Chaos (Ancient Greek: χάος, romanizedKháos) is the mythological void state preceding the creation of the universe (the cosmos) in ancient near eastern cosmology and early Greek cosmology. It can also refer to an early state of the cosmos constituted of nothing but undifferentiated and indistinguishable matter.[1]


Greek kháos (χάος) means 'emptiness, vast void, chasm, abyss',[2] related to the verbs kháskō (χάσκω) and khaínō (χαίνω) 'gape, be wide open', from Proto-Indo-European *ǵʰeh₂n-,[3] cognate to Old English geanian, 'to gape', whence English yawn.[4]

It may also mean space, the expanse of air, the nether abyss or infinite darkness.[5] Pherecydes of Syros (fl. 6th century BC) interprets chaos as water, like something formless that can be differentiated.[6]


Further information: Trito (Proto-Indo-European mythology) § Serpent-slaying myth, Sea serpent, and Dragon

Chaoskampf (German: [ˈkaːɔsˌkampf]; lit.'the battle against chaos'),[7] also described as a "combat myth", is generally used to refer to a widespread mythological motif involving battle between a culture hero deity with a chaos monster, often in the form of a sea serpent or dragon. The term was first used with respect to the destruction of the chaos dragon Tiamat in the Enūma Eliš, although it has been observed that the primeval state is one of a peaceful existence between Abzu and Tiamat and chaos only ensues when Tiamat enters combat with Marduk.[7]

Today, the Chaoskampf concept is plagued by a lack of consistent definition and use of the term across many studies.[1] Nicolas Wyatt defines the Chaoskampf category as follows:[8]

The Chaoskampf myth is a category of divine combat narratives with cosmogonic overtones, though at times turned secondarily to other purposes, in which the hero god vanquishes a power or powers opposed to him, which generally dwell in, or are identified with, the sea, and are presented as chaotic, dissolutory forces.

It may also be used to refer to a dualistic battle between two gods, although in that context, an alternative term that has been proposed is "theomachy" whereas "Chaoskampf" may be restrained to refer to cosmic battles in the context of creation. For example, a Chaoskampf may be found in the Enuma Elish (the only ancient near eastern text to place a cosmic battle in the context of a creation narrative), but not in the Baal Cycle or Psalm 74 where a theomachy ensues between Baal/Yahweh and the sea serpent Yam/Leviathan without being followed by creation.[9] The notion of Chaoskampf may be further distinguished from a divine battle between a god and the enemy of his people.[10]

Parallel concepts appear in the Middle East and North Africa, such as the abstract conflict of ideas in the Egyptian duality of Maat and Isfet or the battle of Horus and Set,[11] or the more concrete parallel of the battle of [Torah] sense ( Rah) Ra with the chaos serpent Apophis.

Greco-Roman tradition

George Frederic WattsChaos

Hesiod and the Pre-Socratics use the Greek term in the context of cosmogony. Hesiod's Chaos has been interpreted as either "the gaping void above the Earth created when Earth and Sky are separated from their primordial unity" or "the gaping space below the Earth on which Earth rests."[12] Passages in Hesiod's Theogony suggest that Chaos was located below Earth but above Tartarus.[13][14] Primal Chaos was sometimes said to be the true foundation of reality, particularly by philosophers such as Heraclitus.

Cosmology in early Greece

Main article: Early Greek cosmology

In Hesiod's Theogony, Chaos was the first thing to exist: "at first Chaos came to be" (or was),[15] but next (possibly out of Chaos) came Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros (elsewhere the name Eros is used for a son of Aphrodite).[a] Unambiguously "born" from Chaos were Erebus and Nyx.[16][17] For Hesiod, Chaos, like Tartarus, though personified enough to have borne children, was also a place, far away, underground and "gloomy," beyond which lived the Titans.[18] And, like the earth, the ocean, and the upper air, it was also capable of being affected by Zeus's thunderbolts.[19]

