Greek primordial deities

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In Greek mythology, the primordial deities are the first generation of gods and goddesses. These deities represented the fundamental forces and physical foundations of the world and were generally not actively worshipped, as they, for the most part, were not given human characteristics; they were instead personifications of places or abstract concepts.

Hesiod, in his Theogony, considers the first beings (after Chaos) to be Erebus, Gaia, Tartarus, Eros and Nyx. Gaia and Uranus in turn gave birth to the Titans, and the Cyclopes. The Titans Cronus and Rhea then gave birth to the generation of the Olympians, Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Hera and Demeter, who overthrow the Titans, with the reign of Zeus marking the end of the period of warfare and usurpation among the gods.

Hesiod's primordial genealogy[edit]

Hesiod's Theogony, (c. 700 BCE) which could be considered the "standard" creation myth of Greek mythology,[1] tells the story of the genesis of the gods. After invoking the Muses (II.1–116), Hesiod says the world began with the spontaneous generation of four beings: first arose Chaos (Chasm); then came Gaia (the Earth), "the ever-sure foundation of all"; "dim" Tartarus (the Underworld), in the depths of the Earth; and Eros (Love) "fairest among the deathless gods".[2] (Although in other myths, Eros was the name of Aphrodite's and Ares's son.)

From Chaos came Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night). And Nyx "from union in love" with Erebus produced Aether (Light) and Hemera (Day).[3] From Gaia came Uranus (Sky), the Ourea (Mountains), and Pontus (Sea).[4]


In Hesiod's creation myth, Chaos is the first being to ever exist. Chaos is both seen as a deity and a thing, with some sources seeing chaos as the gap between Heaven and Earth.[5] In some accounts Chaos existed first alongside Eros and Nyx,[5] while in others Chaos is the first and only thing in the universe. In some stories, Chaos is seen as existing beneath Tartarus.[5] Chaos is the parent to Night and Darkness.[6]


Gaia was the second being to be formed, right after Chaos, in Hesiod's theogony, and parthenogenetically gave birth to Heaven, who would later become her husband and her equal, the Sea, and to the high Mountains.[7]

Gaia is a mother earth figure and is seen as the mother of all the gods, while also being the seat on which they exist.[5] Gaia is the Greek Equivalent to the Roman goddess, Tellus / Terra. The story of Uranus' castration at the hands of Cronus due to Gaia's involvement is seen as the explanation for why Heaven and Earth are separated.[8] In Hesiod's story, Earth seeks revenge against Heaven for hiding her children the Cyclopes deep within her. Gaia then goes to her other children and asks for their help to get revenge against their cruel father; of her children, only Cronus, the youngest and "most dreadful" of them all, agrees to do this. Gaia plans an ambush against Uranus where she hides Cronus and gives him the sickle to castrate Uranus. From the blood Gaia again become pregnant with the Furies, the Giants, and the Melian nymphs.[9] Cronus goes on to have six children with his sister, Rhea; who become the Olympians. Cronus is later overthrown by his son, Zeus, much in the same way he overthrew his father. Gaia is the mother to the twelve Titans; Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus.[6]

Later in the myth, after his succession, Cronus learns from Gaia and Uranus that his own son (Zeus) will overthrow him, just as Cronus did Uranus. To prevent this, Cronus swallows all of his children as soon as they are born. Rhea seeks out Gaia for help in hiding her youngest son, Zeus, and gives Cronus a rock to swallow instead. Zeus later goes on to defeat his father and become the leader of the Olympians.

After Zeus's succession to the throne, Gaia bears another son with Tartarus, Typhon, a monster who would be the last to challenge Zeus's authority.[9]

Sky and Earth have three sets of children: the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Hecatoncheires.


Tartarus is described by Hesiod as both a primordial deity[10] and also a great abyss where the Titans are imprisoned. Tartarus is seen as a prison, but is also where Day, Night, Sleep, and Death dwell, and also imagined as a great gorge that is a distinct part of the underworld. Hesiod tells that it took nine days for the Titans to fall to the bottom of Tartarus, describing how deep the abyss is.[11] In some versions Tartarus is described as a "misty darkness"[8] where Death, Styx, and Erebus reside.


Eros is the god of love in Greek mythology, and in some versions is one of the primordial beings that first came to be parentlessly. In Hesiod's version, Eros was the "fairest among the immortal gods ... who conquers the mind and sensible thoughts of all gods and men."[6]


In some variations of Hesiod's Theogony, Nyx (Night) is told as having black wings; and in one tale she laid an egg in Erebus from which Love sprang out.[12] One version of Hesiod's tale tells that Night shares her house with Day in Tartarus, but that the two are never home at the same time.[11] However, in some versions Nyx's home is where Chaos and Tartarus meet, suggesting to the idea that Chaos resides beneath Tartarus.[8]

Many of Nyx's children were also personifications of abstract concepts. A list of them, which varies by source:

