Hecate : Origins, Symbolism & Correspondences

Hecate, Hekate (ek-a-te), or Hekat was originally a goddess of the wilderness and childbirth originating from Thrace, or among the Carians of Anatolia.

Popular cults venerating her as a mother goddess integrated her persona into Greek culture. In Ptolemaic Alexandria she ultimately achieved her connotations as a goddess of sorcery and her role as the ‘Queen of Ghosts’, in which guise she was transmitted to post-Renaissance culture. Today she is often seen as a goddess of witchcraft.

The earliest depictions of Hecate are single faced, not triplicate. Hecate was first depicted in triplicate by the sculptor Alkamenes in the Greek Classical period of the late 5th century. Some classical portrayals show her as a triplicate goddess holding a torch, a key and a serpent. Others continue to depict her in singular form. In Egyptian-inspired Greek esoteric writings connected with Hermes Trismegistus, and in magical papyri of Late Antiquity she is described as having three heads: one dog, one serpent and one horse. Hecate’s triplicity is expressed in a more Hellene fashion, with three bodies instead, where she is shown taking part in the battle with the Titans in the vast frieze of the great altar of Pergamum, now in Berlin. A4th century BCE marble relief from Crannon in Thessaly was dedicated by a race-horse owner. It shows Hecate, with a hound beside her, placing a wreath on the head of a mare. This statue is in the British Museum, inventory number 816. Her attendant and animal representation is of a bitch, and the most common form of offering was to leave meat at a crossroads. Sometimes dogs themselves were sacrificed to her (a good indication of her non-Hellenic origin, as dogs along with donkeys, very rarely played this role in genuine Greek ritual).

Despite popular belief, Hecate was not originally a Greek goddess. She is unknown to Homer and in fact the earliest written references to her are in Hesiod’s Theogony. The place of origin of her cult is uncertain, but it is thought that she had popular cult followings in Thrace. Her most important sanctuary was Lagina, a theocratic city-state in which the goddess was served by eunuchs. Lagina, where the famous temple of Hecate drew great festal assemblies every year, lay close to the originally Macedonian colony of Stratonikea. In Thrace she played a role similar to that of lesser Hermes, namely a governess of liminal points and the wilderness, bearing little resemblance to the night-walking crone. Additionally, this led to her role of aiding women in childbirth and the raising of young men.

There are two versions of Hecate that emerge in Greek myth. The lesser role integrates Hecate while not diminishing Artemis. In this version Hecate is a mortal priestess who scorns and insults Artemis, eventually leading to her suicide. Artemis then adorns the dead body with jewelry and whispers for her spirit to rise and become her Hecate, and act similar to Nemesis as an avenging spirit, but solely for injured women. Such myths where a home god sponsors or ‘creates’ a foreign god were widespread in ancient cultures as a way of integrating foreign cults. Additionally, as Hecate’s cult grew, her figure was added to the myth of the birth of Zeus as one of the midwives that hid the child.

The second version helps to explain how Hecate gains the title of the “Queen of Ghosts” and her role as a goddess of sorcery. Images of Hecate were placed at borders to serve a protective role. It became common to place statues of the goddess at the gates of cities, and eventually domestic doorways. Over time, the association of keeping out evil spirits, lead to the belief that if offended Hecate could also let in evil spirits. Thus invocations to Hecate arose as her the supreme governess of the borders between the normal world and the spirit world. Eventually, Hecate’s power resembled that of sorcery. Implacable Hecate has been called “tender-hearted”, probably because she was concerned with the disappearance of Persephone, and addressed Demeter with sweet words when the goddess was distressed.

Although she was never truly incorporated among the Olympian gods, the modern understanding of Hecate is derived from the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria. In the magical papyri of Ptolemaic Egypt, she is called the she-dog or bitch, and her presence is signified by the barking of dogs. She sustained a large following, though, remaining a goddess of protection and childbirth. In late imagery she also has two ghostly dogs as servants by her side.

In modern times Hecate has become a prevalent figure in feminist-inspired Neopagan religions, and a version of Hecate has been appropriated by Wicca and other modern magic-practicing traditions.

Relations in the Greek Pantheon

Hecate is a pre-Olympian goddess. The Greek sources do not offer a story of her parentage. Sometimes Hecate is a Titaness, daughter of Perses and Asteria, and a mighty helper and protector of mankind. Her continued presence was explained by asserting that, because she was the only Titan that aided Zeus in the battle of gods and Titans, she was not banished into the underworld realms after their defeat by the Olympians.

It is also told that she is the daughter of Demeter or Pheraia. Hecate, like Demeter, was a goddess of the earth and fertility. Sometimes she is called a daughter of Zeus.

Like many ancient mother or earth-goddesses she remains unmarried and has no regular consort. On the other side she is the mother of many monsters.

Other names and epithets :

Chthonian (Earth/Underworldgoddess)
Crataeis (the Mighty One)
Enodia (Goddess of the paths)
Antania (Enemy of mankind)
Kurotrophos (Nurse of the Children and Protectress of mankind)
Artemis of the crossroads
Propylaia (the one before the gate)
Propolos (the attendant who leads)
Phosphoros (the light-bringer)
Soteira (“Saviour”)
Prytania (invincible Queen of the Dead)
Trioditis (gr.) Trivia (latin: Goddess of Three Roads)
Klidouchos (Keeper of the Keys)
Tricephalus or Triceps (The Three-Headed)

Hecate had a special role at three-way crossroads, where the Greeks set poles with masks of each of her heads facing different directions. The crossroad aspect of Hecate stems from her original sphere as a goddess of the wilderness and untamed areas. This led to sacrifice in order for safe travel into these areas. The goddess of sorcery or magic is Hecate’s most common modern title.


