Worshipping the Underworld: the Chthonic Deities
By Nokomis Dream and Anne S.
From April 6th through to April 8th is the Greek Festival honouring all Greek Chthonic deities. This festival is actually a regular one observed during the last three days of each Greek month.
The Greek word khtonios means "of the earth", or "subterranean". It refers to the aspects of the gods that mainly connects "with the underworld, death, and with the life-giving and life-sustaining aspects of agriculture". The chthonic deities are the gods of the wheel of life, the primal forces of nature - death and fertility. These are the original gods from the times before humanity became civilised and made the gods bathe and dress up with fine clothes and scented oils. These deities needed to be placated, entreated, worshiped - not bargained with. Originally, the chthonic deities were the offspring of Gaea as well as Gaea, the Great Goddess, herself. These offspring, Uranus (the sky god), Ourea (the earth god), and Pontus (the ocean god), and Gaea's later children, the Titans and Cyclopes, represented primaeval nature.
With the coming of the Olympians, the original gods were defeated, consumed, and changed. Many of their chthonic functions were taken over by the new deities. Zeus, the ultimate Sky-God, contains within him the chthonic nature of Uranus, his grandfather. Demeter, the new Mother Earth, reveals both Gaea and Ourea within her more primative actions. In a true polytheistic worldview, the chthonic deity is separate to the non-chthonic. Thus Zeus and Zeus Chthonios are distinct individuals who are connected yet different. But this concept is not an easy one, and many people refer to the chthonic deities as aspects of the god - sort of like a split-personality, if you will.
The Greek Olympians hold within them all that is both good and bad. This seeming dichotomy is based in the ancient view of the gods. Unlike the Christian concept of God, and his opponent Satan, the ancient Greeks came to believe there was no such thing as a god who was absolutely good or one who was absolutely evil. Instead, aspects of both battled within the same deity, and thus a god could be both kind and cruel - often within the same breath.
While this view held for all the Olympian Greek gods, it did not for the Chthonic deities. They were passion personified in all its glory and savagery. But they were also viewed as enemies to humanity - evil because they desired the obliteration of humanity. As the original Chthonic deities were subsumed by the Olympians, this view shifted.
So, who are the Chthonic deities?
Simply, they began as the pre-Olympian deities, but came to be the gods and goddesses who represented the Greek Underworld. To our modern eye this may seem a less than desirable set of gods to worship. The Underworld reeks of death, destruction, despair. But that is a modern viewpoint. It is true those things exist there, but so too do others. In the Underworld germinates the seed that reaches up towards the light. The Underworld is a necessary part of the Wheel. It is pregnant with waiting life, a place of rest, and the fervent, seething energy of creation and destruction from which we all come.
So when you ask why I might choose to write about something so scary and dark as chthonic gods and the Underworld, I respond by asking what is there to be afraid of? Let us consider which gods contain chthonic elements within their natures.
As mentioned, Demeter is both an Olympian and Chthonic goddess. "Olympian" refers to her heavenly aspects, her nature as the earth mother that feeds us all. But she has a darker side - that of the maddened, ravening, devouring winter that descends upon us. Demeter plunged the world into eternal winter when Persephone was stolen away, reminding us that the love of a mother is not only soft and gentle, but ferocious and unstoppable. Demeter is fearsome indeed, because of her love. Do we not also contain such seeds within us? Should we not look to her as an example of what we are capable of in defense of that which we hold most dear?
Hades, life's enemy, ruler of the realm of death, is another Chthonic deity. He is as unavoidable as death - and as implacable. The ancients did not worship him, although they sacrificed to him. Afterall, death is a part of life, and Hades must be honoured. Hades is not a cruel god - he ensures that all souls end up where they belong, whether the Elysium Fields or Tartarus. He is honest and fair, reminding us that death itself is not a hateful enemy, but rather a natural process that ensures life can continue in balance.
The Queen of the Underworld is Persephone>. She holds the place of woman standing between childhood and maturity - symbolising innocence and the light, Persephone is abducted by Hades to become his wife in the dark Underworld. This is not the tragedy it seems, but rather the voyage each girl undertakes to become a woman - the loss of her carefree, sunny childhood as she takes on the rights, responsibilities, and priveleges of becoming an adult. Persephone chooses to eat the pomegranate, fruit of love and sexuality. She is no pawn in this. She knows full well she could resist Hades and await rescue by her mother. But rather she willingly metamorphoses to a sexual being and takes up the reins of power confered by the Underworld. In Persephone lies the route to self-control and awakening. Through her we see that the Underworld is a place of power and life awaiting rebirth through sexuality and fertility.
