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Marcel Schrei Torchbearer Essay - Noumenia News Archives

Hekate Psychopompos

 In this essay I'd like to explore Hekate's title and role as psychopomp, and as guide of souls both living and dead in both ancient and modern understanding.  

But what does psychopomp mean exactly? According to Wikipedia, 'psychopompos’ (from  the Greek word ψυχοπομπός, psychopompós, literally meaning the 'guide of souls') are  creatures, spirits, angels, or deities in many religions whose responsibility is to escort  newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife.' In the ancient Greek religion, this role is mostly fulfilled by Hermes Chthonios (Hermes of the Underworld), but also Hekate. In addition, again according to Wikipedia, 'in Jungian psychology, the psychopomp is a  mediator between the unconscious and conscious realms.' Psychopompos can also be understood as a guide to the mysteries in the mystery cults in  general. 

Afterlife and Death/the Dead in Antiquity 

To understand Hekate's relationship to the dead, we need an overview of the ancient  Greeks' belief regarding the afterlife in general. There were multiple, sometimes  contradictory ideas of the afterlife, fluidly changing over the centuries and from location to location.

These ideas include the following: 

Souls of the departed were seen as shadows in a state of eternal boredom or  unconsciousness, being without pain but also without joy or hope. They were thought to be staying in the house of Hades, which is either located on the edge of the world or under  the earth, in any case separated from the mortal world by one (Okeanos) or more rivers  (Styx, Lethe, Acheron). The river or rivers could be crossed by a boat piloted by the  ferryman Charon. The entrance to the House of Hades was marked by a gate and guarded by the three-headed dog Kerberos, who lets all souls inside, but usually not back. 

Other possible locations for the souls to dwell were thought to be the Asphodel Meadows  and Elysian Fields for those heroes loved by the gods, in later interpretation for all 'regular' dead. There was also the abyss called Tartaros, where the Titans were imprisoned by Zeus, as well as mortals who had sinned against the gods (for example Tantalus and Sisyphos).  

Interestingly, an alternative or even simultaneous idea was that the souls would be  dwelling in or beneath their grave and be able to receive offerings, bestowing blessings upon the living in return. 

Certain heroes like Herakles, Perseus and Andromeda were thought to be put as  constellations amongst the stars. 

There were also several mystery cults which wanted to prepare or make sure their initiates would reach a favorable afterlife by performing certain rites. 

Philosophers such as Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus as well as mystery cults like Orphism  taught metempsychosis or transfiguration of the soul, that is reincarnation. Lastly and for this essay most importantly, we have the so-called lost souls who were lingering between the worlds, and because of their state of being out of place (that does not belong to any category of either alive or really dead) were thought to be a dangerous  source of trouble for the living. 

There are four categories of departed souls that were believed to be unable or unwilling  to cross over the rivers to the realm of Hades for the following possible reasons: 

  • Those dead before their time, those who died young and could not enjoy their full  life span. 

  • Those dead by violent causes like battle, execution, murder or suicide. 

  • Those dead before they could marry and/or have children, especially women. 

Ghosts of these categories were usually thought to have not been able to achieve their goals in life and thus could not continue to the next stage of existence. It was also understood that they might be angry and jealous of the living. 

The fourth category were those who did not have a burial according to the customs and  thus could not achieve a peaceful rest. They were also assumed to be unable to cross  over to the afterlife.  

Hekate as Guide of the Dead 

Sources regarding Hekate as guide of the dead start with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.  Hekate not only witnessed Persephone's abduction (hearing her screaming) and assisted  Demeter on her quest of finding her daughter. She ultimately became Persephone's guide, attendant, and even friend on her annual voyage between Hades's realm and the upper world. If we assume Persephone as also being a metaphor for the human soul in the Eleusinian mysteries, Hekate would be THE guide of our individual souls between  the worlds. In this regard she even shares the epithet Chthonia, of the underworld, with  Hermes Chthonios, who also was thought to guide the departed souls to the next world  and was worshiped in this aspect during the annual spring festival Anthesteria. 

On the last day of the lunar month of the Attic calendar, the Deipnon (supper), a rite of  purification and protection was performed. This included the offering of food to the lost  souls to statues of Hekate at the crossroads outside of the city as an apotropaic practice to keep aforementioned lost angry spirits away. Although according to Johnston it is uncertain if this was a general custom or only performed in time of need. 

