3 Chapter 3. God’s Country is on the Mountain


I hope it has become obvious to the reader that there is enough material to prove that the psyche sees the supernatural on mountains. Perhaps the most successful way it has of capturing its view of the massive grandeur of the mountain is for it to see, not only the houses, palaces, and cities of the gods up there, but also their kingdoms. It is not that the gods just own or rent the best architectural structures — they have the whole country. When you go to a mountain you enter a foreign land, even another world or universe. In psychological terms, the mountain represents something in us that is foreign to us. This something is not just a god but a whole country, a whole divine realm. This is something bigger than a god. It is more than just some particular numinous figure of the psyche. It is a whole new psychological personality or perspective.

On the mountain, however, we often find, not just one, but at least two opposing kingdoms, each one ruled by its own god. One is on the mountain itself, usually at the top. The other, the Underworld, is most often (though not always) at the bottom of the mountain, often taking the form of the ocean or a lake. The mountain stands in opposition to the ocean (or lake); rarely are the two seen as peaceful allies. Usually they are pictured in a struggle, the mountain gods eventually conquering and taming the water demons. Psychologically, the Underworld also represents an alien part of the psyche, but a different one from the “realm” on top of the mountain. It represents a lower and conflicting perspective, one that sees everything from the angle of our feelings of inferiority and weakness and anger.

Besides these two natural worlds we find a third which is often on a Plain between the Mountain and the Ocean. This third world is connected with Society and the social, collective point of view. At the same time, this third “world” is the Secular (non-numinous) world. The climb up a mountain is a peeling away of the layers of society and often a moving from the secular to the numinous. What counts in society is meaningless on the mountain. The social height of the President of the United States does not insure that he would have a greater chance of survival on the mountain heights than a street person. The rich man has to leave his Mercedes behind to climb a mountain. Money, gold, and jewelry would be extra weight, and there is nothing to buy up there anyway. Fancy clothes would be in the way, and it is impossible to bring a mansion. All the things that are fun or useful in Society, including a big ego, are gauche on the wilderness mountain. It is hard to sin on a mountain. Gluttony and lust are out of the question. There is an automatic purification, an enforced penance that may involuntarily turn sinners into prophets.

The mountain is another country, another world. Going there is like going to war: You take only essentials. The 9th century Chinese poet Han-shan spent much of his life alone on Cold Mountain. He enjoyed this independent life, “How pleasant, to know I need nothing to lean on” (Han-shan, 9th century/1962, p. 79). He says he did not even miss people:

“On the green peak a single monkey wails./
What other companions do I need?” (p. 73)

And, after awhile, the mountain seems to be the only reality,

“Though I look down again on the dusty world,/
What is that land of dreams to me?” (p. 62)


“Here in the wilderness I am completely free,/
With my friends, the white clouds, idling forever./
There are roads, but they do not reach the world.” (p. 67)

{It is easy to slip into siding with one or the other of the three perspectives (symbolized by Plain, Mountain, and Sea). When in one, the others do not exist and so need not be considered. But, when returning to the practical necessities of the secular or to the chaos of the deeper layers of the unconscious or to the pristine clarity of enhanced consciousness after having been absorbed in one of the other two, pain and conflict are inevitable. It is more complex than this, but this seems to me to be the essence of the fight between the Sea, the Mountain, and the Plain — the out of control, the elevated, and the ordinary. What we need is some sort of inner passport to travel easily and relatively painlessly between the domains.}

The mountain is the site of a battle

Semitic stories from Akkadia, Ugarit, and Israel tell of a battle between the mountain gods (Ea, Marduk, Baal, Yahweh) and the water gods (or sea monsters) (Apsu, Tiamat, Yamm, Rahab/Leviathan). In the Akkadian creation epic, Enuma Elish, Ea, the god of wisdom, “binds and slays Apsu, the fresh waters,” and after killing Mummu (another enemy) he rests.

In his sacred chamber in profound peace [Ea] had rested./
He names it “Apsu,” for shrines [a physical, man-made temple?] he assigned (it)./
In that same place his cult hut he founded./
Ea founds his house upon the vanquished body of water, Apsu. (Clifford, 1972, pp. 16-17)[1]

The mountain (or the man-made temple on it) is Ea’s house built by him on the waters. The god Marduk did much the same thing when he liberated the Tigris and Euphrates rivers from the corpse of Tiamat.

He laid down her [text:his] head, heaped a mountain/
upon it,/
Opened up such a spring that a torrent could be/
drawn off,/
Then released through her eyes the Euphrates and/
Closed up her nostrils, reserved the water,/
He heaped up high mountains at her udder,/
Drilled fountains (through the deep) to carry off/
the fountainhead. (Clifford, pp. 17-18 — from B. Landsberger & J. V. K. Wilson, Tablet IV)

Still within the world of the ancient Near East, Baal fought Yamm (the Ocean), and David Noel Freedman (1981, p. 26n) compares this with the struggle of Yahweh with Rahab/Leviathan. Each god, after his victory, established his temple or palace on a mountain (Baal on Zaphon, Yahweh on Mount Sinai).

In an influential passage Eliade (1958, pp. 376-377) pointed out that Mount Zion too was believed to stand over the waters of chaos.

