The ancient Greek word chthonic is commonly defined as dark, primitive and mysterious. Chthonic is of the earth or under the earth. The ancient, infernal, carnal, gods Set, Pan, Bacchus, and Dionysus traditionally represent it. According to Professor Carl Jung the chthonic gods are connected to the blood and to the soil. To be chthonic means to be rooted in the ground sunk into the earth where all things die decompose and rejoin the primal elements. Chthonic represents the instincts that awaken the soul. The serpent is a powerful chthonic animal that is always low to the ground, connected to the earth. Jung writes, "The serpent is the age-old representative of the lower worlds, of the belly with its contents and the intestines." The lower intestines are where the Hindu doctrine locates the sleeping serpent kundalini; ever ready to awake and journey up the initiates spine stimulating each chakra center until supreme enlightenment occurs at the top of the head. The serpent is an ancient symbol that has always represented wisdom, occult knowledge, the cycles of nature and the death and rebirth of all things through the shedding of its skin. In the Garden of Eden the serpent is Satan tempting Eve with ultimate knowledge of all things. The Norse god Odin transforms himself into a snake and descends into the earth to obtain the Mead of Inspiration. The Greek god Hermes carried the caduceus, a rod coiled with two snakes.
The chthonic process is an occult "awakening" that includes the very lowest instinctual elements of the human psyche leading to the very highest elements. It is the base, primordial material that the psyche needs in order to evolve and grow. Chthonic is the soil, the fertilizer, and the dark, primitive unconscious material that can turn the beast into a god. Chthonic is depicted in all myths as the Underworld, Hell or Hades. Jungian author James Hillman considers this Underworld to be the residence of the soul, the place the hero must descend in order to find his essence.
2) Chthonic Deities
The Uroboros snake eating its own tail is a perfect illustration of how chthonic can represent both the creative and destructive aspects of nature. The Uroboros is the unity of life and death in which all things that arise into existence must descend back into the void. Author Eric Neumann, in his book The Origins and History of Consciousness writes, "The unconscious life of nature, which is also the life of the Uroboros, combines the most meaningless destruction with the supreme meaningfulness of instinctive creation; for the meaningful unity of the organism is as 'natural' as the cancer which devours it."
Chthonic can be defined as great Mother Nature or as representing the cycles of nature. According to Neumann, "Mythologically, the phallic-chthonic deities are companions of the Great Mother, not representatives of the specifically masculine. Psychologically this means that phallic masculinity is still conditioned by the body and this is under the rule of the Great Mother, whose instrument it remains." In other words, the chthonic gods represent the primal instincts that come to us directly through nature.
The Greek god Dionysus is certainly one of these above-mentioned phallic-chthonic deities. Representative of the creative and destructive aspects of nature; Dionysus is the ultimate chthonic figure. He can inspire the most beautiful, delirious sexual activity and the most degrading, violent, murderous activity. Dionysus' mother, Semele, has been described variously as a Moon-Goddess and as a mortal woman. His father was the leader of the Greek gods, Zeus. His mother as mortal then combines the earthly with the divine (Zeus) bringing the balance that chthonic more deeply represents.
Other chthonic deities include Priapos or the lower Pan, representing the depths of the instinctive libido. Ophion is a great serpent who wrapped himself around the goddess Eurynome, the Mother of heavenly chaos, and had intercourse with her. Phallos from Jung's Seven Sermons to the Dead is said to come to the soul like a serpent, lives in the earth and consorts with the dead. Anthropos is the primordial God-Man who inhabits the interior of the earth and at some future time will rise from its depths in a glorious cosmic resurrection. This brings to mind Lovecraft's Cthulhu who lies dreaming under the earth, someday to awake. Then we have Agathodaemon who Jung describes as… "A snake-like, chthonic fertility daemon akin to the 'genius' of the hero." There is also Nous or Naas, who the ancient alchemists referred to as the cold or dark side of nature that they endeavored to lead out of the darkness and towards transformation and perfection. Nous is described as "the old dragon" that prepares the "bath" that represents the waters of the unconscious that can lead mortals to attain to superior consciousness. This could be an interesting alternate description of Nietzsche's Superman or Anton LaVey's Superior Man-- using the beast too attain to a higher level of Humanity.
