Greek Mythology Gods: GAIA and OURANOS
Greek Mythology Gods - Ouranos

Greek Mythology Gods: GAIA and OURANOS

Greek Mythology Gods –  We must now pass on to the two great families that were founded by GAIA (Earth) through her unions with her two self-generated partners, first Ouranos (Sky) and then Pontos (Sea). As has already been noted, the family that she founded with Ouranos was the nobler of the two, bringing into being all the greatest gods and goddesses, while the family that she founded with Pontos consisted mainly of seabeings and monsters. Of her two partners, moreover, only Ouranos can be regarded as having been a true husband of hers, for she is linked to Pontos (who has no myths and is barely personified) for genealogical purposes alone. Ouranos and Gaia are in fact the primordial couple in Hesiod’s account of the earliest history of the world, even if they are not the first beings of all or the progenitors of all subsequent beings; and the first proper myth in that history is the one that tells how Ouranos provoked the dissolution of his marriage and his own downfall by his mistreatment of his wife and children. Important though he may have been at this early stage, Ouranos makes no further appearance in myth after the end of his union with Gaia (except in so far as he is said to have delivered prophecies to children of his). There is no evidence that he was ever worshipped or played any part in Greek cult; at most, he might be invoked along with other deities in oaths.

Greek Mythology Gods – Gaia

Before we begin further, you can check our article The Family of Nyx


Greek Mythology Gods – Ouranos

Ouranos was sometimes called Akmonides, i.e. son of Akmon, probably in accordance with a very early usage. The Byzantine scholar Eustathius (who claims that Alcman, a poet of the late seventh century BC, already referred to Ouranos as son of Akmon) records an ancient etymological speculation on the matter, saying that the father of Ouranos was called Akmon because the movement of the heavens is ‘unwearying’ (akamatos). It has been suggested in more recent times that the name may be connected with Old Persian and Sanskrit acman, in which case it would mean stone, in reference to the solid vault of heaven. Whatever the true meaning of the word, it may well have originated as a cultic title or epithet of Ouranos; in like manner, Hyperion is sometimes a title of the sun-god Helios, and sometimes the father of Helios. But the matter remains a mystery.

In contrast to her male partners, the earth-goddess GAIA or GE was honoured in cult in classical times, though not as a deity of any great significance. Shrines are recorded for her in various parts of Greece, including one on the south slope of the Athenian acropolis, where she was honoured as Ge Kourotrophos (rearer of children), and a joint temple with Zeus Agoraios in Sparta. She had no festivals, however, and seems to have been honoured most frequently in conjunction with other deities. The Greeks liked to invoke her in oaths for much the same reason that they would invoke the sun-god Helios, because no one could break an oath in any part of the world without her being aware of it; in a scene in the Iliad, two lambs are fetched for sacrifice when a solemn oath is due to be sworn, a black female lamb for Gaia and a white male for Helios. From as far back as our evidence extends, Gaia always represents the earth as a whole (even if she may once have been conceived more narrowly, rather like Tellus at Rome, as the power residing in the patches of earth with which her worshippers were immediately concerned and acquainted).

It hardly needs repeating that the earth was not pictured as a globe in the earliest times, but as a plane or disk of indefinite expanse; but the true shape of the earth was discovered quite early, certainly by the late fifth century BC. Although Gaia acts as a personal being in her myths, and is sometimes shown rising up from the ground in human form in works of art (as when she delivers the earth-born Erichthonios to Athena,), it cannot be said that she was really imagined as a fully anthropomorphic deity, for she remained too closely identified with the earth as a physical body. In a Homeric Hymn that is addressed to her, she is praised accordingly as the mother of all (pamme¯te¯r) and oldest being of all who nourishes all living creatures and brings prosperity to the human race through her harvests.

