Protogenoi: The Greek Deities That Existed Before Creation Began

ProtogenoiThe protogenoi are the primordial gods that existed before the Titans and the Olympians. These gods were actively involved in the creation of the cosmos but were not worshipped.

Furthermore, they were also not given human qualities and therefore their physical characteristics were not really known. Instead, these deities symbolized abstract concepts and geographic locations. To know more about these first-generation gods in Greek mythology, continue reading.

The Eleven Protogenoi According to Hesiod

Hesiod was a Greek poet and the first to compile the list of the primordial deities in his work called the Theogony. According to Hesiod, the first primordial deity was Chaos, the formless and shapeless state that preceded creation. Right after Chaos came Gaia, followed by Tartarus, Eros, Erebus, Hemera, and Nyx. These gods then produced the Titans and the Cyclopes who in turn gave rise to the Olympians led by Zeus.

Orpheus’ work, came after Hesiod’s list and was even believed to be un-Greek due to its dualism. Meanwhile, Hesiod’s work is the standard accepted Greek mythology of how the universe came into being.

According to the Greek poet Orpheus, Phanes was the first primordial deity followed by Chaos. Phanes was responsible for the order of the universe before it descended into chaos. Phanes was famously known to be the deity of goodness and light.

Chaos

Chaos was a god which personified the gap between heaven and the earth and the fog that surrounded the earth. Later, Chaos mothered the Night and Darkness and later became a grandmother to Aither, and Hemera. The word ‘Chaos’ means a wide gap or chasm and sometimes represents the endless pit of eternal darkness that existed before creation.

Gaia

After Chaos came Gaia who served as the symbol of the earth and the mother of all the gods, Gaia became the foundation of all existence and the goddess of all land animals.

Uranus

Gaia then gave birth to Uranus without a male counterpart, a process known as parthenogenesis. According to Hesiod, Uranus the god of Heaven (who was a son of Gaia) along with Gaia gave birth to the Titans, Cyclopes, Hecantochires, and the Gigantes. When the Cyclopes and Hecantochires were born, Uranus hated them and devised a plan to hide them from Gaia.

When she could not find her offspring, Gaia consulted her other children to help her avenge her loss. Cronus, the god of time, volunteered and Gaia gave him a grey flint sickle. When Uranus came back to Gaia to make love to her, Cronus crept up on them and castrated him. Uranus’ castration produced lots of blood which Gaia used to create the Furies (the goddesses of vengeance), the Giants, and the Meliae (nymphs of the ash tree).

Cronus then threw the testicles of Uranus into the sea which produced Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love and beauty.

Ourea

The Ourea were mountains that were brought forth by Gaia, all by herself.

These were:

Athos, Aitna, Helikon, Kithairon, Nysos, Olympos of Thessaly, Olympos of Phrygia, Parnes and Tmolos. Note that all these were the names of great mountains and were all considered one primordial deity.

Pontus

Pontus was the third parthenogenic child of Gaia and was the deity that personified the sea. Later, Gaia slept with Pontus and gave rise to Thaumas, Eurybia, Ceto, Phorcis, and Nereus; all deities of the sea.

Tartaros

After Gaia came Tartaros the deity that personified the great abyss in which evil people were sent to be judged and tormented after death. Tartoros also became the dungeon where the Titans were incarcerated after they were overthrown by the Olympians.

Tartaros and Gaia parented the giant serpent Typhon who later dueled with Zeus over the rulership of the universe. Tartaros was always thought to be lower than the earth and an inverted dome which was in contrast to the sky.

Eros

Next came the god of sex and love, Eros, whose name means ‘desire‘. As his name suggested, Eros was in charge of procreation in the cosmos. He was believed to be the fairest of all the primordial deities and embodied the wisdom of the gods and men. In Orpheus’ theogony, Phanes (another name for Eros), was the first primordial deity who originated from the ‘world-egg’.

