Grief is a sacred journey

Have They Forgotten They Are Mortal? Lessons from Hecate

Grieving Crone, India, 1994 (Vic Mansfield)

The Greek Goddess Hecate has a witchy reputation—wild broomstick rides in the night, warts on her nose, and poison brews, but it wasn’t always like that. In ancient Greece, she was a revered, beautiful Goddess associated with the changing moon. She was the Light within the Dark, ruling transitional or liminal spaces, crossroads, twilight, thresholds, dreams, and the passage between life and death.

Modern patriarchs despise and fear the mortality that Hecate symbolizes. As they grab for power, she reminds them that Life chews us up and spits us out in the end. Instead of facing our universal frailty, the power hungry despise perceived weakness in others. If they see weakness in themselves, they deny or look away.

The Hecate Chiaramonti (wikipedia)

Hecate speaks especially to older women or crones who have lived long enough and humbly enough to know they are not in charge. She teaches the soul lessons that come when we witness suffering or death in someone or something we love.

On the threshold between worlds, the archetype of Hecate also protects new life and infants, midwives, birth, and beginnings. She guards the new while she ushers out the old. Her knife cuts the umbilical cord and severs the thread of life.

Zeus, the Greek Patriarchal God, acknowledges her power over life and death. And with mortality in Hecate’s hands, who truly rules the throne? The raging patriarch with his thunderbolts, wars, jealousies, and weapons? Or the twilight goddess who rules what he can never control?

Hecate with two torches, 440 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art

She holds sway at the threshold from one place to another, inner and outer, like the crossroads where we stand as a culture. Which way will we choose to go?

Do politicians who scheme to take other people’s health insurance, public education, immigration rights, clean water, fresh air, and freedom ever consider their own mortality? Have they been touched by cancer, plane crashes, and sudden death? Have they considered Alzheimer’s Disease and homelessness? What are they thinking when they send other people’s sons to war but not their own? Do they know old people who survive each day because of Medicaid and community assistance?

Have they considered what it means to lose everything, including health and home and life? Or have they buried their compassionate hearts and learned to despise what matters most?

Considering mortality would quickly slow the barrage of snotty one liners, inflammatory texts, and insidious lies. At death, how many say, “I wish I hadn’t been so generous to the helpless and needy. I wish I hadn’t helped those who suffered. I wasted so much time being kind?”

As an archetypal structure in the human psyche, Hecate is still here with her double torches to guide us through the dark. I’ve never forgotten Carlos Castenadas suggestion from the late sixties: “When you need an answer, look over your left shoulder and ask your death.” It’s a practice that keeps my head and heart straight.

Hecate, The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, William Blake, 1795

Yes, I know. We don’t want to consider our death. It’s scary. It’s easier to avert our eyes and pretend we’ll escape.

Hekate and the Three Graces, 1st-2nd Century AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art

But let me tell you, Boys. Our time on this Earth is short. The cycles of life and death spin on, but not with you and not with me. Our time is finite and brief.

Hecate will drop you in the end.

***

How has facing death and suffering in yourself or others changed your life? Has witnessing birth or young life helped you see the sacredness of life and death? Do you find yourself standing at an important crossroads?

For other articles about mythology and ancient goddesses who help us face and learn from the dark, see Listening to the Dark: The Descent of Inanna and Descending into Darkness with Persephone.

37 Comments
  1. Excellent post and I was particularly caught when you say that Hecate stays at the threshold from one place to another. A goddess of crossroads, indeed. But I have never seen her as a sort of Borderline character, placed between life and death, somehow. Carlos Castaneda´quote speaks out loud in this sense, and gave me chills: so deep and trascendent. Thank you so much for sharing dear Elaine. Love & best wishes to you.

    • Thank you, Aquileana. That means a lot coming from someone who knows mythology so well and teaches it as beautifully as you do. Like Hermes, Hecate can travel between the worlds and knows both sides.

      I agree the teaching from Castenada is powerful. It never lets me down. I think of an owl sitting on the shoulder.

  2. I am forty and was diagnosed with breast cancer a couple of months ago. The prognosis is seemingly good in that it hasn’t spread, but I still have to go through chemo. In an ideal world, I would have a complete pathologic response where the tumor melts away and not need surgery and radiation after chemo, but chances are I will have to do both of those. So at least a year or more of my life is going to be taken up by this. It’s made me realize how foolhardy I’ve been in not getting my own writing done because now I really do feel like I’m running out of time and I don’t want to squander it.

    • Oh, Jeri. What a hard diagnosis. I’m sorry you have to go through this. I can only imagine how this must your life upside down and shake out all your pockets.

