I had considered writing this as a Twitter thread, but it occurs to me there is a lot more to say and thus I think it would be best to write this as its own article. I think it’s somewhat fitting considering the long-standing obsession I have with chthonicism; I have spoken of a “chthonic path” since at least 2015, and continue to dwell on research the subject of just about anything chthonic. After looking at my articles on Satanic Paganism (see here and here) to see if I had already dissected the subject there, I decided that there is space for more exposition in a separate article. You can think of it as sort of a ramble about what is admittedly a ridiculously broad concept within pre-Christian (and especially “classical” Mediterranean) culture, but the insight we may derive from it will, I hope, become apparent. So here we go, into the underworld.
To begin with, what do I mean by “chthonicism”? Simply put, chthonicism is a word I use to refer to a generalized orientation towards that which is called “chthonic”, which in turn means an orientation towards the contents of the underworld. In my opinion this, in turn, entails a fixation on a greater mystery represented by the underworld and its power, a mystery that is lodged at the spiritual core of Paganism as a religious worldview. Thus chthonicism is one of the core and immutable links to the Pagan worldview within my own distinct philosophy.
In a religious and mythology context, the word “chthonic” typically refers to that which inhabits the underworld and can mean “subterraneous”. The word itself, however, comes from the Greek word “khthon”, which means “earth”, “ground”, or “soil”. This denotes a relationship between the earth and its inner life, the natural world and its ur-naturality, as I hope to convey it.
Chthonic Divinity in the “Classical” Context
There is a vast legacy of chthonicism across the pre-Christian world, though more pronounced in some cultures than others. This will as a result be an exhausitve overview. As is entirely predictable for me at this point, I think the best place to start is ancient Greece and across ancient Italy. The Hellenic world recognised numerous chthonic gods, as well as chthonic aspects in gods that were not typically considered chthonic. Ancient Italy, particularly Etruria and Rome, likewise has a vast chthonic complex comprising numerous deities and rich with religious meaning. I guess you could say we have much to talk about.
One of the most important chthonic deities in Greece was Hermes. Hermes was a trickster, a messenger, a god of commerce and communication, but he was also psychopomp, leading the souls of the deceased to their destined place in the underworld. His link to the underworld is also denoted by one of his epithets, Chthonios, meaning “of the earth”. As Hermes Chthonios, he was also evoked in curses, worshipped as a patron god of necromancy, believed to be capable of summoning spirits from the earth, and venerated in festivals dedicated to the dead. Some funerary stele depict Hermes Chthonios as though rising from the earth or from the grave, his epithet giving him an almost fixed place in the earth perhaps at odds with Hermes’ typically liminal character. Some curse tablets also give Hermes the epithet Katachthonios, or “subterranean”, which is apparently meant to signify his ability to immobilize people and restrict their movement in curses. Hermes Chthonios was also probably identified with the Agathos Daimon, itself a sort of chthonic spirit, in that Hermes shares its attributes of fertility and good fortune
Another major chthonic god within the Hellenic pantheon is Dionysus. Even though Dionysus is popularly understood mostly as a god of wine and drunkenness, he was actually also a god of the underworld, divine madness, and the power of death and rebirth. Dionysus, like Hermes, was sometimes worshipped as Dionysus Chthonios, and in this context Dionysus Chthonios was the god that wondered in the underworld only to periodically emerge in the overworld. Dionysus even appears frequently in Greek and Roman funerary artwork. In fact, the Orphic hymn to Hermes Chthonios seems to refer to this Hermes as “Bacchic Hermes”, suggesting that his chthonic element is linked to Dionysus as his progeny. Dionysus was also, in the context of mystery tradition, the son of the goddess Persephone, a ruling goddess of the underworld. Much of Dionysus’ chthonic identity is in a certain sense reflected in his past, through the god Zagreus. Zagreus is an epithet of Dionysus, but Zagreus was also a god of the underworld, who was worshipped alongside “Mistress Earth” (possibly meaning Gaia) was at one point called “the highest of all the gods”, at least meaning the gods of the earth or underworld. In Orphic myths, Zagreus is born, killed and dismembered by the Titans, and then is reborn as Dionysus, in this context thus cementing Dionysus’ link to death and rebirth as a god who dies and is reborn. Dionysus was also frequently identified with other chthonic deities, including the Egyptian god Osiris and most notably none other than Hades, the ruler of the Greek underworld. The philosopher Heraclitus regarded Dionysus as identical to Hades, saying in reference to orgiastic rites dedicated to the god, “If they did not order the procession in honor of the god and address the phallus song to him, this would be the most shameless behavior. But Hades is the same as Dionysos, for whom they rave and act like bacchantes.”. Here Dionysus and Hades are identified as one, Dionysos was life and Hades was death, and both one and the same principle of indestructible and recurrent life. And of course Dionysus and Hades did share multiple epithets, they are sometimes shown together in funeral craters, Dionysus sometimes takes the place of Hades in his throne in some portrayals, and in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter we see that Demeter refuses a gift of red wine, sacred to Dionysus.
We absolutely cannot talk about chthonicism in Greece without talking about Hecate, the goddess of magic and the crossroads. One of Hecate’s main epithets is Chthonia, already explicitly positioning her among the chthonic goddesses. Hecate was believed to preside over the oracles of the dead and was the patron goddess of the art of necromancy, summoning the spirits of the dead, who she led across the world at night. She was also believed to hold the keys to the underworld, that could open the passages between the realms, and thus was believed to be able to open the gates of death. Hecate was also so strongly identified with the underworld by the late Hellenistic era at least that she became syncretized in magical texts with Ereshkigal, the Babylonian goddess of the underworld. Hecate was also a custodian of impurity and uncleanliness per one of her epithet, Borborophorba, meaning “eater of filth”. This epithet may also connect her to the earth in some way, perhaps suggestive of the earth consuming the dead.
Hades himself, as a chthonic power par excellence in Greek myth, offers a lot of context to Hellenic chthonicism. Of course, Hades was never really worshipped directly, since most Greeks feared Hades as the lord of the dead and, in some sense, even of death itself. Indeed, Hades was sometimes believed to consume the corpses of the dead. Even very his name wasn’t uttered, because he was sometimes seen as the god “most hateful to mortals”. Instead, Hades was frequently worshipped through different more palatable names. For instance, in certain chthonic cults, Hades is given the name Zeus Katachthonios, or “subterranean Zeus”, perhaps positioning Hades as a sort of dark mirror image of Zeus. Zeus Katachthonios was often worshipped alongside the goddess Persephone as his consort, and in some versions of the Orphic myth it is Zeus Katachthonios who sired Zagreus-Dionysus with Persephone. Another popular name for Hades, in place of his real name, was Plouton, through which he was worshipped as a god of the earth and its mineral bounty as well as the seeds that lead to a good harvest. Over time, the name Hades came to be used more as a reference to denote the realm of the underworld, which was believed to be ruled over by Plouton, the earth god. But to ancient Greeks, the name Plouton was less evocative of the spectre of death and more evocative of the fertility and wealth of the earth, which thus positioned the underworld he ruled over as a source of boundless life and prosperity. Hades, as Plouton, was worshipped in a handful of shrines referred to as Ploutonion, which were believed to represent entrances to the underworld. At Hierapolis (modern day Pamukkale, Turkiye), one such Ploutonion was attended by a statue of Hades and his guard dog Cerberus, and was otherwise visited by priests of the goddess Cybele.
If there’s another chthonic power par excellence, it is none other than the earth itself, often worshipped as the goddess Gaia. In modern times Gaia is often understood as a strictly benign power, an abstract representation of life and its goodness affected as the consciousness of the earth. But Gaia, as the earth, was not worshipped this way in the Hellenic context. In fact, in parts of Greece, Gaia was worshipped in association with the dead, particularly during an old festival predating the Anthesteria, and may also have been worshipped alongside Hermes and Hades at the Areopagus. Gaia herself was also called Chthon or Chthonia, which is perhaps fitting since these names also mean “earth”. Gaia also sometimes received the sacrifices of black lambs or rams, as many other chthonic deities often received sacrifices from black animals, and her cult was frequently conflated with that of another goddess: Demeter. Demeter is perhaps the other major Greek goddess for whom the term “earth mother” is quite apt. Demeter herself was also, for one thing, worshipped with the epithet Chthonia. For another thing, Demeter was not merely a goddess of the earth, soil, or grain but also, in her own right, a goddess of the dead, who brought things to life and welcomed them back in death, as was believed to be characteristic of the earth itself. In Sparta, Demeter was the goddess who was worshipped as queen of the underworld in lieu of the usual Persephone. In Athens, the dead were referred to as the Demetrioi, meaning “people of Demeter”, suggesting that they are in her domain. At Eleusis, Demeter was the main goddess of a mystery tradition in which she bestowed secret rites that were meant to grant immortality or a blessed afterlife upon initiates who re-enacted a descent into the underworld.
There’s a lot to be said about Persephone herself, the queen of the underworld and consort of Hades. Like her mother Demeter, Persephone was also considered both a goddess of the underworld and a goddess of vegetation. She also goes by the name Kore, a name that in the Greek context denoted more specifically a goddess of nature, and its simultaneous creative and destructive power. In Arcadia, Persephone was worshipped as Despoina, which was also the name of an old chthonic goddess who was worshipped in Arcadia as the goddess of a local mystery tradition in which even her very name was only revealed to initiates. Persephone seems to have been a central figure in the theme of katabatic descent; the Orphic initiate was to greet Persephone in order to confirm their liberation, while the philosopher Parmenides talked about having descended to meet “the Goddess”, who is at least speculated to be Persephone. Persephone is also sometimes paired with the goddess Hecate; in fact, in the Greek Magical Papyri, Hecate and Persephone are shown dining in the graveyard together, again perhaps representing the earth devouring the dead.
And of course, there were many other chthonic deities known to the ancient Hellenes. There is of course Thanatos, the daemon/god of death itself, as well as the Keres, the daemons representing violent death in particular. The god Adonis was also worshipped as a chthonic deity, or at least invoked as one in spells. There are also the Erinyes (or Eumenides), chthonic daemons/goddesses of vengeance who were also worshipped as goddesses of the earth in Athens under the name Semnai Theai, and who notably challenge the authority of even gods like Apollo. “Vengeful daemons” in general were considered chthonic spirits, which were sometimes believed to punish perjurers and other wrongdoers. There are goddesses like Macaria, the daughter of Hades and goddess of the blessed death, Angelos, daughter of Zeus who became a goddess of the underworld, and Melinoe, goddess of the propitiation of ghosts, and there was Hypnos, the daemon of sleep who lived with Thanatos in the undeworld. The Moirae, or Fates, were sometimes portayed as attending the throne of Hades, and Nyx (Night) herself was believed to reside in the underworld and yet even Zeus answered to her. Themis, the goddess of divine law, was also apparently an earth goddess who may have originally presided over the oracle at Delphi before it was taken over by Apollo. And there was Kronos, the god-devouring Titan who consigned to Tartarus after being defeated and overthrown by Zeus. In the Greek Magical Papyri, Kronos’ chains and sceptre are given to Hecate, possibly suggesting a link between Hecate and the power of Kronos. The Titans themselves were arguably understood to be chthonic powers in their own right; Hesiod describes them as “earth-born”, while in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo the goddess Hera invokes the Titans as “gods who dwell beneath the earth about great Tartarus” to aid her against Zeus. Hera similarly invokes the Titans in the Illiad as “all the gods below Tartarus” in an oath.
