Sacred mountains

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For other uses, see Holy Mountain.

Sacred mountains are central to certain religions and are the subjects of many legends. For many, the most symbolic aspect of a mountain is the peak because it is believed that it is closest to heaven or other celestial bodies.[1] Many religions have some sacred mountains - that either are holy (like Mount Olympus in Greek mythology) or are related to famous events (like Mount Sinai in Judaism and descendant religions). In some cases, the sacred mountain is purely mythical, like the Hara Berezaiti in Zoroastrianism. Volcanoes, such as Mount Etna in Italy, were also considered sacred.Mount Kailash is believed to be the abode of the Hindu deity Shiva. Mount Etna was believed to have been the home of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

Ancient myths and practices[edit]

Mount Olympus

Mount Olympus is the highest mountain peak in Greece. It was once regarded as the “home of the Greek Gods/The Twelve Olympians of the Hellenistic World". It was also considered the site of the War of the Titans (Titanomachy) where Zeus and his siblings defeated the Titans.

Mount Othrys is a mountain in Central Greece, which is believed to be the home of the Titans during the ten-year war with the Gods of Mount Olympus.

Mount Ida, also known as Mountain of the Goddess, refers to two specific mountains: one in the Greek island of Crete and the other in Turkey (formerly known as Asia Minor).

Mount Ida is the highest mountain on the island of Crete is the sacred mountain of the Titaness Rhea, also known as the mother of the Greek Gods. It is also believed to be the cave where Greek God Zeus was born and raised.

The other Mt. Ida is located in Northwestern Turkey alongside the ruins of Troy (in reference to the Hellenistic Period). The mountain was dedicated to Cybele, the Phrygian (modern-day Turkey) version of Earth Mother. Cybele was the goddess of caverns and mountains. Some refer to her as the “Great Mother” or “Mother of the Mountain”. The mythic Trojan War is said to have taken place at Mount Ida and that the Gods gathered upon the mountaintop to observe the epic fight. Mount Ida in Turkey is also represented in many of the stories of Greek author Homer such as Iliad and Odyssey.

Mount Athos, located in Greece, is also referred to as the Holy Mountain. It has great historical connections with religion and classical mythology. In religion it is believed that after the Ascension of the Lord, the Virgin Mary landed on the island and came upon a pagan temple. It was there that the pagan practitioners converted from paganism to Christianity. The Virgin Mary then blessed the land and claimed it her own.[2]

In Classic mythology, Mount Athos is named after the Thracian giant who battled Poseidon, God of the Sea, during the clash of the titans and Gods. It is also said that Greek historian was given the task of creating a canal through the mountain after the failed journey of Persian leader, Xerxes. Overtime, Alexander the Great has become associated with the mountain for his worldly powers. The myth states that Roman architect Dinocrates had wanted to carve Alexander the Great's figure onto the top of the mountain in tribute to him.[3]

The ancient Inca displayed a connection with death and their mountains. It is well known by scholars that the Inca sensed a deep reservoir of spirituality along the mountain range. Situating their villages in the mountains, they felt these places acted as portal to the gods. Ritual child sacrifices called Capachochas were conducted annually, where the most precious gift that could be given (innocent, blemishless, perfect human life) would be sacrificed to the gods. Tremendous effort would be taken as the sacrificial victims would be paraded alive throughout the cities, with multiple festivals and feasts taking place. The final destination would be the tops of some of the highest mountains near their villages, leaving these sacrifices to freeze in the snow. These would take place during great times of distress, during times of famine, violent periods of war, and even during times of political shift. This connection with the mountain as a sacred space is paramount. There would be no other place that would be sufficient or acceptable enough for the gods to accept these gifts. It is neither a surprise nor a coincidence that their honored dead were placed on the highest peaks of the mountains to express the shared connection between the sacred mountain, the gods, and the dead.[4]

Modern indigenous beliefs[edit]

Machapuchare, a sacred Nepalese mountain, viewed from foothills

Various cultures around the world maintain the importance of mountain worship and sacredness. One example is the Taranaki peoples of New Zealand. The Taranaki center their whole life around the sacred mountain, the Mount Taranaki. It is no wonder that they shared the same name, as they shared their livelihood from its streams. The rivers that flowed down its steep terrain fed the plants, animals, and gave the tribe all they needed for life. The Taranaki tribe places this mountain into a context of a love story, spelling out the history of their creation in a battle over love, defeat, and a happy ending where this Taranaki Mountain found love with a neighboring volcano. This narrative plays out in the lives of the tribesmen where the mountain is their love, their life force. Life is given from megalith, and when life is taken away, the people are ultimately returned to the mountain. This mountain can be explained as anthropomorphisised, a living organism of its own.[5]

