Gaia: Greek Goddess of the Earth

Gaia

Gaia presenting the baby Erichthonius to the goddess Athena | Erichthonius would go on to become the king of Athens. And who better to raise him than the patroness of Athens, Athena |an Attic red-figure stamnos, 470–460 BC

Recognized as one of the main primordial gods in ancient Greece, Gaia was venerated as the goddess of the Earth or land. According to the myth, she is both the mother and husband of the sky god, Uranus. The Greeks worshiped her as the mother of all life forms, making her a very important deity in the Greek pantheon.

What is Gaia’s origin story? And what role did she play in ancient Greece? World History Edu presents crucial myth surrounding Gaia’s meaning, worship and powers.

Gaia – Mother Goddess in ancient Greek religion

Goddess of: Earth, land

Parents: None, or in some cases Chaos

Siblings: Chaos, Eros, Thalassa, Erebus, Tartarus, Nyx

Husband: Uranus, Tartarus, Aether

Children: the Titans, Pontus, the Cyclopes, Nereus, Typhon, Hecatonchires

Association: Demeter, Rhea

Symbol: plants, trees, herbs, fruits, soil

Epithets: Embodiment of the Earth; the Great Nurturer; Mother of the Titans

Worship place: Sparta, Athens

Roman equivalent: the goddess Terra

Egyptian equivalent: the god Geb

Gaia Goddess Origin Story

According to the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, Gaia emerged from the vast void (Chaos) that existed before the birth of the universe. Following the emergence of Gaia, the likes of Tartarus (the deep abyss) and Eros (deity of love) came.

Gaius Julius Hyginus, a Latin author, states that Gaia (Earth), Sea and Heaven are rather the children of Aether (the air) and Hemera (Day).

Who are the children of Gaia?

It is also believed that Gaia brought into existence deities such as Uranus (sky), Pontus (sea), and Ourea (Mountains). She gave birth to Uranus (a sky god) in order to serve as cover over her. Hesiod states that Gaia gave birth to her children all by herself, without any father.

The goddess also laid with Uranus and gave birth to numerous deities, including Titans such as Oceanus, Phoebe, Mnemosyne, Tethys, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Rhea, Theia, Themis, and Cronus.

The Greeks believed that Gaia had the following offspring with Uranus:

  • the first Cyclopes (one-eyed giants) – Arges (Bright), Steropes (Lightning), Brontes (Thunder)
  • the Titans –  Cronus, Rhea, Oceanus, Tethys, Iapetus, Themis, Phoebe, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, Mnemosyn and Theia.
  • the Hecatonchires (giants with fifty heads and hundred arms)– Cottus, Gyges, Briareos

Gaia also lay with her son Pontus and gave birth to Nereus, Ceto, Eurybia, Thaumas, and Phorcys. From the union between Gaia and Tartarus, she gave birth to Typhon – the youngest of her sons.

Family tree

Gaia

Gaia goddess – Family tree

The overthrow of Uranus

Shortly after the birth of the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires, Uranus is believed to have hidden those children in a place where Gaia could not see them. According to Hesiod, this act of Uranus caused immense pain to the Mother Goddess. Worried about Uranus’ lustful and unbecoming nature, she fashioned out a grey flint sickle – an adamantine. She then handed the sickle to one of her grandsons, Cronus (the god of the harvest).

Just as Uranus was about to lay with Gaia, Cronus took out the sickle and cut the genitals of his father Uranus. She then used the spilled blood of Uranus to create Erinyes, the Giants, and the Meliae (tree nymphs). And from Uranus’ testicles, the Greek goddess of love,  beauty and lust Aphrodite emerged.

With Uranus overthrown, Cronus became the ruler of the universe. However, his reign on the throne would not last that long, as his own children later usurped him from the throne.

How Gaia helped Rhea save the life of Zeus

Similar to his father Uranus, Cronus ended up growing very paranoid of his children. Cronus had learnt from his parents – Gaia and Uranus – that one of his children will usurp him. Hell bent on avoiding such a miserable fate, Cronus swallowed the children he had with sister and wife the Titaness Rhea.

After the birth of her last child Zeus, Rhea sought the help of her mother Gaia who advised Rhea to wrap up a stone like a baby and present it to Cronus. Tricked into thinking that the stone was the baby Zeus, Cronus quickly swallowed it. By so doing, the life of Zeus was sparred. Rhea placed Zeus in the care of Gaia, who would raise Zeus and teach him a great deal of things.

