The chthonic greatness of Hellenism

About a year or so ago I got seduced into appreciating Hellenism through Greek black metal bands like Rotting Christ, Kawir, Varathron, Thou Art Lord, Necromantia and Macabre Omen, and since then I have even gone so far as to Hellenize my current logo (via the inclusion of laurel wreathes, meanders and a variation of the Veringian Sun).

One thing I have come to realize in the process is that there are numerous ways to look at the Greek pantheon of deities, and it is very interesting the ways you can interpret them through a chthonic or Left Hand Path lens. A number of Greek deities have surprisingly chthonic associations, and even chthonic cults. The obvious chthonic deities would definitely be Hades, Persephone, Hecate, maybe Pan to some extent. But we won’t focus on them, precisely because we immediately know of their chthonic nature. Instead we’ll focus on the major players of the pantheon of Olympus who you typically don’t think of as chthonic deities, or at least not immediately.

Let’s start with the king of Olympus himself, Zeus. Not many people know that Zeus has manifested in the form of serpent, but there are Greek myths and cults that record precisely that. As Zeus Meilichios, Zeus was worshiped as a chthonic deity in the form of a snake, and his cult was focused on the obtainment of wealth and prosperity through propitiation to the deity. Zeus Meilichios has been referred to as a kindly, seemingly benevolent deity, but his nature was believed to alternate between benevolence and wrath, and his followers were required to appease him frequently in order to stay on his good side. Xenophon once recorded how his failure to offer a sacrifice to Zeus Meilichios supposedly resulted in a shortage of money. He was also believed by a deity (or daimon) of vengeance, similar to Alastor and or the Erinyes, but was also believed to be able to purify the souls of those who killed another as an act an revenge by petitioning him with the sacrifice of a ram in a holokaustos (basically a sacrificial rite wherein they burn an animal or parts of in a pyre to the deity at night).

As a side-note of sorts, Zeus Meilichios sometimes shared cult space with Athena, the goddess of wisdom and patron of the city of Athens, and Zeus was accompanied by Athena while he was in the form of a serpent. In a similar manner, the cult of Athena Itonia has a serpent companion adjacent to the goddess, suggesting a serpent familiar. It was even recorded that, in a cult devoted to a chthonic Zeus at Koroneia, Athena takes the place of Persephone as the queen of the underworld. Athena Itonia herself is said to be an echo of a primitive mode of worship devoted to her in Athens wherein she was a goddess of the earth responsible for its nourishment. So apparently, at least when adjacent to a chthonic Zeus, Athena had chthonic associations of her own albeit expressed chiefly in local cults.

The serpent Zeus Meilichios

Anyways, the form of Zeus Meilichios this is not the only time Zeus has appeared as a serpent. Another cult has Zeus appear as a serpent in the form of Zeus Ktesios. Ktesios was the name of a benevolent spirit or daimon charged as the guardian of the household, but may also have been an old fertility deity. Zeus Ktesios was seen as a deity of the storerooms, though some say Zeus Ktesios is simply Ktesios taking the name of Zeus. Like Zeus Meilichios, Zeus Ktesios may also be a daimon of fertility, owing to his snake form. In one myth, Zeus transforms into a serpent in order to pursue the fertility goddess Demeter, who herself transformed into a serpent in order to evade yet another of Zeus’s lustful advances. Their mating produced the goddess Persephone, who would later become the wife of Hades. Zeus transformed into a serpent again (or a dragon depending on who you ask) in order to seduce Persephone, and out this union Persephone bore him a son named Zagreus. We’ll touch on Zagreus in more detail a little later.

