Just some loose thoughts on Earth Day–not a comprehensive overview here, so if you are looking for comparative mythology check elsewhere for today. But you certainly don’t have to look far to find traditional (or non-traditional) personifications of the earth, whether we are thinking of the planet as a whole or, more locally, the ground beneath our feet or before our eyes. Regarding the latter, finding human features in the landscape is common enough, whether we are imagining trolls turned to stone or finding a profile in a cliff, and of course we love to take it a step further and actually shape the earth in our image–or tease the inanimate into more surreal human likenesses, as with my Inktober illustration to the left. The effect can range from the playful to the uncanny–after all, we don’t really want the world to look back, do we? It is an uncomfortable reminder that our visibility is such an essential element of our own existence–that we are as much a part of the world as what we are looking at, as prone to being seen, being used. Yikes, that turned dark quick…
At a bit of a remove from the animated earth we have the earth as “nature” (in opposition to human “culture”) inhabited by our mirror images, the “Hidden Folk,” the “Under-earthers,” “elves,” etc–in Scandinavian folklore of a century or two ago these communities overlap with our own spatially, except that they live under the ground, or in some other invisible manner (and to extend my “mirror images” metaphor, many stories about them feature dramatic inversions–their food is our feces and vice versa, their gold our rubbish). Further away from the human community the bodies of the otherworldly folk may even be inclined to blur a bit with the natural world they represent–the Swedish skogsrå, part temptress part forest sprite, may be recognized as a monster from her backside, which is a hollowed out tree, or at least barky, and of course the trolls one finds in the mountains may also end up part of the mountain, like the three in The Hobbit.
But as for more explicit representations of the earth, I come up with primarily female figures, which seems pretty standard for the Western tradition. The “Mother Earth” figure can be an empowering, perhaps even subversive one (don’t know to what degree this is taken up in ecofeminism, but that would be a place to look), but this gendered association of female/earth brings with it (or has attracted) some patriarchal baggage as well. What is a landscape in Freud’s symbolism? A woman’s body, duh (and a cave represents the female genitals–and who hasn’t been subjected to the tomb/womb equivalence in some poetry class or another? OK, I confess that comment is motivated more out of embarrassment over an early poem of my own…). We don’t have to take Freud’s suggested symbols as somehow rooted in the fabric of reality (if I understand correctly, his understanding of his symbolism edged towards the historically situated later in life), but we can note that the association of women’s bodies with inanimate, if fecund, nature is not strange to us. We speak of “virgin territory,” for example, the metaphorical equivalences at play being the male explorer as virile lover (or rapist, since there is no volition on the side of the explored/ravished in this model) and the unexplored land as virginal–the land is defined in terms of its exploitation, impending or incomplete, just as a “virgin” (ie, a maiden–it is clearly female virginity that is at play here, though changing that around would be an interesting subversion) is thus defined by her impending or incomplete exploitation. While we should be cautious about projecting ideology we’ve inherited from the age of exploration and colonialism onto the medieval past, we do find comparable equivalence in the portrayal of the relationship of the king to the land/kingdom, the control and protection of women mapping onto the control and protection of territory–but I’m afraid I do not remember the reference (I think I’ve got an article by someone on the subject in my computer somewhere…). I will try to remember to note it here when I run across it again. But in any case, we should really not be surprised to find patriarchal ideology in anything to do with medieval kingship…
In Norse mythology there is of course the goddess Jörð (=Earth), whom I posted about for a previous earth day. I don’t think there is much we can hazard regarding her cult significance in the pre-Christian era, unfortunately (but keep in mind I specialize more in the medieval texts the myths were written down in). If we could take a peek at Viking age beliefs, perhaps we would find more developed images of Jörð to counter the more patriarchal frame of the myths as recorded in Christian Iceland (though of course, the “Viking Age” didn’t have any sort of uniform orthodoxy, and we certainly are free to work with Jörð’s character in new and liberating ways now), but in the context of the medieval Icelandic Eddas she is caught up with all the other women in the machinations of the male gods (note how place name evidence suggests a much larger cult significance for the goddesses than the surviving myths seem to indicate). While she is a giantess, she is counted among the gods as one of Óðinn’s many mistresses, a role which itself reinforces the state of negative reciprocity between gods and giants (as I