The Earth that Spreads
Honoring the Feminine Principle as Mother Earth Everywhere and in all Cultures
By Yeye Omileye Achikeobi-Lewis, M.Ed, NCC, LPCA
We all speak about Mother Earth, but somehow it feels as though she gets kind off forgotten. Beyond our words it is as though we are not kissing Earth with our feet.
I love to start dialogue with a story, so I will start off with this Yoruba sacred tale,
Once upon a time there was a Goddess called Aye and she was lonely. Aye was Mother Earth, and in the beginning of time she was all crystal clean water. Oludamare – the great creative force looked down on Mother Aye and took pity on her. He decided to send the deities down to Earth to keep her company. Obatala was sent down on a ladder forged by Ogun. He climbed down from the heavens carrying a small knapsack containing: dirt, a cockerel and a palm nut. When he got near Aye he could not reach her, so he threw down the sacred dirt onto her, after that released the cockerel whom spread the sacred dirt. Well he still could not make it to Aye, so he flung the palm nut down and the it grew into a beautiful strong palm tree. It was then that Obatala was able to start climbing down from the heavens to Aye. He made the first man and woman from dirt and water mixed together.
However, at some point during the creation process Obatala became drunk and fell asleep. But he kept on making human beings. The human-beings he made in his sleep had disabilities. Waking up and seeing this, Obatala felt very bad and promised he would look after all human beings, especially the ones with disabilities. To this day people with disabilities in Yoruba land are seen as sacred and protected by the deity.
From time immemorial the ancient people have had a deep respect for Mother Earth. The sacred Earth that Obatala spread became known as Ile Ife – the land that spreads. This land became the Yoruba sacred city and the center of the world. In the Yoruba language Ife means love, so Ile Ife can also mean the City of Love. From the story we see that the sacred structure of all things were built upon the structure of the great feminine and her principle of love.
Onile is another personification of the Earth Goddess in the Yoruba language. She is honored by the secret society of elders, who were said to be a powerful political force and in many places were higher than the King. So we see that Mother Earth bestowed great power onto traditional peoples, was seen as central to all activities, and was greatly honored as the powerful feminine.
On the website of the Earth Matters exhibition we see how Earth mother and the feminine principle denotes the matrix of existence seen and unseen, when they reveal this about the African Earth Mother,
“The Earth Matters exhibition includes both insignia of office and figures from the meeting house of a Yoruba Ogboni (or Oshugbo) society. These edan (staffs or insignia of office) and onile (society figures) demonstrate the importance of concepts of the earth to Ogboni. In the ease with which their motifs can be identified, the figurative pair of copper alloy edan suggest the knowable world: male/female, old/young… and yet beneath each figure is a non-descript iron shaft. Made from an ore of the earth, these shafts allude to things we cannot know: the unknowable world of the divine and the underground. Likewise, the terracotta Onile figures are made of a material of the earth that alludes to the power and knowledge beyond mere mortal comprehension.”
There are several stories of how the Earth Goddess Onile came into being. Each story demonstrates her power as the great feminine principle. One story says that she was one of the daughters of Oduduwa, the Founding Father of the Yoruba nation and she was a very powerful woman. Her name was Iya (Mother). Iya died of leprosy and childless. Members of the Ogboni society thought she would punish them and the Yoruba people for her terrible life, so they decided to appease her by worshipping her as an Earth Goddess. I suspect there is much more to this story than has been written. The Ogboni believe that we all return to Mother Earth.
In another story, Onile, which means Mother of the Earth, and Heaven were hunting together. They did not find any game, but a small rat they killed. Both began to fight over who should have the rat. The Earth refused to submit, Heaven refused to submit. Mother Earth decided to stop growing any crops, trees or plants causing a feminine. It was a terrible situation, terrible enough where all the deities went to heaven and convinced Heaven that he must submit to Earth. It was then that Mother Earth’s superiority was established.
In the first story of Onile we can see that it is important for Mother Earth to be venerated and for us to not treat her badly. While in the second story we see that it is clearly shown that Mother Earth and the great feminine is supreme in all matters. It is interesting that during colonialism of the British, the Ogboni society was greatly feared and attacked by Christian missionaries and the colonialist rulers, who saw the Ogboni as a threat to their power. Many rumors began to swirl around on how Ogboni had barbarous and heinous practices such as human sacrifice etc. However, when one looks at spiritual colonial history around the world, this was an extremely common thing to say about those who were being oppressed. However, the Ogboni had such a powerful connection to Mother Onile – Earth and ancestors that they just became stronger and not weaker during the colonial era.
The story of the great feminine principle personified as Mother Earth is seen in India. Mother Earth is known as Prithvi and Bhumi. In good old Wikipedia we discover the following about Bhumi:
Bhūmi or Bhūmī-Devī is the Hindu goddess representing Mother Earth. She is the consort of the boar god Varaha, an avatar of Vishnu,. Bhumi is the daughter of Kashyap Prajapati.
She is known by various names such as Bhuma-Devi, Bhuvati, , Martyaa lakshmi, Bhuvaani, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhuvanendri, Bhuvisha, Avaani, Avni, Avanendri, Prithvi, Dharti, Dhaatri, Dharani, Vasudha, Vasundhara, Vaishnavi, Kashyapi, Urvi, Urvisha, Urvishi/Urvishwari, Urvivati, Ira, Iravati, Iravaani, Ela, Elavati, Elavaani, Vasumati, Dhanshika, Hema, Hemavati, Hemaalaya, Hemamaalini, and Hiranmaya. She is depicted as seated on a platform which rests on the back of four elephants, representing the four directions of the world. She is usually depicted with four arms, holding a pomegranate, a water vessel, a bowl containing healing herbs and another containing vegetables. She is also sometimes depicted with two hands, one holding a blue lotus known as Kumuda or Utpala, the night lotus, and in the right hand and the left hand may be in the Abhaya Mudra, fearlessness or the Lolahasta Mudra which is an aesthetic pose meant to mimic the tail of a horse.
