Humans are a complex thing. We are among the few species on the planet capable of thinking outside ourselves, but are notoriously bad at realizing we never do this correctly. That isn't to say humans aren't doing their best to understand others, but we tend to attempt this phenomenon by inserting ourselves into the other's place. In theory, this allows us to consider how the other person is thinking and feeling. In reality, we're only gaining an understanding of our own reactions to what that person is going through. We're, simply put, not that other person.
Humans have also tried this tactic when confronted with complex topics. As a species, despite our locations across the world, humans have created constructs to better understand this planet. More often than not, we try to bridge that understanding by turning those complexities into people, personifying the mysterious or ambivalent. Among those complexities are things like water, war, fertility, and, you guessed it, the Earth itself! Let's dive in!
How Humans Empathize with Complexity
As mentioned earlier, humans are pretty good at thinking outside themselves. We have learned how to consider others around us, not simply our own well-being. This isn't to say other species don't do this to some degree as well. There are a number of animals that also think in terms of a successful community or society. The key thing about humans is the length we're able to go to sympathize and empathize with others. There's even a phrase we like to use to describe this ability to think or feel for someone else.
Walk a mile in their shoes.
This English phrase goes back a few hundred years, but likely has roots in the thoughts of human empathy far further in the past. The intent of this phrase is refrain from judging others before you put yourself in their situation. To think about what it would be like if you were in their position. This is a remarkably good way to build skills in open-mindedness, thoughtfulness, and empathy. I can't count how many times I heard this phrase growing up, and how many times I've used this ability to consider the others around me.
This tactic does have a remarkable flaw, however. Think about how you would go about this exercise. You see someone in a scenario and you start to "put yourself in their shoes." You think about what you would do and how you would feel in that situation. Notice the key issue here?
You're thinking about you.
While this power is a helpful one, when you use it, you are only able to know how you would react to being in the situation. Complete with your experiences and biases. If everything you've lived in your life differs from the person you're attempting to empathize with, well, you're highly unlikely to reach the same conclusion for the same reasons they do. You may get close, even take a similar action, but your motives and thought process are very unlikely to align with the other person.
All that said, this is a surprisingly good ability to have in your tool belt. Being able to construct scenarios in your head by seeing others living through a similar scenario is nothing to shrug off. Even if it's not a perfect analog to understanding the other person's thought process and actions, it helps build a set of experiences to learn from without all the stress of living through it.
Deities as Human Interfaces
That was a bit of human psychology! So how does this lead to personifying nature then?
Humans don't just use this ability to understand other people. It is how we prefer to use the ability, though. Say for instance, you notice a rabbit being stalked by a wolf. Whether you choose to put yourself in the wolf's shoes or the rabbit's shoes probably says something about which scenario you're more interested in, but you may try to interface with the situation by using this power to analyze and understand the confrontation. This is a lot harder than jumping into another human mind, however. Now that you're aware of your experiences and biases influencing your empathy, you realize that you're playing the scenario with a human thought process. Without understanding how rabbits or wolves make decisions, you're likely just making an educated guess at best about how this will play out. Still, I know I've done this from time to time, trying to play out how scenarios in nature will resolve by putting myself mentally into it.
So we know that walking a mile in wolf and rabbit shoes is pretty difficult then. But nature is full of things humans don't quite understand. Zooming the scope of that thought out a bit, the world in its entirety is pretty difficult to understand. Aside from observations, how does a species capable of empathy try to understand something so unfathomably large and mysterious?
They personify it.
Now, there are likely a number of ways humans could have interfaced with the complexity of the planet, but humans have a couple superpowers that likely influenced this happening: we can empathize with others and we learn by telling stories. As such, we turned these complex topics into caricatures of themselves, modeling them after our own likeness, and telling stories of how they react to scenarios of mythical proportions. After all, we may not understand the water cycle, volcanoes, or drought, but we do understand human-similar concepts of sadness, anger, and hunger. By deifying nature, humans could influence a community's interest, fear, and care by spreading stories of this personified planet.
Nature Deities Around the World
These characters and stories are all probably familiar to anyone interested in religions or mythologies across the world. The mindset of creating characters out of complex topics was a common way for humans around the globe to foster care and understanding in the world around them. Interestingly, there are even some common archetypes that these characters follow. The following are the 3 most common ones we found while researching nature deities.
The Earth Mother
Gaea, Greek goddess of the Earth
Born of Chaos and personification of the Earth, she created the Titans and, by proxy, the Olympians who later overthrew them. While the other gods hold providence over certain aspects of the natural world, Gaea is the origin and benefactor of them all.
Fjörgyn, Norse goddess of the Earth
Also known as Jörð, she is the personification of the Earth, wife of Odin, and mother of Thor. She serves as an origin for the Norse gods and while not mentioned much in the Poetic Edda, is cited in reverence to the Earth.
The Earth Mother archetype doesn't tend to have many stories associated to it. They are generally revered as origins of all things, having either created or birthed lesser deities to reside of specific aspects of nature. It's in these cultures that you will find many gods and goddesses for very specific complex topics such as harvest, oceans, and the seasons. Historically, humans tended to worship or pay heed to the specific deities with regards to their occupation or interests, while understanding that all these concepts relate have to one unifying concept of Earth. Interestingly, even today, the though of our planet as one massive organism is a common ecological philosophy to describe the interconnectedness of everything. And it's even called the Gaea Theory!
Earth & Sky
Ranginui and Papatūānuku, Maori deities of the sky and Earth
Father Sky and Mother Earth, respectively, they once existed tightly embracing one another in their love to each other. Their children, deities in their own right, existed in the confined space between them until one day, Tāne, the god of forests and birds, lay on his back and pressed up against the sky, creating the forests that give space between the Earth and Sky today.