Other mythologies name Eros as the offspring of Ares and Aphrodite who later became a member of the erotes – several Greek gods associated with sex and love. Furthermore, Eros was also known as the goddess of love and friendship and was later paired with Psyche, the goddess of the soul, in later Roman myths.

Erebus

Erebus was the deity that personified darkness and the son of Chaos. He was the sister of another primordial deity, Nyx, the goddess of the night. With his sister Nyx, Erebus fathered Aether ( who personified the brilliant sky) and Hemera (who symbolized day). Additionally, Erebus was also personified as a territory of the Greek underworld where departed souls go immediately after death.

Nyx

Nyx was the goddess of the night and with Erebus, she became the mother of Hypnos (the personification of Sleep) and Thanatos (the personification of Death). Though she was not mentioned frequently in ancient Greek texts, Nyx was believed to possess great powers that all the gods feared including Zeus. Nyx also produced the personification of Oneiroi (Dreams), Oizys (Pain and Distress), Nemesis (Revenge), and the Fates.

Nyx’s home was Tartaros where she lived with Hypnos and Thanatos. The ancient Greeks believed Nyx to be a dark mist that blocked out the sunlight. She was represented as a winged goddess or a lady in a charioteer with a dark mist around her head.

Aether

As already mentioned, Aether was born by Erebus (darkness) and Nyx (night). Aether symbolized the bright upper sky and was different from his sister Hemera, the personification of Day. The two deities worked in tandem to ensure that there was enough light throughout and presided over human activities during the day.

Hemera

Hemera the goddess of Day, though a primordial deity, was born by Erebus and Nyx. Explaining the concept of day and night, Hesiod said that while Hemera, the personification of day crosses the sky, her sister, Nyx, representing night waited her turn.

Once Hemera finished her course, they both greeted each other then Nyx took her course as well. The two were never allowed to stay together on the earth and that is why there is night and day.

Hemera held a bright light in her hands that helped all people to see clearly during the day. Nyx, on the other hand, held sleep in her hands which she blew on people causing them to fall asleep. Hemera was also the wife of Aether, the primordial deity of the bright upper sky. Some myths also associated her with Eon and Hera, the goddesses of dawn and heaven respectively.

Other Protogenoi

The Protogenoi According to Homer

Hesiod’s Theogony was not the only one that detailed the creation of the Cosmos. The writer of the Iliad, Homer also gave his own account of the creation myth albeit shorter than that of Hesiod. According to Homer, Oceanus and probably Tethys gave birth to all the other gods that the Greeks worshipped. However, in popular Greek mythology, Oceanus and Tethys were both Titans and offspring of the gods Uranus and Gaia.

The Protogenoi According to Alcman

Alcman was an ancient Greek poet who believed that Thetis was rather the first deity and she spawned other deities such as poros (path), tekmor (marker), and skotos (darkeness). Poros was the representation of contrivance and utility while Tekmor symbolized the limit of life.

However, later, Tekmor became related to Fate and it was understood that whatever she decreed could not be altered, even by the gods. Skotos personified darkness and was the equivalent of Erebus in the Hesiod Theogony.

The First Gods According to Orpheus

As already mentioned Orpheus, the Greek poet, thought that Nyx was the first primordial deity who later gave birth to many other deities. Other Orphic traditions place Phanes as the first primordial deity to hatch out of the cosmic egg.

Primordial Deities According to Aristophanes

Aristophanes was a playwright who wrote that Nyx was the first primordial deity who spawned the god Eros from an egg.

Protogenoi According to Pherecydes of Syros

In the view of Pherecydes (a Greek philosopher), three principles pre-existed creation and always existed. The first was Zas (Zeus), who was followed by Chthonie (Earth), and then came Chronos (Time).

Zeus was a power that personified creativity and male sexuality just like Eros in the theogony of Orpheus. Pherecydes taught that Chronos’ semen originated from the other gods after fashioning fire, air, and water from his seed (semen) and left them in five hollows.

