Pagan chthonicism and its virtues

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.

“The Eleusinian Mysteries” by Paul Serusier (1888)

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.

Ancient Egyptian depiction of a section of the underworld, presided over by the god Osiris

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 Sibyl showing Aeneas the Underworld” by Jacob Isaacsz. van Swanenburgh (1620)

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.

“Samhain” by Margaryta Yermolayeva

Conclusion

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

Why the Satanic Panic is still a thing

Satanic Panic has returned, or so we’re told. It certainly feels that way when we consider the extent to which hardcore American conservatives and the far-right in general are leveraging the same essential moral panic, and all its inherently fascistic undertones, as part of the gradual consolidation of fascism across the world. Indeed, long-time readers of this blog may have noticed that this past year has so far has seen me cover new iterations of Satanic Panic. This includes the conservative outrage against Lil Nas X, conspiracy theories about the Astroworld disaster, Jordan Peterson’s transphobic rant in which he compares trans people to Satanic Panic, and the whole industry of conspiracy theories that cast Ukraine as a Satanic fascist nation in opposition to Christian Russia. Just hold that last thought for later, because it will be important to cover that in more detail. Indeed, the Russian state to whom the Western far-right is allied has played a unique role in thrusting Satanic Panic back into focus by making it part of the ideological basis for their ongoing invasion of Ukraine. But while a lot of commentary on the subject seems to present this as a revival of 1980s moral panic, the reality is that Satanic Panic never actually died out. The basic tropes still persist to this day and are a fundamental part of the core of hardcore right-wing ideology and the conspiracy theories that build themselves upon it. We laugh rightly about the fact that there was a time where some people seriously believed that heavy metal was indoctrinating people into some sort of violent Satanism, no matter the actual religious affiliations (or often the lack thereof) of the bands in question, but that basic idea still has its adherents in this very decade! In this setting, I hope to demonstrate not only the way that Satanic Panic has been brought back into focus, but also the way in which Satanic Panic has always been present in Western societies.

Contemporary Satanic Panic

But first of all, let’s bring focus to perhaps the most recent discourse of Satanic Panic that jumped onto my radar, and in all truth is my impetus for writing this article to start with. Last week, a Twitter user going by the name Rob (or @.houellebecq_2) has gone semi-viral for suggesting that the Satanic Panic of the 1980s was actually “justified”. To re-state the basic facts of our subject, this Satanic Panic was based around a number of right-wing conspiracy theories. One of those conspiracy theories asserted that schools and daycare centers across America were secretly controlled by devil-worshipping paedophiles who (we’re told) carted their victims off through underground tunnels and into their ritual chambers to abuse or kill them. Another popular Satanic Panic idea that sort of connected with that is the belief that heavy metal (not to mention its more “extreme” varieties), Dungeons and Dragons, video games, horror movies and more were portals through which children and teenagers would be brainwashed into becoming Satanists and start ritualistically murdering people or committing other crimes as a result. Rob’s argument is that these beliefs are all justified because “there actually was widespread abuse in the 80s”. When he was called out for this, Rob asserted that his critics were simply weaponizing some alleged experience of gaslighting, then argued that people don’t accept his claims because of media hyperfocus on the occult aspects, an alleged overcharging of cases, and supposed outgroup anxieties about suburban Christians (which, if anything, is probably what is actually justified for reasons I plan to elaborate). He then suggested that people read The Witch-Hunt Narrative by Ross E. Cheit, which ostensibly argues against the idea that the McMartin accusations constituted a witch hunt, while rather suspiciously refusing to link to any court documents to support his case. Forgetting the obvious problem with trying to bat away decades of disconfirmation (not to mention explicit repudiation by children involved) with a single source coupled with the refusal to present any relevant legal evidence that just might refute Rob’s case, a quick search for Cheit’s book The Witch-Hunt Narrative gives us no indication that he actually endorses the idea of Satanic Ritual Abuse – even though he argues that widespread abuse was real, he does not seem to support the idea that this was ritualistic or “Satanic” in nature.

With this established, let’s emphasize exactly what’s wrong here. First of all, the argument that Satanic Ritual Abuse was a real, widespread phenomenon, and that Satanic Panic is therefore justified, is a fundamentally fallacious argument; one which, I suspect, has applications for other fascist conspiracy theories. Why, with this peculiarly shoddy reasoning, someone may as well argue that the fact that the USS Liberty was mistakenly attacked by Israeli military forces off the Sinai peninsula, for which the government of Israel had apologized and given restitution, was proof of some broader nefarious Jewish conspiracy against white people. I don’t bring up this example by accident. Not only is the logic the same, many of the same people who still believe that Satanists are secretly abusing and killing your kids also tend to hold some really toxic and bigoted beliefs about Jews – sometimes coded (see the way the Right has been talking about “globalists” for decades or even close to century), and other times overt. That’s not a coincidence either, because the basic premise of Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories is itself evolved from a much older tradition of blood libel in which Jews were frequently and maliciously accused of abducting people as victims of blood sacrifice, and these ideas are both pillars of a far-right/fascist ideology whose aim is to preserve a traditionalist notion of “the natural order” applicable to human civil society by oppressing or exterminating any designated Other seen as defying this order. I must stress for the record: this is what Rob thinks is somehow “justified”, and on such an appallingly weak standard of evidence.

I’m sorry to say this, but there’s more. Rob is not the only person trying to argue that the old Satanic Panic was justified. Anna Biller, the same woman who gave us The Love Witch, also recently endorsed the idea that Satanic Panic was justified based on the supposed reality of the McMartin preschool abuses. In fact, Biller even went so far as to claim that the “tunnels” where children were taken through to be abused were actually real, that the McMartin case was only debunked because no one at the time could prove that the tunnels existed, and that they were supposedly later found and the media wouldn’t cover it. How does she claim to know all of this? By going down a “Satanic Panic rabbit hole”…by which she means she went to some message boards and saw people claim that the tunnels were real and that they were covered up. Well, that and her other source is a website run by a man named Neil Brick, who incidentally has apparently also claimed that he was brainwashed by the CIA to be some sort of super soldier to go and kill people in Eastern Europe. His organisation, S.M.A.R.T., repeatedly claims the existence of large scale CIA mind control programs, and Brick himself repeatedly claims that the CIA financed various mass brainwashing programs. But there’s more. On S.M.A.R.T.’s website, you’ll find an article about Michelle Remembers, Lawrence Padzer’s infamous and discredited book that was taken up as the basis of the whole Satanic Panic nonsense, written by a retired psychologist named Alison Miller, in which Miller argues that the claims presented in Michelle Remembers are almost literally true and praises Padzer’s credentials. The website also seems to defend the work of Bennett Braun, a doctor who planted false memories of ritual abuse and demonic possession into the head of Pat Burgus – a charge that, surprise surprise, S.M.A.R.T. categorically denies. So Anna Biller is basing her “expertise” about Satanic Panic on conspiracy theories concocted from SRA theorists/apologists and probably also 4chan for all I know!

Of course, Biller has other arguments at her disposal. She claims not only that the ritual abuse cases were all real, but also that they were part of a massive international criminal trafficking operation, which she claims was, like Donald Trump’s abuse cases, too big to prosecute because they involved rich, powerful men at the centre. This new spin on the old Satanic Panic is fundamentally indistinguishable from the basic claim made by the QAnon movement, which claims the existence of an elite conspiracy to traffic minors in order to ritually abuse and sacrifice them, but is also if anything slightly more ridiculous (even if still less lurid) simply because it would have us assume that the richest of the rich and the highest echelons of US state power are somehow almost entirely invested in the fates of some random preschools daycare centers, and their faculty members, to the point of assassinating (or “Epsteining”) witnesses. Truly, I can hardly think of anything more absurd than this. But as ludicrous as this all is, it seems that we should make note her precise point of comparison – Jeffrey Epstein – as it seems to be a part of not only Biller’s Satanic Panic narrative but also other narratives from the last four or five years.

Biller claims that rich men abused children in the McMartin case and dressed it up in “Satanic trappings”. It seems that she never actually specifies what “Satanic trappings” she’s meant to be referring to. What is true is that all sorts of claims of ritualistic behaviours have been made about Little Saint James Island, and while we know that the human trafficking was real, the ritualistic behaviour probably wasn’t. One thing I do remember seeing from the Epstein cycle is a photograph of a bizarre mask via Getty Images, apparently found at Ghislaine Maxwell’s house in New York City. The mask is strange, it seems to resemble an old man with a long forked beard, some red eye-shadow on his face, a headdress seemingly meant to recall ancient Chinese royalty, and a mysterious triangle symbol on his head and on the cloth flowing downward. There’s almost certainly nothing “Satanic” about the mask, in fact as far as I can tell no one seems to really know what, if anything, it actually represents, but the usual conspiracy theorists took it up as evidence of “Satanic” inclinations on the part of Jeffrey Epstein, Ghislaine Maxwell, and their clique of haute-bourgeois paedophiles. It is repeatedly claimed that the triangle on the mask is meant to be the symbol of NAMBLA, that notorious pro-paedophilia activist group, and the conspiracy theorist more or less expects you to connect the dots to Satanic Ritual Abuse from there somehow; you may remember PizzaGate adherents trying to tie the same symbol to Comet Ping Pong Pizza and cast it as a nod to Baphomet despite there not actually being a link.

And it’s not just QAnon types who peddle certain theories about the Ghislaine Maxwell mask. Some leftists have also joined in, and I don’t just mean Anna Biller. Matt Christman, on an episode of the Grubstakers podcast, speculated about the nature of the Ghislaine Maxwell mask and linked it to PizzaGate, though ultimately admitted that he cannot know what it actually means. Fans of the TrueAnon podcast are much less cautious, actively labelling the mask “demonic”. That whole “dirtbag” scene has a bizarre relationship to QAnon, where they outwardly mock and deny QAnon, but some figures, like Christman, at the same time describe QAnon as “half-right”, agreeing with them that the world is ruled by “a cabal of cannibalistic psychotic sexual abusers” (which, to be honest, sounds an awful lot like the way that the Polish far-right ideologue Andrzej Lobaczewski talks about “pathocrats”) while disagreeing principally with the idea that Donald Trump is going to arrest them all. It is curious that this way of discussing QAnon makes no mention of the fact that the concept of Satanic Ritual Abuse is a central part of QAnon ideology or the fact that anti-semitism, both overt and coded, is also so fundamental to QAnon beliefs. I wonder what could explain such oversight.

In this setting, we can’t escape the impression that a generalized mode of conspiracism, and from there various degrees of Satanic Panic, are really everywhere, spread out across much of the political spectrum. In fact, S.M.A.R.T. has sometimes enjoyed mainstream media credibility. In 2020, Associated Press (yes, the same Associated Press that was recently partially responsible for legitimising the idea that Monkeypox is a “gay disease”) ran an article titled “SMART Founder Neil Brick Speaks at Child Abuse Conference in Dundee, Scotland“, whose content, if you look closely, is a word for word copy-paste job of an article from S.M.A.R.T.’s website titled “THE ORGANISED AND RITUALISED ABUSE OF CHILDREN: THE CURRENT INTERNATIONAL SITUATION”, published as a paid press release by S.M.A.R.T. with no editorial involvement from Associated Press. Think about that for a moment or two: an SRA conspiracy theorist group paid Associated Press to publish one of their articles as a press release to basically promote their cause, and by implication Associated Press didn’t do much research into S.M.A.R.T. before agreeing to run a paid press release from them. This is not even the only press release from them that AP has run. In the same year AP also ran an article titled “SMART Newsletter Celebrates Twenty-Five Years of Publishing – Neil Brick Editor“, which is another paid press release from S.M.A.R.T., and towards the end of that year they published yet another article titled “SMART announces the 24th yearly Child/Ritual Abuse and Mind Control Conference“, which is unsurprisingly another paid press release, this time ran via a company called PR Newswire. There’s another article like that from last year too. PR Newswire, in turn, has published multiple articles from S.M.A.R.T. promoting their conferences as press releases. These articles also end up reproduced wholesale on other mainstream media outlets such as Yahoo News.

The American media seems to be normalizing S.M.A.R.T. by running articles from them without any critical considerations, without any research into the organisation, their work, or who its participants include, let alone challenge Neil Brick, the head of S.M.A.R.T., for his claims that he was brainwashed by the CIA to be their super soldier. That’s not necessarily a surprise considering that the media still has a habit of contributing to Satanic Panic discourse. Stop and wonder why, for a time, the only outlet that would cover The Satanic Temple’s lack of financial transparency or their litigation against Queer Satanic was Newsweek, and even Newsweek couldn’t cover it without including weird reporting about “Satanic” orgies. Stop and wonder why, to this day, news outlets will report instances of murder committed by apparent Satanists as connected to Satanism without ever doing the same thing when it comes to murders committed by Christians who openly say that God or their faith told them to do it. Even in cases of writing about the real threat posed by groups like the Order of Nine Angles or Tempel ov Blood, writers such as Matthew Feldman cannot help but disingenuously construct their own broader anti-Satanist moral panic. In this setting, Satanic Panic definitely has not gone away, and the mainstream media are surprisingly and alarmingly complicit in its perpetuation. No wonder, then, that even people like Anna Biller eventually fall for it.

