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By Chaos I mean the primordial, undifferentiated substance from which everything begins in Hesiod's Theogony:

First it was Chaos, and next broad-bosomed Earth, ever secure seat of all the immortals, who inhabit the peaks of snow-capped Olympus, and dark dim Tartaros in a recess of Earth having-broad-ways, 120 and Eros [Love], who is most beautiful among immortal gods, Eros that relaxes the limbs, and in the breasts of all gods and all men, subdues their reason and prudent counsel. But from Chaos were born Erebos and black Night; and from Night again sprang forth Aether and Day, 125 whom she bore after having conceived, by union with Erebos in love.

The most standard interpretation is indeed a void or gap, but I'm referring to the interpretation by a close contemporary, Pherecydes of Syros, noted by Kirk, Raven & Schofield in their book The Presocratic Philosophers: "Pherecydes of Syros (fl. 6th century BC) interprets chaos as water, like something formless that can be differentiated."

Are there analogous primordial, undifferentiated, divine substances or "beings" in other cultures, perhaps with different names?

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    Theogony does not say that Chaos was "primordial, undifferentiated substance" -- it is just as valid to interpret it as an endless void.
    – Spencer
    Mar 1, 2023 at 22:28
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    @Spancer And quite literally a "gap." I'm sympathetic to the interpretation that Chaos originally represented the gap created when Cronus separated Uranus from Ge, but that comes with its own problems as well (namely, how could Hesiod mix it up so much!).
    – cmw
    Mar 2, 2023 at 2:52
  • @Spencer That's right, I've updated the question specifying it.
    – user10066
    Mar 2, 2023 at 9:21
  • How is this not answered by any mythological origin of the world? There is always some gap, fluid, cosmic entity or deity in the void Mar 2, 2023 at 18:07

2 Answers 2

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primordial, undifferentiated substance from which everything begins

So, the Cosmic or Primordial Soup?

Primordial soup, also known as, primordial goo, primordial ooze, prebiotic soup and prebiotic broth, is the hypothetical set of conditions present on the Earth around 3.7 to 4.0 billion years ago. It is an aspect of the heterotrophic theory (also known as the Oparin–Haldane hypothesis) concerning the origin of life, first proposed by Alexander Oparin in 1924, and J. B. S. Haldane in 1929.

As formulated by Oparin, in the primitive Earth's surface layers, carbon, hydrogen, water vapour, and ammonia reacted to form the first organic compounds. The concept of a primordial soup gained credence in 1953 when the "Miller–Urey experiment" used a highly reduced mixture of gases—methane, ammonia and hydrogen—to form basic organic monomers, such as amino acids.

You can think of this metaphor as a myth of sorts, especially since before it was a "scientific hypothesis" it existed as the primordia materia in gnostic and alchemical works. But you might be looking for something a bit more ancient.

But you're probably looking for something more ancient.

I think one obvious example is the "deep" in Biblical and other Near Eastern mythologies. This is represented as water, and probably really literally meant the ocean before land. You have to imagine how unimaginably mysterious the ocean must have been before modern video equipment documented it, especially since it still is rather mysterious.

So in Genesis (1.2-5), the "primordial soup" is the "waters" upon which Yahweh hovers:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Similar myths concerning land from water are found in Tungusic and Finnish myths.

Chinese myths also have this origin in the story of Pangu. From Wikipedia:

In the beginning, there was nothing and the universe was in a featureless, formless primordial state. This primordial state coalesced into a cosmic egg for about 18,000 years. Within it, the perfectly opposed principles of yin and yang became balanced and Pangu emerged (or woke up) from the egg. Pangu inside the cosmic egg symbolizes Taiji.

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In Norse mythology, there is Ginnungagap, the "Yawning Void" into which the world was created.

According to the Gylfaginning (translation), in the north of Ginnungagap was the cold Niflheim, in the south the hot Muspelheim,

but Ginnungagap was as mild as windless air, and when the breath of heat met the rime, so that it melted and dripped, life was quickened from the yeast-drops, by the power of that which sent the heat, and became a man's form. And that man is named Ymir, but the Rime-Giants call him Aurgelimir;

The three brothers Odin, Viri, and Ve slew Ymir and

They took Ymir and bore him into the middle of the Yawning Void, and made of him the earth: of his blood the sea and the waters; the land was made of his flesh, and the crags of his bones; gravel and stones they fashioned from his teeth and his grinders and from those bones that were broken.

After the creation, Ginnungagap appears to have been replaced with the realm of the Frost Giants under the second root of Yggdrasil.

Three roots of the tree uphold it and stand exceeding broad: one is among the Aesir; another among the Rime-Giants, in that place where aforetime was the Yawning Void; the third stands over Niflheim, and under that root is Hvergelmir, and Nídhöggr gnaws the root from below.

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