A ‘Nonsense Concept’

WHILE MANY WESTERN THEOLOGIANS during the twentieth century had become uncomfortable with the concept of spirit and spirituality, Western theology was itself under increasing philosophical attack and siege. Spirituality, metaphysics and theology became ‘nonsense concepts’ with the advent of logical positivism, the philosophical school based on linguistic analysis in the 1920s and 1930s. Logical positivism rejected metaphysical speculation and held that the only meaningful statements are those that are analytic or can be tested empirically. Based on linguistic analysis (to clarify the meanings of statements and questions) and on demands for criteria and procedures of empirical verification (for establishing at least in-principle truth or falsity of statements, by observation or experiment), logical positivism was essentially a systematic attack on metaphysics by demanding observations for conferring meaning. Metaphysics was rejected as nonsense.

In the modern world of the twentieth century it often seemed that ‘spirituality’ was on very tenuous ground as regards meaning. Evans (1993) has argued that the skeptical contemporary world-view regarding spirituality is to some extent in all of us: “It is part of the largely unconscious mind-set of our culture”.[i]

‘Secular’ Postmodern Spirituality

HOWEVER, UNEXPECTEDLY spirituality has returned in a ‘secular’ postmodern age. While ‘spirituality’ cannot be proved as such, the concepts of ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ have not been disproved, nor have they been successfully rendered nonsense concepts.

In the postmodern era, the positivists and the sceptics brandishing scientism, have themselves come in for criticism. The Enlightenment model and modernist science with its off-shoot, technology, has been discredited as contributing to the degradation of the environment and threatening the planet. There is a new scepticism which questions whether scientism and its philosophical axioms are the best epistemological route forward, let alone the planet’s saviour. The public is increasingly turning against a purist science and technology without debate on values, for example unease over biogenetic engineering. In the late twentieth and the early twenty-first century, positivism and scientism have been found wanting by many.

One can not live by positivism and scientism – at best they are tools for clarifying meaning, but are not the meaning itself. Spirituality, it would seem, has escaped and we are still searching for meaning. New Zealand botanist and ecologist, Philip Simpson illustrates this with James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which he argues:

“…provides an ethical or spiritual dimension to human life that is ecocentric rather than egocentric. Some see the living Earth concept in mystical terms. There is no doubt that a competitive model of Earth is damaging to our relationship to nature, and science is strangely lacking in providing meaning.”[ii]

Spiritual reality is being recognised, despite a lack of proof; while science is found to be lacking in meaning, even by some scientists. However the question of what ‘spirituality’ is, or how one defines it, remains.

One thing is certain however, ‘spirituality’ has become secularised. Jon Alexander maintains that the trend to use the word spirituality in an experiential and generic sense appeals to our irenic age but it also presents some theological difficulties: “Today we encounter the word spirituality so frequently in our reading and conversation that it is surprising to learn that its use is a recent phenomenon.”[iii]

John Elias argues that the 1960s began with the announcement that God was dead and it seemed that the United States had finally become a secular society – but by the 1970s some scholars were already talking about the return of the sacred and others were maintaining that the sacred had never left, except among certain social scientists. Elias maintains certain words are now heard that had virtually passed from usage, even in religious circles:

“While the word religious remained in use, the words spiritual and spirituality were rarely uttered during the decades when the focus was on the secularization of society and its institutions. Today these words are used without apology in both religious and non-religious circles. Social scientists use the term spiritual or sacred as a category to explain understandings of selfhood and human striving. Religionists use the words to highlight the highly personal elements of one’s religious life.”[iv]

Whereas in earlier centuries spirituality had been equated with religion, now as Walter Principe points out, there were many aspects of religion which were less related to the spiritual ideal and some which were even opposed to it.[v] Van Ness argues that while Nietzsche was perhaps the most explicit in charting an irreligious spiritual path, spirituality born of radical scepticism is also found in the naturalistic and nondogmatic views of some Oriental sages.

