Entering Hekate’s Cave: The Journey Through Darkness to Wholeness, by Cyndi Brannen, Ph.D.
Weiser Books, 1578637910, 256 pages, January 2023
From the artificial lights in our homes to the hypnotic glares of our televisions and smartphones, all the bright, glowing baubles of consumerism keep us overstimulated and distracted, diverting our attention away from the true healing power of closing our eyes, turning within, and facing our inner darkness. Even for those of us who are avidly seeking enlightenment, the false teachings of “love and light” spirituality can be perilous, reinforcing our collective denial of the shadow. When we focus on “positive vibes only,” we are operating from a place of fear, because we have become afraid that we will manifest our fears if we acknowledge them. The truth is that turning a blind eye to our darkness only further disempowers us, because the buried shadow content of our psyches has a magnetic quality, and we are more likely to manifest the things we don’t want in our lives if we continue to repress and deny them.
In Entering Hekate’s Cave: The Journey Through Darkness to Wholeness, author and Hekatean witch Cyndi Brannen, Ph.D., is a psychopomp and healer, wielding her shamanic training and extensive experience as a professional psychologist like a blazing torch that guides readers through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Underworld to find the goddess within.
“Only by healing the shadow will we ever become whole,” Dr. Brannen says. “That is work accomplished in Hekate’s cave,”1 which is “a place of sacred darkness, a place where we awaken to our own souls.”2
Dr. Brannen is a leading authority on contemporary Hekatean witchcraft, and her previous works include Keeping Her Keys: An Introduction to Hekate’s Modern Witchcraft (2019) and Entering Hekate’s Garden: The Magick, Medicine & Mystery of Plant Spirit Witchcraft (2020). She also founded the Covina Institute, a Mystery School and Coven of Hekate, in which she is the executive director and lead instructor.
“Our journey is that of Persephone,” Dr. Brannen says, and “the journey of the cave is one of self-acceptance.”3 This resonated to my core because, when I first initiated myself, I devoted myself to Persephone, but it was Hekate who appeared to me in dreams, and in the first initiatory dream, she named me Persephone. I was already living my own unique version of Persephone’s myth in waking life, and through self-initiation, I was consciously acknowledging my archetypal identification with her.
Based on my personal experiences and what Dr. Brannen writes, I believe that Persephone is the archetype of the witch who is initiated by Hekate and called into her service. Like Persephone, the witch has the shamanistic ability to move between the realms of the living and the dead, and communicate with spirits. She becomes queen of the liminal spaces, like Hekate.
There are fifteen chapters in this book, each one bearing an epithet of Hekate, accompanied by a unique sigil. I love working with her plethora of names because it’s like having a whole pantheon of Hekatean spirits who are each unique emanations of her multifaceted energetic current. The World Soul that is Hekate fragments like moonlight passing through a prism, bending into a rainbow of vibrant deific masks.
Dr. Brannen recommends gemstones for working with each epithet, such as “fluorite for learning and expanding awareness”4 when connecting with Hekate Triformis, the triple goddess of transformation. She also enlists one of my favorite stones, amethyst, “for awakening the soul,” “encouraging meditation,”5 and connecting with Drakaina, the ancient dragoness, or snake goddess, who “teaches us that we can shed our false skin.”6 I plan on focusing on the Drakaina epithet this year, since 2024 is the Year of the Dragon in Chinese astrology.
I have always felt an affinity with stones, and I have been fond of collecting them since childhood, but it had been a while since I meditated with them, so this was a great reminder to reincorporate them into my daily spiritual practice. I have a heart-shaped green and purple rainbow fluorite that I decided to use to connect with Hekate Triformis. In numerology, my life path number is three, and I deeply resonate with the imagery of the triple goddess. The sigil also spoke to me, and came alive, like an opening eye, as I gazed upon it.
Working with Triformis, I imagined a trio of voices, saying, “We are Hekate.” This triple-voiced Hekate reminds me to think of myself as my past, present, and future selves, and what it feels like to be all three at once, living in the present moment. Through this conscious alignment, I am a multidimensional being, present in all three realms at once, seeing my past, present, and future simultaneously. The fluorite amplified my self-awareness and surprised me with memory flashbacks. I am going to continue working with fluorite to connect with Triformis and enhance my clairvoyance.
The stones are powerful allies on Persephone’s journey, because Entering Hekate’s Cave initiates a heart-wrenching Underworld descent. Maybe it’s the sigils, or the magical power of the epithets themselves, but just reading this book is shadow work, and it triggered cathartic emotional reactions within me.
“This book is also part memoir,” Dr. Brannen says, “recounting my own journey through a difficult upbringing, sexual trauma, addiction, disease, and more.”7
Brannen’s raw vulnerability and transparency is part of the healing magic. By being open and confiding with her audience, she creates a safe space for readers to do the same, and I felt prompted to journal about my own experiences. The goddess Hekate walks through fire with us. She knows our darkest secrets and feels our hidden pain.
