Uranus (Ancient Greek Οὐρανός, Ouranos [oːranós] meaning “sky” or “heaven”) was the primal Greek god personifying the sky and one of the Greek primordial deities. Uranus is associated with the Roman god Caelus. In Ancient Greek literature, Uranus or Father Sky was the son and husband of Gaia, Mother Earth. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Uranus was conceived by Gaia alone, but other sources cite Aether as his father. Uranus and Gaia were the parents of the first generation of Titans, and the ancestors of most of the Greek gods, but no cult addressed directly to Uranus survived into Classical times, and Uranus does not appear among the usual themes of Greek painted pottery. Elemental Earth, Sky, and Styx might be joined, however, in a solemn invocation in Homeric epic.
The most probable etymology traces the name to a Proto-Greek form *worsanós (Ϝορσανός) enlarged from *ṷorsó- (also found in Greek ouréō ‘to urinate’, Sanskrit varṣá ‘rain’, Hittite ṷarša- ‘fog, mist’). The basic Indo-European root is *ṷérs- ‘to rain, moisten’ (also found in Greek eérsē ‘dew’, Sanskrit várṣati ‘to rain’, Avestan aiβi.varəšta ‘it rained on’), making Ouranos the ‘rainmaker’. A less likely etymology is a derivative with meaning ‘the one standing on high’ from PIE *ṷérso- (cf. Sanskrit várṣman ‘height, top’, Lithuanian viršùs‘upper, highest seat’, Russian verx ‘height, top’). Of some importance in the comparative study of Indo-European mythology is the identification by Georges Dumézil (1934) of Uranus with the Vedic deity Váruṇa (Mitanni Aruna), god of the sky and waters, but the etymological equation is considered untenable.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, Uranus is the offspring of Gaia, the earth goddess. Alcman and Callimachus elaborate that Uranus was fathered by Aether, the god of heavenly light and the upper air. Under the influence of the philosophers, Cicero, in De Natura Deorum (“Concerning the Nature of the Gods”), claims that he was the offspring of the ancient gods Aether and Hemera, Air and Day. According to the Orphic Hymns, Uranus was the son of Nyx, the personification of night. Uranus was the brother of Pontus, the God of the sea.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Uranus mated with Gaia, and she gave birth to the twelve Titans: Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys and Cronus; the Cyclopes: Brontes, Steropes and Arges; and the Hecatoncheires (“Hundred-Handed Ones”): Cottus, Briareos, and Gyges.
Further, according to the Theogony, when Cronus castrated Uranus, from Uranus’ blood, which splattered onto the earth, came the Erinyes (Furies), the Giants, and the Meliae. Also, according to the Theogony, Cronus threw the severed genitals into the sea (Thalassa), around which “a white foam spread” and “grew” into the goddess Aphrodite, although according to Homer, Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and Dione.
In the Olympian creation myth, as Hesiod tells it in the Theogony, Uranus came every night to cover the earth and mate with Gaia, but he hated the children she bore him. Hesiod named their first six sons and six daughters the Titans, the three one-hundred-handed giants the Hekatonkheires, and the one-eyed giants the Cyclopes.
Uranus imprisoned Gaia’s youngest children in Tartarus, deep within Earth, where they caused pain to Gaia. She shaped a great flint-bladed sickle and asked her sons to castrate Uranus. Only Cronus, youngest and most ambitious of the Titans, was willing: he ambushed his father and castrated him, casting the severed testicles into the sea.
For this fearful deed, Uranus called his sons Titanes Theoi, or “Straining Gods.” From the blood that spilled from Uranus onto the Earth came forth the Giants, the Erinyes (the avenging Furies), the Meliae (the ash-tree nymphs), and, according to some, the Telchines. From the genitals in the sea came forth Aphrodite.
The learned Alexandrian poet Callimachus reported that the bloodied sickle had been buried in the earth at Zancle in Sicily, but the Romanized Greek traveller Pausanias was informed that the sickle had been thrown into the sea from the cape near Bolina, not far from Argyra on the coast of Achaea, whereas the historian Timaeus located the sickle at Corcyra; Corcyrans claimed to be descendants of the wholly legendary Phaeacia visited by Odysseus, and by circa 500 BCE one Greek mythographer, Acusilaus, was claiming that the Phaeacians had sprung from the very blood of Uranus’ castration.
