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As a Halloween treat, here is a pen and ink drawing which I made of a great dark fantasy metropolis (which is also a lurking predatory fish).  As you can see, there are three stages to the composition: the cerebral top portion inhabited by angels, gods, and flying marvels; the primal underworld at the bottom (which is filled with wailing souls, dark sacrifice, and insatiable hunger); and, in the middle, a glistening city between the two extremes.  In the sky, Apollo, god of prophecy and the arts, rides his chariot angrily towards a blithe Icarus.  At far right, Death watches the city while, beneath the towers (beyond life?) the inhabitants…or possibly their souls walk through a Tartarus of appetites and chthonic marvels.  I am sorry that it is too small to appreciate (it took me forever to draw all of the little ghost figures and monsters which are under the fish).  The piece speaks to the larger nature of humankind’s collective existence (and our appetites) but I feel the supernatural monsters and crystal landscape with the heavens also speaks to larger possibilities we could aspire to.  I am sorry it is slightly crooked in this shot: this was the best picture I have but it is slightly distorted (until I can get a finer scan made).

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5th Century Red and black vase of Orestes

5th Century Red and black vase of Orestes

One of the best things about the Greek mythological pantheon is that it contains gods who ruled before the Olympians but have passed into obscurity…as well as weird outsiders who hardly seem to belong in the story at all. Some of these deities were once central to things but have been broken, defeated and deposed (like Cronus), whereas others are otherworldly and cling to the darkest most shadowy edges of mythical realm (like Nyx, the goddess of primeval night). I bring this up to introduce the Erinyes, the goddesses of savage unending vengeance, who are sometimes known in English by the heavy-metal name “the Furies”.

Orestes chased by the Erinyes (Carl Rahl, ca. 1852, oil on canvas)

Orestes chased by the Erinyes (Carl Rahl, ca. 1852, oil on canvas)

The Erinyes are mentioned in the oldest surviving Greek texts which we can translate. They punished the most terrible criminals who had violated the fundamental moral order of ancient Greece (a slave society where murder was a part of everyday life). Those who felt the endless wrath of the furies were guilty of crimes such as violating oaths, abusing guests, committing incest, or murdering kinfolk. The Erinyes’ dwelled in the underworld, but if a malefactor brought their wrath upon himself, they would pursue him across the land, the seas, and beyond till they could rip him apart. Death brought no release from their tortures–since they carried their victims’ spirits to the depths of Tartarus to punish forever with snakes, flails, burning brands, and brass-studded whips. The Erinyes took the form of horrible angels: they had huge dark wings and the bodies of twisted hags (although occasionally they could take on a terrible beauty). Some poets asserted there were three furies—Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone–but in other sources they seem numberless and lacking individuality.

Orestes seeks shelter from the Furies at teh Foot of Athena (Engraving from G. Schwab's Die schönsten Sagen, 1912)

Orestes seeks shelter from the Furies at teh Foot of Athena (Engraving from G. Schwab’s Die schönsten Sagen, 1912)

Erinyes show up in the most horrible myths of murder, savagery, and everything gone appallingly wrong. They therefore make appearances in some great works of literature and art…like The Eumenides, the final play of the Oresteia. In fact the name The Euminides (meaning “the kindly ones”) refers to the dreadful Erinyes—for like Hades (or Voldemort) it was thought unwise to refer to them except via euphemism. There are different versions of how the ancient goddesses came into being. According to Hesiod they were born when the Titan Cronus castrated his father the sky god Uranus, and threw his genitalia into the sea (an event which also precipitated the birth of Aphrodite). Other poets, however assert that they are even older and descend directly from the outsider goddess Nyx, who predates the other gods.

The Remorse of Orestes (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862, oil on canvas)

The Remorse of Orestes (William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1862, oil on canvas)

Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

Etruscan sarcophagus from the Tarquinian tombs (Photo by Peggy Mekemson)

This blog has always been dedicated to the dark ones beneath the earth—the beautiful and horrible deities of the underworld! So today we will look at Etruscan gods of death and the afterlife. Sadly most of Etruscan literature and mythology has been lost, so in some cases all we have is obscure names. In the spirit of religion and mythology, I will try to make up for the lack of textual evidence with lurid pictures, extravagant adjectives, and outright supposition.