But make no mistake: the lion’s share of Satanic Panic comes from hardcore right-wingers. In the run-up to the destruction of the Georgia Guidestones, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor proclaimed that she was “the ONLY candidate bold enough to stand up to the Luciferian Cabal”. The moral panic directed against Lil Nas X was manufactured by Republican politicians running on a Christian Nationalist culture war. As I pointed out earlier, QAnon itself is built upon an ideology that starts from the premise that “the elites” (mostly referring to Democrats) are secretly abducting, abusing, and killing children as part of a “Satanic” cult, a premise that itself evolved from the earlier PizzaGate movement. Right-wing conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones have done much to cultivate the mythology of Satanic Panic in casting prominent Democratic politicians and others he doesn’t like as demons and Satanists. Many have observed that the increasing right-wing emphasis on what they call “grooming” – a term meant to refer to emotional manipulation for the purpose of sexual exploitation that the Right now uses to refer to things like promoting gender affirming care – has taken the form of Satanic Panic in that it retains basic tropes thereof, such as the basic idea that children are being manipulated in order to be exploited by the same people that the far-right already thinks are Satanists. American culture is in a peculiar place now where people are reckoning with the nature of moral panic through media such as Stranger Things and at the same time a chunk of the country believes in and will reproduce the same panic.

America is not even the only part of the world where Satanic Panic continues to persist. In the United Kingdom, in 2015 there was a Satanic Panic centered around the Christ Church Primary School in Hampstead, where several faculty members and parents were accused of the ritualistic abuse and murder of children, and even after the accusations were debunked there is still a movement of conspiracy theorists, or “Satan Hunters”, based around that conspiracy theory to this day. In Switzerland, within the last year, it was found that a number of psychiatric professionals have employed Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories as the basis of their therapeutic practice. The German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth seems to have actually produced a report featuring Satanic Ritual Abuse terminology. In South Africa, an actual “ritual murder task force” called the Occult Related Crimes Unit, which was originally established in 1992, was re-established in 2012 and apparently still exists.

I haven’t even gotten around yet to discussing Russia, and as war in Ukraine rages on so too does the Satanic Panic narrative. Since I wrote about Russian Satanic Panic narratives back in March, I have seen more examples of just such a narrative. For one thing, it is the explicit and official argument of the Russian armed forces that the Russian army is “the last bastion against the satanic new world order”. This was ascertained from an official Russian Officer’s Handbook, which was obtained by the Ukrainian GRU. It is suggested that related texts have been circulating in Russian military forums for a maximum of six years, which could mean that Russian soldiers have already primed themselves to regard their enemies as “the satanic new world order”. This would be consistent with the fact that the idea of Russia as the “last bastion of the world of faith” has itself circulated in the Kremlin and Russian media for years. Then, in April, Russian forces had supposedly uncovered Satanic paraphernalia in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol; Channel One claimed that there was evidence of a “satanic organisation of gays and lesbians” that was supposedly funded by the United States in order to destroy Russia. In May, some strange and practically indecipherable graffiti was discovered in a Ukrainian village called Trekhizbenka, which RIA Novosti interpreted as a “Satanic seal” and on this basis accused Ukrainian soldiers of practicing”black magic”. Sometimes this is paired with narratives that Ukraine is under the thrall of some sort of nationalistic neo-pagan religion based in neo-Nazi ideology. Stranger still, in May and June it was reported that Russian “shamans” were performing rituals, blessing Russian troops, and calling upon “the spirits of the earth” to protect Russia from Ukraine and its allies. One might recall Gerald Gardner performing a group ritual to try and protect Britain from Nazi invasion back in World War 2. If nothing else it shows that Russia not only regards their struggle with Ukraine as a holy war, they also seem to see it as having some sort of “occult” significance, and they take that very seriously.

The Russian establishment has, over the course of the war, aggressively denounced Ukraine and its people as “Satanists”. Alexander Novopashin, an Archpriest who was also a “corresponding member” of the European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Cults and Sects, recently expressed his support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which he described as “anti-terrorist”, and claimed among other things that “the West” is conspiring with “cults” (which he later says are “Satanic”) in Ukraine in order to spread Nazism and undermine supposed Ukrainian unity with Russia, that Ukrainian schools teach Nazism and cannibalism to children, and that all Ukrainian Nazis are also Satanists. Russian state media, especially Rossiya One, constantly stresses the idea that Ukrainians are Satanists as part of their coverage of Ukraine. In one segment, Rossiya One pundits claim the existence of a joint “satanic plot” by Ukraine, America, Britain, and the European Union to destroy Russia in a “hybrid World War 3”. In another segment, Vladimir Soloviev portrays Ukrainians as “Satanic Nazis” and claims that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is “not a Jew” – both are apparently standard-issue Kremlin talking points. In a more recent segment, Apti Alaudinov, commander of the Chechen Akhmat forces, argued that the Russian war in Ukraine is a holy war against “Satanism” and “the armies of the Antichrist/al-Dajjal” – by which he means Ukraine, America, NATO, and LGBTQ people. Tsargrad TV, owned by arch-conservative Kremlin ally Konstantin Malofeev, supported the war in Ukraine by arguing that Russia is fighting against “the enslavement of the once brotherly Ukraine” by “the Global anti-Christian system”, and claimed that LGBTQ pride rallies (which they call “Gay Marches”) are the symbol of that system as well as a larger “Satanic ideology”. Aleksandr Dugin, of course, continues to support the campaign against Ukraine, continues to present it as a battle against “the Antichrist”, and has argued that the war is not really a war but instead a “geopolitical exorcism” of Ukraine.

As I’ve outlined in my original article about Russian Satanic Panic, these narratives all align with similar conspiracy theories promoted by the American far-right, which also emphasize the idea of “satanic” bio-laboratories, and as I have shown in that article American and Russian right-wing conspiracy theories are connected in the same network of right-wing propaganda warfare. Moreover, Satanic Panic is not new to Russia. Russian fascists sometimes depicted their Bolshevik enemies in a sort of diabolical fashion. One example is a poster created by the fascist White Army in 1919, which depicts Leon Trotsky, then the commander of the Soviet Red Army, as a red devil wearing nothing but a pentacle, reclining upon the Kremlin wall and presiding over extra-judicial killings. In Poland, Nazis depicted Trotsky in a similar manner in a poster called “Bolshevik Freedom” (or “Wolnosc Bolszewicka”) in which a devilish Trotsky sits naked on top of a pile of human skulls. Given the atheistic nature of Soviet state life and the abundance of Soviet anti-religious/anti-theist propaganda, it seems unlikely that the Soviets would have contributed to Satanic Panic mythology. However, there were instances where the Soviet Union did echo aspects of the Satanic Panic found in their Western rivals.

In 1985, a Komsomol (youth wing of the “Communist” Party of the Soviet Union) in Soviet-controlled Ukraine produced a list of bands that were to be banned from Soviet radio stations on the grounds of “containing ideologically harmful compositions”. There’s no mention of Satanism on this list, but the general formula is very consistent with American Satanic Panic directed at heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons and the like. I suppose the closest thing on the Komsomol’s list of transgresssions would be “religious obscurantism”, a rather enigmatic charge specifically levelled against Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. Given that Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden were frequently accused of being “Satanic” simply because of their imagery and references to Satan despite not actually having any sort of Satanist message, I suspect that “religious obscurantism” may have just been how the Soviets interpreted artistic references to the Devil. The Komsomol also seems to have hated basically all punk music with a passion, so bands like The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Madness, the B-52s, the Stranglers, Depeche Mode and more were all denounced (although that said I can probably think of one punk band the Soviet Union did like). They also seemed to genuinely think that AC/DC, KISS, 10cc, Sparks, and even Julio Iglesias were all promoting “neofascism” somehow. Van Halen, Pink Floyd, Judas Priest, Talking Heads, and Dschinghis Khan were all denounced as “anti-communist propaganda”. And of course, several bands and artists were denounced on charges of “violence” and “eroticism” that feel very familiar to the way that certain video games and movies, not to mention some bands even, were frantically denounced in America and parts of Europe. Apart from the relative absence of discussions of Satanism, virtually every aspect of this seems to mirror similar moral panics against popular media in the Western countries that opposed the Soviet Union.

Of course, the modern Russian state is not the only nation to manufacture Satanic Panic for political purposes. From 1972 to 1974, British intelligence concocted stories of black masses, devil worship, witchcraft, and ritual killings in Northern Ireland in order to present to a public narrative which asserted that Irish paramilitary groups, in addition to threatening Britain politically, were also Satanic black magicians who were unleashing the forces of evil to destroy Christianity in Britain. British agents would go and plant all sorts of ritual artefacts and occult paraphernalia in abandoned buildings across Northern Ireland, as well as parts of the Republic of Ireland, in order to manufacture stories about Satanic rituals to local newspapers that were then passed onto local newspapers who would turn them into sensationalist front page scoops. According to Colin Wallace, a former British army intelligence officer who spoke about this scheme with Professor Richard Jenkins in the book Black Magic and Bogeymen, the idea was to discredit paramilitary organisations not only in the eyes of the public but also in the eyes of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, both of which were seen to be influential over the paramilitary movements. By having the media cast paramilitary groups as Satanic magicians through fake stories about black masses and ritual killings, it was hoped that a devout Christian population and local religious leaders would be convinced that paramilitary groups were responsible for somehow unleashing supernatural evil into the world and thus turn against them. British forces also hoped to keep young people indoors at night and within view of army observation posts, thus effectively monitoring the local population.

However, it seems the campaign never panned out. Coverage was ultimately confined to certain newspapers, with next to no corresponding national television news coverage. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the stories were treated with widespread skepticism to the point that some Irish news outlets and citizens suspected that it was all a hoax created by the British army as a counter-insurgency tactic. In fact, Irish republicans at the time theorized that rumours of black magic and “Satanic” ritual killings were a black propaganda campaign carried out by British intelligence in order to cast the “freedom struggle” as “diabolical”, with the ultimate aim of manufacturing consent for a curfew to be imposed upon the population. Given the facts of the matter, I would suppose that these republicans were not off the mark in their guesses, and that in the end they were at least correct to assume it was an intelligence operation. In 1990, Colin Wallace spoke out about it in Paul Foot’s book Who Framed Colin Wallace?, where he confessed that the aim of the “Information Policy” section he worked for was to demonize paramilitary groups and keep young people indoors through horrific rumours of ritual brutality.

According to Wallace, the operation played on and took influence from Northern Irish media coverage of horror films such as The Exorcist and The Devil Rides Out, not to mention the actual films themselves, as well as Dennis Wheatley’s books (such as The Devil Rides Out, The Satanist, and To The Devil, A Daughter), Rosemary’s Baby, and possibly a right-wing evangelical text called The Back Side of Satan (which was apparently an early text of new Christian right of the 1970s and 80s). This all gels very well with the context of what was dubbed the “occult revival”, a period of widespread popular fascination with occultism during the late 1960s and 1970s which saw the spread and growth of many occult and alternative religious movements and, naturally, also came with a lot of fear and religious panic directed towards the occult. This, of course, was reflected in horror movies, some forms of popular music (in fact, it’s part of the very birth of heavy metal as we know it), and reactionary Christian backlash towards occultism and alternative religions. There’s a sense in which the Satanic Panic that became infamous in America largely developed from the already-existing Christian anxieties towards the broader occult revival, its reception or representation in popular culture, and its bouts of media prominence. And of course, during the British witchcraft craze in view of the overall occult revival, there were certainly many sensationalist scare stories about witches involving their supposed worship of the Devil. Even some occultists, such as Charles Matthew Pace, sought to opportunistically exploit this climate by passing on their own self-made legends as tell-all exposes to a tabloid media eager for sensational stories to fill their pages.

The Evolution of Satanic Panic

For all that, though, Satanic Panic in its modern sense, or at least its central thesis, is essentially an ideology – one whose tropes are incredibly old and equally persistent. Many iterations of Satanic Panic centre around the idea of a secret society of “Satanists”, “Luciferians”, “devil-worshippers”, “Illuminati”, whatever the preferred term may be (in conspiracy theories their use is completely interchangeable), who somehow control all the major institutions and whose mission it is to subvert the order of the country by destroying its religion and traditional values, presumably in order to turn it into a totalitarian dictatorship. Putting aside the actual nature of totalitarianism, the basic idea is an outgrowth of conservative reaction in the aftermath of the French Revolution. The French Revolution, with its overthrow of the French monarchy, its equally violent rejection of Christianity, and its support for new doctrines of rationalism in the form of civic cults, no doubt shocked traditional Christians in both France and elsewhere. Such a seismic rejection of the traditional order of civil society, they reasoned, could only be explained by way of conspiracy, and so they blamed the “Illuminati” among other scapegoats. Like many lasting conspiracy theories, this one had a little kernel of truth to it: there was a secret society by that was called Illuminati, founded in Germany by Adam Weishaupt in 1776, whose aim was to promote rationalist philosophy and undermine the influence of religion and superstition in both public life and government. But they did not last long: in the 1780s, the Illuminati and all other secret societies were banned by Charles Theodor, the Elector of Bavaria.