This apotropaic part most likely also led to the view of Hekate being the Queen of Ghosts,  because a deity who can keep the angry dead away is also capable of refusing to protect  against them, or even of sending those spirits to haunt the living. Also, being generally a goddess of the liminal, of transcending as well as protecting the borders, gates, and thresholds  between the (safe, living) city and the (dangerous, potentially deadly) wilderness, connects Hekate with those dead souls which were considered to dwell in the liminal between life and death.  

Hekate is called in quite a number of necromantic spells in the Greco-Egyptian grimoires  called today the Greek Magical Papyri (or PGM). These are often love spells which call  upon Her to send the souls of untimely dead to haunt the desired person, causing madness. Here Her different epithets connected with the underworld, death, the dead, but  also destiny are used. She is also conflation with other goddesses like Selene, Artemis,  Persephone-Kore, the Fate, the Erynes, and is set alongside other chthonic gods like  Hermes, the underworld rivers Acheron and Styx, Anubis, but also Apollon-Helios. 

Another source for this are the curse tablets which were found in or near graves, as  Hekate is the deity most often called in these spells. 

Other sources for Hekate's connection to the dead include Euripides play Helen which  mentions Hekate as being able to send ghosts. The Hippocratic text 'On The Sacred  Disease' (probably meaning epilepsy), while rejecting an actual divine cause, mentions the common belief that this disease was caused by ghosts sent by Hekate. The Orphic Hymn to Hekate calls Her 'raging among the souls of the dead'. 

But since our modern 21st century (neo)paganism movement is usually focused on this  world, how is Hekate as guide of the dead important for us today? 

The philosophical question of how much ancient religion we should incorporate in our  practices and beliefs today can not be answered in this essay. Yet I deem it important at  least to know and respect the customs and beliefs our spiritual ancestors held. 

My own work in honor of Hekate is very much focused on remembering and supporting  the souls of the lost, helping them see Hekate's comforting light as She has shown me in  visions. Other devotees of Hers both in and outside the CoH feel a similar connection and  do similar work. This can be found on social media but there's also the example of Andrea  Angelos's work for the lost souls in Chile, as she has explained in her own contribution to Hekate Her Sacred Fires.  

As for the contemporary Hellenic re-constructionist movement in Greece, I found that  the Athens-based community LABRIS uses a hymn to Her as part of their rites of funeral and  remembering the dead. 

Hekate as Guide of the Living 

When talking about Hekate being a psychopomp also for the soul during life, the Chaldean Oracles are the first that comes to my mind. Here She acts as the world soul, connecting the realms of the gods, the mortals and the dead and is described as the origin of all individual souls.  

Due to Her connections to the Eleusinian Mysteries as well as probably other mystery cults on the islands of Samothrake and Aegina, we can see Hekate as initiatrix into the mysteries. Remembering Her role as guide of souls between life and death, She most likely also was present as the initiatrix of the mystai. The ancient mystery cults no longer exist however. Their mysteries are forgotten and the last priests and initiates died long ago. Still Hekate calls to many individual souls and offers Her guidance. 

Hekate does seem to have a connection to outcast, lost and disenfranchised, or at least we can interpret some stories from antiquity in this sense:  Let’s first return to the custom of Deipnon. Not only can we again see a connection  between Hekate and the lost souls, but (according to a modern interpretation I dearly  agree with) also Her care for the marginalized living, in particular the poor in this case.  Aristophanes tells us, quite sarcastically, in his play Plutus:  "Ask Hekate whether it is better to be rich or starving; she will tell you that the rich send  her a meal every month and that the poor make it disappear before it is even served."  

In these times, surely only the desperately hungry would dare to steal sacred offerings,  especially those that were deemed impure due to the miasma of being dedicated to the  dead. We need to note that of the offerings of the public cult to the Olympian deities  usually only a part was burnt, and the rest was shared and eaten by the participants. This is in contrast to the offerings to the chthonic deities and spirits, that were either burned as a whole or otherwise left untouched by the living, due to the miasma. So, in conclusion, I  believe it was a sign of her compassion towards all in need that she made the (more)  wealthy support those in bitter need, using the offerings to Her. 

