by Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe


Mountains loom large in any landscape and have long been invested with sacredness by many peoples around the world. They carry a rich symbolism. The vertical axis of the mountain drawn from its peak down to its base links it with the world-axis, and, as in the case of the Cosmic Tree, is identified as the centre of the world. This belief is attached, for example, to Mount Tabor of the Israelites and Mount Meru of the Hindus.

Besides natural mountains being invested with the sacred, there are numerous examples of mountains being built, such as the Mesopotamia ziggurats, the pyramids in Egypt, the pre-Columbian teocallis, and the temple-mountain of Borobudur. In most cases, the tops of real and artificial mountains are the locations for sanctuaries, shrines, or altars.

In Ancient Greece the pre-eminent god of the mountain was Zeus for whom there existed nearly one hundred mountain cults. Zeus, who was born and brought up on a mountain (he was allegedly born in a cave on Mount Ida on Crete), and who ruled supreme on Mount Olympus, was a god of rain and lightning (to Zeus as a god of rain is dedicated the sanctuary of Zeus Ombrios on Hymettos). Mountains figure a great deal in Greek mythology -- the Muses occupy on Mount Helikon, Apollo is associated with Parnassos, and Athena with the Athenian Acropolis.


In Japan, Mount Fuji (Fujiyama) is revered by Shintoists as sacred to the goddess Sengen-Sama, whose shrine is found at the summit. Named after the Buddhist fire goddess Fuchi, the mountain is believed to be the gateway to another world. The mountain was originally sacred to the Ainu, the aboriginal inhabitants of Japan.

In China there are nine sacred mountains, 5 Taoist and 4 Buddhist; all are sites of pilgrimage. According to Toaist belief, mountains are a medium of communication through which people communicate with the immortals and the primeval powers of the earth. Chinese sacred mountains are believed to be especially powerful sites of telluric power, a sacred force or energy known as the dragon current which runs through the earth itself. It is studied by practitioners of feng shui (also called geomancy). The dragon current is of two kinds: the yin (or female) and yang (male). Mountains are regarded as embodying primarily the yang force.

In Tibet, Mount Kailas, one of the tallest peaks in the Himalayas, near the source of the Ganges, is venerated by, and is a pilgrimage site for, Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists. Buddhists regard the mountain as a mandala.