What is truly fascinating about the context of Greek polytheism is that chthonic worship seems to have been pervasive enough that even gods that normally are not chthonic, or at least not typically considered chthonic, can and have been worshipped in a chthonic way. Pan, for instance, has no connection to the underworld. But he was frequently worshipped in caves and underground. Examples include the Phyle Cave at Mount Parnes in Attica, the Corcyian Cave at Mount Parnassus in Delphi, the Vari Cave at Mount Hymettos in Attica, and the cave on the northern slope of the Acropolis of Athens, to name just a few. A cave where Pan was worshipped has also been discovered in Banias, at the foot of Mount Hermon, which is located in the Golan Heights which are currently occupied by Israel. There is also an altar to Pan Heliopolitanus that was discovered almost two years ago, within the walls of a church dated to the 7th century. This is somewhat important in the context of chthonicism because caves have also been places where the worship of chthonic deities took place alongside that of nymphs, Olympian gods, and (as we’ll explore a little later) heroes, and sometimes specific caves would have links to death and funerary worship. Hades was worshipped in a small cave known as the Ploutonion, which represented the entrance to the underworld as well as the site of the birth of Ploutos, a child god of wealth. The Semnai Theai (a.k.a. the Erinyes) were worshipped at a cave under Areopagus, where they received special honours. Asklepios, a god of doctors and medicine who was traditionally believed to be both celestial and chthonic, was worshipped in a sanctuary where people would dwell in order to “encounter” Asklepios, and give sacrifices beforehand to receive dreams from him.
Moreover, even the gods of Olypmus possessed certain chthonic aspects or were venerated in the form of chthonic gods. Zeus was sometimes venerated as Meilichios, a chthonic deity or aspect of Zeus who took the form of a snake and was given burnt offerings at night. His main cultic focus was the attainment of wealth through propiating the deity, but he was also worshipped as a god of vengeance who could purify the souls of those who killed another as an act of revenge. There is also Zeus Ktesios, another serpent-form Zeus who was the god of storerooms and guardian of the household, Zeus Philios the protector of friendships, Zeus Eubouleus, another local avatar for Plouton/Hades worshipped alongside Demeter and Persephone, Zeus Trophonios, based on the chthonic hero Trophonios, and Zeus Chthonios, worshipped in Boeotia and Corinthia. Hera, the goddess of marriage and wife of Zeus, was likely originally worshipped as an earth goddess charged with the fertility of the island of Samos, and who renewed the earth through the installment of primeval water dragons, and in later myths remains the mother and nurturer of chthonic monsters and serpents who sometimes go on to pose a threat to the Olympians. Poseidon, the god of the sea, was sometimes venerated as Enesidaon, a chthonic god of earthquakes, was venerated as an oracle of the dead at Tanairon, and in the Mycanaean era he was originally venerated as Wanax, who was the chief deity and god of the earth. Poseidon was also represented as Poseidon Hippios, a horse spirit of the underworld and the rivers. Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, was worshipped in chthonic aspects, such as Artemis Amarysia at Amaranthos, was also sometimes syncretized with Hecate, and in Sicily was worshipped alongside Demeter and Persephone. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was somethimes worshipped as Aphrodite Chthonios, who was believed to bestow eternal life to her worshippers, and sometimes adopted the characteristics of Persephone and or venerated alongside her, as well as being syncretized with the Scythian goddess Argimpasa. Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, was an earthbound god whose companions included chthonic monsters and his offspring known as the Kabeiri, whose mysteries were dedicated to Demeter, Persephone, and Hecate, and he himself may have originally been an important god of an older chthonic religion. Ares was sometimes aligned with the Erinyes in relation to his bloodthirsty ways, the dragon slain by Cadmus was sacred to him, and at Sparta he received chthonic offerings such as black dogs. Even the solar Apollo, sometimes seen as the most Olypmian among the Olympians, had chthonic aspects, possibly originating as a chthonic healing deity. At Amyklai he was venerated alongside his lover Hyacinthus in a tomb. He also was not originally a sun god, not in Homer anyway, and may have originally been a warlike deity of disaese. Apollo’s mother, Leto, presided over graves in her cult in Lycia, and elsewhere represented a volatile spring that upheaved from the earth. Several Hellenic gods were sometimes worshipped as Kourotrophoi, or “child-nurturing” gods, representing the whole cycle of life from pregnancy to departure into the next life: these include Apollo, Artemis, Hecate, Hermes, Aphrodite, Athena, Gaia and Demeter. The chthonic context of the Kourotrophoi lies in the cycle they represent, containing the notion that life springs from the earth and returns to the earth upon death. In fact, in a certain sense, you may even argue that very few Greek deities were completely devoid of some chthonic aspect. Even the sun god Helios had a chthonic side, at least in that his name was sometimes an epithet for Ploutos. Strangely enough even the stars themselves may have had some chthonic connection, based on a folk belief that stars were born when people died.
An important chthonic tradition within the ancient Greek tradition was the cult of the hero. Heroes, in the ancient Greek religion, were humans who existed in a liminal position between humanity and divinity. They were not gods, but they were pretty close. Heroes usually were not thought to have gone up to Olympus with the heavenly gods but rather descended beneath the earth. Heroes were given libations at night, offered sacrifices that were not shared by the living, and could sometimes take the form of snakes. Because of this, the worship of heroes was inherently chthonic worship, and it involved sacrifices that were carried out in the fashion of chthonic cults. As was mentioned before, the heroes were also frequently worshipped in caves. Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon who was sacrificed to Artemis, was venerated as a chthonic heroine and/or goddess in a tomb located within the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron, where she was honoured through the Arkteia, a festival in which girls performed sacred dances, marathons, and sacrifices. Another heroine, Aglauros, was worshipped at a cave located on the slopes of the Acropolis, where she was invoked in an oath made by ephebes who were preparing for the prospect of dying for the polis. The hero Serangos was worshipped in a cave as a healing divinity and the founder of Piraeus.
By now I’ve probably established well enough the pervasiveness of chthonicism in the context of Greek divinity and religion, but in this regard the only missing link is the mysteries, which tended towards chthonicism. The Eleusinian Mysteries, for instance, which originally evolved from a set of agricultural festivals about the seasons and grain cultivation, were centered around the re-enacitng of the myth of the abduction of Persephone and Demeter’s descent to the underworld so as to understand “the true principles of life” and how to live in happiness and die with hope. The Dionysian Mysteries similarly pertained to the underworld, in that the initiates similarly hoped to descend into Hades in order to attain a blessed afterlife, but also in that its rites assumed the theme of death and rebirth in the context of ritual liberation from civilized norms. The Samothracian Mysteries were centered around the veneration of a group of apparently chthonic deities known as the Cabeiri, as well as the gods Hephaestus, Hecate, and Persephone. The Mysteries of Cybele, originating in Phrygia, were celebrated with torchlit processions similar to other chthonic festivities, alongside orgiastic festivities centered around a goddess that dwelled in her mountain and directed the land’s fertility through the dances of chthonic daemons, as well as the death and rebirth of her lover Attis. The Orphic Mysteries centered around ritually re-enacting the death and rebirth of Dionysus, and an eventual journey into the underworld in which the initiate, having lived a pure life in accordance with the teachings of the mystery, would descend into the underworld and address its rulers in order to be reborn into the company of the gods. In this sense, the trend in Greek mysteries is a form of mysticism that aligns itself with the underworld, and the power to transform the soul that can only be found in that descent.
Finally it is worth noting the pre-Hellenistic heritage of Greek chthonicism. The Mycenaeans not only venerated a god of the earth, Wanax, as their chief deity, their overall pantheon tended to centre around chthonic deities, with “sky gods” such as Zeus pushed to the size when compared to their “classical” role. A goddess known as Potnia, perhaps the mother goddess of the Mycenaeans, was powerful at this time. Over time her name transformed into an epithet for the goddess Artemis. It is also thought that Potnia may have originally been worshipped by the Minoans. Despoina, an epithet for goddesses such as Persephone, was also the name of an old chthonic mother goddess who was worshipped at Lycosura. In Minoa, a god of vegetation and fertility was worshipped as the son and consort of a great earth goddess, and later identified with Zeus. A mother goddess was worshipped in a cave, which the Minoans likely regarded as the abode of chthonic deities much like the later Greeks did. .
Moving on from Greece itself, we turn our attention towards Italy. In this regard we might start with the Etruscans. In the Etruscan pantheon, chthonic deities included Aita, a god of the underworld who seems to have been the Etruscan equivalent of Hades. Aita was frequently depicted alongside other underworld gods and demons such as Persiphnei, Vanth, and Charun. Aita is also known for a distinctive wolf cap, which, though a fairly unique aspect of central Italian religious iconography, may also have been inherited from an obscure attribute of Hades. But Aita can also be thought of as the successor of an older underworld deity named Calu, who, like Aita, had lupine features. Calu received dogs or statuettes thereof as sacrifices, and it was believed that the dead went to him. Another chthonic god worshipped in Etruria was Suri, sometimes considered equivalent to the Greek god Apollo and sometimes referred to by the similar name Aplu. Suri was a god of the underworld and purification as well as oracles, and he was worshipped at Mount Soracte (now known as Monte Soratte). Satre was another god of the underworld, who liked to hurl thunderbolts from abode beneath the earth.
What is particularly fascinating in my opinion is that it seems that many of the Etruscan gods seem to have either been chthonic or aligned with the chthonic realm in some way, as the Etruscan pantheon is purportedly characterized by gods who were powerful in both this world and the world of the dead. The goddess Catha, otherwise a solar goddess, shared her cult with Suri, possibly as his consort, and received gifts meant for the underworld or afterlife. Fufluns, a god of vegetation, was also believed to be able to assist the transfiguration of the soul of the dead and assure its safe passage. The sky god, Tinia, was occasionally represented as a figure of the underworld alongside gods such as Turms and Calu, depicted with snake-like locks of hair and referred to as Tinia Calusna. The goddess Vei, possibly equivalent to the Greek Demeter, was viewed as a liminal figure standing between the living and the dead. In Etruria, water wells and springs were believed to be portals to the underworld, the underground water presenting a link between worlds, and since many different gods were presided over them, it meant that gods like Aplu, Vei, Uni, Diana, and Hercle were connected to the chthonic realm through the sites if they weren’t already. Unsurprisingly, these springs were often the sites of local chthonic cults. The apparent supreme god of the Etruscan pantheon was a deity called Voltumna, or Veltha, who was originally a local earth spirit. Voltumna was a strange deity, thought of as god of vegetation, a monster, an androgyne, a god of war, truly containing multitudes. But as a deity associated with the underworld, being apparent chief god of the Etruscans (at least according to Varro) would bring the chthonic realm at the center of Etruscan religious life.
The Etruscan underworld was full of demons that guarded its boundaries and sometimes pestered the souls of the deceased. One prominent example of these was Vanth, a benign psychopomp who guided the souls of the deceased through the underworld. Another, more aggressive psychopomp was Charun, seemingly based on the Greek Charon; unlike his Greek counterpart, the Etruscan Charun was believed to torment the souls of the deceased with his mallet. A mysterious demon named Tuchulcha was believed to protect or enforce the order of the underworld by barring unwanted visitors and threatening the souls of those who cheated death. The god Calu appears in Etruscan burial art as a demon ascending the portals of the underworld.
Wolves in particular seem to be chthonic in Etruscan symbolism in a way that appears almost uniquely Etruscan. There is of course Aita’s distinctive wolf cap, for starters. There’s also Calu, a similarly lupine deity (indeed he was often depicted simply as a wolf) who may have been devoted to . Suri was also sometimes depicted as a wolf. At Mount Soracte, there was a distinct cult devoted to the god Apollo Soranus practiced by a group of priests referred to as Hirpi Sorani. In Rome, this deity was identified with the god Dis Pater, the ruler of the underworld, and may ultimately be related to Suri. The Hirpi Sorani honored Apollo Soranus by jumping on burning piles of wood and walking across burning coals. The figure of the wolf itself may have been considered a chthonic demon, or the incarnation of the soul of the dead, in either case requiring ritual propitiation, or much more broadly a liminal figure, crossing the boundaries between worlds that humans cannot. The Hirpi Sorani may themselves have embodied this liminal state through their rituals to Apollo Soranus. Some scholars also suggest that wolves represent death itself, based on a proposed etymological link between the Latin word “lupus” (meaning “wolf”) and the Etruscan word “lupu” (meaning “death”).
