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Quem dixere CHAOS: Before sea and dry lands and heaven over all, the senseless weight and the seeds of ill-joined things in strife!

Here's a post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 4 years ago, in 2020, on the World Wide Web.

So let’s look back at the beginning of the epic narrative in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (I.005-009), and make some attempts to translate the lines into English. Here’s the original Latin again, together with my prosy sort of translation from the earlier post.

Mundi origo.

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.

World’s Beginning

Before the sea and lands and the sky that covers all, the appearance of nature was one in all the globe, which they (people) have named Chaos: a crude,[1] unorganized heap, nor anything at all except a senseless weight, and also — piled up together, all in the same place — the seeds of things not well-joined due to discord.

See the earlier post for a detailed breakdown of the vocabulary and grammar in these lines. I’ve been struggling with how to fit the ablative singular discordia grammatically into the description of seeds of things not-well-joined in the final line; I’ve ended up taking it as an ablative of instrument, connected with the passive participle (non bene) iuncatrum, i.e. specifying that which causes the things to be not-well-joined. The word order here would turn out awkwardly in some places, unintelligibly in others, if you tried to make a hyperliteral word-for-word translation into English. Modifiers aren’t nearly as interspersed, or as far separated from the nouns they modify, as they were in the opening invocation, but they still break across some gaps, especially in the second line and the last couplet:

World’s Origin

Before the sea, and the lands, and — that which covers everything — the sky
One[2] (it) was
— in all —
nature’s appearance[3] (was, that is)
— in the globe[4]
which (they) have named Chaos:
an unformed, disorganized heap
nor anything at all except a senseless weight
and also, piled up together in the same place
the not-well-joined — due to discord — seeds of things.

There are a few notes, and a couple of significant decisions to make here on the vocabulary. Caelum is Sky or Heaven or the Heavens. In a Latin vocabulary, and a pagan worldview, this has some of the suggestions of divinity that Heaven does, but hardly any of the suggestion of the afterlife, and the association with gods is not as strong as what’s suggested by modern English and Christian Heaven. When it’s grouped here with the sea and the dry lands, it seems like a more ordinary reference to the physical sky. Unus is the number one (1). It also is used to indicate unity, uniqueness, uniformity, as in it’s all one, it’s just one, it’s singular, etc. toto . . . in orbe means in the whole globe, in the whole world, in the entire universe (literally, orbis is a circle or sphere, i.e., the circle of the world). Moles could be a mass, a pile or a heap; mass would go well with the reference to dumb weight (pondus) below it, but piles and heaps seem to fit nicely with the adjectives for disorganization, confusion and congestion below it. Rudis (cognate: rude) is a very ordinary term for the crude, unrefined, raw, unshaped or formless. indigesta (unarranged, disorganized, confused) and congesta (piled up, congested) pair nicely with each other in the Latin lines but there may not be a great way to keep this internal rhyme with English translations.

The word (or the name, or the act of naming) at the center of these lines is the Latin term Chaos. We are told that an unnamed They (folks, people) have given this term[5] Of course, that name is the origin of our ordinary English word chaos, meaning disorder, structurelessness, conflict, confusion or apparent randomness. So you could translate the line just using the cognate English word:

quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
… which they call chaos: a crude and unformed heap …

Or you could translate it into English synonyms:

quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
… which they call The Mess: a crude and unformed heap …

