In ancient Greece, mythological gods and heroes represented both the ideals and failings of Greek culture; the goddess Hecate presents these concepts through her powerful representation of women and in the injustice of a sexist culture, often told through the story of her priestess, Medea. Medea, a woman whose identity exists as one of controversy, is richly tied to the themes of her goddess: protector of the ‘oikos’ against “creatures not of this world” (Johnston 127), giving and taking innocent life, and power in the woman beyond victimhood. Hecate’s representative, or “heroine” character, presents a powerful woman whose actions represent both the ideal devotion of a wife and mother, and the failing of Greek culture to appreciate the female contribution.
Medea’s Identity as a Priestess of Hecate
Medea’s relationship to Hecate, the foundation of her identity as a powerful female character, is established by Euripides, “By the mistress I worship/… Hecate, dwelling in the inmost recesses of my hearth,/ no one will bruise and batter my heart and get away with it” (Euripides 394-397). This quote serves two purposes in the primary source material: to establish Medea as a character with religious ties to Hecate, and to show a reliance on the goddess’ power to retaliate against those that “bruise and batter [Medea’s] heart.” In the former purpose, Medea’s ties to Hecate are seen as symbolic: Hecate is a revered and also feared divine character which mirrors the virtuous and also vile qualities of the Medea character. By having symbolic ties to a controversial deity, Medea’s deeds become less technical/situational and instead become more recognizable as thoughtful and representational actions which better propagate the idea of a “wronged” victim.
Such actions, seen in the second purpose of the quote, establish and begin to reveal the faults of Greek society which Medea resists. At this time Medea, as the mother of Jason’s children, is subject to the unfair treatment by Jason in leaving her for a younger, more profitable marriage; in Greek society at the time of this writing the male/husband’s power over marriage is an unfair inequality of power, which Medea justifiably resists. “the key to understanding the tragic fates of some mythic girls lies in recognizing that they could be more than just passive victims” (Johnston 219). Medea establishes the fact that women are not necessarily “passive victims” and actively may rebel against the corrupt and oppressive system; this reveals the flaws of Greek society while simultaneously presenting an ideal quality of a wife: a true devotion to family and preservation of the ‘oikos’.
Parallels Between Goddess and Priestess
Medea is seen several times throughout Apollonius’ Argonautica as an ideal wife character in Greek culture while retaining direct correlations to Hecate; for example, she kills the king Pelias moments after restoring life to an aging ram, which helps Jason in his quest, and also reinforces a standing concept of giving and taking life, “Hecate can take away what she has given” (Johnston 212). Medea reinforces the fault in Greek society of male dominance in marriage by demonstrating the equal (if not greater) contribution on the part of the female in securing safety for the ‘oikos’ and family. Medea also defies the expectation of a “passive victim” by demonstrating a willingness for violence and action against those that do her wrong, such as Pelias’ threatening opposition and later Jason’s abandonment.
Medea’s most famous defiance, antithesis of the “passive victim”, and controversial action is undoubtedly the slaying of her children as a result of the abandonment by Jason. The aforementioned quote: “Hecate can take away what she has given” (Johnston 212) which is in direct reference to the goddess’ aid in delivery of newborn children and the murder of them is mirrored by Medea murdering the very children to whom she gave birth. The action of murdering her children speaks to the depth of conflict which women face in Greek society, and Medea proves herself to be a powerful woman by forcing the male figure to be the “passive victim” and by removing herself from the feminine role of motherhood. “Virginity and motherhood cannot coexist, after all, and so the first must be eliminated to make way for the other” (Johnston 218). Medea revokes her right to motherhood in defiance to the unfair cultural system of the Greeks; not necessarily reclaiming virginity, but separating herself altogether from the ‘oikos’ and defying the abuse of her character by the unfair system.
Medea further demonstrates Hecate’s quality as a powerful female figure throughout the story by Euripides in the murder of another monarch and the princess Glauce. Glauce is a representation and result of the unfair system of the Greeks: a male can divorce his wife and abandon his family should he find the opportunity to marry into a richer family. Hecate is recognized as a “wedding attendant” and possessing “guardianship over women for marriage” (Johnston 211). Hecate’s servant is well guarded, in this case, as the second marriage and disintegration of the first marriage are both initially prevented. Similar to the plot of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, Hecate protects the bride in her transitional phase as Medea prevents the initial cause of the disturbance in her marriage to Jason. In order to protect her ‘oikos’ and current way of life with Jason, Medea removes the threat and in doing so further emasculates the male characters of the story: Jason, because he is denied the society’s privilege of males in divorce, and the older king Creon, whose tragic death and loss of his daughter drives him to a similar death as his daughter.
Medea’s giving of the poisoned clothing which she possessed to Glauce for her wedding ceremony is similar to a creation story of the Hecate goddess character, known as the “Dying Maiden.” The story of the “Dying Maiden” surrounds the death of the virgin that would become Hecate, as she posthumously is adorned with the clothing of the goddess Artemis, and the popular funerary practice of Hecate involves bestowing clothing to the dead individual. Considering the similar process surrounding both wedding ceremonies (such as Glauce to Jason) and funeral events (Hecate and her associated ceremonies) Glauce’s death is likened to the ceremonies surrounding the Hecate character and Medea, in keeping with her traditional role as a worshiper and ideal representation of Hecate, “[Hecate] was a birth goddess and she was a death goddess, accompanying souls on their two greatest journeys” (Johnston 144). Medea leads the central ceremony of the plot and further demonstrates the themes of Hecate in her death-inducing role. Medea is even contrastable to the Glauce character, whose innocence throughout the entirety of the story reveals her character as a “passive victim” archetype which Medea is made to defy throughout the course of her story.