The context of chthonicism in ancient Rome bears similarities to Greek chthonicism, not simply in terms of the actual gods being very derived from the Greek religion but also in the worship of the chthonic gods and the role they play in the broader context of Roman polytheism.
The Dii Inferi, meaning “the gods below”, who were basically chthonic deities in a very similar sense to the Greek variety. These deities are usually understood as the gods of the underworld, death, and the dead, in contrast to the Dii Superi, the “gods above” who presided over the heavens. The Dii Inferi were worshipped in hearths, either on the ground or in a pit, and received nocturnal rituals and burnt offerings where the sacrifice was completely consumed in fire, and they were invoked in spells that involved burnt offerings. The Dii Inferi also sometimes received rare instances of human sacrifice, including rituals where a general offered his life alongside that of an enemy in battle. All rituals to them were held outside the sacred boundary of the pomerium, and “old and obscure festivals”, often involving horse racing, were reserved for their propitiation. The Dii Inferi were also sometimes called Manes, or Dii Manes, meaning “spirits of the dead”, which were sometimes treated as ancestral spirits. The Manes may rather have been part of the broader family of the Dii Inferi. In any case, Romans across the Empire would worship them in caves so as to venerate their ancestors. Christians regarded the Dii Inferi as the core divinities of the ancestral Roman religion, and believed that the Roman gladiatorial games were devoted to these gods and representated their supposedly horrific nature.
The exact identities of the Dii Inferi are actually obscure, but there are several gods and goddesses who were traditionally considered gods of the underworld; many of them were originally the gods of Greek or Etruscan polytheism, while others seem to be uniquely Roman. One of these was the Greek goddess Hecate, often referred to in Rome as Trivia. The Romans seemed to conflate Hecate with not only Trivia but also the goddesses Diana and Luna, and such an identification appears to have been ubiquitous in sacred groves throughout ancient Italy. Another major chthonic deity in Rome was Dis Pater, a god of mineral wealth and the underworld who was sort of the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Plouton or Hades. Proserpina, the Roman equivalent of Persephone, was worshipped alongside Dis Pater in underground sanctuaries or in festivals. Both Dis Pater and Proserpina also had strong cultic connections to the agricultural fertility, or that of the land, in a way very familiar to the context of Greek chthonicism. Another major figure here would be Orcus, a Roman god of the underworld, possibly of Etruscan origin, who was sometimes identified with Dis Pater and Hades. Orcus was believed to punish wrongdoers in the underworld, or was understood as the name of a place of purification in the underworld. It is possible that the cult of Orcus may have lived on in rural areas for a while during the Middle Ages, and may have echoed into the medieval figure of the wild folk and, together with Maia and Pela, celebrated in dances themed around the wild folk that were later condemned by the church as a resurgent pagan custom; thus Orcus potentially emerges as a symbol of certain remnants of pagan worship.
Scotus, apparently a Roman version of the Greek Erebus, is a god of darkness found in the chthonic pantheon. There is also Mors, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Thanatos, and Februus, a god of purification likely adapted from the Etruscan god of the same name. More obscure Roman gods are also present in this category. One of these is Summanus, an archaic Roman god of nocturnal thunder. Not much is known about Summanus and his attributes, obscure even to the Romans, but he was often identified with Pluto and known as “the greatest of the Manes”, and he is often imagined as a “dark twin” of Jupiter. Vejovis, an obscure god of healing and volcanic eruptions, was similar in his position as a sort of chthonic “anti-Jove”. Another chthonic deity is the goddess Mater Larum, the Mother of the Lares (guardian divinities with chthonic attributes). According to Ovid, she was originally a nymph named Lara who betrayed Jupiter’s secret romances and was thus made mute and exiled to the underworld, thus she was also called Muta. Mana Genita, an obscure and archaic goddess, was believed to be concerned with birth and infant mortality and was worshipped as a protector of the household. There was also Libitina, a goddess of funerals and burials whose very name was sometimes a byword for death itself. Another funeral goddess was Nenia Dea, who was also a goddess of transience and the patron of men who neared their deaths.
Another major chthonic deity would be none other than Saturnus, or Saturn. Saturn enjoys a distinguished place in the Roman pantheon; on the one hand, somewhat beloved as the, but on the other hand feared as a cruel deity who devoured even the gods. The Saturnian reign of the Golden Age was similarly ambivalent and contradictory; at once benign and unjust, on the one hand he was the benefactor of all humanity even in his arbitrary rule, but on the other hand his arbitrariness was believed to lead to chaos, disorder, and injustice. When Jupiter assumed leadership of the cosmos, he bound Saturn in chains and imprisoned in the underworld to keep his power from sating itself on the order of things. Saturn seemed to be especially revered on the month of December, which the time of not just Saturnalia but also other festivals reserved for chthonic deities; these include Consualia (held in honour of the god Consus), Opalia (in honour of the goddess Ops), and Angeronalia (in honour of the goddess Angerona). One thing Saturnus may have had in common with the mysterious Dii Inferi would be his purported association with the gladiatorial games. Blood was apparently shed in his honour during gladiatorial combat, and he received gladiatorial offerings around the time of Saturnalia. Christians then interpreted the games themselves as a form of human sacrifice.
Saturn’s wife, the goddess Ops, was a fairly important chthonic goddess in her own right. In fact, Ops was sometimes identified with Terra, or the earth itself, by Roman authors such as Varro and Festus. This seems strange, considering that Terra is traditionally listed as the mother of Ops. Still, as the goddess of plenty and abundance, she would have represented the powers of the earth, or at least in their “productive” aspect, and she was worshipped because of the fertility and bounty that she bestowed from the earth. It was believed that vegetation grew by her power, and it was believed that her abode was none other than the earth itself. Her festival, Opalia (or Opiconsivia), was one of the oldest agricultural festivals in Rome. According to Macrobius, this festival involved the invocation of Ops by sitting on the ground and placing hands upon the earth.
As in Greece, some gods that aren’t typically regarded as chthonic have nonetheless been worshipped in a chthonic context. The Roman god Mars, for example, was supposedly worshipped in rituals that suggest a role in the cycle of death and rebirth. It has been suggested that Mars patronised the chthonic powers, possibly inheriting aspects of the Etruscan Maris or Mares, a god of vegetation who represented the vital powers of the earth. Mercury also retains his chthonic function as psychopomp, originally from the Greek Hermes. Juno, none other than the patron goddess of Rome, was sometimes characterised as “the earth” and was sometimes worshipped as Juno Sospita, who may have originally been embodied as a serpent. The Roman agricultural god Consus is not listed among the Dii Inferi, but he was worshipped in underground altars and in this sense he can arguably be regarded as a chthonic deity. Indeed, Consus was sometimes thought of as another name for the chthonic deity Saturn. The underworld goddess Libitina also appears as an epithet of the goddess Venus. Gods associated with birth would also sometimes have chthonic associations or be worshipped similarly to gods of death. This includes Ceres, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Demeter who represented both birth and death, while gods of birth in general received the same burnt offerings as chthonic gods. The reverse was also sometimes true, as Dis Pater and Proserpina were sometimes said preside over birth.
And again, as in Greece, we may call into attention the extent to which the mysteries of Rome may be considered chthonic, and in this regard we may consider perhaps the most distinct of these mysteries: the Mithraic Mysteries. The Roman Mithras seems to have been based on the Iranian god Mithra, usually understood as a god of light, justice, and oaths who was also venerated as a Zoroastrian divinity, in this capacity as a protector of truth. But what little we know about the Roman Mithras establishes him as altogether different from his Iranian counterpart.
For one thing, the Mithraea in which Mithras was always worshipped were underground temples or carved within or out of caves. This no doubt served the functions of secrecy and initiation, but it also reminds us of how chthonic deities in both Rome and Greece were worshipped underground or in caves. Then again, in Rome, Christians sometimes held underground congregations for the precise purpose of concealing their faith from Roman authorities, not to venerate Jesus Christ as a chthonic deity. For another thing, the Roman Mithras was born from a rock, and this is not to be understood as a celestial rock but rather a “maternal” rock, ostensibly echoing aspects of Anatolian mysteries. Mithras can also be understood to some extent in terms of a psychopomp, gathering the souls of the dead with Helios, or more specifically the souls of initiates to their next life. But beyond that, it’s very difficult to make any thematic generalisations about the character of Mithras and his cult. There’s also no obvious theme of descent into the underworld, save perhaps for the subtextual “descent” into the Mithraea and their own internal universe. If anything, the Mithraic Mysteries could as well have centered around solar worship, in view of Mithras’ association with Sol Invictus and since Mithras was frequently identified with the sun god Helios. Perhaps the point is rather an ascent, in that, according to Clauss, the aim of the initiate was to reach the fixed stars through secret rites and rituals. It has been suggested that the Mithraic Mysteries emerged as a celebration of the mysterious, then newly-discovered, motions of the cosmos and the god they believed controlled them. It is possible, on the other hand, that the Neoplatonic interpretation via Porphyry, in which the Mithraic Mysteries signify the descent of the soul to the sublunary regions and its return, provide a possible though loose context of katabasis befitting of chthonicism, suitable to the worship of Mithras in caves and undergound. Porphyry asserted in On The Cave Of The Nymphs that the Persians signified the descent of the soul by going into a cavern, and that a cave in the Persian mountains was consecrated by Zoroaster in honour of Mithra and contained symbols of the elements and the climate, which if true would indeed prove a source of some chthonic context. But, again, there is very little we actually know, and it may be impossible to know most of the details, and perhaps Mithras’ composite nature results in multitudes that evade the categories we are discussing.
And of course, many Roman festivals carried the context of chthonic divinity. We have already mentioned a few examples such as Opalia and Consualia. Saturnalia itself, being centered around the god Saturn, perhaps de facto confers chthonic character to its time of misrule and subsequent reconstitution. One more important festival, however, was Lupercalia, a time of purification celebrated in the month of February. This festival probably centered around a god named Lupercus, a wolf deity who was often identified with Pan or Faunus, and it was also sacred to Juno. Lupercalia is popularly understood as a celebration of fertility and sexuality, but it actually primarily commemorated the ritual purification of the community, which just so happened to involve nudity and indiscriminate goatskin-whippings. The Lupercal cave is significant in that it acted as a passage to and from the underworld; the Luperci priests emerged from the cave to start their running, enacted their rites of purification, and then returned to the cave, thus symbolically the priests came to purify the land and then returned to the underworld with the ancestors.
Chthonic Divinity in a Global Context
Now we can look at the context of chthonicism throughout the world outside of the “classical” context of Greece and Italy. Being that we are dealing in a very broad diversity of cultures, it is probable that the context of chthonicism between these cultures will be somewhat different across cultures, and it will still, for the sake of scope, be a somewhat limited inquiry. It is especially important to consider that Hellenic and Roman polytheism had fairly distinct (though sometimes overlapping) categories that marked between chthonic and celestial divinities, while the same precise and not to mention explicit delineation is not necessarily present in many other polytheistic cultures.
In pre-Christian Celtic and Brythonic polytheism, there was a pair of underworld deities referred to as the Andedion (the “Infernal Ones”), or the Andee (or “non-gods”) in Ireland. The Andedion or Andee seem to be the spirits of the underworld, or Annwn, which is ruled over by the deity Gwyn Ap Nudd. The Gauls seem to have invoked them alongside the god Maponos Arveriatis, a god of youth who was likened to the Greco-Roman god Apollo to enhance them via the magic of the undeworld. The Andedion/Andee were believed to be furious spirits, kept in check by Gwyn ap Nudd because of their fury. Ancient Britons may have worshipped the Andedion/Andee through offering pits, in which the spirits were offered all manner of things in exchange for favour. Chthonic spirits may have occupied a strange place in the Brythonic religion, in that they were popularly revered and yet not openly acknowledged as divine presences. At St Mary’s Church in Penwortham, three human skulls were found in the wall of the church, and their presence may or may not be an echo of a pre-Christian belief in their apotropaic power. The spirits of the underworld were likely feared, since there were rituals that may have been meant to drive them away, but they also seem to be involved in maintaining the relationships between the living and the dead, and the seasons. They were spirits of both fertility and death, and that is characteristically chthonic. Their furious nature is also related to the “Scream Over Annwn”, a gesture of ritual frenzy enacted by disinherited persons trying to resist becoming indentured bondsmen.
