Uranus is best known as the third largest planet in our solar system. Tucked between Saturn and Neptune, and a distant seven planets away from the sun, Uranus the Ice Giant seems remote and irrelevant.
But like the other planets, Uranus was first a Greek god. And he was not just any god. He was the primordial god of heaven and the father or grandfather of many of the gods, goddesses, and Titans of Greek mythology. Like his rebellious Titan son, Kronos (or Cronus), Uranus – as we shall see – was not a nice guy.
Uranus or Ouranos?
Uranus was the Greek god of heaven and the sky. He was a primordial being who came into existence around the time of Creation – well before the Olympian gods like Zeus and Poseidon were born.
Uranus is the Latinised version of his name, which came from Ancient Rome. The Ancient Greeks would have called him Ouranos. The Romans changed many of the names and attributes of the Greek gods and goddesses. For example, in Ancient Roman mythology Zeus became Jupiter, Poseidon became Neptune, and Aphrodite was Venus. Even the Titan Kronos was rebranded as Saturn.
These Latinised names were then later used to name the planets in our solar system. The planet Uranus was named after the Greek god on March 13th, 1781, when it was discovered with a telescope. But ancient civilisations would have seen Uranus too – as early as 128 BC Uranus was visible from Earth, but it was misidentified as a star.
Uranus: Star-Spangled Sky Man
Uranus was a primordial god and his domain was the sky and heaven. According to Greek mythology, Uranus did not simply have power over the sky – he was the sky personified.
Figuring out what Ancient Greeks thought Uranus looked like is not easy. Uranus is not present in early Greek art but the Ancient Romans depicted Uranus as Aion, god of eternal time.
The Romans showed Uranus-Aion in the form of a man holding a zodiac wheel, standing above Gaia – the Earth. In some myths, Uranus was a star-spangled man with a hand or foot on each corner of the Earth and his body, dome-like, formed the sky.
The Ancient Greeks and the Sky
Greek mythology often describes how places – both divine and mortal – looked with vivid detail. Think of the high-walled Troy, the dark depths of the Underworld, or the shining peak of Mount Olympus – home of the Olympian gods.
Uranus’ domain was also vividly described in Greek mythology. The Greeks visualized the sky as a brass dome decorated with stars. They believed that the edges of this sky-dome reached the outer limits of the flat Earth.
When Apollo – god of music and the sun – pulled his chariot across the sky bringing daybreak, he was actually driving across the body of his great grandfather – the primordial sky god Uranus.
Uranus and the Zodiac Wheel
Uranus was long associated with the zodiac and the stars. But it was the Ancient Babylonians who created the first zodiac wheel around 2,400 years ago. They used the zodiac wheel to create their own form of horoscopes, to predict the future and find meaning. In ancient times, the sky and the heavens were thought to hold great truths about the mysteries of the universe. The sky has been revered by many ancient and non-ancient groups and mythologies.
The Greeks associated the zodiac wheel with Uranus. Along with the stars, the zodiac wheel became his symbol.
In astrology, Uranus (the planet) is seen as the ruler of Aquarius – a period of electric energy and bounding change, just like the sky god himself. Uranus is like the mad inventor of the solar system – a force that pushes past extreme obstacles to create things, like the Greek god who created many significant descendants out of the Earth.
Uranus and Zeus: Heaven and Thunder
How were Uranus and Zeus – king of the gods – related? Given that Uranus and Zeus had similar attributes and spheres of influence it is perhaps not surprising that they were related. In fact, Uranus was Zeus’ grandfather.
Uranus was the husband (and also son) of Gaia – goddess of the Earth – and father of the infamous Titan Kronos. Through his youngest son – Kronos – Uranus was the grandfather of Zeus and many of the other Olympian gods and goddesses, including Zeus, Hera, Hades, Hestia, Demeter, Poseidon, and their half-brother – the centaur Chiron.
Zeus was the Olympian god of the sky and thunder. While Zeus had powers in the realm of the sky and often controlled the weather, the sky was Uranus’ domain. Yet it was Zeus who was king of the Greek gods.
Uranus the Unworshipped
Despite being a primordial god, Uranus was not the most important figure in Greek mythology. It was his grandson, Zeus, who became king of the gods.
