How did the Greek goddess, who once blessed Athenian homes, change from being the protective “Mother of Angels” into Shakespeare’s grand witch, the medieval “Queen of Ghosts”?
Hecate was a pre-Olympian earth spirit and the counterpart of the Roman Goddess Trivia. Her name suggests “The Distant One,” because she was a liminal deity who stood at the threshold of other worlds. For this reason she was often depicted at the crossroads holding torches (to light the way), keys (to open doors), or accompanied by daggers and serpents (to protect the entrance). Legends claims that Hecate embraced solitude. And like the moon she came and went through the nighttime, appearing and disappearing at will.
According to Hesiod, Hecate was the only child of Perses and Asteria. She was a virgin who remained unmarried, kept safe under the protection of Zeus. Aeschylus described her as a great goddess who ruled over the earth, sea, and sky. She was responsible for storms, yet she also looked after women in childbirth. Some mythologies present Hecate as a triple goddess with three heads who could see in all directions. Her wisdom extended into the past, present, and future – and also into the mystical realms of the sleeping and the dead. In this way Hecate became associated with those who live on the margins of society, and those who wander in the spectral space between life and death.
Hecate’s reputation started declining when Sophocles and Euripides made her the mistress of magic. Thereafter, she was aligned with ghosts and herbal lore – perhaps as the result of helping Demeter in her search for Persephone in Hades.
But on the cusp of the Dark Ages, Christian Romans began persecuting pagans, demolishing temples and statues, and destroying all symbols of female power, intellect, and influence. Hecate suffered in this purge and was turned from a goddess into a witch. From that time on she was cast as the “she-dog” or “bitch,” and was portrayed with either a polecat or canine familiar spirit, a sign that she was in league with demons. Her herbal lore focused on poisons and she became associated with garlic, yew leaves, and cypress trees – common symbols of death and the underworld. And then she began demanding blood.
Shakespeare put Hecate in command of the three Weird Sisters from Macbeth. This cemented her popular medieval image as the evil sorceress famed for human sacrifice, who gave birth to Medea and Circe. And that was where she remained – far removed from the “Mother of Angels.”
But modern Wiccans have reclaimed this goddess as a symbol of female emancipation. Hecate is now called upon for wisdom, protection, power, prophecy, and guidance in the world beyond.
And so, ironically, it appears that the Bard’s words have finally come true:
“Witchcraft celebrates Pale Hecate’s offerings” (Macbeth 2:1).
Picture: Campamento Mestizo