Notable Witches from Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myth, and Legend: Hekate, Goddess of Witches
By Derek Newman-Stille
Most readers probably best know Hekate from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where her name is spelled “Hecate” and she appears before the three witches, angry at their interactions with Macbeth. The association between witches and Hekate extends back long before Shakespeare and in the ancient Greek and Roman world she was frequently referred to as the goddess of witches.
Hekate was a Titaness, a race of deities before the Olympain gods and is often associated with Chthonic things (underworldly things). She is frequently depicted holding torches, and occasionally with a black dog since black dogs were offered to her as sacrifices. She has an association with crossroads and texts often portray her rituals happening at crossroads. She is often depicted as having three forms as Hekate Triformis.
Not only was Hekate considered a goddess of witchcraft, she was also associated with the night, the moon, necromancy (divination through the dead), and ghosts in general. Her approach was believed to be preceded by the howling and wining of gods and she was described as wandering along with the restless dead. Yet despite her frightful associations, she was often associated with protection and her shines were often placed at dangerous areas like crossroads and doorways (areas where things intersect). The ancient Greeks often used frightful imagery as apotropaic charms (charms to ward off evil), frequently employing Medusa’s frightening visage for this purpose, so it makes sense that Hekate, a goddess with frightful associations, would be used in a similar vein.
Her helpful form shows up in the Kore/Persephone myth. When Hades abducts Kore/Persephone, Demeter searches for the young goddess who was her daughter and Hekate aids her in her search. She is even described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter as “tender-hearted” and “bright-coiffed”.
Hecate is mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony where she is described as a goddess who was honoured “above all” by Zeus, who gave her shares of the earth, sea, and sky. Hesiod associates her with giving wealth to human beings, bestowing judgement, and giving victory in games.
One of the most famous witches in Ancient Greek literature, Medea, is described as a priestess of Hekate in The Argonautica, by Apollonius Rhodius. Unlike most priestesses, who learn their worship from other priestesses, Medea was described by Apollonius as learning her craft directly from the goddess. In the Argonautica, Apollonius refuses to describe the rituals Medea performs to Hekate, saying “For Medea bade them land and propitiate Hekate with sacrifice. Now all that the maiden prepared for offering the sacrifice may no man know, and may my soul not urge me to sing thereof. Awe restrains my lips, yet from that time the altar which the heroes raised on the beach to the goddess remains till now, a sight to men of a later day” (translated by Douglas Killings). For Apollonius, Hekate’s rituals were meant to be kept a mystery and veiled in secrecy. Apollonius does let slip that honey was used as an offering to the goddess. When Medea’s husband, Jason, invokes the goddess, Apollonius describes the ritual: “he dug a pit in the ground of a cubit’s depth and heaped up billets of wood, and over it he cut the throat of the sheep, and duly placed the carcas above; and he kindled the logs placing fire beneath, and poured over them mingled libations, calling on Hekate Brimo to aid him in the contests. And when he had called on her he drew back; and she heard him, the dread goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of Aeson’s son; and round her horrible serpents twined themselves among the oak boughs; and there was a gleam of countless torches; and sharply howled around her the hounds of the underworld. All the meadows trembled at her step; and the nymphs that haunt the marsh and the river shrieked, all who dance round that mead of Amarantian Phasis” (translated by Douglas Killings). Hekate’s presence causes fear and dread to spread and even the sound of her steps scare away other supernatural creatures like nymphs.
Ovid describes the shrine to Hekate that Medea visits as being deep in the forest.
In Euripides’ play Medea, the witch Medea calls upon her chosen goddess by saying “So help me She who of all Gods hath been the best to me, of all my chosen queen and helpmate, Hekate, who dwells apart, the flame of flame, in my fire’s inmost heart” (translated by Gilbert Murray) before she proceeds to kill her own children. Hekate is evoked by Medea both to help protect Jason, and then to take vengeance on his children.
The Roman playwright Seneca also wrote a version of Medea‘s story, and in it, he refers to Media setting up an altar to Hekate within her house. She invokes the goddess with the words “Now summoned by my rites, appear, you heavenly globe of night, displaying your most hostile looks, with menace in every face”, Hekate is associated with the moon in this prayer and is multifaced. Medea later refers to Hekate receiving her prayers with the words “My prayers are received: Thrice has bold Hekate vouchsafed the barking of dogs, and set off uncanny fires with her light-bearing torch”.
Hekate was frequently evoked in curse tablets in the ancient Greek and Roman world, her name inscribed on iron alongside the intended victim. The iron was then pierced with nails and dropped into areas that were considered close to the underworld like underground springs, caves, and graveyards.
The Orphic Hymn to Hekate refers to her primarily as the goddess of roads and crossroads and calls her a “tomb spirit, revelling in the souls of the dead”, yet the hymn also calls her beautiful. It reveals that she is a goddess of complexity and contradiction. She is described as norcturnal, monstrous, and repelling… but it also calls her a beautiful goddess, a youth, and a maiden. She is described as delighting in wild places and loving deer, but she is also described as a devourer of beasts.
Hekate, like magic itself in the ancient Greek and Roman world, is complex, multifaceted, and inconsistent. Her complexity may be reflected in the fact that she is depicted with three forms, not able to capture her contradictory nature in one single form.