In Greek mythology, Uranus is the personification of the sky and the very first king of the gods. He was the son and husband of Gaia, Mother Earth, with whom he conceived the original inhabitants of the universe, including the Titans. Accordingly, this primeval pairing are the ancestors of the majority of the gods which subsequently appeared in the Greek pantheon. Mythologically, Uranus is most famous for his usurpation at the hands of Cronus, his most powerful son and leader of the Titans. Although Uranus was revered as Father Heaven, he enjoyed little significance in the popular Greek religion. His equivalent in Roman mythology was Caelus, the original sky god in that mythological tradition.
The theonym "Uranus" is the Latinized form of Ouranos (Οὐρανός), the Greek word for "sky." The most probable etymology for this word is from Proto-Greek worsanos, which itself derives from the proto-Indo-European root wers-: "to moisten, to drip," referring to the rain which is fittingly linked to celestial deities. Uranus' Roman equivalent Caelus is based upon a similar linguistic foundation, adapted from caelum, the Latin word for "sky." Robert Graves, among others, has suggested that the name Ouranos may be related to that of another once-supreme deity in the Indo-European lineage, the Vedic Varuna, based on phonological similarity. However, this theory has been widely rejected.
Creation of the Universe
As with many other mythological systems, the Greeks understood the primordial universe to consist of two divine procreative entities—the earth and the sky. As Hesiod tells it in Theogony, the earth, personified as a maternal figure and named Gaia, came into existence out of Chaos by her own accord. She then gave birth to Uranus, the sky, so that he could cover her. In the nights that followed, Uranus faithfully lowered himself to earth to make love with Gaia, showering her with fertile rain.
Other sources, however, suggest a different parentage of Ouranos. Cicero, in De Natura Deorum ("The Nature of the Gods"), claims that Uranus was the offspring of the ancient gods Aether (the "upper-sky") and Hemera (the day). According to the Orphic Hymns, Uranus was the son of Nyx, the personification of night.
Uranus sired numerous offspring by Gaia, most notably six sons and six daughters corresponding to various elements of the phenomenal world, later to be known as the Titans. They were: Cronus (the leader of the Titans), his wife Rhea (mother of the Olympians), Oceanus (the "world-ocean" which surrounds the universe), his wife Tethys (mother of the rivers), Hyperion (the sun, according to Homer), his wife Theia, Coeus (the most intelligent Titan), his wife Phoebe, Mnemosyne (the female personification of memory), Iapetus (father of Prometheus), Themis (mother of the Horae) and Crius, who seems to have served no other function than filling out the list. Uranus and Gaia also created the hundred-handed, fifty-headed giants known as the Hecatonchires (Briareus, Cottus, and Gyes by name), and the one-eyed giants known as the Cyclopes (Brontes, Steropes and Arges).
Uranus was immediately filled with spite for the children Gaia bore him. He imprisoned the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes in Tartarus, the underworld in the bowels of Mother Earth, where they caused her immense pain. Enraged, Gaia shaped a massive flint-bladed sickle so that she and her children could orchestrate their revenge. She gathered together her sons and asked that they kill their tyrannical father. All of them were unwilling to partake in the task, fearing Uranus' power. The only exception was Cronus, and Gaia gave him the sickle and positioned him for an ambush. When Uranus met with Gaia that night for their usual lovemaking session, Cronus attacked him with the sickle, cutting off his testicles then promptly hurling them into the sea. With Uranus reeling in pain, Cronus proceeded to free his imprisoned brothers. It was by way of this deed that Uranus bestowed the name Titanes Theoi, or "Straining Gods," upon his children.
The drops of blood (or, by a some accounts, semen) which spilled from Uranus and onto the Earth in the aftermath of his castration created the Gigantes (Alcyoneus, Athos, Clytias, Enceladus and Echion), as well as the three avenging Furies or Erinyes (Alecto, Megaera, and Tisiphone), the Meliae, a group of ash-tree nymphs, and according to some, the Telchines (inhabitants of the island of Rhodes). From the vital fluids that fell in the ocean grew another daughter Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and lust, who drifted to shore using the severed genitals of Uranus as a raft. Some say the bloodied sickle used to castrate Uranus was buried in the earth, where it engendered the birth of the fabulous Phaeacian tribe.
After his castration, the Sky no longer descended for purposes of covering the Earth at night, but held to its place, and the creation story of the universe came to a close. Cronus assumed the title of king of the universe in place of his father, and Rhea became his queen. The new king of the gods, however, would run into problems similar to those which had befallen his father, quickly growing power-mad himself. Shortly after Uranus was deposed, Cronus once again imprisoned the Hecatonchires and Cyclopes in Tartarus along with the Gigantes, where they were guarded by the dragon Campe. At this point, Uranus and Gaia prophesied that Cronus in turn was destined to be overthrown by his own son, and so the paranoid Titan overlord attempted to avoid this fate by devouring his children as soon as they were born. Rhea, hoping to save her next child, came to her parents for advice. Uranus and Gaia had no trepidations taking part in the fate they had predicted for their own son, and so they directed Rhea to Crete when she became pregnant again. Here she gave birth to Zeus, who grew to overthrow Cronus, fulfilling the portent of Uranus and his consort.
Uranus was mostly confined to that of a vanquished god from an age long past. Beyond fathering the earliest gods of Greek mythology, Uranus does not appear to have enjoyed any other significant roles in ancient Greek religion. In fact, Uranus was understood almost entirely in non-anthropomorphic terms aside from the mention which is made of his genitalia in the myth describing the creation of Aphrodite. Accordingly, Uranus had no fixed type in Greek art, and few iconographic representations of the God exist. Uranus was simply the sky, which was conceived by the ancients as an overarching dome or roof of bronze, held in place (or turned on an axis) by the Titan, Atlas.
In spite of Uranus' virtual exclusion from popular Greek worship and iconography, he has not gone without impact upon the Western world. Most notably, Uranus was adopted as the name of the seventh planet from the sun in our solar system. The ancient Greeks and Romans knew of only five 'wandering stars' (Greek: πλανεται, planetai): Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. With this in mind, following the discovery of a sixth planet in the eighteenth century, the name Uranus was chosen as the logical addition to the series of known planets, since Mars (Ares) in Greek) was the son of Jupiter, (Greek: Zeus) the son of Saturn, and Saturn (Greek Cronus) the son of Uranus. This marks Uranus as the only planet in the solar system named by way of a Greek theonym as opposed to its Roman mythological equivalent.
- Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Volume 1 (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1990), 32.
- M.L. West, "Hesiod's Titans," The Journal of Hellenic Studies 105 (1985), 175.
- Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks. (London: Thames and Hudson, 1951), 20.
- H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen & Co., 1933), 20.
- Rose, 20.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Avery, Catherine B. (ed.). The New Century Handbook of Greek Mythology and Legend. New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1972. ISBN 0390669466
- Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985. ISBN 0631112413
- Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1990. ISBN 0-14-001026-2
- Guthrie, W. K. G. Greeks and their Gods. London: Methuen & Co, 1962.
- Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1951. ISBN 0500270481
- Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology, 2nd ed. London: Methuen & Co. 1933. ISBN 0415046017
- Ruck, Carl A. P. The World of Classical Myth. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic. 1994. ISBN 0-89089-575-9
All links retrieved May 3, 2023.
- Theoi Project, Ouranos references to Uranus in classical literature.
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