(Essay 1) Gaia as a Cosmic Name by Glenys Livingstone Ph.D.

[This essay is part 1 of an edited excerpt from Chapter 1 of her book PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion.]

GL Jewel in Womb of Space
Jewel in Womb of Space

For years I described my spiritual practice as Gaian, perhaps encouraged by Charlene Spretnak’s use of the term for an article in 1991.[1] It is an Earth-based spirituality, which requires only birth, not baptism, for belonging. We are all native to Gaia; all humans are indigenous to Her, though as Primordial Mother She may have other names.  All humans can lay claim to relationship with Air, Fire, Water and Earth and to the Mystery at the Centre of it all. We do all issue forth from the same Origin – this is not just poetic flourish, this is biologically and cosmologically true. Gaia, as I understand Her, is not only Earth; She is Cosmos. Earth is that particular manifestation of Her with whom we are most intimate, and with whom all humans participate, whether conscious or not. The same Creative Dynamic (capitalized because it may be a name for the Sacred) that flourishes in Earth is assumed to be the same Creative Dynamic present throughout the Universe. Earth-Gaia is Seed and Jewel of a larger living Organism. Earth-Gaia is our Mother, but She is Daughter too, of an essential sentience that seethes through the Universe. Inasmuch as I am sentient, and I arise out of Earth, and Earth arises out of Universe, then Universe-Gaia is alive and sentient.[2] She is the eternal pulse, in which each one of us flows. Gaia is Earth, is Universe, is Ultimate Mystery, is you, is me – She is multivalent. The only faith required in this spirituality is in the Teeming Abundant Creativity (another Name?) that has been manifesting now for some thirteen point seven billion years, and which has survived on this planet in  particular for millions of years. This is not a flimsy track record! Perhaps, as James Lovelock has said, this is “as near immortal as we ever need to know”;[3]or as Susan Griffin said more poetically, “at no instant does She fail me in Her presence.”[4]

Essential then, to Gaian spirituality, is the development of relationship with Earth, entering into Her consciousness, expanding awareness beyond the human-centred perspective. It requires a remembering of the “real” – the situation of “all human thought, social or individual … in the processes of body, nature and place.”[5] Or as Thomas Berry describes, it requires a return to our “native place”, the recovery of a feeling of intimacy with “the earth community”, which he describes as the recovery of

a sense of presence, a realization that the earth community is a wilderness community that will not be bargained with; nor will it simply be studied or examined or made an object of any kind; nor will it be domesticated or trivialized as a setting for vacation indulgence … [6]

He says it requires remembering

our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants, our sense of gratitude, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat, our capacity for the awesome, for the numinous quality of every earthly reality.[7]

Teeming Abundant Creativity Used with permission from "Lost Goddesses of Early Greece" by Charlene Spretnak p.43 - artist Patricia Reis.
Teeming Abundant Creativity
Used with permission from “Lost Goddesses of Early Greece” by Charlene Spretnak p.43 – artist Patricia Reis.

This kind of presence is enabled by an identification of ourselves (the human) with the entire cosmic process – Gaia’s story, which is also ours; and by an identification with the cosmic powers that sustain us – such as Air, Sun, Water, Earth and more. Gaian spirituality involves remembering the integrity of all elemental phenomena; that we are this, we depend on this, we come from this and return to this.

Earth-Gaia is not separate from Universe-Gaia. Earth is immersed in Universe: there is no seam that separates … She is One. There is no ”up” and “down”, no “out there”.  Gaia is “in here”, as much as anywhere, or She is nowhere. Gaia can be known, felt, in any single articulation of Herself – within any self. We are IN it, Earth is IN it. Earth floats in the “heavens” – the “heavens” are where we are. Gaia is a nested reality of Universe-Earth-Self; and inversely Self is Earth, is Gaia. Many spiritualities and most language imply that Earth is a world apart from the Heavens – and even that the Heavens are “higher” and thus “better”. Yet we know that Earth is a Jewel in the Womb of Space – we have seen Her. We know that “Earth” is stardust – Her dirt is transfigured stuff of the stars. We know that we and all of it, are made from the same stuff – that we come out of the cores of stars, that a significant percentage of our “stuff” comes directly from the Origins (10% in fact, of your bodymind, which is hydrogen, is a direct result of the Original Flaring Forth, when all hydrogen was made), albeit recycled many times over. Spiritual language must catch up, if we are to stop killing ourselves and other beings with our words. “Higher” indicates “out there”, in “loftier” realms beyond, transcending lowly earthly nature. “Deeper” indicates “within”, the depth of the earthly realm, enriched awareness of the multivalent numinous earthly nature/reality. The use of language such as “higher levels” by spiritual traditions in particular, and even by ecological texts, and the worldview that accompanies it, has created and goes on creating a sense of alienation from the stuff we inhabit and where we dwell.

