Earth goddesses have powers that range from foundational participation in cosmogonic processes of creation to sovereignty over specific aspects of nature, especially processes of cultivation. It is a widespread tendency to connect goddesses of any type with themes of motherhood; this association is particularly pronounced with earth goddesses because of the primacy of fertility motifs in their constitutive powers.
Sam D. Gill sounded a cautionary note regarding the study of earth goddesses in his 1987 landmark study of the concept of Mother Earth and its relationship to Native American religious cultures. He argued that "Mother Earth" was a construct born from the cultural contact among Europeans, Euro-Americans, and Native Americans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus, the concept was not ancient, and in fact served to obscure the diversity of and complex interrelationships among Native American traditions.
Ancient goddesses who are specifically associated with the earth include the Sumerian goddess Ki (also called Ninhursag), the Norse goddess Jord, and the Vedic goddess Prithvi of India. Their stories have as a common theme the association of the goddess with the earth as distinct from a god associated with the sky, with whom she is nevertheless related by kinship, as a sibling, or by marriage. In these types of myths, the separation of the earth and the sky is a primal cosmogonic act.
Ancient Greek mythology seems to support a widespread scholarly theory that cosmologically inclined earth goddesses were displaced by goddesses of cultivation. For example, the goddess Gaea, whose name means "earth," was celebrated as a cosmogonic force: She parthenogenetically (without male intervention) created the sea and the sky, and it was through her daughter Rhea that the gods and goddesses originated. Other goddesses, including Demeter/Ceres, became more popular in classical literature. Demeter was endowed with bringing forth the fruits of the earth, especially grains. She taught humankind sowing and plowing and thus was the patron of cultivation and settled culture. Greek mythology also describes numerous nature goddesses, including Maia, goddess of the mountains and fields, and Artemis, goddess of the hunt and forest.
Earth goddesses can also accrue a variety of powers, rather than delegate them. For example, the powers of the Aztec (or Nahua or Mexica) goddess Cihuacoatl (whose name means "snake woman") were differently imagined over the centuries, from preconquest imagery to roles developed during the sixteenth-century contact with Europeans that have remained influential to the present. She had both universal and particular powers that had to do with the earth and yet expanded beyond it, so that as Kay A. Read (2001) notes she cannot be subsumed under the "Euro-American stereotype" of "Great Earth Mother." As envisioned in the earliest stratum of beliefs, Cihuacoatl was a matron who formed humankind out of the ground bones of a man and a woman just as a woman makes tortillas from ground maize. She also offered assistance to women in childbirth on the "battlefield" of parturition and, analogously, offered support to men on the battlefield of war. Her powers to enact creation were complemented by her powers to destroy; for example, one story relates that the goddess warned all in the marketplace that she would leave the Mexica soon and that impending doom would follow. At the time of conquest, Cihuacoatl assumed new forms appropriate to an honored yet defeated warrior; for example, she was associated with a government office that counseled the city on war and political strategy, which drew on her traditional powers but did not accord her the leadership position.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, earth goddesses, especially Gaea, have received renewed global attention in the context of neopagan and ecological movements. Many neopagans and Goddess feminists view the earth as sacred, with the encompassing power of the divine intimately connected to the earth. Rituals are performed in honor of the earth's processes, including solstice and equinox celebrations. Many people in ecological movements suggest that the impact of scientific analysis could be enhanced if it could be related to traditional cultural ideas of honoring the earth. Ecofeminists, for example, are concerned with recovering approaches toward a sustainable ecology from traditional religions, often at variance with mainstream interpretations and practices. A case in point is Vijaya Rettakudi Nagarajan's 2001 work on the kolam ritual in south India. While mainstream interpretations view Hindu Indian women's honoring of the earth goddess Bhudevi through ritual rice flour drawings (kolam) as an embedded ecology that promotes conservation-oriented religious practice, the traditional ethos is really one of "intermittent sacrality," in which the earth is honored for the given time of the ritual in the context of expected future transgressions.
see also Goddess Worship; Goddesses, Mother.
Gill, Sam D. 1987. Mother Earth: An American Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goodison, Lucy, and Christine Morris, eds. 1998. Ancient Goddesses: The Myths and the Evidence. London: British Museum Press.
Nagarajan, Vijaya Rettakudi. 2001. "Soil as the Goddess Bhudevi in a Tamil Hindu Women's Ritual: The Kolam in India." In Sacred Custodians of the Earth? Women, Spirituality, and the Environment, ed. Alaine Low and Soraya Tremayne. New York: Berghahn Books.
Read, Kay A. 2000. "More than Earth: Cihuacoatl as Female Warrior, Male Matron, and Inside Ruler." In Goddesses Who Rule, ed. Elisabeth Benard and Beverly Moon. New York: Oxford University Press.