The Italian philosopher Agamben takes us on a poetic and etymological journey back to antiquity to finally bring us back to our coronaviral present. The future has an ancient heart
The 'Venus of Willendorf', a statuette from the Upper Palaeolithic that probably represents Mother Earth
In classical Greek, the earth has two names, which correspond to two distinct if not opposite realities: ge (or gaia) and chthon. Contrary to a theory widespread today, human beings not only inhabit Gaia, but they first interact with Chthon, which in some mythical narratives takes the form of a goddess, whose name is Chthonìe, Chthonia. Thus the theology of Pherecydes of Syros initially lists three divinities: Zeus, Chronos and Chthonìe and adds that “Chthonìe was given the name of Ge, after Zeus gave her the earth (gen) as a gift”. Even if the identity of the goddess remains undefined, Ge is here an accessory figure with respect to it, almost a secondary name of Chthonìe. No less significant is that in Homer humans are defined with the adjective epichtonioi (Chthonians, located on chthon), while the adjective epigaios or epigeios refers only to plants and animals.
The fact is that chthon and ge name two aspects of the earth as if they were geologically antithetical: chthon is the outer face of the underworld, the earth from the surface downwards, ge is the earth from the surface upwards, the face that the earth turns towards the sky. This stratified diversity corresponds to the diversity of practices and functions: chthon cannot be cultivated nor can it be nourished, it lives outside the city/countryside contradiction and is not a commodity that can be owned; ge, conversely, as the eponymous Homeric hymn emphatically recalls, “nourishes all that is on chthon” (epi chthoni) and produces the crops and goods that enrich humans: for those whom ge honors with benevolence, “the furrows of the lands that give life are laden with fruit, in the fields the cattle thrive and the house is filled with riches and they govern with just laws the cities of beautiful women”(v.9–11).
Pherecydes’ theogony contains the earliest evidence of the relationship between Ge and Chthon, between Gaia and Chthonia. A fragment preserved for us by Clement of Alexandria defines the nature of their bond by specifying that Zeus is married to Chthonìe, and, when, according to the wedding rite of the anakalypteria, the bride takes off her veil and appears naked to the groom, Zeus covers her with «A large and beautiful mantle», in which «he embroidered Ge and Ogeno (Ocean) with various colors». Chthon, the underworld, is therefore something abysmal, which cannot show itself in its nakedness and the garment with which the god covers it is none other than Gaia, the upper earth. A passage from Porphyry’s Cave of the Nymphs informs us that Pherecydes characterized the chthonic dimension as depth, “speaking of recesses (mychous), ditches (bothrous), caverns (antra)”, conceived as doors (thyras, pylas) that souls cross in birth and death. The earth is a double reality: Chthonìa is the shapeless and hidden ground that Gaia covers with its variegated embroidery of hills, flowery countryside, villages, woods and flocks.
Even in Hesiod’s Theogony the earth has two faces. Gaia, “firm base of all things”, is the first creature of Chaos, but the chthonic element is evoked immediately after and, as in Pherecyde, is defined with the term mychos: “the dark Tartarus deep in the earth with wide (mychoi chthonos eyryodeies)”. Where the stratigraphic difference between the two aspects of the earth appears most clearly is in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Already at the beginning, when the poet describes the scene of the abduction of Persephone while picking flowers, Gaia is evoked twice, in both cases as the flowery surface that the earth turns towards the sky: “the roses, the crocuses, the beautiful violets in a tender meadow and the irises, hyacinths and daffodils that Gaia allows to grow according to the will of the god”… “at the perfume of the flower all the sky above and the earth smiled”. But just in that instant, “from the vast paths opened wide (chane) in the plain of Nisio, chthon and the lord of many guests emerged (orousen) with his immortal horses”.