The rock of Jerusalem went down deep into the waters below the earth (tehom). It is said in the Mishna that the Temple stands exactly above tehom. … The rock of the Temple of Jerusalem closed “the mouth of the tehom.”[2]

Image 1. Avakwame Mountain (Spirit Mountain), western shore of Lake Mohave, USA. Photo from the United States Bureau of Land Management, Southern Nevada District Office, no photographer given. (title by author)
Image 1. Avakwame Mountain (Spirit Mountain), western shore of Lake Mohave, USA. Photo from the United States Bureau of Land Management, Southern Nevada District Office, no photographer given. (title by author)

Moving to the other side of the globe, a Mohave Indian “dream tale” or “shaman’s tale” about creation expresses essentially the same motif. To fill in the story I began in the last chapter, before he built his house on Avikwame (Spirit) Mountain, the god Mastamho

journeyed with mankind [in a boat] to the sea, twisting and tilting the boat or letting it run straight as he wished wide bottom lands or sharp canyons to frame the river. He returned with the people on his arms, surmounted the rising waters to the mountain Akokahumi, trod the water down, and took his followers upstream to the northern end of what was to be the Mohave country. Here he heaped up the great pointed peak Avikwame. (Kroeber, 1925/1976, pp. 770-771)

After building his house Mastamho entered into battle with a monster from the sea (sky-rattlesnake) who, in the story is pictured as a shaman or healer. Mastamho

plotted the death of “sky-rattlesnake,” …, a great power far south in the sea. Message after message was sent him; he [sky-rattlesnake] knew that the sickness which he was summoned to cure was pretended; but at last he came, amid rain and thunder, stretching his vast length from ocean to mountain. As his head entered the great house it was cut off. It rolled back to the sea in the hope of reconstituting its living body, but became only an ocean monster; while from his blood and sweat and juices came rattlesnakes and noxious insects whose powers some shamans combat. (pp. 770-771)

An important Aztec myth also expresses a conflict on a mountain, though, in it, there is no mention of the sea. In this myth, Huitzilopochtli (the sun god) kills four hundred of his brothers and sisters who are trying to kill their mother, Coatlicue. Before this he had killed his aunt, Coyolxauhqui, who had instigated the attempted murder, her motive being outrage at her sister for becoming pregnant from a “ball of fine feathers” that fell on her bosom while she was doing penance on Coatepec (Hill of the Serpent).[3] When the battle on the mountain began, Huitzilopochtli kills some of the plotters and chases the rest down the mountain, thereby consolidating his power and establishing order.

And when he had followed them/
to the foot of the mountain,/
he pursued them, he chased them like rabbits,/
around the mountain./
Four times he chased them around./
They could do nothing,/
they could achieve nothing,/
they could defend themselves with nothing./
Huitzilopochtli pursued them, he chased them,/
he destroyed them he annihilated them, he obliterated them.

Only a few escaped. They went south and so were called Southerners.

And when Huitzilopochtli had killed them,/
when he had expressed his anger,/
he took from them their finery, their adornments,/
their destiny, put them on, appropriated them,/
incorporated them into his destiny,/
made of them his own insignia. (Moctezuma, 1987, pp. 49-54 — quoting the myth reported by Sahagún and translated by Miguel León Portilla)

Even if there is some sort of historical basis to this myth, it still is a powerful symbol. Coatlicue was attacked because, while doing penance (which involves seeking self-knowledge), she became pregnant (with intelligence — a feather is a new idea, and she was made pregnant by a whole “bundle of fine feathers”). The conservative forces of ordinary consciousness (who were intimately related to her — her own sister and children) attacked her in great numbers, and it took the sun-king, the result of her pregnancy, a new consciousness or intelligence (light), to ward off the attack from the dark forces of unconsciousness. Projected onto Coatepec is the struggle of a new attitude (the baby sun) with the old perspective. The “birth” and victory of the new point of view probably went on in the man who “saw” it in his imagination and recorded the battle on Coatepec, but, since the story endured, it may also have captured a moment that changed the inner lives of the whole people.

{I have recently found that there is a word used in the literature to describe battles such as the ones we have been describing in this section. The word is Chaoskampf (battle against Chaos). Used in the studies of mythology and religion it refers to a battle between an heroic god and one associated with chaos — for example, Ea versus Apsu. It is useful, I think, to extend this concept to the epic wars being waged within the psyches of many people. There is a Chaoskampf going on inside, a titanic battle between an inner, god-like force of Order and an inner, seemingly all-powerful force of Chaos. In this battle, the mountain symbolizes a unified, clear point of view gained by a person only after an intense struggle with the myriad powerful forces of the psyche each one demanding his or her complete attention. These forces of chaos are symbolized by the ocean. 

There are other ways of understanding this myth. The reader will have his or her own interpretation.}

The underworld is on a mountain

The Underworld, a whole world or kingdom that is different from and lower than both the Mountain and Plain, is not necessarily what we would call HellHell has a moral tone. Hell is a place of punishment for people who have sinned. Even so, Hell (as well as other Underworlds) can often be found on literary or visionary (non-physical) mountains. For example, the Inferno is entered at the base of Mount Purgatory whose peak reaches the lower levels of the celestial Paradise (Dante). And in the apocalyptic writings we find journeys (in spirit) to mountain peaks from which the travelers peer into Hell and Heaven (see Part 4, “The Mountain Within”).

