Twilight falls, the moon rises, and hidden in the darkness, a dog howls. You have crossed the threshold to the underworld, the realm of Hecate. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the gloom and you find yourself in a fearful place. The dead, the lost and forgotten, the compulsive, secret fantasies, and transgressive irrational desires. How could you have ended up here?
Hecate reveals your shadow. She shows you who you really are, when you’re not pretending to be civilised and rational and normal. She is at home here in the darkness, and wants you to feel the same way. Hecate watches over the darkest nights of your soul and teaches you to see through your fears. With her help, you can deepen, grow in wisdom and become less rational and naïve. You can become whole.
Everyone has darkness in them but we tend to pretend otherwise. We want to believe we are always in control. We are rational and good and innocent.
“I’ll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do… suspect me. They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching… they’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…” – Norman Bates
We all have secrets: fears and passions that are never discussed, sexual fantasies, and dark thoughts. We push this juicy mess down into the unconscious and hope no-one ever sees it. But these repressed parts of ourselves contain a huge vitality. The irrational side of life is feared and misunderstood, but if it stays locked up in the dark it becomes compulsive.
Hecate’s gift is to show us that we need the darkness as much as we need the sunshine. It is an unsentimental approach which recognises that nothing grows without dirt, and everything that is born must die. Darkness provides the compost for our lives. Without deepening and darkening we will not mature into rounded people capable of living all of life, not just the bits that make us happy.
We need mulch and mirth.
Hecate stirs our imagination and shows us how to create life out of decay and ruin. She embodies the beauty and terror of the night, and reminds us that life means nothing without death.
The Dark Angel
Hecate is a Greek Moon Goddess and ruler of the underworld. She also presides over fate, witchcraft, magic, childbirth, and intuitive wisdom. In her three-faced form she embodies the three phases of the moon and womanhood, and is often associated with Persephone and Demeter in the same way:
Maiden (Persephone) / Mother (Demeter) / Crone (Hecate)
Waxing Crescent Moon / Fertile Full Moon / Dark Moon
Following the abduction of Persephone by Hades, it is Hecate who helps Demeter in the search for her daughter, and later becomes a companion to Persephone on her visits to the underworld. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Hecate and Persephone are said to prefer each other’s company above all else.
Hades is quite out of place as Lord of the Underworld, more usurper than a god. Before the patriarchy took over and rewrote the myths, the primordial chaos from which life springs and to where it returns belonged to the Great Mother – the Goddess Nyx. Hecate is another of the Great Mother’s forms, especially in her three-faced aspect where she is linked to the Fates, the daughters of Nyx. And even the gods are bound by the Fates.
The patriarchy retained the triple nature of this realm in the three-headed dog Cerberus (Fluffy, to Harry Potter fans) who guards the river Styx.
Wise Wild Crone
All the earliest images of the Great Goddess show her as a phallic Mother, a self-fertilising deity who births life without male seed. An older version of Hecate can be found in Sumerian myth in the form of Ereshkigal, the Lady of the Great Place Below. She rules over the realm of the dead and has male gatekeepers and a male vizier called Namtar (his name means ‘fate’), but they are her servants. Ereshkigal is definitely the boss.
In The Golden Fleece, Robert Graves recounts the Creation of the World where everything was mingled together in primordial chaos until a mysterious music sounded from nowhere. This sound caused the universe to take form, and brought forth the soul of Eurynome, which was the original name of the Great Triple Goddess:
“She was the universal Goddess and she was alone. Being alone, she presently felt lonely, standing between blank earth, empty water, and the accurately circling constellations of Heaven. She rubbed her cold hands together, and when she opened them again, out slid the serpent Ophion, whom from curiosity she admitted to love with her. From the fearful convulsions of this act of love rivers sprang, mountains rose, lakes swelled; it caused all manner of creeping things and fish and beasts to be born and populate the earth. Immediately ashamed of what she had done, Eurynome killed the serpent and sent his ghost underground; but as an act of justice she banished a mulberry-faced shadow of herself to live underground with the ghost. She renamed the serpent ‘Death’, and her shadow she named ‘Hekate’. From the scattered teeth of the dead serpent sprang up the Sown race of men…”
Hecate is also the Wild Woman celebrated by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves. She is La Que Sabe – the One Who Knows – an embodiment of the wild essence of nature and the Great Mother Goddess, the instinctual psyche.
