Pot of the Week #1: How Many Attributes Make a Depiction of Hekate?

Since this is the first installment of my Pot of the Week series, I thought I’d take a more thematic approach by choosing a few pots which represent a subject that I have been thinking about a lot lately – the goddess Hekate.

Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.
Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.

Although not especially prominent in ancient Greek mythology (unless you know where to look), most casual interlopers of the subject probably know Hekate best as a goddess of witchcraft and magic, and the crossroads. In vase painting, it has been common for scholars to identify her by her presence in certain mythological episodes – like the Return of Persephone or the Sending of Triptolemos – wielding a pair of torches.

Hekate is also variously depicted – particularly in other media – in particular dress (peplos), accompanied by dogs and snakes, and/or in triple-bodied form. But as we will see, identifying Hekate with certainty can be a difficult task, especially if we consider the overlap between her attributes and other areas of ancient Greek culture.

Triple-Bodied Form

Perhaps the most popular and recognizable image of Hekate is one where she appears in triplicate. Such depictions vary over time and across space, representing her as either one woman with three heads and six arms or as three women encircling a column back-to-back.

Depictions of Hekate in triple-bodied form, however, post-date the Classical period of vase painting – the 5th and 4th centuries BCE – appearing more often in the Roman period and later. As a result, these depictions abound in other media, including in relief sculpture, sculpture in the round, on coinage, and on magical amulets made of precious materials.

Animals

Hekate rarely, if ever, appears with animals in vase painting. In other media, her animal companions – including dogs and snakes – are represented more frequently.

Clothing

South Italian volute krater depicting the Rape of Persephone. 370-350 BC. The British Museum.
South Italian volute krater depicting the Rape of Persephone. 370-350 BC. The British Museum.

Hekate is traditionally identified as a youthful woman wearing a peplos (a long tubular garment that, when folded over, gave the appearance of two pieces of clothing).

Caryatid - Wikipedia
Caryatids wearing peploi on the South porch of the Erechtheion, Athenian Acropolis.

However, in the depiction on a South Italian volute krater (above), Hekate has been identified as the woman on the right side of the vase, holding a single torch and wearing a chiton (could be short or long, worn by men or women, but made of a lighter fabric than the peplos).

Other deities, including Aphrodite and Dionysus, have also been identified as wearing the chiton in their depictions. Although neither of these deities are typically associated with torches, identification of Hekate on the basis of clothing alone is not sufficient.

Torches

Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.
Red-figure hydria depicting the sending of Triptolemos. ca. 430 BC. The British Museum.

You may have already noticed that, while the above vase is the same one that I included at the beginning of this post, the angle is different. Does it depict Hekate from a different angle, or is it someone else entirely? And if this is Hekate, then who is the person depicted on the other side of the vase?

Both women appear to be around the same age, have similar hairstyles, and wield two torches. They differ primarily in their clothing – in the first image, the woman is wearing what appears to be a peplos, while the second woman wears a long chiton which peaks out at the bottom of her himation or cloak.

According to Edwards (1986), Hekate is the first young woman, while the second one is “hierophantis, the priestess of Eleusis” (p. 316). This is based on an inscription that identifies Hekate on the vase.

So…how many attributes?

All in all, it is clearly difficult to identify Hekate based on her attributes alone when she is depicted in her single form (she is much more recognizable in her triple-bodied form).

Most often, we are not so lucky to be given labels on vases which identify the various figures depicted. We are forced to rely on attributes and context clues (such as a particular mythological scene, furniture, architecture, objects, etc).

One such example can be seen in the case of a skyphos found at Eleusis dating to 430 BCE which depicts the Rape of Persephone.

As Edwards has noted, although the “female figure wearing an ungirt peplos and a mantle around her arms” (p. 316) and holding what appears to be a scepter has traditionally be identified as Demeter, Demeter is not present at the time that Persephone is abducted. Instead, Edwards argues that this figure is Hekate, “a goddess of entrances and exits, of transition points” (p. 316). This is further corroborated by another vase painting on a pelike by the Painter of Tarquinia 707 depicting Hekate accompanying the chariot of Triptolemos, again holding two torches.

Bibliography

Edwards, C. 1986. “The Running Maiden From Eleusis and the Early Classical Image of Hekate,” AJA 90:3, 307-318.