A SPIRITUAL LIFE in a “world come of age” was notably also the argument of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian executed by the Nazis for his part in a conspiracy to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer was very impressed by his non-religious co-conspirators who were also executed and while he “characteristically identified spiritual life in theological terms, as life shaped by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, his last writings place an emphasis on wholeness and vitality”, which are the “hallmarks of a more general rendering of the spiritual dimension of human existence.”[vi]

Van Ness states that in Bonhoeffer’s last writings “The positive evaluation of the secular world begun in the Ethics was even more firmly stated in the idiom of “the world come of age”. Bonhoeffer argued that “God is increasingly being pushed out of a world that has come of age, out of the spheres of our knowledge and life, and that since Kant he has been relegated to a realm beyond the world of experience.” [vii]

If God was increasingly being pushed out of a world come of age as Bonhoeffer argued – Bonhoeffer’s relation to the philosophy of Nietzsche is complex. However in his prison theological deliberations he seemed to move beyond Barth’s dialectical appreciation of Nietzsche to a “closer embrace of a religionless or secular spirituality such as was championed by the author of Thus Spake Zarathustra”.[viii] Van Ness states that from “Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard and Barth also, Bonhoeffer learned that religion, including the Christian religion, was part of what an authentically spiritual life must criticize and move beyond.”[ix]

Given the many compromises of historical Christianity, some measure of worldliness and freedom to criticise was indispensable to a profound spiritual life. Both Nietzsche and Bonhoeffer opposed tyranny in both its secular and religious forms and both recognised the importance of spiritual discipline – for Nietzsche it was solitude and for Bonhoeffer it was silence. Both have a simplicity which confounds them being classified as specifically religious or irreligious.[x] Thus, the authentic spiritual life had to move beyond the dogma of monotheistic and often fundamentalist patriarchal religions in the West.

Spiritual Revolutionaries

THE FEMINIST REVOLUTION in the latter half of the twentieth century has embraced the new wave of secular spirituality. This has involved a challenge to, and a rebellion against, traditional patriarchal religions and of necessity a re-definition of what is essential in religion for women – a reconsideration of spirituality.

The roll-call perhaps begins with the coolly observant French academic and writer Simone de Beauvoir who, although not professing to be a feminist at the time of writing The Second Sex in the 1940s, has had a pioneering role in the challenge by feminist philosophy to the prevailing patriarchal ideologies of the twentieth century[xi]. Then there was Merlin Stone who examined and dissected the archaeological evidence for the Goddess and the patriarchal Judeo-Christian cultures’ suppression of women and their matriarchal religions[xii]. Stone was closely followed by Naomi Goldenberg, a psychologist of religion and feminist theologian who maintained that “When feminists succeed in changing the position of women in Christianity and Judaism, they will shake these religions at their roots.” [xiii]

American academic Mary Daly is perhaps the most damning, challenging, radical and creative of the recent feminist theologians and philosophers. A former nun and a Professor of Theology at Boston College, her critique of the detrimental effects of patriarchal religion is chilling[xiv]. More recently Muslim feminists, for example Irshad Manji (2003), have risked their lives by taking on fundamentalist patriarchal Islam.[xv]

Feminist philosophers and theologians have confronted the authority of the dominant patriarchal monotheistic Western religious traditions and establishments head-on. They have realised that women’s spirituality and dignity have been plundered and defiled along with the natural world. Based on this they have searched out and created alternatives. For example, the association of postmodern theology with process theology, the ecological movement and the feminization of the divine, is pivotal in the work of ecofeminist theologian Carol P. Christ[xvi] Postmodernist arguments are frequently used by feminists. For example, Ellen Leonard argues that no theology can claim universality and all theologies are political:

“Traditional Western theology is now seen as determined by dominant world powers and groups. The critique of this theology comes from the “new theologies” which argue that Western theology is culture-bound, church-centred, male-dominated, age-dominated, procapitalist, anticommunist, nonrevolutionary and overly theoretical.”[xvii]

These feminist revolutionaries reject dualistic and hierarchical thinking which devalues women, body and nature.[xviii] They demand a re-visioning of the divine and a new theology in the light of contemporary experience – especially woman’s experience.

