Papatuanuku and the Gaia Hypothesis – Maori Mythology Meets Science

FOR THE OLD NEW ZEALAND MAORI, Papatuanuku was a personification of the Earth. Like the Greek ‘Ge’ or ‘Gaia’, Papatuanuku is Mother Earth, the archetype.

Tohunga and theologian, Maori Marsden (1924-1993) argues that “Papatuanuku – ‘Land from beyond the veil’, or originating from the realm beyond the world of sense-perception, was the personified form of ‘whenua’ – the natural earth”.

Papatuanuku is an organic Mother, like the Earth Mother of Old Europe. “Papatuanuku is our Mother and deserves our love and respect. She is a living organism with her own biological systems and functions creating and supplying a web of support systems for all her children whether man, animal, bird, tree or grass”.

Papatuanuku, Mother Earth, understood as a living organism and revered by the Maori of antiquity, strikingly resembles James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – the recent scientifically based and described Gaia, also regarded as a living organism.

The Great Nurturer

SANDRA LEE, NEW ZEALAND MINISTER OF CONSERVATION, 1999-2002, and a Maori, once said, in reference to the earth: “It is Mother, Papatuanuku; we shouldn’t strive to have power over her, but rather acknowledge that she is the essence which nurtures us and enables us to be”.

Intrinsic to the Mother Earth Archetype and the Nature/Earth Landscape is nurturing. This is characteristic of old European and near Eastern spirituality as well as old Maori mythology, lore and proverbs. It is also true of Native American Indian spirituality and that of other primal peoples. Nurturing is a universal feeling and root metaphor inherent in the Mother Earth Archetype and the Nature/Earth Landscape. Nurturing and mothering are components of the individual personality and the collective psyche.

THE OLD MAORI SAW THE EARTH as their Mother. Papatuanuku, Mother Earth, is “someone who nurtures us and to whom we in turn owe important duties of care”. In Maori mythology the elemental gods of the natural world are children of Mother Earth and stay close to their nursing Mother. In Maori mythology it is the Earth Mother who is ultimately responsible for all the foods which sustain us – especially crops such as the kumera (sweet potato) which grow directly within her body. The seasons which relate to Papatuanuku and the growing and harvesting of her foods are found in many ancient Maori proverbs. Papatuanuku’s children live and function in a symbiotic relationship:

“From unicellular through to more complex multi-cellular organisms each species depends upon other species as well as its own, to provide the basic biological needs for existence. The different species contribute to the welfare of other species and together they help to sustain the biological functions of their primeval mother, herself a living organism. They also facilitate the processes of ingestion, digestion and waste disposal… they cover her and clothe her to protect her from the ravages of her fierce son, Tawhiri the storm-bringer. She nourishes them and they nourish her”.

Nurturing by and of Papatuanuku, Mother Earth, is not just a symbiotic physical relationship, it is also a spiritual nurturing. Maori Marsden points out that Papatuanuku belongs to an older primeval order. Her sustenance derives not only from the mauri – the life force immanent in all creation which generates, regenerates and upholds creation – active within her, but is supported by other members of that order. Marsden defines the mauri as “the bonding element that knits all the diverse elements within the Universal ‘Procession’ giving creation its unity in diversity. It is the bonding element that holds the fabric of the universe together”. Mauri is a force or energy mediated by Hauora – the Breath of the Spirit of Life. “Mauri-ora was the life-force (mauri) transformed into life-principle by the infusion of life itself”. This view was not unique to the New Zealand Maori.   

In old European mythology, “Mother Earth was seen to be very active. She was thought to exhale the breath of life, which nourished living organisms on her surface”.

Timelessness, Mythology, Being

IDENTITY AND SPIRITUALITY within the Mother Earth Archetype are found in ‘timeless mythology’ and ‘being’. This is more important than ‘becoming’ and historical development. Ones sense of landscape ‘place and space’ has more value and importance than linear ‘historicity’.

