I AM that which began;
Out of me the years roll;
Out of me God and man;
I am equal and whole;
God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily;
I am the soul.
Before ever land was,
Before ever the sea,
Or soft hair of the grass,
Or fair limbs of the tree,
Or the flesh-colour’d fruit of my branches,
I was, and thy soul was in me.
First life on my sources
First drifted and swam;
Out of me are the forces
That save it or damn;
Out of me man and woman, and wild-beast and bird:
before God was, I am.
— Algernon Swinburne, “Hertha”
The Goddess as Earth Mother is one of the most common understandings of the Neo-Pagan Goddess. For Neo-Pagans, the world is either contained within the womb of the Goddess and, hence, a part of her body, or else born of the Goddess, bodied forth from her own physical substance and still dependent upon her for sustenance.
The meaning of the Goddess as Mother is that the divine is creative. But unlike the creator God of the monotheisms, the Goddess’ creativity is organic, a function of what she is, rather than something she does. It is through her body that she creates. Two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plutarch recognized this truth (although he used masculine language instead of feminine language):
“The work of a maker — as of a builder, a weaver, a musical-instrument maker, or a statuary — is altogether distinct and separate from its author; but the principle and power of the procreator is implanted in the progeny, and contains his nature, the progeny being a piece pulled off the procreator. Since therefore the world is neither like a piece of potter’s work nor joiner’s work, but there is a great share of life and divinity in it, which God from [her]self communicated to and mixed with matter, God may properly be called [Mother] of the world — since it has life in it.”
Not all women are mothers, or want to be mothers, and pregnancy and birth are not the only forms of creativity open to women. However, everyone — female and male — has had a mother, and we are acculturated to desire a good mother. As Stephen Benko has observed in his study of the pagan roots of Mariology:
“Our earliest memories are likely to come from our mothers; our concept of life is inseparable from that of the womb; our concept of nurturance is female, and everybody has some understanding of the mother-child relationship. … ‘Even if we do not agree with the Jungian idea of a female archetype, all humans understand the mother-infant bond and recognize the related universal symbol of the womb as the mother of life.'”
Rather than being a simplistic prescriptive model for human behavior, the Goddess as Mother draws our attention to how we are immersed in a material world that is radically interconnected. It affirms our bodily reality and relationships with each other and the natural world. Indeed, the word “matter” derives from the Later word for “mother” (mater).