Monday, June 20, 2016

TFBT: Gaia, the Primordial Provocateur

I recently saw an ad on-line.  It was for a series of “TED-talks” on war.  I off-handedly thought, it would not be a very even-handed event.  Knowing that crowd there wouldn’t be any pro-war advocates.   Of course, who is pro-war?  Being a mythologist I thought immediately of Gaia; Mother Earth.  Hesiod calls her “vast Earth” in many translations (Theogony 159) In Ancient Greek that is; “Γαῖα πελώρη 

In her aspect as Gaia pelore, “monstrous Earth,” she is specifically linked to the destructive forces represented by the Giants and Typhoeus.  If I have taken so much time over the Greek word (pelore) it is because the available English translation regularly misrepresent it, dulling its pejorative force.  But Hesiod’s Mother Earth is much more vicious creature then these translations imply,  [i] 

The Perseus Greek Word Study Tool seems to agree with Lamberton by listing as definitions of πέλωρος: asmonstrous, prodigious, huge”.  I would like to suggest that the primordial goddess Gaia is the first and primary instigator of war in the mythic timeline of the Greek gods.   

First, let’s start with the first war in Greek mythology; the revolt of the sons of Gaia against their father Uranus; the Sky.   

 huge (monstrous) Earth groaned from within, (160) straitened as she was; and she devised a subtle and evil scheme. For quickly having produced a stock of white iron, she forged a large sickle, and gave the word to her children and said encouragingly, though troubled in her heart: “Children of me and of a father madly violent, if you (165) would obey me, we shall avenge the baneful injury of your father; for he was the first that devised acts of indignity.” So spoke she, but fear seized on them all, nor did any of them speak; till, having gathered courage, great and wily Kronos addressed his dear mother thus in reply: (170) “Mother, this deed at any rate I will undertake and accomplish, since for our father, of-detested-name, I care not, for he was the first that devised acts of indignity.” Thus spoke he, and huge (monstrous) Earth rejoiced much at heart, and hid and planted him in ambush: in his hand she placed (175) a sickle with jagged teeth, and suggested to him all the stratagem. Then came vast Sky bringing Night with him, and, eager for love, brooded around Earth, and lay stretched on all sides: but his son from out his ambush grasped at him with his left hand, while in his right he took the huge sickle, long and jagged-toothed, and hastily (180) mowed off the genitals of his father, and threw them backwards to be carried away behind him. [ii] 

The second example of monstrous Earth’s instigation of war was when Cronus, was now King of the Titans.  He learned from the great example of his father, did not trust his own sons and therefore swallowed whole every child brought forth the by his wife Rhea.  Eventually, his wife and mother conceive of a plan to save one child by substituting a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes.  The baby’s name was Zeus and they raise him in a cave.  [iii] 

Quickly then throve the spirit and beauteous limbs of the (future) king, and, as years came round, having been beguiled by the wise counsels of Earth (495)  huge Kronos, wily counselor, let loose again his offspring, having been conquered by the arts and strength of his son. And first he disgorged the stone, since he swallowed it last.  [iv] 

Apparently, Cronus wasn’t doing too well after that.  So, the third example of monstrous Earth’s involvement in war is when the rest of the Titans displayed their displeasure with this turn of events by rebelling against Zeus and his brothers.  There followed a ten year war between the Titans and the sons of Cronus. (629-639) Eventually;  

“the son of Cronus, Zeus and the other deathless gods whom rich-haired Rhea bare from union with Cronus, brought (Obriareus and Cottus and Gyes of exceeding manhood and comeliness and great size) up again (from Tartarus) to the light at Earth's advising. For she herself recounted all things to the gods fully, how that with these they would gain victory and a glorious cause to vaunt themselves.”  (Hesiod Theogony 617-629)…Now the others among the first ranks roused the keen fight, Kottos, Briareus, and Gyes insatiable in war, (715) who truly were hurling from sturdy hands three hundred rocks close upon each other, and they had overshadowed the Titans with missiles, sent them beneath the broad-wayed earth, and bound them in painful bonds, having conquered them with their hands, over-haughty though they were, (720) as far beneath under earth as the sky is from the earth, for equal is the space from earth to murky Tartaros[v] 