For now though, it is worth noting that Zeus Meilichios serves as a connection between Zeus, the ruler of the sky, and Hades, the ruler of the underworld. Due to his chthonic nature, Zeus Meilichios has been identified by some as Zeus-Hades, though he was also associated with Ploutos, the deity of wealth. Despite being a sky god who rules atop Mount Olympus in what is ostensibly the heavenly realm of the cosmos, many of Zeus’ local cults were chthonic in nature in that they are devoted to a chthonic aspect of Zeus. Besides Zeus Meilichios, there was Zeus Philios who was also apparently depicted as serpent, but was a much friendlier deity (or daimon) associated with banquets. There was also a deity named Zeus Eubouleus, who was part of a triad alongside Demeter and Kore (Persephone) at Attica and who may have been treated as either a local avatar of Ploutos or a demigod. However, there was also a separate deity, or more likely a demigod or hero, named Eubouleus (who may also have been identified with Ploutos), who was the guardian of the swine of the Eleusinian mysteries and who preside over agriculture, specifically ploughing and the planting of grain (which may, or may not, explain why Jupiter is depicted as sowing seeds in the Roman de la Rose manuscript). Strangely enough Eubouleus is also listed as an epithet of Hades as well as Zeus. Another chthonic aspect of Zeus the oracular daimon Zeus Trophonios. Trophonios was the name of a mortal son of Apollo who got swallowed by the earth and re-emerged as the daimon of a cave near Lebadeia, where he also became known as Zeus Trophonios.

There was also Zeus Chthonios, who was Zeus of the Earth, who was worshipped in Boeotia and Corinthia where he was venerated as Third Most High, and who was either an avatar of Zeus or epithet of Hades. Similarly, Zeus Katachthonious (Zeus of the Underworld), though seemingly an avatar of Zeus, was most likely an alternative name for Hades – for those who dared not to invoke his real name – indicative of Hades’ role as the ruler of the underworld in the same way Zeus rules the sky and of his complete dominion over the underworld. This makes sense given that, although Hades . It is worth noting however that, at least according to Timothy Gantz, that Hades may well have been a shadowy alter ego of Zeus. In a way, to me it seems, the fact that the Greeks, in order to avoid actually approaching Hades (the Greeks were apparently so scared of Hades that he didn’t even have his own formal cult), had to recognize him as the shadow of Zeus; by identifiying Hades as Zeus Katachtonious, acknowledged Hades, who represented death in a way, as the shadow of life, as the shadow of that great heavenly thunder and fire (paging Heraclitus) that steered the cosmos for eternity. And, ironically, perhaps Hades himself has his significance as a chthonic sun.

Hades seated with Persephone

Similarly, we can look at Dionysus and his relation to Hades, and to start with let us return to Zagreus, the son born by Persephone and the serpent Zeus (who in this myth is sometimes referred to as Zeus Katachthonios). Both Zagreus and Dionysus share the same origin story: they were born from Persephone after she mated with Zeus. According to the Orphics, Zagreus was the original, firstborn incarnation of Dionysos, who was killed by the Titans who tore him to pieces out of envy that he was placed on the throne of the heavens. When Zeus saved Zagreus’ heart and placed it in his thigh (or turned into a potion for Semele to drink in one myth), Zagreus was born again as Dionysus. Zagreus might well have been considered a chthonic deity, one of the highest in the underworld, according to early fragments mentioning him as “the highest of all gods”, likely in reference to the gods of the underworld.

If that’s not enough, for Heraclitus, Dionysus and Hades were essentially one. From the Fragments of Heraclitus:

“For if it were not to Dionysos that they made a procession and sang the shameful phallic hymn, they would be acting most shamelessly. But Hades is the same as Dionysos in whose honour they go mad and keep the feast of the wine vat.” – Heraclitus Fragment 15

Dionysus must have represented life due his association with a phallic festival, no doubt tied to fertility, while Hades obviously represented death. In saying that, he explains life and death as being inseparable, one and the same in a sense, and to worship Dionysus and Hades is to worship the same object. In this sense, Heraclitus casts Hades as the shadow of Dionysus. And Heraclitus is not the only one who thought this about Dionysus. According to Karl Kerenyi, there was a “secret” held by the ancients which entailed that Dionysus and Hades were the same being and that thus Dionysus was the Lord of the Dead and the Underworld, perhaps basing this on the way he was worshipped at Eleusis. Curiously enough, Zagreus (who you will remember is the first-born Dionysus) is also identified with Hades by Aeschylus in his Aigyptioi, and the Greeks also identified Dionysus/Zagreus by the Greeks, particularly Diodorus Siculus, with the Egyptian deity Osiris, who was the ruler of the Egyptian underworld, to the point that they even believed Osiris shares myth with Dionysus (specifically, the myth of the infant Dionysus being torn to shreds by the Titans).