It was Augustin Barruel and John Robison who, in the late 1790s, first set out the argument that the Illuminati had survived criminalisation and that it had somehow organised the French Revolution from behind the scenes. Their ideas soon spread to the United States, where they inspired religious sermons directed against the Illuminati and a wave of anti-Illuminati authorship. Barruel himself was a conservative and traditionalist Jesuit priest, whose main political concern was the preservation of the dominance of Roman Catholicism over public life. The French Revolution, naturally, was deemed a threat to that order, and so he weaved a conspiracy theory in which the Illuminati used the French Revolution to destroy the French monarchy with the ultimate aim of overthrowing Roman Catholicism, and in service of this idea he posited a broad connection between the Enlightenment, Freemasonry, occultism, and “Paganism”. After receiving a letter from a man identified as Jean Baptiste Simonini in 1806, Barruel also began to consider the idea that Jews may have been involved in his imagined conspiracy. Simonini’s letter argued that both the Illuminati and the Freemasons were created by a Jewish organisation based in Piedmont, and claimed that he himself had been initiated by these Jews and that they had revealed this to him. Barruel himself had insisted that he did not consider Jews to be primary conspirators and not principally responsible for the French Revolution, and had originally refused to publicize the letter, ostensibly to prevent anti-semitic violence from breaking out as a result. However, in 1820, Barruel confessed on his deathbed to a priest named Grivel that he had written a new manuscript which posited the existence of a centuries-old anti-Christian conspiracy that he believed was started by the prophet Mani, involved the Knights Templar, and whose council was partially led by Jews. Barruel had apparently destroyed this new manuscript two days before his death, but the manuscript itself goes to show how Barruel’s basic idea ultimately evolved into an anti-semitic canard.

If you look at modern conspiracy theories surrounding the “Illuminati”, many of them inevitably incorporate familiar anti-semitic tropes, depicting Jews as part of a dangerous secret society plotting some sort of evil agenda. In the 19th century, Simonini’s anti-semitic letter was spread throughout influential conservative circles and was eventually published in a conservative magazine called Le Contemporain in 1878, despite Barruel’s intentions to the contrary. In fact, Barruel’s basic idea about how the French Revolution was created and organised by the Freemasons formed part of the premise of the notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which argues that Jews were at the head of Freemasonry and to this day is part of the canon of anti-semitic bigotry. Then, as now, right-wing conspiracy theories about some anti-Christian cult or secret society plotting to destroy Christian civilization tend involve anti-semitism. That is not by accident, because these conspiracy theories, and the general idea of widespread Satanic Ritual Abuse, all evolved from a much older trope known as blood libel.

Blood libel is the name given to a whole genre of anti-semitism in which Jews were accused of abducting non-Jewish children in order to sacrifice them and use their blood to make matzos. The entire idea is just grotesquely and absurdly wrong on all levels and remains a classical example of xenophobia, but it’s an idea that has been trafficked in order to justify anti-semitic persecutions or pogroms for centuries – particularly by Christians. The Christian church fathers repeatedly denounced Jews and accused them of all manner of brutal crimes against Christians. Martin Luther repeatedly and notoriously attacked Jews, regarded them as being possessed by the Devil, and accused them of plotting against Christians. Such ideas continued to proliferate and evolve throughout the Middle Ages, during which time Jews were ruthlessly persecuted across Europe. So widespread was the idea of blood libel in the Middle Ages that you can find an example of it in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically The Prioress’ Tale, in which Jews are depicted as being incited by Satan to murder a young boy for singing “Alma Redemptoris Mater” through a Jewish ghetto. Incidences of children who disappeared and later died were blamed on Jews by people who accused Jews of killing them as part of a ritual sacrifice, resulting in trials and executions of innocent Jews, rafts of anti-semitic legislation, and the emergence of whole popular anti-semitic cults centered around celebrating these children as Christian martyrs while reviling Jews as the agents of Satan. Blood libel as a trope continues to persist in anti-semitic circles to this day, and in fact the Nazis made it part of their own anti-semitic mythology in papers such as Der Sturmer, a 1934 “special issue” of which depicted Jews as murderers of Christians and Christian children while denouncing them as “the devil’s brood” and accusing them of shedding blood in accordance with “the secret rite” (I have to stress the emphasis that Der Sturmer placed on Christianity in this issue, which suits their nature as a Christian fascist movement). Far-right conspiracy theorists naturally follow suit in this trend; this includes Alex Jones, who at one point blamed what he called a “Jewish mafia” for America’s problems and elsewhere publicly threatened CNN’s Brian Stelter while referring to him as “drunk on our children’s blood”.

It is also worth noting the extent to which anti-semitism formed an important part of the horrors we rightly associate with the Middle Ages. The Spanish Inquisition itself was originally created for the purpose of rounding up Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to Catholicism, who were targeted by Catholic monarchs who feared “Jewish influence” for the apparent purpose of coercively and tortuously ensuring the loyalty of local Jewish communities to the Catholic state and monarchy. Furthermore, the Inquisition viciously persecuted Judaism by burning Jews on the stake for refusing to convert to Catholicism, as well as burning copies of the Talmud, and they were also involved in deporting Jews from Spain and Portugal.

The blood libel trope can also be found in the medieval moral panic against witchcraft. One of the beliefs that people developed about witchcraft concerns a so-called “witches’ salve” or “flying ointment”. According to Francis Bacon, one of the ingredients of this ointment was human fat, specifically the fat of children or infants who were killed or exhumed. In the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that witches would kill newborn infants and suck their blood through their navels. It was frequently believed that witches abducted children for the purpose of collecting their blood and fat in order to consume or use to make ointments that granted them the magical power of flight. In one 17th century account, witches were accused of not only killing an infant but also digging up its buried corpse and later boiling and then roasting it for consumption and also to extract fat for their ointments. In many ways this idea is somewhat identical to the old blood libel directed against Jews. There is also an obvious line of progression between these stories about witchcraft and the broader mythology of Satanic Ritual Abuse.

A notorious 17th century French moral panic is perhaps illustrative in this regard. In 1677, a fortune teller named Magdelaine de La Grange was arrested on charges of forgery and murder, and La Grange’s claims to know about other crimes, particularly poisonings, being committed in the court of Louis XIV opened up an extensive investigation by French authorities into what was dubbed “The Affair of the Poisons” – a scandal involving mysterious deaths that were suspected to have been caused by poison. Numerous members of the aristocracy were implicated on charges of murder and witchcraft, fortune tellers and alchemists were rounded up and arrested on suspicion of providing various “illicit” services, and the king himself feared that he might have been poisoned by someone. Among the royal court, a major suspect was none of other than Madame de Montespan, Louis XIV’s mistress, who was widely believed (though never confirmed) to have been involved in the Affair of the Poisons. It was claimed that Madame de Montsepan consulted a “witch” named Catherine Monvoisin, with whom she supposedly performed rituals and prayed to the Devil in order to craft a love potion meant for Louis XIV, and that they ritually sacrificed and crushed newborn infants in order to drain the blood and mashed bones for their concoctions. It was thought that 2,500 infants were killed and buried in Monvoisin’s garden, but no evidence of infant remains was ever found and there is no evidence that the garden was ever actually searched. It was also claimed that Madame de Montespan allowed both Monvoisin and a priest named Etienne Guibourg to perform a “black mass” for her, in which Guibourg supposedly sacrificed an infant by slitting its throat over de Montespan’s body, had its blood pour into a chalice placed on her navel, and then used the blood and a consecrated host to create a potion or communion wine. It’s not clear if any of that ever actually happened.

The resemblance between this account and the blood libel trope should be somewhat clear: a religious renegade takes children (in this case supposedly purchased from prostitutes) to be ritually murdered in order for their blood to be consumed in some mixture or another. Instead of matzos or flying ointments, it’s wine or potions, but you can see the basic formula. Moreover, Satanic Panic continued to develop in France in tandem with the growth of the French occult underground. French occultists would sometimes accuse each other of being “Satanists” almost as a matter of course. “Satanists” (insofar as they were said to exist back then) were accused of holding black masses and engaging in various “immoral” activities. Eugene Vintras, a heterodox Catholic mystic who proclaimed “The Work of Mercy” was accused by Eliphas Levi and Stanislas de Guaita of being a Satanist who received “bloody hosts”. Joseph-Antoine Boullan, despite being a Christian, was often accused of being a prolific Satanist and of celebrating “black masses, particularly by Stanislas de Guaita”, possibly because of his apparent association with sex magic and his supposed encyclopedic knowledge of Satanism. Boullan himself claimed that it was de Guaita that actually performed the “black masses”. Jules Bois, in turn, accused Stanislas de Guaita of killing Boullan using black magick. French occultists alongside traditional Catholics also tended to accuse Freemasons of worshipping Satan or Lucifer. Jules Doinel, writing under the alias “Jean Kostka”, claimed in the book Lucifer Unmasked that Lucifer was the “secret god” of both the Freemasons and the “Gnostics”. Jules Bois claimed the existence of a “satanic temple” in which Lucifer was venerated as the “master builder”, suggesting a link between Luciferianism or Satanism and Freemasonry.

One event that marked perhaps the most lasting influence on modern Satanic Panic was the Taxil Hoax, which fooled the Catholic establishment by convincing them of the existence of a “Satanic sect” within Freemasonry. In 1885, a man named Marie Joseph Gabriel Antoine Jogand-Pagès, better known as Léo Taxil, publicly professed his apparent conversion to Roman Catholicism while denouncing his earlier anti-clerical works, and over the course of the 1890s he began writing a series of tracts denouncing Freemasonry. A year prior to this, Pope Leo XIII published an encyclical in which he accused the Freemasons of organising the “partisans of evil” against the Catholic Church and of “rising up against God himself”. Taxil claimed that the Freemasons practiced Satanic rituals and murder and worshipped the Devil, and that members of the upper ranks of Freemasonry were members of a sect called the Palladium Rite, which worshipped Lucifer as the God of Light and Good, denounced God (or rather Adonai) as the God of Darkness and Evil, and practiced sexual congress with demons. Taxil further claimed that the Palladium Rite was based in South Carolina in the United States. Later on he introduced a character named Diana Vaughan, the supposed High Priestess of the Palladium Rite, and later proclaimed that she had converted to Catholicism. Of course, “Diana Vaughan” never made any public appearances to corroborate his story. Then, in 1897, Taxil called a press conference in which he promised to reveal “Diana Vaughan” to the public and deliver other revelations about Freemasonry. But when the conference took place, Taxil instead revealed that there was no Palladium Rite, that “Diana Vaughan” was a fictional character played by his secretary, and that everything he had said about the Freemasons, and even his conversion to Catholicism, was all an elaborate hoax played on the Catholic Church, by which he meant to expose the fanaticism and gullibility of Catholics who denounced Freemasonry.

But far from extinguishing this anti-Masonic fanaticism, Léo Taxil may have ended up furnishing it for generations. Despite the fact that all of Taxil’s claims about Freemasonry and Satanism were exposed by Taxil himself as being completely false, the same claims continue to be repeated by right-wing Christian conspiracy theorists against Freemasonry to this day. Taxil’s work, including an infamous fake quote attributed to Albert Pike that was made up well after he died, has been continuously cited in both right-wing tracts against Freemasonry and in Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories. In fact, the idea that the Freemasons were some kind of diabolical religious sect who either led or were part of the forces seeking to destroy the Catholic Church is one of the classical elements of fascist politics, where just as before this idea is almost invariably connected to anti-semitic beliefs about Jews.

In France, the proto-fascist Charles Maurras attacked Freemasons alongside Jews, Protestants, and “foreigners” as threats to the French nation, blaming them for its supposed “decline”. This idea formed part of the ideology of Action Francaise, a far-right movement which he co-founded, and in 1940 the Vichy regime organized an anti-Masonic exhibition based on these ideas. The Vichy government oppressed Freemasons and applied its statutes against Jews to the Freemasons and other groups, and the Nazi propaganda ministry within Vichy France commissioned the production of an anti-Masonic (and anti-semitic) movie titled Forces occultes (“Occult Forces”), which depicted the Freemasons as conspiring with Jews and the Allied nations to push France into going to war against Germany. In Spain, Freemasonry was already periodically regarded as the source of all crimes and regularly persecuted by Spanish monarchs and the Inquisition, fascist propaganda depicted a “Judeo-Masonic” plot, and when fascists took power Freemasonry was banned and Freemasons were killed. Francisco Franco believed that the Freemasons were part of a communist plot to destroy Spain and frequently ranted about how Freemasons were supposedly behind everything from the British Broadcasting Corporation to the assassination of Carrero Blanco. After the establishment of democracy in Spain, right-wingers similarly blamed “Jewish-Masonic-Communist” propaganda for the fact that voters didn’t elect them. In fascist Italy, Freemasonry was deemed incompatible with fascism and banned by Benito Mussolini, despite the fact that many prominent Italian Freemasons at the time actually supported Mussolini’s fascism. In Britain, fascists such as Barry Domvile advanced the idea that a small section of Masons were plotting to impose a global system of financial control at the behest of a section of Jewish elites. In Nazi Germany and its occupied territories, Freemasonry was banned, Masonic lodges were forcibly disbanded, Freemasons were sent to concentration camps where they were marked as political prisoners, and anti-Masonic exhibitions were created to depict Freemasonry as part of a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Germany. Adolf Hitler himself believed that Freemasons were responsible for “paralyzing” Germany’s “instinct for self-preservation” and otherwise regarded them as an instrument of the Jews. The Empire of Japan also enlisted Freemasonry as a scapegoat for their own purposes, as is at least evidenced by a Japanese delegate to the Welt-Dienst in 1938 stating his belief that “Judeo-Masonry” had somehow forced China to attack Japan; the delegate also denounced both Sun Yat Sen and Chiang Kai Shek as Freemasons. In the United States, hardcore right-wing televangelists and other reactionary ideologues are typically inclined to attack Freemasonry as a form of Satanism and for its supposed association with the Rothschilds.