Once the gods were formed, they all went to their separate abodes with the gods of fire inhabiting Uranus (Sky) and Aither (bright Upper Sky). The gods of wind took abode in Tartaros and the gods of water went to Chaos while the gods of darkness lived in Nyx. Zas, now Eros, then married Chthonie at a large wedding feast while the earth flourished.

Empedocles’ Protogenoi

Another Greek philosopher who tried to explain the origins of the universe was Empedocles of Akragas. He opined that the universe was fashioned out of two powers namely Philotes (Love) and Neikos (Strife). These powers then created the universe using the four elements of air, water, fire, and wind. He then associated these four elements with Zeus, Hera, Aidoneus, and Nestis.

How the Titans Overthrew the Protogenoi

The Titans were the 12 offspring (six males and six females) of the primordial deities Uranus and Gaia. The males were Oceanus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Coeus, and Cronus while the female Titans were Themis, Phoebe, Tethys, Mnemosyne, Rhea, and Theia. Cronus married Rhea and the two gave birth to the first Olympians Zeus, Hades, Poseidon, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera.

As mentioned earlier, Cronus overthrew his father as the king by castrating him and throwing away his seed. Thus, he became the King of the Titans and married his elder sister Rhea and together the couple gave birth to the first Olympians. However, his parents warned him that one of his children would overthrow him just as he did to his father, Uranus, so Cronus devised a plan. He decided to swallow all his children, once they were born, to prevent the imminent curse.

Rhea learned of the devious schemes of her husband so she took her first son, Zeus, to the island of Crete and concealed him there. She then wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes and presented it to her husband pretending to be Zeus. Cronus swallowed the rock thinking it was Zeus, thus Zeus’ life was spared. Once Zeus grew up he requested that his father made him his cup-bearer where he mixed a potion into the father’s wine causing him to vomit all his siblings.

The Olympians Avenge the Protogenoi

Zeus and his siblings then allied with the Cyclopes and Hencantochires (all children of Uranus) to fight against Cronus. The Cyclopes fashioned thunder and lightning for Zeus and the Hecantochires used their many hands to throw stones. Themis and Prometheus (all Titans) allied with Zeus while the rest of the Titans fought for Cronus. The fighting between the Olympians (gods) and the Titans lasted for 10 years with Zeus and the Olympians emerging as winners.

Zeus then shut the Titans who fought with Cronus behind bars in Tartarus and set the Hencantochires as guards over them. For his role in the war against Zeus, Atlas (a Titan), was given the heavy burden of supporting the sky. In other versions of the myth, Zeus sets the Titans free.

Protogenoi Pronunciation

The pronunciation of the Greek word which means ‘first gods‘ is as follows:|pro-to-gi-no-i|

Conclusion

Protogenoi are the primordial godsGreek mythologies are replete with many creation stories which can be confusing and this article has taken a look at a few of them. There are other theogonies with their own primordial deities and the order in which they come but the most popular is the theogony according to Hesiod. Here is a summary of all that we’ve read so far:

  • According to Hesiod’s Theogony, which is the most popular, there were eleven primordial deities of which four came into being by themselves.
  • Those four were Chaos, followed by Earth (Gaia), then came Tartarus (deep abyss under the Earth), and then Eros.
  • Later, Chaos gave birth to Nyx (Night) and Erebos (Darkness) who in turn gave birth to Aether (Light) and Hemera (Day).
  • Gaia brought forth Uranus (Heaven) and Pontus (Ocean) to complete the primordial deities but Cronus castrates Uranus and threw his semen into the sea which produced Aphrodite.
  • Uranus and Gaia gave birth to the Titans who also brought forth the Olympian gods who became the final deities in the Greek succession myth.

Hence, while you may find other accounts of the Greek creation myth, know that they are all man’s attempts to explain the origins of the universe and to make sense of it.

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