Notable Witches from Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myth, and Legend: Hekate, Goddess of Witches

Notable Witches from Fairy Tales, Folklore, Myth, and Legend: Hekate, Goddess of Witches

By Derek Newman-Stille

A Roman sculpture of triple Hecate, (Vatican Museum)

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.

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Consumable Folklore

Consumable Folklore

A review of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (William Morrow premium printing, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods begins with a quote by folklorist Richard Dorson exploring ideas of immigration and the tales that people bring with them when they migrate. Dorson states “one question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands”, and Gaiman answers this inquiry in the form of a story, the perfect response to a question of how stories change as people migrate. This sense of migratory folklore suffuses the book, and Gaiman’s writing is as much a philosophical dissertation on the nature of storytelling as it is a fictional story about a human encounter with the gods. 

Gaiman explores the idea that America is a space where gods are swallowed up, forgotten as they are digested in a capitalist rush toward the newest, best thing. In order to emphasize this rapid change of gods, Gaiman introduces new modern gods born of capitalism, a god of Media, Dot Com Start Up gods, and gods of commerce.

Gaiman focuses his tale primarily on gods and the myths that surround them, but brings in elements of folklore as disperate as conspiracy theories, tales of aliens, urban legends, vyrkolas, fairies, and even the lies people tell to make themselves seem more interesting. These all meld and blend together through the power of Story, something that is invested with belief, disbelief, and fascination all at once. 

Gaiman even explores the myth of nations, the communities formed through a loose shared belief that a group of people deserve to occupy a certain geography and the stories and institutions they create to belong there. This myth seems to hold the most sway for Gaiman since his gods seem to be bound by national boundaries and other versions of those gods exist in different nations. Gaiman’s text delves problematically into areas influenced by colonial rhetoric as he explores different migrations to this ‘new world’, and although he does acknowledge that indigenous beings have a presence on the landscape, he frequently puts these beings into the categories of defeated old spirits and suggests that they don’t occupy the same standing as gods. Gaiman identifies indigenous spirits with the landscape rather than with the people, and the Buffalo spirit that visits his protagonist, Shadow, tells him, for example, that it is a creature of geography rather than a god. This problematically continues images of aboriginal people associated with the land and portrayed as fading in waves of colonialism. Gaiman structures his text around waves of immigration, portraying American as a land of immigrants rather than an invaded land that has original occupants that still remain on it, though oppressed. Indeed, the character Wednesday (who is a god) suggests “Nobody’s American. Not originally” erasing the aboriginal inhabitation on the American landscape and their claims of original occupancy. 

Gaiman explores the myth of progress and how this has made Americans forgetful, particularly as they rewrite their own history and forge their nation out of the history they want to believe occurred. He reminds readers that we are in a constant process of creating new stories that we tell ourselves in order to understand our place in the world, continually revising our folklore to make it relevant to us, or abandoning it in favour of new tales.

Yet American Gods is suffused with magic. Every page reads like an invocation to ancient and new gods that haunt the shadowy places of our imagination, reminding us that we need stories to survive… and that our stories need us to survive. He reminds us of the magic of metaphor, the way that metaphors are creative acts that give birth to new gods of the imagination, new ideas seeking a form. His gods are physical manifestations of ideas, embodied stories, or, as the character Jesus suggests in the story, that gods are memes. He asks us “Have you thought about what it means to be a god? IT means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to recreate you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.” For Gaiman’s Jesus character, being a god is being a fluid creation of the human imagination. Gaiman puts a huge burden on storytellers, the burden of creating new gods, of building new myths for us to live by and understand ourselves through. 

Gaiman’s America is a place where ideas are constantly clashing and reforming, a place where ideas from multiple people melt together and pour themselves into the moulds that are needed at the time only to be reforged again. 

To discover more about American Gods, visit http://www.neilgaiman.com/works/Books/American+Gods/ 

To find out more about Neil Gaiman, visit http://www.neilgaiman.com 

K is for Klaus

K is for Klaus

A review of Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s Klaus (Boom Studios, 2016).

By Derek Newman-Stille

klaus

This isn’t your regular right jolly old elf. Instead, this Santa Claus is a warrior, hunter, and rebel. Playing with the story of Santa Claus from the 1970 stop motion animated film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, Grant Morrison and Dan Mora’s Klaus is a warrior who shows up in the village of Grimsvig, where children have been forbidden to have toys. Even rocks used as playthings are taken away with severe punishment threatened. Grimsvig is a town where all joy has been removed. It is a nightmare of labour without reward where only the wealthy are allowed the pleasure of escape and imagination. Klaus returns to Grimsvig and is disgusted with what the town has become, and after being expelled from the town, encounters otherworldly beings who inspire him to create toys that he then brings back to the community.

 

In this comic, Morrison and Mora play with images of rebellion, having Klaus modify posters of the royalty around the town of Grimsvig with stylistic similarities to V for Vendetta, yet the poster of the baron has the rune for joy written on his chin instead of a beard. Klaus combines joy with rebellion, playing with the idea that joy can be a rebellious act. Klaus attacks guards and disrupts the monotony of the town.

 

Klaus takes on the role of Julernisse, the Yuletime Spirit, operating between myth and reality. Even within the comic, he is discussed as myth, disbelieved because of his stealth and ability to resist the perceived natural control of the baron. Klaus is described by various people as a man-wolf, a ghost, and a spirit, taking on the status of legend while alive.

 

Morrison and Mora create a story where play is an act of rebellion, a means of resistance and a way to assert change. They illustrate that play is not just a means to escape, but to creatively inspire transformation. Capitalism and joy clash in a world where anything that doesn’t generate profit is seen as suspect.

 

Klaus comes into conflict with the destructive, greedy impulse of humanity and battles for a better humanity that he imagines is possible. Drawing on Norse mythology, popular narratives about Santa Claus, and the rich folkloric imagery about Father Christmas, Morrison and Mora create a new fairy tale about Santa Claus to expand new possibilities for imagination and wonder.

 

To discover more about the work of Grant Morrison, visit http://www.grant-morrison.com/

To find out more about Klaus, visit Boom Studios at https://shop.boom-studios.com/series/detail/458/klaus