Mother Earth?

March 7, 2010 at 4:27 pm 2 comments

Some historians of religion have protested against calling the earth a mother – Mother Earth – saying that there are no concrete proofs that the Earth ever appeared as a personal mother. Well, it does not happen very often, but we meet it, for example, in the later versions of the great Hindu epic Ramayana:

Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana

Rama and Hanuman fighting Ravana. An album painting on papaer. AD 1820. India. British Museum.Wikimedia Commons

Sita (meaning “the furrow) was found one day as a baby in a deep furrow in a newly worked field. She grew up to become the most beautiful girl and was married to Lord Rama. One day the demon Ravana abducts her and lord Rama  collects a big army. With the help of the courageous Hanuman, king of the apes, Sita is saved and returns home, but people gossip and Rama begins to suspect that his wife maybe has given in to Ravana’s threats. She asks to be allowed to prove her innocence in the fire. However, when the gossip begins again, Rama again wavers (he is not a resolute man)  and banishes her to the jungle where she gives birth to twin boys who when grown up, come to the court and persuade Rama to recall their mother. More beautiful then ever, Sita asks her husband to permit her one last test and then she calls upon her mother, the Earth, to witness her purity and innocence. The Earth then opens up and takes back her daughter.

We cannot avoid the deep and unconscious feelings that the Earth – our planet, our place of birth, our home – awakes in us. The Earth hides the roots of our often rather difficult links with our carnal mothers. We are born on the earth and we have spent our first months inside the womb of our mother. Perhaps this is the connection between our mother and our country, Mother England, Italia nostra Madre, Moder Svea.

Around 400 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato wrote that the citizens of Athens being born by the same Mother Earth, “ought to take care of her in the same way you care for your own mother.”

This feeling is still alive in Europe and explains why so many Europeans wish to be buried in the place where they were born. Most Italians find it very important that the bones of the Italian soldiers buried in Russia be returned to their Mother Italy. “Our sons must be buried in our soil.”

After the tsunami had killed over five hundred Swedes in southeast Asia in 2005, it became clear how important it was for the people back home that the bodies were brought to Sweden for cremation and burial. Thus the burial is not only a way to hide the dead corpse, but unconsciously contains the symbolic image of a return to the Mother Earth so that she that once gave us birth may generate us again.

February 4, 2006,  Los Angeles Times published an article about Pauline Whitesinger, who remains on Big Mountain, Arizona, after Congress in 1974 ordered the twelve thousand Navajos there to leave. (Twenty-five percent of  those who left died during the first year in exile. A new forcible eviction was set in late 2000 and now only eight Navajo families live there.)  Pauline Whitesinger stays because in traditional Navajo belief the person belongs to the land, not the land to the person.

The first people who arrived in Australia seventy thousand years ago and still live there, think in a similar way.  According to old traditions, you may move into land that is not yours, to be somehow adopted by it, through performing the correct rituals and fulfilling certain obligations, but you cannot walk in and take it.

When the young bride in ancient Rome – she was usually between twelve and fourteen years old – left her own home for her husband’s, she stopped on the way to pray and sacrifice to Terra Mater, Mother Earth. In the moment when she exchanged her own mother for a mother-in-law, she asked the great mother, the Earth, to help her. It must have been a moving ceremony for the girl.

The Egyptian god Khnum

The Egyptian god Khnum at his potter's wheel

We are earthlings. When God created Adam, he took some earth, adamah, and formed the human being, adam. The Hebrew script being without vowels we can also read the word as adom, “red,” as the red clay in the river Jordan. The same image is found all over the earth: In China the mother and creator Nüwa fashioned men and women out of the mud taken from the river and breathed life into them; in New Zealand, the god Tane used clay to make a woman on the body of Mother Earth;  in southern California, Mukat made mankind from clay that he left to dry in the sun; on the Elephantine Island in south Egypt, the god Khnum used his pottery wheel to create the egg that contains the world. The list can easily be made much longer.

On the other hand, how many times wasn’t I told as a small child to stop playing with the earth.  “You become dirty. The earth is full of microbes. Stop it at once.” The earth is full of worms and other ugly things. (On the other hand, Graciela Pfannenstill informs me that dry fine earth in Africa sometimes contains streptomycin.)

Against all logic, for more than four thousand years, our civilization has put the farmers living on small holdings – those that work the earth with their own hands and don’t pay others to do it – on the lowest step of the social hierarchal ladder. All those in power, all those who have studied, all those who have never touched the earth have stood above them. For more than two thousand years matter (the word comes from mater, “mother”) has been less worth than the spiritual that comes from the sky. Thus we believe that we have the right to subdue, reform, despise and exploit the feminine earth. Only now, on the brink of a catastrophe, we begin to change our views.

Raw clay.

The dry piece of clay that the potter Elohim used to create us and into which we’ll return in death, contains all this: the Earth that is so much more than a planet in the universe, so much more than our home, the Earth that generates us and in the future will receive us in her great womb to return us to a different life.

Thus even if Mother Earth does not exist as a goddess in the physical world, I’m afraid we still have to count her in among the deep-seated symbols that work in us on an unconscious level.

Platon and his students

Platon and his students. Drawing by C. J. Wahlbom

I simply cannot resist inserting this funky drawing from Svenska Familj-Journalen, c. 1870. It shows that century’s  sentimental longing for the clean, white, uncomplicated life in classical Athens. All false, I’m afraid. (


Entry filed under: Earth, Mother Earth, Myth, Pottery, Ramayana.

What Pottery Symbolizes Child of Water

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. iqbal  |  April 1, 2010 at 11:50 am

    nice pictures

    • 2. krpfll  |  April 1, 2010 at 5:39 pm

      Well, the pictures aren’t very important … Where is your “emm” strongest?
      I’m old, all right, but I still bark more than I bite, so, please, come along.


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