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In Search of Hekate

Author: Tim Ward
Posted: March 12th. 2006
Times Viewed: 5,747

O nether and nocturnal, and infernal
Goddess of the dark, grimly, silently
Munching the dead,
Night, Darkness, broad Chaos, Necessity
Hard to escape are you...: you’re Moira and/
Erinys, torment, Justice and Destroyer,
And you keep Kerberos in chains, with scales
Of serpents are you dark, O you with hair
Of serpents, serpent girded, who drink blood/
Who bring death and destruction, and who feast
On hearts, flesh eater who devour those dead
Untimely, and you who make grief resound...

—Papyri Graecae Magicae, a 2nd Century A.D. Hymn to Hekate

It raises the hackles on the back of my neck, this late hymn to Hekate. Can we imagine her as this poet did, in the second century after Christ, as a goddess who munches the dead? She is so clearly the vessel into which the destructive spirit of the Furies was poured. The hymn even calls her Erinys, the Greek word for “Furies” and describes her with serpent hair and scales. Dogs were sacred to Hekate because they ate corpses, and so Cerberus, the three-headed hound who guards the gate to hell is under her control, as the hymn proclaims. This portrait reminds me of Kali, Hindu Goddess of Chaos, who is also a drinker of blood, queen of charnel-grounds, and devourer of the dead.

Yet when I looked into Hekate’s origins, a startlingly different goddess appeared. Pre-classical drawings and sculptures depict Hekate as a torch-bearing maiden. She is described as “bright coiffed” in a Homeric Hymn, and “lovely” in an Orphic Hymn. In Theogony, the 8th Century B.C. poet Hesiod says Zeus honored her above all others. He describes her as a “noble goddess” who grants supplicants their wishes, makes journeys safe. She blesses fishing, flocks, competitions, battles and childbirth. Hesiod tells us her parents were Titans, which indicates that her cult was pre-Olympian. Yet Zeus treated Hekate better than the Titans he defeated and banished. He “did not use force on her and took away none of the rights she held under the Titans, those older gods,” writes Hesiod. While other goddesses were raped or married, Hekate was singularly respected by Zeus. For 41 lines Hesiod lavishes praises on Hekate, far more than he devotes to any other goddess. You get the sense that he is trying to curry favor with her and wants to stay on her good side.

There is only one myth in which Hekate shows up as a key figure. It’s the tale of the rape of Persephone. Hekate is the one who hears the girl’s cries when she’s being abducted, and it is she who leads Demeter to the sun god Helios who tells them what happened. Hekate appears again near the end of the story, when Demeter agrees that Persephone will go back and forth between Earth and the Underworld. Hekate offers to be the girl’s constant companion and guide. This close connection with Persephone and Demeter has led many to identify Hekate as the third phase in a fertility trinity of maiden, mother and crone. But the relationship between these goddesses is much more complex. Hekate is also called Aidonaia, or “Lady of Hades, and Perseis, after her Titan-father Perses, “The Destroyer.” The root and meaning is the same as Persephone. Hekate is also identified as Brimos—the Terrifying One—the name given to Persephone at Eleuis, the goddess who gives birth in fire. What some experts make of this is that the underworld role of Hekate got mixed in with the Olympian myths, obscuring her older, pre-Greek identity.

So who was she originally? Some scholars point to Anatolia in Turkey, where her cult center was located among the Carians, and the ruins of her main temple stand today. Other scholars have called attention to the Egyptian Hekat, the mid-wife goddess whose sacred animal was the frog (because of it’s resemblance to a fetus). To the Greeks, Hekate was also known as Kourotrophe, Nurse of the Young. But she was also called The Three Formed—a three-headed goddess who oversaw many things with triple phases, including the moon. She dwelled in wild hilltops, moors, and desolate places, but also by roads, harbors and cemeteries, and if ever someone was out all alone, and felt suddenly afraid—that was Hekate he or she was sensing. Additionally she was guardian of doorways, crossroads, and keys.

All these multiple, diverse identities confused me at first. Yet in them a common thread can be discerned: Hekate is a goddess of transitions, and a guide whose torch leads the way from one realm to another. Altars to her were set up at the doorways of houses, and also temples thresholds. They were also raised to her at crossroads, where travelers chose which path into the unknown they would have to take. Transitions were fraught with danger, even terror, in the ancient world: childbirth, death, meeting brigands or wild animals on the road, stepping through a temple threshold into the presence of the divine, even leaving the safety of your own home. As a goddess of change, Hekate was invoked to bestow her gift of illumination, a torch to guide one safely to the other side.