But on the other hand, the English meanings of the term chaos derive from poetic descriptions of primordial Chaos in later epic poems like this one. In a way, you run the risk of making the meaning of the line shallowly circular — of course they call chaos chaos; what else would they call it? In earlier epics, Chaos is always described as a primordial being or as a primordial state, before the formation of the world and the birth of the eldest gods. But it isn’t necessarily described as particularly chaotic, in our sense: Ovid’s decision to depict the Before-the-World-or-Gods as undifferentiated, confused mass is a later elaboration, and an artistic or philosophical choice, that isn’t required by his sources or by the origins of the term. The fashion now is for translators to go to some lengths to try to avoid conflations of our modern meanings with the use of the term in ancient epics, either by writing around it with alternate translations or by tacking on footnotes. If that’s your inclination, you might want to go to Ovid’s sources to find a more etymologically literal translation for Chaos, to avoid the too-quick association. But then the problem is that Ovid’s word Chaos is not a word that he got from Latin roots. Like Metamorphoses, it’s a learned loan-word that he got from ancient Greek poets. The exact etymology of Ancient Greek Χάος is uncertain, but its literal meaning outside of epic poems seems to have been something like Yawning Gap or Abyss; in any case, descriptions in ancient poetry seem to bear out a range of meanings having to do with empty space or with vast drops.[6] So you might go for a literalistic rendering in terms of the Greek etymology:

quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
… which they call The Abyss: a crude and unformed heap …

But I think that diving from the over-modern, post-Ovid reading of The Mess down to the archaic, pre-Ovid reading of The Abyss makes the passage less tautological only at the expense of making it less intelligible. What Ovid describes isn’t aptly describable as an Abyss or a Chasm or a dark gulf far beneath the earth. And I think the difficulty here is that you need a way to indicate what Ovid is doing when he chooses to take over a Greek term from ancient, foreign lore (by then, Hesiod was almost three quarters of a millennium old) and put it as-is into his own modern epic in his own native language. I think Ovid uses Chaos here essentially as a mythological reference — it’s a name, taken from a foreign tongue, much like the allusive references to a Titan light-bearer and to Phoebe in subsequent lines to refer to the Sun and the Moon, and in this case I think the element essential to the reference that he gets from sources like Hesiod is the idea of primordiality, of a cosmic state before the earth or the heavens or the gods themselves. There may not be much to do about it except to do what you can to make sure that Chaos comes out as a proper name with mythic reference.

So, here’s my pass at a verse translation.

Mundi origo.

Ante mare et terras et quod tegit omnia caelum
unus erat toto naturae vultus in orbe,
quem dixere Chaos: rudis indigestaque moles
nec quicquam nisi pondus iners congestaque eodem
non bene iunctarum discordia semina rerum.

World’s Beginning

Before sea, and dry lands, and the cover of sky,
Nature had but one face in all the circle of the world—
Which folks have named Chaos: a shapeless heaped mess,
Not a thing but dumb weight, and all together in piles,
The seeds of things, ill-joined due to discord.

Anyway, that’s what I’ve got in my notebook. What do you think? How would you handle these lines?

All the original translations that I post to this blog are freely available in the public domain.

  1. [1]Rude, unformed.
  2. [2]Singular, alone, all the same.
  3. [3]Look, face, visage
  4. [4]The universe, the circle of the world.
  5. [5]dixere, syncopated form for 3rd person plural perfect dixerunt, with the primary meaning they said, they have spoken, they have told, but also commonly with a double accusative object complement, they have called D.O. O.C., they have named D.O. (as) O.C., also they have appointed D.O. (as) O.C. (to an office).
  6. [6]Ovid’s go-to source for many of his cosmogonic myths is Hesiod, and the Theogony lists Chaos first, before any of the elementals or Titans or Olympian gods. But Hesiod’s Chaos is described as (1) the very first that came to be, before Earth itself; (2) the progenitor of Erebos and Night, both of them associated with darkness (below the earth and above it); and (3) as gloomy or dusky. (4) In the War of the Gods and Titans, when Zeus puts forth his full power, the astounding heat is said to seize (even) Chaos, as well as everything in the earth and the heavens far above it. (5) After the War, the defeated Titans are banished to dwell far beneath the earth, in a locked chamber utterly remote from the gods and the inhabited world, which is described as being as far beneath the earth as the earth is beneath the sky, and beyond gloomy Chaos. The descriptions of Chaos, where we get them, do not mention disorder or confusion, but emphasize its primordial age, elemental darkness, extreme remoteness, depth below, and division from the worlds of men and gods.

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