Traditionally, Hecate is represented as carrying torches, very often has a knife, and may appear holding a rope, a key, a phial, flowers, or a pomegranate. The torch is presumably a symbol of the light that illuminates the darkness, as the Greeks secured Hecate in her role as the bringer of wisdom. Her knife represents her role as midwife in cutting the umbilical cord (possibly symbolized by the rope), as well as severing the link between the body and spirit at death. The key is significant to Hecate’s role as gatekeeper, being the one who could open the doors to sacred knowledge. The Orphic Hymns list her as the “key-bearing Queen of the entire Cosmos”. The pomegranate was seen by the Ancient Greeks as the fruit of the underworld, though it was also used as a love-gift between Greek men and women.

Since Hecate is the goddess of witchcraft, it should come as no surprise that many of her goddess symbols play a prominent role in the celebration of Halloween.


The she-dog is the animal most commonly associated with Hecate. She was sometimes called the ‘Black she-dog’ and black dogs were once sacrificed to her in purification rituals.

The frog, significantly a creature that can cross between two elements, is also sacred to Hecate.

As a triple goddess, she sometimes appears with three heads-one each of a dog, horse, and bear or of dog, serpent and lion. During the Medieval period in western Europe, Hecate was reverenced by witches who adopted parts of her mythos as their goddess of sorcery. Because Hecate had already been much maligned by the late Roman period, Christians of the era found it easy to vilify her image. Thus were all her creatures also considered “creatures of darkness”; however, the history of creatures such as ravens, night-owls, snakes, scorpions, asses, bats, horses, bears, and lions as her creatures is not always a dark and frightening one.

Plants and Herbs

The yew, cypress, hazel, black poplar, cedar and willow are all sacred to Hecate.

The leaves of the black poplar are dark on one side and light on the other, symbolizing the boundary between the worlds.

The yew has long been associated with the Underworld. The yew has strong associations with death as well as rebirth. A poison prepared from the seeds was used on arrows, and yew wood was commonly used to make bows and dagger hilts. The potion in Hecate’s cauldron contains ‘slips of yew’. Yew berries carry Hecate’s power, and can bring wisdom or death. The seeds are highly poisonous, but the fleshy, coral-colored ‘berry’ surrounding it is not. If prepared correctly, the berry can cause visual hallucinations.

Many other herbs and plants are associated with Hecate, including garlic, almonds, lavender, thyme, myrrh, mugwort, cardamon, mint, dandelion, hellebore and lesser celandine. Several poisons and hallucinogens are linked to Hecate, including belladonna, hemlock, mandrake, aconite (known as hecateis), and opium poppy. Many of Hecate’s plants were those that can be used shamanistically to achieve varyings states of consciousness.


Wild areas, forests, borders, city walls and doorways, crossroads, and graveyards are all associated with Hecate. It is often stated that the moon is sacred to Hecate. In the magical papyri of Greco-Roman Egypt there survive several hymns which identify Hecate with Selene and the moon, extolling her as supreme Goddess, mother of the gods. In this form, as a threefold goddess, Hecate continues to have followers in some neopagan religions.


Hecate was worshiped by both the Greeks and the Romans who had their own festivals dedicated to her. According to Ruickbie (2004:19) the Greeks observed two days sacred to Hecate, one on the 13th of August and one on the 30th of November, whilst the Romans observed the 29th of every month as her sacred day.

Hecate in Modern Magic

In modern times, she has become popular in Paganism and Wicca, largely due to her association as the goddess of sorcery. In modern Paganism, Hecate can take numerous roles. Modern Neopagans often view Hecate as a goddess of magic. Hecate is not seen as a necessarily benevolent goddess, and her favor is often seen as fickle. Hecate is thought to grant magical power to those who please her and sometimes punish those who displease her. Examples of punishment may include inflicting madness in some cases, or sickness, poison, and disease in others. However Hecate is not thought to be malevolent, and to those who gain her favor she is thought to grant boons, including relief from pain, ease in childbirth, and the curing of disease and physical ailments.

Hecate is thought to favor those who show conviction, commitment, and adoration for her, which leads many to conduct chanting and prostration in the hope of gaining favor and magical power. The most common forms of worship include prostration, chanting adoration for Hecate, fasting, the collecting of lanterns, the burning of oils and incense, and the burning and bread and other foods as sacrifices.

In some modern pagan beliefs, wild animals are sacred to Hecate. However, creatures of darkness – such as ravens, owls and snakes – are most commonly used. Dragons are also included, as Hecate and her legendary priestess Medea were both said to ride chariots pulled by dragons. Several images of Hecate show her holding a snake. Snakes have long been connected the powers of life, death, and rebirth.

Queen of Ghosts

Queen of Ghosts a title associated with Hecate due to the belief that she can both prevent harm from leaving, but also allow harm to enter from the spirit world. Hecate thus has a role and special power in graveyards. This association also played a large part in the idea of Hecate as a lunar goddess.

[ Source : Spheres of Light ]

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