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Summer mountains in the Lake District

The poetry of

The world's mountain landscapes have inspired poets and philosophers for centuries. Adrian Cooper explores the sacred nature of mountains  

The towering peaks and slopes of the world's mountain ranges have been sacred to a wide range of people all over the world since the dawn of human history. Even today, thousands of pilgrims each year are attracted to mountains in every continent.

For many people, it is often a surprise that it is not simply the epic scale of mountains that determines their sacredness. After all, Mount Everest has figured very little in the indigenous mythology of the Nepalese. At the same time, the 814m height of Arunachala in India's Tamil Nadu has done nothing to prevent it from becoming one of the most holy sites for pilgrims and other devotees in the whole of southern India.

If size alone doesn't determine the spiritual impact of mountains, we need to dig deeper in order to understand why some mountains have remained sacred, and others have not.

Part of the answer comes from tracing the history of that sacredness through the vast array of mythology with which mountains have been described. When we do so, we discover that certain key themes within those ancient words have helped them to cast mountains as objects of irresistible fascination in the human imagination.

Physical presence

The first major theme elevating some mountains to the level of sacredness is the conjunction of their physical presence in the landscape alongside the transcendence that they are believed to embody.

In the Bible, Psalm 121.1 captures this paradox of immanence and transcendence where it tells the reader: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. From where shall my help come?”

In the same way, the epic Sanskrit poem called Kumārasambhava, by Kālidāsa, tells us that the Himalayan mountains are “a source of endless jewels which snow does nothing to diminish”.

The Tang Dynasty poet Li Po also captures this paradox of mountains being both a physical reality, as well as a transcendent realm:

Why, you ask, do I live up in these blue mountains?

I smile and do not reply. Leave me in peace.

Peach blossoms drift on waves of flowing water,

There is another sky, another earth, beyond the world of men.

Fear and fascination

There is another paradox surrounding the fact that mountains inspire both fear and fascination. Whether it is from avalanches, landslides, earthquakes, volcanoes or other natural terrors, mountains are undeniably landscapes of fear.

And yet, who can resist mountain travel whether it is to walk, climb, explore, or simply meditate?

View of Mount Everest from Kala Patthar

View of Mt. Everest from Kala Patthar © Niklassletteland (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Mountains at Stalheim, Norway

The Taoist sage Ko Hung captures this paradox brilliantly in his P'ao-p'u tzu nei-p'ien 17.1a: “All the mountains, whether large or small, are haunted by supernatural beings: Great ones on the great mountains, little ones on the little mountains. And if one does not take appropriate precautionary measures, they will afflict one with sickness, injuries, vexations, terror and anguish…

“Great trees will crash down on him without there being any wind; rocks will fall without warning and strike him dead. Or, yet again, seized with panic, he will throw himself into the depths of a ravine, trying to avoid the attacks of tigers, wolves and poisonous animals. One does not venture into the mountains lightly.”

Ko Hung is undeniably wise to warn travellers about the intense dangers in mountain landscapes. His words were true when he wrote them around 320AD. They remain true today. However, that other great Taoist mystic, Hsieh Ling-yun is also right to describe mountain landscapes as offering endless serenity:

In the mountains, all is pure, all is calm

All complication is cut off.

Rare are they who know to listen;

Happy they who possess wisdom.

If the cold wind stings and bothers you,

Sit in the sun: it is always warm there.

Its hot rays burn like flames.

While, opposite, in the shade, all is frost and snow.

Clarify and confound

In a third paradox, mountains can simultaneously clarify our thinking as well as confound our groping attempts to understand them.

Toward the end of the eighth century AD, the Tang Dynasty poet Han-shan captured this paradox:

Men these days search for a way through the clouds.

But the cloud way is dark and without sign.

The mountains are high and often steep and rocky;

In the broadest valleys the sun seldom shines.

Green crests before you and behind,

White clouds to east and west

Do you know where the cloud way lies?

There it is, in the midst of the Void!

Even when pilgrims and other travellers are away from the mountains, they often find that memories of the peaks will inspire them to encounter their challenges with heightened resolve.

Lama Anagarika Govinda saw this when he met pilgrims who returned home from their journey to Mount Kailas in Tibet: “They return to their home with shining eyes, enriched by an experience which all through their life will be a source of strength and inspiration, because they have been face to face with the Eternal, they have seen the Land of the Gods.”

In one sense, extensive mountain travel makes us more familiar with the physical geography of individual mountain landscapes.

Simultaneously though, the Japanese writer(s) of the Man'yō-shū was ultimately right to concede that mountains will often “baffle the tongue”.

Walkers in Glen Affric
Glen Cannaich Scotland in spring

Private and public

Mountains are intensely private landscapes, as well as being inevitably public. They are landscapes which challenge our most personal beliefs and assumptions – about ourselves and the world in which we live – and yet we can only make sense of those challenges by appealing to the literature of myth, which often has its roots in the very deep past.

Given the profoundly life-changing character of mountains, it is natural for travellers, pilgrims, tourists and others to turn to a broad range of literature as a way to make sense of these places.

Words on a printed page are often found to be a mirror of the experiences which readers encounter with mountains. For writers too, they often produce their work to make sense of their encounters with profound ordeal or inspiration.

Mythology therefore becomes a resource with which devotees can try and understand themselves and their responses to specific mountains. Words offer us a structure to our fleetingly clear understanding of mountains alongside our more frequently clouded view of their complexity.

Each of the paradoxes discussed here has caused people to regard mountains as irresistible, fascinating and life changing.

Paradoxes stop mountain-based mythology from being easy, comfortable and un-interesting. Instead, the paradoxes of immanence and transcendence, fear and fascination, and clarified and confounded reflection have all helped to elevate certain mountains into the realms of the sacred.

Often, it is single moments of experience that travellers take from mountains as lasting memories. In The Prelude, Wordsworth's autobiographical masterpiece, he recalled a night ascent on Snowdon:

The Moon hung naked in a firmament

Of azure without cloud, and at my feet

Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.

A hundred hills, their dusky backs upheaved

All over this still ocean; and beyond,

Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched,

In headlands, tongues, and promontory shapes,

Into the main Atlantic, that appeared

To dwindle, and give up his majesty,

Usurped upon far as the sight could reach.

In more concise fashion, the Japanese poet Kobo Daishi offers us a memory of one of his treasured mountain memories from Mount Koya:

Spring flowers and autumn chrysanthemums smile upon me,

The moon at dawn and the breezes at morn cleanse my heart.

Snowdon at Dawn

Snowdon at Dawn © Sebholland (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons

Summer mountains in the Lake District © Penny Bunting

Walkers in Glen Affric, Scotland © Penny Bunting

Stalheim, Norway © Penny Bunting

Glen Cannaich, Scotland, in spring © Penny Bunting

Green Adventures February 2017

Dr Adrian Cooper is the founder of Felixstowe Community Nature Reserve. He is also author of Sacred Mountains: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Meanings, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.