That it is a movement from the bottom towards the surface is emphasized by the verb ornymi, which means “arise, rise”, as if from the chthonic depth of the earth the god emerged on Gaia, the face of the earth that looks towards the sky. Later, when Persephone herself tells Demeter about her abduction, the movement is reversed and instead gaia (gaia d’enerthe koresen) opens up, so that “the lord of many guests” could drag her underground with his golden chariot (vv. 429–31). It is as if the earth had two doors or openings, one that opens from the depths towards Gea and one that leads from Gea into the abyss of Chthonia.
Central part of a large floor mosaic, from a Roman villa in Sentinum (now known as Sassoferrato, in Marche, Italy), ca. 200–250 C.E. Aion, the god of eternity, is standing inside a celestial sphere decorated with zodiac signs, in between a green tree and a bare tree (summer and winter, respectively). Sitting in front of him is the mother-earth goddess, Tellus (the Roman counterpart of Gaia) with her four children, who possibly represent the four seasons.. Glyptothek, Munich
In reality it is not two doors, but a single threshold, which belongs entirely to chthon. The verb that the hymn refers to Gaia is not chaino, to open wide, but choreo, which simply means “to make room”. Gaia does not open, but makes room for Proserpina’s transit; the very idea of a passage between the top and the bottom, of a depth (profundus: altus et fundus) is intimately chthonic and, as the Sibyl reminds Aeneas, the door of Dite is first of all turned towards the underworld (facilis descensus Averno…). The Latin term corresponding to chthon is not tellus, which designates a horizontal extension, but humus, which implies a downward direction (cf.humare, to bury), and it is significant that the name for man was taken from it (hominem appellari quia sit humo natus). That man is “human”, that is terrestrial, in the classical world does not imply a link with Gaia -- the surface of the earth that looks at the sky -- but more than that an intimate connection with the chthonic sphere of depth.
That chthon evokes the idea of an opening and a passage is evident in the adjective that in Homer and Hesiod constantly accompanies the term: eyryodeia, which can be translated “from the broad way” only if one does not forget that odos implies the idea of the transit towards a destination, in this case the world of the dead, a journey that everyone is destined to make (it is possible that Virgil, writing facilis descensus, remembered the Homeric formula).
Entrance to the Mundus, aka Umbilicus Urbis Romae (Navel of the City of Rome), on the Forum Romanum
In Rome, a circular opening called mundus, which according to legend was excavated by Romulus at the time of the city’s foundation, connected the world of the living with the chthonic world of the dead. The opening, closed by a stone called manalis lapis, was opened three times a year, and in those days it was said that mundus patet, the world is open, and “the occult things hidden from the religion of the Manes were brought to light and revealed”, almost all public activities were suspended. In an exemplary article, Vendryes showed that the original meaning of our term “world” is not, as has always been claimed, a translation of the Greek kosmos, but derives precisely from the circular threshold that opened the “world” of the dead. The ancient city is founded on the “world” because men dwell in the opening that unites the celestial and underground earth, the world of the living and the dead, the present and the past; it is through the relationship between these two worlds that it becomes possible for them to guide their actions and find inspiration for the future.
Not only is man linked in his own name to the chthonic sphere, but also his world and the very horizon of his existence border on the recesses of Chthonia. Man is, in the literal sense of the term, a being of the deep.
Journey into the Etruscan underworld
A chthonic culture par excellence is the Etruscan one. Those who walk through the scattered necropolises in the countryside of Tuscia [Roman name of Etruria, today’s Tuscany, parts of Umbria and Lazio, Transl. Note] immediately perceive that the Etruscans lived in Cthonia and not Gaia, not only because what remains of them is essentially those things related to the dead, but also and above all because the sites they chose for their abodes — calling them cities is perhaps improper — as even if they appear on the surface of Gaia, they are in reality epichthonioi, that is, they are at home in the vertical depths of chthon. Hence their taste for caverns and recesses carved into the stone, hence their preference for high fjords and gorges, the steep walls of peperino that plummet towards a river or a stream. Anyone who has suddenly found himself in front of Cava Buia near Blera or in the streets buried in the rock at S. Giuliano knows that he is no longer on the surface of Gaia, but certainly ad portam inferi [entrance to the underworld], in one of the passages that penetrate the slopes of Cthonia.
