As an ancient goddess, Hekate has weathered many different interpretations and practices. Because of her diverse nature and changing roles throughout history, there are many potential controversies in our contemporary context, from how we use her symbols to how we try to define her. Even her image as a three-formed goddess has become a hot topic in the modern application of this to the Maiden, Mother and Crone symbolism. Rather than see all these diversities as controversial – and as ways to divide us – we can use them to strengthen our individual practice and collective understanding.
I recently went on the hunt for an early image of a goddess wearing a dress with a fish on it that was “probably Hekate”. My quest ended by finding this “possibly the earliest image of Hekate” in an academic journal article published in 1981. Perfect for my article on Hekate as an Oceanic Goddess. Or so I initially thought. As I studied the image, something very disturbing became clear – there was no way that I could use it in any type of public forum. Because, while the central image was of a fish-dress wearing probably-early-Hekate with other symbols associated with her, there were also swastika’s scattered all over the ancient amphora in the photo. There was no way to edit them out in order to share the image. I know that the swastika is much more than the Nazi symbol. However, the meaning of this symbol for most people is that of hate and genocide. There’s no way that I would share it.
Hekate and the Swastika?
What the swastika was, what it might still be in some remote village in Tibet, and what it may become at some future time when Hitler is long forgotten are all irrelevant in the face of what the swastika is here and now. The swastika has a life of its own.
If you’re interested, you can see the image that I’m referring to at the top of this blog about the connections between the swastika and the Confederate flag from 2015.
This little incident got me thinking about other controversies surrounding Hekate.
There’s Lots of Controversial Material
Any goddess with a history dating back thousands of years is likely to have her share of controversies, especially since there has been so much written about Her. Unlike some neopagan deities, there is a huge literature extant about Hekate. Pile on top of almost three thousand years of written documents are the multiple millennia’s of pictorial representations. That’s lots of potential fodder for hot topics.
While I find all this – and the diverse contemporary understandings – fascinating rather than controversial, there are instances when I am confronted with the possibility that others may not share my opinion, like with the swastika image.
The Meaning of Hekate’s Name
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.
Picking from the Epithets
The same thing applies to personal understanding of Hekate. Since there are over two hundred known ancient epithets for her, there’s a great deal of room for picking and choosing what characteristics of hers speak to any one individual or group. These epithets can be divided in three categories: as a Dark Goddess of the Under World, those with a neutral/multiple meaning and those that reflect her “heavenly” side. An example of a neutral/multiple meaning epithet is Mother of All (Pammetor). For some of us this has positive connotations of protection, support and benevolence, but for others her maternal side is harsh and even punitive.
Hekate’s Historical Phases
The diversity of these epithets stems from both the ancients multi-faceted understanding of many deities and from the distinct historical phases of the dominant understanding of Hekate. In the earliest records, she is portrayed as an all-purpose goddess. Then she goes through a phase of diversity, but with an emphasis on her Under World aspects, such as in the story of Persephone. Next, she becomes the World Soul and Savior of The Chaldean Oracles and subsequent writings. Then the understanding of her narrows throughout the Middle Ages until the 20th century CE as a Goddess of Witchcraft, Ghosts and the Dead.
Presently, the two most common understandings of her see her as either a Dark Goddess or as an all-purpose one (encompassing her Under World characteristics). However, there are those that understand her as a benevolent deity without those creepy characteristics. All of these can be based on the historical records and images. The only thing that matter’s is that you understand Hekate the way she presents herself to you. However, there are those who seek to advance their interpretation as the only correct one and belittle those who don’t share it. Just the other day someone was explaining why the Chaldean Hekate was wrong and theirs was right because the Oracles are only fragments.
Hekate as Crone
Then there is the incorporation of Hekate into the modern Triple Goddess model. Honestly, this can get people so riled up! No, she was not seen as a Crone in the ancient texts. Yes, if it makes sense to you, then see her this way.