Sets Children of Ouranos

Greek Mythology Gods – Cyclop

Gaia bore three sets of children to Ouranos, first a group of primordial gods who were known as the Titans (properly Titanes in Greek), and then two sets of monsters, the one-eyed Kyklopes and the hundred-armed giants who came to be known as the Hekatoncheires or Hundred-Handers. Ouranos hated them all, however, and prevented them from emerging into the light, causing such anguish to Gaia that she finally urged them to take action against him. The youngest of the Titans, Kronos, who was the only one who had the courage to do so, laid an ambush for his father, armed with a sickle that his mother had prepared for the purpose; and he cut off the genitals of Ouranos as he approached his wife to make love, so bringing their union to a violent end and making it possible for Gaia to bring their children to the light at last. Kronos hurled the severed genitals into the sea, where sea-foam gathered around them to generate the goddess Aphrodite ; and some blood dripped from them on to Gaia, causing her to conceive three further sets of children, the Erinyes, Giants and Meliai.

The Mutilation of Ouranos

This story of the mutilation of Ouranos and his separation from Gaia has obvious cosmological implications; since the sky now rises high above the earth, it is suggested in the myths of many cultures that Earth and Sky, as the first couple or at least a primordial couple, must somehow have been drawn apart at a very early stage in the history of the world. This is often achieved in a gentler fashion than in the present story. In an ancient Egyptian myth, for instance, Shu, the personification of the air, is said to have interposed himself between the earth-god Geb and the sky-goddess Nut to raise the latter’s body high over that of her partner. Or in Naori myth from far away in New Zealand, the union between the first couple Rangi and Papa, the female Earth and male Sky, became the first source of life, but all that they brought forth remained imprisoned between them initially because they never relaxed from their embrace; so the first gods, who formed part of their offspring, consulted together and resolved that Tane, the god of forests and birds, should separate Rangi and Papa by using his body to hold them apart; and when he did so light appeared in the world for the first time. Closer to home in the ancient Near East, the Hurro-Hittite myth of Ullikummi referred to the sundering of the earth and sky; and the upward flight of Anu in the Hurro-Hittite succession myth summarized below implies the same. Hesiod makes no reference, however, to the raising up of the sky, and he may not even have been aware of this aspect of the story; he is concerned above all with the dynastic implications of the intrafamilial conflict.

Greek Mythology Gods – Kronos

By mutilating Ouranos and so bringing his union with Gaia to an end, Kronos displaced him as the main god, establishing himself as the new lord of the universe with his fellow Titans as his subordinates. This was not the final order of things, however, since Kronos maltreated his children like his father before him, and was destined to be overthrown by them in his turn. Having been warned by Gaia and Ouranos that he would be displaced by his own son, Kronos tried to remove the danger by swallowing each of his children at birth; but his plan was foiled because his wife Rhea hid his youngest son and gave him a stone to swallow instead; and Zeus duly caused the downfall of Kronos when he came of age, by compelling him to disgorge his other children and then banding together with them to banish him and his fellow Titans to Tartaros. The initial story of the mutilation and displacement of Ouranos thus forms part of an overarching ‘succession myth’ which tells how the present divine order came to be established under Zeus in the third generation, after the fall of his father and grandfather. The Olympian gods, who replaced the Titans as the principal gods, were either brothers and sisters of Zeus or else children of his (with two possible exceptions,). This succession myth will be examined in detail in the next chapter, when we come to deal with the rise of Zeus and origin of the Olympian order. Since the Kyklopes and Hekatoncheires, the monstrous children of Ouranos and Gaia, are mainly of interest for the part that they play in the succession myth, consideration of them will also be deferred until then (as will full treatment of the mythology of Kronos and Rhea). We will concentrate for the present on the TITANS, in their common nature as a collective body of former gods, and in their individual nature as the founders of the various lines that make up the family of Ouranos and Gaia in Hesiod’s genealogical scheme.

The succession Myth

Of all the Titans, only Kronos and Rhea are accorded distinctive roles of their own in the succession myth, while the others act solely as a collective body. In the Theogony (though not in all accounts,) the latter make no contribution at all to the ousting of Ouranos, which is effected by Kronos alone; but they benefit from it to become the chief gods of the pre-Olympian order under the rule of Kronos. They subsequently take common action in the Titanomachy, the great war in which they attempt to quell the insurrection mounted by Zeus and his allies, but are defeated and banished from the upper world forever. So is it possible to say anything meaningful about their common nature, beyond the fact that they are the banished ruling gods of an earlier generation? This was once a question that gave rise to a considerable amount of speculation. A much-favoured theory suggested that the Titans were old prehellenic gods who had been displaced by the Olympian gods of the Greek invaders. If that were so, the myth of the great war between the Olympians and the Titans could be explained in historical terms, as reflecting the struggle of belief that the suppression of the older religion had entailed. It was often proposed, furthermore, that the old gods must have been nature-powers of a less advanced or less moral nature than the Olympian gods. Another theory appealed to late evidence of doubtful value to suggest that the Titans were phallic deities.