Hell can also be found on actual, physical mountains. A Jewish story starts by identifying Mount Zion with Mount Moriah (Genesis 22), and then places Eden on it also. Adam was made from the dust of Mount Moriah; he landed on it after his expulsion from paradise (Mount Zion = Mount Moriah = Eden = gate of paradise); but it is also the gate of Gehenna “where the fallen undergo their punishment.” (Ginsberg, 1967?-1969, Vol. 5, p. 117)

Image 2. Popocatepetl with fumarole [the hole in the volcano], view from Paso de Cortés [Mexico]. Photo by Cvmontuy.
Image 2. Popocatepetl with fumarole [the hole in the volcano], view from Paso de Cortés [Mexico]. Photo by Cvmontuy.

A similar idea pops up in a totally unrelated South American culture. When the men of Cortez reached the volcano, Mount Popocatépetl, they found that the Aztecs would not climb it.

The simple Indians thought, that that place was an infernall place, where all such as governed not well, or used tyrannie in their offices, were punished when they died, and also beleeved, that after their purgation, they passed into glory. (Spectorsky, 1955, p. 17)

In the Jewish and Aztec stories, both Heaven and Hell are located on mountains, though the Aztecs (like Dante) include the idea of purgation. Penance on a mountain is one of the most common of all mountain motifs, and I will return to it in Chapter 8, “Why they Went and Why we Continue to Go.”

Besides Hell there are many other Underworlds on mountains, sometimes ruled by a lower god or demon, but without any implication of evil. Three examples demonstrate the idea with some important variations.

In Mesopotamia, the domain of the god Mot is entered through the base of mountains (M-T in Ugarit and Hebrew means death — cf. the Yaqui story). We have a very clear and vivid description of Mot’s world in the following two passages. First Baal receives instructions on how to get to this land.

Set your face/
Toward Mount Trǵzz/
Toward Mount rmg/
Toward the two hills that stop up the underworld./
Lift up the mountain upon your hands,/
The hill upon your palms./
And descend to the pest-house of the underworld./
Be counted among those who go down to the underworld.

And in the second passage there is a vivid description of the land itself. Mot sits

in the midst of his city, Ooze,/
Decay [is] the throne on which he sits,/
Slime [is] the land of his heritage. (Clifford, pp. 79-81)

Ooze, Decay, and Slime are Mot’s world. His world is unfamiliar and disturbing, though important, powerful, and real. It is the opposite of solid ground. It is at odds with the view from the mountain, and it also contradicts society’s placid, stable, normative perspective.

Image 3. Cerro Pinto [= Pinto Hill] - Serrania del Perija [= Sierra de Perijá], Venezuela. Photo by F3m4nd0.
Image 3. Cerro Pinto [= Pinto Hill] Serrania del Perija [= Sierra de Perijá], Venezuela. Photo by F3m4nd0.

A colorful and humorous account of the Underworld is given in a story of the Yupa Indians of the Sierra de Perijá given in Wilbert (1974, pp. 86-88) — these mountains are the “natural border between Venezuela and Colombia” (p. 3). This story is so vivid and psychologically interesting that it is worth presenting in detail.

When a Yupa dies, all his friends and kin come together. … And so it was once upon a time when a man died:  they came …, prepared the body, and carried it to the ossary of the tribe. The cave was large enough for all mourners to enter, to lay the bones down among those of his forefathers.

During the ceremony there was an earthquake that trapped everyone inside. All were killed but one man who found shelter in the very back of the cave.

Total darkness reigned outside. It was night. So the Indian sat down to wait for dawn to find his way back to the village in the morning.

At the crack of dawn the man sought to find his way home. But to his great surprise he realized that he was not in his native land at all. He had entered a strange world. All day long he searched for some familiar path. In vain! Trees, rivers, animals, all were the same as those at home, and yet everything was strange to him. In the afternoon he succeeded in shooting a bird which he roasted and ate toward evening.

As his fire burned lower, he settled down to sleep in the shelter of a rock. Suddenly, from the other side of the rock, he heard the sound of human voices.

He climbed on top of the rock. … Looking down over the edge of the rock he saw a circular area beneath, ringed with blocks of stone. A great fire billowed in the center, and in its glow rose a thick column of smoke around which many small people danced. With arms raised, and bending forward from the waist, they inhaled great gulps of the heavy smoke from the fire. And so the Yupa knew that, on passing through the cave of the dead, he had entered by chance into the land of the Pïntupï. It could be nothing else. Here were the dwarfs dancing before his very eyes, nourishing themselves from the smoke of the fire, and sporting long beards, but without hair on their heads (which they lost because the waste of all humanity falls down upon their heads from the world above). (my bold)

There was nothing to fear from them, so he climbed down. They were afraid of him, because he was bigger than they. He told the dwarfs his story and that he could not find his way to the upper world. They said they would help.

The Yupa spent a long time in the Underworld of the dwarfs, who hardly differed from humans in their manner of living except in the fact that they obtained the greater part of their nourishment from the smoke of their fire. They took solid food in a strange and unusual fashion. That is to say, in eating meat or some other fare, the dwarfs squatted down, laid the food on the back of their necks, and let it slide down their backbones. They drank water the usual way. The Yupa was very surprised when one day he discovered that the dwarfs had no anus. For their part, the dwarfs were astonished to discover this feature in their guest. The more they watched the Yupa put food into his mouth, the more they envied him his physical constitution.

