“Look at Hecate, standing guard at the crossroads, one face looking in each direction.”
Hekate (also written as Hecate or Hecat) is, both literally and figuratively, a multifaceted deity. Almost always, she is depicted in her triple form: a Goddess with three aspects/faces. Some say it’s to symbolize the power she has over all the three realms (Earth, Sea, and Sky). Others say it’s to symbolize the inherent Sacred Trinity in her nature, being simultaneously the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone.
As we approach Samhain, the Witches’ New Year, let’s take some time to acquaint ourselves better with “She who is the Mother of All Witches”.
The origins of Hekate
In ancient Greek, Hekate means “she who is far-reaching.” It is believed, however, that the word took its meaning from the Goddess and not the other way around. To find the true origin of Hekate’s name, we’d do better to look in ancient Egypt: “heka” means witchcraft in ancient Egyptian. It’s where the word “hex” comes from!
The Goddess was originally worshipped in Anatolia, where she was thought of as the World Soul and the Bringer of Light. Often conflated with the Hittite sun goddess, Hekate did not exhibit chthonic characteristics at first. But when her cult spread into ancient Greece, she had to change. See, Hekate had too many similar characteristics with Artemis (both appear similarly dressed in short skirts and hunting boots), Selene (both Goddesses of the Moon), and Apollo (both being Bringers of Light). In short, ancient Greeks didn’t know how to accept Hekate as the overarching Goddess she was, so they focused on her darker aspects instead.
Her genesis stories convey the same confusion. Some sources claim Hekate to be the granddaughter of the Moon and cousin to Artemis and Apollo (in an attempt to explain the similarities in their characteristics). Others claim her to be the daughter of Nyx, the Goddess of Night, while some go as far as to call her a daughter of Zeus. All these attempts at giving Hekate a genealogy connected to the Greek pantheon, while explicitly not turning her into one of the 12 Olympian Gods, were done to downplay the immense power the Goddess had. Power that, as we will see, was even greater than that of Zeus, the Father of the Gods.
Hekate’s role in the Greek pantheon
Hekate became a protector of the house and city walls in ancient Athens. In other Greek cities and in the countryside, however, she was still worshipped in her more universal role as the World Soul, the Savior, and the Mother of Angels -or Demons, as these two words weren’t that different in pre-Christian times. She was considered a Titaness, one of the older generation of gods who predated the Olympians and were vanquished by Zeus. But Hekate was the only Titaness who maintained her powers over the three realms of Earth, Sea, and Sky, even during Zeus’ reign. She was also the only deity, apart from Zeus, who helped Demeter to find her daughter Persephone when she was abducted by Hades. It was Hekate’s torch that shone the light for Demeter to see — and when Persephone was found, Hekate stayed with her in the Underworld and became her companion as she led the souls of the dead.
Hekate was the keeper of the crossroads and borders, eluding to the fact that her power reached beyond the borders of this world and into the Underworld. She was the ultimate sorceress and was considered the mother of the famous witches Circe and Medea (although the Goddess never had a consort or gave birth). She is often depicted holding the keys to the realms of men and beyond and holding the torch that sheds light on her own sacred Darkness.
Hekate was invoked both when someone passed away and when a child was brought into this world — a sign that our Pagan ancestors were aware of the cyclical nature of Life, Death, and Rebirth. She had 33 holy epithets that were as diverse as “She who carries the Light” and “She of the Dark Region”, honoring Hekate’s reach both to the Heavens and to the Underworld.
As Christians took hold over Europe, Hekate was given a more “sinister” role, being associated with ghosts, nightmares, and insanity as well as sorcery and poisons. She was thought to control the Furies (along with Hades and Persephone) and the Empusae, who were shape-shifting female demons who preyed on men for their blood. That’s quite the downgrade for the Goddess who was once accepted as the Soul of the World. But then again, it’s not the only occasion where a powerful goddess or god was demoted or vilified as the world switched over to Christianity.
Symbols and associations
As a Goddess associated with Magic, the Moon, and the Night, Hekate’s presence was often thought to be heralded by the howling of dogs. Dogs were always connected to Hekate. In fact, Hekate was the only Goddess able to control Cerberus, the three-headed black dog that guarded the doors of the Underworld.
The Goddess is depicted with her trusted black dog companion at her side and a polecat at her other side. Both of those animals were thought to originally be women who Hekate either transformed herself (to save from misfortune) or took pity on after they were transformed by other gods. The dog was Hecabe, the Queen of Troy, whom Hekate transformed to help her escape the captivity of Greeks after they won the Trojan War. As for the polecat, she was the woman who helped the mother of Hercules give birth to the hero, a fact that angered Hera who transformed her into a polecat as punishment. Perhaps, this was an allegory to the fact that Hekate took care of the women society cast aside for practicing witchcraft.
Hekate has more animal familiars, among them serpents, horses, boars, lions, and frogs (possibly for their ability to cross between the Earth and the Sea). Cypress, a tree known for its connection to both life and death, is sacred to Hekate. She is also closely associated with poisonous plants like yew, aconite, belladonna, and mandrake. She was the first one to practice and teach herbal magic and the use of plants for good and ill.
Hekate’s sacred symbol is called “Strophalos”; a spinning wheel that represents her Universal power over the Fates. It’s also thought to be the inspiration for the Labyrinth.
In ancient times, Hekate was the matron goddess of Byzantium. In fact, the crescent moon and the stars that to this day adorn the Turkish flag were originally Hekate’s symbols: the Goddess was thought to light a crescent moon over Constantinople to warn its inhabitants when enemy armies would come to attack at night. When the Ottoman Turks took over Byzantium in 1453, the imagery was already there so they kept it.
Although there are many temples dedicated to Hekate, the Goddess was mostly worshipped at the crossroads. People used to erect shrines to Hekate at these places and leave offerings or erect poles and place three masks around them, one looking in each direction to symbolize Hekate’s 360 vision. As she was a fierce protector and a ruler of ghosts and spirits, these offerings were meant to appease evil spirits and protect from them. This is where the idea of “a bargain with a demon at the crossroads” originated from…
Another important Hekate ritual was the Supper of Hekate. This was a plate of food offered either at the table where the family was also eating, at the threshold of the home, or at the crossroads. Hekate’s supper could include anything from eggs, garlic, small honey cakes, or a dish of red mullet. The food was thought to feed the hungry ghosts Hekate ruled over as well as honor the Goddess herself.
Hekate and Samhain
Today, Hekate is beloved by Wiccans and Witches alike. She is understood as a manifestation of the Crone aspect of the Goddess, her power most prominent during the Dark Moon — an ideal time for rituals of banishing, undoing, and cleansing.
During Samhain, where the Veil is at its thinnest and ghosts roam the Earth, Hekate is the ideal Goddess to have by your side. She will help you deepen your Craft, especially during scrying, tarot card readings, and other divination rituals during that time. Hekate’s presence is subtle; the Goddess appears in dreams in the form of a black dog or another one of her sacred animals.
To invoke her during Samhain, light three candles (one white, one black, one red) and offer her a plate of food, adorned with lavender blooms. If you can’t physically do this at a crossroads, place three yew branches at your altar to mark the three directions and put your plate/offering in the middle.
May She who brings both the Light and the Sacred Darkness guide you this Samhain!