There are many more chthonic deities to be found across the Celtic world. It is thought that the Gallo-Roman deity Sucellus was a chthonic deity, perhaps akin to Dis Pater, enforcing the boundaries of the living and the dead with his mallet. A popular Iberian deity named Endovelicus was worshipped as a god of the underworld as well as vegetation, healing, and prophecy. It is possible to think of Cernunnos, that iconic Celtic fertility god himself, as at least a liminal figure connected to chthonic powers, mediating between the underworld and the realm of the living and thus sitting between life and death. The Irish deity Donn, a god of the dead, was believed to be the divine ancestor of humans, to whose abode humans would return upon death. But, similar to the Greek context, numerous Celtic gods have their own chthonic aspect or at least some association with death. Mother goddesses, for instance, were frequently linked to death alongside their more characteristic link to fertility, and if the context of the Caerwent goddess is any indication, they may have been worshipped in wells, pits, or cellars beneath the ground. Gods and spirits were believed to reside in mounds protruding from the ground referred to as Sidhe. Trust in chthonic divinity may have been common and a major part of pre-Christian Celtic polytheism, in that ritual pits were frequently dug so that sacrifices would be buried beneath the ground to honour gods and spirits beneath the earth, who would have been disturbed by agricultural activity.
When discussing chthonicism in the context of Norse or Germanic polytheism, it is worth noting that in this context it is probably not quite as simple as saying that the Aesir are the celestial camp and the Vanir are the chthonic. Many Norse/Germanic deities, including the Aesir, . But one particular member of the Aesir stands out for his distinct connotations: none other than Odin, who is traditionally the leader of the Aesir.
Odin is popularly understood as a god of war, and because of his function as leader of the Aesir and title as Allfather, he is all too often thought of as essentially the Norse answer to Zeus, or even Yahweh in some cases. This reflects only a fraction of Odin’s richly complex character. There are indeed many hints as to his chthonic nature. Odin was called the “lord of the gallows”, and sometimes received hanged men as sacrificial offerings to the ravens. Among many epithets are Valdrgalga (“ruler of the gallows”), Farmrgalga (“burden of the gallows”), Draugadrottin (“lord of the Draugr/undead”), and Foldardrottin (“lord of the earth”), all which emphasize his sovereignty via the chthonic realm. Conversely, we can see that only one of his epithets, Valdrvagnbrautar (“ruler of the wagon road”), may stress his connection to the sky. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, can be understood as a liminal entity or perhaps embodying a function similar to the psychopomp, in that the Sleipnir allowed Odin, as well as other deities such as Hermodr, to travel between worlds and, most importantly, through the underworld. Some theories about Valhalla, the hall where Odin keeps his share of those slain in battle, and its worth keeping in mind there is no universally accepted dogma on the subject (and this applies to much of Heathenry in general), Valhalla may have been located underground as opposed to the sky where many versions of “heaven” are. Other theories suggest that Valhalla was not actually a hall but rather a kind of underworld in itself. And of course, Odin goes down into the underworld to raise a volva (seeress) from thence in order to gain knowledge of the fate of the world. In a separate myth he goes to the underworld in order to resurrect a volva to reveal the fate of Baldr. In many ways, Odin actually emerge as a subtextually chthonic deity, concerned with death and the descent into hidden knowledge that he hopes would allow him to prevail at Ragnarok and overcome prophecised fate.
Other Norse and Germanic gods have a chthonic aspect or function not limited to more tangenty associations with death. The goddess Gefjon, a goddess of ploughing sometimes identified with the goddess Freyja, has been described as a chthonic goddess, perhaps on the basis of her role as an earth mother figure. The Germanic earth goddess Nerthus, attested solely via Tacitus, was believed to dwell in a lake in which she received sacrifices; incidentally, her attested name is thought to be etymologically linked to the Greek word “nerteros”, meaning “from the underworld” or “belonging to the underworld”. The Norse goddess Saga similarly resided in subterranean waters known as Sokkvabekkr, whose waters are drank by both Saga and Odin. It has been speculated that Saga herself is an aspect of or alternate name for the goddess Frigg, who is in turn often connected with Freyja. The earth itself was often personified by Jord, the goddess who gave birth to Thor and otherwise understood principally as a goddess of the earth. Freyr, a major Norse and Germanic god of fertility, seemed, according to the Gesta Danorum, to prefer “dark-coloured” sacrifices over bright-coloured or white sacrifices; such an affinity was of course shared with the chthonic deities of Greece and Rome. It is not certain, however, if this preference was more typical of the Vanir or any chthonic Norse/Germanic deities as opposed to just specifically the apparent preference of Freyr. The dwarves were believed to reside beneath the earth, where they crafted valuable artefacts on behalf of the gods. The jotunn, giants who frequently fought the gods in Norse myth, are sometimes understood as chthonic figures in view of their representation of the primordial forces of nature. For instance, in the Grottasongr, two jotunn named Fenja and Menja describe themselves as the offspring of a clan of mountain giants who are nourished beneath the earth.
Of course, the chthonic deity par excellence in the Norse context (besides Odin himself if we count him as such) would probably decidedly be Hel, the goddess of the dead who ruled over the place where many Norse people, typically those who died of sickness or old age, were expected to go when they die. Hel is the name of both the goddess and the realm over which she presides, a trait she has in common with the Greek Hades or the Etruscan Aita. The realm of Hel is a fairly abundant place, neither bliss nor torment but rather life in a different form. Those who died and went to Hel could expect to live lives similar to their former lives as shades or spirits, doing most of the things they could in the realm of the living while reunited with their deceased ancestors. Not such a bad place to be ruled by a goddess who was feared by the rest of the gods. Of course, some Christian-esque depictions of Hel present a different spin: Snorri Sturlusson, for his part, referred to Hel’s plate as “hunger”, her servants “slow” and “lazy”, her bed “illness”, and her curtains “bleak misfortune”. But although this has little to do with the pre-Christian Norse conception of Hel, the goddess Hel was feared by the other gods enough that Odin sent her to rule over the underworld in the hopes that the Aesir would not be threatened by her power. It was also believed to be possible to see into the realm of Hel by traversing the Helvegr, or “the road of Hel”, the path usually travelled by the dead, through what was understood to be a mystic journey practiced by Norse seers or magicians or gods to recover knowledge from the realm of the dead.
In Slavic polytheism, the main chthonic deity is Veles, a complex god associated with magic, water, earth, and of course the underworld to name just a few of his many domains. He was also a trickster and was worshipped as a protector of cattle and musicians and a patron of magic and commerce. Veles was believed to rule over the dead from below the roots of the World Tree. He seems to have been frequently locked in combat with the thunder god Perun, who presided over the top of the World Tree. Veles was sometimes believed to take the form of a serpent, and over time he was slowly re-imagined as a dragon or a local name for the Christian Devil. As a god of the underworld, Veles was also believed to escort the souls of the deceased to the meadows of the underworld, and may have also been invoked to punish those who broke their oaths by inflicting them with diseases.
It is also possible that the Pomeranian deity Triglav, the three-headed deity sometimes regarded as a “Pan-Slavic” god, may have either been a chthonic deity or possessed chthonic aspects. Black horses were scared to Triglav, as opposed to white horses being sacred to deities such as Svetovit or Perun. Some scholars argue that Triglav may have been a “proto-Slavic” god of the dead. Triglav may even have been identified with Veles in some cases. Others argue that Triglav served as the axis mundi of the Slavic cosmos, his three heads signifying the heavens, the earth, and the underworld into which everything would collapse without his support. Supposedly he lived at the bottom of a mountain (probably not the Slovenian Mount Triglav) bearing the foundations of the world, or hid within a tree of similar significance. For some, even his three heads are taken as a trope of chthonic gods such as Hermes as well as Slavic dragons.
In Egypt, there was something of a litany of chthonic deities, some of whom interacted with the influence of the Hellenistic culture that reached into Egypt. Anubis, the major psychopomp of Egyptian polytheism, is probably a typical example of such deities. Anubis is best known as the god who led the souls of the dead to the weighing scales where they would be judged by their hearts to determine their worthiness for the next life. He was also regarded as a protector of graves and a divine patron of embalming and mummification. In Greek magical spells, Anubis was also invoked as a chthonic god alongside Hermes, Persephone, Hecate, and Adonis. Other chthonic deities include Tatenen, the god of the primordial mound whose realm was deep beneath the earth, worshipped as the source of all worldly bounty and a guide for the souls of the deceased. Geb, as a god of the earth, was said to have ruled over snakes beneath the earth, swallowed up the dead, existed as the source of grain and fresh water, and animated the earth with his power sometimes as the cause of earthquakes. Gods like Ptah, Osiris, and Min were symbolically linked to subterranean powers by their bandaged legs, bound by the vital energy they unleashed, or by their sharing of a pedestal representing the primordial hill. At the main temple at Abu Simbel, the rays of the sun avoid the god Ptah, who thus always remains in the darkness, apparently because of some connection to the underworld.
The god Osiris is perhaps a curious case. He was frequently linked to the underworld, and perhaps originated as a chthonic deity of fertility, not to mention his link to the cycles of nature. He is also typically recognised as a judge of the dead, presiding over the underworld as its king. Under Hellenistic influence he was identified with Dionysus and/or Hades, and was syncretised with the sacred bull Apis to give rise to Serapis, a chthonic deity who rather closely resembles Hades. And yet, even though Osiris can in many respects clearly be understood as a chthonic deity, over time came to be understood as more than a chthonic deity, or at least took on other aspects. Osiris came to be identified with the soul of the pharoah and its aspiration for immortality as a star, and so in the Pyramid Texts Osiris was positioned as a star in the sky, while the soul of the pharoah was meant to transform into a star and into Osiris, and ultimately merge into the sky or “light land” with Ra.
In Canaan, the major god of the underworld and death was Mot, into whose jaws life was consumed. The god Horon is also thought to have resided in the underworld, and is often considered to be a god of sorcery. It is frequently supposed that Resheph (a.k.a. Reshef or Rasap), who was chiefly a god of pestilence and war, was a chthonic deity himself, possibly owing to his identification with the Mesopotamian god Nergal; this categorization may otherwise be somewhat questionable. In Ugaritic mythology, the fertility god Athtar, after declining to assume the throne of Ba’al after his death, descended into the underworld to become its ruler instead. The Moabite deity Chemosh, often identified with Athtar, is sometimes, with extremely limited information, described as a chthonic deity and is also speculated to be a form of the Mesopotamian underworld god Nergal. Dagon, the god of grain, also has chthonic aspects in that he was in certain instances also called “bel pagre” (“Lord of the Dead”) and his temple at Mari was called the “temple of the funerary ritual”. But perhaps the greatest expression of chthonicism in this milieu is, ironically enough, none other than Baal himself.
Klaas Spronk argues that the Baal of Peor that appears in the Bible represents a chthonic aspect of the broader fertility deity Baal. This is based on the name Peor being connected to the netherworld through Isaiah 5:14, referencing the mouth of the netherworld, and further the myth of the bull of Baal mounting the heifer in the underworld. Indeed Baal himself was sometimes worshipped in a chthonic way, with texts such as the KTU2 listing Baal as a deity residing in the underworld and receiving offerings from a hole in the ground. Baal was also believed to descend into the underworld for a time so as to fortify the deceased, and in the netherworld Baal was the lord of the “mighty dead”, who are called Rephaim. The name Baal Zebul, the basis for the name Beelzebub, may have referred to a chthonic deity originally worshipped for help in cases of illness. That Baal, as the Canaanite and Ugaritic deity who represented the principle of nature, would have a chthonic aspect is not terribly surprising, though this was almost certainly not the entirety of his character within Canaanite and Ugaritic polytheism.