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Charun (Death) with his hammer used to separate people from their lives

Much of Etruscan myth was strongly influenced by (or outright based on) Greek mythology. Aita was the equivalent of Hades who ruled over a similar underworld of spirits, monsters, and fallen gods. Aita’s wife “Phersipnai” was the unchanged analog of Greek Persephone. There were unique figures of the Etruscan cosmology who continued to have a hold on Roman practices and beliefs: like the “manes” which were the spirits of the dead which lingered near tombs and gravesites. There were also entities like Charun who were extremely unlike their Greco-Roman counterparts. Etruscan mythology as a whole has a bestial and naturalistic undertone of animal-human deities, human sacrifice, and violence.

To make this more straightforward (and to make this a coherent article—since data is scarce about some of these deities), here is an alphabetical list:

Aita Conjuring.  A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita Conjuring. A relief carved on a 2nd c BC ash urn from Perugia, in the Museo Etrusco Romano at Perugia. Drawing from Otto Volcano, Die Etrusker.

Aita: The Lord of the underworld: equivalent to the Greek Hades.

Calu: A mysterious savage underworld being who is a hybrid of wolf and man.

Charun: A blue skinned demon covered with snakes and carrying a hammer, Charun guided deceased spirits to their final home in the underworld. He is sometimes also depicted with boar’s tusks, a vulture’s beak, a huge black beard, and/or giant black wings. Charun was essentially the Etruscan spirit of death.

Culsu (AKA Cul): Pictured with scissors and a torch, Culsu was a female chthonic demon of gateways.

Letham (Lethns, Letha, Lethms, Leta) An Etruscan infernal goddess about whom little else is known. Worship her at your peril!

Mania: Reported to be the mother of the Lares and Manes, Mania was a dark goddess of the dead and the undead. According to ancient traditions and Roman legends about Etruria in the era of the pre-Roman kings, Mania was the central figure of the Laralia festival on May 1st when children were sacrificed to her. Mania was quietly worshipped in Roman times and had a position in medieval and modern Tuscan folklore as a goddess of nightmares and demons.

Phersipnai (Phersipnei, Proserpnai): The wife of Aita and queen of the underworld; a figure nearly identical to the Greek Persephone and Roman Proserpina.

Vanth: A winged goddess of the underworld who together with Charun acted as a psychopomp. She is usually portrayed with a kindly face and with bare breasts crossed by straps. She sometimes holds a key, a light, or a scroll and she tends to dress in a chiton. I wonder if her imagery didn’t skip over classical Rome, because (aside from her toplessness) she could easily be a Christian angel on the payroll of Saint Peter.

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

Charun and Vanth from the Tomb of the Anina Family. (ca. 300 BC)

I have done the best I could describing the underworld deities of Etruria. Of course, since everything about Etruscan society seems to involve ancient disputes, scholarly misunderstanding, and Roman fabrication, I have probably messed up substantially and I beg your understanding and forgiveness (particularly if you happen to be some terrifying fanged Etruscan death god). There is also a final mysterious category of Etruscan deities which should be mentioned—the Dii Involuti, “the hidden gods” who acted as a final arbiter of affairs both human and divine. These guys sound extremely scary and powerful and belong on any list of underworld deities. Unfortunately, in complete accordance with their name, I could not find out anything about them!

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Hecate


When I was young I received a copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, which I loved.  I memorized the characters and stories from the book and suddenly the world of art and poetry opened up to me.  The book remains a delightful mythology primer for any child. However, later when I read actual Greco-Roman literature, I realized that D’Aulaire’s had left out a goddess of great importance to the Greco-Roman world (among other things…).  The omission seems fitting however, for the missing goddess was Hecate, the goddess of magic, poison, night, thresholds, boundaries, and crossroads.  The Oxford Classic Dictionary asserts that Hecate “is more at home on the fringes than in the center of Greek polytheism. Intrinsically ambivalent and polymorphous, she straddles conventional boundaries and eludes definition.”  This seems correct.  Even in classical passages which hold her in high esteem, Hecate seems to be an outsider among the gods.  Her very name means “the distant one”.