Greek Name Roman Equivalent Description Hesiod[13] Cicero[14] Hyginus[15]
Aether Aether Light
Apate Fraus Deceit
Deimos Metus Fear
Dolos? Dolus Guile
Eleos Misericordia Compassion
Epiphron Epiphron Prudence
Eris Discordia Discord
Eros Cupid Love
Euphrosyne Euphrosyne Good Cheer
Geras Senectus Old Age
Hemera Dies Day
The Hesperides Hesperides Nymphs of the evening
Hybris Petulantia Wantonness
Hypnos Somnus Sleep
Ker Letum Destiny
The Keres Tenebrae Violent Death
The Moirai Parcae Fates
Momus Querella Blame
Moros Fatum Doom
Nemesis Invidentia Retribution
Oizys Miseria Pain
Oneiroi Somnia Dreams
Philotes Amicitia/Gratia Love
Ponos Labor Hardship
Sophrosyne Continentia Moderation
Styx Styx Hatred
Thanatos Mors Death

Hyginus also includes Epaphus and Porphyrion among Nyx's children. Some accounts also include Hecate (Crossroads and Magic) among Nyx's children.[16][17]

Aether, Hemera, and Eros are Nyx's only children who are among the primordial gods. Hesiod says Nyx and Erebus together had Aether and Hemera, but Nyx had the other children on her own. Cicero and Hyginus say Nyx had all her children with Erebus.

In Virgil's Aeneid, Nox is said to be the mother of the Furies by Hades.[18]

Some authors made Nyx the mother of Eos, the dawn goddess, who was often conflated with Nyx's daughter Hemera.[19] When Eos' son Memnon was killed during the Trojan War, Eos made Helios (the sun god) downcast, and asked Nyx to come out earlier so that she would collect her son's dead body undetected by the Greek and the Trojan armies.[20]


Nyx's daughter Eris went on to have many children of her own who were also personifications of abstract concepts:[21]

Greek Name Roman Equivalent Description
Algos Dolor Pains
Amphillogiai Altercatio Disputes
Androktasiai Androktasiai Manslaughters
Atë Atë Ruin
Dysnomia Dysnomia Anarchy
Horkos Jusjurandum Oath
Hysminai Pugnae Battles
Lethe Oblivio Forgetfulness
Limos Fames Starvation
Logoi Logoi Stories
Machai Machai Wars
Neikea Altercatio Quarrels
Phonoi Phonoi Murders
Ponos Labor Hardship
Pseudea Pseudea Lies

Non-Hesiodic theogonies[edit]

The ancient Greeks entertained different versions of the origin of primordial deities. Some of these stories were possibly inherited from the pre-Greek Aegean cultures.[22]

Homeric primordial theogony[edit]

The Iliad, an epic poem attributed to Homer about the Trojan War (an oral tradition of c. 700–600 BCE), states that Oceanus (and possibly Tethys, too) is the parent of all the deities.[23]

Other Greek theogonies[edit]

  • Alcman (fl. 7th century BCE) called Thetis the first goddess, producing poros (path), tekmor (marker), and skotos (darkness) on the pathless, featureless void.[24][25]
  • Orphic poetry (c. 530 BCE) made Nyx the first principle, Night, and her offspring were many. Also, in the Orphic tradition, Phanes, a mystic Orphic deity of light and procreation, sometimes identified with Eros, is the original ruler of the universe, who hatched from the cosmic egg.[26] The Orphic tradition also includes Ananke "Compulsion" and Chronos "Time" among the primordial deities.
  • Aristophanes (c. 446–386 BCE) wrote in his play The Birds that Nyx was the first deity also, and that she produced Eros from an egg.
  • Some other sources[who?] also include Aion (Eternity), Nesoi (Islands), Pothos, and Thalassa (Sea) among the Protogenoi.

Philosophical theogonies[edit]

Philosophers of Classical Greece also constructed their own metaphysical cosmogonies, with their own primordial deities:

Interpretation of primordial deities[edit]

Scholars dispute the meaning of the primordial deities in the poems of Homer and Hesiod.[33] Since the primordials give birth to the Titans, and the Titans give birth to the Olympians, one way of interpreting the primordial gods is as the deepest and most fundamental nature of the cosmos.

For example, Jenny Strauss Clay argues that Homer's poetic vision centers on the reign of Zeus, but that Hesiod's vision of the primordials put Zeus and the Olympians in context.[22] Likewise, Vernant argues that the Olympic pantheon is a "system of classification, a particular way of ordering and conceptualizing the universe by distinguishing within it various types of powers and forces."[34] But even before the Olympic pantheon were the Titans and primordial gods. Homer alludes to a more tumultuous past before Zeus was the undisputed King and Father.[35]

