Chaos. Painting by C. Parada (but Chaos—the Hesiodic—cannot be represented).
“In truth at first Chaos came to be …” writes Hesiod, “but next wide-bosomed Earth …”
The name Chaos, we learn, comes from χαίνω and means unfilled expanse. The Hesiodic Chaos is understood as a “Gaping Chasm,” the empty space, the void, or the place where everything else exists.
“These considerations,” writes Aristotle (Phys. 4, 208b), “would lead us to suppose that place is something distinct from bodies, and that every sensible body is in place. Hesiod too might be held to have given a correct account of it when he made Chaos first … If this is its nature, the potency of place must be a marvelous thing, and take precedence of all other things. For that without which nothing else can exist, while it can exist without the others, must needs be first; for place does not pass out of existence when the things in it are annihilated.”
Unlike all phenomena, Chaos is beyond change: it undergoes no transformations. Therefore the peculiar manner of being of this “marvelous thing” may also be seen as approaching the notion of “nonbeing” or “nothingness”:
“All that is exists by the fact that spatially, temporally, and logically it lies against a nonbeing void. And it is determined to be that which it is by defining itself against that which it is not: the void. Thus it is that the whole world, and everything in the world, each according to its rank, has limits at which it collides with the void.” (Hermann Fränkel, Dichtung und Philosophie des frühen Griechentums).
The phenomenal or sensible world claims its own existence. It perceives itself as a living world of changing forms and qualities. Unfortunately, it also perceives (and not without despair) that its world is transient and passes away. Yet it sometimes realizes that against it there is a formless reality, deprived of qualities and therefore permanent, unchanging. And lacking appropriate words, it describes that reality as “void,” “emptiness,” or “nonbeing.” However, if Chaos knows no properties, and yet somehow “it comes to be” (albeit in a nonbeing fashion), we may have to recognize that it is neither empty nor full, or that it simply is (without a predicate).
How are we to interpret this? Is this what Hesiod is telling us? Is he putting before us a philosophical question? Or is he, more precisely, giving an account of the genesis of the gods? It is true that the myths have sometimes been perceived as a well-balanced compound of philosophy and poesy: xPhil + yPoe = Myth. But did the myths really emerge by virtue of philosophy and poetry? Or are philosophy and poetry the children of the myths? Isn't it so that philosophy did not completely separate itself from mythology before Aristotle? And could poetry ever flow in the absence of a ground independent of it? So rather than poetically answering any preexisting philosophical problem, it seems that Hesiod is simply presenting that “marvelous thing” about which, however, very little can be said except that it is, or that it “came to be” before everything else. And so even the “stolen joys” of the gods and their “myriad loves” can only exist “from primal Chaos onwards,” as Virgil puts it in his Georgics (IV.345), and not before that (as Hesiod already told us).
Hesiod does not use that concept—the void that is Chaos—with excessive rigor. For example, he tells us (700) that “astounding heat seized Chaos” during the battle between the gods and the Titans. But (one may wonder), how can Chaos ever be seized by heat? Light may travel through the space, as we are told. But does light ever lends it brightness? Isn’t it so that anything that gleams must be an object? Can the empty space—the void, Chaos—be either cold or warm, light or dark? Can it be “gloomy” (ζοφερός, 815)?
Then says Hesiod: “From Chaos came forth Erebus,” a genderless place of darkness, “and black Night.” These two wed and produce clearness and brightness (Aether and Hemera). But the phenomenal world, the substance of becoming, had already been introduced with the figure of Earth (Gaia), the ambiguity remaining, however, whether she was born of Chaos or simply appeared after it.
Chaos does not change, but the notion of Chaos, itself inhabiting the phenomenal world, does. Aristophanes, for example, says that Chaos exists from the beginning together with Nyx, Erebus and Tartarus. An egg laid by Nyx in Erebus gave birth to Eros, who, mingling in Tartarus with murky Chaos begot … the race of birds.
Ovid (Metamorphoses I.7) no longer describes Chaos as a void, but as “a rough, unordered mass of things,” a notion different from the Hesiodic Chaos, and simpler. That chaotic mass, continues Ovid, was later arranged by some of the gods (Ovid does not claim to know who among them did it), bringing it into cosmic order.
In the view of Hyginus (Fabulae, Praefatio), Chaos was born from Darkness (or vapor, or mist): “Ex Caligine Chaos,” he writes. And from Chaos and Caligine are born Night, Day, Erebus and Aether. Hyginus does not describe Chaos, but we learn that the first to exist was the more corporeal Caligine.
Returning to the Hesiodic Chaos, one may recall the famous phrase of Heraclitus: πάντα ῥεῖ, and imagine what Hesiod might have answered:
“All things are flowing,” says Heraclitus.
“Yes, but not that which is not a thing, which is a no-thing. That neither flows nor passes out.”
“All things are passing and nothing abides,” Heraclitus says, more clearly.
“Yes, no-thing abides: space, the void, Chaos—changeless and timeless, containing within it all that flows.”