Hekate's Wheel: Iynx, Strophalos & Labyrinth?
Updated: 3 days ago
“Cyrene is also the location where Jason used the iynx wheel to cause Medea to fall in love with him. According to Pindar Jason did this to ensure that Medea would follow him back to Athens.” ~ Circle for Hekate, V.1, d’Este
This article was initially written for my Adamantine Muse blog on Pagan Patheos, presented here in a slightly updated form. It draws from work I previously published in the books Circle for Hekate and Hekate Liminal Rites.
"The Wheel of Hekate" (pictured above) is a symbol that has become synonymous with the Goddess of the Crossroads in the last couple of decades. It is a powerful symbol for many hekateans today. Confusingly this symbol is sometimes referred to as the Iynx of Hekate or the Strophalos of Hekate, when both the Iynx and Strophalos are in fact, ritual objects, rather than symbols, linked to Hekate in antiquity. The symbol pictured may have ancient origins, as I will show, but the association of this symbol with Hekate is most likely a modern one.
If you are interested in this symbol, or simply want to know more about the Iynx and Strophalos as ritual objects, this article should provide you with starting points for further exploration and practice.
The Wheel of Hekate: Origins as a symbol for Hekate
After many years of searching I have not been able to track the symbol's connection to the goddess Hekate to a particular teacher or book, but have been told by various people that it became used for Hekate in contemporary Pagan circles in the 1980’s in the United States, possibly in Dianic or Goddess revival circles. If anyone reading this can verify this, or provide further information – please do! I would love to hear from you! If you have seen this image in a Pagan or Goddess book previous to 2010, likewise - let's solve this mystery~!
Ancient Mycenaean Origins?
Historically this is not a symbol we have evidence of as being associated with Hekate. However, the symbol - or variants thereof - can be found on numerous small metal (mostly gold) disks believed to have been used as decoration on costumes dating to the Mycenaean civilisation (approx 1700-1100BCE). Examples can also be found carved onto stone grave steles from the same era, such as the example I spotted in the National Museum of Archaeology in Athens in 2015 pictured below:
This carving dates to approx. 1600 BCE, but there is no verifiable link between it and the Goddess Hekate. The earliest evidence we have for Hekate dates to around 800 BCE, though based on the available evidence, we know that she had an established cult by this time. A symbol very similar to that of the (modern) Hekate's Wheel has also been found stamped onto clay and is (though I have not been able to verify this) in a museum in Argos, Greece - a region with links to the cult of Hekate.
As an aside, for those of you interested in exploring these earlier cults and the objects they left behind, check out the finds from the island of Aegina, where the Ancient Greek Geographer Pausanius tells us there was an important celebration of the Mysteries of Hekate. Some of the ancient treasures found on Aegina and currently in the British Museum collection - and they are phenomenal! It includes depictions of Potnia Theron (Lady of the Animals, an iconic female figure closely associated with both Hekate and the Goddess Artemis). Click through to the British Museum Images database for more images of finds from Aegina. Here is an example of the spiral patterns dating to the Mycenaean period from the island on a gold cup:
Because there is so little information about this era, we can't say for certain what - if anything - the spiralling patterns represented. It could have been purely decorative, it could have symbolised a labyrinth, or it might have been a symbol for a mysterious belief. Some scholars have suggested that the spirals may represent the ocean, which was a very important part of the lives of those who lived and worshipped in the region this culture flourished in. In some instances, the spirals have been interpreted by feminist scholars as being representative of the female reproductive organs. I like the idea it represents the oceans, but in reality, if these symbols are more than decorative, they could be interpreted as nearly anything without contextual evidence and information.
If you want to explore this in more depth, you may also want to include ancient sun symbols, including the four-fold gammadion, Additionally, you should also explore different labyrinth patterns, maybe focussing on those from Crete, as the island has both a strong connection with labyrinths - and curious links to Hekate too.