When Herakles was born, his mother’s friend Galinthias prevented Hera’s effort to hinder the birth, so Galinthias was turned 'into a deceitful weasel (or polecat), making her live in crannies and (given) a grotesque way of mating.' Hekate felt sorry for this transformation of her appearance and appointed her a sacred servant of herself (Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 29, between 100 CE and 300 CE). 

The story of queen Hekabe of Troy, who after the Greeks’ victory was turned into a hound and also taken as sacred servant by Hekate (Lycophron, Alexandra C3rd BCE), may hint to Hekate’s compassionate view towards ‘underdogs’ – we have to realize that the Trojans were defeated by the Greeks. A similar story is that of Iphigenia: she was chosen as a human sacrifice to Artemis, but instead ‘turned into Hekate’ (Hesiod's Catalogue of Women, quoted by Pausanias). 

In my observation, Hekate seems to be quite popular among LGBTQIA* pagans. Even if  the fact of sexual orientation/identity might not be the point in the ancient myths, Hekate is  a goddess of the liminal, of crossing boundaries. Her possible affiliations with the outcast,  lost and disenfranchised mentioned above seems to be felt even today by many  LGBTQIA* persons who frequently cross boundaries themselves, as they don’t fit in most  modern societies’ ‘traditional’ boxes regarding gender and/or family. 

We have seen Hekate's connection with those ghosts that drive people mad, Her ability to  send them as well as to protect the living from them. Initiation into Her mystery cult was said to heal from madness by asking Hekate to call back those ghosts (Johnston, Restless Dead,  p.144). Thinking about this and Hekate's liminality and compassion to souls alive and  dead, calling on Her to help cope with mental illness sounds like a good idea to me. 

A Personal Vision: Hekate's Temple at Acheron's Shores  

As we have seen above, Hekate is said to be attended by the lost souls or night-wandering spirits who are stuck between this world and the next. Giving them comfort and light is never explicitly stated in the sources we have from antiquity, and yet it is something She has shown to me in multiple visions and asked me to share with the community. 

So, as an addition to this essay and as practical exercise, I created a guided meditation to  open a path to Hekate's temple between the worlds at the shores of Acheron, which  includes a description of my vision.

Appendix I: Sources 

  • Betz, Hans Dieter: The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, University of Chicago  Press, 1992 

  • Burkert, Walter: Greek Religion, Blackwell, 1985 

  • d'Este, Sorita: Circle for Hekate Vol. I, Avalonia, 2017 

  • d'Este, Sorita & Rankine, David: Hekate Liminal Rites, Avalonia, 2009 

  • d'Este, Sorita (ed.): Hekate Her Sacred Fires, Avalonia, 2010 

  • Faraone, Christopher & Obbink, Dirk (ed.): Magika Hiera, Oxford University Press,  1991 

  • Johnston, Sarah Iles: Hekate Soteira, Scholars Press, 1990 

  • Johnston, Sarah Iles: Restless Dead, University of California Press, 1999 

  • LABRIS: Hellenic Polytheism Household Worship, self published, 2014 

  • Ogden, Daniel: Magic, Witchcraft and Ghost in the Greek and Roman Worlds,  Oxford University Press, 2009 

  • Homeric Hymn to Demeter, translated by Gregory Nagy, 




Appendix II:

Hekate's Temple at Acheron's Shores - A Guided Mediation

Time: Anytime, preferably after nightfall and when the moon is waning. 

Place: Anywhere quiet and undisturbed, preferably outside after nightfall or in a dark room. 

Items: A white or red or beeswax candle, a vessel containing water for purification, a  vessel containing red wine or fruit juice mixed with honey, a larger vessel to receive  libations if indoors, a bay leaf or rosemary sprig. Additional candles, decorations and  offerings, incense, an icon of Hekate are nice, yet optional. 


Prepare like you usually do for a ritual, including your usual purification. Set an altar with the  described items. Sit comfortably in front of your altar and calm your mind. Perform the  initial breathing practice from the Rite of Her Sacred Fires (touching heart, lips and  forehead etc.), then light the candle. To create blessed water for purification, light the bay  leave or rosemary sprig in the candle flame, extinguish it in the water vessel and proclaim:  

“I am about to start a voyage between the worlds and do so pure and unhindered. Whatever baggage I carry, I leave it behind!” 

