BMCR 2023.02.16

Chaos, cosmos and creation in early Greek theogonies: an ontological exploration

, Chaos, cosmos and creation in early Greek theogonies: an ontological exploration. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022. Pp. 256. ISBN 9781350221840



Olaf Almqvist describes this book as “an exploration of early Greek myth and thought” and of the relationship between myth and philosophy (p. 12). Specifically, it is about competing views of the ontological status of gods and human beings and their relationship as reflected in cosmogonic and anthropogonic myths. The author focuses on Hesiod’s Theogony, the Orphic Derveni Theogony, and, to a lesser degree, Protagoras’ myth in Plato’s Protagoras. Along the way, the book engages with Presocratic texts, comparative material from global ethnographic studies, and selected Near Eastern sources. The book comprises an introduction, four chapters, a concluding chapter, and an appendix with translations of select Orphic texts, in addition to endnotes, bibliography, and two indexes.

The Introduction makes a compelling case for the fluid relationship between myth and philosophy, in which the Presocratics loom large, and lays out the ontological model that guides Almqvist’s exploration of these narratives. The author follows anthropologist Philippe Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago 2013), which “attempts to navigate a middle ground between cognitive universals and the diversity of views and configurations of humans and non-humans found in the ethnographic record” (p. 13). In Descola’s schema, all cultures think of the supernatural and human planes in ways that correspond to the discrete categories of animism, totemism, naturalism, and analogism. Which ontology is in play in a given case depends on the degrees of similarity or difference assumed to exist between gods, humans, and nature, along an imagined axis of continuity between their physicalities and interiorities (in other words, between “body and soul”). To schematize Almqvist’s proposal, traditional Greek cosmogony (such as Hesiod) is based on an analogist view, which “involves a separation in terms of both the interiority and physicality axes” (p. 15). The reader might have to look elsewhere for a more fleshed out description of ontological analogism. In Descola’s words, “admitting that all the components of the world are separated by tiny discontinuities, it [analogism] entertains the hope of weaving these weakly differentiated elements in a canvas of affinities and attractions which has all the appearances of continuity.”[1] Later cosmogonies such as the Orphic ones explored philosophies of pantheism, which assumes ontological continuities (he notes the similar categories of “homologism” and monism). Finally, the philosophical discussion of the creation of humans and animals in Plato’s Protagoras reflects a naturalist view, which posits a continuity of physicalities (bodies) but a division in terms of interiorities (souls).

How does this ontological schema play out in the Greek cosmogonies treated here? In Chapter One, “Cosmos and Chaos in Hesiod’s Theogony,” Almqvist argues that Hesiod’s cosmogony “depicts a chaotic world composed of distinct and conflicting forces” (p. 17). The chapter is set against an alleged “orthodoxy” that reads Hesiod’s cosmogony-theogony as a narrative about order and even attributes to it a streak of “monism.” For Almqvist the Theogony reflects an analogic schema (opposed to a monist one) that emphasizes ontological difference between mortals and immortals. Chapter Two, “Beyond the Golden Age: Sacrifice, Sharing and Affinity in Hesiod’s Mekone,” turns to human-divine relations and the role of ritual as a mediating action, focusing on the narrative of animal sacrifice in Hesiod’s Prometheus story. Almqvist argues for a “new theory of sacrifice as a flexible and creative act where mortals and immortals approach each other not as strangers, but through the ambiguous and dangerous relationship known as affinity,” akin to “xenia.” Chapter Three, “Orpheus and the Reinvention of the Cosmos,” moves to Orphic cosmogonies, especially the Derveni Theogony. Here the author detects a shift from the traditional, analogic ontology of separation and conflict to an emphasis on continuity that is characteristic of pantheism. Influenced by the Presocratics but keeping mythology and theology at the center, the Orphic cosmogonist built on Hesiod’s tropes but focused on monistic principles, whereby “the many-named gods are really refractions of a single deity and divinely ordered cosmos” (p. 18). Chapter Four, “Dionysus Dismembered,” expands on Orphic theology and its connection to anthropogony, centering the theme of sacrifice, in this case the myth of the killing of Dionysos by the Titans (the so-called Zagreus myth), and the birth of humankind from these mixed remains, a narrative reconstructed from later sources and allusions in Orphic-adjacent texts.[2] The story is read as a scene of sacrifice among gods, which, in contrast to the Hesiodic one, stresses continuity among all beings, thus blurring traditional ontological differences.