They requested that he help them to get anuses by an operation. Finally he agreed to try an operation with a bone arrow tip on one of the boys. This boy died on the following day. He tried over and over again, and each boy died on the second day. Finally they all gave up. The Yupa married a beautiful Pïntupï woman but still longed for his home. The Pïntupï helped him and his wife climb back up to his own, familiar world. The small people in the Sierra de Perijá, it is said, are descended from their many children.

The last example, is from the Navajo and tells of the rise of humankind from the Underworld, through a Middle world, and eventually into our Ordinary world all this taking place around Mountain Around Which Moving Was Done (also called Mountain Surrounded by Mountains, or the Encircled Mountain). There is a possibility that this mountain is Huerfano Peak, above Chaco Canyon, or it may be mythical.

In the Beginning the people lived in several worlds below. Successively they emerged from them to a new world above. In the middle of this new world stood a great rock. Extending through all the previous underworlds and protruding above this one, it was the core of the universe, rooted in time and space. (quoted from Frank Waters in Evans-Wentz, 1981, p. 76)

This rise from an inferior, undifferentiated state (ooze, decay, lack of an anus, eating smoke) to the “middle” world of ordinary, secular society is not the end of the process. On the mountain is Heaven, and it is possible for men and women to climb up into it. It is the place where there is the Beginning of Time.

Heaven is on a mountain

Image 4. Mt. Zion, a view from Abu Tor [a neighborhood in Jerusalem, Israel]. Photo by Eman.
Image 4. Mt. Zion, a view from Abu Tor [a neighborhood in Jerusalem, Israel]. Photo by Eman.

We saw that Jerusalem (on Zion-Moriah) is “the gate of paradise, as well as of Gehenna,” but in another Jewish tradition other mountains will one day share the honor with Mount Zion: “In the time to come God will cause the heavenly Jerusalem to descend upon these four mountains: Tabor, Hermon, Carmel and Sinai” (Ginzberg, 1967?-1969, Vol. 6, p. 31). Apparently this is not all just talk; a Jewish writer quotes a non-Jewish chronicle:

There was a king in ancient times who wished to ascertain the exact situation of paradise. He betook himself to a neighboring district, at the mountain called Lebiah. … At the top of this mountain one could hear the sound of swords turning about, which resounded from the other side of the river. He let some of his men down by means of poles, but none of them returned.

The Jewish writer argues from this that paradise is a real place (quoted in Ginzberg, Vol. 5, p. 105), but for our purposes it means the reality of the experience of Heaven on mountains.

Image 5. The Mount Emei [= Mount Omei, Sichuan Province, China]. Photo by pookieevans.
Image 5. The Mount Emei [= Mount Omei, Sichuan Province, China]. Photo by pookieevans.

Also in Asia, mountains contain paradise and people may enter it. Japanese mountains like Mount Kimpu were “the Pure Land or paradise (Jōdo) of Buddhist tradition” (Earhart, 1970, pp. 21-22). One poem about Heaven on the Chinese Mount Omei (Emei) says,

In spite of [Omei = Emei] towering/
thousands of feet above,/
I ascend the ethereal emptiness and enter/
the Portals of Heaven.

Another says,

There is a new heaven in this quiet, cool hermitage/
of meditation [on Omei];/
Unexpectedly coming upon the Pure Land, one here/
finds true contemplation. (Evans-Wentz, pp. 44-45)

Rev. Virgil C. Hart climbed Mount Emei near the end of the 19th century. At one place he got caught up in an experience that he described in mixed Buddhist and Christian terms. He arrived at a temple where there was a sign that read

“This is the boundary of the `Western Land'” (Paradise). One could almost believe himself in Edenic glory and on the very threshold of heaven, surrounded by such natural beauties, fanned by cool breezes just strong enough to bend the slender grass, and dazzled by bright rays, which shed a genial warmth over all they touched. We may now reckon ourselves as within the terrestrial limit of the “Happy Land.” Farther on, passing a stone tunnel, I observed over the archway that I was only “one step from heaven.” (Hart, 1888, pp. 237-238)

Even the shrines and idols in the temples on Mount Emei were

arranged to exhibit the different divisions of the “Happy Land,” such as the shrine of the “Silver Boundary,” of the “Porcelain Boundary” and the “Gold Boundary.” (Hart, pp. 249-250)

Hart not only approached and entered Heaven, but apparently he even entered the highest, Golden heaven. He went on to quote from a Buddhist “guide” book to Mount Emei that told how to find Heaven and avoid Hell.

Now walk to the precipice for a wide survey./
Look above! The palace of heaven is there in the clouds;/
Look down! There in the abyss is the gate of hell. …/
Omito [Buddha] will descend from the west and meet you;/
From henceforth your body will remain below,/
While the soul enters joyfully the palace of heaven./
The views of the gold [i.e., bronze] temple are beyond all conception./
Regard with silent attention the temple ancestral,/
Swept and cleansed every year by the great god of Thunder. (Hart, p. 270)

On Tài Shān a person can walk up its “`broad road,’ reaching up to heaven” (Mullikin & Hotchkiss 1973, p. 3). And we must not forget our own Paradise Valleys.