For religious archetypes, icons and myths, feminists have harkened back to a pre-patriarchial era when the Goddess or Goddesses and polytheistic Gods were worshipped.[xix] Feminist theologians have gone inwards into the imagination to focus on the symbolic meaning of the Goddess, Goddesses and other Gods, allowing them to explore new patterns of spirituality.[xx]

Like their foremothers of the matriarchial ‘pagan’ religions, feminist theologians have turned to Mother Earth and tried to formulate a spiritual search which is nature and earth-centred. Ecofeminists are at the forefront of the ecology and ecospirituality movements. They have challenged traditional philosophy and theology by advocating a holistic understanding and epistemology with recognition of the spiritual interconnectedness of all of creation and co-responsibility for our world.[xxi] Ecofeminists have combined a critique of the destructiveness of patriarchal attitudes to nature and women, with an affirmation of a spiritual search which is nature-earth centred rather than anthropocentric. Ecotheologian and Catholic Priest, Thomas Berry argues that:

“The greatest support for the feminist, anti-patriarchal movement can be found in the ecological movement…What has become progressively clear is the association of the feminine issue with the ecological issue.”[xxii]

Ariel Salleh maintains that:

“Ecofeminism confronts not only social institutions and practices, but the language and logics by which Western patriarchy constructs its relation to nature. In doing so, it has already travelled a long way down the very same road that deep ecological opponents of anthropocentricism are looking for.”[xxiii]

[i] Donald Evans (1993) Spirituality and Human Nature, 102.

[ii] Philip Simpson interview, ‘Exploring the Gaia Hypothesis’ in Nga Kaitiaki, no. 21. August/ September (1989), 10.

[iii] Jon Alexander (1980) ‘What Do Recent Writers Mean by Spirituality?’, 247.

[iv] John L. Elias (1991) ‘The Return of Spirituality: Contrasting Interpretations’, 457.

[v] Cf. Walter Principe (1983) ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’, 139.

[vi] Peter H. Van Ness (1991) ‘Bonhoeffer, Nietzsche and Secular Spirituality’, 331.

[vii] See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Reginald Fuller et al, ed. Eberhard Bethge, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan Company, 1972), 341. Note: Nevertheless,“God is the beyond in the midst of our life”, 282.

[viii] Ibid, 337.

[ix] Ibid, 338.

[x] Ibid, 339.

[xi] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: New English Library, 1970), 352.

[xii] Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (New York: Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).

[xiii] See Changing of the Gods – Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions (Boston:Beacon Press, 1979), 5.

[xiv] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father –Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973); Gyn/Ecology – The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978); Pure Lust – Elemental Feminist Philosophy (London: The Women’s Press, 1984).

[xv] Irshad Manji, The Trouble With Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (Canada: Random House, 2003).

[xvi] Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-imagining the Divine in the World (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003 ).

[xvii] Ellen Leonard, ‘Experience as a source for theology: A Canadian and feminist perspective’, Studies in Religion v.19, no.2 (1990), 146.

[xviii] See Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women, New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975) and ‘Ecology and Human Liberation: A Conflict between the Theology of History and the Theology of Nature?’ in To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 57-70. See also Marsha Hewitt, ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, Studies in Religion v.20, no.3 (1991), 271.

[xix] See Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (1976); William G. Dever, ‘Women’s popular religion, suppressed in the Bible, now revealed by archaeology’, Biblical Archaeology Review, v.17, no.2 ( 1991), 64-65; Marija Gimbutas, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974); – Myths, Legends and Cult Images (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); Charlene Spretnak, ed., The Politics of Women’s Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power Within the Feminist Movement (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1982).

[xx] Marsha Hewitt (1991) ‘Women, Nature and Power; Emancipatory Themes in Critical Theory and Feminist Theology’, 157.

[xxi] See Sally Mcfague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987); Rosemary Radford Ruether, New Women , New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975); Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper & Row, 1978); Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); Charlene Spretnak, The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics (Santa Fe: N.M. Bear & Co, 1986); Carol P. Christ, She Who Changes – Re-Imagining the Divine in the World (2003).

