GAIA: Dynamic Place of Being
This is an earlier version of an essay now published in Goddesses in World Culture (Patricia Monaghan ed., Praeger 2010), which is an amazing resource – check it out and get your library to order it.
I do like the final published version, but I cannot post it here: so this will have to do.
GAIA: Dynamic, Diverse, Source and Place of Being
By Glenys Livingstone
Gaia is Goddess who is the Earth-body, the ground, identified as the Mother-source of being since the earliest of times in the human imagination of the lands now known as Greece. In the early Greek mind She was always remembered, even though over millennia She took more of a backseat. In the stories of Her, She makes the best of the follies of Her prodigy, this being epitomized in the story where her creativity continues despite Ouranas’ attempt to block Her. The conflict between Gaia and Ouranas is perhaps significant as an expression of a consciousness that attempted to usurp Maternal Creativity, but perhaps in the current times She is again being remembered. Perhaps it may be a return to Her that is not experienced as a domination by Her, but as a presence and joy in origins, a belonging. The very pathway away from Gaia became a pathway deeper into knowledge of Her, as recent depth psychology describes the nature of detours taken to avoid one’s destiny: the detours are the very pathways to it. Gaia is an expression of the very Nature of being on this planet that will not, cannot be denied, despite all hubris.
In our planet’s earliest of times, before there was any creature to observe the light and the dark of the diurnal day, there was only one continent – named as Pangaea. Over millions of years Pangaea broke up, at first into two supercontinents, named as Gondwana and Laurasia, and these subdivided into more, as the configuration of the planet’s continents is presently seen in this era. The earliest humans that arose on our planet – and we as a species are still but recently here – observed the light and the dark as a measure of time, and sensed their ground and place of being as Mother, and caves as Her belly/womb. These early humans were drawn to go to Her caves where there were often springs: they could be sheltered and sustained there, and with their imaginative minds they could converse with her, frequently leaving art, objects and figurines that expressed some of this.
Gaia – sometimes spelled Gaea, or known as Ge – is the name that the ancient people of the lands now known as Greece, gave to our planet, which is now commonly named Earth1. Gaia/Ge, as mother, personified the source of being, and embraced both birth and death: She personified the power to bring forth new life and included the receiving back – a miracle of renewal manifest in life cycles everywhere, in female and male alike, in the wild and the cultivated, in animals and plants Earth power for these peoples was identified as moist, fertile, black and strong2: which was yet not separate from the heavens and the cosmos itself. All issued forth from her. In the earliest of her stories, Gaia conceived and gave birth to all parthenogenetically – that is, solely from within her own substance and powers. Gaia was not creatrix in the sense of being a maker and thus separate from her creation, but Gaia was creator in the sense of birthing All: thus of the same material as her creations all of whom remained seamlessly imbued with her spirit/life-force. In Gaia matter and mater were one, and she was eternal: that is, her capacity for renewal felt as never-ending. Marija Gimbutas notes (1991:159) a later artistic depiction wherein a younger aspect of Gaia – her daughter self – is seen rising up from the ground (which is Gaia herself),: that is, the image conveys that Gaia gives birth even to herself.
Gaia was the first deity of these peoples, and Jane Ellen Harrison describes Her as not separate from each and every “local” and actual mother nor from the lesser deities known as nymphs (1957:263-264). In the ancient Greek mind, Harrison describes that the “many” were not so “sharply and strenuously divided” (1957:164) as in the later Olympian pantheon of classical deities of Greece3. Rather, there was a state of unitary consciousness that Harrison described as a “protoplasmic fullness and forcefulness not yet articulate into the diverse forms of its ultimate birth4” (ibid). Thus some other goddesses of Greece are often strongly associated with Gaia, some well known such as Hera, Demeter, and Rhea and others lesser known such as Melaina whose name means black and refers to the black soil. In this early mind, it was understood that the goddesses were all Gaia’s daughters, each her own self, and yet at once the “All-Mother Ge” (Harrison 263-2645 ).
