The TDNT on the God ‘Heaven’ —Οὐρανός (Ouranos, Uranus)— in Greco-Roman Myth & Art

This is the twenty-second follow-up entry to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”. Art can tell us much; in the art of previous ages we are given an opportunity to step outside the contingent obviousnesses of our modern age (obviousnesses that we mistake for simply the way things are), and to take up another perspective, even if that vision is only partial, and even if that vision evaporates immediately when our attention is moved to other proximate things.

The previous posts were not organized well before, so I ordered them; further, they were becoming so numerous, and the text block listing and introducing them was so large, that they were soon going to take up more space than the posts themselves. Thus, I organized and listed them here.

In the entry that Hellmut Traub & Gerhard von Rad wrote for “heaven” (οὐρανός), the magisterial Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (the TDNT) has a sub-section noting the mythological sense that the word οὐρανός had in the ancient world. It lists three passages as examples, one from the Palatine Anthology, one from Hesiod’s Theogony, and one from Homer’s Odyssey. It then lists some art to contextualize the importance of Οὐρανός for the imagination of the culture.


The TDNT first refers to the Anthologia Palatina 9.26 (not being a scholar of the Greek classics, I did not realize that the Anth. Pal. was contained in the Greek Anthology, nor did I know that the Anth. Pal. 9, 26, 9 reference was the same as the Greek Anthology 9.26). The passage is translated thus in the older Loeb edition:

These are the divine-voiced women that Helicon fed with song, Helicon and Macedonian Pieria’s rock; Praxilla; Moero; Anyte, the female Homer; Sappho, glory of the Lesbian women with lovely tresses; Erinna; renowned Telesilla; and thou, Corinna, who didst sing the martial shield of Athena; Nossis, the tender-voiced, and dulcet-toned Myrtis — all craftswomen of eternal pages. Great Heaven gave birth to nine Muses, and Earth to these nine, the deathless delights of men. [The Greek Anthology vol. 3, ed. Capps, Page, and Rouse, transl. Paton (New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1915), 16-17; boldface mine]

The last boldface passage is, in the Greek (for those who are interested),

ἐννέα μὲν Μούσας μέγας Οὐρανός, ἐννέα δ’ αὐτὰς Γαῖα τέκεν, θνατοῖς ἄφθιτον εὐφροσύναν.

The Earth (Γαῖα) generates the Heaven (Οὐρανός) from herself “to fructify it” in what appears to be the holy marriage; Traub & von Rad refer here to Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus 293c — it is not clear to what passage this refers, for the recent Cambridge editions of Proclus’ commentary on Plato’s Timaeus do not go past 100 in their numbering, but a quick Google pulls up a seemingly identical reference in a book titled The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study by E. O. James. There, James writes that

The Athenians, it is said, gazed up to the sky and cried aloud at the appropriate season. ‘Rain (O Sky [Ouranos] conceive. Conceive (O Earth [Gaia], be fruitful’.)
[The Tree of Life: An Archaeological Study by E. O. James (Leiden: Brill, 1966), 128]

Since this matches the concerns of the author of the TDNT article (it refers to a ritual return —and possibly reënactment— of the hieratic marriage of the Sky [Ouranos] and the Earth [Gaia]), I’ll leave it at that, even though I can’t quickly figure out how this pagination refers to the commentary on the Timaeus by Proclus. The footnote in the E. O. James volume, above, simply cites “Proclus, ad Plato, Timaeus, p. 293C”. Since the recent Cambridge translations do not have any kind of pagination of this sort on a quick scan, I am just leaving this here for now.


Traub & von Rad refer to Hesiod, Theogony 176. There, we read that

And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her. [See here.]

Another reference to the mating of the two; it is curious that Ouranos (Heaven) comes at night.

Earlier in the Theogony (125 or 126 or so), however, we read about Gaia’s generation of Ouranos:

And Earth first bore starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. […] But afterwards she lay with Heaven and bore deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, [135] Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. [See here.]

