The soil of our birth and the clay of our formal existence, only partially reveal the symbol of mother Earth. The earth beneath our feet and towering above us in mountain ranges represents the entire cradle, running field and closing haven of humanity. In the dream sense we must constantly analyze the earth and our position relative to its living landscape. To this end, we must continually decide whether the earth accepts or rejects our behavior. Does the earth offer a cave’s shelter, or a rich field to harvest? Does she rumble in quakes and bum our flesh on her barren fields and uneven rocks? In the image of the planet earth, we find a formidable imagery of our own humanity. The globe is immense, yet fragile, covered in blue (emotional) waters, yet round and centered, like mind and soul. The earth is life suspended in space, vulnerable, and yet prepared for EVERYTHING reality has to offer.
Symbolically Earth is contrasted with Heaven as the passive with the active principle; the female with the male aspect of manifestation; darkness with light; yin with yang; tamas (heaviness) with sattva (lightness); density, fixity and concentration with rarity, mobility and dissipation.
According to the I Ching, it is the hexagram k’uen, passive perfection, receptacle for the action of the active principle, k’ien. Earth is the support, while Heaven is the cover. From Earth all beings receive their birth, for she is woman and mother, but she is completely submissive to the active principle, Heaven. All female creatures share the nature of Earth. In a positive sense her qualities are those of gentleness, submissiveness and quiet and lasting firmness of purpose. To them should be added humility, derived etymologically from humus (‘soil’), to which she bends and from which mankind was fashioned. The primitive ideogram t’u signifies the production of beings by the Earth.
Earth is prakrti, the ‘original producer’, primal chaos, original matter, separated, according to Genesis, from the waters; brought to their surface by Vishnu’s wild boar; kneaded together by the heroes of Shinto; material from which the Creator, Nu-Kua to the Chinese, fashioned human beings. The Earth is a virgin penetrated by hoe or plough, impregnated by water or by blood, Heaven’s semen. Universally, the Earth is a womb engendering springs of water, minerals and metals.
The Earth is square - especially to the Chinese - within the bounds of the four points of the compass. Thus the Chinese Empire was a square divided into smaller squares, with the square Forbidden City standing for its centre, while the Chinese universe comprised a series of squares within one another.
The Earth symbolizes motherhood - Mother Earth - giving life and receiving it back. Throwing himself on the ground, Job cries out: ‘naked I came out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither’ (Job 1: 21), identifying Mother Earth with the womb.
In Vedic religion, Earth also symbolizes the mother, fount of being and of life and protecting it against all the powers of annihilation. The Vedic funeral rituals included the recital of verses at the moment when the urn containing the ashes of the dead person was placed in the ground.
Some African tribes have the custom of ‘eating earth’, a symbol of identification. The man offering sacrifice tastes it: the pregnant woman swallows it. Fire springs from earth which is eaten: ‘the womb is set alight’, as they say. In their notions of the basic sacred marriage of Heaven and Earth, the Dogon conceive of the Earth as a woman lying on her back with her head to the north and her heels to the south, her womb being an anthill and her clitoris a termite’s nest.
Identified with the mother, Earth is the symbol of fertility and regeneration. ‘She gave birth to all things, nourished them and then took from them the fertile seed once more’ (Aeschylus, Choephori 127-8). According to Hesiod (Theogony 126ff.), she (Gaia) even gave birth to Heaven (ouranos) who then had to impregnate her to give birth to all the gods. The latter copied this first sacred marriage to produce mankind and animal creation, the Earth thus being the source of all life and in consequence being given the title of ‘Great Mother’.
Symbolic burials exist, on a par with baptismal immersion, as curative or strengthening rituals, or as part of rites of initiation. The idea is always the same - regeneration by contact with the Earth, death in one life-form to be reborn in another.
This may be demonstrated in the myth of Antaeus who was invulnerable so long as he was in contact with his mother, the Earth. To overcome the giant, herakles (Hercules) had to lift him onto his shoulders and then to squeeze him with all his strength until he had stifled him. Making contact with the Earth by wallowing on the ground, in the sand or on the rocks symbolizes the need to allow Earth-forces to penetrate the skin, to suckle from the breast of Mother Earth not through the mouth but from every pore, in short to recharge the being with energy. Apparently medical opinion recommends mud-baths, especially for healing the blood vessels and improving the circulation.
Lying curled up on the ground as if trying to return to the womb of the Earth corresponds symbolically to passing through the sleep of death to an awakening, being reborn reinvigorated and standing upright. Wallowing on the ground provides an image of death and resurrection, but to remain supine is the first step towards degeneracy.
