For many modern witchcraft traditions, Hecate is a Dark Goddess and is associated with the spirits of the dead, ghosts, the dark of the moon, baneful herbs, curses, and black magic. For others, Hecate is the Crone Goddess, ruling over the third stage of a woman’s life, beyond her childbearing years when she can focus on deepening the skills and information collected throughout her life when knowledge and experience are refined into wisdom.
Historically, Hecate has served many roles. She is an incredibly ancient Goddess with origins lost in the mists of time.
History and Origins
Hecate is generally accepted to be a Hellenic Goddess, but she seems to predate the Olympic Gods and may have originated in Asia Minor. The name Hecate is difficult to decipher but may mean “she who operates from afar” or “far-reaching”. It may also be related to the name of the Egyptian Goddess Heqet which sounds similar, especially in the Early Modern English pronunciation of Hecate, which left off the concluding “e”.
The earliest literature that mentions Hecate is Hesiod’s Theogony. Here he refers to her as:
Hecate, whom Zeus the son of Cronos, honored above all. He gave her splendid gifts, to have a share of the earth and the unfruitful sea. She also received honor in starry heaven and is honored exceedingly by the deathless gods. To this day, whenever anyone of men on earth offers rich sacrifices and prays for favor according to custom, he calls upon Hecate.
Great honor comes full easily to him whose prayers the goddess receives favorably, and she bestows wealth upon him; for the power surely is with her. For as many as were born of Earth and Ocean amongst all these she has her due portion.
Hesiod lists many things over which she has power, including wise judgment and ruling of kings, victory, and glory in battle, luck in games, sports, horse racing, seafaring, fishing, the fertility of livestock, and the care of young children. He notes also that she gives generously to those who honor her, but will happily take away from those who displease her.
Hesiod’s description of Hecate seems rather obsequious compared to those of other writers, but it’s possible he came from an area that honored her particularly or that he had a personal connection with the Goddess that was closer than that of some of the other writers.
Many ancient Greek writers speak of Hecate in glowing terms. Homer refers to her as “tenderhearted Hecate, bright-coiffed”2, for example. This seems to contradict her later reputation as having a darker, more fearful aspect, and this may be the face of it.
But we must also remember the ancient Greek’s tendency to be complementary of the more fearful deities in order to avoid their negative attention. For example, the common reference to the Erinyes as “the kindly ones”.
Roman and modern depictions of Hecate show her with three faces, sometimes with three bodies, nearly always looking in three different directions. The earlier Greek representations of Hecate were always single. The three-fold image began appearing around the 3rd century BCE.
It may relate to her association of her by the Romans with the Goddess Trivia. Egyptian-influenced magical papyri also described her as having three heads including two of an animal. In one case, a serpent and a horse and in another a cow and a boar.
Most images, however, show three separate figures with their backs against a pillar or with their backs to each other holding the symbols of her office which often include a torch (usually two of them, one in each hand), a key, a serpent and/or a dagger. She is also occasionally depicted with a hound at her feet.
Hecate travels with a bitch hound who was once the Trojan Queen Hecabe and a polecat, previously known as Galinthias. She is also the companion and handmaiden of Persephone, accompanying her on her annual journey to and from the Underworld Kingdom of Hades.
Hecate’s Spheres of Influence
Throughout history, Hecate’s spheres of influence have included just about everything. In Hellenic tradition, she is free from the constraints that bind many of the other Gods, that is, they are bound to the realms in which they reside.
Hecate has rulership over the Earth, the Sky, and the Sea and can move freely throughout them. She rules over all useful herbs, those that are magical, healing or poisonous and governs the secret knowledge of their use as well as the knowledge of sorcery, witchcraft, and necromancy. She guards entrance ways, crossroads and boundaries of every sort.
Where paths meet, masks would be placed in honor of Hekate’s many faces. Offerings were left to her to help with changes of course. Hekate is the patron of witches, and she was has been honored more recently by Dianic groups as the Mother of witches.
It is Hekate that is said to have taught the first women witchcraft.
She can be invoked as a bestower of wealth and favor.
Worship of Hecate
Hecate as a Household Goddess
Among the ancient Hellenes, and indeed among modern worshipers, Hecate was an extremely important household Goddess who protected the household and its inhabitants from dangerous outside forces, including criminals, evil spirits, restless ghosts, and general unfriendly and unhelpful energies and forces.
Her altar stood near the front door, at the crossroads between the public street and the private entryway, or perhaps simply at the liminal place between outside and in.
Traditionally, food offerings are left at the household shrines or at crossroads or other liminal places at the dark of the moon and once the offerings are placed, it is forbidden to look back at them. This major ritual of Hellenic tradition is known as Hecate’s Supper or Hecate’s Deipnon and is attested in much ancient literature. Traditional offerings for Hecate’s Supper include fish (particularly red mullet), eggs and garlic.
The Deipnon ritual usually incorporates a household cleansing ritual as well and sweepings from the household and other items may also be left with the food offering.