In Maori tribal belonging, for example, lore and mythology was identified with and written over the tribes’ mountains, hills and valleys, its rivers, streams and lakes, and upon its cliffs and shores. Hunting, gathering and cultivation, together with their lore and mythology, were seasonal and hence time was bound within mythology, circular and never-ending. The old Maori dwelt and had ‘being’ predominantly within the non-linear timeless, mythological landscape. Whakapapa (descent) and kinship were not so much historical as inextricably tied to the mythology of the land. Tribal identity and personal identity were tied with mythology and genealogy, connected with the land and landscape. Te Maire Tau points out:

“[F]or Maori the boundaries of time and space are irrelevant. This does not mean Maori do not have a sense of time and location. There is enough evidence to show that events were ordered, albeit by an imprecise system of genealogy. However, precision in the ordering of time was not central to the Maori view of the world. Consequently, time was not the primary principle in any attempt to recollect the past. …Virtually the only realm of ‘meaningfulness’ to Maori is that of ‘mana’.”

Furthermore, mana “is one’s spiritual, personal and ancestral prestige and authority that is determined by personal actions and descent lines from gods and ancestors”.

Morality Based in Belonging

MOTHER EARTH ENGENDERS a feeling of belonging, a longing to belong, an envelopment of belonging. The archetype also engenders feelings of reciprocity and the I-Thou relation.

Speaking from a Maori perspective, as Maori Marsden has said; “the sense of interrelatedness between people and nature creates a sense of belonging to nature, rather than being ascendant to it, as humans are born from ‘mother earth’ and return to her on their death”. All elements of the natural world are related through whakapapa (genealogy) in the Maori worldview. While people tested the boundaries of their relationship with the environment, a complex set of concepts and rules grounded in the spiritual world ensured that they did not push this relationship too far. Even when one is destroyed by evil personified (whiro) or bad luck (maiki) one can find belonging, repose and rest within Mother Earth:

“Their loveliest Mother Earth
Enshrines the fallen brave;
In her sweet lap who gave them birth
They find their tranquil grave.”

This Mother-love that outlasts all races and all creeds is expressed by Maori in the aphorism, “He aroha whaereere, he potiki piri poho”. The realm of the sacred is within the natural world. This means that feelings of belonging, reciprocity, awe, love, oneness and wholeness are enhanced. In other words the I-Thou relation is sanctified and inherent to the Mother Earth Archetype and the Nature/Earth Landscape.

From an Indian perspective, as noted anthropologist and scholar of his own Native Indian Tewa Pueblo tribe, Alfonso Ortiz puts it: “Indian tribes put nothing above nature. Their gods are part of nature, on the level of nature, not supra anything. Conversely, there’s nothing that is religious versus something that is secular. Native American religion pervades, informs all of life”.

Like the spirituality of the old Maori, the spiritual (mauri) is within – not exterior and divided into the sacred and the profane.

The Return of the Soul to the World

Geographer Peter Bishop influenced by archetypal psychology, maintains that the study of a country or a place and its people should be a task that contributes “towards the return of soul to the world, to an anima mundi psychology”. While there has been a long tradition of locating the psyche somehow within both the individual and the world, this has been lost in recent centuries. However, as Hillman warns, “the more we concentrate on literalizing interiority within my person the more we lose the sense of soul as a psychic reality… within all things”.

In his study of Tibet, for example, Bishop found that the place had a logic and coherence of its own, its genius loci: it was not a ‘silent other’ but alive, substantial and compelling. “It was part of the world calling attention to itself, deepening our soulful appreciation of mountains, of deserts and rivers, of light and colour, of time and space, of myriad peoples and their cultures, of fauna and flora, of the plurality of imaginative possibilities”.   

This is an instance of a return of perception of Anima Mundi/World Soul; and a return of the Sophianic Wisdom Archetype. In short, spirituality is to be sought in individuation, the opening up to the unus mundus; or in other words the Sophianic Anima Mundi, World Soul. This deep realisation of Self lies at the heart of all religious intimations of the essential oneness of life.

Sophia and Ecospirituality

INHERENT TO the Postmodern Ecological Landscape are concepts of holism, wisdom, participatory consciousness and a new spirituality which informs, or imbrues together the individual psyche and the outside world. This is the archetypal climate and province of Sophianic Anima Mundi/World Soul.

In archetypal psychology it is posited that at a deep level “the human psyche merges with the outer world”; archetypal psychology accords with Deep Ecology in recognising that nature is a part of ‘the Self’.

The ancient Sophianic Anima Mundi/World Soul reappears in contemporary times in the works of environmental psychologists. One environmental psychologist, Jim Swan, suggests that some places may be capable of acting as “triggers” to mystical experiences, creative and inspirational experiences.

While living in harmony with nature is not a new notion, the scientific study of human-environmental relations, especially in psychology as it applies to environmental matters is relatively recent. Mystical or transcendental experiences have their origins in the mental ‘set’ of the individual and also in the environmental setting.

