecate.
Medea’s magic was often described as having to do with necromancy, sleep, and the night. It was said that she learned herbalism and spells from Hecate herself.
Several times, authors make a connection between Medea’s use of magic, both harmful and protective, and her worship of Hecate. They were so closely linked that Hecate was referred to as Medea’s mother in some later texts, although earlier ones had said she was the child of an Oceanid.
Even in descriptions of Medea’s witchcraft, it is difficult to distinguish magical rituals from more standard worship and rites.
Many of the rituals described in ancient texts, for example the elaborate sacrifice of a ewe in Argonautica, are in keeping with what is known about the worship of other deities of the underworld.
Hecate, however, is routinely described as the goddess of witchcraft and associated with characters like Medea and Circe, the witch of Homer’s Odyssey. As a cthonic goddess of the underworld, her rituals and rites were often associated with death and secrecy.
Hecate was the goddess of borders, barriers, and boundaries. Eventually, this came to include the boundary between the natural and the supernatural, making her a goddess of magic.
But Hecate herself existed in the “in between” spaces, as well.
She was both a product of the Titans and an honored member of Zeus’s court at Olympus.
She was a goddess that could be both a protective guardian and a source of menace.
Hecate was both Greek and foreign at the same time.
In fact, she existed in such a nominal place that it’s difficult to say whether she existed as a singular goddess, a trio of beings, or as a minor aspect of a more major deity.
By her very nature Hecate was a goddess that existed on the edges of the Greek pantheon, yet she was also a household goddess who watched over every door in Greece.