Out of Chaos
These days the origin of the universe is explained by proposing a Big Bang, a single event that instantly brought into being all the matter from which everything and everyone are made.
The ancient Greeks had a different idea. They said that it all started not with a bang, but with CHAOS.
Was Chaos a god – a divine being – or simply a state of nothingness? Or was Chaos, just as we would use the word today, a kind of terrible mess, like a teenager’s bedroom only worse?
Think of Chaos perhaps as a kind of grand cosmic yawn. As in a yawning chasm or a yawning void.
Whether Chaos brought life and substance out of nothing or whether Chaos yawned life up or dreamed it up, or conjured it up in some other way I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Nor were you. And yet in a way we were, because all the bits that make us were there. It is enough to say that the Greeks thought it was Chaos who, with a massive heave, or a great shrug, or hiccup, vomit or cough, began the long chain of creation that has ended with pelicans and penicillin and toadstools and toads, sea-lions, seals, lions, human beings and daffodils and murder and art and love and confusion and death and madness and biscuits.
Whatever the truth, science today agrees that everything is destined to return to Chaos. It calls this inevitable fate entropy: part of the great cycle from Chaos to order and back again to Chaos. Your trousers began as chaotic atoms that somehow coalesced into matter that ordered itself over aeons into a living substance that slowly evolved into a cotton plant that was woven into the handsome stuff that sheathes your lovely legs. In time you will abandon your trousers – not now, I hope – and they will rot down in a landfill or be burned. In either case their matter will at length be set free to become part of the atmosphere of the planet. And when the sun explodes and takes every particle of this world with it, including the ingredients of your trousers, all the constituent atoms will return to cold Chaos. And what is true for your trousers is of course true for you.
So the Chaos that began everything is also the Chaos that will end everything.
Now, you might be the kind of person who asks, ‘But who or what was there before Chaos?’ or ‘Who or what was there before the Big Bang? There must have been something.’
Well, there wasn’t. We have to accept that there was no ‘before’, because there was no Time yet. No one had pressed the start button on Time. No one had shouted Now! And since Time had yet to be created, time words like ‘before’, ‘during’, ‘when’, ‘then’, ‘after lunch’ and ‘last Wednesday’ had no possible meaning. It screws with the head, but there it is.
The Greek word for ‘everything that is the case’, what we could call ‘the universe’, is COSMOS. And at the moment – although ‘moment’ is a time word and makes no sense just now (neither does the phrase ‘just now’) – at the moment, Cosmos is Chaos and only Chaos because Chaos is the only thing that is the case. A stretching, a tuning up of the orchestra . . . But things are about to change very quickly.
The First Order
From formless Chaos sprang two creations: EREBUS and NYX. Erebus, he was darkness, and Nyx, she was night. They coupled at once and the flashing fruits of their union were HEMERA, day, and AETHER, light.
At the same time – because everything must happen simultaneously until Time is there to separate events – Chaos brought forth two more entities: GAIA, the earth, and TARTARUS, the depths and caves beneath the earth.
I can guess what you might be thinking. These creations sound charming enough – Day, Night, Light, Depths and Caves. But these were not gods and goddesses, they were not even personalities. And it may have struck you also that since there was no time there could be no dramatic narrative, no stories; for stories depend on Once Upon a Time and What Happened Next.
You would be right to think this. What first emerged from Chaos were primal, elemental principles that were devoid of any real colour, character or interest. These were the PRIMORDIAL DEITIES, the First Order of divine beings from whom all the gods, heroes and monsters of Greek myth spring. They brooded over and lay beneath everything . . . waiting.
The silent emptiness of this world was filled when Gaia bore two sons all on her own.* The first was PONTUS, the sea, and the second was OURANOS, the sky – better known to us as Uranus, the sound of whose name has ever been the cause of great delight to children from nine to ninety. Hemera and Aether bred too, and from their union came THALASSA, the female counterpart of Pontus the sea.
Ouranos, who preferred to pronounce himself Ooranoss, was the sky and the heavens in the way that – at the very beginning – the primordial deities always were the things they represented and ruled over.** You could say that Gaia was the earth of hills, valleys, caves and mountains yet capable of gathering herself into a form that could walk and talk. The clouds of Ouranos the sky rolled and seethed above her but they too could coalesce into a shape we might recognize. It was so early on in the life of everything. Very little was settled.
* This trick of virgin birth, or parthenogenesis, can be found in nature still. In aphids, some lizards and even sharks it is a reasonably common way to have young. There won’t be the variation that two sets of genes allow; this is the same in the genesis of the Greek gods. The interesting ones are all the fruit of two parents, not one.
** Indeed ouranos is the Greek word for ‘sky’ to this very day.