Goddess of the Earth: Gaia

Gaia/Terra, Mother Earth

According to the Greeks, Gaia was the first deity to come into existence and created the conditions that allow human life. She is seen as a mother figure and a force to be reckoned with. Gaia is her own source of life; she even independently creates her own mate. Her importance is evident because she is the base of everything; she forms the physical features of the world and influences the order in which it is ruled. Terra or Tellus is Gaia’s Roman counterpart. In addition to the evidence of archaic Greek poetry, the artwork of Gaia and Terra from Greek red-figure pottery and Roman marble reliefs reveals how the people from these periods saw Gaia: as a central, motherly, and abundant being.

Hesiod’s Theogony is a poem that tells the origin story of the forces of nature and the personification of gods. Hesiod composed the poem around 700 BC to tell the story of the succession of the gods. It begins with Gaia, the goddess of the Earth, coming into being from nothing. Hesiod’s Theogony paints the earth goddess Gaia as a powerful creator and a central being in shaping the cosmos. Gaia’s role in the episodes of the succession myth reveals her duality in her decisions and actions. Gaia’s ability to reproduce asexually is a powerful capability of the female goddess in the Theogony. Still, it is also one of the critical differences between female and male gods and goddesses.

Figure 1 Mythological Scene Dosso Dossi (Giovanni di Niccolò de Lutero)
(Italian (Ferrarese), about 1490 – 1542)


In Hesiod’s Theogony, the Earth goddess Gaia plays an essential role in creating both the gods and the conditions that allow human life—putting her as a center point of the physical world and a central figure in the succession myth itself. The poem begins when Gaia or Earth becomes a foremost being in the development of the cosmos. According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Earth was the second entity to come into existence. First was Chaos, a formless matter that preceded the presence of the universe. Tatorus follows Gaia (The underworld) and then comes Eros (Desire). Gaia then asexually produces one equal to herself called Ouranos or The Sky. Along with Ouranos, she asexually has the Mountains (Ourea) and the Sea (Pontos). The Sky, the Mountains, and the Sea all form essential physical elements of the Earth as we know it. Together, Gaia and Ouranos will produce many more offspring, including the Titans, the Cyclopes, and the Hundred Handers.

As Hesiod’s Theogony goes on, Ouranos begins resents his children he had with Gaia and fears that they will one day become more powerful than himself, so he traps them in a cavern of the Earth where they are concealed from the light. This cavern of the Earth is Gaia’s womb which Ouranos traps their children inside. This both angers and pains Gaia and she immediately seeks revenge and gets to making a plan to get back at Ourano and free her children. Gaia devises a plan to ambush Ouranos and mutilate his reproductive organs with a sickle tool. She asks their children which one of them would be willing to castrate their father’s genitals, Kronos is described as a “crooked-schemer” agrees to the vicious task. Armed with a sharp-toothed sickle fashioned by Gaia, Kronos ambushes his father when Ouranos longs for Gaia’s love and stretches over her. Kronos mutilates Ouranos’s genitals, pleasing his mother.

While it can be easy to view the Earth goddess as a nurturing and motherly figure, she also takes part in her fair share of deceiving and vengeful actions. Throughout the Theogony, Gaia plays a prominent role in many of the conflicts between her offspring and herself. It is undeniable that Gaia displays duality in her decisions and actions, and this can also be seen in the aftermath of many of her actions. For example, when Ouranos trapped Gaia’s children inside her womb, Gaia devised a plan to take on Ouranos by castrating him. While Gaia’s actions are violent and harsh, in contrast to her previous introduction as a seemingly positive creator. The outcome of this conflict leaves Gaia as the successor and shows that she is capable of vengeful and even emasculating actions towards those who spite her, even her offspring.

Figure 2 Allegory of Air; Kronus, nude, standing with back toward viewer, holding scythe, emasculating Uranus; behind them, armillary sphere with ball inside; above, gigantic jeweled crown, toward which two semi-nude, kneeling women are raising hands. Painting (fresco). ca. 1556-59.

The Worship of Gaia/Terra in both Greece and Rome

In Greek cult, Gaia was worshipped alongside Demeter. It appears that Gaia did not have a cult solely dedicated to herself like other deities and was celebrated in more of a general way. However, Gaia did have temples across Greece including The Temple of Ge Eurusternos in Achaia, the Sanctuary of Ge Gasepton in Sparta, and a Sanctuary of Ge Kourotrophe at Athens. Along with these temples dedicated to Gaia she also was represented in many alters in the sanctuaries of other gods. Her statues were often found at the temples of Demeter and in other important places such as the Acropolis in Athens.

Terra, Gaia’s Roman counterpart was worshiped more evidently throughout Ancient Rome. Terra was one of the twenty priceable gods of Rome. There is more evidence of Terra’s role in the Roman cult as she was involved with many rituals and festivals as-well as having temples dedicated to her. The Temple of Tellus sat on Esquiline Hill in Carinae and dated to about 268 BCE.

Figure 3 Temple of Tellus located in Dougga, Tunisia. Built during the Flavian period- last quarter of the 1st century AD. The sanctuary was rebuilt in 261 AD.

