Gaia, more frequently spelled Ge, was the Earth. She is rarely even referred to as a deity, she is more a power. What is. She was one of the firsts. Well, one of the firsts in some versions. There are actually a couple of different Creation myths, and not all of them include Gaia (I know, it shocked me, too). The original Greek Mythology (ie, pre-Classical) was was Pelasgian myth (the Pelasgians came to Greece from the Asia Minor 3,000 years before Hesiod). The Pelasgian creation story focuses on Eurynome, the Goddess of All Things. But you can go to the Myth Page on Eurynome's Creation Story if you want to learn more about that. Here, we will focus on Gaia. There are two parts: .
"First in my prayer, before all other deities,
I call upon Gaia, Primeval Prophetess . . .
The Greek great earth mother."
There are two accepted versions of Classical creation: Hesiod's and Ovid's. Both versions begin with Gaia's emergence from Chaos. She has a parthenogenic birth (ie, only one parent needed). According to Ovid, Gaia pretty much just appeared (similar to the Judeo-Christian creation story). After her birth, Ovid continued to see the hand of a Creator at work (an un-named Creator), who populated Gaia with the necessary mountains, seas, flora, and fauna. I much prefer Hesiod's version.
Before I tell you about what Hesiod had to say, I'm going to give you this wonderful quote from his creation story:
Gaia, the beautiful, rose up,
Broad blossomed, she that is the steadfast base
Of all things. And fair Gaia first bore
The starry Heaven, equal to herself,
To cover her on all sides and to be
A home forever for the blessed Gods.
And now back to the story. According to Hesiod, the first beings sprang into existance without cause or explanation. After Gaia came Tartarus (the lowest level of the Underworld, also viewed as a sort of huge cave or pit) and then came Eros: Erotic Love. Chaos continues her parthenogenic streak, giving birth to Erebus and Nyx. In her sleep, Gaia gives parthenogenic birth to Uranus (the Universe, who emerges as big and powerful as Gaia) and Pontus (the Sea, and the God of the Sea). Uranus, bursting (literally) with love for Gaia (possible only by the creation of Eros, you see), showers her with fertile rain and this is how Gaia gives birth to the rest of creation (you remember, seas, mountains, etc. - we already covered this with Ovid). Gaia and Uranus also gave birth to the Titans, the three Cyclopes and the three Hundred-Armed Giants.
There aren't tons of stories about Gaia. She's important, yes, and she shows up a lot, but not so much as an active participant in the story so much as a default womb and mother. She has LOTS of kids. And what really makes her special is that she can have these kids without active participation by a father. In many ways the Universe was created by her alone (okay, not really - but she did give birth to her son Uranus who then became her partner in the whole populating space thing). Once, Zeus had a wet dream at night that got Gaia pregnant, too (the child of that union was Agdistis).
There's a bunch of other mentions of her giving birth to people (especially men) - one of the most important was Erichthonius, who founded Athens.
Gaia's Children Include:
Uranus (yes I know he was her "husband" - but he was also her son - very Oedipal isn't it?...)
50-Headed, 100-Armed Giants: Cottus, Briareus, and Gyges
The Cyclopes: Brontes, Steropes, and Arges (Cyclope means Wheel-Eyed
Aetna, Eurybia, Nereus, Phorcys, Ceto, Thaumas, Atlas, Acheron, Antaeus, Agdistis, Erichthonius, Hyllus, Dreams, Python, the list goes on.
Don't know who your mama is? That's okay, Gaia's the default, and you can always accurately claim her. A good mythical example of this is when Pyrrha and Deucalion had to throw their mothers' bones over their shoulders!
Forgive me for ripping off Mary Renault's title, but if there's any goddess the idea really relates to, I think it would be Gaia. The theory is that every year the king was ritually sacrificed (killed by a rival, sacrificed in public, or only metaphorically murdered) to renew the land and the fertility of the kingdom. I'm not really gonna get any further into that because it's not actually from any Greek myth in particular, but it does seem like at least a decent introduction to the myth in which Gaia took her most active role.
So, Gaia and Uranus had a whole bunch of babies, as described above. Uranus, like many men, did his part in creating the children, but wasn't ready to be a daddy and tried to stuff the new life back into Gaia's womb. Then he tried to keep the kids inside her by blocking the entrance. With his own genitals. Can you imagine? Well, Gaia turned around (inside?) and gave her youngest son, Cronos (the Titan) a scythe to cut off his papa's penis and free the children. As a consequence, Cronos also took over as the Big God In Charge - a role previously held by Uranus, despite the appearance that it was Gaia with the real power.
Unfortunately, despite getting how he was put into power, Cronos only repeated the cycle. He put the Giants and the Cyclopes into Tartarus (deep pit type of jail) and whenever his wife, Rhea, gave birth, he swallowed the baby. He was threatened, it appears by this whole biological process that was beyond his control. After five pregnancies and five births and five babies devoured, Rhea went to Gaia and the two conspired to keep her youngest son - Zeus - from being swallowed and then got Cronos to vomit up the other ingested gods. With the promise from Zeus that he would free the other children of Earth, Gaia supported him in overthrowing Cronos and the rule of the Titans.
Will it surprise you to learn that Zeus did not remain true to the women who made him and put him in power? Almost immediately he stuck Gaia's monstrous children back in Tartarus. And when his woman, Metis, became pregnant, he started getting worried that like father like child. But he had learned more from his mothers than they intended. Rather than try to force his mate into submission or to steal her progeny, he skipped that altogether by swallowing her! When she gave birth, it was inside his body, and the child, Athena, had to be born of HIS body. By co-opting the labor and the birth, he kept Athena from any allegiance to a mother and broke the cycle of Kings dying to maintain the proper balance of Earth. The power of fertility was usurped by the patriarchy and Gaia stopped, for the most part, involving herself in the lives of her children.
Oh Goddess, Source of Gods and Mortals,
All-Fertile, All-Destroying Gaia,
Mother of All, Who brings forth the bounteous fruits and flowers,
All variety, Maiden who anchors the eternal world in our own,
Immortal, Blessed, crowned with every grace,
Deep bosomed Earth, sweet plains and fields fragrant grasses in the nurturing rains,
Around you fly the beauteous stars, eternal and divine,
Come, Blessed Goddess, and hear the prayers of Your children,
And make the increase of the fruits and grains your constant care, with the fertile seasons Your handmaidens,
Draw near, and bless your supplicants.