Home » Ancient Greece » A short history of Lilith, Hecate, and Witches in the Western tradition

A short history of Lilith, Hecate, and Witches in the Western tradition

Hekate, a triune witch

During this Hallowe’en month, we’re hacking through the tangled, overgrown forest of history to discover the origins of our traditions. One of the traditions we take for granted is the association between the witch and her familiar.

How we make that connection is through the ways in which we have learned to associate women with nature: the mysterious night, the moon, wild animals. We’re used to dichotomizing experiences into either light or dark, good or bad, but we inherited this way of thinking, and we apply it to virtually everything, including the way we think about women.

Prior to the incursion of a modern, mechanistic metaphor, society functioned within an organic, agrarian mindset, when fertility, the success of one’s crops, and the mysteries of the Triune Goddess with all of her lunar associations, shaped attitudes toward women, as well as religious practice.

Maiden, Mother, Crone

Now, bear with me. I know this sounds tedious, but you need to know why we connect black cats, screech (or ‘scritch’) owls, and toads, with witches, and so I promise to condense thousands of years of history into a few paragraphs, in time for you to go out and trick or treat. 

Knowing how the idea of the Triune goddess, the goddess of three faces (usually represented by the virginal nymph, the fertile, child-bearing mother, and the mature, wise crone) evolved throughout history is important to understand why we think the way we do about women, as well as why we associate witches with owls and black cats.

In really ancient Greece, millennia before temples were dedicated to Athena, this same life-force was worshipped as part of what is called the ‘triune’ or ‘triple-headed’ goddess.

There was more than one such goddess thought of in this way; in each case, the goddess represented nature and both its life-giving and life-destroying energies and principles, such as those seen during seasonal changes and the waxing and waning of the moon.

The triple goddess became a metaphor for the gradual growth-into-death cycle of the seasons, which could be seen reflected each month in the behavior of the moon, which shows a different ‘face’ each night.

Hekate at the crossroads, with her three-headed dog

Myths formed at some indeterminate period during the Greek Dark Ages are part of the dense bracken we’re wading through, since goddesses names morph and merge, depending on the area and era we’re discussing.

At the same time, one goddess can be renowned for diverse abilities.

According to mythographer, novelist and poet Robert Graves (The Greek Myths), Athene and Artemis were, at one time, each worshipped as goddesses of the moon; Artemis the waxing moon, worshipped in Spring and Summer, and Artemis the waning moon, associated with Autumn and Winter.

We’re not used to thinking of Athene as a nubile maiden, largely because, over time, Aphrodite’s influence increased in Greece, usurping the importance of the fertile dimension of Athene, who became renowned instead for her two other faces, that of the virgin on the one hand, and the crone, the old, wise woman, on the other.

Not surprisingly, for our purposes, the animal associated with Athene in her guise as wise crone of the autumnal forest is the owl.

Another triune goddess exists in the complicated intertwined stories of Kore, Persephone and the witch-goddess Hekate, who also personified the faces of women, in their roles as nymph, maiden, and crone. However, this triumvirate has a dark twist to it, since the connection between the three involves Hekate’s offer to ensure that Kore fulfills the bargain she made with Hades.

If the Underworld were the Bunny Ranch, Hekate would be a Madam, making sure Kore keeps Hades happy, while negligent-mother Persephone looks the other way every year for a few months so her daughter can make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of peace between the upper- and under-worlds.

Hekate is also a ruler of Tartarus, the part of the underworld responsible for punishment of evil-doers. She has a three-headed dog as her attendant mythical animal, named Cerberus. She also has three bodies and three heads of her very own: lion, dog, and mare (Greek Myths p. 121).

Animals associated with Hekate were the domesticated polecat, female dogs, always black; and the frog, an animal whose chief characteristic was the ability to straddle two worlds, that of the dark, wet swamp, and dry land.

Although it can be argued that the earliest ‘witch’ was Lilith (whose name became associated with the  ‘scritch’ or screech owl), first wife of Adam, in fact, the Greeks were introduced to Lilith via traders and travelers’ lore from Palestine.

Lilith is considered the Hebrew version of Hekate, and so the idea of what to expect from witches is reinforced by early Christianity and its dualistic view of women, which, began, arguably, when archaic representations of the triple-faced goddess gave way to religious practices emphasising the supremacy of the individual goddess.

Women have been aligned for so very long with the moon, and therefore, by association, the night, the forces of darkness, and all the fell beasts that roam by the light of the moon, that it is not astonishing that the animals associated with lunar goddesses are the same animals we now associate with witches, since the idea of what a witch is has, for so long, been attached to goddesses like Hecate and the darker, archaic face of Athene (not the aspect of Athena we are used to seeing, emphasising her virginity).

It’s not a coincidence that this is the side of her that Classical Athenian politicians wanted the world to see. Her virginity was a symbol of Athens’ unassailability; and so this is the Athena we think we know. 

Yet, there was another, earlier, Athene, linked to the dark night and the decaying forest, as symbolically evocative as Hekate, shaping our ideas of the crone as wise woman, attended by her ‘familiar,’ the owl.

Nowadays, it might be said that we employ a triune goddess of our own at Hallowe’en: a combination of the crone Athene, wandering through the moonlit forest; Hekate, attended by the totem animals of her dark incantations, the dog, cat, and toad; and Lilith, the ‘scritch owl’, who made it clear she was independent of men, being created from the same dust as her husband, Adam, and insisting upon rights of equality… witchy attributes, indeed.

5 thoughts on “A short history of Lilith, Hecate, and Witches in the Western tradition

    • You are welcome… it’s really good to know that all my research has lead somewhere useful, and that someone can benefit from what I write! Thanks for reading! :-) I’m a fan of Edgar Allan Poe as well, and should go back and re-read him so as to get inspiration for future entries.

  1. Pingback: Only a Witch | My Blog

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