The Etymology of the word Terra: Tellus, Terra Mater

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Terra Mater was an ancient Roman Goddess

Tellus Mater or Terra Mater (“Mother Earth”) is a goddess of the Earth in ancient Roman religion and myth. Although Tellus and Terra are nearly indistinguishable during the Imperial Empire, Tellus was the name of the original earth goddess in Republic or older religious rituals. Tellus is one of the di selecti (one of the twenty principal gods of Roman religion), and one of the twelve agricultural deities, according to the scholar Varro (1st century BC). In rites relating to the soil and agricultural fertility, she is frequently identified with Ceres.

Featured image: The qualities of the dominant figure on this Ara Pacis panel identify her as an earth and mother goddess, frequently referred to as Tellus.

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The terms terra and tellus are assumed to have descended from the formulaic phrase tersa tellus, which means “dry land.” Tellus’ derivation is unknown; it may be linked to Sanskrit talam, which means “plain ground.” The word Terra comes from Proto-Italic *terzā, from Proto-Indo-European *ters-eh₂, from *ters- (“dry”). Cognate with torreō, Ancient Greek τέρσομαι (térsomai), Old Irish tír, Sanskrit तृष्यति (tṛ́ṣyati), Old English þurst (English thirst).

Aion, the god of eternity and Tellus
A vast floor mosaic from a Roman villa at Sentinum (today known as Sassoferrato in the Marche region of Italy), around 200-250 C.E. Aion, the deity of eternity, stands between a green tree and a naked tree inside a heavenly sphere embellished with zodiac signs (summer and winter, respectively). Tellus (the Roman equivalent of Gaia) is seated in front of him, with her four offspring, who may represent the four seasons.

Tellus’s qualities were a cornucopia or a bundle of flowers or fruit. She was usually represented waist high, reclining or emerging from a hole in the earth. Her male partner was a sky deity like Caelus (Uranus) or a version of Jupiter. Gaia is her Greek equivalent, while Cel was her Etruscan name. According to Michael Lipka, the Terra Mater who appears during Augustus’ reign is a direct transfer of the Greek Ge Mater into Roman religious practice, whereas Tellus, whose ancient temple was within Rome’s sacred boundary (pomerium), represents the original earth goddess cultivated by the state priests.

Tellus, telluris is a Latin common noun that means “land, territory; earth,” as is terra, which means “earth, ground.” In literary use, especially in poetry, it may be unclear if the goddess, a personification, or the common noun is intended.

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Servius, a 4th century AD Latin commentator, contrasts between the use of tellus and terra. According to him, terra is correctly employed as the elementum, earth as one of the four classical elements together with air (Ventus), water (Aqua), and fire (Ignis). Tellus is the goddess whose name (ponimus… pro) may be substituted for her function, much as Vulcanus is used for fire, Ceres for produce, and Liber for wine. Tellus thus refers to the Earth’s guardian deity and, by extension, the globe itself. Tellus may be an element of the Arval priests’ Dea Dia, or at the very least a close collaborator with her as “divinity of the clear sky.”

According to Varro, Terra Mater can be identified with Ceres:

“Not without cause was the Earth (Terra) called Mater and Ceres. It was believed that those who cultivated her led a pious and useful life (piam et utilem … vitam), and that they were the sole survivors from the line of King Saturn.”

Tellus is the loci (“place, location”) of development, while Ceres is its cause (“cause, agent”), according to Ovid. Mater, which means “mother” in Latin, is frequently used as an honorific for deities, including Vesta, who was shown as a virgin. “Mother” is thus an honorific that communicates the esteem one would have for an excellent mother. Tellus and Terra are both considered mothers in both the literal and honorific senses, but Vesta is solely considered a mother in the honorific sense.

Tellumo or Tellurus-named male equivalents are occasionally mentioned.

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