[xxii] See Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988) ,160-161.

[xxiii] Ariel Salleh, ‘The Ecofeminism/Deep Ecology Debate: A Reply to Patriarchal Reason’, Environmental Ethics v.14, no.3 (1992), 215.

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”.[i]

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”.[ii] In Maori mythology the elemental gods of the natural world are children of Mother Earth and stay close to their nursing Mother.[iii] 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.[iv] 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.”[v]

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.[vi] 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”.[vii] 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”.[viii] 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”.[ix]

Anthony Stevens, on the Mother Archetype, notes that:

“It is necessary to repeat that when Jungians speak of a mother archetype, they are not referring to an innate image but to an inner dynamic in the phylogenetic psyche. The ‘artefacts’ of this dynamic – its symbolic residues – are to be found in the myths and artistic creations of mankind. The ‘symbolic canon’ of the mother archetype is very extensive… However some expressions are so universally encountered that they can be mentioned here: as Mother Nature and Earth Mother she is goddess of fertility and dispenser of nourishment; as water or sea she represents the origins of all life as well as a symbol of the unconscious, the fount of all psychic creativity; as Moon Goddess she exemplifies the essential periodicity of womanhood. She also takes the form of divine animals: the bear (jealous guardian of her children), the celestial cow, who nourishes the earth with milky rain.”[x]

Jung speaks of the qualities associated with the Mother Archetype as “maternal solicitude and sympathy…all that is benign, all that cherishes and sustains, that fosters growth and fertility”.[xi] The nurturing Mother Earth Archetype, while a component of the inner psyche, also extends to the outer world and is found in symbols:

“The archetype is often associated with things and places standing for fertility and fruitfulness: the cornucopia, a ploughed field, a garden. It can be attached to a rock, a cave, a tree, a spring, a deep well, or to various vessels such as the baptismal font, or to vessel-shaped flowers like the rose or the lotus. Because of the protection it implies, the magic circle or mandala can be a form of mother archetype.”[xii]

The nurturing Mother Earth Archetype, while associated with particular cultures, is to be found in all cultures and mythologies.

Erich Neumann points out that Mother Goddess cultures and their mythologies are intrinsically connected with fertility, growth and agriculture in particular – hence with the sphere of food, the material and bodily sphere.[xiii] As the good mother:

“she is fullness and abundance; the dispenser of life and happiness; the nutrient earth, the cornucopia of the fruitful womb. She is mankind’s instinctive experience of the world’s depth and beauty, of the goodness and graciousness of Mother Nature who daily fulfills the promise of redemption and resurrection, of new life and new birth.”[xiv]

Rupert Sheldrake, biochemist, argues there “is something to be found ‘in nature’ which many of us feel we need… Nature is calm, kindly and nurturing, like an ideal wife”.[xv]

“Nature was traditionally idealized as benevolent Mother in images of the Golden Age. All was peaceful and fertile; nature gave freely of her bounty; animals grazed contentedly; birds sang pure melodies; flowers were everywhere, and trees bore fruit abundantly. Men and women lived in harmony.”[xvi]

In old Europe with the development of agriculture Mother Earth gave way to a more restricted notion of the Great Goddess of vegetation and harvesting. For example, in Greece Gaia was replaced by Demeter – but women were still closely associated with agriculture and soil fertility. Of course, metaphors connecting women with the ploughed earth and fertility exist all over the world. For example, in an ancient Hindu text it is written: “This woman is come as a living soil: sow seed in her, ye men!” and in the Koran: “your wives are to you as field”.[xvii] As Sheldrake points out, the “same metaphor is implicit in our word semen, the Latin word for seed”.[xviii] The Mother Earth Archetype invites feelings of a return to the protection of the maternal nourishing womb.

[i] Sandra Lee, ’Cherishing Papatuanuku’ – Interview with Powhiri Rika-Heke in: Nga Kaitiaki, no.21, August/September (1989), 9.

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

[iii] Ibid, 158.

[iv] Ibid, 48.

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

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid, 20.

[viii] Ibid, 21.