In Korea, people have maintained ancient ways of worshiping mountain spirits. While they are not in fact worshiping the land itself, the gods associated with this worship are united to the land. These spirits are female entities to whom people pay tribute while passing by the mountains, asking for good luck and protection. People also travel to these mountains to ask for fertility. While people generally hold to these female deities for protection or to perpetuate life, one of their most important functions is to protect the dead. The ponhyangsansin is a guardian spirit that is protecting an important clan grave site in the village. Each mountain goddess has an equally interesting story that is tied to their accounts of war against Japan, and the historical legacy of their emperors. Each spirit learned difficult lessons and experienced some sort of hardship. These legacies in the mountains serve as a kind of monument to the history of Korea. While many of the accounts may be true, their details and accuracy are shrouded by time and ritual. While the inaugurations of new ponhyang san sin are not being conducted, fallen important clansmen and leaders are strategically placed in the mountains in order for these strong, heroine-like spirits may fiercely guard their graves. The history of Korea is in turn protecting its own future.[6]

In Japan, Mount Koya-san is the home to one of the holiest Buddhist monastery complexes in the country. It was founded by a saint, Kukai, who is also known as Kobo Dashi and is regarded as a famous wandering mystic; his teachings are infamous throughout Japan and he is credited with being an important figure in shaping early Japanese culture. Buddhists believe that Kobo Dashi is not dead, but will instead awake and assist in bringing enlightenment to all people, alongside the Buddha and other bodhisattvas. It is believed that he was shown the sacred place to build the monastery by a forest god; this site is now the location of a large cemetery that is flanked by 120 esoteric Buddhist temples. Approximately a million pilgrims visit Mount Koya-san a year; these pilgrims have included both royals and commoners who wish to pay their respects to Kobo Dashi. Mount Fuji is another sacred mountain in Japan. Several Shinto temples flank its base, all to pay homage to the mountain. The common belief is that Fujiyama is the incarnation of the earth spirit itself. The Fuki-ko sect maintains that the mountain is a holy being, and the home to the goddess Sengen-sama. Annual fire festivals are held here in her honor. Fujiyama is also the site of pilgrimages; reportedly 40,000 people climb up to its summit every year.[7]

Tibet's Mount Kailash is a sacred place to four religions: Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Bon Po (a native Tibetan religion prior to Buddhism), and Ayyavazhi religions. According to some Hindu tradition, Kailash is the home of the deity Shiva. In Hindu religion, Mount Kailash also plays an important role in Rama's journey in the ancient Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. Buddhists hold that Kailash is the home of Samvara, a guardian deity, and a representation of Buddha. Buddhists believe that Mount Kailash has supernatural powers that are able to clean the sins of a lifetime of any person. Followers of Jainism believe that Kailash is the site where the founder of Jainism reached enlightenment. Bon Po teaches that Kailash is the home of a wind goddess.

Mount Meru is a cosmic mountain which is described to be one of the highest points on Earth and is the center of all creation. In the Hindu religion, it is believed that Meru is home to the god Brahma, who is believed to be the father of the human race and all the demigods produced afterward. Indian cosmology believes that the sun, moon, and stars all revolve around Mount Meru. Folklore suggests the mountain rose up from the ground piercing the heavens giving it the moniker "navel of the universe".[8]

According to the Torah, and consequently the Old Testament of the Bible, Mount Sinai is the location that Moses received the Ten Commandments directly from God. The tablets form the covenant, which is a central cornerstone of Jewish faith. Saint Catherine's Monastery is located at the foot of Sinai. It was founded by empress Helena, who was the mother of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine. It was completed under the rule of Justinian two centuries later. The monastery was visited by the prophet Muhammed, who blessed it and promised “that it would be cherished by Muslims for all time”.[9] Today, the monastery is home to a group of Greek Orthodox monks, as well as a large collection of Byzantine art, illuminated manuscripts, icons, and books; the collection of icons in particular has been proclaimed one of the oldest in the world.