The Land of the Dead is on a mountain

Up to a point dying is like climbing a mountain. In both we say goodbye to society. Goodbyes have to be said to our houses and families, and we must turn towards a questionable future. Often a senile older person is unable to keep up with changes, insisting that he or she still has a home, a husband (or wife), or even a mother. These possessions and relationships have to be climbed out of like an old skin. Dying must be like climbing into a new world where you cannot take anything with you. Ultimately it is like the standing alone on the very high wilderness peak in the dream of the ninety eight year old woman presented in the Introduction.

In speaking with a senile lady in her eighties about what she thought happened after death, she asked me, “Do you believe it’s a big change?” I said, “Yes.” She asked, “You don’t think you jump off a mountain into the next life do you?” “Yes,” I answered, and she continued with, “You don’t think there is an even transition into another life?” to which I had no answer about how her transition would be.

The definitive statement about the relation between mountains and the land of the dead is in Eliade’s Patterns in Comparative Religion.

In those religions which place the outer world in the sky or in some higher sphere, the souls of the dead trudge up mountain paths, or clamber up a tree, or even up a rope. The usual Assyrian expression for dying is “grappling oneself to the mountain.” And in Egyptian, myny, grasp or grapple is a euphemism for die. The sun sinks between the mountains and the path of the dead to the other world always goes that way. Yama, the first to die in the mythical tradition of India, went by “the high passes” to show “the way to many men.” Popular belief among the Uralo-Altaics is that the road taken by the dead goes up the hills; Bolot, a Kara-Kirghiz hero, like Kesar, the legendary king of the Mongols, enters the world beyond by going through a tunnel to the top of the hills — rather like an initiation trial. The shaman’s journey to hell is made by climbing several very high mountains. (1958, p. 102)

Image 6. Mount Papandayan (left, 2622 m) and to the north is Mount Kendeng (right, 2608 m) [= Artja Domas Mountains?], viewed from Cisurupan on eastern foot of the volcano. Located southwest of Garut city in Garut Regency, West Java, Indonesia. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata.
Image 6. Mount Papandayan (left, 2622 m) and to the north is Mount Kendeng (right, 2608 m) [= Artja Domas Mountains?], viewed from Cisurupan on eastern foot of the volcano. Located southwest of Garut city in Garut Regency, West Java, Indonesia. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata.

Other examples I have come across include the Artja Domas Mountain which, for the Badoejs of West Java, is “the habitat of Batara Tunggal, from whom emanate all souls and to whom they all return after their life here;” a series of five terraces at Kosalathe Badoejs (also in West Java) that are “considered to be both the resort of ancestors and the tribal place of origin;” Himavat (the Himalayas) which is the home of the souls of dead Hindu saints and the Kunlun Mountains which is the home of the dead Chinese Taoist saints; and in Japan where

there is a close relationship between the living, the souls of the dead, and the kami. One of the important junctures where the three meet is the sacred mountain. In the Man’yoshu many poems link the souls of the dead with sacred mountains as an “other world,” and actual burials in the mountains can be documented from prehistoric times onwards. Eventually a whole range of official and folk practices associated sacred mountains, souls of the dead, and the otherworld.[4]

There is also Mot’s world and the workshop where Death blows out the candles of our lives. These candles are kept inside mountains.

Image 7. Hesperus Mountain [Navajo =Dibé Ntsaa, the sacred mountain of the North] as seen from the north while on approach to the Sharks-tooth trailhead [Colorado, USA]. Photo by Jhodlof.
Image 7. Hesperus Mountain [Navajo = Dibé Ntsaa, the sacred mountain of the North] as seen from the north while on approach to the Sharks-tooth trailhead [Colorado, USA]. Photo by Jhodlof.

{Many of the above themes can be found in living Navajo beliefs about Mount Hesperus in Colorado, USA. — The Navajo name for this mountain is Dibé Ntsaa; it is the Navajo sacred mountain of the North; at the same time, it is the highest peak in the La Plata Mountain range of the Rocky Mountains.

As the dark sacred mountain of the north, Hesperus has an association with fear or evil. In the northern La Platas is Island Lake, [cf., the lake on Mount Pilatus] thought to be the place of emergence of the people into this world and the place where spirits of the dead pass down to a lower world. If a Navajo singer seeks for evil to befall anyone, the death of an enemy for example, this is the place to go. (Blake; October, 2001; p. 41 — Blake is quoting from Baars and from Van Valenberg and from Brugge)}


On occasion, the living may try to go to the other world to see how to live forever. Gilgamesh has to pass through the “twelve leagues of darkness” on the mythical(?) mountain Mashu in order to speak with the only man the gods had ever allowed to live forever, Utnapishtim. (Sandars, 1979, pp. 98-99) According to Evans-Wentz (p. 48), in Japan, Fuji may mean not dying or deathless, and in keeping with this interpretation, there is a legend that the elixir of life was carried to the summit of Fujiyama.

In China, too, we find reference to immortality in a poem about Mount Emei

When the shrine upon the summit is attained,/
Let every Pilgrim seek the Silence there,/
And then enquire concerning immortality. (Evans-Wentz, p. 45)

Image 8. View of Western Kunlun Shan [Shan = Mountain] from the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. Photo by Nick Kent-Basham.
Image 8. View of Western Kunlun Shan [Shan = Mountain] from the Tibet-Xinjiang highway. Photo by Nick Kent-Basham.

