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For other uses, see chaos (disambiguation).
Depiction of the Christianized chaoskampf: statue of Archangel Michael slaying Satan represented as a dragon. Quis ut Deus? is inscribed on his shield.

Chaos (Greek χάος khaos) refers to the formless or void state of primordial matter preceding the creation of the universe or cosmos in creation myths, particularly Greek but also in related religions of the Ancient Near East. The motif of chaoskampf 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 "gaping void, chasm, abyss", from the verb χαίνω "gape, be wide open, etc", from a PIE *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 Khaos 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,[1] 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.[2] 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 (a) primordial waters or a primordial darkness from which a new order emerges and (b) 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.[3] In both cases, chaos refers to a notion of a primordial state which contains the cosmos in potentia but which 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.[4]

In modern biblical studies, the term chaos is commonly used in the context of the Hebrew Bible 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.[5] Besides Genesis, other books of the Hebrew Bible, especially a number of Psalms, some passages in Isaiah and Jeremiah and the Book of Job are relevant.[6]

Use of chaos in the derived sense of "complete disorder or confusion" first appears in Elizabethan Early Modern English, originally implying satirical exaggeration.[7]


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, 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 in Greek myth, etc.

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).

Greco-Roman tradition

Greek cosmology, Chaos was the primordial state of matter from which the cosmos and the gods emerged. For Hesiod and the early Greek Olympian myth (8th century BC),[8] Chaos was the 'vast and dark' void from which the first deities, Gaia and Eros, emerged. Chaos was also personified 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 the Presocraticism and Naturalism.[citation needed]

Ovid (1st century BC), 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".[9]

5th-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 Greco-Roman tradition of Prima Materia, notably including 5th to 6th century 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.

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 in the 17th century directly based on the Paracelsian notion of chaos. The inventor of the word, Dutch chemist J. B. Van Helmont (1577-1644) the g in gas is due to the Dutch pronunciation of this letter as a spirant, also employed to pronounce Greek χ.[14]


  1. ^ Moorton, Richard F (2001). "Hesiod as Precursor to the Presocratic Philosophers: A Voeglinian View". Retrieved 2008-12-04. 
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Mircea Eliade, article "Chaos" in Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed. vol. 1, Tübingen, 1957, 1640f.
  4. ^ G.May, Schöpfung aus dem Nichts. Die Entstehung der Lehre von der creatio ex nihilo , AKG 48, Berlin / New York, 1978, 151f.
  5. ^ H. Gunkel, Genesis, HKAT I.1, Göttingen, 1910.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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 OED): "They make their volumes no better than [...] a huge Chaos of foule disorder."
  8. ^ Hesiod. Theogony, 116; 123-132.
  9. ^ 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)
  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 OED.
  • 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.
  • Nick Wyatt, 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.
  • John Day, God's conflict with the dragon and the sea: echoes of a Canaanite myth in the Old Testament, Cambridge oriental publications no. 35, 1985, ISBN 9780521256001.

See also

For the state of disarray, see chaos.
Greek deities
Titans and Olympians
Aquatic deities
Chthonic deities
Personified concepts
Other deities
Primordial deities

In Greek myth, Chaos (Xάος) or Khaos is the first of the Protogenoi and the god of the air. Later on Chaos was described as an original state of existence from which the first gods appeared. In other words, the dark void of space. It is made from a mixture of what the Ancient Greeks considered the four elements: earth, air, water and fire. For example, when a log is burned, the flames were attributed to the fire in it, the smoke the air in it, the water and grease that come from it were supposed to be the water, and the ashes left over were the earth. In Greek it is Χάος, which is usually pronounced similarly to "house" (Coinè) or "cows" (Attic), but correctly in ancient Greek as ['kha.os]; it means "gaping void", from the verb χαίνω "gape, be wide open, etc", Proto-Indo-European *"ghen-", *"ghn-"; compare English "chasm" and "yawn", Old English geanian = "to gape".

Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, described Chaos as "rather a crude and indigested mass, a lifeless lump, unfashioned and unframed, of jarring seeds and justly Chaos named". From that, its meaning evolved into the modern familiar "complete disorder".

Chaos features three main characteristics:

  • it is a bottomless gulf where anything falls endlessly. This radically contrasts with the Earth that emerges from it to offer a stable ground.
  • it is a place without any possible orientation, where anything falls in every direction.
  • it is a space that separates, that divides: after the Earth and the Sky parted, Chaos remains between both of them.

Primal Chaos

In Ancient Greek cosmology, Chaos was the first couple of things to exist and the womb from which everything emerged. For Hesiod and the Olympian mythos, Chaos was the 'vast and dark' void from which the possible first deity, Gaia, emerged. In the Pelasgian creation myth, Eurynome ('goddess of everything') emerged from this Chaos and created the Cosmos from itTemplate:Fact. For Orphics, it was called the 'Womb of Darkness' from which the Cosmic Egg that contained the Universe emerged. It is sometimes conflated with 'Black Winged Night'.

The idea is also found in Mesopotamia and associated with Tiamat the 'Dragon' of Chaos, from whose dismembered body the world was formed.

Genesis refers to the earliest conditions of the Earth as "without form, and void", a state similar to chaos.[1]

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

In the modern religion of Discordianism, chaos is viewed as still existing, with any apparent order being an illusion.Template:Fact


Simple English

Chaos was the nothingness at the beginning of the world in Greek mythology.It was the beginning of time and had a great role. Born out of it were the first beings:

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