Hekate is a complex goddess with a long history. She is the Goddess of Witchcraft, a guide along the path, and the universal keeper of the keys. There is much to learn about Hekate from the written records, but for a witch to truly know Hekate, we need to experience her. This article provides a short introduction of Hekate’s history, followed by recommendations for experiencing your personal Hekate.
Triple Hekate (50 BCE – 50 CE) from the MFA, Boston.
A Witch’s Understanding of Hekate
Hekate is a goddess that is both complex and very simple. She has many abilities but is also the source of pure energy. She is ancient and contemporary. I know her by a multitude of names, ranging from World Soul to Goddess of the Witches. I understand her as the Keeper of the Keys of the Universe. Symbolically, her hands hold all that there is. Through my efforts, I can attain one of her many keys.
I’ve been a devotee of Hekate for over a decade. During this time, my understanding of Hekate has grown both on the intellectual and personal levels. In my experience, her energy is intimidating but approachable. Knowing Hekate is often a very intimate experience, seldom fleeting and frequently intense. People have diverse beliefs about Hekate. And she changes with the times. However, most of my intellectual knowledge about Hekate comes from ancient sources.
Further reading section at the end of this article.
The origins of Hekate lie in the mists of the distant past. The most likely beginning of Hekate was in Asia Minor and parts of Eastern Europe. From these regions, her cult spread to Ancient Greece where she was viewed as a Titan. Unlike the rest of her Titanic pantheon, she wasn’t killed by the upstart Olympians. Instead Zeus gave her dominion over land, sea and sky, according to Hesiod’s Theogony (approximately 8th century BCE).
The Ancient Greeks worshiped Hekate in various ways, notably she was seen as a matron watching over households. It is from this role that the common contemporary practice of giving her offerings on the dark moon grew. In ancient Greece, a Hekate’s Supper was left out, usually at a three-way crossroads, to seek her favor over a household for the coming month. Her association with the number three extended to her being viewed as a triple goddess.
Hekate as a three-bodied goddess. MFA, Boston.
Torch Bearing Goddess of the Underworld
During this time, her image as a goddess of the underworld was also born. In the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hekate answers Persephone’s cries when no one else does. She becomes Persephone’s guide between the underworld and the human one, using her torches to light the way along the journey. Hekate as a torch-bearer or lamp-carrier became one of the dominant themes of her depictions during ancient times.
Lamp in the form of a bust of Hekate
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2nd – 1st century BCE.
Keeper of the Keys
During this time, the Orphic Hymn to Hekate was written, as well. In this poem, Hekate is given many responsibilities, including being the universal key holder:
Thomas Taylor translation.
Ancient Hekate’s Many Roles
From the ancient sources, we know that Hekate was seen as a liminal goddess, standing between worlds, particularly at the threshold of life and death. She was given many (over 200) epithets including Mother of All, Queen, Savior, Mistress of Corpses, and World Soul. The variety of the titles bestowed upon her by the ancients often appears contradictory. We need to keep in mind two things. One is that the ancient writers held vastly divergent views of Hekate. The other is that Hekate has always been a complex goddess with multiple roles and abilities.
The Importance of Ancient Hekate
While we will never know for certain the extent of her adoration among the ancient Greeks, there is evidence suggesting that she was an important goddess, particularly with common people. In addition, there are many ancient coins, statues, and other works of art depicting Hekate during this period. In the pictured coin, Hekate is shown wearing pearls with a torch blazing behind her (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).
Writings About Ancient Hekate
The Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), an ancient text combining Greek, Roman and Egyptian deities, portrays Hekate as an all-purpose goddess. In many spells, she is addressed as everything from the bringer of beginnings to the mistress of corpses. In the PGM she is clearly seen as a goddess of the moon. There are other sources of evidence indicating that she was seen by some as a triple-moon goddess.
The Hekate of The Chaldean Oracles, written after the earlier texts, is a complex figure who is seen as The World Soul. As such, she acts as a sort of protective membrane between the human world and the realms. She is seen as a savior who helps human souls ascend.
This is the Hekate of the ancient world. If you are interested in reading more about ancient Hekate, there are many ways to going about this. You can sort through the translations of The Greek Magical Papyri or The Chaldean Oracles yourself. Sorita D’Este’s book Circle for Hekate provides a great summary of historical Hekate.
Hekate (1st century BCE – 2nd century CE). MFA, Boston.
The Problem with the Ancient Sources
We are fortunate to have such a large resource of ancient images and texts about Hekate. The problem with having so many ancient sources is that we can be fooled into thinking that this gives us a full understanding of how she was viewed by the ancients. Even with everything that is known, it’s still impossible to piece together who Hekate truly was to the ancients. Moreover, because the texts were written by men of a certain class, there is no way to know for certain how ancient witches understood and experienced Hekate.
Historical Hekate: The Middle Ages – 19th Century
Hekate during the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and into the 20th century underwent a striking narrowing of her abilities. While the ancients revered her as a goddess with many characteristics and abilities, the image that emerged afterwards is limited to that of an underworld goddess. One example of this restricted view of Hekate is found in Pistis Sophia where she is portrayed as basically the queen of hell. Shakespeare’s portrayal of her in MacBeth epitomized this version of Hekate:
Robert Thew. Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1.
While Shakespeare presented a version of Hekate and witches, it is unlikely that this reflected how witches understood and experienced Hekate during these times.