In alchemy the figure of Mercurius is predominate and is associated with things chthonic. In Mercurius all elements are combined. He is the prima materia or primal chaotic substance of existence. He represents all opposites but they are not yet differentiated, much like the Uroboros snake, which is also a symbol for the prima materia. In her book Androgyny: The Opposites Within, Jungian author June Singer writes, "Mercurius, also called Hermes, is not only the receptacle of the prima materia and the symbol for it, he also is the agent of transformation." Later in the book she writes; "Mercurius is frequently depicted as a hermaphrodite, an image designed to reflect the nature of Divinity, which is 'All in one.'" Jung writes in Psychology and Alchemy that the Greco- Roman, as well as the Babylonian gods of the post-classical age, "were degraded to demons and retired partly to the distant stars and partly to the metals inside the earth. It then transpired that Hermes or Mercurius possessed a double nature being a chthonic god of revelation and also the spirit of quicksilver, for which reason he was represented as a hermaphrodite." Of course the hermaphrodite is a combining of two gods, Hermes and Aphrodite. Jung states, "Mercurius truly consists of the most extreme opposites...".
Other chthonic beings are the Cabiri or chthonic dwarf gods. Of the Cabiri Jung writes, "…they are eternally striving from the depths to the heights and therefore are always found to be both below and above." Bears too, are found to be chthonic beings, representing the dark, concrete merciless shadow. Dragons are a perfect symbol of transformation from the earthly to the "divine" because they combine the chthonic serpent with the wings of a bird. From earth to "divinity." In the earliest mythologies there appear many chthonic deities. In ancient Mesopotamia the Anunnaki were chthonic fertility beings residing in the underworld. Dagon or Dagan was another fertility god from down below, and Enkidu, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, is depicted as a wild primate living as an animal until tamed by a woman. Still, the serpent is the most important figure in this ancient perennial doctrine. Jung states, "Hippolytus, giving an account of the doctrine of the Naasenes (a second century Gnostic sect) says that the serpent dwells in all things and creatures, and that all temples were named after her. Every shrine, he says, every initiation, and every mystery is dedicated to her." The Gnostic Basilides worshipped the god Abraxas; an intimidating figure consisting of a rooster head, a human torso, with serpents for legs. This is an ideal chthonic representation, embracing the depths symbolized by the serpents rising to the human and achieving solar transcendence as depicted by the rooster head. Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust also takes on a chthonic, daemonic appearance when he appears to the magician as a dog. Carl Jung suggests that this recalls the three-headed dog Cerberus who guarded the underworld. But more importantly Mephistopheles chthonic properties are expressed when as the dog he is depicted circling around Faust imitating the Uroboros snake.
A very interesting take on the possible origins of the chthonic myth comes from the work of early twentieth century Sumeroligist L.A. Waddell. In his book The Makers of Civilization in Race and History Waddell, (after poring over many ancient Sumerian, cuneiform texts) suggests that all of the gods of mythology can be traced to the worlds first kings and leaders that had emerged out of Sumeria. Waddell traces the epic battle between good and evil, dark and light, gods and monsters to two cults or cultures that were in continual conflict in those early days: the goat-horned patriarchal solar cult and the serpentine matriarchal lunar cult. It is generally believed that a matriarchal civilization preceded the patriarchal and was later superceded by this solar cult. Waddell had traced this back to an early battle between the armies of the horned- headdress wearing King Sagg or Zat, later to be named Zeus, and the armies of the serpent matriarch Tiawat or Typhon and her son Baldur-Sut or Set.
This could account for the archetypes that represent the chthonic, underworld serpent rising out of the depths of pre-civilized primordial existence to create the first religion and basic civilization. Later, this lunar, serpent cult was conquered by and integrated into the solar culture. This, then, begs the question, Which came first- the archetype or the civilization? These are themes I will explore in a separate work.
