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Snow-capped mountains, Nepal

Folklore and Myths of the Mountains

Throughout the ages, a multiplicity of folklore and myths has accumulated about mountains. The folklore and myths have been focussed on specific mountains, their locations and surroundings. This article sets out an analysis of the of stories and myths through presentation of major themes of those stories and myths.

 

Introduction

Mountains are said “to defy us and define us.” Mountains are the backdrop to the scenery, defence, economies, lives and leisure of many countries. They represent enduring and formidable powers; they are the home of legend and myth; they spur imagination and aspiration. Deities in almost every religion throughout the world haunt mountains. Mountains express physical power: their powerful weather systems defy the powers of mortals.

Fascination with mountains long predates modern mountaineering. Past generations have bestowed mountains with spiritual, mythological and other forms of symbolic significance. Mountains radiate force and power. Mountains reach towards the heavens and bestow with the power of the gods or allegories transcending from the world to spiritual destinies. In summary mountains evoke a range of thoughts, emotions and reactions in the human psyche. Humans view mountains in abstract ways as well as in physical form evoking concepts like the transcendental, the sacred and power.

In this article I examine and consolidate the folklore and myths of mountains reflected in the introductory remarks and set out some conclusions about the folklore and myths of mountains.

 

Ascending & descending: the myths and superstitions of mountaineering

This very practical aspect of the human relationship with mountains is good place to start. Climbing mountains for sport and recreation is a recent phenomenon dating from the 1850s, when the English started the fashion of climbing in the Swiss Alps. Ascending to the summit is the primary objective but it is not the final objective. Mountaineering is a journey, where the climber learns about themselves along the way. Reaching the top is only half the journey. Descending successfully. Safely is the goal. More accidents occur during descent than during ascent. “The top is the halfway point.”

Altitude sickness is the subject of a number of myths. At altitudes between 2,500 and 300 metres, the body starts to suffer the effects of decreased oxygen in the environment from lower atmospheric pressure. Altitude sickness, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), can result in nausea, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, and headaches. Everybody will react differently to high altitudes depending on a variety of factors. Healthy people are able to acclimatize to a different altitudes without adverse health effects. People, who live at or just above sea level and ascend to a high altitude, will be more susceptible to the effects of altitude sickness than people who lives at a higher elevation.

Mountain passes, which form when a glacier or stream erodes or wears away, the land between areas of higher terrain are symbolic. Passes often provide the easiest routes for people to travel across steep mountain ranges. They have played a significant role throughout human history in defence, migration, trade, and settlement. Thousands of named passes exist around the world. Some are well-known: the St Bernard Pass at 2,473 metres (8,114ft) in the Swiss Alps to the Last 5,360 metres (17,590ft), and the Khardung La at 5,359 metres (17,582ft) in India. The roads at Manama Pass at 5,610 metres (18,410 ft.) and Marsimik La at 5,582 metres (18,314ft), on and near the China–India border are higher!

Shrines, are a common feature at these passes. The shrines are places for thank prayer and invocation where travellers give thank for their safe journey, the refuge or assuage the deities and spirits, which are present in the physically bleak and desolate locations.

Two climbers at a peak of the Alps

Photo by Sylvain Mauroux on Unsplash

Angry mountains

The power of mountains is frequently reflected though the anger they have exhibited, through volcanic eruptions, in particular, but through their resistance to assault by climbers, prospectors and those who wish to civilise them through agriculture and grazing.

Santorini

Volcanic features and phenomena have often been described in legends. These legends provide a connection between a cultural or spiritual view of nature and the scientific study of Earth’s natural processes. Careful study of these legends may even yield faint clues about ancient eruptions. The legends in this section are all believed to describe or relate to volcanic features or events. The great eruption at Santorini in 1500 BC may be the origin of the Atlantis myth.

Mount Etna

Among the customs that have survived of the volcano, Mt. Etna, is that the people who live in its environs believe that Mt. Etna is a living being, a mother or a father that can be appeased when it is angry. For this reason, if an eruption gets too close to a house or a town, some people leave the kitchen table with a bottle of good wine on it, before escaping Mt. Etna, by appreciating the gift, will spare the house.

Vesuvius

The catastrophic impact of Vesuvius effectively froze the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in time, like insects trapped in amber. This has provided archaeologists with unique insights into the lives of those living in the shadow of the volcano thousands of years ago. The opportunity to walk around an ancient city, almost intact, allows the contemporary world to connect with the past in tangible ways.

