The Ancient Mysteries of HekateMichael Clarke.
In late 2000 I spoke to members of the Norwich Pagan Moot about Hekate. The audience was mainly composed of practising pagans, following one path or another. Several were interested in witchcraft and its history and some may have been active practitioners. The talk I gave focused on literary and visual representations of Hekate and was broadly chronological in treatment. My aim was to let the audience make up its own mind about Hekate based on texts and images, mostly from antiquity, presented to them.
I have in this essay taken a rather different approach to the same material. I have used a thematic rather than a chronological approach and have asked myself what were the key elements of the Mysteries of Hekate and whether they are still of interest to pagans today.
Hekate is one of the most ambiguous of the goddesses of classical antiquity, and is one of the most difficult to come to terms with. Partly this is a matter of presentation. Hekate’s cult from almost its beginning dealt with the key issues of life and death. Her concerns were with fertility conception and birth. She also had a role in mediating between the living and the dead. Hekate was both a fertility goddess and a “psychopompos” or conductor of souls. For members of her cult, life and death, birth and the grave loomed large. Everyday domestic concerns played a smaller part.
The strong “chthonic” element in the image of Hekate is one that demands a robust temperament in her contemporary devotees. She is not a goddess for those who use paganism as a consolation for the perceived harshness of life in the present or who feel uneasy whenever the pagan past is shown not to conform to present day standards of morality and behaviour.
Some of the ideas and practices that surrounded Hekate in the past can seem strange or even perverse today. Yet despite the great gulf of time that separates the present from the world of antiquity ideas and practices connected to Hekate can and do still engage the imagination of many contemporary Pagans. Paradoxically, despite the rise of living standards and life expectancy since the world of classical antiquity, the dark goddesses Artemis/ Diana and Hekate do seem to be of greater interest to contemporary Pagans than the more consoling and supportive goddesses of the ancient pantheon are. Perhaps this reflects the position of pagans groups as a small, embattled (but fast growing) minority in contemporary society. Perhaps it is a reflection of the psychological predisposition of those who seek out a pagan path.
The ritual of the ancient mysteries of Hekate and the instruction that prepared initiates for them has been long lost. So those who wish to reconstruct the mysteries must of necessity be prepared to make mistakes in interpretation of a rich but fragmentary source material. What follows below is one such interpretation. It uses original source material but is by no means proscriptive of other alternative readings. Some of it is frankly guesswork based on hints from antiquity my own deductions from them. Whilst acknowledging the assistance of modern classical scholarship it does not attempt to be rigorous in the way formal scholarship demands. Rather it seeks to interest contemporary Pagans who want to explore in their life and practices the mysteries of Hekate.
At the beginning of the written record, we find Hekate as a triple goddess in the ancient Indo-European mould. She was Triformis and Triceps: the three-form and three-limbed goddess. She was the nurturer of the young- “Kourotrophos”. She was empress and queen. She held authority and sat in judgement. She could both reward and punish and could bring success or failure to all enterprises. She caused crops and flocks to increase or decrease at her will. She gave and took away wealth. She was nature in its most abundant aspects. She was the three phases of the year and the twenty-eight days of the lunar cycle. Mutability was her most constant factor, yet it was a mutability that encompassed all without exception.
Gradually however the destructive part of Hekate’s nature came to be seen as more important than the nurturing parts. As the Graeco-Roman world expanded it came into contact with other alien cultures with “shamanistic” type religions, the image of Hekate changed into the prototype of the witch, whose impure magical arts contrasted with the purity of established religion.
This new model of Hekate may perhaps have been included in the aspect of the old. The surviving source material is both partial and fragmentary and does not with hindsight permit a final definitive judgement. However, be that as it may, it does seem to have been the case that when the image of Hekate took on the darker tones, interest in her seems to have increased.
The image of Hekate that became known as the Goddess of Witches was strongly modulated by the dark Hekate of late Greek and Roman imagination. Indeed so powerful was this image that it is not going too far to claim that witchcraft before its modern revival took on many features and characteristics from Hekate as she was depicted in the literature of the period.
Hekate destroyed as she created. Knowledge of Hecate was knowledge of Hecate Brimo the mighty, the raging, and the tremendous. She punished those who failed her with the whip or a knife she carried in her hands. Her knowledge took the searcher for truth into the darkest places of the imagination and the most carefully repressed places of the unconscious mind. Her cult also reflected a fear of the “barbarian” religious practices and cultures which would eventually overwhelm and destroy the classical world.
