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HEKATE is best known as the mistress of threatening, restless ghosts because Greek and Roman literature emphasized this sensational aspect of her personality beginning in the fifth century bce (e.g., Euripides Helen 569570). This role led to Hekate's association with magic, which often relied on the cooperation of the ghosts whom she controlled (Euripides Medea 397; Horace Satires 1.8.33). Later authors followed suit; for example, Shakespeare's Macbeth makes her the leader of a band of witches. Her association with ghosts and the darker side of magic also led to her portrayal, in later antiquity, as a threatening and horrible creature who might look like a snake, howl like a dog, and make her meals among the graves (Papyri Graecae Magicae IV.2549, 28562869).

However, other Greek and Roman sources, some of which go back to before the fifth century bce, suggest that in antiquity Hekate was usually viewed as a normal, even benign, goddess. Hesiod (Theogony 404492) lauds her as a powerful older divinity who is willing to benefit many kinds of worshipers, including mothers, kings and fishermen. Pindar (Paean 2.732.77) describes Hekate as a "kindly messenger." In art she is free of frightening traits; a late-sixth-century bce votive statuette shows her seated, dressed in the same style as other goddesses (Berlin Staatl. Mus. TC 7729 = [5] #105), and vase paintings show her as a girlish figure carrying torches to celebrate weddings (see Sarien 1992: #44, 45, 46 with commentary).

Other Associations

It is likely that Hekate's association with restless souls, and thence magic, arose from two other concerns she held from early times. The first was her interest in girls' transitions from virginity to marriage and in the childbirth and child nurture that follow marriage (Euripides Trojan Women 323; Aeschylus Suppliants 676; Antoninus Liberalis 29; Hesiod Theogony 450451; scholiast on Aristophanes Wasps 804; see Johnston 1999, chapter 6). Girls who died unmarried and women who died without successfully rearing children were considered to have died "untimely" (aoros ), and their souls were imagined to wander with Hekate, wreaking havoc on the world of the living out of envy and frustration; magicians sometimes invoked these unhappy souls to do their bidding. It was probably also Hekate's association with dying virgins that led to her identification during the archaic period with Iphigeneia, the most famous mythic maiden who died before marriage (Stesichorus fr. 215; Hesiod Catalogue fr. 23a 1726 cf. 23b; Proclus, summary of the Cypria 5564; further at Johnston 1999, chapter 6). Hekate's only other prominent mythic role, as the goddess involved with Persephone's journey to and from the Underworld, similarly connects her with a maiden who dies and "returns" (Homeric Hymn to Demeter 24, 5259, 438440; Callimachus fr. 466; Orphic frr. 4142). In addition, Hekate herself is almost always imagined as virginal.

The second role that contributed to Hekate's association with ghosts in Greece was her guardianship of entrances and other liminal places, both civic and domestic, where ghosts were imagined to lurk (Johnston 1991; Johnston 1999, chapter 6). In Greece, shrines or statuettes of Hekate (hekataia ) were placed at entrances and at the junctions of three roads (triodoi ) to seek her protection. "Suppers" (deipna ) were left for Hekate and ghosts at the junctions, especially on the night of the new moon (Aeschylus fr. 388; Aristophanes Wasps 804; Aristophanes Plutus 594 with scholia; Demosthenes LIV.39; Plutarch Greek Questions 708f; Apollodorus of Athens Fragments of Greek History 244 F 110). The polluted remains of domestic purification rites also were deposited at the road junctions (Plutarch Roman Questions 280c, 290d; Lucian Dialogues of the Dead 1.1); in later antiquity, these were already sometimes confused with the suppers for Hekate, but originally they were distinct (see Johnston 1991). Hekate's close connection to the road junctions is reflected by her Greek epithet, triodios ; her Roman name, Trivia; and her frequent sculptural portrayal, from the classical period on, as a goddess with three heads or even three bodies. Over time, Hekate collected many other epithets that reflected her triplicity; Chariclides (fr. 1) offers a tongue-in-cheek collection of them.

The association of the dog with Hekate, including its sacrifice to her (Euripides fr. 968; Aristophanes fr. 608; scholiast on Aristophanes Peace 276), probably began as a reflection of Hekate's role as birth goddess; birth goddesses commonly received sacrifices of dogs. However, by the end of the classical period the dog also took on Hekate's frightening nature; bands of howling dogs, imagined to be souls of the dead, followed Hekate on her nightly prowls or heralded her arrival (Theocritus Idyll 2.1213, 2.3536; Vergil Aeneid 6.255258). These souls that followed Hekate inflicted insanity or night terrors (Hippocrates On the Sacred Illness 4.3033), which explains the worship of Hekate in mysteries that promised, among other things, to cure madness (Aristophanes Wasps 122; Pausanias 2.30.2; Dio Chrysostom Oration 4.90; Aristotle Mirabilia 173; see Johnston 1999, chapter 4).

Origins and Associations in Other Mythologies

Hekate probably originated in Caria, in Asia Minor, whence she traveled into mainland Greece during the archaic period. Her worship in Caria and other places in Asia Minor continued strongly into the imperial period (Kraus 1960), even as it spread throughout the rest of the Greek world. Sources vary considerably on Hekate's parentage; the most influential source, Hesiod (Theogony 409411), made her the daughter of Titans Asterie and Perses and thus the cousin of Artemis and Apollo (see also scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes Argonautica 3.467). Her name appears to be cognate with Apollo's epithets Hekatos and Hekatobolos, which suggests that it has something to do with "from afar," but the meaning is unclear.

Hekate was conflated in cult, myth, and iconography with a number of other goddesses, notably Artemis (Aeschylus Suppliants 676; Inscriptions Graecae 13 383.125127), with whom she shared an interest in girls' transitions and childbirth and the iconographic feature of carrying torches; Selene, the goddess of the moon (Plutarch On the Obsolescence of Oracles 416ef; Johnston 1990, chapter 2); and Enodia (Sophocles fr. 535), a Thessalian goddess who shared Hecate's interest in childbirth and in guardianship of entrances (Inscriptions Graecae IX 575576, 578; Johnston 1999, chapter 6; Kraus 1960, 5783). In the magical papyri, Hekate often was equated with Ereshkigal, the Mesopotamian goddess of the Underworld (Papyri Graecae Magicae LXX.425). In late antiquity Hekate's role as a birth goddess and guardian of passages and transitions also led to her appointment as a savior goddess in theurgy, where she was identified with the Platonic Cosmic Soul, which was imagined to divide the material (earthly) realm from the noetic (heavenly) realm. She facilitated the passages of individual souls downward into bodies and upward again for union with the divine, and she sent oracles to the theurgists that taught them how to perform further rituals that would improve their souls (see Johnston 1990).

See Also

Artemis; Dogs; Magic, article on Magic in Greco-Roman Antiquity; Moon.


Johnston, Sarah Iles. Hekate Soteira. A Study of Hekate's Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature. Atlanta, 1990.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. "Crossroads." Zeitschrift für Palaeographie und Epigraphik 88 (1991): 217224.

Johnston, Sarah Iles. Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. Berkeley, 1999.

Kraus, Theodor. Hekate. Heidelberg, 1960.

Sarien, H. "Hekate." Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 6.1 (1992): 9851018, 6.2 (1992): 654673.

Sarah Iles Johnston (2005)