Hecate is often associated with plants associated with death in one way or another – poisonous herbs and plants that were symbolically used in funeral rites.
Her servants, Medea and Circe, were especially versed in pharmacology – the magic of herbs, potions and poisons.
But, despite the long lists found in many books on modern paganism, historical ancient Greek or Roman evidence of Hecate’s connections with any specific plants other than those listed below has practically not survived.
Apparently, modern authors simply associate this goddess with all plants associated with death or possessing psychoactive properties.
We do not want to say that they are mistaken, but only clarify that for the most part these correspondences were introduced in modern times, and in antiquity, apparently, were not used.
The herbs and trees that grew in Hecate’s garden are listed in the Orphic Argonautics.
We will consider in detail only those of them, references to which in connection with Hecate are also found in other sources, since references to the rest may turn out to be just poetic liberty.
One of the most famous plants associated with Hecate is aconite (wrestler or wolf root).
Diodorus of Siculus writes that it was Hecate who discovered the properties of this herb and tested it on strangers to establish the dosage.
It was believed that aconite arose from droplets of saliva that fell to the ground from the mouths of Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld, when the demigod Hercules led him out of the underworld.
A three-winged gate leading to Hecate’s garden has been carved out of ebony. Ebony was especially associated with the underworld and Hermes Chthonius. In this capacity, it is mentioned in the Greek magic papyri: “I know your tree too: it is an ebony tree.”
Garlic was one of the dishes served to Hecate at the daipnon (Hecate’s supper). Even in Ancient Egypt, it was revered as a plant-apotropic, protecting from the restless dead.
The ancient Greek naturalist Theophrastus mentions the connection of garlic with road crossings in his treatise “Characters”, speaking of a person subject to superstition:
If he notices a person from those standing at the crossroads, crowned with a garlic wreath, then he returns home and, having washed from head to toe, then orders to call the priestesses to receive the purification with sea onions.
The mention of mandrake among the plants growing in Hecate’s garden is not surprising. Mentioning in the treatise “The Causes of Plants” about contemporary necromantic practices and chthonic rites, Theophrastus writes that before plucking the mandrake, three circles were drawn around it with an iron sword.
The first to report that dogs are used to extract the root of the mandrake from the ground was the Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. From here came the idea that a dog dies from a cry emitted by a mandrake.
First, it (mandrake root) is dug in around until only a small part of the root is still in the ground, then the dog is tied to it.
When the latter quickly rushes after the person who tied it, the root is easily pulled out, but the dog dies on the spot, as a substitute victim for the one who wanted to take the plant, and then it can be carried away without any fear.
In the sacrifice of a dog for the sake of obtaining this root (which was called “baara” and was inserted into the rings that expel demons from the possessed), echoes of the rites of Hecate are clearly audible.
It was believed that King Solomon had such a ring made of iron with brass or bronze. The medieval notion that a mandrake dug out at a crossroads is most effective also goes back to ancient associations with Hecate.
In a number of cases, Hecate is mentioned in connection with snakes and oak leaves, so it is possible that the oak was a sacred tree not only of Zeus, but also of this goddess.
Saffron was associated with both Hecate and Artemis. In the Orphic Hymn to Hecate, this goddess is described as “existing in the sea, on land and in the sky, wearing a saffron dress.”
In the Orphic Argonautics, saffron is mentioned as one plant in Hecate’s garden.
The expression “dyed with saffron” is used three times in the Greek magical papyrus PGM CXXIII, in sections a, e and f, which include many spells associated with Hecate, and two magical images containing the name Brimo.
The yew is often called the sacred tree of Hecate. Perhaps such a strong association between Hecate and the yew is due to the fact that the yew has long been considered the tree of death.
One of the evidence of this is found, for example, in the Aeneid, in the scene where the queen Dido prepares to commit suicide: among the burial plants adorning her bonfire are cypress branches, verbena and yew leaves.
Hecate is also associated with the yew in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where witches, who call on the goddess of dark spells, pour into the cauldron “yew, broken in the moonlessness.”
Circe and Medea were famous as unsurpassed sorceresses, versed in the properties of herbs. It was believed that Circe received her knowledge of herbs from Hecate herself and used it to turn people into animals and punish those who cross her path.
This is what she did when her beloved Glaucus rejected her, preferring a maiden named Scylla and declaring that she would love her chosen one, no matter what happened. Enraged Circe turned Scylla into a terrible monster.
Medea also resorted to the help of poisonous herbs to take revenge on Jason, who preferred the young princess Creusa to her.
The magical and poisonous herbs associated with Hecate were also used by many other heroines of ancient legends.
The goddess Athena, with the help of witchcraft plants, turned the boastful Arachne into a spider, who lost her competition in the art of weaving.
How exactly Medea collected plants for her magic is described in the tragedy of Sophocles, which has come down to us only in fragments.
Both surviving passages mention copper implements — very appropriate for a servant of Hecate, whose sacred metal was copper.
It is also curious that Medea works naked, although this, like her loud lamentations, is more a poetic license than an indication of standard practice.
It is said that in another lost tragedy of Sophocles, the invocation of Hecate was contained, and in one of the scenes Circe demonstrated her witchcraft.
The copper sickle mentioned by Sophocles may have been a common tool for collecting plants, and the cutting of herbs was most likely accompanied by the casting of spells associated with Hecate.
Another detailed description of the collection of herbs is contained in Apollonius’s “Argonautics”, in the scene where it is a question of a plant that grew out of the blood of Prometheus. From this plant, Medea prepared a potion that should help Jason withstand a dangerous test.
Obviously, the readers of that time were familiar with the process of collecting plants, so the authors usually did not have to go into all the details.