A primordial deity in Greek mythology, Uranus personified the sky, the heavens, and the air. Uranus was the initial offspring of Gaia, the first deity and personification of Mother Earth. Uranus and Gaia were the complementary halves of a primordial partnership that created the cosmos as the Greeks knew it. Uranus fathered the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the monstrous Hecatoncheires. His rule over the heavens ended, however, when his son Cronus overthrew him at the dawn of time.
Unlike the Olympian deities, Uranus was never directly worshipped by the Greeks; he was a distant, inscrutable being, who was ultimately more a force of nature than a defined personality. In many ways, he was a mythological figure to the ancient Greeks even as they celebrated Zeus, Hera, and others as real, existent beings.
The name “Uranus," meaning “sky” or “heaven,” was derived from the Proto Greek worsanós, and likely emerged from the Proto-Indo-European uers-, meaning “to rain or make wet.”
Uranus was the sky and heavens imagined as an independent being. His highly metaphorical existence made him something akin to a force or essence—the male half of a duality which, together with its female principle (Gaia), formed all things.
As Uranus was a primordial deity, nearly all deities and divine creatures descended from him in some form. With his mother Gaia, Uranus sired the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys and Cronus), the Cyclopes (Brontes, Arges, and Steropes), and the Hecatoncheires (Kottos, Briareos and Gyges), monstrosities with a hundred hands each. In a manner of speaking, Uranus also fathered Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexual desire. Following Uranus’s castration, the goddess emerged fully formed from his severed genitals.
The first generation of Titans gave birth to many of Uranus’s grandchildren, including Atlas and Prometheus. Through Rhea and Cronus, Uranus was also the grandfather of the chief Olympian gods and goddesses—Demeter, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon, Hades and Zeus. By way of the Olympians’ multitudes of children, Uranus was great-grandfather to countless beings, divine and mortal alike.
Written in the eighth century BCE, Hesiod’s Theogony detailed the early mythology of the Greek people. According to the poet’s account, Uranus was Gaia’s first creation. He revolved around the earth goddess’s form, and copulated with her at each passing. Though they created many children together, Uranus was a cruel and unloving father. Ever suspicious, he soon grew paranoid that his children might try to usurp his priviliged position. In an attempt to prevent this catastrophe, he consigned them to Tartarus, a pit of suffering located deep within the earth.
Despairing at the fate of her children, Gaia formed a great sickle from flint stone and urged her children to castrate and usurp Uranus. Of all her children, only Cronus was brave enough to commit the deed. He cast his father’s severed genitals into the ocean, and from them sprang entire races of creatures, as well as the beautiful Aphrodite:
Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite.1
When Cronus took his father’s place, he freed his fellow Titans and banished the Cyclopes and Hecatcheires to Tartarus. The rise of Cronus marked a new era in Greece’s mythic history. In time, however, Cronus would fall prey to the same malicious suspicions that plagued his father.
Though Uranus’s place in Greek cosmogony is little understood today, his name nevertheless lives on as the moniker of the seventh planet from the sun. Discovered in 1781 by William Herschel, the planet was originally called Georgium Sidus, or “George’s Star” in reference to King George III, Herschel’s sovereign. The planet was renamed to universal acclaim in the nineteenth century. The name “Uranus” was more in line with planetary names already in use (other planets bore Roman names, however). It also followed a logical progression: Jupiter (Zeus), the fifth planet, was sired by Saturn (Cronus), the sixth planet, who was sired by Uranus (Caelus was the Roman name), the seventh and, according to contemporary understanding, final planet. Thus, the order of the planets in relation to Earth mirrored the succession of deities in Greek and Roman mythologies.
Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed January 2, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.
“Uranus.” New World Encyclopedia. Accessed January 8, 2020. https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Uranus_(mythology).
Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, 176-206. ↩