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The Spirit of the Mountains

Mountains and Cliffs as Sacred Places


Fujiyama is climbed by over 250,000 people every year.

Mount Fuji, Japan's sacred mountain, is framed by spring cherry blossoms.

Photograph © Darryl Benson/Getty Images

Mountains are sacred places. They're places where the land nears the heavens and in many religions and cosmologies, mountains form links between the Earth and the limitless sky above. The summits of mountains are also sacred places. It's there, poised on that lofty point between Heaven and Earth, that humans have been able to draw close to the spirit world.

Mountains in Judeo-Christian Mythology

Mountains and high places throughout the world have long been held sacred. Moses, according to the Hebrew scriptures, conversed with God and then received the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula desert, while the prophet Elijah heard God's word on Mount Horeb and triumphed over the Baal priests on Mount Carmel. In Christian mythology, Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven from the summit of the Mount of Olives.

Sacred Japanese Mountains

Other religions also hold mountains and summits in high esteem. In the Shinto religion in Japan, high mountains like conical Fujiyama are sacred places that are imbued with kami or "beings of higher places." The snow-capped mountain, rising to 12,338 feet (3,706 meters) on its crater rim, is an icon of Japanese culture and religion and visible from Tokyo on clear days. These mountains are not merely the dwelling places of gods but also are their earthly embodiment.

Mount Olympus and Mount Kailash

In Greece, 9,576-foot-high (2,919-meter) Mount Olympus is the legendary home of the 12 major Greek gods and goddesses, including Zeus and Aphrodite. Mount Kailash, a 22,028-foot mountain soaring above the China and Tibet border, is a sacred mountain to four religions. Every year a multitude of Buddhist, Bonpo, Hindu, and Jain pilgrims walk several 32-mile-long (52-kilometer) koras or ritual circuits around the mountain to ease their Karmic debts and sins in a pilgrimage called a yatra. It is a sacrilege to climb the mountain, which is also called Mount Meru.

Sacred Places in the United States

Many sacred mountains and places are also found in the United States. Native American cultures have long sensed and revered the power of the Earth and the nurturing hold that it has on the human body and spirit. Most of these sacred places have been used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Some are places of worship or the site for a vision quest. Some are hallowed burial grounds and places where the spirits of the dead, what the Navajo call chindi, reside restlessly. Some are sites where ritualistic petroglyphs were pecked on to a rock surface to commemorate a special hunt or the dreamlike transformation of man into spirit god. Others are fertility sites and places where women gave birth to new life. Some are places where the indigenous people marked the passage of the stars and the sun and the movements of the seasons. Some are now the ruins of ancient villages and places where spear points were knapped from flint. And some sacred places are simple sites like a fresh spring pouring from desert rock, an unusual boulder perched on a mountain ridge, or a grassy clearing below soaring mountains.

Sacred Mountains are Still Alive

The ancient peoples, like climbers today, liked high places. Even now, sacred geographies have survived around the world. The Sherpas and Tibetans still worship at their sacred mountains, some even paying homage atop Chomolangma or "Goddess Mother of Snows," the world's highest mountain (also called Mount Everest), and make special offerings to natural deities at springs, streams, and stones. The Tohono O'odham, formerly called the Pagago Indians, still travel to remote beaches on the Sea of Cortez to receive visions. The Plains Indians, like the Lakota Sioux, fast at the sacred mountain Nowah'wus or Bear Butte in South Dakota, while the Indians at Taos Pueblo in New Mexico journey every summer to a lake below the top of a sacred mountain for a long ritual that culminates when gods rise from the water to bless the people.

The 4 Mountains of Navajo Lore

Then there are the Navajo Indians with a vast desert homeland that encompasses parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. This high desert plateau is covered with a spider web of myths, legends, gods, and mystery. Four sacred mountains anchor the Navajo homeland-Blanca Peak or Sis Naajiní in Colorado in the east; Mount Taylor or Tsoodził in central New Mexico to the south; the San Francisco Peak or Dook'o'oosłííd in Arizona to the west; and Mount Hesperus or Dibé Nitsaa in Colorado to the north. The Navajos, according to their history, have always lived between these sacred peaks and their Creator says they must never leave the homeland. Likewise, the hogan, the traditional Navajo house, is built with four interior posts representing the four mountains. Shiprock, a huge volcanic monolith in northwestern New Mexico, is also a sacred mountain to the Navajo, figuring prominently in one of their origin myths.

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