It is promulgated in some paleontological circles that all of humankind is the offspring of a single lady who lived in Africa, or some say Asia, a very long time ago. The geometrically multiplied generations of her darling daughters and sons have since become geographically dispersed and ethnically diverse. Over millennia, through mutation and migration, the descendants of our mutual motherland have developed an incredibly lavish, endlessly appealing smorgasbord of cultural variety.
While I love nothing better than to sample and savor the delectable differences among peoples, what I truly crave and find to be profoundly more satisfying, are the ways in which we have managed to remain fundamentally the same under the skin. I consider it a downright miracle that, beneath the random trappings of trend and tradition, underneath the underwear of custom, and below the belt, we have retained, hidden in the hollows of our hearts, some race-memory-semblance of being human. Of being related.
Lately, linguists have been speculating on the communality of verbal communication. It has been suggested that all of the extant thousands of languages and dialects in the world today come from a single shared source. That, ultimately, we all speak some variation of one original mother tongue. Certainly, the very first word most of us utters is identical everywhere: "Ma."
The word for mother, worldwide, is based on "ma," or close enough. Ma is the earliest form of the Indo-European root word for mother, mâter, which is reflected in the Latin, mäter; the Greek, métèr; and the prehistoric Germanic, möthar. These, in turn, have become madre in Spanish and Italian, mère in French, mae in Portuguese; mite'ra in modern Greek; mutter in modern German, moeder in Dutch, moder in Swedish, mör in Danish, mor, in Norwegian and mother in English. Mother is mat' in Russian, matka in Polish and Czech, majka in Serbo-Croatian, máyka in Bulgarian, anya in Hungarian, ema in Estonian, mâte in Latvian, nâna in Albanian, ima in Hebrew, anne in Turkish, and omí in classic Arabic. In the many languages of Sub-Saharan Africa, too, ma is prevalent: mamá in Ibo and Hausa, mma in South African Sotho, mbuta in the Congo, and inate in Ethiopian Amharic.
The similarity holds in Asia as well: aamaa in Nepali, mae in Thai, nanay in Philippino, omoni in Korean, chomo in Tibetan, moqing in Mandarin and mamá in Cantonese. In the Telgu and Tamil languages of India, mother is amma, and she is mata in Hindi. In Pakistani, mother is man, which means "moon" and "wisdom." In Japanese, one's biological mother is called, ha ha, while the ubiquitous bar hostess who, with offers of sake and sympathy, listens tenderly to a man's troubles is known as mama-san.
The great primal Mother Goddesses, the creatrixes of nearly every culture, were invariably called Ma. Remembrance and reverence to Her Who Birthed the World has been indelibly imprinted on our collective brain. Her invocation, a common bond. Mama, Mama Cuna, Mama Cocha, Mama Quilla, Nammu, Macha, Ma-Nu, Mamat, Mana, Maa, Mah, Al-Mah, Qis-Mah, Asintmah, Ilmatar, Maat, Matu, Mat Hatti, Maj, Yemanja, Mawu, Mahuea, Mayuel, Mami Aruru, Mamaki, Mamokoriyoma, Mamata, Mahatma, Mater Matuta, Matabrune, Mara, Mardoll, Magog, Margawse, Magna Dea, Madri, Marici, Maia, Maya, Mari, Mary, Mai, Mariamne, Mana, Mana-Anna, Man, Manannan, Maha-Nila-Sarasvati, Manasa-Devi, Matrikadevi, Mati-Syra-Zemlya, Malinalxochtl.
Interestingly, words that designate father do not display such a remarkable resemblance. The universal inspiration for the maternal appellation, ma, must then come from some inherent quality unique in the relationship with the mother. It is not difficult to imagine how this etymological concurrence might have come to pass. Behold a scene played out billions upon billions of times throughout human existence:
A baby, cradled close, is nursing. Along with the rich nourishment of her mother's bountiful body, she blissfully imbibes warmth, security, contentment, love. Her small head buried in soft breast, she enthusiastically sucks. Mmmm. Mmma, mmmaa, mmaaaaaa. Ma! Mama!. Ma, as in "maternal," Ma, as in "mammary," Ma, as in "mammal." Mama means "mother's breasts" in many places, and ma frequently refers to "milk" as well as "mother." Certainly from the point of view of a dependent child, mother is milk.
The Great Creatrix Goddess, divine maternal model, source and sustainer of all life, prototype single parent, has been widely represented as a lactating mother. Abundant, ample-breasted and serene. Protective and nurturing. Full with the wherewithal to provide perfectly for the children whom She has created. Provider of bliss, She personified the primal miracle of mother's milk.
It is interesting to note that our galaxy is not only named for milk, it actually means milk. Galaxy is from the Greek, gala, "mother's milk," referring to Gala-Tea, the Milk Goddess, the galactic mother in classical Greek mythology. The one portrayed in Pygmalion's famous white marble sculpture. Since the time of ancient Egypt, western civilization has referred to our galaxy as the Milky Way, made from the magic milk of the Great Mother or one of her divine daughters.
This Mother's Day, let us toast our universal Maternal Creatrix, our mutual Mother Earth, our biological mothers, and our own mothering impulses with the nurturing milk of human kindness.
For more by Donna Henes, click here.
For more on Mother's Day, click here.