Mitchell Miller argues that the first four primordial deities arise in a highly significant relationship. He argues that Chaos represents differentiation, since Chaos differentiates (separates, divides) Tartarus and Earth.[36] Even though Chaos is "first of all" for Hesiod, Miller argues that Tartarus represents the primacy of the undifferentiated, or the unlimited. Since undifferentiation is unthinkable, Chaos is the "first of all" in that he is the first thinkable being. In this way, Chaos (the principle of division) is the natural opposite of Eros (the principle of unification). Earth (light, day, waking, life) is the natural opposite of Tartarus (darkness, night, sleep, death). These four are the parents of all the other Titans.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hard, p. 21.
  2. ^ Theogony 116–122 (Most, pp. 12, 13). West 1966, p. 192 line 116 Χάος, "best translated Chasm"; Most, p. 13, translates Χάος as "Chasm", and notes: (n. 7): "Usually translated as 'Chaos'; but that suggests to us, misleadingly, a jumble of disordered matter, whereas Hesiod's term indicates instead a gap or opening". Other translations given in this section follow those given by Caldwell, pp. 5–6.
  3. ^ Theogony 123–125 (Most, pp. 12, 13).
  4. ^ Theogony 126–132 (Most, pp. 12, 13).
  5. ^ a b c d Bussanich, John (July 1983). "A Theoretical Interpretation of Hesiod's Chaos". Classical Philology. 78 (3): 212–219. doi:10.1086/366783. JSTOR 269431. S2CID 161498892.
  6. ^ a b c Van Kooten, George (2005). Creation of Heaven and Earth. Brill. pp. 77–89.
  7. ^ Gotshalk, Richard (2000). Homer and Hesiod, Myth and Philosophy. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America. p. 196.
  8. ^ a b c Sale, William (Winter 1965). "The Dual Vision of "Theogony"". Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics. 4 (4): 668–699. JSTOR 20162994.
  9. ^ a b Leftkowitz, Mary R. (September 1989). "The Powers of the Primeval Goddess". American Scholar – via EBSCOhost.
  10. ^ Hesiod, Theogony, 119
  11. ^ a b Johnson, David (Spring–Summer 1999). "Hesiod's Description of Tartarus ("Theogony" 721-819)". Phoenix. 53 (1/2): 8–28. doi:10.2307/1088120. JSTOR 1088120.
  12. ^ Dietrich, B.C. (1997). "Aspects of Myth and Religion". Classical Association of South Africa. 20: 59–71. JSTOR 24591525.
  13. ^ Hesiod Theogony 221
  14. ^ Cicero De Natura Deorum 3.17
  15. ^ Hyginus Preface
  16. ^ Bacchylides Frag 1B
  17. ^ Scholiast on Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.467 with the Orphic hymns as the authority.
  18. ^ Virgil, Aeneid 6.250 (mother of the "Eumenides" another name for the Furies), 7.323–330 (Allecto a daughter of Pluto and Night), 12.845–846 (Night mother of the Furies).
  19. ^ Quintus Smyrnaeus, 2.625–26; cf. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 265
  20. ^ Philostratus of Lemnos, Imagines 1.7.2
  21. ^ Hesiod Theogony 226
  22. ^ a b Clay, Jenny Strauss (26 May 2006). The Politics of Olympus: Form and Meaning in the Major Homeric Hymns (2 ed.). London, UK: Bristol Classical Press. p. 9. ISBN 9781853996924.
  23. ^ Homer. Iliad. Book 14.
  24. ^ Alcman, Fragment 5 (from Scholia) = Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2390.
  25. ^ Campbell, D. A. (1989). Greek Lyric II: Anacreon, Anacreontea, Choral Lyric from Olympis to Alcman. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pp. 388–395. ISBN 0-674-99158-3.
  26. ^ "Phanes". Theoi. Protogenos.
  27. ^ Kirk, G. S.; F.B.A, Regius Professor of Greek G. S. Kirk; Raven, J. E.; Schofield, M. (1983-12-29). The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts. Cambridge University Press. pp. 56. ISBN 978-0-521-27455-5.
  28. ^  Laërtius, Diogenes (1925), "The Seven Sages: Pherecydes" , Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, vol. 1:1, translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (Two volume ed.), Loeb Classical Library, § 119
  29. ^ Smith, William (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. Robarts - University of Toronto. Boston, Little. p. 258.
  30. ^ Damascius. Difficulties and Solutions Regarding First Principles. 214.
  31. ^ Wallace, William (1911). "Empedocles" . In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 09 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 344–345, see third para, lines four to six. ...There are, according to Empedocles, four ultimate elements, four primal divinities, of which are made all structures in the world—fire, air, water, earth.
  32. ^ Reynolds, Frank; Tracy, David (1990-10-30). Myth and Philosophy. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0-7914-0418-8.
  33. ^ Nagy, Gregory (1992-01-01). Greek Mythology and Poetics. Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0801480485.
  34. ^ Vernant, Jean Pierre (1980-01-01). Myth and Society in Ancient Greece. Harvester Press. ISBN 9780855279837.
  35. ^ "The Internet Classics Archive | The Iliad by Homer". pp. Book I (396–406), Book VIII (477–83). Archived from the original on 2011-07-14. Retrieved 2016-01-21.
  36. ^ Miller, Mitchell (October 2001). "'First of all': On the Semantics and Ethics of Hesiod's Cosmogony - Mitchell Miller - Ancient Philosophy (Philosophy Documentation Center)". Ancient Philosophy. 21 (2): 251–276. doi:10.5840/ancientphil200121244. Retrieved 2016-01-21.


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