Hekate was connected with a lot of symbols through antiquity. And some of them found their way into modern worship of the Goddess- often with a quite new meaning or interpretation. If you ask modern devotees about her symbols- they will quote the torch, dagger, robe, key and snake as her symbols. And many modern statues show her with these (and ancient ones, too). But were these the most common in antiquity? And was the ancient view of these symbols the same as our modern interpretation?
In this article I will write about the most common symbols of Hekate in antiquity. These symbols come from their statues and depictions to us. The best overview over her symbols in art is the book by Nina Werth: Hekate Untersuchungen zur dreigestaltigen Göttin. The author made an analysis of more than 500 depictions of the Goddess and brought together the most important symbols of antiquity. Her book is my main source for this article.
Most symbols come from the Hekateia- threefold depictions of Hekate around a central pillar. Other symbols come from her depiction in single form or from magical amulets, magical tools, gems etc….
The older symbols:
In the classical and hellenic time period Hekate was depicted with these symbols.
The torch is the main symbol of Hekate. In art she is often depicted with torches. Depictions without torches are very rare. You can see the long torches in the picture above.
In antiquity fire was seen as something divine, as a gift from the Gods. The torch is strongly connected to the symbolism to bring light into the darkness. And one of Hekates main epithets was Phosphoros (light-bringer). Hekate illuminated the darkness with her torches. The torch is a symbol of the divine light and illumination. It is possible that the torches were a solar symbol in the beginning and Hekate is often connected to Helios, too. In an fragment of Sophocles Helios is even called as Hekates spear. Torches were used in the mystery cults- and Hekate herself had connections to the different mystery cults over time.
Personal interpretation: I see Hekate strongly as an promethean Goddess, she brings the divine fire to the humans. The divine flame that is a present of the Gods.
Oinochoe and Phiale:
Oinochoe and phiale (offering pitcher and libation bowl) are after the torch the most common symbols connected to Hekate. In the picture above she holds them in her hands. They were used in the rites of antiquity to give libations (liquid offerings) to the Gods. They are strongly connected to the household cult and the hearth. With these tools the libations were poured into the hearth fire as offering.
Hekate was strongly connected to the household cults.
The oinochoe and phiale were also symbols of divine blessings and of praying. While the humans prayed to the Gods they poured libations into the hearth fire (or outside on the ground).
I see these symbols connected to Hekates role as intermediary. In Hesiods Theogony it is said that Hekate is honoured in all sacrifices- for me this is similar to Hestia. I see Hekate as a mediator between the world of the Gods and humans- and as a mediator of the world of humans and spirits. And these roles were very highlighted in the magical practices and theurgy of late antiquity, too.
The fruit was a very common symbol of Hekate in the Hekateia. It is not quite clear if this fruit was an apple or pomegranate. It connects Hekate to fertility and as a bringer of blessings.
I see the fruit as a symbol of fertility, blessings and the nourishing aspects of Hekate. And connects her to wealth.
First the dogs were quite small when they appeared on the Hekateia. And looked quite tame and docile. Later on the dogs on her statues got bigger but still were depicted as docile companions of the Goddess.
The dog is very ambivalent, like Hekate, too. On the one side it was strongly connected to the home, as a guard, a friendly companion and friend of the family. A symbol of easy birth and fertility. But on the other side it was connected to the world of spirits (and it was believed that dogs could see the spirits). And the dog was connected to the underworld. All these things are true for Hekate, too.
She herself was connected to all these topics.
In literature the dogs were later on often described as fearful. And Hekate herself was described like this in some sources, too. The dog and Hekate are both guards- and I think in the symbolism of the dog you can see Hekates ambivalence very clear. Dogs are guarding the household and the family, they have to be fearful to strangers and towards harmful influences- to protect the home and family. But they have to be loyal companions and friends to the family and to good influences. I think in this guarding role of Hekate, many of her fearful aspects have their roots. As guard of the thresholds and of the homes she has to be fearful at times- towards negative influences that can bring harm. I think her fearful side that got so popular in literature comes from her apotropaic roles.
The early Hekateia are depicted around a central pillar or around a three-formed central pillar. And later on many of the reliefs had small pillars as symbols on the heads of Hekate, too.
The pillar was a symbol of fertility and of the sacred tree. And I can imagine in connection to Hekate as a kind of world-tree, too. Another God who is strongly connected to the pillar is Hermes- both Hekate and Hermes are bringers of fertility, nourishing the young and can travel in all three worlds (earth, Olympos and Hades).
Hekate was depicted often near a burning altar/hearth. Altar and hearth are very connected with each other. And the altars were seen as the hearths of the Gods.
This symbol is more connected to her single form depictions- but it pops op on a few Hekateia and reliefs, too.
The hearth is a symbol of the household cults. Again that links her for me to Hestia. Some depictions show Hekate while she puts the torches into the hearth/altar. So does she lights her torches on the hearth fire or does she lights the hearth fire with her torches? I think both can be true. For me personal she brings the sacred fire into the home and to the hearth. Both Hekate and Hestia had no state cults in ancient greece- maybe because both were so strongly connected to the home and the household cults.
Youth and Beauty:
The depictions of Hekate show her as a very young woman. She is dressed in the robes of a virgin. She is young and beautiful. She had no fearful elements attached to her, like it was later popular in descriptions of her from literature.
She is portrayed in an ancient dress to show that she is Goddess that came from ancient times, even if she appears as young virgin. Her benign nature, youth and ability to bless gets more into the focus through the Charites (Goddesses of grace, blessings, beauty). Hekate was often depicted with the Charites. And in literature this is true, too. Usually the Charites are more companions of Aphrodite.
