In the mid-20th century, the late comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade popularized the idea that a mountain can be an Axis Mundi. An Axis Mundi is an archetype of any sacred place that connects heaven to earth, gods to humans. It is a sacred, spiritual, or a holy center on earth. While the Axis Mundi appears in various forms throughout the world’s religious texts (as trees, pillars, ladders, towers, temples, altars, etc.), it is commonly associated with mountains.
But why do mountains so often represent spiritual centers? Eliade notes:
Mountains are the nearest thing to the sky, and are thence endowed with a twofold holiness: on one hand they share in the spatial symbolism of transcendence—they are ‘high’, ‘vertical’, ‘supreme’, and so on—and on the other, they are the special domain of all hierophanies of atmosphere, and therefore, the dwelling of gods. […] Mountains are often looked on as the place where sky and earth meet, a ‘central point’ therefore, the point through which the Axis Mundi goes, a region impregnated with the sacred, a spot where one can pass from one cosmic zone to another.Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 99-100.
That mountains act as a sacred focal point, a holy site or space, is a feature we see in many of the world’s religions. It is one of the oldest ideas we have and appear in nearly all of the world’s mythologies. If there were any innate ideas, the idea that mountains are sacred spaces might be one of them. Found in the texts of civilizations on all continents, the idea transcends space; found in prehistoric archeological sites and in modern religious practice, it transcends time.
From Mt. Sinai to Mt. Shasta and everywhere in between, humans have endowed mountains with sacred meaning wherever we have settled.1
Yet the sheer abundance of sacred mountains around the world, their varying degrees of sanctity, and the great number of ways in which humans interact with them render any attempt at charting them an Everest-like challenge.
That said, there are a few books that cover some of the world’s best-known sacred mountains (see below). The list of sacred mountains in these books is incomplete; but these books are wonderful starting points to look into the idea of sacred mountains around the world.
- Bernbaum, Edwin. Sacred Mountains of the World. Sierra Club Books, 1992.
- Cooper, Adrian. Sacred Mountains: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Meanings. Floris Books, 1997.
- Drasdo, Harold and Michael Charles Tobias. The Mountain Spirit. Overlook Books, 1979.
- Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. University of Nebraska Press, 1996 (1949).
- Perhaps with the sole exception of Antarctica, if we consider the scientific colonies there a “settlement.”