And on Sung-Shan, the Taoist Central Mountain, in 745 CE, Ming-huang, at sixty-one years of age, asked the Taoist priests to “brew him a draught of the elixir of eternal youth.” Finally, I have already mentioned the Kunlun Mountains on which grows the peach-tree of the immortals (Mullikin and Hotchkis (p. 36).

Image 9. Mount Arunachala, Tiruvannamalai, South India. (title by author) With kind permission of the Arunachala-live camera (http:/arunachala-live.com), February 17, 201?).
Image 9. Mount Arunachala, Tiruvannamalai, South India. (title by author) With kind permission of the Arunachala-live camera (http://arunachala-live.com). February 17, 201?).

It is not as unusual as it may seem, therefore, for the Indian mystic, Sri Ramana Maharshi, to pray to the mountain, Mount Arunachala,

Vouchsafe me knowledge of Eternal Life, that I may attain the/
glorious Primal Wisdom, and transcend the illusoriness of the/
world, O Arunachala!

Secular society lives on a plain between the mountain and the sea

Image 10. Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Lockett Meadow in the San Francisco Peaks of Coconino National Forest, Arizona [USA] in October 1996. Photo by John from tucson az (https://www.flickr.com/people/55849279@N00), October 1996.
Image 10. Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Lockett Meadow in the San Francisco Peaks of Coconino National Forest, Arizona [USA] in October 1996. Photo by John from tucson az (https://www.flickr.com/people/55849279@N00).

{On the model I have presented, secular society is not, as a rule, located on a mountain. Still, as discussed, to understand the place of the mountain archetype in our lives, we have to understand the relation of the mountain to both the sea and to society. The mountain, the sea, and the plain represent, to the psychologist, three different attitudes in us. These attitudes can and do coexist but, general, only one dominates at a time. The CEO’s and miners of Arizona Tufflite, the company that owned the White Vulcan pumice mine on Sugarloaf Mountain of the San Francisco Peaks, may have felt, deep down, that the mountain was holy, but this feeling would have been held on the back burner. In Chapter 8, “Why they Went and Why we Continue to Go,” the reader will find more specifics about how mountains have been seen and used by secular society. Here I just want to give two examples to keep the debate before us, as it is one of the central points of this whole book.With respect to the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort, business interests were victorious. With respect to the White Vulcan pumice mine, the Indian tribes won (the mine was ordered closed in 2000). In a New York Times article of August 29, 2000, the author, Ross E. Milloy, emphasized some of the ironies in the conflict. The pumice was used primarily in the process of turning ordinary denim into fashionable stonewashed denim used for “new jeans made to look old by laundering them with pieces of volcanic pumice.” According to Ed Morgan, vice president of Arizona Tufflite, the company made 25 to 30 million dollars over the period 1990-2000. Milloy quotes Morgan,

We were rated as the No. 1 supplier to the industry back in the mid-1990’s. … Our pumice-washed jeans went all over the world.

Milloy then quotes from a note to the government by Indian tribal representatives:

Further destruction of the countryside in this sacred area just so the fashion-conscious can wear jeans which make them seem to have spent time outside, is to us, ludicrous …

Andrew Bessler from the Sierra Club added:

You should have to work to get that look … Besides, stonewashing takes two years out of the life of the jeans, and that’s why the industry likes it.

The dispute over this 100 foot deep mine whose operation spanned 90 acres inspired 6,000 letters to the government of which only four were positive. According to Blake (2001, p. 50), the Indians were joined by those interested in preserving endangered species, those wanting non-motorized recreation opportunities, and others. Referring to Flagstaff(!) residents, the comment was made that the San Francisco Peaks are experienced as the “dominant, deeply meaningful fact in our inner environment” (p. 50). This comment shows it is not always easy to predict who can be found on which side of the battle line.

To me this battle is important enough to look at a few other comments that came in against the continuation and expansion of the mining (also gathered by Blake, p. 50): The then Interior Secretary of the United States, Bruce Babbitt called the mine “a sacrilege;” the Sierra Club argued the mining “is like tearing up the Sistine Chapel to get at the dirt;” and a student at Northern Arizona University, said “these mountains transform our days, they help us transcend the mundane.”

It is only after reviewing the above conflict that I now remember a conflict I witnessed during my time in the Sierras. The back-to-the-land community in which I was staying with my friend Mike Attie, was in conflict with a gold mining company. I remember going to a county supervisor’s meeting where a neighbor of Mike’s, Chuck Dockham, argued passionately, and in all seriousness, against the re-opening of the gold mine. He argued on behalf of, as I remember it, those who had no voice to argue: Coyote, Fox, Skunk, Squirrel, Hawk …. In a recent communication, Mike reminded me that the mines (the Malakoff Diggins) had been active a hundred and fifty years ago and that they had been mined by hydraulic hoses but that the mines were closed, because they had stopped being cost effective. It has now become technologically feasible to re-open the mines and extract more gold in a manner that would be cost effective. Mike wrote, “…removing [the gold] by any means is frought with dangerous side effects that could likely ruin our lives — water pollution or lowering the water table, either of which would ruin the wells for miles around. The current owner of the mine has applied to the county for re-opening, however, at new rounds of meetings we have presented such evidence that it looks unlikely the county will grant the permit” (Michael Attie, personal communication, December 19, 2015). I add that the current governor of California, Jerry Brown, owns land adjoining my friend’s land.}

The psychological meaning of the three kingdoms

The conflict between the three realms — Heaven on the Mountain tops, secular Society on the Plains, and the Underworld at the base of the mountain or in the Sea — is easy to understand as a conflict between three psychological perspectives available in the soul of every individual. Always in the past it seemed clear that Society was inferior to the Mountain-Cave-Ocean complex and dependent on it. But in contemporary dreams the secular view emerges as a third force that is, apparently, able to offer a challenge to nature.

