This is an edited version of a radio program by the author in 1994, on 2BLU 89.1 FM, Blue Mountains, Australia, in the context of a series called “Remembering the Great Mother”.
Thirteen point seven billion years ago, our universe was born in a vast and mysterious eruption of being. Out of the fireball came all the elementary particles of the cosmos, including those that later formed our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and our planetary home, the Earth. All the land, the waters, the animals, the plants, our bodies, the moon and stars everything in our life experience is kin to us, the results of a cosmic birth during which the gravitational power of the event held the newborn particles in a deft embrace. Had the rate of expansion of the infant universe differed by even one part in 1060, it would have either collapsed into a black hole or dispersed entirely …
The gravitational embrace, some 4.6 billion years ago, gathered a richness of elements eight light minutes from a blazing star, our sun, and layered them by weight into a sphere with iron at the core. The elements sought their own positions in the layers … creating among themselves all the minerals in Earth’s body. On the smaller celestial bodies (Mercury, Mars, our moon), the electromagnetic interaction overpowered gravity’s pull; on the larger ones (Jupiter, Neptune and Uranus), the opposite relationship developed. Only on Earth were the two in balance.
On Earth’s crust, molecules continually broke up and recombined into new and larger molecules. Lightning created the possibility of amino and nucleic acids … Molecules that assembled themselves from amino acids became protein, while others formed of nucleic acids and sugars became ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). The long chains of RNA, DNA and protein molecules found themselves drawn into various partnerships, creating a dynamic bioplasm of bacteria in warm mud and shallow seawater. From Earth’s store of potential, the great mediator chlorophyll developed, enhancing our planet’s relationship with the sun through the wonder of photosynthesis. A rambunctious bursting forth of Gaian life stretched over millions of years and continues today ….
With the emergence of animal forms … the eye and the ear, Earth was first seen and heard; and with the emergence of humans, came a species “in whom the universe reflects on and celebrates itself in a special mode of conscious self-awareness.”[ii] And the humans observed, painted, danced, spoke, made symbols for language.
To traditional native cultures, the intricately balanced relatedness of the Earth community obviously calls forth awareness and sensitivity on the part of humans. Native people find the extent to which modern citizens are oblivious to the rest of the natural world incredible.[iii]
Many cultures have moved so far away, insulated themselves, projected fearsome treachery and destructive chaos onto the rest of nature.[iv] The roots of this kind of thinking in the West, the desacralizing of nature, go back not to the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries as many suppose, but as far back as the Indo-European Revolution between 4300 and 2800 B.C.E. when repeated disturbances and incursions “put an end to the Old European culture … changing it from gylanic to androcratic and from matrilineal to patrilineal”[v]. It was a shift removing the sacred and revered from the chthonic life processes of Earth to a more distant celestial realm.[vi] This transition was later deepened by the incoming Olympian mythology, and the early Greek philosophers whose perspective came to dominate Western thought, peaking with Aristotle: and here the divorce of matter and spirit, the desacralization of Mater – the removal of Her sentience, was clearly linked to misogyny.
Plato reasoned that since matter was transitory, it was illusory, and that the real world lay beyond the “cave of matter”, that the idea of matter existed before matter and was more perfect. For Aristotle, matter was passive and inert, and this was also the nature of woman. The God of Aristotle was understood to be all perfect and known to be immaterial: Divinity came to be perceived as pure mind, perfect, unchanging, named as “Thought Thinking Itself”, caring little for the world, indeed perhaps not even aware of it. It was a philosophical and theological position that described their own lack of presence to life – while women made and washed their clothes, prepared their food – and probably grew it, and raised the children. It is a point of view of the (male) child, not the nurturing (usually maternal) parent – as most texts have been for millennia.
And so Susan Griffin writes in Woman and Nature:
He says that woman speaks with nature. That she hears voices from under the earth. That wind blows in her ears and trees whisper to her. That the dead sing through her mouth and the cries of infants are clear to her. But for him this dialogue is over. He says he is not part of this world, that he was set on this world as a stranger. He sets himself apart from woman and nature. …
We are the bird’s eggs. Bird’s eggs, flowers, butterflies, rabbits, cows, sheep; we are caterpillars; we are leaves of ivy and sprigs of wallflower. We are women. We rise from the wave. We are gazelle and doe, elephant and whale, lilies and roses and peach, we are air, we are flame, we are oyster and pearl, we are girls. We are woman and nature. And he says he cannot hear us speak.