After Uranus was deposed, Cronus re-imprisoned the Hekatonkheires and Cyclopes in Tartarus. Uranus and Gaia then prophesied that Cronus in turn was destined to be overthrown by his own son, and so the Titan attempted to avoid this fate by devouring his young. Zeus, through deception by his mother Rhea, avoided this fate.
These ancient myths of distant origins were not expressed in cults among the Hellenes. The function of Uranus was as the vanquished god of an elder time, before real time began.
After his castration, the Sky came no more to cover the Earth at night, but held to its place, and “the original begetting came to an end” (Kerényi). Uranus was scarcely regarded as anthropomorphic, aside from the genitalia in the castration myth. He 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 formulaic expressions in the Homeric poems ouranos is sometimes an alternative to Olympus as the collective home of the gods; an obvious occurrence would be the moment in Iliad 1.495, when Thetis rises from the sea to plead with Zeus: “and early in the morning she rose up to greet Ouranos-and-Olympus and she found the son of Kronos …”
William Sale remarks that “… ‘Olympus’ is almost always used of [the home of the Olympian gods], but ouranos often refers to the natural sky above us without any suggestion that the gods, collectively live there”. Sale concluded that the earlier seat of the gods was the actual Mount Olympus, from which the epic tradition by the time of Homer had transported them to the sky, ouranos. By the sixth century, when a “heavenly Aphrodite” (Aphrodite Urania) was to be distinguished from the “common Aphrodite of the people”, ouranos signifies purely the celestial sphere itself.
The Greek creation myth is similar to the Hurrian creation myth. In Hurrian religion Anu is the sky god. His son Kumarbis bit off his genitals and spat out three deities, one of whom, Teshub, later deposed Kumarbis. In Sumerian mythology and later for Assyrians and Babylonians, Anu is the sky god and represented law and order.
It is possible that Uranus was originally an Indo-European god, to be identified with the Vedic Váruṇa, the supreme keeper of order who later became the god of oceans and rivers, as suggested by Georges Dumézil, following hints in Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912). Another of Dumézil’s theories is that the Iranian supreme God Ahura Mazda is a development of the Indo-Iranian *vouruna-*mitra. Therefore, this divinity has also the qualities of Mitra, which is the god of the falling rain.
Uranus and Váruṇa
Uranus is connected with the night sky, and Váruṇa is the god of the sky and the celestial ocean, which is connected with the Milky Way.
Georges Dumézil made a cautious case for the identity of Uranus and Vedic Váruṇa at the earliest Indo-European cultural level. Dumézil’s identification of mythic elements shared by the two figures, relying to a great extent on linguistic interpretation, but not positing a common origin, was taken up by Robert Graves and others. The identification of the name Ouranos with the Hindu Váruṇa, based in part on a posited PIE root *-ŭer with a sense of “binding”—ancient king god Váruṇa binds the wicked, ancient king god Uranus binds the Cyclopes, who had tormented him. The most probable etymology is from Proto-Greek *(F)orsanόj (worsanos) from a PIE root *ers “to moisten, to drip” (referring to the rain).
Cultural context of flint
The detail of the sickle’s being flint rather than bronze or even iron was retained by Greek mythographers (though neglected by Roman ones). Knapped flints as cutting edges were set in wooden or bone sickles in the late Neolithic, before the onset of the Bronze Age. Such sickles may have survived latest in ritual contexts where metal was taboo, but the detail, which was retained by classical Greeks, suggests the antiquity of the mytheme.
The ancient Greeks and Romans knew of only five ‘wandering stars’ (Greek: πλανήται, planētai): Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Following the discovery of a sixth planet in 1781 using a telescope, there was long-term disagreement regarding its name. Its discoverer William Herschel named it Georgium Sidus (The Georgian Star) after his monarch George III. This was the name preferred by English astronomers, but others such as the French preferred “Herschel”. Finally, the name Uranus became accepted in the mid-19th century, as suggested by astronomer Johann Bode as the logical addition to the existing planets’ names, since Mars (Ares in Greek), Venus, and Mercury were the children of Jupiter, Jupiter (Zeus in Greek) the son of Saturn, and Saturn (Cronus in Greek) the son of Uranus. What is anomalous is that, while the others take Roman names, Uranus is a name derived from Greek in contrast to the Roman Caelus.