      I hope you have the best possible outcome every step of the way. I hope you have a strong network of support. There’s lots of waiting in the world of cancer therapy. Waiting rooms. Waiting for a phone call. Waiting for a test to happen or the results to come in. Waiting to feel better. Waiting to get it over with. Waiting to go to bed. In all that patient and impatient waiting, there’s time for journaling. Writing. Noticing things. Hearing the details of conversations. Letting your imagination rip. Reflecting and wrestling with yourself. My husband was the sick one, so that’s very different, but also intense as he needed lots of care. I knew it would be a life defining and changing experience for me. I also knew I would be overwhelmed and forget details of what we’d been through. Writing kept me afloat. Please let me know how you’re doing.

  3. This is a wonderful reminder.for us

  4. I love the line, Hecate will drop you in the end.

    Astonishing how the myth maps onto current events.

    • I agree it’s astonishing, Jill. Many ancient myths help us understand the present situation. One is Oedipus which Freud called the myth of Western collective culture. We’re living it.

  5. Excellent, Elaine. Tomorrow I’m going to post something similar, but from the artist’s point of view. I love it when you talk mythology.

  6. Your astonishing exposition on Hecate reminded me of the three Fates in Greek mythology: Clotho, the one who spins the thread of life; Lachesis, who draws the lots and determines how long one lives, by measuring the thread of life; and Atropos, who chooses how someone dies by cutting the thread of life with her shears.

    Witnessing the recent death of my mother and the slow decline of my aunt reminds me of the sacredness of life and death. Both have been models of compassion and practiced the Golden Rule toward all, even some they’ve never met as they practiced charity and compassion.

    You have that quality too, Elaine, in your touching response to Jeri above. I am reminded of the wisdom in Psalm 90:12: So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

    • I agree, Marian. The earliest depictions and writings about Hecate are about a single goddess, but you may know that later versions of her were of a triple goddess, probably with much the same meaning as the three Fates.

      You have the most positive examples in your mother and aunt. They’ve been a light to me through your writing. Watching slow decline is difficult for the dying one and the caregivers. It’s hard to watch Vic’s mom struggle, especially the mental struggles with fear. Yesterday, she said repeatedly, “I just want to go home.”

      I love it when you bring in the wisdom of the Bible, Marian. I just opened my bible (actually Vic’s Dartmouth Bible which is a King James Version, but has an index so I can find things easily) to Psalm 90 and read. It’s a fierce Psalm–as life is fierce. And then those last lines: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us…”

  7. Powerful post Elaine. It’s a damn fine mess. It does make one wonder if these politicians even have hearts. Sure they must endure illness themselves, or loved ones, but what do they care when they have klout, connections and money to afford the care. Plus, Trump’s proposal is worse than Obamacare and he’s just happy to put his name on it to say he changed it, . . .for the worse. How much more dirt do they need on Trump to impeach? I think they got rid of Nixon on less! P.S. I don’t think that proposal will pass.

    • I don’t get it, Debby. Where are their hearts? Of course, they are humans and must have had their personal losses, but have they let those losses touch them and transform them? I saw plenty of heart in Joe Biden who expressed his grief openly. Others have done the same. It makes them more powerful in my eyes rather than this phony macho prancing around. I just found out that my representative plans to vote for Trumpcare. This is in keeping with his previous policies, but he’s still popular in rural western NY. That can change. More phone calls today. And more prayers.

      • I know I wrote my reply before the bill was offered up, and gratefully, even the republicans knew it was a stupid bill. DT is hellbent on putting his damned egotistical name on anything and everything and doesn’t give a shyte about the people. I’m sorry, but I watch the reports daily and nightly. When I listen to his arrogance and stupidity it turns my stomach. Ok, sorry, I didn’t mean to go postal here, LOL. 🙂

        • He could make a sane person crazy. He could make a peaceful person enraged. It only gets worse, I’m afraid. If you can’t win on the domestic front, you can always send the troops to war. Sigh…

  8. Dear Elaine, Thank you so much for sharing more of your divine Crone wisdom. Hecate is one of my favourite goddesses, I love her dark feminine nature and deep magick. I feel she has been speaking to me for years now, so much so that I devoted a poem (“Becoming Hekate”) to her a while back. Your post brings her to life, I hear her cackle, sitting there, stirring her cauldron. Oh, the transformations we go through to reach her crossroads!

    I know I’m not in charge and despite my ego howling, and thundering about that, my heart and soul know they are free from such a prison … if only I could remember this spiritual law and order of things more often! I feel have lived with the knowledge of one foot in each world for many years and that it has become almost habitual. I love how you express keeping your head and heart straight. Ah! I see her owl now on your shoulder my friend.

