The first deity in all of Greek mythology, Gaia was the personification of Earth and the embodiment of motherhood. With her offspring Uranus, who symbolized the heavens, Gaia molded the universe to her liking. The progenitor of all Greek deities, Gaia gave birth to the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the monstrous beings known as the Hecatoncheires. In nurturing a young Zeus to maturity, Gaia helped to usher in a new era in the history of the gods.
In ancient Greece, Gaia was worshipped alongside Demeter, the goddess of agriculture, as part of a fertility cult. Even today, neopagan religious groups, such as Wicca, observe Gaia as the ultimate mother goddess and giver of life.
In naming their primordial earth goddess, the Greeks chose the word gaia, meaning “earth, land, or soil.” She was also known as Kourotrophos, the “nourisher of the young,” and Anesidora, the “giver of gifts.”
As creation’s first deity, as well as its first mother, Gaia was the source of all life. She oversaw the fertility of all crops and, as Kourotrophos, safeguarded children and fledgling life of all kinds. The Greeks generally thought of her as a chthonic deity (meaning she dwelled underground).
According to Greek mythology, Gaia was both the universe’s first deity and the mother of all life. After bringing Uranus into the world, Gaia took him as a lover. Together, they gave life to the Titans (Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys and Cronus), the Cyclopes (Brontes, Arges, and Steropes), and the Hecatoncheires (Kottos, Briareos and Gyges), monstrosities with a hundred hands each. She was the grandmother to the chief Olympian gods and goddesses—Demeter, Hera, Hestia, Poseidon, Hades and Zeus—whose many children perpetuated the line she started.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Gaia was the first deity to sprang from the chaos that preceded creation. Shortly after coming into existence, Gaia created her male counterpart Uranus, who covered her and assisted her in making the world full:
And Earth first bare starry Heaven [Uranus], equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills.1
Gaia then gave life to Pontus, the primordial god of the sea, and formed the hills and mountains of the earth. In doing so, she also created Tartarus, a dim region deep within her bowels that became known as a place of torment and despair. Gaia continued in her creation until she had made all the features of the earth and the sky that surrounded it.
With her son Uranus, Gaia sired many children, including the first generation of Titans. Uranus was cruel and jealous, however. Suspecting that his own children would usurp him and take his place as ruler of the heavens, Uranus banished them to Tartarus as soon as they were born. Unwilling to see her children’s lives so carelessly wasted, Gaia fashioned a sickle from grey flint and counseled her sons and daughters to rise up against Uranus and castrate him with the blade:
But vast Earth groaned within, being straitened, and she made the element of grey flint and shaped a great sickle, and told her plan to her dear sons. And she spoke, cheering them, while she was vexed in her dear heart: ‘My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.’
Cronus alone of the Titans heeded his mother’s advice. Taking up the cruel, curved weapon, he severed his father’s genitals and threw them into the sea. As he did so, multitudes sprang forth from them, including giants, nymphs, and the beautiful Aphrodite.
In time, Cronus morphed into a tyrant. Like his father before him, he became paranoid that the children he had sired with his sister Rhea would rise up and overthrow him. To prevent this from happening, Cronus ate his first five children—Demeter, Hera, Hestia, Hades and Poseidon—as soon as they came into the world. Rhea managed to secret her final child, Zeus, to a secluded cave, where he was raised by his grandmother Gaia. The mother goddess taught the future king of the gods well, and he would eventually go on to destroy his father Cronus and inaugurate the cosmological order as the Greeks knew it.
In modern times, Gaia has thrived in neopagan religions such as Wicca, where she is worshipped as Mother Earth.
The Greek goddess was resurrected in the naturalist work of James Lovelock. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) argued that organic and inorganic matter on Earth interacted symbiotically in ways that created ideal conditions for the perpetuation of life. For example, the profusion of photosynthesizing plants helped to regulate the temperature of the Earth over its history, creating stability and allowing the evolution of more diverse forms of life. Many followers believed that Lovelock’s use of Gaia represented a union of science and spirituality.
Gaia has also appeared in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan. Contrary to her usual, benevolent depictions, Gaia here served as a recurring antagonist, inciting war and impelling the young hero on his journeys.
Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed January 2, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.
Hesiod. Works and Days. Translated by Hugh Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. Accessed January 15, 2020. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/works.htm.
Lovelock, James. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2000 ).
Wikipedia contributors. “Gaia.” Wikipedia. Accessed January 14, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia.
Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh Evelyn-White, 116-138. ↩