I read this book during Mercury retrograde in Capricorn, which, in my natal chart, is the Underworld of my 8th House, and it was an intense experience. The most poignant insight I had was that I still suffer from a childhood abandonment wound that I never fully processed because I didn’t give myself permission to grieve.
When I was eleven years old, my mother left me and my father for a man ten years her junior. I’m now almost 40 years old, and in the dark womb of Hekate’s cave, I realized that I still haven’t healed from this wound because I have refused to acknowledge it. When my mother left, I was glad she was gone. My dad and I decided we were “better off,” and he acted like he was celebrating. He stumbled through life drunk, partying and blasting music. Both of us were in denial about how painful the abandonment had been. Soon after, he moved another woman into our house and proposed to her, but they didn’t stay together long because she couldn’t tolerate his alcoholism. That was left for me to deal with alone.
I was supposed to embrace the narrative of being better off, and side with my alcoholic father (it was us against her). Yet on some level, he probably resented me for looking like her, and he was abandoning me too. He was never present because of his addiction, and through his example, I learned to escape my own problems through alcohol. I never grieved when my mother left, because acknowledging how deeply it hurt would have conflicted with the affirmation that I was “better off without her.” I now realize that, as an adult, this abandonment wound has had a long-term negative impact on my self-esteem, my romantic relationships, and my attachment style.
Societal conditioning doesn’t permit us to properly grieve and process our wounds. We are discouraged from dwelling on our pain and validating our emotions by experiencing them. We are taught to bury our pain and pretend to let things go, to forgive and forget. The very thing we need to do to heal, we are denied, because of our own shame for being wounded, and because seeing our pain inconveniences others.
Up until she left, my mother had indoctrinated me with Christian values. I was taught to love my parents unconditionally, to turn the other cheek when people wronged me, and forgive them for their trespasses. If I showed any sign of anger or defiance, she condemned me for being resentful, and told me that I should forgive her, for my own sake. But it was really for hers.
In Chapter 9, Dr. Brannen illuminates the cathartic powers of Borborophorba, an epithet that comes from the Greek Magical Papyri and means “Filth Eater.”8 This is one of my favorite epithets because it reminds me of earthworms, the tiny chthonic serpents that eat decaying organic matter and animal waste and transform it into nutrient-rich soil. “The Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl also ate the waste of humans, then defecated it as flowers, symbolizing the transformative power of the goddess to turn filth into gold,”9 Dr. Brannen says. Borborophorba assists us in the process of eliminating the spiritual toxins that burden us and finding the hidden treasures buried within them.
In the myth of Persephone’s abduction, picking a narcissus flower initiated her kidnapping and Underworld descent. “Narcissism is yet another pitfall for some Persephone women,”10 Brannen writes. Both the personality disorder of narcissism and the flower were named after Narcissus, “who was fated to stare longingly at his own reflection but never see his own interior depths.”11 Women who embody the Persephone archetype often worry over their image and have people-pleasing tendencies, because they want to be liked and their sense of self is based on what others think of them. They may also be more vulnerable to narcissistic abuse.
I grew up with a poor sense of boundaries due to the toxic enmeshment of my narcissistic mother. When I was little, I was sheltered and overprotected by her, so the abandonment was a relief in the sense that it gave me the breathing room I needed in order to individuate. Being abandoned by my mortal mother was also a blessing in disguise because it led me to my divine mother, Hekate, the goddess of witches. Up until that point, my strict Christian upbringing had been stifling, and in her absence, I was free to explore other spiritual paths. Ironically, after my mother left, she decided she was a witch too, and stole the thunder of my spiritual rebellion, but it was only a passing phase for her, and she ended up returning to monotheism.
When I was a teenager, my mother used to tell me how funny it was that I’m a Gemini, because “we’re just like twin sisters!” (I have a Gemini Sun and Moon and she is a Scorpio Sun with a Gemini Moon). She told me we looked alike, and that our lives mirrored each other’s. Since she saw me as her “twin sister” and best friend, she confided in me about all of her problems and traumatic experiences, and the combination of over-identification and trauma-dumping created a toxic empathic bond, which Dr. Brannen identifies as “secondary traumatic stress.”12
Now I realize that she was a narcissist who saw me as an extension of herself, and she didn’t want me to have a separate identity of my own. If I got angry at her for her behavior, she would gaslight me and say that I was the one doing whatever it was that she was doing. This confused me and conditioned me to question my perception of reality, to blame myself for any problems I encountered in relationships, and to tolerate boundary violations made by romantic partners.
