Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.11

S.I. Johnston, Hekate Soteira: a Study of Hekate's Roles in the Chaldean Oracles and Related Literature. American Classical Studies 21. Atlanta, Ga: Scholar's Press, 1990. Pp. viii + 192. ISBN 1555404278. $17.95.

Reviewed by Joseph G. DeFilippo, Cornell University.

Professor Johnston's systematic study of Hekate in the Chaldean Oracles (CO), the first of its kind, is divided into two major parts. In Part I, "Hekate's Cosmological Duties," she sketches the concept of the world soul in Plato and middle Platonism, and then shows how Hekate's earlier nature as a divinity particularly associated with liminal and intermediary states (viz. her presence at crossroads) suited her ideally to assuming the role of world soul in the Chaldean system. In Part II, "Hekate and Theurgy," she utilizes her earlier argumentation to explain Hekate's ascendance as the sponsoring deity of Chaldean theurgy. According to Johnston's account, with the dominance of Platonism in later antiquity came the elevation of the daemonic realm from beneath the earth to the regions between the earth and the stars. As patroness of daemones and magic, Hekate became more and more associated with the celestial realm, and in turn with philosophical theurgy as it is described in the CO.

Johnston's overall argument is convincing, and her command of the wide array of material she must cover to make her case is impressive. She is at her best in the second part of the book, where she brings the Platonist background of the CO to bear in explaining the practices of Chaldean theurgy and the theurgist's relationship with Hekate as a soteriological divinity. Chapters seven, on the iynx-daemon, and eight, on Hekate's epiphanies, are particularly good; here Johnston does a remarkable job of elucidating some Chaldean practices and ideas that to a modern mind are almost unspeakably alien. These qualities will make Hekate Soteira required reading for anyone interested in ancient religion and magic, and especially those who would like to explore what John Dillon has called the "underworld of Platonism,"1 the little understood interactions between philosophy and religion in late antiquity of which the CO is one fascinating result.

It has become a truism in modern scholarship that Hekate in the CO is somehow identical with the world soul. (I will henceforth refer to this idea as the World Soul Doctrine -- WSD.) In a valuable appendix (that deserves to have been included in the main body of the book) Johnston actually collects the evidence for this identification, and surveys the views that have been advanced by scholars. This task is particularly important for Johnston, since she asks the WSD to do a large share of the work in her overall interpretation. In this she is motivated by her judgment that scholars' assumption that Hekate was adopted by the Chaldean system merely because she was a witches' goddess is both simplistic and mistaken: [This assumption] does not explain why she is portrayed in fr. 51 as sending forth the potency of soul, why she is the "mistress of life" possessing a full womb, or why her cosmological position is described as "between the two Fathers" in fr. 50. Accepting her equation with soul, on the other hand, does explain these things.... (162) Now, it is clear that the WSD explains a great deal in the CO; certainly, as Johnston demonstrates, it makes the practice of theurgy comprehensible simultaneously in terms of both traditional religious belief and Platonism. I shall suggest, however, that there is good reason to doubt it can do all the work Johnston is asking of it. This does not undermine the status of the WSD itself. The point is rather that no single doctrine can explain all of Hekate's roles in purely philosophical terms, for her Chaldean manifestations are too diverse to be neatly tidied up.

Johnston identifies three cosmological roles for Hekate as Soul: (1) transmitter of Ideas; (2) divider and bond between the sensible and intelligible worlds; (3) source of individual souls and life (49). She is certainly right to appeal to the WSD to explain (2) and (3). I do not think, though, that it will suffice to explain (1). In order to see why this is so, and what might be meant by describing Hekate as the "transmitter of Ideas" (the phrase is Johnston's) it will be useful to consider fr. 34, which (along with fr. 35) provides the evidence for this idea. Fragment 34 reads as follows:

enthen apothrôiskei genesis polupoikilou hulês
enthen suromenos prêstêr amudroi puros anthos
kosmôn enthrôiskôn koilômasin. panta gar enthen
archetai eis to katô teinein aktinas agêtas.

(From there leaps forth the genesis of variegated matter. Sweeping forth from there, the lightning bolt obscures the bloom of fire as it leaps into the hollows of the worlds; for from there all things begin to ex tend wonderful rays to the [world] below.)

