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Chaos (cosmogony)

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Chaos (Ancient Greek: χάος khaos meaning "gaping") refers to the formless or void state preceding the creation of the universe or cosmos in the Greek creation myths.

In Greek cosmology, Khaos was a primordial state of matter from which the cosmos and the other gods emerged. For Hesiod and the early Greek Olympian myth (8th century BCE), Chaos was the "vast and dark" void from which Nyx emerged.[1]

Chaos was also personified as a primal deity in Greek mythology, as the first of the Protogenoi and the god of the air.

Primal Chaos was sometimes said to be the true foundation of reality, particularly by philosophers such as Heraclitus. It was also probably what Aristotle had in mind when he developed the concept of Prima Materia in his attempt to combine Platonism with Presocraticism and Naturalism.

Ovid (1st century BCE), in his Metamorphoses, described Chaos as "a rude and undeveloped mass, that nothing made except a ponderous weight; and all discordant elements confused, were there congested in a shapeless heap."[2]

Fifth-century Orphic cosmogony had a "Womb of Darkness" in which the Wind lay a Cosmic Egg whence Eros was hatched, who set the universe in motion.

The same term has also been extended to parallel concepts in the religions of the Ancient Near East. The motif of chaoskampf (German for "struggle against chaos") is ubiquitous in these myths, depicting a battle of a culture hero deity with a chaos monster, often in the shape of a serpent or dragon.


Greek χάος means "gap, gaping void, chasm, abyss", from the verb χαίνω, "gape, be wide open, etc.", from Proto-Indo-European *ghen-, cognate to Old English geanian, "to gape", whence English yawn.

Hesiod and the Pre-Socratics use the Greek term in the context of cosmogony. Hesiod's chaos has often been interpreted as a moving, formless mass from which the cosmos and the gods originated, but Eric Voegelin sees it instead as creatio ex nihilo,[3] much as in the Book of Genesis. The term tohu wa-bohu of Genesis 1:2 has been shown to refer to a state of non-being prior to creation rather than to a state of matter.[4] The Septuagint makes no use of χάος in the context of creation, instead using the term for גיא, "chasm, cleft", in Micha 1:6 and Zacharia 14:4.

Nevertheless, the term chaos has been adopted in 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.[5] In both cases, chaos refers 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.

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.[6]

In modern biblical studies, the term chaos is commonly used in the context of the Torah and their cognate narratives in Ancient Near Eastern mythology more generally. Parallels between the Hebrew Genesis and the Babylonian Enuma Elish were established by H. Gunkel in 1910.[7] 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.[8]

Use of chaos in the derived sense of "complete disorder or confusion" first appears in Elizabethan Early Modern English, originally implying satirical exaggeration.[9]


Examples of the chaoskampf in religions of the Ancient Near East include Baal's fight against Yamm in Ugaritic myth, Marduk against Tiamat in the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Tarhunt against Illuyanka in Hittite myth, and Yahweh against Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible (particularly the Book of Job). The Near Eastern myth was adopted in Greek mythology, as reflected in the fight of Zeus against Typhon.

The chaoskampf was also inherited by Christian belief, in the form of Saint George and the Dragon, Saint Michael and the Devil, and more abstractly in some aspects of the narrative of the crucifixion of Jesus in the gospels (Rudman 2003).

In the feminist Goddess movement, specifically in Merlin Stone's When God was a Woman (1976),[page needed] the chaoskampf as cosmological metaphor is associated with the supposed rise of institutionalised warfare and patriarchal power during the Early Bronze Age.


The Greco-Roman tradition of Prima Materia, notably including 5th and 6th centuries Orphic cosmogony was merged with Biblical notions (Tehom) in Christian belief and inherited by alchemy and Renaissance magic.

