adj. Â /â€™kÎ¸É’nÉªk/
Of or relating to the underworld.
From the Greek chthonius (in/beneath the earth), from chthÅn (earth).
Appropriately enough for an adjective pertaining to the underworld, â€˜chthonicâ€™ is capable of provoking fear at first glance: like phthonos, syzygy, Houellebecq or Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, it can seem unpronounceable to the unwary English speaker. Â To make things still more complicated, the pronunciation depends which side of the Atlantic youâ€™re on. Most British English speakers will pronounce the initial â€˜kâ€™ sound, whereas most American speakers leave it silent, like the â€˜kâ€™ in â€˜knightâ€™ or the final â€˜mâ€™ in â€˜Mitt Romney is a Mormonâ€™.
Chthonic can be traced directly back to the Ancient Greek chthÅn/khthon (in which, if it helps, the initial â€˜kâ€™ sound was definitely pronounced). Ancient Greek was richer than modern English in words for â€˜earthâ€™ (and â€˜loveâ€™): Â chthÅn referred to the deities beneath the surface of the ground, while gaia referred to Earth itself. Imagine David Lynchâ€™s opening sequence to Blue Velvet, the sudden plunge from manicured lawn on perfect summerâ€™s day to the voracious insects in the darkness beneath, as a plunge from gaia to chthÅn. From the same Greek root, we get the noun autochthon and the adjective autochthonous, both referring to a native inhabitant of an area.
It should surprise no one to discover that a word with roots in the underworld is used primarily by sci-fi and horror writers today. In its entry for chthonic, Michael Quinionâ€™s World Wide Words blog cites Anthology, Piers Anthonyâ€™s first collection of short stories:
Like the rumble of a volcano it came, throbbing up from the fundament, pressuring chthonic valves, gathering into an irresistible swell.
Chthonic also happens to be the name of Taiwanâ€™s foremost metal band (when not clad in corpse paint, lead singer Freddy Limâ€™s other job is Chairman of the Taiwanese branch of Amnesty International), and serious horror fans should quickly make the connection between chthonic and H.P. Lovecraftâ€™s Cthulhu mythos. Cthulhu, a monster/deity with claws, wings and the head of an octopus, first appeared in The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1928. The lazily-spelt Call of Ktulu is the title of an instrumental on Metallicaâ€™s album Ride The Lightning, while Cthulhu Dawn was recorded by Suffolk pseudo-satanists Cradle of Filth in 1999.
Not that you have to dress in leather and wear corpse paint to know what chthonic meansâ€¦ Camille Paglia tried to claim the word for feminist literary theory in Sexual Personae. Reviewing the book for The New Criterion, Roger Kimball defined â€˜the chthonicâ€™ as â€˜that anonymous, primevally generative impulse out of which life endlessly arises and back into which it ineluctably sinks.â€™ According to Kimball, Pagliaâ€™s use of chthonic echoes the writing of the pioneering Hellenist/feminist/linguist Jane Harrison.
Jung, too, wrote (in English translation) of the â€˜chthonic spiritâ€™, which â€˜manifests itself as a spirit of evil, as a drive to destroy.â€™ Jungâ€™s chthonic spirit is close to what Freud described in German as â€˜das Esâ€™ (â€˜the itâ€™), the term which has passed into English as the Id due solely to an over-elaborate translation from James Strachey.
More recently, the Canadian poet David Zieroth mentions rats â€˜unleashed from the mocking chthonic godsâ€™. Â Andrew Norton, the (on and off) narrator of Iain Sinclairâ€™s Dining on Stones, describes a â€˜caduceus tie-pinâ€™ left to him by his great-grandfather: â€˜Was this miraculous survivor, Babylonian fragment among craters and future walkways, a Crowleyite token from the chthonic city?â€™
â€˜Crowleyiteâ€™ points in the direction of Aleister Crowley, the occultist who feuded with W.B. Yeats, a fellow member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Crowley was a part-time poet (translated into Portuguese, following a lengthy written correspondence, by Fernando Pessoa) but is now remembered for founding his own religious order (making sure to include large numbers of female â€˜sex magick practitionersâ€™) and calling himself â€˜The Great Beast 666â€™. Crowleyâ€™s occultism has been described in numerous books, including â€” to bring things full circle â€” Vadge Mooreâ€™s recent Chthonic: Prose & Theory. Vadge Moore is, unsurprisingly, a nom de plume: the man behind the pen-name is Tim Madison, a member of Atlanta-based band Chthonic Force.