I’ve been working alongside Hekate for a little over a year now. It has been a very close walk full of the sort of experiences that make me feel like our time together has been much, much longer. A lot of what I know of her has been from direct interactions. Aside from the few faithful tumblr followers and almighty Google I have been very much on my own in discovering her. Even then, I have stumbled across just as much “fact” on her that didn’t settle right with me as I found “fact” that did. It’s been very confusing, at times, for someone who is so used to coming from a place of “knowing” that Abrahamic religions afford their followers. Unlike them, information is not as solid and when I don’t know something there is not some immediate elder I can ask. We don’t have a holy book to consult. Every bit of what I know has had to be through experience and my own discretion. This is what I signed up for. However, it hasn’t been comfortable all the time.
I began making a list of books I saw frequently recommended by devotees of Hekate in hopes to eventually collect and read them all. My first of these came a few weeks back. The Rotting Goddess: The Origin of the Witch in Classical Antiquity by Jacob Rabinowitz. It reads like a thesis (maybe it is?) so it can be a little dense and confusing for anyone not familiar with this writing style. Even for someone who is well versed in reading scientific journals (thank you, psych major) it was a little rough at points. However, the information afforded in these pages is invaluable.
As with most things, I had mini arguments with the ink on the pages in several spots and, in the end, I have collected from the information provided only those things that resonate with me. For this reason I recommend reading it for yourself and taking what you will from the whole piece. I collect what is useful in my practice and I am a firm believer that others should do the same. With that being said, I thought it would be useful for me (and possibly others following Hekate) to have a short overview of what I read).
The origins and evolution of Hekate
Hekate’s traceable roots begin in Anatolian Asia Minor. It is among the most impressively developed of neolithic cultures with discernible links back to the paleolithic. In this setting it is reasonably safe to assume she held her power as a fertility goddess, a prominent archetype for deities in every period of Asia Minor’s archaeology (we will see further proof of this theme as she emerges into the world of Greek and Roman pantheons).
About 450 BC Alkamenes is thought to have represented Hekate in a sacred sculpture shortly before her first official cult established in Athens, leading to her transmission to the rest of the Greek world. This is the spawning point of confusion between Hekate and Artemis- a subject that is a sore one for many devotees on both sides. Prior to this, Hekate had been depicted as a more generic, Artemis-like figure only distinguishable when her name was present. It is thought that Hekate may have stepped in for Artemis when she was transformed into the archetype of virgin huntress and sister of Apollo, saving Artemis from the role of mother. The specific transfer from Artemis to Hekate is upheld by multiple references where Hekate is referred to as Artemis, but never the other way around. This echos the argument of Hekate in her oldest and most central role as fertility goddess and explains her depictions in singular form.
After her induction into the Greek pantheon, however, we see her tri-form image emerge. Always three identical goddesses (NOT maiden, mother, crone) around a pillar. Common accompaniments that aid in discerning these sculptures from other deities of the time include the torch, libation bowl, fruit, and hounds. Later the Romans will bring a more distinct image to the goddess making her easier to distinguish.
The pillar is an interesting inclusion. Whether early hekataion (comprised of a thin pole hung with masks at the place where three roads met), or later Roman adaptations where the pole gains girth and becomes much more a pillar in form, it has been an ever-present element. Very early on she was seen as an intermediary between the world of the gods and the world of men. The pole of hekataion (which was important enough to persist even when images were rendered in marble) can easily be construed as a ritual tree- somewhat like the concept of the Universal Tree- at the Center of the World with roots that are in hell and branches that reach to the heavens. The use of her in tri-form around this pole solidifies the connection between the three worlds. While it has been contended that her tri-form was meant solely for crossroads where she protected travelers (which is likely also true), if that was the case we would expect to see quads as well where four roads met and carried on.
Another goddess Hekate is often conflated with is Enodia, much more in touch with her chthonic nature than some depictions of Hekate. Enodia’s referent as “she of the road” leads to the Roman translation of Enodia and Hekate as the goddess Trivia. It is supported in many references where we see the three names used interchangeably as (likely) another evolution as the goddess stepped into new roles alongside other deities of the time.
Hekate’s role as gate-guardian also has origins deep in history. Beginning at least as early as the 6th century, effigies were set up at the doors of palaces and private homes alike for protection of those within. It’s an association that begs recognition before we move on to the more “modern” evolutions of the goddess.