By the time of the earliest writings about Gaia, Gaia was named as only one of four deities who were original – “autogenetic” is a word used for this (Rigoglioso 2007:127), though perhaps another term could be autopoietic which may imply more immediately the self-organising creativity involved. Yet Homer, one of these earliest writers at around seven to eight hundred BCE, and who had likely been quite influenced by the indigenous oracular tradition of the priestess-poets of Gaia that preceded him6, speaks of Her as “mother of the gods”, the foundation of all, the oldest one; and Hesiod also of that period, speaks of a time “told for generations, as it were, at the mother’s knee”, before these writings when “earth and sky were once one form” (Baring and Cashford 304-305). It was Gaia’s time as great mother, for Gaia had brought forth the heavens, and she was always remembered, as Homer expresses in his “Hymn to Gaia” (ibid:303-304):
And in my other songs
I shall remember you.
The Greek mind never forgot that human and deities alike “had been born of the Great Mother” (Campbell 237), that it was Gaia and Her law -”Nature, as we might say” (Baring and Cashford 309) – beneath all the dramas and “immoral behaviour” of anthropomorphic entities, that prevailed (ibid): that it was she who held a moral order which could be invoked, and oaths continued to be sworn to her well into the classical period7 (Spretnak 1992:45). This kind of power and law of the land is not unlike that of other Earth Mothers of other places: for example, in Australia this Law has been called “Tjukurpa”, and as Gimbutas notes (1991:159) in many Old European cultures earth was called upon as witness to disputes. She was social conscience and could not be deceived.
Gaia’s First and Ongoing Creations
Gaia’s first creations – heaven (Ouranus), the hills (Urea), and the sea (Pontus) -are understood to have been conceived by parthenogenetic means. She then went on to create further offspring by mating with her creations, firstly with Ouranus and giving birth to a race called the Titans. It was against the Titans that the later ruling deity Zeus – himself a child of Gaia’s lineage – waged combat to establish his new order. Gaia sometimes played a role of helping Zeus in his battles and quest for sovereignty, yet in his final battle against Gaia’s dragon-son Typhon, she was his opponent (Baring and Cashford 318). The stories reveal an apparent maternal conflict of interest, that is, a desire to support her beloved prodigy and what may be the way of things, but in the end perhaps the realization that it was life threatening to do so. There is also an earlier conflict between Gaia and Ouranos – he attempts to block or claim her creativity, in which Gaia’s son Kronos (and brother-son to Ouranos) assists her by castrating his father. And the story goes that from the spilled blood, Gaia proceeded to create more great entities – the Erinyes, the giants and nymphs named the Meliai – as if perhaps to express Gaia’s penchant for life, her rich and sacred fertility which could not be thwarted.
Gaia also mates with Pontus and brings forth many more children, who in turn become parents. One interpretation of Gaia’s later method of procreation by sexual means has been that she had a desire for love (Monaghan 131), yet perhaps it could be said that she already knew/was love itself since she had the capacity to bring forth the heavens, the hills and the sea: perhaps the stories of Gaia’s mating with an other is a memory of the evolutionary point when meiotic sex unfolded as a favored procreative process over that of mitosis. The advent of meiotic sex, at about one and a half billion years ago, made the web of life more complex, enabled the development of multicellularity8: it was a deepening of creativity and could be interpreted as a deepening of love, or at least, a deepening of the potential for communion. Gaia’s very nature is a multiplicity of forms, and she achieves this with meiotic sex, albeit with the resultant ensuing conflicts between the multiple beings, all agents in their own right.