Of course, it should be noted that not all attacks on Freemasonry came from fascists, and the attacks that didn’t did not necessarily come from the same place, though authoritarians of various stripes tended to view the Freemasons as a threat in some way or another, often as a source of opposition. That might be why Masonry seems to have been criminalized or denounced throughout the old “Communist” bloc. The Soviet Union banned Freemasonry and condemned it as bourgeois, and so did China, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary – post-war Marxist-Leninist Hungary in particular seemed to regard Masonic lodges as places where capitalists, imperialists, and enemies of the “people’s democratic republic” all gathered to oppose socialism. Even Fidel Castro, who was relatively tolerant to the Freemasons, still seemed to regard Freemasonry as potentially subversive, and Masonic lodges were sometimes assumed to be places of refuge for possible political dissidents. Masons often attribute this consistent authoritarian mistrust of Freemasonry to their own equally consistent moral support for liberal-democracy and its attendant values, which in theory would be repellent for any dictator. But I think that it is probably all the more the case that the secrecy of Freemasonry was always the primary source of authoritarian anxiety, that is to say the idea that there is a domain possibly outside of the control of state power whose liberty is guarded by secrecy. I intend to establish this as an important theme in the older roots of Satanic Panic, but for now let us establish that, even with all of this in mind, most anti-Masonic tendencies are fascist in nature, typically incorporating anti-semitic talking points and stemming not so much out of contempt for all things “bourgeois” but more out of a long line of Catholic traditionalist reactionary ideology which is itself nourished by a legacy of medieval bigotry.

You might wonder, though, how Freemasonry comes into it at all. What was so scary about Masonry that it might inspire generations of moral panic? Not much, it would seem. Freemasonry as we understand it is not a religious organisation as such. Masons were frequently accused by religious groups, particularly certain Christian and Islamic groups, of setting up their own religious group in competition with traditional religion(s), but there doesn’t seem to any set of distinct holy books, theology, religious philosophy, or the like that can together be described as “Masonic religion”. Yes, admission to Masonic lodges typically requires that you believe in some kind of supreme being, but there is no distinct “Masonic God”, and people of many different religions, believing in different gods or concepts of God, can be a Freemason. In fact, despite widespread Christian mistrust of or hostility to Masonry, several Freemasons are also Christians. Freemasonry can best be thought of as fraternal society based in a series of rituals, allegories, and mysteries that are, from their perspective at least, meant to develop the integrity of their members. For all the secrecy, there doesn’t seem to be much more to it than that. But again, secrecy is part of core of anti-Masonic mistrust. There is of course the general religious pluralism of Freemasonry, and the tendency among Masons to support rationalist ideas, but secrecy is the element on which reactionaries base the idea of the Masons as some sort of “Satanic cult”.

The “Origin” of Satanic Panic?

I said before that I would establish the reason why Satanic Panic has always been with us, and in the idea of a secretive cult that threatens to destroy the order of things was not invented as a reaction to the Enlightenment. Satanic Panic in its modern sense is a direct descendant of conspiracy theories that emerged in the Enlightenment as a sort of reactionary narrative in defense of a traditionalist society, but there are much older forms of the same idea that have recurred before modernity, and well before the Middle Ages.

Returning to the subject of anti-semitism among the church fathers, we can establish that they laid the ground work for the medieval blood libel that evolved into Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy theories and their antecedents. Tertullian regarded Jews as the source of heresy, claiming that they guided heretics in discussing ideas contrary to Christian orthodoxy, and argued against Marcion’s doctrine by saying that Jews were an inferior people whose sufferings were caused by their lack of belief in the Christian God. John Chrysostom accused Jews of murdering Jesus and claimed that Jewish synagogues were brothels and places of criminality and demonic possession. St. Ambrose accused Jews of tempting Christians into heresy and justified the burning of synagogues by Christian mobs. Jews were considered “anathema to Christ” by Christian Councils, which prohibited Christians from sharing feasts with Jews and regarded Christians who violated these edicts as Jews themselves. When Christianity took over the Roman Empire, Roman imperial law regarded Jews as a detested category of Roman citizen – officially legally protected, but religiously reviled and politically marginalized – based on Church doctrine that Jews were not only inferior to Christians but also supernaturally evil.

Whenever people discuss Christianity as a supposedly “progressive” world-historic force or even “egalitarian” belief system, it’s often forgotten that, although Judaism as a religion was never outlawed, discrimination against Judaism as a religion as well as Jews as a people was extensive in the Roman Empire during the Christian era. Jews were forbidden from receiving any honors or offices equivalent to their non-Jewish counterparts, Jews were not allowed to become attorneys, sue Christians, or testify in court, Jews who performed circumcision were punished with death, Jews were banned from serving in the military until they received Catholic baptism, Jewish synagogues were officially referred to as “conciliabulum” (which, in Roman slang, often meant “brothel”), and if a Jew “violated the rights of a Christian” he was punished more severely than a Christian would be for the same offense against a Jew. Conversely, Christians who converted to Judaism or agreed to be circumcised were exiled from Rome on the grounds of having “contaminated themselves with the Jewish disease”. From the beginning, Christian power tended to involve authoritarian anti-semitism.

Blood libel, of course, was also ancient. A Greek Christian historian named Socrates Scholasticus accused Jews of mocking the death of Jesus by binding a young Christian boy to a cross and scourging him to death. And yet it was not only Christians who made blood libel accusations against Jews. In pre-Christian Greece, there were people who accused Jews of abducting Greeks and fattening them up to be sacrificed to their god, then going to groves to eat their flesh, burn their bodies, and swear eternal hatred to Greeks. Such anti-semitic accusations were advanced by figures such as Apion (who claimed that the king Antiochus Epiphanes discovered a Greek captive being prepared for temple sacrifice), Posidonius, Apollonius Molon, and Diodorus Siculus. According to the Suda, a Greek historian named Damocritus in the 1st century BCE claimed that Jews captured a non-Jew every seven years in order to sacrifice them to their god, which he claimed was the head of a golden ass. Hellenistic anti-semitism typically stressed the belief that Jews were superstitious and misanthropic, claiming that Jewish people were impious, hated all people of all other nations, refused to share table with them, and because of this were hated by the gods. Some argue that these accusations originally emerged as justifications for Antiochus’ persecution and criminalization of Judaism. Of course, it is worth noting that, according to Louis Feldman in Studies in Hellenistic Judaism, anti-semitism was not a dominant strand of pre-Christian writings about Jews, and, by his count, many pre-Christian writers had an either neutral or positive opinion of Jews. In fact, polytheistic philosophers such as Aristotle, Theophrastus, Hecataeus of Abdera, Varro, and Numenius all praised Jewish theology. It is possible that Judaism was so influential on or shares so many similarities to ancient Greek philosophy that it was even claimed by Philo that Heraclitus “stole” from Moses. Then again, even anti-semitic writers such as Apollonius Molon reserved some positive remarks for Jewish patriarchs such as Noah and Abraham, and even some people who praised Jewish theology, such as Hecataeus, still nonetheless regarded Judaism as “unsocial” or “hostile to foreigners”.

The Hellenistic anti-semitic trope of Jews abducting Greeks in order to sacrifice them to their deity is obviously absurd, both from the standpoint of Jewish religious law and Greek and Roman law. But it is also worth noting just how close we come to modern images of devil worshippers sacrificing people to the Devil. Medieval Christian blood libel itself cast Jews as performing sacrifices and committing murders on behalf of Satan, and so we can map out an obvious line of developmental progression from medieval blood libel to Satanic Panic. With the Hellenistic version, instead of venerating the head of a goat, the imaginary cult of misanthropic human sacrifice venerates the head of an ass. One can easily imagine the idea of a sect that hates all other sects and is charged with abducting people outside of its cult for sacrifice as a very antique form of what would become the Satanic Ritual Abuse canard, and the line of progression between Hellenistic blood libel and Christian blood libel is not hard to notice.

Hellenistic anti-semitism can probably be analysed in the context of a period of interaction between Hellenistic polytheism and Judaism, which took place against the backdrop of the colonization of much of Asia by Alexander the Great and the attendant birth of that very construct we call the Hellenistic age. In this same setting, a syncretic tendency emerged in which Judaism merged with aspects of Hellenistic Greek culture and philosophy; this came to be known as Hellenistic Judaism. One product of this contact is the occasional identification of the God of Judaism with the Greek god Zeus, or, perhaps more frequently, the god Dionysus. Plutarch claimed, via interpretatio graecia, that the Jews worshipped a form of Dionysus or Bacchus, arguing that they represented themselves with symbols similar to those of Dionysus and hailed their god with ritual words similar to those uttered by worshippers of the god Sabazios, and similar ideas were expressed by many authors in antiquity. This likely emerged from confusion on the part of Greeks and Romans who may not have entirely understood Judaism or Hebrew, and here we arrive at one of the results, through which we link to another ancient conspiracism, this one involving the cults of Sabazios and Dionysus.

In 139 BCE, the Roman praetor Cornelius Scipio Hispalus ordered the deportation of the first Jews who settled in Rome. Cornelius accused the Jews of trying to subvert Roman religion by promoting the “corrupting” cult of a god called “Jupiter Sabazius”. Sabazius (the Roman name for Sabazios), of course, was not the God of Judaism but rather a Phrygian sky god who was worshipped with ecstatic rites and in mystery traditions in Anatolia and Thrace and was repeatedly identified with either Zeus/Jupiter or Dionysus (the Suda, for instance, regards Sabazios and Dionysus as the same god). The name Jupiter Sabazius may well have been, by way of interpretatio graeca, in reference to the name YHWH Tzevaot (or Sabaoth), one of the names of the God of Judaism, thus interpreting YHWH as a foreign version of Jupiter and again confusing the name Sabaoth as Sabazius. We typically understand that Roman society was happy enough to incorporate non-Roman gods into its own religious life; examples include Isis (from Egypt), Mithras (originally Mithra from Iran), Apollo (from Greece), Cybele (from Anatolia), and Serapis (from Hellenistic Egypt). But, as we can see, this inclusivity was not always consistent.

Sabazios in general has a strange reputation in both Rome and Greece. In Rome, he was of course identified with the God of Judaism and hence reviled by Roman authorities who regarded him as a threat to Roman religion in a manner out of step with their attitude towards many other foreign gods. Once again, there’s an obvious sign of Roman anti-semitism. But perhaps there is also a connection to the Roman attitude towards the cult of Dionysus or Liber, which was also frequently regarded as a subversion of Roman society. We will return to this theme momentarily. For now, let us note that, in Athens, the worship of Sabazios was mocked as superstitious and, because they were practiced largely by women, seemingly effeminate. Demosthenes tarnished his opponent Aeschines in a debate for allegedly joining his mother’s practice of worshipping Sabazios, while Aristophanes mocked Sabazios as one of an entourage of foreign deities being kicked out of Athens. However, despite such mockery, Sabazios did come to be worshipped in Athens over time. Yet the idea, for instance, that women worshipped Sabazios with sexual orgies points us in direction of the prolific Roman moral panic against the cult of Dionysus.

In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate issued a decree which placed restrictions and prohibitions against the Bacchanalia, a series of festivities dedicated to the god Dionysus and based around the Dionysian Mysteries. The decree ruled that no one could form a Bacchanalia or observe the sacred rites anywhere without the approval of the Senate, no man or Roman citizen or Roman ally could participate without, again, the approval of the Senate, men were not allowed to be priests of the Bacchanalia, no more than five people could observe the sacred rites, and all revelries that were not approved and regulated by the Senate were to be disbanded. This decree, which effectively bans the Bacchanalia in most cases, was issued amidst a period of moral panic directed against the Bacchanalia, which was regarded by the Senate and others as a threat to the Roman state. Roman authors such as Livy represented the Bacchanalia as a seditious conspiracy whose participants, coming from all classed and gendered backgrounds, gathered at night to get drunk, have orgiastic and promiscuous sex, and under the cover of darkness and religious veneer break all moral, social, religious, and civic laws and commit ritual and political murders in complete secrecy.

