The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XII

Cosmogony and Cosmology of the Greeks…

 Homer: The primeval Ocean (again)…

 Hesiod’s Theogony…

The Nine Muses…Inspiration and Deification (again)…

Chaos and the Separation of Earth and Sky (again)…

     Whether due to cultural transmission or the spontaneous reassertion of the archetypal psyche, the cosmology and cosmogony of the Greeks exhibits many of the same motives we’ve already met in the Near East.

Homer, the earliest of the Greek poets (ca. 750 B.C.?), has left us only the briefest notice in Iliad XIV(201), to the effect that all the gods and living things arose from Okeanos, the great ocean that encircles the world-disk, and that Tethys, the female spirit of these primordial waters, was his wife.  It was therefore left to Hesiod, Homer’s most famous literary son, to compose, within a century of the bard’s death, the cosmogony and early history of the world that was to achieve a kind of canonicity in the later classical Greek imagination.

The Hesiodic cosmogony is retailed at the beginning of his Theogony (literally, the genealogy of the gods), an exotic and often bizarre roll-call of names and events which nonetheless continued to echo down the centuries of the Western literary and philosophical tradition.

Hesiod begins with the Muses, one of whose sacred mountains is Helicon in Boeotia, in the shadows of which Hesiod presumably dwells.  It is the Muses who commanded him to sing of the race of the blessed gods, and so inspired him—“breathed into him”, says Hesiod at l. 30, using the root meaning of the verb “inspire”—“their own divine voice to celebrate things that shall be and things that were aforetime”.  (In Greek antiquity, as we’ll see, the poet and wise man are the two personalities who are specially blessed with inspiration—who are ventriloquized by the Voice of God; who are exalted, that is, to that state of possession by the soul of the Divine–as to become gods among men.)


The Muses are nine in number, the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, or Memory.  In Hesiod, the nine Muses are not as yet fully distinguished from one another in function:  “they are all”, says Hesiod, “of one mind, set upon song, the holy gift that frees a man from care”.  Later, each of the nine Muses would become the patroness of a different art or discipline of knowledge:  Clio the Muse of history, Urania of astronomy, Melpomene of tragedy, Thalia of comedy, Terpsichore of dance, Calliope of epic, Erato of love-poetry, Polyhymnia of hymns to the gods, and Euterpe of lyric poetry.  Since names such as Erato, Urania, and Polyhymnia are obviously allegorical abstractions, it’s clear that the Muses were understood as that mysterious source of the human artistic imagination in general that the ancients thought of as the Divine, and that we call the unconscious.

At line 100 or so, Hesiod invokes the Muses to help him sing his first great theme, the creation of the gods and the world:

Verily at the first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all.

Following Hesiod, practically every cosmogony in the history of the West would begin with this mysterious concept “Chaos”.  Here is the Roman poet Ovid, in the opening lines of his Metamorphoses:

Before land was and sea—before air and sky
Arched over all, all Nature was all Chaos,
The rounded body of all things in one.

Here, 1700 years later, is the Christian poet Milton, in his Paradise Lost:

First there was Chaos, the vast immeasurable abyss,
Outrageous as a sea, dark, wasteful, wild.

And indeed, though there is no mention of any “Chaos” in the biblical cosmogony in Genesis, nonetheless the Hesiodic, Graeco-Roman, and generally pagan assumption that the world was created through the ordering of a pre-existent, formless mass, in which all the elements were at first chaotically and indistinguishably mixed up with one another, became a presupposition of Christian cosmogony as well, right from the nascency of the Church.


We are so familiar with the idea of the world-order being produced out of chaos that we tend to assume that in Hesiod’s account, too, “Chaos” stands for that pre-existent state of things out of which the world comes into being.  But Hesiod distinctly say that Chaos itself “came into being”, and we must therefore ask ourselves from what prior state of things it arose.

In fact, the Greek word chaos is derived from a root meaning “gap” or “gulf”, and from later uses of the word in the Theogony, most scholars now agree that it refers to the chasm that separates earth and heaven.  Hesiod’s account, then, begins with the opening up of a gap between heaven and earth, which of course, presumes a pre-existing state of affairs in which heaven and earth were once one.

This assumption is indeed is an immemorial one of universal diffusion.  A famous fragment preserved from a lost work of Euripides reads:

Not from me but from my mother
Comes the tale how earth and sky
Were once one form, but being separated,
Brought forth all things, sending into light
Trees, birds, wild beasts,
Those nourished by the salt sea,
And the race of mortals.

The first line suggests that the tale is an ancient one, and indeed it is told in creation myths much older than Hesiod.  In one version of the Egyptian cosmogony, as we have already seen, Shu (the god of air), tears asunder earth and sky who were originally locked in an infertile pre-cosmogonic embrace, and thus separated, they in turn mate and give birth to two divine couples, the god Osiris and his consort Isis, along with their brother Seth and his consort Nephthys.

Similarly, in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, earth and sky are at first conjoined in the primeval waters of Apsu-Tiamat.  Then the creator-hero Marduk, after a great battle, kills Tiamat, the dragon of the sea, and fillets her body into two halves, one of which he sets above to be the sky with its sweet waters, the other below, to be the earth, with its salt sea.  This, as we’ve also seen, is the source of that mysterious text in Genesis according to which “God divided the waters which were below the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament” to create heaven and earth.  Genesis, moreover, begins with a state in which the earth, sky, and sea seem to be chaotically intermingled: when “the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep”.


The separation of the earth and sky is a theme that I’ve called the pre-cosmogonic divorce, before which the opposing male and female principles were conjoined in a completely undifferentiated unity.  Naturally, this unity was barren, and the process of creation could not begin until, having been separated, Father Sky and Mother Earth could recombine in a fertile embrace.

That the sexual union of Father Sky and Mother Earth should be conceived as the agency by which the world is first created is also, obviously, archetypal, inasmuch as to the ancient mythic imagination, the annual rebirth of the world every the spring depends upon the insemination of the womb of Mother Earth by the seed with which Father Sky impregnates her in the form of rain and sunshine.

Later in Greek philosophy, as we’ll see, the opposites are no longer conceived in these expressly anthropomorphic and sexual terms, but rather as the abstract contraries hot and cold, wet and dry, or the elements earth, water, air, and fire.  But the ancient mythological afflatus continued to inform these later, supposedly rational concepts, since the elemental opposites too were imagined as at first mixed up together in a chaotic primordial unity, before being separated out and assigned to their respective provinces, an ordering on which the whole cosmogonic enterprise apparently depended.

We’ll return to these ideas when we come to the Pre-Socratics; for Hesiod, in any case, the coming into being of Chaos by which earth and sky were sundered is the precondition for creation, since creation for Hesiod’s anthropomorphizing imagination is a kind of birth, and all birth presupposes the union of male and female.

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