In ancient Mesopotamia, Nergal was one of the main gods of the underworld and, thus, one of the main chthonic powers. He ruled over the underworld alongside a clan of ancestral deities, was invoked in apotropaic rites, presided over war and peace, and was occasionally worshipped as a patron of vegetation and agriculture. The other major chthonic deity is Ereshkigal, queen of the underworld, also referred to as Irkalla (like the underworld itself) or Ninkigal (“Lady of the Great Earth). She was usually venerated alongside Nergal, but plays a central role in the myth of Inanna’s descent into the underworld. Many other Mesopotamian gods could be considered chthonic. The god Ninazu, son of Ereshkigal, was a god of the underworld who cured ailments and presided over the death and regeneration of plant life. Ningiszida was a god of snakes, vegetation, and the underworld who stood at its entrance and travelled there when the plants began to die out, and also presided over the law of the earth as well as the underworld. But even the sun god Utu (a.k.a. Shamash) had strong ties to the underworld, where he makes judgements over the dead.
In ancient Iran, there seems to have been a cult devoted to the Daevas, the evil spirits of Zoroastrianism who are none other than the old gods of India and Persia, who were worshipped by Magi. These daevas were apparently worshipped at night instead of day, receiving libations after sunset, because of their association with night and darkness. According to Plutarch, writing in On Isis and Osiris, there were gloomy rites involved made to Ahriman (or Areimanius, who Plutarch seems to identify with Hades) for the purpose of warding off evil, and were performed in dark or sunless spots such as caves. Rites to these daevas seemed to involve libations that were mixed with the blood of a slain wolf, and the body and milk of a wolf were to be offered to the daevas in accordance with ritual law. Another chthonic ritual involved a nocturnal rite in which a bull was sacrificed outside the boundaries of the village, never to be brought back. The bull apparently served as a stand-in for the god Rudra, the wild god of storms who was believed to be the protector of cattle, so sacrificing the bull in the wilderness meant the Rudra of the cattle joining with the Rudra of the wilderness.
In Vedic India, multiple gods possessed chthonic aspects or outright embodied the chthonic realm. One example is Yama, the ruler of the land of Naraka and the sovereign judge of the dead. Once the first mortal, he became the ruler of departed souls upon his death, and so he was worshipped as a god of death, the underworld, and the spirits of ancestors. The god Varuna, often recognised as a god of the night sky, water, and cosmic law, was also a god of the underworld, and the underworld was believed to be the place where the celestial waters of the night sky were found and the home of Varuna. Both Varuna and Yama seem to share the trait of binding sinners or wrongdoers with a noose for judgement. Nirrti, goddess of decay, was believed to live in the kingdom of the dead, and in some texts was also called “the earth”, possibly having originally been an earth goddess. The god Kubera was the lord of a group of chthonic spirits called yakshas (and their feminine counterparts called yakshini), who were once worshipped as protectors of the earth and its treasures, and otherwise was himself. Some argue that Rudra was, in addition to being a wild god of storms, a spirit of vegetation, who created vegetation and dwelt in the waters as its hidden spirit, and in this capacity a chthonic power. For what it’s worth, the Svetasvatara Upanishad says that Rudra is present inside the hearts of all beings; thus, he dwells in all life as its protector and life force. In Atirātra sacrifices, the night is dedicated entirely to Indra, otherwise understood as the main celestial deities with no general chthonic aspect.
While we may or may not be focusing on the Devas in the Vedic/Hindu context, there is much to be said about the chthonic context of their opponents: the Asuras. The name Asura, perhaps originally an epithet of several gods denoting their might and power, came to denote a clan of demigods or deities whose home was the underworld. The Asuras were believed to reside in or around Patala, a beautiful subterranean land inhabited by nagas and other spirits, constantly illuminated by crystals. The Asuras were believed to periodically emerge from this realm to do battle against the Devas. In both Hindu and Buddhist myths, the Asuras are often depicted as having been driven into the underworld after being defeated by either Vishnu (in Hindu myths) or Indra with the help of Manjushri (in Buddhist myths). In Indian folklore and magic, the caves of the Asuras were believed to be the entrances to subterranean paradises filled with otherworldly beauty and wealth. It is sometimes thought that the underworld was a place of subterranean riches guarded jealously by the Asuras, and later forcibly extracted by the Devas. In later Tantric Buddhist tradition, the caves of the Asuras were the centre of a set of mystic practices called Patalasiddhi, in which yogis sought to descend to the subterranean realm of the Asuras in order to gain magical knowledge and powers, as well as longevity, and the purity that comes with bathing in the sacred waters of the cavern streams. They also travelled to these realms in order to experience erotic pleasures with the Asuri. This tradition, recorded in Tibetan and Chinese esoteric Buddhist texts, draws on legends such as the stay of Padmasambhava in the Asura Cave at Pharping.
In Japanese myth, there is a divide between two factions of kami: the Amatsukami, the gods of heaven, and the Kunitsukami, the gods of the earth. The chthonic powers, in this setting, are the Kunitsukami, who are also sometimes called Chigi. The Kunitsukami are also positioned as rebellious beings, wild gods, termed by their heavenly adversaries as “araburu-no-kami” (or “savage gods”). Gods under this label traditionally include Okuninushi (a.k.a. Onamuchi-no-kami among several other names), Omononushi (a.k.a. Miwa Myojin), Takeminakata (a.k.a. Suwa Myojin), and Sarutahiko Okami. In myth, the Kunitsukami were the autochthonous deities of Japan who were deemed unruly by the Amatsukami, and thus the Amatsukami descend in order to take the land from the Kunitsukami. Other mythological examples of the autochthonous Kunituskami include Kotoshironushi, Sukunahikona, Kuebiko, and Ame-no-Kagaseo, the last kami to resist the takeover of the land. The only thing is, it is thought that the terminological distinction between Amatsukami and Kunitsukami is not an originary product of Shinto tradition and more like political categorization, the distinct product of medieval mythmaking meant to justify the rule of the Yamato imperial dynasty. To that effect, the term Kunitsukami also understood as sometimes referring to the gods of peoples that were conquered by the Yamato, including the people of Izumo. It may help that there are numerous Japanese deities can be considered chthonic but which are not traditionally “Kunitsukami”. The goddess Izanami, having died during childbirth and become a permanent resident of Yomi, can be thought of as simultaneously a mother goddess and a goddess of death and the dead, and in this sense classically chthonic. In Japaense esoteric Buddhism we also see a complex network of chthonian deities who are, to varying degrees, related to each other and other gods. These gods include Kojin, Kenro Jijin, Ugajin, Benzaiten, Dakiniten, Enmaten, Daikokuten, Bishamonten, Gozu Tennoh, and Matarajin.
The chthonic power par excellence in the context of Shinto is usually Susano-o. Usually understood as a god of storms, Susano-o is a wild god who, over time, found his home in the netherworld. His very wild demeanor and friction with Amaterasu, the solar goddess of the imperial family, led medieval nativists and anti-syncretic Buddhists to count him as an “evil” deity. In myth, he was exiled from the heavenly plain of Takamagahara for wreaking havoc and causing Amaterasu to hide in a cave, thus bringing darkness to the world. As an outcast from Takamagahara, Susano-o came to be regarded as ruler of the underworld (though not Yomi), and in this regard he came to represent the spirits of the dead. He in turn came to be invoked in divination, and the basements of some shrines were used to practice incubation and induced states of spiritual possession. After killing the dragon Yamata-no-Orochi, winning the sword Kusanagi, and blessing his daughter’s marriage to Okuninushi, he descends into the underworld to become its ruler. From a more philosophical standpoint, Susano-o perhaps represents what Iwasawa Tomoko calls the “chthonic dialectic”. Susano-o’s gratuitous transgressions are also a source of worldly dynamism connected to life. Vital energy and fertility find theophany not only in the violent power of storms and thunder, which serves as an active life force, but also in his seemingly unhinged defecation of Takamagahara, which simultaneously destroys and fertilizes the fields. Even Amaterasu fleeing to the cave because of his actions results in that cave into a womb that thus gives birth to light.
The Meaning of the Underworld and Chthonicism At Large
We could go on and on about chthonic divinity in various traditional contexts, but it’s better now to focus on the central subject to chthonicism: the underworld itself. It is this domain that is the source of the religious meaning relevant to our understanding of chthonicism in this setting. From here we can also sort of extend our inquiry on the global contexts of chthonicism beyond the individual gods and their associative networks.
The underworld, for many pre-Christian cultures, was often imagined as simply the place that most people would go to when they die. This was the case, for instance, in Greek polytheism, where the soul of the deceased would go and join with the shades after death. Sometimes the underworld was divided into sections, with one reserved for the particularly heroic dead, another for the exceedingly wicked, and one for the rest. In Norse polytheism, Hel, or Helheim, was the place where the souls of many of the deceased would go after death, although there were many other realms where the deceased could end up instead depending on the circumstances of their death; for example, those slain in battle could go to either Valhalla or Folkvangr, while those who died at sea would go to the bottom of the sea with the goddess Ran. The Mesopotamian underworld, called Irkalla, was believed to be the sole destination for all the souls of the dead, from which they were never to return and in which they were neither punished nor rewarded for their lives. In Canaanite polytheism, all who died passed into the land of Mot, the god of death. In Irish polytheism, the souls of the dead went to Tech Duinn, the house of Donn, possibly before going to the Otherworld or being reincarnated.
Sometimes the underworld was, ironically enough, imagined as a celestial plane rather than a place beneath the earth. This idea can be found in ancient Greek authors who imagined a sort of “celestial Hades” existing in the sky where souls. The idea of a “celestial underworld” can also be found in ancient Egypt, where it was imagined as a reverse image of every aspect of the world of the living. However, in the case of the Greek concept, there is an argument to be made that the idea of a “celestial Hades”, particularly the positioning as allegory, serves to displace the chthonic idea of the underworld with a celestial abode, as an effort to remake the underworld in order to conform to prevailing philosophical dogma linking heavenly beauty with philosophical truth.
The idea of the underworld as a double of this world, however, is not quite uncommon. For example, in Celtic cultures, the Otherworld is frequently described as a mixture of beautiful elements of the world of the living with more dreamlike elements (such as “purple trees” as depicted in Serglige Cu Culainn). The Egyptian Duat was similarly a place that mixed the familiar images of the world of the living with surreal and fantastical landscapes. In Mesopotamian polytheism, Irkalla was thought of as essentially a shadow of life on earth, and not particularly distant from it.
Of course, if the underworld was a double of the world of the living, perhaps it had its own sun as well. This was sometimes at least purported to be believed in antiquity. In ancient Mesopotamia, the planet Saturn was sometimes regarded as a dark solar entity, a “black star” or “Sun of the night”, more specifically an appearance of the sun god Utu in his role as the supreme judge of the dead. The Egyptian god Osiris is sometimes referred to as the sun disk of the inhabitants of the netherworld. The Roman author Macrobius insisted that Liber/Dionysus was, in the context of the Orphic religion, the same as the Sun, possibly referencing the Thracian deity Zis who was at once the Sun and the ruler of the underworld. At Smyrna, a funerary inscription describes a sanctuary dedicated to six deities, two of which are called Plouton Helios (as in Pluto the Sun) and Koure Selene (as in Kore the Moon), possibly suggesting that Plouton/Hades was, in some local cults, venerated as a nocturnal sun. More frequently, though, it was assumed that the Sun itself travelled through the underworld on a regular basis as part of the daily solar cycle. The Egyptian sun god Ra regularly descended into the underworld on a barque, where he was protected by other gods who did battle with the serpent Apep. In the Mesopotamian context, Utu’s appearance in the underworld was probably also meant as a regular sojourn into the underworld. In the Mayan context, the “night sun” was a sun god who descended into the underworld, took the form of a jaguar to fight other jaguars, before ascending as the rising sun. Of course, for the Greek philosopher Empedocles, it was actually the Sun that emerged from Hades.
