Primordial Sky God

Uranus

Uranus was the primordial Greek deity embodying the sky, the air, and the heavens. Along with Gaia, the personification of the Earth, he fathered the Twelve Titans, the youngest of whom (Cronus) eventually overthrew him.

Top Questions

  • Why was Uranus overthrown by Cronus?

    Feeling threatened by his children’s power, Uranus banished them to eternal suffering in Tartarus. As a result, Gaia encouraged Cronus to usurp his father.

  • What was Uranus’ symbol?

    As the god of the sky, Uranus was represented by the sky itself, often in the form of the Zodiac wheel.

  • Which planet shares its name with Uranus?

    The seventh planet from the sun was formally proposed as Uranus in 1782, continuing the Western tradition of mythological planetary names.

Overview

A primordial deity in Greek mythology, Uranus personified the sky, the heavens, and the air. He was usually said to have been the first offspring of Gaia, herself the first deity and the 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, ultimately more a force of nature than a defined personality.

Etymology

The name “Uranus” (Greek Οὐρανός, translit. Ouranós) is also the ancient Greek word meaning “sky” or “heaven.” It is usually thought to have been derived from the Indo-European root *ṷérs-, meaning “to rain.” Uranus’ name would thus translate as “the rainmaker.”[1]

An alternative linguistic etymology links the Indo-European root of Uranus’ name (*ṷérs-) to the word for “height,” similar to the Sanskrit várṣman (“height, top”) or Lithuanian viršùs (“upper, highest seat”). In this case, Uranus’ name would mean “he who stands on high.”[2] However, this etymology is not generally accepted today.

Uranus’ name was generally Latinized by the Romans as Uranus; however, Roman authors sometimes referred to the sky god by other synonymous names, including Caelus and Aether.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    UranusΟὐρανός (Ouranós)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [YOOR-uh-nuhs, yoo-REY-]/ˈyʊər ə nəs, yʊˈreɪ-/

Attributes

Functions and Characteristics

Uranus was essentially 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 that, together with Gaia, formed all things. Uranus came to embody the creative and generative power of the sky, which provided the earth—that is, Gaia—with warmth and humidity.[3]

Uranus and Gaia at Villa Sentinum Third Century BCE

Uranus (identified here with Aeon) stands over Gaia and their Titan children, from a floor mosaic in the Villa Sentinum in central Italy (early third century CE).

Bibi St. PolCC0

Iconography

Because Uranus was almost never imagined in anthropomorphic terms, he was also never represented in ancient Greek art. The Romans eventually assimilated Uranus into other deities such as the Italian sky god Caelus and Aeon, the god of time. When Uranus was depicted as one of these gods, he was shown as a powerfully built male, usually bare-chested, sometimes young and beardless. He would occasionally be straddling a zodiac. In Roman art, Uranus was most often depicted on reliefs and marble sarcophagi.[4]

Family

As Uranus was a primordial deity, nearly all deities and divine creatures descended from him in some form. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, the best-known account of the origins of the cosmos in Greek mythology, Uranus was the son of Gaia, the earth goddess, who gave birth to him on her own.[5] But there were other versions of his parentage. Some poets made Uranus the son of Aether (“Upper Air”), probably in union with his consort Hemera (“Day”);[6] another early tradition named Uranus’ father as Acmon, an obscure son of Gaia.[7] The Orphics apparently made Uranus the son of Nyx (“Night”), another primordial deity,[8] or else imagined him as one of the deities hatched from the “World Egg” formed by Chronos (“Time”).[9] In other, later sources, Uranus was the son of Oceanus and Tethys,[10] and Gaia was his sister (and consort) rather than his mother.[11]

Uranus became the consort of his mother, Gaia. With her, he sired the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus);[12] the one-eyed Cyclopes (Brontes, Arges, and Steropes);[13] and the Hecatoncheires (Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges), monstrosities with a hundred hands each.[14]

In a manner of speaking, a few more children were born of the union of Uranus and Gaia when Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus and his bled spilled upon the earth, inseminating the earth-goddess Gaia. From Uranus’ blood were born the Erinyes (also called the Furies), the Giants, and the ash-tree nymphs known as the Meliae, while Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexual desire, was born from the foam that formed when Uranus’ severed genitals were cast into the sea.[15] In other traditions, the Phaecians[16] and the sea deities known as the Telchines[17] were also born at the moment of Uranus’ castration.

