30 May 2012

The Chthonic, the Celestial and the Cosmic - Conceptions of Divinity

Supernatural entities are often divided into multiple categories. For instance in Greek mythology, the division between chthonic and Olympian deities (with differing cult practises) is pretty common. Here are some thoughts about such categories, and how one could interpret different types of deities from a more modern perspective.

'Chthonic' refers to beings who are in, some way or another, of the earth. This includes various concepts of an 'underworld' (including Hell itself). It is no great leap to associate such things with the 'darker', more primitive reaches of the human subconsciousness, and the so-called 'Id' in particular.

'Celestial' beings are associated with high places, whether it's a figurative 'heaven', some lofty mountaintop, or even the literal sky. In contrast to chthonic beings, they could be seen as representatives of the 'higher' functions of the human mind, both conscious and subconscious (including perhaps the Ego and the Super-ego, although equating these categories so straightforwardly with these Freudian concepts should not be taken too literally, there is considerable ambiguity and overlap).

(Chthonic and celestial beings are not to be seen as good and evil, or as opposed to each other, even though they might occasionally come into conflict. While chthonic concepts certainly include such things as demons, and our primitive impulses can sometimes be harmful to ourselves and our environment, more often than not they represent necessary forces to our well-being and survival. Likewise the Super-ego that strives for perfection can be just as evil in its restrictiveness as the baser impulses of the Id.)

'Cosmic' entities, on the other hand, are more or less beyond the realm of human understanding. These are the fundamental processes on which the Universe operates. Whether you refer to them as God, Chaos or whatever does not, in the great scheme of things, make much difference, because they are ultimately unknowable and utterly alien.

The first two categories could perhaps together be thought of as 'microcosmic' (although they do not necessarily exist only in the individual) and the third as 'macrocosmic'. Whereas the previous categories are more about the mythology and image of deities, and how we might apply this to a modern understanding of the world and the mind, this division has more to do with the fundamentals of how we understand deities and their role in the universe, i.e. whether they are merely psychological constructs or actual forces of nature. These interpretations aren't mutually exclusive, but one or the other will likely be emphasised in each individual's interpretation of spirituality.

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