The whole nature of the discussion altered, however, when it came to be realized that the Greek succession myth bears a marked resemblance to myths of a comparable nature from the ancient Near East. Although other eastern succession myths had been known at an earlier period, the crucial factor in this regard was the publication in 1946 of a Hurro-Hittite myth that provides a particularly close parallel to Hesiod’s myth.

The Hurrians

Greek Mythology Gods – Hurrians

An ancient people who lived in northern Syria and adjoining areas, were subjugated in the fourteenth century BC by the Hittites, who were much influenced by their culture and have transmitted some of their myths to us on cuneiform tablets. One such myth tells of the sequence of events that led to the accession of the Hurrian equivalent of Zeus. Anu (Sky), who corresponds to the Greek Ouranos, seized power by deposing an obscure predecessor, Alalu, and reigned for nine years until his cupbearer, Kumarbi, engaged him in battle and defeated him. As Anu was trying to escape into the heavens, Kumarbi dragged him down by his feet, and bit off his genitals and swallowed them. As he was then rejoicing in his triumph, Anu warned him to think again, saying that his action had caused him to become impregnated with three terrible gods. Although Kumarbi immediately spat out the contents of his mouth, the Storm-god was already inside him, and eventually emerged from his body. The text is very defective from this point onwards, but it is clear enough that the Storm-god, who was the main god of the Hurrians and Hittites just as Zeus was the main god of the Greeks, finally displaced Kumarbi as ruler. Hesiod’s myth may also be compared with a very ancient Babylonian myth in the poem known as the Enuma Elish, and also with a Phoenician myth (of questionable status, but thought to be at least partially authentic) which is preserved in a Greek work of the early Roman period. When the implications of these foreign parallels came to be appreciated, it came to be generally accepted that the Greek succession myth was not of native origin, but was based on a myth that had been introduced from the Near East.

The Titans Myth

Greek Mythology Gods – Titan

If this was the case, a group of displaced earlier gods corresponding to the Titans must have been introduced as part of the imported myth. The Hurro-Hittite equivalents of the Titans were known as the former gods (Hesiod refers to the Titans or Kronos in corresponding terms on two occasions), while their Babylonian equivalents were known as the dead gods. If the question of the origin of the Titans is viewed from this perspective, two possibilities arise. There may have been an early group of native gods of that name who were identified with the former gods of the imported myth; or else the name Titan was simply a title that was applied by the Greeks to the gods of eastern origin. There is no way of telling which alternative is true, and it makes little practical difference in any case, since we know nothing whatever of the original nature of the Titans if they had once enjoyed a separate existence in Greece. The essential point is that the Titans, as they are known to us as a collective body from the time of Hesiod onwards, are precisely what they are presented as being in the succession myth of eastern origin, the former ruling gods who were banished from the upper world when the present divine order was established. This is their ‘nature’, and nothing is served by enquiring any further; they have no other stories or functions as a collective body in conventional myth, and they had no place in Greek cult. The etymology of their name is uncertain; there is some ancient evidence to suggest that it may have meant ‘princes’ or the like. Hesiod offers an ingenious but obviously factitious double etymology, stating that Ouranos conferred this title on them in reproach, ‘for he said that they strained (titainontes) and insolently performed a dreadful deed, for which vengeance (tisin) came to them afterwards’.

To turn aside from the conventional mythology of the Titans for a moment, they figure prominently in an esoteric myth of unusual interest; for in a tale that originated in the Orphic literature, the human race is said to have sprung from the remains of the Titans after Zeus had destroyed them with a thunderbolt. This came about in the following circumstances. Zeus raped his mother Rhea, who is here identified with Demeter, to father Persephone; and he later had intercourse with Persephone in the form of a snake to father Dionysos, who is often given the title of Zagreus in this connection. Zeus intended to make Dionysos the ruler of the world, but the jealous Hera incited the Titans to attack him.