Hekate was not identified with the moon until the Roman period. Romans used the Greek pantheon as a template to give life to their own religious world but, where the moon was concerned, the Greek model remained largely underdeveloped. Being an agricultural society that placed heavy importance on the cycles of the moon, Romans could not abandon this necessity; they needed a deity that fit the bill. Agriculture was considered the finest and most far reaching of human pursuits to the Romans. The deity associated with the moon would have to be a very powerful and all-encompassing one. Who else but Hekate, already given sway over the three worlds and considered a Great Mother, protectress of crossroads, doors, and those that would travel them? Long before Hekate became the lunar goddess of the Romans, she was already connected with threefold shape (as we discussed earlier). Romans possessed a three-fold moon goddess before the introduction of Hekate (Juno) so the concept of this goddess as associated with the moon made logical sense. Hekate existed alongside Juno as a secondary moon goddess up until about the 1st century BC when the two began to converge.
Hekate’s different visages from her original cult in Asia Minor through the Greek and Roman age, along with her ability to visit many realms, leads to a greater understanding of why this goddess is often so hard to trace back through history. She is frequently conflated with Selene, Persephone, Enodia, Artemis, Dike, Tyche, Brimo, the Furies, Night, and Chaos.
Of the accompanying symbols used in her imagery, there are two contradicting varieties: One a much more docile image with long torches reaching to the ground, libation bowls, fruit, and dogs resting at their feet, the other depicting shorter torches along with whips, serpents, keys, and Fury-like creatures.
This is not a mistake or a matter of vehement debate as much as it is evidence of her fluid nature and rapid evolution throughout history and into the modern age.
The Hekate of the Magical Papyri is more a theological being than a mythical one. She is ruler of the unquiet dead and associated heavily with the change-producing moon. As a goddess associated with these elements, as well as her much more ancient associations with growth, decay, and rebirth, we begin to see glimpses of the elements that led to her later demonization.
Accounts of Hekate as goddess of the witches was not an event until the 5th century and, as it should be noted, entirely literary at that time. Her involvement with witches came at a time when the role of a witch was coming under fire as well. Of course, most of us know that neither are inherently evil or demonic, but at the hands of invading powers and religion it wasn’t long before both the goddess and her witches were warped into something sinister.
It is difficult to separate the timeline between the connection of Hekate to witches and the decline of witches in the public eye- a subject we will touch on shortly- but it is an important theme to recognize. Hekate’s original rites (as far back as we are able to trace them) come from Hellenic inscriptions on the Lagina temple in Asia Minor. Her priestesses carried a sacred key in procession to honor the goddess along with eunuch priests… the rest remains a mystery entirely. Greek Hekate mirrors this protector of entrances as a universal door-warder and guardian of the gates. As mentioned before, hekataia stood to protect all who dwelt within a house or passed through its doors; it was also customary to seek Hekate’s blessing for a journey; safe return was an occasion for giving thanks. As goddess of a household, she also held necessary roles as receiver of remnants from household cleaning and purification processes. It was common for sweepings and other waste from the house to be burnt (or simply left) at her crossroads. While this was a common necessity that held no notion of “filth” in early Greek tradition, it lent itself easily to the perversion of Hekate, and other deities alike, to something darker and less desirable in favor of “new religion” later on. Her role as remover of waste, a chthonic and honored role, turned to her custody of dirt and uncleanliness in an undignified manner- being called, for the first time, the rotting goddess.
While this becomes uncomfortable and insulting for the goddess and her followers alike, it is important that we face these accusations and trace them back to their roots. Through this, we can understand the disconnect between the foul and fearsome goddess modern ideals have turned her into versus the powerful and necessary goddess we know and worship. Armed with this knowledge we can combat the negative assumptions while maintaining her power (not positivity and light-washing the goddess who is not all airy-fairy and pie in the sky, by any means) and, if appropriate, educate those who are not aware of the necessity of taking the “dark” with the “light”.
Hekate is equated with the earth and all it implies- material existence complete with the implicit death sentence that waits all life cycles. She was later slandered with all sorts of rumors of causing frenzies, madness, and night terrors. Dog sacrifice, a commonality in those times (much like offering beef, veal, or pork today), has been used to further demonize the cults of Hekate. It is simply a misunderstanding of a different time and culture used to make abnormal something that was otherwise innocuous. In the same way, the ecstasy of her rites were perverted into dark shadows of their reality- sensationalized to seem more mad than they truly were.
The (d)evolution of the witch
Hekate’s first associations with the witch were literary; the work of dramatists for entertainment purposes (far from any reality for either the goddess or her followers). Roman law reflects actual ideas of the time when it came to the word “witch”- it was much less an individual title or identity as a metaphor for a class of criminal. One wouldn’t be called a witch, because it was a myth… a figure of speech. Of course, there were people who practiced magic in these times but they had other names for themselves. So how did these ancient practitioners of magic and charms come to be associated with the word “witch”? How did their status evolve (and decline) as this process played out?
