The Mythology of Nature

The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this earth as of one harmonious being? –Joseph Campbell

green natureOriginally presented as a paper at the Conference for Current Pagan Studies at Claremont College in 2005.

Do we need nature? That was the subject of an essay contest sponsored by Shell Oil and The Economist magazine in August of 2003. Issues for the essay included genetic modification, biodiversity, gene therapy, nuclear power and renewable energy. The essays were to focus on the difficult choices to be made in politics, economics, society, and public policy between actions, or inactions, that seek to increase man’s control over nature and those that seek to reduce it, those that seek to bypass nature and those that hope to work with it, those that put a higher value on human development and those that value the preservation or even reconstitution of nature.

Do we need nature? To Pagans, who address air, fire, water, earth, and spirit–the essentials of life on the planet–in our opening and closing prayers, that seems like an absurd question. It’s like asking do we need the air we breathe, the water we drink. Do we really need to eat? These simple gifts of nature are mostly taken for granted. We eat, drink, and breathe without thought for nature, the source of our life-giving essentials. This thoughtlessness, this lack of consciousness regarding nature, bleeds into every aspect of life on the planet.

Now as we contemplate our role in nature and ponder the evolutionary path before us, what are the questions we should be asking? Are the problems, as the Shell/Economist essay implies, whether to bypass nature or embrace and work with it? Are we trapped between the dualities of increasing or reducing man’s control over nature? Are we left with the singular choice of valuing human development or preserving nature? Is humanity condemned to the limitations of these struggling dualities or is salvation found in the balance of these polarities? How do we find this balance? In the wake of potential environmental devastation in the not too distant future, must we not first look at how we got here? How has our society become so disconnected, so cut off from nature? What are the attitudes that have sped us toward the increasing deterioration of our environment?

What is at the heart of our fundamental beliefs about nature;

what is the nature of Nature?

Webster defines nature as “to give birth to, produce1,” which is implicitly female. Could this be a clue to our disconnection with nature? When most of us think of nature, we think of mother earth by Karl Bang“Mother Nature,” and quite logically anthropomorphize it into a female image. Eminent mythologist Joseph Campbell explains this association saying, “The human woman gives birth just as the earth gives birth to the plants. She gives nourishment, as the plants do . . . They are related. And the personification of the energy that gives birth to forms and nourishes forms is properly female.”2 Is this association of woman and nature and the disdain toward both intricately bound? Where does this disdain come from?

Most all indigenous cultures see the earth as a garden and themselves as caretakers of the garden. However, in our western paradigm we are kicked out of the garden. Campbell believes that nothing informs a society more than its creation myths. Could it be that simple and that profound? Are we creating a world based on the Biblical condemnation of nature, condemning woman for Eve’s role in the fall, and for man’s expulsion from the garden?

Genesis states that God is separate from nature and that nature is condemned by God. One of the primary edicts of Biblical mythology is to subdue the earth and to rule over it. The difference between these two disparate ways of perceiving nature is that the earth-oriented mythology seeks to be in accord with nature and the paradigm of Genesis is to dominate and subjugate nature, which exists to serve us. While many of us don’t read the Bible or believe in the Bible as an ultimate truth, it still holds sway over us subconsciously as the primary creation myth in our society.

This western creation myth is startling compared with more worldwide creation mythologies based on a female deity who connects all of life rather than separating and disparaging life. In The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford explain, “The Mother Goddess, wherever she is found, is an image that inspires and focuses a perception of the universe as an organic, alive and sacred whole, in which humanity, the Earth and all life on Earth participate as ‘her children’. Everything is woven together in one cosmic web, where all orders of manifest and unmanifest life are related, because all share in the sanctity of the original source.”3

This cosmology that espouses that all life is connected, like the strands of a web, has been validated by the emergence of the “new sciences” which supports this vision of life as a sacred whole in which all life participates in mutual relationship, and where all participants are dynamically alive. Cashford and Baring go on to say, “. . . beginning with Heisenberg and Einstein, physicists were claiming that in subatomic physics the universe could be understood only as a unity.”4 By creating this picture of unity, we understand that each of us is a strand on the great web of life and that everything that we think, say, and do vibrates along the web affecting strands far, far away, much like James Gleick’s “the Butterfly Effect, the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.”5

For many people, the goddess is now expressed not necessarily as inherently female, but as what that feminine expression embodies: the concept of life as a whole, intricately woven together in sacred unity. We were not kicked out of the garden; rather, we were given the charge to be caretakers of this amazing place we call Earth.

