A Roman gem depicts the image of Hecate with three heads and six arms bearing torches, snakes and daggers. Though symbolically portrayed in various other ways at different times, she invariably appears as a formidable figure, reminiscent of the vengeful Hindu goddess Kali.
The Greek poet Sappho calls this ancient, pre-Olympian goddess the 'Queen of the Night,' wearing a bright headband carrying three torches as the brilliant eyes of the dark - an image perhaps, of intuition that sees the shape of things to come, not yet visible. With strong connections to the dark side of the Moon, Hecate is the intrinsic light of the Underworld, the 'light' by which we see things darkly. She thus illuminates the dreamworld, being very different to an Upperworld illumination.
With the advent of patriarchal Christianity in the Medieval period, Hecate became a prime target to be 'demonised' and made into a figure of evil. The Church Fathers, threatened by the pagan1 imagination, the dark, untamed, instinctive feminine forces of nature, projected this archetype of evil onto simple pagan country people pursuing their ancient fertility rituals, nature worship, and folk crafts. Many were persecuted as 'devil worshippers,' as coven of witches, or as 'ugly hags' practising abominable rites and ceremonies in the remote, wild countryside.
Our one-sided patriarchal civilisation has taught us to fear Hecate as a menacing and terrible hag or crone. But, as a guardian figure of the Underworld (our unconscious), as protectress of lost souls, and holding the keys to the dark mysteries at all levels of our inner life, we need her inner-sense and wisdom to understand the realm of death and the transcendental ground of our being. Failure to recognise our collective irrational fears and prejudices surrounding her nature and our pervasive resistance to explore the underworld of images2 will quite literally 'flatten our spirits' and keep us 'in the dark.'
We need to make a relationship with Hecate, to acknowledge her sacred spirit, if we are to integrate our Shadow side; to heal the split, the hostile polarity existing between upperworld and underworld consciousness.
Hecate is a personified archetypal structure3, a style of consciousness and a way of being in the world. Therefore, the integration of this feminine figure is a concern pertaining not only to women but to men as well. Until this occurs, man's image of female inferiority and a disbalanced conjunction between masculine and feminine forces will continue.
The Ambivalent Nature of Hecate
Hecate means 'the distant or remote one', reflecting her connection with the underworld. Her three sacred symbols are the Key (as guardian wardress of the underworld), the Scourge (revealing her vengeful, punitive side; and her role of herding souls in the underworld), and the Dagger (symbol of her ritual power). In Ancient Greece, she often presided over the three great mysteries of birth, life and death. But it was at childbirth she was particularly invoked, helping with an exclusively feminine mystery. Despite this, she was a child-stealer since, like Lilith, she ruled stillbirth. She also ruled menstruation and menopause, the blood-bond of women rather than the values of an ovulatory culture that is easily manipulated by patriarchal societies. Like Medea, she would steal and murder children in order to protect them from a worse fate - living and dying exclusively by the father's hand. In this sense, Hecate contrasts sharply with Hera, the jealous guardian of marital fidelity and protectress of the marriage vows, whose interests lie in the preservation of the blood-line and inheritance.
Hecate's ambivalent nature extends to her antagonistic relationship to humans. She is often opposed to human ethics, and outmoded upperworld laws and conventions that showed disrespect or ignored her invisible realm. She would demonstrate the limits of human consciousness based on notions of ever-increasing freedom and free will. Systematic exploitation of the earth's mineral resources and the unsustainable blind dependence on 'underworld' oil is expected to eventually 'blow up in our faces' and is presently haunting mankind, perhaps causing its ultimate extinction. This is the return of the repressed, a stark reminder of our possible fate, and that the company of ghosts and lost souls who follow in Hecate's wake as the howling night wind, have no freedom and are bound in limbo.
Triple Moon Goddess
In matriarchal traditions, Hecate was seen as one of three Triple Moon Goddesses, each one ruling a separate realm of existence on Earth, in Heaven, and in the Underworld. These inter-connected realms correspond to the lunar phases, personified as: Artemis, sometimes Demeter (as full moon), Selene (as the moon in various phases), and Hecate (as the dark new moon), respectively. Paradoxically, the dark new moon is, in a sense, the moon's true face, the light coming from it being reflected by sunlight. Often personified herself as a triplicity, she represents the three stages of womanhood: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Her power embraced both the sky and the earth, and the gifts she bestowed included wisdom, victory and wealth.
Artemis, as sister of the god Apollo, is often confused with Hecate. This relationship links Hecate with the solar forces. Indeed, in the Persephone-Demeter myth, it was Helios (the Sun, from Above) who joined with Hecate (from Below) in hearing the great wailing of Persephone when abducted to Hades' realm in the underworld. However, these two distinct realms have, over the course of time, become exceedingly blurred, mainly due to Western culture's bias toward upperworld masculine gods.