Hekate guarded the Limen the doorstep- “Limenoskopos”. She was “Propylaia,” the One before the Gate. Hers was knowledge beyond limits. She was to be found as Hecate “Trivia” at the crossroads, the parting of the three ways. In many cultures the crossroads are considered to be the place of intersection between worlds, the spiritual and the physical, the then and the now, the world of gods and the world of humans. It was her knowledge that enabled the Initiate to choose the correct way to proceed. At the crossroads where her three-fold image stood, she brought messages to and from the other deities and, interceded with them.
Hekate ruled over ghostly or uncanny places: One of the Orphic hymns says she loves desolation. A magical papyrus says she loves solitude. She roamed the tops of mountains, deep forests, desolate heaths and secluded pools. The man made landscape of harbours and cemeteries, both places of passage and change, were also visited by her as were roads. Her presence was sensed when the individual felt alone and afraid, cut off from domestic surroundings. Hekate most often became present when awed by the power of nature or the strange or alien in the built environment. She was (in this image) pre-eminently the goddess of the uncanny and the supernatural.
Hekate ruled over wild beasts. With her pack of hounds in attendance, she hunted wild creatures. She was also a part of nature herself. In her later manifestations she was seen not with human, but with animal heads. Her aspect became part animal part goddess.She represented both the sub-human and the superhuman. Both are potentially threatening and fear inducing. Yet both are aspects with which initiates may become reconciled, strengthening and protecting themselves in the process.
Hekate’s mysteries involved knowledge of the methods of self-transformation into animals. She herself was transformed into a dog, a horse, a deer and other creatures. She was the hunter, the hunted and the means of hunting. She was like a bull or rode on a bull. Her voice could be that of a bellowing bull or a dog. The knowledge imparted by her mysteries allowed the initiate to pass into other states of mind and other personalities, particularly those of animals and birds, a practice now called “shapeshifting”.
Hekate controlled and was attended by serpents. In later Roman Literature her hair was composed of serpents. She was the controller of the psychosexual energy symbolically manifest in serpents, which goes by the generic name “Ophidian”. The Kundalini “Serpent power” of Tantric Indian Tradition and the power of Damballa, the Voudoun Serpent Goddess, are aspects of this Ophidian tradition that survive to the present day.
Hekate’s mysteries focused attention on sexuality in its most unfamiliar, uncanny aspect. Witches of the Ancient World (Goes) used their magic art to attract sexual prey. They prepared love philtres and erotic unguents. They drew down the moon to attract lovers. Their approach to sexuality was predatory and self- assertive which was in itself an unsettling notion for a male dominated society. It is still an unsettling notion now. For whilst we no longer subscribe to the contractual child bearing role predicated by ancient marriages, we have substituted notions of romance and partnership which can be equally challenged by the sexually predatory and assertive witch.
Some of the priests of Hekate were eunuchs, androgynous beings, sexually neither men nor women. Nor was Hekate only considered to be the Crone part of the triple goddess. She is “beauteous” says an Orphic hymn. She is “young” says a Greek Magical Papyrus. Attraction and rejection were part of her mystery. That someone old could suddenly seem to become young and vice versa was and still is unsettling and mysterious.
For women Hekate’s mysteries may have been a source of added psychic power. By the late ancient world Hekate was identified with the moon and Mene the personified moon goddess. Although it is open to question just how far the identification of the two went, it is likely that the mysteries of Hekate contained a lunar component. If this was so, a woman’s monthly “curse” might have become a “course” of initiation, at each point of which ritual and other powers were available.
Such a tradition continues in Indian Tantricism today in the lore of the Kalas, (and in Western occult sects deriving ideas from Tantricism such as the Typhonian O.T.O.) In such a tradition each initiated female would have carried within her the Moon Power of Hecate Mene. She would have used her knowledge of her own inner calendar to empower and regulate her fertility and sexuality. Male associates of the female could have empowered spells, amulets and talismans by a process of sympathetic magic. Whilst such an approach is unproven, examination of the sexual magic of the Greek magical Papyri does demonstrate a similar approach to lunar and bodily cycles.
Hekate’s mysteries gave knowledge of transformation in time. She is named as “Triformis”- three formed. She was at once maiden, mother and crone. She metamorphosed constantly into what she was not, leaving behind that which was. She was associated with the three phases of the year and the twenty-eight days of the lunar month. A delightful image of Hekate, which has come down to us from the ancient world, is of three women hand in hand dancing in a ring. The musician for such a dance was Cronos: Time, customarily identified with Saturn and Hades Lord of the Dead.
Hekate held the torch, which guided the initiate of her mysteries to the hidden knowledge. She wandered by night and her worship customarily took place by night. Her torches illumined both night and ignorance. She guided the searcher to the Occult “Gnosis” that was the Hidden Knowledge, by means of her illumination. As “Kleidophoros” she carried the key that would open the door of self-knowing a door that also gave access to the underworld chthonic realms.
