Gaia: The Greek Earth Goddess Had No Tolerance for Cruel Family Members
According to the ancient Greeks, Gaia was a primordial deity and the personification of the Earth. In fact, her name can actually be translated to mean ‘land’ or ‘earth’. In Greek mythology, Gaia was the second being to have emerged during the creation of the universe. She is perhaps best known as the mother of the Titans, though she also had countless other offspring.
According to one version of the Greek myth of creation , Gaia (also spelled Gaea), Chaos, and Eros co-existed at the beginning of time. Another myth states that these three entities emerged out of a Cosmic Egg. The best-known myth about Gaia, however, may be found in Hesiod’s Theogony, a poem describing the origin of the gods. In this literary work, Gaia is said to have arisen after Chaos. Gaia then gave birth to Ouranos, the personification of the Sky, whom she took as a consort. Gaia also gave birth (by herself) to Ourea (the Mountains) and Pontus (the Sea).
Anselm Feuerbach: Gaea (1875). Ceiling painting, Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. ( Public Domain )
Gaia’s Family Expands
With Ouranos, Gaia gave birth to the Twelve Titans – Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetos, Theia, Rheia, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Thetys, and finally Cronus. In addition to the Titans, Ouranos and Gaia had two more sets of children, the Cyclopes – Brontes, Steropes, and Arges, and the Hecatoncheires (giants with 50 heads and 100 arms) – Cottus, Briareos, and Gyes. Ouranos was a cruel father, and as soon as his children were born, he kept them in Gaia’s belly. Eventually, Gaia grew tired of this, and decided to do something about it.
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She sought her children’s aid in order to punish Ouranos, but they were gripped by fear. Finally, Cronus, the youngest of the Titans, agreed to help his mother. Gaia fashioned a jagged sickle out of stone and plotted with her son. Cronus was to lie in wait for his father and to ambush him when he came to have intercourse with Gaia. This he did, and with the jagged sickle, Cronus castrated Ouranos. As the blood dripped onto Gaia, she bore the Erinyes, the Giants, and the Nymphs.
On the eastern side of Ara Pacis is a relief of Tellus Mater, the Roman earth-goddess. (Chris Nas/ CC BY SA 4.0 ) Tellus is the Roman version of Gaea.
Gaia Stands Against Cruelty
After Ouranos was overthrown, the Titans, led by Cronus, came to rule. In order to ensure that his rule would last forever, Cronus swallowed his children as soon as they were born. Eventually, Gaia could no longer tolerate her son’s cruelty, and decided to side with her grandchildren. When Cronus’ youngest son, Zeus , was born, his mother, Rhea, sought Gaia’s help to keep him safe from his father. Therefore, Gaia kept Zeus concealed from Cronus, and the Titan was given a stone in swaddling clothes to swallow instead.
When Zeus grew up, he returned, freed his siblings, and fought with the Titans for supremacy. The old gods were defeated and banished to Tartarus . Gaia was unhappy with the way Zeus treated her children, the Titans and therefore she opposed him as well.
‘The Fall of the Titans’ (1588-1590) by Cornelis van Haarlem. ( Public Domain )
She first gave birth to a tribe of giants and then to the monster Typhoeus. Both attempts to overthrow Zeus did not succeed. In the end, Gaia foretold that Zeus would be dethroned by a son borne to him by Metis. In order to avoid this fate, Zeus swallowed Metis, which resulted in the birth of Athena, who sprang out of his head fully-grown and armed.
Apart from the children and grandchildren produced through her union with Ouranos, Gaia had many other offspring as well. For instance, with Pontus, she gave birth to the sea gods.
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Central part of a large floor mosaic, from a Roman villa in Sentinum (now known as Sassoferrato, in Marche, Italy), ca. 200–250 AD. Aion, the god of eternity, is standing inside a celestial sphere decorated with zodiac signs, in between a green tree and a bare tree (summer and winter, respectively). Sitting in front of him is the mother-earth goddess, Tellus (the Roman counterpart of Gaia) with her four children, who possibly represent the four seasons. ( Public Domain )
Another interesting myth about Gaia is that regarding the birth of Erichthonius, a legendary early ruler of Athens. In this myth, Hephaestus tried to rape Athena and though he did not succeed, his semen fell on the thigh of the goddess. Having wiped the semen off her thigh with a piece of wool, Athena threw it onto the earth, and Erichthonius was born. Thus, indirectly, Gaia became the mother of this legendary king.
Birth of Erichthonius: Athena receives the baby Erichthonius from the hands of the earth mother Gaia. Hephaestus is watching the scene. Side A of an Attic red-figure stamnos, 470–460 BC. ( Public Domain )
Symbols of Gaia in Art
Finally, it may be said that in art, Gaia is normally depicted as a full-bosomed, matronly woman, which is meant to symbolize her fertility. She is often shown clothed in green, which further emphasizes this symbolism. Moreover, she is occasionally shown accompanied by fruits or the personification of the seasons, signifying her role as an agricultural goddess.
‘Victory, Janus, Chronos, and Gaea’ (1532-1534) by Giulio Romano. ( Public Domain )
Top image: Gaia. Source: Fionabus/ Deviant Art
By Wu Mingren
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