In classical mythology, the dreaded deities of the underworld, who are so feared that they usually are nameless and are called only by euphemisms. They often appear in the form of Serpents, which are associated with tombs and death. Chthonic deities originally were ancestral spirits who represented the ghosts of the dead. They were worshipped by propitiation and sacrifice.
As rulers of the underworld, chthonic deities torment souls of the death and reign over chaos, darkness, gloom, and evil spirits (see Demons). As Christianity overtook pagan beliefs, the chthonic deities became associated increasingly with evil and the Devil.
The greatest and most feared chthonic god is Hades, the Greek King of the Dead, who owns a cap that makes the wearer invisible. Hades is uncompassionate but not evil. He seldom leaves his gloomy realm of the underworld. His name became synonymous with Hell. The Romans also associated him with the minerals of the earth and called him Pluto, the god of wealth. Hades rules the underworld with his queen, Persephone. According to myth, Persephone was a lovely maiden of spring, the daughter of Demeter, goddess of corn and the harvest. Hades desired her and one day rose up out of a chasm in the earth in his chariot drawn by black horses, kidnapped her, and took her to the underworld. In her grief, Demeter caused all things on Earth to wither and die. Other gods entreated her to relent, but she refused in anger. Finally, Zeus intervened and ordered Hades, his brother, to return Persephone to Earth. Hades acquiesced but first made Persephone eat a pomegranate seed, which bound her to him forever. As a compromise, Persephone returned to Earth each spring, producing a flowering of the planet, and went back to Hades each fall, causing the death of winter.
Other chthonic entities are the three ERINYES (Furies), called Tisiphone, Megaera, and Alecto, who relentlessly pursued and punished the sinners of the Earth; and Thanatos, god of death, and his brother, the god of sleep. From the god of sleep, the “little death,” issued dreams, which rose up from the underworld in two forms: true dreams, which passed through a gate of horn, and false dreams, which passed through a gate of ivory. The Greeks and Romans placed a great deal of importance on the meaning of dreams, especially information of a prophetic or oracular nature.
The descriptions of the classical underworld are most vivid in the writings of the Roman poet Virgil and the Greek poet Homer. To Homer, the underworld is a shadowy place where nothing is real. To Virgil, it is more realistic, a place where sinners are tormented and the good enjoy rewards and delights. Virgil gave descriptions of the terrain of the underworld, and the means by which souls entered. A path led to two rivers, the first of which was Acheron, the river of woe, which then emptied into Cocytus, the river of lamentation. There, an old boatman named Charon ferried souls across the waters, but only those whose passage was paid, by coins placed upon the lips of the corpses by the living and who were properly buried. Three other rivers separated the underworld: Phlegethon, the river of fire; Styx, the river of the unbreakable oath sworn to by the gods; and Lethe, the river of oblivion or forgetfulness. (Souls returning to Earth to be reborn were required to drink of the waters of Lethe, so that they would not remember their previous lives.)
The gate of Hades is guarded by a three-headed, dragon-tailed dog, Cerberus, whose chief job was to prevent any souls from leaving once inside. Hades himself lived in a huge palace somewhere in the gloom of the underworld, surrounded by cold and wide wastes.
Hecate is a powerful goddess with chthonic associations, who became the patron of magic and Witchcraft. Hecate has three aspects: goddess of fertility and plenty, goddess of the Moon, and queen of the night, ghosts, and shades.
Hecate possesses infernal power, roaming the earth at night with the Wild Hunt, a pack of red-eyed hellhounds and a retinue of dead souls. She is visible only to dogs, and if dogs howl in the night, it means Hecate is about. She is the cause of nightmares and insanity and is so terrifying that many ancients referred to her only as “The Nameless One.” She is the goddess of the dark of the Moon, the destroyer of life, but also the restorer of life. In one myth, she turns into a bear or boar and kills her own son, then revives him to life. In her dark aspect, she wears a necklace made of testicles; her hair is made of writhing snakes, which, as do the snakes of Medusa, petrify those who gaze upon them.
Hecate is the goddess of all Crossroads, gazing in three directions at the same time. In ancient times, sorcerers gathered at crossroads to pay homage to her and such infernal servants as the Empusa, a hobgoblin; the Cercopsis, a poltergeist; and the Mormo, a GHOUL. Three-headed statues of her were set up at many road intersections, and secret rites were performed under a full Moon to appease her. Statues of Hecate carrying torches or swords also were erected in front of homes to keep evil spirits at bay. Many of the heavenly deities of Mount Olympus have chthonic aspects, such as Zeus and Hermes, but are not feared as much as the underworld deities. Hermes, the swift-footed messenger god, escorts the souls of the dead to the underworld, and souls ready to be reborn back to the land of the living. Demeter also has chthonic aspects, because of her relationship with Persephone.