The Functions of the Greek Goddess Hecate - by Lucy Moore


A marble relief of Hecate. Prague, Kinsky Palace

Key Words

  • Oikos: Household

  • Chaldean Oracles: A collection of philosophical texts which was widely utilised by Neoplatonist philosophers in the 2nd-3rd Century CE

  • Soteria: Saviour

  • Apotropaia: That turns away/ protects

  • Enodia: On the way – Thessalian goddess

  • Propulaia/Propylaia: Before the gate

  • Triodia/Trioditis: Who frequents crossroads

  • Kleidouchos: Holding the keys

  • Chthonic: Relating to the Underworld

  • The Greek Magical Papyri: A unit of papyri, mostly written in Ancient Greek, which contains spells, formulae, hymns and rituals

Who is Hecate?


The Greek goddess Hecate, daughter of the Titan Perses and the nymph Asteria, was known for her dominion over crossroads, entrances, night-time, light, magic (witchcraft and sorcery), herbs and vegetation, ghosts and ghouls, and necromancy. Her main functions were to govern boundaries, the Underworld, and witchcraft. The iconography around the goddess usually consists of her holding a set of keys or torches, which she supposedly used to help or deter individuals from entering cities and homes through her role as a protector of the oikos (home), like Zeus, Hestia, Hermes, and Apollo.


Scholars frequently debate the homeland of Hecate and use prominent cult sites as a basis for their conclusions: Thessaly is commonly seen as the most obvious site of Hecate, due to her popularity amongst the witches; they also acknowledge the Sanctuary site in Lagina which was utilised by the Carians of Asia Minor. The nature of her cults shows how “she is more at home on the fringes than in the centre of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition” (Huebner, 2015). She is described in both Hesiod’s Theogony in the 8th Century BCE and the post-Christian writings of the Chaldean Oracles in the 2nd-3rd Century CE. In these texts, Hecate is known to have rulership over the sky, earth, and sea and is considered as Soteria (Saviour) and Mother of Angels and the Cosmic World; She is not a one-dimensional conventional goddess but occupies many different planes. In Hesiod’s Theogony, he even argues that the goddess’ power exceeds the strength of Zeus.


Goddess of boundaries


Hecate was commonly associated with a plethora of functions to do with entrances and exits: borders, city walls, doors, crossroads, and the realms in and outside the world of the living. She also worked between the conventions of the Olympians and Titans – this made her into a liminal goddess. This was reflected within her epithets and cult titles: Apotropaia, Enodia, Propulaia/Propylaia, Triodia/Trioditis and Kleidouchos.


Due to her association with movement and boundaries, she was also expected to hold guardianship too of the free flow of danger. Many believed it was Hecate’s responsibility to deny or aid the transition of demons, ghosts, chaos, damage, and intruders; as a protector of the oikos, she was supposed to deny them entrance into households – however, sometimes the goddess would have to let them in to balance the planes. “In Byzantium small temples in her honour were placed close to the gates of the city. Hecate's importance to Byzantium was above all as a deity of protection. When Philip of Macedon was about to attack the city, according to the legend she alerted the townspeople with her ever-present torches, and with her pack of dogs, which served as her constant companions” (Elsner, 1995). This consolidates the idea of Hecate as a guardian. Despite being a minor, lesser-known goddess, her role is truly fundamental and paramount in the protection of Greece – particularly Athens.


Ancient Greeks would place their versions of the household Gods within their oikos to prove their allegiance and ward off evil spirits. When placing dedications to Hecate within the home, she was commonly sculpted to be holding either keys or torches to help guide individuals on their way. Dedications to the goddess were also placed at crossroads where she was seen in her triplicate or trimorphic form, sometimes too with her associated animal: the dog. Her alliance with dogs related to the heavy use of watchdogs by Greeks and Romans – their job was to raise an alarm when intruders approached, a great aid for Hecate’s function.


Goddess of the Underworld


Hecate was known as a chthonic goddess due to her association with boundaries and movement between realms. In his poem written in the 3rd Century BCE, Theocritus ignites the connection of Hecate to the Underworld through her iconography of the keys: he argues that as she is the holder of the keys, this allows her to open and close the gates of death; this is likewise seen in The Greek Magical Papyri, which considers Hecate to be the guardian of the keys to Tartaros (A dungeon in the Underworld used for tormenting the wicked and a place of imprisonment for the Titans). This is supported later on by Virgil in the 1st Century CE – despite noting that Hecate is powerful both in Heaven and Hell, Virgil describes the entrance to Hell as ‘Hecate’s Grove’. Because of Hecate’s association with dogs, this also relates to the Underworld – the dog Cerberus guards its gates. Hecate guides spirits in and Cerberus makes sure they do not leave the realm.


Goddess of Witchcraft


Hecate’s function as the goddess of witchcraft lends to her influence over magic, witchcraft, necromancy, and sorcery – alongside her chthonic and nocturnal nature, which was heavily described within the 1st Century CE. Lucan describes Hecate in sordid terms: she is the “rotting goddess [… with] a pallid decaying body, [who has to] wear a mask when she visits the gods in heaven” (Rabinowitz, 1999).


Her role as the goddess of witchcraft is still prevalent today and has been seen as a reoccurring motif throughout literature, art, and religion. To Virgil, she is the source of torment and pain for all those in the Underworld through her sorcery; in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, she is associated with the power of the Three Sisters – they report to her for their witchcraft in manipulating the events of the tragedy. She is seen as a quintessential Neo-Pagan figure.


Conclusion


Overall, Hecate’s functions as a goddess all stem from her role as a protector and a guardian. In the three contexts of boundaries, the Underworld, and witchcraft, all her abilities align with her characterisation as a liminal figure – this is what allows her to intercept into the different realms. Despite having a lesser impact than perhaps an Olympian god, her role and power are still cardinal to the protection of Greece and the conservation of mythology.


Sources


Elsner, J. The invisible God: The earliest Christians on art. (Paul Corby Finney). 1995.

Huebner, S. The Oxford Classical Dictionary. 2015.

Rabinowitz, J. 1999. ‘The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity’. The Classical World. 1999. pp.579.

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