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Hekate Potnia Theron (Torchbearer Essay for the Covenant of Hekate)

Boeotian amphora, Hekate/Artemis as Potnia Therōn, detail Thebes, 680 -670 BCE National Archaeological Museum, NM 220, AT 119

A Mistress, Queen, or Lady of the Animals deity has most likely existed since prehistoric times all over the Mediterranean and the ancient Near East. She has been depicted in various ways in different cultural contexts but in general, in all these figures, we can recognize a female deity sitting or standing in between two (or more) animals. Her role is not known but she likely was a goddess related to earth, nature, fertility, initiations, wild animals, birth and death, maybe even dangers humans needed to fear or overcome (1).

The name associated with her, Potnia Theron, Lady of the animals, was not a proper name but an epithet, a praiseful description focused on her specific aspect as the mistress of the wild beasts and the wilderness. The word Potnia means mistress or lady, and is a Mycenaean word inherited by Classical Greek and the world (2) Theron (from the Greek world thêr - beast ) means wild animals. This title is attested for the first time in Homer (3) where it is referred to Artemis and used then, always referred to the same goddess, in other Greek poets (4).

It is only from the 19th century that the term Potnia Theron was used to describe all the images of this pre-hellenic goddess represented with or related to animals (5). Almost any goddess flanked by animals has been titled Potnia Theron (6). Even today, the same name is used when discussing any Lady of the animal’s depiction in various ancient cultures, despite the fact it is of course, not the name those cultures would have used (7). Few examples are Ereshkigal, Kybele, the Minoan Lady of the Snakes, Diana, Feronia… so the question is: can we associate this title to Hekate too?

Even if in ancient sources, Potnia Theron is not an epithet directly connected to Hekate, this title is very appropriate to describe, in our modern world, many of her crucial aspects and roles.

First of all, not only Hekate has been represented in several statues as a deity sided by animals, especially dogs, but she is connected with many animals too. Several of her epithets actually refer directly to her love or dominion over the animal world. Some examples are: Eurippa ‘Horse-finder’; Hipparete ‘Horse-Speaker’; Kynegetis and Skylakegeia ‘Leader of Dogs’; Leontoukhos ‘Holding a Lion’; Opheôplokamos ‘Coiled with Snakes’; Philoskylax ‘Lover of Dogs; Thêroktomos ‘Beast-slayer’.

Second, Hekate is not just depicted as a Potnia Theron, with animals, but is, herself, a theriocephalic goddess. Theriocephalic literally means that the goddess has a human body and an animal head. Once more, her epithets help us in knowing something more about her different animal faces. In the list we can find: Boôpis ‘Cow-eyed’; Drakaina ‘Serpent’; Hippokyon ‘Mare Bitch’ or ’Horse Dog’; Hippoprosopos or Ippoprosôpos ‘Horse-Faced’; Ippokyôn ‘Mare-Dog’, half dog/ half horse; Keratôpis ‘Horned-faced’, ‘Horned Looking’; Keroeis ‘Horned’; Kynokephalos ‘Dog-Headed’; Kynolygmate ‘Howling Like a Dog’, ‘Who Howls Dog-like’; Kyôn ‘Bitch’, ‘Dog’; Kyôn Melaina ‘Black Bitch’, ‘Black Dog’; Leaina ‘The Lioness’; Lykaina or Lyko ‘She Wolf” ‘wolf formed’; Taurokarênos ‘Bull-headed”; Tauromorphos ‘Bull-formed’; Taurôpis ‘Bull-faced’; Tauropolos ‘Bull-Herder’; Taurôpos ‘Bull-aspected’. Finally, the epithet Taurodrakaina, meaning ‘Bull-Dragon’ or ‘half bull/half serpent’ especially describe Hekate with two different animal faces giving us the idea of a multi-headed goddess connected with more than one animal. If thereocephalic images are extremely ancient (8) and sometimes quite common in other pantheons like the Egyptian one, they are not frequent in Greece and what is even more unique about Hekate is the fact that she is not linked to one specific animal but it seems that the animal heads are interchangeable, maybe implying shapeshifting qualities and leading to a possible speculation about shamanic-like tradition being associated with her cult such as that of Dionysos (9).

