While "chaos" now refers to disorder, entropy and even anarchy, the Greeks understood this concept in a different manner. To them, Chaos was a primeval goddess, an eternal being that possessed both anthropomorphic and tangible qualities. However, these qualities changed as the mythology evolved, with each writer offering a different iteration of Chaos.

The First Primeval Goddess

Greek playwrights and poets would at times alter the pre-existing mythology to suit the needs of their stories. However, all acknowledged Chaos as the first being to come into existence. Soon thereafter, Gaia (Earth), Oceanus (water) and Eros (love) emerged. The Greeks called these vital components of the universe the Protogenoi and believed subsequent deities like the Titans and Olympian gods were the descendants of these ancient entities.

Children of Chaos

Aristophanes referred to Chaos by three names: Chaos (void), Anapnoe (respiration) and Aer (air). She, Erebos (the dark air of the underworld) and Aether (the shining air above the heavens) comprised the atmospheres of three separate realms: the earth, underworld and sky, respectively. Their relationship was also generational; in Theogony, Hesiod's seventh-century B.C. epic of the origins of all the gods, Chaos gave birth to Erebos and Nyx (night), who in turn were the parents of both Aether and Day.

The Dark Void

Despite the clear delineation between Chaos, Aether and Erebos in early Greek mythology, later writers would at times conflate the three. In his Metamorphoses, the first-century B.C. Roman poet Ovid describes the hero Orpheus traveling to the underworld to retrieve his dead wife, Eurydice. While making his case he refers to the endless darkness of the underworld as "Chaos" rather than "Erebos." However, he does not speak to Chaos directly; instead, he swears his love for Eurydice by Chaos and other aspects of the underworld.

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Elements of Chaos

Ovid further altered the role of Chaos in the creation of the known universe. He described Chaos as a primordial mixture of water, earth, fire and air. This mixture was one of neutrality; dark and light mixed, as did hot and cold, creating a mass of no distinguishing property or shape. Only when the chaotic elements separated did the earth and sky come into being. Ovid credited this change to an unnamed god rather than Chaos herself, as she has few, if any, anthropomorphic or divine qualities in later mythology.