Transcendent experiences of place include the feeling of a linkage with nature and/or a comprehension of being a part of everything; the ability to communicate with nature in its many forms; waking visions of mythical beings or objects; the ability to influence the weather; dreams of an unusual nature; a feeling of unusual energy in a place. The ancient Anima Mundi/World Soul is being reborn in the Postmodern Ecological Landscape era as a merging of the fields of ecology and psychology.

Fritjof Capra argues that the two fields of ecology and psychology have only recently been connected:

“The link between ecology and psychology that is established by the concept of the ecological self has recently been explored by several authors. Deep ecologist Joanna Macy writes about ‘the greening of the self,’ philosopher Warwick Fox has coined the term ‘transpersonal ecology’, and cultural historian Theodore Roszak the term ‘eco-psychology’ to express the deep connection between these two fields, which until very recently were completely separate”.

Theodore Roszak also draws attention to the psychological connection between an ecological perception of the world and behavioural ethics in ecopsychology. What is agreed is that there is a need for a new paradigm; for a holistic worldview or ecological view, which recognises that at a fundamental level we and all phenomena are interdependent.

Also arguing for a paradigm shift, Morris Berman, more than twenty-five years ago, held that “Western life seems to be drifting toward increasing entropy, economic and technological chaos, ecological disaster, and ultimately, psychic dismemberment and disintegration”. Western industrial society will likely be remembered for the power and failure of the Cartesian paradigm. Like Capra, Berman has predicted that there will be an increasing shift towards holism. Indeed “Some type of holistic, or participatory consciousness and a corresponding sociopolitical formation have to emerge if we are to survive as a  species”.

For biologist Rupert Sheldrake a ‘new form of animism’ is the organismic or holistic new paradigm which is superseding humanism: “The organismic or holistic philosophy of nature which has grown up over the last sixty years is a new form of animism. It implicitly or explicitly regards all nature as alive”.

Sheldrake argues that in its strongest form the Gaia hypothesis recognises that Gaia herself is purposeful and this raises the difficult question of what that purposive organizing principle, traditionally regarded as the soul or spirit of the Earth, is: “the soul of the Earth may best be thought of in terms of the unified field of Gaia”. For Sheldrake this is rather like the primal unified field in modern evolutionary physics.

In Sheldrake’s opinion the “old dream of a progressive humanism is fading fast … there is a shift from humanism to animism, from an intensely man-centred view to a view of a living world. We are not somehow superior to Gaia; we live within her and depend on her life”.

Charlene Spretnak describes the need for a new alternative to the modernist paradigm. She maintains that the core teachings of the “great wisdom traditions” have much to offer, with revelations of ecological communion and dynamic oneness. Spretnak goes on to add, however, that to appreciate these core spiritual insights we will have to do this independently of the institutional religions that may have grown around them. We will also need to explore possibilities across parochial boundaries. If we can cross these dividing lines and search openly and honestly, “the wisdom traditions illuminate central issues of our time”.

Deep Ecology

The new postmodern paradigm, it is generally agreed, is ecological; more specifically it is Deep Ecology. And the “essence of deep ecology, is to ask deeper questions”. In other words, deeper wisdom comes from asking deeper questions – as Capra points out:

“This is also the essence of a paradigm shift. We need to be prepared to question every single aspect of the old paradigm… So, deep ecology asks profound questions about the foundations of our modern, scientific, industrial, growth-oriented, materialistic worldview and way of life. It questions this entire paradigm from an ecological perspective: from the perspective of our relationships to one another, to future generations, and to the web of life of which we are a part”.

Sophianic Wisdom, like Deep Ecology, is about the asking of deeper questions and the perception of deeper realities. Belden C. Lane describes this deep questioning   “If there is hope for a rediscovery of the spirit, it will not be found in looking back to an innocence once lost, a simplistic return to the paradise of Eden. It will demand a reaching through and beyond the harshest criticisms levelled by the whole of the western spiritual tradition.”