Where might we begin? We can look at how, in Livy’s narrative, the Bacchanalia was popular and appealed especially to women (who then outnumber men), plebeians, “men most like women” (possibly referring to “sexually passive men” by Roman standards, or perhaps more broadly to non-cishet males), the young, and the “uneducated and fickle”. In essence, the marginalized elements of Roman society. This would be much in line with the Greek cult of Dionysus, the god who was also worshipped by marginalized communities in ancient Greece, and who Euripides’ Bacchae presents as fighting against a king trying to oppress his worship. In Rome, a popular plebeian cult dedicated to Liber (Dionysus) was often regarded as subversive due to its association with cultic civil disobedience. Livy also presents the Greek origins of the Bacchanalia and its excesses as part of its untrustworthy and immoral character, suggesting that the Bacchanalia, from the standpoint of Livy’s narrative, is dangerous partly because it is “too Greek”, and thus entirely foreign and distinctly un-Roman. This, of course, is in some ways out of step with the inclusivity usually found in pre-Christian Roman polytheism, and can arguably be explained in the context of a reactionary fear that gripped the Roman Republic at the time.

But think about it: the whole idea of a religious movement holding orgies at night, worshipping a rebellious and subversive god, in whose name his believers break all social norms and laws and, supposedly, commit ritual murders in secret, fits a lot of the modern tropes by which we define Satanic Panic. Livy’s proposal that the Bacchanlia had the Roman masses and even some of the Roman elite in its sway implicitly suggests that the cult of Dionysus had a dangerous and insidious broad power over society, which can in some ways dovetail with the kind of power that Satanism is supposed to possess in the imagination of anti-Satanist conspiracy theories. In fact, as much as Dionysus has been compared to YHWH, there are many other ways in which you can compare Dionysus to the Devil. The whole rebellious vengeance that the Bacchae presents is one such way, but perhaps another is the darksome personage found in his incarnation as Dionysus Melanaigis (Melanaigis is an epithet meaning “black goatskin”), to say nothing of the fact that he was sometimes depicted with horns and has been shown with an entourage of satyrs. All this on its own doesn’t make Dionysus into a pre-Christian incarnation of the Devil any more than the comparisons given by Plutarch and the Suda among others might establish him as a pre-Christian precursor of YHWH. What it does point to, however, is a prefiguring of the assemblage of tropes that comes to form what we came to develop over the centuries until we see the Satanic Panic of modernity. We might even think about modern self-conscious representations of Satanism: the “sabbat” depicted by Stanislaw Przybyszewski in The Synagogue of Satan is arguably none other than the Bacchanalia in certain regards, albeit dedicated to Satan.

But, of course, being that this is pre-Christian Rome, we can’t quite call it a Satanic Panic. Yet, this is no trouble, for Satanic Panic itself is a type of moral panic, as was the anti-Bacchanalia panic, and both panics are in themselves also representations of an ideology at work in their respective societies. Within the context of ancient Rome, there is a clear conservative nationalist undertone to it all: the idea is that there is this massive foreign cult acting in conspiracy against the Roman state and working to destroy the social foundations of Roman society and, therefore, attacking everything about what it meant to be Roman.

This reactionary conservative ideology is fairly clearly expressed in Livy himself, who seems to have believed that Greek mystery cults were a source of “degeneracy” in Roman society to be blamed for its supposed decline in his time. In this regard Livy was perhaps a pre-modern exponent of social degeneration theory, complete with its attendant xenophobia. Of course, not everyone in Rome hated foreign mysteries, and not every foreign mystery was reviled, but the Dionysian Mysteries were not the only mysteries subject to conservative mistrust, even under official state tolerance. The mysteries of Cybele or its priesthood were treated with disgust by Roman men and in Roman literature, since the rites of self-castration performed by the galli were seen as an affront to Roman masculinity, and the Roman Senate even tried to enact legislation to prevent men from becoming galli. However, the Roman state still accepted a regulated version of the cult of Cybele. We might arguably count the cult of Sabazius among the mysteries that were despised in Rome, since Roman authorities presented the worship of Sabazius as a corrupt religion.

An important thing to remember about mystery traditions in both Greece and Rome is that, whereas traditional religion emphasized communal and social bands reinforced through ritual, mystery cults tended to encourage individual religious expression, which traditional civic society and its representatives would always have seen as divisive. It doesn’t take that much imagine for the Greek and Roman conservative to go from “this isn’t like our religion, that’s divisive” to “this is a threat to our social order and national identity”.

The Social Significance of Satanic Panic

A clear ideology and social function emerges from the moral panics of antiquity and thus inherited by the Satanic Panic of modernity. The social function is the function of marginalization, arrayed against basically anything that either state society or reactionary forces typically in support of it deem to be an insidious threat. The narrative of this function is that there is a sinister and secretive religious conspiracy whose goal is to corrupt the population, take over the institutions, overthrow the state, abduct and ritually kill people (often children), and/or destroy the identity of a given nation or society. The ideology implicit in this is very often as follows: there is a natural order that is apparent in human societies, expressed in nations and/or states, which humans must observe and obey and indeed do so by natural inclination, and anything that changes, supercedes, destroys, or simply turns away from this order, or simply does not figure in that order to start with, must be ontologically evil and the work of a murderous conspiracy.

In antiquity, the main object of this would be ecstatic worshippers of Dionysus, and in Rome’s case the participants of Bacchanalia and the cult of Liber. For a time, early Christians also experienced a similar marginalization. The Romans also had their own anti-Christian version of the blood libel trope: they sometimes accused Christians of killing and eating human babies, and of literally drinking human blood and eating human flesh based on a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. When Christians took power, the targets were very often Jews, and then magicians, occultists, Freemasons, “Satanists”, and, to be quite frank, anyone who challenged theocratic authority and often the ruling classes it supported. Consider, for instance, that in 1233, when the peasants of Stedingen revolted against local authorities over excessive taxation and stopped paying tithes to the archbishop, Pope Gregory IX accused the peasants of practicing “satanic rites” and declared a crusade against them. Similarly, in 17th century France, the Catholic priest Urbain Grandier, who also defended the autonomy of Loudon and opposed both the centralised authority of the French state and church orthodoxy, was accused of signing a pact with Lucifer and seducing nuns with black magic, blamed for a supposed outbreak of demonic possession, and ultimately burned at the stake over it.

I would also point out that this type of moral panic is not necessarily confined to the West, and that there are examples of similar panics with a different central subject that I can point to in Asia. In India, the practice of Tantra came to be demonized by orthodox/conservative Hindus, especially after the British Empire colonized India. Religious “reformers” blamed Tantra, particularly the “left hand path” of it, for weakening the moral fibre of the Indian nation – this is an expression of social degeneration theory similar to the kind espoused by Livy – and thus Tantra was blamed for the conquest of India by the British. In Japan, Tendai Buddhism was accused of partaking in illicit sexual rituals and “wicked teachings” over the worship of Matarajin, a syncretic Japanese Buddhist deity who happened to be (among other things) a patron deity of marginalized communities and social classes. Similarly, a somewhat popular Shingon sect called Tachikawa-ryu was similarly vilified by Shingon orthodoxy, accused of promoting black magic and illicit sexual rituals, its apparent “founder” Ninkan in turn was accused of cursing the emperor and conspiring against the Japanese nation, and ultimately the sect was outlawed and purged.

It may be worth stressing, though, that Satanic Panic as we understand it is fairly distinctly a Western phenomenon, in terms of its general setting and composition, while also pointing to the existence of similar panics wherever else they are found. In view of such a global perspective, we can make the following observation: Satanic Panic is a type of social/moral panic that is instrumented for the purpose of broad social marginalization. Moral panics in general tend to pervade organised human societies over the centuries, no matter how rational or enlightened they may see themselves as, and even some of the more “libertarian” or even “progressive” of us can end up falling into some moral panics for the simple reason that we do not even recognize them as moral panics. And the uncomfortable truth about human societies, or at least the societies we seem to create, contain within themselves the logic of marginalization, which it employs to preserve social authority through the marginalization of a given social or religious minority. Satanic Panic forms a conservative ideology of marginalization whose aim is to preserve a traditionalist order of society by attacking what it perceives as a sinister conspiracy against itself, with such a conspiracy inevitably constructed on anti-semitic tropes, whether directly or by conceptual lineage.

I would also point out that this does not mean that ritualistic abuse is a thing that never happens, but the extent to which it does has barely anything to do with the overall claim and ideological purpose of Satanic Panic. In my article on E. A. Koetting, I pointed out that the activities of the Order of Nine Angles and Tempel ov Blood could as well constitute an actual active fascist conspiracy, and that the same people who believe in QAnon or the like would never talk about it. That’s not for no reason. Satanic Panic as an ideological device does not concern itself with esoteric white nationalists, particularly not when they, despite their apparent opposition to Christianity, share the same reactionary Christian ideology that was designed to marginalize Jews, just that this time they claim to do it in the name of some fictitious ancient pagan cult. In the end, for Satanic Panic, it’s the ends of ideological marginalization that matter, and it is these parameters by which Satanic Panic determines what constitutes Satanic Ritual Abuse.

The simple summary of all this is that Satanic Panic, as a modern phenomenon, is a reactionary or fascist ideology that evolves from and within the social function of marginalization. That is why Satanic Panic is still a thing, that is why some antecedent of it has always been a thing, and that’s why it will continue to be a thing; not for as long as the light of Enlightenmentarian Reason doesn’t sufficiently shine upon the masses, but for as long as we do not rid ourselves of the structure and logic of marginalization locked into Society that, so long as it still operates, will continue to produce social panics and ideologies of social panic.

The reactionary, authoritarian spirituality of Julius Evola

There are few intellectuals who could be said to have had such a broad influence on not only esoteric fascism but, unfortunately, a lot of occult philosophy than Julius Evola. He is often recommended within Left Hand Path circles, and you find one or two of his books in the reading list featured in Stephen Flowers’ Lords of the Left Hand Path. This, I think, is a problem, because in many ways Evola’s spiritual worldview is deeply authoritarian in character, and not to mention rests on a frankly ridiculous understanding of some of the religions he’s talking about. Although not a self-defined fascist, indeed he was often opposed by the Italian fascists and in turn despised them in kind as not being sufficiently reactionary for his liking, he is nonetheless at the foundation of so much of esoteric fascist thought today.

A major dichotomy in Evola’s thought is between the divine masculine and the divine feminine, which conceptualized through the “Solar” and “Lunar” spiritual races, which for him also represent superior and inferior civilizations respectively. The “Solar” race is the “superior” race that represents the Hyperborean civilization that supposedly preceded all other civilizations, as well as Aryan civilization and the Northern Atlantic or Germanic races, and a cult of the sun god or divine father that represented the values of heroism, dominion, traditional hierarchy, and transcendental divinity/spirituality. Evola associated this solar principle with the Greek god Apollo, the Greco-Egyptian god Ammon (or Zeus-Ammon), the Mithraic Mysteries, the Germanic cult of Odin, the old Vedic religion of the Aryans, the Zoroastrian worship of Ahura Mazda, Buddhism (which he considered to be the inheritor of the lost Aryan tradition of India; which is utterly laughable given the Buddhist contempt for Vedic tradition, but more on that later), and the Roman Empire. The “Lunar” race by contrast is the “inferior” race that for Evola represents the influence of southern races, such as the Southern Europeans (or Mediterraneans) and the Southern Indians, and for him represents a cult of the mother goddess that embodies submissiveness, “materialism” (meaning things like consumerism or greed as opposed to ontological materialism), social degeneration, and the undifferentiated masses, as well as collectivist societies that emphasize equality, brotherhood, and sharing. Evola associates this not only with mother goddess cults like those of Demeter and Isis, but with Greek mystery religions (whose Asiatic influences he deemed feminine or “Demetrian”), the Dravidian religion, and even Christianity. He despised Christianity because of its emphasis on salvation, faith, brotherhood, and love along with most crucially its premise that anyone regardless of caste, race or tradition can join in the Kingdom of God, all of which was an affront to the traditional hierarchy that Evola praised in the Roman Empire and therefore he considered to be too feminine for him. He also despised the Brahmanist schools of Hinduism because he felt that it identified God with nature and for him this was a corruption of Aryan religion generated by the influence of Southern Indian beliefs.

