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Gaia (mythology)

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Feuerbach Gaea

1875 ceiling painting depicting Gaia by Anselm Feuerbach, Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna.

Gaea (pronounced: /ˈɡeɪ.ə/; from Ancient Greek Γαῖα "land" or "earth"; also Gæa, Gaia or Gea, from Koine and Modern Greek Γῆ[1]) is the primal Greek goddess personifying the Earth, the Greek version of "Mother Nature" or the Earth Mother, of which the earliest reference to the term is the Mycenaean Greek ma-ka (transliterated as ma-ga), "Mother Gaia", written in Linear B syllabic script.[2]

Gaia is a primordial deity in the Ancient Greek pantheon and considered a Mother Titan or Great Titan.

Her equivalent in the Roman pantheon was Terra Mater or Tellus. Romans, unlike Greeks, did not consistently distinguish an Earth Titan (Tellus) from a grain goddess Ceres.[3]

In Greek mythology

Hesiod's Theogony (116ff) tells how, after the birth of Chaos, arose broad-breasted Gaia, the everlasting foundation of the gods of Olympus. She brought forth Uranus, the starry sky, her equal, to cover her, the hills (Ourea), and the fruitless deep of the Sea, Pontus, "without sweet union of love," out of her own self through parthenogenesis.However, afterwards, as Hesiod tells it, she is a great god of nature:

she lay with her son, Uranus, and bore the world-ocean god Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and the Titans Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, and Phoebe of the golden crown, and lovely Tethys. After they were born Cronus the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.

Hesiod mentions Gaia's further offspring conceived with Uranus: first the giant one-eyed Cyclopes: Brontes ("thunderer"), Steropes ("lightning") and the "bright" Arges: "Strength and might and craft were in their works." Then he adds the three terrible hundred-handed sons of Earth and Heaven, the Hecatonchires: Cottus, Briareos and Gyges, each with fifty heads.

Uranus hid the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes in Tartarus so that they would not see the light, rejoicing in this evil doing. This caused pain to Gaia (Tartarus was her bowels) so she created grey flint (or adamantine) and shaped a great flint sickle, gathering together Cronus and his brothers to ask them to obey her. Only Cronus, the youngest, had the daring to take the flint sickle she made, and castrate his father as he approached Gaia to have intercourse with her. And from the drops of blood and semen, Gaia brought forth still more progeny, the strong Erinyes and the armoured Gigantes and the ash-tree Nymphs called the Meliae.

From the testicles of Uranus in the sea came forth Aphrodite. After Uranus's castration, Gaia, by Tartarus, gave birth to Echidna (by some accounts) and Typhon. By her son Pontus (god of the sea), Gaia birthed the sea-deities Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia. Aergia, a goddess of sloth and laziness, is the daughter of Aether and Gaia.

Zeus hid Elara, one of his lovers, from Hera by hiding her under the earth. His son by Elara, the giant Tityos, is therefore sometimes said to be a son of Gaia, the earth goddess.

Gaia also made Aristaeus immortal.

Gaia is believed by some sources[4] to be the original deity behind the Oracle at Delphi. 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 Gaia's child Python there and usurped the chthonic power. Hera punished Apollo for this by sending him to King Admetus as a shepherd for nine years.

Oaths sworn in the name of Gaia, in ancient Greece, were considered the most binding of all.

In classical art Gaia 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 (see example below).

Later in mosaic representations she appears as a woman reclining upon the earth surrounded by a host of Carpi, infant gods of the fruits of the earth (see example below under Interpretations).

Family tree

Gaia is the titan personifying Earth and these are her offspring as related in various myths. Some are related consistently, some are mentioned only in minor variants of myths, and others are related in variants that are considered to reflect a confusion of the subject or association.

Some say that children marked with a * were born from Uranus' blood when Cronus defeated him.

  • With Pontus
    • Ceto
    • Phorcys
    • Eurybia
    • Nereus
    • Thaumas
  • With Poseidon
    • Antaeus
    • Charybdis
  • With Tartarus
    • Typhon
    • Echidna (More commonly held to be child of Phorcys and Ceto)
    • Presumably Campe
  • With Zeus
    • Manes
  • With Hephaestus
    • Erichthonius of Athens
  • With Aether
    • Aergia
  • Unknown father or through parthenogenesis
    • Pheme
    • Cecrops
    • Python


The Greek word "γαῖα" (trans. as gaia or gaea) is a collateral form of "γῆ"[5] (ge, Doric "γά" - ga and probably "δᾶ" da[6][7]) meaning Earth,[8] a word of unknown origin.[9]Gaia was very early contacted to ga under the suffix ia like ma-ia (address to old ladies) and gra-ia (old woman).[10]Aia is a poetic form of gaia meaning earth,land and in some texts probably cognates with Latin "avia" (grandmother).[11] The combining form of ge "γεω-" (geo-) is used in ancient Greek[12] and modern international and English words such as geography, geology and geometry.

