Homeric Hymn 30: To Earth Mother of All

The thirtieth Homeric Hymn, addressed to Gaia (aka Gê), represents several of the themes so far featured on this site—notably poetry, features of ancient Mediterranean cultures, and my series on Reintegrating with Nature—as well as others so far unaddressed but of no less interest, like motherhood, translation, and what I would call philological anthropology.

These “Homeric Hymns” appear to have been prefatory hymns sung by poets of narratives in dactylic hexameter. They were not composed by Homer, but they’re called ‘Homeric’ because they employ the meter that Homer himself employed (along with all others who used dactylic hexameters to narrate epic tales for their audiences, whose works have not survived). Most of the surviving hymns (there are not even three dozen of them) are short like this one, but four of them, to Demeter, to Apollo, to Hermes, and to Aphrodite, are much longer.

Anyway, here’s a translation, with the Greek, along with a commentary on our extractive relationship with the earth and with our mothers, followed by a (super nerdy) section on the language used in the Hymn.

Text and Translation

Εἲς Γῆν Μητέρα Πάντων

γαῖαν παμμήτειραν ἀείσομαι ἠυθέμεθλον     1
πρεσβίστην, ἣ φέρβει ἐπὶ χθονὶ πάνθ᾽ ὁπόσ᾽ ἐστίν,     2
ἠμὲν ὅσα χθόνα δῖαν ἐπέρχεται ἠδ᾽ ὅσα πόντον     3
ἠδ᾽ ὅσα πωτῶνται, τάδε φέρβεται ἐκ σέθεν ὄλβου.     4
ἐκ σέο δ᾽ εὔπαιδές τε καὶ εὔκαρποι τελέθουσι,    5
πότνια, σεῦ δ᾽ ἔχεται δοῦναι βίον ἠδ᾽ ἀφελέσθαι     6
θνητοῖς ἀνθρώποισιν: ὃ δ᾽ ὄλβιος, ὅν κε σὺ θυμῷ     7
πρόφρων τιμήσῃς: τῷ τ᾽ ἄφθονα πάντα πάρεστι.     8
βρίθει μέν σφιν ἄρουρα φερέσβιος ἠδὲ κατ᾽ ἀγροὺς     9
κτήνεσιν εὐθηνεῖ, οἶκος δ᾽ ἐμπίπλαται ἐσθλῶν·   10
αὐτοὶ δ᾽ εὐνομίῃσι πόλιν κάτα καλλιγύναικα    11
κοιρανέουσ᾽, ὄλβος δὲ πολὺς καὶ πλοῦτος ὀπηδεῖ·   12
παῖδες δ᾽ εὐφροσύνῃ νεοθηλέι κυδιόωσι   13
παρθενικαί τε χοροῖς πολυανθέσιν εὔφρονι θυμῷ   14
παίζουσαι σκαίρουσι κατ᾽ ἄνθεα μαλθακὰ ποίης,   15
οὕς κε σὺ τιμήσῃς, σεμνὴ θεά, ἄφθονε δαῖμον.   16
χαῖρε, θεῶν μήτηρ, ἄλοχ᾽ Οὐρανοῦ ἀστερόεντος,   17
πρόφρων δ᾽ ἀντ᾽ ᾠδῆς βίοτον θυμήρε᾽ ὄπαζε·   18
αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ καὶ σεῖο καὶ ἄλλης μνήσομ᾽ ἀοιδῆς.   19
To Gê Mother of All

Earth all-mother I will sing, the well-founded
eldest, who nourishes upon the surface all those that are,
those that go upon the rich surface and those the sea
and those that fly about—these are nourished from your bounty.
From you they flourish well in children and fruit,
Mistress, and yours is to give life or take it away
from mortal men. He is fortunate whomever you honor
eagerly in your spirit: to him is everything provided in abundance.
His life-bearing field is weighted with fruit, in the pastures
he flourishes in cattle, and his house is full of good things.
With Good Order throughout the city of beautiful women
they are rulers, and great fortune and wealth attend.
Children exult in fresh-flourishing mirth,
and maidens in many-bloom’d choruses with mirthful spirit
frolic playfully through the soft blooms of grass,
whomever you honor, reverend goddess, unstinting daimon.
Rejoice, mother of the gods, bedmate of starry Ouranos,
and eagerly grant spirited livelihood in return for song.
But now I will remember you and another song.



What is missing here is the reciprocity. The absence may be pointed; in any case it is surely revealing. Gaia nourishes all; what do all give her? Gaia grants eager-spirited honors, but on what grounds? Those fortunate men don’t seem to have paid her any particular reverence to deserve the gift. Abundance and power from Gaia; but at what cost in return?

