Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.13

Robert Von Rudloff, Hekate in Ancient Greek Religion.   Victoria, BC:  Horned Owl Press, 1999.  Pp. ix + 176.  ISBN 0-9696066-8-0.  

Reviewed by Sarah Iles Johnston, The Ohio State University
Word count: 974 words

Hekate in Ancient Greek Religion provides an analysis of Hekate's nature and roles in the archaic period and, after doing so, suggests in conclusion that she played five major roles in early Greek religion: Propylaia, Propolos, Phosphoros, Kourotrophos and Chthonia (page 91). That a copy of the book was submitted to BMCR for review indicates that either the author or the publisher hopes to market it to scholars. Were it not for this -- had I encountered the book by chance in Barnes and Noble, for example -- I would have guessed it was written for practicing neo-pagans, for it carries a whiff of evangelism that suggests Von Rudloff (hereafter V.) brought personal as well as scholarly enthusiasm to his work.

Such enthusiasm can be refreshing and lend appeal to learned discussions: it glimmers forth in a fascinating way from E.R. Dodds' work on ancient magic and spiritualism, for example, and, in the book under review, it contributes to a lively, pleasant style of communication. But having been asked to review Hekate in Ancient Greek Religion for this, a scholarly journal, I must judge it primarily by scholarly criteria.

This requires me, I regret, to give it a largely negative review. Most of the reasons for this can be dealt with briefly. The bibliography fails to include some important and/or recent works on Hekate, such as H. Sarien's LIMC article (1992), F. Laumonier's Les cultes indigènes en Carie (1958), and my own article on rituals at the crossroads directed towards Hekate (ZPE 88 [1991]). Some of these missing works, apparently, were meant to be included -- footnotes several times direct the reader to "Johnston 1991" for example, despite the fact that no corresponding entry appears in the bibliography. This brings me to a second reason for my negative review: the book was rather carelessly produced and presents the reader with far more than the average number of misspellings, misdirections and omissions. Other signs of carelessness are V.'s failure to take epigraphic texts into account adequately (although he occasionally refers to epigraphical evidence, he relies on second-hand descriptions of the texts, taken from other scholars' works, and almost never provides citations that would lead the reader directly to the inscription itself), his failure to provide any footnotes at all to back up some of his statements, and quite a few errors of fact and exaggeration, such as the statement that Hesiod narrated the story of Pandora twice in the Works and Days (page 11), or the statement that mythic aoroi (dead virgins) often are renamed Hekate (page 70) -- it happens to only two mythic women, Iphigeneia / Iphimede and an unnamed Ephesian woman.1 Rarely does he cite other scholars by name in his discussion or take up their arguments in any specifics, even when his own ideas closely echo or contradict theirs.

More serious failings concern his interpretations of ancient evidence. Hermes' connection with Hekate in the Theogony cannot be explained away by making him symbolize the earth (page 80); Hekate's association with magic is highly unlikely to have been adopted by her from Medeia (page 79); and Hekate's early relationship to Helios (such as it was) surely was not forged by their common relationship to Medeia (page 89). We have no reason to think that ancient birth goddesses all carried torches nor that the torches carried by some of them symbolized the hygienically purifying effects of fire (page 103). He could have disabused himself of the outdated assumption that chthonic deities have a "greater concern with matters of basic living, such as fertility, childbirth, crops, fate and death" (page 113), simply by reading through Burkert's Greek Religion. V's thesis -- that Hekate played five main roles in archaic religion -- is not altogether incorrect, insofar as she did display functions a lot like most of those he describes, but other scholars have pointed much of this out before, and, where V. is original in his observations, factual errors or errors of interpretation diminish his contribution.

It is also confusing -- and annoying -- that in spite of V.'s stated purpose to examine Hekate only as she appeared in the archaic and early classical periods, he includes evidence from significantly later periods (right down to passages from Eustathius) when it suits his purposes. I do not object to using later evidence to help elucidate earlier materials per se, but scholars who do so in a piecemeal manner must explain their reasons for including some things and excluding others. Certainly, there were other, important, pieces of post-archaic evidence that V. might have treated which he did not: Nicander's story of Hekate and the weasel, for example (ap. Ant. Lib. 29), which would have been important to his discussion of Hekate's roles as birth goddess and kourotrophos.

All of this being said, I must finish by adding that my biggest regret is that this book was published when it was. V. tells us in his preface that the book grew out of his master's thesis. Few of us, I suspect, would want to see our master's theses in print -- a thesis usually serves as a sort of dry-run for the dissertation, which is itself a dry-run for the first book. There are traces in Hekate of a potentially good scholar: V. often asks the right questions of his materials and he avoids some of the biggest pitfalls that young scholars of Greek religion stumble into, such as assuming that each deity has a single, unchanging personality. For a master's student, he collected an impressive amount of ancient material. Had V. been told to work on his topic for several years more and been given adequate guidance, he might have offered us something useful and interesting. I hope that I have another opportunity to review his work one day that allows me to praise instead of criticize.


1.   Cf. S.I. Johnston, Restless Dead. Encounters between the Living and the Dead in Ancient Greece (Univ. of California Press: Berkeley, 1999) chapt. 6.

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