3) Chthonic Authors
In a Jungian interpretation of the Marquis DeSade entitled Dark Eros author Thomas Moore relates Sade's fiction to this chthonic world. In Sade's stories the criminals usually have to descend down a dark staircase to an underground dungeon in order to carry out their nefarious deeds, "The power and fear of the cellar or dungeon are chthonic. Reason, on a plane with the surface of life, has its own kind of power and even its own fears. But chthonic places evoke a particular imagination that is not the same as that of ordinary life." Chthonic has an atmosphere that is threatening and alien to the light of day. Sade's stories evoke the earthly desires of the soul. They illuminate the mud, the blood, and the bones that reside beneath the surface. Chthonic means isolation, shunning the light of day and seeking underground chambers and the night. Moore compares this with the artist who isolates himself from the world in order to protect the fruits of his imagination-- his work.
Vampires are chthonic figures, shunning the light of day, venturing to their earthen vessels to sleep as the sun makes its torturous journey across the sky. They awaken only after the sun has set, crawling from their coffins buried in the earth. Moore suggests "…chthonic figures shield themselves from all things solar. So, Sade goes to lengths to provide his libertines with their necessary isolation from ordinary, bright-minded society." Moore goes on to state: "From a chthonic point of view, civilization is a form of repression." Although, Moore states that regular society itself includes many chthonic elements that it prefers to ignore. In particular, psychotherapy in which the patient and therapist are closed away, isolated in a room where "…a client will reveal chthonic aspects of his or her nature." Many of these aspects would be considered criminal and deviant yet, even the most normal citizen has these elements buried deep in his psyche.
In Moore's interpretation, "The most cherished ideas and values of enlightened life threaten chthonic perception. Libertines are liberators of imagination, freeing it from the impositions of civilized thought. Sade shows that we have an erotic attraction to the lower, darker places and to activities proper to that underground place. But in order for these unfamiliar erotic movements to be fulfilled, we have to do something about the assumptions, interpretations, and moral limits that civilization and reason impose or insinuate." This questioning of the moral limits is reminiscent of the Left Hand Path practice of opposite doing wherein the initiate accepts all of those things that are considered base, vile, sick, venal, dangerous, and disgusting according to regular societal standards. This practice is particularly carried out by the Tantric sect Vama-Marg, covered extensively in the writings of contemporary occultist Kenneth Grant. It is even more closely aligned with the Satanic philosophy of the late, great Anton Szandor LaVey whose Church of Satan is dedicated to exploring all the dark corners of the human psyche, particularly those things normally shunned by polite society. Dr. LaVey's stated intention of releasing the powers of the Id for maximum enjoyment is still being beautifully carried out by the members of his church. In fact, the title of Moore's book, Dark Eros, perfectly describes the spirit of LaVey's organization. The Church of Satan possesses the ultimate chthonic philosophy in that it is completely dedicated to indulging in all things of this earth in the here and now. Satan is an ideal chthonic god as he originated from many previous chthonic beings: In Egypt he was known as Set, in Rome, Pan and Bacchus, and in Greece, Dionysus. Satan's abode is Hell; chthonicly underground he has always represented all things carnal, fleshy, and taboo. In LaVey's works (which include the now legendary The Satanic Bible) he describes rituals designed to exercise dark, unpopular, and immoral thoughts; bringing out from under the earth or the unconscious those things long repressed.
Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's famous works of fiction are all based on the chthonic. His god Cthulhu (a name closely resembling the Latin spelling, cthonic) lies dreaming below the earth or under the ocean waiting for his dark initiates to summon him back to the surface. Lovecraft's horrific beings bring a tidal wave of dread, fear and anxiety whenever they appear, much as repressed elements of the human psyche will do. Greatly influenced by the works of Lovecraft is the previously mentioned Typhonian Gnostic, Kenneth Grant. His exploration of the backside of the qabalistic Tree of Life is a notorious chthonic representation. Typhon traditionally represented as the Mother Snake goddess of Egypt (and previously of Sumeria, according to Waddell) and the serpent god of later Greece is the key representative of the dark side of the Tree. Her son, Set makes up the other half of the equation. The underground "tunnels" that are depicted on the backside of the Tree are aptly named after him as the Tunnels of Set. These "tunnels" have been equated with the dark unconscious that we have been exploring in this article. The denizens of this realm are the "evil" Qliphoth; the dark perverted chthonic beings whose characteristics closely resemble the villains of Sade's fiction.
