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Chthonic (// or //, from Greek χθόνιος – chthonios, "in, under, or beneath the earth", from χθών – chthōn "earth"; pertaining to the Earth; earthy; subterranean), apart from its literal translation meaning 'subterranean', its historical or interpretive definition designates, or pertains to, deities or spirits of the underworld, especially in relation to Greek religion. The Greek word khthon is one of several for "earth"; it typically refers to the interior of the soil, rather than the living surface of the land (as Gaia or Ge does) or the land as territory (as khora (χώρα) does). It evokes at once abundance and the grave.
Some dictionaries, such as the OED, state that the first two letters should be pronounced (as /k/), //, while others, such as the AHD, record these letters as silent, //. The modern pronunciation of the Greek word "χθόνιος" is [ˈxθonios], although the Classical Greek pronunciation would have been [kʰtʰónios].
Chthonic and Olympian
While terms such as "Earth deity" or Earth mother have sweeping implications in English, the words khthonie and khthonios had a more precise and technical meaning in Greek, referring primarily to the manner of offering sacrifices to the deity in question.
Some chthonic cults practised ritual sacrifice, which often happened at night time. When the sacrifice was a living creature, the animal was placed in a bothros ("pit") or megaron ("sunken chamber"). In some Greek chthonic cults, the animal was sacrificed on a raised bomos ("altar"). Offerings usually were burned whole or buried rather than being cooked and shared among the worshippers.
Cult type versus function
While chthonic deities had a general association with fertility, they did not have a monopoly on it, nor were the later Olympian deities wholly unconcerned for the Earth's prosperity. Thus Demeter and Persephone both watched over aspects of the fertility of land, yet Demeter had a typically Olympian cult while Persephone had a chthonic one.
Also, Demeter was worshipped alongside Persephone with identical rites, and yet occasionally was classified as an "Olympian" in late poetry and myth. The absorption of some earlier cults into the newer pantheon versus those that resisted being absorbed is suggested as providing the later myths.
The categories Olympian and chthonic were not, however, completely separate. Some Olympian deities, such as Hermes and Zeus, also received chthonic sacrifices and tithes in certain locations. The deified heroes Heracles and Asclepius might be worshipped as gods or chthonic heroes, depending on the site and the time of origin of the myth.
Moreover, a few deities aren't easily classifiable under these terms. Hecate, for instance, was typically offered puppies at crossroads (see also Crossroads (mythology)) – a practice neither typical of an Olympian sacrifice nor of a chthonic sacrifice to Persephone or the heroes. Because of her underworld roles, Hecate is generally classed as chthonic.
References in psychology and anthropology
In analytical psychology, the term chthonic was often used to describe the spirit of nature within; the unconscious earthly impulses of the Self, that is one's material depths, however not necessarily with negative connotations. See anima and animus or shadow. In Man and His Symbols Carl G. Jung explains:
|“||Envy, lust, sensuality, deceit, and all known vices are the negative, 'dark' aspect of the unconscious, which can manifest itself in two ways. In the positive sense, it appears as a 'spirit of nature', creatively animating Man, things, and the world. It is the 'chthonic spirit' that has been mentioned so often in this chapter. In the negative sense, the unconscious (that same spirit) manifests itself as a spirit of evil, as a drive to destroy.||”|
Gender has a specific meaning in cultural anthropology. Teresa del Valle in her book Gendered Anthropology explains "there are male and female deities at every level. We generally find men associated with the above, the sky, and women associated with the below, with the earth, water of the underground, and the chthonic deities." This was by no means universal and in Ancient Egypt the main deity of the earth was the male god Geb. Geb's female consort was named Nut, otherwise known as the sky. Greek mythology likewise has female deities associated with the sky, such as Dike, goddess of justice who sits on the right side of Zeus as his advisor. Eos was the goddess of dawn. Hades is the ancient Greek god of the underworld.
References in structural geology
The term Allochthon in structural geology is used to describe a large block of rock which has been moved from its original site of formation, usually by low angle thrust faulting. From the Greek "allo" meaning other and "chthon" designating the process of the land mass being moved under the earth and connecting two horizontally stacked décollements and thus "under the earth".
- Chthonios, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon, at Perseus.
- See Modern Greek phonology.
- "The sacrifice for gods of the dead and for heroes was called enagisma, in contradistinction to thysia, which was the portion especially of the celestial deities. It was offered on altars of a peculiar shape: they were lower than the ordinary altar bomos, and their name was ischara, 'hearth'. Through them the blood of the victims, and also libations, were to flow into the sacrificial trench. Therefore they were funnel-shaped and open at the bottom. For this kind of sacrifice did not lead up to a joyous feast in which the gods and men took part. The victim was held over the trench with its head down, not, as for the celestial gods, with its neck bent back and the head uplifted; and it was burned entirely." (Source The Heroes of the Greeks, C. Kerenyi pub. Thames & Hudson 1978). The 'gods of the dead' are, of course, Chthonic deities.
- C.G. Jung, Man and His Symbols, ISBN 0-385-05221-9, p. 267.
- Teresa del Valle, Gendered Anthropology, Routledge, 1993, ISBN 0-415-06127-X, p. 108.