But we hear.”[vii]
In 1687, Isaac Newton published his mechanical view of the cosmos, which imagined the workings of nature as an elaborate clockwork. The clock at the time “epitomized order, harmony and mathematical precision, ideas which fitted in well with the prevailing theology”.[viii] Newtonian mechanics established a clear connection between cause and effect, and that matter moved in accordance with strict mathematical laws. There was no room for mystery or the ancient notion of the cosmos as a living organism. Newton’s “doctrine that the physical Universe consists of inert matter locked into a sort of gigantic deterministic clockwork … (influenced) … all branches of human inquiry”:[ix] in biology, all living entities were treated as machines; in behaviourist psychology, mind was seen as inert passive matter responding “in an ultimately deterministic way to external forces or stimuli.”[x]
Newton’s physics was embraced wholeheartedly by Western culture during the Industrial Revolution, when the forces of nature and human beings were harnessed for production and power. We all now face the destructiveness of this mechanistic perspective.
There is however in science another paradigm that has emerged, at first early last century with Einstein’s theory of relativity[xi] which warped and shifted space and time … no good for a clockwork universe! Then came quantum theory, which totally transformed the image of matter: Fritjof Capra popularized it in his book The Tao of Physics in 1976. Matter was now understood as a “paradoxical conjunction of waves and particles, governed by the laws of chance, rather than the rigid rules of causality.”[xii] Then came quantum field theory wherein solid matter dissolves, replaced by “vibrations of invisible field energy” and “little distinction remains between material substance and apparently empty space, which itself seethes with ephemeral moments of quantum activity.”[xiii] These ideas culminate in the superstring theory, “which seeks to unite space, time and matter, and to build all of them from the vibrations of sub-microscopic loops of invisible string …”.[xiv] The image recalls, does it not, the ancient image of the Great Goddess who weaves the Fabric of Life.[xv] Western science now finds itself speaking of a Cosmos that mystics have always perceived, in which separateness is an illusion: science now suggests that there is no “objective” reality, only a world of patterns, an interactive dance of relationships; that consciousness is not an observer of reality, but participant in it: the world is, as we see it.
In such a cosmology, the future is open, depending on how we with reflective consciousness will it, and imagine/conceive it. The circle then has been completed: Western science, which departed the confines of religious dogma some centuries ago, in the quest to know matter more deeply – the prodigal child perhaps of the Mother – comes Home … maybe just in time.
© Glenys Livingstone 2015
[i] Charlene Spretnak, “Gaian Spirituality”, p.10.
[ii] Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts, p.146.
[iii] Charlene Spretnak, “Gaian Spirituality”, p.10.
[iv] Charlene Spretnak, “Gaian Spirituality”, p.10.
[v] Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, p.xx, and referring to the book The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler who proposed the term “gylany” (gy from ‘woman’, an from andros, ‘man’ and the letter l linking the two) for an egalitarian social structure.
[vi] For more on this aspect of the transition see Nanos Valaoritis, “The Cosmic Conflict of Male and Female in Greek Mythology”, in From the Realm of the Ancestors, Joan Marler (ed.) pp.247–261.
[vii] Susan Griffin. Woman and Nature, p.1.
[viii] Paul Davies, The Matter Myth, p.12.
[ix] Paul Davies, The Matter Myth, p.12.
[x] Paul Davies, The Matter Myth, p.13.
[xii] Paul Davies, The Matter Myth, p.16.
[xiii] Paul Davies, The Matter Myth, p.14.
[xiv] Paul Davies, The Matter Myth, p.14.
[xv] I think Starhawk notes this somewhere.
Berry, Thomas. Evening Thoughts. (ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker) SF: Sierra Club Books, 2006.
Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics. Colorado: Shambhalla Publications, 1976.
Davies, Paul and Gribbin, John. The Matter Myth: Dramatic Discoveries that Challenge Our Understanding of Physical Reality. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade. SF: Harper and Row, 1987.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. NY: HarperCollins, 1991.
Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. NY: Harper Colophon, 1980.
Marler, Joan (ed.). From the Realm of the Ancestors: An Anthology in Honor of Marija Gimbutas. Manchester CT: Knowledge, Ideas and Trends Inc., 1997, pp.247-261.
Spretnak, Charlene. “Gaian Spirituality”. Woman of Power Issue 20, Spring 1991, pp. 10-17.
Wallace, William O.P. The Elements of Philosophy. NY: Alba House, 1977.