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Mother Earth personified, Terra is one of the oldest – if not the oldest – Roman deities we know of. Ancient yet actively worshipped throughout Rome’s history, Terra stands at the basis of the entire Roman pantheon and religion.
Who is Terra?
Terra, also known as Terra Mater or Tellus Mater, is the Mother Earth goddess of the Roman pantheon. Grandmother of Jupiter, Juno, and most other gods, and mother of Saturn and the other Titans, Terra was married to the sky god Caelus. Like other Earth goddesses across the world’s many pantheons, Terra is so ancient that not much is actually known about her today.
Terra or Tellus?
The difference between the names Terra and Tellus (or Terra Mater and Tellus Mater) is still debated among some scholars. Generally speaking, both are considered the names of the same Earth goddess.
Both Terra and Tellus mean “Earth”, although Terra is viewed more as the element “Earth” or the planet itself whereas “Tellus” is more a personification of the Earth.
Some believe that the two were originally two different deities that were later combined into one. According to this theory, Tellus was the first Earth mother of the Italian peninsula and Terra came forth in the early days of the Republic. Regardless, Terra and Tellus were certainly viewed as the same throughout most of Roman history. Terra was later identified with Cybele, the great mother goddess.
Terra and the Greek goddess Gaia
Like many other Roman deities, Terra is the equivalent of the Greek goddess of the Earth Gaia (Gaea).
Both were one of the two first deities to come into existence in their respective pantheons, both were married to male sky gods (Caelus in Rome, Uranus in Greece), and both gave birth to the Titans who later birthed and were replaced by the gods (known as the Olympians in Greek mythology).
An Agricultural Deity
As an Earth deity, it’s not all that surprising that Terra was also worshipped as an agricultural goddess. After all, most Earth goddesses in the world’s many mythologies were also fertility goddesses. However, it is curious how many other agricultural deities Rome had – a total of twelve by most estimates!
The other eleven together with Terra Matter were Jupiter, Luna, Sol, Liber, Ceres, Venus, Minerva, Flora, Robigus, Bonus Eventus, and Lympha. You will notice that many of those were not actually deities of the earth or of things directly related to agriculture.
Minerva, for example, is the Roman goddess of war and wisdom, identical to the Greek Athena. Venus is the Roman goddess of beauty, just like the Greek Aphrodite. Yet all of these goddesses were worshipped as agricultural deities as well. Of them, however, Terra was the first, oldest, and arguably most directly connected to agriculture.
Symbolism of Terra
As an Earth goddess, Terra’s symbolism is rather clear-cut. She represents the very ground on which we walk and she gives birth to all living things. That’s also why she was worshipped as one of the twelve agricultural deities of Rome.
Married to a male sky god, Terra is such a classic example of an Earth goddess, a cynic might even call her “a cliché”. Still, we ought to remember that Terra existed long before any such cliché could be envisioned.
Symbols of Terra
Terra’s symbols come from the earth and include:
- Cornucopia: Representing abundance, fertility, wealth, and the harvest, cornucopias are the traditional symbol of harvest in Western culture.
Importance of Terra in Modern Culture
The goddess herself isn’t really represented much in modern culture. However, “Earth Goddess” type characters are certainly popular across all genres of fiction.
Earth goddesses appear frequently in ancient religions, most of which had such deities in their mythologies. Yet, no other such earth deity’s name has become as synonymous with the Earth itself as Terra. Today, the one of the names for the Earth is Terra.
We don’t know much about Terra today but that’s likely because there isn’t much to be known. Similar to the Greek goddess Gaia, Terra was the mother of all gods and she quickly left the center stage to her children and grandchildren. However, this isn’t to say that she wasn’t actively worshipped. As one of the chief agricultural deities, she had temples and worshippers all throughout the Roman Republic and Roman Empire.