Chthonic in ancient Greek means “of the earth”, as opposed to the heavenly deities who lived in Olympus. These deities could be deities of the fertile earth, like agricultural deities, or else of the underworld. Heroes and the spirits of the dead were also considered chthonic.1
Olympian deities could also have a chthonian side: Zeus, who would seem like the ultimate sky-god, also held the title Chthonios. Hermes had his underworld aspect, and the goddess Demeter spanned not only earth and sky, but also the regions below.
Some Chthonic Deities
Her daughter, Persephone, ruled the underworld with her husband, Hades, making them the ultimate chthonic deities. Hecate, who shared Hermes’ ability to move between earth, sky and underworld, was another, along with the Erinyes who avenged the slain. Other include the personnel of Hades, such as Charon, Cerebus and Hypnos, the fate-alloting Moriae, the primordial goddess Nyx, and various heroes revered after their deaths.
In the main, people invoked these deities when remembering their dead, when someone sought vengeance on behalf of the dead, or wished to evoke the souls of the dead for magic. (Necromancy, perhaps.)
Hades and Hecate also appear among the agricultural deities, thanks to their connections with Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone. Ploutos, god of wealth, is another, since he was Demeter’s son by the hero Iason, and Triplotemos, the god of sowing and milling wheat, who offered Demeter hospitality when she was in mourning.
Cult and Sacrifices
Walter Burkert, and other Classical scholars, paint a dismal picture of the chthonic rites:
In both the cult of the dead and the hero cult, which are specialized forms of Chthonic worship, the ritual is performed in despair and sorrow; unadorned and uncleansed, the worshipers approach the altar with lamentation and grief for the travails of mortal life. This contrasts starkly with the purity and festivity of the Olympian rituals, where no sound of lamentation should be heard over the praises to the gods. Altars to the ouranioi are piled towards the sky with heavy stones; an altar to the chthonioi reaches towards the depths, a pit or hearth. These altars are located in a raised temple to the gods (Olympian) or a family shrine in a sacred house (Chthonic). Rituals are performed often back to back, sacrificing to the earthly spirits in dark of night and rejoicing to the heavens with the following sunrise. The sacrifices themselves contrast as well: the consecrated sacrifice to the heavenly powers (hiereuein) is burned and the smoke rises to the skies, while the sacrifice to the subterranean powers is cut into the fire (entemnein).
In chthonian sacrifices, the victims were usually:
- burned whole, or mainly burned instead of eaten
- libations without wine (water, honey, barley water or other liquids)
- pouring blood on the ground
- black or pregnant victims
- meat must be eaten on the spot
There is some overlap between rites for the underworld deities and the agricultural ones, although it’s open to debate just how close the two were.
An inscription from Mykonos directs its readers to sacrifice black animals each year to Zeus Chthonios and Gaea, while Hesiod says that the farmer should pray to Zeus Chthonios and Demeter before ploughing. The harvest festival at Hermione, held in honour of Demeter, was called the Chthonia.
Another form of Zeus, called Meilichios or the mild, could take the form of a seated man, or a snake. According to Burkert his name represented reconciliation with the dead, and the softening effect of making offerings to the dead.
Oracle of Asklepios
The oracle of Asklepios had its chthonic aspects, for all that Asklepios was the son of Apollo. The healer-god’s symbol was his staff with the snake twined round it, snakes were kept in his sanctuaries, and he himself could take the form of a snake. (His home sanctuary at Epidaurus sent images in the form of a snake to their daughter sanctuaries at Sikyon and Athens.)
The pilgrims who sought cures from Asklepios had to sacrifice a piglet, then sleep on the ground in the hopes of either a straight cure or a dream that would reveal the cure to them. This seems to suggest that contact with the ground was an important part of the cure, perhaps so the pilgrims could receive messages from the underworld.
Cursing and Magic
People also invoked the underworld deities and the dead spirits for magic, especially for cursing. This might seem a little shocking to us, but there are so many curse tablets throughout the Greek world (and later the Roman Empire) that it must have seemed normal to curse someone who wronged you.
Hecate Chthonia, Artemis Chthonia, Hermes Chthonios:
cast your hate upon Phanagora and Demetrios,
and their tavern and their property and their possessions.
I will bind my enemy Demetrios, and Phana-
gora, in blood and ashes,
with all the dead. Nor will the next four-year cycle release you.
I will bind you in such a bind,
Demetrios, strong as possible,
and I will smite down a kynotos upon your tongue.
If you read my blog post on the Gaulish god Ogmios, you will remember a similar curse, but invoking Dis Pater and Aerecura, perhaps a Gallo-Roman version of Hades and Persephone. We know the Gauls saw a similar division of deities into under- and upper-world from another curse tablet, from Larzac in the south of France, which invokes the andedion or underworld deities, as well as the goddess Bricta.
No doubt the Celtc and Greek deities served similar purposes. Part of an Olympian deity’s identity is their immortality; but mortals are born to die. While the gods and goddesses of the dead are themselves fearsome, they can be propitiated, and even enlisted on one’s side against injustice. And it is comforting to know that after death someone will be there to receive you, and ensure that you are given your due in offerings and recollection.
References and Links
Burket, Walter, 1985: Greek Relgion, Archaic and Classical, trans. John Raffan, Harvard University Press. (Google Books)
Fairbanks, Arthur 1900: “The Chthonic Gods of Greek Religion,” The American Journal of Philology 21/ 3: 241-259. (JSTOR)
Lamont, Jessica 2015: “A New Commercial Curse Tablet from Classical Athens.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 196: 159-174. (Academia.edu)
Parker, Robert B. 2011: On Greek Religion, Cornell University Press.
Scullion, Scott 1994: “Olympian and Chthonian”, Classical Antiquity 13/1 (Apr): 75-119. (JSTOR)