Art by Emily BalivetThe Garden of Eden creation mythology is singular in its portrayal of woman as sinner and perpetrator of humankind’s downfall. As Campbell explains, “The idea in the biblical tradition of the Fall is that nature as we know it is corrupt, sex in itself is corrupt, and the female as the epitome of sex is a corrupter.”6 What are the roots of this Hebrew myth that carries such disdain towards nature and the female? Campbell continues, “There is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The principal divinity of the people of Canaan was the Goddess . . . there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess implied in the story of the Garden of Eden”7 by the male-god-oriented Hebrews.

As the once-supreme creatrix lost more and more of her place in our lives; as the people who worshiped her were conquered and forced to adopt, or adapt to, the religious beliefs of their conquerors, the “Mother Goddess, became almost exclusively associated with ‘Nature’ as the chaotic force to be mastered, and the God took the role of conquering or ordering nature from his counterpole of ‘Spirit’.”8 This split in consciousness, which contains the mythological roots of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam–the three major patriarchal religions of the world today–can be traced to a popular Babylonian epic known throughout the ancient world, Ca. 2000 B. C. E., as the Enuma Elish. This story recounts the defeat of the original mother goddess, Tiamat, by her great-great-great-grandson, Marduk. Tiamat, the Babylonian creation goddess, was seen as the primordial ocean womb whose fertile depths birthed every living thing, including a younger generation of gods which then sought to overthrow the older generation. In this epic, Tiamat is portrayed as a great serpent or dragon, both of which are ancient associations of the feminine. After the conquest and murder of Tiamat, the life-giving, nature deity who created him, Marduk then uses her body to form creation. The text reads:

“He split her like a shellfish into two parts:
Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky . . .
He heaped up a mountain over Tiamat’s head,
pierced her eyes to form the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates,
and heaped similar mountains over her dugs,
which he pierced to make the rivers
from the eastern mountains that flow into the Tigris.
Her tail he bent up into the sky to make the Milky Way,
and her crotch he used to support the sky.”9

The original myth which portrayed the Mother Goddess birthing everything from herself, and therefore, part of, and one with all of creation, is now transposed into a myth which suggests that “the lord” makes creation, and from her body no less. For the first time, as Cashford and Baring point out, “the god becomes the maker of heaven and earth whereas the goddess was heaven and earth. The concept of ‘making’ is radically different from ‘being’, in the sense that what is made is not necessarily of the same substance as its maker, and may be conceived as inferior to him; while what emerges from the mother is necessarily part of her and she of it.”10

With the acceptance and perpetuation of this 4000-year-old myth, a new order of creation is initiated whereby the feminine, symbolized as the goddess, from this time forward becomes synonymous with the realm of nature as something wild, dark, mysterious, chaotic, and dangerous. Marduk then represents the new “spiritual” order of male deities whose religious imperative is to conquer and order nature, thus creating a split which is still impacting society today.

This creation mythology places strong emphasis on the opposition between spirit and nature, implying explicitly that nature is not alive and contains no spirit, and left us with a heritage of thinking in duality and oppositions. Since our myths implicitly govern our culture, it is no coincidence that our western paradigm, with the looming chasm of the lost feminine, has desacralized Nature. Reclaiming and restoring the feminine is crucial to the survival of the human race and the planet. As Cashford and Baring emphasize, the feminine principal, as an aspect of human consciousness, must be retrieved, integrated and brought back into full complementary balance with the masculine principle if we are ever to achieve a harmonious balance between these two basic and essential ways of experiencing life.11 In 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, “The world of humanity is possessed of two wings: the male and the female. So long as these two wings are not equivalent in strength, the bird will not fly.”12 Today the wisdom of these words ring with an even deeper profundity.