Sacrifice, was one mode of mediation between the human and divine world. Hekate’s sacrifices were unlike the conventional sacrifices of the Ancient world, which were held in the open, by day, on an altar. They were an occasion for communal feasting and rejoicing. Hekates were not.
Hekate’s place of sacrifice was at the Trivium, the three ways or the parting of the ways. Her sacrifices were made with face averted, at night, in desolate places No one waited for Hecate to come and claim the “supper” that had been left for her. The offerings were left for consumption by the creatures of night. Wild animals, beggars and the insane took what had been left in the darkness. At these places too dogs were sacrificed to placate and appease her. They were left at the crossroads or buried there where their remains can still occasionally be found.
Hekate’s transformation to a strongly Chthonic Goddess set her most strongly apart from her earlier manifestation, as universal goddess. She guarded the roads and the portals by which the Underworld was approached. She carried a key as an attribute and it is likely that it represents the key that opened the way to Tartaros, the Underworld. Beneath the Earth, with torches in her hands, she lighted the way to Hades, the king of the underworld.
In Hekate’s cult, the search for Gnosis led to the Palace of Hades or Pluton, the ever-rich One, the Lord of the Dead and his wife Persephone. The wealth of Pluton ornamented Persephone whom he had abducted to his palace. With him in Elysium lived the Heroic Dead, those who dwelling in paradise, could yet choose to live again.
Persephone was the model of the Initiate. She was Queen of Hades, and first of the Heroic Dead. She lived partly in the light and in time, the embodiment of natural forces. Yet she also lived partly in the dark and out of time, the embodiment of force withdrawn. Persephone had been abducted (and raped) by Pluton yet she stayed with him. In eating the pomegranate, the red and forbidden food of the Dead, Persephone chose her destiny. For at least part of her time, she would remain underground, in the dark, withdrawn, the partner of Pluton the god of infinite wealth.
In metaphorical terms Persephone “died” within and was nourished by that knowledge. Just as the “death” of corn in the earth seemed to the Ancients a necessary prelude to its re-invigoration as a new plant, so a metaphorical spiritual death prepared the initiate for new spiritual life and eventual re incarnation. From the depths of the Earth and the depths of the unconscious Persephone returned to bring renewed spring at a time of her choosing.
Hekate had an important part to play in this tale which formed the basis of the Eleusinian Mysteries and possibly her own also. It was Hekate who alerted the mother of Persephone to the fact of her daughter’s disappearance. When Persephone returned from the Underworld it was Hekate who greeted her as she arose from the Earth to bring renewed spring and regenerated fertility. Hekate became the companion and accomplice of Persephone the personification of seasonal cyclical change.
Of all Hekate’s roles that of the guide, illuminator and monitor was perhaps the most important. As Hekate Soteira she provided the ancient world with a saviour goddess who could not only light the way from the underworld, but also who could restore the initiate refreshed and reinvigorated to the world of life. Visualised often as a living flame, her fire both purged and illumined the initiate of her mysteries.
IIIHekate is a goddess who interests pagans today as much or even more than during the world of classical antiquity. We will probably never know the exact contents of her mysteries as they were enacted in Lagina, her great cult centre in Turkey, or in Samothrace, or in the several other places where they were taught. We have certain hints of what they might have been. A late Roman woman listed on her tomb the mysteries into which she had been initiated. She says she was initiated into the “triple” mysteries of Hekate. How this Triplicity expressed itself we do not know. The great temple complex at Lagina (near Mugla in modern day Turkey) has only been partly excavated and documented. It may be a long while until a full appraisal of all the available evidence is possible.
Practising pagans can however think around the writing or the visual evidence that remains and work from them towards a contemporary understanding of Hekate. Belief, myth and ritual are never static in a living context. Internet sites related to Hekate reveal a mythos or a folklore that is different in certain respects from historical examples. It is one that is both deeply felt and still developing.
Hekate today seems to be associated with healing, especially mental healing, in a way that is different in character from historical examples. The connection with Mene and moon mysteries, although present in some ancient texts, in particular the Greek Magical Papyri, has been expanded and amplified beyond the scope of ancient material. In particular those interested in Dark Goddesses have tended to place Hekate in a kind of cabal with other similar Goddesses: Kali in the Hindu Pantheon principally, but also Erishkigal from Babylonian myth and Lilith from the Hebraic myth. Other examples of shifts of emphasis could be cited. One of particular interest is the way that Hekate has been placed within the ritual material of modern witchcraft.
Although Hekate’s claim to be the “Witches Goddess” has always been contested by Diana, she had an honoured role from the beginning of Gerald Gardener’s revival of the craft. There was however always a strand in witchcraft that treated with caution the full- blooded paganism represented by Hekate.