Ancient Wheel Symbols - and Hekate
By now, I hope I have been able to convey that this symbol known as Hekate's Wheel, with its swirly labyrinth pattern, is most likely a modern symbol for Hekate inspired by an ancient Mycenaean symbol with no known evidence to link it to Hekate. However, this is not where our Hekate's wheel story ends! The thing is that there are several "wheel" symbols that HAVE ancient associations with Hekate - but they happen to be quite different and we know a lot more about them.
Sun-wheels and Hekate
Circles with both equal-armed crosses and eight-spoke designs are found to have historic associations with Hekate. Examples can be found carved on the steps of the ruins of the Temple of Hekate in Lagina (Caria, modern Turkey), such as those that might be visible in the image I took in 2015 below if you look carefully:
Both the four-spoked, and eight-spoked wheels are found not only in Lagina but also on many depictions, inscriptions and amulets showing the Goddess Hekate. Another example includes a magical medallion found in Ostia, Italy, where the eight-spoke wheel and other symbols appear surrounding an image of the goddess. There is a discussion about these in my book Circle for Hekate, Volume 1 (“Stars / Wheels, p.207 to 212).
See an example, in use (as a toy), and instructions on how to make your own at the children's website for the Greek Acropolis Museum: https://acropolismuseumkids.gr/en/dimiourgo1/127-twist-pull-and-whizz-he-so-called-iynx.html
Because of constant confusion caused over the years, the word Iynx is now sometimes used as a name for the Hekate's Wheel symbol. However, as stated above the Iynx is, in fact, a ceremonial tool - a ritual object, not a symbol. While it is associated with Hekate, the iynx is more often associated with the goddess Aphrodite and her son, the god Eros. If you look carefully at paintings of Aphrodite and Eros you will notice that sometimes they are shown holding a circular object from a string. The Iynx was likely made from metal, but may also have been made from wood and other materials, it is spun on a piece of string and, when in motion, makes a whirring sound. These ritual tools were also referred to as magic wheels. It was most often used to induce lust or draw two people together in love - the most famous example (in our context at least) being the use of the iynx by Jason (of the Argonauts) on the young Medea to gain her favour, causing her to fall in love with him.
What is the Iynx?
“The word iynx comes from the Greek name for the wryneck bird, a member of the woodpecker family who enjoys feasting on ants. The theory is that the original form in which the iynx wheel was used for magical purposes involved tying a wryneck to a wooden wheel which was then spun. A well-balanced iynx wheel makes a repetitive whirring sound, which somewhat resembles the pulsing call of the iynx bird in the wild.” – Circle for Hekate, V.1T
In Theocritus’ Idylls, a desperate woman approaches a practitioner of magic to help her draw back an unfaithful lover. The spell calls on the goddess as Hekate and repeatedly the iynx (being used in the spell) is implored to draw the lover back home. Although Hekate may not be the first goddess we think of when it comes to love magic, there are several examples of where she was the deity invoked in matters of the heart.
"Spin Magic Wheel Spin, and bring my lover home..." - Idylls 2, Theocritus, 270 BCE
Iles-Johnston in her book Hekate Soteira writers of the Iynx wheel, saying that:
“The sympathetic importance of the sound made by the whirling iynx-wheel fits in with the general importance of sounds in magical or theurgical acts. … magicians believed that the correct pronunciation of each of the seven Greek vowels affected one of the seven astral spheres and therefore aided in invoking and controlling the sphere’s divinities…” – Johnston (Hekate Soteira, 1990)
The iynx is one of several ritual tools used in the ancient world which was spun in one way or another to produce the desired effect and outcome. In addition to being associated with love magic, it can also be found depicted in death and funerary scenes. It was associated with Hekate, alongside other spinning ritual objects, including the strophalos, rhombus and bull-roarer. All of these are tools that are spun and whirred, the bull-roarer today is known among practitioners of magic as a tool frequently used for weather-related magic, but in the ancient world, it was associated with the Mysteries of Dionysos and Kybele. Both Dionysos and Kybele, like Aphrodite, have strong connections to the Mysteries of Hekate. For more about the Iynx and Magic Wheels as linked to Hekate see Circle for Hekate, Volume I, p. 240-245.