Mosaic depicting the Epiphany of Dionysus

Multiple important deities besides Zeus and Dionysus have received the epithet “Chthonios”, indicating status as chthonic deities in some capacity, even if contained to specific cults as is the case for Zeus. One such deity is the goddess Demeter, divine patron of grain and fertility and bringer of the divine law, who was given the epithet “Chthonia”. Given that this the epithet of chthonic or even “infernal” goddesses like Hecate (goddess of witchcraft)’ Nyx (the night) and Melinoe (a goddess of ghosts), Demeter was likely also associated with the chthonic pantheon, which in her case is likely the result of her connection to earthly fertility. Her myths recount the origin of this epithet through the names of some of her worshippers, who built sanctuaries in her honor. It is said that at Eleusis Demeter was the receiver of souls, and at Sparta Demeter Chthonia was venerated as the queen of the underworld instead of Persephone. A notable myth that ties Demeter to the underworld is the myth of the abduction of Persephone, which, depending on the telling, forces Demeter to descend to the underworld in order to negotiate her release, though the typical telling is that she simply sends Hermes to do it on her behalf. This myth is also central to the Eleusinian mysteries, in which Demeter is the central goddess. Within these mysteries, the myth of Persephone’s descent and ascent from the underworld represented the soul’s transition into death and re-emergence into what was supposed to be the next life, and their psychotropic rituals were geared towards re-enacting that myth in order to understand the secret of life and death, which were the mysteries of Demeter.

Hermes is another important deity who receives the epithet “Chthonios”, and in Greek myth he served as the messenger and herald of the gods moves between Olympus and the underworld where he serves as a psychopomp. In the last  book of the Odyssey, the dead were said to be under his care and he was believed to guide them to their proper place in the underworld. There were two aspects associated with Hermes, which were both contained within him in unity – there was an infernal aspect of him that was associated with necromancy, and there was a benevolent aspect of him as the protector and shepherd of souls. All of this could be said to echo his role as the deity of boundaries, and thus associated with the liminal space between this world and the netherworld, almost like a demon. Hermes Chthonios was invoked in private rituals focusing on curses and binding spells, was said to be able to raise chthonic spirits from beneath the earth, and was venerated in festivals honoring the dead. Hermes Chthonios is sometimes identified with another possible chthonic entity by the name of Agathos Daimon, a.k.a. the Agathodaemon. The main reason for this identification is that the caduceus of Hermes represents the attributes of the Agathos Daimon, namely fertility and Hermes, due to his occasional appearance as a phallic deity, also embodies fertility, and the magical papyri of Greece and Roman Egypt position Hermes as a bringer of good fortune.

