Nature as Female

For Carolyn Merchant, terms matter. They do more than simply explain, they carry an implicit ethical framework. In her now classic work, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, Merchant argues that prior to the scientific revolution of the 16th and 18th centuries, Nature was viewed as a living organism. A view which emphasised interdependence and community over individual needs, and also identified Nature as female.

For Merchant, images of Nature as female operate either as ethical restraints or as ethical sanctions (4). For example:

  • Nature as a nurturing mother ought not be violated,
  • Nature as wild and uncontrollable ought to be mastered,
  • Nature as mystery ought to be de-robed.

Below are some of the images that Merchant uses to illustrate her case. They contain metaphors and earth ethics overturned by the secular and mechanistic images introduced by the Scientific Revolution.

St. Genevieve Guarding Her Flock by Fontainebleau School, 16th Century.

Sleeping Nymph of the Spring by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli between 1482 and 1485.

La Primavera by Sandro Botticelli between 1477 and 1482.

M0013224 Diagram: integra naturae...imago, Fludd, 1618
The Female Soul of the World by Theodore de Bry for Robert Fludd, 1617-21.

Isis by Athanasius Kircher, 1652-54.

Nature Unveiling Herself by Ernest Barrias, 1899.

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution. Harper & Row, 1989[1980].