Some traditions gave Uranus other children too, as well as a handful of further consorts. For a comprehensive list, see here. The first generation of Titans gave birth to many of Uranus’ grandchildren, including Atlas and Prometheus. Through Rhea and Cronus, Uranus was also the grandfather of the eldest 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.

Family Tree

Mythology

Origins

Greek mythology, like many other world mythologies, begins with the separation of sky and earth. The familiar myth of Uranus and Gaia thus culminates, in Hesiod’s Theogony, with the castration of the sky-god Uranus and his forceful removal from the dominion of the earth-goddess Gaia. The overthrow of Uranus by his son Cronus forms the first part of the cycle of conflicts and successions of divine rulers often known as the “Succession Myth.”

There are numerous parallels with the myth of Uranus in Near Eastern mythology, but perhaps the closest and most revealing of these comes from the Hurro-Hittite world. In the Hurro-Hittite cosmogony, the sky god Anu (the counterpart of the Greek Uranus) rules the cosmos after Alalu. Anu is finally overthrown by his cupbearer Kumarbi (the counterpart of the Greek Cronus), who bites off his genitals. Kumarbi then devours his own offspring, but one of them, the storm god Teshub (the counterpart of the Greek Zeus) gets away and eventually overthrows him in turn.

This Near Eastern myth, which originated with the Hurrian people of Syria and Anatolia, was soon adopted by the powerful Hittites of Anatolia, from where it apparently spread west to the Greek world. In Hesiod, Anu becomes Uranus, who is castrated by Cronus much as Anu was castrated by Kumarbi; finally, Cronus is unseated by Zeus just as the Hurro-Hittite Kumarbi had been unseated by Teshub.

Other Near Eastern models may have also helped mold the myth of Uranus. In Egyptian mythology, for instance, the creation of the world begins when the couple Geb (earth) and Nut (sky) are separated from their tight embrace. And in the Mesopotamian Enūma Eliš, the primordial couple of Apsȗ (Fresh Water) and Tiamat (Sea Water) resemble the Greek primordial couple Uranus and Gaia. 

The Rise and Fall of Uranus

Written around 800 BCE, Hesiod’s Theogony detailed the cosmogony, or creation of the world, as told by the ancient Greeks. According to the poet’s account, Uranus was Gaia’s first creation. Gaia created him, as Hesiod writes, “equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods.”[18]

Though he had many children with Gaia, Uranus was a cruel and unloving father. Ever suspicious, he soon grew paranoid that his children might try to usurp his privileged position. In an attempt to prevent this catastrophe, he consigned them to Tartarus, a pit of suffering located deep within the earth.[19]

Despairing at the fate of her children, Gaia formed a great sickle from flint stone and urged Titans (who in some accounts had been allowed to remain free) to castrate and overthrow Uranus. According to Hesiod, Cronus was the only one of Gaia’s children brave enough to commit the deed:

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.[20] 

In other traditions, however, it took all the Titans to overpower Uranus, with only Oceanus shirking from the deed.[21]

The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn painting by Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi circa 1550 Palazzo Vecchio

Detail of The Mutilation of Uranus by Saturn by Giorgio Vasari and Cristofano Gherardi (ca. 1540s–1550s), now in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy.

SailkoCC BY 3.0

Uranus’ castration resulted in the birth of entire races of creatures: from the blood that fell upon the earth there emerged the Erinyes, the Giants, and the Meliae, while from the foam that bubbled from Uranus’ genitals—cast by Cronus into the sea—rose the beautiful Aphrodite.[22]

Uranus, unmanned, raged viciously against his children. According to Hesiod, he hailed them as the “Titans,” from the Greek verb meaning “to strain,” “for he said that they strained and did presumptuously a fearful deed, and that vengeance for it would come afterwards.”[23]

After he was overthrown, Uranus faded into the background and Cronus rose to power. But Uranus’ grim prophecy was fulfilled, for Cronus soon showed himself to be no less savage and wicked than his father. In time, Cronus fell prey to the same malicious suspicions that had plagued his father, and he too tried to rid himself of his children. But Cronus, rather than imprisoning his children in Tartarus, went a step further and swallowed them whole as soon as his wife Rhea had borne them to him. In the end, Rhea—with the help of Gaia and Uranus too—managed to conceal her last child, Zeus, from Cronus.[24] Zeus, of course, went on to overthrow Cronus and become the king of the gods, bringing to an end the violent cycle of divine succession.