“Apollo and Diana” by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1757)

Naturally, this view of the history of religion and civilization likely stems from deep-seated sexist attitudes about men and women, as can be suggested through his chief inspiration, Otto Weininger, who basically believed that women were mindless sex objects. He conceived an ontological dualism between the sexes in which the male sex represented the aspirations towards some kind of “higher” reason, conceived through the lens of Platonic and Kantian idealism, and the immortality of the soul while the female sex represented matter, nature, and the sense, all of which Weininger considered to be “fallen” in character. This for him meant that men posess a “higher” spirit, not bound to the material world, and that they have the capacity to decide whether or not death means either oblivion or the restoration of the soul to some kind of “pure” state, while women not only do not possess this “higher” spirit but they also lack ego, individuality and the capacity for logic and morality, and exist only to have sex with men, be desired by men, have children and therefore reproduce the material world. And if that sounds sexist to you, that might be because it absolutely is. Evola, naturally, was influenced by this view when he espoused the “masculine” solar race as concerned with transcendental logic and spirituality and the “feminine” lunar race as materialistic. So it should come as no surprise that Evola was a proponent of social inequality between men and women, which he believed was natural. He also believed that the true purpose of women was merely to do whatever men tell them and apparently his contempt for women was such that he merely considered them to be things, or at least that’s the impression I get from the fact that he wrote an article titled “Woman As Thing”. He also seemed to believe that both rape and regular sexual coitus shared an element of sadism at their root, which leads some to conclude, possibly correctly, that Evola supported and justified the rape of women and considered all forms of sex to be rape.

Evola’s solar cult, it should be noted, takes on a distinctly authoritarian connotation when you make note of how he praises the Roman Empire for banning the Bacchanalia, which he viewed as a civilizational rejection of Dionysian and Aphroditistic elements, which we can surmise were supposed to be related to the “Lunar” cult. That is an important detail because we should remember a few things about the cult of Dionysus in the Greco-Roman world. In Rome, Dionysus was not only known as Bacchus but also as Liber, or Liber Pater (or “Father Liber”, meaning “Father Freedom”). In addition to wine and fertility, which were the typical domains of Dionysus/Bacchus, Liber was also a god of freedom (as his name suggests) and was the patron saint of the plebeians, which was basically the Roman name for commoner, as in the common man. Dionysus, as Liber, was the divine champion of the common man, and his cult therefore was quite the populist one. In addition to this, his festival, Liberalia, was a coming-of-age festival in which the opportunity for uncensored speech was allowed for just one day. Normally, in ancient Roman society, you couldn’t always say what you want and in fact you could find yourself detained for saying the wrong thing about the powerful (an example of this being the satirist Gnaeus Naevius, who was arrested twice by the Romans and ultimately exiled to Tunisia). Related to the Roman Bacchic cult was the Phrygian satyr Marsyas, who alongside Liber was something of an emblem for freedom of speech, and by himself was something of a symbol of resistance to imperial power in that the Roman Empire considered him an emblem of subversion against Augustus, who in turn became a symbol of Apollo, the god who flayed him alive. In general, Bacchanalia and the Dionysian cult in Rome, as in Greece, represented the freedom to transcend the rigid hierarchy of the society.

Whereas nowadays the dichotomy between the Apollonian and the Dionysian has been reduced to some Nietzschean pablum about the dichotomy between reason and creativity, in the actual Roman religion we find that the dichotomy was defined noticeably by class. There were two triads of gods in ancient Rome, each associated with two of the seven hills of Rome. The Capitoline Triad, the gods worshipped at the temple of Capitoline Hill, consisted of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, while the Aventine Triad, representing a cult established by the Aventine Hill, consisted of Liber, Ceres, and Libera. The Capitoline Triad represented the patricians, meaning the Roman aristocracy, and the temple at the Capitoline Hill (which, ironically enough, was originally dedicated to Saturn) was situated within the Pomerium, the legal boundary separating the city itself from the rest of Rome (everything outside of this boundary was just the property of Rome). The Aventine Triad, by contrast, represented the plebeians, the common people, and the Aventine Temple lay outside the Pomerium, outside the legal boundary of Rome. The Aventine cult is also deeply republican in nature, having been established just after the overthrow of the Roman monarchy. Take note of the gods of each of these triads. The Capitoline Triad – Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, the Roman forms of Zeus, Hera and Athena respectively – are the jealous gods arrayed against humans. Jupiter, the usurper king of the gods, jealous of mankind, enmitous of the thought that man might equal the divine; Juno, constantly motivated to jealousy by Jupiter’s many adulteries, torments the sons of Zeus; and Athena, who cursed Arachne for defeating her fair and square in a weaving contest. All, of course, the triad of Olympus, the heavenly mountain. As for the Aventine Triad, you have Liber, a god of freedom and a Roman form of Dionysus, a god whose original connotations were deeply chthonic in their connection to death and rebirth, Ceres, the Roman form of the Greek Demeter who was a goddess of agriculture and the earth, and Libera, an Italic goddess of wine who evolved into the goddess Proserpina, the Roman form of the Greek Persephone, the wife of Hades and goddess of the underworld. The gods of the earth and underworld take center stage in the populist Aventine cult, while in the Capitoline cult the holy family of heaven do. Thus, in Rome, chthonic spirituality interwines with populism, working class republicanism and Bacchic freedom, while the authority of Zeus and the light of Apollo is totemic of ruling class authority. The Apollonian vs the Dionysian is not, then, a dialectic of reason and passion, but instead a cultic conflict between elitism and populism, the Apollonian being elitism and the Dionysian being populism.

“Bacchanal” by Frans Wouters (1612-1659)

This chthonic association also seems to mirror the popularity of chthonic cults, which often involved Dionysus or Persephone, in the more rural areas of ancient Greece, where in local cults you would have versions of a triad featuring Zeus, Hera and Athena wherein Persephone takes Athena’s place. And while we’re on the subject of Greece, it is here also that Dionysus is associated with populism of a certain type. The Dionsyia of Athens, the city version of the original rural festival, was introduced by Peisistratus. Peisistratus was considered by the ancients to be a tyrant, and while he does probably fit at least one qualification of what we would understand to be a tyrant, in that he overturned that government of Athens by force as opposed to democratic means, it’s not like he abolished the constitution of Athens (in fact he maintained much of the constitutional governance), and he actively and openly confronted the Athenian aristocracy. He removed many of the privileges of the aristocrats and generally reduced their control over the city, indeed distributing power and wealth throughout Athens rather than hoarding it for himself, remitted taxes to farmers who were receiving low wages for their labour, as well as more generally cutting taxes for working class citizens, he gave both land and loans to people who needed them, he protected foreigners who emigrated to become citizens of Athens, he built the aquaduct to distribute water to the masses, and ultimately was responsible for turning Athens from a collection of villages or polities into a grand unified city-state. As far as “tyrants” go, he did a lot of good for Athens and he seems to have been a genuinely populist ruler, and so it makes sense that he would introduce a festival devoted to the most ancient god with deep archetypal ties to populism.

In this light, Evola’s cult of the solar race presents an example of what I would consider to be a kind of authoritarian spirituality – that is, a spirituality that bases itself obsequious worship of power, authority and hierarchy for its own sake, for whom the freedom of the masses is an evil that must be suppressed under the authority of the gods of heaven and popular will and expression is to be crushed by a militant elite. And that’s just the start.

Rigid, insurmountable hierarchy, characterized by the inequality of its subjects, is an essential component of Evola’s notion of an ideal society, which is governed by a unchangeable metaphysical tradition, which exists outside of nature and is alien and “superior” to Man, and to which all subjects orient their actions. Evola’s favorite analogy for this was the Indian caste system, associated with Hinduism, in which the priestly representatives of Brahman rule at the top, followed by a warrior aristocracy, then the merchants, and then finally the undifferentiated masses that comprise the workers and the “untouchables”. Opposed to this sort of governance is a society where all individuals share dignity equally and everyone shares the same right of self-being, to be oneselves. In this sense, you are expected to submit yourself to an authority that has no basis in the world, no basis in reason, no basis in nature, and is completely alien to you. If that doesn’t sound like the most abominable and not to mention superstitious form of tyranny to you, then I don’t know what does. Now, let’s take note of the fact that Evola favored the caste system, because he also identified Buddhism as an inheritor of Vedic Aryan tradition. We should note this because of the fact that this is based on an erroneous understanding of Buddhism. The caste system is not endorsed by Buddhist social philosophy, Siddhartha Gautama, while not necessarily opposing the caste system, is known to have repudiated caste distinctions, and several Buddhist philosophers wrote against the authority and social system of the Vedas. Dharmakirti, for example, rejected caste as an entirely arbitrary construct that isn’t based in reality, as well as generally ridiculing the theism and the spiritual doctrine of the Vedas as foolish. Indeed, Buddhism has proven so amenable to the elevation or liberation of the lower classes that many dalits (“untouchables”) in India converted to Buddhism en masse as recently as 2018. Not to mention, one of the core doctrines of Buddhism is Anatman, literally the rejection of Atman, which is to say the rejection of a transcendental divine self identical to God; this represents such a fundamental departure from Vedic/Hindu religious philosophy that it’s baffling how Evola could have thought Buddhism was the inheritor of his beloved Aryanism.

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Brahma Sahampati visiting the Buddha

A key element of Evola’s philosophy is the theme of regression, which is to say the idea that mankind as it exists is a regression from its original state, which is to say the original Hyperborean race that lived on the North Pole. He refers to this doctrine as involution, in opposition to evolution. Taken in the context of Evola’s doctrine of the solar versus lunar races, it represents an inversion of the ideas of Johann Jakob Bachofen, an anthropologist who believed that human civilization begins in a kind of primitive goddess worship or some kind of chthonic matriarchal religion before eventually progressing into a more patriarchal religion and culture. In Evola’s framework, it’s actually the patriarchal civilization that came first, then the matriarchal one. More broadly, this doctrine of involution holds that it is not humans that evolved upwards from apes, but rather apes that devolved from an original “superior” race. This, of course, represents a total repudiation of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which is of course so backed by mountains of evidence at this point that you wonder how anyone can deny it. You might be tempted to say that, in Evola’s time, this wasn’t so well-established, but in fact Evola was very much aware that evolution was consistent with scientific thinking, which is why Evola rejected science altogether, not least on the grounds that he thought modern science was unreliable on the grounds that it was based on “profane” materialistic premises. Instead of science, then, he bases his doctrine of involution on “tradition”, which invariably means his own ideas about tradition, which may or may not align with ancient pre-Christian beliefs to varying degrees. And yes, pre-Christian is operative here, since Evola rejects both Christianity and science in favour of Roman paganism, or more or less his own revival thereof, based on an esoteric interpretation of Roman paganism influenced by a combination of mystery religion, Hinduism and especially Tantra, all interpreted of course through the ideas of people like Rene Guenon, who he considered to be the master of his epoch. Although Evola is adored by modern fascists, and many of his ideas do dovetail nicely with a lot of fascism, this attachment to paganism actually set him against the Italian fascist movement of his day, as Mussolini and the other Italian fascists rejected Evola’s calls for pagan revival and so did the Catholic Church. Ironically, however, Catholicism was the one sect of Christianity that Evola didn’t despise, and indeed he considered conversion to Catholicism as a form of spiritual advancement. But to return to the main point, Evola’s mysticism is divorced from any scientific understanding, cannot be verified and apprehended through reason, and therefore is to be accepted simply because it is declared by “tradition” to be so. The term we normally use for this is blind faith, and blind faith has always been a way to psychological slavery, and as such is a favored tool for authoritarian spirituality and politics.

To be honest, the theme of regression is the most striking thing about Evola’s thought in relation to the way Evola has been received in the Left Hand Path circles, because to me it creates a profound archetypal dissonance in relation to the Left Hand Path. Evola rejects the premise that human beings evolved from apes and in turn from a chain of prehistoric creatures that emerged from the sea, preferring instead to believe that we came from some fantastical race of polar sun men. I think about that and think of the gulf between this and the way people like Michael W. Ford interpret creation myths like the Enuma Elish as a kind of archetypal metaphor for the evolution from reptile to mammal to Man, the emergence of form from darkness and so on, with in a sense the dark archetypes of mythology serving as reminders of our point of origin as a place to draw wisdom and power from. In fact, many world mythologies begin with a premise of primordial darkness, sometimes embodied or inhabited by serpents, out from which creation, form, light emerges, so in a sense you find many mythological understandings in which the soul and form of man emerge not from a race of light but from a place of darkness. I don’t know if such dissonance has ever been considered or accounted for.

Lastly, I believe there is a point where Evola’s thought, and the esoteric fascist thought that derives from it, converges with, of all things, transhumanism, which also demonstrates that the transhumanist impetus is a deeply reactionary and ascetic one. Because Evola held mankind as we know it to be a degeneration from some original Hyperborean race, and because his ideal society predicates itself on an principle that is supposed to exist outside of nature, Evola held that the ideal society must cultivate values that remove human existence from the natural order so that it can ascend to “a superior dimension of life” not found in the material cosmos. Such a worldview calls for the state to rear its subjects away from material existence through service to the state and the military – essentially, the idea is that by becoming a servant of authority you transcend human existence. As nonsensical a premise as it is, it also belies a fairly basic background ethos of transhumanism: the desire to become more than human. It is for this reason that Evola apparently admired the Waffen SS of Nazi Germany. Indeed, while transhumanism itself is not wedded to Nazism by any means, it’s no coincidence that people like Jeffrey Epstein embraced eugenics for the purpose of creating a superior race while also wanting to preserve his head and penis through cryonics. And, while transhumanism is certainly broader than just the practice of eugenics, there are many transhumanists who advocate a kind of “new eugenics” – that is, eugenics but somehow sublimated to liberal values – just that they often don’t like to call it eugenics. And of course, eugenics was a central part of Nazi ideology as their means to create their new master race, which is why any talk of “new egalitarian eugenics” is compelled to take place. But whereas modern transhumanists, and to some extent the Nazis as well, embraced “scientific” (to the extent that their methodology can be called scientific) ways of acheiving their goals, mainly through technology, Evola rejected science and modern technology and instead believed that people would transcend their humanity through spiritual means by way of his esoteric doctrine.

