The profound connection between landscape and religion is the focus of most indigenous societies. The vertical axis of the mountain drawn from its peak down to its substratum links it with the world-axis, which is identified as the heart or hub of the world, connecting heaven and earth or various cosmic realms of being, and qualitatively different from mundane space in that there can be multiple centers in any cosmos or microcosm. This axis-mundi belief is attached to a long list of mountains, for example, to Kunlun of the Daoists and Mount Meru of the Hindus, connecting heaven and earth or various cosmic realms of being, and spanning all levels of reality, towering places where all dimensions intersect and where the most direct contact with the sacred is obtained.
Besides natural mountains being consecrated with the spiritual, there are plentiful examples of mountains being built, such as the Mesopotamian ziggurats, the Egyptian pyramids, the pre-Columbian teocallis, and the temple-mountain of Borobudur. In most cases, the tops of real and manufactured mountains are the sites for temples, mausoleums, or altars.
Native American Indians believe that sacred areas are places set aside from human presence. They identified two encompassing types of sacred place: those set aside for the supernatural, such as an abode, and those restricted to human reminiscence, such as an interment or battle site.
Blackfeet Indian narratives explain that they believe in a universe where supernatural beings exist within the same time and space as humans and our natural world. The deities could simultaneously exist in both as visible and invisible reality. That is, they could live unseen, but known, within a physical place visible to humans.
One such place for the Blackfeet is Nínaiistáko, or Chief Mountain, in Glacier National Park. This mountain is the home of Ksiistsikomm, or Thunder, a primordial deity, and is a centrally located place between two realms.
Blackfeet tribal citizens can go near this sacred place to perceive the divine, but they cannot go onto the mountain because it is the home of a deity. Elders of the Blackfeet tribe believe that human activity, or changing the physical landscape in these places, disrupts the lives of deities. They view this as sacrilegious and a desecration.
Sacred places, however, are not always set aside from humanity’s use. Some sacred places are meant for constant human interaction. One purpose of sacred places is to perfect the human mind. Apache elders believe that when someone repeated the names and stories of their sacred places, they were understood as “repeating the speech of our ancestors.”
For these Apache elders, places were not just names and stories – their landscape itself was a living sacred text. As these elders traveled from place to place speaking the names and stories of their sacred text, they perceive that their minds became more “resilient,” more “smooth” and able to withstand adversity.
To the Koreans, sacred mountains an be divided into two categories, those that possess factors that are more physical and others that are more cultural. These are interrelated and cumulative; to be considered “highly sacred” a mountain must be seen to have at least several of them, having only one will not be considered sufficient. Every mountain in question has its own unique and characteristic set of and balance of these factors, which combine to establish and maintain its reputation.
Among the physical factors, sacred mountains demonstrate unusually-high peak(s) or great size / outstanding prominence; significant geographical position; unusual, strange or outstanding topographical features; serve as the origin of a major river; and functioning or having served as the geographical “guardian” mountain of a city or region, perhaps with a military fortress on it.
Some cultural considerations are perhaps that the mountain’s name has a profound / auspicious religious meaning; people are recorded to have, and/or said to have spiritual experiences or visions or attain enlightenment and wisdom, on that mountain; social heroes having been born, trained or educated there, gaining special powers; old folk or religious myths or legends being sited there, including myths of that mountain’s “spirit” appearing, manifesting or causing some phenomena; the mountain has served as the spiritual “guardian” mountain of a city, thought to have powers to generate or ensure abundant fecundity, or simply to protect against disaster; presence of one or more important Buddhist temples; presence of one or more major Shamanic shrines; presence of significant historical / archaeological remains; previous governments established shrines there for worship of its spirit; or previous governments including it in a numeric-based system of sacred mountains or peaks.
In Japan, Mount Fuji (Fujiyama) is revered by Shintoists as sacred to the goddess Sengen-Sama, whose shrine is found at the summit. Named after the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi, the mountain is believed to be the gateway to another world. The mountain was originally sacred to the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan.
In China there are nine sacred mountains, five Taoist and four Buddhist; all are sites of pilgrimage. According to Taoist belief, mountains are a medium of communication through which people communicate with the immortals and the primeval powers of the earth. Chinese sacred mountains are believed to be especially powerful sites of telluric power, a sacred force or energy known as the dragon current which runs through the earth itself. It is studied by practitioners of feng shui (also called geomancy). The dragon current is of two kinds: the yin (or female) and yang (male). Mountains are regarded as embodying primarily the yang force.
In Tibet, Mount Kailas, one of the tallest peaks in the Himalayas, near the source of the Ganges, is venerated by, and is a pilgrimage site for, Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Buddhists regard the mountain as a mandala.
In New Zealand, mountains, or maunga, are held in the utmost regard and are considered the highest order of sacred. Like Aoraki/Mt Cook, New Zealand’s mountains are named after ancient ancestors. As such, the great maunga are afforded the same reverence and respect as living elders and tribal leaders. It’s also why Māori will not stand on the peak of a mountain: in Māori culture, to stand on the peak of a mountain is to stand on the head of an ancestor. Thus, Māori tikanga (lore) dictates that the head is the most sacred of all Māori body parts as it is the pathway to knowledge which carries tribes into the future.
In Hawaii, people often talk about the concept of a “sense of place.” What they’re really describing is a cultural connection to the land, land that is alive and imbued with ancestral spirits. Caring for the land as a way to care for one another is at the heart of what it means to be Hawaiian. However, Hawaii’s sense of place is more than just about land. It includes streams, ocean, moon, and stars.
All of these analogies of the center reflect the divine urge for a sense of direction as to what is sacred. It is this closeness to the sacred that makes human life possible, for it assuages the mature spiritual demand for what is real and has meaning.
In the past year we have seen protests over the potential desecration of sacred places at Mauna Kea in Hawaii (over the construction of another telescope on a sacred volcano), Oak Flats in Arizona (over a potential copper mine on sacred land) and also at Standing Rock in North Dakota (over construction of an oil pipeline on sacred land).
Despite many generations of contact, modern civilization and the industrialized world has yet to recognize the uniqueness of archaic religions and ties to the land. And until this happens, there will continue to be conflicts over religious ideas of territory, and what makes a mountain sacred.