All these symbols are the early symbols of Hekate. The other symbols that I will mention soon came up later (from roman times onwards). These early symbols are more connected to Hekates benign aspects. As a mighty titaness that can bring fertility, protection, wealth, success and blessings over the household or the worshipper. Like she was described in the Theogony of Hesiod. But she is also a guardian of thresholds and of the hom. The only symbol that connects her to the underworld is the dog. But it is similar that this symbol was first seen more connected to the household and fertility. The darker and more fearful portraying of Hekate got popular after the fifth century of Christ. Before this time period Hekate was portrayed more as very benign Goddess. In all found statues she was depicted as beautiful maiden. No statues of a fearful Hekate were found so far from any time period of antiquity.
The later symbols:
These symbols came into being from the roman times onwards.
They were added to the older symbols of her- but the older symbols were not “taken away from her” but her portrayal with these stayed alive until late antiquity.
The older symbols portrayed Hekate as a Goddess that brings light, fertility, blessings and are bringing a focus to her roles in the household cults.
The newer symbols are still connected to these topics- but give her a focus on her aspects as mistress of spirits, magic, necromancy and witchcraft, too. And add these newer elements to the older ones.
Like the dog the serpent was an ambivalent symbol. On the one side it is connected to the sun, healing, regeneration. To the earth and fertility. But also to the underworld, the dead and the spirits. The spirits could appear as snakes. And it was believed that the benign spirits of the household appear in snake form to bless the house. Or Zeus Ktesios (an important household God) appeared in snake form, too.
In literature Hekate is connected early to snakes. I think the first mention of snakes it the Sophokles fragment- she is described as a Goddess that holds the flames of Helios as burning spear in her hand, when she visits high Olympos or the sacred crossroads on earth, crowned with wild serpents and oak leaves. This fragment connects her strongly to the sun and earth- so I think the snakes were original a solar and chtonic symbol.
On statues the snake got first popular from roman times onwards.
Snakes were used in necromancy and magic to figure out if the spirits are around- because like dogs- the snakes were able to see/feel the presence of the spirits.
When Hekate is depicted with the snake in her hands- it is possible that this portrays her as Goddess of spirits and magic (in antiquity magic was more a controlling of spirits and the spirits fulfilled the will of the witch of magician).
The dagger is a sacrificial knife. Animals were slaughtered with the dagger. It is linked to magic and witchcraft, too. In literature witches cut herbs with bronze daggers. And in necromancy and magic daggers were used to control spirits. Or to protect against evils spirits. The dagger in her hands is again a symbol for her as mistress of spirits and magic.
I think often the whip is mistaken as robe. The whip was used in antiquity to banish negative spirits. And to control spirits in magic. So again this tool links her to witchcraft, necromancy and magic- and shows her as mistress of spirits. And the robe is not even described in the book by Nina Werth.
The key appears very rare on statues. More often it is named as symbol of her in literature. Hekate holds the key to Hades in her hands. She was able to open the doors to Hades. This was quite important in necromancy. But the key is at the same time a common symbol for the household. In the Orphic hymn it is said that Hekate holds the key to the whole cosmos. So there are different symbolisms that can be attached to the key. While the other newer symbols all connect her to her role as mistress of spirits- I think the same it true for the key. She can open the doors to the underworld so that the witch, necromancer or magician can interact with these. Or in theurgy she can open the doors to the empyrean spheres, too.
From roman times onwards Hekate is depicted with the crescent moon. Which shows her as a lunar Goddess. The same is true from literature of roman times and late antiquity. Again it links her to magic but to fertility, too (for the romans the moon was strongly connected to fertility).
In late antiquity Hekate was depicted with flowers in her hands, too. Some believe it was a lotus flower.
The flower has a similar symbolism like the fruit and shows her benign nature.
From roman times onwards the torches in her hands began to get smaller. The small torch was used in funerals. So this again portrayed her as connected to the spirits. Funeral torches were used in necromancy.
The most common symbols of Hekate in art were the torch and oinochoe they appear from the classical time period until late antiquity. The key was very rarely depicted on her statues- and came up quite late (but in literature the key is often named as symbol of her).
Conclusion: First her symbols show her sacred nature, her ability to mediate between the realms and later on the newer symbols focused more on her role as mistress of spirits, magic and necromancy. And there is a difference of her portrayal in literature and art in general. There are no statues of the animal headed Hekate (which was quite often described in literature), no statues of a fearful Goddess, no statues that show this side of her. Until late antiquity she was still portrayed as beautiful maiden in artworks. Even with the newer symbols that deipiction of her never changed. And her roles as Goddess of witchcraft and magic were brought to a focus very careful through these newer symbols. And her old symbols still were used in artworks until the late antiquity, too.
And even if these newer symbols add a touch of magic to her statues- it is still possible that these symbols were seen as apotropaic. That Hekate was able to protect against the influence of evil spirits- because she was able to control them. So this fits from my perspective well again to a guardian of the home. She can bring the blessings of the Gods into the home (shown in her older symbols) and she can protect against evil spirits or bring good spirits into the home- because she can control the spirits (shown through her newer symbols). She can protect against magic and witchcraft or be an aid in these practices. It shows her ambivalence, but that is true for other Gods, too.
The symbols I described above were the most common- that appeared on her statues. But there were several more symbols that were connected to her and which came from statues and depictions, too. Or from the description of Hekate in ancient literature.