Was Chaos the first Greek god?
In the ancient world, Chaos was usually regarded as the first entity to come into existence, and thus the first god. However, there were unorthodox sects and philosophies that viewed Chaos as the offspring of even more ancient beings: for example, the Orphics believed that Chaos was the child of Chronos (“Time”).
Did Chaos create the cosmos?
Though Chaos was usually seen as the very first entity, it was not solely responsible for creation. Rather, two other primordial gods—Gaia and Eros—spontaneously came into existence soon after Chaos. The cosmos was formed from the offspring of both Chaos and Gaia (representing two distinct genealogies).
What did Chaos look like?
Unlike the Titans and Olympians (but like many other primordial gods), Chaos was non-anthropomorphic, meaning it did not have human features. Rather, Chaos seems to have been imagined as a great abyss, chasm, void, or gap between different primordial gods or different parts of the cosmos.
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. Chaos) is presumably derived from the Greek verbs χάσκω (chaskō) and χαίνω (chainō), both meaning “gape, be wide open,” and both themselves related to the Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰeh₂n-, “gape.”1 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.
Χάος (translit. Chaos)
Chaos was sometimes used interchangeably with other Greek words or personifications for the atmosphere, especially Aēr (“Air”).2
The earliest reference to Chaos is found in Hesiod’s Theogony, where it is described simply as the first entity that came into existence.3 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.4
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.5
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,”6 whereas Ovid writes that, before anything else came into existence, Chaos simply “was.”7
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).8
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”).9
According to Hesiod, Chaos independently produced two children: Nyx (“Night”) and Erebus (“Darkness”).10 Nyx and Erebus, in turn, became the parents of many early cosmic entities, among them Aether (“Upper Air”), Hemera (“Day”), and various other personifications.
Hesiod’s genealogy of Chaos appears to have been the standard account in antiquity, but it was not the only one. Later authors gave Chaos a somewhat expanded family. Hyginus, for example, made Chaos the child of Caligo (“Mist”) and wrote that it was with Caligo that Chaos gave birth to Nyx and Erebus as well as Aether and Hemera.11 Other authors also made Eros12 or the Moirae13 the offspring of Chaos.
In one of his plays, the comedian Aristophanes presented an alternative (likely parodic) version of the Theogony in which Chaos, together with Eros, begot the birds.14
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.15
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.16
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.17
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.18
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).19 Plato, similarly, imagined that all things existed in an indeterminate space (chōra), moving in disordered motion before the moment of creation.20 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.21
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.
Hesiod: Chaos’ origins and mythology are described in Hesiod’s Theogony (seventh century BCE).
Aristophanes: In the comedy Birds (414 BCE), there is a scene in which Aristophanes reimagines Chaos’ familiar role in the creation of the cosmos.
Plato: In Timaeus (fourth century BCE), Plato imagines a new philosophical cosmogony centered around a mysterious “Demiurge,” rather than Gaia, Chaos, and the other mythological gods.
Ovid: Chaos appears at the very beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE).
Hyginus: The Fabulae, a Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE), mentions Chaos and its role in the creation.
Caduff, Gian Andrea. “Chaos.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e231340.
Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.
Rose, H. J. “Chaos.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 304. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Smith, William. “Chaos.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed October 11, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DC%3Aentry+group%3D18%3Aentry%3Dchaos-bio-1.
Theoi Project. “Khaos.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Protogenos/Khaos.html.