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Ge, Ouranos, and the Greek Creation Myth: Contrasts and Comparisons

by Jeff Day
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Ge was the original Greek earth- and mother-goddess. Because her mythology is difficult to equate with earth goddesses in the other Indo-European (IE) religions, she has been suspected as being pre-Greek in origin. Still, she is a familiar primordial earth goddess married to the primordial sky god.

Ge's name may be traceable elsewhere in the IE family even if there are no cognates for 'earth' in the other IE languages that are similar to Greek 'ges'. Old Norse 'fjord', Old Irish 'ert' and Old Armenian 'erki' are more likely related to the alternative Greek word for 'earth', which is 'era' or 'eras'. In Gothic, however, gauja and gawi meant 'land, district', while in Avestan Persian 'gaith' means 'world'.

Northern goddesses whose names may be connected to Ge include Gesahenae and Gauadiae in Roman-era Lower Germany. Known only from inscriptions, her (or their) function(s) is (are) unclear. We also cannot be certain if she was Celtic or Germanic, given that inscriptions of the names of deities from both those peoples' pantheons have been found in this area in consequence of a mixed population. We should be certain, however, that Ge directly equates with the Sumerian earth-goddess 'Ki' both etymologically and in mythology. Ki was originally united with the 'heaven' god 'An' (or 'Anu'). His name, like Ge's consort Ouranos, means 'sky' or 'heaven' and also appears etymologically related to his Greek counterpart. Like Ouranos, he was the original creator-god mated to the earth goddess. Ge's son Kronos, like Ki's son (the air-god Enlil) finally separated her from her mate, and succeeded his father as the supreme deity.

In India, the names of the Hindu goddess or goddesses 'Gau' or 'Gauri' canal so be recognized as cognates of Ge and Ki. These early goddesses are relatively poorly defined with little mythology and may be one in the same. Gau was an early earth-goddess later grouped into the goddess variously known as Prithivi (prithivitala = 'earth'), also an earth goddess and consort of the sky-god Dyaus. These two were originally merged as a single deity named Dyavaprthivi, recalling the union of Ge and Ouranos. She was also the mother of the storm-god Indra. Like Rhea with Zeus, she hid Indra in fear, recognizing that he was destined to supplant the old order. Just like Zeus, Indra finally slew his father and gained leadership of the Hindu pantheon.

Gauri is described as a single goddess or as a class of goddesses that include several earth and mother goddesses among which is Prithivi. Singularly, she is the 'Cosmic Cow', the source of all life (Likewise, Gau's name is probably related to the Sanskrit 'gaus', "cow"). It is also sometimes used as an epithet for Varunani, who in Brahmanism is the wife of Varuna. 

This Cosmic Cow goddess is again found in ancient Egypt as Net. In anatypical role reversal, the cosmic goddess Net is mated to her brother / husband Geb, the earth (cognate of Ge, Ki, and Gau?). Some genealogical details differ, but in Egyptian cosmology again heaven and earth are separated by the air-god Shu, whose name may be a cognate with Zeus. 

The name of the Greek primordial sky father Ouranos means 'sky' or 'heaven' in ancient and modern Greek. This word is very difficult to relate to other IE languages' words for sky and heaven, which can mostly be traced to words meaning 'cloud'. In both name similarities and myth, Ge and Ouranos relate to Ki and An of the ancient Sumerians. We may suspect that the arrival of this pair and their creation story to Greece is related to that of various other Greek deities and myths attributed to Phoenicia, Cyprus, and elsewhere in the Near East (As for example, Dionysus, Aphrodite and Adonis). However, the time gap from Sumeria, which civilization began in the fourth millennium BC and ended only to the end of the third millennium BC, arguably suggests that the Sumerian and Greek versions were parts to a creation myth that once spanned an area at least between these regions, India, and Egypt. This myth could have originated in the Fertile Crescent as far back as the Neolithic and arrived in Greece and India with the first farmer colonists.

A related intermediate myth, both geographically and chronologically, was in Hurria in eastern Anatolia. The sky god Anu or Anus equates to the Sumerian An/ Anu, Ouranos, and Varuna, though there was no Earth consort in this myth. However, the overthrow of this primordial sky god closely parallels both the Sumerian and Greek versions. 

The Hurrian god Anus was originally the cup bearer for an even older heavenly ruler, Alalus. After nine years Anus defeated and overthrew his master, dispatching him to under the earth (Similar to Zeus' overthrow of Kronos or his defeat and casting into Tartaros of the Titans). He took his seat on the throne and had Kumarbis as his cupbearer. Likewise, after nine years Kumarbis rebelled and usurped the rule of Anus, who fled to the sky. Kumarbis also bit off and swallowed his phallus, which detail parallels Kronos' castration of Ouranos.

