Discourses on an Alien Sky #19 | The Myth of the World Mountain


You’ve just entered the
theater of an alien sky. iIf the words and images seem strange
to you, there’s a reason for this. Our world was once a
vastly different place. To experience this won’t hurt you,
and there is nothing to fear. The Myth of the World Mountain Any systematic investigation
of ancient myths and symbols will lead inescapably to the
mysteries of the world mountain, the cosmic mountain, the
mountain of the gods, remembered by every culture on earth and
memorialized through thousands of sacred mountains, pillars, and
symbolic poles and posts, all appearing as symbols
of an alien sky. Our early ancestors revered the towering
column as the visual axle of the cosmos, reaching upward from Earth’s
horizon to the center of heaven around which this
starry dome visually turn. No ancient culture was free from
the memory of the world mountain: the Golden Mountain, Silver Mountain, White
Mountain, the mountain of fire and light. called also the world’s
highest mountain. Here the gods themselves
gathered upon the summit, giving the great column its name
as the Mount of Congregation. Nations the world over identified this
divine habitation with the “first time,” the “best time,” the “ideal time,”
meaning of course the lost paradise, the mythic homeland of the gods before
they departed for more distant realms. In fact, every ancient
nation on earth assimilated at its own history
to that of the world mountain. The point was stated
emphatically by Mircea Eliade “The world mountain always signified the
‘point where creation had its beginning’ “. And so the early cultures
declared with one voice, “We came from that place. the cosmic center,
the place of the divine ancestors.” And accordingly, all ancient
rites of sacred construction, of kingship and royal marriage,
of sacrifice and holy war always direct our attention back to the
same location, the place par excellence. In every culture whatever
the imaginative form, the mount connected heaven and
Earth as a pillar or ladder or spiralling stairway from the world
below to the divine habitation above. And it was much more than
that as we shall see. In ancient Egyptian myths, this
was where the primeval sun god, the wandering Atum or Ra, found
his stable resting place. This stationary spot in the sky was the
apex of a mountain of fire and light, wind and water, the pillar
in support of the sky. The Egyptians called it Akhet,
the “Mountain of Fire and Light.” Of the creator Atum the
Coffin Texts say: “The Great God lives Fixed in the
middle of the sky Upon his support” Throughout all of ancient Egypt
priests identified every holy site as the summit of the
cosmic mountain or pillar. The priests of Karnak symbolically
located their temple on “The Venerable Hill of
Primeval Beginning.” The priests of the Edfu
Temple recalled “…the First Occasion in the High Hill at
the Beginning of Coming Into Existence.” In the language of the ancient cultures,
such phrasing meant the first appearance of the cosmic city or temple or kingdom, the
model for sacred construction on Earth. This remarkable idea was already in place
at the birth of Egyptian civilization. The oldest texts in Egypt,
the Pyramid Texts, speak of the primeval hill of the
land in the midst of the sea, the cosmic waters whose hand
no earthlings have grasped. Through images and texts, the Egyptians personified
the heaven-reaching pillar as the god Shu, remembered as both a cosmic column and
the support at the divine habitation. And it was more, the
Egyptians also described Shu as a luminous etheric column
of wind water and fire rising from below to vivify
the dwelling of the Gods. In ancient Mesopotamia,
the priestly traditions described the god Enlil
as the pillar of the sky, naming the god as the Great Mountain,
stretching between heaven and Earth. Exactly in the fashion of
the Egyptian Shu, Enlil signified a visible etheric
“wind” joining the two worlds. This is not something disputed. Though,
of course, a column of “air” or “wind” functioning as a pillar will always
appear as a conceptual absurdity but only until we meet the
archetype in its own terms. The cosmic mountain and its
diverse mythic content always suggests a progressively
evolving dwelling of the gods resting upon the cosmic column. With the passing of
the myth-making epoch, the absence of this original referent
in the sky changed everything. It guaranteed a rapid
loss of the original idea, leaving only the local symbols to
reflect the first form, the prototype. So when searching for
the lost paradise, we have only a mountain that
is no longer there to guide us, all complicated by a thousand
local hills named after or pretending to be
the cosmic original. It didn’t take long before the world
mountain was everywhere and nowhere. The theme needs to be
followed back to its origins. Where was the revered Hindu Mount
Meru around which the stars revolved? Or the Persian Haraberezaiti identified
as the tallest mountain and world axis? Or the Japanese world
mountain Shumi or Sumeru, called the center around which
