Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hecate in the Roman Tradition – Trivia of the Crossroads

Artist unknown. Image source:
Hecate (or Trivia, to use her Latin name – as this is now also an English word with a very different association I will retain her Hellenic title) is an enigmatic Goddess of the triple crossroads, the stygian night and magic; though she walks through the dark she is not a Goddess of darkness itself, for it is her torches which lit up the way for Ceres when she searched for her abducted daughter. Hecate is associated with both Diana,* who lights up the night, and Proserpina, who gives us hope that life can emerge from death. Hecate's rites were not recorded on the official Roman calendar (Beard at 384), but her veneration was well known in Rome. Cicero tells us that altars and shrines to her were commonplace in Greece, though not apparently in Rome at this time, however, she is referred to by a number of contemporaneous Roman poets, such as Horace and Catullus, which suggests that Hecate had already been successfully synchronised into Roman polytheism by the 1st century BCE. By the 4th century CE her worship was apparently prominent enough for Roman senators to be counted among her priests. This was during the last gasp of overt Paganism in Italy, when Christianity had become the religion of emperors; Paganism was increasingly mocked as a set of superstitions befitting peasants and barbarian Germans. Perhaps in an effort to assert greater spiritual legitimacy, some affluent and well educated Pagans were embracing an increasingly more sophisticated species of polytheism, by fusing it with mystery religions and philosophies from the east (a process which had been ongoing for centuries in any case). Roman veneration of Hecate appears to have gone hand-in-hand with this, for she almost certainly featured prominently within the well known Eleusinian Mysteries – a Pagan sect that was apparently so spiritually fulfilling that initiation into its secret rites brought about the apostasy of Constantine I’s nephew Julian, who would later be known as the last Pagan emperor of Rome.

Hecate of the three way crossroads
An important aspect of Hecate is her association with crossroads, in particular those which go three ways. The very fact that her Roman name is Trivia, which in Latin means “three ways”, indicates that this is the aspect of the Goddess most prominent in Roman worship. Ovid refers to:
“Hecate's faces turned in three directions so she can protect the triple crossroads." 
Virgil describes her as:
“Hecate, three in one … whose name is howled by night at the city crossroads!”
Thus Hecate’s presence is especially strong wherever there are triple crossroads. For millennia crossroads have been associated with the dead. During the Christian era they marked the location of burial for those who had effectively, through sin or suicide, turned their backs on Christ. In the 11th century Wulfstan describes a Pagan tradition which goes towards explaining the background for this practice:
“The Pagans ... caused [Mercury] to be a famous God for themselves according to their reckoning and offered him gifts at crossroads frequently … This idol was also worshipped among all the Pagans in those days, and he is named Odin in his other name in the Danish custom [cited in Boenig and Emmerson at 136].”
Here the Roman Mercury is conflated with the Germanic Odin; both are psychopomp Gods with strong associations with travel, death and the Pagan afterlife, which likely explains the crossroad offerings. 

In his Corrector, Burchard of Worms describes crossroad rites that were apparently common in southern Germany in the early 11th century (Burchard's purpose was to set a standard form of penance for common sins):
“Have you tied knots, made incantations or other various enchantments that wicked men, swineherds, oxherds, and sometimes hunters do while they sing devilish chants over bread, herbs, and certain foul bandages, and ... throw them where crossroads meet in order to free their animals or dogs from pestilence or loss or to cause the loss of someone else's? ... Have you gone to any place to pray other than a church ... to springs, rocks, trees, or crossroads; and have you burned candles or small torches there to venerate that place, have you brought bread or some other offering there, have you eaten there, or sought anything  there for the health of the body or the soul [cited in Shinners at 442-443]?
It seems that three way crossroads may be considered to be a sort of magical entry point from our world to other worlds, including that of the (non-Christian) dead, and Gods associated with the dead. As Boyle and Woodard put it, Hecate, as Goddess of the crossroads, is “an infernal deity who guarded the gates of Hades” (at 169).

