Monday, February 22, 2016


Olympians versus Chthonians

W.K.C. Guthrie (1906-1981), The Greeks and Their Gods (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950; rpt. 1956), pp. 221-222:
The forms of cult provide a valuable test. By this test we can detect no sharp line of cleavage within the chthonioi themselves, whereas it throws into high relief the contrast between them and the Olympians. Here are some typical differences, which I offer with the proviso (to forestall captious criticism) that strict logic and the absolute rule have no more place here than in any other phenomena of Greek or any other religion. We are speaking, as Aristotle would say, of what happens "either always or for the most part".1

i. Name for the act of sacrifice: θύειν for the Olympians, ἐναγίζειν for the chthonians.2

ii. Method: animal killed with throat upward for Olympians, downward for chthonians (so that blood may most easily soak into the earth).3

iii. Type of altar: for Olympians the high-built βῶμος, for the chthonians a low altar called ἐσχάρα (hearth), or else no altar at all, but the sacrifice performed into a pit or trench (βόθρος). In either case the purpose is to make the offering immediately accessible to those beneath the earth.4

iv. Choice of victim: (a) Colour—for Olympians white, for chthonians black. So Odysseus to Teiresias in the Odyssey. There certainly seems to have been exceptions to this, but it is what the ancients themselves say, and must have expressed at least a preference.5 (b) Species. The ram is the usual offering to the chthonians, also the pig, which had particular associations with sacrifices of expiation and purification, and was therefore the victim offered to Demeter in the Eleusinian mysteries.6 The ox which was usually offered to Olympians was absent. It may be added that as well as animal victims "bloodless offerings," e.g. of honey or [p. 222] the fruits of the earth, were commonly made to the powers of the earth.

v. Type of shrine: for Olympians the familiar classical temple, above ground and often on a height; for the chthonians a subterranean cave or adyton, which may or may not have represented a tomb.

vi. Time of day: sacrifice to the Olympians was performed in the morning sunshine, to the chthonians in the evening or at dead of night.1

vii. We may add, on the authority of Picard,2 the gesture employed in prayer: the hand raised, palm upward, to the Olympians, and lowered with the palm downward to invoke the powers of the earth.

1 Cf. on this A.D. Nock, "The Cult of Heroes" (Harv. Theol. Rev. xxxvii (1944) 141 ff.).

2 Cf. esp. Hdt. ii, 44 (referring to the unique double aspect of Herakles, as Olympian god and as hero): τῷ μὲν ὡς ἀθανάτῳ Ὀλυμπίῳ δὲ ἐπωνυμίην θύουσι, τῷ δὲ ἑτέρῳ ὡς ἥρωι ἐναγίζουσι.

3 Ch. Picard in Rev. de l'Hist. des Rel. cxiv (1936), 157.

4 Od. xi, 25 ff.; Ap. Rhod. iii, 1032 ff., for sacrifice ἐς βόθρον in the one case to the shades, in the other to Hekate. Archaeological evidence for sacrificial pits is plentiful. See P. Stengel, Griechischen Kultusaltertümer (Munich, 3rd ed., 1920), p. 16, and for ἐσχάραι pp. 15 ff.

5 Stengel, o.c., p. 151.

6 Cf. p. 193 above, and Aristophanes, Peace, 374:
ἐς χοιρίδιόν μοί νυν δάνεισον τρεῖς δραχμάς·
δεῖ γὰρ μυηθῆναί με πρὶν τεθνηκέναι.
[p. 222]

1 Stengel, o.c., p. 150.

2 Ch. Picard, "Le geste de la prière funèraire en Grece et in Étrurie," Rev. Hist. Rel. cxiv (1936), 137 ff.

3 Ap. Rhod. iii, 1029 ff.
Related post: The Thirsty Dead.

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