Chaos (cosmogony)  

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"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." --Metamorphoses (trans. Brookes More)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Chaos (Greek 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.

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.

Contents

Terminology

Greek χάος means "emptiness, vast 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. (source)

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, 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. 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. In both cases, chaos referring 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.

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. 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.

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

Greco-Roman tradition

Hesiod

For Hesiod and the early Greek Olympian myth (8th century BC), Chaos was the first of the primordial deities, followed by Earth (Gaia), Tartarus and Eros (Love). From Chaos came Erebus and Nyx.

Passages in Hesiod's Theogony suggest that Chaos was located below Earth but above Tartarus. Primal Chaos was sometimes said to be the true foundation of reality, particularly by philosophers such as Heraclitus.

Ovid

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."

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. Brookes More)

Orphism

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.

In Milton's Paradise Lost

Milton's comments on chaos in Paradise Lost:

Chaos umpire sits,
And by decision more embroils the fray
By which he reigns: next him high arbiter
Chance governs all. Into this wild abyss,
The womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor air, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and, which thus must ever fight [...][1]

Alchemy

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 magnum opus 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

Blessed 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.

An alchemical treatise by Heinrich Khunrath, printed in Frankfurt in 1708, was entitled Chaos.

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. 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."

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.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Chaos (cosmogony)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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