The Waters were also at the beginning of the world and they are distinguished from Earth in that they preceded the ordering of the Cosmos, while Earth produced all living things. The Waters stand for undifferentiated mass; Earth for the seeds of those differences. Aquatic cycles embrace longer periods of time than telluric cycles in the general development of the Cosmos.
In literature, woman and plough-land are often identified - seeded furrows, ploughing and sexual penetration, giving birth and harvesting, gathering fruit and giving suck, ploughshare and male phallus. Both in Asia and in Africa there is a body of belief that a barren woman risks making her husband’s lands barren and that for this reason he may divorce her. Pregnant women, on the other hand, make the harvest all the richer if they plant the seed, being a source of fertility. ‘Your wives are like fields for you’ (Koran 11: 223). It was in the Spring and in a thrice-ploughed fallow that Iasion copulated with demeter (Odyssey 5: 125-7).
The Aztecs conceived of the Earth-goddess under two opposing aspects. On the one hand she is the Bountiful Mother, allowing mankind to live from the plants she bears: on the other she demands the bodies of the dead for her own nourishment and is, in this sense, a destroyer.
The Maya hieroglyphic for Earth was the Moon-goddess, mistress of the cycles of fertility. The old Maya Moon-Earth goddess had a primal function, being mistress of the number one. In other words, she commanded birth, the origin of all things and the beginning of manifestation.
The Earth was believed to be carried on the backs of different creatures. In Japan it was a gigantic fish; in India, a tortoise; in Central and South America, a serpent; in Egypt, a scarab; in south-east Asia, an elephant; and so on. Earthquakes were explained as being due to sudden movements by the creature carrying the Earth, corresponding to different stages in its development.
Jews and Christians call Palestine ‘the Holy Land’, but obviously different traditions have the same name for different places. Such different names as ‘Land of the Saints’, ‘Land of the Blessed’, ‘Land of Immortality’ and so on, are applied to places that bear the same significance for various traditions. In all cases we are dealing with spiritual centres corresponding to what each tradition regards as the centre of the Earth, which is itself an echo of the the primeval Centre or Earthly Paradise. With this may be compared ‘the Promised Land’, the goal of a quest which was also on a spiritual plane; and again ‘the Black Land’ (Kemet), the Ancient Egyptians’ name for Egypt, with undoubtedly primeval characteristics. The Promised Land is what Dante calls one of the spiritual poles, like Canaan for the Children of Israel, Ithaca for Odysseus and the Heavenly Jerusalem for Christians. Plato’s ‘Pure Land’ corresponds to what we should think of as ‘the Holy Land’. In the specific case of Amida worship, the ‘Pure Land’ (Japanese; Jo do; also called ‘Land of Retribution’ or Ho do by Shinran) is Amida’s Paradise in the West and again, by definition, a ‘Land of the Blessed’.
However, the land of the journey’s end may well be the same as that of its beginning. The latter never loses its sacred character. Thus, when a group tries to achieve spiritual regeneration, it undertakes a sort of return to the earth from which it sprang. ‘A sacred place is what it is because of the permanent nature of the hierophany that first consecrated it. That is why one Bolivian tribe, when they feel the need to renew their energy and vitality, go back to the place supposed to have been the cradle of their ancestors’. Pilgrimages to Mount Zion, Golgotha and other places are similar.
Like Latin, Irish had two words for ‘earth’. Talamh corresponds to tellus, meaning Earth as an element by contrast with Air or Water, while tir corresponds to terra, meaning earth or land as a geographical location. Druids had power over the element Earth. Before the Battle of Mag Tuired, one of the druids among the Tuatha De Danann promised Lug that he would hurl a mountain on top of the Fomorians and that he would set the twelve chief mountains in Ireland at his service. In Celtic mythology the Earth is personified by Tailtiu, who is not Lug’s wife, but his foster-mother. Her festival was observed on 1 August. Again, the Earth was one of the pledges of a Celtic oath, which may be compared with the oath which the angel Amnael swore to Isis.
Paul Diel has sketched a whole psychogeography of symbols in which the flat surface of the Earth stands for mankind as conscious beings; the Underworld with its demons, monsters or malevolent deities represents the subconscious; while the highest peaks which approach closest to Heaven are images of super-consciousness. ‘The whole Earth thus becomes a symbol of the consciousness and its state of conflict and a symbol of the will and its potential for sublimation or perversion. It is the ring in which human consciousness fights its battles’.