French decadent-writer Georges Bataille is another author that explores chthonic themes. His philosophy and his works of fiction contain themes that relate to the bowels, the guts, and the intestines. All things earthly as opposed to heavenly. In opposition to the ancient sky and sun gods, Bataille proposes a worship of the gods of darkness and of the earth: Demeter, Hecate, and Dionysus. Although these authors are known for exploring the dark, hidden depths of fear and depravity, we must not forget that it is just this sinking into the underworld of the id and the dark unconscious that helps to plant the roots for our ascent.
4) Christ's Shadow
In some of his work Professor Jung attempts to "paganize" the figure of Christ. In many ancient doctrines it is believed that Satan is actually Christ's dark brother. Jung, in equating Mercurius with Satan, writes, "This idea goes back to the conceptions of the Euchites reported in Michael Psellus who believed that God's first son was Satanael and that Christ was the second. However, Mercurius is not only the counterpart of Christ in so far as he is 'the son'; he is also the counter part of the trinity as a whole in so far as he is conceived to be a chthonic triad. According to this view he would be equal to the one half of the Christian Godhead. He is indeed the dark chthonic half, but he is not simply evil as such, for he is called 'good and evil' or 'a system of the higher powers in the lower'. He [Mercurius] calls to mind that double figure which seems to stand behind both Christ and the devil-that enigmatic Lucifer whose attributes are shared by both. In Rev.22: 16 Christ says of himself: 'I am the root and the offspring of David, the bright and morning star.'" That morning star is known, of course, as Lucifer. Many ancient texts have referred to Christ as the serpent of wisdom. He even instructs his followers to "Be ye wise as serpents." Even the ultimate symbol of Christ, the fish, has in the past been synonymous with the serpent. In his book Aion Jung states, "The serpent is an equivalent of the fish. The consensus of opinion interpreted the Redeemer equally as a fish and a serpent; he is a fish because he rose from the unknown depths, and a serpent because he came mysteriously out of the darkness. Fishes and snakes are favorite symbols for describing psychic happenings or experiences that suddenly dart out of the unconscious and have a frightening or redeeming effect. That is why they are so often expressed by the motif of helpful animals. The comparison of Christ with the serpent is more authentic than that with the fish, but, for all that, it was not so popular in primitive Christianity. The Gnostics favored it because it was an old- established symbol for the 'good' genius loci, the Agathodaimon, and also for their beloved Nous. Both symbols are of inestimable value when it comes to the natural, instinctive interpretation of the Christ-figure."
There are many Gnostic and alchemical texts that refer to the serpent as being nailed to a cross. Jung writes of the Christ/Serpent analogy that, "In St. Ambrose the 'Serpent hung on the wood' is a 'typus christi' as is the 'brazen serpent on the cross' in Albertus Magnus. The Christ as Logos is synonymous with the Naas, the serpent of the Nous, among the Ophites. The agathodaimon (good spirit) had the form of a snake, and in Philo the snake was considered to be 'the most spiritual' animal." Jung adds, "The Logos nature of Christ represented by the chthonic serpent is the maternal wisdom of the divine mother." This snake symbol personifies the unconscious in all of its aspects.
Of course the Roman Catholic Church could never accept this doctrine of Christ's dark, serpentine half. Yet still the human psyche, in time, developed the concept of the Anti-Christ. This was an inevitability as the Unconscious must always oppose one side with it's equal yet opposite half. Jung states- "In the ancient world the Gnostics, whose arguments were very much influenced by psychic experience, tackled the problem of evil on a broader basis than the Church Fathers. For instance, one of the things they taught was that Christ 'cast off his shadow from himself.' If we give this view the weight it deserves, we can easily recognize the cut-off counterpart in the figure of the Antichrist. The Antichrist develops in legend as a perverse imitator of Christ's life. He is a true imitating spirit of evil who follows in Christ's footsteps like a shadow following a body. This complimenting of the bright but one-sided figure of the Redeemer-we even find traces of it in the New Testament- must be of special significance. And indeed considerable attention was paid to it."
