Chaos was – most Greek cosmologies tell us – the very first of all, the origin of everything, the empty, unfathomable space at the beginning of time. But, it was more than just a gaping void – as its name is usually translated from Ancient Greek. Personified as a female, Chaos was the primal feature of the universe, a shadowy realm of mass and energy from which much of what is powerful (and mostly negative and dark) in the world would stem forth in later genealogies.
Chaos as a Dwelling Place
Even so, Hesiod imagines Chaos as something much more tangible than a bottomless chasm. At one point during the Titanomachy, Zeus casts his thunderbolts at the Titans, and, in the words of the poet, Chaos is “seized by an astounding heat.” Moreover, Hesiod seems even to suggest soon after that Chaos is some kind of a dwelling place, beyond which the Titans live. If so, Chaos would have to be the gloomy middle ground located between Earth and Tartarus – which is where the Titans are banished. Some even say that this is the most sensible cosmological vision of all, since, in addition to Eros, these are the first three deities ever created in Hesiodic cosmogony. If so, they represent the initial way in which Space was split (completed when Gaea gave birth to Uranus, the Sky), with Eros being the driving force of creation.
Chaos as the First Progenitor
However, many others claim that, in the beginning, Chaos was all that there was, the dark majesty and mystery of creation incarnate. And that it was from Chaos that the first three primordial gods sprang forth: the wide-bosomed Gaea (Earth), Tartarus (the Underworld), and Eros (Love), the fairest among the deathless gods. Gaea would go on to become the Mother of Everything Beautiful in the world; Chaos would not be as fortunate. Out of herself, she would give birth to two more children: Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night). True, their sexual union would produce luminous offspring – Aether (the Divine Air) and Hemera (the Day). However, the progeny of Night – Chaos’ daughter feared by Zeus himself – would end up being a string of sinister, ill-starred children.
Chaos in Other Cosmologies
At a later stage in history, speculations of all kinds would arise regarding Chaos’ role in the original creation. First, some would start doubting its primariness, on account of Hesiod singing that even she was born. Out of Darkness or Mist, would say some; out of the union between Chronos (Time) and Ananke (Necessity) would claim others.
Still a third group, grouped around the ritual worship of the mythological poet Orpheus, would devise an even more unique cosmogony. According to them, together with Aether and Erebus, Chaos was one of the three sons of Chronos. She was a master artist who managed to shape an egg from the formless Aether. And out of this egg, Phanes (or Protogenos) came out, a bisexual deity who proceeded to mate with himself to give birth to everything existing.
Softly parodying the story, in his comedy “The Birds,” Aristophanes claims that in the beginning only Chaos, Night, dark Erebus, and deep Tartarus existed. Afterward, Night, impregnated by the wind, laid an egg in Erebus, out of which golden-winged Eros was born. And then, in Tartarus, Eros mated with Chaos, who subsequently gave birth to the race of birds.
Chaos in Philosophy
With the advent of philosophy, Chaos became more of a concept than a deity, described as “a shapeless heap” and “a rude and undeveloped mass” by the Roman poet Ovid. It was then that it started being associated with notions such as confusion and disorder, out of which the modern English term “chaos” derives. But, by that time, metaphorical imagery succumbed to more rational worldviews, and mythology gave way to religion and science.