The notion of the temporal infinity was familiar to the Greek mind from remote antiquity in the religious conception of immortality.[20] The main object of the first efforts to explain the world remained the description of its growth, from a beginning. They believed that the world arose out from a primal unity, and that this substance was the permanent base of all its being. Anaximander claims that the origin is apeiron (the unlimited), a divine and perpetual substance less definite than the common elements (water, air, fire, and earth) as they were understood to the early Greek philosophers. Everything is generated from apeiron, and must return there according to necessity.[21] A conception of the nature of the world was that the earth below its surface stretches down indefinitely and has its roots on or above Tartarus, the lower part of the underworld.[22] In a phrase of Xenophanes, "The upper limit of the earth borders on air, near our feet. The lower limit reaches down to the "apeiron" (i.e. the unlimited)."[22] The sources and limits of the earth, the sea, the sky, Tartarus, and all things are located in a great windy-gap, which seems to be infinite, and is a later specification of "chaos".[22][23]

Classical Greece

In Aristophanes's comedy Birds, first there was Chaos, Night, Erebus, and Tartarus, from Night came Eros, and from Eros and Chaos came the race of birds.[24]

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 [birds] 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.

In Plato's Timaeus, the main work of Platonic cosmology, the concept of chaos finds its equivalent in the Greek expression chôra, which is interpreted, for instance, as shapeless space (chôra) in which material traces (ichnê) of the elements are in disordered motion (Timaeus 53a–b). However, the Platonic chôra is not a variation of the atomistic interpretation of the origin of the world, as is made clear by Plato's statement that the most appropriate definition of the chôra is "a receptacle of all becoming – its wetnurse, as it were" (Timaeus 49a), notabene a receptacle for the creative act of the demiurge, the world-maker.[25]

Aristotle, in the context of his investigation of the concept of space in physics, "problematizes the interpretation of Hesiod's chaos as 'void' or 'place without anything in it'.[26] Aristotle understands chaos as something that exists independently of bodies and without which no perceptible bodies can exist. 'Chaos' is thus brought within the framework of an explicitly physical investigation. It has now outgrown the mythological understanding to a great extent and, in Aristotle's work, serves above all to challenge the atomists who assert the existence of empty space."[25]

Roman tradition

For Ovid, (43 BC – 17/18 AD), in his Metamorphoses, Chaos was an unformed mass, where all the elements were jumbled up together in a "shapeless heap".[27]

Before the ocean and the earth appeared— before the skies had overspread them all—
the face of Nature in a vast expanse was naught but Chaos uniformly waste.
It was a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight;
and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap. [28]

According to Hyginus: "From Mist (Caligo) came Chaos. From Chaos and Mist, came Night (Nox), Day (Dies), Darkness (Erebus), and Ether (Aether)."[29][b] An Orphic tradition apparently had Chaos as the son of Chronus and Ananke.[31]

Biblical tradition

Chaos by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607–1677).

Since the classic 1895 German work Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit by Hermann Gunkel, various historians in the field of modern biblical studies have associated the theme of chaos in the earlier Babylonian cosmology (and now other cognate narratives from ancient near eastern cosmologies) with the Genesis creation narrative.[32][33] Besides Genesis, other books of the Old Testament, especially a number of Psalms, some passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah and the Book of Job are relevant.[34][35][36]

One locus of focus has been with respect to the term abyss / tohu wa-bohu in Genesis 1:2. The term may refer to a state of non-being prior to creation[37][38] or to a formless state. In the Book of Genesis, the spirit of God is moving upon the face of the waters, displacing the earlier state of the universe that is likened to a "watery chaos" upon which there is choshek (which translated from the Hebrew is darkness/confusion).[20][39] Some scholars, however, reject the association between biblical creation and notions of chaos from Babylonian and other (such as Chinese) myths. The basis is that the terms themselves in Genesis 1:2 are not semantically related to chaos, and that the entire cosmos exists in a state of chaos in Babylonian, Chinese, and other myths, whereas at most this can be said of the earth in Genesis.[40] The presence of Chaoskampf in the biblical tradition is now contentious.[41][42][43]

The Septuagint makes no use of χάος in the context of creation, instead using the term for גיא, "cleft, gorge, chasm", in Micah 1:6 and Zachariah 14:4.[44] The Vulgate, however, renders the χάσμα μέγα or "great gulf" between heaven and hell in Luke 16:26 as chaos magnum.