Other Versions

Though Hesiod’s account of Uranus’ role in the cosmogony was widely accepted in antiquity, it was by no means the only version. The Orphics, an ancient sect with practices and mythological texts that differed from those of more mainstream Greek religion, usually seem to have envisioned creation beginning with a World Egg, sometimes said to have been fashioned from Chronos, “Time” personified. Uranus was among the deities who emerged from this egg, or was perhaps created by Phanes, the creator-god who emerged from the egg.[25] Or, alternatively, the Orphics made Nyx (“Night”) into the first being of the cosmos and the mother of Uranus and Gaia.[26]

Other ancient authors sought to rationalize the myth of Uranus. According to an account recorded by Diodorus of Sicily, Uranus was an early king of the lost city of Atlantis. When he died, his subjects lavished divine honors upon him, and even turned his name into the word for “sky.”[27]

Worship

Uranus was not worshiped as part of an organized cult, and did not even have any visual or figurative iconography. He was, however, sometimes invoked in oaths.[28] In his Roman guise of Caelus, Uranus may have taken on some more importance, for we encounter Roman invocations of Caelus aeternus (“eternal Caelus”),[29] and the Roman writer Vitruvius even noted in his treatise on architecture that temples of Caelus should be unroofed.[30]

Pop Culture

Today, Uranus 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 in the nineteenth century to universal acclaim.

“Uranus” was more in line with planetary names already in use, which also bore the names of Greco-Roman gods. 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 in Latin), the seventh and final planet (or so they thought at the time). Thus, the order of the planets in relation to Earth mirrored the succession of deities in Greek and Roman mythology.

References

Notes

  1. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1128.

  2. Friedrich Specht, “Griechische Miszellen,” Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung auf dem Gebiete der Indogermanischen Sprachen 66 (1939): 197–221, at 199ff; Ernst Fraenkel, Litauisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1955), s.v. “viršùs.”

  3. Cf. Aeschylus, frag. 44 Radt.

  4. On Uranus in ancient art, see Vincent Tran Tam Tinh, “Ouranos,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1994), 7.1:132–36.

  5. Hesiod, Theogony 126–28; Apollodorus, Library 1.1.1.

  6. Eumelus, Titanomachy frag. 1 West; cf. Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.17.44; Hyginus, Fabulae pref.2.

  7. Hesiod, frag. 398 Merkelbach-West; Alcman, frag. 61 PMG (Poetae Melici Graecae); cf. Callimachus, frag. 498 Pfeiffer; Antimachus, frag. 44 Wyss.

  8. Derveni Papyrus col. 11.5–6; Orphic Theogonies frags. 98, 109 West; cf. Aristophanes, Birds 693ff.

  9. Orphic frags. 54, 57 Kern; Orphic Rhapsodies frag. 66 West; etc.

  10. Vatican Mythographer 1.201/204; cf. Homer, Iliad 14.200–10, 245–46, which implies that Oceanus and Tethys rather than Uranus and Gaia were the first divine couple.

  11. Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 1.10.13.

  12. Hesiod, Theogony 132–38. These are the names of the Titans in almost all major sources for Greek mythology, but see also Apollodorus, Library 1.1.3, who adds Dione to the list (so that there are thirteen rather than twelve Titans). Cf. also the list of Titans in Hyginus, Fabulae pref.3, which is particularly incoherent and confused: here, the Titans are seemingly numbered as ten instead of twelve, and their names are given as Briareus, Gyges, Steropes, Atlas, Hyperion, Polus (=Coeus?), Saturn (=Cronus), Ops (=Rhea), Moneta (=Mnemosyne), and Dione.

