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? Continue reading