1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Hecate

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HECATE (Gr. Ἑκατή, “she who works from afar”[1]), a goddess in Greek mythology. According to the generally accepted view, she is of Hellenic origin, but Farnell regards her as a foreign importation from Thrace, the home of Bendis, with whom Hecate has many points in common. She is not mentioned in the Iliad or the Odyssey, but in Hesiod (Theogony, 409) she is the daughter of the Titan Perses and Asterie, in a passage which may be a later interpolation by the Orphists (for other genealogies see Steuding in Roscher’s Lexikon). She is there represented as a mighty goddess, having power over heaven, earth and sea; hence she is the bestower of wealth and all the blessings of daily life. The range of her influence is most varied, extending to war, athletic games, the tending of cattle, hunting, the assembly of the people and the law-courts. Hecate is frequently identified with Artemis, an identification usually justified by the assumption that both were moon-goddesses. Farnell, who regards Artemis as originally an earth-goddess, while recognizing a “genuine lunar element” in Hecate from the 5th century, considers her a chthonian rather than a lunar divinity (see also Warr in Classical Review, ix. 390). He is of opinion that neither borrowed much from, nor exercised much influence on, the cult and character of the other.

Hecate is the chief goddess who presides over magic arts and spells, and in this connexion she is the mother of the sorceresses Circe and Medea. She is constantly invoked, in the well-known idyll (ii.) of Theocritus, in the incantation to bring back a woman’s faithless lover. As a chthonian power, she is worshipped at the Samothracian mysteries, and is closely connected with Demeter. Alone of the gods besides Helios, she witnessed the abduction of Persephone, and, torch in hand (a natural symbol for the moon’s light, but see Farnell), assisted Demeter in her search for her daughter. On moonlight nights she is seen at the cross-roads (hence her name τριοδῖτις, Lat. Trivia) accompanied by the dogs of the Styx and crowds of the dead. Here, on the last day of the month, eggs and fish were offered to her. Black puppies and she-lambs (black victims being offered to chthonian deities) were also sacrificed (Schol. on Theocritus ii. 12). Pillars like the Hermae, called Hecataea, stood, especially in Athens, at cross-roads and doorways, perhaps to keep away the spirits of evil. Like Artemis, Hecate is also a goddess of fertility, presiding especially over the birth and the youth of wild animals, and over human birth and marriage. She also attends when the soul leaves the body at death, and is found near graves, and on the hearth, where the master of the house was formerly buried. It is to be noted that Hecate plays little or no part in mythological legend. Her worship seems to have flourished especially in the wilder parts of Greece, such as Samothrace and Thessaly, in Caria and on the coasts of Asia Minor. In Greece proper it prevailed on the east coast and especially in Aegina, where her aid was invoked against madness.

In older times Hecate is represented as single-formed, clad in a long robe, holding burning torches; later she becomes triformis, “triple-formed,” with three bodies standing back to back—corresponding, according to those who regard her as a moon-goddess, to the new, the full and the waning moon. In her six hands are torches, sometimes a snake, a key (as wardress of the lower world), a whip or a dagger; her favourite animal was the dog, which was sacrificed to her—an indication of her non-Hellenic origin, since this animal very rarely fills this part in genuine Greek ritual.

See H. Steuding in Roscher’s Lexikon, where the functions of Hecate are systematically derived from the conception of her as a moon-goddess; L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, ii., where this view is examined; P. Paris in Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des antiquités; O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie, ii. (1906) p. 1288.

  1. J. B. Bury, in Classical Review, iii. p. 416, suggests that the name means “dog,” against which see J. H. Vince, ib. iv. p. 47. G. C. Warr, ib. ix. 390, takes the Hesiodic Hecate to be a moon-goddess, daughter of the sun-god Perseus.