The symmetrical structure of the four chapters (two chapters on Hesiodic cosmogony and anthropogony/sacrifice, and two on Orphic narratives), is broken by a final section called “Conclusion: Protagoras and Greek Naturalism,” which is really a new chapter. Here Almqvist introduces new material, namely the creation story of Prometheus in Plato’s Protagoras, and yet another ontological category, perspectivism, which is the view-point linked to different beings. This chapter argues that the sophist portrays people as a hybrid category, “joined to the world by a common nature, and distinguished from the world by the heavenly gift of culture” (p. 139). In conclusion, he argues that in Plato’s dialogue, and by extension in classical Athens, the ontologies of naturalism, analogism, and pantheism co-exist. Almqvist closes with a reflection on the current environmental crisis, suggesting that we may find some inspiration in the ancient Greeks’ “propensity for debate” and capacity to offer “a plurality of answers to perennial problems” (p. 143).

This study makes a laudable effort to introduce a new theoretical model to the study of Greek myth and religion, even if its application to these texts is not uniformly effective. I stumbled time and again with the author’s tendency to set up his reading (not always new or solid) against an unsubstantiated proposition presented as a given, what we might call a strawman, both in the sources and scholarship. I give one example, from Chapter One’s discussion of Chaos. I find it hard to agree with the premise of the argument, namely that there is a “pervasive assumption that Hesiod was writing about a cosmos rather than a chaos” (p. 27), or that “the majority of scholars… impose order upon Hesiod… to redefine his ambiguous descriptions of the first god” (p. 30). The author falls back on a rigid concept of both “Chaos” and “cosmos.” In reality, Almqvist is arguing largely against Jenny Strauss Clay’s reading of Hesiod,[3] a work that finds harmonies and coherence cross the Hesiodic narratives of beginnings but does not argue for a flat cosmic “order.” Almqvist cites many other scholars who see more disorder in Hesiod, so it is not clear what he is adding to the discussion. One of Almqvist’s main concerns is that scholars interpret Chaos as a physical feature or phenomenon and rob him of his agency as a force of disruption in the process of cosmogony (p. 36). In order to debunk this idea, Almqvist critiques Francis Cornford’s interpretation of Chaos as a “gap” between heaven and earth.[4]  But then Almqvist affirms that “Kronos’ ascension reinstates the initial division between Ouranos and Gaia and once more separates the heaven from the earth” (p. 38), seemingly contradicting his previous discussion. He is correct at least that the genealogies started by Chaos represent darker and conflicting forces (Erebos and Night and their descendants, Th. 211-232). But his main point relies on a false dichotomy, that Chaos cannot be both a gap or opening and an entity that generates other gods or elements. It is difficult to see how the entire discussion relates to an analogist view of the universe.

A similar interweaving of potentially interesting ideas and contradictory points pervades Almqvist’s discussion of primordial elements: He focuses on a triad formed by Chaos, Gaia (Earth), and Eros (Love) as “co-creators of an ordered totality” (p. 35, 79), whose offspring represent a “problematic state of the world” (41), and argues that these primordial abstract figures “are often downplayed” despite the fact that they “play an important role in Hesiod’s poem” (p. 37). It is not clear who downplays them. Moreover, Almqvist’s choice to write Tartaros out of the list of primordial sequence of gods/elements (relying on an uncertain reading of Τάρταρα in Th. 119 as accusative and subordinate to Gaia, p. 35, 79) seems to work against his own thesis. He could have uplifted Tartaros as an agent of disorder at the end of the Theogony, when Gaia begets Typhon with him as a challenger to Zeus’ new order. Other moments of vagueness and self-contradiction pervade in the book: Why say that the Hundred-Handers had “hundreds of hands and almost as many heads”? (p.39) They had exactly half the number of heads, fifty heads (Th. 151). Or, why say that Kronos’ rule is “one of patricide” (40) when he did not kill (only castrated) his father Ouranos? Or, why say that Kronos, “who dined with mortal men, dined on Olympian gods such as Zeus” (p. 69), when it was precisely Zeus whom he did not eat thanks to Rhea’s trick?