[ix] Sheldrake(1990) The Rebirth of Nature, 9.

[x] Anthony Stevens, Archetype – A Natural History of the Self (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982), 89.

[xi] C.G. Jung, ‘Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype’, The Collected Works, vol.9, Part 1, para.158 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1959), 82. See also C.G. Jung, Four Archetypes, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1972), 15.

[xii] Ibid, para. 156, 81.

[xiii] Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series XLII, 1973), 43.

[xiv] Ibid, 40.

[xv] Sheldrake (1990) The Rebirth of Nature, 9.

[xvi] Ibid, 8.

[xvii] Ibid, 13.

[xviii] Ibid, 8.

Sophia Geography

Sophia rules the eighth clime, the archetypal world of images, the world in which the forms of our thoughts and desires, of our presentiments and of our behavior and all works accomplished on earth subsist.

– C.G. Jung

[U]ltimately what we call physics and physical is but a reflection of the world of the Soul; there is no pure physics, but always the physics of some definite psychic activity.

The earth is then a vision, and geography a visionary geography… the categories of the sacredness “which possesses the soul” can be recognised in the landscape with which it surrounds itself and in which it shapes its habitat, whether by projecting the vision on an ideal iconography, or by attempting to inscribe and reproduce a model of the vision on the actual earthly ground.

– Henry Corbin

A Hymn to Sophia

IN THIS CHAPTER I explore, however tentatively and inadequately, the Sophianic inner landscape – the Imaginal, the Mundus Imaginalis, Sophianic harmonic perception or Ta’wil, and the Sophianic visionary geography of the soul.[i] In the Postmodern Ecological Landscape and under the Sophia Wisdom Archetype we become more aware of the imagination in creating landscape. The inner landscape becomes as important as the outer landscape. As Lopez observes,

“to inquire into the intricacies of a distant landscape … is to provoke thoughts about one’s own interior landscape, and the familiar landscapes of memory. The land urges us to come around to an understanding of ourselves”.[ii]

Lynn Ross-Bryant argues that

“For Lopez the landscape we imagine is also that other that exists beyond and outside of human language and that shapes human language and experience…” [iii]

Postmodern ecological writers indicate, often implicitly rather than explicitly, that there is a vital interaction between inner landscapes, imagination and outer landscapes.

In many cases it is the outer landscape which stimulates our imagination and creates the realisation of a deeper inner wisdom and inner Being. In other cases, it would seem that it is the inner landscapes of the psyche, from which the imagination springs that creates the outer landscapes of our Being-in-the-world.

 


[i] Note: It is impossible here to do justice to the concepts of the Imaginal, Mundus Imaginalis and Ta’wil as is evidenced by the complexity and life-time’s work on translations and interpretation by Henry Corbin. At most, it is possible here only to give a very superficial indication and generalised view of some of the main themes, without differentiating them and sourcing them in detail to their particular mystical strands and esoteric historical originations.

[ii] Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams – Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape (London: The Harville Press, 1998), 247.

[iii] Lynn Ross-Bryant, ‘Of Nature and Texts: Nature and Religion in American Ecological Literature’, Anglican Theological Review, v.73, no.1 (1991), 40.

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”.[i]

Papatuanuku is an organic Mother, like the Earth Mother of Old Europe.[ii]

“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”.[iii]

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.

Up until seventeenth century Europe the root metaphor binding self, society and the cosmos was that of organism and the idea of nature as a living organism and a nurturing Mother. This had philosophical antecedents in ancient systems of thought. Indeed, “Central to the organic theory was the identification of nature, especially the earth, with a nurturing mother: a kindly beneficient female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe”.[iv]

For the Roman Stoics from the third century BCE to the first century CE, the world was an intelligent organism and God and Mother were synonymous.