Mount Tambora

Two months before the battle of Waterloo, a volcano named Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia, killing 100,000 people and spraying so much ash into the atmosphere. The planet cooled. The following year was known as the “year without a summer”. It is believed that the conditions on the battlefield contributed to the Allied army’s defeat of the French Emperor, it wasn’t apparent how electrified volcanic ash played a crucial role in moulding the direction of human history.

Himalayas

Are mountains showing anger by reacting to climate change? In the foothill of the Himalayas natural rainfall is no longer predictable. It seems to pour at its own will and more than 60% of the population comprising farmers is now exposed to more uncertainties than ever before. Rural farmers who have adapted to age-old farming practices which are completely depended on natural rainfall are now left to come to their own conclusions. The angry rain god sometimes does his work too early or at other times is too adamant to do its natural duty and comes late or doesn’t come at all. Some years, it just doesn’t stop raining for days. Small streams have started drying up at the time when they are wanted the most. Many have already dried up. Bhutan has a lot of water per head of population and a good river system. People don’t use river water for drinking and agriculture but it comes from smaller streams, springs and watersheds. Most are showing signs of drying up. The effects of climate change have intensified societal and communal differences. Every season, neighbours fight for their right to claim water. In a mountainous country, farmers living on hilltops command more right to natural streams. It also leads to more dispute cases going to courts. For a country of less than a million people, where motor roads provides the basic form of transportation, erratic and heavy rainfall also causes landslides blocking roads at a time when movement for the majority of the people becomes most crucial. Even if the moody god of rain decides to stick to the weather timetable, farmers are finding out that the crops their parents taught then to plant at their ancestral fields are not yielding as much.

 

Magic, music & mystery

Magic, music and mystery represent both the benign and feared aspect of the behaviour of mountains.

Magic

Until the 19th century, mountains provided a magical source of a power, sacred power, which is to be awed and revered–a place to which access is restricted. This could result in climbing being banned from a sacred mountain completely or where secular society to gives the mountain a wide berth. Many mountain areas have been declared off-limits for construction, and remain conserved because of the respect accorded to a mountain’s sacred power. Sacred mountains can be seen as the source of something vital. This could be a blessing, water, life, or healing powers.

Since the 19th century mountains have been portrayed as a benign source of magic for the human kind. They evoke health, fresh air, good simple living and energy. Mountain resorts and residencies frequently reference the health giving (magical) properties of mountain air, exercise–indeed mountain sports attire often use the word “magic” in branding of their wares.

It would be appropriate to conclude the topic of the magic of mountains with reference to the author Thomas Mann’s two volume novel The Magic Mountain, which he commenced in 1912 but revisited to reflect his experiences and impressions during a period when his wife, who was suffering from a lung complaint, resided at a sanatorium in Davis in Switzerland for several months. In May and June 1912, Mann visited her and became acquainted with the team of doctors and patients in this cosmopolitan institution

Music

Composers found inspiration in mountain landscapes and, in particular, the mountainous regions of Europe, the Alps and the Pyrenees. In the slip stream of the expansion of Alpine leisure clubs and a growing interest in nature, musical interests turned its attention to mountains and contributed to their popularity. Music highlighted how humans valued mountains, such as purity and freshness. Music reflected human interaction with mountains. Human interaction helped to create the artistic tradition which used the mountains as a source of inspiration and cultural significance. The artistic tradition helped to transform society’s perception of the mountains from inhospitable areas of imperfect scenery to areas worthy of admiration for their grandeur, scale and dominating landscape. Art transformed the way of seeing and evaluating the landscape. Music contributed to this achievement by conceptualising mountains through music. This Romantic Movement highlighted music the descriptive and symbolic contribution of music.

Much of the link between music and the geography of mountains lies in the character of the symphonic poem, which provides musical communication–the bridge between music and literature. It provides the meaning that the music is able to describe. Both Caesar Franck and Franz Liszt have composed works “Ce Qu on intend sur la montagne”. Their different views of the mountain emerge parallel to the tourist interest on mountain landscapes since the 19th century. Caesar Franck and Liszt’s musical views of mountains evolve from the more abstract and metaphorical music of an inaccessible mountain landscape. Conversely, Strauss’s musical description of mountains are more scenic and evocative of that way hikers and travellers explore mountains.  Franck and Liszt, highlighted the mystical background to the mountains within the romantic context. They explain an understanding of the boom that took place in knowledge of the mountains and in the interest in conserving them as a heritage asset.