According to Johnston's interpretation, the kosmôn koilômata here are Hekate's womb, which plays the role of the middle Platonist world soul by nurturing and then transmitting the Ideas to the physical world. The precise philosophical significance of the poetic imagery in this fragment is hard to pin down, and it is not likely that a definitive interpretation can be given.2 What follows is a reading of the metaphysical significance of the fragment that tries to make a minimal number of interpretive assumptions.

The fragment is intended to explain how the material world as a whole is generated and/or maintained. This generation proceeds by means of the following process: a lightning bolt (= an Idea, see Johnston, pp. 49ff.) comes from the first intellect and does two things -- (a) it obscures the puros anthos (= Hekate3), while (b) proceeding into the kosmôn koilômata (= the world). Finally, the Idea is manifested as the corresponding object in the world; this manifestation is described poetically as aktinai agêtai being stretched into the world below (eis to katô = the material world).

But if Johnston is right in equating the hollows of the world with Hekate's womb, then in terms of Plato's Timaeus Hekate seems to be performing the work not of the world soul, but of space (chôra), which as the receptacle of Forms and nurse of becoming (pasês einai geneseôs hupodochên autên oion tithênên, 49a5-6) looks very much like Johnston's transmitter and nurturer of the Ideas. The receptacle in the Timaeus is posited as a necessary intermediate principle between model (the Ideas) and copy (the world), in order to provide a neutral substrate for the generation of things that participate in the Ideas (49a, 52a-b). It is natural for Hekate to occupy an analogous position, not however because she is the world soul -- this is not the world soul's job -- but rather because she is fundamentally a mediating goddess.4

The primacy of Hekate's role as mediator can be seen as well in her function of separating the two intellects (mentioned by Johnston in the passage quoted above). The CO, perhaps under the influence of Numenius,5 posited as its highest god a first intellect that contains all the Ideas and is entirely self-directed and self-sufficient; the next god down is a second intellect that looks both to the first intellect and to the world, in order to instantiate the Ideas in the world and maintain it in existence. Hekate is said to stand between or separate these two intellects (fr. 50, with which Johnston connects fr. 6 [p. 57]). But in Platonizing terms she cannot perform this function qua world soul, for soul is the hypostasis below intellect. Hekate's separation of the two intellects is rather a function of her role as a mediating principle that transcends and cuts across hypostases.

Accordingly, the WSD is not equipped to explain all the important functions assigned to Hekate by Johnston, if we are to understand those functions in terms of the Timaeus and later Platonism. The reason for this seems to be that the WSD is not the fundamental idea about Hekate from which her other Chaldean functions naturally follow, as Johnston's own research allows us to see. One of the important contributions of Hekate Soteira is to show that Hekate from the earliest times was conceived to be an essentially liminal figure, and therefore was repeatedly associated with "between" states (see esp. chapter two, "Hekate's earlier nature"). The Platonizing voice of the CO therefore associates or identifies her with a number of intermediary principles. These include the world soul -- a particularly important identification because the sympatheia with which Hekate/Soul suffuses the world provides a medium for communication with the daemonic realm, and thereby makes philosophical sense of theurgy. But she is identified as well with other Platonist principles, namely, the receptacle and the principle that stands between the two intellects, which are not well explained in terms of the world soul.

My disagreement with Johnston over the extent of the WSD's explanatory power should not be taken to vitiate the force of her overall argument, which establishes with admirable clarity how Hekate's identification with the world soul renders the practice of Chaldean theurgy philosophically intelligible. Anyone interested in the fascinating overlap between philosophy and religion in late antiquity will profit greatly from the many valuable insights contained in Hekate Soteira.


  • [1] See J. Dillon, The Middle Platonists, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1977), 384-96.

  • [2] See R. Majercik, The Chaldean Oracles: text, translation, and commentary (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989), 155, for a recent interpretation that is very different from either Johnston's or the one offered here.

  • [3] Majercik, ibid.

  • [4] Johnston may have a way of accommodating this objection. Some later Platonists were led by the receptacle's shifting motions at Timaeus 52e to suppose that it was ensouled (cf., e.g., Plutarch, De Animae Procreatione in Timaeo 1014e-1015f). Indeed, Plutarch characterizes Isis as a daemon, a kind of soul, while also identifying her as the receptacle of Ideas; in her role as receptacle, moreover, she is closely associated with the good world soul, Osiris (De Iside et Osiride 371f-372 e).

  • [5] See Dillon, op. cit., pp. 393-4.