Earth Stories and imagery
Nature is part of the environment we can all understand. It is something that has surrounded us in culture, art, stories and mythology. The way in which society’s relationship with nature has changed over time is represented in the stories passed down through the generations. These can be seen most prominently in the creation myths of ancient cultures.
The early Greek creation stories begin with Gaia or Gaea, in Greek Mythology is known as Earth or Mother Earth. It is written that Gaia was born from Chaos, the great emptiness within the universe. She gave birth to Pontus (the Sea) and Uranus (the Sky). The stories of nature in Greek Mythology focus on the way humans interact with the environment.
The Story of Prometheus: According to myth the Greek Titan Prometheus moulded men out of water and earth and gave them fire. It is this myth that shows that humans are not to be trusted to protect the Earth and to be able to handle fire. When Zeus learned of this he ordered Prometheus to be nailed to Mount Caucasus. Prometheus was kept bound there for many years. Every day an eagle would devour devoured his liver, which grew again by night as a Prometheus was an immortal. This was the punishment that Prometheus paid for the theft of fire until Hercules later released him.
The Story of Deucalion: Stories of Great Floods can be found throughout mythology, myths shown as a warning to those who do not respect the Earth. The Greek legend of Deucalion legend found in the Bibliotheca has some similarities to other great flood myths such as the Epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, a poem dating from 2100 BC, and the story of Noah's Ark from the Bible.
The Titan Prometheus had a son Deucalion. He, married Pyrrha, the daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora, the first woman created by the gods. The Pelasgians were the ancestors of the Greeks.
When Zeus, maddened by the hubris and disrespect of the men of the world decided that they must be punished. Meanwhile Prometheus convinces his son Deucalion that he must build a chest for himself and Pyrrha to escape in. Zeus poured heavy rain from heaven and flooded the greater part of Greece, so that all men were destroyed.
Deucalion and Pyrrha floated in the chest for nine days and nights and landed on Parnassus. When the rain stopped, Deucalion sacrificed to Zeus to bring new people to the world. At the bidding of Zeus, he threw stones behind him, and they became men, and the stones Pyrrha threw became women.
Deucalion and Pyrrha regenerating mankind after the Flood, Bassetti, Marcantonio (1586-1630), Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
The Ancient Egyptians
Creation stories are formed to try to explain the world we see around us using our observations of nature. The river Nile was such a prominent part of everyday life for the Egyptians, it follows that their creation story begins with water, or ‘Nu’. Out of the turbulent water came land. The Sun god was known as Khepri, when the sun was rising and Ra, when the sun reached its peak at midday. As the sun set he was known as Atum the old man.
The sky was a goddess called Nut. She is often represented as a cow standing over the earth or an elongated woman bending over the earth and touching the horizons with her toes and finger tips. She is held up by Shu, the god of air and wind and prevented from falling to Earth.
See figures of Shu, holding up the sky at the Fitzwilliam Museum:
Faience figure of Shu, circa 664 B.C. — circa 332 B.C., Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge
The Inuit People of the Arctic
The belief systems of the Inuit are a common subject matter in their legends. Inuit society and culture fosters a tight connection with the environment in which they live and the animals with which they share the land. Inuit legends often provide explanations for how something in nature came to be. The Story of Sedna explains the creation of the creatures of the sea, something the Inuit people are very reliant on for their way of life.
The Story of Sedna: Sedna was the daughter of two giants. A Sedna grew, she became hungrier and hungrier until her parents couldn’t provide her with enough food for her. She became so hungry that she started biting her mother and father’s legs.
Sedna had become very large, so her parents together managed to heave her into a blanket between them and carried her outside to decide what to do. Thinking they couldn’t take anymore they spotted a canoe and decided to take her out to sea and leave her there.
When they got out into the middle of the ocean, they dropped Sedna overboard and started to paddle back.
As they paddled they started to feel feeling ashamed of themselves for abandoning their own daughter. Suddenly the canoe stopped and would not move despite their paddling. Looking to the side they saw Sedna's huge hands were holding their canoe and rocking it.
Trying to escape, Sedna's parents started to chop at Sedna's fingers with large stones and they cut off her fingers. As Sedna's fingers fell into the water, they suddenly changed into animals. One finger became a whale, one a seal, one a walrus and one became a salmon.
Sedna swam to the bottom of the ocean and has been there ever since. The fish built her a tent to live in. Legend has it that if you go hungry, you can ask Sedna to send more food.
Credit: Scott Polar Research Institute
Kettle’s Yard displays many artworks featuring artists’ interpretations of the natural world. Between 1958 and 1973 Kettle's Yard was the home of Jim and Helen Ede. Thanks to his friendships with artists and other like-minded people, over the years Jim Ede gathered a remarkable collection displayed throughout the house. At Kettle's Yard he carefully positioned these artworks alongside furniture and natural objects, with the aim of creating a harmonic whole.
Throughout the house and gallery are images of nature positioned next to real plants and flowers, such as those by Winifred Nicholson. Nicholson’s work often depicts a domestic landscape with nature brought into it, whether it be flowers, or viewing the expanse of nature from the view out of a window. These images seem to draw out the need to bring natural objects into the home, from plants, to pebbles and shells collected on the beach.
Credit: Cyclamen and Primula, 1923, Winifred Nicholson - Kettles Yard - University of Cambridge
Find out more about Winifred Nicholson and her work at Kettle’s Yard:
The way that nature is captured in art can express the value that nature is given by the artist. Elisabeth Vellacott created many drawings of natural forms, including trees, mountains and rocks. Her interest in these subjects lay in the great sense of time that they represent, specifically the trees which, as she said, 'just go on up'.
Credit: Bare Trees and Hills, 1960, Elisabeth Vellacott - Kettles Yard - University of Cambridge