Hecate, the Essentially Feminine Goddess
"The Mistress of Your Charms"
In Act Three, scene 5, of William Shakespeare's play, Macbeth, Hecate dismisses the three weird sisters as "saucy and overbold" for daring to "trade and traffic with Macbeth/In riddles and affairs of death". Towards the end of the speech, she dismisses the sisters "Get you gone" and orders them to meet her by Acheron, the river of woe that leads to the Greek Underworld. Later, Hecate explains that she awaits the fall of a "vaprous drop" from the corner of the moon to raise "artificial spirits" with which to draw Macbeth to her "by the strength of their illusion".
In scene one of Act Four, an apparition does indeed draw Macbeth's attention: "Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! /Beware Macduff. /Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough."
By now, it is evident that Hecate is a very powerful entity, with the ability to tick off underlings, command them to vanish and then offer an explanation of the spell that she is casting. In Shakespeare's day, audiences would have had no problem recognising Hecate, queen goddess of the night. However, in the wider lexicon of Greek mythology, Hecate had other powers.
The origin of deities
Long before Aristotle (384-322 BC) began to organise his thoughts on the natural world, the ancient Greeks pondered on the hidden forces that filled the sea with fish and made the crops grow, that gave milk to cattle and honey to bees. They needed names for all of these apparent miracles, which is why they created the Greek pantheon, the collection of mythical deities that we still tell stories about, today.
The creative force that resulted in poetry and music became the god Apollo, while the dark and destructive force that made red-hot lava spill from the ruptured earth became Vulcan. When they needed a goddess that would assist women in bringing forth children, protect the home from the ghosts and spooks that they readily believed in, and bring general prosperity to a household, Hecate fulfilled the role.
Hecate: Cult and Origins
The cult of Hecate began in Anatolia and spread to Greece where for a long time, it was in conflict with that of Artemis. The hunting goddess already held status as the twin sister of Apollo, and she also ruled moonlight. By 700 BC, Hecate had gained in popularity, possibly because the poet Hesiod (c. 750 BC) gave her a heroic role in his Theogony. In his Hymn to Demeter, Homer (c. 800 BC) describes how Hecate sympathised with the fertility goddess when she lost her daughter Persephone to Hades and the Underworld. Gradually, Hecate became one of the main goddesses in the Elusinian mysteries, and worshippers attributed her with a number of qualities and powers.
The Powers of Hecate
Folklorists have described Hecate as a “chthonic” goddess, that is, associated with the concealed and unseen. The successful gestation of infants and animals and the germination of crops were essentially feminine and hidden processes. Athenian households invoked Hecate daily to bring prosperity and wellbeing to everyone. Invocation was also to protect the house from ghosts and spooks. Cult images of her were placed at three-way crossroads, before private homes and in front of city gates. In addition, Hecate had the power to grant eloquence in political assemblies, victory in battle and sporting events, grant fishermen large hauls of fish, and make cattle grow fat and lean at will.
Representations and Symbolism
In the late 5th century BC, the classical sculptor Alkamenes represented Hecate in triplicate, that is, three female figures standing with their backs to one another. Experts believe that this representation aimed to show Hecate as a maiden, matron and crone, the three essential ages of woman. This image became so definitive, that by Roman times, Hecate was associated with the goddess Trivia, which means “of three”.
In classical imagery, Hecate appears holding items that include a flaming torch, a bunch of keys, serpents and daggers. Often, a dog or dogs accompany her. The key possibly symbolised Hecate’s liminal role, that is, the ruler of the frontiers between worlds. The liminal quality also meant that she was proof against ghosts and spooks.
Her followers ritually sacrificed and ate dogs, because the dog was sacred to other birth goddesses. Hecate may also have had a connection with Cerberus, the dog that guarded the entrance to the Underworld. Later on, the dog became the manifestation of the restless souls that followed her. Or the dog may refer to the Trojan Queen Hecuba, who leaped into the sea after the fall of Troy - and Hecate transformed her into her familiar.
A number of animals are sacred to Hecate, including mares, she-wolves and bitches, the polecat and curiously, the red mullet. She ruled over the earth, sea and sky. She could invoke or hold back storms, which was why many of her patrons were shepherds and sailors.
Because of her association with the number three, her followers placed sacrificial offerings of meat at three-way crossroads at midnight. Even today, we regard a cross thoroughfare as a significant threshold, and midnight as a time when magic happens. Essentially, Hecate was the guardian of seeming magical happenings in darkness, like germination and gestation.
The worship of Hecate continued well into Christian times, when members of the church denounced it and warned against heathen invocations. In fact, the old English word “haegtesse”, which means hag or old woman, is possibly derived from Hecate. Plants sacred to Hecate include the yew tree, belladonna and mandrake.
Experts speculate that she may be the Greek equivalent of the Egyptian goddess, Hequet. Another speculation is that the female name “Catherine” and all of its derivatives; Katie, Cathy and so on, stem from Hecate, but no one knows for sure. Whether in ancient Greece, Shakespeare's day or our own time, Hecate's influence is subtle and assured.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare
The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology by Pierre Grimal
The Complete World of Greek Mythology by Richard Buxton (Thames & Hudson)