If there is one type of question about Hekate I get asked more than others it’s about her name. Like every aspect of my favorite goddess, her name has a fascinating and intricate history. From her origins to how we say her name today, there’s loads of intrigue, but few certain answers, to be found.
“We must rather seek for the origin of the name in the customs of Hecate-worship, as there, if anywhere, we may expect to find traces of the most ancient conception of the goddess.” John B. Bury in The Classical Review, Vol. 3, No. 9 (Nov., 1889)
The first part of understanding Hekate’s name both in meaning and in pronunciation is to give some context to her relationship with the ancient Greeks. Most scholars agree that Hekate was not originally a Greek goddess, but that they adapted her from an existing Great Goddess. What is debated is where they found her – was it the north, south or east? There is evidence supporting her origins in each, a combination or all three of these directions. What is clear is that Hekate’s name, like her powers, are unusual in the Classical Greek world. Both point to origins elsewhere.
Hekate came down into Greece as an earth goddess with the usual interest that such a divinity always had in vegetation and nutrition, in wild and human life, but possessing also certain attractions for the moon, and trailing with her a very pernicious cloud of superstition and sorcery. – From Farnell, L. R. (1902). Cults of the Greek States, Vol. 2 Chapter XVI
The Meaning of Hekate’s Name
Since Hekate’s true origin is up for speculation, it’s not surprising that there is no clear definition for her name. One theory I enjoy purported her name meant “hound.” This theory, advanced at the end of the nineteenth century by Dr. Bury quoted earlier, illustrates that the meaning of Hekate’s name, like everything else about her, has long been subject to debate. To learn more about Hekate’s hounds, read this.
To begin, the definition of Hekate’s name is complex. I wasn’t going to add this to my list of Hekatean controversies until I read a post in a group last night erroneously stating the historical meaning of her name. You can interpret Hekate to mean whatever you want, but the actual meaning of her name is anything but clear. According to Sorita D’Este in Circle for Hekate (and classicists), there are at least three plausible definitions for the meaning of Hekate’s name: it could be of unknown foreign origin, mean “worker from afar” or have something to do with the Ancient Greek word for “a hundred.” You can pick which one speaks to you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the actual ancient understanding of her name. from Hekate’s Many Controversies
Hekate is never, ever associated with “100,” (to my knowledge, correct me if I’m wrong) although her fondness for liminal spaces (“from afar”) and the moon (see below) is well known throughout the ages.
Defining Hekate’s Origins and Name With the Help of Her Companions
The “worker from afar” makes sense given her adaptation by the Greeks. Hekate was an epithet often given to Artemis, so much so that it has been difficult for historians to sort out which goddess is being discussed in some ancient writings, particularly regarding their shared governance of the moon. Apollo, Artemis’ twin, bore the male version of Hekate’s name as an epithet. A common interpretation of the root of these epithets is “far darter.” Some scholars take this as a direct reference to the celestial objects associated with Artemis (moon) and Apollo (sun). These two were also associated with archery, so sometimes the meaning is interpreted as “far shooter.”
Artemis was not Hekate’s only frequent companion. Demeter, Persephone and even Selene (aka Phoebe) were also often written about in conjunction with Hekate or even interchangeably. Not surprisingly, they share many of the same epithets, further confusing teasing apart who is who in ancient texts. Comparing her similarities and differences with these cohorts reveals that Hekate, unlike them, played the divine mediator in many stories, especially in Persephone’s mythology. This reinforces the definition of her name “as worker from afar” because she appears from unknown origin in these tales. These stories pre-date the adaptation of Hekate by the Greeks into a spooky goddess of necromancy and crossroads. One other “companion” I want to mention is the Egyptian goddess, Hekat. Some argue that there is no known connection in the existing archaic records, but they do share similarities, such as being associated with childbirth.
Do The Epithets Help Define Hekate’s Name?
