Gods from the peaks
The sacred mountains — axes of the world, seats of gods and ancestral souls and spirits — have been pilgrimage destinations for believers and tourists for thousands of years.
Religious scholars stress that there is no regularity that determines where man worshiped his gods. These could be home shrines, magnificent temples located in the centers of bustling cities, lone trees deep in the forest, or springs located at the ends of the earth. Since the human need for spirituality has different faces and is used for different purposes, places of worship are also different. Research by Professor David Hay of the Religious Experience Research Unit in Oxford has shown that people experience a sense of closeness to the Absolute more often than in temples in nature, especially in the high mountains. The gods are especially fond of those peaks that can be seen — because they stand proudly over the plain, are the highest or breathe fire. The belief that the gods choose them as their abodes is timeless and cross-cultural. These places are tangible proof of exaltation. One has the impression of contact with the skies, unreachability, mystery and horror. The sources of these beliefs are hidden in animistic religions, linking individual deities and ancestral souls with animate and inanimate elements of nature — trees, boulders, bodies of water, or just peaks. These elements were symbols, manifestations and personifications of supernatural forces.
Navels and axes of the world
Peaks were inhabited not only by gods, but also by the souls of ancestors or dangerous demons. It is no wonder that an expedition to them can end tragically, because man thereby enters a territory subject to the rule of higher forces, which can be good, but also cruel and ruthless. On almost every continent there is a mountain where, according to tradition, disappearances of people were especially common, which was associated with the activity of evil powers and supernatural forces. Especially that in many religions sacred mountains are cosmic axes (axis mundi), connecting the earth with the heavens, the world of people with the world of gods and spirits, the past with the present and the future. For these reasons, it was there that it was easiest to establish contact with the souls of ancestors, which was used by shamans in their rituals, and that is why they are places of many revelations — like Sinai, at the top of which Moses received commandments from God.
On hierotopographical maps, showing the holy places to which pilgrims go in crowds of believers and tourists, in addition to such obvious centers as Rome, Jerusalem or Mecca, you will find plenty of holy mountains. They were chosen not by chance, and the significance was, among other things, the beauty of the area. The location was important not only because it evoked emotions to help experience spiritual states, but the beauty simply differentiated the mundane from the divine.
Today, New Age esotericists speak of the earth’s power chakras, where energy accumulates. This is a borrowing from Hinduism which uses the concept of chakras of the human body, or channels through which energy (prana) flows and accumulates. It’s no coincidence that the list of places with this special power includes many mountains — Shasta in California, Uluru in Australia, Cook in New Zealand, Kaylas in Tibet — as well as elevated places like Machu Picchu in Peru or Egyptian pyramids. Research does not indicate that any exceptional forces were at work there (although the Delphic Pythia could have inhaled poisonous ethylene or methane coming from the rock fault on which the oracle stood), but there are two phenomena behind the belief in their cosmic uniqueness: a very deeply rooted tradition and the innate human need for spirituality and transcendent experiences, which are much easier to obtain in the face of the beauty and sublimity of nature after the physical effort involved in climbing to the top than elsewhere.
Sacred mountains can have a global fame or a more local one when they are important to the citizens of one country, the people of a region or a particular tribe. In Europe, inhabited mainly by Judeo-Christians rooted in ancient civilization, the role of sacred mountains play those known from the Bible, such as Sinai in Egypt, Garizim in Israel or the holy hill in Jerusalem, but also the mythical Olympus or Athos. Another example of an important peak is Harney Peak in South Dakota (2207 m), to which the mystic and guardian of the Dakota Indian tradition Black Elk, who died in 1950, made a pilgrimage. However, if the holiness of the mountain is measured by the number of believers and pilgrims coming to it, then probably one of the first places will be taken by Kaylas — the holy mountain of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and followers of the Tibetan Bön religion, whose total number is approx. 500 million. Moreover, their faith requires them to make a pilgrimage, so in order to see Kajlas, crowds of believers come, but also tourists driven by curiosity, desire for adventure and contact with exotic mysticism.