This model of a primordial state of matter has been opposed by the Church Fathers from the 2nd century, who posited a creation ex nihilo by an omnipotent God.[45]

Hawaiian tradition

In Hawaiian folklore, a triad of deities known as the "Ku-Kaua-Kahi" (a.k.a. "Fundamental Supreme Unity") were said to have existed prior to and during Chaos ever since eternity, or put in Hawaiian terms, "mai ka po mai," meaning "from the time of night, darkness, Chaos." They eventually broke the surrounding Po ("night"), and light entered the universe. Next the group created three heavens for dwelling areas together with the Earth, Sun, Moon, stars, and assistant spirits.[46]


According to the Gnostic On the Origin of the World, Chaos was not the first thing to exist. When the nature of the immortal aeons was completed, Sophia desired something like the light which first existed to come into being. Her desire appears as a likeness with incomprehensible greatness that covers the heavenly universe, diminishing its inner darkness while a shadow appears on the outside which causes Chaos to be formed. From Chaos every deity including the Demiurge is born.[47]

Alchemy and Hermeticism

Further information: Prima materia

Magnum Chaos, wood-inlay by Giovan Francesco Capoferri at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo, based on a design by Lorenzo Lotto.

The Greco-Roman tradition of prima materia, notably including the 5th- and 6th-century Orphic cosmogony, was merged with biblical notions (Tehom) in Christianity and inherited by alchemy and Renaissance magic.[citation needed]

The cosmic egg of Orphism was taken as the raw material for the alchemical magnum opus in early Greek alchemy. The first stage of the process of producing the philosopher's stone, i.e., nigredo, was identified with chaos. Because of association with the Genesis creation narrative, where "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2), Chaos was further identified with the classical element of Water.

Ramon Llull (1232–1315) wrote a Liber Chaos, in which he identifies Chaos as the primal form or matter created by God. Swiss alchemist Paracelsus (1493–1541) uses chaos synonymously with "classical element" (because the primeval chaos is imagined as a formless congestion of all elements). Paracelsus thus identifies Earth as "the chaos of the gnomi", i.e., the element of the gnomes, through which these spirits move unobstructed as fish do through water, or birds through air.[48] An alchemical treatise by Heinrich Khunrath, printed in Frankfurt in 1708, was entitled Chaos.[49] The 1708 introduction states that the treatise was written in 1597 in Magdeburg, in the author's 23rd year of practicing alchemy.[50] The treatise purports to quote Paracelsus on the point that "The light of the soul, by the will of the Triune God, made all earthly things appear from the primal Chaos."[51] Martin Ruland the Younger, in his 1612 Lexicon Alchemiae, states, "A crude mixture of matter or another name for Materia Prima is Chaos, as it is in the Beginning."

The term gas in chemistry was coined by Dutch chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont in the 17th century directly based on the Paracelsian notion of chaos. The g in gas is due to the Dutch pronunciation of this letter as a spirant, also employed to pronounce Greek χ.[52]

Modern usage

The term chaos has been adopted in modern comparative mythology and religious studies as referring to the primordial state before creation, strictly combining two separate notions of primordial waters or a primordial darkness from which a new order emerges and a primordial state as a merging of opposites, such as heaven and earth, which must be separated by a creator deity in an act of cosmogony.[53] In both cases, chaos referring to a notion of a primordial state contains the cosmos in potentia but needs to be formed by a demiurge before the world can begin its existence.

Use of chaos in the derived sense of "complete disorder or confusion" first appears in Elizabethan Early Modern English, originally implying satirical exaggeration.[54] "Chaos" in the well-defined sense of chaotic complex system is in turn derived from this usage.

