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.