Society’s thought is comfortable if not deep. It tends to homogenize and level differences for the sake of getting along. It emphasizes hard work and is optimistic that all problems can be solved reasonably. It also considers its own immediate needs first and devalues the effects of its actions on the future of the environment and, thereby, on the future environment of its own offspring. Especially in the United States, it tends to see the world as infinitely forgiving and patient and does not see itself as having the power to make a major impact on it. What it would never do to or in its own house, it has no problem doing to the “house of the Lord.” It’s attitude, from the broader perspective (of the mountain), is irresponsible and child-like.

Leaving Society in order to climb to Heaven or to fall into a womb-like Underworld involves a disorientation that secular social thinking fears. It prefers to level the heights and depths and to insist that we look at everything dispassionately and avoid painful subjects. It preaches moderation.

The advantage of the social view is that it is a down-to-earth and normalizing buffer between and a tranquilizer to the overwhelming life and death affects of the warring higher and lower realms of the psyche. Love, community, helpful neighbors, cooperation, fitting in, and the Great Society are true blessings that may be underestimated by adolescent rebels who have not seen the danger of balancing on the edge. The collective public view (in each of us) is necessary and wonderful, but it sacrifices depth (Death does not live in Society nor does a full sense of Life). To the social, motherly point of view, the experience of God on the mountain is a manic disorder, and a vivid experience of “decay” (Mot’s Throne) is Major Depression. From the point of view of nature, society is superficial, boring, artificial, flat, and false.

The modern dreams I have studied show two tendencies: First, the desire of the nature gods to come into the city; and second, the inevitable march of the Great Society onto the furthest wilderness mountains for commercial purposes. Both tendencies are found in dreams. In some the gods come down to live in houses on the hills of L.A., and in others the sacred mountains are “developed” by people from the society below. As a single example of the latter type, I mention a recent dream where I was on top of a Mount Seraphim, and there I found a real estate office (cf. Isaiah 6).

Snidely referring to L.A. as La Ciudad de los Diabolos is not just socially impolite; it is also not quite accurate psychologically if we take into consideration, as just one example, my “seeing” of a mother goddess over the Santa Monica mountains while driving home on the freeway. But it is equally inaccurate psychologically to say that society is always polarized against the wilderness. This can be seen by recognizing that the developers of the mountain resorts may very well become the most ardent advocates of environmental protection if for no other reason than that it is their private property, and people go there to get away from the over-developed cities. Indirectly, the developers may become the greatest defenders and prophets of the mountain gods.

Image 11. Rabbit-Duck illusion. From J. Jastrow, "The Mind's Eye," Popular Science Monthly, 54, pp. 299-312.
Image 11. Rabbit-Duck illusion. From J. Jastrow, “The Mind’s Eye,” Popular Science Monthly, 54, pp. 299-312.

Psychologically, the three views — Heaven, Underworld, secular Society — are beginning to infiltrate each other, though what this means is hard to say. If the three views are taken as different gestalts of the same stimulus (like the rabbit-duck figure), does the merging of the views mean that it will be possible to hold all of them in front of consciousness at the same time? This seems as impossible as defying gravity.

At least on the surface, the conflict between the views is inherent in spite of the apparent infiltration of one into the other. The top and bottom of a mountain are physically “at war.” Gravity causes rocks to fall down the mountain and water to rush down it as streams and rivers. Wind and water erode the mountain and bring the residue to the plains and oceans below.

Mechanically there is a high-low gradient with all forces focused at the peak of the mountain which is like the center of the cross hairs on a gun-sight. This center of focused energy contrasts with the ocean below which represents potential energy in a disorderly state. The sharp point of the mountain peaks also contrasts with the ooze, slime, and decay of the watery caves below. Physically the mountains and seas “fight” for water. Water abandons the mountains and flows effortlessly and chaotically to the seas only to rise and fall onto the mountains again as snow and rain.[5]

Geographically, too, the mountains and seas are contradictory: The higher the mountains, the lower the oceans will appear.

Image 12. an illustration of the Hindu significance of Mount Kailash, depicting the holy family: Shiva and Pārvatī, cradling Skanda with Ganesha by Shiva's side, 18th century, provenance unknown. Photographer not given. (title constructed by author)
Image 12. An illustration of the Hindu significance of Mount Kailash, depicting the holy family: Shiva and Pārvatī, cradling Skanda with Ganesha by Shiva’s side, 18th century, provenance unknown. Photographer not given. (title constructed by author)

Geometrically, the mountain is an orienting point for life below. The land and waters under the mountain are organized by it. The mountain focuses their diffusion.[6]

This physical conflict expressed mechanically, geographically, and geometrically is fastened onto by the psyche as an external point for watching the play of its own conflicts. Sometimes the conflict is portrayed as a moral battle between good and evil, but often it is expressed merely as a power struggle between the god of the mountain and the god of the ocean.

