Mistress Hekate of the three-ways,
with three forms and three faces,
beguiled with Triglas (a fish- the mullet)…
The text above comes from a ancient fragment of Charikleides. it shows that Hekate is a Goddess that is strongly connected to the number 3. She has in many sources (and depictions) thee forms, three bodies, thee heads, is honoured on three-way crossroads (Y or T form), is connected to three realms (for example earth, sea and sky), was invoked in magic in threefold incantations, is from roman times onwards connected to the moon (and its three phases), in necromancy she (and the spirits) are honoured by threefold offerings of three substances (milk, honey oil, or milk, honey blood), she has power in underworld, on earth and in heaven (Olympus), or in the Chaldean Oracles in the material-, etheric, and empyrean worlds, in late antiquity she has three sacred colours (black, white and red), dogs are barking three times when she arrives- so I think you got the picture that the three is an important number for her.
But why is she so strongly connected to the number three?
And why does she appears in threefold form?
The short and dry answer is: From the historical perspective nobody knows it for sure. But over time scholars came to different theories about this.
The first connection to the number three in a symbolical way does already appears in Hesiods Theogony (this is the oldest source about Hekate in ancient literature).
There she is connected to the three realms of the cosmos- earth, sea and sky.
She has power in all three of these realms (and I will write a separate article about this- so I will not go so deep into details about it here).
But the Hekate passage of Hesiod doesn’t mention threefold crossroads or that she herself appears in threefold form. She has just power in all three realms.
The first time Hekate was depicted in ancient Greece (in Athens) in threefold form in the 5th century before Christ. A famous sculptor of that time (Alkamenes) created the Hekate Epipyrgidia Statue (Hekate on the Tower). This statue is so far known the oldest depiction of Hekate in threefold form.
Many scholars believed that she was depicted threefold because of her power in the three realms- but none of the figures has attributes that would link them to any of the realms (like clams for the sea as example). The early figures of the Hekateia (the trhee-formed depictions around a central pillar) looked all the same.
Others believed that the crossroads were the source for Hekates threefold images- but in fact: The Hekateia stood not just on the crossroads- but on other liminal places, too.
And the Hekate Epipyrgidia (which was the first known threefold image) itself stood not on the crossroads- but on a tower of the Acropolis. From this tower the Goddess was able to watch over the whole city.
So she was first depicted in threefold form and than- after this image got popular- the Hekateion was seen as perfectly fitting to the threefold crossroads. Hekate was quite early on connected to liminal places (like thresholds, doors, portals,) and the crossroads are such a liminal place, too.
So it is quite possible that the threefold image of Alkamenes got so popular for later depictions of the Goddess- because she was so fitting to guard the liminal place of the crossroads (and I will write an article about the crossroads, too). The triple Goddess which had power in earth, sea and sky and was seen as a guardian of liminal points- was standing on the crossroads- protecting the space and able to see into all three directions of the ways that cross each other.
So but when the triple Hekate didn’t evolved from the crossroads- why did Alkamenes portrayed her in this threefold form?
Nina Werth has in her book (Hekate Untersuchungen zur dreifachen Göttin) the theory that it has its roots in Hekates great power and her primordial being.
She is an almost almighty Titaness, she comes from primordial times and has a immense power. Her threefold depictions show this power- and the old age of her worship. There are many Triads of female Goddesses in ancient Greece who together shared a great amount of power. Like the Moirae (Goddesses of Fate), the Gorgons (primordial Goddesses), the Horai (Goddesses of the Seasons), the Erinys (Goddesses of Vengeance), the Kharites (Goddesses of Grace and Blessings) or the Hesperides (Guardians of the sacred apples). These Goddesses were triads of thee Goddesses who share together their power. Hekate had for herself a great power too- like usually triads of Goddesses shared them with each other. The three-formed image is a symbol of Hekates great amount of power. And like many of those triads- she is primordial and comes from times that were long gone (even in the 5th century before Christ- so much longer gone for us today).
For me personal this theory makes a lot of sense and fits well to my personal experience of her.
Hekate is one Goddess, but is expressing herself often in a threefold way, she is ancient and powerful. I think her strong connection to the number three- is born from the threefold depiction of her- and from her power in the three realms of earth, sky and sea. From the 5th century before Christ onwards her threefold depiction got popular and shortly after this her connection to the threefold crossroads (as liminal places) grew more to and were weaved together more and more.
The threefold crossroads were the ideal place to worship a Goddess that was viewed as threefold and was already connected to liminal places before her threefold image evolved. And I think after her power in three realms, the threefold image and the connection to the threefold crossroads were fused with each other- her connection to the number three in general was born, and her later connections to other symbols that are connected to this number (like the three moon phases from roman times onwards, the use of three colours in late antiquity or that she fused in her triple form with other Goddesses like Artemis, Selene and Persephone- as different aspects of the triple Hekate).
And from my personal experience the number three is strongly connected to her and is a kind of sacred number for Hekate. Often I use three ingredients in herbal powders as offerings to her, I give her three times offerings (like honey, milk and oil), worship her on the threefold crossroads, use three different herbs/resins to create incense for her, connect myself to the three realms (earth, sea, sky) use the three sacred colours from late antiquity in my rites and spells, I use the method of threefold incantations or to chant her name or epithets over three times (or of variations of three repeatings). In many cultures the number three is a magical number- and for me this fits well to Hekate, too. Because she herself is strongly connected to magic.