Nut and Geb, Egyptian deities of the sky and Earth
The Sky Mother and Earth Father, respectively, they also once existed in a tight embrace. The sun god, Ra, did not like that rumors spread about Nut giving birth to him every day and forbade Nut from giving birth for all 360 days of the year. Working with the god of wisdom to win moonlight in games of chance with the god of the moon, they acquired enough moonlight to make 5 more days where Nut was allowed to give birth. Ra, upset by the trickery, forced the god of air to forever keep Nut and Geb apart from each other.
Pairing the land and the sky was a common story around the world. In these stories, the deities were typically lovers eventually forced apart by some action to make room for the rest of nature to take hold. These stories build an understanding that our planet is not simply the land which we step on, but realize that the atmosphere is an intrinsic part of our environment. Even when pushed apart from one another, they hold themselves close with the entirety of nature embraced between them.
The Earth Envoy
Konohanasakuya-hime, Japanese symbol of Earthly life
Goddess of delicate earthly life (and volcanoes, particularly Mount Fuji), she is a shining example of Japanese life. Her symbol being the sakura, or cherry blossom, which is also a natural touchstone of Japan.
Asintmah, Native North American first woman to walk the Earth
The Athabaskan goddess of nature.
In some cultures, there isn't a clear Earth deity, but rather an envoy of sorts to show humans how to best interact with the Earth. While these characters are often deities in their own right, the way they represent the planet is not purely through personification, but by setting an example. Stories and shrines to these deities give humans anchors to actions they can take to be better citizens of Earth rather than revering a caricature of it.
Stories & Complexity
Having gone into some of the stories around deities around nature, let's get into a little philosophical speculation. It is frankly remarkable that humans so distant from one another somehow put together characters and stories that encapsulate the Earth in eerily similar ways. Now, this phenomenon can happen in evolution, adopting traits that best lead to survival in the broadest set of environments possible. This is how animals and plants tend to have similar traits in similar environments in different places around the world.
What is particularly interesting here is that thoughts, themselves, are not traits to be inherited. Yet, somehow, even in thoughts, humans gravitate to certain commonalities. This isn't unique to stories, either. In maths and sciences, we often here about the origins of definitions and theorems from where our respective cultures wish us to think they originated from, but the truth is that many societies of humans came to the same conclusions based on observations from disparate parts of the world. What makes that example a little easier to digest is that maths and sciences are sort of a language in and of themselves. Our numbers may be in different languages, but we still all understand 2 + 2 in base 10 is 4.
Stories, though, now that gets interesting. These are completely cultural, yet from community to community we find astounding similarities. It's almost as if humans recognize that there are key ways to encourage thought and care around certain topics based on local customs. The communities that told stories around the same archetypes may have held very similar values, and realized that stories told in a way that embraced those customs would take a much faster, more meaningful hold on the society at large. Especially when humans were still developing themselves, not everyone was literate or educated, but all needed to know enough to care and do well enough to survive. Well, these stories helped accomplish that. On our way to a greater understanding of the world around us, our ancestors built a bridge to foster an advocacy for nature that brought us to the success we as a species experience today.
A Bridge to Understanding
That phrase is probably a key way to view this little journey we just went through together. It's not that these stories replaced building the knowledge needed to understand the complex topics that our world is built upon. They are realizations that the topics are complex and, where humanity was at the time, did not have the capacity or educational infrastructure to spread that knowledge to everyone. Instead, while these stories could be loosely true to flat out wrong, they instilled a sense of care (or of fear which encouraged people to care as to not anger the Earth). People paid attention to the world around them, making observations about changes in the environment. While they ascribed these changes to a deity expressing an emotion, it effectively turned humanity into a massive set of citizen scientists. Everyone was observationally astute to changes in their environment and recognized changes that foretold good things ahead.
What is curious is that today we have a much more facts-driven approach to our planet. This is a wonderful and necessary thing, but the conveyance of those facts is remarkably distilled to pure numbers and quotes. Humans, over time, have learned enough to recognize how smart they've become. They can see numbers and know why it rains and predict a date range a volcano may erupt. We probably have apps which further distill that information to charts and infographics that seemingly tell us everything we need to know. What is crazy about how far we've come in understanding our planet can be summed up kind of nicely...
We haven't come that far at all.
With every major thing that humans do to change how we interact with the planet, we change how the planet works. We may not think we have the power to change such a grand system as the Earth, but we do. Even if the way we change the planet to accommodate our species is a direct result of an deep understanding of one small aspect of our planet, there are two things to consider: that part is infinitesimally small and, in the process of changing it, we altered the planet in a way that fundamentally changes our understanding again. It's a weird reality to face knowing how much we know these days, that we still know astoundingly little about the planet.
It's to this point that I find a certain importance in stories. While not as easily digestible as charts and numbers, they describe an experience that can be missed on a graph. It's the stories that reveal how little we actually know and how much we're still learning. We always see the results of the things we're looking to know, but we don't see the infinite other things that we didn't learn or missed along the way. We still, in many ways, need a bridge to understanding and realize that while we have come a long way, we by no means know it all. And the cool and terrifying thing about our home is that we never truly will.
~ And, as always, don't forget to keep wondering ~
This is a disclosure that the stories above were generally pulled from wiki pages for the deities described. Other resources checked against the wiki content were generally direct copies of wiki pages. In a strange way, a wiki is a fitting place to learn about a communities stories, as a community assembled the information on the page. The best way to learn these stories is likely by finding people who know them, so I'll encourage others to start where I did, a list of nature deities, and try finding others who know the stories too :)
Prismatic Planet wants to get excited for the planet, raise awareness of its inhabitants, and get smarter about Earth.