Image 13. The Pacific Ocean (left) and a piece of the Santa Monica Mountain Range as seen from the John Paul Getty Museum which is, itself, on one of the Santa Monica Mountains — on a sunny day, with a calm sea. No sign here of any conflict between Mountain, Sea, and Society. Photo by author.
Image 13. The Pacific Ocean (left) and a piece of the Santa Monica Mountain Range as seen from the John Paul Getty Museum which is, itself, on one of the Santa Monica Mountains — on a sunny day, with a calm sea. No sign here of any conflict between Mountain, Sea, and Society in Los Angeles, California, USA on January 12, 2016. Photo by author.

Interestingly, the outcome of the conflict between the polar opposite forces in ancient and primitive myths is the victory of order over chaos. This suggests that the projection onto the mountain is not simply of a static state, or even of a dynamic conflict of states, but of a directed process that begins with the conflict of unconscious elements in the psyche and ends with an elevation of consciousness and feelings of being in paradise. The original elements are the gods. These gods are embedded in their own “countries,” which are whole systems of the psyche (points of view) that are foreign to our everyday selves. These “countries” are at war, but the conflict ends with the “higher” point of view prevailing, sometimes only after a middle stage of purgation (to use the moral term). This process apparently represents something going on in the individual psyche that is projected onto nature (nature undergoing its own analogous process). That all this is essentially an inner process projected out can only be proved when we get to Part 4, “The Mountains Within,” where it will be seen that this same process, with the same elements, can be found in myths and dreams where the mountains are, without question, mountains inside the psyche.

It seems to me that the idea of the victory of one of the forces over the other (goodness over evil, to use moral terminology) is itself only one stage in an ongoing process. As I said above, a third force, Society, has entered the battle as a more or less equal contestant. The conflict now finds the mountains and the oceans on one side as Nature against the Great Society on the other.

All three of the forces are within the individual. After a magnificent effort, a climb to a view that transcends the myopic vision of society, a climb into a heavenly world, a man realizes he has forgotten that he must get up early the next morning. The conflict may make him sick, even physically sick. As far above society as he had risen, now he falls below into a helpless state of “decay” and “ooze” and “slime,” in a state below society, in the underworld. After this despair, he is grateful to be able to climb back into the warmth and comfort of his secure, social self. This moderate position, however, is only a staging ground from which he will launch the next assault on the heights after the “chains” of social life begin to feel unbearable.

These three perspectives stand in a compensatory relationship with each other. The inevitable ups and downs are in the self. The conflict is within one’s own body and one’s own soul. The conflict between the three forces defines the problem of our Age.

{I notice that, in mythology, the place of emergence of humans can be seen as the place to which one returns after one dies. Physically this may or may not make sense, but, psychologically, it certainly fits: that the origin and demise of consciousness feel connected, that it feels they both come from the same place. This “place” can be seen by the psyche as on a mountain which also can be seen as a struggle between the highest peaks of our consciousness with the lowest depths of our unconsciousness.}

  1. {Regarding the Ugarit goddess, 'Anatu's gated and furnished "mansion" ("palace") on Mount Inbubu, Korpel (1990, p. 372) says,
    It is not impossible that 'Anatu's palace as described in KTU 1.3.II is nothing but her earthly temple in Ugarit. We may find it difficult to reconcile this with the location of her mythical abode on Mt. Inbubu, but to the Ancients there existed a mystical union between the two.}
  2. Also:
    the place protected in a special way from enemies who can only stand at its base and rage, the place of battle where God's enemies will be defeated, the place where God dwells, where fertilizing streams come forth. (Clifford, p. 3)
  3. For a remarkable discussion of the place of the serpent in the religion of ancient Mexico, see Luckert (1976) on the Olmec Indian Religion. In his book there is a long discussion of the relation between snakes and mountains in the eyes of the Indians.
  4. West Java: Wales (1953, p 96); Himavat and Kunlun: Snelling (1983, p. 211); Earhart, p. 12 and note. And see Ichirō (1968).
  5. A dream of mine is relevant:
    X and Y ... are working on a strip of wood that serves for drainage down the corner of the house from the roof. X is trying to make a small trough to catch the water and pour it out. He is making it at an angle, but it is awkward, and I argue with him that it is not necessary, because the natural slope of the ground is toward the ocean, and so it will drain by itself without our help. ... (September 9, 1985).
  6. That the mountain has often been conceived of as the centre of the world was discovered by Mircea Eliade. This discovery has rightfully had a great influence in the study of religions. To Eliade, the cosmic mountain is an axis mundi that connects the world of the gods above to the underworld below. It also functions to organize the horizontal space around the mountain. By extension, cities and temples are conceived of as mountains which are the centers of their spheres of influence as well as meeting points for men and gods. (Eliade 1949/1954) Books written with Eliade's idea of the cosmic mountain in mind include Broda, Carrasco, & Moctezuma (1987) and Clifford (1972).


The Mountain Archetype Copyright © 1988 by Thomas R. Hersh. All Rights Reserved.

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