Tuesday 9 June 2009

Hecate at the Crossroads

Castles and manor houses are, of course, natural locations for hauntings, particularly if the have a tragic history; but if anything crossroads, yes, crossroads, have an even more tragic and supernatural associations. There is a simple explanation for this. In England, right up until the practice was condemned by Parliament in 1813, people who committed suicide were traditionally buried there. When and why this practice began is not entirely clear, though the suggestion is that it was though such locations would confuse troubled spirits.

But the lore associated with crossroads goes much deeper. In ancient Greece they were sacred to Hecate, the goddess of the witches. There are some lovely snippets of information on ancient beliefs in The Characters, a compendium by Theophrastus, a Greek author who died in 287BC. The author makes fun of superstitious people, which, penetrating to the Greek root, means those who have fear of spiritual things. Theophrastus goes that one step further, defining superstition as ‘cowardice in the face of the supernatural.’ The practice was for such people to anoint the stones at crossroads, both to appease the ghosts and Hecate, who was known to frequent such places.

In general boundaries and meeting points of all sorts have long had strong supernatural associations.


  1. The Greek religion is one of those very few subjects that seem to become stranger and more fascinating the deeper one delves. The course of its convoluted development, from its earliest origins in the Minoan-Mycenaen period to its final eclipse by Christianity in late antiquity, is not always easy to follow. The biographies of gods can sometimes be complex affairs: part exogenous borrowing, perhaps in multiple stages and from different sources, and part derivation from or development of an existing attribute of an indigenous deity. Gods may be transformed, promoted or demoted within the pantheon, or even disappear without trace (like the unfortunate Drimios, son of Zeus, who is recorded only in the Minoan script). The history of Hecate and her cult is more complicated than most.

    In the words of Lewis Richard Farnell, "A great obscurity hangs about the name, the origin, and the character of this goddess". And what we do know is often derived from conflicting sources. We know that Hecate is a comparative latecomer to the Greek pantheon. She is not mentioned at all by Homer. Her first appearance in literature is in Hesiod, where she is described as honoured by Zeus above all other deities, having dominion over earth, sea and sky, and being capable of conferring prosperity and success on the enterprises of mortal men. No mention is made of her later associations with the realm of the dead, sorcery or cross-roads (although Farnell believes that Hesiod may have deliberately suppressed these darker traits in the interests of promoting the wider adoption of her cult). Hesiod traces her origins through her father, Perses, back to the Titans.

    There is, however, another conflicting myth of the origin of Hecate (there are actually several others, but I find this one by far the most interesting). In it she is born a mortal, and acquires her divine status and name only after being miraculously restored to life by the goddess Artemis. The manner of her death - suicide by hanging - is significant. For according to Frazer, Artemis herself was known as the "hanged one", on account of her being hanged in effigy once a year, and he suggests that this myth may have released the senior goddess from that degrading ritual, at least at the great centre of her cult in Ephesus. The motive for her suicide is also revealing. Artemis, provoked by some unspecified insult, is said to have transformed the unfortunate woman into a dog, an animal regarded by the Greeks as unclean; such was her shame that, upon regaining human form, she took her own life. Hereafter the dog was held to be sacred to Hecate, but to her alone, retaining its generally profane and uncanny associations elsewhere.

    This version of the origin of Hecate served to place her firmly in subordination to Artemis, some of whose attributes (such as her association with the moon and wild nature) she shared, and to whom she was therefore perceived as a potential rival. This belated eclaircissement of the relationship of the two goddesses, with its intimations of some of the hitherto repressed, darker attributes of Hecate, led Farnell to believe that her cult originated outside Greece - most probably in the north or Asia Minor, because of its early roots in Thessaly (with its long association with witchcraft and sorcery).

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    There is another tradition where Hecate helps Demeter search for the abducted Persephone. That Hecate appeared to play no part in the celebration of Demeter's mysteries at Eleusis suggests that this myth is of late origin; it is nevertheless important because it serves to link her both with the earth (Demeter was goddess of corn and fertility) and the infernal regions (because of her assistance in finding Persephone in the underworld), in addition to her existing lunar associations, thus completing her famous triple aspect of maiden (lunar), mother (earthly) and crone (infernal).

    This threefold dominion over the lunar, earthly and infernal realms was to assume a much greater importance in later mythology and iconography, but it cannot explain the origin of the peculiar triple form of Hecate's representations in sculpture from the fifth century onwards. After all, many other deities possessed multiple aspects, so why was it that only Hecate should be represented in this way? Farnell believed the answer lies in her primitive role as guardian of the cross-roads (typically the meeting place of three roads in the ancient world). From her tutelage of the meeting of roads, it was but an easy step to her function as facilitator of movement between worlds, particularly between earth and the underworld. Like Hades, Hecate's iconography often depicts her with a key; but whereas the key of Hades could only lock, Hecate's key could also unlock. And this was to be the unique attribute that would firmly establish her position among the gods. There was a vacuum in the Greek pantheon and Hecate expanded to fill it.

