Greek cosmogony

First Chaos was, then ample-bosomed Earth, the sea immovable for evermore of those immortals who the snow-topped heights inhabit of Olympus, or the gloom
Of Tartarus, in the broad-tracked ground’s abyss.

The cosmogonies are far too numerous and divergent to allow one simple description embracing all. Only some prominent cosmogonies can be indicated, and some of the points common to all. Homer seems to have taken the universe as he found it without inquiring further, but from Iliad XIV, verse 201, one gathers that Oceanus is origin, and Thetys mother of all; from verse 244 that Nyx (Night) has power even over Oceanus; hence Darkness, Water, and Motherhood seem the three stages of his cosmogony. The fragments of Orphic cosmogonies given by Eudemos, and Plato, and Lydus do not quite agree, but at least Night, Oceanus, and Thetys are elementary beings, and the first of them in order of existence was probably Night. A more detailed cosmogony of great antiquity is to be found in Hesiod’s “Theogony” (about 800 B.C.) in verses 160 sqq., which C. A. Elton translated as follows:

“First Chaos was, then ample-bosomed Earth,
The sea immovable for evermore
Of those immortals who the snow-topped heights
Inhabit of Olympus, or the gloom
Of Tartarus, in the broad-tracked ground’s abyss.
Love then arose, most beautiful amongst
The deathless deities; restless, he
Of every god and every mortal man
Unnerves the limbs; dissolves the wiser breast
By reason steeled and quells the very soul.
From Chaos, Erebos, and ebon Night;
From Night the Day sprang forth and shining air
Whom to the love of Erebos she gave.
Earth first produced the heaven and all the stars,
She brought the lofty mountains forth,
And next the sea. . . Then, with Heaven
Consorting, Ocean from her bosom burst
With its deep eddying waters.”

Chaos, then, is the starting-point of Hesiod’s cosmogony. Chaos, however, must probably not be understood as “primeval matter” without harmony and order, but rather as the “empty void” or “place in the abstract”. To Hesiod chaos cannot have lost its original meaning (from cha in chasko; chasma “chasm”, etc). Hesiod, then, starts at infinite space; other Greeks take time, or chronos as a starting point. The cosmogony of Pherecydes (544 B.C.) claims a high place among Greek theories as to the origin of the world, because of the prominence given to Zeus, a personal spiritual being, as the origin of all things. Zeus and Chronos and Chthonia have always been and are the three first beginnings; but the One I would consider before the Two, and the Two after the One. Then Chronos produced himself out of fire, air, and water, these I take to be the Three Logical Elements and out of them arose a numerous progeny of gods divided into five parts or a pentecosmos. Pherecydes’ cosmogony has come down to us in some other slightly modified forms but Zeus is ever at the head.

He seems also to have known of a primeval battle between Chronos and Ophioneus, but how it fills in with his cosmogony we know not. Chthonia seems to be the moist Proto-matter, neither dry earth nor sea, out of which Ge, or the earth, is created. The stages of his cosmogony are therefore God, Time, Matter — all three first principles, yet God is in some sense first; God, when feeling a desire to create, changes himself into love so that he can bring forth a Cosmos, i. e, a well-ordered world, out of contraries, bringing its elements into agreement and friendship. A noble idea, truly, only falling short of the Christian idea in conceiving time and matter as eternal, Zeus thus being maker or fashioner, not creator, of heaven and earth.

A cosmogony of almost the same date is that of Epimenides, which seems in flat contradiction to that of Pherecydes, for it postulates two first principles not originating from Unity: Air and Night. Out of these arise Tartarus etc. Later Orphic chronologies begin some with Chronos, others with Water and Earth, some with Apeiros Hyle. In the last stage of the Greek cosmogony the egg plays an important part, either as evolutionary stage, as embryonic state of the earth, or merely to indicate the shape of the Cosmos.

We possess no ancient Etruscan or Latin cosmogonies, but it is certain that the god Janus was a cosmogonic deity; though Jupiter was summus, the highest god, Janus was primus, the first of the gods, and as such he received sacrifice before even Jupiter. This ancient reminiscence of Janus as creator is made use of in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, but in how far so late a writer represents early speculations we know not. Janus is perhaps the Latin equivalent of the Greek Chaos as the origin of all things. Janus is said to be not only initium mundi, but mundus itself, the all-embracing.