Circling in honour
Mount Kaylas (6714 m) on the border between India and China is neither the highest mountain in Tibet nor the hardest to climb, as Himalayan mountaineer Reinhold Messner claimed, yet no one has officially climbed it to this day. There are many reasons why this particular mountain is revered. First of all, it owes its uniqueness to the fact that it can be clearly seen on the plateau, and in its vicinity are the springs of four most important rivers of India — the Indus, Brahmaputra, Sutlej, and Karnali — as well as the sacred lake Manasarovar, where Buddha appeared. In addition, Kaylas is associated with the golden mountain Meru, famous in Indian mythology, which cuts through the cosmos at its center, and the seat of gods, including the Hindu Shiva and the Buddhist patron of meditators Demchog.
Both religions practice clockwise circling (parikrama) of sacred sites — trees, stupas, lakes or mountains. The circumambulation of Kailash is called kora. The 52 km route can be done in one day (e.g. on a yak), but this method is usually chosen by time-sensitive tourists. Pilgrims walk the entire way on their knees or measure it by the length of their bodies, every now and then lying down on the ground. During the kora, one passes by various sacred sites where appropriate ritual acts or offerings must be performed. According to beliefs, 108 laps of Kajlas ensure nirvana, but climbing it is forbidden. It is true that in 1958 the Chinese authorities gave permission to Messner to climb the mountain, but he did not use it, and later, when in 2001 the mountaineer Jesús Martínez Novás got it, the protests of religious circles made him give up the expedition. According to legend, the only person to have stood on top of Kailash is the yogi Milarepa (1052–1135). He is said to have said that no place is more magnificent.
Myths enchanted in the rock
Since October 26 last year, climbing Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is punishable by a fine of 10 thousand Australian dollars. Australia’s indigenous Anangu people, who had their lands returned to them in 1985, have long fought for the ban, because according to them 400,000 tourists a year trample the sacred rock, disturbing the peace of their ancestors’ souls who live there.
Uluru, which is a hardrock and not a monolith as long believed, rises to just 348m above sea level, but in a completely flat landscape it makes an impressive sight, especially during sunset when its yellow-orange walls turn blood red. The rock owes this effect to sandstone with high iron oxide content and light. But while the rock is a beautiful and mysterious attraction for tourists, for Aborigines it is not only the home of their ancestors’ souls, but also the place where Dreamtime began, when gods and ancestors shaped the cosmos. According to the research of Australian writer and popularizer Lynne Kelly, the hollows and protuberances on Uluru that light brings out help Aborigines remember and pass on to future generations the multifaceted stories that underpin their religion and sense of community. And because these stories can only be told in the places where they happened, Aborigines ask that Uluru not be photographed, because disseminating images of the rock causes them to be “transported” to another place, which can distort the Dreamtime story.
The sacred mountain Garizim, mentioned several times in the Old Testament, is next to the God-cursed Mount Ebal. But most peaks have both a menacing and gracious face, for gods, demons, and spirits can be gentle and helpful as well as cruel and destructive. Inaccessible icy summits, after all, were held back by clouds that rained down life-giving rivers of water. Volcanoes shooting flames fertilized the area with their ashes. Similarly, on Uluru many hikers died while climbing due to dehydration and heat, but there are also legends that disappearances and unusual phenomena occurred in the vicinity of the formation.
In some cultures, active volcanoes were believed to be the gateway to the hereafter and posed a genuine threat. These beliefs lasted for thousands of years. That is why the constantly smoking Masaya in Nicaragua was already worshipped by the Indians, and since the Spaniards associated it with the entrance to the abysses of hell, they called it the Gates of Hell. The important role played in the lives of the inhabitants of the New World both active and extinct volcanoes, is evidenced by the fact that human sacrifices were offered to them. One of the sacred mountains of the Incas is located on the border between Argentina and Chile — it is the highest active volcano in the world (6739 m) Llullaillaco. Almost at its very summit in 1999, American archaeologists came across the perfectly preserved mummies of three children who were sacrificed 500 years ago. When a six-year-old girl, a thirteen-year-old girl, and a boy of just a few years old were taken to a laboratory, it was found that the girls were related and that all the children had been given coca leaves and corn beer before they died. They came from poor families and were chosen for their beauty. They were to become victims in the propitiatory rite of capacocha, but before that they were fed better (meat and corn), given beer and given drugs. A hair study shows that just before death, the doses of stimulants increased, probably to reduce stress in the children. According to the Incas, such a sacrifice made at the volcano ensured prosperity for the country.
