Gaea (variant spelling Gaia) is a Greek goddess personifying the Earth. Etymologically, Gaea is a compound word of "Ge," meaning "Earth" and "Aia" meaning "grandmother" (In modern English, the root "Ge" still relates to terms such as geography (Ge/graphos = writing about Earth) and geology (Ge/logos = words about the Earth) displaying an ancient connection to the term Gaea). Though not as popular as the Olympian gods of Greek mythology, Gaea was still revered for her role as "Mother Nature."
The divinization of the earth by the ancient Greeks as the goddess Gaea was their way of recognizing the intrinsic value of the earth's bounty, fertility and beauty. Hellenistic worship of Gaea was also a celebration humanity's symbiotic relationship with nature.
The idea that the fertile earth itself is female, nurturing humankind, was not limited to the Greco-Roman world. Fertility goddess figurines found worldwide often suggest reverence for a divine, potent mother deity. Early cultures of the Middle East (such as the Sumerian) likely made an impact on Greek views of Gaea, and veneration of the pre-Indo-European "Great Mother" had existed since Neolithic times.
In the twentieth century, Gaea has taken on new importance in the New Age movement, neopaganism, and ecological spirituality through the development of the Gaia hypothesis. The belief in a nurturing Earth Mother is also a feature of modern "Goddess" worship. Today, Gaea represents a celebration of the feminine side of creation embodied in the fertility of Mother Nature.
Greek mythology contains prominent stories about the origins of Gaea. Hesiod's Theogony in particular tells how after Chaos came into being, Gaea arose independently, becoming the everlasting foundation of the gods of Olympus. Similarly, Tartarus, the bowels of the earth, sprung into being contemporaneously. Gaea, the earth, brought forth Uranus, the starry sky, her equal, to cover her, the mountains, and the fruitless deep of the Sea, Pontus, all of these out of her own self, without need of a partner. However, afterward, Hesiod tells, she lay with Uranus and bore the World-Ocean Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and the other Titans Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and Phoebe and lovely Tethys. Finally Cronos was born, who hated his father Uranus and plotted to destroy and succeed him, a story often found in Greek mythological literature. There were six male and female pairs of Titans in all.
Hesiod mentions Gaea's further offspring conceived with Uranus, first the giant one-eyed Cyclopes, builders of walls and creators of lightening, later assigned individual names: Brontes ("thunderer"), Steropes ("flasher") and the "brightener" Arges. Then he adds the three terrible hundred-armed sons of Earth and Heaven, the Hecatonchires: Cottus, Briareus and Gyes, each with 50 heads.
Uranus hid the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes in Tartarus so that they would not see the light. This caused pain to Gaea (as Tartarus was her bowels) so she created a great flint sickle, and asked Cronos and his brothers to obey her. Only Cronos, the youngest, had the daring to take the flint sickle she made, and castrate his father as he approached Gaea. From the drops of blood, Gaea brought forth still more progeny, the strong Erinyes and the armored Gigantes and the ash-tree Nymphs called the Meliae. From the testicles of Uranus in the sea came forth Aphrodite. Further investigation of Greek mythology reveals that just as Uranus had been deposed by his son Cronos, so was Cronos destined to be overthrown by Zeus, the son born to him by his sister-wife Rhea. In the meantime, the Titans released the Cyclopes from Tartarus, and Cronos was awarded the kingship among them, beginning a Golden Age.
After Uranus' castration, Gaea gave birth to Echidna and Typhon by Tartarus. By Pontus, Gaea birthed the sea-deities Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto and Eurybia. Zeus hid Elara, one of his lovers, from Hera by hiding her under the earth. His son by Elara, the giant Tityas, is therefore sometimes said to be a son of Gaea, the earth goddess, and Elara.
Gaea is believed by some sources (Fontenrose 1959) to be the original deity behind the Oracle at Delphi. It is said that she passed her powers on to, depending on the source, Poseidon, Apollo or Themis. Apollo is the best-known as the oracle power behind Delphi, long established by the time of Homer, having killed Gaea's child Python and usurped the chthonic power. Hera punished Apollo for this by sending him to King Admetus as a shepherd for nine years.
Hesiod's separation of Rhea from Gaea was not rigorously followed, even by the Greek mythographers themselves. Modern mythographers like Karl Kerenyi, Carl A. P. Ruck, and Danny Staples, as well as an earlier generation influenced by Frazer's The Golden Bough, interpret the goddesses Demeter the "mother," Persephone the "daughter" and Hecate the "crone," as understood by the Greeks, to be three aspects of a former great goddess, who could be identified as Rhea or as Gaea herself. In Anatolia (modern Turkey), Rhea was known as Cybele. The Greeks never forgot that the Mountain Mother's ancient home was Crete, where a figure some identified with Gaea had been worshiped as Potnia Theron (the "Mistress of the Animals") or simply Potnia ("Mistress"), an appellation that could be applied in later Greek texts to Demeter, Artemis or Athena.