Underworlds were also frequently positioned as sources of mystic knowledge, not to mention magical power. Greek mystery cults centered themselves around the idea of traversing into the underworld for the purpose of attaining knowledge that would grant them a blessed afterlife, or immortality amongst the gods. In Norse polytheism, traversing the Helvegr was seen as a way to receive wisdom from the dead. The Celtic Otherworld was regarded as a source of wisdom, truth, and healing power among other things, and those who crossed into it and returned were changed forever.
If Pagan chthonicism has a symbol it is probably the snake, and this is for a variety of reasons. Although it is certainly not the only symbol of the power of the underworld (in differing contexts this has also been symbolized by a diverse range of animals, including horses, wolves, owls, or jaguars), it is easily its most enduring. In Greece, the snake represented the realm of the underworld, and is sometimes regarded as a chthonic element for numerous deities. This connotation comes from the ancient Greek belief that the dead could appear in the form of a snake. More importantly, the snake was the perennial symbol of the renewal of life through death, and in this sense the sacred vehicle of immortality. The snake was associated with the hero cult as a companion to the hero, if it did not represent the hero him/herself, since heroes were people who, in death, resided in the earth just as the snakes were believed to do, and the burial of the hero denoting his keeping company with the original subterranean inhabitants of his gravesites, becoming part of the litany of the underworld. The Etruscans similarly regarded serpents as chthonic agents, as dwellers of the underworld who embodied its power and enforced its boundaries. Ancient Etruscan iconography also features bearded serpents, frequently brandished by demons, as apotropaic images or objects of power over the dead. It has been suggested that the image of the bearded serpent can be traced to Egypt, where it was connected to the Egyptian god Osiris. Throughout the Mediterranean, the snake was seen as an ambivalent power that could produce oracles and confer plentiful harvests, while in Egypt the serpent was also associated with the growth of plants.
In Slavic folklore, serpents and dragons are chthonic entities, typically associated with Veles, and believed to devour gold and silver while cursing people with disease. In Slavic magical charms they were invoked to cure the ailments they otherwise caused. Over time, however, they were also frequently identified with foreign names (such as Lamja from the Greek Lamia or Azdaja from the Iranian Azhi Dahak), sometimes to denote apparent foreign adversaries, which in a Christian context are opposed by figures such as Saint George. In what is arguably a nationalistic framework, the chthonicism of the dragon becomes the shadow of the nation, in this sense a space in which “the Other” is represented as a hostile force to be cut down.
There is also often a link between the chthonic realms and ancestry, in that the chthonic powers and gods were often linked to ancestral spirits, or rather they were themselves those ancestral spirits, or sometimes a chthonic deity was the ancestor either of humanity or a given people. In Rome, for instance, the deities referred to as Dii Manes, often considered chthonic gods in their own right, represented the spirits of the dead, often meaning the collective body of deceased ancestors. Either Pluto, as the god of the underworld, or Summanus, god of nocturnal thunder, were called “the greatest of the Manes”, which in some ways would make either of them the divine representative of ancestral spirits. The Roman god Saturn, exiled from the heavens or bound in the underworld, was believed to be the ancestral father of the Italic peoples and in this respect was regarded as the ancestral king of Latium if not the whole of Italy. Other mythological sources hold the god Janus to be the king of Latium. In ancient Greece, the Titans themselves could be seen as the ancestors of both gods and men, and are indeed acknowledged as such in the Orphic Hymns. Beyond this, it is thought that chthonic cults at large were intertwined with ancestor worship, and the pair of Hades and Persephone were often worshipped as presiding over this context, such as in the Necromanteion of Acheron. In Canaanite polytheism, the Rephaim, or “mighty dead”, were sometimes believed to be presided over by Ba’al in the underworld. In Irish myth, the chthonic god Donn was believed to be the ancestor of humans, and it is to his house that all the deceased souls return before their ultimate fate. Hel, as goddess of the Norse underworld realm bearing her name, is surely the keeper of the realm of the deceased ancestors. Odin, himself at least partially a chthonic deity, is regarded as a divine ancestor by various peoples across parts of Europe. In Slavic polytheism, the god Veles was often worshipped in conjunction with the veneration of ancestors, being called upon in celebrations of Dziady with the spirits of deceased ancestors or simply honoured in celebrations dedicated to them. Yama, the Vedic and Hindu judge of the dead who dwelled in the underworld, was traditionally regarded as the first mortal, and therefore the divine ancestor of the human species. In Japan, chthonian deities referred to as Kunitsukami are sometimes regarded as the ancestors of various non-imperial peoples within Japan. In some sources, for instance, Susano-o is regarded as the ancestor of the Izumo.
The underworld as connected to the ancestors is in many ways logically co-attendant with the position of the underworld as the resting place of the dead at large. The context of the ancestors is one of many that may afford a sense of seniority and primacy to the power of the underworld, as the ancestral basis of life itself within many pre-Christian cultural contexts. In the Aztec context, for instance, the underworld could be seen as the place that simultaneously represented death and the originary state of creation, a time of primordial darkness where the gods were “still in their bones”. In a sense it reflects an appreciation of the omnipresence of death, and the idea of the germination of life within the whole cyclical system of death and rebirth, a realm to which the ancestors are a link for the living. Or, in another sense, they link the living to the gods.
Chthonicism in the classical context seems to have close connections to subversion that then may also link back to the theme of death and rebirth. One chthonic rite that stands out among othesr is the Katabasis that was practiced by “Western” Greeks in Sicily. Katabasis generally refers to the descent to the underworld, followed by a return to the world of the living. Several mythological figures, including gods and heroes, partake in their own journeys to the underworld, not just in Greece but all over the world. In Sicily, the Western Greeks practiced a Katabasis that involved rituals to chthonic deities such as Dionysus, Demeter, and/or Kore (Persephone). These rituals entailed a re-enactment of mythical narratives as well as an initiation that put the initiate in a sort of otherworldly experience characterized by the temporary dismantling of everyday self-hood, or a “ritual death”, followed by ritual rebirth. There also seems to have been a comical character to this Katabasis, with the chthonic gods playing host to parodic dramas and playful bufoonery, and comic inversion giving initiates the power to subvert the patterns through the patterns hidden within, and the living and the death almost joined together under the sight of a benign King and Queen of the underworld, invitation to the party of the afterlife. Sex and death are sort of one in this chthonic realm, with Aphrodite and Hermes, the depiction of Eros embodying a kind of erotic ecstasy parallel to the loss of self in the “ritual death”, and the presence of fornicating satyrs, all serving as a backdrop to the marriage of Persephone in Locri. Katabatic rituals also had a comic and subversive element throughout Greece. At Plataea, during the festival of Daedala, the cave of Trophonios was host to mythical narratives and ritual activities that produced laughter, which signified the renewal of life and a restoration of equilibrium.
The freedom of Saturnalian excess was also sometimes associated with the underworld. The Roman philosopher Seneca condemned the emperor Claudius for his condonement of gambling, accused him of turning the mock misrule of Saturnalia into a state of permanent misrule, and wrote that after his death he would be forced to continue his gambling ways in the underworld. This, of course, is meant to be understood as punishment for his transgression in life, and as a statement that, in Seneca’s words, “the Saturnalia cannot continue forever”. But the effect of that is nonetheless that the underworld becomes a place where individual license could be said to perpetuate, as opposed to worldly life where it must be weighed against duty and custom.
The myth of Saturn also may contain room for the chthonic as a zone of resistance, or indeed a microcosm for the imminent reality of rebellion even within the cosmic order. You see, in Roman myth, the god Saturn is said to have once ruled the world in a Golden Age, an age of boundless abundance and equality, until he was dethroned by the Olympians, and then Jupiter, in fear of Saturn’s power, cast Saturn in chains to contain him. His chains are, of course, released once a year, at the time of the winter solstice when chaotic revelries in his name break out in Rome and order of Roman society is joyously upended; thus is Saturnalia. In the account of Macrobius, Saturn is ostensibly born from the original Chaos, or more specifically carved out from it by the division of that Chaos by the primordial god Coelus, the god of the heavens who established the first order of the cosmos. This would make Saturn, and the power of time that he represents, a remnant of the primal chaos that is thus immiment in the cosmic order. The Greek Magical Papyri deepens this connection in its spells such as the Prayer to Selene, where Selene (or rather Hekate) wears the chains of Kronos and wields a scepter made by Kronos that gives her dominion over all beings and the very powers of Chaos. In a way, we might say that, one way or another, by force or otherwise, the original reality of Chaos evolved from a state of disorganized undifferentiation to a state of organization that is nonetheless riddled with entropy, contradiction, and the latent potential of its own negation. In Saturn this is a power feared by even the gods, for time devours all in its ruthless passage. But it is also important to understand this primal negativity not just as the eternal source of life itself per Saturn’s link to rebirth, but also as itself a zone of resistance. Saturn himself was regarded as a kind of outlaw in Rome; a god who arrived in Italy as a fugitive and dethroned god, exiled from Olympus, who nonetheless established agriculture and law among fauns, nymphs, and humans.
Rebellion is imminent in the pagan ideas of the cosmos, especially in Greek and Roman polytheism. In its infancy, the cosmos undergoes successive changes in management under different rulers, whose regimes are established through successive revolutions or insurrections. And even after Zeus or Jupiter had already ostenisbly established dominion, still the prospect that Zeus/Jupiter might themselves lose their power remains imminent. The god devours his own wife just as Saturn devoured his own offspring to prevent this from happening, and even then, Zeus/Jupiter’s wife and Olympian offspring have themselves tried to overthrow him. But before that, of course, the Titans continued to war with the Olympians, with Typhon doing battle against Zeus/Jupiter. The possibility of the cosmic order to be overturned is inherent in the cosmos itself, and Saturn, especially in Roman myth, embodies that. But there’s also more. Think back to the Golden Age, the time of Saturn’s reign, of apparent boundless abundance and equality. Of course there are many different versions of that myth, but we’ll stick with the account of the Roman poet Virgil, in which the Golden Age persists until the reign of Jupiter which overthrows Saturn. It has been said that there was a reason for Jupiter’s abolition of the Golden Age, that this Age was in its own way a brutal subjugation, and that it was not ideal and that it thus needed to be overthrown. But is that really the case? Or is it really just an arbitrary act of power? Think about the sort of life that disappeared with the death of the Golden Age, and the life of rigid hierarchies that succeeded it. From a standpoint, I suppose, that is just progress. But progress is simply the movement of men, social processes, and the heavens; those movements are not inherently essential, and are often arbitrary. From the standpoint of Saturn and his cohorts at least, why should the primitive abundance of the Golden Age have had to disappear?
To align with the chthonic is in a certain sense to go into a negative space not defined by the progressive revolutions of celestial will. To go into the underworld is to go into the knowledge of the soul’s origin. All of these are themselves a microcosm as the larger ontological negativity that I like to talk about, and thus it’s all a microcosm for the divine reality of Darkness, and the knowledge thereof. This does not only pertain to the context of Saturn within the same Hesiodic mythology of insurrection: from the same realm of the underworld where Kronos is imprisoned, the Hecatoncheires that were imprisoned there by Ouranos are later freed by Zeus so that they would assist him in overthrowing the reign of Kronos. In this sense, as well, the underworld functions as a zone of constant potential for resistance, a profound and latent negativity within the cosmos.