By way of contrast the composer, Mussorgsky’s, first ideas for the tone poem A Night on Bald Mountain were inspired by the ancient Russian legend of nocturnal revels that take place on St. John’s Night in June on a hill called Lisa Hora near Kiev. A Night on the Bare Mountain describes a short story in which St John sees a witches’ Sabbath on the Bald Mountain near Kiev in the Old Russian Empire. It’s a wild and terrifying party with lots of dancing but when the church bell chimes at 6am, and the sun comes up, the witches vanish.

Mystery

Mountains are strange places, which offer a unique environment. They offer a threshold between calm and chaos, between life and death. Cultures around the world and throughout history have looked up at the mountains in wonder and fear. Myths, legends and folktales tell of the mountains as the home of the gods or the lair of monsters. Each mountain has its own very individual story. Even in the modern era stories persist of mysterious, often terrifying encounters in the high wildernesses.

Unclimbed mountains, “virgin peaks,” frequently exist because the mountain is unreachable, due to either geographic isolation or political instability. Unclimbed peaks remain a mystery. The reason, in part, is determining which is the highest unclimbed peak is controversial. Comprehensive records of routes of explorers, mountaineers and local inhabitants are not well documented. Surveying and mapping remain unreliable despite some incursions by Google Maps! Some mountains are off limits due to religious beliefs of a country or region that hold designated mountains sacred and inviolate. The physical, financial and organisational resources to scale taller mountains of the world require major undertaking. Lesser peaks, while still very formidable, simply get less attention than the taller ones, and instead these taller peaks are submitted by parties following a new route or during the winter when conditions are generally more treacherous. Most sources indicate that Gangkhar Puensum (7,570 metres (24,840 ft.)) on the Bhutan- China border is the tallest mountain in the world that has yet to be conquered. Gangkhar Puensum has been off limits to climbers since 1994 when Bhutan prohibited all mountaineering above 6,000m (20,000ft) due to spiritual/religious beliefs.

 

Gods, goddesses & worship

Gods, goddesses and mortals are positioned on mountains to watch events or landscapes below. The view from above symbolises power (in the case of the gods) or an attempt at control or desire for power (in the case of mortals). It may also suggest an agreeable and relaxed spectatorship with no active involvement in the events watched, which may metaphorically morph into a historian’s objectivity or a philosopher’s emotional tranquillity. The elevated position may also have a temporal aspect, gods looking into the future or mortals looking back on their life.

Mount Olympus is a real mountain in the north of Greece. Gradually, it became associated less and less with an actual mountain and more with an imaginary place high above the earth. According to the ancient Greeks, the gate to Olympus was made of clouds and it was guarded by four goddesses, the Horae (goddesses of the seasons). Each god had his or her own dwelling place, but Olympus was home base.

Olympian gods

By Cornelis Cort, CC0.

Spiritual and sacred destinations

The untamed forces of nature — wind, cloud, storm, snow, ice and cold — find most powerful expression on the tops of mountains. The mountain peaks display an aura of extreme and undefeated wilderness. Mountains and wilderness of mountains represent a sacred space; a space set apart from the everyday life. Mountain peaks and their surrounding terrain, far from the civilized world, are a mysterious realm of authority, which is governed by natural forces beyond the reach of human control. Those who expose themselves to the wilderness encourage the awakening of the sacred in the hope that experience will enable them to outreach their usual pre-occupations. Wild places preserve the purity of creation, a sacred space that has not been desecrated by people. The wilderness is a place of spiritual renewal, a source of mental and physical renewal and freshness of a new beginning.

The lure and magic of wilderness, the essence of what makes the wilderness particularly attractive, comes from the sense of the sacred that it evokes. There is something fundamentally wild about the sacred itself. The sacred eludes all attempts to control and domesticate it. Like the inaccessible summit of a distant peak, the sacred lies outside human reach, free from the restraints of any artificial order which humans may try to impose upon it. The sacred has its own law not the laws of human kind. The American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, was referring to the sense of the sacred hidden in the wildness of nature when he wrote: “The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild, and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of world.” As the last unclimbed mountains are climbed and true wilderness vanishes, replaced with parks and designated “wilderness areas,” humans will have to turn to the sense of the sacred to find the wildness that Thoreau regarded as essential to the preservation of the world. That wildness, which we associate with unexplored places, actually lies right here, all around us, in the familiar things of usual surroundings, if they are seen as they truly are, imbued with all the mystery and splendour of the deepest forests and highest peaks.

