The image of Hecate is one of the easiest to recognize, as she appears as the goddess with three heads, or three bodies, or sometimes with three different or identical representations at the same time. The most common explanation for this unusual form was that Hecate was in fact three goddesses in one: in the sky, she was Selene, the moon, on earth, she was Artemis, the virgin huntress, and underground, she was Persephone, the queen of the dead.
Initially, the archaic version of Hecate was a benevolent goddess, who granted men their deepest wishes – in general related to material wealth, gains from gambling, victory in battles as well as in competitions and the gift of eloquence for orators and politicians. Hecate was a Titaness, and thus she did not belong to the same family as the gods, but Zeus made no attempts to take over her domain after the rest of the Titans were overthrown. Later on, Hecate evolved into the goddess of witchcraft, ghosts, necromancy and magic – and most of her symbols that we know of today are related to these areas.
The most famous of the symbols of Hecate is the moon – since, as stated above, she was often identified with Selene herself, or Artemis, who also counted the moon among her symbols. In one tradition, the three forms of the goddess Hecate are the new moon, the half moon and the full moon.
Since she was one of the few goddesses living in the Underworld, all animals sacred to her had to be black. Most commonly, the symbol of Hecate among animals was a black bitch or she-wolf – which remains associated with witchcraft to this day. As the legend goes, the queen of Troy, Hecuba, killed herself after the city was conquered by throwing herself from a rock. Hecate took pity of her and turned her into a black bitch, and thus into one of her familiars. The Stygian dogs are also often associated with Hecate, and the sound of dogs howling is considered a sign that the goddess is approaching.
This strong association with dog symbols indicate that Hecate was a foreign goddess, or at least her cult was imported from a foreign tradition, whose origins are now lost in time, since dogs played a very limited role in traditional Greek cult rituals.
Some other animals that became symbols of Hecate were a black mare and a polecat. Once again, it’s obvious that the association of black cats with magic was incredibly strong, since it remained valid over 2,500 years later. As the myth goes, the first of them was a witch named Gale, so greedy and full of lust, that the gods punished her by turning her into a black polecat, and Hecate welcomed her among her favorite animals.
The red mullet is also sacred for Hecate, because of a similarity in names – the Greek word for red mullet sounded very similar to the word “three”, which was included in the name of the goddess to signify her three shapes. Also, one of her symbols is the frog – as a creature that lives in two worlds – in water and on earth – and can cross the border between them at will.
Sometimes, the animal symbols take over the appearance of the goddess completely, and she is represented in the form of a monster with three heads – of a dog, a horse and a serpent. The serpent may be replaced with a lion head.
In the human form, whether with one body or three, Hecate is often represented with one or two torches in her hand. This symbol is related to another well-known myth. When Demeter was desperately searching for her kidnapped daughter, Persephone, Hecate accompanied her in the world of the dead, lighting the way with torches. After that, when Persephone became queen of the underworld, Hecate remained on her side, as her companion.
Due to the identification with Artemis, Hecate is sometimes referred to as a virgin goddess, but many other authors consider her as the mother of some of the most famous witches, including Circe and Medeea.
Hecate is also the goddess of crossroads, doors, walls and passage ways, and thus another one of her symbols is a chain of keys. Offerings to the goddess were left at crossroads, to be eaten by the homeless, or sometimes by dogs. Same as Hermes, the messenger god, she was capable of crossing the ultimate border – the one separating the world of the living from that of the dead.
Among the plants, the symbols of Hecate were most often those that were poisonous or used to prepare potions, such as the mandrake or the belladonna, but also oak leaves and yew were sacred to the goddess, same as the cypress tree, which was a common plant used to decorate graves.