Thursday, 14 February 2013

Olympian vs Chthonian

Can our ideas of Olympians be modern ramblings? 

Todays posting will be a little different. As I’m focusing on the two groups that are meant to split Greek deities, I won’t be focusing on Athena. Olympian gods are the twelve deities that reside on mount Olympus. In contrast chthonian are gods of the earth. This appears quite clear cut, until you begin the slice into it a little more. For example Zeus, king of the god’s offers two extreme sides depending on his form, being worshipped as both by the Greeks. In this case, can all gods be both Olympian and Chthonian. I don’t believe they can. Surely thinking of Apollo, the god of the sun, some deities must be solely one or the other where as others can interchange beneath the two. That is not the recipe for defining categories. It is the recipe for unnecessary confusion.

Hades is surely the epitome of a chthonian deity as he literally resides below the earth, but does this make him solely chthonic? He arguably still has Olympic connections as the brother of Zeus. What is it that makes an Olympic deity? Is it birth or lifestyle (so to speak)? Perhaps the idea of chthonic gods could be a distinct category but to determine which deities are Olympians is arguably too loose. Perhaps the notion of dividing the gods into two groups is far too simplistic. One thing we have learnt over the past weeks is that the gods are far from simple- whether that is understanding polytheism or what is a gods true form- the gods are always complex. It seems to me that we have created these divisions in order to try and create some kind of order to a messy topic.

As you grow up you only hear of ‘majestic’ Greek gods such as Athena, Zeus and Poseidon. This is true of schooling and often also in popular culture (I certainly grew an initial interest in Greek gods thanks to Disney’s Hercules!) So when you delve deeper into the subject and you come across a vast amount of ‘new’ deities, you automatically see them as lesser gods…when they just aren’t. It is interesting to think about how much we buy into an idea of Greek religion that WE want to have, rather than what it actually was. We somehow add Christianised views into Greek religion, for example we satanise Hades as the god of the underworld, which is absolutely unnecessary. (Once again in popular culture, Hades is depicted to be like Satan, with fire hair and demons are helpers) By trying to create a clear divide, are we subconsciously creating the idea that Olympians are good and chthonian bad? This is of course a ridiculous notion.
Disney's Hades with yellow eyes, sharp teeth and fiery hair
was the villain in their adaptation of Hercules. 

A traditional view of approaching this topic was to look at sacrifice. Broadly speaking the two distinct groups, were worshipped and sacrificed for in two distinct ways:

Rituals in sunlight
Rituals at night
White victims
Black victims
Sacrifice on high alter
Sacrifice on low hearth/pit
Victims throat up to the sky
Victims throat directed downward
Burning of bones, consuming meat
Consuming everything
Music and good moods
Silence and sombreness
Libations for gods/worshipers
Libations poured into the earth

This appears to create a clear-cut distinction, which would open me to the idea of these two groups, if this notion of two ways of worship hadn’t been contested in recent years (the Oresteia refers to an alter being used for both groups.) There is increasing evidence of the two blurring together. And so if you can’t have Olympian/chthonic sacrifice divisions…can you have Olympic/chthonic god divisions? Parker says, “…the divine world does not fall into two unconnected halves.” (p.39)Which is by far supported by all of my previous posts discussing how the Greek world of deities was a connecting network. This idea of a complex system of intertwining gods cannot be challenged by such a simplified and Christianised view that is far too neat. 


  1. why wouldn't all the deities run as both olympian and chtonic? apollo sinks below the horizon. hades rose from the underworld on a few occasions. if i recall correctly, zues ventured into the underworld once or twice, not to mention the assorted animals he took the shape of whilst running around mating with humans. it may be that each of the deities have both a lighter and darker aspect, even if unequal. the god of christianity was a dark and vengeful god in the writings of jews and in the christian old testament. and of course the female aspect (the holy spirit) in a patriarchal society is completely glossed over. a sociological look of the ancient greeks may shed light upon the theological disparity.

  2. Thanks for this! I'm currently writing a dissertation on Hekate and I was struck by another example of this sort of blurring. Like you've stated chthonic deities tend to be given black animals but in Aristophanes Attributed Fragments it asks if they bought for Hekate a 'white puppy'