In this act Anus had some revenge by impregnating Kumarbis with the Storm-god, the god of the Aranzahas (Tigris) river, and Tasmisus. Anus then hid himself in heaven. After the Storm-god's 'birth' or regurgitation, this triad plotted to destroy Kumarbis and, with his other children, succeeded.

Although this part of the Hurrian story diverges somewhat from the Greek, we can still recognize that this impregnating of Kumarbis equates to Kronos' swallowing his children before both finally regurgitating them. The irrespective children overthrew both of these gods, of whom the 'Storm-god' was the leader in both myths. The 'impregnation' of Kumarbis also reflects another theme recalled in such myths as Zeus' swallowing of his pregnant wife Metis before 'giving birth' to Athena from his head - a theme that is otherwise very strange to the other IE peoples.

Another related myth from Anatolia has the Hittite gods separating heaven and earth with a copper knife, thus predating by several hundred years the Classical Greek myth where Ge gave her son Cronus a sickle to separate Ouranos from her. Again, we might suspect that the Greek creation myth was borrowed from either Anatolia or the Levant in either the Mycenaean Age or the Dark Age, but we cannot discount the possibility that it was adopted from the pre-Hellenic population (the "Leleges" or "Pelasgians" of Greek myth).

Though Indian cosmology also has its own version, the connections between the Hindu deities Varuna and Gau with Greece's Ouranos and Ge and Sumeria's Anu and Ki are easily drawn. Varuna's name translates as 'He Who Covers' in recognition of his identity with the 'dome of heaven' (a concept found frequently around the world including Europe). In pre-Vedic times he was the lord of the cosmos, controlling sun and moon, night and day. With one thousand eyes (the stars) he was omnipotent and omniscient.

In Hindu myth, though, Varuna's role differs somewhat from that of Ouranos. In India, it was the sky-god of daylight Dyaus (from Sanskrit 'dyu', "shine"), who was, like Ouranos, originally unified with the earth goddess Prthivi as Dyavaprthivi. Varuna played the role of Kronos in Greece, separating his parents, and he was also ultimately eclipsed by the storm-god Indra as the leader of the Hindu pantheon.

The names of Ouranos and Varuna are closer to each other than they are to the intermediate Sumerian sky-god Anu and the Hurrian Anus. This similarity, however, may be more apparent than real. Varuna's prefix 'var' means 'cover' in several IE languages. It is found in Old Persian 'var' ("cover"), Gaulish 'ver' ("above") and uermos or vermos ("supreme, highest"), Russian 'verh' ("up, above"), Latvian virsus ("up"), Sanskrit 'vars.ma' ("height"), and so on into English over, hover, and cover. Unfortunately, 'our-' is not found in Greek words of the above meanings, perhaps instead being related to aeres ('air'). It may instead be related to a pre-Greek word, the root of which is also found in Hebrew 'owr' (daylight, bright, sunshine, etc.). In any event, the myths link the second halves of their names with a southern regional word for 'sky' that was found as 'Anu' in Sumeria and 'Anus' in Hurria. It is thus possible that the names of Ouranos and Varuna are a conglomeration of IE and southern words for 'sky / heaven'.

The strong continuum across this southern tier, both in name similarities and mythical elements, and spanning thousands of years, suggests the creation myth found in Greek Ge and Ouranos originated by the Neolithic era if not earlier in the Near East. Given the relatively isolated positions of these disparate regions through the succeeding millennia, it should be difficult for us to believe that elements of the same story with similar names should be adopted by whole cultures through diffusion alone. To credit intermittent contacts by long-distance traders or unattested bands of exiles with imparting this creation story is to discredit the strength of the indigenous religious beliefs in these areas.

That a concept of a father heaven and a mother earth once united and subsequently separated by an air-god seems natural enough for early peoples. For instance, the creation myth of the Polynesians includes a unified father heaven and mother earth producing seventy deities before they were separated by the wind-god. However, we would then have to wonder why this myth is not traceable elsewhere in the IE mythologies or other cultures contiguous with the greater Middle East area between Greece, Egypt, and India.

Also, not only do the many name similarities of the major characters suggest a common origin, the only major cultures in the southern tier that do not have this theme are those of the Persians and the Hebrews. Both can be excused from this equation due to the fact that their religions were transformed under strong patriarchal societies. Even if this myth had survived the Iranian influx after 1000 BCE, it was subsequently scraped under the new Persian religion of Zarathustra.

In sum, we should conclude that only the early Neolithic colonists spreading out of the Fertile Crescent region could have carried this myth to such distant regions as Greece and India. This does not necessarily suggest that the languages across this great area were all related. While Hurrian and the Dravidian languages are commonly recognized as being related to Elamite and thus each other, links between these languages and Sumerian and Hattian are unproven, while those of the Minoans and Pelasgians are unknown. However, the survival of this creation myth with so many shared elements across this vast region, surviving major changes in cultures and population shifts through the millennia attests to its centrality and durability in the original religion of the base population in this vast region.