Explore the myths and legends about the gods who ruled the sky according to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and the Native Americans. Learn of specific gods and goddess and their stories.
Why Create Gods?
Throughout history people have created stories and legends to help explain the natural world around them.
One common feature of many myths is the assignment of gods to specific attributes of individuals or the world around them. In many cultures people created stories about the rulers or gods of the sky, who controlled the movements of the sun and moon and who could help to influence clouds, rain, and storms. These sky gods and the stories people told about them helped ancient cultures to understand the myriad of different things going on in the dome above their heads.
Through the stories of Egyptian, Greek, and Native American sky gods we can observe a number of different common features in the mythologies that surrounded these beings.
Egyptian Sky Gods
The Ancient Egyptians believed in several different sky gods. The first sky goddess, Nut, was very beautiful and kind. She ruled over the sky, while her brothers, Geb, the god of the earth, and Thoth, the god of divine words, ruled over other aspects of the Egyptian world. Nut was married to another sky god, Re, the lord of the sun and the creator of the universe, but she also made love with her brothers Geb and Thoth. Incestuous relationships were a common feature both in the marriage practices of ancient Egyptian rulers and in ancient myths.When Re discovered that his wife was having an affair with her brothers, he cursed her and commanded that Nut would never become a mother during any month of the year.
As the god of the Sun, Re controlled the passage of days. Nut was devastated, and she asked Thoth to help her find a way around the curse.Thoth agreed and sought the help of the Moon, an independent deity in Egyptian mythology. He made a deal with the Moon to play games with him. Any time that Thoth won a game, the moon forfeited a small amount of moonlight.
Within a few months, Thoth had enough moonlight saved up to create five additional days. When the end of the solar year came, Nut gave birth to five children, one for each day of moonlight saved.Re was the father of two of the children: Osiris, who became the lord of the gods, and Horus, who became the new god of the sun. Geb was the father of Set, the god of the desert and storms, and Nephthys, the goddess of death. The last child of Nut was the daughter of Thoth, Isis, the goddess of nature and motherhood.Egyptian mythology provided explanations for the movements of the sun and moon across the sky. Re, and later Horus, moved the sun across the sky, while Set controlled the storms that brought rains to Egypt.
As with many other myths, several Egyptian gods controlled different aspects of the sky above. In addition, the children and grandchildren of Nut created and protected the people of Egypt.
Greek and Roman Sky Gods
The ancient Greeks believed in some remarkably similar sky gods to those present in Egypt. According to the Greeks, Zeus was the lord of the sky and could control lightning bolts and summon thunderstorms. The powers of the sky made Zeus a powerful enemy.Zeus was the son of Cronus, the previous god of the sky and ruler of the Titans, and his sister Rhea, the goddess of motherhood.
Like the Egyptian gods, Greek and Roman gods were often closely related to their spouses. Cronus was fearful of his powerful children, and so each time Rhea gave birth, he ate the infant. Eventually, Rhea tricked Cronus into eating a rock and snuck the baby Zeus to safety. After he had grown into a powerful young god, Zeus challenged his father for supremacy. The battle between the two sky gods raged across the heavens, until finally, Zeus triumphed.Although Zeus was often depicted as the god of the sky, two other gods also helped to keep the heavens in order.
Helios, the god of the sun, drove the fiery chariot across the sun every day, from his home in the East to his home in West. His sister, Selene, drove the white chariot of the moon across the sky at night.The ancient Romans took the mythology of the ancient Greeks as their own and changed the names of the gods to suit themselves. The Roman god Jupiter is deeply similar to the Greek god Zeus. The sun god Helios retained his name in Roman mythology, but his sister Selene was known to the Romans by the name Luna. The ancient Roman versions of Greek myths provide us with a number of important stellar names. Jupiter, the giant red planet in our solar system, is named for the Roman god, while lunar landers that examine the moon take their name from the Roman goddess Luna.
A Native American Sky Goddess
In America, the Huron and the Iroquois developed a different mythology. According to these Native American tribes, there were two worlds originally, an upper world and a lower world. The sky people lived in the upper world, while water covered the lower world. The sky people were led by a chief who had a beautiful daughter named Atahensic who would become the Iroquois sky goddess.One day Atahensic became ill, and nothing the sky medicine man could give her made her feel better. Finally, one of the sky people dreamed that if they put the sick goddess by the great corn tree that provided the sky people with food and dug up the roots, she would be cured.
The next day, the sky chief did exactly as the dream instructed. He placed Atahensic by the tree and dug up the roots, creating a massive hole. After he had destroyed the tree’s roots, one of the young sky people became angry and yelled that the chief should not have destroyed their source of food. In his rage, he kicked Atahensic, and she fell down through the hole into the watery world below.
Loon, a bird, saw the glow made by Atahensic’s descent and asked the other animals to help him catch the falling sky woman. Loon and the other animals caught Atahensic and kept her safe on the back of a Great Turtle while they created an island for her to live on. Muskrat and beaver brought up piles of earth from the bottom of the sea, and Atahensic used the earth to make land on the back of the Great Turtle. Once the earth was complete, the goddess recovered from her strange illness, and she eventually produced a daughter and grandchildren who created the Iroquois and Huron people.Atahensic is an unusual sky goddess in that she had no consort or husband; however, as with other sky gods, her relationship with the sun and the moon helped explain and create life for the people who told her stories.
In addition, Iroquois and Huron tribes were matriarchal, and their women enjoyed considerable power and prestige, thus making it likely that their goddesses would be depicted independent of a male consort.
The stories of sky gods in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome and early America provided important explanations for storms and the movements of the sun and moon and for the creation of life. Although sky gods came in many different forms, ancient peoples were comforted by the knowledge that the skies were controlled by gods who were not terribly different from themselves.The Egyptians worshiped the sky goddess Nut, who ruled over the sky; who was married to another sky god, Re, the lord of the sun and the creator of the universe; and both became the parents of Horus, who would become the new god of the sun. The Greeks named their god Zeus, who was the lord of the sky.
Helios was god of the sun, and his sister Selene was goddess of the moon.The Romans renamed the Greek gods to suit them. Zeus became Jupiter. Helios remained, but his sister was renamed Luna, inspiring much our ‘lunar’ references today.
The Native American peoples, the Iroquois and Huron, worshiped the sky goddess Atahensic, a representation of their matriarchal, or women-led society.