Zeus ruled over the Twelve Olympians: Poseidon (god of the sea), Athena (goddess of wisdom), Hermes (the messenger god), Artemis (goddess of the hunt, childbirth and the moon), Apollo (god of music and the sun), Ares (god of war), Aphrodite (goddess of love and beauty), Hera (goddess of matrimony), Dionysus (god of wine), Hephaestus (the inventor god), and Demeter (goddess of the harvest). As well as the twelve Olympians, there was Hades (lord of the Underworld) and Hestia (goddess of the hearth) – who were not classed as Olympians because they did not live on Mount Olympus.
The Twelve Olympian gods and goddesses were worshiped in the Ancient Greek world much more than the primordial gods like Uranus and Gaia. The Twelve Olympians had shrines and temples dedicated to their worship across the Greek islands.
Many of the Olympians also had religious cults and devout followers who dedicated their lives to the worship of their god or goddess. Some of the most famous Ancient Greek cults were those belonging to Dionysus (who called themselves the Orphics after the legendary musician and Dionysus-follower Orpheus), Artemis (a cult of women), and Demeter (called the Eleusinian Mysteries). Neither Uranus or his wife Gaia had such a devoted following.
Although he had no cult and was not worshiped as a god, Uranus was respected as an unstoppable force of nature – an eternal part of the natural world. His prominent place in the family tree of gods and goddesses was honored.
The Origin Story of Uranus
The Ancient Greeks believed that at the beginning of time there was Khaos (chaos or the chasm), who represented air. Then Gaia, the Earth, came into existence. After Gaia came Tartaros (hell) in the depths of the Earth and then Eros (love), Erebos (darkness), and Nyx (black night). From a union between Nyx and Erebos came Aither (light) and Hemera (day). Then Gaia bore Uranus (heaven) to be her equal and opposite. Gaia also created Ourea (mountains) and Pontos (the sea). These were the primordial gods and goddesses.
In some versions of the myths, such as the lost epic Titanomachia by Eumelus of Corinth, Gaia, Uranus, and Pontos are the children of Aither (upper air and light) and Hemera (day).
There are many contradictory myths about Uranus, just like his confused origin story. This is partly because it is not clear where Uranus’ legend came from and each region of the Greek isles had their own stories about Creation and the primordial gods. His legend was not as well documented as that of the Olympian gods and goddesses.
The story of Uranus is very similar to several ancient myths from Asia, which predated Greek mythology. In a Hittite myth, Kumarbi – a sky god and king of the gods – was violently overthrown by the younger Teshub, god of storms, and his brothers. The story perhaps came to Greece through the trade, travel, and warfare links with Asia Minor and inspired the legend of Uranus.
The Children of Uranus and Gaia
Given his subordinate position in Greek myth compared to the Titans or the Olympians, it is Uranus’ descendants that make him significant in Greek mythology.
Uranus and Gaia had eighteen children: the twelve Greek Titans, the three Cyclopes (Brontes, Steropes, and Arges), and the three Hecatoncheires – the hundred-handed (Cottus, Briareos, and Gyges).
The Titans included Oceanus (god of the sea which encircled the Earth), Coeus (god of oracles and wisdom), Crius (god of constellations), Hyperion (god of light), Iapetus (god of mortal life and death), Theia (goddess of sight), Rhea (goddess of fertility), Themis (goddess of law, order, and justice), Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), Phoebe (goddess of prophecy), Tethys (goddess of fresh water), and Kronos (the youngest, strongest, and future ruler of the universe).
Gaia had many more children after Uranus’ fall, including the Furies (the original Avengers), the Giants (who had strength and aggression but were not especially large in size), and the nymphs of the ash tree (who would become the nurses of the infant Zeus).
Uranus is also sometimes seen as the father of Aphrodite, the Olympian goddess of love and beauty. Aphrodite was created from the sea foam which appeared when Uranus’ castrated genitals were thrown into the sea. The famous painting by Sandro Botticelli – The Birth of Venus – shows the moment that Aphrodite rose from the sea of Cyprus near Paphos, emerging fully-grown from the sea foam. It was said that the beautiful Aphrodite was Uranus’ most adored offspring.
Uranos: Dad of the Year?
Uranus, Gaia, and their eighteen shared children were not a happy family. Uranus locked the eldest of his children – the three Hecatoncheires and the three giant Cyclopes – in the center of the Earth, causing Gaia eternal pain. Uranus hated his children, especially the three hundred-handed ones – the Hecatoncheires.
