The Greek gods were divided into two categories: those above the earth and those below. The chthonic gods in Ancient Greece resided in or were associated with the underworld and the dead. The most prominent chthonic gods were Hades, Persephone, Demeter, and Hecate, and they were all intertwined in the myth of the abduction of Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Furies, the other notable chthonic deities, played an important role in mythology and literature. The Ancient Greeks feared these gods of the underworld because of their associations with the dead and the idea of death itself.
What Does Chthonic Mean?
The word chthonic comes from the Greek χθών (khthon), which translates to ‘earth’ or ‘soil.’ Chthonic literally translates to ‘under the earth’, but in terms of Greek mythology means ‘of the underworld.’ Closely associated with the souls of the dead, chthonic gods can be thought of in simple terms as gods of the underworld.
Gods of agriculture and harvest were also identified as chthonic in many cases. This is because seeds are planted within the earth, and the harvest is tied to the cycle of birth and death. In Works and Days, Hesiod advises farmers to pray to chthonic gods before the harvest season. The gods of the underworld were often given characteristics of agricultural gods, as they were both deeply connected to the earth.
1. Hades: God of the Underworld
Hades, the eldest son of Cronus and Rhea, was perhaps the most prominent of the chthonic gods. As the god of the dead, Hades should not be confused with the god of death, Thanatos. Hades was the ruler and god of the underworld and the only one of the first generation of Greek gods to not reside on Mount Olympus.
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The Greeks feared Hades because of his role as god of the dead. Saying his name was considered to be a bad omen and avoided at all costs. Thus, he was often euphemistically referred to as Plouton, the wealthy one, in reference to the idea that all of the earth’s riches were in his kingdom. Other names given to him were Zeus katachthonios: ‘Zeus of the Underworld.’
The most famous myth involving Hades is the abduction of Persephone. After receiving permission from Persephone’s father, Zeus, Hades kidnaps Persephone to make her his bride. As King of the Underworld, Hades also plays a role in the myths of Orpheus and Hercules. Although mortals were not allowed into the realm of the dead, Hades was persuaded by his wife to allow Orpheus to attempt to rescue his wife from death. Hades also helped Hercules during his twelve labors by allowing him to take Cerberus from the underworld for his final task.
2. Persephone: Queen of the Underworld, Goddess of Spring
Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, holds both the title of Goddess of Spring and Queen of the Underworld. Prior to her abduction by Hades and subsequent ascendance to Queen of the Underworld, Persephone was known as Kore, which translates to maiden or daughter. The goddess was mostly known for her kidnapping and eating pomegranate seeds while in the underworld.
The name Persephone translates to “bringer of destruction,” which is in stark contrast to her name prior to becoming the goddess of the underworld. Like her husband, she was a feared deity and often referred to in euphemisms. One of her nicknames was Despoina ‘the mistress,’ although Despoina is also a separate deity. In ancient literature, including the Theogony and Odyssey, she is referred to as “dread Persephone” and in other fear-inducing terms.
Persephone appears in many myths and poems in Ancient Greece outside of her abduction myth. In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, Persephone is the one who takes pity on Orpheus and convinces Hades to let him live. By contrast, in the Odyssey, Odysseus sacrifices a ram to her in order to appease the spirits of the dead. In Orphism, Persephone plays an important role as the mother of Zagreus.
3. Demeter: A Chthonic Harvest Goddess
Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and the harvest, the sister of Hades, and the mother of Persephone through Zeus. As the goddess of the earth and its bounty, Demeter was considered a chthonic goddess because of the association between crops and the earth. In Athens, the dead were referred to as Demeter’s people or Demetrioi.
It is unclear how the name Demeter came to be, though the second half -meter translates to mother. Unlike her daughter or brother, Demeter was not feared and thus was not given euphemistic nicknames. One of the epithets given to the goddess is Χθονιη ‘Chthonia.’ This epithet, along with the associated between her and the dead, cements her as a chthonic goddess.
Demeter is most famous for her role in the abduction of Persephone. When the god of the underworld abducted her daughter, Demeter searched the whole earth for Persephone. Seasons stopped and a great drought overtook the earth as Demeter was too overcome with despair for her missing daughter. Despite ultimately being reunited with her mother, Persephone was forced to spend part of the year in the underworld with Hades. During this period, when her daughter is away, Demeter grieves, causing the earth to be barren.
