Around the world and throughout history, religions have attempted to solve the mystery of how the universe was created. While the gods and goddesses people worshiped could be responsible for different domains, how those domains and their gods came to be was a puzzling question.
The Greeks applied the trends of the generations of gods in their mythology to this question. The successive generations of gods went from having broad domains to increasingly specialized ones, so it was logical that the universe began with the most broad domains of all.
The primordial gods were believed to be the first to come into existence. Most people believed that the earliest of them emerged spontaneously and then gave rise to the others.
The primordial gods were elemental powers. Gaia was not simply the goddess of the earth, she was the earth itself.
So who were the primordial gods?
Most retellings of Greek cosmology begin with Chaos. Usually described as feminine, Chaos was the swirling mixture of elemental mass that existed before anything else.
The first primordial gods were said to have emerged from within this chaotic space. Chaos contained the first building blocks from which all of creation would spawn.
This view of Chaos only existed in later mythology, however.
The word chaos in Greek meant “chasm.” It was not originally applied to a confused mess of mass, but to an empty space.
In earlier cosmology, Chaos was not the first part of all creation. She was the primordial goddess of the lower atmosphere.
Her domain was the air that surrounded the living world, once that world was created. She represented both the invisible element of air and the thicker mists and fogs that sometimes filled it.
As the first elemental goddess of air, Chaos was the mother of all of the gods of air and mist that came after her.
Later versions of cosmology expanded this role to make Chaos the progenitor of all of the primordial gods. The name was still applied to the air, however.
As the first goddess of air, Chaos was also the mother of the things that lived in it. Birds, insects, and other flying creatures were her first mortal children.
When Chaos was said to be the origins of the primordial gods, others were believed to have emerged from her. The first of these was Chronos.
Before the god of time came into being, there was no progression or movement possible. The emptiness that came before creation was both eternal and momentary.
Once Chronos emerged, the progression of time could begin. There could be a clear division, for example, between things that came before his birth and things that came after.
According to some accounts, however, when only Chronos existed there was no order or structure to time. Its course was erratic and unpredictable.
Another primordial being was sometimes said to have come into being at about the same time as Chronos. Ananke represented inevitability, compulsion, and necessity.
Ananke and Chronos became intertwined and order was brought to the universe. Time began to progress in an orderly, predictable pace and maintain a consistent course that did not skip ahead or loop back on itself.
While the primordial gods were incorporeal, Chronos and Ananke were sometimes depicted as snake-like beings. Their bodies twisted around one another, encircling the whole of creation and constantly in motion.
The most well-known of the primordial gods were the first to have a physical presence.
Gaia is often referred to as Mother Earth. As the primordial goddess of the world, she was the mother of all living things that came to inhabit it.
Gaia was also one of the only primordial gods to be routinely shown with an anthropomorphic form and a distinct personality.
She appeared in art as a female figure emerging from the ground. While she was never entirely separate from the earth, she could be shown in a more relatable way.
Gaia also featured prominently in many myths. She was portrayed as a protective maternal figure who would go to great lengths, including violence, to protect her children.
Gaia’s first child emerged from her being soon after she was formed. This was Uranus, the god of the heavens, who became her spouse.
Together, Uranus and Gaia became the parents of the Titans, the first Cyclopes, and the Hecatonchires. These were the first gods to be born from a union between two other beings rather than spontaneously.
Uranus, however, was not a good father to his children. He despised the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires for their monstrous appearances and had them imprisoned in the one place Gaia could not reach them.
Beneath the flat expanse of Gaia, another primordial being had taken shape. This was Tartarus, the pit.
Tartarus was a bleak and brutal place. While Gaia was a place of life, Tartarus was a realm of death.
The pit curved beneath Gaia in a semicircle. While they met at their edges, there was no way for Gaia to see into Tartarus because he was beneath her surface.
Uranus locked his six children in the depths of Tartarus, giving preference to the more attractive Titans. This enraged Gaia, however, and she asked her children to help her protect their siblings.
When the Titans rebelled against Uranus, they held him aloft so he could no longer touch Gaia. With this, the heavens became a dome above the earth, mirroring the curve of Tartarus and making the physical world a complete sphere.
Several of the primordial gods represented the different types and qualities of water.
The foremost of these was Oceanus, who had been born from Gaia. While his name was later applied to the world’s largest bodies of saltwater, the Greeks believed that Oceanus was a freshwater deity.
Oceanus was a vast river that entirely encircled Gaia’s perimeter. He was at the limit of the physical world, where Gaia, Uranus, and Tartarus met at their edges.
