The Greeks often called Hecate, Agriope, which means ‘savage face.’ She is said to have three faces, which symbolized her powers over the underworld, earth, and air. She is known as the lady of the underworld, of chthonic rites, and of black magic.
Her Hebrew name was Sheol, and the Egyptians knew her as Nepthys. She was the daughter of the titan Perses and of Asteria, although sometimes it is said that Zeus himself fathered her.
The Thracians were the first people to worship her in the moon-goddess aspect, though soon her worship spread to the Greeks, who linked her with the moon-goddesses Artemis and Selene. She was also associated with Lucina and Diana. At times she was benign and motherly and would act as midwife, wet-nurse, and foster-mother, while keeping an eye on flocks and crops. Greek kings asked for her help in administering justice, knowing that with Hecate on their side they would attain victory and glory in battle.
But the other side of her nature, most apparent when that moon was dark, gradually superseded her kinder side. Although Homer did not mention her in his poems, by the time Hesiod was chronicling the events of his world, her powers were already very great. She had become an infernal deity, a snake goddess with three heads: a dog’s, a horse’s, and a lion’s. She was portrayed with her three bodies, back to back, carrying a spear, a sacrificial cup, and a torch.
Having witnessed the rape of Persephone, torch-cearing Hecate was sent by Zeus to help Demeter find her. When they found Persephone in Hades, Hecate remained there as her companion. During her stay in the underworld, Hecate wore a single brazen sandal, and she was the protector and teacher of sorceresses and enchanters. Her high priestess was Medea, who was worthy of her mistress, and cruelly murdered her own two children after her husband left her for another woman.
Hecate’s influence was long lasting, and the medieval witches worshipped the willow tree which was sacred to her. The same root word which gave ‘willow’ and ‘wicker,’ also gave ‘witch’ and ‘wicked.’
Thus Hecate became key-holder of hell and queen of the departed, dispatching phantoms from the underworld. At night she left Hades and would roam on earth, bringing terror to the hearts of those who heard her approach. She was accompanied by her bounds and by the bleak souls of the dead. She appeared as a gigantic woman bearing a sword and a torch, her feet and hair bristling with snakes, her voice like that of a howling dog. Her favourite nocturnal retreat was near a lake called Amaramtiam Phasis, ‘the lake of murders.’
To placate her, the people erected statues at crossroads. There, under the full moon, feasts called ‘Hecate’s suppers’ were served. Dogs, eggs, honey, milk, and particularly black ewes were sacrificed at that time. The most powerful magic incantations of antiquity were connected with Hecate, and her rites were described at length by Apollonius Rhodus in his Argonautica:
‘…and he kindled the logs, placing the fire beneath, and poured over them the mingled livations, calling on Hecate Brimo to aid him in the ocntest, And when he had called on her he drew back: and she heard him, the dreaded goddess, from the uttermost depths and came to the sacrifice of Aeson’s son; and round her horrible serpents twined themselves among the oak boughs; and there was the gleam of countless torches; and sharply howled around her the hounds of hell. All the meadows trembled at her step, and the nymphs that haunt the marsh and the river shrieked, all who dance round that meadow of Amarantiam Phasis.’
In one of her incarnations he was Hucuba, the wife of Priam, King of Troy, and mother of Cassandra, Hector, Helenus, and Paris. While pregnant with Paris, she had a dream in which she gave birth to a flaming torch wich consumed Troy. Understanding the awesome foreboding of this omen, she left the infant exposed on Mount Ida. But the Fates had ordained differently, and years later Paris returned to Troy, bringing with him the war that was to be the end of that great city.
When Polymnestor, a Thracian king, murdered her son Polydorus, her vengeance was terrible: she slew Polymnestor’s two children and gouged his eyes out. Although acquitted by the Greeks, she was changed into a dog at which the Thracians threw stones. Trying to escape her punishment, she jumped into the sea at Cynossema, which in translation means ‘tomb of the dog.’
Hecate, powerful in heaven, earth and hell, possessed all the great dark knowledges, and is rightfully called the mother of witches. She was the great goddess of magic, and she outstripped Circe, her daughter, in importance. Yet another of her daughters also achieved hellish fame:
‘…and let them not fall in their helplessness into Charybdis lest she swallow them at one gulp, or approach the hideous lair of Scylla, Ausonian Scylla, Scylla the deadly, whom night-wandering Hecate, who is called Crataeis, bare to Phorcys…’
The extent of her powers can be judged by the great numbers of animals, plants and emblems that were sacred to her. Weasels were her attendants. So were owls in their silent flight, with the carrion-smell of their nests and their eyes shining in the dark. Hound, knife, lotus, rope, and sword are other emblems of Hecate. Shakespeare knew that hemlock and the yew tree were sacred to her. In Macbeth, ‘slips of yew sliver’d in the Moon’s eclipse’ were contained in the witches’cauldron. The yew, sacred to the goddess of the underworld, still grows in cemeteries.