Uranus: The Primordial God of the Heavens
Uranus: The Primordial God of the Heavens
Uranus was the physical form of the dome of the sky. Read on to find out where he came from, how he ruled the cosmos, and how he was eventually dethroned!
The primordial gods of Greek mythology did not have anthropomorphic forms. They were the literal things they represented, the foundations for the whole of creation.
Gaia, for example, was not a woman who was a part of the earth. She was the earth itself.
Uranus was the primordial god of the sky. The heavens were believed to be a great dome that arched above Gaia.
With Gaia, Uranus was the parent of the first generation of true gods. The Titans had human forms and distinct personalities.
While Uranus was the father of Gaia’s greatest children, however, he was not a warm and loving parent.
His brutal treatment of his children led to his own undoing and his eternal separation from his angry spouse. As the first story of the great succession myth of the gods, Uranus was overthrown by his son because of Gaia’s anger.
Keep reading to learn more about the sordid story of Uranus, the primordial god of the sky!
The Creation of Uranus
Uranus was one of the primordial gods of Greek mythology, said to have been born at the very beginning of the universe.
The first being to emerge from the great empty void of the universe was Chaos. In most early myths she was the air, but later writers considered Chaos to be the swirling mass of primordial elements that made up creation.
The first deities to emerge from Chaos were Gaia, the earth, and Tartarus, the pit. Soon after concepts like Nyx, the night, and Aether, light, emerged as well.
According to many versions of the Greek creation myth, Uranus came into being at this time as well. Other stories say that he was the first being to be born from Gaia herself.
Gaia, Uranus, and Tartarus organized themselves into the recognizable cosmology of Greek thought. Gaia lay between the two with Uranus forming the dome of the sky above her and Tartarus mirroring the dome below.
It was said that if you dropped an anvil from the heavens it would take nine full days to reach the ground below. The same anvil would take another nine days to fall to the deepest point of the pit Tartarus.
The Form of the Heavens
The Greek notion of the sky was very different from what one might expect.
Uranus did not have a physical form that resembled a human, or any living thing. Like Gaia and Tartarus, he existed as his element.
The Greeks envisioned the heavens as an enormous dome that arched above the surface of the earth. At the edges of Gaia’s flat expanse, Uranus and Tartarus met against her.
Uranus was made of shining brass and only appeared blue, gray, or black because of the influence of other gods upon him. The stars that eventually covered Uranus at night rested on his surface like decorations.
The Greeks saw Uranus as unmoving and eternally held aloft, far from Gaia’s surface. This was not always the case, however.
In the earliest days of the universe, Uranus had the ability to move toward Gaia. He did so every night, resulting in the two having many children together.
The Downfall of Uranus
The children Uranus fathered on Gaia would ultimately lead to his downfall, as would his mistreatment of the earth mother herself.
Uranus was not a loving father to the children of Gaia. When the twelve Titans were born he became a cold and tyrannical ruler to them.
The Titans were the first generation of gods, embodying great power instead of simple primordial forces.
Uranus denied them their power, however. He wanted to keep his children subordinate to him.
While he hated the Titans, they were not the children he treated most cruelly, however. His full hatred fell on the Hecatonchieres and the Cyclopes.
The three Hecatonchieres were giants who each had a hundred hands. The Cyclopes were also giants, noted for the single eye they each possessed in the middle of their faces.
Uranus thought these six children were too monstrous and hideous to be allowed to exist. He buried them deep within Gaia herself, where she could not see them but could feel them scratching at her as they attempted to find their way to freedom.
Gaia was furious that Uranus had treated her children so poorly. While he was a hard-hearted father, Gaia’s maternal instinct made her want to fight for her children’s freedom.
She could not overthrow Uranus herself, though. She asked her children for help in defeating their father.
And she [Gaia] spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart: ‘My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.’ So she said; but fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Kronos (Cronus) the wily took courage and answered his dear mother: ‘Mother, I will undertake to do this deed, for I reverence not our father of evil name, for he first thought of doing shameful things.’ So he said: and vast Gaia rejoiced greatly in spirit, and set and hid him in an ambush, and put in his hands a jagged sickle, and revealed to him the whole plot. And Ouranos came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Gaia spreading himself full upon her. 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.
-Hesiod, Theogony 126 ff (trans. Evelyn-White)
The castration of Uranus stripped him of his power and his right to rule. His youngest son, the only one brave enough to challenge him, took his place as the king of the gods.
The twelve Titans, six male and six female, assumed control of the universe after their father’s downfall. Under their brother’s rule they had somewhat more freedom than they had under the tyranny of Uranus, but not much more.
They each settled into their domains, presiding over different aspects of the universe and the creation that was beginning to flourish within it. They were:
- Hyperion – The Titan god of light.
- Iapetus – The god of mortality.
- Coeus – The god of intelligence.
- Crius – The Titan of the constellations.
- Chronos – The king of the Titans and the god of the destructive nature of time.
- Oceanus – The personification of the great river that encircled Gaia.
- Mnemosyne – The Titaness of memory and language.
- Phoebe – The goddess of intellect.
- Rhea – The Titaness of female fertility and the consort of Chronos.
- Tethys – The goddess of nursing and springs.
