1 Pages in this category
2 What I mean by “Principal Gods”
“Principal gods” is not a category used by the ancients. I have coined this term to refer to deities who, whether in genealogical (mythical) or philosophical terms, were claimed to be among the first or ruling gods, who are or hold the principium (sg.), ‘first beginning’, or principia (pl.), ‘dominion’ (both arkhḗ in Greek)..
“Principal gods” is thus my equivalent to the highly problematic category of “primordial gods” or “Protogenoi” on theoi.com (off-site link), which is strongly suggested there to be authentically ancient, but in fact is not even a real ancient Greek word (being a confused blending of prōtógonoi and prōtogenaí), let alone an ancient grouping of gods. That category is also problematic because it is explicitly limited to mythology, whereas in ancient literature, there is very little of a boundary between philosophical theories about the origin of the world and mythical descriptions of the origination of the cosmos and the gods.
I will return to the negative example of theoi.com below – not because it is worth singling out for its flaws, but because its accessibility, comprehensiveness and popularity make any errors much more damaging than they would be on a worse website.
3 “All things are eight”
A good example of speculation about first gods that is not mythical, but also not exactly philosophical (at least in the sense of sectarian philosophy) can be found in the ancient explanations of a proverb, “All things are eight” (Pánta oktṓ).
In the paroemiographer (writer on proverbs) Zenobius, we find the following: “‘All things are eight’: Evander (Eúandros) said that the gods who rule all things are eight: Fire, Water, Earth, Heaven, Moon, Sun, Mithras, Night.”
He also gives a very different explanation, however: “Others say that all the contests at Olympia were eight, the race of one stade, the long-distance race, race of two stades, race in armor, boxing, wrestling (pankrátion), and so on; from which it was said that all things are eight”. (Still another explanation is found in Suda = Eudemus, On Rhetorical Expressions = Pausanias, Compendium of Attic Words = Photius, Lexicon = Michael Apostolius, Collection of Proverbs, all s.v. Πάντα ὀκτώ.)
Theon of Smyrna, On Mathematics Useful for Reading Plato (p. 105, ed. Hiller), gives a fuller but also different version of Zenobius’ first explanation: “Some say that the gods who rule all things are eight, as one can also find in the Orphic oaths:
“‘Yes, by the progenitors (gennḗtores) of the immortals who are forever,
Fire and Water, Earth and Heaven, the Moon,
The Sun, Phanes the great and black Night!’”
“And Evander says that on an Egyptian stele, an inscription of king Kronos and queen Rhea* was found: ‘The most ancient king of all, Osiris, as a memorial of his virtue and the order of his life, (makes a dedication) to the immortal gods, Pneuma, Heaven, Earth, Night, Day and the father of those that are and will be, Love.’
*Presumably, text from Evander explaining the relationship
of this royal couple (=the Egyptian Keb and Nut?) to the inscription
has been omitted by Theon.
“And Timotheus says that the proverb, ‘All things are eight’, comes from the fact that there are eight spheres of the cosmos in all revolving around the Earth,” i.e., the seven planets and the fixed stars.
4 Festus on the Geniales Dii
Just as speculation about the first gods was read into the Greek proverb, we find it integrated into Roman traditions. For instance, in the lexicon of Festus (as epitomized by Paul the Deacon, hence in past tense), the Dii Geniales, ‘gods pertaining to birth/fertility/origin’, are taken as the gods originating all things:
“They used to call water, earth, fire and air the Geniales Dii, because these are the seeds of all things, which in Greek some call stoikheîa (‘elements’), others átomoi (‘atoms’).
“They also used to count the twelve zodiac signs, the Moon and the Sun among these gods. And they are named from gerendo (‘doing’), because they were believed to be able to do much; later they used the word geruli (‘doers’) for this (meaning)” (s.v. Geniales deos).
This is similar to how the Tritopatores worshipped at Athens, at first blush distant human ancestors worshipped for reproduction, came to be seen by ancient intellectuals as some of the very first beings in existence.
5 Evaluating theoi.com’s selection of “Primordial Gods”
Of the gods listed so far, the following are currently included among the “Primordial Gods & Goddesses” on theoi.com (off-site link): Love (Eros), Phanes, Ether, the couple Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Gē, poetically Gaia), and another pair, Day (Hemera) and Night (Nyx).
There is also a theoi.com page on “Hydros” (off-site link) as a primordial god, which is supposed to mean “Water”, but the ancient Greek word for that is really hýdōr (see Four Elements), while hýdros means a water-snake. It is claimed that “[t]he figure of Hydros was derived by the Orphics from Okeanos”, when it would be more correct to say that the philosophical theory that all things came from water (attributed to Thales of Miletus) was affiliated by later commentators with Homer’s reference to “Oceanus, the origin of the gods, and mother Tethys” (Iliad 14.201). The idea of Water as one of the first gods was present in Orphic texts only because it became generally current, and it is not at all peculiarly Orphic.