The Christ figure is so bright that it demands a reflex. That reflex is Satan. The psyche needs this tension; it needs the Adversary. Just as it is said that no tree can reach all the way to heaven if its roots don't also descend into hell, so the Christ myth could not develop naturally if Christ himself did not sink down into Satan's realm. These are natural complementary opposites in balance just as the left hand is to the right. Jung states, "Moreover, it does not damage monotheism in any way, since it unites the opposites just as yang and yin are united in Tao…" And he continues, "For how can you speak of 'high' if there is no 'low', or 'right' if there is no 'left,' of 'good' if there is no 'bad' and the one is as real as the other? Only with Christ did a devil enter the world as the real counterpart of God…" As already mentioned, in some quarters Satan was regarded as Christ's elder brother. This brings to mind the brothers of Egyptian mythology, the bright, solar Horus and again, the dark, evil Set. As Christ was represented as all good and all spiritual so his doppelganger had to appear as material and chthonic. Interestingly, in the twentieth-century the English Magus Aleister Crowley called himself the Great Beast 666 and believed that he was responsible for ushering in a new age of rebellion, paganism and promiscuity. He believed that the Book of Revelations had announced his coming although, Crowley has said, the Apocalypse was not so much a destruction of the earth as a destruction of Christian ideals and civilization. Over the years Crowley's popularity has grown immensely and he has thousands and thousands of disciples even though he has been dead for over fifty years. Whether or not Crowley's vision of a defeated Christian civilization will ever see its day, he certainly seems to represent an embodiment of that dark reflex I have been pointing to.
In his book The Soul's Religion Thomas Moore writes, "At one time people looked deep into and beneath the earth for images of spirituality. The crypt, the cave, the cairn, the well, and the kiva are among the few sacred earth sites that still remains as testimonies to this deep spirituality, sometimes called chthonic. But they also represent our personal experience of the spirit, which may be in the caves and crypts of memory and in powerful bodily emotions. The human soul has been compared to a cave - hidden, dark, mysterious. It's beauty often lies shrouded in emotional haze and mist."
One problem we encounter in the spirituality of this contemporary Western world is a distinct lack of depth or of darkness. Too many people want to immerse themselves in the light and airy, feel-good religions of the New Age movement and refuse to face the dark, evil aspects that have always been part and parcel of all myths and all religions. As Moore suggests, "The deepening of religion - making it earthy and chthonic - is one of the greatest challenges facing religion in the West today. Without depth, religion can become too sweetly spiritual and top-heavy with its focus on higher consciousness and the idealized moral life."
This more earthly religion is once again beautifully represented by Goethe in his Faust. By evoking the devil Mephistopheles, Faust sets himself on a very precarious path. Gnostic scholar Stephan Hoeller writes in The Gnostic Jung, "He [Faust] invokes the spirit of Earth, the amoral, energetic force of nature, which is unfettered by the inhibitions and high-sounding maxims of the intellect. He descends into chaos and tribulation, into the realms beyond the limits of convention and human laws, where the seething magma of raw, transformative energy resides in its unrefined and undiluted state. It is only by way of this commitment to darkness, error, suffering, along with ecstasy, passion and battle, that he attains to his ascent into the realms of light, guided by the transfigured Sophianic spirit of Margaret."
It is precisely this "commitment to darkness" that can heal the split in mans' divided nature. Without the chthonic element of our psyche we are left rootless, non-instinctual, and completely deaf to one half of our being. We, in the West have a long tradition of ignoring (or flat-out rejecting) that which seems to us unholy. It's time to embrace the darkness, sink into our depths, and awaken the sleeping, coiled splendor that lies hidden in our true nature. We need to return to, what I like to call, a Chthonic Gnosticism or a Chthonic Hermeticism and raise an army of Chthonic Gnostics willing to sink into their depths and redress this tremendous imbalance. It is believed by some scholars that the North European paradise known as Valhalla is actually located beneath the earth as a chthonic Eden (as opposed to the more widely believed location in the sky). We can descend into this chthonic realm and enjoy the company of the gods and heroes that reside there. Most importantly one must never forget: Demon Est Deus Inversus.
© Vadge Moore / DISCRIMINATE MEDIA, 2007