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Mountains hold a powerful place in the cultural imagination, not only as impressive feats of nature, ...
2021-01-21 09:00:00

Stairway to Heaven
Mythology in the Mountains

Nikołaj Roerich, “Sacred Himalayas”, 1934, State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow
Stairway to Heaven
Stairway to Heaven

Meru in India, Gerizim in Palestine, Hara Berezaiti in Iran, Belukha in Russia and Kunlun in China – what do these mountains have in common? Their sanctity. The world begins here.

Read in 11 minutes

Mount Meru, according to Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, rises up from the very centre of the universe to a height of 84,000 yojanas (an ancient Indian unit of measure) above the surface of the Earth and the same distance down into the Earth. It is 252,000 yojanas in circumference. One yojana is roughly 12 to 15 kilometres. Thus we can calculate that the circumference of Meru is more than four million kilometres. Planet Earth, with its 40,000-kilometre circumference, seems to be a ridiculously small, insignificant cog in the machine of the universe. Meru’s snow-capped peaks reach all the way to heaven and hold it up. Otherwise, the celestial vault would come crashing down to Earth, swallowing up its human and non-human inhabitants. What a responsibility to have to hold up the world from the beginning of time and, more than that, to do it for eternity, as someone correctly noted.

The slopes of Meru are always bathed in sunshine. Grasses and bushy shrubs grow on them, with streams of crystal-clear water flowing between them. The upper reaches of the mountain are covered with precious gems: gold, silver, rubies and lapis lazuli. That is where the palaces inhabited by gods, the asuras, gandharas and nagas rise up. Divine beings walk among the groves, listen to the singing of birds and engage in casual romances and courtly intrigues.

Once upon a time, it dawned on the gods that they could grow old, and that old age was a prelude to death. They didn’t want death here, in the centre of the world, on top of the cosmic mountain. Vishnu advised the gods to extract amrita, the drink of immortality, from the Great Ocean. How? It’s simple: by churning up the ocean. The beater should be Mount Meru. So, the gods churned up the ocean from which the world had emerged. Meru will always be at its centre.

Cosmic highway

What is the myth about Mount Meru and the dozens of other cosmogonic myths? Here is the world. It is divided into three spheres: the upper world, the Earth, and the lower world. The first is inhabited by gods – heavenly beings rather indifferent to human affairs. It is the Paradise Garden of Timeless Unity, writes Joseph Campbell in The Power of Myth, where neither time nor the popular dualities of the earthly world exist: male-female, good-evil, dark-light, silence-noise. In the second world live humans, subject to the mercy and displeasure of the gods, driven out of the Garden and therefore tainted by time; creatures with a short shelf life. The third level of the world is the land of the dead, a place of afterlife chaos and, at the same time, the antithesis of orderly human existence and a domain of darkness. The cosmic topography is completed with the axis of the world, which ensures communication between heaven, Earth and the lower world. Now it is time to exercise your imagination: the axis cuts through the cosmic levels, so there must be an opening. For what? So that the gods can descend to Earth via it, the dead can travel to the underworld, and the shamans can ascend to heaven or descend to hell during their ecstatic journeys – a cosmic highway that is always busy with traffic.

In myths and legends, a mountain is often the symbolic image of the axis of the world. Often also used as symbols are the cosmic tree, arbor mundi, pole, climbing plant, ladder, stairway, pillar or column. Regardless of the symbolic representation, the sense of the centre of the world remains the same. It is a place of hierophany: the manifestation of holiness, the intrusion of the sacred into the profane. Space ceases to be homogeneous, neutral or relative, writes Mircea Eliade in a collection of his essays entitled The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Hierophany causes ‘tears’ to appear in it; there is an opening upwards into the divine world, and downwards into the underworld. This is how the connection between the three cosmic levels is created. What does this mean for man? “Revelation of a sacred space makes it possible to obtain a ‘fixed point’ and hence to acquire orientation in the chaos of homogeneity, to ‘establish the world’ and to live in a real sense,” emphasizes Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane. Such experience of the heterogeneity of space is the privilege of a religious man, who lives in traditional societies based on a tripartite vision of the world. Eliade insists, however, that lay people are also drawn, albeit in a veiled way, to ‘real life’. He wants to be as close to the centre as possible and experience spaces that are qualitatively different. So, he tracks the axis mundi. In the mountains and in the lowlands. Sometimes he tries to establish the centre of the world independently and to the best of his ability.

High up, where the eye cannot see

Chaos-cosmos, world-non-world, strangeness-familiarity. These are the basic categories of experiencing space in symbolic culture. They are marked by the centre of the world, including our heroine, the cosmic mountain, the mythical prototype of the sacred mountains. A mountain such as Gerizim in Palestine. This is a sacred mountain for the Samaritans, an ethnic group of just over 700 people who are descended from the people of ancient Sumer and immigrants from Mesopotamia. In the Old Testament, Gerizim is described as “the belly button of the earth.” Here, according to the Samaritans, Abraham wanted to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. It was here, not in Jerusalem, that the First Temple with the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be located. Gerizim reaches the top of the sky and is the highest point on the world map. So maybe the country that surrounds the mountain is also the highest? Maybe also the best country of them all? Is it a coincidence that Palestine was not overwhelmed by the biblical flood?

