Ever wondered how the universe was formed and who all were involved in its creation? Here’s all you wanted to know about Ouranos, the Sky Father, and one of the most important figures in the Greek creation myth.
Did you know?
There are extremely rare, if any, representations of Ouranos in the early Greek art. However, Egyptian depictions of their sky goddess Nut shed light on how Ouranos might have been imagined.
Revering and venerating natural entities has been an age-old tradition in world mythology. People have always been worshiping the elements of nature for their capability to create, sustain, and destroy. Cultures throughout the world have always acknowledged and submitted to their indomitable power and superiority. The ancient Greeks were no exception to this. They had figured out the prominent place that the natural entities occupied, even in their daily lives. Owing to this, the ancient Greeks held them in high esteem, and though there were no prominent cults of these divinities, they definitely formed a part of some of the most important Greek myths.
The Greek deity Ouranos or the Roman deity Uranus, was one of the most important natural entities in the ancient Greek mythology. He was the Father Sky, the personification of sky. The people of ancient Greece believed that the sky was essentially a solid dome made of brass that was embellished with the sun and the moon, and the stars. They also believed that the outermost edges of this brass dome met those of the earth, at its periphery. So, Ouranos (sky) and Gaia (Earth) came to be associated with each other in several different ways.
Birth of Ouranos
Because Ouranos is a natural entity, a majority of ancient Greeks believed him to be primeval/primordial in nature. This essentially means that he was born on his own, and had no parentage. In other words, he was one of the Protogenoi, the first-born divinities, who were party to various creative processes in the universe. But there are also, several other myths related to the birth of Ouranos.
✰ Hesiod, the 7th century A.D. Greek poet, sheds some light on the birth of Ouranos in his work, Theogony. He says that in the beginning of time, there were only Chaos (Void), Gaia (Earth), Tartarus (Hell), and Eros (Love). From Chaos, were born Erebus (Darkness) and Nyx (Night). Further, from the union of Nyx and Erebus, Aether (Upper Air) and Hemera (Day) came into being. Then, Gaia, on her own, gave birth to Ouranos, the starry Sky. She made Ouranos equal to herself in length and breadth, so that she could be completely covered by him.
✰ The few surviving fragments of the ancient Greek epic, Titanomachy, ascribed to the early Greek poet Eumelus of Corinth (around 800 B.C.), state that Ouranos, Gaia, and Pontus (Sea) were all children of Aether. This view was further supported by Alcman, a 7th century B.C. Greek poet.
✰ The 5th century B.C. Greek playwright, Aristophanes, also speaks about the mythical cosmogony in one of his plays, The Birds. According to him, there were only Chaos, Erebus, Nyx, Tartarus, and Eros in the beginning. Nothing else was created until Eros ignited sexual desire in these elements. It was only after the intervention of Eros that these elements came together, and through these unions were created, Ouranos, Gaia, Oceanus (personification of World Ocean), and the Theoi (immortal Gods). However, though Aristophanes speaks about the birth of Ouranos, he does not mention who his parents were.
All those who believed that Ouranos was one of the Protogenoi, also believed that everything was bound tightly together in the beginning. Now again, there are several versions of how all the elements moved apart from each other. The most popular version, however, is that of the 1st century B.C. Roman poet Ovid, in which he says that Gaia, due to her weight, subsided and also pulled down Pontos along with her. Ouranos, on the other hand, rose upwards, due to his lightness. Thus, Heaven and Earth became two separate entities.
Ouranos and Gaia
The story of Ouranos and Gaia is the story of the creation of universe. Gaia, the Earth, forms the very base of the Greek cosmogonical pyramid, owing to a simple fact that she has a power to procreate; a divine power to produce everything that would truly make the universe.
At first, she gives birth to Ouranos, the starry Sky; she makes Ouranos equal to herself, so that she may be completely enveloped by him on all sides and thus, stay protected. The birth of Ouranos, and his ‘equalness’ to Gaia, places before her, a masculine partner, who would aid her further in the process of universal reproduction. Moreover, the complete symmetry of the Earth and the Sky (Gaia and Ouranos) makes the world, an organized whole that is, in itself, a miniature replica of the cosmos. This kind of formation, provides a perfect setting for the Gods to dwell in complete security, as they would, in their respective abodes (each of the Gods would have an assigned place in the world for him/her to dwell and function from).
