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Sarah Iles Johnston on Hekatē
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We are delighted to discuss the figure of Hekatē, an ancient Greek goddess who is very difficult to pin down, with the brilliant Sarah Iles Johnston, whose book on Hekatē – and especially on the Hekatē of the Chaldæan Oracles – remains the best out there. We begin by asking about the prehistory of Hekatē before the Oracles – a prehistory which goes back at least to Hesiod – and quickly embark on a conversation appropriately multifarious for She of the Many Ways. Topics of discussion include:
- Hekatē as surprisingly-kind and gentle goddess of liminal spaces and transitions,
- The question of Hekatē, the ‘goddess of the witches’, and the methodological problems with talking in an easy way about ‘witches’ in pre-Christian antiquity at all,
- Hekatē as a goddess who helped women in the dangerous and uncertain act of childbirth in antiquity,
- Hekatē in the Oracles, as an entity/metaphysical principle. We discuss Plutarch’s lunar Hekatē (see Episode 69 of the podcast) as comparative data, Johnston suggesting that Hekatē, as the cosmic Soul of the Oracles, may be located in the sphere of the moon,
- The importance, when interpreting Hekatē’s role(s) in the Oracles, of attending to the religious mindset which does not necessarily ‘systematise’ in the way which ancient philosophers or modern scholars are wont to do,
- The fascinating way in which the works of scholars of esoteric religions and ‘magic’ write books which are then taken up by esoteric religionists and ceremonial practitioners and used in new ways (with Johnston’s Hekate Soteira as a case-study),
- How we might model ancient theurgy as a religion,
- And a final, mysterious mythic anecdote about Hekatē’s origin which blows our minds.
Sarah Iles Johnston is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Religion and Professor of Classics and Comparative Studies at Ohio State University. She did her graduate work on the goddess Hekatē, which became the now-standard Hekate Soteira, and she has never looked back, publishing widely on ancient religious stories, beliefs, and technologies ever since. Every book she’s written is worth reading, and her edited volumes show exquisite curatorial nicety.
Works Cited in this Episode:
- Homer’s Circe can be found at Odyssey 10.212 ff.
- Iphigenia becoming Hecate: Hes. Cat. fr. 23a and b MW 17-26; Cypria 8; Stes. fr. 215.
- Hans Dieter Betz. The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.
- Fritz Graf. Magic in the Ancient World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1997.
- Sarah Iles Johnston. Hekate Soteira, 1990: see below.
- Idem. Restless Dead: Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999.
- Idem on the ‘Chaldæan Boddhisatvas’: Sarah Iles Johnston. Overtime in the Afterlife; Or, No Rest for the Virtuous. In Ra’anan S. Boustan and Annette Yoshiko Reed, editors, Heavenly Realms and Earthly Realities in Late Antique Religions, pages 85–102. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
- Johnston/Finamore: Cambridge History of Philosophy: Late Antiquity (Cambridge 2010) essay on the Chaldean Oracles.
- Hans Lewy. Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Études Augustiniennes, Paris, 1978.
- Tanya Luhrman. Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1989.
- Sabina Magliocco. Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2004.
- Madeline Miller. Circe. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2018.
- William Shakespeare on Hecate: She appears in Macbeth throughout as the patroness of the ‘Weird Sisters’, and in Act 3, Scene 5, appears in what the Greeks would have called an epiphany to reveal Macbeth’s fate to those grisly ladies.
- Sarah Iles Johnston. Hekate Soteira: A Study of Hekate’s Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature. Scholars Press, Atlanta, GA, 1990.
- Idem. Rising to the Occasion: Theurgical Ascent in its Cultural Milieu. In P. Schäfer and H.G. Kippenberg, editors, Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium, pages 165–94. Brill, Leiden, 1997.
- Idem. Whose gods are these? a classicist looks at neopaganism. In Francesca Prescendi, Youri Volokhine, Daniel Barbu, and Philippe Matthey, editors, Dans le laboratoire de l’historien des religions: Mélanges offerts à Philippe Borgeaud, pages 123–33. Labor et Fides, Genève, 2011.