The Cosmic Egg of Orphism was taken as the raw material for the alchemical Opus Magnum in early Greek alchemy. The first stage of the process of producing the Lapis Philosophorum, i.e., nigredo, was identified with chaos. Because of association with the creation in Genesis, where "the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters" (Gen. 1:2), Chaos was further identified with the element Water.

Alchemy in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

Raimundus Lullus (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 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.[10]

An alchemical treatise by Heinrich Khunrath, printed in Frankfurt in 1708, was entitled Chaos.[11] The 1708 introduction to the treatise states that the treatise was written in 1597 in Magdeburg, in the author's 23rd year of practicing alchemy.[12] 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."[13]

Martin Ruland, 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 J. B. 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.[14]


  1. Hesiod. Theogony, 116; 123-132.
  2. Ovid. Metamorphoses 1.5-9
    Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
    unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
    quem dixere chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
    nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
    non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.
    "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." (trans. B. Moore)
  3. Moorton, Richard F (2001). "Hesiod as Precursor to the Presocratic Philosophers: A Voeglinian View". Retrieved 2008-12-04. 
  4. Tsumura, D., Creation and Destruction. A Reappraisal of the Chaoskampf Theory in the Old Testament, Winona Lake/IN, 1989, 2nd ed. 2005, ISBN 9781575061061. C. Westermann, Genesis, Kapitel 1-11, (BKAT I/1), Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1974, 3rd ed. 1983.
  5. Mircea Eliade, article "Chaos" in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed. vol. 1, Tübingen, 1957, 1640f.
  6. G.May, Schöpfung aus dem Nichts. Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo , AKG 48, Berlin / New York, 1978, 151f.
  7. H. Gunkel, Genesis, HKAT I.1, Göttingen, 1910.
  8. Michaela Bauks, Chaos / Chaoskampf, WiBiLex – Das Bibellexikon (2006). 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. 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.
  9. 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 Oxford English Dictionary): "They make their volumes no better than [...] a huge Chaos of foule disorder."
  10. De Nymphis etc. Wks. 1658 II. 391
  11. full title: Vom Hylealischen, das ist Pri-materialischen Catholischen oder Allgemeinen Natürlichen Chaos der naturgemässen Alchymiae und Alchymisten (google books edition of the 1708 print), also given as Vom hylealischen Chaos der naturgemässen Alchymiae und Alchymisten ed. 1990, ISBN 3201015016.
  12. Urszula Szulakowska, The alchemy of light: geometry and optics in late Renaissance alchemical illustration, vol. 10 of Symbola et Emblemata - Studies in Renaissance and Baroque Symbolism, BRILL, 2000, ISBN 9789004116900, ch. 7 (pp. 79ff).
  13. Szulakowska (2000), p. 91, quoting Chaos p. 68.
  14. "halitum illum Gas vocavi, non longe a Chao veterum secretum." Ortus Medicinæ, ed. 1652, p. 59a, cited after Oxford English Dictionary.
  • Clifford, Richard J, "Creation and Destruction: A Reappraisal of the Chaoskampf Theory in the Old Testament", The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 2007.
  • Rudman, Dominic, "The crucifixion as Chaoskampf: A new reading of the passion narrative in the synoptic gospels = La crucifixion comme Chaoskampf: une nouvelle lecture du récit de la Passion dans les évangiles synoptiques", Biblica 84, 2003, 102-107.
  • Wyatt, Nick, Arms and the King: The Earliest Allusions to the Chaoskampf Motif and their Implications for the Interpretation of the Ugaritic and Biblical Traditions (1998), republished in There's such divinity doth hedge a king: selected essays of Nicolas Wyatt on royal ideology in Ugaritic and Old Testament literature, Society for Old Testament Study monographs, Ashgate Publishing, 2005, ISBN 9780754653301, 151-190.
  • Day, John, God's conflict with the dragon and the sea: echoes of a Canaanite myth in the Old Testament, Cambridge Oriental Publications, 1985, ISBN 9780521256001.
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Chaos (cosmogony). The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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