Myths About Mother Earth and Why They Matter

by Kim   |   April 29, 2009

The United Nations has just instituted an International Mother Earth Day--does it matter? Why do we need another "day," you might ask, when the planet is in crisis and we all need to be composting or protesting or finding ways to make do with less, as the occasion warrants?

Rather than a useless innovation, recognizing Mother Earth is really the UN playing catch-up.  One of the oldest human activities is myth-making, and one of the most common and enduring myths is that of the Earth Mother.

Everyone may not tell the same stories, but everyone tells stories. Joseph Campbell taught that "through the study of mythology, and the comparison of many systems of belief, we can see the common threads that run through our human existence."  Mythology is about good stories, tales told around a fire or by an elder to the young. It is religion looked at through a soft focus, without the need to argue about who's right because it's simply a good listen: one that teaches without tests and transports without seeming to go anywhere. As Campbell said:

Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known....And where we had thought to be alone, we will be with all the world.

Myths have something to say to the environmental movement because there's something helpful in putting a face--and personality--on Nature ("anthropomorphizing" if you want the term-paper word for it).  A being with a face has expressions; he/she/it reacts to one's actions, displays moods, has their own will and needs. Think of the vacuum left by the Industrial Revolution when the rhythms of the countryside were replaced by those of the machine and the factory. Cut up into "resources", Nature had less to say; and most people only heard what they wanted.

Now, facing the ecological troubles wrought by industry, many are looking cultures, times, and faiths that had some good ideas for mapping a gentler relationship between humans and the Earth. Those maps have been efficiently passed down through the ages through myths and within religious tradition. Learn more about religion and environmentalism, including Islam and Buddhism, from The Encylopedia of Earth.

If you're still not convinced that hearing a few Earth Mother myths has anything to do with all our burning ecological issues, consider: myths were a pre-TV form of entertainment, bringing communities together and placing the human in proper relationship to contexts larger than themselves, whether those of the ancestors or the gods.  Partaking of stories is not quite the same as "consuming" because you can then share them with someone else. Unlike media "spin," the slant from each new storyteller keeps a myth alive.

A few faces of the Earth Mother in mythology:

  • Greek Gaia was the goddess of the earth itself to the Ancient Greeks. They saw her granddaughter Demeter as one face of the Earth: motherhood, agriculture and fertility.

  • Hindu Hinduism is full of vivid natural imagery and respect for the Earth Mother.  The Hymn to the Earth says, "Earth my mother, set me securely with bliss in full accord with heaven, O wise one."

  • Nigerian, Igbo people The Igbo believed in the earth goddess Ala, the mother of her people, who was in charge of crop productivity and public morality

  • Russian In Russian myth, Mother Earth is the same as Sophia, wisdom and the mother of God.

  • Māori According to legend, Papatuanuku, the Earth mother, and Ranginui, the Sky father, got along fine, but their relationship was threatened by their children's rivalry.

  • Zuni This Native American tradition tells the tale of Wulbari (heaven) and Asase Ya (Mother Earth), and the people that lived squashed between them. The humans' squirming annoyed heaven:

    One old woman, they say, kept hitting Wulbari with her pestle as she ground her maize, and the smoke from her cooking fire bothered his eyes. Some say that men sometimes wiped their dirty hands on Wulbari, which was also very irritating, and it is rumored that one old woman took to cutting bits of Wulbari to flavor her soup.

    Wulbari got tired of it and went farther up, where is today.

Usually a story about beginnings, the Earth Mother myth may have some surprising endings, but her reappearance in modern times may hold some of the biggest surprises. Carl Jung wrote, "Whenever the earth mother appears it means that things are going to happen in reality." He might say that Mother Earth gaining her very own day is a step in the right direction--towards the green movement gaining real momentum in the struggle to cure our planetary ills.  Having an extra set of eyes overseeing the international green scene just might lend some focus to environmentalists' efforts, ultimately giving her new stories to star in.