Another deeper analysis of the conflicts between the deities in Greek mythology by Nanos Valaoritis presents them as a cosmic conflict of female and male, “deciphering a gender-based duality” (1997:247) that permeates other cultures of the world but is “intensively expressed in Greek myths” (ibid), the pattern being particularly evident in the beginning conflict between Gaia and Ouranos (ibid.). This duality is not a simple one: the epics and dramas express a complexity to the dichotomy. However when this analysis is applied, “the conflict between generations of gods, titans and giants can be viewed within a more general conflict between earth/sky (Ouranos/Gaia), male/female, celestials and chthonians” (Valaoritis 251). It is essentially a division of worldviews – an early cultural stratum in which the earth-goddess was central, and another emerging one in which male celestial deities held sway. The analysis/hypothesis postulatesthat the myths themselves preserve the conflict between what Valaoritis calls “seemingly opposite social structures and ideologies” (1997:248) and the complexities of allegiances that humans experienced within the hybrid societies of the transitional phases.
Sacred Sites For Hearing Gaia’s Wisdom
In the earliest of times, Gaia was understood and felt to be alive and sentient – sentient in the sense of holding all knowledge, an intelligence that is a type of memory of what is required for life to unfold. Perhaps since these ancient humans sensed matter and spirit as one, this understanding may be similar to the way in which the mind of more recent times understands genetic coding to be – a memory that is held within the materia itself. These ancients seem to have felt the body of Gaia held the code of re-generation, hence of all creativity: an embedded comprehensive knowledge.
Gaia was thus understood to be the primeval source for guidance, the primary oracle. The people sought places where she might be heard most clearly, where they might receive Gaia’s portents to guide their actions and thoughts. There is much evidence to suggest that the earliest such popular site was Dodona. It is often documented that it was the earth mother who spoke there in so-called pre-historic times, though many continue to name Dodona as a sanctuary and oracle of Zeus who only prevailed later. Although the earliest name of a goddess associated with that site is Dione, it is likely that it was Gaia/Ge who “may have been the first goddess venerated at the site” as Dione belonged to Her lineage (Rigoglioso 2009:140), and T. Dempsey also describes Dione as characteristically chthonic (2003:19-20). Charlene Spretnak notes that the common means of listening for earth-mother’s wisdom at Dodona was for the priestess or consultant to sleep in a holy shrine with an ear upon the ground (1992:45).
It was Delphi, the city of the tribe Delphoi, that prevailed as the site of Gaia’s oracle. The name of the place and of the settling tribe is significant. It is a poetically rich Greek term with connections to womb, dolphin and even brother, that is, “born of the same womb” (Poruciuc 1997:132). Delphi was inhabited initially sometime between the fourteenth and eleventh centuries BCE by these goddess-focussed peoples. Gaia’s sacred shrine here was apparently at first located in the Corycian Cave, high up on the shoulder of Mount Parnassus near Lykoreia. The shrine later moved to Pytho at the foot of the mountain, perhaps being in both locations for a period9. At the same time there was some change to the methods of receiving Gaia’s wisdom, as the Pytho site was above a crevice issuing forth vapors. Delphi, as a womb-temple, was said to be the center of sacred knowledge, and was the navel of the world, the Omphalos of Greek tradition Her priestesses there spoke while in a trance, perhaps sitting on a tripod over the vapors arising from the crevice. This tripod has been called a mantic tripod: that is, it was a shamanic tool – a three legged stool imbued with power by the actions of its occupant and also reciprocally imbuing her with power to speak the words of the deity, to prophesy. The priestess was required to sit astride such a chair, with receptive womb open to the energies of Gaia10(Rigoglioso 2009:182-183). This physical inclusion and capacity was felt as essential to hearing Gaia and uttering her portents. The vapors may have been the original cause of the trance, and perhaps one reason for the ultimate location of Gaia’s oracle at the lower site, as it was usual for her priestesses to enter trance. There were likely many reasons – some political, some mundane – for preference for the site lower down Mt. Parnassus, but the crevice there in Gaia herself, along with the other features, was likely very significant for its continued use, as such an opening in Gaia represented access to the great below, the womb of the Mother, and the inner source and destiny of all.
