Herbs & Plants of Hekate
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HERBS and PLANTS
This article explores some of the plants and herbs associated with the Goddess Hekate. Please note that this is not a complete list and that this list includes modern associations, as well as ancient ones. There is a misconception that Hekate was associated with only poisonous and baneful plants - while it is true that the poisons were associated with Her, we find that alongside the poisons there are many medicinal, healing and culinary plants too. Those who work closely with plants for medicine and healing, will know that it is important to also know which plants are dangerous and how to use even the poisons for healing. Even safe plants can be dangerous in the wrong quantities, so please take care and make sure to seek professional advice and information before ingesting or burning (smoking or incense) plants that might be harmful to you.
Aconite is listed in the Argonautica Orphica as one of the herbs in the Garden of Hekate that was said to be in Colchis near the palace of Aeetes. Diodorus Siculus wrote that Hekate originally discovered aconite and in order to determine the correct dosage (ostensibly for poisoning enemies) tested it on strangers. It was believed that it was formed by the saliva that fell to the Earth from the mouths of Cerberus when Hercules dragged him into the daylight.
It is suggested that the black wood of ebony is associated with Hekate from the thrice- folding doors of ebony that gave access to her garden. Ebony was also associated with the underworld and Hermes Chthonios 30. Reference is also made to this in the PGM VIII.13– “I also know your wood: ebony” 31.
Flower of Fire
In the cosmological scheme described in the Chaldean Oracles, Hekate is referred to as the “flower of fire” (“rose of fire” in some translations) in Her role as the Cosmic Soul:
“…from there, a lightning-bolt, sweeping along, obscures the flower of fire as it leaps into the hollows of the worlds. For from there, all things begin to extend wonderful rays down below.” (Fragment 34)
“For implacable thunders leap from him and the lightning-receiving womb of the shining ray of Hekate, who is generated from the Father . From him leap the girdling flower of fire and the powerful breath (situated) beyond the fiery poles.” (Fragment 35) 34
Hekate is again called the “flower of fire” (fragments 37 and 42) 35
This most compelling image of Hekate refers at once to both her fiery nature and her divine feminine being. In the form of a flower, the fire of Hekate is life-giving and ever unfolding and creating the cosmos.
Garland (or wreath)
A garland is a decorative wreath or cord used at festive occasions, which can be hung round a person’s neck or on inanimate objects. Originally garlands were made of flowers or leaves. Wreaths have much history and symbolism associated with them. They are usually made from evergreens and symbolize strength as evergreens last even throughout the harshest of winters. In Ancient Greece, the harvest wreath was a sacred amulet, using wheat or other harvested plants woven together with red and white wool thread. The harvest wreath was hung by the door year-round. Wreaths originally were made for use with pagan rituals in Europe, and were associated with the changing seasons and fertility.
“Greeks held the yew to be sacred to Hecate… Her attendants draped wreathes of yew around the necks of black bulls which they slaughtered in her honour and yew boughs were burned on funeral pyres.”
Regarding the cult of Hekate in Rhodes, figures of Hekate were adorned with wreathes of asphodel:
“Asphodelos (Asphodel): A bulbous plant, having long leaves and an edible stem; and its seed when roasted and the root chopped up with figs fetches a high price. [It is] sacred to Persephone and the underworld [deities]. Also Rhodians wreath Kore [Persephone] and Artemis [Hekate] with asphodel.” 36
[Teiresias performing the rites of nekromankia] bids the dark-fleeced sheep and black oxen be set before him … Then he entwined their fierce horns with wreaths of dusky hue, handling them himself, and first at the edge of that well-known wood [sacred to Hekate] he nine times spills the lavish draughts of Bacchus into a hollowed trench, and gifts of vernal milk and Attic rain [honey] and propitiatory blood to the Shades below; so much is poured out as the dry Earth will drink. Then they roll tree trunks thither, and the sad priest bids there be three altar-fires for Hecate and three for the maidens born of cursed Acheron [the Erinyes]; for thee, lord of Avernus [Hades]…
“…calling on Hekate Brimo to help him in the coming test. This done, he withdrew; and the dread Goddess (Thea Deinos), hearing his words from the abyss, came up to accept the offering of Aison’s son. She was garlanded by fearsome snakes that coiled themselves round twigs of oak; the twinkle of a thousand torches lit the scene; and hounds of the underworld barked shrilly all around her.” 37 Book 3. Line 1194
Garlic is often mentioned among the offerings to leave for Hekate, perhaps due to Her role in curing illness:
“There are suggestions of such thinking in the report that the odor of garlic keeps away serpents and scorpions, and that the ancients used raw garlic to cure madness. It is likely no accident that Hecate, chthonic Goddess of sorcery who brought on or cured illness, was offered garlic in the form of a wreath to accompany the suppers provided for her at crossroads, which, as we have seen, were associated with her, and that Hecate was believed to punish with madness anyone who dared eat her suppers. Despite the rise of Christianity, Hecate and crossroads offerings did not disappear. Crossroads offerings persisted as late as the eleventh century, when there were reports of the Church attempting to put an end to them. Hecate herself, moreover, led the well-known witch ride of medieval times.” 38
The author goes on to state that there was a secret Romanian society that would use garlic to help cure those believed to be sickened by fairies. Their sponsor was Doamna Zinelor, who represents an altered Romanian version of Diana 39. He then states “In later Roman religion, Diana was associated with Artemis and the chthonic goddess Hecate”40. In this way, Hecate is again tied to garlic.