The discussion of the first elements seems oddly disconnected from the issue that occupies the rest of the book, namely, the human-divine ontological divide. Much of Almqvist’s exploration of this topic focuses on sacrifice as a key act and narrative for revealing these relations. But this poses another problem, since Greek cosmogony is uninterested in anthropogony. In the Theogony human beings are less than secondary actors in a drama of rivalry between the titans and Zeus. Specifically, human beings appear as pawns in the episode where Prometheus tricks Zeus and gives human beings the good portion of the sacrificial animal, whereupon Zeus’ withholds fire from them and Prometheus steals it back. Pandora, the first woman, is the punishment for this rebellion (Th. 535-616). It is Hesiod’s Works and Days where human labors take center stage, but this is not a cosmogonic work. The repetition of the creation of Pandora and her release of all the maladies (Op. 59-105) and the “Myth of the Races” (Op. 106-201), however, invite a merge-reading of these poems. Now, Almqvist is invested in showing that Hesiod’s myths represent a traditional Greek ontology of discontinuity and incompatibility between gods and humans, which he will contrast with Orphic cosmogony (see below). However, his argument is built on inaccurate readings of Hesiod. First, he has to deny that there was a Greek myth about a utopic Golden Age when mortals and immortals were closer (presumably this would break his scheme of analogical relationship), and then he has to deny that in Hesiod humans and gods have a common origin. In the first case, he says that “this [Golden Age] utopic existence we are told came to an end at Mekone when Prometheus and Zeus negotiated man’s destiny over the body of a sacrificial ox” (p. 47). Only he cites no sources for this reading, and he merges Prometheus’ sacrifice and the Five Races into a linear story-line (and cause-effect chain) that is not present in Hesiod nor in any scholarship he cites. Then he debunks this imagined narrative by insisting that the idea of a mythical “Golden Age” “is nowhere found in the poetry of Hesiod” (p. 47), which is also to deny the obvious, as the Works and Days poses a “Golden Race” or family (genos) of human beings who “lived like gods” (Op. 112) under Kronos. What I take Almqvist to mean is that even in the Five-Races’ Golden Age the utopic harmony and semi-equality with the gods was short-lived and problematic, which is fairly transparent from Hesiod’s account.

Almqvist then runs into Hesiod’s statement in the Five Races story, that “gods and mortal people originated from the same source/place (ὁμόθεν)” (Op. 108). Almqvist posits that genealogical kinship is not meant here (p. 54), as the races were “made” (verb ποιέω) by the gods, that is (he does not clarify) not engendered sexually. This technicality does not really solve his problem, as Hesiod’s mythical tradition clearly has room in its ontology to imagine gods crafting humans (like Pandora) but also creating them sexually. There is nothing ontologically messier than the divine-human hybrid creature called demigods, who break the alleged incompatibility among the mortal-immortal “species” and allow, quite literally, for shared origins. Such offspring form the matter of the end of the Theogony and its continuation, the Catalogue of Women; the term “demi-gods” (ἡμίθεοι) is first attested in Hesiod’s Works and Days (Op. 160).

