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The Protogenoi in Greek Mythology

Updated on May 30, 2015
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.

The Primordial Gods of Greek Mythology

The major deities of Ancient Greece can, by enlarge, be put into three main groupings.

Today, the most famous gods of Greek mythology are the 12 Olympian gods, the deities lead by Zeus, who lived on Mount Olympus. In addition to the 12 Olympian gods, there were other siblings and offspring of Zeus, who can be placed in this group.

The Olympian gods were preceded by a second group of gods, the Titans. Led by Kronos, the 12 Titans ruled the Golden Age of Greek mythology, and were the offspring of Gaia and Ouranus.

The third main group was one which contained Gaia and Ouranus, and was a group of primordial deities known as the Protogenoi.

The word Protogenoi can be translated as “first born”, although it is a term in Greek mythology used to encapsulate a range of primordial gods. These Protogenoi were the gods who came into existence at the start of the universe.

Hesiod's Protogenoi

Hesiod’s Theogony is the most often source used when talking of the genealogy of the gods, and in this work, the Greek writer names 11 Protogenoi, of which four came before all others, appearing out of nothingness at the start of time.

Chaos (Gap) – Chaos was nominally a female deity and the first of all Protogenoi. The name can be translated as gap, and the deity would come to represent the earth’s air, or at least the air found between the heavenly air, and the air of the underworld. Despite being the first, Chaos is the least mentioned Protogenoi thereafter.

Gaia (Earth) – Gaia is arguably the most important of all of the Protogenoi, and was the female personification of the planet earth. Gaia would become mother to many deities and characters of Greek mythology, with most of the important gods tracing their lineage back to her. Today, Gaia is still revered by some as “mother earth”.

Eros (Love/Procreation) – Eros was the male god of procreation, and was the deity that ultimately caused the continuation of all forms of life; it was he who was said to have brought Gaia and Ouranus together, bringing forth a long line of gods and goddesses. It depends on the ancient source being read as to whether this Protogenoi was the same deity as acted as an attendant of the goddess Aphrodite.

Tartarus (Hell) – Tartarus was said to be a male deity that represented the hellpit that was said to exist deep beneath the earth; as far beneath the earth as heaven was above. Tartarus was said to be the antipathy of the heaven that existed above. Tartarus would become the prison in which the likes of Tantalos and many Titans were imprisoned; and where eternal torture was enacted.

Nyx and Hypnos

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) PD-art-100
Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) PD-art-100 | Source

These four deities were the first born deities, but Hesiod also names some of their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring, as Protogenoi.

Nyx (Night) – Nyx was the daughter of Chaos, and was the personification of the night time. As she left her dwelling in the underworld, night would commence upon the earth’s surface. Nyx was mother to many important deities, including Nemesis, Thanatos, Hypnos and the Fates.

Erebus (Darkness) – Erebus was the brother-husband of Nyx, and would work hand-in-hand to bring the darkness of night to the world. Erebus would also be regarded as the air or the dark mist that existed throughout the underworld.

Ouranus (Sky/Heaven) – Ouranus was the son of Gaia, and would assume the mantel of first supreme ruler of the cosmos. Feafrul for his position he would imprison his own children, the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires within Tartarus, but Ouranus would eventually be overthrown by his own offspring, the Titans, as led by Kronos.

Pontus (Sea) – The first of Greek mythology’s sea and water gods, Pontus was another male offspring of Gaia. Originally Pontus was associated with the Mediterranean Sea, as this was the only sea known of by the Ancient Greeks. Many other sea and water gods would follow on from Pontus.

The Ourea (Mountains) – The Ourea are the only group of deities within the Protogenoi, and from Gaia, Hesiod would write that ten mountains were born, including Olympus, Athos and Helicon. Each mountain was represented by its own bearded deity and localised nymph.

Aether (Light) – Aether was a third generation Protogenoi, being the son of Nyx and Erebus. In Greek mythology the god would be associated with the air of the heavens; Aether being an antipathy of his father’s air of the underworld.

Hemera (Day) – Sister-wife of Aether, Hemera was the original incarnation of daylight, and her rising brought forth the new day, by scattering the darkness of her mother, and allowing the rays of her brother to shine through. Like Pontus the importance of Hemera was greatly diminished with the emergence of the Titans, including Eos and Helios, and then with the emergence of Apollo.

Pontus

 Dennis Jarvis CC-BY-SA-2.0
Dennis Jarvis CC-BY-SA-2.0 | Source

The Birds by Aristophanes

Other Protogenoi

Whilst Hesiod is the most famous source for the genealogy of the Greek gods, there were many other writers in antiquity writing about the subject, including the likes of Aristophanes. Some of these sources would name other gods as Protogenoi, either as additional gods or as replacement deities.

Chronos and Ananke (Time and Compulsion) – An alternative genealogy that is attributed to Orpheus, although the true author is unknown, sees Chronos and his wife Ananke present at the start of the cosmos. Serpent-like, the pair surround and intertwine with everything that occurs; and ultimately everything else arises from them

Hydros (Water) – Some writers would write of Hydros the Primordial god of all water, a role more far reaching than that of Pontus. Mating with the earth he would create the primordial mud from which much life would emerge.

Phanes (Appearance) – Whilst some ancient sources consider Phanes simply another name for the Protogenoi Eros, others name Phanes as a separate deity associated with birth from a silver egg. Phanes was another “creation” god and the basis for much subsequent life.

Thalassa (Sea Surface) – Thalassa was a daughter of Aether and Hemera, and partnering and mixing with Pontus, would produce all of sea’s life.

Physis (Nature) – Physis is often considered the original Mother Nature, although her role is one that overlaps with Gaia.

Thesis (Creation) – Thesis was another female deity named as a Protogenoi, who was specifically linked with creation.

The Nesoi (Islands) – The Nesoi were a little like the female version of the Ourea; being the islands of the Mediterranean. Later Greek mythology though would say that the islands were simply mountains who had been thrown into the water when Poseidon was in a rage.

Oceanus and Tethys (Salt and Fresh Water) Occasionally Oceanus and Tethys were named as Protogenoi, although it was more commonly said that these two water deities were Titans, offspring of Gaia and Ouranus.

The role of the Protogenoi in Greek mythology was to explain how elements of the known world came into existence, and to personify this process. Ancient Greeks would use such deities to explain the existence of the earth, water and even the air that was breathed.

Chronos and Eros

Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1609–1684) PD-art-100
Johann Heinrich Schönfeld (1609–1684) PD-art-100 | Source

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