the heavenly bodies revolved? Or the Chinese holy mountain Kwenlun,
the axis of the celestial revolutions? Or the Mexican Colhuacan, whose summit the priestly astronomers
identified as the celestial pole? What assures us of an original global
tradition is the consistent role of the cosmic mountain as both world
axis and stable support of the sky. The cosmic center and the apex of the world
mountain meant exactly the same thing, to which we must add the identification
with the exemplary site of creation itself, the birthplace of the
primeval paradise. Traced to its origins, all
of the imagery is cosmic. The events occurred in the sky and were always
filtered through myth-making imagination. They did not occur down
here where we live. The greatest mistake we could make it to ask the
local geography to explain the original idea. No terrestrial hill gave Olympus
its name Aegus, meaning the “axle” nor did the Hebrews name Zion as the site
of creation by some accident of geography. Upon the summit of Zion, the creator
fashioned the city of heaven, the temple of heaven, or
the kingdom of heaven. The original referent was the cosmic
center and summit where creation began. The themes are global, and they belong
to the core of world myths and symbols. This memory held humanity in its
grip for thousands of years. And nothing could add greater
confusion than attempts to explain the symbolism of a sacred mountain
by attributes of local geography. The archetype always
precedes the local symbol. All that a regional hill could ever
provide was a symbolic pointer back to the original cosmic
mountain of the gods. In fact, the symbolic echoes
were far too numerous to be blended into one story
by later chroniclers. Long ago the best students of
comparative symbolism recognized the linkage of the
Hebrew mount Zion to a similar memoriy shared
with their Canaanite neighbors of Mount Zaphon in the
farthest reaches of the north. Of course, in modern times the
ideas can only appear ludicrous. But it’s the cross cultural integrity
that substantiates a global experience beneath the chaos of
local myths and symbols. The axial supportive and heaven
reaching role of the world mountain was its defining character, always attached
to the land of the gods themselves. But always keep in mind that human imagination
in the presence of this celestial column would see much more
than just a mountain. The archetypal form naturally inspired
multiple myths and interpretations. By symbolic extension, thousands of local
prominences and man-made artifacts received their mythic content from the
human memory of the cosmic mountain. In the shadow of a grand mythic tradition,
monumental construction was always commemorative. That’s the core meaning
of the word “monument,” a word receiving its original significance
from the collective nostalgia for things formerly seen in
the sky but no longer present. By their devotion to sacred
construction, humans on Earth strove to maintain a symbolic
connection to the gods, always painfully aware that the
original connection was broken by heaven-altering catastrophe. Nothing weighed more heavily and powerfully on
human minds than the nostalgia for Paradise, always mixed with a collective anxiety, the
fear of doomsday, the great catastrophe which brought the paradisal
epoch to its violent conclusion. Every collective memory of the cosmic
mountain directs us back to the time before the sky fell, before the
gods departed for remote realms, before, in the most reliable
astronomical traditions, the great gods departed to
become the now distant planets. This memory held humanity in its
grip for thousands of years. And nothing could add greater
confusion than attempts to explain the symbolism of sacred mountains and
pillars by attributes of local geography. The archetype always
precedes the local symbol. All that a regional Hill could ever
provide was a symbolic pointer back to the original cosmic
mountain of the gods. In fact, the symbolic echoes
were far too numerous to be blended into one
story by later chroniclers. Of course, the disparities in local
traditions would spawn regional competition and a growing confusion between the archetype
and the local symbol reflecting it. Many scholars have
already noted that Zion and Zaphon merged as
pointers back to a single archetype, and that fact should always take
precedence in comparative investigation. We know that the Greeks identified
several local hills as Olympus just as the Hindus named
more than one mountain and innumerable man-made replicas
after their cosmic mountain Meru. The Greek sacred mountain
Ida in present-day Turkey had its counterpart in a Cretan
mount of the same name. And that’s just one illustration of a
vast pattern of symbolic replication. But today, as is the case
with all archetypal forms, both the land of the gods and the
towering column of fire and light upon which it stood are
nowhere to be seen. That’s the heart to the dilemma we intend
to resolve by taking up the diverse but intricately connected
features of the cosmic mountain, all ranging far beyond the
mythic idea of the regional hill.