Oceanus was sometimes anthropomorphized as a horned man with the tail of a sea serpent or fish. This representation is likely taken from an older, pre-Greek marine god.
Oceanus was the origin of all fresh water in the world. Rivers, springs, and even rain clouds were all directly connected to him.
These waters were born from Oceanus’s partner, Tethys.
While Oceanus represented the water itself, Tethys was the goddess of its continuous flow and movement. Rivers and springs had their source at Oceanus, but they moved across the world because of Tethys.
The rivers and other types of water that came from Oceanus and Tethys were personified as gods and goddesses. The Oceanid nymphs and the river gods were their children in anthropomorphized form.
Because she represented the flow of liquid, Tethys also took on functions as a more general mother goddess. Her primordial flow was also the power behind menstrual blood, breast milk, and other fluid hallmarks of motherhood.
While Oceanus was the origin of fresh water, Pontus was the primordial god of saltwater. He was the god of the sea.
His partner was Thelassa, the primordial representation of the sea’s surface. Together, they were the parents of marine life.
Some versions of Greek cosmology claimed that neither Oceanus nor Pontus were the first aquatic forms. Instead, they named Hydros as the primordial form of all water.
Two of the most prolific primordial deities were Erebus and Nyx.
Nyx was born directly from Chaos. She was the goddess of night.
Nyx was soon followed by Erebus, the god of darkness. The two became consorts and close companions.
The first children born to Nyx and Erebus were, ironically, primordial deities of light.
Aether was the god of the upper atmosphere. He was the bright blue that made the space between the earth and the heavens shine with light.
His sister Himera was the goddess of the day.
Nyx and her daughter moved across the span of Aether in a constant cycle. When Nyx brought night to the earth she pulled the dark mists of Erebus with her, but when Himera arrived in the morning she banished them both and allowed Aether to shine.
Like Chaos and Aether, Erebus was a type of air. His mists had their own region, just as Chaos and Aether inhabited the layers of the atmosphere.
In some accounts, Erebus was found past Oceanus, at the far edges of creation. Others said that he retreated to Tartarus during the day and filled it with dark mists.
After their primordial children were created, Erebus and Nyx went on to have many offspring with physical forms.
Numerous minor gods and goddesses were said to be their children. Virtually anything associated with the night, secrecy, or darkness was said by at least one source to have been born from Nyx.
These were often gods who could be seen as threatening. The Fates, personifications of death, and the Furies were all sometimes said to be her children.
While Nyx and Erebus were responsible for the creation of many gods and goddesses that people feared, however, they were not the parents of monsters. Night and darkness were not evil influences, but part of the natural order of creation.
Some sources claimed that a god often said to be the youngest was actually one of the first primordial gods.
Logically, however, there was a problem with Eros being so young.
As the god of love, Eros was responsible for making men and women sexually attracted to one another. Without his influence, none of the gods would have mated with one another before his birth.
Even his own birth would have been impossible. Most people believed that he was the product of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares, which would never have happened if love did not yet exist.
For reproduction to have begun, Eros would have needed to have been born before any of the primordial gods paired up. This meant that, at the very least, he would have to be older than the Titans, Himera, and the river gods.
Some people therefore believed that Eros was one of the first primordial gods. He came into being early in creation, either directly from Chaos or as a spontaneously-born child of Nyx.
To reconcile the two beliefs, some claimed that Eros had been born twice. He had been destroyed when Uranus lost power but his essence was contained in and reborn from Aphrodite.
To distinguish between the two incarnations of the god of love, the primordial Eros was sometimes called Eros Protogonos.
In some mystery cults, he was known as Phanes. The story of Phanes presented a much different creation narrative than most of mainstream religion at the time.
Instead of Chaos, some cult initiates believed that creation had begun with a silver egg. The primordial egg contained all the elements needed to set the universe in order.
Phanes was born from this egg and began to assemble the elements around him into primordial forms. This made him the original creator god, while the more traditional Greek cosmology held that the primordial gods emerged more spontaneously.
This story of Phanes and the egg was likely taken from foreign influences, notably the Egyptian creation story. It was used in Greece, however, to elevate the status of Eros and explain the contradictions surrounding his birth.
Greek mythology is marked in many ways by the idea of progression. Successive generations of gods had more specialized domains and precise powers.
As the earliest gods, the primordial deities represented broad aspects of creation. Their children, grandchildren, and later generations would divide these domains until they represented very specific places, ideas, or powers.
The primordial gods were the most basic and broad forces that made up creation. From them, all other gods and all forms of life were born.