In a theory which is strikingly similar to Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis – which showed that the Earth, its rocks, oceans, and atmosphere, and all living things are part of one great organism evolving over the vast span of geological time – the Roman Stoic, Lucias Seneca (4B CE – 65 CE) argued that the earth’s breath nourished both plant life and the heavens.[v] Analogies were drawn between the human body and the body of Mother Earth.[vi]

For old primal religions, the Mother Earth Archetype remains the supreme underlying holistic force within their landscape. Harold Turner argues that there is “a profound sense in many primal societies that man is akin to nature, a child of Mother Earth and brother to the plants and animals which have their own spiritual existence and place in the universe”.[vii]

That the Earth is a living, conscious being that must be treated with respect and loving care, is also a very central belief to Native American cultures where the “Earth may be referred to as Mother, or Grandmother, and these are quite literal terms, for the Earth is the source, the mother of all living beings, including human beings”.[viii]

Black Elk, a Lakota, asked: “Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother and are not all living things with feet and wings or roots their children?”[ix] Black Elk spoke resentfully of white pressures on the Sioux to sell their land: “only crazy or very foolish men would sell their Mother Earth”.[x]

By the 1960s the Native American had became a symbol in the ecology movement’s search for alternatives to Western exploitative attitudes:

“The Indian animistic belief-system and reverence for the earth as mother were contrasted with the Judeo-Christian heritage of dominion over nature with capitalistic practices resulting in the “tragedy of the commons” (exploitation of resources available for any person’s or nation’s use)”.[xi]

The relevance of the Mother Earth Archetype today can be seen in the modern ecology movement, Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, and the ecofeminist movement which has reasserted the association between women and nature.

David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson argue that modern ecology is a continuation of the age old human quest for a deeper understanding of the relationships which mysteriously and invisibly connect living things to each other and the earth: “Today’s infant science of nature’s patterns and relations has scarcely begun to unveil the tangles of bonds that exist between the species, forces, and materials of the natural world”.[xii] However, what is being increasingly revealed is a central biological truth, that the “earth’s fragile, enveloping film of life and life-supporting air, water, and soil is a single ecological whole or biosphere”.[xiii]

Biochemist Rupert Sheldrake concludes that despite the fact that in the last few centuries an educated minority in the West has believed the scientific mechanistic myth that the Earth is dead, throughout history practically all humanity has believed it to be alive.[xiv] While most scientists use the vernacular of their profession and tend to view the earth’s “exquisite self-regulating tendencies as merely a manifestation of the system’s many machinelike feedback mechanisms, referred to collectively as homeostasis”[xv] other scientists have viewed it increasingly in a more poetic light.

Former NASA scientist and formulator of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock, openly expresses his awe and reverence in like fashion to Native elders the world over, who continue to address the same earth – or any of the transcendent or spiritual dimensions they perceive with it – with undisguised love, respect and awe. For many primal peoples the earth is their living, nurturing, reciprocally affectionate Mother Earth. Lovelock has christened this “wonderous lifelike biosphere system Gaia, this total planetary being, in honour of the earth goddess of Greek myth”:[xvi]

“The idea that the Earth is alive is at the outer bounds of scientific credibility. I started to think and then write about it in my early fifties… My contemporary and fellow villager, the novelist William Golding, suggested that anything alive deserves a name – what better for a living Planet than Gaia, the name the Greeks used for the Earth Goddess?”[xvii]

Ecofeminism is a driving spiritual and philosophical force behind the ideology of the ecology movement. Indeed, Carolyn Merchant argues that “Women and nature have an age-old association – an affiliation that has persisted throughout culture, language, and history”:[xviii]

“The ancient identity of nature as a nurturing mother links women’s history with the history of the environment and ecological change. The female earth was central to the organic cosmology that was undermined by the Scientific Revolution and the rise of a market-orientated Europe. The ecology movement has reawakened interest in the values and concepts associated historically with the premodern organic world.”[xix]

Mother Earth is a timeless archetype which continues to move modern technologically sophisticated man , albeit unexpectedly.

The Bulgarian cosmonaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov, awed by the vision of Earth from the perspective of outer space, described his feelings this way:

“And then it struck me that we are all children of our Earth. It does not matter what country you look at. We are all Earth’s children, and we should treat her as our Mother”.[xx]

[i] 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.

[ii] 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).

[iii] Marsden (1989) ‘The Natural World and Natural Resources ‘, 22.