This form, quite unusual but very powerful, may also hint to her primordial origin and to her wild side. While we cannot affirm with certainty Hekate’s origins and original role (10), we can speculate that Hekate, like Artemis, may be a pre-hellenic deity and her animal form symbolize the embodiment of some Cosmic Principle or Function, putting her once more in comparison with the other ancient mediterranean/near eastern goddesses and giving her a rightful place among the Ladies of the Animals. If any other Potnia Theron has been represented with a proper animal head, wings or other animal body parts were in fact quite common, even in Greece (11). The reason why the animal-headed images and descriptions of Hekate tend to appear later on - the PGM being one of the main sources for the epithets I mentioned - is still controversial but it is likely related to the increasing influence from Egypt and the subsequent conflation of Hekate with Isis. This made more common, in the Hellenistic world and then in the Roman one, to accept this unusual representation. What we can understand from ancient sources is that in the animal shaped form of Hekate emphasized not only her primordial side but also her most powerful and dangerous aspects. While Porphyry wrote:

“But Hekate, when invoked by the names of a bull, a dog and a lioness is more propitious” (12).

In the Orphic Argonautica we can read:

“With her came one who takes on various shapes, having three heads, a deadly monster you do not wish to know: Hekate of Tartarus. From her left shoulder leapt a horse with a long mane. On her right shoulder there could be seen a dog with a maddened face. The middle head had the shape of a lion of wild form” (13).

In this very powerful, yet frightening, form we can recognize Hekate as the goddess who hold the  same tools of the Erinyes (14) - torches and whips - and who probably shares with them the duty to defend natural balance. Being of very ancient origin, the Titan Goddess was probably associated, like the Erinyes, to the forces of chaos and to the control over them. The animal face put her in a liminal and transitional position between two realms, the human one and the primordial one, in a dimension that is naturally leading to change, transition and death (15). The fact that almost all the archeological images of the Potnia Theron are characterized only by the presence of the animals and there are no other attributes that allows us to recognize the identity of the deity, may be a hint that the role of controlling the primordial forces of nature was shared by different gods and goddesses, in a period when the iconography and the different functions of the different deities were not differentiated yet (16). This may help us understanding why Hekate shares many similar characteristics with other ancient chthonian goddesses named or described as Potnia Theron and why she has been, during her long life, merged with many of those. The links between Hekate, Artemis, Diana, Kybele and Ereshkigal have been explored - and still are - by Sorita d’Este (17) who also dedicated a chapter to Theriocephalic Hekate in the book Circle for Hekate (18).

In the same book we can also find another very interesting link between Hekate and Potnia Theron in the image of Despoina, another goddess merged with Hekate (19).

As Potnia, Despoina is not a real name but a title that means ‘lady’. Especially worshipped in Arcadia, Despoina was a central figure in the mystery cult in Lycosura, where she was depicted in her sanctuary described by Pausanias (20) with her mother Demeter, Artemis and the Titan Anytos who raised her. Even if in mythology Despoina was originally considered the daughter of Demeter and Poseidon and related to the Eleusinian mysteries - this is why according to Pausanias (21) her real name was not to be revealed to non-initiates -  Aeschylus specifically called her Despoina-Hekate and Despoina was used as a title for Hekate at Didyma (22). If that is not enough, there is another connection between these two deities: both of them shares the horse shape. According to Dietriech (23), Despoina was in origin, like Potnia Theron, a mother goddess related to nature, birth and death who was, later on, merged with the daughter of Demeter. In the Arcadian mythology, Poseidon Hippios, the god of the water in the shape of a horse, generated with Demeter a son, Arion, an immortal horse, and a mare-shaped daughter, Despoina. It is very tempting at this point to add one last possible connection with another goddess of uncertain origin related to nature and horses but from another pantheon, Epona. But this connection would open an entirely new debate and needs to be researched. To conclude, on Despoina statue’s veil in Lycosura we can still admire different figures of animal-headed women probably performing a ritual dance. This shapeshifting characteristic seems to point us again in the direction of shamanic experiences related to natural forces or maybe rites of passage (24) but there is no historical proof, just few images still able to make us travel in time.

To conclude, even if Hekate, the goddess crowned with oak-leaves and snake coils, was never explicitly described in ancient sources as the Potnia Theron, this epithet is able to summarize, in a simple, almost visual way, the power she exerts over Nature, over the wild side of it, over the different realms, over transition and transformation and her role as a mother goddess but also as an unconquerable queen defending the order of the cosmos - at the end, the very soul of it.