Or Golgotha. According to Christian tradition, this is located at the centre of the world and is the top of a cosmic mountain and the place where Adam was created and buried. The first man left from here and returned here. It is a unique place and, if we live close by, we warm ourselves in the heat of the sacred.

Rise to the heights from this earthly den!

Mount Parnassus drew countless crowds looking for even the faintest sign from the gods. People travelled here from the farthest corners of Greece, even from the little islands scattered across the Mediterranean Sea and from Macedonia, Egypt and Italy. The pilgrims brought their offerings, worries and hopes to the gods, never sure if the expedition would be a success. They covered the last, mountainous section on foot. Finally, there it is, surrounded by a grove, at the foot of two red rocks – the Temple of Apollo – and within, the oracle of Delphi, the most famous oracle in the Hellenic world. In the most important place in the temple, the adyton, the Pythia sat on a tripod in a halo of suffocating fumes. She looked into the future of the pilgrims: who they would marry, what profession they would choose, where to look for treasure, how to overcome disease or start a war with a neighbouring country. The location of the Delphi oracle (and many others like it) in the mountains was not accidental. In the temple of Apollo there was an omphalos; a stone that for the ancient Greeks was the centre of the world and at the same time a medium for contact with the gods. In traditional cultures, it was believed that it was possible to be open to contact with the afterlife in the mountains. This is a place excluded from human laws where chaos and wildness reign. There is no order, nor are there simple paths. It is alien and dangerous. We can see, therefore, that the mountains are a space marked by the sacred, which gives rise to another belief, about the effectiveness of fortune-telling practices that draw on primal power.

Mountains are often depicted as a wasteland. The opposite of inhabited lands. The taxonomic rules that characterize the mortal world do not apply here. Therefore, many a candidate for shaman would climb the sacred mountain during his initiation journey, which was meant to be a journey into the centre of the world. In the mountain wilderness, he entered a state of symbolic death, in order to be reborn, all with the help of a ritualistic regime, surrounded by the fumes of cleansing smoke and after a long fast. The experience of deep, genuine loneliness, concentration and introspection is not just the privilege of aspiring shamans. Many of the heroes and heroines of culture set off to the mountains before making an important decision at a turning point in their lives. They sought to gain knowledge and snatch the power of the Other World, as folklore expert Professor Piotr Kowalski explains in his book Kultura magiczna. Omen, przesąd, znaczenie [Magic Culture: Omen, Superstition, Meaning]. Likewise, the heroes of Olga Tokarczuk’s debut novel, The Journey of the Book-People, set off on an expedition to the metaphorical edges of the map, where the geographical gridlines don’t reach, heading for the Spanish Pyrenees and the Serra del Cadí mountains. Their destination is the Uterus Mundi, a great ravine with steep sides. At its bottom, surrounded by burdock, Morning Glory (Convolvulus) and exuberant bushes, stands an abandoned monastery where the Book has been hidden. What is it? Wisdom? Cognition? Travelling through the mountains multiplies the questions, but reaching the destination does not provide the answers.

Moreover, a journey like this, through the mountains, comes with many different dangers, which result from their dualist nature. On the one hand, they are a place of epiphany – a divine presence is manifested in them – which should be rather refreshing for someone, if handled with the correct ritual, through a priest and using the appropriate mediators of smoke, poppy seeds or alcohol. On the other hand, mountains are readily inhabited by demonic characters. The Carpathians are swarming with dryads, strigas and demons. Young shepherds are seduced by fairies in negligées, malicious sibyls and nudes; Slavic demons, prowl the mountain slopes. According to ancient legends, there are days of the year when the demons are particularly active. On the midsummer solstice, the mountains were said to open; trolls and ghosts were believed to emerge from within them. Then they danced, shamelessly, and enjoyed themselves frantically until dawn. A trip to the mountains at this turbulent time meant trouble: illness, misfortune, and maybe even death.

Traditional belief systems also often feature an anti-mountain motif, or ‘bald mountain’,which inclines downwards, opening the way to the underworld, inhabited by chthonic deities. The anti-mountain is lifeless and dark, and attractive only to witches.

Utopia at the base of Mount Belukha

In contrast, Mount Belukha, located on the southern tip of the Altai Republic, in the Katun Mountains, near the border with Kazakhstan, is bright and full of life. It is the highest peak in Siberia (4506 metres above sea level), which many mountaineers dream of climbing, although few manage to achieve this goal. Among the obstacles to be overcome are hurricane winds, temperatures below –50° C, snow drifts, the risk of avalanches, and crevasses in the ice. The local shamans, however, would say that it is the work of supernatural forces that prevent daredevils from visiting Belukha. Maybe a suitable level of initiation is needed? After all, this is a sacred mountain, the home of powerful spirits and the gateway to the upper world.

