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The God Chaos in Greek Mythology

Updated on December 15, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Today, when most people talk about chaos, they are talking about disorder or disarray, in Ancient Greece though, when people talked of Chaos they could well have been talking about a god with that name.

Chaos of course is not a well known deity of the Greek pantheon, and most people will think of Greek gods in terms of Zeus and other gods of Mount Olympus. Zeus and the other Olympian gods though, were latecomers to the wider Greek pantheon.

Zeus' Ancestors

A basic family tree of Zeus will see the supreme god of Mount Olympus, named as the son of Kronos, the supreme god amongst the Titans; the Titans being the rulers of the cosmos usurped by Zeus and his siblings.

Kronos, and the other Titans, were the offspring of the preceding supreme deity and god of the sky, Ouranos; and Ouranus was the son of mother earth, the primordial deity, Gaia.

Chaos

Workshop of George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) PD-art-100
Workshop of George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) PD-art-100 | Source

The Primordial Deities of Ancient Greece

In the Theogony, the Greek poet Hesiod would name Gaia as one of the four original primordial gods and goddesses, a group collectively known as the Protogenoi. The other Protogenoi, aside from Gaia, being Eros (love), Tartarus (underworld) and Chaos; of the four, Hesiod would also write that Chaos came into existence first.

Chaos would be portrayed as a female deity, but she would have no physical form, and instead was considered to be the vast nothingness that came into existence at the very start of time. Thus, according to Hesiod, Chaos had no parents.

The Theogony, written in 700BC, is a primary source, and one of the few works form the period that survives intact into the modern day. The Theogony is the genealogy of the gods, but Hesiod’s timeline of the gods is not the only one.

Fragments of other works from antiquity, name Chaos as an offspring of Chronos, the god of time, and Ananke, the goddess of inevitability.

The Creation

James Tissott (c1896-1902) PD-art-100
James Tissott (c1896-1902) PD-art-100 | Source

Descendants of Chaos

Taking Hesiod’s lineage of the gods though, Chaos would become parent to the goddess of the night, Nyx, and the god of darkness, Erebus.

Hesiod would specifically state that Gaia, Eros, and Tartarus were born in the same way as Chaos, although alternative sources would name these three other primordial gods as children of Chaos.

The name Protogenoi means “first born”, and in total Hesiod would name nine Protogenoi; Chaos, Tartarus, Eros and Gaia, Nyx and Erebus (the offspring of Chaos), Hemera and Aether (the offspring of Nyx and Erebus), Ouranus, Pontus and the Ourea (the offspring of Gaia).

The word Protogenoi therefore becomes a misnomer, with Hemera and Aether being grandchildren of Chaos, and therefore hardly “first born”.

The Fates

E Vedder PD-art-100
E Vedder PD-art-100 | Source

The Role of Chaos in Greek Mythology

In English, the name Chaos can be translated as meaning “gap”, and in later Greek mythology this was a role that the goddess would fill. Aether was considered to be the air of the heavens, whilst the dark and foreboding air of the underworld was Erebus; and the gap in between was filled with air that was Chaos.

Chaos is not a goddess who is referred to a great deal in surviving texts, but the deity is considered to be a goddess of fate, in much the same way that her daughter Nyx, and granddaughters, the Fates (the Moirai), were.

Centuries later, the ideas of Hesiod, and other Greek poets, were expanded on by the Roman poet, Ovid. Ovid would write that all of the elements, therefore, earth, air, water and fire, came forth from Chaos, and so ultimately everything was derived from the goddess.

So, whilst today, chaos means disorder and disarray, in antiquity Chaos meant the source of the whole natural order of the cosmos.

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