The Navajo possess a strong belief system in regards to the natural-supernatural world and have a belief that objects have a supernatural quality. For example, the Navajo consider mountains to be sacred. There are four peaks, which are believed to have supernatural aspects. The mountains each represent a borderline of the original Navajo tribal land. The mountain ranges include Mount Taylor, the San Francisco Peaks, Blanca Peak, and Hesperus Peak located in the La Plata Mountains.

Each mountain/peak is representative of a color, direction, and correlates with a cultural light phenomenon dealing with the cosmic scheme of the rising and of the setting sun. Directionally, the mountains are described in a clockwise motion following the movement of the sun beginning with the eastern mountain of Blanca Peak. Blanca Peak is associated with the color white and the "Dawn Man" referring to the rising of the sun. Next in the south is Mt. Taylor, which is associated with the color blue and the "Horizontal Blue Man" referring to the daytime. In the west is the San Francisco Peaks, which is representative of the color yellow and the "Horizontal Yellow Woman" and is associated with the setting of the sun. And finally in the north is the Hesperus Peak of the La Plata Mountains which is given the color black and belongs to the light phenomenon of the "Darkness Woman" representing the nighttime.[10]

Community identity[edit]

History shows that mountains were commonly part of a complex system of mountain and ancestor worship. Having immortalized fallen brethren in the edifice, the people share a common allegiance with all the other people of a community. The meanings that were etched into the mountain and mound terrain connected the villagers. They were all subject to the same landscape and village history, which were bound together by their cultural significance. The history of ancestors could be told by simply pointing at specific mountains and remembering the stories that were passed down throughout the generations. The worship of ancestors and the mountains were largely inseparable. An interconnected web between history, landscape, and culture was thus formed.[11] Examples of this would be the Hindu belief that Mount Kailas is the final resting place for the souls of the dead, as well as the large cemetery placed on Mount Koya-san.

Sacred mountains can also provide an important piece of a culture's identity. For example, Messerli and Ives write, “The Armenian people regard Mount Ararat, a volcano in eastern Turkey believed to be the site of Noah's Ark in the Bible, to be a symbol of their natural and cultural identity”.[12] As a result of the mountain's role as a part of a cultural identity, even people who do not live close to the mountain feel that events occurring to the mountain are relevant to their own personal lives. This results in communities banning certain activities near the mountain, especially if those activities are seen as potentially destructive to the sacred mountain itself.

Pilgrimages[edit]

To date, Kailas has never been climbed, largely due to the fact that the idea of climbing the mountain is seen as a major sacrilege. Instead, the worshipful embark on a pilgrimage known as the kora. The kora consists of a 32-mile path that circles the mountain, which typically takes five days with little food and water. Various icons, prayer flags, and other symbols of the four religions that believe Kailas is sacred mark the way. To Buddhists and Hindus, the pilgrimage is considered a major moment in a person's spiritual life. Olsen writes, “One circuit is believed to erase a lifetime of sin, while 108 circuits is believed to ensure enlightenment”.[13]

As one of the most sacred mountains in the Middle East, mentioned in the Old Testament can be seen on the mountain's summit, such as the area where Moses “sheltered from the total glory of God”.

Sacred Mountains are often seen as a site of revelation and inspiration. Mount Sinai is an example, as this is the site where the covenant is revealed to Moses. Mount Tabor is where it is supposed Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God. Muhammed is said to have received his first revelation on Mount Hira.[14] The mountains' roles as places of revelation and transformation often serve to attract tourists as much as they do religious pilgrims. However, in some cases, the financial revenue is overlooked and sacred mountains are conserved first due to their role in the community.[15]

Members of The Aetherius Society conduct pilgrimages to 19 mountains around the world that they describe as being "holy mountains".[16]

Conservation[edit]

Sacred mountains are often viewed as the source of a power which is to be awed and revered. Typically, this power is seen as dangerous, with the requirement that it be treated carefully and with respect. Often, this means that access to the sacred mountain is restricted. This could result in climbing being banned from a sacred mountain completely (as in the case of Mount Kailas) or for secular society to give the mountain a wide berth. Because of the respect accorded to a mountain's sacred power, many areas have been declared off limit for construction and remain conserved. For example, a large amount of forest has been preserved due to its proximity to Mount Koya-san. Additionally, sacred mountains can be seen as the source of something vital. This could be a blessing, water, life, or healing. Mount Kailas's role as the source for four major rivers is celebrated in India and not simply seen as mundane. Rather, this also adds to its position as a sacred place, especially considering the sacred position of the Ganges river in Indian culture. Mountains that are considered home to deities are also central to prayers for the blessings from the gods reputed to live there. This also creates a sense of purity in the source of the mountain. This prompts people to protect streams from pollution that are from sacred mountains, for example.