So in summary, this is the philosophy of Julius Evola. A practically insane reactionary who opposed science because it repudiated his moonbatty racialist theories, a man who despises mankind because he thinks it devolved, somehow, from an imaginary Hyperborean race, a man whose ideal society amounts to a restoration of the Indian caste system or the Roman Empire at its worst, in the name of a tradition that cannot be justified through conscious reason or apprehended in this world, and whose spiritual and political philosophy entails the total rejection of liberty, freedom and the species-being of humanity. Evola is a profoundly negative spiritual influence, with barely any elements that can be considered positive. And the only reason we can’t consider him to be a fascist is because he thought fascism wasn’t radical enough in its rejection of modernity.

A picture of Julius Evola at quite an old age

Mythological Spotlight #5 Part 1 – Mithras

This is a very special Spotlight as this one is split into two parts, each part dealing with separate but vaguely related entities. It’s also the first Spotlight to follow this formula.

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A statue of Mithras performing the great cosmic tauroctony

Description

Mithras is a very recognizable Roman cult deity, but he is also a very old deity in the world, having been worshiped in different names and capacities at different points in history. Traditionally he is seen a deity of light, often the sun, and justice, often taking on the characteristics of a warrior. At one point, he was the central deity of a popular cult, only to eventually disappear into obscurity. In today’s world he is often seen as one of the deities that inspired the invention of Jesus of Nazareth and the Christian religion, with some people believing Jesus is a rip-off of Mithras.

History

The story of Mithras begins in Vedic India, when he was worshipped as Mitra – the deity of light, friendship, the morning sun, and contracts. He was a deity who helped preserved the order of the world inhabited by Man, and as such he was often paired with another Vedic deity named Varuna, who was charged with the order of the cosmos. Mitra and Varuna sometimes appeared as a compound figure, known as Mitra-Varuna, possibly because in the oldest of texts, Mitra was often indistinguishable from Varuna. Mitra was sometimes, however, distinguished from Varuna by certain characteristics. Mitra was considered a gentler or friendlier deity who preferred peaceful ways of protecting order and often abhorred violence, while Varuna was often seen as crueller than Mitra and often associated specifically with the punishment of transgression. In the Rig Veda, both Mitra and Varuna as viewed as capable of forgiveness, but Mitra was called upon for mercy more often than Varuna, which might suggest a more merciful deity. Also, while Varuna was often associated with the night, Mitra was frequently associated with the day, and sometimes had solar characteristics attached to him. He was also praised as being an all-seeing deity. Mitra was also sometimes seen as a friend of Man, and a mediator between Man and the Vedic pantheon. As the Vedic period drew to a close, however, Mitra lost his prominence in Indian religion, just as Varuna and many other Vedic deities did. It’s worth noting that Mitra was a prominent member of the Asura class of Vedic deities, but in later Hinduism Mitra and Varuna are not necessarily treated as Asuras or as demons, instead being treated as still divine. As Mitra is associated with sunrise, he is still invoked in prayers of the sunrise.

There are some who believe that the Vedic Mitra is directly related to the bodhisattva Maitreya, due to their names being related. This will be elaborated on in Part 2 of this Mythological Spotlight.

In ancient Iran, the Vedic Mitra became known as Mithra and was treated as an important divinity or Yazata in service of the deity Ahura Mazda. Specifically, he is the Yazata of oaths, covenants, and contracts, as well as the lord of wide pastures and the protector of truth, of cattle, and of the waters. Mithra was sometimes seen as related to the sun, though an entity distinct from the sun. However, he did eventually evolve within Zoroastrianism into a being that was co-identified with the Sun, effectively seen as the Sun itself. Some hymns have described Mithra as having a thousand ears and ten thousand eyes, and as being a deity who never sleeps. Mithra was seen as a deity of honor and morality who always upheld the sanctity of the contract, even if the contract was made by those who were surely going to break that contract. And in addition to presiding over the contracts made between individuals, Mithra presided over the pledges made between nations. Much like the Vedic Mitra, Mithra was all-seeing and he served as a mediator between the heavens and the earth. However, unlike Mitra, Mithra was also seen as having the virtues of a warrior and capable of potent wrath (whereas Mitra was averse to violence) – he punished whose who were impious and broke their word, sometimes bringing diseases and illness to wicked men, and he conquered the armies of evil with a powerful chariot. Mithra also fights alongside such divine companions as Sraosha (the Yazata of obedience), Rashnu (the Yazata of justice), and Verethragna (the Yazata of victory). By his militant virtues and his not-so-militant virtues, he was charged with maintaining the creation and order of Ahura Mazda. It is said that before the rise of Zoroastrianism, Mithra also happened to be the most important deity of a polytheistic tradition practiced by the ancient Iranians.

The Zoroastrian Mithra has also been equated by angelologists with the angel Metatron – the angel identified as the voice of YHWH. Yazdanism also recognizes Mithras as the “sun of the faith”, also named Shayk Shams al-Din.

Eventually, the Iranian Mithra somehow became the Roman cult deity Mithras, or at least become the basis of that deity. Mithras was a deity who emerged in the beginning out of a rock, and then enacted the creation of all things good through the sacrifice of a bull. This deity has some noticeable characteristics that separate him from his Iranian and Indian predecessors. While the Vedic Mitra abhorred violence, the Roman Mithras is known to have enacted creation itself through the violent act of sacrificing a bull, and was worshiped by soldiers. The myth of the tauroctony, which is central to the Mithraic cult, also contradicts one of the roles of the Iranian Mithra – the protector of cattle – and the sacrifice of a bull was said to have been abhorred by the Zoroastrians and denounced by the prophet Zoroaster, so the Mithraic idea of creation through tauroctony was antithetical to Zoroastrian or Iranian sentiments and was either a Roman notion or a notion originating in pre-Zororastrian Iranian religion. Mithras was not specifically a solar deity, but he was allied with the Roman deity Sol, who imparted Mithras with the powers of the sun. Some believe that Mithras was identified with the Greek primordial deity Phanes, who was seen as the creator deity of the Orphic religion. Mithras’ chief role is as the deity who oppose the forces of evil to protect life in the name of good, and the tauroctony may have been seen as an act of cosmic regeneration – in other words, by sacrificing the cosmic bull, Mithras may have staved off the forces of evil by nourishing the universe with life. Some also interpret the act as astrological in meaning – the bull may have represent the constellation of Taurus the Bull, and by sacrificing the bull Mithras ends the Age of Taurus and ushering in a new age. It is also believed that Mithras died and was reborn, and his birth was celebrated on the winter solstice.

The Mithraic cult preferred to conduct their worship in secretive temples called Mithraeums, which were made to resemble natural caves, like the cave wherein Mithras performed the cosmic tauroctony. Members would perform initiatory rituals to confirm levels of knowledge and spiritual development, and they were divided into seven ranks – all members were expected to pass through the first four ranks (Corax, Nymphus, Miles, and Leo) while only a few might pass through the rest (Perses, Heliodromus, and Pater). The Mithraic cult became very popular in Rome over the years, gaining many followers among the lower classes, the military, and eventually even among the upper classes. Because of its growing popularity, the Mithraic cult was once a considerable rival to the Christian faith, but unlike Christianity it was also primarily disadvantaged by the fact that only men could adhere to it – women were not allowed to join the Mithraic cult. Ultimately, the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and years later Rome endorsed Christianity as the state religion, thus bringing an end to the cult of Mithras. At this time, many of Mithras’ followers began to abandon his worship in order to please the Roman emperor, and the old Mithraeums were abandoned, desecrated, and destroyed – such destruction would undoubtedly have been encouraged by the Christian church, who viewed the Mithraic cult – along with every religion other than their own – as false and blasphemous.

Mithras is nowadays compared to Jesus of Nazareth, believed to be one of the deities that inspired his whole concept. Mithras and Jesus may have a few superficial similairities, but it’s important to remember some key differences: Jesus didn’t create the world through an act of sacrifice (also, in the Christian belief, the creator of the universe is still Yahweh/Jehovah; Jesus had nothing to do with the act of creation), Mithras was never born out of a “virgin” woman impregnated by a divine party (he was born out of a rock), Jesus was a human revolutionary who claimed ti be the son of “God” as opposed to being a full-blown deity, Mithras was not born in a manger, and Jesus, according to the Bible, cannot be confirmed as being born on the winter solstice – that was the product of the Christian church co-opting pre-Christian traditions in order to gain converts. Also, in the Mithraic cult, other deities could be worshiped alongside Mithras, while Jesus championed the monotheism of the Jewish religion, and the Christian religion based around him only allowed the worship of one deity, barring all others.

Conclusion

Mithras seems to have been a very ancient and very potent force of light. I find myself interested in his deep-seated connection to the sun, with justice, with the contract, with cosmic struggle, and the masculine warrior archetype, all of which makes him that potent an archetype of light. Considering those who read my blog usually know me in relation to the forces of darkness, this is kind of refreshing. But then, I like the Sun, and Mithras is a very interesting deity associated with the powers of the sun.

 

Click here for Part 2.

Christianity before it became an empire

During the days when Rome was still pagan (or not really pagan, just emperor-worshippers, Christianity was the cult of dissent that made promises of salvation to those who began to question their own allegiance to Rome. Partly because of its status as a cult of dissent, and their devotion to their faith even in the face of oppression, this early Christianity has its appeal to me, but it’s not all that it seems.

On the one hand, Christianity was very much against the social order of Rome. Christianity believed in spiritual equality for all, that everyone was equal under “God” and had the right to to try and get into heaven, which was against the Roman system which was based on a rigid social hierarchy which allowed excess for the few and cruelty and oppression for the many (with the exception of the role-reversing festival of Saturnalia). Their practice of charity was also a notable selling point, especially considering they would offer it to anyone willing to accept it (though I doubt they were very hospitable to pagans). This reflects Jesus’ willingness to approach the sick, the lepers, the beggars, and the possessed, who were barred from religious and spiritual life in traditional Jewish society, forbidden even to enter temples, due to being considered morally and spiritually impure (which to me sounds like how homosexuals were and sometimes are still treated, especially in the age of AIDS during the 1980s). They also refused to worship the emperor as a god, which I must admit I feel is a positive thing since I find worshipping another human as a God is quote lowly.

But on the other hand, we have the obvious problem with Christianity, which is also its defining trait: they worshipped Jehovah (YHWH) as the only god, and forbade the worship or veneration of any other deities. They were also quite sexually prudish, which is actually more in common with Roman attitudes than the modern church minister or Roman history flick might tell you (in fact I bet they had no problem with Rome’s idea of family values). And try to remember that Christianity was very much an end of the world cult. Like Jesus they preached that “God” (YHWH) was coming to destroy the world while ushering in a new kingdom, and that if you believed in him you would be saved but everyone else would be damned for all eternity. So of course they were hostile to pagans, for one of the same reasons they hated Rome in the first place.

I’ve often heard the idea that Christianity wasn’t oppressive before it gained political influence as the state religion of the Roman empire, but this is not true, as the oppression inflicted by Christianity was the next logical step in its path. Think about it: you have a religion that worships some moral restrictive sky father and forbids the worship of all other gods and are sexual prudes. What do you think they were gonna do now that they gained control? Oppress pagans, oppress women under the same pretexts as Rome if not worse, oppress sexuality, and in general everything synonymous with Christianity, except enforcing the social equality taught by their own messiah. They seem to have focused more on conversion and preserving religious conformity than helping the poor. Either way, what happened with Christianity was never a matter of political corruption at all. This was what the Christian faith wanted. And if anyone says otherwise today, they are merely trying to redeem the image of the faith.

Keep in mind that I am not saying that the Roman persecution of Christians was justified, no one should be oppressed and unable to follow their religious or spiritual path, but I am saying that the Christian faith got what they wanted out of their Roman venture in the end.

Rome was actually a bunch of prudes

Lots of us have grown up with the image of Rome as a bastion of hedonism and sexuality where orgies were commonplace. Hell, even I think that’s something of a cool idea. But it turns out our society got that from both Christianity and old movies. Among them, the 1979 movie Caligula, which was actually produced by Penthouse.

In actuality, Romans were the exact opposite of the sex-loving, fun-loving, orgiastic, hedonists we often believe they were. They were actually among the most prudish societies ever, pretty much the exact opposite of orgiastic. Roman couples had sex not just at night, but in the dark, and with most of their clothes on, and the Romans seemed to have trouble even imagining an orgy, let alone in well-lit conditions or involving nudity.

While the Romans did have feasts and drunken festivals, orgies were not involved in them, and while wealthy Romans did have sex in front of slaves, those same wealthy Romans considered slaves as equal to furniture, with the exception that they can move, bring them stuff, and do stuff for them.

