Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Goddess of the Crossroads

It's Wednesday, and it's been a while since we got to spotlight an awesome mythological lady! We have a request today that says Since there is a shortage of questions, I have one; what do you have for us on the mighty Hecate? Well, let's see what we've got!

Hekate is one of the "old gods" of Greek mythology; she is most certainly an important power of the universe and a major figure who appears in myth alongside the other gods, but she's not one of the Olympians and there's always a feeling that she doesn't quite belong among them. As the daughter of Perses and Asteria, ancient Titanes of destruction and the heavens, she is of the same generation as Zeus and his siblings, and likely older and more cosmic than they are in the grand scheme of the aged gods. She is referred to as a Titanid herself in a few sources, so although she appears alongside the younger gods now and then, we never quite forget her more ancient character.

Mythologically, Hekate does a lot of very neat things that make her simultaneously frightening and unsettling, but also important and unignorable. She's a liminal goddess, meaning that her domain is the crossroads and the spaces between normal places, including between life and death, the world and the underworld, night and day, and other divisions humanity normally sees as between scary/bad and comforting/good. As an underworld goddess, she appears in the myth of the kidnapping of Persephone as one of the denizens of Hades who seems to come and go as she pleases and not to answer to that realm's terrible lord, and as a goddess of the crossroads, she stands in its center, looking in all directions at once as a threefold goddess, holding blazing torches to light a traveler's way or withhold her guidance so that they stumble onward.

Hesiod makes a point of telling us that Hekate didn't have to side with the gods during the Titanomachy, but that she chose to, thus earning Zeus' undying love and devotion and a bushel of presents for her timely aid. Not only did Zeus not take away from her any of the dominions and territories she held when she was one of the Titans, allowing her to retain the same control over the universe she had had since time immemorial, but he also gave her the unheard-of gift of a portion of each of the three realms of the Greek universe: the heavens (his own domain), the sea (Poseidon's domain), and the earth (usually assumed to mean the underworld, Hades' domain, since traditionally in Greek myth the "earth" is the mother goddess Gaia and other gods have no power over it), which she still holds, free of any authority the three rules have over the rest of their kingdoms. Hesiod says more than once how much Zeus loves and honors Hekate, and although we have few details on her exact actions during the war against the Titanes, we must assume they were hefty to have won this kind of adoration from the gods that she chose to support. The Titanomachy wasn't her only outing against the foes of the gods, either - Apollodorus records that she fought in the Gigantomachy and defeated her enemies with blazing torches, symbols of her role as one who leads or lights the way between places.

Hekate doesn't often interfere in the stories of the other gods, but when she does, her old role as a Titanid somewhat exempt from the normal rules applied to other deities often allows her to be a sort of odd goddess out, doing and saying things seemingly completely independently (and sometimes when it's very annoying for the other gods who can't really do anything about it). In the story of the kidnapping of Persephone, Hekate is the only deity other than the all-seeing sun Helios who hears Persephone being kidnapped, and the only one who ever goes to her aid, seemingly risking Hades' wrath by informing Demeter of the kidnapping and leading her to Helios for corroboration. The Homeric Hymns later mention that Hekate became Persephone's companion and confidante in the underworld; later retellings occasionally claim that it was Hekate who tricked Persephone into eating the pomegranate seeds that trapped her there, but these seem to be semi-modern inventions, since all the ancient Greek sources we have always credit Hades with coming up with his own shenanigans.

It's impressive that Hekate appears to give zero fucks about Hades or his possible anger in this story; even Zeus himself can't invade Hades' territory or force him to hand Persephone over, and Demeter would never have even known what happened to her daughter if Hekate hadn't blown the lid off the situation and made it uncomfortable for everyone. But then, Hekate answers to no one, including Hades, and if she truly owns a portion of the underworld itself as her divine and Titanic birthright, there may be literally nothing he can do or say to her, since she may have just as much right to make decisions and swan around the kingdom as he does.

Hekate's connection to Persephone is more than just coincidental; both are figures associated strongly with youth and virginity, with Persephone as the maiden representing springtime and youthful beauty (often referred to by the title "Kore", meaning simply "maiden" or "young woman") and Hekate as the divine virgin who is associated primarily with feminine power and who never has any real connection to any men. Since Hekate is a figure associated with women and maidenhood, both through her connection to the moon and her independence from any male authority, Persephone in a sense falls under her protection, which may be one of the major reasons that it's she and no other deity who recognizes Persephone's distress and comes to her aid. Some modern worshipers of Hekate, especially followers of some branches of Wicca, love to use Hekate as a symbol of all women in her triple form, making her three "sides" equal to the European concept of the triple goddess or witch ("maiden, mother and crone"), with Persephone as the maiden, Demeter as the mother, and Hekate herself as the crone, considered the "old" iteration thanks to her connection to magic and wisdom. This is mostly fairly modern religious theory, but European religions love some symbolism of three, and Hekate as a threefold goddess is super easy to fit into that mold; and there are some hints of an established triad involving Hekate in ancient Greek myth, although in that case it was her, Artemis, and Selene, and they represented the three stages of the moon as its lunar goddesses (waxing, full, and waning... which of course you could also interpret as maiden/mother/crone if you wanted to!).

