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The prophet, the mother, the avenger: An examination of Gaia's cult worship and the "bricolage" in her myth

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posted on 2021-12-08, 23:30 authored by Draper, Eilish

This thesis is a study of the cult of the Greek goddess Gaia (Gē). Gaia’s cult has long been interpreted by scholars though the lens of her mythical roles. She featured in literature as the mother of the Titans, as an oracular goddess at Delphi, and as the mythical mother of Erichthonios; she is also a force that watched over curses and oaths. Her cult has been most strongly associated with Delphi, where she was part of the Previous Owners myth, a tradition that made her the primary goddess at Delphi before Apollo took over. She is also strongly associated with Athens, where almost all of our literary evidence comes from.  Early 20th century scholarship characterised Gaia as a universally-worshipped “Mother Earth” figure; more specifically, she has been identified as the Greek version of the Anatolian Mother Goddess, Kybele. Gaia’s cult worship as an oracular goddess and as a mother figure is overstated, and I argue that these associations are examples of confirmation bias. In this thesis, I examine the sources for both myth and cult to establish where the boundaries lie between the two, both through re-examination of the primary sources and through a critical appraisal of secondary discussions.  To compare, I examine the positive evidence for Gaia’s cult, with a particular focus on the epigraphical evidence, including a 5th century BCE statue base and inscriptions from the 4th century BCE that describe a ἱερόν of Gaia at Delphi and Attic deme calendars that provide sacrifices to Gaia, some of which are expensive. Further evidence is offered by Pausanias and Plutarch, who attest to a sanctuary of Gaia at Delphi in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, cults of Gē Kourotrophos and Gē Themis in Athens, and other cults of Gaia elsewhere. I also explore the significance of Gaia as the mother of Ericthonios, the autochthonous founder of Athens, in myth and Athenian literature.  I conclude that Gaia was not worshipped at Delphi before the 5th century BCE. Gaia was receiving cult worship in Athens from the 5th century BCE in the form of deme sacrifices. Also in Athens, Gaia’s worship as Gē Themis appears arounds the 4th century BCE, while Pausanias attests to a temple of Gē Kourotrophos on the acropolis. Before the time of Pausanias, Kourotrophos appears to be a separate deity. Finally, I conclude that Gaia rarely receives cult worship under the epithet “Meter” and cannot be identified as the Greek version of Anatolian Kybele.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Classical Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures


Burton, Diana