Early Earth-Gaia Used with permission from Christopher R Scotese http://www.scotese.com
Early Earth-Gaia
Used with permission from Christopher R Scotese

In 1926 – long before the human eye had actually seen Earth from space – Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky, was able to hold a vision of Her in her “cosmic surroundings.”[8] He developed a hypothesis of the biosphere “as a unitary agent molding the earth’s crust as a primary geological force”[9] that was in relationship with the cosmic energies of radiation, particularly solar radiation.[10] Throughout his work Vernadsky scientifically and poetically describes a wholistic vision of Cosmos and Earth, and at times refers to humankind as a “geological entity”.[11] His concept of a biosphere is based on data from all Earth sciences, and because of this synthesis it is a comprehension of “the nature of the Earth on a planetary/cosmic scale.”[12] For Vernadsky, the biosphere is “a place of transformation” of cosmic energies.[13] He says

The biosphere is as much, or even more, the creation of the Sun as it is a manifestation of Earth-processes. Ancient religious traditions which regarded terrestrial creatures, especially human beings, as ‘children of the Sun’ were much nearer the truth than those which looked upon them as a mere ephemeral creation …[14]

Vernadsky asserts that the phenomena in the biosphere can only be understood in the context of the entire cosmos – the phenomena are “related to the structure of atoms, to their places in the cosmos and to their evolution in the history of the cosmos.”[15]

Earth of course does not need to be named Gaia – Spretnak refers to “Earthbody”[16]– but it is a name that now has large appeal in the West, due to James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis’ scientific theory named thus, first published in 1974. The name “Gaia” now not only invokes the ancient Greek myth of the Creator-Goddess, but also the present scientific inquiry. Lovelock points out that the Gaia theory is now

spurring a great deal of scientific research into the geophysiology of our living planet (and) it is also spurring philosophic conceptions of what it means to our species to be part of a living planet. Some of these conceptions stay carefully within the accepted limits of science; others have a religious bent.[17]

The religious bent is frequently problematic to the acceptance of the theory itself in the scientific community; but the scientific bent to this ancient religious story is most frequently beneficial to a prospective deepening of connection to the hearts and minds of a people seeking relationship with Earth. The naming of a spirituality as “Gaian” today, signifies the integration of scientific knowledge gained by humanity into the vision and metaphor of that spirituality. For Spretnak, knowing Gaia, is knowing that we are

inextricably linked at the molecular level to every other  manifestation of the great unfolding. We are descendants of the fireball … glimpsing the oneness of the sacred whole.[18]

The Gaia theory states “that our planet and its creatures constitute a single self-regulating system that is in fact a great living being”.[19] Elisabet Sahtouris, evolutionary biologist, grounds her philosophy in this conception. She understands the scientific story of Gaian creation as a retelling of the ancient myth, and says that

once we truly grasp the scientific reality of the Gaian organism and its physiology, our entire worldview and practice are bound to change profoundly, revealing the way to solving what now appear to be our greatest and most insoluble problems.[20]

© Glenys Livingstone 2014


Barlow, Connie (ed). From Gaia to Selfish Genes: selected writings in the Life Sciences. Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994.

Berry, Thomas. The Dream of the EarthSF: Sierra Club Books, 1990.

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. NY: Harper Colophon, 1980.

Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2005.

Sahtouris, Elisabet. Earthdance: Living Systems in Evolution. Lincoln NE: iUniversity Press, 2000.

Spretnak, Charlene. The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature and Place in a Hypermodern WorldNY: Routledge, 1999.

________________.  States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age. SF: HarperCollins, 1993.

________________. “Gaian Spirituality”. Woman of Power Issue 20, Spring 1991, pp. 10 -17.

Vernadsky, Vladimir. The Biosphere. London: Synergetic Press, 1986.

[1] Charlene  Spretnak, “Gaian Spirituality”. Woman of Power Issue 20, Spring 1991.

[2] This is not meant to be an axiom of logic. It is stated thus because its metaphoric base here is “family’ or “nested realities”.

[3] Cited in Connie Barlow  (ed.), From Gaia to Selfish Genes: Selected Writings in the Life Sciences, p.42.

[4] Susan Griffin, Woman and Nature, p. 219.

[5] Charlene Spretnak, The Re-Surgence of the Real, p.4.

[6] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p.2.

[7] Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, p.2.

[8] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.6. Elisabet  Sahtouris questions whether Vernadsky really did perceive Earth as a whole live entity (Earthdance p.118), and refers to Scottish scientist James Hutton, as having such a view in 1785 (Earthdance, p.69).

[9] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.iv.

[10] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.2

[11] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.2.

[12] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.4.

[13] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.7.

[14] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.8.

[15] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, p.9.

[16] Charlene Spretnak, States of Grace, pp.144-145.

[17] in James Lovelock’s Foreword to Elisabet Sahtouris, Earthdance, p.xiii.

[18] Charlene  Spretnak, “Gaian Spirituality”. Woman of Power Issue 20, Spring 1991, p.17.

[19] Elisabet Sahtouris, Earthdance, p.xvii.

[20] Elisabet Sahtouris, Earthdance, p.7.

Read Meet Mago Contributor Glenys Livingstone.

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