The spring in the Corycian Cave was home to a triad of nymphs or naiads, one of whom was named Corycia. Different sources give various names for her sisters, but often they are called Kleodora and Melaina, sometimes Daphnus and Thiua. Together the three sisters have been known as the Thriae or Thriai, and recognised as the “the triple muse of divination at Delphi” (McLean 79). Delphos is also the name of the son of one of the Corycian nymphs; his mother sometimes named as Thyia or Thuia and sometimes as Melaina, who is often identified with Gaia. The Thriae are said to have invented the art of prophecy. Their name means little stones, because of the story that tells how they threw stones into an urn of water to observe their movements. Such a practice for divination, that is, for knowing the mind of the divine, has roots in earliest human perceptions of a randomness or wildness to the cosmos, and the direct relationship of the individual being to that essential quality. At Dodona, the priestesses interpreted the rustling of leaves in the sacred tree or drew lots from pitchers. The Thriae are said to have taught the later gods the prophetic arts.
These three of Delphi, kin to a triplicity that appeared elsewhere in association with goddesses in ancient times (Gimbutas 1991:89-97) were also associated with the bee and known as bee-maidens. Thus they can be seen as precursors to the later oracular priestesses at Delphi who were called Delphic bees. The omphalos at Delphi was also shaped as a beehive. Such an association of goddess and bee is an ancient one found within many other cultures11, and generally represents regenerative qualities. There is also the probability that it is because the bee was a parthenogenetic symbol12 and that Gaia’s nymph figures were patterned after her in this capacity13, and that her priestesshoods at Delphi were at some point believed to be parthenogenetic in nature14. Rigoglioso proposes that the early priestesshood of Gaia was a college of women “who at the very least attempted parthenogenetic birth as a spiritual disciplineand who were believed to have been successful” (2009:3).
The Delphic Oracle
The oracular priestess of Delphi speaking Gaia’s knowledge and poetry was commonly named Pythia, meaning female serpent, because the first oracle there was felt to be the snake. Divination was performed by means of interaction with the snakes at the place. The snake was called the Python, a dragon-snake that guarded the sanctuary. Apollo slew Python to establish his shrine at Delphi, the shrine being re-dedicated to him sometime between the eleventh and ninth centuries BCE, or perhaps even earlier15. There are at least five versions of the story16depending on the time period of its writing, with the serpent sometimes being male. But as Marija Gimbutas’ research points out (1991:121-133), the snake is more frequently associated with goddesses and earth powers. Early stories and artistic images show the snake as an emanation of earth, born of her. Gimbutas notes that the omphalos was understood as “both the Earth Mother in her young aspect and the snake”(1991:149). And like the bee, the python may have been representative of Gaia’s parthenogenetic powers17. So Apollo’s act may be interpreted as a statement related to the cosmic conflict mentioned earlier – that of the chthonic/celestial, female/male, earth/sky – that continued to be laid out in Greek literature and art. Jane Ellen Harrison is clear:
… when we remember that the omphalos is the very seat and symbol of the Earth Mother, that hers was the oracle and hers the holy oracular snake that Apollo slew, the intrusion is hard to bear (1957:320-321).
Apollo may seat himself on the omphalos, but he is still forced to utter his oracles through the mouth of the priestesses of Gaia (1957:338-339).
Among Apollo’s follow-up actions was the establishing of the Pythian Games, a forerunner to the Olympic Games. Some say it was as a penance for his sacrilege, others that it was in celebration of his victory.
The Pythias at Delphi were evidently women of accomplishment18: Phemonoe, first priestess of the Apollo era, invented the poetic meter, the hexameter in which she delivered her prophecies. The famous words know thyself at the entrance to the Delphi temple have also been attributed to her19. Some of her poetry was later ascribed to Orpheus and others. Another early priestess Herophile, of around the thirteenth century BCE, was a visiting poet at Delphi20. Even later into the classical period, a priestess of Delphi named Themistoclea was the teacher of the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras. Over time it seems that the priestesshood here was compromised due to the changing less matristic sympathies, that is, less mother-centered or female-centered sympathies as the cultural worldview was shifting to favouring male lineage and authority resulting in pressures of various kinds. Marguerite Rigoglioso describes how over centuries a transition was being made “from a female-exclusive, Ge-serving priestesshood to a male-controlled, Apollo-serving clergy” (2009:178). Even the possibility of rape of the priestesses became a consideration, as their status declined. The earliest priestesses were clearly Gaia’s, yet over centuries, some willingly became a wife of Apollo, while others resisted. Whereas in the beginning one priestess served as the oracle once a year, and only for local people of the region, eventually, as reputation grew, more priestesses were added and the consultations were given more frequently. Huge sums of money came to be involved, and heads of state and dignitaries claimed priority for consultation. The holy shrine succumbed to political and economic considerations. By the first century BCE, Rigoglioso notes that the Pythia could be described by a Roman historian, Plutarch, as “inexperienced and uninformed about everything”, a peasant who “brings nothing with her as the result of technical skill or of any other expertness or faculty as she goes down in the shrine (to prophesy21 )” (ibid).