There is both fashion and change in goddesses amongst pagans now as amongst the pagans of the ancient world. Followers of the modern version of “natural magic” strand in witchcraft, have tended to be resistant to Hekate’s claims. They tend to set in her place other more politically correct goddesses or possibly a loosely defined universal Lord or Lady who will stand for all gods and goddesses which interest the group. Dianic witches have laid their own claims for Diana as the true witches goddesses. She has her claims to the title, but not exclusively so. Recent articles by Prudence Jones, published in Pagan Dawn represent a recall to order asserting definitively (insofar as anything in modern paganism is definitive) Hekate’s claim to be the witches goddess. The story will not end there.
Modern Paganism has both embraced and rejected Hekate. Probably a detailed study of the process of acceptance and rejection would reveal that interest in Hekate has tended, as in the ancient world to be associated with an interest in the first and last things. ” Birth copulation and death”. One cannot deny that at least some of the interest has come from those who have seen Hekate as a standard bearer for a Western version of the Tantric Left Hand Path, the short and perilous “One Life” route to Nirvana and oblivion. As an obviously “wild” goddess of the Western pantheon Hekate has attracted those who see her as a mirror or even an exemplar for their own often-disturbed lives.
Beyond those fairly well defined circles of devotees however Hekate has attracted an interest from a wider circle of thoughtful and interested pagans. In her in particular we have the challenge and reward of examining a goddess who has no one constant form no defining image but many. Not many pagans have yet chosen to come to grips with the Hekate of the Chaldean Oracles, those formidably difficult gnomic utterances from late antiquity. For the most part Hekate Soteira has been left to the academic community. But some at least seem to be moving towards an idea of Hekate similar to that found in late antiquity. Hekate as living flame or Hekate as life force has her votaries amongst modern pagans. Though even in the pagan community they are harder to find than those interested in the more chthonic type of Hekate.
What is plain is that Hekate interests pagans with a broad spectrum of interests beyond those interested in classical antiquity or witchcraft. She is in a sense an exemplary goddess for modern pagans generally. Even those who may follow the path of Northern Traditions or Shamanism may find the encounter with Hekate useful to their progress. For Hekate would seem to ask many questions of one following a pagan path.
There are questions of authenticity. How far should one go in recreating the paganism of the ancient world or pre-revival witchcraft? There are questions of ethics and probity. How far should one go in allying oneself with such a raw and destructive figure as Hekate? Can one live as a citizen of the world and ally oneself to one who is seen as a goddess of the outsider and the non- citizen? There are questions of self-definition, particularly for women. Can one be an outsider and allied to the night side of life as well as being an ordinary well-adjusted person? Does not such a self-definition smack of the deceitful and duplicitous. If one takes an interest in dark gods and goddesses must one of necessity live a life of risk, danger or self-chosen exclusion? Does interest in such themes inevitably drag a person, however well adjusted, into a mire of maladjustment and danger?
These are real issues that tend to crop up in any pagan community that grows beyond a certain size. Much thought is expended upon them. Friendships are made and broken. Mutually exclusive cliques form. In the fifty or so years of its modern revival most Pagans have been for the most part eager to prove themselves to be “White Witches”; model citizens immaculate and without taint. In this process the less than white or the differently coloured can find themselves committed to the spiritual laundry basket or the spiritual dustbin.
Attempts to follow a chthonic path were sometimes marginalised and spoken of as trivial, juvenile or just plain bad. Ceremonial magicians of a Neo-Gnostic or Hermetic kind, although pagan, could find themselves excluded from pagan groups or organisations. In Hinduism or Mahayana Buddhism there is recognition that right-hand path and left-hand path can, if properly travelled, lead to identical objectives or goals. That recognition is for the most part is rarely conceded in modern British Paganism. Memories of persecution and social exclusion are perhaps too recent for comfort.
Serious thought about Hekate, and the forces she represents, can thus become a catalyst for thought and discussion of a wider kind centring around questions like, What kind of Paganism do we want, or what kind of Paganism are we prepared to live with, or can we tolerate without approving? Or even what is the role of purity in pagan life? Must we always be immaculate or can the maculate play its own role in Pagan life now that oppression is less and attitudes are more liberal?
My own talks have mostly looked at the Paganism of the ancient world from a modern Pagan standpoint. Invariably, when the audience has recovered from digesting large (raw) chunks of Lucan or Horace, the discussion has broadened into discussion of contemporary issues. The catalytic effect of making comparisons between ancient and modern paganism has been considerable. From these discussions at least some participants seem to have gone away with changed or broadened minds. I hope this written contribution may do the same for the inhabitants of cyberspace.