Most German scholars assert that the Doric form da meaning earth is the element of"Δαμάτηρ"[13] (Da-mater, Demeter:"mother earth") and "Ποτειδάν"[14] (Potei-dan, Poseidon:"master of the earth") but this is debated.[15] It is possible that da is a Doric vocative of Dan "Δάν" or Zan "Ζάν" (Zeus),[16] who was venerated in Creta as "Zeus Velchanos" (the boy Zeus),the local child of the Minoan Great Mother.[17] In Mycenean Greek Ma-ka (trans. as Ma-ga: Mother Gaia) contains also the root ga.[18] Other Greek words for earth are "ἄρουρα" (aroura), from the Greek verb "αρόω" (aroō) meaning plough[19] and "χθών" (chthon),[20] which usually refers to the interior of the soil, from the Prot Indo-European root *dhgem.[21]


Some sources, such as anthropologists James Mellaart, Marija Gimbutas and Barbara Walker, claim that Gaia as the Mother Earth is a later form of a pre-Indo-European Great Mother who had been venerated in Neolithic times, but this point is controversial in the academic community. Belief in a nurturing Earth Mother is often a feature of modern Neopagan "Goddess" worship, which is typically linked by practitioners of this religion to the Neolithic goddess theory.

Hesiod's separation of Rhea from Gaia was not rigorously followed, even by the Greek mythographers themselves. Modern mythographers like Karl Kerenyi or 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 Gaia herself. Such tripartite goddesses are also a part of Celtic mythology and may stem from the Proto-Indo-Europeans. In Anatolia (modern Turkey), Rhea was known as Cybele, a goddess derived from Mesopotamian Kubau Hurrian Kebat or Kepa.

The Greeks never forgot that the Mountain Mother's ancient home was Crete, where a figure some identified with Gaia had been worshipped 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. In Rome the imported Phrygian goddess Cybele was venerated as Magna Mater, the "Great Mother" or as Mater Nostri, "Our Mother" and identified with Roman Ceres, the grain goddess who was an approximate counterpart of Greek Demeter, but with differing aspects and venerated with a different cult. Her worship was brought to Rome following an Augury of the Cumaean Sibyl that Rome could not defeat Hannibal the Carthaginian until the worship of Cybele came to Rome. As a result she was a favoured divinity of Roman legionaries, and her worship spread from Roman military encampments and military colonies.

In other cultures

The idea that the fertile earth itself is female, nurturing mankind, was not limited to the Greco-Roman world. These traditions themselves were greatly influenced by earlier cultures in the ancient Middle East.In Sumerian mythology Ki is the earth goddess.In Akkadian orthograrhy she has the syllabic values gi,ge,qi,qe (for toponyms).Some scholars identify her with Ninhursag (lady of the mountains),the earth and fertility Mother Goddess, who had the surnames Nintu (lady of birth), Mamma and Aruru.[22] The relevant Egyptian earth and fertility god Geb was male and he was considered as father of all snakes. The title "The mother of life" was later given to the Akkadian Goddess Kubau, and hence to Hurrian Hepa, emerging as Hebrew Eve (Heva) and Phygian Kubala (Cybele). In Norse mythology the earth is personified as Jörð, Hlöðyn, and Fjörgyn and Fjörgynn. In Germanic paganism, the Earth Goddess is referred to as Nertha.[23] The Irish Celts worshipped Danu, whilst the Welsh Celts worshipped Dôn. Hints of their names occur throughout Europe, such as the Don river, the Danube River, the Dnestr and Dnepr, suggest that they stemmed from an ancient Proto-Indo-European goddess.[24] In Lithuanian mythology Gaia - Žemė is daughter of Sun and Moon. Also she is wife of Dangus (Varuna). In Pacific cultures, the Earth Mother was known under as many names and with as many attributes as cultures who revered her for example Māori whose creation myth included Papatuanuku, partner to Ranginui - the Sky Father. In South America in the Andes a cult of the Pachamama still survives (in regions of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina and Chile). The name comes from Pacha (Quechua for change, epoch) and Mama (mother). While ancient Mexican cultures referred to Mother Earth as Tonantzin Tlalli that means "Revered Mother Earth".