Whence Gaia Now?
Gaia’s Delphic shrine was closed late in the fourth century CE by Roman emperor Theodosius, who imposed Christianity as the official religion throughout the lands he controlled. Whereas under Apollo’s rule it had still ultimately been Gaia’s body that gave forth the sacred teachings, albeit increasingly attributed to him, Gaia was now denied. Theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther describes how the new god “sacralized domination” of the Earth (1992:3). The new regime claimed transcendence of matter. On the surface of things for this period the celestial appeared to be winning the cosmic conflict with the chthonic, as the work of many scholars such as Reuther documents. Though “Ge” remained threaded into language – “geology”, “geometry”, “geography,” she was increasingly understood as a passive dead ball of dirt upon which humans travailed and from which they extracted sustenance: She was no longer subjective and sentient, graciously giving forth. Evolutionary biologist Elisabet Sahtouris observes that the “organic” philosophies of Thales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus no longer held sway, but rather the “mechanical” cosmos of Pythagoras, Parmenides and Plato, which suited the new god (2000:2-3). Over ensuing centuries, as humans increasingly mechanised their relationship with their place, new instruments were used to confirm a “celestial mechanics” (ibid:3) rather than an organic evolution. Sahtouris reflects that humans became objective observers of Gaia – we became an eye/I noting that ego is the Greek word for I (ibid:8). Sahtouris tells the story that as a young species humans were like adolescents leaving home, sometimes rebelliously or ungraciously. Gaia, as ground of being, was no longer held sacred or felt to be alive. Whereas once she may have at least been considered monstrous, she could now be placed as mere backdrop to human activities.
Yet the desire for knowledge of her, for the physical world of which we the human are a part, could not be put to sleep. This desire expressed as science in more recently documented times, but expressed as empirical investigation since the earliest human writings22, has always been adesire to know … was it a desire to know thyself as the Gaian priestess oracle of old admonished? What appeared at first to be a step away from earth-mother, became paradoxically a return to her, albeit through the obliteration of many and much of older ways. The science that grew up in the millennia of the Common Era, eventually separated itself from the Christian religion which resolutely refused to allow any within its jurisdiction to deviate from the celestial god as the maker/source of being and his texts as the source of all knowledge. Many learned as well as common folk – predominately women – throughout Europe and further, met torturous deaths for deviations from such allegiance. The scientists then entered, many unwittingly, into a journey of return to the chthonic, deeper and deeper into the nature of matter, the planet and the cosmos. At times this was a further desecration of her, expressed openly by some as a type of invasion of her, yet for many it was a pathway into her wonders and beauty: the restoration of the material reality, which may be a restoration of the maternal reality … a restoration of the mother. By the late eighteenth century CE, some fourteen hundred years after the closure of Delphi, a geologist James Hutton, described Earth as a “living organism” and that “its proper study should be by physiology”: going on “to compare the cycling of the nutritious elements in the soil and the movement of water from the oceans to the land, with the circulation of blood” (Lovelock 2000:9). The concept of the planet – Earth/Gaia/Ge – being alive, did not die away, as things never seem to … they are reborn.
