No, Hecate is not a ‘Triple Goddess’ originally

Hecate is one of the favorite Greek deities to try to throw into a ‘Maiden-Mother-Crone’, ‘Triple Goddess’ framework.  The idea of a primeval ‘Triple Goddess’ as the original form of much of Indo-European religion, and its overthrow by patriarchal religion, largely originates from Robert Graves’ largely baseless The White Goddess (though he seems to have derived the seed idea of a primeval goddess religion from earlier writers). It has been picked up by Neopagan movements and thus disseminated widely, but it is based on little to no evidence of actual ancient beliefs.

But in fact Hecate is not originally triple in any way, and thus cannot derive from some supposed primeval triple goddess. Hesiod writes about Hecate at length in his Theogony, and nowhere is there any hint of triple nature. In early sculpture and in vase-paintings, Hecate is portrayed as a single female figure.

So where does the ‘triple Hecate’ bit come from? Well, in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, Hecate was commonly portrayed this way. Later sculpture does portray three figures or a triplicate figure. Pausanias (Description of Greece) believed that Alkamenes was the first to portray ‘three images of Hecate attached to one another’ (he is contrasting this with an image attributed to Myron with ‘one face and one body’). She is often given the epithet ‘trimorphis’ (‘three-formed’). However, even this triple Hecate is not so straightforward as is sometimes presented — at times Hecate is described as three-headed indeed, but with animal heads!

The Roman tendency to conflate deities, both local (eg ‘Venus Cloacina’) and foreign (‘Zeus Ammon’, ‘Sulis Minerva’) with even slightly similar aspects with one another began to confuse things further in the Roman era. The Roman loose-equivalent of Hecate was Trivia (“three ways/roads”), goddess of crossroads. Hecate’s identification with Trivia likely contributed to the increased emphasis the triple aspect of Hecate.  Seneca (in Medea and Phaedra) gives Trivia or Hecate the attributes of both Artemis and Selene. Statius (in the Thebaid) gives Diana an underworld aspect and the hounds of Hecate. Nonnus (at the end of the classical Roman era, probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 AD) speaks of Artemis, Selene and Hecate as the same being.

But all these multiplicities are not original, and so Hecate cannot be a survival of a Graves-style ‘Triple Goddess’.

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Some comments on the legend of Ys from supposed reference books

“Breton heroine or goddess” … “Only Dahut had the key to the gates that kept back the waters, and she wore it on a chain around her fair neck.” … “That she brings death as well as life to the city suggests that she was based on a misinterpretation of an ancient divinity of life’s cycle.

— Entry “Dahut”, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, Patricia Monaghan. Infobase Publishing, 2004.

Dahut wore the key to these gates around her neck, for opening them would flood the city.”

Entry “Dahut”, Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines, Patricia Monaghan, ABC-CLIO, 2009.

“In Christianized treatments of the legend, Dahut may be known as Keben…”

–Entry “Dahut”, A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, James MacKillop, Oxford University Press, 2004

All of the italicized statements are either misleading or flat wrong. Dahut is never presented as either heroine or goddess in any actual version of the legend, but always as culpable for the destruction of Ys; in many versions she also murders a young man every morning. Only modern fiction of the last few decades have altered this to present Dahut in a more positive light. (Oddly, this same book’s entry “Ys” mentions Dahut’s “living a life that was both sensual and rapacious, killing men after she had her way with them.” The inconsistency with the description of Dahut as a ‘heroine’ is completely unremarked.)

I do not entirely rule out that some obscure telling of the legend has Dahut as keeper of the key – though it seems unlikely. In all the common versions it is her father the king, Gradlon, and even if the author had found some counterexample, a reference work is at least irresponsible to leave this out.

The comment about a divinity is utterly baseless. There is no hint anywhere in the development of the Ys legend that Dahut ever played any role different from that in the mature legend; the earliest mention of Dahut (appearing in Vie des Saincts de la Bretagne Armorique in 1637, by Albert Le Grand) has all the essential touches of the fuller 19th century forms. Indeed, connecting Dahut to an (otherwise entirely unattested) goddess requires postulating at least 1000 years of survival of this goddess-tradition with no evidence appearing at any point. On the other hand, Dahut fits quite well as a simple example of debauchery or sin in an essentially Christian tale.

Similarly, there is no such thing as a “Christianized treatment” of the story since it is essentially Christian from the start, appearing first in a saint’s life!

(The similar figure Mererid in the Welsh sunken-land story of Cantre’r Gwaelod or Maes Gwyddno, on the other hand, may have pre-Christian origins — though this is far from proven. But the similarities of Mererid and Dahut may be due to borrowing rather than common origin anyway.)

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