In Hinduism, the Mother of all creation is called "Gayatri". Gayatri is the name of one of the most important Vedic hymns consisting of twenty-four syllables. One of the sacred texts says, "The Gayatri is Brahma, Gayatri is Vishnu, Gayatri is Shiva, the Gayatri is Vedas" Gayatri later came to be personified as a Goddess. She is shown as having five heads and is usually seated within a lotus. The four heads of Gayatri represent the four Vedas and the fifth one represents almighty God. In her ten hands, she holds all the symbols of Lord Vishnu. She is another consort of Lord Brahma.

In Hinduism and Buddhism the specific local indwelling mother deity of Earth (as opposed to the mother deity of all creation) is called Bhumi. Gautama Buddha called upon Bhumi as his witness when he achieved Enlightenment.

Phra Mae Thorani is recognized as the Goddess of the earth in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

Only in Egyptian Mythology is the reverse true - Geb is the Earth Father while Nut is the Sky Mother.

In Mormonism, the Earth Goddess is called the Earth Spirit and in the Pearl of Great Price is depicted as speaking to Moses.[25]

Carl Gustav 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 explain the universality of such mother goddess imagery around the world.

The Upper Paleolithic Venus figurines have been sometimes explained as depictions of an Earth Goddess similar to Gaia[26]

In Native American Indian storytelling, "The Earth Goddess" is one of several Creator-based titles and names given to the Spider Grandmother.

In Neopaganism

Many Neopagans actively worship Gaia. Beliefs regarding Gaia vary, ranging from the common Wiccan belief that Gaia 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 Gaia is the goddess of all creation, a Mother Goddess from which all other gods spring. Gaia is sometimes thought to embody the planets and the Earth, and sometimes thought to embody the entire universe. Worship of Gaia is varied, ranging from prostration to druidic ritual.

Unlike Zeus, a roving nomad god of the open sky, Gaia was manifest in enclosed spaces: the house, the courtyard, the womb, the cave. Her sacred animals are the serpent, the lunar bull, the pig, and bees. In her hand the narcotic poppy may be transmuted to a pomegranate.

In modern ecological theory

The mythological name was revived in 1979 by James Lovelock, in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth; his Gaia hypothesis was supported by Lynn Margulis. The hypothesis proposes that living organisms and inorganic material are part of a dynamic system that shapes the Earth's biosphere, and maintains the Earth as a fit environment for life. In some Gaia theory approaches the Earth itself is viewed as an organism with self-regulatory functions. Further books by Lovelock and others popularized the Gaia Hypothesis, which was widely embraced and passed into common usage as part of the heightened awareness of environmental concerns of the 1990s.


  1. The spelling Gea is not normally used in modern English.
  2. Palaeolexicon, Word study tool of ancient languages
  3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Ceres"
  4. Joseph Fontenrose 1959 and others.
  5. γῆ, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  6. γά, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  7. δᾶ, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  8. γαῖα, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  9. Gaia, Online etymology dictionary
  10. Frisk.Griechishes Etymologisches Woerterbuch.Entry 2032
  11. αία Henry George Liddell,Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon on Perseus
  12. List of ancient Greek words prefixed with γεω-, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  13. Δαμάτηρ, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  14. Ποτειδάν, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  15. Demeter Online Etymology Dictionary
  16. δά, Greek Word Study Tool, on Perseus
  17. Rodney Castleden (1990).Minoans.Life in bronze-age Crete.The Minoan belief system.Rootledge p.125
  18. Beekes.Greek Etymological Dictionary
  19. ἄρουρα, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  20. χθών, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  21. chthonic Online Etymology Dictionary
  22. Dalley Stephanie.Myths from Mesopotamia.Oxford University Press. p.326 ISBN 978-0-19-283589-5
  23. "Nerthus, Strength of the Earth" by Diana L. Paxson Sage Woman magazine Issue 79 Autumn 2010 “Connecting to Gaia” Pages 35-42
  24. Indo-European scholars at sybalist suggest *Don may come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning "Swift" as applied to the flowing rivers mentioned
  25. Widstoe, John A. A Rational Theology Salt Lake City, Utah:1915 Bookcraft
  26. Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, in the essay "The Venus of Willendorf" (accessed March 13, 2008)
  • Joseph Fontenrose, Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and its Origins, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959; reprint 1980
  • Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks 1951
  • Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth, 1994.

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This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Gaia (mythology). The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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