Review: Hekate in Ancient Greek Religion

Review of Hekate in Ancient Greek Religion by Robert Von Rudloff

This is my first book review, so forgive me upfront if it is a bit disorganized.

Upon completion of this book, I have to say that my over all opinion of the book is that it is a rather good book, particularly for introducing Hekate to those who may be unfamiliar with the goddess or have less than a thorough understanding of her historic roles. It particularly aims at drawing the focus more away from the sorcery-chthonic visions of the goddess, and pay particular attention to the earlier records of Hekate which are of a more diverse focus, all of which I think is highly appropriate. That is not to say that the author doesn’t deal with the former subject at all; rather, he reserves a section in the last quarter of the book, which deals with her attributes, in order to discuss how this association may have become more popular during the later periods. It is all of this together which would make me recommend the book to a person unfamiliar with her. Furthermore, the layout of the book is quite user-friendly as it divides the book into a basic introduction of the goddess from Archaic sources, a second part discussing Sites, a third addressing her relationships with other gods, and a fourth discussing her attributes. The only thing I didn’t really care for about the layout is that I hate end notes. It is incovenient to have to flip to the end of the book to see his citations. I much prefer footnotes that, even if they take up half a page, makes the information a lot more accessible!

The introduction of the Archaic presence and evidence of Hekate I felt was a great place to start. My only quibble with the intro is that the author at one hand complains of the scholarly leaning on text rather than archaeological evidence for formulating their opinions of Hekate’s role in the ancient religion, and yet promptly in the following sentence begins to talk of the overwhelming evidence supplied by Hesiod’s Theogony that many scholars dismiss by it being outweighed with contrary texts. He likewise bases much of his speculations on textual evidence with only a smattering of archaeological evidence. So this seemed a bit hypocritical. And as a reader I found it rather contradictory to claim that textual evidence is biased…BUT then going back and essentially stating that this doesn’t apply two a couple of selected works which deviate from the textual norm. This is not say that I am disagreeing with the assertations that Hekate’s popular character is not the sum whole of Hekate, but rather I was put off by the contradictions with which he began his book. That aside, I felt the introduction was appropriately used to give the reader a feeling for the direction in which the book would be following.

As for proceeding parts of the book, on the positive side I found the author to be rather fair in dealing with the evidence at most times. He emphasizes evidence which agree to his points but also admits those every now and then which do not altogether support his ideas and could potentially support contrary ideas, while also keeps his language rather flexible in refering to possible reinterpretations of evidence rather setting up absolutes when discussing historical gray-areas. Particularly that very gray area which surrounds the relationship of Hekate and Artemis and their fairly common function, worship and myth, and likewise with instances refering plausibly to Hera on Samos. The result in such cases is that the reader has a good idea of where the author is coming from and how he is interpretting the evidence, but isn’t feeling bulldozed over either, thus allowing the reader to make their own conclusions about the material presented.  I am, of course, in favor of this style of writing because I do think that books dealing with the gods ought to present various points of approach and encourage people to actively think about the gods, what the gods mean to them, and how the gods interact in their lives and the world around them rather than accepting book gospel while maintaing a sense of historical tradition. In fact, by showing as he does the problems with unraveling such historical complex deities like Hekate, but also as he says in understanding the other gods as well, he is demonstrating to us that there very well is not hard fast answer here. The gods ultimately are ambiguous and no mortal will be able to unravel their history and know all their secrets, even in academia. So kudos to Mr. Rudloff on that point.

Another positive feature of his text is the regular refering to her relationship with other deities. None of the gods of Hellas exist in a void seperate from all other gods. Yet it is almost too common to see people discuss their gods almost with an independent fervor that didn’t particularly exist in the religion historically. I feel that a key to understanding gods is found in understanding what their relationship is so other gods and particularly what gods do they share the most history with. I frequently wish he went more indepth with this rather than just skimming the surface of the subject, but that he included it, and devoted a quarter of his book to the subject in general, I found noteworthy.