Hekate, dressed as a huntress, wielding a pair of Eleusinian torches at Heracles and Cerberus (Attic vase, ca. 310 BC)

Hecate may seem like a strange outsider in the Greek pantheon because she was an outsider in the Greek pantheon.  Some scholars believe she was originally a Thracian moon goddess based, in turn, on an ancient and powerful Anatolian goddess.  Unlike other outsider gods, who frequently worked their way into the Greek canon as animal demons, Hecate struck a chord with the Greeks and became a focus of their mystery cults.  Additionally she had an influential worshipper early on in Greek culture: there are few if any references to Hecate before she appears in the works of Hesiod (a major source of Ionic thought who was active sometime between 750 and 650 BC).  Yet in Hesiod’s Theogeny she is a major force of the universe. Perhaps this is because Hesiod’s father was reputedly from Aeolis (a region of Anatolia).  It could be that Hesiod was honoring a local goddess, and his writings became instrumental to securing her place in the Greek canon (where she nonetheless remains an alien).

Hesiod wrote that Hecate was the only child of two Titans, Asteria (goddess of the stars) and Peres (god of might).  Hesiod seems to have regarded her as beautiful and powerful.  In Theogeny, he wrote,

For to this day, whenever any one of men on earth offers rich
sacrifices and prays for favour according to custom, he calls
upon Hecate.  Great honour comes full easily to him whose prayers
the goddess receives favourably, and she bestows wealth upon him;
for the power surely is with her….
The son of Cronus did her no wrong nor took anything away of all that
was her portion among the former Titan gods: but she holds, as
the division was at the first from the beginning, privilege both
in earth, and in heaven, and in sea.  Also, because she is an
only child, the goddess receives not less honour, but much more
still, for Zeus honours her.

Greek writers of the 5th century, maintained Hesiod’s respect for Hecate but they saw her in a darker light.  Euripides writes about her as the patron deity of the sorceress Medea and quite a few of that baleful witch’s invocations are directly to Hecate.

Whatever Hecate’s origins in the near east and ancient Greece, Hecate had morphed from a moon goddess and protector of the young into underworld queen by the era of Alexander, and that is how she was subsequently worshipped by the Romans (who held her very dear).  In Hellenic times and afterwards, Hecate is pictured as a triple goddess.  Sometimes she has been portrayed with three young beautiful faces, but other times she is depicted as simultaneously being a maiden, a mother, and a crone (which seems to be how her contemporary worshippers see her).  Likewise, in one or more of her six arms she always holds a torch.  The other items vary between serpents, keys, daggers, ropes, herbs, and mystery charms.  Speaking of serpents, she was occasionally portrayed with serpent legs or serpent limbs.

The snake was by no means the only creature affiliated with Hecate. Like many chthonic deities of the Mediterranean, she was associated with dogs (particularly black female dogs).  She is said to have had two demon hounds which did her bidding (although it hardly seems important since she was a sorceress of matchless puissance).  Additonally, dogs were sacrificed to her and eaten in her honor. Snakes, owls and other nocturnal creatures were variously seen as sacred to the goddess as was the red mullet, a blood-colored goatfish (which wealthy Romans kept in salt water pens to pamper and train as pets). In terms of botanical symbolism, all manner of poisons were her bailiwick and she was invoked by poisoner and victim alike.  The yew, with its dark symbolism, was particularly sacred to Hecate, and her worshippers planted them around her temples and mystery cult sites.

Agh! It’s Hecate!

As goddess of thresholds she was called on to help people through the two greatest thresholds. She was worshiped both as a midwife (some say the knife and rope in her hands were for tying umbilical cords) and as a sort of supernatural hospice nurse (some assert that her knife, rope, and herbs could be used to slip into the next realm).  Like Athena and Diana, Hecate was a virgin goddess.

I mentioned Hecate’s contemporary worshipers earlier.  Unlike the other Greek gods, who may still inspire artists, poets, and antiquarians but rarely elicit prayers, Hecate continues to have a worldwide following.  Neopaganism has suited her admirably and she has even appeared in a number of hit TV shows.  Her mysterious protean nature seems to appeal to the diffuse and highly-individualized practitioners of Wicca.  One can only imagine how the surly and chauvinistic Hesiod would feel if told that his beloved Hecate had outlived his beloved Olympian Gods to be worshiped and called on as a feminist icon!

Hecate Trimorphe Triodia Phosphorus (digimagicnb, 2011, digital media)

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