What does an Iynx Wheel Look like?
Hopefully, you spotted the iynx dangling on a string in one of the images above. This photo shows a couple of excellent reproductions, based on ancient depictions, published nearly 90 years ago in The Journal for Hellenic Studies.
What do you do with an iynx wheel?
As a child growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Africa we made a lot of our own toys, and sometimes we would take buttons, string some embroidery thread through it and make little whirring wheels. These child’s toys, which can still be found for sale in some toy shops (sold as spinners or whirlygigs), including some 21st-century plastic ones with LED lights, entertained us for hours. We were, for all intents and purposes, playing with versions of a very ancient ritual tool! Different designs can be seen depicted on archaeological finds, but essentially they are all circular disks, with two (or more) central holes through which string is threaded.
To spin the Iynx you start by holding the two ends of the string in opposite hands, and then winding the string to a point of tension in one direction. When the tension is right, you start releasing and pulling until the disc spins and whirs, while you continue pulling and releasing. You continue doing this in a rhythmic manner, allowing the wheel in the centre to spin. Depending on the design, the wheel might emit a whirring sound. In theurgy, this is done in combination with prayers, chants and visualisations towards a specified purpose.
And what about the Strophalos?
"fragment in the Chaldean Oracles reads “Work with the strophalos of Hekate.”[i]" - Hekate Liminal Rites, d'Este & Rankine, 2009
Just to confuse things, the word Strophalos was used interchangeably with Iynx, but we do actually have descriptions of the strophalos from texts, including the Chaldean Oracles, describing a very different object from the iynx we are familiar with. If you have a copy of the book Hekate: Liminal Rites I co-authored with Rankine in 2009, you will find a discussion in there. The Strophalos is linked to the Goddess Hekate as a tool for theurgy (divine working, a form of ritual) and is described as being a sphere made of gold with a stone at the centre that is spun on a string.
Psellus, writing a commentary on the Chaldean Oracles in the 11th CE wrote of the Strophalos, giving us a physical description (trans. D.J. O’Meara):
“The strophalos of Hekate is a golden sphere with lapis lazuli enclosed in its centre, which is spun by means of a leather thong, and which is covered with symbols: as it was spun they [the Theurgists] made their invocations. These spheres were generally called iynges and could be either spherical or triangular or of some other form."
Here we would have to venture off into a world of Chaldean cosmology for a fuller grasp of the topic, which I will save for another blog on another day. Again Hekate:Liminal Rites has a fuller discussion if you can't wait!
While the words iynx and strophalos may have been used interchangeably, there is no specific links to the "Hekate's wheel" symbol used today (and pictured at the start of this blog). Both the iynx and strophalos were ritual objects, not symbols. It is of course, quite possible to carve or draw the symbol onto these ritual objects for use today.
The symbol is however an ancient one, no denying it - and it was in use in the very regions from which Hekate would emerge in Hesiod's Theogony and Homer's Oddysey.
The symbol has power and as such is an important symbol for the Goddess today. Symbols do gain new meanings, and new symbols continue to be created (one example being the symbol I myself created for the Covenant of Hekate in 2010 on the right).
What is important is that we don't cast webs of delusion or illusion on the history and use of symbols, nor allow others to do that for us. Far better we root ourselves in solid foundations of ancient history and practice, but remember - and always remember - we are 21st-century practitioners and devotees. We have access to more information than ever before - so no excuse to pass on misinformation.
By the way ... have you used an iynx or strophalos in your rituals? Do you use the Hekate's wheel symbol - and if so how?
I love using the iynx, it is an important tool in my personal practice and I find it both excellent for drawing things to me, as well as a tool for meditation and contemplation.
References / Further reading:
Gow, The Journal for Hellenic Studies, 1934
Circle for Hekate, Volume 1, d’Este, 2017
Hekate: Liminal Rites, d’Este & Rankine, 2009
Hekate Soteira, Illes Johnson, 1990