The link between chthonicism and rebellion may also be linked to the figure of the wild folk that appear in medieval iconography. Richard Bernheimer notes that the wild folk are simultaneously “demons of the earth” and “ghosts of the underworld”, and suggests echoes of the traits of the “wild man” Silvanus, as benefactor of wild creatures and their woods and fields on the one hand, and on the other hand Orcus the “enemy” of Man and living things. The wild folk of the medieval imagination were complex and liminal figures in their own right; they were “savage”, “ruthless”, “cunning”, “mad”, sexually libertinous and unrestrained, but also proud, benign, occasionally sympathetic representations of the freedom that exists in a nature beyond the constraints of nature, and thus a kind of innocence. Some medieval authors even believed that wild folk could develop chivalry and become knights without having to abandon much of their “savage” nature. The wild folk were thus somehow simultaneously the threat of moral anarchy and degeneration and an emblem of a wild virtue lost to civilization and its acculturations. The wild folk were also related to demons that were purportedly invoked in old fertility rites for their positive powers of fertility and then ritually banished or destroyed through burning. Because these demons were hairy like the wild folk, I would conjecture that they could have been the Dusios, a divinity thought to have been venerated by the Gauls or Celts. These Dusii reportedly still received worship in parts of what was called Prussia, where it was believed forests were consecrated to them. The wild folk may have been believed to be the descendants of Orcus, and insofar as that was the myth we could say that the chthonic powers thus once again become central to the underbelly of rebellion, this time in the context of the remnants of paganism in a society marked by an ascendant Christian hegemony.
Perhaps the deepest meaning of the underworld is as a hidden source of rebirth. After all, the underworld, while it was the destination of the souls of the dead, it was in many contexts simultaneously regarded as a source of renewing fertility and returning life. In a much broader sense, going down into the underworld was often regarded as a precursor to a sort of mystic rebirth of the practitioner or initiate, more specifically into a blessed afterlife. That was in the core idea of Greek mystery traditions such as the Eleusinian Mysteries and later the Orphic Mysteries. A similar idea is presented in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, where he is depicted as going through a ritual descent into the underworld and a kind of mystic death and rebirth, emerges in the divine image of a solar deity, and then meets the gods themselves, worshipping them “face to face”. The idea also seems to be present in the Egyptian Book of Thoth, which ostensibly aims to expedite the spiritual rebirth of the disciple and their meeting with the gods.
In the Egyptian Books of the Sky, the underworld realm of Duat is composed of multiple regions, one of which consisted of the primordial waters of the limitless and timeless outer cosmos. In this region, the sun and the stars undergo a process of regeneration involving its incursion into the primordial waters, briefly plunging into them in order to be reborn. This realm also seems to have been linked to the divine body of Osiris, in whose realm the Egyptian sun god Ra is believed to have passed through for his regular renewal. A similar idea can be found in Aztec myth, wherein the Sun is guided through the underworld by Xolotl, to its apparent “death” and then to its rebirth, thus supporting the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In Mayan myth, it is an unidentified god of maize who makes this descent, passing below the waters of the underworld only to emerge triumphantly from the earth’s surface. And yet this theme of rebirth is not always universal, as is illustrated by the distinction between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian underworlds. Whereas the Egyptian underworld was a realm of potential rebirth, the Mesopotamian underworld was simply the land of no return, no rebirth to speak of except perhaps for some of the gods. In the Greek context, the underworld is always a source of deifying power, in that descent into this realm was thought to lead to transformation into a divine being; thus it is a timeless source of becoming and immortality.
It has often been noted that a sort of ritual, meaning spiritual, death and rebirth is an essential component of mysticism at large. In fact, we might well consider the theme of descent itself as a fairly integral aspect of ancient mysticism. Pythagoras, for instance, retreated into an underground chamber so as to “disappear into Hades” and then re-emerge, ostensibly bringing forth messages or “commands” from the “divine mother” (possibly meaning the goddess Demeter). Another Greek philosopher, Zalmoxis, who also was regarded as divinity or daemon in parts of Thrace, was similarly reputed to descend into an underground chamber for three years and then re-emerge. Empedocles apparently enacted his own form ritual katabasis, his own descent into the underworld. Supposedly, even Zoroaster went down into the underworld. The Greek Magical Papyri contains some fragments of a ritual wherein the practitioner must enter the underworld and then recite spells to protect oneself from hostile daimones, which is on its own very in line with Egyptian magic and particularly the spells meant to ensure the immortality of the pharaoh. Such is the mystagogical tradition within the pre-Christian polytheism. But just to illustrate that theme of descent a different, perhaps monotheistic context, we can note the importance of the theme of descent in Jewish mysticism or parts thereof. In the Hekhalot texts, for example, there is a fairly mysterious idea about descent into a state of spiritual transformation as the necessary precursor to a mystic ascent towards the Merkabah, the throne of God. It’s probably not the underworld as such, but it is descent in a mystical context, and the resonance does speak to a broader theme of ancient mysticism: you must go down into the divine in order to discover it. And for a lot of pre-Christian mysticism, this meant going into the underworld.
All in all, chthonicism contains a multitude of themes that all converge in a broad and distinct religious mode. It locates the divine in the inner regions of the world, it signifies that divine power as running through the world at large, and it locates a wild presence of devours the order of things and which, in order to access the knowledge and life of the divine, must be accessed through descent into its realm.
The Season of Death
I’ll say in complete honesty that one of the main reasons for writing this article was indeed none other than “spooky season”, or at least some ideas about it that were swirling around and which I think allow for a very clarifying discourse on chthonicism. And yes, I’m referring to both the time we call Samhain or Halloween and the time that we recognise as the run up to Yule or Christmas and the end of the year.
Let me start this off by referencing a tweet or two from Margaret Killjoy, an anarchist author and musician known for her work in a black metal band called Feminazgul. She says that Halloween is not the end of “spooky season” but is rather the beginning of the “season of death”. In this “season of death” even Christmas can be seen as a time where everyone clings to one another in the darkest time of the year, before the cold sets in. I can think of it as this positioning the last few months of the year, crawling up to the end of the solar cycle itself, as a progression, or perhaps “death march”, towards the rebirth that is thus signified in Yule, and the natural-cosmological significance of this season serves as a microcosm for a much larger chthonic mystery of death and rebirth itself. In the endeavour of this writing, I hope to adequately explain how, and in this respect we should start with Samhain.
Samhain is usually understood as the time of the year when the borders between our world and the netherworld burst open, and the spirits of the dead and the denizens of the underworld join the company of the living. The presence of death and the beyond is thus a constant theme of Samhain. Samhain was also understood as the festival that marked the beckoning of winter and the beginning of the dark nights leading up to the winter solstice, the longest night of all. To call it the beginning of the season of death is thus quite apt. But there’s also another theme present that also makes Samhain, or perhaps more aptly the modern Halloween, what it is: rebellion. This aspect is not obvious from modern Halloween celebrations, but it is to be understood in the context of the passage of Samhain into the Christian era. As discussed in an anonymous article from Ill Will titled “The Devil’s Night: On The Ungovernable Spirit of Halloween“, the remnants of pre-Christian folk paganism and the rumored nocturnal gatherings of “witches” were, as the subjects of religious panic amongst the Christian ruling classes, filtered through the dominant overculture as the concept of All Hallow’s Eve, ostensibly a Christian day to commemorate the saints and the martyrs, as the holiday of witches and devils. This shift has a noticeable political context in that it ties back to the infamous North Berwick Witch Trials, in which dozens of Scottish people were accused of gathering on Halloween night to perform witchcraft in order to stop King James I from meeting with his future queen Anne of Denmark. These witch trials are probably the origin of several iconographic tropes associated with witchcraft in popular culture and, alongside this, modern Halloween, such as the association of cats with witches, the use of cauldrons and brooms by witches, and the presence of demons and the Devil.
Over time, Halloween came to be associated with drunken revelries, mischief, “whoredom”, pranks on random domiciles, and mockery of public officials. In Britain this was in conjunction with similar celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night, which included burning effigies of not only the Pope and Guy Fawkes but also a number of other politicians. In America, Halloween was a time where people frequently played pranks on each other, but some people also staged riots against authority figures and other societal edifices: attacking police officers, vandalising cars, defacing churches, raiding police stations to rescue imprisoned comrades, and general civic unrest that was then dispersed by the authorities. In fact, it was arguably only relatively recently, after the Second World War, that the harmless commercial custom of trick-or-treating emerged as the main public face and primary custom of Halloween. This taming of Halloween was the product of concerted campaigns by local authorities, advertising companies, candy and chocolate companies, churches, schools, politicians, and entertainment media; apparently all layers of American capitalist society worked in tandem to recuperate Halloween as a peaceful consumer holiday. The desire to recuperate Halloween was explicitly stated in the media, and authorities reinforced an intense propaganda war by having students sign pledges to refrain from Halloween pranks and influence others to conform. In a sense, American consumer capitalism had succeeded where the medieval Christian church had failed. But even this only goes to show the rebellious heritage that Halloween has, a legacy of danger, chaos and unrest that even to this day has not entirely faded from view.
Unsurprisingly for such heritage, the medieval imagination also linked the Devil himself to Halloween celebrations and their attendant cultural imaginary. The Devil was believed to be the consort or leader of all witches, perhaps even their patron deity, and on Halloween night it was believed that he danced and held feasts with witches while fortune-telling charms were performed in his name. Such beliefs also formed part of the accusations against supposed witches in the North Berwick Witch Trials. It’s not exactly clear where these ideas about the Devil come from, but by this point the Devil has already been filtered through the legacies of multiple pre-Christian deities. His horned visage obviously owes much to the god Pan, but many medieval depictions of Hell, where Satan is depicted as a bearded figure sitting on a throne in Hell, recall the appearance of the god Hades. The Devil’s blue skin and brutish expression has also been linked to Charun, an Etruscan demon psychopomp who may have tormented the souls of the dead. Indeed, the medieval Devil was sometimes named Dis, as in Dis Pater, a Roman god of the underworld, particularly in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Thus the medieval imagination explicitly links the Devil especially to chthonic gods of old. Even the fall of Satan/Lucifer has echoes of the banishment of the Titans, itself echoing the fallen gods who became lords of the underworld in Hittite and Mesopotamian mythology. Another Halloween character we can turn our attention to is Death, who is surely the other chthonic power par excellence in the medieval landscape. The medieval figure of Death, a skeletal grim reaper complete with the scythe, recalls the imagery of the Roman god Saturn or Saturnus.
Even the idea of witches as a dangerous transgressive element in society may have some link to certain interpretations of the chthonic element in ancient Greek and Roman society. For one thing, if pre-Christian witches had a patron deity, it was probably Hecate, one of the main goddesses of the underworld, who was believed to have taught witchcraft and sorcery to mortals. The way we understand witchcraft is sometimes related to goeteia, the ancient Greek art of sorcery that, per Jake Stratton-Kent, is itself also connected to a much older form of Greek religion centered around ecstatic rites and the worship of wild, chthonic deities in order to acheive worldly desires. As Greece passed into its “classical” or Hellenistic era, goeteia evolved into a byword for malicious sorcery, “lower” magick (as opposed to the “higher” magic of Neoplatonic theurgy), fraud, and deception in the eyes of a society that categorized its particular brand of wild, ecstatic religion as anathema to its own nascent values of rational civilization. In Rome, witches were believed to cast curses out of spite and malice while invoking and even threatening the spirits of the dead, and were frequently accused of murdering children and plotting to kill the emperor. Such depictions, of course, are very likely to have been constructed from the perspective of patriarchy, thus superimposed upon an otherwise general and often benign phenomenon of women who practiced magic and offered healing and counsel. Still, the alignment of “witches” or “sorceresses” to nocturnal rites and chthonic imagery speaks to the subversive context that was attached to chthonicism.
Chthonicism in general can be tied back to rebellion in many ways through the context we have already thus explored. In Rome, this is most evident in the cult of chthonic gods such as Liber or Bacchus being tied to ritual disobedience, while in Greece, as Luther H. Martin noted in Hellenistic Religions, the chthonic element is inherently transgressive in that the association of chthonic religion contained an implicit challenge to the social order. This may be linked to the way the goens (practitioners of goeteia) challenged the order of Hellenistic society, defined by aristocratic democracy that couched its rule in a sort of metaphysical rationality, by holding on to an older religion of ecstatic rites and chthonic gods. In the case of Halloween as we know it, it comes back to the traditional association with bonfires. From the ritual bonfires of Samhain, to the medieval revelries of mischief that involved bonfires, to the fires that once raged on Devil’s Night in Detroit, USA, the Halloween bonfire heralds the impulse to burn the order of things, thus it is a totem of the death of order. In the ancient context of Samhain, the boundaries between worlds are burst open with abandon while the spirit of death fills the air, and in later celebrations the fires were lit in mockery or even aggression against the powers that be. Fire is thus lit for the death of the order of the world, and the beginning of the season of death, and so also the march towards rebirth.