My mother abandoned me and my father to be with her “true love” because she was a selfish narcissist. Even when she was around, she wasn’t present, mentally or emotionally. When I reached adulthood, she continued to abandon me by obsessing over that “true love” who in turn had cheated on her and abandoned her. Throughout my life, we went through cycles of her smothering and abandoning me, which gave me an anxious-avoidant attachment style.
Shadow work involves deep soul searching and self-reflection, which is sometimes shamed in our society as narcissistic navel-gazing, but this is a healthy form of narcissism that dives deep into the well of the soul, bringing us into alignment with our true selves.
The irony of narcissistic abuse is that the narcissist manipulates their victim into believing that they are the selfish one. Any attempt made by the victim to break free and assert their independence is perceived as narcissistic by the narcissist. Persephone’s narcissism is actually a natural part of her individuation process and represents her quest for personal autonomy. The narcissus flower symbolizes her blossoming self-awareness, but because her identity is still so wrapped up in her mother’s, it becomes an Underworld journey expressed through her forced marriage. It’s like she traded one narcissist for another. Or at least, that’s how it manifested in my life, because I found myself in relationships with narcissistic, abusive partners who reminded me of my mother.
Chapter 7, titled “Chthonia: The Descent,”13 focuses on protecting your boundaries and honoring the sacredness of your personal space. This chapter was the most triggering for me because of my personal struggles. I grew up with a poor sense of boundaries as a result of the toxic enmeshment of my narcissistic mother, as well as bullying I experienced at school, and the cumulative abuse groomed me for intimate partner violence.
While reading this chapter, I felt a lot of repressed rage surfacing as I reflected on the multiple instances of betrayal, abuse, and trauma I have experienced throughout my life. I felt enraged by the initial bullying and abuse that crippled my sense of personal boundaries and made me vulnerable to repetitive boundary violations. I found myself yelling and cursing all the people who have disrespected me and violated my boundaries in the past (I was alone in my home at the time), and it was a primal scream, like the roar of triple-voiced Hekate. I felt an immense sense of cathartic relief afterwards.
Beneath all the rage is the heartbreak of giving someone unconditional love and forgiveness and being punished for it with repeated disrespect and gaslighting until you are forced to cut them off for good. The last time I saw my mother, which was a few years ago, I had a vision of her as a zombie, grabbing me by the ankle and trying to drag me down to hell with her. That’s when I knew I had to make a choice: it was either her or me. I’ve been catering to her emotional needs and ignoring my own for most of my life. I felt toxic levels of empathy for her personal pain and traumas while neglecting my own. It’s time to choose me.
“As you move deeper into Hekate’s cave, your ability to discern between truly toxic people and those who are nourishing you amplifies,” Brannen says. “This may result in a cutting away of relationships with those who offer nothing but a steady diet of toxicity.”14
I have realized that, deep down, I’m terrified that if I love myself, it will make me a narcissist. I’m scared people will think I’m selfish and mean, because any time I have tried to set boundaries or stand up for myself, I’ve been accused of that, or the person offending me lashed out in anger and I felt that my physical safety was threatened. I’ve always identified as an empath, and concerned myself with the feelings of others, while disregarding my own. I was selfless, meaning I had no sense of self, because other people’s feelings were more important. I always tried to be caring and considerate of others, and I too easily forgave people who mistreated or disrespected me.
I was leading an inauthentic life. The harder I worked, the more impoverished I became. The more I tried to please people, the more they shamed and abused me. I reached a breaking point in 2019, and completely withdrew from society. I became a ghost, hiding in the shadows. I have been in Hekate’s cave ever since, feeling like I’ve completely lost my mind, despairing over my inability to function like a normal person, and only receiving the repeated message from my oracles that I need to heal. I hated myself for no longer being able to find a place in society. This passage revealed to me the reason why I’ve had such a lengthy stay in my personal Underworld:
“In the tales of Persephone, there is little told of the time between her entry into the Underworld and her ascension. We can imagine that Hekate pulled her into the cave so that she could adapt to her calling. During this period, she transformed from the naïve maiden to the sovereign queen.”15
Like Persephone, I need to remove the societal mask I have outgrown and embrace my soul’s true essence. I need to shed the false skin of familial and societal expectations that were projected upon me so I can be my authentic self. Just as flowers return from the Underworld in the spring, I will be able to step back into the light when I am ready to blossom into the wholeness of my personal sovereignty.
I can’t praise Entering Hekate’s Cave enough. This book came to me because I needed it. It also validated some of my personal revelations about the relationship between Persephone and Hekate, and blessed me with new insights as well. Dr. Brannen is a gifted healer and her work is a boon for all of those who have been called to serve Hekate and illuminate the darkness.
Rachel Christina McConnell is a witch, tarot reader, intuitive astrologer, and writing spider. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in the City of New York. Her short stories have appeared in Dark Moon Lilith Press and Minerva Rising Press’s The Keeping Room. Links to her publications are available here: https://rachelchristinamcconnell.wordpress.com