How Mother Earth immigrated to America

Mother Earth is a woman who needs no introduction.

In the Old World, she’s been written up and talked about for a long, long time. Her stock was probably lowest around the sixteenth century, but since then she has come roaring back. Now pagans, poets, and environmentalists sing her praises, and everyone else has heard of her. (She has her own holiday, although people aren’t clear about which day it should be observed on.)

As best I can tell, though, she never visited the New World until after the Old World colonized it. She’s an immigrant.

Oh, sure, there are indigenous American goddesses and spirits associated with corn or the harvest. One of these, the Aztec goddess Toci, “Our Grandmother,” was called Mother of the Gods and Heart of the Earth. But neither she nor her middle American sisters are avatars of the planet we live on.

Mother Earth as a stylized American Indian. (Artist unknown.)
Nevertheless, contemporary American Indians often speak of Mother Earth. But their ancestors, even their grandparents, apparently did not mention her at all.

So what’s going on here? One possibility is that American Indian religions, at least some of them, have always revered Mother Earth, but this devotion was kept a secret from white people; therefore it was not recorded. This hypothesis does not explain, though, why modern-day Indians would no longer keep the secret.

It seems most likely that Mother Earth has been incorporated into some Indians’ worldview, even adopted into Native ethics and cosmology, despite the fact that Mother Earth is not indigenous to the Americas.

Well, what’s wrong with that? Every human culture borrows from others. After battling the Roman Empire, f’rinstance, the beard-faced savages of northern Europe adopted their enemy’s religion — which their enemy in turn had borrowed from some Greeks — who got it from an outcast faction of a Middle Eastern tribe, who’d had the bright idea to worship only one god instead of a thousand. Some things just catch on like that.

All the same, I detect some irony in the association of Mother Earth with Native American consciousness. That’s because I suspect that Earth goddesses like Gaia and Tellus were conceived of only after some members of a society had grown distant from the land, spending most of their time in an artificial environment.

Gaia is a city girl

One of the preconditions for dreaming up an earth goddess, it seems to me, is remoteness from the experience of working the soil. It’s hard to think of the earth as your mother when you’re repeatedly hitting her with sharp-edged tools. The devotional thoughts of farmers would seem to run more toward the weather, the rain, and the precious grains that they coax out of the ground. Spirits who help the crops grow (as well as the children) must also be in demand.

If you till the earth, your culture probably has old stories of how the earth was formed out of primordial chaos. Maybe gods or heroes killed a great giant or monster and used its blood and bones to make the earth. Perhaps some of the beings from Above came down and drew up mud from Below the waters, then spread out the mud to form the earth.1

But all of that is in the dim past. The earth itself (however it was made) may be precious, but it’s not divine. It’s the thing you live on, that lies between Above and Below.

Once your culture sprouts cities, before long you get priests and poets who never touched a hoe, but who feel a religious awe of the earth that feeds them. Their contact with nature would be mostly limited, as ours is, to admiration of natural beauties and terrors. These are the first ones, I think, who felt moved to tell stories of a goddess who is the soul or essence of Earth.

Not every urban civilization developed this conceit, as I’ll call it. But because the Greeks and Romans worshipped an earth goddess, generations of classically trained scholars roamed the world with the fixed idea that other cultures must also worship an earth goddess. Many goddesses whom the Greeks, Romans, and then their Western descendants, have lumped with the earth mother Gaia, were actually sacred symbols of the ocean, fertility, chthonic power, or female ancestors.

Naturalized

Regardless of where it came from, the Earth Mother motif has become indigenous in North America. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. Just as members of various Indian tribes have borrowed from one another’s traditions (and many Indians claim an equal share in the heritage of ancestors from opposite corners of North America), so they have an equal right to borrow from traditions beyond North America. The Old World’s Mother Earth is just one of those borrowings.2

I have an example from modern Creek culture: A creation myth told by C. Randall Daniels of the Pine Arbor band contains a couple of references to Mother Earth. What’s more, the Breath Holder, the traditional Creek creator god, becomes the “Father Spirit” in this narration.

Ekvnv, the Earth, was to be a Mother to all, giving equally to each and withholding from none. … All things of Mother Earth heard One Above and knew this to be the Father Spirit, Master of Breath, Creator and Source.3

Oral tradition, as I understand it, is present-oriented. Storytellers are concerned with the needs of their audience and will adapt a traditional tale to meet those needs, while still preserving what they consider the essential elements of the inherited tradition. If the innovations seem good, they will be passed on in future tellings, until some of them become essential to the tradition.

Mother Earth may be on her way to becoming an essential element of some American Indian traditions.

Mother Earth as protective goddess. (Artist unknown.)
Useful story

What set me off on this topic was a comment in an interview with Creek activist Ben Yahola (of the Mvskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative). The lesson, he said, of sustainable farming, gardening, and wise land use is that “there is an abundance of Mother Earth to use.”4 That remark reminded me of other references to Mother Earth by present-day Indians, including the Daniels creation story.

I began by pointing to Mother Earth’s resurgence as a cultural icon, not just for Indians, but for nearly all of us. If I’m right in thinking that the Gaia myth emerged in an urban context, among people who never tilled the soil, maybe that helps explain the appeal of Mother Earth for our urbanized, commodity-swapping consumer culture in which people are increasingly alarmed about the threat of environmental disaster.

For one thing, she’s consoling: Our mother would never willingly harm us. If bad things happen, it will be her children’s fault. And maybe, just maybe, Mother Earth is wise and strong enough to protect us from our own folly and recklessness.5

For another, she calls us to a sense of responsibility. By personifying the earth, we motivate ourselves to act with more kindness toward the planet, and to be more aware of the consequences of what we do. We imagine the earth not as a goddess, but as a fellow creature that can be harmed or blessed by us. These thoughts may spare us the terror of directly confronting environmental dangers as a threat to our own survival. Like children, we go along imagining that the world might end, but we will go on living anyway.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news. There is no Mother Earth. Earth is a massive, iron-core planet circling a yellow sun, and we are just a part of the biomass clinging to that planet’s crust.

Still, that’s no reason to laugh at present-day Gaia-talk. Perhaps our felt need to talk about Mother Earth is evidence that we are groping our way back toward an appropriate, realistic relationship to the planet, one that doesn’t imagine that the planet can die while we live on.

We forget we’re a young species. Once we are collectively older, wiser, and doing better, I expect we’ll stop rehashing the Mother Earth myth. We won’t need it anymore.


1 That’s a common creation story among American Indians east of the Mississippi, and perhaps west. The crawfish, or a similar animal, is given credit for retrieving the mud. 
2 The borrowing might also be influenced by the Māori origin story of the primal parents, Papa (Earth) and Rangi (Sky), whose loving embrace was broken by their impatient children at the beginning of time. As Papatuanuku (Earth spread out) and Ranginui (Great sky), the couple constantly show their longing for one another through rainstorms from above and earthquakes from below. The tradition is quite different from the Old World earth mother, but does represent the land as a mother’s body. 
3 “Hitchiti: Appalachicola Origin (CC2),” in Bill Grantham, Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians (University Press of Florida, 2002), pp. 264-65. The same myth also has a Genesis-like passage and a reworking of the Turtle Island motif. 
4 Food Security Learning Center. “Race and the Food System: Ben Yahola.” Interview with Andrea King Collier. WhyHunger.org. (12 May 2010) 
5 However, see The Revenge of Gaia (2006) for an inversion of this trope. 

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