The followers of Roerichism would probably say the shamans are right and add that it is an extremely strong centre of energy. It is better not to play with it, but good to be located nearby. The so-called Roerich movement comprises the followers of Nikolai Roerich – a painter, writer, traveller and theosopher. In a sense, he is the spiritual father of the New Age, although we cannot forget about the spiritual mother, his wife Helena Roerich, who is usually in the shadow of her inspirational husband. The couple created a religious-philosophical system called Agni Yoga, also known as Living Ethics, and sometimes as the Teaching of Life. This is a full-blown syncretism, or fusion of religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Western esoteric traditions, Russian cosmism, Theosophy – all drizzled with a sauce of scientific and para-scientific theories. From 1923 to 1928, the Roerichs travelled around Asia: India, Tibet, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. They also reached the foothills of Mount Belukha, where they spent three days marvelling at its “cosmic aura”.

The Roerichs and their followers claim that the vicinity of Belukha is the land of White Waters. The Old Believers, who fled to the Altai Mountains before the Nikon reforms in the mid-17th century, thought so, too. To the land of justice and freedom, where the tentacles of the oppressive state do not reach. Here, there is no conflict or suffering. Instead, there is lush vegetation and fertile soils. A land of milk and honey, and happy people – chosen ones, of course. Not everyone is allowed to enter White Waters, although many try. You have to earn your place in utopia, spiritually. Be like Roerich.

Today, streams of followers of various New Age trends come to Belukha to recharge their chakras, to “resolve karmic conflicts and free their family from negative programmes” (a quote from a spiritual tourism offer), and maybe even to achieve enlightenment. Some settle here permanently. In the Uymon Valley, mainly in and around the village of Verkh-Uymon, representatives of about 20 sects are living, from Roerichs, through Anastasians, to the Krishnaites. They are different in many ways, but one thing unites them: they want to be as close as possible to Belukha, the holy mountain. We could call them dissenters, spiritual quacks, outsiders. We can also follow Eliade’s footsteps and look at this phenomenon with understanding; as a contemporary realization of the myth of the longing for paradise, for the Paradise Garden of Timeless Unity, where everything was still possible. This is a story about the desire to be as close to the centre of the world as possible and to secure a firm foothold.

Who does the holy mountain belong to?

Uluru is a weighty symbol – the red monolith is Australia; Australia is the red monolith. For the Anangu people, however, it is not a tourist icon, but their sacred, central mountain; one which is only climbed during initiation ceremonies. Recreational visits are not allowed, which of course the streams of tourists crawling all over the rock did not agree with. Finally, on 26th October 2019, the Anangu people said enough was enough. The ban on climbing Uluru came into force, on the 34th anniversary of the exact date that the management of the area around the rock was officially returned to its original owners. “Uluru is not an amusement park, not Disneyland,” members of the Anangu kept repeating in the media.

Indeed, the rock had been considered a popular picnic spot. Rubbish was scattered all over the top; scraps of toilet paper flying about. Sometimes there were scandals. Some stripper made a show at the top, and when she was arrested and threatened with heavy fines and deportation, she explained that she wanted to pay tribute to the spectacular local nature and local residents who do not see anything wrong in nudity. The film director Brian Trenchard-Smith was a little more humble. He officially apologized to the Anangu people for filming kung-fu fight scenes on Uluru in 1975 for the film, The Man from Hong Kong. The Anangu also emphasized that they feel responsible for the tourists; after all, they are guests on their territory. And these guests sometimes die while climbing. They often get injured and rescue operations have to be organized. The Anangu also feel responsible for Uluru – it is their cultural heritage. According to Tjukurpa, the set of rules that govern the world of their people and that are handed down in the oral tradition, Uluru is a gift from the gods. It was established even before time started to pass in the world. The rock was being trampled on; climbing on it aggravates its erosion. This could not be allowed any longer.

Before the ban on climbing was introduced, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park came under siege. Tourists wanted to climb to the top for the last time. These included those for whom it was a point of honour to go down in history as the last tourists on Uluru. The conflict over the rock – many opposed the climbing ban – highlighted two important issues. First, the sacred mountains, the cosmic mountains, are not a dust-covered anthropological curiosity, but, for many communities, a living symbol and a current point of reference – they look at Uluru and know who they are and what their purpose is in life. Second, in the debate about the ban on climbing, there were voices of white Australians – admittedly less numerous – who said: we have been living here for five, six, seven generations. Uluru is also our cultural heritage, part of our world, why do you forbid us to be on it? This raises further questions: Whose holy mountain is it today? To whom does the centre of the world belong? Do I have the right to the axis mundi – to anything that was established by another culture?


Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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