The absurdity of the “Orphic” connection drawn by theoi.com becomes even clearer when we consider that, while Oceanus supposedly became “Hydros”, Tethys is said to have become Thesis (off-site link) in the “Orphic Theogonies”. In reality, firstly, there is no consistent account of the first gods across Orphic texts, so that this reference to “the” Orphic theogonies is inherently hollow. Secondly, Thesis the primordial figure appears exclusively in the fragments of a poem by Alcman (see there), who was not an Orphic poet. Thirdly, the only actual Orphic evidence that is provided is a quotation from Damascius saying that a certain Orphic account deriving all things from Water and Mud left ”the one before the two” unmentioned. This one, who is expressly said to have been left out of the account, is bizarrely counted as an instance of Thesis; but really, the passage means nothing more than that Damascius did not find a first principle, but two, namely Water and Mud. Since he was a monist, he concludes that the first principle was simply passed over in silence by Orpheus. (I will address this much-misinterpreted passage from Damascius in more detail elsewhere.) Finally, theoi.com bulks up the page on Thesis by including mentions of Tethys and the goddess Metis (as well as the god Metis, i.e., Phanes).
In short, the pages on the misnamed Hydros and the misconstrued Thesis are more along the lines of playful “fan theory” than historical fact or even serious reconstruction. That the pages consist largely of quotations only hides the fact that they are put together and explained (through innocent-seeming parentheticals) in a highly deceptive manner.
But the examples given shall suffice to indicate the quality of theoi.com’s information. Let me now quickly pass through the other deities included as “Protogenoi” there, and situate them each in their proper discursive context.
- Ananke or Necessity is at home poet in myth and in philosophy, and doubly so in philosophical myth (e.g., Plato, Republic 617c). Yet she is only primordial in one particular Orphic account.
- Chaos is most famous for its appearance as the first deity to come into being in Hesiod’s Theogony. But Chaos also figures in later literature, where it is interpreted philosophically in various ways. In poetry, it sometimes metonymically stands in for the underworld, like Erebus or Darkness, who in Hesiod is Chaos’ son, and like Tartarus, who also comes to be from nothing, as Chaos did (again according to Hesiod; other accounts differ). Erebus and Tartarus do not receive as much attention from philosophers.
- Chronos or Time as a phenomenon is of course discussed by many philosophers, and was viewed as a god by (some) Stoics and Platonists. In myth, he only figures occasionally, but more frequently in the interpretation of myth, where Kronos is often explained as Time (although the words Kronos and Chronos always remained distinct, and are still pronounced differently down to Modern Greek).
- “Nesoi” are simply islands (not “[t]he Protogenoi of the islands”), and to my knowledge were hardly treated as a distinct group of gods. “Ourea” have a better claim to such a rank, but are still simply Mountains, and not particularly primordial, compared to others on the list. I suppose they were put into this category because they fit even less into any of the others.
- Oceanus and Tethys, by contrast, that is the world-encircling river or ocean and his spouse and co-ruler, very much are among the oldest of gods, whether viewed more mythically or more physically, as the Sea or the element of Water. So are the more indistinct god Pontus and goddess Thalassa, both of whose names can be translated as “sea”.
The most interesting figure on the list, however, is Physis or Nature. She is especially ill-served by theoi.com’s restriction to poetic, mythographic and sometimes other literary quotations, since the discursive realm proper to Nature is, of couse, natural philosophy, called physics or physiology in Greek terminology. This leads us to the next section, on gods who are primarily discussed by philosophers, and thus are entirely neglected by theoi.com.
6 Gods of the Philosophers
Demiurge, Ether, etc.
7 “Non-Greek” gods
Another weakness of theoi.com’s wiki-style structure is that it presents “Greek mythology” as a self-contained, more or less internally coherent continuity or fictional universe (like the worlds of Star Trek or Star Wars on their respective fan wikis). This also means that utterly marginal Greek figures gleaned from some poetic fragment receive more space than even the most prominent barbarous (non-Greek) deities. Thus, while the Egyptian goddess Isis is mentioned in the page on Io, as one myth holds that Io became Isis, there is no page on Isis herself, although she was extremely popular across the Greek-speaking world, and spoken of in the most superlative terms, qualifying her as a principal deity in my terminology.
The omission of the Jewish god Iahō or the Persian Mithras is likewise defensible only in a purely ethnic paradigm, while an engagement with the ancient sources shows that both were known, worshipped, and regarded as great, even “primordial” gods by many Greek-speaking pagans.