I promise I will eventually get to some of the more unusual and less well-known deities. But I’m doing Hekate right now because I have to do a report on her for my Classics Greek Religion class. So, here we go:
Hekate (also spelled Hecate but pronounced as “heh-kuh-tee” and not “heh-kayt) is a lesser goddess of the Greek pantheon. She has changed a great deal over time, from a fertility and earth goddess, protector of the young, and a luck goddess, to a deity of the night, of magic and witchcraft and the underworld. In later historical periods (the ages of Christendom) she became something of a reviled deity, the goddess of witches and other bad things. She transformed from a light divinity to a dark divinity.
In the few portrayals of this goddess she is gowned in the usual Greek fashion. The only thing that really distinguishes her from other young female figures is the fact that normally she is shown carrying two torches in her hands.
Myths and History
Hekate really has no myths of her own. Instead, she shows up in various other myths, such as the rape of Persephone and in Hesiod’s Theogony. In the oldest version of the rape of Persephone, Hekate aids Demeter in finding her daughter. Hekate also lights the way with her torches back from the Underworld for Hermes and Persephone.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, more about Hekate is made known. Hesiod wrote this oldest written account of the mythological structure of the pantheon very early in Greek’s written history. Thus it can be assumed that this version of the goddess is the oldest version that we know of, and the oldest version of her worship as well.
Hekate is supposed to be a descendant of the Titans, but her background doesn’t dissuade Zeus from treating her kindly. In fact, Hekate is beloved above all others by Zeus, and given special honors, including a piece of the earth to call her own and a section of the starry heavens that is her own purview. Honors like these were given to few gods unless they were truly beloved of the king. Hekate was worshiped as a goddess of luck, able to assist in correct judgments, in victorious battle, in gathering food and animals and livestock for sale or consumption. She was somewhat whimsical in handing out her luck, though–Hesiod says that she gave these favors only as her heart desired, and only to those who gave her proper worship. Her worship included nothing more fancy that offerings left at crossroads. Nowhere in this earliest account of the goddess is she portrayed as an underworld or demonic figure. In fact, she seems quite benign, if whimsical.
It was only until later on that Hekate became a goddess to fear. In the myth of Jason and Medea, which was written originally just after Hesiod wrote the Theogony, Hekate is transformed into a goddess of witchcraft. Medea is supposed to be an enchantress or a priestess of Hekate, and is often said to be a witch by more recent scholars. In any case, Medea calls on Hekate to aid her in her magic, which she then casts against her ex-husband Jason. This version of the goddess is the one that has been used through history to describe the goddess, and slowly she became a figure of the night, of the Underworld, and of witches.
More recently, if anyone has watched the movie “Practical Magic,” pay attention to the scene where the sisters are trying to revive Jimmy from the dead. Their spell includes the line, “Black as night, Mighty Hecate make it right.” Even now Hekate is seen as the dark goddess of the dead and of witches.
Her light side comes more from her earlier depiction as a goddess of luck. She handed out the favors to those who gave her offerings and whom she felt deserved the good will she would bestow upon them. There was little of the darkness about her then. A goddess of light magic, so to speak, of the kind that creates and brings into being the better things in life.
Even as a goddess of the Underworld her image has been so distorted by propaganda and misunderstanding that it is harder to see how her dark side is not so dark. As a goddess of the Underworld, she is more like the torch-bearer in the rape of Persephone than she is a goddess of death and destruction. Her aid to Medea was probably misconstrued as well by later readers, as on her Light Side she is a giver of good fortune. She could have been aiding Medea not by strengthening her magic or granting her magic, but by granting the woman what she desired because she sacrified to the goddess. Gods are fickle like that. That whimsical nature to her could also be a part of her Dark Side as well–that she has no real constant yardstick for her gift giving, but is entirely based on her heart’s desire.