Hekate in Magna Graecia: An Introduction

Hekate had many cults throughout the ancient Greek and Roman world, scattered between Greece, Italy, Turkey, and possibly beyond. These essays will focus on Her known connections in Magna Graecia, with each month featuring a different colony. But first, a small bit of history.

Magna Graecia was the name given by the Romans to the coastal areas of Southern Italy in the present-day regions of CampaniaApuliaBasilicataCalabria and Sicily. Magna Graecia is Latin for “Great Greece” (Greek: Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς, Megálē Hellás). This area of Southern Italy has a very rich and diverse history. Due to it’s location in the Mediterranean Ocean, it has attracted people from all over the region and the island of Sicily was conquered by many different nations in the past. Many will be surprised to learn that those who are from modern-day Southern Italy/Sicily will have traces of ethnic origins from areas in the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa.

Greeks began to settle in southern Italy in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, with the hopes of finding a new life after leaving Greece for various reasons, including famine, new coastal job opportunities, or they were exiled from their homeland. Due to the heavy influx of Greek citizens into Magna Graecia, Hellenic culture quickly followed. Religion, language/dialect, and Greek civilization took root and flourished there. Some major and powerful Hellenic settlements in Magna Graecia included the following locations in Sicily: Segesta (my family is from that region, specifically Scopello and Castellamare del Golfo), Syracuse, Agrigento/Akragas, Selinunte; and in Southern mainland Italy there is Cumae and Kroton – all on or near the coast. Preserved archaeological remains in these cities are a testament to a bygone era of Hellenic civilization in Southern Italy, and to this day they attract thousands of tourists from around the world.

This research is very personal for me; I am a third generation Sicilian-American and my grandparents were born and raised in a small village on the northern coast of Sicily. They are from the region that was Segesta, a major Greek colony belonging to the Elymians, who were one of three indigenous peoples of Sicily. My family began immigrating to America after the end of the Second World War, with many of them arriving by the late 1970s. Most have stayed behind and remain in Sicily today (with some settling on the island of Sardegna).

A bit of a disclaimer before we delve into Hekate’s presence in southern Italy: these essays are by no means exhaustive; there is a lot that remains unknown as to the finer details of cult worship as outlined below. There really isn’t much to go on apart from the archaeological remains that have been found to date and thoroughly examined. Written records are rare; all we have are fragments written by historians from antiquity such as Strabo and Diodorus Siculus (and others). These remains and the scattered written fragments of history are the only clues we have with regards to ritual practices and worship in ancient times. The Eleusinian Mysteries were re-enacted in Sicily after temples and sanctuaries were established for Demeter, Persephone, and Hekate. Cult worship of Demeter and Persephone was widespread across Sicily. Many of you reading this may already know that the Eleusinian Mysteries were highly secretive; participants were sworn to secrecy and were not allowed to discuss the rites with non-initiates, and as a result there is virtually no written record of them.

I have no doubt that there are many areas where archaeological remains in Sicily are buried and have yet to be discovered. I am not a professional scholar; I am just a devotee of Hekate who also honors Demeter and Persephone – the holy triad of the Eleusinian goddesses. Hekate appeared in my life and claimed me in March of 2010, and I have spent much of my time since then researching and studying historical practices as related to them and ancient Hellenic rituals in general. I have devoted a good portion of that time studying Hekate’s presence in Magna Graecia; many references to Hekate in this region are, unfortunately, obscure and I did my best to piece together what wasn’t so obvious based on my own knowledge and other historical data. My hope is that these essays will light a fire within you and inspire you to explore these ancient sites in Sicily and southern Italy and beyond, and to try and piece together Hekate’s living history of worship. Hekate is a multi-faceted goddess who transcends cultures and geographical locations.

Editorial note: throughout these essays I often refer to Hekate using the pronouns “She” or “Her”. I have written these words beginning with a capital letter as a sign of honor and respect.

The February essay that will be shared will discuss the remains found in the colony of Selinunte, located on the southwest coast of Sicily. I do hope that you will find these essays informative and enjoyable. If you would like notifications of new posts, be sure to subscribe to my blog either directly through WordPress if you have an account, or via email (both subscribe options may be found on the blog home page).

© Melissa McNair / The Torch and Key. All rights reserved.

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