Archaeologists have been studying the peaks considered sacred by the Incas for years. Two years ago, on the southern slope of the extinct volcano Coropuna in Peru, about 1600 m below the summit, they found a ceremonial complex. It consisted of 20 structures and 5 plazas. It was the fifth and last of such establishments on the way to the summit. None of them was permanently inhabited. They served pilgrims going to make offerings on the altars near the volcano itself. The size of some of the pilgrimage stations indicates that the pilgrims were many, and the infrastructure was not badly prepared.
We are homini viatori — wandering people, which means that we make pilgrimages for spiritual purposes and out of sheer curiosity. Although a pilgrim is not a tourist, in some cases the purifying effect of wandering is similar, especially if the destination is a mountain. While a pilgrim wants to be in the place where God dwells, to touch holiness and feel it, a tourist goes to the mountains for other reasons. But for him, too, the expedition can be mystical, if he finds himself in a crowd of pilgrims and is in the mood for them. Or if he finds himself in the middle of nowhere and, while forcing his way up the mountain alone, he becomes enchanted by the beauty of nature. Black Elk had a vision that allowed him to understand the nature of things and the universe on the summit of Harney Peak. After the revelation, he stated that everyone has their own sacred mountain and can find it anywhere — making it clear that the sacred places pilgrims go to are conventional.
The problem is that the tourism of the world is combined with the trampling of monuments and nature. Jost Krippendorf, a Swiss sociologist, considers uroboros, i.e. a snake that eats its own tail, to be a symbol of mass tourism, because the tourist who comes to attractive places destroys their cultural and natural surroundings, thus killing their uniqueness and attractiveness. Recently there have also been voices speaking about the revenge of nature, which sent us the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, the ban on climbing Uluru, which was won by Australian Aborigines, is consistent with the latest trends and with the increasingly strong process of deification of nature, whose beauty we admire, but we should not underestimate its power.
Sacred mountains (selection)
Mount Olympus Massif
home of the Greek gods
(949 m) — sacred place of the Latins and home of Jupiter
sacred mountain of the Orthodox Church
(3326 m) — an active volcano worshipped since antiquity
(5642 m) — cursed mountain, associated with the Flood and the place of execution of Prometheus
(73 m) — volcano in Iceland, the sacred mountain of the Vikings
(760 m) in Turkey — the oldest temple in the world was built here 11 thousand years ago
(2285 m) — Moses received here the tablets with the commandments
(5137 m) — according to the Bible, Noah’s ark stopped here
in Jerusalem — the holy place of the three religions of the Book, considered the center of the world
(546 m) — a mountain revered by the inhabitants of Israel of all faiths
(6993 m) and Emei Shan (3099 m) — sacred mountains for Buddhists
(817 m) — embodiment of the god Shiva
(6714 m) — worshipped by Buddhists and Hindus
(2910 m) and Bromo (2329 m) on Java and Apo
(2954 m) in the Philippines — active volcanoes to which the locals offered human sacrifices
Huang Shan and Lu Shan ranges
(1474 m) and Guilin — mountains important for Buddhists and Taoists
(3776 m) — home of the gods
(467 m) — the most venerated and considered a deity
Ol Doinyo Lengai
(2960 m) — an active volcano worshiped by the Masai
(5895 m) — home of many gods of different tribes
Mountains, which, according to Greek myths, supported the sky
Australia and Oceania
(350 m) and Kata Tjuta monoliths (up to 450 m) — sacred rocks of the Aborigines
(1247 m) in Hawaii — home of the goddess Pele
(4322 m) — sacred mountain of the Klamaths and an important place for the followers of New Age movements
San Francisco Peaks
(3850 m) — sacred place of the Hopi, the destination of annual pilgrimages
(3267 m) — sacred mountain of the Apache people
Sacred mountains of the Lakotas
(5452 m) and Iztaccíhuatl (5230 m) — worshipped by the Aztecs and considered to be the abode of the gods
(6439 m) — according to the Ayamars is the seat of the god of weather
(6739 m), Ampato (6288 m) and Ausangate (6384 m) — according to the Incas, they were inhabited by the god of rain, to whom propitiatory offerings were made of people; the purpose of pilgrimages
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