    The picture painted so far, based narrowly on the account of a few Greek scholars, suggests an essentially endogenous development of the cult of Hecate up to the end of the classical period, by which time she was well-established within the Greek pantheon, and it might therefore be supposed that any later accretions would be marginal. But is this picture a reasonable one? What of exogenous influences between Hecate's introduction into Thessaly and her attaining more or less established form towards the end of the classical period? There is certainly some evidence of such influence. For instance, there is an episode in the mythology of Ishtar of Babylon where she descends into the underworld to rescue her lover, Tammuz. It is certainly tempting to think of the descent of Ishtar as the inspiration for Hecate's role in the search for Persephone, particularly in view of the fact that there seems to be no other obvious source for this vital development in the aggrandisement of the Greek goddess. And yet, in other respects, the links between Ishtar - goddess of fertility, love, sex and war - and Hecate are tenuous to say the least. True, both are to some degree associated with the moon and fertility. But within the Greek pantheon the lunar associations of Selene and Artemis are far stronger than those of Hecate, and Demeter is clearly pre-eminent in the area of fertility, so they would appear to have a greater claim to be linked with Ishtar, even if the predominant associations of that deity with love and sex did not identify her most closely of all with Aphrodite. So it would appear that the idea of a link with Ishtar must remain problematic at best.

    Other evidence of exogenous influence is more convincing, if less interesting. In his 'The White Goddess', Robert Graves cites Aristophanes, writing towards the end of the classical period, as authority for the Empusae and Lamiae being regarded as "emissaries of the Triple Goddess Hecate". He continues: "The Lamiae, beautiful women who used to seduce, enervate and suck the blood of travellers, had been the orgiastic priestesses of the Libyan Sea-goddess Lamia; and the Empusae, demons with one leg of brass and one ass's leg were relics of the Set cult - the Lilim, or Children of Lillith, the devotees of the Hebrew Owl-goddess, who was Adam's first wife, were ass-haunched."

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    The conquests of Alexander made the Greeks of the Hellenistic period receptive as never before to Asiatic and Egyptian influences, a tendency continued by the still more deliberate syncretism of the Roman era. But borrowings were mainly peripheral, had little impact on the primary characteristics of the more or less mature Greek cults, and could just as easily occur in the other direction. It was probably in Ptolemaic Alexandria where Hecate acquired her associations with the Egyptian goddesses Heket and Isis. The frog-headed Heket (or Heqet), a deity chiefly connected with child-birth (an area also associated with Hecate for a number of reasons), was probably linked with Hecate only because of the similarity of their names; speculation that she may have been the original source for the Greek goddess is otherwise without foundation. Isis was also sometimes connected with Hecate, principally because of her reputation as "greatest in magic among the gods" (from the Metternich Stele, quoted by Mueller), but she remains far more closely associated with Ishtar-Aphrodite.

    It remains only to discuss the special significance of Hecate for the 'Chaldean Oracles' and the theurgic magic of late Neoplatonism. The 'Oracles' - purportedly the work of Julian, an inspired Syrian, who served in the Roman army at the time of Marcus Aurelius - survive only in fragments. But their influence on philosophical paganism in late antiquity, particularly the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus (third/fourth century) and Proclus (fifth century), was comparable with that of the Gnostics and the Hermetica. The 'Oracles' represented the universe as the creation of a lower demiurgic god, where the soul is contaminated by matter and enmeshed by fate. Whereas earlier Neoplatonists had believed that philosophical contemplation alone could deliver the soul from this unfortunate condition, the hierarchy of being described in the 'Oracles' was rigidly separated into absolutely distinct spheres, and movement between them was impossible without the aid of theurgic magic. Hecate was the obvious deity to invoke in order to facilitate movement between these spheres. Not only was she goddess of sorcery, she was also mistress of the infernal, mundane and lunar realms, guardian of boundaries and liminal points, and holder of the great key to unlock the formidable barriers between the intelligible and sensible worlds. But according to the 'Oracles', she was far greater than even these, her traditional attributes, could signify: she was "born of the Father" (the First God, not the Demiurge), and she was "fount of founts, a womb containing all things", from whom the transcendent World Soul was derived. She had apparently metamorphosed into a great "Mother Goddess", a kind of archetypal female principle, usurping the position more traditionally occupied by Ishtar-Aphrodite-Isis. Van den Berg has argued that Proclus may even have gone so far as to identify her with Rhea, the mother of the gods herself.

    The Platonic Academy and paganism were finally suppressed by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Although there is no reason to believe that the exalted status of Hecate in the 'Oracles' was ever anything more than an esoteric doctrine with a small following, a cult within a cult, it nevertheless retains a special interest on account of its influence on the Western esoteric tradition, where she continues to occupy a prominent place.

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    And so my hefty investment in Lewis Richard Farnell's five-volume 'Cults of the Greek States' pays off once more. This dated but comprehensive reference work was also responsible for the belated - and, at first, not entirely welcome - discovery that the large bust that looks down on me from a commanding eminence in my library is not actually Plato, but Bacchus-Dionysos. I suppose this is only fitting: I spend much more time making libations to that god than I ever spent studying the works of Plato and his followers, even - I'm ashamed to say it - in my library. I'm not sure what Bacchus would think about my abandonment of vintage port and fine single malts for the more economical consolations of the absurdly named "Lord Jess", a locally distilled gin of dubious quality. What strange companions I have in my exile.


  5. This is tremendous. I can't say how impressed I am; well, I can-very. :-)