    Like many I have witnessed more than a few births and deaths yet never have I forgotten the sacredness of each of these profound experiences. Better this than never to have been born at all, never to have awakened during one’s life … for the ego attempts to dominate from such an early age, cruelly subjecting humanity (and beyond!) to more than seven sins. So much to think about now Hecate’s pot’s been stirred! Blessings always, Deborah.

    • Thanks for your comment, Deborah. You always make me dig deeper. Thanks also for naming your poem. I found it and look forward to reading it. (The magic of googling the name and finding the poem!)

      I’ve had a foot in each camp for a long time. As soon as I began studying Jung and Greek philosophy in my 20s, I felt an affinity with Persephone. As I’ve gotten older, I feel that with Hecate, too. Both feminine energies that traverse the realms of life and death. It’s hard to cut through our cultural resistance to what the Hecate archetype teaches.

      Our politicians are performing a Shakespearean political tragedy–and I wish it weren’t so. Historians, playwrights, novelists, and artists of all kinds will be working with these characters for a long time. Meanwhile, I hope we can survive this eruption of the unconscious and make our way to the other side without complete destruction. Prayers for a PEACEFUL political awakening in this country and in the world.

  9. Dear Elaine,
    Thank you so much for this beautiful post on Hecate! While attending Pacifica Graduate Institute, I researched her mythology and found that her earlier Egyptian origins yield the word, “hex”! Thus is Hecate not only the Goddess of the “tre via”, but also the progenitor of magical word power, i.e., Fairy God Mother. Pushed to poetry by this profundity, I wrote the following:

    Hecate

    Wherefore in the Center
    When Primary
    Becomes its Opposite –
    Here lives Hecate
    She of the power of Words

    Goddess of Crossroads
    Deity of Intersections
    Wise Woman Archetype
    Three-Kingdom’d Queen
    Fairy Mother God

    Here crucifixion lives –
    Illusion of limited Souls –
    Body electric becomes
    Alchemical Alembic –
    Water and Fire
    Become God

    Resurrection follows death
    Ascension signifies Hecate
    Great Goddess within
    Denied, defamed and Herself –
    Crucified.

    ©Kleomichele Leeds

    • Thank you for taking time to read and comment, Kleomichele. I have many close friends who’ve attended Pacifica, so I know how wonderful it is. My most influential Jungian and mythology teacher, Marian Woodman, taught there and raved about her experiences there. I love those ancient connections of Hecate to Egyptian goddesses and mythology. I also love her triple form, but left that out of this post to keep it focused on the one issue of crossroads.

      Your poem is magnificent. All of it and especially the last verse. Thank you for sharing it here. I think you might like being connected to my Jungian friend Deborah Gregory in England who writes about mythology and other Jungian ideas in her poetry. She has a poem called “Becoming Hekate.” At the moment she’s doing a series called Poetry of the Tarot. She commented on this blog earlier in the thread if you’re interested. Her website is http://theliberatedsheep.com.

  10. Thank you, Elaine. I have witnessed the sacredness of life in the births I was able to be present as a mother and grandmother and being with my husband as he suffered through a long illness and his death. I am mostly unfamiliar with mythology but crave to know more when I come across, as in this post. I resonated with your writing about Hecate. I know I am not in control and have been learning some deep soul lessons since my husbands illness and death. Reading your words always cause me to want to know more. Thank you for that. As for our political tragedy, I have no words. I am troubled by the lack of compassion for people, animals, and our environment, for life in general. It all seems so surreal.

    • Thanks for your moving comment, Carol. You’ve seen a lot–and you let it transform you. If we’re paying attention, we’re initiated by birth and death whether we know any mythological stories or not. I find the archetypal stories that lasted through thousands of years help me understand life as we live it now. Most ancient mythologies have one or more wise old women who presides over the mysteries of life and death. And these Crones can be fierce–as Mother Nature is fierce. I’m also troubled by what’s happening in our culture on many levels. The violent feelings and actions permeate everywhere. I’m so worried about the young ones and the violence that pervades their world.

  11. Excellent & timely post. I agree with you, that the extreme greed for power and money operating today is a flight from even thinking about death. It is a surrender of power over oneself to ultimately unsatisfying assumption of power over others. Thanks, Elaine. I was thinking about posting a blog on trying to face death soon. I guess death is always there, over the left shoulder.

