The gesture of Chthonian Man

by | Nov 27, 2018 | Senza categoria | 0 comments

Reading the book “Morphology of the fairy tale” (Vladimir Propp, 1929), my attention was prompted by some passages of 20th century European popular literature, in which we can find the same conception of the tripartite universe (or quadripartite) that according to the scholar Dumezil constitutes the cosmological and social foundation of European civilizations at least since the fifth millennium BC.
In the fairy tale of Brunella, for example, the breaking of the cosmic levels puts the community of the living in direct communication with the world of the dead, to whom the function of “helpers from the other world” is recognized. The hand of the deceased mother who stretches out of the grave, the tree planted on the grave, the bird perched on the tree, a well known symbol of the soul of the deceased, express the belief, still alive in the popular tradition, that the deceased could cross the threshold that separates them from the world of the living and enter into communication with their descendants. In Finland, on the day of the dead, each family deposited luminous candles and offers of food on the surface of the rocks, some of which were covered by rock carvings, in the belief that the dead came from the afterlife to meet their relatives. (J. Hautala, Survivals of the Cult of Sacrifice Stones in Finland, Temenos, 1965).

Naquane, Capodiponte, Rock 35. The image portrays  the bust, arms, and head of an anthropomorph in the pose of the Chthonian Man. It would be wrong to think that the representation of this body, which lacks the lower part, is incomplete. In fact, as Claude Berard highlighted when speaking of this type of representation in the Greek repertoire, the image captures the precise moment when the entity exceeds, but only with the upper part of the body, the thin veil that separates the earthly dimension from the one below. Only the upper part of the anthropomorph is thus visible because the body has not yet completely emerged from the earth.

Using an “Archeology of knowing” procedure (see post 6), the data provided by stories and popular traditions are an interesting contribution to the understanding of some prehistoric images. I refer above all to the anthropomorphic figures who, assuming particular postures, take on the role of mediators between man and the regions of the Cosmos.

anodos 3

Attic vase (Valle Trebbia, VI century BC) Some silen (spirit of the woods and wild nature) beat the earth with heavy bats recalling to the surface Persephone, the queen of the underworld and goddess of fertility who, after spending the autumn and winter in the underworld, reappears in spring to restore life to the world.

In the Western tradition are told many stories that speak about sacred spaces, such as the surface of some rocks or a rift in the ground, which Claude Berard calls “chthonian passages”, where there is a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the figurative imaginary the work of mediation between man and the underground world, place of the seeds and the dead, is conducted by the Chthonian Man with his arms pointing downwards.

stele felsinea 130

One of most interesting exemple of “anodos”  is represented on the Stele of Bologna nr. 130 (5th century BC), in which a warrior faces a being with a human torso, head, and arms, snake-tail legs spilled out of the ground (from Morigi Govi and Vitali, The Archaeological Museum of Bologna, 1982).

The rituals performed in these places had a dual purpose: on the one hand, through gesture, dance, music, men addressed to the deity a request for prosperity and fertility; on the other, in some cases it was necessary to protect the community from negative entities that, after crossing the threshold, disturbed the life of the community, causing drought, ruin, and poorness. The iconography has provided us with a good number of examples that confirm our hypotheses on the beliefs of prehistoric man. On many engraved rocks of Valcamonica are represented warriors armed with shield and spear (with the cusp facing down to the ground) in a guard position near symbols such as the spiral, the concentric circle, the cup mark, or near a fracture in the rock, elements that indicate the presence of a chthonian passage.

 Some stories dating back to the most ancient Western tradition also describe man’s concern for the occurrence – in the most delicate moments of the year, when the time comes to bury the seeds or collect the harvest – of the ascent from the underworld to the human one of spirits good or infernal entities.

guerrieri con lancia r12

The rituals that took place in these sacred spaces, therefore, had a twofold purpose: on the one hand, through gesture, dance, music, men asked the spirits good protection, prosperity, and fertility; on the other, in certain situations it was necessary to protect the community from those infernal entities that, after having crossed the threshold, disturbed the life of the community, causing drought, ruin, and hunger.

seradina 12

In the rock engravings of Valcamonica, the Chthonian Man is often represented. On the rock 12 of Seradina, a group of anthropomorphs repeats the gesture carried out by an entity of much greater dimensions, with a great phallus, large hands, and large feet, elements that denote its nature of being superior.

aratura e uomo cosmico

A plowing scene by Seradina (Capodiponte) shows a plow pulled by two horses, driven by a plowman and followed by a group of diggers. The scene witnesses both the warrior who exercises his function as a defender of the earth from possible incursions of spirits (very close to the Roman dance of the Salii priests), and the anthropomorph in the pose of the Chthonian Man who invites the spirits of the land to be propitious for the future harvest.

La Danza delle Origini

Versione cartacea

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi


C’era una volta il Torchio

Versione digitale

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi


L’ Albero del Tempo

Versione digitale

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi



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