  13. Hesiod, Theogony 139–46.

  14. Hesiod, Theogony 147–53.

  15. Hesiod, Theogony 154–206.

  16. Alcaeus, frag. 441 Lobel-Page; Acusilaus, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 2 frag. 4.

  17. Bacchylides, frag. 52 Snell-Maehler.

  18. Hesiod, Theogony 126–28, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  19. Hesiod, Theogony 154–59; cf. Acusilaus, FGrH (Fragmente der griechischen Historiker) 2 frag. 8; Apollodorus, Library 1.1.2.

  20. Hesiod, Theogony 178–82, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  21. Orphic frag. 135 Kern; Apollodorus, Library 1.1.4.

  22. Hesiod, Theogony 183–206.

  23. Hesiod, Theogony 207–10, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White.

  24. Hesiod, Theogony 470.

  25. Orphic frags. 54, 57 Kern; Orphic Rhapsodies frag. 66 West; etc.

  26. Derveni Papyrus col. 11.5–6; Orphic Theogonies frags. 98, 109 West; cf. Aristophanes, Birds 693ff.

  27. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 3.56.3–5.

  28. E.g., Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 3.697ff.

  29. CIL (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum) VI 1.81–83.

  30. Vitruvius, On Architecture 1.2.5.

Primary Sources

Greek

The most important literary source for the mythology of Uranus—in antiquity as today—was Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE), who described Uranus’ role in the cosmogony in his Theogony.

Further references to the myth of Uranus are scattered throughout Greek literature. Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE) has the Phaeacians claim to be the descendants of Uranus (and to possess the sickle with which his genitals had been severed by Cronus) in Book 4 of the Argonautica (982). Diodorus of Sicily (before 90–after 30 BCE) records a rationalized or “euhemerized” version of Uranus’ myth in his Library of History (3.56.3–5). And the mythographer known as Apollodorus or “Pseudo-Apollodorus” (first century BCE or later) summarizes the myths of Uranus in the beginning of his Library.

Roman

Uranus occasionally shows up in Roman sources, usually under the guise of Caelus but sometimes as Aether. Cicero (106–43 BCE) makes Uranus/Caelus the father of several important deities—including Mercury (Hermes), Vulcan (Hephaestus), Venus (Aphrodite), and even Jupiter (Zeus)—in his On the Nature of the Gods (3.22ff). The Roman mythographer known as Hyginus or “Pseudo-Hyginus” conflates Uranus as Aether in the beginning of his Fabulae, making him the father of a hodgepodge of divine children.

Other

Uranus played an important role in a handful of other texts and cosmogonies, including those produced by the Orphics, but most of these are now lost. More information on Uranus (including his role in works that are now lost) can be found in texts, commentaries, and reference works from the Byzatine Period or Middle Ages—for example, in the scholia.

For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

  • Gantz, Timothy. “Gaia and Ouranos.” In Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, 10–16. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

  • Hard, Robin. “First Beginnings.” In The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 8th ed., 18–27. New York: Routledge, 2020.

  • Käppel, Lutz. “Uranus.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1225470.

  • Kearns, Emily. “Uranus.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1526. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Schmidt, J. “Uranos.” In W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Vol. 6, 106–16. Leipzig: Teubner, 1924–1937.

  • Smith, William. “Uranus.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed June 10, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DU%3Aentry+group%3D11%3Aentry%3Duranus-bio-1.

  • Steuding, H. “Caelus.” In W. H. Roscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Vol. 1, 884–84. Leipzig: Teubner, 1884–1890.

  • Theoi Project. “Ouranos.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Protogenos/Ouranos.html.

  • Tran Tam Tinh, Vincent. “Ouranos.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 7.1, 132–36. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.

  • Wissowa, Goerg. “Caelus.” In Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 3.1, 1276–77. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1897.

  • Wüst, Ernst. “Uranos.” In Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Vol. 9A.1, 966–80. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1961.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Uranus.” Mythopedia, November 18, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/uranus.

Kapach, Avi. “Uranus.” Mythopedia, 18 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/uranus. Accessed on 23 Nov. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 18). Uranus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/uranus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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