The Greek earth goddess Gaia (also called Ge) was a primal and elemental figure, the source of almost all life, mortal and immortal. She belonged to the very beginnings of creation and had the largest continuously influential role of all the founders of the universe.
According to the most popular account of the origin of things (preserved in Theogony by Hesiod, c. 800 BCE), the universe began with the spontaneous creation of four primal beings: the Void, or "Chaos," which in Greek means a yawning or gaping nothingness; Gaia; Tartarus, or "Deep Dark," the darkest and lowest part of the underworld; and Eros, or "Desire." Each of these beings gave birth to numerous other beings, at first through self-fertilization, but soon, thanks to the creation of Eros, through mating with other beings.
Gaia was the only primal being to produce children who became major divinities, or parents and grandparents of major divinities. Although Chaos, Tartarus, and Eros produced significant offspring, such as Night and Day, Death, and Destiny, Gaia was the mother of several generations of gods who would rule the universe. Gaia also played an active role in the process of succession between generations. At the same time, Gaia was the mother and grandmother of many monstrous creatures and primitive, barbaric, crude beings.
Gaia's first act was to create spontaneously the three other elemental realms of the universe: the sky (Uranus), mountains (Ourea), and ocean (Pontus). Gaia then mated with two of her children—all creation from then on was by procreation between male and female. With Pontus, Gaia produced numerous ocean deities and beings, a number of which were monstrous. With Uranus, she created her main offspring, the 12 gods who became known as the Titans, followed by the three giant Cyclopes and the three Hecatoncheires (Hundred-Handed Ones).
As night fell, Uranus lay with Gaia, and from their regular union came children. Uranus, however, feared the consequences of creating a new generation of beings, so he refused to let Gaia give birth; instead she had to keep all their children in her womb. In the first of several decisive acts of intervention, Gaia rebelled: she created a sickle from the famously hard metal adamant and then sought an ally among her suppressed children.
Cronus volunteered to help. He waited in ambush when Uranus came to lie with Gaia as usual, then castrated his father with the sickle. From the blood that fell on the earth (Gaia) during the act of castration were born the Furies, who avenged murders within families, and the Giants, who later opposed Zeus and the Olympians. With that act of violence, Cronus, prompted and assisted by his mother, took over as sovereign ruler, along with his siblings the Titans.
Cronus married his sister Rhea (daughter of Gaia) and, like his father before him, attempted to suppress his own children. This was because he had learned from Gaia and Uranus that one of his children would eventually replace him. Every time one of his children was born, Cronus swallowed it. Rhea, like her mother before her, found the suppression intolerable, and on the advice of Gaia and Uranus, went to the southern Aegean island of Crete to give birth to Zeus.
Gaia took the baby and concealed him in a cave until he was old enough to return and depose Cronus. She taught her grandson how to trick his father into regurgitating Zeus's brothers and sisters. A battle known as the Titanomachy followed between the generation of Zeus (the Olympians) and their parents, uncles, and aunts (the Titans). Although Gaia generally seems to have sided with the Titans, she also told Zeus that he could win the conflict by releasing the Hundred-Handed Ones from the prison to which Cronus had sent them.
Gaia's advice was critical in enabling the Olympians to defeat the Titans. Then, in a final test for her grandson, she combined with Tartarus to produce one more primitive being to challenge the Olympian, the monster Typhon. He was a terrible creature with a hundred snake heads that alternately hissed, bellowed, and roared. Typhon's ambition, like that of the Titans and the Olympians, was to become supreme ruler of the universe. Zeus, however, defeated him in an awful battle and cast him into deepest region of the underworld. According to some accounts, Typhon had, for a while, disabled Zeus by removing the sinews of his hands and feet. However, Pan and Hermes managed to distract Typhon with a meal of fish, retrieve the sinews and heal Zeus's body.
Continuing in her role as the critical director of events, Gaia now recommended Zeus as the figure to lead the new Olympian regime. After he was established as ruler, she gave him crucial advice that would prevent him from being overthrown. She warned that Metis, his first wife, would have a son who would become ruler of the gods.
As the mother of the Titans and the grandmother of the Olympians, Gaia was thus the parent of all the major beings in the Greek pantheon. She was also the supplier of key knowledge and advice at each turn of events. She appears to have sided sometimes with the Titans and sometimes with the Olympians, but this was not because she was inconsistent or treacherous. She was the source and creator of all the beings, divine and monstrous, that competed with each other for the supreme rulership of creation. None of the other primal beings occupied quite this role, and Gaia's centrality reflects a characteristically Greek outlook, which elsewhere gives earth-mother figures, such as Demeter and even Hera, particular prominence in both myth and ritual. As such a basic and primal source of power and knowledge, Gaia was sometimes even said to have preceded Apollo at Delphi, the seat of the most famous oracle in Greece.
Gaia is represented in vase paintings and sculpture of all periods from antiquity, and in several common motifs. One of these motifs was the assault by the giant Tityus, son of Gaia, on Leto, mother of the divine twins Artemis and Apollo. Tityus came to symbolize the outrageous, lawless abductor. He is often depicted in art and literature being punished for his crimes, spread-eagled across many acres while birds of prey feed on his liver, or shot full of arrows by the twins while defending their mother. In these scenes of her son's punishment, Gaia is often present. She appears also in the commonly depicted Battle against the Giants (Gigantomachy), sometimes as a presence rising from the ground, sometimes more specifically among her grandchildren, the Olympians, pleading for the lives of her children, the Giants.
Many of the vase paintings that have survived to the present day came from Athens and the communities with which Athens traded. As a result, their imagery reflects Athenian preoccupations. One of the other common representations of Gaia has significant political symbolism. Numerous paintings from the fifth century BCE depict Gaia emerging from the ground and handing, or having just handed, a baby named Erichthonius to Athena, after Gaia carried him in her womb to full term. Often also present are the three daughters of King Cecrops, and Cecrops himself (another "child of the earth"), who played a major role in the events around this presentation.
Underlying this motif was the claim that the Athenians were an indigenous people, native to Attica: Erichthonius was the "first Athenian," born from the seed of Hephaestus, which Athena wiped from her thigh after the god tried to rape her. The semen fell to the ground and impregnated Gaia. All other Athenians were descended from Erichthonius. The image of Gaia, presenting the baby to Athena and other key members of the community, made a clear and powerful validation of Athenian historical claims. Gaia, in other words, was not just a cosmic element who belonged in the symbolic and philosophical world of abstract myth: she belonged equally to the world of politics and national or ethnic identity.
In the modern world Gaia has come to symbolize ecological concerns and idealistic aspirations about Planet Earth and the universe. In 1979, scientist James Lovelock wrote a book called Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, which had a huge influence on the way we see our planet. He saw Earth as a self-regulating system that maintains conditions for its survival simply by following its own natural processes. Gaia theory has made people aware of the damage their actions can do to Earth's ecosystem.
Gaia is also the code name for the European Space Agency's 2010 program to carry out an astronomical census of one billion stars. The spacecraft, also called Gaia, will be equipped with multiple optical telescopes and other instruments that will make "the largest, most precise map of where we live in space."
See also: CREATION Myths; CRETE; CRONUS; ERICHTHONIUS; EROS; FURIES; GIANTS; TITANS; TYPHON; ZEUS.
- Theogony and Works and Days. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and M. L. West, trans.
- Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. .
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