Connected to the interpretations of Hekate are the symbols associated with her. Snakes, hell-hounds and the unquiet dead are upsetting images to some. Not being drawn to these symbols is not a sign of ignorance, it’s merely a reflection of that person’s understanding. If Hekate to you is “girt with fiery serpents” then that’s great, but don’t hate on someone who doesn’t share your perspective. The historical records clearly indicate that she is associated with many scary things and has very terrifying characteristics. Just because you don’t relate to her this way doesn’t make it less valid.
The Controversial Nature of Ancient Magic
Ancient magic was very different than what most of us currently practice. Animal sacrifice was a common part of both folk witchcraft and high magic involving Hekate. If we are adopting a reconstructionist approach to Hekate, then the appropriateness of picking and choosing what parts of ancient spells we use becomes debatable to some. The same applies to the use of poisons by ancient witches; while some modern practitioners grow and work with poisonous plants, there’s few who actually poison people in the way it was done years ago. In addition, there’s evidence that ancient practitioners used psychotropic substances in their rituals. But this doesn’t mean that we have to, nor should we denounce those who do.
Ancient curse tablet.
Those are just a few examples of some of the hot topics that I’ve witnessed being fiercely debated. Or I should say that I’ve seen people try to assert the superiority of their view of Hekate while others usually just quietly ignore them. This becomes dangerous when newcomers to Hekate are innocently seeking information, but instead (sometimes unknowingly) receive a personal interpretation rather than historical evidence or are met with insults and nonsense.
Hekate and Christianity
The controversy over the nature of Hekate comes to a head over interpretations and practices that veer too close to Christianity for some. Like it or not, Hekate as The Great Mother is similar to the Christian understanding of Mary for some devotees. One possible explanation for the Cult of Mary is that is was a natural extension of earlier goddess worship in the lands where Christianity first spread. This would include Hekate. In addition, historical documents and objects link Hekate to Christianity and perhaps Jesus himself. Here’s an ancient magical coin with Hekate, Eros, Anubis and “The Good Shepherd” on it:
Hamburg, Skoluda Collection. Source: Magical Coins Database
This coin shows that for the ancients, there were connections between the Pagan deities and the new religion of Christianity. Why should this be any different for some today?
The most intriguing thing about historical Hekate and Christianity is that some early writers denouncing the former and advocating for the latter had the unintended outcome of providing us with great information, such as this example:
Hekate as a Guardian of the Marginalized
Hekate as a Guardian of the Marginalized is a thoroughly modern interpretation based on a few ancient sources. Notably, the idea that the poor and unwanted animals would eat the offerings left for her at the crossroads. For some, seeing Hekate in this light is an affront to their understanding of her. That’s fine, but don’t criticize those who do, especially if they are doing good works in her name.
Hekate as a Feminist Icon
Connected to her contemporary role as Guardian of the Marginalized is her being seen as a feminist icon. Historical Hekate did indeed transcend the traditional gender roles of her time, to a point. Remember that she was Persephone’s mediator, but she did not change the overall outcome of her sorry situation. While there’s much to draw upon in our own feminism from historical Hekate, we should be careful about over-inflating her gender transcendance. Even the Chaldean Hekate is seen as both source and mediator for the male god.
My Understanding of Hekate…and Yours, too
These are some of the controversial aspects of Hekate. I’m sure I’ve overlooked many, so feel free to let me know because I’m one person offering my view of her. My own approach is sometimes controversial because I have a very contemporary understanding of Hekate emphasizing personal development. This is based on my own understanding of the historical records, how she has presented herself to me and that my doctorate is in psychology and not history or religion. I’ve had a long career helping people heal from trauma and deal with mental health problems through developing self-help programs. Why wouldn’t I apply this to my work in Hekate’s service? That’s my answer to the flack I get for my accessible approach. I am doing what Hekate has shown me to do. Just like your tradition or personal gnosis feels right for you, so does mine. I get many messages from people thanking me because I am speaking about Hekate as they understand her. I’ll keep doing me and you keep doing you.
Differences Can be a Strength
Perhaps we can agree that Hekate’s controversies provide us with a rich understanding of an ancient goddess where there is room for many views. For me, this diversity is a source of strength rather than controversy. It gives us the opportunity to increase understanding through sharing our personal beliefs and interpretations of both ancient and contemporary teachings. It also gives us the chance to practice respectful discussion and tolerance.