The first “witch” we find mentioned in history is not so much a follower of Hekate as she is, herself, a goddess. Circe was confident and sensual, with subtle magic in the form of seduction and influence.
From there we see the “witch” demoted: Medea, more a victim of her passion than in control of it. In place of a goddess, we see a heroine who is equipped with a bit more magic- in the form of herbalism and charms- to carry out her plans. Medea is part innocent girl, part fearsome woman, described as Hekate’s priestess. This duality is one that will be maintained in further evolution of the archetype of the witch- she is either a beautiful maiden or a hideous old hag.
Another step down is Simaitha, decended to human status and a slave to desire. More a love-struck and vengeful girl than a heroine or goddess like her predecessors, she seeks magic as a last resort to avenge her frustrations.
Subsequently, we see Canidia who is described as “every sailor’s and peddler’s girlfriend”. She is subject to passion and monstrous sexual appetite along with the degradation and sexist views these activities held for woman at the time (still common today). In further stripping of original divine status, Canidia is demoted to being used for these passions to which she is slave. She is rotting and diseased, partaker of dark and necromantic magic… she is at once falling apart at the seams and ferociously dangerous.
There is a clear progression as witches decline in status and increase in power. From goddess and inspirer of passion and confidence, to heroine and victim of passion (rather than controller of it), to Hellenistic witches demoted again to love-sick girls and the Roman witches that follow in degenerative trend as lust-crazed, living dead sex-cannibals (the book’s wording, not mine… I was just amused). In some accounts we are afforded beauty to this last evolution of witch, but she is equally as cruel and deceptive- just as bad as her counterparts, only with a prettier face. Ironically, as status and character is demoted the power is increased from simple influence to unquestionably powerful magical works. As the witch becomes more mortal, powers become more godlike. This trend only further solidifies the contempt and fear of the witch as she emerges from metaphor to individual title.
By the time the title of witch emerges in contemporary witchcraft, where we see individuals using it as a description of self rather than a concept, half a millennium has passed with increasing vilification of Hekate and witches in literary art. This same literature, in the hand of inquisitors, produced innocent victims and urged practitioners of agricultural magic to identify themselves as witches. In this way witches were forced from mythological ideals to actual living people… and we have continued to live and thrive to this day.
Hekate and her witches in the modern age
Hekate imparted her followers the sovereign science of herbalism and it is described, at the time of declaration, as the most awesome and impressive of witch activities. Many of us are aware of the far-reaching applications for the use of herbs in magic today- whether you got that from the goddess or another source it is hard to deny its effect. Originally for gathering these, a witch would go to the mountains, the streams, the woods… solidifying our connection with these areas. As witches (and society) have become urbanized we have moved to cemeteries and ally-ways. Implications of this secretive wandering- merely a necessity for seeking supplies- has brought misconceptions of the “darkness” of witchcraft into the modern age, strongly supported by the mythos of the witch in antiquity that follows behind us. This connection with the earth has waned and been turned on its head much like every other theme we see here… as society became more urbanized, even as early as the Hellenic periods, witches’ connection with the land began to slip. In it’s place came a powerful hold over nature and- at times- an assault upon it. The process of drawing down the moon, a rite familiar to many witches (followers of Hekate or otherwise), demonstrates this control. It could be further asserted, since Hekate is so strongly associated with the moon by this point, that control over the moon is extended to mastery over one’s own goddess (this is a subject I agree with, to a point, and will have to discuss in a later writing). It is also important to reexamine, at this point, the preoccupations of both fertility and death and what those mean to witches in service to Hekate in the modern age.
The development of the dark goddess is not simply a demonization and degeneration of an originally benign being, but rather an unfolding of the implications and depth of her basic aspects throughout the ages. To understand the witch today, is to understand the goddess, Hekate. Those who wish to embrace her in entirety must recognize the nymph-like generative spirit of her origins in Asia Minor alongside the Rotting Goddess of Rome.
tl;dr Hekate’s origins and evolution from ancient fertility goddess to modern patron of witches, the underworld, and baneful magic is a story that defies etymology. Her story is a victim of contradicting and empirical religious conflicts that slowly warped and turned on its head the necessary roles she played in Greco-Roman society and, with this shift, the view of witches in the public eye also suffered. Rather than arguing about which aspects of the goddess are “correct” we must recognize the validity of personal experience where history cannot be relied upon. Hekate is at once pleasant and fearsome, the Great Mother and the Goddess of the Unquiet Dead. Whether you worship her in entirety, or a single facet, respect of her full nature and understanding of her origins is required. Humans are not two dimensional and neither are our gods.
Yeah, The Rotting Goddess was his thesis, which wasn’t well received amongst scholars, but seems to be a hit with practitioners.