My list of Hekate’s epithets has well over 200 entries. Hekate’s diverse epithets cover so many powers and characteristics, from Melinoe (Black-Clad Raiser of the Dead) to Atala (Tender), that beyond some general theme of “otherness,” it’s difficult to find support for any one particular definition.
Many of them have something to do with entrances and thresholds, such as Kleidoukhos (Keeper of the Keys) and Empylios (She Who Stands Before the Gate). To me, this not only represents Hekate’s immense powers, but also supports her foreign origins and the definition of her name as involving “from afar.” If you are already in a place, you don’t crash gates. Enodia, a name often used with other goddesses (including a goddess with that name) literally means “of the road.” Again, this is not a Hekate who is contentedly residing within the Greek Pantheon. She’s an outsider. Eventually, she evolved into the night wandering, blood drinking leader of her Horde for the Classical Greeks and the Romans. She remained “from afar” as she became even more marginalized throughout history until recent times as a frightening Goddess of Witches. Today, she is seen by many as a Guardian of the Marginalized, further strengthening her “from afar-ness.” She is far, far from the mainstream of anything. When she does get pulled into it, she gets reduced to a narrow definition, such as with the Wiccan view of her as a Crone. Note: the only historical evidence for this is exceptionally fragile. If you see Hekate as a Crone, that’s fine, but don’t let anyone tell you that’s how history perceives her. Nope.
Spelling & Pronouncing Hekate’s Name & Some Popular Epithets
I also get asked often about which spelling of Hekate’s name is correct. Either Hecate (more Latin) or the way I spell it is 100% right. If I use a quote from a source spelling it with the “c,” I leave it that way. I use “Hekate” because, to me, this hearkens further back in time than the other spelling. “Hecate” is often used by non-Hekatean witches, I’ve noticed although I have no explanation for why this is. Perhaps it’s because “Hecate” is often used in art, literature and in neo-pagan writings about her. We’re big on reclaiming our goddess in her full power, Hekate seems much more mighty, at least to me.
The moment has come to answer the #1 question I get asked: How is Hekate’s name pronounced? Here is my answer:
“Say Hekate’s name how it sounds in your heart
and feels right on your tongue.”
When I hear people stopping mid-sentence as the wind up to speak Hekate’s name in what they think is the proper way, I just want to tell them to stop. But they’ve worked so hard to get it right that I don’t want to hurt their feelings. Truth be told, there are no ancient audio recordings of how they said Hekate’s name. Turning to the Greek pronunciation today for some sort of historical accuracy is a bit like thinking that Shakespeare sounded like Stephen King. Language changes over time. If you’re trying to get it right to honor her ancient origins, consider that she was an existing goddess adapted by the Greeks. In other words: Greek was not Hekate’s native tongue.
Softening the “H” may be more historically accurate, other than this there are several completely legitimate ways to say her name. “E-kah-tay” may be closest. Soft E, no H. E-ka-tay. My tongue always likes to say it with the “h,” because I have a lovely Nova Scotian accent. A final note: the ancients had accents and dialects just like we do today, so it’s unlikely her name, especially since it was foreign in origin (like her), was said in a uniform manner.
I get asked how to say her epithets quite often, too. Here are some of the more common ones:
Chthonia (Earthy): Ka-Tho-nee-a
Kleidoukhos (Keeper of the Keys): Kl-eye-doe-kos
Enodia (Of the road): Eh-no-dee-a
Empylios (Before the Gate): Em-pee-lee-os
Lampidios (Torch Bearer): Lamp-a-dee-os
Nykhia (Night wanderer): Ni-Key-a
Skotia (Of the dark): Sco-sha
Soteira (Savior): So-tee-era.
Finally, the spelling of the epithets can vary quite a bit based on the particular translator. There is no one perfect way to translate from ancient Graeco-Roman-Egyptian languages into modern English (or other modern language).
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my summary on Hekate’s name. For me, the mysterious and complex nature of it, like our favorite goddess, is in perfect keeping with my understanding of Hekate.