In the Roman religious calendar, Fordicidia and Sementivae were both festivals that honored Terra. Fordicidia was on April 15th and brought about fertility. During Fordicidia, a pregnant cow was sacrificed to Terra. Sementivae was a festival of sowing that occurred in January. Terra was often involved with rituals including when a child was born they would be placed on the ground immediately to connect with the Mother Earth, she was also involved with the ritual of Roman weddings. Both birth and marriage were something that most Roman citizens would experience, Terra’s involvement suggests her importance and relevance.

This inscription records a vow to Terra Mater (Earth Mother) made by Aurelia Flavia Iuliana. 1st century CE (Roman Imperial)

Gaia was respected and seen as fruitful, fertile, and the personification of Earth herself. She was also seen as powerful, and mortal people often saw earthquakes and other natural occurrences as Gaia expressing her force and limitless power. In fact, the Temple of Tellus on the Esquiline Hill was constructed by Publius Sempronius Sophus after an earthquake that had struck in 268 BCE.

The Power of Gaia’s Femininity

When Gaia reproduces asexually, the beings that she creates are designed to what she sees fit and needed (mountains, ocean, heaven); these entities shape existence and the physical world and are a direct extension of Earth. However, when Gaia reproduces sexually or with a partner, the entities sometimes undermine her, and she cannot control their behavior, for example, Cronos, Ouranos, and Zeus. Asexual reproduction or parthenogenesis is a powerful and threatening capability of the female goddesses in Hesiod’s Theogony, but it is also a critical difference between the female and male god. As Arum Park notes, “Hesiod gives his female deities a unique and unprecedented role in shaping the cosmos through parthenogenesis which initially serves a fundamentally creative purpose” (Park, 2014). Gender conflict and difference are underlying themes throughout Hesiod’s Theogony. Hesiod has a clear idea of what each gender should be capable of and what they contribute to the forming of the cosmos. Female gods are capable of parthenogenesis (Gaia, Night, Hera), while male gods are not. (Chaos is the one exception because he is not considered an entity but a vast space of nothing that preceded everything.) Male gods try to imitate the female’s ability to asexual reproduction. However, they cannot fully emulate the female asexual reproduction and lack the ability of Gaia, who was able to produce Ouranos, Ourea, and Pontos.

Gaia/Terra’s Representation in Art and Text

Throughout text and art Gaia is depicted in a certain way that suggests her centrality, fertility, and importance. Hesiod described Earth as broad-breasted, suggesting her vast emergence. She is often depicted with her lower half of her body not visible, as if her body is one with the Earth and rising from the ground. This shows the idea that Gaia herself was truly an embodiment of the physical world and that it her body not only gave each of the gods life, but also the mortal humans, animals, and plants. While Ouranos was a seat for the Gods (The Sky) Gaia represented more than that as a seat for all life.

Figure 5 Vessel (hydria; red-figure; 31 cm.) Center, head of goddess arising from earth; above her head two winged erotes; left and right nude bearded silens with picks. 375-350 B.C
Figure 6 Vessel (stamnos; red-figure; ht. 15 1/3″). Center, Gaea, goddess of earth, rising from earth holding the new-born Erichthonius up toward Athena who receives him in her arms.
Figure 7 Gaea or Pandora and Panes. Attributed to the Penthesilea Painterca. 450 B.C.

Gaia/Terra was also depicted reclining oftentimes with infants, fruit, and flowers which all represent and life, fertility and abundance. Throughout the Theogony Hesiod tells a story of Gaia or Mother Earth nurturing and creating life, she is a source of abundance and fertility. The two images below show Terra surrounded by fruit, infants, and animals that all indicate a presence of life and symbolize bountifulness. She also is seen as a motherly figure in each of these images, nurturing those nearby. Additionally Gaia is the center of each of these depictions, suggesting her central role in the genealogy of the gods as-well as the creation of the physical world. The Greeks and Romans conceived of Gaia as truly a personification of the Earth itself, and this can be seen in the way that she is depicted with her waist halfway in the ground, connected with the physical Earth.

Figure 8 Detail from a sarcophagus depicting a Mother Earth figure (3rd century AD).
Figure 9 Ara Pacis Augustae, The Altar of Augustan Peace, East Front, Tellus nursing Romulus and Remus Relief, Nymphs Reliefs. Commissioned by the Roman Senate For Caesar Augustus.


  • Stan Kirk, (2012-03-15), The Ambivalent Nature of Gaia and the Human Condition in the Poems of Hesiod
  •  Adriel M. Trott, 2019, Edinburgh University Press, Chapter 4 The Feminine and the Elemental in Greek Myth, Medicine and Early Philosophy from the book Aristotle on the Matter of Form: Α Feminist Metaphysics of Generation. 
  • Arum Park, Penn State University Press, Parthenogenesis in Hesiod’s Theogony. 
  • Figure 1- Data From: J. Paul Getty Museum
  • Figure 2- Archive for Research on Archetypal Symbolismaras.orgImage: a) from Encyclopedia.* [JF 6281] b) from Cavendish.**
  • Figure 3- Image and original data provided by Shmuel Magal, Sites and Photoshttp://www.sites-and-photos.com
  • Figure 5- Archive for Research on Archetypal symbolismaras.orgImage: from Harrison.* [EA 114/9]

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