Chaos—also known as ”Abyss” or “Chasm”—was first imagined as a vast, indeterminate void, though it was sometimes seen by later authorities as a confused mass containing the elements of all things. In the common tradition, Chaos represented the original entity of creation or the original state of the cosmos. Gaia (“Earth”) and Eros (“Passion”) came into existence shortly after Chaos but were not its offspring. Acting on its own (without a mate), Chaos begot Nyx (“Night”) and Erebus (“Darkness”). This inaugurated a genealogical line of cosmic entities that, together with the descendents of Gaia, formed the Greek cosmos.
The name “Chaos” (Greek Χάος, translit. Cháos) is presumably derived from the Greek verbs χάσκω (cháskō) and χαίνω (chaínō), both meaning “gape, be wide open,” and both themselves related to the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰeh₂n-, “gape.” The name of the primordial god Chaos is thus best translated into English as “abyss,” “chasm,” “gap,” or “void.”
The cognate English word “chaos,” which suggests a jumbled, disordered mass, represents something very different from the original Greek word.
Chaos Χάος (translit. Cháos)
[KEY-os] /ˈkeɪ ɒs/
Chaos was sometimes used interchangeably with other Greek words or personifications for the atmosphere, especially Aēr (“Air”).
The earliest reference to Chaos is found in Hesiod’s Theogony, where it is described simply as the first entity that came into existence. Hesiod does not tell us anything more about Chaos or its attributes, but its name clearly implies a vast, gaping abyss, chasm, or void. Even the location of Chaos is left vague, but several passages of the Theogony seem to locate it somewhere below the heavens and the earth but above Tartarus.
Much later, Chaos came to be seen as a mixture of the elements of all things. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a poem composed in the early first century CE (some seven hundred years after Hesiod’s Theogony), describes Chaos as
a rude and undeveloped mass,
that nothing made except a ponderous weight;
and all discordant elements confused,
were there congested in a shapeless heap.
This more recent conception of Chaos went on to shape the English cognate “chaos,” which refers to a disordered mass rather than an abyss or chasm (like the original Greek name).
Ancient traditions disagreed on the origins of Chaos: some saw it as having always existed, while others claimed that it was a created being. In Hesiod, for example, Chaos “came to be,” whereas Ovid writes that, before anything else came into existence, Chaos simply “was.”
Chaos was almost always imagined as formless; unlike many of the later Greek gods, it did not possess any human features. Moreover, the fact that Chaos had several children does not necessarily indicate that it was female. Indeed, the Greek name “Chaos” is grammatically neuter (neither masculine nor feminine).
In the most widely accepted tradition, Chaos did not have any parents: it either came into existence spontaneously or had always existed. Only the mysterious Orphics seem to have diverged from this tradition, making Chaos the child of Chronos (“Time”) and Ananke (“Necessity”).
According to Hesiod, Chaos independently produced two children: Nyx (“Night”) and Erebus (“Darkness”). Nyx and Erebus, in turn, became the parents of many early cosmic entities, among them Aether (“Upper Air”), Hemera (“Day”), and various other personifications.
Chaos is the first entity to appear in the standard Greek cosmogony, or “creation myth,” as described in Hesiod’s Theogony:
In truth at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth, and Eros, fairest among the deathless gods, who unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind and wise counsels of all gods and all men within them.
Chaos, then, was the first entity to come into existence, having no parents. The primordial gods Gaia and Eros, who also came into existence spontaneously, emerged shortly thereafter.
Chaos’ children Nyx and Erebus (whom Chaos apparently conceived without a mate) went on to produce a line of cosmic entities that included not only Aether and Hemera but various other personifications as well, such as the Moirae, Nemesis, and Eris.
Together with the descendants of the primordial goddess Gaia (the personification of the earth), Chaos’ descendants formed the Greek cosmos. Interestingly, the genealogies of Chaos and Gaia remained completely separate: neither Chaos and Gaia nor their offspring were typically represented as having children together.
There is evidence for other, more idiosyncratic versions of Chaos. The comedian Aristophanes, for example, gave a strange (and likely parodic) account of the cosmogony in the Birds. Here, Chaos still plays an important role, but there are several disagreements with the standard account known from Hesiod:
At the beginning there was only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus. Earth, the air and heaven had no existence. Firstly, blackwinged Night laid a germless egg in the bosom of the infinite deeps of Erebus, and from this, after the revolution of long ages, sprang the graceful Eros with his glittering golden wings, swift as the whirlwinds of the tempest. He mated in deep Tartarus with dark Chaos, winged like himself, and thus hatched forth our race, which was the first to see the light. That of the Immortals did not exist until Eros had brought together all the ingredients of the world, and from their marriage Heaven, Ocean, Earth and the imperishable race of blessed gods sprang into being. Thus our origin is very much older than that of the dwellers in Olympus. We are the offspring of Eros; there are a thousand proofs to show it. We have wings and we lend assistance to lovers. How many handsome youths, who had sworn to remain insensible, have opened their thighs because of our power and have yielded themselves to their lovers when almost at the end of their youth, being led away by the gift of a quail, a waterfowl, a goose, or a cock.
Notwithstanding Aristophanes’ version of the cosmogony (which should probably be seen as a joke), the standard mythology of Chaos remained relatively stable over time. It changed very little during the seven hundred years separating Hesiod and Ovid, with the notable exception that the gaping, abysmal Chaos was transformed into a “rude and undeveloped mass” (see above). Chaos also increasingly became associated with darkness and gloom, especially the darkness and gloom of the Underworld.
Hesiod’s mysterious Chaos appears to have influenced early Greek philosophers as they began to search for the origins of the cosmos using science and reason rather than religion.
Anaxagoras, for example, wrote about a time when all the elements of the universe were undifferentiated and existed “all together” within the “boundless” (apeiron). Plato, similarly, imagined that all things existed in an indeterminate space (chōra), moving in disordered motion before the moment of creation. Finally, Aristotle returned to and redefined the concept of chaos, understanding the word as referring not simply to an empty void but to a physical substance without which no bodies could exist in space.
These philosophical speculations probably went on to influence the mythology surrounding Chaos. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine where Ovid could have derived the notion of Chaos as a “rude and undeveloped mass” if not from the philosophical ideas of Anaxagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and others.