The only exception to the prudishness of Roman society was the festival of Saturnalia, when people were allowed to revel in all sorts of ways, but that was mainly supposed to represent the Golden Age ruled by the god Saturn, as well as being a winter solstice festival. It was also the only time of freedom when you could do whatever you wanted. After that, everything went back to the way it was.

The idea that Romans were orgiastic hedonists was made up by early Christians as a way of making Rome the bad guy (which it still kind of was), but it was also a way of appealing to the Roman culture of super-prudes. Think about it, by telling the Roman prudes that the rich were having wild, fun sex, let alone nude, well-lit, loving it, and different from everyone else, early Christians could promote their own religion by defaming the traditional Roman religion and state. And nothing could defame the traditional religion and state in the eyes of the Romans, who as we’ve established were a prudish lot, than nudity (especially well-lit), sex parties, and that someone somewhere was having sex without clothes on, let alone the idea that wealthy Romans were holding orgies.

And it’s here that one begins to realize that Abrahamism isn’t the only or the first prudish culture. Apparently, the Romans too were a prudish culture afraid of sex. Or were they afraid of sex? Because if Saturnalia implies anything, perhaps the Romans did not want to be so prudish, and subconsciously wanted to celebrate sex, and so Saturnalia was their only outlet. But this is pure speculation.

The pagan Halloween

Halloween is about two weeks away, so I figure I write a post about it’s pagan origins, just like Christmas and Easter before. Because of this, it’s time for a post about the pagan roots of Halloween.

I suspect that the roots of Halloween are primarily Celtic. In other words, pre-Christian Western Europe, before the Medieval period. Also, I have heard that parts of Europe believed there was a special day where all sorts of spirits, including the dead, would come to the mortal realm, and they would celebrate that day.

The ancient celebration is known as Samhain, a name that carries on in the modern age as a Neopagan festival, and a Sabbat in the Wiccan tradition. Samhain marked the end of the harvest season, and the beginning of the “dark half of the year”. See, the Celts divided their year into two halves. There was the light half of the year, and there was the dark half. The light half of the year consisted of spring and summer, with longer days and shorter nights, while the dark half of the year consisted of autumn and winter, with shorter days and longer nights. The end of the light half of the year was celebrated on Samhain. Fitting, as the name Samhain is said to mean “Summer’s End”. Apparently, costumes and treats were part of the Celtic celebration, which would probably feed into trick or treating. It is also seen as a time where spirits, fairies, ghouls, demons, and the like could more easily enter the human world and be more active, and the dead would revisit.

When the Romans conquered Britain, the British Celts adopted the Julian calendar and celebrated Samhain on November 1st. While Samhain was a strictly Celtic festival, the Roman religion was probably incorporated into the celebration over the four centuries that Rome ruled Britain. In fact, some say Halloween is related to the feast of the Roman goddess Pomona, who was the goddess of fruit trees, gardens, and abundance, and/or a festival of Parentalia, which was a Roman festival of the dead which went on for nine days and began on February 13, or at least in elements.

Pomona

The practice of carving pumpkins is said to date back to the Irish legend of Stingy Jack, who supposedly made a deal with the devil to ensure his soul would not go to hell. Eventually, he died, and after “God” barred him from heaven for making the deal, and the devil was bound by the agreement not to let him into hell, he was doomed to wonder the earth for eternity, with only an ember of hellfire to light his way. Admittedly, this is a Christian legend, but more of a folk legend. After Irish immigrants brought the custom of carving pumpkins to America, by the mid-late 19th century it became a Halloween staple. The Jack O Lanterns also have some relation to the will-o-wisp, and it was a folk tradition in parts of Britain to carry jack o lanterns to represent the souls of the dead and beg for treats, such as soul cakes.

In general, Halloween was about the coming of the dark seasons, the end of the harvest, and also spirits and the dead, and it was seen as a time when the world of mortals and the world of spirits and the dead could come to together. The difference is that nowadays, in our mostly Christian world, we view it as a time of evil. We sometimes make horror movies designed to enforce this Christian message and exploit the fear of the masses.

But make no mistake, the modern Halloween has some Christian influences, as well as some secular commercial influences, and is undoubtedly very different to the Halloween or Samhain of long ago. This is no surprise, because as Christianity spread and dominated the world, many pagan holidays were either Christianized or forgotten. However, the spirit is still there, just is it is in every other pagan/folk celebration.

By the way, Christmas, Easter, and Halloween are just about the only holidays with pagan holidays I’ve mentioned, so do let me know about any other holidays (especially famous or commonly celebrated ones) that are said to have pagan origins, and I’ll post about them in the future.

Christianity: End of the world cult?

Note: This post is aimed at Christianity as a religion, not Christians.

It seems I’m back sooner than I thought. Not much happened, but it was a decent Christmas nonetheless. Anyhow…

What do you expect? I do not hold back when it comes to this sort of thing, so if you get offended, that’s your problem, not mine.

I never really liked Christianity, you could tell from my posts. I am aware of all that stuff about love they neighbour as you would love thyself, only that’s just a layer. Just so you know this has nothing to do with my view of the Biblical god. Tear away the layers of Christianity’s image as a compassionate institution, or even an institution politically involved in preserving the status quo (something that Jesus would actually decry for reasons that will become apparent later on), and you’ll know it’s original form.

Jesus was famous (or infamous from the point of view of the Romans, Pharisees, and some Jews in Ancient Rome) for his subversiveness in Ancient Rome (which I could probably admire). What was he preaching? Oh, the end of time, and that, according to him, it was imminent.

Christ the Lamb here becomes Christ the Warrior, and thus sets the scene for a really anti-climatic final battle, though it does make a great scene.

Before Christianity even started, Jesus was a Jewish man preaching about a new “kingdom of God”, and that god would one day save his people at the end of the “wicked” world if they repent. Naturally, the Romans didn’t like his presence one bit, though I can’t understand why they took him so seriously. After all, if he’s a guy preaching about end times, he’s no threat right? But then he got attention. Miracles had became attributed to him. Then the Romans, and the Pharisees after Jesus ransacked the markets and money-changers at the temple, began to see him as a threat to their authority. And then you know the story: Judas betrayed Jesus, the Romans arrested Jesus, Pilate sealed his fate, and he was crucified. But according to Christians, he was then resurrected, before zooming back into heaven until the end of time. If people saw that happening, they might believe that yes, the end was coming, and soon.

After Jesus’ death, his apostles (except Judas, who committed suicide) set out spreading the message he left behind. The message that the end was nigh and that if people repented and rejected the pagan ways of Rome, god would save them, and that if people did not, then they would be damned for all time. This would lead to the creation of a new religious movement that set out to convert Jews and gentiles alike, which would later be called Christianity, though the Bible might have been compiled much later. Followers might expect the apocalypse to happen within a few years, or any time for that matter, they might have thought the signs were everywhere. In 66 AD, the Jews had eventually grown fed up of being under Roman rule and attempted to overthrow them in a revolt and establish independence. Four years later, this would end in the sacking of Jerusalem and its Second Temple, thus Jerusalem had returned to Roman rule. Some interpreted this as a punishment from God, perhaps for the crucifixion of Jesus, among other reasons that could prompt divine vengeance. Still, the event was so shocking that people began to believe that the apocalypse had begun, and to this day Jews commemorate the event as the fast of Tisha B’av.

If you think about it, how would you feel if you saw this going down?

Getting back to the main point, Christianity as an apocalyptic religion has always been at the core even today, with any time in history (including the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London) being believed to be the apocalypse. Hell, there was a medieval belief that witches were a sign of the apocalypse coming (thinking about it, witches can’t seem to get a break). If there is any notable difference between the Christianity of now and the Christianity of Ancient Rome, for which many followers and saints died for, is that the church these days seems to be a politically active institution, often for preserving the status quo, aside from their somewhat humanitarian image, whereas Jesus wouldn’t feel there to be much point for structure considering that he believed it would all be destroyed by the time God showed up. Otherwise, think about it: back then they must’ve waited forever for God to show up, and even today, despite the more liberal and sugar-coated interpretations and Christian messages in the modern day (mainly designed to appeal to modern times anyway), people still wait and pray that they go straight to God when they die, or when the world ends, and we have Christianity becoming the main religion of the Roman Empire to thank for us being so ingrained in its ideas.

The fact is, 2000 years on, Christianity is still the same as it always was, and that’s not something to be proud of.

Christmas is not Christian

A yule tree
A yule tree

Christmas, or Yuletide as it’s also called, seems to be connected to Christianity by name and popular association only. The rest of it is thoroughly pagan, without any references to the Bible. Let’s look at the following points.

Before I start let’s clear things up. I’m not some Christian fanatic out to de-paganize Christmas, and I’m certainly not out to cancel Christmas. I actually like Christmas as a pagan holiday and a modern one. Some would say they’re one the same, but I like it a little more pagan. I’m not technically a pagan, I’m just a fan.

Anyway, first of all is Jesus’ birthday and the Christmas feast.

Baby Jesus, who is apparently floating in the air, even though he didn't die yet. Pretty cool, though I must say.
Baby Jesus, who is apparently floating in the air, even though he didn’t die yet. Pretty cool, though I must say.

Most people believe that Jesus was born on December 25th, but that’s nowhere in the Bible. It started when the Christian church wanted to pinpoint a date for their saviour’s birth so that they can celebrate it as a holiday. They figured December 25th was a good date considering, in Ancient Rome, Saturnalia was celebrated on that day, it was a time when the ancient Romans were celebrating in merriment, festivity, and feasting, for Saturn, the god of agriculture, so the church was able to Christianize Saturnalia so that they’d be celebrating the birth of Jesus, and not celebrating a pagan god. There was also a Roman god called Mithras (adapted from an Iranian sun god), whose birthday is believed to be the same date.

Second, Santa Claus.

Your tax dollars at work.
Your tax dollars at work.

This dude is the reason children get excited for Christmas, besides presents. But we’re not here talk about whether he’s real or not (though I think it’s actually the parents). We’re here for his origin story. As you may expect, there is no reference to him, or anyone like him, in the Bible. The modern Santa is pretty much a commercial icon birthed from various late 18th-19th century sources. Then there’s the Catholic saint Nicholas of Myra, famous for his generous gifts to the poor. But there is a pagan Santa. In Germanic paganism, we have Odin.

Between ol’ Saint Nick and this badass viking god, who would you rather have delivering your gifts?

So how does this guy relate to Santa Claus? Well in Germanic tradition, Odin was said to lead a great hunting party through the sky during Yule, probably to prepare their Yuletide feast. There’s also a tradition where children fill boots with carrots, straw, or sugar, and place them on the chimney for Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, to feast on, and then Odin would reward their kindness with filling the emptied boots with gifts and/or candy.

Third, the Christmas tree. I’ve already got a snowy Yule tree up there, so no image here. Christmas trees never appeared in the Bible, but before the before the Bible, various cultures used evergreen trees and plants on the winter solstice, including Egypt (which apparently used evergreen to celebrate to the triumph of life over death), Rome in the form of Saturnalia, Britain with the Yule log, and among the Germanic peoples. The Christmas tree entered our culture when Saint Boniface saw a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree, or Thor’s oak. Angry at them for doing it, he ordered that the oak be cut down, and immediately a small tree sprouted from the middle of the oak stump.  The saint then claimed it as their holy tree and a symbol of everlasting life. There was also, historically, a tree called Irminsul, it was venerated by Saxon tribes in Germany until Charlemagne ordered that it be destroyed as part of his campaign to subdue the Vikings and convert them to Christianity by the sword. As for the decorations, it may have been a later tradition.

Fourth, mistletoe.

https://i0.wp.com/static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2008/12/09/mis460.jpg

No Biblical references for the mistletoe, nor for kissing under it. Like many Christmas traditions, this one has Germanic roots. There’s a Scandinvian legend about the god Baldr, a god of light and love whose one weakness was, believe it or not, mistletoe. Loki, the trickster, knowing this, killed him with a spear (though some say an arrow) tipped with mistletoe, and he died, resulting in Loki being bound to a rock under a venomous snake until the end of time. Many gods were saddened by Baldr’s death and wanted him to come back, and eventually, his mother, Frigg, restored his life and hung up a mistletoe, promising to kiss anyone who passed under it. Many traditions consider it a symbol of protection from poisons and malicious spirits. Even more amazing, ancient druid preists in Britain would use mistletoe and evergreen plants in ceremonies, and mistletoe was the symbol for the birth of a god. That is awesome.

Before I conclude, it should be noted that not all Christmas traditions and staples are pagan in origin, and some have more modern or relatively recent origins.

The pagan Christmas seems to be the cultural tradition of celebrating the winter solstice, and the return of light (the sun) after the longest night of the year, and people have celebrated it in different ways. But as I said, none of that is in the Bible, and it’s, ultimately, not Christian. But that doesn’t mean we should cancel Christmas. In fact, I think the real Christmas is more special and meaningful than a Christian Christmas. And it’s not changed at all in the modern world, except that it’s more commercialized and often centered around commercial icons.