Medea’s character parallels that of Hecate again by the foreign identity of both characters. Medea is known as a foreigner, which the xenophobic Greeks detest even before the events of Euripides’ Medea take place; Hecate too is often considered a foreign goddess: in reference to the “Great Mother” figure in Anatolia (Johnston 22), a primary deity in the “Chaldean system” (Johnston 1) and beyond. Medea’s journey from Colchis in Apollonius’ Argonautica is similar, both in foreign background and reception as a local figure. The transition of Medea from her native Colchis to Greek society is similar to Hecate’s in the way that her reception is regarded as a hostile one. “She was celestial and beneficent rather than Chthonic and threatening, exhibiting none of the horrific aspects that she sometimes presented in the magical papyri and late literature” (Johnston 143). This idea is similar to Medea’s life prior to encountering Jason; the Medea character is not known for extreme violence prior to her transitioning but is regarded as such during her journey with Jason in murdering others.
Involvement in the Oikos
Despite the violent and negative stigma associated with both the Medea and Hecate characters, they are also known for a drastically different and more agreeable quality: protecting the ‘oikos’. The idea of protecting the ‘oikos’ against foreign invasion, or as Johnston describes, “Creatures not of this world” (Johnston 127) is a ceremonial specialty of Hecate. As a goddess of crossroads and liminal passages, Hecate is described with the specific function, “the guide (Hecate) acts to bridge…two distinct realms in order that the individual may pass from one to another” (Johnston 28). Hecate’s statues were placed at the main entranceways of homes in order to grant protection against malicious spirits, demons, and vagabonds. This primary function (which prior to her integration into the Greek pantheon belonged to Hermes) helped establish Hecate as a benevolent goddess, rather than a malicious one. “Her activities as a transmissive goddess helped to make her a savior goddess” (Johnston 133). The Hecate goddess character begins to form a more active role in Greek culture and religion because although she is associated with violence, Hecate is also widely recognized for her beneficial and productive qualities, such as the ability to protect the newborn and their mothers.
A version of Hecate from the temple of Legina firmly cements the Hecate goddess as a primary member of the Greek pantheon and establishes her as a powerful female character. “Legina temple depiction shows her helping to protect the newly born Zeus by presenting the disguised stone to Cronus” (Johnston 213). Hecate’s involvement in these myths are comparable to Medea’s involvement in Euripides’ Medea when Medea argues with Jason over the importance of her role throughout his adventures, and the magnitude of her contribution being necessary in survival. More architectural evidence suggests Hecate held similar interactions with Zeus “Her triplicate statues…further ensured that [Zeus Horkios] would never forget her completely” (Johnston 26). Through this myth of Hecate the goddess is seen representing the various themes discussed earlier: she is a giver and protector of life in defending the infant Zeus, is proven to defy the “passive victim” understanding of women at the time, and she represents the ideal woman in the Greek society.
In contrast, Hecate’s darkest side exists in a near-parallel form to Medea: a vengeful spirit. Although the general duties of both characters create a positive disposition towards them, Hecate is also an embodiment of an angry spirit which may seek seemingly wanton destruction. “Hecate was expected to avert all such types of ghosts or to lead them against the unfortunate” (Johnston 249). Similar to Medea, whose maliciousness rose from being wronged, Hecate has command over the dead and uses them accordingly in a desire for revenge.
Both the goddess Hecate and her mortal champion, Medea, represent a powerful side to the nature of Greek females; Medea, being a resourceful and utterly vengeful woman, exacts her revenge in accordance with her goddess, whose style in power and command both held sway over the ancient Greek culture. Hecate and Medea prove themselves capable of defying a sexist culture and the automatic stigma of the “passive victim.” Instead, the active and assertive nature of the characters is vital in pointing out the flaws of the sexist and xenophobic Greek mentality while promoting the positive qualities and potential of the female gender.
In Other Works of Literature
The Medea story and legends of Hecate are retold with greater strains of variation on the original characters throughout the millennia, a few popular selections including:
The Roman writer Seneca created his own version of the play, titled Medea.
Jennifer Jones wrote Medea’s Daughters: Forming and Performing the Woman Who Kills.
Cherrie Moraga wrote The Hungry Woman, a version of the Medea myth.
Christa Wolf wrote Medea: A Modern Retelling, a version of the Medea myth.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in a scene wrote after the author’s time, includes the goddess Hecate as a malignant spirit and leader of the witches.
Boedeker, Deborah. “Hecate: A Transfunctional Goddess in the Theogony?” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), vol. 113, 1983, pp. 79–93. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/284004.
Callimachus, and N. Hopkinson. Hymn to Demeter. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
EURIPIDES. MEDEA. W W NORTON, 2018.
Johnston, Sarah I. Hekate Soteira: a study of Hekate’s roles in the Chaldean oracles and related literature. Scholars Press, 1990.
Johnston, Sarah Iles. Restless Dead: encounters between the living and the dead in ancient Greece. University of California Press, 2013.
Jones, Jennifer. Medeas daughters: forming and performing the woman who kills. Ohio State Univ. Press, 2003.
Moraga, Cherrie L., and Irma Mayorga. The hungry woman: Heart of the earth. West End Press, 2001.
RHODIUS, APOLLONIUS. ARGONAUTICA: with an english translation (Classic reprint). FORGOTTEN BOOKS, 2016.
Shakespeare, William, and Kenneth Muir. Macbeth. Bloomsbury, 2013.
Wolf, Christa, and Margaret Atwood. Medea: a modern retelling. Doubleday, 2005.