Eleusinian Mysteries: A Cult of Chthonic Goddesses
The Eleusinian Mysteries were an ancient Greek mystery cult revolving around the kidnapping of Persephone and the reunion with her mother, Demeter. This mystery cult is said to predate the Olympic pantheon. The main theme of the cult was the cycle of loss, search, and ascent or birth, death, and rebirth. The participants of the cult primarily worshipped Persephone and Demeter as chthonic goddesses and were bound to secrecy to protect the rites of the cult.
The Homeric Hymn to Demeter tells the story of Persephone’s abduction and the aftermath, including the ties to Eleusis. When Demeter was wandering the earth in search of her daughter, she took shelter with the king of Eleusis and nursed his children, Demophon and Triptolemus. Demeter attempted to grant Demophon immortality by placing him under a sacred fire but was stopped by his mother. As punishment, Demeter demanded a temple in her honor in Eleusis.
4. Hecate: Queen in Heaven and Hell
Hecate is the Greek goddess of magic, witchcraft, night, and crossroads. As the goddess of boundaries, Hecate is seen as guardian of the boundary between earth and the underworld. It is this association with liminal places that categorizes Hecate as a chthonic goddess. Hecate is often depicted as a triple-bodied goddess, known as a hekataion.
It is possible that Hecate is a foreign deity adopted early on by the Greeks, as many scholars do not think her name to be of Greek origin. Two epithets associated with her were Αιδωναια ‘of the underworld,’ and Χθονιη ‘Chthonia.’ Similarly to Demeter, these epithets cement Hecate as a chthonic goddess.
Hecate first emerges as a figure in Hesiod’s Theogony, where she is described as the daughter of the Titans Asteria and Perses. The goddess also plays a role in the Eleusinian Mysteries, as she helps Demeter find her daughter. In Book VI of the Aeneid, Hecate is described as “Queen in heaven and hell” (VI.257). Hecate is referenced in other ancient works, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
5. The Furies: Another Chthonic Figure
The Furies, also known as the Erinyes, are deities of vengeance who reside in the underworld. According to the Theogony, they sprang forth from Uranus’ blood when he was castrated. However, Aeschylus states that the Furies were the daughters of the primordial being Nyx, while in Virgil’s Aeneid, the goddesses were the children of Pluto and Nox (Hades and Nyx). Their role was to punish men for crimes committed against their fellow man. They were also often associated with ghosts of victims. Because of their affiliation with the souls of the dead, the Erinyes were considered chthonic deities.
The three goddesses -Alecto, Megaera, Tisiphone- gain the nickname of the Eumenides ‘the Gracious Ones’ in the Oresteia, Aeschylus’ famous trilogy. This follows the same pattern as Hades and Persephone, where the deity is so feared by man that they are given a euphemistic nickname.
The Furies appear in many stories within Greek and Roman mythology. In the Iliad, they are invoked by Agamemnon in a formulaic oath, cementing their role as deities of vengeance. In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, the Furies serve the ghost of murdered Clytemnestra by hounding her son Orestes. The Furies again perform the bidding of a scorned woman in the Aeneid when Alecto helps Juno prevent the Trojans from fulfilling their destiny.
Worshipping The Chthonic Gods
The sacrifices given to the chthonic gods were often buried or burned in a trench in the ground rather than cooked on an altar. Another important aspect of sacrifices to chthonic gods was the pouring of blood and libations into trenches in the ground, as seen in the Odyssey. The use of in-ground sacrifices makes sense when worshipping the gods of the underworld as they were not in the heavens but below the earth. These practices are markedly different from the Olympic gods’ sacrifices, where animals were cooked and served as sacrifices.
Another difference between the chthonic and the Olympic gods was the time of their rituals. The chthonic deities were worshipped at night, with sacrifices and rites performed under the cover of darkness. Similarly, in the Eleusinian Mysteries, the rituals were only performed at night. However, the specifics are unknown because of the cult’s secret nature.
Different gods of the underworld were worshipped and appeased using different animals. Worshippers of Demeter sacrificed pigs in her honor, while those worshipping Hecate purified themselves with the blood of dogs and left their bodies at crossroads for her. Hades was honoured by the sacrifice of black animals.
The Chthonic Gods: Evil or Simply Feared
Many of the chthonic gods, especially Hades, have gained a reputation of evil through myths and modern retellings. However, the Greeks did not believe these gods to be evil or the antithesis to the Olympic pantheon. On the contrary, these gods, while quick to anger, were known for their fairness and passiveness. The gods of the underworld were always given kind and gracious nicknames to ensure that they were not angered. The major exception to this was the Furies, whose job was to punish those breaking oaths and laws. It is important to stress that chthonic gods were not feared because they were evil but rather because they were associated with the dead.