Carl Jung suggested that the archetypal mother was a part of the collective unconscious of all humans, and various Jungian students (e.g. Erich Neumann and Ernst Whitmont) have argued that such mother imagery underpins many mythologies, and precedes the image of the paternal "father," in such religious systems. Such speculations help to explain the universality of such mother goddess imagery around the world.
In classical art, Gaea was represented in one of two ways. In Athenian vase painting she was shown as a matronly woman only half risen from the earth, often in the act of handing the baby Erichthonius (a future king of Athens) to Athena to foster. Later, mosaic representations show her as a woman reclining upon the earth surrounded by a host of Carpi, infant gods of the fruits of the earth. Unlike Zeus, a roving nomad god of the open sky, Gaea was manifest in enclosed spaces: the house, the courtyard, the womb, the cave. Her sacred animals are the serpent, bull, the pig, and bees. In her hand the narcotic poppy may be transmuted to a pomegranate.
There exists a Homeric hymn to Gaea (written by a poet in the tradition of Homer, likely in the seventh century B.C.E.), in which Gaea is praised for the creation of all that lives on the earth, in addition to being the creator of the gods. In this work she is invoked as "mother," "nurse," and "mistress of life," clearly indicating an association with the creation and sustaining of life in the Greek mind. As well, this work acknowledges her union with Uranus, the starry sky god.
Many neopagans actively worship Gaea. However, neopagan views regarding Gaea vary, ranging from the popular Wiccan belief that Gaea is the Earth (or in some cases the spiritual embodiment of the earth, or the goddess of the Earth), to the broader neopagan belief that Gaea is the goddess of all creation, a Mother Goddess from which all other gods spring. Gaea is variously described as the Earth, all the planets, or even the entire universe itself. Worship of Gaea ranges from prostration to druid ritual. Because of the decentralized nature of Wicca and other neopagan groups a standard mode of worship and theology of Gaea within these traditions is impossible, and indeed not required.
Some who worship Gaea attempt to get closer to Mother Earth by becoming unconcerned with material possessions to become more in tune with nature. Others who worship Gaea recognize her as a great goddess and practice eclectic rituals to reach a greater connection to the earth. These rituals include shamanistic practices, prostration, tithing, praising, creating art, burning oils and incense, rearing plants and gardens, burning bread and spilling drink as offerings.
Members of the New Age movement also have deep reverence for the earth, and may worship Gaea, though often with a more ecologically-minded bent. The understanding of Gaea in both neopaganism and the New Age movement is almost wholly divorced from its Greek mythological roots and thus is usually unconnected to other Greek gods.
Modern ecological theory
In the early 1970s the scientist James Lovelock introduced the Gaia hypothesis, which proposed that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shapes the Earth's biosphere, maintaining the Earth as a fit environment for life. This concept was most clearly elucidated in Lovelock's 1988 work The Ages of Gaia. The use of the name "Gaia" (Lovelock prefers that transliteration of the name) was not purely coincidental and hearkened back to ancient reverence for Mother Nature. Though he stressed that the earth is not conscious, Lovelock used language that suggested that the earth is self-interested and capable of acting to fulfill those interests. He suggested that should human impact on the biosphere become too great, the earth would react to regulate that impact; however, he stressed that this regulation is not conscious, but a natural system. In some Gaea theory approaches (often times offshoots of Lovelock's theory) the Earth itself is viewed as an organism with self-regulatory functions. Further books by Lovelock and others have popularized the Gaia Hypothesis, which has been widely embraced and passed into common usage as part of the heightened awareness of planetary vulnerability of the 1990s.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Fontenrose, Joseph. Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and its Origins, University of California Press, 1959.
- Kerenyi, Karl. The Gods of the Greeks, 1951
- Powell, Barry B. Classical Myth, Prentice Hall, 1998. ISBN 0137167178
- Ruck, Carl A.P. and Danny Staples. The World of Classical Myth, 1994.
- Southgate, Christopher, et al. God, Humanity and the Cosmos. Trinity Press International, 1999. ISBN 1563382881
All links retrieved May 17, 2017.
- Gaea: Greek goddess of earth – Theoi Project, Guide to Greek Mythology and Gods by Aaron J. Atsma
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