Gaia and Zeus

Gaia also prepared Zeus in the art of combat and other magical things. She did this so that Zeus could defeat Cronus and the Titans. Zeus grew up to be a strong and powerful god, and thereafter he proceeded to free his siblings – Hades, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon and Hestia – from the belly of his father Cronus. Zeus and his siblings (the Olympians) defeated Cronus and the Titans during the Titanomachy.

Gaea was enraged when Zeus banished her children – the Titans – Tarturus, the deepest depths and darkest part of the Greek Underworld. From then onward, she came to oppose Zeus. She brought forth the hideous monster Typhoeus to challenge Zeus. However, that plan failed. Gaia went on to prophesize that Zeus would be usurped by one of his children.

Afraid of the prophecy, Zeus is believed to have swallowed his son Metis. Metis got lodged in the forehead of Zeus; and shortly after, the goddess Athena popped out of the forehead as all full-grown and wearing battle gear.

Olympians family tree

Gaia (Earth) was famous for being the grandmother of the Greek Olympian gods and goddesses | Names in blue are the Olympians (Note: In some cases Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, and Hephaestus, the god of forges and fire, are excluded from the list of Olympian gods and goddesses)

Gaia Meaning, Symbols and Epithet

Although the origin of the word “gaia” is not clear, the word means “Earth” or “land”. In terms of the epithets her worshipers used to describe her, she was sometimes called “Anesidora” – the “giver of gifts”. This epithet of Gaia perfectly summarizes her motherly nature as someone who always gives.

Other epithets of Gaia include, Calligeneia, Pandoros, and Eurusternos.

Worship

Gaia’s worship places were often times associated with the goddess of the harvest and agriculture Demeter. It was also not uncommon for black animals to be sacrificed to both of those goddesses. Being the goddess of the earth, it makes quite a lot of sense for her to be associated with a deity who is in charge agriculture and harvest.

The ancient Greeks also worshipped her for her prophetic abilities. Bear in mind, it was Gaia who prophesized the downfall of Cronus at the hands of one of his children. Therefore, it is not surprising that some Greeks worshiped her as the force behind the Oracle at Delphi. She is believed to have granted her prophetic powers to the likes of Apollo and in some cases Poseidon.

Perhaps Apollo inherited those prophetic powers after killing Python – one of Gaia’s children.

Common places of worship included the temple of Ge Eurusternos  near Aegea. A number of Gaia temples also existed in Sparta and Athens.

There were also statues, altars and shrines in the temples of other gods devoted to her worship. It’s been stated that the Temple of Demeter often hosted Gaia statues.

Depiction

The Greeks generally depicted Gaia with the features that highlighted her motherly role. For example, many paintings on vases show her holding a baby or handing a baby over to someone, as she emerges from the earth.

Often times, she is shown wearing green clothes – a symbolism of her fertility and the greenery on Earth.

The Importance of Gaia in Ancient Greece

In the time before time, Gaia burst out of the cosmic void and went on to give birth to the Greek deities.  She is the primeval one who gave form to the landscape of the universe, which includes celestial bodies, animals, plants and man. In this role, she can be described as the one who oversees life on earth.

Gaia’s importance lies in the sense that the Greeks considered her to be one who nourished everything living thing on earth. As a primordial mother goddess, it was believed that she provided affection and comfort to all her creations. It is for this reason she was in some way seen as “the Great Nurturer”. Upon death, it is believed that her creations returned to her, the Earth goddess.

Major Gaia Facts

  • According to one Greek creation myth, Gaia and her siblings – Chaos and Eros (love) – existed at the beginning of time. It was believed that the trio emerged from the Cosmic Egg (or the Void).
  • Gaia was a deity known for fighting against cruel gods. It is interesting to note that she always lent a helping hand to deities that were willing to overthrow ruthless gods. Take the examples of Cronus and Zeus, who were both the youngest sons of their fathers; Cronus – Uranus’ youngest son – overthrew his father. Zeus’ – youngest son of his parents – overthrew his father Cronus.
  • In one version of the myth, Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire and forges, tried to rape Athena. Hephaestus failed; however, a drop of his seamen fell on Athena’s thigh. Athena wiped off the fluid with a wool and then cast it upon the earth. In the end the remnants of the seamen fertilized Gaia, producing the famed Greek hero Erichthonius, who would go on to rule Athens.
  • The ancient Greeks believed that Gaia was deity who made Aristaeus immortal.
  • Because Zeus hid Elara deep in the earth, Tityos – the son he bore with Elara – has sometimes been considered as the son of Gaia.
  • In some cases, her Roman name was said to be Anesidora, meaning “she who sends gifts”. This name was also used to describe several goddesses and mythological figures, including Demeter, the goddess of the grains and harvest, and Pandora, the first woman on earth created by the Greek god Hephaestus.

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