After Ouranos, Gaia also produces (on her own), high mountains, deep valleys, and of course, the World Sea (Pontos), who is symmetrically her double, and also her liquid opposite. The birth of Pontos also creates a possibility of a second masculine partner for Gaia. However, the creation of all the physical elements of nature, ends the first cycle of universal creation, and Gaia then gets involved in the creation of those creatures who would depend on the physical elements/forces of nature for their survival.
Throughout the first cycle, Gaia produces all by herself. She does not depend on any external entity, she just draws her children out of her depths. In the second cycle, this form of procreation ceases to exist. Now, Gaia seeks an external, masculine partner, who can aid her to create the living, animate entities. This is where she unites with Ouranos. From their divine union, are born three series of children. The first of them were 12 children – the Titans – six male and six female; next in line were the Hecatonchires – the ferocious hundred-handed Giants; and the last to be born were the three Cyclopes – the one-eyed Giants.
The Rise and Fall of Ouranos
Ouranos was essentially the first male entity to be born in the universe. Owing to this, he is regarded as the first ever king to rule the world. He, along with his wife Gaia, is responsible for all the reproductive processes taking place in the universe. Initially, for thousands of years, Ouranos and Gaia were very closely bound to each other. This age-long embrace and intercourse between them impregnated Gaia, who in turn gave birth to a series children, as mentioned above.
According to the myth, Ouranos strongly disliked all the children that Gaia bore him. Owing to this, he decided not to let them take birth. He embraced Gaia so tightly, and for such a long time that her children were trapped inside her womb, from where they caused her great trouble.
Moreover, Ouranos was extremely appalled by the looks of his youngest children, the Cyclopes. So, he imprisoned them deep inside the Tartarus (hell), that lied deep underneath Gaia. Gaia was both, hurt and annoyed by these terrible deeds of Ouranos, who refused to part from her and let her children out from her bosom. She then, decided to take some concrete action against Ouranos, so that she could separate herself from him, and make her children see the light of the day.
Gaia made a sickle out of flint, a stone that was abundantly available on her surface, and ordered her children to castrate Ouranos as a punishment for the terrible sin that he had done. A popular myth tells us that Cronus, the youngest and most ambitious of all the titans, while still in his mother’s bosom, followed her orders and castrated Ouranos with the flint sickle.
His severed organ was then thrown into the sea by Cronus, from which, according to a myth, Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, was born. From Ouranos’ blood that spilled on earth, were born the Gigantes (the Giants), the Erinyes (the Furies), the Telchines (a race of metallurgists, who originally inhabited the Rhodes Island), and the Meliae (the nymphs of the ash tree). Following this, the titans came to power, with Cronus as their unopposed ruler.
The incidence of castration of Ouranos is a very important event with reference to the Greek creation myth. It was only after Ouranos’ castration that Gaia was released from him age-long embrace, as he moved away from her. In more literal terms, the myth of the castration of Ouranos, explains in a mythical way, how the earth and the sky came to be two separate entities, yet closely interrelated to each other.
Ouranos in Art
In art, depictions of Ouranos, if any, are extremely rare. His physical appearance can only be conceptualized at many instances through whatever has been written about this primordial divinity in the ancient Greek literature. As far as solid arts such as sculpture are concerned, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to depict a starry-bodied Ouranos, especially in absence of all the other physical traits and attributes.
We know of one free-standing marble statue of Ouranos which stands in the park of Château de Versailles in France. This, larger than life statue, depicts an old, bearded man, standing nude and holding in his left hand, something that resembles a ball, which is most probably, planet Uranus. This, supposedly a Roman period statue, actually belongs to the Roman sky god Caelus, who is equivalent to Greek Ouranos.
We also find some rare depictions of Ouranos or Caelus on a few Roman mosaics. He is depicted in a standing position, surrounded by a zodiac wheel. Sometimes, he is shown alongside Terra, the Roman version of Gaia.
Owing to the fact that Ouranos was a primordial divinity that essentially symbolized a physical entity, we do not have many references with respect to his cult or worship. If he was ever worshiped as the Sky Father, it may have definitely been before the rise of the Olympians. The Olympians assumed power after having defeated the Titans, and then, Zeus, the youngest son of Cronus, not only became the king of the Gods, but also the ruler of the sky. In other words, Zeus took over Ouranos’ domain after he came to power. Nevertheless, Ouranos remains an inevitable part of the Greek and Roman (as Caelus) creation myth as without his union with the Earth goddess, the evolution of the universe would have been impossible.