So how did a goddess so highly honored degenerate over time into the repository for all the dark and fearsome forces of the feminine divine? I suspect it was due to Hekate’s unpredictable nature. You could pray to her when crossing a threshold, but not take her attention for granted. She could curse as well as she could bless. As the centuries progressed, Hekate’s realm became more focused on concrete thresholds: crossways, doorways, and graveyards. She also began to be associated more exclusively with the unclean byproducts of these thresholds such as rubbish (swept out through doorways) and corpses. The later Greeks made her a hideous hag and flesh-eating ghoul, her skin pallid and decaying, her robes a shroud. Jacob Rabinowitz, author of a modern treatise on Hekate, The Rotting Goddess, points out that her descent reveals Greek attitudes towards material existence. He writes that they yearned for the clean, heavenly air of Olympus, the purity of Pythagorean mathematics and Plato’s ideal forms. Ooze and decay have no place in the life of a disembodied mind, yet the messiness of birth, sex and death refuses to disappear.

One other attribute of Hekate became prominent in later times. She was known as Queen of the Witches. As goddess of transitions, Hekate was naturally connected with prophecy, consultation with the dead, potions, and magic. Hekate’s daughters were the two most famous witches of Greek mythology: Circe (who turned Odysseus’ sailors into pigs), and Medea (who used her magic to aid the hero Jason). A 3rd Century B.C. epic, Argonautica, describes Medea as a priestess at Hekate’s temple, and goes into great detail about her magic rituals. Medea was notoriously bloodthirsty. To aid her and Jason’s escape from her father (from whom they stole the Golden Fleece), Medea cut up her brother and threw pieces of him into the sea. This slowed her father’s pursuing ships as they stopped to collect the dismembered parts. Later she tricked the daughters of a politically troublesome king into chopping their father up and cooking him. She did it all for love of Jason. So when he jilted her for a Greek-born princess, Medea exacted her revenge by murdering her and Jason’s children.

As Queen of the Witches, Hekate lived on long after the establishment of Christianity in Europe, and our fairy tale notions of witches have much in common with the later Greek characterizations of her. We all know witches are old, warty, foul, vindictive and cruel. They live in forests, on the boundary of the wild. Their pots bubble with threshold creatures like snakes and bats, frogs and newts, which they use to cook up powerful spells. Fairy tale witches may eat children, and certainly they ride Hekate’s broom (the broom we still use for sweeping rubbish out the threshold). In reality, of course, the women who were accused of witchcraft were not especially foul or warty. They practiced midwifery, divination, and herbal medicine. Like Hekate, they were helpers through difficult transitions: birth, troubles, sickness, death. The Church could not tolerate the competition. Its sacraments and prayers were to be the sole guide through life’s transitions. The Church killed ruthlessly to ensure its monopoly. Although the witch hunts had many social and political causes, I wonder how much of it was the obsessive theological urge to root out the last vestiges of the old order. What made it easier to demonize witches was that they could so easily be cast in Hekate’s gruesome image, an image that already terrified people for centuries before the Church rose to power.

If long ago we projected this fear of the Rotting Goddess onto witches, today we have only ordinary women to be the repositories of this peculiar loathing. And it is weird that this creepy feeling is so often attached to old women and not to old men. Perhaps this explains why so many men as they grow older dump their wives for younger women. To be married to a crone at the archetypal level is to consort with death. So, like old Hades, aging men seek out Persephone, the maiden, with hopes she’ll make them young again. But Hekate is inside of us, inhabiting a dark but real corner of our psyche. We can’t get rid of her.

I get a flicker of something vile when I contemplate Hekate’s Rot. She viscerally repels me, yet draws me, as if she holds a secret for me inside her fetid mouth, a flicker of truth about men’s revulsion towards feminine flesh. I remember a friend of mine—he was only in high school at the time, and yet he understood this all so well—he told me he had found an easy way to break up with a girlfriend after he no longer wanted to be with her. When they started making out, he said he would keep his eyes open, and he would just examine her, as if through a microscope. He would stare at the glistening pores, pimples, blackheads, the creases, hairs, erupting moles and folded skin. He would feel nauseated, and that would be the end of his attraction for her. In my twenties, in India and Thailand, I learned Buddhist techniques for eliminating sexual desire that followed much the same course. I was told to imagine a woman’s body split up into five heaps of skin, nails, hair, teeth and internal organs, or to visualize a woman as nothing but sacks of blood and pus and shit. Feel desire for that? Thus men learn what it is to treat women like dirt (as matter, not Mater) and break their spell over us.

In the course of my research on the Goddess, I traveled with Teresa, my fiancée, through the Anatolian hills of Western Turkey to visit Hekate’s famous temple.. This was a primitive, eerie landscape of dark forests, heavy clouds, small stone villages where donkeys outnumbered cars. For long stretches there are not even grazing sheep, just black-rock hillsides covered with a sheen of green. These hills were once the stronghold of the bloodthirsty goddess Cybele, whose secret rituals cured Dionysus of his madness. There’s a brooding wildness about them still.