In his interpretation of the Prometheus-sacrifice story, Almqvist departs from Jean-Pierre Vernant’s interpretation, for whom the narrative is about “the separation of two tribes and the creation of distinct diets and lifestyles.”[5] Almqvist strives to make an original point, which I take to be that sacrificial animals functioned as intermediaries in the creation (and separation) of the human-divine categories. Almqvist also introduces new concepts for “myths of creation of sacrifice,” using comparative material from India and later Greek sources, although, here and elsewhere, the comparison is not effectively deployed to illuminate Hesiod’s myth. The discussion of the Orphic cosmogony and anthropogony (Chapters 3-4) is more convincing, almost as if the earlier discussion had been reversed-engineered to provide a contrast with the Orphic chapters. There is no doubt that the Orphic cosmogonies do reflect the development of a pantheistic theology. A single genealogy of gods initiated by Protogonos (“First Born”) culminates in Zeus’s reign and points to his successor Dionysos, instead of the competing lines stemming from the first element-gods as in Hesiod. In both traditions, Zeus is central, but the Orphic Zeus encompasses the universe anew by swallowing Protogonos. I liked Almqvist’s point that, through the act of swallowing the “First Born” god, Zeus achieves the quality of priority itself (p. 92). Like Marduk in the Babylonian myth, Zeus recreates the cosmos with himself at the center. Thus, Orpheus (treated as a real author) “re-wrote Hesiod’s Theogony in pantheistic terms” (p. 96).

Orphic narratives of sacrifice provide a similar contrast to Hesiod’s. Using the Zagreus’ myth, where Dionysos himself is the victim, Almqvist proposes that sacrifice in the Orphic myth is “an act that distances humanity from their divine kin and severs the very soul of the cosmos” (p. 100). What this puzzling assertion means is better explained in one of the more interesting sections of the book. In contrast to the traditional view (Hesiod’s) in which sacrifice connected humans and “ontologically distinct gods” (p. 100), this sacrifice of a god marks a rupture, in the sense that it introduces the creation of “mortal life” into an otherwise pantheistic Orphic cosmogonic narrative (p. 111). For Almqvist this sacrifice was “an act that both destroyed and created the world as we know it” (132). If I understand the logic of the arguments, ontologically speaking the myth of Zagreus does one thing and its opposite: it confirms the continuity between gods and mortals, since they are created from gods (via the Titans-Dionysos), but it also disrupts the new cosmic continuum (the Orphic pantheistic cosmogony) by establishing such a link in the first place. But these contradictions are not addressed. The Prometheus and the Zagreus narratives of sacrifice, however, are asymmetrical in ways that are not explained. Hesiod’s story provides an aetiology of the actual ritual of animal sacrifice, while Dionysos’ dismemberment by the Titans in the Zagreus’ Orphic myth is a purely mythological act. I was left wandering how these rituals are comparable, other than in the killing of a victim, since the Titans are not making an offering to request something of a god. Almqvist emphasizes that, in Hesiod, sacrifice mediated between ontologically distinct tribes (gods and people) while the killing in the Orphic story “separates ontologically similar beings” (gods from gods) (p. 120). In his view, such narrative reflects pantheism’s creative and destructive potential. He should have noted, though, that Kronos and Zeus also engaged in cannibalistic solutions to their power struggles, such as when Kronos gulps down his children and Zeus his pregnant wife Metis. Once again, the book sets up oversimplified dichotomies that required more nuance or framing.

In as much as Almqvist’s study walks closer to the cognitive study of religion than to other approaches, such as phenomenology or structuralism, it would have been interesting to see the book engage with recent works along these lines (e.g., Jennifer Larson, Understanding Greek Religion, Routledge 2016). Overall, the book makes a vigorous case for a new way of understanding Greek cosmogonies, even if its case is undermined by weaknesses in its close readings and its engagement with secondary literature. Readers interested in the “ontological turn” applied to ancient studies, however, will surely find food for thought in Almqvist’s disquisitions, and the author is to be thanked for his contribution.



[1] P. Descola, “Modes of being and forms of predication.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4.1 (2014): 272.

[2] See discussion in Meisner, D.A., 2018. Orphic Tradition and the Birth of the Gods. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 237-278.

[3] Especially Strauss Clay, J. 2003. Hesiod’s Cosmos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4] Cornford, F. M. 2009 [1912]. From Religion to Philosophy: A Study of the Origins of Western Speculation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Vernant, J. P. 1989, “At Man’s Table: Hesiod’s Foundation Myth of Sacrifice,” in M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant, eds., The Cuisine of Sacrifice Among the Greeks, Chicago University Press: 23-89, p. 27.