She was the goddess of childbirth, gates and walls, doorways, crossroads, sorcery, the moon, torches, dogs (especially watch dogs), ghosts, infernal spirits, the dead, and frogs. The overview of these various roles would seem to classify her as a goddess of boundaries physical, spiritual and metaphorical.
She's often depicted with three heads, or even three bodies. The heads are sometimes that of animals, such as a dog, serpent, cow, boar, or horse. Other times, she is depicted as three women of different ages: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. See The Hecate Sisters for more information on this Trinity. The term Enodia was a title given to Artemis, Hecate, and Persephone.
Hecate has many names, many descriptions, and many stories.
She may be referred to by any of the following names:
- Hecate Lampadephoros, who warns of nighttime attack
- Antaia, "the meeter"
- Chthonia, "of the earth", "of the underworld"
- Klêidouchos "holding the keys"
- Kourotrophos, "nurse of children"
- Phosphoros, "bringing light" or "giving light"
- Propolos, "who serves/attends"
- Propulaia/Propylaia, "before the gate"
- Soteira, "savior"
- Trimorphe, "three-formed"
- Triodia/Trioditis, "who frequents crossroads"
- Enodia, "she who appears on the way", or "the one in the streets"
- Trivia, a Roman goddess
- Gorgo, the Gorgon Sisters, and/or Medusa, as the face on the moon was known as "The Gorgon's Head" in ancient times. Apollonius of Rhodes, in his Argonautica, describes Hecate as having a head surrounded by serpents.
- Bombo, a term of unknown meaning but evoked in a ritual to Hecate mentioned in the Refutation of all Heresies
- Mormo, which was also some sort of vampire or bogeyman in Greek Mythology but had become a being to be invoked in magic in Ancient Rome
- Luna, the Moon.
More extravagant syncretism may link her further to
- Blessed Virgin Mary
- Hel, goddess of the underworld in Norse Myth
- Isis, an Egyptian goddess.
See Interpretatio Graeca for an explanation of how these associations and meldings with goddesses of other mythologies came about. Her name may be the source of the words hag and hex, via Interpretatio Germanicus.
Relations with Olympus
Hecate is often described as a Titan, and not an Olympian1. None the less, Zeus is shown to have paid her great respect. She may be the daughter of Gaia and Uranus, or of Perses and Asteria, or even Zeus and Hera. In some myths she was a mortal slain by Artemis, in other myths she was one of Gaia's midwives and thus predates humanity.
In some tales Hecate is a virgin goddess, in others she is the mother of Scylla, or of Medea and Circe. In some tales she gives birth to the Empusas, monsters that disguised themselves as beautiful girls to seduce men and kill them.
Worship and Rites
Hecate was worshiped and invoked by some practices of witchcraft in Europe long past the Greek Dark Ages and the fall of Rome. Sorting out the truth from the bias is difficult. Authors and investigators working for the Christian Church had plenty of motivation to cast witchcraft in as dark a light as possible. At the other end of the spectrum, modern New Age writers have plenty of motivation to present a solid and unbroken chain of descent that might not actually exist. So take all of the following with a grain of salt.
Animals sacred to Hecate:
- Dogs. She often has guard dogs (sometimes spectral) accompanying her, and sometimes herself has the head of a dog. In later depictions, the dogs that accompany her are given sinister or infernal qualities. They may be something akin to a Black Shuck. It's also said that dog meat was sacrificed to Hecate at crossroads.
- The blood-colored goatfish called the Red Mullet was sacred to Hecate. In Ancient Greece, the Red Mullet was banned as a food. In Athens, however, it was sacrificed to the statue called Hecate Triglathena.
- Frogs. They are a creature that can cross between two classical elements.
- Black bulls. They'd be draped in wreaths of yew and then slaughtered in her honor.
Hecate is knowledgeable of plant lore and the creation of medicine and poison. Trained dogs were used to dig up plants that were sacred to Hecate / used for magic.
Plants considered sacred to Hecate:
Altars to, or statues of, Hecate in her three-headed or three-bodied form were placed at crossroads, especially at three-way intersections. This practice survived at least into the 7th Century, as Saint Eligius and Saint Ouen both wrote against it.
Along with Diana, Hecate was worshipped and associated with witchcraft, the moon, and gatherings of women in the medieval era in the Balkans, Germany, and Italy. At these gatherings, the witches were said to "draw down the moon from the sky".
In the Refutation of All Heresies, Hippolytus of Rome details a Pyromantic ritual that invokes Hecate and several other goddesses or entities. See our Mormo page for a portion of the text. The ritual involves a cauldron with a false bottom, a few optical illusions, and some pyrotechnic tricks akin to Stage Magic, according to Hippolytus.
In the Argonautica, Jason contacts Hecate via a rather different ritual. He bathes in a stream of flowing water at midnight. Then he dresses in dark robes, digs a pit and offers a libation of honey and sheep's blood. The drained sheep was placed on a pyre and sacrificed (see Holocaust (sacrifice)). He then retreated from the site without looking back. This summons Hecate, ground trembling beneath her feet, head garlanded in snakes, dogs of the underworld at her heels.
Being a goddess of magic, Hecate could be justified as having whatever powers you want to give her.
However, if you are using a lot of deities as characters in your game, it may be helpful to give them each different powers based on myth and tradition. In that case, Hecate probably has powers relating to…
- Death and Rebirth
- Transformation and Transition in general, and definitely Voluntary Shapeshifting
- Travel, especially across borders
- Pyromancy, and possibly other forms of Magic
- Dogs - being able to Summon or Control them, being warned or alerted by them
- The petrifying gaze of a Gorgon.
- The venom of a Snake or the poison distilled from a Yew tree.
- She may be able to be in three places at once, manifest as three avatars at the same location, etc
- Her triple-headed nature may let her see in all directions, hold multiple conversations at once, cast three spells simultaneously, etc
- Protection from demons and ghosts, and the ability to bestow or remove that protection from others
- Definitely she is immune to ambush, sneak attack or surprise, being the patron of guard dogs, goddess of protection and crossroads, and having three heads. So just forget sneaking up on her, okay?
- Classical Mythology
- Coded Myth
- Hecate Sisters
- Mystery Cult
- The Wild Hunt
Game and Story Use
- Hecate may be invoked in a spell by a Wicked Witch, Cute Witch, Vain Sorceress, Dark Magical Girl, Black Magician Girl, Witch Species or other Witch variant. Or an entire Coven of the above.
- Drawing down the moon might actually summon Hecate, which may or may not be what the witches intended to do.
- She's a pretty complicated character, with a fair amount of contradiction in the depictions, so the GM gets to define her as they like. She can be a warm and sheltering goddess of childbirth and journeys, or the harsh quasi-satanic figure the Church spoke against.
- If you don't mind mixing the streams a bit, there could be some cross-over between Hecate and the crossroads concepts of Vodou or Hoodoo (folk magic). Certainly such syncretism is right at home with both voodoo and interpretatio graeca. In Hoodoo, a crossroads can be used to make a bargain with supernatural entities to gain astounding skills. Such deals are usually made with Papa Legba, The Black Man or The Devil, but you might have Hecate show up instead. With her transformational prowess, perhaps those are just other faces she uses when interacting with certain cultures.
- The obvious figure to identify her with in Vodou would be Maman Brigitte - a female loa of the Ghede nachon, concerned, like the rest of the Ghede Loa with the realm of the dead and, like Hecate, much interested in boundaries.