Now we find ourselves at a pivotal point in cultural evolution. How do we weave together the disparate parts of our dualistic natures? Have we learned yet that strength is not equated with conquest and domination? Can we heal the gap that separates the polarities we find ourselves divided into? How do we integrate the necessary qualities of strength and nurturing, logic and intuition, mind and matter, nature and human development? Can we discover a new evolutionary path? How do we find the balance in nature that is needed at this critical moment in history? Can we make of this earth the garden it once was?

Francis Hodgson Burnett’s book, The Secret Garden is a brilliant tale depicting the deep healing that can take place with the retrieval of the lost feminine.

Arthurian-wall-tree-720Mary, the story’s vibrant heroine, confesses early on, “I’ve stolen a garden . . . It isn’t mine. It isn’t anybody’s. Nobody wants it, nobody cares for it, nobody ever goes into it.”13 Much like the feminine in our society which no one seems to want or care for, Mary’s garden has been abandoned and neglected. Jungian psychologist Dr. Gloria Avrech says of this classic story written just after the turn of the century, “The problem it depicts seems to relate to the absence, neglect, and disdain of the Feminine, Great Mother, and matriarchal consciousness in the psyche and in our lives.”14

Mary, forced to go outside, begins to explore the grounds around the manor she has been brought to, and encounters a robin. Avrech explains, “the robin . . . leads our young, wounded healer and future shaman to an enclosed garden behind a locked door. On an inner level, the wounded feminine ego, represented by Mary, can be seen as beginning to connect to nature and her instincts, which connecting process can bring about a restored connection to the Self.”15 Mary goes on to bring the same kind of wholeness to her cousin Colin and his father, Lord Craven, through restoration of the lost feminine.

An enclosed secret garden is a strong, archetypal image found in countless legends, folklore, and myths. According to Avrech, “a dormant garden can be a beautiful image for the potential life-giving, protective, containing, nurturing qualities of the positive aspects of the Great Mother archetype.”16

Like most fairy tales and fables, this story, too, has a happy ending. Comforting the crying Mary, Lord Craven declares, “You brought us back to life, Mary. You did something I thought no one could do.”17

The lost feminine now restored, the garden is, once again, open, alive, and awake. Mary poignantly sums up her journey with, “If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”18

afterlife-falls-720 by John Banks

Images:
MotherEarth by Karl Bang
Eve Swooning in the Garden of Eden by Emily Balivet
Arthurian-Wall-Tree by John Banks, Artek Images
Afterlife-Falls by John Banks, Artek Images

____________________

  1. David B. Guralnik, Editor in Chief, Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (New York and Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1970), p.948.
  2. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth (New York: Doubleday, 1988), p.166.
  3. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, (London, New York: Viking, 1991), p.Xi.
  4. Ibid, p.Xiii.
  5. Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” Edward N. Lorenz address at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, 29 December 1979.
  6. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Auckland: Doubleday, 1988), p.47.
  7. Ibid, p.48.
  8. Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, The Myth of the Goddess, (London, New York: Viking, 1991), p.Xii.
  9. Ibid, p.278.
  10. Ibid, p.274.
  11. Ibid, p.Xiii.
  12. http://www.bahai.org/documents/nsa-usa/two-wings-bird.
  13. Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden, (Boston: David R. Godine, Publisher, 1987), p.80.
  14. Gloria Avrech, PhD, The Secret Garden, (Psychological Perspectives, C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles – Based On Film).
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Agnieszka Holland (Director), The Secret Garden, (An American Zoetrope Production, Warner Brothers Release, 1993).
  18. Ibid.

© 2005, Xia

About Feminine Alchemy

Founder and Director, Temple of the Goddess
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