Mothers in Lore
“Mother, the most beautiful word on the lips of mankind.”
~Attributed to Kahlil Gibran~
Endeared to us as mother, mommy, mama, mum, they take on the role of nurturer, confidant, protector, and disciplinarian. “Mother, may I?” is not only an entertaining childhood game, but a life lesson in obedience and reward.
The mother figure has been revered throughout the ages. Often found as the central theme in stories, they take form as magical fairy godmothers, powerful mythical beings, and wicked stepmothers.
But long before fairy tales became commonplace, the ancient Greeks called upon “Gaia”; the Romans, “Tellus” or “Terra”. To us, she is “Mother Earth”; the divine being who gave life to matter; mother to the ancient gods. She is etched in history; honored in Homeric Hymn (circa 7th century BCE, translated into modern English by Hugh G. Evelyn-White):
To Earth the Mother of All
I will sing of well-founded Earth, mother of all, eldest of all beings. She feeds all creatures that are in the world, all that go upon the goodly land, and all that are in the paths of the seas, and all that fly: all these are fed of her store. Through you, O queen, men are blessed in their children and blessed in their harvests, and to you it belongs to give means of life to mortal men and to take it away. Happy is the man whom you delight to honor! He has all things abundantly: his fruitful land is laden with corn, his pastures are covered with cattle, and his house is filled with good things. Such men rule orderly in their cities of fair women: great riches and wealth follow them: their sons exult with ever-fresh delight, and their daughters in flower-laden bands play and skip merrily over the soft flowers of the field. Thus is it with those whom you honor O holy goddess, bountiful spirit.
Hail, Mother of the gods, wife of starry Heaven; freely bestow upon me for this my song substance that cheers the heart! And now I will remember you and another song also.
Stories of the Olympian goddess Demeter bestow on her patronage over grains and harvest. She mirrors our Mother Nature, whose wrath has no bounds. When her daughter Persephone was abducted to become wife to Hades, god of the Underworld, Demeter was overcome with grief. Her sorrow turned to bitterness, and she scourged the earth, withholding her love until plants withered and died; leaving an endless barren decay of suffering. Demeter implored Zeus to release Persephone from the Underworld. He agreed as long as Persephone had not partaken of food while in the Underworld…which of course she had. Those few bites bound her to a fate with Hades, but as compromise she was allowed to leave the Underworld for a portion of the year. Those months when Persephone is with her mother, Demeter once more sets her love upon the world to flourish; but when Persephone is in the Underworld, Demeter withdraws to leave the earth fallow and cold so that we too may know the sorrow she feels without her daughter.
An entire genre of centuries-old folk tales and nursery rhymes have been attributed to a fictional character in animal form, represented as Mother Goose. Fairy tales cast the mother figure in both a positive and negative light. An absent birth mother is replaced by the magical and kindly fairy godmother to counter the actions of an evil stepmother, as in the story of Cinderella. But some children must endure cruel treatment by a wicked stepmother, and find other ways to outwit her; as in the stories of Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel.
Mother is immortalized in familiar works of art. Religious paintings depict the Madonna; and modern art gives us Whistler’s Mother. While she is honored with her own special day of recognition, a day celebrated by flowers and phone calls, every day is mother’s day.
“A man loves his sweetheart the most, his wife the best, but his mother the longest.” (Irish proverb)
Happy Mother’s Day!
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