08 July 2017

The Greeks have a word
for it: (11) chaos

Chaos on sale in a shop in Koutouloufari in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Is the present economic disaster in Greece chaos, a crisis, a catastrophe or a disaster?

In Greek mythology, Chaos (Χάος) was the first thing to exist. Hesiod wrote ‘at first Chaos came to be,’ or was. But next, possibly out of Chaos, came Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros. Darkness, Night and the Ether were born from Chaos.

The Greek word χάος (chaos) is a neuter noun that means ‘yawning’ or ‘gap.’ But what, if anything, was on either side of this gap or chasm is not clear. For Hesiod, Chaos, like Tartarus, though personified enough to have given birth to children, was also a place, far away, underground and gloomy, and the Titans lived beyond this chaos.

For the Roman poet Ovid, Chaos was an unformed mass, where all the elements were jumbled up together in a shapeless heap.

In his comedy Birds, Aristophanes says that first there was Chaos, Night, Erebus, and Tartarus, from Night came Eros, and from Eros and Chaos came the race of birds.

A crisis (κρίσις, krísis) is any event that is going to or is expected to lead to an unstable and dangerous situation. Crises are deemed to be negative changes in life, especially when they occur abruptly, with little or no warning.

In ancient Greece, the word κρίσις referred to a separating, power of distinguishing, decision, choice, election, judgment or dispute. The word was derived from the word κρίνω (krínō), to pick out, separate, choose, decide or judge. It comes from the root krei-, to sieve, and so to discriminate or distinguish.

More specifically, a crisis in Greek was a decisive moment. Hippocrates and Galen used the Greek word krisis to refer to a turning point in a disease. It could also refer to a judgment that was a result of a trial or selection.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a crisis as ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger,’ while the Cambridge Dictionary describes a crisis as ‘a situation that has reached an extremely difficult or dangerous point; a time of great disagreement, uncertainty or suffering.’

The word catastrophe comes from the ancient Greek καταστροφή (katastrophḗ). The words καταστρέφω (katastréphō), ‘I overturn,’ and καταστρέϕειν (katastréphein) have their roots in κατά (kata, down, against) and στρέφω (stréphō, ‘I turn’).

In classical Greek literature, particularly the tragedies, the catastrophe is the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot that unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. In comedies, this may be a marriage between main characters; in tragedies, it may be the death of one or more main characters. It is the final part of a play, following the protasis, epitasis, and catastasis.

The catastrophe is either simple or complex. In a simple catastrophe, there is no change in the state of the main characters, nor any discovery or unravelling. In a complex catastrophe, the main character undergoes a change of fortune, sometimes by means of a discovery.

Critics have long debated whether the catastrophe should always end happily and favourably on the side of virtue. Aristotle, for example, preferred a shocking catastrophe rather than a happy one.

The English word disaster is derived from Middle French désastre and that in turn came from the Old Italian disastro, which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek pejorative prefix δυσ- (dus-), ‘bad,’ and ἀστήρ (aster), ‘star.’ The idea that a calamity could be caused by bad star comes from a belief in astrology, and that what happens is dependent on the position of the stars and planets.

As for calamity, the English word is derived from the Middle French calamite, and through that from the Latin calamitās (‘loss, damage; disaster’), from clāmāre (‘to shout, proclaim, declare, cry out’).

The Greek political vocabulary is laden with enough chaos, crises, and catastrophes without needing to add a Latin calamity to the woes of today.

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