See also


  1. ^ According to Gantz (1996)[16] pp. 4–5: "With regard to all three of these figures – Gaia, Tartaros, and Eros – we should note that Hesiod does not say they arose from (as opposed to after) Chaos, although this is often assumed." For example, Morford, p. 57, makes these three descendants of Chaos saying they came "presumably out of Chaos, just as Hesiod actually states that 'from Chaos' came Erebus and dark Night". Tripp, p. 159, says simply that Gaia, Tartarus and Eros, came "out of Chaos, or together with it". Caldwell (p. 33 n. 116–122) however, interprets Hesiod as saying that Chaos, Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros, all "are spontaneously generated without source or cause". Later writers commonly make Eros the son of Aphrodite and Ares, though several other parentages are also given.[16]
  2. ^ Bremmer (2008)[30] translates Caligo as 'Darkness'; according to him:
    "Hyginus ... started his Fabulae with a strange hodgepodge of Greek and Roman cosmogonies and early genealogies. It begins as follows:
    Ex Caligine Chaos. Ex Chao et Caligine Nox Dies Erebus Aether. — (Praefatio 1)
    His genealogy looks like a derivation from Hesiod, but it starts with the un-Hesiodic and un-Roman Caligo, 'Darkness'. Darkness probably did occur in a cosmogonic poem of Alcman, but it seems only fair to say that it was not prominent in Greek cosmogonies."[30]