Mother Earth holding the blue lotus depicts awakenings. David Kingsley author reveals in Hindu Goddesses that an important part of Hindu tradition is “reverence for the divine feminine” and “an awe for the sacrality of the land itself and for the Indian continent as a whole” He further reveals that the land is praised in the Rg-veda as Prthvi. The hymns are “grounded in reverence for the awesome stability of the earth itself and the apparently inexhaustible fecundity of the Earth.” He states Prithvi is Earth in a literal sense and a Goddess.
When we see the Earth as a Goddess Kingsley makes it clear we are “perceiving the earth as a great and powerful goddess who is “the world as a whole, the cosmos itself, is to be understood as a whole, the cosmos itself, is to be understood as a great, living being a cosmic organism.”
The reverence for Mother Earth as the primordial feminine principle is seen in all cultures. In the Greek culture she was praised as Gaia. In the people of the Andes know her as Pachamama Great Mother. She is so revered and important that before every festival and festivity small amounts of drink are poured on the floor to honor her. Her most important festival is Challaco or Ch’allay. Here the family cook lots of food overnight for Pachamama and offer it to her waters in gratitude.
In good ole’ Wikipedia will see that she is seen as:
An ever-present and independent deity who has her own self-sufficient and creative power to sustain life on this earth. Her shrines are hallowed rocks, or the boles of legendary trees, and her artists envision her as an adult female bearing harvests of potatoes and coca leaves. The four cosmological Quechua principles – Water, Earth, Sun, and Moon – claim Pachamama as their prime origin, and priests sacrifice llamas, cuy (guinea pigs), and elaborate, miniature, burned garments to her. After the conquest by Spain, which forced conversion to Roman Catholicism, the figure of the Virgin Mary became united with that of the Pachamama for many of the indigenous people. In pre-Hispanic culture, Pachamama is often a cruel goddess eager to collect her sacrifices. As Andes cultures form modern nations, Pachamama remains benevolent, giving, and a local name for Mother Nature. Thus, many in South America believe that problems arise when people take too much from nature because they are taking too much from Pachamama.
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition Mother Earth represents the Buddha (awakened) consciousness of balance and equanimity. Her name is Buddha Locana from the Ratna Buddha family. She wears gold and yellows reminder us that she has enough for all. She purifies the poison of pride into generosity/equanimity. So here we see Mother Earth is responsible for balance, fairness and helping us embrace our true nature of generosity.
At the end of the Universal Four Elemental Mother ceremony Earth Mother comes last. She is in the Northern quadrant of the Universal Medicine Wheel shared by Grandmother Robin Youngblood. She comes last not because she is last, as we can see, but because she really represents the great feminine principle in all her glory. She represents the unification of everything. She is all the Elemental Mothers put together and they are all her. She is our great ancestress. David Kingsley helps us to grasp this concept well when he shares with us the connection between the Great Mother Kali, Durga etc who is known as Mahadevi (Great Mother),
“Mahadevi is often identified with prakti, primordial matter or nature. The stuff of creation, the basic matter of the world….Her identification with matter, the earth, or cosmos is often expressed by identifying part of the world with parts of her body.” He further states, “the Devi -bhagavata-Purana calls the earth the Devi’s loins. The same text speaks of the oceans as her bowels, the mountains as her bones, the rivers as her veins, the trees as her body hair. The sun and moon are her eyes, and the nether words are said to be her hips, legs and feet.”
What is really interesting to me is the connection between Earth Mother and the Water Mother. For we see in the Yoruba story that Mother Aye is Earth Mother but she is by her very nature of being all water first – a Water Mother. So essentially Earth Mother is not physical Earth, but the embodiment of sacred water itself and sacred water is the Mother of all the Elements. This is consistent with the Egyptians seeing Nut as Mother of the Universe and Waters, and the Yoruba also seeing Osun the quintessential embodiment of water, as the Great Mother of the World. The Dogon of Africa have this to say on the matter,
“The Dogon priest Ogotemmeliof West Africa has this to say about the relationship of Earth and Water, “the life force of the earth is water. God molded the earth with water. Blood too he made out of water. Even a stone there is this force, for there is moisture in everything…Air and breath too is water vapor.”
As I wrote this article, somehow I came across these pictures of Saara Bartman known in Europe as the Venus Hottentot. She died in her 20s after a deeply abusive and humiliating life at the hands of white men in Europe. She was displayed like an animal, forced to perform like a circus creature and even in death she did given no dignity – her brain, genitals and other parts were sliced off and preserved for pseudo science. For me she came to symbolize Earth Mother and the Black Madonna – which means mother. She came to represent all that is wrong with our world and the awfulness that spiritual colonialism has wreaked upon my psyche as a black woman and all of our collective psyches.
So how can we honor Earth Mother, really honor her?
- Walk as though your feet are kissing the ground
- Go and spend time in her beauty: lie on the ground, go for a hike etc.
- Say words of apology, love and gratitude to her
- Give a gratitude offering to Mother Earth
- Mother Earth resides in our base chakra – think about the individual and collective ideas that root us in division, hate, greed, arrogance, lack of integrity and self-loathing. Let’s find a way to embrace the LOVE.
Wikipedia, Bhumi, retrieved on January 4 2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bh%C5%ABmi
Earth Matters, The Ogboni, retrieved on January 4 2018 from https://earthmatters2013.wordpress.com/tag/onile/
David Kingsley, Hindu Goddesses, University of California Press 1988