Diverting his attention with toys of various sorts, notably a mirror, they pulled him from his throne and killed him; and they then tore him to pieces and devoured him. Athena contrived to save his heart, however, and took it to Zeus, so making it possible for Dionysos to be reborn from Semele. Zeus punished the Titans by destroying them with his thunderbolt, and the human race sprang up from the soot that was left from their bodies. Human beings have been of mixed nature ever since, being partly divine, since the Titans had eaten Dionysos Zagreus before they were destroyed, and partly wicked, owing to the wicked nature of the Titans. This extraordinary myth, which contradicts normal Greek tradition at every turn, was probably of quite early origin. Plato refers to the old Titanic nature of man in the Laws, and there is reason to suppose that Pindar already knew of the story.


Hesiod assigns individual names to all the Titans, listing six male Titans and six females (known as the Titanides). In view of Kronos’ special role in the succession myth and his status as the second lord of the universe, he would surely have been identified as a Titan in the prior tradition. Confirmation of this can be found in Homer, since Kronos is mentioned on three occasions in the Iliad as one of the banished gods in Tartaros (who are named as Titans on one occasion). The formulaic epithets Kronios and Kronides which are regularly applied to Zeus in the Homeric epics are indication enough that Kronos had been regarded as the father of Zeus from very ancient times; since such epithets are not applied to any other deity, Zeus may perhaps have been his only child in the original tradition.

It is quite likely that Kronos was first brought into the succession myth, and thus enlisted as a Titan, because he was the acknowledged father of Zeus in the native tradition. Kronos’ consort Rhea also has a special place in the succession myth as the ‘mother of the gods’ (i.e. of the first generation of Olympian gods) and by virtue of the crucial role that she plays in saving Zeus from being swallowed by Kronos.

She is named as a Titan in the Theogony, and had presumably been long identified as such (unless the Titans were once thought to be exclusively male). Since Iapetos (the father of Atlas, Menoitios and Prometheus, see below) is mentioned along with Kronos in the Iliad as a god imprisoned in Tartaros, it would seem that he too had come to be classed as a Titan by the time of Homer and Hesiod, perhaps because he was a father of children who were enemies of Zeus. There is no comparable evidence to show whether any other Titan in Hesiod’s list was already known as such.

It is obvious from a casual glance that the deities in Hesiod’s list of Titans are of such disparate nature and origin that they could not possibly have formed a common group from very early times. Some have Greek names, others foreign names; some are nature-gods, some are abstractions, some are nonentities who were probably never anything more than genealogical links. Some of them, moreover, for reasons that will be considered presently, could not have shared the common fate of the Titans as former gods who were banished forever. It is altogether probable that the Titans, with the possible exception of Kronos, were originally an anonymous collective body, and one may suspect that most of the deities in the standard list, as established in the Theogony, were first named as Titans by Hesiod himself (who may also may also have been the first to establish that they were specifically twelve in number). It was essential that he should provide them with a full set of names if he was to draw them into his genealogical system; and he liked to assign appropriate names to members of groups of deities in any case, even to the many Nereids and Ocean-nymphs.

We must now consider why the specific deities named by Hesiod should have been enrolled as Titans. Kronos, Rhea and Iapetos have already been discussed, as deities who were almost certainly named as Titans in the existing tradition.