We took a long detour down an unmarked dirt track to arrive at Lagina, a clearing on a slope above a fertile valley. This was the site of one of the two known temples to Hekate (the foundations of the other I had already seen at Eleusis). This one had been built by the native Carians around the first century B.C. Excavations had not yet started for the season, so it was completely deserted. We stopped beside the giant stone gateway to the temple, re-erected, I supposed, since every other block and stone was shaken to the foundations by an earthquake and lay about in heaps of rubble. How suitable, I thought, that the one structure resurrected so far was her threshold. The air around was warm and something prickled in it. Teresa said she felt a presence. Through the temple entranceway, a stone staircase led down to a pool, a poisonous milky green. Small water insects rose up from the opaque depths and sank back into it again. It’s the kind of pool one has nightmares about, about something down there, where the staircase leads. Hekate, if she still lives, dwells at the bottom of this pool.

A Turk in a baseball cap stood up from beneath a tree, stretched, and thumbed two tickets off his pad for us. He spoke few words of English. Nimble as a cat, he led us through the ruins, pointing out markings in the Carian script and here and there the sculpted head of a lion, a floral motif. He gestured towards a twisted grey-green branch lying on the rocks, and as his shadow crossed it, it writhed and slithered down a crack. Teresa yelped. Our guide grinned. Not poisonous, he tried to reassure us. He led us to a grey stone trough, big as a bathtub. He drew an index finger across his neck to mimic a slit throat, and made as if to pour his blood into the trough. I imagined it filled with frothing red. “Of bulls,” he said, making horns with his fingers on his head, “of bulls.” He ended the tour at a clear stream that welled from an ancient source, Hekate’s Spring. We thanked and tipped our guide, then I went back to gaze once more into the fetid green pool just past her threshold.

It was there, down deep, that revulsion I feel like an instinct that says, don’t touch! Don’t dip so much as a finger in that water! Something, something will wrap itself around you, pull you in and suck you down.

It’s not death that makes me tremble at the water’s edge. It’s the moment before death, the moment at the threshold when the living consumes the not-yet-dead: the maggots, the scum, the crawling things that cover the skin, decay that is life at its most primitive. It’s the knowledge that she is hungry for me, that I am prey to something I can’t escape, and when I look into the green ghoul-eyes of her face, I feel the fear of it right through me. Not the simplicity of annihilation. That seems almost sweet by comparison. No, this is the spider that eats the living fly. That slow consumption by the septic force, dissolving and sucking, that is man’s fear, the fear he senses behind every woman’s smile and stockinged leg. But we don’t know it. It’s underneath, as if it’s frozen in ice.

What can I do? I reached down for her, as if plunging my hand into this pool, up to the shoulder, groping in the slime. Such revulsion entwined round the feminine here, at the most reptilian layers of my brain. It makes me despair.

Hekate’s is the face I now see on Teresa in the throes of her dark passion, the sucking jaws, the appetite for my flesh. The she-beast unleashed, gnawing on my neck. I feel her starving mouth on my body, consuming my flesh—no, my immortal soul, the thing of the heavens that my forefathers fashioned to escape her clutch. Why is it then, that when Hekate glimmers at me from Teresa’s face, I hold her close, and long for her teeth on me? Exactly for this, exactly because she fills me with terror. My little self flees in horror. The shell disintegrates, and in its place, I am. The darkness arises in me, still terrified of her, but alive. Then I notice that though she is totally possessed—I believe the strength in her could rip me apart—she does not hurt me. She loves me in some strange sense. Sometimes in the midst of her rapture, I can let go of her, let her jaws fall upon me, out of control. Fear sears right through me then, as if I’m scalded by it. It is so intense I have to surrender to it. All pretense, all identification with my ego gets burned away. I feel her consuming my soul, devouring my essence. Truly, it is a death, and I feel as if I am hanging in empty in space. No thought, no feeling, just the rawness of the void coursing through me. With my rational mind, I know this is not possible, this identification of the self with infinite space, nor the sense I have that this emptiness is alive and humming.

Teresa usually passes out at about this point. It’s fortunate for me she’s never punctured a major blood vessel.

Isn’t this the real cauldron of Hekate’s transformation--however it is attained—the annihilation that clears the way for rebirth?

Back at Lagina, Teresa touches my shoulder, softly, to bring me out of my trance, says its time to leave. We have a long drive ahead of us, she reminds me. We’re headed for Ephesus, where Artemis (Hekate’s opposite, the bright side of the moon) had her great temple. I wrench my gaze from the green water, breath deep and break the spell. I realize I envy the Carians, envy them for knowing Hekate well enough to build a temple to her, for being able to spill blood and worship her terrifying nature. They retained the darkest essence of the primal goddess, so many millennia back. She still lingers in Lagina. I lean in over the pool one last time, and long to see her shadow.


Tim Ward

Location: Bethesda, Maryland

Website: http://www.timwardsbooks

Bio: Tim Ward is the author of four books, including the newly released Savage Breast: One Man’s Search for the Goddess, which includes a full chapter on his encounters with Hekate. For more info, photos, and Tim's 2006 tour schedule:

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