Most pagan cultures worshipped some sort of ‘underworld god’ – the Greco-Romans had Hades and Pluto, the Egyptians had Osiris, and later Serapis. These were gods that lived ‘under’ the Earth; they were thought to rule the realm of the dead. Such gods were called ‘chthonic gods’ (kuh-thon-ik’), from the Greek word χθών (gen. χθονός), meaning ‘earth’. This isn’t particularly surprising; death is a powerful force, and it makes sense that pagans, who loved to ‘deify’ everything from sounds to trees to places would include in their pantheon a god who personified death.
It does strike me as odd though, that pagans thought of these chthonic gods as having the power to bestow fruitfulness and prosperity upon their followers. I could understand why a farmer, anxiously hoping for a good harvest, might make sacrifices the gods of rain, sun and agriculture … but the god of death? The god of Hell? And yet, look at the image of Serapis on the right. That oddly shaped hat is a ‘calathos’ or ‘modius’ – a symbol of prosperity. In every day life, it was a receptacle for fruits and goods, but when depicted with a god, it was a symbol of the god’s ability to bestow wealth and prosperity on those who sacrificed to him or her. A modern historian (Turcan) describes Serapis as having:
“the majestic and fearsome [iconographic] aspect of a Pluto, king of Hell and the underworld … his head crowned with a receptacle overflowing with fruit, which symbolises his chthonian omnipotence.”
I cannot be the only one to find this puzzling. Why should the king of the dead, whose cavernous, dark realm was home only to the disembodied, sorrowful shades of the living, have a crown ‘overflowing with fruit?’ What sort of ‘omnipotence’ rightly belongs to a king of such a dark and (for lack of less ironic word) godforsaken place?
It’s a genuinely perplexing question, but there is one, rather disturbing, way to make sense of this odd practice. ‘χθών’ (kh-thon’) means ‘Earth’, but it also implies ‘surface of the earth’. And as we all know, fruits and trees and crops all spring from the surface of the earth. Now, a Christian is not likely to think of the Earth’s fruitfulness as being necessarily related to the fact that it has swallowed up countless corpses and imbibed rivers of blood. And yet, this seems to be the implication of chthonic worship. These dark gods, are the lords of fruitfulness because they are the lords of death. They take the broken, decaying corpses of the living into their cavernous kingdom, digest their flesh and their bones, and turn them into soil for the growing of fruits and harvests.
I should emphasise that this is only speculation – pagans rarely took the time to explain what they thought was happening during sacrifice. But there does seem to be an implicit assumption behind the entire practice of pagan sacrifice: that in order to bestow good things on mortals, mortals must destroy good things in sacrifice to the gods. DB Hart (a Christian) describes the pagan religion rather eloquently as:
“… a great circle of feeding, preserving life through a system of transactions with death. … we fed the gods, who required our sacrifices, and they preserved us from the forces they personified and granted us some measure of their power.”
And how does one make a transaction with death? Well, one adds to death’s kingdom, of course. Which is to say, one kills. There had to be blood or burning; there had to be some form of destruction and consumption. While this is especially true of chthonic sacrifice, it is also seems to be an apt description of almost all pagan sacrifice.
The Christian view of sacrifice, was of course, radically different. The Christian God ‘needed’ nothing. He was infinite in His Goodness, infinite in His love. He did not wait for us to offer Him anything – instead, even while we spat in His face, He offered Himself up, as a sacrifice for us. It would be hard to understate just how radical a reversal this was. (I’d recommend Hart’s brilliant, but wordy, article Christ and Nothing for more on this idea). Christians offer the bloodless sacrifice of Christ’s own flesh and blood – it is bloodless because Christ cannot die. The power of a pagan sacrifice came from the fact that victim was destroyed; but no matter how many times we offer Christ to God the Father in Liturgy, Christ remains as infinitely alive as ever before.
The ancient Easter hymn proclaims that Christ has ‘trampled down death by death’; certainly, this means that we can rise from the dead through Him. But I wonder if this doesn’t also hint at the fact that now, we have been freed from the kingdom of death. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, through His infinite offering of Himself as an eternally satisfactory sacrifice, we are no longer bound in service to the chthonic gods of death and destruction. We have no need to destroy sacrificial victims and drain their blood into the soil in order to make it fertile. We no longer need to impute our sins onto some living creature and then burn it. The gods of death have no hold over us. We do not fear Hades or Serapis or Pluto, because their kingdom cannot hold us; we need nothing from them. Our prosperity does not come from the dark gods below the Earth, but “… from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning.” (James 1:17).
The early Christians called all the pagan gods demons; as evidence for this, Origen cited the fact that they “delight in the blood of victims, and in the smoke odour of sacrifices, and that they feed their bodies on these, and that they take pleasure in such haunts as these, as though they sought in them the sustenance of their lives.” (Contra Celsus, VII.5) We should be thankful that we’ve been freed from the dominion of such dark, cruel masters – Christ has inserted His infinite self into the cycle of death and life that characterises nature, and as Creation is gradually joined to Him, all will become life and nothing will be death. The chthonic demons will be cast out of Creation, into the outer darkness, or lake of fire, or whatever prison awaits them; a place where they can consume no more, where their rapacious hunger will be silenced forever.