Discourses on an Alien Sky #20 | Symbols of the World Mountain


You’ve just entered the
theater of an alien sky. If 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. Symbols of the World Mountain For well over a century the documented
traditions of the world mountain have invited scholarly
attempts to explain them. The mountain rolls along the world axis to the
visual center of the sky at the celestial pole. But do any of the proposed
explanations actually work? That question can only be answered
by penetrating to the core idea across a wide range of
imaginative images. The celestial reference was
not just seen as a mountain but as much more than that. By following the theme back to its
earliest expressions, we can reconstruct the concrete celestial form beneath
the full range of mythic symbols. The complex ancient images of a
cosmic mountain can only find meaning in a human experience
that is not occurring today. Events in the skies above
our early ancestors provoked an explosion
of mythic content. In its first form, human witnesses saw
the great mountain as a cosmic pillar, the visual support of the sky. Its summit was the seed of a power
remembered as the universal sovereign. In the most archaic traditions,
the great column served as the perch, pedestal, or resting
place of the creator god himself. The ruler on the mountaintop
was the primeval Sun, the central luminary of the sky,
not the body we call Sun today. Ancient chronicles of kingship name
this luminary as the Father of Kings, the first in the mythic line of kings, the
one from whom kingship itself descended. In ancient Mesopotamia, this was the
Sumerian An, the Babylonian Anu. For the Egyptians,
it was Atum-Ra. For the Greeks, the god Kronos. As we’ve observed in earlier
episodes of this series, ancient astronomical traditions
identify this archaic dominating power as the planet Saturn. Our present sky is not
the key to the past. Always the cosmic mountain appears
as the site of mythic creation, and the mount itself is part
of that creation story. Early traditions describe the
mountain as a cosmic pillar, arising out of luminous ejecta that exploded from the primeval Sun
as the central act of creation, a great shout producing a
cloud of chaotic debris. In the archaic creation accounts, this
explosive outflow was the raw material, or primeval matter, from which the
unique form of creation emerged. Human imagination interpreted
this ejecta in many ways. It saw the clouds
or waters of chaos, or an army of barbaric or frenzied
warriors yet to be controlled. The same ejecta was seen as the
creator’s luminous speech. Visible words shouted into existence
and gathered into concrete form, the world mountain providing
the creator with the support that served as his
own lower limbs. Imaginative contemporary illustration
of the Primeval Hill, the Akhut The Egyptian creation account
describes the appearance of the world mountain from this
ejecta as a defining moment. It meant the emergence of the
far-famed Primeval Hill, the Akhut. Akhut, the name itself came
directly from the ejecta, called Akhu, signifying the radiant words of power
erupting as the primeval shout of creation. The text recall the
creator Atum or Ra alone wandering to and fro in the heavens before
finding a stationary resting place. “I found no place where
I could stand,” the god recalls in the
Egyptian creation account. “I was alone. No other
worked with me.” For context the words
are critically important. This celestial resting place was in
fact the Akhut, the world mountain. Thus, the hieroglyph for the idea “to stand”
conveys the sense of support and stability. “That was before a perch had been formed
for me to sit on,” the god states. The perch, described by its hieroglyph,
was the cosmic mountain or pillar, the very pillar that the Egyptians
personified as the god Shu. It was a common Egyptian practice to place
emblems of the creator on the perch sign as a testament to the
critical role of Shu as the emerging pillar of the
sky in the creation accounts. The equation of the god’s
pedestal, the Pillar of Shu, and the Mount of Creation is
unequivocal in the Egyptian language. The god Osiris, enthroned
upon the Primeval Hill, “was like an exalted one
upon thy pedestal.” And the god Anubis, the god
“who is on his mountain” was called also, “the god
who is on his pedestal.” But the symbolism of the cosmic column
ranges across many mythic interpretations. It includes the hieroglyphic image of
the god Sept, a close counterpart of Shu. It includes the twin-peaked mountain,
Akhut, that we previously discussed. And it includes all Egyptian words
relating to the etheric wind or fountain at the region
below the creator. This luminous column served
as the resting place of Atum, as made clear by
the coffin texts. “The Great God lives, Fixed in the
middle of the sky Upon his support.” This pervasive language of a
cosmic pillar and resting place constitutes a profound challenge
to all common assumptions about the origins
of ancient thought. Egyptian creation accounts
consistently refer to a time before the appearance
of this resting place. But concrete translations are essential if