This unmistakably underground character of Etruscan places, when compared to other districts of Italy, can also be expressed by saying that what we have before our eyes is not really a landscape. The affable, usual landscape that crosses the horizon and the gaze embraces serenely belongs to Gaia: in the chthonic verticality every landscape disappears, every horizon disappears and gives way to the brutal and inscrutable face of nature. And here, in the rebellious canals and chasms, we would not know what to do with the landscape, the countryside is more unforgiving and inflexible than any pious scenery — at the gate of Dis [the underworld] the god became so dreadful and stern as to require no further religion.
It is for this unshakable chthonic dedication that the Etruscans built and watched over the homes of their dead with such diligence and not, as one might think, the other way around. They did not love death more than life, but life was inseparable for them from the depth of Cthonia; they could inhabit the valleys of Gaia and cultivate the countryside only if they never forgot their true, vertical home. For this reason, in tombs carved into the rock or in mounds we do not only have to deal with the dead, we not only imagine the bodies lying on the empty sarcophages, but we also perceive the movements, gestures and desires of the living who built them. Life is all the more lovable the more tenderly it keeps within itself the memory of Cthonia; it is possible to build a civilization without ever excluding the sphere of the dead; there is between the present and the past and between the living and the dead an intense community and uninterrupted continuity — this is the legacy that this people has passed on to humanity.
Head of Chthonian Dionysos, Greek terracotta from 400 B.C., found in Tarentum, South Ital. MFA Boston
In 1979, James E. Lovelock, an English chemist who had actively collaborated on NASA’s programs for space exploration, published Gaia: a New Look at Life on Earth. At the core of the book is a hypothesis that an article written with Lynn Margulis five years earlier in the journal Tellus had anticipated in these terms: “the set of living organisms that make up the biosphere can act as a single entity to regulate the chemical composition, the superficial pH and perhaps also the climate. We call the Gaia hypothesis the conception of the biosphere as an active system of control and adaptation, capable of keeping the earth in homeostasis.” The choice of the term Gaia, which was suggested to Lovelock by William Golding — a writer who had masterfully described the perverse vocation of humanity in the novel Lord of the Flies — is certainly not accidental: as the article specifies, the authors identified the limits of life in the atmosphere and were interested “only to a lesser extent in the internal limits constituted by the interface between the internal parts of the earth, not subject to the influence of surface processes” (p. 4). No less significant, however, is a fact that the authors do not seem — at least at that time — to consider, that is, that the devastation and pollution of Gaia reached their maximum level just when the inhabitants of Gaia decided to draw the energy necessary for their new and growing needs from the depths of Chthonia, in the form of that fossil remnant of millions of living beings in the distant past – the substance that we call oil.
According to all evidence, the identification of the limits of the biosphere with the surface of the earth and with the atmosphere cannot be maintained: the biosphere cannot exist without the exchange and “interface” with the chthonic thanatosphere, Gaia and Cthonia, the the living and the dead must be thought of together. What has happened in modernity is, in fact, that men have forgotten and removed their relationship with the chthonic sphere, they no longer inhabit Chthon, but only Gaia. But the more they eliminated the sphere of death from their life, the more their existence became unlivable; the more they lost all familiarity with the depths of Chthonia, reduced like everything else to an object of exploitation, the more the lovely surface of Gaia was progressively poisoned and destroyed. And what we have under our eyes today is the extreme drift of this removal of death: to save their lives from a supposed, confused threat, men renounce everything that makes it worth living. And in the end Gaia, the earth without more depth, which has lost all memory of the underground abode of the dead, is now entirely at the mercy of fear and death. From this fear only those who will find the memory of their double abode will be able to heal, who will remember that human is only that life in which Gaia and Chthonia remain inseparable and united.
The nightmare of Persephone
Music - Manos Chatzidakis
Lyrics - Nikos Gatsos
Singer - Maria Farantour