“Cosmos means order, or arrangement, and a cosmogony is a theory of the origin of the universe. […] Our own cosmogony may be understood as an outgrowth of that of the ancient Babylonians, in whose early myths we find chaos playing a special role. Chaos now means disorder, but in ancient myths there are important variant meanings, to which we now turn.”#
Ralph H. Abraham, “Chaos in Myth and Science”
If you’ve chanced upon Greek mythology, it’s likely you’ve heard stories from Homer. But a lesser-known ancient Greek poet, who wrote around the same time as Homer, is behind the stories that are the subject of our interest today. Hesiod’s Theogony, composed around 700 BCE, is the standard creation myth of Greek mythology - it tells the story of how all the Greek gods came to be. In Theogony Hesiod tells the tale of the first primordial deities. Though there were four, three of them are considered the primordial triad: Chaos, Gaia, and Eros.
From them came the existence of all divine entities: but how? In this story, Eros, the creative impulse later known as the god of carnal love, was the procreative, generative force, the active energy through which divinity is generated from its parents. Gaia, who came to be seen as the ancestral mother, the personification of Earth, is for Hesiod the substantial foundation of all things, the created universe. And what about Chaos? Here the word ‘chaos’ does not mean disorder. Instead, it is an abstract cosmic principle referring to the source of all creation.
John Bussanich notes in “A theoretical interpretation of Hesiod’s Chaos”, that Chaos “is a much more elusive figure. It is not readily apparent why Chaos is necessary for cosmogony.” What can Chaos be? What place does Chaos have at the centre of a creation myth?
Bussanich explains: “Chaos represents the dimensionless expanses of cosmic depth in which cosmic manifestation begins. Thus it possesses a principial function: it is necessary for generation of the cosmos and gods.” Principial here means initial, primary. Chaos’ function is tied to the beginning of everything, but Chaos is not generative, “nor does it hold the seeds of potentialities of all things within itself.” It must be understood in relation to its counterparts Gaia and Eros, in the triad.
Bussanich ventures: “While Eros signifies the mechanism, Gaia can be seen as an attempt to symbolize the matrix of creation. She concentrates these functions in herself: mother of the gods, the seat or abode of all things, and a figurative expression of cosmic substance. As the necessary counterpart to the insubstantiality of Chaos, she makes concrete the notion of a “place for things” which is incompletely suggested by the yawning space of Chaos. We should probably imagine that Gaia comes-to-be in Chaos, but not as an empirical object appears in space; rather, as principial space, Chaos defines the totality of reality at the point Gaia appears. She can only exist within Chaos, simply because nothing else exists.”
For Hesiod, Chaos is essential to creation. Chaos is the only medium through which the substantive reality that is Gaia can come to be. Perhaps we can think of it this way: the expansive material reality, the flourishing abundance of our earth, is only as full as the space that Chaos allows to exist. The fullness of place that is the planet in which we dwell is enabled by (the nothingness that is) Chaos.
This is recognised in creation myths across cultures, from the goddess worship of Ishtar by the Semitic people of Mesopotamia in 5000 B.C.E. or the Enuma Elish, the Epic of Creation in the Babylonian seaside town of Eridu, through to the Hebrew cosmogony of Genesis 1.
In Mespotamia, in the rendering of the Merlin Stone, we have the following: Queen of Heaven, Goddess of the Universe, / the One who walked in terrible chaos / and brought life by the law of love / and out of chaos brought us harmony / and from chaos She has led us by the hand.”
In Babylonia: “The appearance of the gods of light and order was followed by the revolt of Tiamat. Then the forces of darkness and chaos were overthrown by Marduk […] who split Tiamat in half like the shell of an oyster, making the sky and the sea. Next came the regulation of the solar system and calendar, the creation of plants and animals, and the making of humanity.”
In Genesis 1, The Darmouth Bible begins as follows: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
These mythical creation stories can also be paired with mythical histories. In Hindu doctrine, for example, there are cycles divided into different ages or yugas. Here, “A creation occurs after each catastrophic annihilation, or end of the cycle, and each age represents a decline in virtue.”
In contrast, Ralph H. Abraham suggests that in our current paradigm “the creation of the universe […] means the subjugation of chaos by cosmos. Ours is a universe of law and order. […] The conquest of chaos by the forces of law and order is a basic feature of the dominator society. […] In our current paradigm, order is to chaos as good is to evil.”#
He seems to be suggesting that these creation myths show how our societies of law and order have misunderstood chaos as merely disorder, as evil, rather than the interpretation of chaos as necessary nothingness that begets abundance, and through that have resulted domination paradigms, with warped senses and conceptualisations of power.#
However, Abraham notes that now, with the aid of chaos theory, “science has discovered the order within chaos. And as chaos becomes acceptable to science, […] We are learning that chaos is essential to the survival of life.” The point is, as is the case with all these creation myths that we’ve redefined to fit our dominant linear paradigm, chaos is not merely bad. Perhaps it includes disorder, perhaps it is just nothingness—whatever the case is, chaos is not the evil counterpart of order (Abraham adds that revolutionaries of chaos like Heraclitus (500 B.C.), Jesus (30 A.D.), and Hypatia (350 A.D.) are the “best-known chaos revolutionaries of ancient times” who have suffered persecution for their chaos): chaos is the counterpart of creation.
To return to Homer: “Creation came out of chaos, is surrounded by chaos, and will end in chaos.” What does this mean for us? This doesn’t mean that we should romanticise the chaos we see, nor does it mean that we should take injustice to be necessary counterpart to our birthing of a better world, nor does it mean that we should see these injustices as not evil.
Rather, perhaps it can be empowering to think of rising from the ashes, from the nothingness of the ruins of a capitalistic world; that as much as the disasters and destructive systems have caused so much damage, we can create, in equal parts and more, better.
Or perhaps—another way of thinking about it would be this: the world of dominator systems, the ravages of imperialism and colonialism, the destruction of nature, the oppression of people, is one cycle of chaos. These systems have reinterpreted creation myths to be binary. Within this paradigm, chaos is bad and must be conquered. But the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house: perhaps we have to reclaim the creation myths and bring our own Chaos, birthing our just, equitable, truly shared Gaia, through the generative force of Eros.