Chthonic: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the ancient Greek chthonic gods. Not only do we discover several types of ancient sacrifices, but we also gain insight into a typical historical discussion concerning categorization.

Pacts and Sacrifices

Have you ever made a personal deal with yourself or with your God? Plenty of people, when in tough situations, often turn inward and think 'Man, if I could just get out from between this rock and a hard place, I'll start doing X.' It's a pact, a deal, a prayer; a promise to start living a better life or be a better person if the forces that be in the universe could just give you a little nudge in the right direction.

On a smaller scale, it's a sacrifice of sorts to your own personal gods or to yourself. While this sacrifice is personal and often a lifestyle choice - like a promise to start eating healthier or doing charity work - sacrifices in the ancient world were tangible. They could be as harmless as the placing of a plant on an altar, or as grisly as sacrificing a live animal.

In ancient Greece, the chthonic gods required all sorts of sacrifices to be appeased.

What Are the Chthonic Gods?

'Chthonic' is a term used in the study of Greek mythology to classify groups of gods, but exactly who and what are the chthonic gods is still being debated by historians today. Traditionally, the chthonic gods were considered to be solely the gods and monsters of the underworld. Think creatures like the 3-headed dog, Cerberus, which guards the gates of Hades, or Tartarus, the pit below Hades where Zeus imprisoned the Titans.

More and more historians, however, have widened the scope of the chthonic gods. As the term chthonic derives from the Greek word for Earth (chthon), scholars now claim that any earth-bound deity - that is, one that does not typically reside in the sky or on Mt. Olympus - should be considered a chthonic god. This would include deities such as the goddess of agriculture, Demeter, and Dionysius, the god of wine.

Type of Chthonic Gods and Sacrifices

Despite the debate, chthonic gods can be characterized as those that most frequently required earthly sacrifices, often done by the cults of worship devoted to each deity. Below are just a few of the chthonic gods and the usual sacrifices made to each.

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