we are to capture events seen and heard. The texts make clear that in his
original condition, Atum was alone. “I was alone. I had not spit in the
form of Shu, [the pillar of the sky.]” “I had not poured out Tefnut,
[first form of the feminine power.]” “No other worked with me.” “Then I laid the foundation
with my own heart.” “I poured out the primeval
Akhu in the form of Shu…” The literal references
is to explosive outflow, interpreted most emphatically
as visible speech, called “words of power” shouted
by the primeval Sun god. But the same outflow is interpreted as
masculine seed, water, fire, and wind. This primeval matter, the Akhu, is always identified as the raw material
of creation in events seen and heard. Though our focus here will be on the
emergence of the towering column personified as the god Shu, the
Egyptian priests insisted that the same explosive events gave birth to
the first form of Shu’s counterpart, the goddess Tefnut, appearing as the
spiraling life breath of creation; a subject to which we’ll devote
considerable attention in due course. The creator announces: “I could
find no place to stand.” “Words of power came forth from
my heart to lay a foundation.” It was from this shout of visible words of
power that the column of Shu emerged. “I am Life, the Lord of
Years, living forever… the eldest one that Atum
made in his words of power,” the Akhu, “in giving
birth to Shu.” Or again Shu announces: “I came into
being in the limbs of the Self-Creator.” “He formed me through the
activity of his heart and he created me in his
words of power [the Akhu].” Any attempt to interpret the fiery
words of power as an abstraction can only distort the explicit awe
and terror of the human experience. The Egyptian priests clearly
knew that the pillar god Shu, who held aloft the resting Atum, was the perch or pedestal upon which
the creator eventually rested. So while one coffin text reads: “I’m raised aloft on my perch above
yonder places of the Abyss,” another speaks of the great perch:
“I do not fall on account of Shu.” This resting place was also
called the foundation of Ma’at. A stylized glyph of Ma’at is, in
fact, an image of the Primeval Hill. Often the glyph is simply read as
the pedestal of the great god. In its root meaning, Ma’at denotes
the stable enduring foundation, the source of cosmic regularity. The creation texts say that the
creator “rests upon Ma’at.” Repeatedly, we see that the
concept of support or foundation merges with the mountain or hill. The word “thes,” for example, means “support, to bear or
lift up” but also “mountain.” The reason for this is
that the only mountain with which the ritual
celebrations were concerned was the cosmic mountain,
the foundation of heaven. One finds no exceptions to this. “May I endure in the sky like the cosmic
mountain, like the primeval support,” reads a hymn of the
Pyramid Texts. For this celestial peak, the Egyptians
continually look back in their myths and rites. On behalf of the deceased king, the priest poured a heap of sand
on the floor inside the pyramid, placing atop the sand a statue of the
king and reciting a prayer which began: “Rise upon it, this land which came forth
from Atum… Assume your form upon it.” The sand poured out meant
the primeval matter and the hill so formed
meant the Primeval Hill. And so, according
to T. Rundle Clark, “Osiris sits in judgment in a
palace in the Primeval Mound, which is the center
of the world.” “May I be established upon my resting place
like the Lord of life,” the king declares. One of the most familiar representations
of the Primeval Hill is the obelisk. The small pyramidion on top of the
obelisk denoted the Benben stone, the living soul of
the creator, Atum. “Atum-Khepri, thou wert
high as the Hill. Thou didst shine
forth as Benben.” Thus, the obelisk came to be employed as
an idiograph for the Egyptian word “men.” The word meant the
“mountain” or “pedestal.” But it also meant “stability”
and “to rest in one place.” Derived from the same root
is the Egyptian word “mena” or “menat, the celestial
“mooring post.” The Egyptians conceived
this stationary pillar as the stake around which the
secondary powers of heaven revolved. That’s the meaning of Mena Uret,
“The Great Mooring Post,” connecting the masculine post to the
complementary symbolism of the mother goddess, whom we shall identify as the
spiraling life breath of creation. As we delve more deeply into the symbolism,
we’ll return to the special nuances of the cosmic column as world axis, the post,
peg, stake, nail, or anchor of creation. The distinguished authority, Henri
Frankfort, understood the principle well: “Everywhere the site of creation, the
first land to emerge from chaos, was thought to have been
charged with vital power. And each god counting as Creator was made
to have some connection with this Hill.” If the significance of this idea is to
truly register on human consciousness, it must be seen as something more than an
obscure regional experience or abstraction. It is a worldwide memory preserved through
competing imaginative interpretations all pointing back to a
singular experience.