While ‘Shallow Ecology’ and some other forms of environmentalism are anthropocentric or human-centred – hence viewing humans as above, or outside nature and the source of all value, with only ‘instrumental’ or ‘use’ value to nature – Deep Ecology does not separate humans or anything else from the natural environment. The world is seen as a network of phenomena interconnected and interdependent at a fundamental level. Thus Spretnak describes Anima Mundi/World Soul in postmodern ecological terms:

“Ecological postmodernism recognises not only that all beings are structurally related through our cosmological lineage, but also that all beings are internally constituted by relations with others, even at the molecular level. We are not the fixed, thoroughly self-contained entities of the modern model. At subtle levels of perception, we are ever changing and ever aware of our connectedness with other humans, the rest of nature on Earth and the whole of the universe.”

DEEP ECOLOGY has a spiritual, religious and ethical orientation which is at core identical to the archetypal Sophianic Anima Mundi/World Soul spirituality and ethics. Capra argues:

“Ultimately, deep ecology awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.”

All living things as members of ecological communities are bound in a network of interdependencies. With this realisation comes a radically new ethics. Some might call it a spiritual ethics of care.

Deep ecological awareness means care flows naturally; the protection of nature is protection of ourselves. Just as we need no morals to breath, so one needs no moral exhortation to show care. For the ecological self, behaviour follows naturally and beautifully the norms of strict environmental ethics. “What this implies is that the connection between an ecological perception of the world and corresponding behaviour is not a logical but a psychological connection”.    

As Peter Russell argues; “One is, in effect, in touch with a universal level of the self. If there is any identity at all in this state, it is of an at-one-ness with humanity and the whole of creation”.

“that tree was bathed in an eerie light
…there were eternal sounds”

FROM THE UNIVERSAL to the particular, as they say in philosophy, let us take New Zealand as a particular country in which the new ecospirituality, the Postmodern Ecological Landscape and Sophia spirituality, can be illustrated in the recent writings of a number of eminent New Zealanders.

Tohunga and theologian Maori Marsden, steeped in the lore of ancient Maori traditional ecospirituality, writes interchangeably from his Maori cultural background perspective, as well as for a postmodern multicultural New Zealand society.

“Imminent within all creation is ‘mauri’ – the life-force which generates, regenerates and upholds creation. It is the bonding element that knits all the diverse elements within the universal ‘Procession’ giving creation its unity in diversity. It is the bonding element that holds the fabric of the universe together”.

This could be a description of Anima Mundi/World Soul, not unlike the descriptions given by quantum physicists – that there are forces, like light or radio waves or consciousness, which lie beyond the material world and which at quantum levels, act as a bonding of matter and non-matter.

Postmodern Deep Ecology and Sophianic Anima Mundi/World Soul is further indicated when Marsden argues for a departure from the modern ideology of the human being as the centre of the universe, to a spirituality where the destiny of humanity and earth is bound. In an echo of Teilhard de Chardin and James Lovelock, Marsden states:

“The function of humankind as the envelope of the noosphere – conscious awareness of Papatuanuku is to advance her towards the omega point of fulfilment. This will mean a radical departure from the modern concept of man as the centre of the universe towards an awareness that man’s destiny is intimately bound up with the destiny of the earth”.

Marsden reinforces deep ecology and archetypal psychology when he states from his Maori perspective that “the universe has a spirit and life of its own – a spirit and life (wairua and mauri) imminent within creation which must be respected and supported. Man’s well-being corresponds with the well-being of earth.

In what could be a description of Sophianic Wisdom, for Marsden the highest form of spiritual tohunga, or priesthood, is a realisation or knowledge of the mauri – that life-force which impels the cosmic process towards fulfillment. This is to recognise the atuatanga divinity or god within

“Mauri as life-force is the energy within creation which impels the cosmic process onwards towards fulfillment. The processes within the physical universe and therefore ‘pro-life’ and the law of self-regeneration latent within creation will, if not interfered with, tend towards healing and harmonising the eco-systems and biological functions within Mother Earth. From the Maori point of view that… transition and transformation will result in the perfect comprehension of the higher spiritual laws ever sought by the ancient seers (tohunga) to enable mankind to flow in union with the universal process and thereby become fully creative. This is man’s transition from the purely human into atuatanga (divinity whose manifestation has already become evident in the lives of the saints and seers of various peoples and religions. This atuatanga will mean the perfect blend and union of mind and spirit in which the gift of matakite (enlightenment) will allow man to exercise mana (authority, power) responsibility in perfect wisdom and freedom. Thus, will he creatively lift up and transform creation itself”

Ranganui Walker – academic historian, writer, radical, and urbane political and social observer – also gives a description of spirituality which fits very much with postmodern deep ecology, individuation and Sophianic Wisdom. When asked “What is your spiritual belief?” Walker answered simply:

“I suppose the nearest would be animism or naturalism, which are denigrated by anthropologists. I feel a close presence to something greater than me when I am with nature. When I am in a forest I feel I am in the temple of Tane. For instance, one evening we went to see Tane-mahuta in the Waipoua forest. It was dark enough for owls to be flying around and yet that tree was bathed in an eerie light. I knew I was in a superior presence to myself, there were eternal sounds. It’s not agnosticism, not a denial of God”


1 Maori Marsden, ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources: Maori Value Systems and Perspectives’, in: Resource Management Law Reform Core Group Working Paper, Part A, No.29, (Wellington: Ministry for the Environment, July 1989), 21.

2 See D.R. Simmons, Iconography of New Zealand Maori Religion (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1986); Elsdon Best, Maori Religion and Mythology, Part 1 (New Zealand: Dominion Museum Bulletin 10.\ (1924): 33); R. Taylor, Te Ika a Maui.New Zealand and its Inhabitants (London: Wertheim & McIntosh, 1855).

3 Marsden (1989) ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources ‘, 22.

4 Sandra Lee, ’Cherishing Papatuanuku’ – Interview with Powhiri Rika-Heke in: Nga Kaitiaki, no.21, August/September (1989).

5 John Patterson, Exploring Maori Values ( New Zealand: Dunmore Press Ltd., 1992), 157.

6 Ibid, 158.

7 Ibid, 48.

8 Marsden(1989) ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources: Maori Value Systems and Perspectives’, 22.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid, 20.

11 Ibid, 21.

12 Sheldrake(1990) The Rebirth of Nature, 9.

13 Te Maire Tau, Nga Pikituroa o Ngai Tahu – The Oral Traditions of Ngai Tahu (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2003), 86.

14 Ibid, 299.

15 ‘Maori Values and Environmental Management’, (New Zealand: Natural Resources Unit, Manata Maori, 1991), 2.

16 Ibid.

17 Elsdon Best, Some Aspects of Maori Myth and Religion (Wellington: Dominion Museum Monograph No.1. Government Printer, Wellington, 1954), 13-14.

18 Ibid, 14. (transl. “A Mother’s love of her infant clinging to her bosom”.)

19 Alfonso Ortiz, ‘Why Nature Hates the White Man’, Omni, March (1990), 77.

20 Peter Bishop, The Myth of Shangri-La – Tibet, Travel Writing and the Western Creation of Sacred Landscape (University of California Press, 1989), 251.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Donald Broadribb, The Mystical Chorus – Jung and the Religious Dimension (Australia: Millennium Books, 1995), 247-248.

24 Jim Swan, ‘Sacred Places and Transcendental Experiences’, Theta: Journal of the Society for Psychic Research, Spring (1983), 67-68.

25 Ibid, 67-68.

26 Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life – A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter (London: Harper Collins, 1996), 12.

27 Theodore Roszak, The Voice of the Earth (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), 320-321.

28 Macy (1991) World as Lover, World as Self, 12.

29 Morris Berman, The Reenchantment of the World (United Kingdom: Cornell University Press, 1981), 15.

30 Ibid, 23.

31 Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature – The Greening of Science and God (London: Random Century, 1990), 125.

32 Ibid, 131.

33 Ibid, 174.

34 Spretnak (1991) States of Grace, 23.

35 Capra (1996) The Web of Life, 7.

36 Ibid, 7-8.

37 Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred – Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality (New York/Mahwah: PaulistPress, 1988), 191.

38 Capra (1996) The Web of Life, 7.

39 Spretnak (1991) States of Grace, 20.

40 Capra (1996) The Web of Life, 7.

41 Ibid, 11.

42 Ibid, 12.

43 Peter Russell, The Global Brain – Speculations on the Evolutionary Leap to Planetary Consciousness (Los Angeles: J.P.Tarcher, 1983), 136.

44 Maori Marsden, ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources: Maori Value Systems and Perspectives’, in: Resource Management Law Reform Core Group. Working Party, No.29. Part A. (Wellington: Ministry for the Environment, July 1989).

45 Ibid, 23.

46 Ibid, 28.

47 Ibid, 26.

48 Ranganui Walker, Nga Tau Tohetohe: Years of Anger (Auckland: Penguin books, 1987), 78.

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