touch on in this far-too-lengthy discussion of the mead of poetry). She is often referenced as mother of Þórr (Thor) (we might also note that Frigg’s largest role in the mythology revolves around her being mother of Baldr). As usual, we find a god in the patriline and a giantess (or sometimes a goddess) in the matriline–when this rule is broken, well, apparently then we get Loki (but we’ll leave that for another time). In Haustlöng, one of the early shield poems, we have Jörð’s role as both mother of Þórr and the earth highlighted in Þórr’s intimidating approach to his duel with the giant Hrungnir–in stanza 14 Þórr, explicitly kenned as Earth’s son, rides through the air with such violence that the skies (the “moon’s path”) resound under him (though keep in mind that he is clattering along in his cart pulled by goats… possibly a reference to how his idol would originally have been carried around for cult purposes, actually), then in stanza 15 this weather-god (thunderer, remember) makes his entry even more dramatic with a hail-storm that tears up the earth so that it was about to split. The kenning used for earth here is “Svölnir’s widow”–Svölnir being Óðinn, Óðinn being known for the fact that he will die (has died?) in Ragnarök. So the sense is “Óðinn’s bereaved.” From the context this must be Jörð (rather than Frigg–or any others of the big guy’s mistresses), since it is the ground that is being pummeled by the hail. Since Jörð is being kenned specifically by her relationship to Óðinn, her status as Þórr’s mother is highlighted here. The essentials are “The son of earth rode through the sky so hard it sounded like it was going to fall apart, and made such a bit hailstorm that his mother’s body was about to split apart.” So we have the body of a giantess, representative of the foundation of the natural world, and whatever her relationship to the men involved, sacrificed (only poetically here, don’t worry) for the sake of the giant killer’s grand entrance. A bit beyond the “step on a crack” rhyme, ain’t it. This is, as said, a pretty early poem, so we can’t blame Snorri here.
Alas, violence against the matriline is not unheard of with the gods (though we should note that Icelanders actually reckoned kin bilaterally, including when it came to responsibility for bloodfeuds, so the story we get into now is in fact rather problematic…), and with this we will turn to our final example of a personification of the earth: The original (and originary) Frost Giant Ymir. Check out Prose Edda for a more thorough account in Gylfaginning (or at least Snorri’s version), but the basics are: the world started with a big gap between a world of ice and a world of fire. In the middle the two mingled and became a person (of course). This is Ymir! Ymir (whom we refer to with masculine pronouns, but for reasons about to be revealed this is problematic) lived on the milk of a cow, who in turn lived by licking ice. These were the people in the universe (well, Surtr was apparently off lurking by the realm of fire). How did we get more? Well, before we got to the birds and the bees, there were three ways: The cow licked a person out of the ice; Ymir sweated other giants out of his armpits; and Ymir’s feet had sex with each other and made more giants (OK, some birds and bees there I guess). Then at some point the boy licked out of the ice (or his son, but how did that happen…) married a girl who came out of… well, either an armpit or a foot, I guess, got together and from them the gods were born! Ta da! So Óðinn is non-giant in his patriline, and giant in his matriline (note this is the same as with his own son). And then Óðinn and his brother killed their maternal kinsman Ymir and made the world out of his body. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The surviving texts suggest to us that this is not the only creation myth in circulation (for example, there also seems to be a typical “land rising out of the ocean, causing a fight between a god of order and demon of chaos” myth, but we can only guess about that one), but this bloody origin of the world is the one we got in the most detail. I do always enjoy recounting the story to the uninitiated, but I think quite apart from all the weirdness Ymir is a fascinating figure, and has a lot of potential for thinking about gender, violence, and our relationship to the environment.
Concluding thoughts: Why personify the earth? What has driven that in the past, and why might we do so now? One possible explanation is it gives us a way to articulate the agency we witness/experience from the environment, whether in positive terms or negative terms–that the world acts on us and reacts to us we cannot deny, but even now the only language we really have for discussing “actors” is that of human agency. Another might be a denial of our participation in earth and environment, setting ourselves in opposition to it by placing our mirror image “over there.” And of course, if we understand our relationship to the environment as a competition, as exploitation, or if we haven’t yet formulated that thought but deep down are a bit uneasy… well, much easier to articulate a relationship of either exploitation or obligation with a “person” than with the vastness that is the “world.” Many other ways to “explain” this of course, and there is no reason to settle on one, once and for all.