Which of course finally brings us to the winter solstice, the other end of our season of death. For as Samhain inaugurates the season of death, Yule brings it to its close. We may have much to say about the many solstice celebrations that are often cited as antecedents for the way we celebrate the solstice, and we will comment on that aspect. But perhaps it is more important to focus the chthonic meaning of the solstice itself. In the context of Greek polytheism, there is an interpretation of the myth of Hades and Persephone, an interpretation attributed to Porphyry and Heraclitus, in which Hades/Plouton is interpretation as the sun, while Persephone/Kore is interpreted as the shoots or seeds that Hades/Plouton snatches up when he goes down into the earth. In this interpretation, during the winter solstice, Hades/Plouton was the sun that travelled to the western hemisphere, went down beneath the earth, and draws down the power of the seeds. This was a myth about the life cycle of vegetation, which over generations took on a different, more eschatological meaning concerning the life and death of human beings.
There is indeed something to be said for Saturnalia, which, while decidedly not “the original pagan Christmas”, was one of the major Roman winter solstice festivals, aspects of which did end up getting recuperated by Christianity. The festival itself, as perhaps the most popular of Roman festivities, was given certain degrees of theological significance, and as such it’s worth exploring some of the theological ideas that have been invested into Saturnalia. Porphyry considered Saturnalia to be an allegory for the liberation of souls into immortality. Macrobius, in his Saturnalia, notes that Saturnalia was celebrated in the month of December, which according to him is also the time when “the seed”, held in the womb by the bonds of nature, starts growing and quickening, while the god Saturn is bound in chains until that one time of year when he is set free. The bondage of Saturn could thus also be intrinsically tied to a cycle of vegetation or perhaps a larger cycle of the renewal of life at large. Macrobius also argued, in a sort of quasi-monotheistic fashion, that all worship was ultimately directed to the Sun, which he regarded as the divinity behind all divinities, and for this reason he asserted that Saturn himself was necessarily the Sun. Saturn was etymologically and theologically linked to the “seed” that generated all things, born from the heavens, spilled out from the act of castration, and transferred from the waters to Venus. Jupiter binds Saturn, but on Saturnalia he is temporarily liberated, thus signifying the release of the original and destructive power of life in the world and the momentary restoration of the Golden Age: in this particular sense, it is a celebration of rebirth by way of return.
Of course, while Saturnalia was celebrated on the winter solstice, it was not celebrated on December 25th. Rather, that was the day in which Romans observed a distinct cosmological event that occurred around that time; none other than the winter solstice itself. In Rome, via the Julian calendar, December 25th was the traditional (though not necessarily actual) date of the winter solstice. The winter solstice itself was interpreted as the “birth” of the sun, and this was likely because it was the time when the days were shortest and thereafter the day would only get longer. Both Christian and polytheist acknowledged the winter solstice and each attributed their own religious significance to it. Christians simply settled on the date in an attempt to produce an exact traditional date for the birth of Jesus, and in so doing, by selecting the traditional Roman date for the winter solstice, endowed Jesus with solar significance (that is alongside numerous references and comparisons between Jesus and the sun, not to mention syncretism with sun gods such as Helios). Macrobius – who, although he was a polytheist, we must keep in mind was writing in the 5th century, decades after the Roman Empire had already instituted Christianity as its official state religion – asserted that December 25th was the day when the “new sun” was born. As much as it reads like a competition with Christianity, it’s also just as likely that he was referencing an already prevalent tradition, albeit one that Christianity had successfully adopted.
And then there’s Yule. Yule is a name known to have been derived from the Old Norse “Jol” as well as similar words from the Germanic, Gothic, and various Scandinavian languages. In the Norse and Germanic contexts Yule, or Jol, was rather explicitly connected to Odin, one of whose epithets is “Jolnir”, meaning “Master of Yule”. Odin, you will remember, was a god closely associated with chthonicism, being a lord of the gallows and possibly his own corner of the underworld. Yule, in this context, was probably a series of midwinter religious feasts held in celebration of the winter solstice. People prayed to the gods for the return of the sun, fires were lit to recall the sun’s appearance, and the feasts and solstice celebrations would go on for several days. This was also the time when the Wild Hunt, a hunting party or perhaps army of the dead typically believed to have been led by Odin himself, swept across the land. Little is known about the Wild Hunt, but it is thought that they wreaked havoc, snatched the souls of those unfortunate, and were sometimes joined by magicians who travelled with the Hunt voluntarily. In a sense Jol was their time of the year, their moment to roam the land and hence when the dead are closest to the living: oddly enough rather like what Samhain is in the context of Celtic cultures. Among the Anglo-Saxons there was a different custom, attested to around the same time we celebrate Christmas Eve: Mother’s Night, or Modraniht. Modraniht was a holiday dedicated to the worship of either mother goddesses or beings like the Disir in the context of a celebration of fertility.
The sun itself was in some sense also linked to the fertility of the earth, at least in the Roman context and at least as pertains to Saturnalia. The sun was positioned as essentially the source of the earth’s fertility, by virtue of its rays and its heat. Macrobius positioned Saturn as the sun in part because of the release of the power of seeds being symbolically linked to the castration of Uranus, and even his devourment being in some way linked to its destructive aspect, for the sun scorches as well as renews. The time of the winter solstice was in this sense undoubtedly a cosmological season of renewal, signifying a continuous return and rebirth of life. Thus, the “season of death” that I pointed to is a long cycle in which the death of the order of things and the ushering of darkness is the pre-condition and itself of the process of the constant generation, regeneration, emergence, and re-emergent life in the world. A cycle that itself represents the shadow of life, the primordial dynamism of the underworld that always permeates the surface of the visible world. Saturn, in his own way, is key to that, on Macrobius’ account being the power by which things are born, destroyed (or devoured), and then reborn; the cyclical power of endless becoming, bound by the powers of the heavens and the overworld, but still latent in all life.
So, what do we get from all of this? What do we derive from the complex of chthonicism that we have thus explored? What are the “virtues” that I alluded to earlier?
It is the chthonic realm that locates the vital powers of the pagan cosmos. It is this realm in which we see the centrality of the cyclical system of life, death, and rebirth, and where the fallen and rebels are at once part of the source of life. It is a place that sits underneath the visible world and yet animates its very being. It subverts the image of the visible world, and its power and reality defy the demiurgic properties of the visible world, which thus pushes it into the unconscious sphere of cosmic life ready to reassert itself in rebellion. It is the “shadow” of this world that also contains within itself the seed of its true life, and, as we will see, the deepest expression of all of this is locked into its theme of rebirth, and within this theme the possibility of becoming.
In reflecting on the broad theme, I tend to have the idea that the way the underworld can be approached may be viewed as a sort of microcosm for a yet still deeper consideration of life, nature, and divine reality. In its own way the underworld as the other side is in philosophical terms at once the shadow and inner self of the cosmos, in its own way a map of the nature of nature, the hidden world that is at once this world’s basis. And in the cyclical system of life, death, and rebirth, these realms, though one is so often obscured from the other, interpenetrate each other, such that is the true meaning that can be ascribed to the truism of the unity of opposites. An analogy I rather like comes from the doctrine of Izumo Taishakyo, a Shinto sect which bases itself on the idea of the unity between the visible and invisible worlds (this concept is given the name “Yuken Ichinyo”). The visible world would be the mundane physical world, while the invisible world would be Kakuriyo, ruled by the Kunitsukami Okuninushi. Kakuriyo can perhaps be thought of in terms of the underworld, since Okuninushi was, in some forms of Shinto theology, positioned as the ruler of the underworld and, hence, the divine matters of the “dark world” of spirit. And yet Kakuriyo is more than the world of spirits; it’s also the realm of things hidden to the human eye, the things that happen in the earth and the body beyond our sight. The visible world, of course, would be ruled by Amaterasu. But the two worlds are inseparable from each other, and beings alternate between them in an endless cycle of reincarnation. This appears to be influenced by the theology of kokugaku philosophers like Hirata Atsutane, who positioned Kakuriyo as the “real” or “true” world, and the visible world as a finite “false” world, yet also existing alongside each other and overlapping with one another, sometimes sacred spaces were points of passage between them. That analogy is one way to think of the underworld in some forms of Paganism; an unseen realm of life that is at once its hidden image, essential to the mystery of reality, whose apprehension thus requires the magical arts of katabasis.
The underworld, throughout pre-Christian religion, was in many cases never without its sense of dread or terror, even if not because of its fundamental assocaition with death. This was, after all, an uncanny realm, often invisble to the world of the living even as it underpins its very life, and as a result principally alien to human understanding. Underworlds filled with monsters or spirits were morphed in the Christian imagination into the realm of Hell inhabited by Satan and his legions of demons. Yet before the Christian imagination took shape, the fear of the underworld gradually evolved towards theological and philosophical trends aimed at transfiguring it towards the celestial principle, which was gradually deemed the superior existential centre, or contrasted against this exact principle as the principle opposed to being. It is thus not such a surprise that the Christian imagination positioned this realm as the seat of the principle of evil, thus a zone of moral antagonism to life, but in so doing it strove to cast this realm away, to alienate it from religious consideration – except, perhaps, as regarding the question of eternal damnation. In this sense, our image of the The Devil evolves with the history of chthonicism, running through a pagan legacy that Christianity could never really erase.
There is one last thing to say about the virtues of chthonicism, concerning the apparent goal of life. Sigmund Freud conceived the idea that, in his words, the goal of life is death. This summarizes a concept that he refers to as the death drive, that is to say the unconscious drive within sentient beings towards their own destruction or integration. It’s an idea that is extremely difficult to make sense of; after all, it seems almost impossible to imagine life having spent eons of effort towards its own continuity in evolution and reproduction for the sole sake of its own death or oblivion. But for pre-Christian religion, it’s possible to argue that, if we do indeed take Freud’s death drive seriously (and I will say here that I am not quite convinced of his overall argument), there was a larger animus to the death drive that can be linked to the mystagogical katabasis we find in chthonic mysteries. On the one hand, it’s possible to think in terms of Parmenides, for whom the descent into the underworld meant the discovery of the true and immaculate content of Being (as represented by the image of the goddess Persephone). On the other hand, much of the old mystagogical, magical, and goetic traditions of descent into the underworld centered around the possibility of spiritual transformation through the knowledge of that realm. Perhaps one could argue that these possibilities are actually intertwined, in that the true source of being consists of an endless cycle of becoming. But in any case, the descent is made into the underworld often in order that the mystagogue, the initiate, or the magician might become something and transform themselves, in this sense become something spiritually greater than themselves; to “become” divine. Even in the theme of dissolution, philosophically emblematized by Hades/Plouton in certain forms of Greek Neoplatonism, one finds this theme. In Zen Buddhist parlance, this can be understood in terms of its conception of nothingness: not as an inert lack of content, but as a statement of untangible content and worlds, extending in all directions beyond the limits of the senses, mundane form always on the brink of sinking back into this sort of utter potentiality. In this view, what we sense of in the visible world cannot approach the invisible world of nothingness, and which must be approached by embracing its mystery. Descent, interpreted this way, means entering into the underworld in order to consciously approach the mysteries of the invisible world; whethere that be the kingdom of Hades, the land of Duat, the caves of the Asura, or the infinite realms of nothingness. Perhaps in this way the primordial power of becoming is the true meaning of the light that is hidden within the darkness, and it is the occult nature of this power of becoming that is why one must descend into the underworld.
Thus, pagan chthonicism roots itself in the quest for divine becoming. Philosophically, this is what it means to follow the path of darkness to the bottom of the earth. There sits the full brilliance of divine reality…hidden from the light.
God Jul Tid