20th Century Hekate
In the early 20th century Hekate’s limited capacity as an underworld goddess was further reinforced through the works of Aleister Crowley and Gerald Gardner. Hekate (usually spelled the Latin way: Hecate) became widely known as The Goddess of Witchcraft in neo-pagan circles.
Somewhere along the way, Hekate as a crone became a commonly held belief among neo-pagans. In addition to this interpretation of her as an individual, she was also placed in the “Maiden Mother Crone” tripartite goddess structure as the crone or as the entire trio. While the veracity of these applications of Hekate has been debated, there is ancient evidence that solidifies her as a maiden. Her role as a mother is reinforced through ancient epithets, such as Pammetor, and there are a few tales portraying her as a biological mother. Accompanying this new application of Hekate’s ancient characterization as a triple goddess was the Wiccan association of her with the moon.
Thus, the 20th century witches understanding of Hekate was limited to two roles. As part of the Triple Goddess imagery she was often celebrated as the wise woman. In her dark goddess incarnation, she could be given homage as Queen of the Witches and summoned for certain types of witchcraft. She was not seen, at least by the majority, as an all-purpose deity yet.
Today, many Hekatean witches view Hekate as an all-purpose goddess. This understanding of Hekate was greatly informed by the scholarship about her ancient origins that occurred in the late 20th century, notably S.I. Johnston’s Hekate Soteira. As the 21st century began, other writers were presenting alternative ideas about Hekate, too. The popular contemporary perspectives on Hekate can be divided into four distinct categories: the soul of the world, as a primordial force, as a dark goddess and as the triple goddess/crone.
Sometimes Hekate is the focus of a certain path, like with the Covenant of Hekate’s approach to her as the soul of the world, but other times she is part of a framework rather than the focus. Some of these perspectives are more intellectual and theurgical, while others are more witchcraft based. What these approaches have in common is that Hekate is a mighty goddess and that she is a powerful magickal force available to practitioners. Another shared thread is that all these perspectives use the historical interpretations of Hekate in developing their understanding.
Defining Contemporary Hekate
An important consideration when defining contemporary Hekate is that some of the approaches utilize one aspect of Hekate rather than the multitude of characteristics. My personal view is that Hekate is the energy current in all living things. Thus, I see all these perspectives as valid, whether or not they reflect my personal view because all things flow from Hekate as the source, we can use one current, say in understanding her as a dark goddess, or many as in The World Soul perspective. Another distinction is that some of these modern perspectives vary in their approach to Hekate, with some seeing her as a deity that must be petitioned for favors and others viewing her as a force that can be manipulated.
The Use of Epithets
Another phenomenon is the current practice of using epithets, or characteristics, of Hekate to either call upon her or for devotion. While many of these descriptors are ancient in origin, the way they are applied is very modern. For example, devotees may call upon one or more epithets when involving Hekate in spellwork. There are groups dedicated to Hekate with just one aspect, such as her watery characteristics.
The use of epithets is largely restricted to devotees who primarily focus on Hekate, either to the exclusion or limited use of other deities. Their emphasis is on Hekate with anything else being secondary, even witchcraft for some. I’m the opposite – I am a witch first and then a devotee. Being a devotee implies that a person is committed to regularly engaging in activities that honor Hekate, including making offerings of various kinds.
Then there are those who are witches who may summon Hekate on occasion and aren’t devotees. I’ve found that within this group, Hekate remains narrowly defined as a dark goddess and a Goddess of Witches for the most part, although there is variation in how she is understood even with those who have a casual relationship with her. It seems her diversity is found even with people who only have a fleeting or tertiary involvement with Hekate.
While some devotees criticize people who have a more casual relationship with Hekate, most adopt a stance of “you do you” accepting that this goddess comes to some only for the short-term. Devotees often extended this perspective to how others interpret and work with Hekate.
I hope this brief overview of Hekate has made you curious to learn more about her, both in the intellectual sense and in terms of truly understanding her. Researching Hekate, whether through direct study of the modern interpretations of the ancient texts or by reading others’ takes on these writings is a very worthwhile undertaking. You may also be learning about Hekate through other books or courses, where she is featured as part of the content rather than the focus. I like to think that Hekate desires us to be well-informed critical thinkers rather than blind adherents to anyone else’s version of her. To me, there is a big difference between knowing about Hekate and knowing her.
When we know Hekate, we begin to understand her mighty powers and become more skilled at evoking and invoking her presence for our witchcraft. In time, we can learn to tap into her energy currents as well. Truly knowing Hekate requires understanding beyond anything that can be found through the works of others or our attempts to reproduce rituals – we must experience her.
There are many ways to experience Hekate, and there are countless ways to understand her. Since she is such a diverse all-purpose goddess, we may be drawn to one aspect of hers (or a handful) or we may feel connected to Hekate in her totality. We may have an initial experience with Hekate where she presents herself in a complete vision that is entirely experiential, or we may experience her after we have already read a lot. The more we experience Hekate, the more we understand her. This understanding enables us to become better at witchcraft as we develop the skills necessary to involve her and her energies in our workings.
The key thing in experiencing Hekate is to learn to be open to her messages and visions. You can accomplish this through a variety of methods, from meditation to ritual. You can have spontaneous experiences when Hekate comes to you or plan intentional workings with a goal of experiencing her.