- Theia – The goddess of sight. She also saw the value of precious gems.
- Themis – The goddess of natural law, proper order, and organized society.
With their new freedom, the Titans began to have children of their own. An entire pantheon of younger Titans was born after the fall of Uranus.
The reign of the Titans would not last, however. Chronos failed to keep his promise to his mother, Gaia, and never freed the Hecatonchieres and Cyclopes.
In time, his own son would rise up to challenge him, just as he had challenged Uranus. He would not be taken out of power by a single stroke, but by a long and protracted war.
In the end, Zeus and the Olympians seized power and held onto it.
The male Titans, with the exception of Oceanus, had fought against Zeus and were imprisoned in Tartarus. The Titanesses lived among the new gods and retained their stations.
Uranus Kept Aloft
In the time of the Titans, however, they still faced the problem of how to deal with their dethroned father. He could not be imprisoned in Tartarus, but they had to devise a way to keep him away from Gaia.
One account said that the Titans themselves took on the task of holding their father away from the earth. While Chronos wielded the sickle, four of his brothers took positions at each of the corners of the earth to hold Uranus away from Gaia.
Oceanus, the one brother who did not hold the dome of the sky, did his part by encircling Gaia’s edge. The wide river ensured that Uranus and Gaia never touched again.
A variation of the story replaced the Titans with four great pillars. The brothers built them to keep their father in place but they had to guard the pillars at all times to ensure they never failed.
After the Titanomachy, Zeus solved two problems at once. He both continued to keep Uranus held aloft and punished one of his greatest enemies.
Oceanus had remained neutral in the war, giving shelter to both Titanesses and goddesses according to some legends, so he remained as a buffer between the realms. But with the imprisonment of the elder Titans it was necessary once again to keep Uranus held above.
Since life had flourished on Gaia’s surface since his departure, it was more important than ever to keep the sky held aloft. The immense weight of the dome of Uranus would crush all life if he tried to get close to Gaia again.
Atlas was a second-generation Titan who had led the armies of the elder gods during the war. While the rest of the fighting Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, Zeus came up with a more creative punishment for their military captain.
To punish Atlas for his part in the Titanomachy, Zeus ordered him to hold the dome of the sky aloft.
Ancient poets talked at length about the great torment Atlas suffered in holding the entire weight of the sky by himself. In Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus described the Titan as moaning in distress and agony throughout his eons of painful labor.
Only once was Atlas relieved of his burden. The hero Heracles briefly took on the weight of the heavens in exchange for the Titan’s help with one of his quests.
Despite all this, Uranus still tried to reach Gaia’s surface. He could no longer lay on top of her, but he could still fertilize her.
The rain that fell from the heavens was sometimes said to be the continued attempt of Uranus to reach his estranged consort. Rain made plants grow and enabled animals and humans to survive, making all life on Gaia, in a sense, children of Uranus as well.
The Second Generation of Children
More literal children were born from Gaia and Uranus at the moment of his castration, however.
When he was attacked, his blood fell on Gaia’s surface. From this blood, three more races of children were born.
The giants, or Gigantes, were similar to the Titans but monstrous in size and form. They were enormous, brutish creatures lacking in culture and intelligence.
Nor were they any match for the gods in strength. Gaia tried to send them to overthrow the Olympians in revenge for the imprisonment of so many of her children, but the Gigantes were defeated.
Many of them were killed in the Gigantomachy. Their bodies were buried in Gaia where they became a source of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The Erinyes, also known as the Furies, were spirits of vengeance. They ruthlessly hunted and tormented those who had committed crimes, particularly murderers and those who had betrayed their families.
The final children of Uranus and Gaia were the Meliae. Unlike the other children born from his blood, the ash tree nymphs were not violent or threatening.
These dryads became the creators of the Bronze Age of men.
The final child of Uranus was not born of Gaia, but of the remains of his severed body parts.
When Chronos flung them away, the genitals of Uranus fell into the sea. Off the coast of Cythera they mixed with sea foam.
From this mix was born Aphrodite. The motherless goddess was the ideal of perfect feminine beauty.
Despite her parentage, Aphrodite was welcomed by the Olympians. She became one of the chief goddesses of the Greek pantheon and played an important role in many of it’s most legendary myths.
The Legend of Uranus
Uranus was one of the primordial gods, the first beings in all of creation. He took the form of the great dome of the sky that arched over the surface of Gaia, the earth.
Together, Uranus and Gaia had many children. He was an unkind father though, and ruled his children with ruthless tyranny.
When Uranus imprisoned six of Gaia’s children, the mother goddess asked their Titan sons for help. One stepped forward to end the reign of Uranus, castrating him and seizing power.
The Titans devised a way to hold Uranus up so the dome of the heavens could never again touch the surface of the earth. When the Titans in turn lost power, the job was given to Atlas as a punishment for fighting against the new gods of Olympus.
The last of their children together were born of the blood that spilled when his son attacked him. Aphrodite, however, was his alone.
The story of Uranus is the first part of the great succession narrative of Greek mythology. As he was dethroned by his son, so too was Chronos dethroned by Zeus.
Only with the marriage of Zeus and Hera did the brutal line of succession end. Zeus held his throne and never had to worry about being overthrown by his own sons.