At The Crossroads
In the Underworld, Hecate is the wardress and conveyor of souls, the Prytania, the 'Invincible Queen of the Dead.' As Prytania, her area of magic included purifications, expiations, and enchantments. After individual souls have entered the underworld, passed the triple-headed Cerberus, and judged by the three Judges of the Dead, they must come to the triple crossroads of Hell. The 'right' way is not yet known, and at this juncture, souls are sent by Hecate to the realm for which they are judged fit: to the Asphodel Meadows, to Tartarus, or to the Orchards of Elysium.
Crossroads, as an epiphany to Hecate, haunt the classical imagination. They had a sinister reputation for many centuries, being places of terror and terrible deeds - hangings, suicides and murders in particular being committed there. Victims of violent crimes were often buried at crossroads in the hope that Hecate would find them quickly and despatch them hastily to her domain.
Hecate, whose name means 'the distant or remote one,' was the protectress of remote places, a guardian of roads and byways, her triple nature making her especially present where three roads converged. Triple-faced figures of the goddess were frequently found at crossroads, with offerings of her ritual food left there by the ancient Greeks during special festivals, particularly on the eve of a New Moon. Her cult followers often left scraps of food, waste, garbage, left-overs (called 'Hecate's supper') at this sacred place for dogs to subsequently scavenge.
On her nocturnal wanderings, Hecate was accompanied by a retinue of infernal hounds. Dogs were her animal familiars, her sacred companions - animals who follow a scent 'blindly,' recalling the jackal Anubis of the Egyptian underworld, who could distinguish good souls from bad, and the three-headed Cerberus, the perennial guardian to the Underworld of Greek mythology.
Dreamwork: a Messy Business, but Someone's Got to Do it
Do we dream to sleep or sleep to dream? We may never know. But if we are to return the dream to its background in the chthonic underworld of Hades, then we need to let loose any romantic or Christian notions of dreaming. It's a messy affair. It brings pathology and a touch of death. DH Lawrence's poem The Ship of Death is a potent reminder of the necessity of soul-making in preparation of the psyche for death. This beautiful poetic metaphor highlights that dreamwork is about constructing one's individual death in the House of Hades. However, Hecate's connection with the dark Moon and lunar death should also be a reminder that this work is not always sweetness and light. It is not to be equated with glowing creativity, playful inventiveness, and inspiring reverie. We may well imagine it at times to be a dying process, a movement towards emptiness, accompanied by appropriate feelings of ending and loss.
If, as Freud maintains, residues of the day are the building stones of the dream, then Hecate is the archetypal figure who firstly digests, putrefies then transforms these 'left-over' scraps. She makes sacred the waste of life, the 'flotsam and jetsam' from the dayworld, so that all counts and matters. She provides the labour, the raw material and the 'composting' of upperworld fragments for imagination to flourish. It is, of course, Hermes, the God of imagination and messenger to Hades who brings the dreams to consciousness.
Offering the dream to 'the mysteries of Hecate and the night' (King Lear, Act One, Scene One) means returning the 'regurgitations' that arise in dreams without 'saving them' morally or exploiting them for purposes of the dayworld. Acknowledging our messy lives is a way of entering Hecate's realm. Like the ancient Art of Alchemy, dreamwork begins with a mess, with garbage and waste, the raw material or prima materia for the creation of soul4. Our part, as humans, is to recognise the myth in the 'mess' so as to dispose of the day residues at Hecate's altar. Traditionally, household left-overs were left at night at crossroads, signifying that dreams can lead off in at least three directions. Hecate, with three heads, helps us to stick with the dream image; holding, turning and listening to it in many different ways at once, keeping its essential ambivalence, its essence, alive, and preventing 'knee jerk' or 'cookbook' interpretations.
Unless we come to terms with the dark unconscious side of our inner nature, if we continue to neglect Hecate's underworld realm, then we risk perpetuating a dualistic world view. The dominant and restrictive Cartesian perspective, imagining a universe divided into living subjects and dead objects, and Western culture's denigration of the pagan imagination and subjugation of feminine deities must be unreservedly challenged. The world and the Gods are dead or alive according to the condition of our souls. A world view that perceives a dead world or declares the Gods and Goddesses to be merely symbolic projections derives from a perceiving subject who experiences the world as de-animated, de-personalised and soulless.
The modern vision of ourselves and the world has stultified our imaginations. In order to revivify our relations with the world around us, we need to recover our relation to the dreamworld, and especially paying homage to Hecate who may lighten our path in dark times and restore a mythical understanding of our place in the cosmos.