Okeanos The God of Ocean

Greek Mythology Gods – Oceanus

Okeanos was the god of the outer Ocean, the great river that supposedly encircled the earth and was the source of all other waters, salt and sweet alike. It could obviously be assumed that the lord of these waters must have been a very ancient deity who had been at his post from the very earliest times. According to a passage in the Iliad, indeed, he and his consort Tethys were none other than the first couple from whom all the gods had sprung (an idea that was apparently derived from a Babylonian myth in which Apsu and Tiamat, representing the sweet and salt waters respectively, were portrayed as the first couple). Even if they could not be regarded as the first gods of all in the context of the succession myth, Hesiod accords them only a slightly lower status by including them among the Titans, as would be fitting for venerable deities whose union could account for the origin of all the lesser streams of the world. Okeanos seems ill-fitted, on the other hand, to share in the collective actions and fate of the Titans, since his streams are a permanent feature of the world and one might suppose that he would be obliged to remain in them at the edges of the earth. The story in the latter part of the Theogony in which he tells his daughter Styx to assist Zeus against the Titans is consistent with the thought that he did not join with the other Titans in fighting against Zeus; and in Apollodorus’ theogony, in which the Titans are presented as attacking Ouranos as a collective body, it is explicitly stated that Okeanos took no part in that enterprise. Themis, the personification of law and right order, and Nnemosyne, the personification of memory, belong very appropriately among the Titans in so far as they represent ancient and fundamental forces in the world; but it can hardly be imagined, on the other hand, that they have been banished from the world since the fall of the Titans. Even in the Theogony itself (though in a part of the poem that may have been added after Hesiod’s time), they reappear after the banishment of the Titans as early wives of Zeus. Themis figures, furthermore, as we will see, in a number of myths set in the Olympian era.

The other Titans in Greek Mythology Gods

They are obscure deities who are of genealogical significance alone; none have any recorded myths, and they may well have had no stories even in Hesiod’s time, being remembered only as parents or ancestors of more important deities (if they were not invented by the poet himself, as is possible in one or two cases). Hyperion is mentioned in the Homeric epics and other early poetry as the father of the sun-god Helios; and his name is also used on occasion as a title of Helios himself. Since the sun and other main luminaries of the sky must have come into existence at an early stage in the development of the world, Hyperion could be fittingly enlisted as their Titan father. Koios also finds a natural place among the Titans as the father of Leto, who was the mother of two major Olympian deities, Artemis and Apollo. Hyperion and Koios have Titan consorts assigned to them, Theia, ‘the Divine’ and Phoibe, ‘the Radiant’, respectively; it required no great ingenuity, whether on the part of Hesiod or some predecessor, to invent figures such as these. And finally there is Kreios (or Krios), whose nature and origin are a mystery. As we will see, he served a useful if minor genealogical function by fathering husbands for some early goddesses. There was not always complete agreement on the identity of the Titans in the subsequent tradition; Apollodorus, for instance, omits Phoibe, replacing her with Dione85 (the consort of Zeus at Dodona, and mother of Aphrodite in one account,).

In addition to fathering children by Gaia through his marital relations, Ouranos caused her to conceive some further children in less conventional circumstances; for when Kronos severed his genitals and threw them away, some blood gushed out of them on to the ground, causing Gaia to become pregnant with three sets of children, the Erinyes, the Giants (Gigantes in Greek) and the Meliai.

The Giants will be discussed in the next chapter in connection with their revolt against Zeus and the Olympian order. It is likely that they had always been regarded as earth-born, as their Greek name would suggest; and since they were superhuman beings who were akin to the gods (though not fully divine), it could be appropriately added that the fertilizing power of the divine blood of Ouranos had caused the earth to bring them forth. This detail may well have been invented by Hesiod himself. It is likely that he would have regarded them as beings of relatively minor importance, since the myth of their revolt against Zeus probably originated after his time. The Meliai were a race of nymphs, ash-tree nymphs in the strict sense; but since Hesiod offers no separate account of the origin of others of their kind, he is presumably using the term in a general sense to cover all forms of tree-nymph. As one of the most important forms of nymph, tree-nymphs will be considered along with the other nymphs in Chapter 6. These nymphs resemble the Giants in being more than human and less than divine. The remaining set of children, the Erinyes, are the only ones that will require any detailed examination here.