Hecate’s worship and her association with dogs
As a guardian Goddess Hecate is naturally associated with dogs, who have been guarding our doorways since prehistory; dogs also befit the Goddess because of their original nocturnal nature and their apparent tendency to howl at the moon. The association of dogs with Hades is already familiar through myths describing Cerberus, who is said to be three headed, like Hecate. The innards of dogs were apparently an offering that was pleasing to the Goddess (Ovid). These days it may be that baked items made to look like dogs are suitable offerings to Hecate, especially if they are left during the night during rites performed at three way crossroads. The 1st century BCE poet Tibullus describes an offering he made to Hecate (so that his sweetheart would stop having nightmares):
“with loose robes and linen stole, [I] did sing nine prayers to Hecate 'neath the midnight heaven.”
Hecate as a Goddess of magic
It is difficult for us to really know what Hecate’s worship looked like in ancient Rome. We know that Hecate has an association with magic. Depending on the individual, Roman attitudes to magic could be ambivalent, fascinated, admiring, skeptical, dismissive, anxious, hostile, fearful, and everything in between. While there was no one universal viewpoint, Romans generally veered towards viewing magic as a means for acquiring mysterious, though potentially dangerous, power and knowledge. What marked out a witch from a priest, shaman or healer was the individual's desire to exert harmful control over others through magical means, such as by engaging in rites which violate the remains of the dead or seeking to maliciously control their spirits.
“The face of the witch is lean and loathsome with age, her appearance has a hellish pallor that has never seen the light of day … She does not pray to the Gods of the heavens, nor does she invoke divine help with a suppliant’s chant [as a decent person would do], nor does she have knowledge of the entrails that propitiate the Gods [ie, she is not a respectable Roman priest] … She snatches the smoking ashes and burning bones of the young from the middle of the pyre … She collects … grave-clothes as they melt into ashes, and the cinders that smell of the corpse … when the dead are entombed … she eagerly savages their limbs … [Lucan, cited by Warrior at 144-145].” 
As an infernal Goddess guarding entry points between the living and the dead, Hecate’s appeal to witches is obvious, but clearly her appeal stretched far beyond the ambitious or malevolent desires of a few would-be witches. A fundamental difference between the Roman world and our own is that theirs was so much more soaked in death than ours. Many ancient Romans were repeatedly subjected to cycles of grief over the loss of family members and loved ones to maladies that are today usually treatable; famine and wars regularly took their toll too. Romans did not, like us, expect to live to an average age of more than 70 years. When the world of the dead feels close a Goddess like Hecate is naturally attractive. As the Goddess who guards entry points between worlds, possibly she may help us to connect with our lost loved ones, as she helped to find the lost Proserpina. Or she may guide us through our disconsolate grief, as she guided Ceres through her grief for her lost daughter. Or she might help us to find a way to work with the dead in mysterious rites. And of course who better to protect us from harmful magic than the Goddess of witchcraft herself.

Hecate is the Goddess of the triple crossroads, which in a modern city is just about everywhere, and they must have been common in Roman cities as well. Mercury is associated with roads and travel generally, including travel to the afterlife, but at the spot where three roads meet it seems a particular magic reigns and it is Hecate who reigns over it. The crossroads do not merely denote the path to alternate worldly locations, but also to alternate states of existence and otherworldly locations. In traditional Paganism the entire journey of life and death is just that – a journey, with us the travellers. Death is not a dead end from which there is nowhere left to go. Mercury might guide us to the afterlife, but Hecate may allow us to hover between multiple worlds, including that of the living and the dead, and the dead are not in a state of non-existence, they are in a state of the next existence, though it is unknown to us and difficult to comprehend – like magic, Hecate’s domain.

* Cicero records that Hecate is Diana’s cousin, being the daughter of Asteria, who was sister to Latona. Hecate was occasionally completely conflated with Diana: Boyle and Woodard at 175, and Shelton at 367.

"A Knight at the Crossroads" by Vasnetsov (1878)
Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1, Cambridge
Boenig and Emmerson, Anglo-Saxon Spirituality: Selected Writings, Paulist Press 
Catullus, The
Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, Oxford (translation and notes by Walsh)
Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Penguin
Horace, The Works of
Ovid, Fasti, Penguin Classics (translation and notes by Boyle and Woodard)
Shelton, As the Romans Did, Oxford
Shinners (ed), Medieval Popular Religion, University of Toronto Press
Tibullus, The Elegies,
Virgil, The Aeneid, Oxford (translation and notes by Lewis and Griffin)
Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook, Focus Classical Sources

Written by M. Sentia Figula; find me at neo and on Facebook

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