The Secret Lives of Words column: Earth Day, earth mothers, and COVID-19
The world celebrated Earth Day on April 22 and has every year since the event was established in 1970, a half century ago. Coincidentally, the day before, April 21, was marked by the ancient Romans as the anniversary of their semi-legendary founding in 753 B.C., when Romulus ritually inaugurated the boundaries of what was then a tiny hilltop village of thatched huts overlooking the Tiber River.
So the 21st of April was for Rome a bit like our 4th of July and was one of about 150 festival days in their annual CALENDar (from Latin kalendarium). Although they didn’t exactly have an Earth Day, the ancients did enthusiastically celebrate the Earth. Even before the advent of the Romans and their gallery of deities dominated by the masculine sky-lord Jupiter, ancient Mediterranean folk worshiped what they conceived of as a feminine spirit, an Earth Mother whose nurturing force gave birth to and sustained all plant and animal life vital to their agricultural societies.
The Venus of Willendorf, large-breasted and exuberantly pregnant, is the best known of numerous Palaeolithic figurines dating to 30,000 years ago and widely regarded as representations of the essence of the earth’s fertility. The snake-goddess frequently represented in the second millennium B.C. Minoan culture on the island of Crete was another manifestation of the generative force of Mother Earth.
In his poem the Cosmogony, "The Origin of the Universe," the seventh-century B.C. Greek Hesiod called this goddess Gaia/Earth, source of our words GEography and GEology. In Hesiod’s poetic conception, the sky-god Ouranos (Latin Uranus)/Heaven rained down upon Gaia his moisturizing, inseminating fluids, and out of her terrestrial flesh were born all the world’s creatures.
This same Mediterranean earth-spirit was assimilated into Greek myth and ritual as the goddess Demeter, whose name seems to have meant "grain mother," de + meter, a word connected to the Romans’ mater, as in MATERnal and MATERnity. Our similar-looking and - sounding Germanic word "mother" is descended in fact, like the Greek and Latin, from the same prehistoric Indo-European language, which dates back 10,000 years or more to the Neolithic period.
When Demeter’s daughter Persephone was kidnapped by Pluto, Lord of the Underworld, the grain goddess went into mourning, Winter descended, and plants died or grew dormant. But when Persephone was permitted by Pluto to ascend into the upper world for six months every year, her mother relented, gave the world Spring, and annually renewed the planet’s vegetative growth - a rebirth taken by her cultists as proof of their own immortality.
Demeter’s Roman counterpart was Ceres, the primitive Italic guardian spirit of wheat, whose name is source for our word CEReal. In her evolved, anthropomorphic form the goddess was worshipped at a week-long festival called the CERealia, held in mid- to late April and thus overlapping our Earth Day. Chariot races were sponsored in the Circus Maximus and women, dressed in white and carrying torches, re-enacted Ceres’ search for her daughter Proserpina (the Romanized Persephone).
From April 28-May 3 the Romans held yet another festival celebrating the natural world, the Floralia. The event honored Flora, goddess of fertility, of FLOWERs (from Latin flos/flora), and of springtime, a further embodiment of the Earth Mother.
Gaia, Demeter, Ceres, and Flora, as goddesses of birth and flowering served also as metaphors for the hope of reflowering and rebirth. The Romans throughout their history faced constant terror from incessant war and a host of incurable diseases, which on a personal level were every bit as frightful as our fears of nuclear war, pandemic, and the ravages of climate change. Many prayed to their divinities for reassurance and salvation even as people do today.
Others turned to philosophy. Stoicism in particular, which exercised a profound influence on early Christianity, advocated acceptance of the reality that certain destructive forces were beyond our control. The solution was commitment to a life of reasoned, moral behavior within the circle of family, friends, and associates over whom we can exercise some salutary influence.
One of the most compelling and reassuring expositions of this approach to sane living is in the Meditations of the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, written by him when the Roman Empire was itself in the throes of the "Antonine Plague." The disease, most likely smallpox, was transmitted by legionaires returning from a campaign in the near east. Spreading throughout the Roman Empire (and also eastward into China) between A.D. 166 and 180, the pandemic ultimately claimed an estimated 5 million lives, including perhaps that of Aurelius’ co-emperor Lucius Verus.
Alice and I are closet Stoics. Like Aurelius, we understand that much of what happens to us is beyond our control and that worry can do us more harm, mentally and physically, than the things we worry about. The healthiest, most effective response to COVID-19 right now is to focus on what we do have the power to manage. Every day we reach out to some friend or family member, by phone, email, or social media. And we immerse ourselves in activities that give us joy and are also, in some small way, creative and productive.
Though retired from classroom teaching for nearly a decade, I work almost daily at my online tutorials with some marvelous students, aged 20-something to 70-something, who are every bit as eager to learn a bit about Latin as I am to teach them. I write these columns; when time permits, I make revisions to my next book; I tend our tiny vegetable garden, planting, weeding, fertilizing, watering - things the Romans labored over and rejoiced in millennia ago.
Alice, on the other hand, is my Flora, my personal, live-in Earth Mother. She also plants, and cultivates, and nurtures her peonies and amaryllis, her multi-colored Joseph’s Coat, the bearded iris, gerbera daisies, and gardenias - all embroidered into the tapestry of our yard.
She reveres the deathless beech tree, which holds its lustrous leaves throughout the winter, dropping them only when its new springtime foliage bursts forth. Occasionally she prunes the live oak a nurseryman friend, ready to discard it, graciously gave her 10 years ago. It was no more than 6 feet high at the time, rootbound and moribund, but she resurrected and mothered the tree, which Romans viewed as sacred to Jupiter, and today it towers majestically to a height of nearly 50 feet.
Alice nurtures me as well, with her fervent hopefulness, which is after all, along with caution and hard work, what will sustain us through these terrible times. She is encouraged by reports that, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, air pollution is declining all around the world - a 30% reduction in the northeastern U.S., and in northern India the peaks of the Himalayan Mountains are now visible again for the first time in three decades. Paul Monks, a University of Leicester pollution scientist, has remarked, "We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever … looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy."
The planet is now even vibrating less, shuddering less one might say, and there is less seismic movement in its outer crust as a consequence of the reduced hustle and bustle of human activity. And so every day Alice hopes, as we all might well do, that the worst of this crisis and loss of life will soon be behind us and that, with lessons learned, the future of our Mother Earth may be much brighter than the world had come to expect over this past generation.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.