The sense of the sacred awakened by mountains and wilderness has a crucial role to play in efforts to respect and protect the environment. Scenery and landscape are treated with respect because there is a desire to maintain their beauty and integrity. If something has acquired an aura of sanctity, there is little inclination to tamper with it: it seems whole and perfect in its own right. If the environment in viewed in this way, there is an urge to preserve, rather than destroy it. In the absence of an underlying sense of the sacred to inspire long-term commitment, conservation efforts based only on ecological facts and theories falter in the face of powerful forces determined to use the land and its resources for economic and political purposes. That commitment does highlight that mountains provide a place to renew conservation with a vision of what we really value and need to conserve.

 

Retreat and sanctuary

Historically, mountains have been locations for retreat and sanctuary, whether voluntarily for spiritual reflection and contemplation or involuntarily to flee enemies.

The Bible has extensive reference to mountains and hills as a place of retreat and sanctuary:

Joshua 2:22: ‘They departed and came to the hill country, and remained there for three days until the pursuers returned. Now the pursuers had sought them all along the road, but had not found them.’

Judges 6:2: ‘The power of Midian prevailed against Israel. Because of Midian the sons of Israel made for themselves the dens which were in the mountains and the caves and the strongholds.’

Matthew 24:16: ‘then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains.’

Mark 13:14: ‘But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains.’

Luke 21:21: ‘Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those who are in the midst of the city must leave, and those who are in the country must not enter the city;’

In Ancient India, mountains provided safety. The mountains form a natural border between the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Asia. This border protected the people of ancient India from invaders who tried to attack and conquer the country. The Hindu Kush Mountains can be very dangerous location to live, so people have made those areas off limits making their lives safer. When settling in ancient India, living in a mountain wasn’t safe but families would get used to their surroundings to survive. If an ancient Indian family chose to live on a mountain, they would have to choose exactly where very wisely.

Mountains behind Florence, Italy.

Florence and its mountains, by Van Williams on Unsplash.

Mountains create cultures

In 1213 Count Orlando Catani of Chiesa gave Francis a mountainous parcel of land called La Verna to use as a place of retreat. Tucked into the wilderness east of Florence, La Verna features a solitary peak, known as Monte Pena, and is covered with a forest of beech and fir trees. The friar withdrew to this mountain with his companion Brother Leo in September 1224 for a 40-day fast and contemplation of Christ’s Passion, during which he prayed fervently to share in Christ’s suffering. According to early accounts, the answer to his prayer came in a vision of a fiery six-winged angel, or seraph, bearing the image of Christ crucified. As the seraph departed, the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, called the stigmata (nail marks through the hands and feet, a piercing of the torso), appeared on Francis’s own body. He bore those wounds for the remaining two years of his life. Today the Sanctuary of La Verna remains an active monastery and, after Assisi, is the second-holiest site for the Franciscan order.

From the brief online research a profusion of establishments in mountain locations offer retreat and sanctuary  from the modern world, its lifestyle, city and suburban cultures, life styles and disease and viruses . Monasteries, castles, log cabins, luxury hotels, they all offer sanctuary and retreat. From Uruguay to Utah and from Australia to the Arctic Circle Mountain retreats are available. Mountain retreats welcome visitors for spiritual and religious reflection, for craft work, for learning and education, cooking and gourmet food. All are welcome it seems at mountain retreats.

Santuario de la Verna: the sanctuary hidden on the mountainside between trees

Santuario de la Verna, by Mattana, CC BY-SA 3.0

Climbing Mountains: Moral, spiritual and emotional journeys

The moral, spiritual and emotional journeys in life employ the metaphor of climbing very extensively. There are literally hundreds of them. Six metaphorical quotations, some from mountaineers themselves, have been selected to illustrate the moral, spiritual and emotional journeys and the effort and stress of those ‘experience of life’ journeys:

‘Life’s a bit like mountaineering – never look down.’