Scholars have occasionally tried to connect Hekate to male gods as consorts, or argued that she isn't really a virgin goddess and that the idea is just a sort of accidental association that rubbed off on her from Artemis, who is also a moon goddess, but most such attempts are pretty thin. The most popular choice for a reconstructed consort is Hermes, which isn't too surprising, since he's a god of crossroads, travel and showing-the-way himself, but the idea hinges on only two sources, both of which do not name Hekate directly but rather use another name, which scholars sometimes guess might be an epithet of Hekate or obliquely referring to her (Pausanias names a "Daeira" as having been the mother of a hero with Hermes as the father, but also call her an Okeanid, which seems to point to someone else, and a much later Roman account claims that Hermes slept with a virgin named "Brimo", which is occasionally a by-name of Hekate but also just means "terrible" and has been used for multiple goddesses, including Cybele, Demeter, Persephone and the Erinyes). Diodorus claims that Hekate was Kirke's mother, but this is most likely a poetic device designed to connect the two since both are famous for witchcraft and female power (and the same story is given elsewhere but with the names of different female nymphs and divinities as her mother instead).

It's actually kind of surprising how much staying power the theory of Hekate not really being a virgin deity has, and it's most likely because of a couple of different factors. One is most likely the fact that most Greek deities do have consorts when they aren't explicitly said to avoid them (like Artemis and Athena), and while Hekate is referred to as "maiden" in the Argonautica, there's no specific myth describing her vow of chastity the way there is for figures like Hestia. Another is probably because putting her with a consort would, in ancient mythological terms and also crusty scholarly terms, "control" her by giving her a masculine power to balance/keep her in check, and some scholars are alway going to insist that goddesses always had that and that no ancient peoples ever respected unattached female divinities. (You can't stop them. We've tried.)

In fact, that idea of Hekate as a "frightening" female power - more frightening than the other Greek gods, anyway, all of which are kind of unruly and dangerous to their constituents - is part of the reason that in the medieval period and now in the modern day, she's associated so strongly with one of the most scary, negative female European myth tropes ever: the witch.

Talking about "witchcraft" in connection to Hekate is always sort of weird, because our modern conception of witches and witchcraft in the west is heavily influenced by centuries of medieval superstitious nonsense and the heavy influence of the Catholic Church, none of which would have applied to Hekate when she was being worshiped in ancient Greece. There's a whole lot of weird sexist bias tied up just in the phrase "witchcraft" itself, which is always directed at women, who are far more often demonized for magic-use in history than are men, who might be described as using "sorcery" or "wizardry" or a lot of other less immediately evil-connoted language. The ancient Greek word most often used to refer to Hekate and her realm of specialty probably translates most closely to simply "magic", but she's been through a couple thousand years of dudes writing about her and what she means and how ladies have evil moon-blood in them etc., so here we are.

Hekate is totally famous for sorcery and witchcraft, though, so what does that mean in ancient Greece? In part, it means intense herb-lore; examples of Hekate being a "witch" often include describing how she can create poisons and potions from plants and natural substances, which then allow her to work her will on those who consume them (Diodorus gets really excited about this, again because he's intentionally drawing a parallel between her and Kirke and Kirke is of course famous for herb-lore of her own). The Argonautica (and later Euripides, who was probably drawing from it) is also very clear that Medea, another famous Greek witch who slings spells and curses like nobody's business, worshiped Hekate as her patron and drew her power from her, implying that such witchy powers must be Hekate's to give and grant, and that they include bewitching others' minds and levying prophetic curses. Ovid later also claims that Hekate and her worshipers were given to magical incantations, although it's possible he was beginning to add some of his own Roman conception of what "witchcraft" is about. He's not alone; people have added to the idea of what Hekate does, based on what they think witchcraft is in their time period and culture, pretty much ever since.

A lot of later ideas of witchcraft attached to Hekate in the ensuing centuries don't really apply to her ancient Greek character; for example, she was considered a virgin by the Greeks, so medieval ideas of witches entrapping men with their evil evil sexiness and sucking power out of them through sex don't exactly make much sense when applied to Hekate, who needs a male figure to "give her power" about as much as Zeus needs a pet frog to give him permission to use thunderbolts. Trying to go all the way down the rabbit hole of medieval European ideas of witchcraft, how they apply to Hekate, and what kinds of things her original form might have more accurately been about would take way more time than we have here on this blog today (but there are totally books out there if you're interested!).

But the idea of Hekate as a terrible and frightening figure, that's all 100% real, regardless of the exact reasoning. She is a Titanid who survived the defeat of her fellow deities and is held in peculiar and unassailable esteem by all the gods, including Zeus himself. She owns and administers with sole power huge swaths of the universe, in every place that is otherwise an inviolate "kingdom" belonging to male gods. She is the goddess of magical powers and necromantic oracles, of ghosts and the darkness of the night, of shapeshifting and the uncertain, frightening place that are not really place at all, only between places. And she pretty much does whatever she wants, and has never shown any signs of being stopped by anyone.

Among the Greek gods, Zeus and Hera may be the King and Queen of Heaven, and the various celestial and underworld gods rulers of their own realms; but Hekate is the Queen of the Night, and no one is ever foolish enough to disrespect her power and influence.

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