The serpent Agathos Daimon

Aphrodite, the goddess of love and/or sex, also had something of a chthonic cult to her name. In some regions of the Black Sea, where she might have been a patron of Greek colonization, she was worshipped as a chthonic goddess as well as a goddess of love. In Pisidia (now the Turkish province of Antalya), a bust was uncovered of a woman resembling Aphrodite adorned with tightly braided necklaces and round-shaped earrings apparently also associated with the cult of Demeter-Persephone, and Aphrodite was one of many deities in the region who were venerated as chthonic deities. Aphrodite, as Aphrodite Chthonios, was believed to bestow eternal life to those who had faith in her when they died, and so statues of Aphrodite Chthonios placed in tombs and the goddess was found depicted on sarcophagi thus cementing her funerary associations. In the Bosphorus the cult of Aphrodite had its own chthonic associations, resulting from a syncretism between the cult of Aphrodite and that of the Scythian goddess Argimpasa, who was identified with Aphrodite Ourania. Aphrodite-Argimpasa and may have been a local equivalent of Ishtar or Inanna. Like the Aphrodite Chthonios of Pisidia, this goddess was frequently adjacent to death, appearing as decoration of funerary objects and the garments of the deceased. Subordinate to the goddess is an anguiped, a monstrous-looking divinity with serpents for legs, who may have been a nymph or a goddess herself but was also depicted as a cruel figure brandishing a severed head. Ironically enough for a goddess with the epithet Ourania (Ourania meaning “heavenly”), Aphrodite Ourania seems to have been treated as a chthonic goddess in her cult appearances, being viewed as an ancient daimon of vegetation in association with Eros and Ares, appearing in annual rebirth. Aphrodite of the Underworld was also venerated in a sanctuary of Persephone at Locri. Chthonic Aphrodite may also have been treated as a goddess of vengeance, allied with the powers of the Erinyes (or Furies).

Aphrodite Ourania riding upon a goose

There was also a chthonic Artemis (who normally is a light-bringing goddess), worshipped as Artemis Amarysia at Amarynthos. This chthonic Artemis was considered one of two aspects of Artemis worshipped at Amarynthos distinguished mainly by the sacrifices they accepted. The chthonic Artemis accepted lame or maimed sheep as offerings while the other Artemis, Artemis Olympia, accepted bulls as offerings. The chthonic Artemis was also strongly linked with the goddess Hecate, and hence identified as a syncretic deity named Artemis-Hecate. Artemis also was associated with chthonic divinities at Kamarina, in the Italian island of Sicily, where she was worshipped in votives alongside Demeter and Persephone.

As strange as it seems, even Apollo who is traditionally held to be a solar deity had chthonic associations. In Anatolia, Apollo’s chthonic associations derived from his association with healing and incubation in artificial grottos, along with his alleged adventures in the underworld, and his apparent relation to a curious Iranian name Khshathrapati. Khshathrapati, for those who don’t know what the hell it is, is a name meaning “Lord of Power” which may or may not have been a name for a god, and scholars suspect it may have been a name either for Mithra or for Apollo. Apollo was also connected to the Babylonian deity Nergal, who was both a solar deity and a deity of the underworld and like Apollo he commanded plagues (which for Apollo might be the inverse of his aspect as a healing deity), and both were associated with snakes and ravens. It’s also worth noting that Apollo wasn’t always a solar deity, and only gradually became a solar deity within the Hellenic religion, so it is possible that he may originally have been a chthonic healing deity or something to that effect. Apollo may also have head an association with death through his association with a chthonic cult at Amyklai dedicated to him (as Apollo Amyklai) and his lover Hyacinthus (who was a mortal man). Leto, the mother of both Artemis and Apollo, represented alongside her nymphs a volatile spring that upheaved from the earth, and her cult at Lycia involved her presiding over graves, so she too has her chthonic associations.

Depiction of the throne of Apollo at Amyklai

Hera, wife of Zeus, may also have been an earth goddess at some point, possibly interacting with primeval water dragons that nourished her earth and their reinstallment on the riverbed renewing the earth, which may explain her status as the nurturer of monsters such as the Lernean Hydra. Hephaestus also has a noticeable relation to the earth, not just in being associated with volcanoes and aided by chthonic creatures such as the Cyclopes and chthonic spirits such as the Dactyls, but also as a deity who fell from Olympus, spurned by his own mother Hera, and descending to earth. His sons and grandsons are the Cabiri, who were worshipped in a mystery cult in Samothrace. The war deity Ares also has minor chthonic associations. For instance, at Sparta, the sacrifice of black dogs was seen as an unusual choice, which was taken to be chthonic in nature, the Amazons’ offering of horses to Ares was also seen as primitive, he is sometimes seen as associated with the Erinyes due to his bloodthirsty nature, and a dragon, namely the dragon slain by Cadmus, was considered sacred to Ares. Scholars also think that Ares may have originally been an explicitly chthonic deity, specifically either a fertility deity or a deity of plague and death, before becoming a vicious war deity in Homer’s writings. Finally, Poseidon, the sea deity, was originally an overtly chthonic deity, and this might still be echoed in the fact that one of his epithets, Enosichthon, means “earth-shaker”. Not only do the epithets of Enosichthon and Gaieochos signify some relation to the earth, and from there properties as an argicultural deity in addition to sea deity, but at Tainaron he even served as an oracle of the dead.