By the late twentieth century CE in the context of a convergence of many strands of science that had developed around the globe, Gaia’s name was re-invoked with the work of scientists James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis for a hypothesis that became increasingly acceptable as a scientific basis23, and that was embraced by the larger global community. Many were women and some men who expressed a hunger for mother deity, while others were distressed by the toxification of our planet. The Gaia Hypothesis, which envisions the planet as a connected self-regulating body, put Gaia’s name back on the lips of her offspring and in their hearts and minds. Humans also ventured into her heavens, from which perspective all her children could now see her as one whole body. Was this further objectification or was it a coming home24? As Gaia’s oceans are now quantified, her atmosphere analysed, her lithosphere prodded and excavated for earlier stories, her biospheric methods more deeply known, is this a deepening of relationship with her or further interrogation? As Gaia’s name is now invoked ubiquitously around the globe, even to promote commodities, is this a further compromise of her, or is it where she wants to go? Is it a diluting of her essence or is it a homeopathic cure? Some of Gaia’s people hope that the renewed invoking of her in this era, will serve to heal/whole this seamlessly connected body-planet in which we humans participate, and that it may bring us to knowing that we are Gaia, as all were admonished to know at Delphi of old.
Gaia’s story will only continue to be told in the hearts and minds of her maturing creations, many of whom are naming and re-developing their religious practices as Gaian, and some as PaGaian – coining new poetry25, re-creating sanctuaries as sacred ritual spaces, re-inventing womb-temples or new Delphis, for the creative expression of Gaia, and for again listening for her portents, guidance for their thoughts and actions. Might this be a “Ge-ology”, a term used by author Christine Downing to speak of coming to know Ge/Gaia in a complete sense (1984:139 and 155)? Whether of her faith or not, Gaia’s name is a point of connection across a great diversity of beings, surely more so than most deities. It seems this is her very nature, holding all within her arms, both “uranium and the rose” as poet Claudia L’Amoreaux has described (1995)… awesome and dynamic, a butterfly not to be pinned, a power not to be owned, if she is to be truly known.
(c) Glenys Livingstone 2009
1 The name “Earth” is derived from a Nordic Goddess’ name, Erde, and is originally from the Greek ergaze which means to work the ground. Elisabet Sahtouris, Earthdance, p.5-6.
2 This sense and imagery of “Earth power “ is taken from Marija Gimbutas, The Living Goddesses, p.208 and The Language of the Goddess, p.159.
3 Cited by Christine Downing, The Goddess, p.131.
4 Cited by Christine Downing,The Goddess, p.132.
5 This is also re-iterated by Christine Downing, The Goddess, p.135-136.
6 This is suggested by Margurite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p.14-15, and also in Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, p.304 – 305.
7 citing Lewis R. Farnell The Cults of the Greek States, p.8.
8 See Elisabet Sahtouris 2000:126-131 for this story of the “invention of sex” added to “Gaia’s dance”, and Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry 1992: 105-109.
9 See Joseph Fontenrose, Python: a Study of Delphic Myth, p. 406 – 433, particularly p.416.
10 See Marguerite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p.180-185 for more description of this.
11 See Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, p. 73 and p.118-120.
12 See Marguerite Rigoglioso, See Marguerite Rigoglioso The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p.192-204.
13 Marguerite Rigoglioso, Bearing the Holy Ones: A Study of the Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p. iv.
14 See Marguerite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, , Chapter 7.
15 The earlier dates are suggested by Marguerite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p.177-178.
16 See Joseph Fontenrose, Python: a Study of Delphic Myth, p. 13-22 and also Merlin Stone’s bardic telling of some of the many versions in Ancient Mirrors of Womanhood, p.364-365.
17 Marguerite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p.188.
18 See Marguerite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p.176ff.
20 Marguerite Rigoglioso, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece, p.179.
21 Citing Plutarch. 1927-69. Plutarch’s moralia.
22 I acknowledgeWikipedia for help on these reflections http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science
23 See James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
24 See Yaakov Jerome Garb, “Perspective or Escape?”
25 See Glenys Livingstone, PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion.
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