Avenging Spirits The ERINYES

Greek Mythology Gods – Erinyes

The ERINYES or FURIES were avenging spirits who exacted terrible but just retribution against people who committed murder and other grave crimes, especially within the family. Since Hesiod says nothing at all about their activities, we must turn to Homer to gain an idea of the kinds of offence that they were thought to punish in early tradition. The Iliad tells how Amyntor cursed his son Phoinix to the Erinyes for having seduced his concubine ; and when Althaia cursed her son Meleagros for having killed some brothers of hers, ‘the Erinys who walks in darkness and is pitiless of heart heard her from Erebos’. Or in the Odyssey, Telemachos suggests that his mother Penelope might curse him to the Erinyes if he should send her away, and Odysseus remarks that Oedipus has been sorely troubled by the Erinyes of his mother since she hanged herself (after discovering that her husband Oedipus was also her son,). In a fragment from another early epic, the Thebais, the Erinys is said to have paid due heed to Oedipus when he cursed his sons. These sources and others of the kind indicate that the Erinyes were thought to take a special interest in offences committed by one member of a family against another (especially younger against older, child against parent), and were often spurred into action by a curse from the injured party. It is therefore fitting that Hesiod should present them as having been born as a consequence of an offence that had been committed by a son against his father.

Other allusions in the Homeric epics show that the Erinyes also had broader concerns. Homer remarks in the first place that anyone who swears a false oath will be punished by the Erinyes in the world below; and Hesiod alludes to this function in figurative terms in the Works and Days when he says that the Erinyes assisted at the birth of Horkos. They became the main agents of retribution in the Underworld in the late tradition, punishing the dead for sins of any kind. It is remarked in the Odyssey, though as a mere possibility, that even beggars may have their Erinyes92 (for they have no one else to avenge them). Most interesting of all, however, is a passage in the Iliad which suggests that they may act to uphold the proper order of things even where no human offence is involved; for after Xanthos, one of the divine chariot-horses of Achilles, had spoken aloud to address a prophecy to his master, the Erinyes cut off his voice (plainly because it is unnatural for horses to speak). The aphoristic philosopher Heraclitus (mid-sixth century BC) writes correspondingly – though obviously in a more figurative vein – that ‘the Sun will not overstep his measures, for if he does, the Erinyes, ministers of justice, will seek him out’.

Their most celebrated stories in heroic mythology relate nonetheless to offences within the family, telling how they punished two Argive heroes, Orestes and Alkmaion, for having killed their mothers. Although both young men took this drastic action to avenge the death of their father, and even gained the consent of Apollo at Delphi beforehand, the Erinyes knew no pity in such cases, and took no account of mitigating circumstances; the deed was their sole concern. They thus embody early ideas of justice from the time before it came to be appreciated that animus is a necessary part of every crime, and that a deed which is committed through mere accident or as a result of force majeure does not carry with it the full moral or legal responsibility of a deliberate act. Yet even so, they are a long way from representing the most primitive stages of moral consciousness, for they punish, not families or clans, but solely the individual who commits the deed. They may, however, be said to represent the moral ideas of the clan, for they are regularly on the side of the elders, not only of fathers or mothers but also of elder brothers.

In art and literature, they are regularly represented as formidable beings, stern of aspect, carrying torches and scourges, and generally wreathed with serpents, or having serpents in their hair or carrying them in their hands. They were presented in an especially loathsome form in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, as dark vampire-like creatures who crawled around on all fours, with pus oozing from their eyes and sinister rasping breath; it was said, indeed, that they were so horrifying at the first performance that women in the audience suffered miscarriages. But it is noteworthy, as an example of the Greek hatred for all that is monstrously hideous, that no artist makes the Erinyes ugly or misshapen; they are rather beautiful but fierce-looking women, known for what they are by their expression and the scourges and other implements which they carry, and in general as unlike Etruscan or medieval devils as possible.

The Erinyes have no individual names in the early tradition, and are of indeterminate number; it is not until the Roman period that the idea appears that there were three of them named Alekto, Tisiphone and Megaira. Aeschylus and some later authors depart from Hesiod by classing them as daughters of Night, as seems appropriate enough, while Sophocles describes them as daughters of Skotos (Darkness personified) and Earth. They were equated with the Eumenides (Kindly Ones) and Semnai (Venerable Ones), goddesses of gentler aspect and more propitious name who were honoured in cult at Athens and elsewhere. They had no equivalents in Roman belief, their Latin name, Furiae, being perhaps no more than an attempt at a translation (furere, to be raging mad, being taken as an equivalent to Greek erineuein); as the Furiae, they were sometimes identified with an obscure Roman goddess, Furrina.

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