Another link to the chthonic aspect of the Greek divine was the epithet Kourotrophos, meaning “child-nurturer”. The reason for this, according to Theodora Hadzisteliou Price in her book Kourotrophos: Cults and Representations of the Greek Nursing Deities, is the notion that life springs from the earth and returns to the earth upon death, which is hence linked to the cycle that the Kourotrophoi represent – pregnancy, the beginning of life, the care of the child, life growing, and death, the departure of the soul and its fortune in the next world. Many Greek deities were venerated as Kourotrophoi, including Apollo, Artemis, Hecate, Hermes, Aphrodite, Athena, Gaia and Demeter. The children cradled by the Kourotrophoi are also held to be chthonic in nature, and those children included the Cretan Zeus, Persephone, Trophonious, Heracles, Ploutos and Erichthonios, and it is supposed that this chthonic nature is an echo of the pre-Hellenic religious tradition of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans (more on that subject later). Kourotrophos also seems to have been the name of a standalone Athenian goddess who was worshiped as the protector of children, and who may have been treated as a healing goddess as well.

A seated kourotrophos, either a goddess or a mortal woman

Something else worth noting about the chthonic aspect of Hellenism is that, before what is generally established as Hellenic Greece came into being, the religion of the Mycenaean civilization had a generally chthonic tone, or at least that is what speculated. Whereas in Hellenism the deity Poseidon was a sea deity, for the Myceneans he was a deity of the earth, specifically earthquakes, and was the head deity of the Mycenaean pantheon, which may have been suggested by the name Poseidon-Wanax (Wanax possibly meaning “Lord”). Unsurprisingly then, Poseidon’s cult was the strongest and most powerful of them all before what’s referred to as the “Dorian invasion”. A goddess known by name or title Potnia was also powerful at this point, possibly the mother goddess of the Mycenaeans, and in the later Hellenic world Potnia simply became an epithet for other goddess (such as Potnia Theron for Artemis). In addition, many of the major deities that have been described in this post emerged from the original Mycanaean religion, and it is possible that those deities had strong chthonic associations in that time that had to were largely officially shed in the Homeric pantheon and from their the Hellenic religion, leaving the most of the chthonic tendencies consigned largely to local cults.

So as it stands, we have perhaps an interesting picture of that hidden chthonic side of Hellenic religion, with many major deities having a chthonic side to them that often gets sidelined in most popular understandings of them and, to be fair, the mainstream of Hellenic religion, as well as a pre-Hellenic religious tradition that may or may not have been dominated by chthonic impulse. What it tells us, perhaps, is two things. First of these that it is a known fact that Hades and his realm of death were feared by Greek society to the point that Hades had no formal popular cult. The underworld was the place where most of the dead were thought to end up, so it was considered a place of dread, though not quite as harrowing as regions such as Tartarus, certainly not the blissful abode of Olympus. So, the local chthonic cults may well have been a way of dealing with deities like Hades and his wife Persephone and their realm as simply avatars of the divine, as was likely the case with the chthonic Zeuses, Aphrodites and Athenas. Secondly, there is the possibility that, despite their fear and loathing for death and for Hades, the Greeks considered the chthonic realm, of the underworld and the earth, as much a part of the cosmos as the realm of Olympus, so it would make just as much sense to occasionally worship chthonic deities, albeit including the chthonic guises of the Olympians, as it did to worship the Olympians themselves.

Relief of Demeter

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