  1. Mircea Eliade, Histoire des croyances et des idées religieuses. 1. De l'âge de la pierre aux mystères d'Éleusis (coll. Bibliothèque Historique). 1976

  2. In Linear B the word po-ti-ni-ja, from which Potnia is from, refers in a very generic way to an illustrious woman, mortal or goddess. La Пότνια θηρῶν ou les frontières de l’Autre. Réflexion archéologique sur la signification d’une image homérique en Grèce orientalisante, Christian Mazet, Kentron, Revue Pluridisciplinaire du Monde Antique.

  3. Homer, Iliad, Book XXI (“Tὸν δὲ κασιγνήτη μάλα νείκεσε πότνια θηρῶν Ἄρτεμις ἀγροτέρη, καὶ ὀνείδειον φάτο μῦθον…”)

  4. Anacréon, 575-490 BCE. (Page 1962, 177, frag. 348, l. 2-3) ; Antimachos de Colophon, about 444 BCE (Lloyd-Jones 1959, 109-110, frag. 1385, l. 14). In Barclay 2002, 257. La Пότνια θηρῶν ou les frontières de l’Autre. Christian Mazet, Kentron.

  5. Tobias Fischer-Hansen, From Artemis to Diana : The Goddess of Man and Beast, Copenhague, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2009

  6. Lynn E. Roller, In search of god the mother : the cult of Anatolian Cybele, University of California Press, 1999

  7. Thanks to archeological discoveries (especially corinthian and attic ceramics and offerings at the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia) we have a better understanding of the Potnia Theron as a goddess of fertility and nature, patron of wild animals, often associated to Kybele, to an ancien manifestation of Artemis, to other chthonian goddesses and even to the Great Goddess. La Пότνια θηρῶν ou les frontières de l’Autre. Christian Mazet, Kentron.

  8. One of the most ancient statue ever discovered is a lion-headed figurine believed to date to as early as 30000 BCE.

  9. D’Este Sorita, Circle for Hekate, Volume I, History and Mythology, 2017. About Dionysos and Greek shamanism: Angelo Tonelli, Negli Abissi Luminosi.Sciamanesimo, trance ed estasi nella Grecia Antica, Feltrinelli, 2021.

  10. Controversy related to the book The Rotting Goddess by Jacob Rabinowitz

  11. See the attic and corinthian ceramics representing a winged Potnia Theron

  12. On abstinence, Porphyry, trans. Taylor

  13. The Orphic argonautica, Colavita, 2011 _ d’Este pag. 152

  14. Erinyes were chthonic goddesses of vengeance. They were described as wearing black, sometimes with snakes-hair or wings. They were associated with night and darkness.

  15. In his essay La mort dans les yeux. Figures de l’Autre dans la Grèce ancienne, Jean-Pierre Vernant defines the face of the Gorgon - a creature somehow associated to the control over the animal world - as an unsetting and terrifying mask-face that lead to death, as a drastic ‘otherness’ that everyone can understand and experiment.

  16. La Пότνια θηρῶν ou les frontières de l’Autre. Réflexion archéologique sur la signification d’une image homérique en Grèce orientalisante, Christian Mazet, Kentron.

  17. D’Este Sorita, Circle for Hekate, Volume I, History and Mythology, 2017 and Meeting in the circles.

  18. D’Este Sorita, Circle for Hekate, Volume I, History and Mythology, 2017, pag. 151

  19. ’DEste Sorita, Circle for Hekate, Volume I, History and Mythology, 2017.

  20. Pausanias le Périégète, « Description de la Grèce, Livre VIII, chap. XXV and following

  21. Pausanias, Description de la Grèce, Livre VIII, chap. XXXVII

  22. D’Este Sorita, Circle for Hekate, Volume I, History and Mythology, 2017.

  23. B. Dietriech, The origins of the Greek religion, Bristol Phoenix Press, 2004, p. 181-185.

  24. In Gortyne, Sparta, Thasos and Miletus the images of the Potnia Theron seems to be connected to the individual cult of the deity (ex voto) or to the rites of passage. Offerings were made to the Potnia Theron, the lady of the animals, because she was the only one able to give safe passage to one realm to the other. This role was later on inherited by Artemis and by the 6th century CE the assimilation was completed. La Пότνια θηρῶν ou les frontières de l’Autre. Réflexion archéologique sur la signification d’une image homérique en Grèce orientalisante, Christian Mazet, Kentron.



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