  1. ^ a b Tsumura 2022, p. 253.
  2. ^ West, p. 192 line 116 Χάος, "best translated Chasm"; English chasm is a loan from Greek χάσμα, which is root-cognate with χάος. Most, p. 13, translates Χάος as "Chasm", and notes: (n. 7): "Usually translated as 'Chaos'; but that suggests to us, misleadingly, a jumble of disordered matter, whereas Hesiod's term indicates instead a gap or opening".
  3. ^ R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, pp. 1614 and 1616–7.
  4. ^ "chaos". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  5. ^ Lidell-Scott, A Greek–English Lexiconchaos
  6. ^ Kirk, Raven & Schofield 2003, p. 57
  7. ^ a b Tsumura 2022, p. 255.
  8. ^ Wyatt 2022, p. 244.
  9. ^ Tsumura 2022, p. 256, 269–270.
  10. ^ Tsumura 2022, p. 256–257.
  11. ^ Wyatt, Nicolas (2001-12-01). Space and Time in the Religious Life of the Near East. A&C Black. pp. 210–211. ISBN 978-0-567-04942-1.
  12. ^ Moorton, Richard F. Jr. (2001). "Hesiod as Precursor to the Presocratic Philosophers: A Voeglinian View". Louisiana State University. Archived from the original on 2008-12-11. Retrieved 2008-12-04.
  13. ^ Gantz (1996, p. 3)
  14. ^ Hesiod. Theogony. 813–814, 700, 740 – via Perseus, Tufts University.
  15. ^ Gantz (1996, p. 3) says "the Greek will allow both".
  16. ^ a b c Gantz (1996, pp. 4–5)
  17. ^ Hesiod. Theogony. 123 – via Persius, Tufts University.
  18. ^ Hesiod. Theogony. 814 – via Persius, Tufts University. And beyond, away from all the gods, live the Titans, beyond gloomy Chaos
  19. ^ Hesiod. Theogony. 740 – via Perseus, Tufts University.
  20. ^ a b Guthrie, W.K.C. (2000). A History of Greek Philosophy: Volume 1, The Earlier Presocratics and the Pythagoreans. Cambridge University Press. pp. 59, 60, 83. ISBN 978-0-521-29420-1. Archived from the original on 2014-01-03.
  21. ^ Nilsson, Vol.I, p.743[full citation needed]; Guthrie (1952, p. 87)
  22. ^ a b c Kirk, Raven & Schofield 2003, pp. 9, 10, 20
  23. ^ Hesiod. Theogony. 740–765 – via Perseus, Tufts University.
  24. ^ Aristophanes 1938, 693–699; Morford, pp 57–58. Caldwell, p. 2, describes this avian-declared theogony as "comedic parody".
  25. ^ a b Lobenhofer, Stefan (2020). "Chaos". In Kirchhoff, Thomas (ed.). Online Lexikon Naturphilosophie [Online Encyclopedia Philosophy of Nature]. University of Heidelberg. doi:10.11588/oepn.2019.0.68092. ((cite book)): |journal= ignored (help)
  26. ^ Aristotle. Physics. IV 1 208b27–209a2 [...]
  27. ^ Ovid. Metamorphoses. 1.5 ff. – via Perseus, Tufts University.
  28. ^ Ovid & More 1922, 1.5ff.
  29. ^ Gaius Julius Hyginus. Fabulae. Translated by Smith; Trzaskoma. Preface.
  30. ^ a b Bremmer (2008, p. 5)
  31. ^ Ogden 2013, pp. 36–37.
  32. ^ Tsumura 2022, p. 254.
  33. ^ H. Gunkel, Genesis, HKAT I.1, Göttingen, 1910.
  34. ^ Michaela Bauks, Chaos / Chaoskampf, WiBiLex – Das Bibellexikon (2006).
  35. ^ Michaela Bauks, Die Welt am Anfang. Zum Verhältnis von Vorwelt und Weltentstehung in Gen. 1 und in der altorientalischen Literatur (WMANT 74), Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1997.
  36. ^ Michaela Bauks, ''Chaos' als Metapher für die Gefährdung der Weltordnung', in: B. Janowski / B. Ego, Das biblische Weltbild und seine altorientalischen Kontexte (FAT 32), Tübingen, 2001, 431–464.
  37. ^ Tsumura, D., Creation and Destruction. A Reappraisal of the Chaoskampf Theory in the Old Testament, Winona Lake/IN, 1989, 2nd ed. 2005, ISBN 978-1-57506-106-1.
  38. ^ C. Westermann, Genesis, Kapitel 1–11, (BKAT I/1), Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1974, 3rd ed. 1983.
  39. ^ Genesis 1:2, English translation (New International Version)(2011): Biblica incorporation
  40. ^ Tsumura 2022, p. 255, 281.
  41. ^ Watson 2005.
  42. ^ Tsumura 2020.
  43. ^ Tsumura 2022.
  44. ^ "Lexicon :: Strong's H1516 – gay'".
  45. ^ Gerhard May, Schöpfung aus dem Nichts. Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo, AKG 48, Berlin / New York, 1978, 151f.
  46. ^ Thrum, Thomas (1907). Hawaiian Folk Tales. A. C. McClurg. p. 15.
  47. ^ Marvin Meyer; Willis Barnstone (2009). "On the Origin of the World". The Gnostic Bible. Shambhala. Retrieved 2021-10-14.
  48. ^ De Nymphis etc. Wks. 1658 II. 391[full citation needed]
  49. ^ Khunrath, Heinrich (1708). Vom Hylealischen, das ist Pri-materialischen Catholischen oder Allgemeinen Natürlichen Chaos der naturgemässen Alchymiae und Alchymisten: Confessio.
  50. ^ Szulakowska 2000, p. 79.
  51. ^ Szulakowska (2000, p. 91), quoting Khunrath (1708, p. 68)
  52. ^ "halitum illum Gas vocavi, non longe a Chao veterum secretum." Ortus Medicinæ, ed. 1652, p. 59a, cited after the Oxford English Dictionary.
  53. ^ Mircea Eliade, article "Chaos" in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed. vol. 1, Tübingen, 1957, 1640f.
  54. ^ Stephen Gosson, The schoole of abuse, containing a plesaunt inuectiue against poets, pipers, plaiers, iesters and such like caterpillers of a commonwelth (1579), p. 53 (cited after OED): "They make their volumes no better than [...] a huge Chaos of foule disorder."


Further reading

  • Miller, Robert D. (2014). "Tracking the Dragon across the Ancient Near East". Archiv Orientální. 82: 225–45.