Hekate: Threeformed Images
by Sorita d’Este
“O Night-bellower, Lover of solitude, Bull-faced and Bull-headed One” and “bull-eyed, horned, mother of gods and men.”
Hekate, as she is portrayed in “Prayer to Selene for any spell” from the Greek Magical Papyri
When we examine the myths and legends of the many cultures and religions of the ancient Mediterranean, the Goddess Hekate stands out from the rest. There is simply no other Goddess like her, with evidence stretching back into time, but also crossing the boundaries of tradition, religion and pantheon in rather remarkable ways. Her mysteries are open to all, and her magic to those who have the wisdom to see and who are able to put fear aside in order to cross the boundaries and learn from her.
Like many other people I first encountered Hekate in literature, poetry and art, from where I learned about the image of her as a scary mistress of Witchcraft, who is invoked on moonless nights to bring forth her infernal powers. Many years later when I discovered her again, it was very much this image of Hekate which inspired those around me, who were eager to speak of her as a scary old Crone Goddess, as part of the modern “Maiden Mother Crone” construct, who whilst being wise, should be feared and who would bring doom and gloom upon those who made any mistakes in the evocations which were taking place.
Luckily for me, those who were leading the ceremony were not that effective in their evocations, and I am still here to tell my tale! The events of that night did however provide the initial impetus for me to find out more about this Goddess who struck fear in the hearts of people who were quite fond of all kinds of other typhonian, chaotic and what they seemed to think were dark magics. After all, if she could frighten them, like she did through the visions she sent of wolves on stormy nights, apparitions even in daylight hours and frightening dreams, she obviously possessed a great deal of power!
At the start of my journey I realized that I would have to first remove the many masks which had been placed onto Hekate in more recent times, in order to see more clearly the original context in which she was viewed. By studying the way in which a deity was portrayed at different periods in history, we can gain a much better understanding of them. For this reason I set about looking at Hekate through the depictions on coins, ancient archaeological finds and in literature.
I began my journey of discovery by removing the modern masks placed upon her, especially those which did not fit the historic Hekate at all. Hekate was one of the most important deities of the ancient world with a history stretching back over the millennia, she manifested herself in many different ways during that time, and we can learn a great deal about her, her powers and nature by studying the ways in which she was portrayed.
The most frequently found modern portrayal of Hekate is that of her as Triformis, that is in her triple form. The triple image of Hekate was, according to the Greek writer Pausanias, invented by the sculptor Alkamenes when he sculpted a three bodied image of her around the 5th century BCE. This statue would inspire those who followed, including in turn those we see today. The oldest surviving image of Hekate is however of her in a single bodied form, depicting Hekate as seated, crowned and in a pose similar to those commonly shown for the Goddess Cybele. We find another ancient depiction of a triple Hekate on the Pergamon Frieze dated to the 2nd century BCE.
We can interpret the symbolism of the three-formed Hekate in many ways, especially when we combine our quest for understanding with further historical information on Hekate, such as the epithets she was given in ancient writings. Hekate’s titles include Trioditis (of the three ways), which is a reference to her association with three way crossroads, places considered to be the domain of the restless dead and other spirits. Hekate Suppers were held at the crossroads at the end of every month, when food offerings were left there for her. We also find reference to Hekate having a share of the power of the three domains of Earth (Hades), Sea (Poseidon) and Sky (Zeus). In fact we are told that when Zeus ascended to take his place as King of the Gods of Olympus, he granted her more power over each of these than before, in recognition of her importance. So the three formed Hekate can be seen both as the Goddess at the crossroads, facing in the three directions, thus protection, guiding and watching; as well as having power over the three domains of Earth, Sea and Sky.
Often depictions of Hekate show her holding two torches. These torches are usually shown in conjunction with her role and association with Persephone on her bi-annual journeys to and from the underworld. Hekate becomes the guide and the companion to Persephone in this journey, which is possibly one of the most famous stories from the Greek mysteries. It also formed part of the highly respected and popular mysteries at Eleusis, which were dedicated to the mysteries of the grain Goddess Demeter. Interpretations of the symbolism of the torches vary, but they may include that through her torches Hekate provides illumination in darkness. This could be the darkness in the caves and underground structures which we believed played an important part in initiation ceremonies in the mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere. They are also sometimes interpreted as being symbolic of the Moon, as well as the planet Venus in its role as the Morning and Evening Star. Illuminating and containing between it, the darkness of night and the light of day.
Very curious descriptions of Hekate as having the heads of various animals can be found in numerous texts too, including the Greek Magical Papyri. Whereas animal headed deities with human bodies are common in the pantheons of some other cultures, such as those of Egypt; where zoomorphised Gods and Goddesses include deities such as Sekhmet (Lion headed), Bast (Cat headed), Sobek (Crocodile headed) and Anubis (Jackal headed), it was fairly uncommon amongst the Greek Gods by comparison. When we encounter Hekate with the heads of animals, we have to look not only at the primordial nature of Hekate as one of the oldest Goddesses whose worship survived many centuries into the current era, but also as being symbolic of the powers and qualities attributed to her. As is the case with the human depictions of Hekate, there are depictions of Hekate both with three animal heads and with just one. When she is described with her three heads, the animals she is depicted with include (in different combinations): cow, dog, dragon, goat, horse, and serpent.
