About
Greek 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.

By Thomas Apel8 min read • Last updated on Apr. 18th, 2022
  • 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.

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

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

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

An alternative linguistic etymology links the Proto-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.

#Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Uranus

    Οὐρανός

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [YOOR-uh-nuhs, yoo-REY-]

    /ˈyʊər ə nəs, yʊˈreɪ-/

#Attributes

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 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. Pol / CC0

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, often straddling a zodiac.

#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.3 But there were other versions of his parentage. Some poets, including Alcman and Callimachus, listed Uranus’ father as Acmon or Aether (possibly two names for the same entity).4 The Orphics apparently made Uranus the son of Nyx (“Night”), another primordial deity.5 Finally, according to some Roman sources, Uranus was the son of Aether and Hemera (“Air” and “Day”).6

Uranus became the consort of his mother, Gaia. With her, he sired the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Thea, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Cronus);7 the one-eyed Cyclopes (Brontes, Arges, and Steropes); and the Hecatoncheires (Kottos, Briareus, and Gyges), monstrosities with a hundred hands each. Some sources also named the nymph Aetna (the namesake of the famous Sicilian volcano) as one of the children of Uranus and Gaia.8

In a manner of speaking, Uranus also fathered a few children on his own: when Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus, the Erinyes (also called the Furies), the Giants, and the ash-tree nymphs known as the Meliae were born from the blood that spilled from his wounds. Likewise, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sexual desire, was born from the foam that formed when his severed genitals were cast into the sea.9 In other traditions, the Phaecians10 and the sea deities known as the Telchines11 were also born at the moment of Uranus’ castration.

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 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.

#Family Tree

#Mythology

Written around the seventh century 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. He revolved around the earth goddess’s form and copulated with her at each passing. 

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.

Despairing at the fate of her children, Gaia formed a great sickle from flint stone and urged her children to castrate and overthrow Uranus. According to Hesiod, Cronus was the only one of Gaia’s children 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 bore 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.12

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.

Sailko / CC BY 3.0

When Cronus took his father’s place, he freed his fellow Titans and banished the Cyclopes and Hecatoncheires to Tartarus. The rise of Cronus marked a new era in the mythical landscape of the cosmos. In time, however, Cronus would fall prey to the same malicious suspicions that plagued his father; also like his father, he would ultimately be overthrown by his own offspring.

#Pop Culture

Though Uranus’ 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 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.

#Further Reading

#Primary Sources

Greek

  • Hesiod: The myth of Uranus and his downfall is told in the seventh-century BCE epic the Theogony.

  • Apollonius of Rhodes: In Book 4 of the third-century BCE epic Argonautica (line 982), the Phaecians are said to be the descendants of Uranus (and to possess the sickle with which his genitals had been severed by Cronus).

  • Strabo, Geography: A late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

Roman

  • Ovid: Uranus shows up in some of Ovid’s mythological poetry, especially the Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE).

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: A work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). Contains references to Uranus.

  • Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE with references to Uranus.

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the myths of Uranus.

#Secondary Sources

#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. Hesiod, Theogony 126ff.

  4. Alcman, frag. 61 Campbell; Callimachus, frag. 498.

  5. Derveni Papyrus, col. 11.5–6.

  6. Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.17; Hyginus, preface to Fabulae.

  7. 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).

  8. Simonides, frag. 52 Campbell; scholia on Theocritus’ Idyll 1.65.

  9. Hesiod, Theogony 184ff. Note that in other sources, such as Homer, Aphrodite was actually the daughter of Zeus and Dione.

  10. Alcaeus, frag. 441 Campbell.

  11. Bacchylides, frag. 52 Campbell.

  12. Hesiod, Theogony 178–97, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White. In other traditions, however, Cronus received help from all of his siblings with the exception of Oceanus (Apollodorus, Library 1.1.4; Proclus on Plato’s Timaeus 40e = Orphic Hymns frag. 135 Kern).

Bibliography




Citation

Apel, Thomas. “Uranus.” Mythopedia, April 18, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/uranus

About the Author

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Thomas Apel

Writer and Historian

Thomas Apel is a historian of science and religion who received his PhD in History from Georgetown University

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