Ouranos is, of course, not happy with Time, Cronos, when he appears as progeny of Gaia and Ouranos in their next mating. His lack of affection is, well, returned.


The pair of Heaven and Earth, as primordial pre-Olympian gods, are still the ground for oaths in the Homeric world.

Calypso swears by Gaia and Ouranos in Homer, Odyssey 5:18:

“Now therefore let earth be witness to this, and the broad heaven above […].” [See here]

Here likewise swears by Gaia and Ouranos (and other gods anterior to their union) in Iliad 15:36:

“Hereto now be Earth my witness and the broad Heaven above […].” [See here]

There is another reference that the authors of the TDNT article make, to “Eur. Fr. 839”, apparently found in the “TGF, 633”, but I can’t figure out the anthology or reference work(s) to which they are referring. Google “Eur. Fr.”, I dare you, and try to find anything but currency exchange rates. I have had two conversations with MIT graduates (with graduate degrees) about how a man with two graduate degrees in theology from a major research university —who is working on a third— can be confused by what seems to be a classical reference. There is clearly a difference between what can be taken for granted in the knowledge base of German researchers who came of age before the Second World War and an OG Millennial Welsh-Irish American kid. I think I blame the blossoming of secondary research and the displacement of primary texts and the controlling influence of loud contemporary cultural concerns that displace attention on discipline-specific texts and redirects it onto its own voice.


The TDNT entry then goes on to note that

How strong was the impression made by the god Uranus may be seen from his depiction not only on the Pergamon altar but also in the imperial period, e.g. on the Prima Porta statue of Augustus and above all on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (A.D. 300): on his head are the feet of the youthful Christ, the arched veil of heaven stretched out above. [Theological Dictionary of the New Testament vol. 5, ed. Gerhard Kittel & Gerhard Friedrich, transl. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 500]

The Pergamon Altar image in question (Ouranos is the winged older figure on the right):

The Prima Porta statue of Augustus (dated to the first century A.D.; image found here):

Ouranos is the figure at the top of the breastplate, with a cloth that I first thought must represent the heavens (or the zodiac) above his head (it turns out that this is the well-known effect of Velificatio, where the face of a veiled figure is unveiled by a breeze either from within or without the figure, making the hidden one disclosed, revealed):

The sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (Junius Bassus died in A.D 359; image found here) has Ouranos likewise figured, but with Christ atop him. The relevant side of the sarcophagus:

The section of Christ with his feet atop Ouranos and what I first took to be the firmament (as a cloth above Ouranos’ head — again, it is likely not that) can be seen clearly here:

I have read that Ouranos is often associated with Aion, but I have not found hard evidence of this, only speculative internet assertions on aesthetically abominable sites.


This final thought is just a highly speculative ending.

The Velificatio entry on Wikipedia proposes a possible origin of the veil and its removal in mystery initiation rites. If this is true, I wonder whether there is a cosmographic element to the veiling of men in post-second temple Rabbinic Judaism (if I’m going to wing an explanation here, it would be the hostility to apocalyptic in the canonical sources of the Hebrew Bible, and the emphasis on the givenness and at-handness of the Torah, that turns the attention of the pious Jew away from ascent and towards worldly fulfilling of the commandments, even if these have mystical significance — the head is to remain under the firmament, focused on what is revealed; I certainly hope this speculation is not seeded with anti-Jewish ideas, and I don’t think it is, given my love for Judaism).

I also wonder whether the absence of veils on men in Pauline Christianity (because it “dishonors [the] head”), but the presence of them on women in Christianity, also has a cosmological element to it — the worry that women are courting the celestial lust of supra-firmamental beings is part of the reason they are veiled, but the idea that veiled men dishonor their head may, perhaps, suggest that the men, as the heads of women, were understood by Paul somehow to have ascended (likely in the rites of the Church, inseparable from what we would call mystical practice, and possibly theurgic practice) above the veil of the firmament to see Christ “with unveiled faces” (2 Cor 3:18) — and yes, I know that refers to Moses.

Again, I’m just speculating.


Header image found here.

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