Perhaps the most frequent and possibly the most interesting of the animal-headed depictions of Hekate, are those referring to her as being Bull or Cow headed. In the Prayer to Selene for any spell, Hekate is called upon as “O Night-bellower, Lover of solitude, Bull-faced and Bull-headed One” and “bull-eyed, horned, mother of gods and men.” In Liber De Mensibus, the Byzantine scholar John Lydus describes Hekate as being four-headed, with one of these heads being “the head of a bull, which snorts like some bellowing spirit, is raised towards the sphere of air”. The horns of the bull were often associated with the Moon, as an earthly representation of the lunar horns of the New Moon, recalling Hekate’s lunar associations.
In Pitys Spell of Attraction, recorded in the Greek Magical Papyri we find a reference to a three-formed Hekate drawn onto a flax leaf with cow, maiden and dog heads, likewise in Liber De Mensibus when one of the four heads she is described as having in that depiction we are told is “that of a dog as having a punishing and avenging nature is raised towards the sphere of earth.” The dog headed descriptions are interesting for many reasons, but most of all because there is a reference to Hekate’s father Perses as having the head of a dog. Again this brings to mind deities from ancient Egypt, such as the jackal headed Anubis, who like Perses is also linked to the psychopomp St. Christopher. Hekate also of course shares the attribute of being associated with the dead, roads, protection and travelling.
Fantastic animals were also associated with Hekate, as seen in the tenth century Byzantine encyclopaedia the Suda, which paraphrased Pseudo-Nonnos’ Commentaries on the Orations of Gregory Nazianzenus, to describe Hekate thus:
“Some [say that she is] Artemis, others the moon, appearing in strange manifestations for those invoking curses. Her manifestations [are] humans with the heads of dragons, and of immense size, so that the sight stupefies those who see it.”
This late description continues the references seen in earlier texts, such as Lucian’s Philopseudes, where she was described as having dragon’s feet. Another fantastic animal associated with her was the hydra. John Lydus, in Liber De Mensibus, described one of her four heads as being “the head of a hydra as being of a sharp and unstable nature is raised towards the sphere of water.”
The final head in Liber De Mensibus was described as being “the fire-breathing head of a horse is clearly raised towards the sphere of fire”. The horse was frequently associated with Hekate and the Chaldean Oracles gave a description of forms Hekate appeared in when called which included “a horse flashing more brightly than light.” There are also references in the Greek Magical Papyri to Hekate in connection with horses. One spell asked for the opponent to be restrained in a horse race, a theme which was seen in the defixiones curse tablets as well. Additionally in the Spell of Attraction, Hekate was described as “horse-faced goddess”.
As we can see from this wide variety of forms, Hekate is a goddess who can present us with many faces, as she did for her worshipers in the ancient world. How we approach those faces is determined by the paths we walk, however we could do far worse than echo the words of the philosopher Proclus, when he wrote of Hekate “Yes, give me your hand I pray And reveal to me the pathways of divine guidance that I long for, Then shall I gaze upon that precious Light”.
About the Author
South African born Sorita d’Este is an esoteric researcher, author and priestess who brings her knowledge of the wisdom of the ancient world into the modern age.
Sorita’s particular areas of interest relate to the Western Esoteric Traditions, including the Pagan Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Celtic Britain and Ireland, folklore, Qabalah, divinatory and magical practices through the ages.
In 1997 she created the hugely influential website Avalonia which was the focus of a variety of online communities facilitated (or co-facilitated) by Sorita from 1999-2008.
Sorita has written numerous articles for esoteric publications including The Watkins Review, Witchcraft & Wicca (magazine of the Children of Artemis), and Pagan Dawn (magazine of the Pagan Federation UK).
Between 2002-04 she contributed around 250 articles to the very successful worldwide D’Agostini part-work Enhancing Your Mind Body Spirit. These included entire sections on Aromatherapy, World Healing Traditions, Palmistry and Spells.
In addition to her own writings and those with her author husband David Rankine, she is also the editor of several anthologies, including Hekate Keys to the Crossroads; Horns of Power, Both Sides of Heaven and Priestesses Pythonesses & Sybils.
Sorita has interacted with the media frequently over the years, and appeared on many television and radio programs. Her work and interviews with her have featured in numerous publications including TIME OUT, The Guardian, The Sunday Times, and Alternative London. She has featured on BBC Radio London and BBC local radio networks, and also on television programs for ITV, BBC, Channel 5, discovery Channel (with Anthony Stewart Head) and Sky.
Sorita has lectured extensively on subjects related to those she has written on over the years, giving lectures at local, national and international events for organizations such as the Children of Artemis, Pagan Federation, and Fellowship of Isis. Additionally, in her role as Priestess she has led many dozens of public ceremonies and practical workshops for those interested in learning through experience. Together with David, she facilitated the open learning circle Lapis Companions in London for several years.
Having spent many years in London (England, UK) she now lives in Powys, on the edge of the beautiful Brecon Beacons in Wales (UK) with occult author husband David Rankine and their son. She remains actively involved in the Western Esoteric Tradition, with a focus on the mysteries of Ancient Egypt and Greece, and those presented in grimoires such as the Key of Solomon.
You can find out more about Sorita d’Este and her work, her collaborations with David Rankine and much more by visiting her website and blog HERE.