Now for some things that I didn’t care for. This is going to be a bit long, but it is not because I have a lot of quibbles, but rather just a couple of big ones that got under my skin but would probably be less bothersome to another reader.  I really thought in many cases that Mr. Rudloff more or less glossed over areas that I would have liked him to talk more about. For instance, when talking on the Theogony he mentioned that certian associations with Hekate, such as the torches, were never mentioned, and even had the section pertaining to Hekate quoted so that the reader can see that yes certainly her common symbols are not mentioned at all. Yet he doesn’t really speak of specifics going on in the hymn that one would expect in a chapter about Hekate’s part in the Theogony. He makes some thoughtful sweeping statements of collective parts of the quote, but doesn’t get down to any indepth analysis. I would have expected in this chapter to see a more deliberate, and painstakingly detailed, evaluation of the different things in her power. This chapter should be more about what is there, rather than what is not there (that is to say less focused on the absense of the supernatural goddess of the dead and sorcery factor). That said, I found the author’s presentation of interpretations of the geneaology of Hekate to be of some interest.

I did find, however, that in making his analysis of possible archaic worship of Hekate, he does sometimes jump to conclusions on the barest of evidence, and then compounds the problem by treating it, even with passive language inserted, as a comparable fact throughout the rest of the book. This problem is particularly evident when it comes to the case of the temple of Artemis and Poseidon at the entrance to Eleusis which he asserts may have been an archaic temple of Hekate and Poseidon, though he expresses some uncertainity of the association between the goddess and god aside from an association with fish, meanwhile ignoring that there is nothing problematic with Artemis there as alternate versions of her parentage address Demeter and Poseidon as her parents. And all throughout the book he refers to this supposed place of Hekate at the entrance of Eleusis, nevermind that Artemis has a long association with Demeter in other places such as in Syracuse where there a myth says that Artemis chased after the chariot carrying off Persephone (differing from the myth in which Hekate hears the cries of Persephone only as she is carried away), or the relationship of Artemis Hegemone with Demeter at the temple of Despoina, also gives the reader the impression that the author has a rather biased disregard of the traditions regarding Artemis in his attempts to fit Hekate in. But I am uncertain of whether the author chose to ignore these points or was just unaware of them. He did, after all, later make many remarks throughout the book that touched on some vague commonalities between the goddesses, but it just left an impression that as informed as he was on Hekate, he was perhaps not sufficiently informed on Artemis enough to make a truly good comparison, which is reinforced on how light and vague he treated the subject.  A good deal more could have been said about it that is for certain, and probably should have been said about it since the goddesses were so closely idenitified and conflated since the 5th century BCE, as the author himself said. The same criticism should be offered in regard to his naming Hekate as probably the mother goddess of Samothrace, identifying her with Elektra, yet his endnotes at the end of the book show a citation from Strabo who identifies Elektra as the mother of Harmonia (as well as Iason and Dardanus) who married Cadmus. This myth is directly related to Aphrodite, and as Aphrodite was often in a higher position in Asia she can be seen to be related to this role much more so than Hekate, without reducing Hekate’s importance in the mysteries. Later in the book he did make a pretty good case though for Hekate’s often appearing nature as a goddess attendant of other more prominant goddesses, a short list of which included Artemis, and though he doesn’t mention it, Hekate has also appeared in such a role for Aphrodite too.

But this above issue seems to be a problem in the second chapter (dealing with Sites) in general. The only section within the chapter that I half way enjoyed were the brief section about Argos and Ionia, because there was something more compelling about Hekate’s presence there and the temples to her. And he goes into some thought about why it was there as pertaining to the myth of its erection in the case of Argos. Most of the information he talks about though he admits is fairly inconclusive, but altogether it still makes an interesting read if nothing else but to examine the possibilities when discussing archaeological remains and literary suggestions. And as if to redeem himself a bit from downplaying Artemis, his discussion of Ephesos, Delos and Ionia in general makes some interesting connection between Artemis and Hekate…but also with Apollon too. In fact, and this may be biased on my part, I can’t help but be a little pleased with the good press Apollon gets in the book as the author spends more time, though likewise not committing any significant number of pages to it other than a couple of paragraphs that pepper the text, discussing the historical links between him and Hekate, starting in his chapter on Sites and stretching into chapter 3 where he talks of the relationship of Hekate to other deities. I found myself actually learning some new things which is always a plus.

The result is that the glossing over makes the book, while being a nice introductory primer, lacking much deeper substance and thought. I didn’t find any of the parts of the book to be particularly useful, much less any of the individual sections within them, but as a whole take together it is an effective text and likely one of the better ones out there dealing with the historical role of the goddess since there is a lack of thorough historical information regarding her. So, despite the little things that irked me, I did find it an enjoyable read and good material to mull over as I finished reading each part, which, I appreciated, was concluded by a small summary to induce thinking of material that was covered. I would say that overall it is a worthwhile addition to one’s personal library, and on that note I am shelving it in my own.