Drizzle some water on your forehead, lips and heart, also both palms, knees and feet.  Doing so speak: 

“Ekas ekas este viveli, begone begone impurity” 

Close your eyes and begin the journey. 


You stand in a beautiful lush garden, full of flowers and old trees. In front of you, you see  the tallest of those trees on a small hill. As you approach the tree, you notice a well at its  base. Stone steps spiral down inside. A cloaked figure sits on the well's railing, holding a  lantern. They greet you: 

'Hail wanderer. My name is Aspree. Our Lady sent me to be your guide on this journey. I  will always be right behind you, my lantern will light our path. Anytime you wish, you can  say my name and I will bring us back here.' 

Aspree points towards the downward spiraling stairway. 'After you.’ 

You take a deep breath, inhale – exhale, and step on the first stair. You take your time and  take one step with every single breath. Count your breaths. 

Inhale – exhale. Step. 

Inhale – exhale. Step. 

You see the gray stone of the wall, partly covered in moss. You see the light of your  companion's lantern shimmering on the surface. 

Inhale – exhale. Step. 

Inhale – exhale. Step. 

As you count your 99th breath and the 99th stair, you reach the well's bottom. It is covered  by a calm and mirror-like water surface. Aspree speaks to you: 

'We can return to the garden now if you wish. Or you can step into the waters and see what is on the other side.'

Stepping into the water, your surroundings suddenly change. Instead of a pool on the  bottom of a well, you stand on the shore of a broad river of black quickly flowing waters.  You look around you. The sky is dark and feels far away. The shore is made of grayish  dunes of sand and small pebbles and seems to stretch endlessly. You hear no sound but  the river and wind, rustling in the sparse tufts of grass. The entire scenery is filled with  shadowless twilight. 

Aspree stands next to you. Again, they point to a certain direction. 'This way. And remember: I can bring us back to the garden at any time, should you wish.' 

You proceed your way along the river bank, sand, and occasional shells crunching under  your feet. After climbing a larger dune, you observe the following: 

A number of hills and dunes like the one you stand on surround a large flat area right at  the water's edge. A structure like a round Greco-Roman temple dominates the view. It is  made by a round base of three steps which are topped by a number of columns standing  in a circle, but it has no roof. A pillar of light emerges from the temple's center, reaching for the far sky. It twists and turns, the reflections on the stone columns and on the ground  appear like a flower of fire. Seeing this you feel calmness and warmth. Shadow-like  figures are gathered around the temple. 

'This is Her temple between the worlds on the shores of river Acheron' Aspree explains to  you. 'The lost souls who cannot cross to the next world gather here, to find a moment of  rest in Her light. We can stay for a few moments. Just say my name when you want us to  return to the garden.“ 

When you are back at the place you started, take three deep breaths and open your eyes.  

Purification, Offerings and Closing 

If you want to take notes about your particular journey, which is advisable, do so now. When you feel ready to finish the rite, slowly stand up (take care not to fall after sitting this  long), take the wine or juice and pour three libations on the ground or in the offering  vessel.  

With the first libation speak: 

“I give thanks to My Lady Hekate, Guide of Souls and Soul of the World” 

With the second libation speak: 

“I give thanks to Her servant, the spirit who was my guide today” 

With the third libation speak: 

“To the restless souls, may you find peace, however brief” 

Put down the vessel. Calm your mind, take three deep breaths. When you feel ready,  proclaim: 

“I have finished my voyage between the worlds and return pure and unhindered. Whatever baggage I carry, I leave it behind!” 

Drizzle some water on your forehead, lips and heart, also both palms, knees and feet.  Doing so, speak: 

“Ekas ekas este viveli, begone begone impurity” 

Perform the closing breathing practise from the Rite of Her Sacred Fires (touching heart,  lips and forehead etc.). Dispose the purification water (and the poured libations if inside)  and do not use the purification vessel for mundane things.

Artwork by Yani

Originally published in Noumenia News Issue 59

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Well written essay :)

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I love the work you do Marcel 😊

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