Gaia began to grow tired of her husband’s treatment of their offspring, so she – as many of the goddesses who came after her imitated – hatched a cunning plan against her husband. But first she had to encourage her children to join the conspiracy.
Gaia encouraged her Titan sons to rebel against Uranus and helped them escape into the light for the first time. She crafted a powerful adamantine sickle, made from the gray flint she invented and ancient diamond. Then she attempted to rally her sons. But none of them had the courage to face down their father, except the youngest and most wily – Kronos.
Gaia hid Kronos, giving him the sickle and instructions for her plan. Kronos waited to ambush his father and four of his brothers were sent to the corners of the world to keep watch for Uranus. As the night came, so did Uranus. Uranus came down to his wife and Kronos emerged from his hiding place with the adamantine sickle. In one swing, he castrated him.
It was said that this brutal act caused the separation of heaven and Earth. Gaia was freed. According to the myths, Uranus either died shortly after or withdrew from the Earth forever.
As Uranus’ blood fell to the Earth the avenging Furies and Giants rose from Gaia. From the sea foam caused by his fall came Aphrodite.
The Titans had won. Uranus had called them the Titans (or Strainers) because they had strained inside the earthly prison he had bound them in. But Uranus would continue to play in the Titans’ minds. He had told them that their attack against him was a blood sin that – Uranus prophesied – would be avenged.
Like Father, Like Son
Uranus prophesied the fall of the Titans and foresaw the punishments that their descendents – the Olympians – would inflict on them.
Uranus and Gaia had shared this prophecy with their son, Kronos, because it related to him very deeply. And like many of the prophecies in Greek mythology, informing the subject of their fate ensured the prophecy would come true.
The prophecy said that Kronos, like his own father, was destined to be overcome by his son. And like his father, Kronos took such horrific action against his children that he provoked the uprising which was to topple him.
The Fall of Kronos
Kronos had assumed power after the defeat of his father and ruled with his wife, Rhea (goddess of fertility). With Rhea he had seven children (six of whom, including Zeus, would become Olympians).
Remembering the prophecy which foretold his downfall, Kronos left nothing to chance and swallowed each child whole after their birth. But just like Kronos’ mother – Gaia – Rhea grew angry at her husband’s treatment of their children and made an equally cunning plan.
When the time came for the birth of Zeus – the youngest – Rhea swapped the newborn for a rock wrapped in the baby’s clothes. Kronos devoured the rock, believing it to be his youngest son, and Rhea sent her child away to be raised in secret.
Zeus’ childhood is the topic of many conflicting myths. But many of the versions of the tale said that Zeus was raised by Adrasteia and Ida – nymphs of the ash tree (the Meliae) and children of Gaia. He grew up in hiding on Mount Dikte on the island of Crete.
When he reached adulthood, Zeus returned to wage a ten-year war on his father – a time known in Greek mythology as the Titanomachy. During this war, Zeus freed his older siblings from his father’s stomach by force feeding him a special herb which made him throw up his children.
The Rise of the Olympians
The Olympians were victorious and seized power from Kronos. They then locked the Titans who had fought against them in the Titanomachy in the pit of Tartarus to await judgment – a punishment reminiscent of the one Uranus had inflicted on them.
The Olympians did not show leniency for their Titan relations as they dished out horrific punishments. The most famous punishment was given to Atlas, who had to hold up the sky. His brother Menoetius was struck down by Zeus’ thunderbolt and cast into Erebus, a primordial void of darkness. Kronos remained in the hellish Tartarus. Though some myths claimed that Zeus eventually freed him, giving him the responsibility for ruling the Elysian Fields – the place in the Underworld reserved for heroes.
Some Titans – those who had remained neutral or taken the side of the Olympians – were allowed to remain free, including Prometheus (who was later punished for stealing fire for mankind by having his liver repeatedly pecked out by a bird), the primordial sun god Helios, and Oceanus, the god of the Earth-encircling ocean.
The greatest legacy of Uranus was perhaps the violent tendencies and appetite for power which he passed down to his children – the Titans – and his grandchildren – the Olympians. Without his cruel imprisonment of the children he couldn’t tolerate, the Titans may never have overthrown him and the Olympians could not have then overthrown them.
Although missing in many of the great Greek epics and plays, Uranus lives on in the form of his eponymous planet and in astrology. But the legend of the primordial sky god provides us with one last humorous insight: Uranus the planet peacefully sits – rather ironically – next to his avenging son, Saturn (known in the Greek world as Kronos).