Zeus was a passable father, looked like there would be peace in the universe.  Until our fourth example of monstrous Earth’s instigation… 

Earth, vexed on account of the Titans (having been tossed into Tartarus by the Olympians) brought forth the giants, whom she had by (Uranus) …And they darted rocks and burning oaks at (Mt Olympus). … Now the gods had an oracle that none of the giants could perish at the hand of gods, but that with the help of a mortal they would be made an end of. Learning of this, Earth sought for a simple to prevent the giants from being destroyed even by a mortal. But Zeus forbade the Dawn and the Moon and the Sun to shine, and then, before anybody else could get it, he culled the simple himself, [vi] 

Apollodorus shortly thereafter describes a fifth example of monstrous Earth’s provocation of war;

When the gods had overcome the giants, Earth, still more enraged, had intercourse with Tartarus and brought forth Typhon in Cilicia… Typhon when, hurling kindled rocks, he made for the very heaven with hissings and shouts, spouting a great jet of fire from his mouth. But when the gods saw him rushing at heaven, they made for Egypt in flight, and being pursued they changed their forms into those of animals.  However Zeus pelted Typhon at a distance with thunderbolts, and at close quarters struck him down with an adamantine sickle, [vii] 

And finally for our final example; though most accounts credit the wars at Thebes and Troy to the will of Zeus on account of the groaning of Gaia, Christopoulos phrases it this way;   

“…Earth, being weighed down by the multitude of people, there being no piety among humankind, asked Zeus to be relieved from the burden. Zeus firstly and at once brought about the Theban War, by means of which he destroyed very large numbers, and afterwards the Trojan one,” [viii]       

In summary, monstrous Earth suggested the stratagem for castrating their father to her sons and rejoiced when one agreed, came up with the wise counsels that removed Cronus from power, advised the Olympians how to defeat the Titans, raised up the Giants and Typhoeus to defeat the Olympians and was at the very least the root cause of the wars at Thebes and Troy.   

What do you think? Was Mother Earth a loving mother or vicious monster?


[i] "Hesiod" by Robert Lamberton in the Hermes Series,  Yale University Press, 1988, page 73
[ii] Hesiod, Theogony 159-180,  Translated by Gregory Nagy and J. Banks and adapted by Gregory Nagy
[iii] (Hesiod, Theogony 454-489) Translated by Gregory Nagy and J. Banks and adapted by Gregory Nagy
[iv] (Hesiod. Theogony) Translated by Gregory Nagy and J. Banks and adapted by Gregory Nagy
[v] (Hesiod. Theogony) Translated by Gregory Nagy and J. Banks and adapted by Gregory Nagy
[vi] Apollodorus [1.6.1] Apollodorus. The Library. Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 121 & 122. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.
[vii] Apollodorus [1.6.3] Apollodorus. The Library. Translated by Sir James George Frazer. Loeb Classical Library Volumes 121 & 122. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.
[viii] Menelaos Christopoulos, "Casus belli: Causes of the Trojan War in the Epic Cycle," Classics@ Volume 6: Efimia D. Karakantza, ed. The Center for Hellenic Studies of Harvard University, edition of February 4, 2011.


  1. To me, definitely not a loving mother. She gives birth to more offspring than can coexist peacefully, and then encourages struggle between them until the fittest climbs to the top. The closest modern analog of this is the Darwinian struggle for existence.
    It is not easy to predict the outcome of the struggle for existence. It depends on too many factors and often changes its favorites, like Gaea. She cannot be trusted. And, as far as I know, the ancients did not trust her. She had little cult.

    1. Maya,

      My wife and I went to see "The Jungle Book" last Saturday, so the Law of the Jungle was very much on my mind as I finished this up. If Hour 25 accepts this, I wonder what kind of response this will get.