New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington is 6,288 feet high — small compared to many other mountains, but the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States. Quite apart from its height, however, is the fact that its summit hosts some of the most extreme and erratic weather on Earth due to its particular position at the crossroads of several storm tracks. Until it was surpassed recently in Australia, the mountain held the world record for the strongest wind: 231 mph. Other than the primary summit building designed specifically to withstand its winds, all structures are chained to the mountain itself.
Significantly, Mt Washington was once known as Agiocochook: “Home of the Great Spirit.” This is no accident, since humans have been associating mountains with deities since the dawn of religious awareness. Mt Sinai (alternatively Mt Horeb, the name preferred by Deuteronomistic writings) is of course the most famous of these in biblically-based religions. We see major events taking place on other mountains in the Bible too, however, such as Elijah’s famous confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is also known in the Bible as Mt Zion. While it is not terribly high, it is the highest point in Jerusalem and affords a commanding view, and was thus the obvious choice for Yahweh’s Temple.
Mt Sinai hosted the most famous theophany in the Bible, during which Moses received the Ten Commandments and (in the words of the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch) the instructions to build the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ worship center until the construction of the Temple. In addition, the Bible is not bashful about mentioning the many “high places” (Hebrew bamot) scattered throughout the land. Although Deuteronomy in particular condemns these bamot as the worship sites of other Canaanite gods to be avoided by followers of Yahweh, their very names indicate that while they may not all have occupied mountaintops, they certainly occupied elevated land. People of all persuasions have it in common to gravitate to high ground to seek the divine.
In the Canaanite culture that included the northern coastal city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), ancient and largely intact myths — such as the text scholars call “The Baal Cycle” — record the role of Mt Zaphon, the mountain of the gods. Zaphon means North both in Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew. Here dwelt not only Baal but many others, including his sister the fiery Anat, who braved confrontation with the frightful sea god Yamm, their half-brother, after he had initially defeated Baal in battle; Astarte who like Venus was the Evening Star; Asherah who was initially the consort of El, the High God, the Father God. El (which is simply a word meaning “God” both in Ugaritic and in biblical Hebrew) was the elder God and the head of the divine council, depicted in Ugaritic texts as an old man with long white hair and beard — and a sometimes formidable appetite for banquets, goddesses, and strong drink. In the Bible, Yahweh shared many characteristics of El — though not the propensity for carousing. Notably in Daniel 7, Yahweh appears as the Ancient of Days (Aramaic ‘atiq yomin) with the same flowing white hair and beard.
In ancient Greece, which for various reasons is more familiar to modern Western minds, the mountain of the gods was Mt Olympus, where gods such as Zeus, Hella, Aphrodite, Eros, Aries, Athena, Hermes, and numerous others regularly feasted, fought, and observed the affairs of humans.
My husband’s mother hails from Maui, and several years ago in homage to that family connection — and this had nothing to do with the paradise that is Maui itself, of course — we decided to visit that island on vacation. The central landmark of Maui is the 10,000 ft dormant volcano Haleakala, which in Hawai’ian means “House of the Sun” and which dominates the island. The ancient spiritual connection with this mountain is obvious. One is immediately drawn to it after landing on the island, and the volcanic craters at the summit host innumerable visitors each year — all of whom leave changed for the experience. The goddess of the Hawai’ian volcanoes is Pele (PAY-lay). Is it any surprise that these volcanic mountains are the dwelling-place of a deity?
We also went to Aruba years ago, and at one point stood atop a high cliff overlooking the rough side of the ocean at the north of the island. We were buffeted by constant wind, but returned twice. It was a mystical, beautiful, haunting yet welcoming kind of place. Austere landscape strewn with cacti, rocks, and sand, empty of the many visitors enjoying the calmer southeastern side of the island, it was a place where you felt you could almost hear the divine in the wind. Indeed nearly all you could hear was the wind, and the pounding Atlantic surf nearby, which no swimmer could dare brave. We saw a wild donkey there — not too far away, just a glimpse, wandering amongst the cacti. It might sound surprising — but in that place, it was not at all hard to imagine that wild donkey as some local spirit, connected to that land, mystical or magical in nature, ephemeral. No experience has duplicated that place. And lest I neglect to mention… A Catholic chapel inhabited that place. Our Lady of Alto Vista (High View in Spanish), originally built in the 1800s. Clearly we were not the only ones to have felt an uncanny sense of the divine there.
I could go on. Mt Cadillac the highest point in Acadia National Park, Maine — at the gusty top of which we stood at 10pm one clear August night, staring up at Mars hovering just next to one of the star-studded arms of the Milky Way. That, too, was an experience that has not been duplicated. The low mountains in Scotland, to which mossy Nordic grass and mists cling. But I don’t need to go on. Humans are drawn to high places as places to encounter — or at least to feel, to sense — the divine. What is this awareness we have? A gravitation toward places physically larger than ourselves as a natural way to reach something cosmically larger than ourselves?
In this space age, where we see awe-inspiring photos from Hubble on an almost daily basis, we are keenly aware that Earth’s mountains are not the largest places to which we can go to seek the divine. But for most of us, they are still the closest we can get. And so we go to them, and we keep going.
© Elizabeth Keck 2010