Views of preservation and sacredness become problematic when dealing with diverse populations. When one observes the sacred mountain of the Sacramento Valley in the United States, it becomes clear that methods and opinions stretch over a vastly differing body of protesters. Shasta Mountain was first revered by the Native American tribe, the Wintu. Shasta was in effect a standing monument for the individuals of their cultural history. This bounded view of sacred mountains changed drastically during the 1800s. It is commonly assumed that sacred mountains are limited by a single society, trapped in a time capsule with only one definition to explain it: the indigenous tribe. Shasta's glory had expanded to multiple regions of the world, communities of differing religions making their pilgrimage up to the summits of this glorious mountain. The Wintu tribe did not hold a monopoly on the sacredness anymore. There were others contesting to the meanings, adding new rituals and modifying old ones. With the advent of new technology and desires to turn this mountain into a skiing lodge, angry voices from all over the world rose up with variants of demands on why and how we should preserve this beautiful mountain.

Almost every day different religious practices such as nude bathing, camping out with magic crystals, yoga, and many “quasi-Christian” groups such as the I AM march their ways up to the tips of this mountain. With this activity the mountain pathways become clustered, cluttered and littered. Even the pathways’ existence leads to erosion, and further slow degradation of the mountain. The Wintu tribe has voiced concerns and asked for support from the government to regulate the activities practiced on “their” mountain saying that “they are disturbed by the lack of respect” shown for this piece of land. It has become greatly debated if the more vulnerable and “spiritually desirable” places of the mountain should be closed and maintained only by the Wintu tribe, who see this land as a sacred graveyard of their ancestors, or open to all who seek spiritual fulfillment such as the modern-day group of the I AM.[17]

List of mountains[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Naess, Arne. Mountains and Mythology. Trumpeter 1995
  2. ^ Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise By Graham Speake. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. 294 pp. ISBN 0-300-09353-5
  3. ^ Dora, Veronica Della. 2005. Alexander the Great's Mountain. Geographical Review Vol. 95 Issue 4 p. 489.
  4. ^ Ceruti, Constanza.2004 Human Bodies as Objects of Dedication at Inca Mountain Shrines (North-Western Argentina). World Archaeology 36:103–122.
  5. ^ Smith, Ailsa. 1997. Who is that Mountain Standing there... Its Taranaki... In Mountains of the World: A GLobal Priority. B. Messerli and JD Ives, eds. p. 57. Informa Health Care.
  6. ^ Grayson, James H.1996 Female Mountain Spirits in Korea: A Neglected Tradition. Asian Folklore Studies 55: 19–134.
  7. ^ Olsen, Brad. Sacred Places Around the World: 108 Destinations. 2nd ed. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2008. 34–83. Print.
  8. ^ Mabbett, I.W. 1983. The Symbolism of Mount Meru. History of Religions Vol. 23 No.1 pp. 64–83
  9. ^ Olsen, Brad. Sacred Places Around the World: 108 Destinations. 2nd ed. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2008. 34–83. Print.
  10. ^ Lamphere, Louise. 1969. Symbolic Elements in Navajo Ritual. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology Vol. 25 No. 3 pp. 379–305
  11. ^ Dillehay, Tom D. 1995 Mounds of social death: Araucanian funeraruries and political succession. In Tombs for the Living: Andean Mortuary Practices. T. Dillehay Ed. pp. 281–314 Dumbarton Oaks Washington, DC
  12. ^ Messerli, Bruno, and Jack D. Ives. Mountains of the World: A Global Priority. 17. International Mountain Society, 1997. 39–54. Print.
  13. ^ Olsen, Brad. Sacred Places Around the World: 108 Destinations. 2nd ed. San Francisco: CCC Publishing, 2008. 34–83. Print.
  14. ^ Quran Ch. 96
  15. ^ Messerli, Bruno, and Jack D. Ives. Mountains of the World: A Global Priority. 17. International Mountain Society, 1997. 39–54. Print.
  16. ^ Aetherius Society webpage on holy mountains
  17. ^ Huntsinger, Lynn and Maria Fernandez -Martinez 2000 Spiritual Pilgrims at Mount Shasta California. Geographical Review 90: 536–558
  18. ^ Hawaiian Legends of Volcanoes By W.D. Westervelt ISBN 978-0-559-08228-3

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