Dionysus, god of wine, civilisation, divine ecstacy and rage is a god of contradictions. He can be gentle and loving - like the earth in spring, or violent and destructive as a winter's storm. His chthonic nature comes from his role as escort of the dead back to the world of the living, and as the god of rebirth. Through his medium (wine) the worshipper casts free of civilisation and hearkens back to a more primative state, but at the same time can approach moments of great lucidity and revelation. Truly, Dionysus offers us much in self-discovery and realisation.
Another god of the dead is Hermes in his guise as Hermes Psychopomp. He guides the dead to the Underworld, brings dreams to mortals, and originally was worshipped as a god of fertility. Yet again that connection of the Underworld, the subconscious, and fertility/sexuality in the chthonic god. Hermes' true nature is symbolised by the boundary marker - he is also god of boundaries - a stone pillar chosen for its permanence to mark lines that should not be crossed. Yet this is exactly what Hermes does - he crosses the boundary between Olympia, Earth, and Hades with ease bearing those in transition (the dead) from life to dead, and from Hades to Earth carrying messages for the living (dreams).
Hermes Psychopomp life's enemy, ruler of the realm of death, is another Chthonic deity. He is as unavoidable as death - and as implacable. The ancients did not worship him, although they sacrificed to him. Afterall, death is a part of life, and Hades must be honoured. Hades is not a cruel god - he ensures that all souls end up where they belong, whether the Elysium Fields or Tartarus. He is honest and fair, reminding us that death itself is not a hateful enemy, but rather a natural process that ensures life can continue in balance.
And of course, there is Zeus, the ruler of the Olympian gods. Son of Cronus, Zeus stands on the cusp between Titan and Olympian. He is a god of the sky, and the storm. He is the Father of the Gods. And, in his chthonic nature, he is also a god of the dead. I tend to think that Zeus' continual philandering is a signal of his chthonic nature as well. The primal urge to procreate that Zeus shows is one long attributed to men as a primative, biological drive closely tied to the need to ensure survival of the species. This alongside the alpha-male status of Zeus, and the requisite breeding that entails, indicate a strong underlying fertility context to his role. Zeus, as Father-Killer, represents the overthrow of the past by vigourous new life which procedes to recreate and redefine itself. Powerful, and potentially terrifying in his potent vitality and unrestrained violence, Zeus is a necessary component to life - otherwise we stagnate.
Lastly is Hekate, the god of crossroads, protector and guide to gods and mortals, and bringer of light. Like Hermes Psychopomp, Hekate can travel at will between the realms of life and death, conscious and sub-conscious. Mistress of the moon, she bears fearsome power akin to that of Zeus, but with a woman's mind behind it. Hekate sees through the veil of time to the future and the past. She sees the true face of all, and offers her own to our sight. Her face is one of terrible beauty. Medusa is said to be one of the faces of Hekate - whose beauty and nature were so fearfully pure that the viewer turned to stone. In this legend, and its corrupted version with evil and ugliness, we see the remnants of Hekate's power. To face her without fear, we must look into the mirror and confront the vision we see there. This vision is not of her, but rather the self. And it is in this that Hekate can be found. She is the guardian of the gate - the gate of knowledge. To approach her requires courage as she is both creator and destroyer, and expects much. Not only does she reward those who succeed, but she punishes those who fail.
These, then, are the chthonic deities. As can be seen in the sparse descriptions alone, they are contradictory and demanding. There is a fear, a wariness of these deities evident in the extant material, yet also a fixation upon this Underworld nature. The Greeks never managed to let go of this remnant from their uncivilised past. The orgiastic rites of Demeter, the bloody rites of Dionysus, remained with them throughout their history.
Why didn't the "good" gods take over completely? Why not simply forget about the pre-Olympian gods and their chaotic nature? Why let hints of them linger in the stories of gods blackmailing humans, and demanding obscene payment for deeds done wrong? I find it interesting that writers of old didn't find a way to edge out the doers of evil, and have the typical outcome of simple good triumphing over simple evil. There is bad in life, and in the stories - and it is rarely simple. Complex weavings create stories where the hero is the one who commits the greatest crime - such as Orestes - and suffers eternal torment, despite having been manouvered into his role by fate and the gods.
But, the ancients recognized that death itself is not evil - it should be a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the hectic pace that we chose to keep for ourselves. And so too the Chthonic deities. While the desire of those pre-Olympian gods to destroy humanity may be evil from our perspective, the ancients accepted that from the gods' viewpoint it was natural. They accepted the dichotomy of reverencing that which would destroy them. And in the children of these deities, they saw the shadow of such destruction and acknowledged it as being no more "wrong" than a force of nature.
The writers of old could not remove such complexity from their stories - it reflected life. In many ways it reflected life more accurately than a simple good defeats evil ever could. Life is not a story that always ends happily. Acknowledging this is an important part of accepting and enjoying what happiness comes your way. Maybe this is why the worship of the Chthonic deities never died out.