Self-discipline is the ability to push forward, stay motivated, and take action, regardless of physically or emotional feeling. You are showing it when you intentionally choose to pursue something better for yourself, and you do it in spite of factors like distractions, hard work, or unfavourable odds. Self-discipline is different from self-motivation or willpower. Motivation and willpower contribute as do persistence, the ability to follow through on intentions and hard work.

‘A little more altitude, a little less attitude,’ or ‘Your attitude determine your altitude.’

A person’s attitude determines their success in life.

‘Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.’

Changes in business (and in life!) can make the difference between success and defeat. It all depends

on how well you respond to or anticipate change.

‘The higher you climb on the mountain, the harder the wind blows.’

Life gets tougher the more you achieve by way of success.

‘It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.’

This is also a quotation from the mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, reflects his own emotional journey.

In the course of mountaineering. Conquering – or reaching the summit – of a mountain is about the challenges met along the way. Ultimately, it’s not about setting out to conquer something else, but the internal journey, challenges, and resolution within ourselves.

 

Conclusions

Researching and writing this paper has been like a scramble up the mountains, without the physical exercise, efforts and challenges, in terms of encountering the diverse aspects of mountains, their landscapes, aspects, moods as well as the mutual behaviour of mountains and humans. My general conclusions are in the form of trends of human behaviour, emotions and response to mountains:

Mountains: ancient and modern

Before the Renaissance, the human relationship with mountains reflected fear veneration. In the late Renaissance, the human relationship with nature changed dramatically. An important part of this change occurred in the way that nature and landscape was perceived. Natural physical features became privileged objects of aesthetic gratification. The aesthetic attitude towards the mountain that took place between 1450 and 1750. During these 300 years the mountain transformed from a fearful and ugly place to features of beauty and splendour. The aesthetic attitude shift towards the mountain through the development of an idea of ‘landscape’ in the geographical and artistic traditions of the 16th century and the increasing amount of scientific and theological investigation dedicated to the mountain. Landscape and mountains in particular moved from a discreet or allegorical background in art to become a more prominent and detailed feature to being the centrepiece of paintings by the 18th century.

‘Alpinism’

The fashion for walking and climbing in the Alps during the middle of 19th century was a very

material contributor to the change in human relationships with mountains.These exploits were

accompanied by travel books, notes and sketches. Edmund Whymper, the explorer and climber, who

wrote Scramble among the Alps is the most prominent example of this movement.  Mountains, while

still commanding respect and fear, were becoming locations for sport, gaining and regaining health, and beneficial exercise through the purity of their air attributed to the altitude. Although skiing, both across country and downhill, has been a mode of transport at altitude and in cold climates since time immemorial, skiing as a healthy outdoor sport or leisure pursuit evolved in the late 19th century by

British visitors to Switzerland, who came both for restorative health and relaxation powers of mountain

air – and the mental relaxation derived from Alpine walking and hiking .

Geographic and regional difference

The major mountains of the Western Hemisphere have been climbed, and to some extent civilised, in

the sense that cable cars, roads and other ascending aids make the ascent easier or visibility of the

summit more accessible. By contrast the mountains of Central Asia still pose a challenge to climb and

view. Mountains are viewed with respect, reverence and fear in Central Asia, where they have a more

direct effect on business and livelihood

Physical and mental therapeutic powers

These powers are now seen as the most significant features of mountains and their environs. The

recognition of the therapeutic mental and physical powers of mountains, their air and environment is,

probably, the most significant development in the human attitude and relationship with mountains in the

past 150 years.

Inspirational

Mountains have proved locations of inspiration both physical and mental. Their therapeutic value,

growing association with health, recreation and relaxation contribute to the inspirational feelings they

bestow on the humans. The language of sport, the physical and mental challenge of mountaineering,

in the shape of humans vs the elements, has permeated the language of business, human strife,

endeavour and psychology.

 

During my research, I was surprised how little specific research and publication has been conducted on the folklore and myths of mountains. Most references to folklore and myths have been incidental to analysis and description of other aspects of mountains, their life and history. It is certainly an area ripe for much more detailed research by folklorists.

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Robert McDowall is a former president of the Folkore Society, but is also engaged in the research and analysis of cryptocurrencies and the technology which supports their operation. He is a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) and is a member of the RAI Finance and Administration Committee.

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