Perhaps most readers are familiar with the account of the beginning of the universe found in the Bible:
“1 God, at the beginning of time, created heaven and earth.
2 Earth was still an empty waste, and darkness hung over the deep; but already, over its waters, stirred the breath of God.
3 Then God said, Let there be light; and the light began.
4 God saw the light, and found it good, and he divided the spheres of light and darkness;
5 the light he called Day, and the darkness Night. So evening came, and morning, and one day passed.”
(Genesis, trans. R. Knox)
In Hesiod, light also comes out of darkness. But the manner in which it happens is different from a sole Creator-God issuing artisanal fiats. Instead, there is a drama of multiple deities, with their primal desires and their ensuing conflicts.
The first four deities in the universe simply pop into existence:
“First of all, Chaos (the Void)
came spontaneously into being. But then came
the broad-breasted Earth (Gaia).
She is ever the steadfast abode for those
immortals who live on the peak
of snowcapped Olympus.
Then came dark Tartarus (the Underworld)
underneath the ground’s wide path.
Then came Eros (Desire), who is
the most beautiful of the immortal gods.
She loosens limbs.
For all gods, for all humans,
heartfelt Desire subdues
even earnest intent and careful deliberation.”
(Hesiod, Theogony 116–122, trans. C.S. Morrissey)
Chaos (and this Greek word is better translated as “the Gap” or, better, “the Void”) is the name for the first deity. Think of it as the empty stage of the universe, where the drama may now begin.
Gaia is Mother Earth, the second deity, as our home within the universe is spontaneously generated to take its place within the Void.
Finally, it is Eros (Desire) who springs into being as the fourth deity. And now, with Desire fresh on the scene, the dramatic possibilities for the universe have increased.
In the next section of the poem, as Hesiod continues his telling of the origin of the universe, Erebos is the fifth deity to come into existence.
Erebos is a Greek word that means Darkness. Perhaps you have heard of him as Erebus, which is simply the Latin spelling of the Greek word. Think of him as Darkness personified—because that is literally what he is.
Now, note that with these first five deities what has happened in the universe so far has been spontaneous generation—simple popping into being—somewhat like the virtual particles of quantum theory that physicists tell us about today. This should also help you realize that Hesiod is doubtless playing with the physical theories of ancient Greece’s proto-scientists and re-using those theories for his own mythically amusing purposes.
A few moments reflection can also help us to see how the poet’s first four deities subtly suggest a profound parallel between the beginning of the universe and the beginning of our own lives.
The Void is the womb in which we begin; Gaia is the mother we know after we are born that we depend upon; Tartarus is the horrible experience of the absence of the mother (an analogue to our isolation in the womb, that time previous, in which we were seemingly alone and we knew her not: but now that we do know her, we cry out for her return). Finally, in this cry for “Mama,” we attain a dim consciousness of our own identity, as an independent entity other than the mother. Alone, crying out for her comforting return, we give voice to our very selves by giving voice to our Desire for her return.
In short, Hesiod playfully uses the speculative theories of cosmological science to establish a parallel between the entire cosmos and our own personal tale: womb; mother; absent mother; and finally the recognition of self (a.k.a., the presence of desire).
But what then is his purpose as he begins to tell the story of Darkness (Erebos), the fifth deity? It is a very brief story. It is only a very short section of the Theogony that is about Erebos and which tells the tale of the origin of Night and Day, of Darkness and Brightness. It is so brief that readers often move too quickly and overlook its significance. So let us pause now and take a closer look at it. I call this story, found early on within Hesiod’s verses, the story of “Descendants of the Void; or, The Next”:
“Darkness (Erebos) and black Night (Nyx)
came spontaneously into being, from the Void.
Then, in turn, from Night came
Brightness (Aether) and Day (Hemera). But
Night gave birth to them after conceiving them
in sexual intercourse with Darkness.”
(Hesiod, Theogony 123–125, trans. C.S. Morrissey)
What almost everyone seems to miss is that this episode recounts the first occurrence of sexual intercourse in the history of the universe. Recall that, after Eros (deity number four) had been spontaneously generated, this sort of activity is now logically a conceivable possibility in the universe.
Therefore, right after Darkness (Erebos, deity number five) and Night (Nyx, deity number six) pop into being spontaneously, they do something new. They engage in sexual relations.
On Hesiod’s telling, Darkness is male and Night is female. This is somewhat refreshing and unexpected. The originary male and female principles of the entire universe are each depicted as complementary modes of darkness and night.
Perhaps this metaphor is meant to dramatize the dimness of our knowledge of the most ancient ancestors of gendered beings. Or it may simply be the amusing observation that sexual activity is nocturnal. In any case, after the first sex in the history of the universe (and we can applaud Hesiod for his tastefully decorous account of the event), we witness the happy result. The mother Night gives birth to Brightness and Day, and her two children are the deities to be historically numbered as seven and eight.
We should therefore recognize Hesiod’s second tetrad (Darkness, Night, Brightness, Day), which comes after his first tetrad (Void, Gaia, Tartarus, Eros), as his account of the universe’s first family.
True, it all began in the beginning with a mother (Gaia), but the poetic significance of the first tetrad, with its dependence on spontaneous generation (which is analogous to immaculate conception and virginal birth), cannot be the origin of the family. It suggests, rather, the origin of individual consciousness as an analogue for understanding the origin of the universe. That is, as much as we can understand our own self as one (and as having an origin available to consciousness), so too can we understand the universe as one (and as having an origin available to consciousness).
The poetic significance of the second tetrad does seem, however, to be a celebration of the complementary shades of gender which, together with Eros’ inspiration, can generate the primal family. And then finally, with the advent of children in the universe, the future is indeed (literally) bright. A new day has dawned: the First Day.
Compare Hesiod’s tetrad to the Genesis account of the same tetrad: “God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’ And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” (Genesis 1:5, NIV)
In Genesis, the Hesiodic metaphor for the complementarity of gender is not present. And God’s naming collapses what would be four deities on Hesiod’s logic into two realities with two complementary names. Moreover, what would be two additional gods (Evening and Morning) in Hesiodic logic are also de-personified in Genesis and naturalized. The distinction between a transcendent Creator and the nature he creates is paramount.
It goes without saying that there is no sex on the First Day in Genesis. But in Hesiod there is. The manner in which it does appear in Hesiod, moreover, is evidence of why Hesiod’s mythical explorations are so supremely classic. In Hesiod’s poetry, the philosopher Eric Voegelin sees intimations of a transcendent Creator God symbolized cryptically by Hesiod’s poetry, and I actually agree with his unusual but highly perceptive interpretation. But, nonetheless, anything intimated or implicit in Hesiod is still a far cry from what is revealed and made explicit in Genesis.
However, as Hesiod gropes with Greek mythical symbols towards a profound knowledge of the One God, he does so by starting off his own creation account in a classically exemplary way with a tale of the universe’s First Day. He offers a poetically philosophical account of the origin of the self and of the cosmically fundamental matrix of the family. Then he proceeds, with the rest of his poem, to focus on what we would say (in hindsight) is an implicit search for the answer to the ultimate question. It is a question that naturally arises, once we are given the cosmically fundamental truths, about self and family, with which he has begun his mythical quest on his First Day. That question is: Who is the God that is truly worthy of being called “Our Father”?
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.