Hecate: The First Witch

Dating all the way back to ancient civilizations such as Egyptian, Greek, and Anatolian mythology, we associate a lot of the key attributes of witches to one goddess in particular: Hecate. Let’s take a closer look at the goddess of magic and sorcery. We investigate who she is, what does she look like, and if she is evil or good witch. 

Who is Hecate?

The earliest known description of the goddess goes all the way back to Greek poet Hesiod’s Theogony, which was a poem that explained the origin of the Greek gods from the 8th century BCE. Hesiod claims her to be the daughter of Titan Perses and nymph Asteria. Because she is often associated with the moon, it is important to distinguish her from Artemis, the goddess of the hunt.

While Artemis is typically associated with maidenhood, archery, and the other Olympians, Hecate is more commonly tied to the Underworld. She is often considered to be a minor goddess and is the patroness of boundaries, magic, night, ghosts, and medicines and potions.

What Does She Look Like?

Hecate is easily recognizable due to the fact that that she is represented as a triple-bodied woman. Some of her earliest appearances in art show her as single-bodied, but there are various depictions of her in terracotta statues, pottery, and marble sculpture as an amalgamation of three female bodies.

Night of the Enitharmon's Joy by William Blake

Even modern examples, such as William Blake’s The Night of the Enitharmon’s Joy (1795), show Hecate as a triple-bodied woman surrounded by her companions of the Underworld. This English painter and poet drew inspiration from a variety of sources in addition to Greek mythology. He was frequently cited to admire Michelangelo’s use of colossal bodies, and some critics claim that Hecate’s pose mimics that of her pose in one of Michelangelo’s sketches. Further, Blake also seems influenced by Shakespeare’s Macbeth as the featured creatures mirror those described by the three witches in the play’s opening verses, while Hecate listens offstage.

Is She a Good Witch or an Evil Witch?

That depends on who you ask. In antiquity, Hecate wasn’t always treated as a villain. As a witness to Persephone’s kidnapping, some writers aligned her with Hermes because she functioned as a goddess of journeys in and out of the Underworld and, in some versions, helped gods and heroes like Persephone and Orpheus. In Byzantium, she was often heralded as a deity of protection after saving the city from Phillip II of Macedon.

However, being a chthonic and nocturnal goddess, meaning of the Underworld and Night, wasn’t always the most conducive to her public image. Hecate’s sacred animals were the dogs that guarded the gates of hell and a maiden who was tuned into a black cat by Hera and served Hecate as a priestess. In addition, her association with necromancy and using herbs and poisons to practice magic and brew potions led to a more Satanic persona with the early rise of Christianity. Double, double, toil and trouble; fire burn and cauldron bubble, indeed.

Conclusively, Hecate is one of the many fascinating sorceresses of Greek mythology. She may not have been famous for turning men into pigs or trapping and torturing heroes, but keep an eye out for her the next time a black cat crosses your path.

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Rebeccah Swerdlow

Rebeccah has loved arts and museums for as long as she can remember. From a young age, she has seen much of the world and its treasures and perspectives. She has always loved learning about other cultures, so she decided to pursue an undergraduate degree at Loyola University Maryland with a double major in History and Art History, with a focus on Ancient Greece and Rome. While finishing her degree, she completed a research fellowship and was published in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. She has volunteered at her local historical society and the Baltimore Museum of Art and worked in her university gallery. She then received her Master’s degree at the University of Delaware in Art History where she also worked with curatorial teams for exhibits at the Winterthur Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as well as the university’s gallery. Rebeccah has frequented museums and galleries in the DC area for years. When she isn’t in a museum, you can find her working in the library of the Naval Historic and Heritage Command while earning her certification from the Society of American Archivists. Rebeccah values history, culture, and learning with the highest degree.
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