Reciprocity is exhibited in every other divine relation: in these other cases a mortal earns the gods’ beneficence by doing them some service or paying them honor. Of course in the second-to-last line here this poet also shows the reciprocity in their own person: they are honoring Gaia with a song, so may Gaia bless the poet. Yet within the poem itself, there is no hint of this.

Similarly, what characteristics of Gaia herself are mentioned without reference to what she offers others? Who is Gaia? What is she like? What happened in her past? Had she never existed except as a source of sustenance?

We are given a brief hint of Gaia as a figure in her own right when the poet addresses Gaia (line 17) and calls her ‘the bedmate of Ouranos’. But again,

within the frame of the poem itself, Gaia is not granted full personhood either: she is a giver, the source from which one receives; that is all.

Thus is Gaia the ‘unstinting daimon’—a daimon being a divine entity, whether or not they’re a ‘god’ (theos)—the all-mother (pammḗteira), such that there are no costs-in-return deemed worthy of inclusion. Humans take from the earth; they don’t need to make a return for the bounty they reap—so deeply embedded is the European fantasy of separation from the natural world.

But there’s more here than the separation of humans from environment: the other day in conversation with one of my good friends, we found ourselves discussing Jungian ideas related to motherhood as the Good Breast.

Primed from that conversation, here I see the beneficent suckling breast again, but from so many centuries ago. I see a cultural ideal of motherhood being foisted onto a larger register. Not a person in her own right with dreams and desires equal to her children’s, we’re told a mother must give and give and give, she must mine herself for her every resource to expend on her children and she must do so happily,

with a smile on her face, because after all that’s just ‘natural’! But, as Scheper-Hughes points out in Death without Weeping (amazon), the reality is that motherhood is a cultural construct learned over time, not a set of instincts.

Here and now, so many centuries after this hymn was composed, we’ve come to know that the earth is not boundless, that scarce resources do run out when they’re exploited without regard for the natural systems that allowed their miraculous abundance. Just as the milk from a mother’s breast comes at the expense of her body, the milks of the earth come at a cost no currency could pay.

You are related to every living thing through the nourishment of the Great Mother: thus is the bull your brother, the cow your sister, every tree, bush, wildflower and stalk of grass your sibling. Thus are those oppressed in Afghanistan your siblings. Thus are the Palestinians your siblings—and Palestine will be free! Thus is this young herdsman’s son born to the least connected of tribes your brother, and the herdsman too is your brother, and his wife is your sister. Earth joins us all one to another. So show some respect to the mother you and I share.

Language (it’s about to get pretty nerdy)

There’s a lot lost between the Greek and English, and the loss turns something nearly exquisite into seemingly disposable cliches. For example, a distinction between /Gaîa and khthṓn: the former is the planet entire, including land and sea, as well as the goddess, mother of most things (excepting Nyx and their children); khthṓn refers specifically to the surface of the planet, especially land as opposed to the sea’s surface, and is never personified as a divine figure.

Words for Wealth

Olbos (lines 4 and 12) refers to fortune, as in to have a fortune and to be fortunate (in terms of wealth): all comes from Earth’s olbos, and he whom she favors is olbios (adjectival form, ‘fortunate,’ line 7).

‘In abundance’ in line 8 translates the Greek áphthona, meaning originally ‘without [a-] envy [phthónos]’ and from there it comes to mean an unenvied abundance, i.e. wealth that does not generate jealous envy: this wealth is earned justly. The line literally reads ‘to him all is provided unenvied.’ ‘Unstinting’ in 16 translates áphthone literally, where it takes on an active sense (describing the one who does or does not envy, as opposed to that which is or is not envied).

In 10, ktḗnesin ‘cattle,’ names the oldest form of wealth, while 9-10 overall describe what wealth looked like: a man’s fields are fruitful, his herds are plentiful, and his storerooms are well-supplied—add to that an abundance in children (5). Notice in 13-15 that the poet is describing the privileges of wealth in terms of their effect on children: they grow up learning dances (not labor), and frolicking about (not toiling at a trade).

Ploûtos in 12 gets to ‘wealth’ itself in purely financial terms: thus we get words like plutocrat (someone who has power thanks to their wealth).

A Loose Composition

Signs that this is maybe a bit loosely constructed: khthōn twice in two lines (2 and 3). An unexpected switch between lines 10 and 11 from the man blessed by Gaia to a general ‘they,’ who ‘are rulers’ (koiranéein is a stative verb, ‘to be a koíranos,’ a ruler/leader/general): it is ‘loosely’ established by the beginning of 12 that the ‘they’ at the beginning of 11 are the rulers of a city. (And yes, I’m using ‘loosely’ rather loosely myself…)

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