Hortus sanitatis: plants, mandrake female.
Credit: Wellcome Collection
Hekate’s association with Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum) comes from it being mentioned in the Argonautica as one of the plants in “Hekate’s Garden”.
This is an short extract from the book Circle for Hekate (V.1):
(Mandragora officinarum )
The root of this plant has narcotic and hallucinogenic properties. It was used historically to treat melancholy, and as a surgical sedative by ancient physicians.
Mandrake: The above is an extract from the book Hekate Liminal Rites by the authors Sorita d’Este and David Rankine, published by Avalonia in 2009. Reproduced here with kind permission.
The presence of mandrake in Hekate’s garden in the Orphic Argonautica was not surprising. Theophrastus wrote in Enquiry into Plants in the fourth century BCE about drawing three circles around the mandrake with an iron sword before picking it, recalling the contemporary practices of necromantic and chthonic rites.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote in the first century CE about mandrake, and was the first person to postulate the use of a dog to pull the root out. This was the origin of the idea of the dog dying from the scream of the mandrake.
“They dig all around it [the mandrake], leaving but a minute portion of the root covered; they then tie a dog to it, and the animal rushing to follow the person who tied him, easily pulls it up, but instantly dies – a vicarious victim, as it were, for him who intended to remove the plant.”
The sacrifice of the dog to gain the root, (which was known as baara,) used in demon-expelling rings for dealing with possession holds clear echoes of Hekate’s powers and associations. The demon-expelling mandrake-holding ring was specifically associated with King Solomon, and was described as being made of iron and brass (another copper-based alloy like bronze, and often used as an alternative name for bronze). A consequence of this connection with Hekate may have been the medieval belief that mandrake was most powerful if gathered at the crossroads.
 The Jewish War, Flavius Josephus, C1st CE, trans. S.S. Kottek.
Kottek, S.S. 1994. Medicine and Hygiene in the Works of Flavius Josephus. Leiden: Brill.
 Jewish Antiquities, Flavius Josephus, C1st CE, trans. W. Whiston.
Whiston, W. 1987. The Works of Josephus. USA: Hendrikson.
Hekate was referred to on more than one occasion in connection with serpents and oak leaves. Sophocles described her in The Root-Cutters “she who is crowned with oak-leaves And the coils of wild serpents.” There is also an oak tree in the center of Hekate's garden in the Orphic Argonautica, on which the Golden Fleece hung.
Saffron was associated with both Hekate and Artemis – who Hekate was conflated with frequently and who also was related to her as a cousin (according to sources like the Theogony, in which their mothers were the sisters Leto and Asteria).
In the Orphic Hymn to Hekate, she was described as “saffron-cloaked goddess of the heavens” 88. The Orphic Argonautica also listed saffron as one of the plants in Hekate’s garden 89. The phrase “saffron-dyed” was used three times in PGM CXXIII, in scections a, e and f, 90. A number of the titles in the charms are ones that were used for Hekate. PGM IV 2441-2621 listed saffron as an incense ingredient in a lunar spell of attraction which calls on Selene, Hermes and Hekate 90.
Here it is important to draw a distinction between the plant, used as a flavouring, fragrance and colourant – and the colour produced by saffron. Saffron is labour intensive to gather, and as such incredibly expensive. Many other substances could be used to create the golden yellow colour produced by saffron when it is used as a colourant, and as such references to Her saffron robes might refer to the colour produced with other substances or perhaps as a reference to Hekate’s luminous nature – i.e. she glows.
Yew has long been associated with the Underworld and Death and are often found in graveyards though, usually, judging by the age of the tree their presence predates the churches built there, possibly indicating that they were built on an already sacred site. Yew is often linked with Hekate most probably due to its roots being well and truly in the Underworld, one of Her domains, but the literary evidence for such a link is sparse.
There is a reference in Thebaid of Statius:
“Let her lead them with torches of flaming yew; let her give three swings of her mighty serpent; and do not let the heads of Cerberus be obstacles to those deprived of light.” 81
It was also connected to Hekate in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The three witches are seen to put “gall of goat, and slips of yew, silver’d in the moon’s eclipse” into their cauldron 82, along with other ingredients, before She appears to critique their work. It would appear that Shakespeare would often use yew in his plays when talking about poison. In the book Taxol: Science and Applications 83 Matthew Suffness (Ed) writes that,
“Greeks held the yew to be sacred to Hecate… Her attendants draped wreathes of yew around the necks of black bulls which they slaughtered in her honor and yew boughs were burned on funeral pyres. The yew was associated with the alphabet and the scientific name for yew today, taxus, was probably derived from the Greek word for yew, toxos, which is hauntingly similar to toxon, their word for bow and toxicon, their word for poison. It is presumed that the latter were named after the tree because of its superiority for both bows and poison.”