    • Thank you, Ira. Death is always present. Carlos Castenada made a big impression on me even when I was in my 20s. As a species, we seem unwilling to face what we’re doing to the Earth, to the needy, to children and the elderly–and on and on. Privilege, power, and greed have distorted the basic reverence for life in our politicians. The Emperor wears no clothes.

  12. Thank you Elaine for an important message. Death is probably the only race that we do not want to win, but we will all get to the finish line. I am watching my soon-to-be 89 year old father wind down. He is getting tired and is losing interest in daily activities that once invigorated him. It is such a shift. But I lovingly encourage him to prepare for his exit. I have experience. My late husband actually asked me, “help me die” in a voice that was muted by his injuries. It was at age 40 that I learned that we cannot hold onto someone forever.

    • Thank you, Kim. I’m glad you can share your experience and wisdom with your dad. Vic’s mother has steadfastly refused to speak about death, but she made a few arrangements many years ago. She has a DNR and a will. And she and her second husband bought cremation in advance. A few years ago she insisted I call the company and gave me a card with an 800 number. I was sure it was a hoax, but I was wrong and the cremation is paid for and guaranteed. I am now the keeper of the card. You learned that lesson of letting go as a young mother and wife. I thought I’d learned a lot about that at 14 when my father died, but my mom was the adult in charge. It was very different to be 62, have a husband in a nearly comatose state, and say no to life support that would have kept him going a little longer but at a horrible price he didn’t want to pay. We know that Death must win in the end.

  13. That’s wonderful! Thank you, Elaine!

  14. Thank you for this post Elaine – myths of gods and goddesses are universal and enduring truths which speak to our contemporary lives. They contain eternal dynamics. While what is happening in your country is dreadfully alarming, I know that awful stuff is happening in ours too. There is a denial by the ‘leaders’ or ‘rulers’ that they are in fact the servants of the people – they are there to serve the population. Denial is the most insidious of all – and in some dreadful way we project it out onto others and the world ..

    Yes, I’ve witnessed death, which makes me realise the temporariness of life. They’re so closely intertwined …

    So, hail to Hecate –

    • You’ve explained the power of myth in just a few words, Susan. Thank you. Here, we’re all looking at each other and rolling our eyes, wondering what happened and how it could happen here, but I know it’s a world pattern. We are not the only ones–and we are not the chosen people even though we might think so. Fair and kind governments are rare and brief. I think many of us felt this country had turned a corner in electing Obama. Our present President doesn’t even pretend. I agree with you about denial. On a personal or a world level, it’s hard to talk to someone who insists there is no problem or it’s all someone else’s fault. I think of the Buddhist practice of “accepting blame” which Vic and I both tried (“try” being the operative word) to practice when we had a disagreement–stepping back, not defending, assuming I am at least partly in the wrong. For a time, South Africa showed the world how that sort of conflict resolution could be done.

      I know you’ve witnessed death–recently. I’m glad you were there for your friend for that long hard illness. We all bow to Hecate in the end.

  15. This was for me perhaps your most pertinent piece, finding some peace in suffering and judging every one of my own actions only in the context of my death. This cannot be disregarded, and only a fool would laugh it off. It is the framework in which and through which I view myself as the mother of my next incarnation, a reference that settles me and brings a sense of contentment regardless of any current despairing circumstances.

    • Thank you, Dennis. I thought you’d like this one. This piece about Hecate came pouring out at a moment of frustration and bewilderment about our politicians, decisions being made, and the way they were being made. The practice of consulting my death is 50 years old–thank you, Carlos Castenada for ringing that bell. It’s been in the foreground for 15 years as I’ve taken on duties to care for mother, husband, and mother-in-law in their dying years. It sounds like you’ve developed a practice that works for you. It’s so important to find a way to renew our commitment to wider and deeper views.

  16. Such a thoughtful post, Elaine. I do agree that our leadership seems to be entirely lacking in compassion, and, in my opinion, that is nothing new among our politicians. I often think that their views might change if they experienced life with the same insurance the rest of us have.

    I love how you tied Hecate into our modern picture. It seems that what was is all coming around again. Or, perhaps, it was never all that far away.

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Thank you, Caroline. Politicians aren’t noted for compassion, but I have to put in a cheer for Joe Biden who dares to express grief in public. I think the world of Hecate is always close by and we all meet with it in the end, but humans try to avert their eyes. Sometimes this energy won’t be denied.

  17. It’s brilliant, Elaine. The way you weave together politics of the here-and-now with mythology. You’ve inspired me to learn more about Hecate and mythology in general. Cheers!

    • Thank you, Robin. I was grateful when this idea showed up when I wasn’t planning it. It felt like it poured out on its own. Politics can make a woman think wild Hecate thoughts.

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