[iv] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature – Woman, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), 2.

[v] Ibid, 23-24.

[vi] Ibid, 25-26.

[vii] Harold Turner, ‘The Primal Religions of the World and their Study’, in: Victor Hayes (ed.), Australian Essays in World Religions (The Australian Assn. for the Study of Religions, 1977), 30.

[viii] Annie L. Booth and Harvey M. Jacobs, ‘Ties that Bind: Native American Beliefs as a Foundation for Environmental Consciousness’, Environmental Ethics, vol. 12, no.1 (1990), 32.

[ix] John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (New York: Pocket Books, 1975), 6.

[x] Ibid, 113.

[xi] Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature, 28.

[xii] David Suzuki and Peter Knudtson, Wisdom of the Elders – Honoring Sacred Native Visions of Nature (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 53.

[xiii] Ibid, 53.

[xiv] Sheldrake(1990) The Rebirth of Nature, 123.

[xv] Ibid, 55.

[xvi] Ibid, 56.

[xvii] James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia – A Biography Of Our Living Earth (Oxford University Press, 1989), 3.

[xviii] Merchant, ibid, xv.

[xix] Ibid, xvi.

[xx] K.W. Kelly,(ed.), The Home Planet (Reading, Mass.: Addison- Wesley, 1988), 109.

Mother Earth

“Mother Earth is as universal a symbol as our race possesses, at home even in those societies that have moved on to more civilized ways.”

– Theodore Roszak

Our Global Eternal Mother

IN OLD EUROPEAN-BASED SOCIETIES the Mother Earth Archetype was found in pre-Hellenic Greece, influenced by Crete, ancient Anatolia and the Near East. She was part of the Celtic tradition which extended in a broad sweep from Northern Ireland to Central Europe; Northern Italy and as far east as Central Anatolia, the Galaticia highlands of Turkey; and south to the Iberian Peninsula – Spain , northwest Galicia, and Portugal. Mother Earth worship persisted up to 500 CE in Europe and persists today in primal indigenous peoples who choose to remain in their own traditions:

“[T]he Primal Ancestress, the Old One or mother figure of the Paleolithic Age (25,000–15,000 BCE) which by the Neolithic Age (8,000–3,000 BCE) became identified as Mother Earth, the creative power of the universe. Being born of Mother Earth, everything that existed was perceived as partaking of her spirit and there developed a relationship of kinship between human beings and all of creation – vegetation, animals, the elements, and other plants. This holistic approach to life is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia spreading throughout the Near and Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. The creation stories of Native Americans throughout the continent make it clear that this relationship was universal.”[i]

Recently feminists, ecologists and postmodern Neopagans have also taken up Earth worship. The Mother Earth image is again in fashion; but the roots of archetypes are always deeper than fashion – indeed the“very words for nature in European languages are feminine”. For example:

“phusis in Greek, natura in Latin, la nature in French, die Natur in German. The Latin word natura literally meant ‘birth’. The Greek word phusis came from the root phu – whose primary meaning was also connected with birth. Thus our words ‘physics’ and ‘physical’, like ‘nature’ and ‘natural’, have their origins in the mothering process.”[ii]

In the mythologies of antiquity Mother Earth was an aspect of the Great Mother Goddess. The Great Mother was frequently the source of the universe, its laws, the ruler of fate, time, eternity, truth, wisdom, justice, love, birth and death:

“She was Mother Earth, Gaia, and also the goddess of the heavens, the mother of the sun, the moon and of all heavenly bodies – like Nut, the Egyptian sky-goddess; or Astarte, the goddess of heaven, queen of the stars. She was Natura, the goddess of Nature. She was the world soul of Platonic cosmology; and she had many other names and images as the mother and matrix and sustaining force of all things.”[iii]


[i] Andree Collard and Joyce Contrucci, Rape of the Wild – Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth (Indiana University Press, 1989), 8.

[ii] Rupert Sheldrake, The Rebirth of Nature – The Greening of Science and God (London: Random Century, 1990), 4.

[iii] Ibid.