The name Hecate may be related to one of the ancient titles for another Great Mother, the Egyptian goddess Isis: Heq-Maa. It means Mother of Magical Knowledge and refers to the ancient and powerful ‘heq’ or tribal wise woman. The wise old crone is associated with the dark phase of the moon and her knowledge relates to women’s mysteries and the secrets of life and death.
Learning to see in the dark
Hecate is a seer. We need her to get in touch with our ancient and vital Self that lives in the darkness of nature and knows how to renew and regenerate. She teaches us how to die and be reborn, moving effortlessly between the worlds of solar rationality and lunar instinct.
The wild woman reminds us not to over-intellectualise or rationalise our experience. Some things cannot be explained so easily and neatly. Life is messy and sometimes it isn’t meant to make sense.
Hecate’s symbols are the key, the whip, the dagger, and the torch. Using these symbols, we can find a way through the darkness and allow Hecate to teach us her wisdom. With thanks to Thomas Moore and his book Dark Nights of the Soul, let’s take a look at each of these symbols to see how they can help us through our darkest hours.
Hecate rules over liminal places – thresholds between worlds, gates and portals, the wilderness, dreams, and altered states of consciousness. The key gives her access to the underworld, allowing her to come and go as she pleases. To develop the same skill you will need your own key, something that helps you to descend into the darkness of your soul.
Possible keys include: poetry and literature, music, mythology, movies, mystery novels, dreams and active imagination, depth psychology, alchemy, and Tarot cards. Your key needs to be a symbolic system that speaks to your imagination and allows you to explore the underworld without getting lost or confused. Everyone will have their own method, so find a key that is suited to your temperament; what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another.
Your chosen key (or keys) is a tool which gives you access to your darker emotions within a structure and context that protects you from rationalising the experience or explaining it away. You can honour your darkness without being engulfed by it, and without hiding behind false cheerfulness or emotional emptiness.
Once you’ve entered the underworld, you’ll need to find a way back. For this you need an anchor in the sunlit world – a daily routine that keeps you grounded, such as staying involved with family and friends, eating regularly, and taking exercise.
Sometimes the things you find lurking in the underworld of your psyche are so disturbing that you feel emotionally beaten by them. The darkness can be punishing and your emotional suffering leaves you feeling destroyed. This is the purpose of Hecate’s whip – to rip away the old to make way for the new.
The death of the ego and will can be deeply discouraging. It is easy to feel overwhelmed as everything you previously knew is torn apart, but Hecate is preparing the way for new ideas and a fresh start. You can’t renew yourself if you’re still holding on to the past.
Use the whip to destroy what needs to be destroyed so you can move on.
Hecate can help you to see and understand that your emotional pain is part of a larger process, and it can be a rich source of creativity.
The life and art of Frida Kahlo provides an excellent example of how to transmute suffering into disturbing but sublime images.
Hecate is sometimes shown holding a dagger which may seem to represent a similar function as the whip – cutting away the dead and the old. But the dagger is actually more about how you use your mind during the dark night. The dagger represents discernment and reminds you not to become too passive.
Travelling through the underworld will bring you face to face with all the things you have hidden, from yourself and others. These repressed and denied parts of yourself need to be seen and accepted if you want to be whole and fully human. To confront this darkness requires strength and courage. You must become a spiritual warrior. This doesn’t mean being wilful or egotistical, but being tough enough to surrender to the soul’s truth.
You will have to make difficult choices, speak up for the truth, fight against ignorance, prejudice and injustice, and practise tough love. The truth of your soul must be protected and sometimes that means fighting for your values in a world that seems hell bent on destroying you. Hecate will keep you alive.
Hecate’s torch lights the way through the underworld, but its beam is not bright. Her lunar light gives hints, suggestions and intimations. By this light, you creep forward one step at a time. The torch only allows you to see so far ahead, so you search for the truth in the shadows and navigate by intuition.
To find your way you must learn to see in the dark and not be tempted to switch on the full beam of solar consciousness too soon. Your way of thinking and reasoning will change, becoming more obscure, softer, incomplete, darker and changeable. Solar consciousness wants to control things and understand everything, putting it all into neat little boxes. Lunar consciousness knows you can’t know everything and that much remains hidden. Hecate helps you to be okay with that and surrender to her inscrutable ways.
More about the Dark Night:
- Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore
- The Astrology of Fate by Liz Greene
- The Golden Fleece by Robert Graves
- Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes