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From Issue Three, October 2010 « Previous Article Next Article »

Mindscapes: The Varieties of Sacred Geography

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“The land is a living book in which the myths are inscribed . . . A legend is captured in the very outlines of the landscape.” –anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, speaking of the Australasian Aborigines

Sacred geography is where the physical environment and spirit meet. A prime example of this is given by the Mamas, or religious elite of the Kogi Indians of northern Columbia, who are trained to see simultaneously both the physical world and the spirit otherworld, which they call Aluna.1 An infant who shows signs of having the potential to be a Mama is raised in the deep darkness of caves, tended to by elders, and taught the way of the Mamas. The child never sees daylight during this long period of sequestration. In the course of the training, he is taken out at night with a broad-brimmed hat to see the landscape bathed in moonlight but not the moon itself. After several years, the child typically begins to rock back and forth and sing weird, otherworldly songs; this is taken as a sign that it is time to lead the young initiate out into the sunlight. The searing blast of daylight powers into the initiate’s dreamy eyes, and from that moment onward, he can see both the physical terrain and Aluna intermingled.

Ancient stone roads built by the Tairona people, the ancestral predecessors of the Kogi, traverse Kogi territory and have special, spiritual meaning. They are intended to be walked not only for mundane purposes but also as a religious exercise, the way a Catholic might tell rosary beads. These physical roads are but the material traces of spirit routes in Aluna, and a Mama can see them continuing on into that otherworld beyond their physical endpoints. A tall stone, crisscrossed with lines, stands at the entrance to one of the old, abandoned Tairona towns: It is the Map Stone, which marks both the physical and the otherworldly courses of the roads.

This is just one example of sacred geography. Ancient and traditional peoples have found many different ways to invest their home territories with mythological or spiritual meaning. Unfortunately, such practices have not been embraced by the Western mind-set, which often sees little mystical or mythical value in the natural world beyond its economic significance.

Landscapes, Choreography, and the Senses

One of the earliest and most basic forms of sacred geography was to identify natural landscape features as holy. Typical among these were certain mountain peaks, hill summits, and cliffs – especially where they formed landmarks, such as Glastonbury Tor in southern England, which became a rich repository of mythology.

Glastonbury Tor (Photo: Paul Devereux)

Other prime examples of sacred peaks include Mount Kailas in the Himalayas, sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike; Croagh Patrick in Ireland, the focus of present-day Christian pilgrimages but venerated from pagan times; and Mount Fuji in Japan, sacred in Shinto religion and a focus of major pilgrimages. In northern California, Mount Shasta was (and probably still is) sacred to the Wintu people – there are even subtle markers in the landscape around the mountain designed to guide souls of the departed to its sacred peak.

Caves were another commonly venerated feature; they were, in effect, the first cathedrals, as we know from finds indicating rituals (usually related to bear worship) and rock-wall paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. Water locations, such as waterfalls, springs, and selected lengths of rivers, were other typical forms of natural sacred places. To American Indians and Celtic peoples alike, springs were portals of the spirit otherworld, and waterfalls were places where prophetic dreams could be had. Certain trees and groves were also deemed sacred. There is less evidence for this as trees decay, but in recent years archaeologists in Europe have discovered traces of timber circles to match stone circles. Several years ago on the coast of Norfolk, England, the sea revealed just such a timber circle, which enclosed a huge, inverted tree bole, dated to 2500 BCE.

The routes devised for pilgrimages to sacred places, whether natural or built, were another kind of sacred geography. All ancient pilgrimage routes are choreographed so that pilgrims get glimpses of the holy destination from certain points along the way, or else the route takes them by places where miracles or other events associated with the pilgrimage are said to have taken place. The Hindus call these “faithscapes,” such as at Braj, India, which is a Krishna landscape; pilgrims follow a designated route that takes them past locations where Krishna performed various acts. At certain times of the year, actors actually reenact events at the appropriate places. [See also The Way, a new movie with Martin Sheen about walking The Camino de Santiago.]

Constructed temples and monuments were on occasion arranged to relate to one another in a given landscape or to acknowledge a revered natural feature. In England, for instance, stone circles were placed so that a formerly venerated natural feature became visible, sometimes subtly but accurately to the limits of a site's visibility from other nearby locations. In these cases, if the stone circle was placed even a hundred meters differently, the visibility link would be lost.

The remnants of the Nine Maidens stone circle in Cornwall are positioned so the tip of a natural outcrop, Hannibal’s Tor, is just visible on the horizon. (Photo: Paul Devereux)

Sometimes sacred geographies involved the creation of alignments to the movements of heavenly bodies, especially the sun and moon, so that landscapes merged with skyscapes, bringing heaven down to earth. Stupas in the Kathmandu Valley, for instance, appear to have been positioned relative to lunar alignments. Stonehenge is famous for its midsummer sunrise orientation and numerous other embedded alignments to key solar and lunar points of rising and setting. Other examples of astronomical orientations at ancient monuments are legion, though most were associated with ritual and ceremonial activities rather than anything we would recognize as scientific.

Not all sacred geographies relied on visual cues; some were sensory in other ways. For instance, abeach near Sawaieke, Fiji, is believed by traditional Fijians to be the haunt of ancestral spirits because of the vanilla-like scent of the sands there.2 Even touch could be used as an element in constructing a cultural mindscape, as South Pacific islanders have demonstrated.They could – and still can – navigate the waters of their archipelagos by combining myth, astronomy, bird flight, knowledge of wind directions, and the act of plunging their bare arms into the water to feel the complexes of ocean currents. The creation of mythical creatures and invisible islands were also a part of this mix. Such mindscapes were not for purely utilitarian purposes, for in ancient times, pragmatic activities like hunting or fishing also had spiritual dimensions. As one observer has pointed out, the Pacific islanders’ mapping systems were also for “the storage and retrieval of other kinds of cultural information – myths, spells, ceremonies, chants, recitations, etc.”3

Sounds of Natural Divinity

Archaeologists and anthropologists are increasingly coming to appreciate that probably the most prevalent type of nonvisual mapping was by use of sound. Echoes, whispering or burbling waters, the roaring of waterfalls, musical rocks (lithophones), soughing wind, and other acoustic phenomena were often considered to signal the presence of spirits or divinities of various kinds, and musical instruments were designed to invoke the presence of gods and other spiritual beings.

Acoustic locations – soundscapes – come in many forms. For instance, Petroglyph Rock, near Peterborough in Ontario, is a large, sloping marble slab covered with several hundred ancient engravings. It is said to be the most carved rock in the whole of Canada. Other exposed rock surfaces nearby are devoid of such carvings, so why was that particular rock sought out as such a special place a thousand or more years ago? The answer probably lies with a fissure about 16 feet (5 meters) deep that cuts across the rock’s surface. Ground water sporadically flows along the bottom of the fissure causing noises remarkably like whispering voices to issue forth. The Indians in this part of the Americas, like many others elsewhere, had a belief that spirits, manitous, lived inside certain rocks and behind cliff-faces, so voice-like sounds emerging from this rock would readily have been identified as the spirits speaking. It is easy to understand why it became a sacred place, perhaps even an oracle center, thus accounting for the profusion of rock carvings on its surface.

It is beginning to appear that the Stonehenge bluestones, the first stones to be erected at the monument, also came from a soundscape – the Carn Menyn ridge in the Preseli Hills of southwest Wales, nearly two hundred miles distant. It has long been a puzzle as to why the Stone Age builders sourced these stones so far from the location of Stonehenge. Now, a project under the auspices of the Royal College of Art in London (in which the present writer is involved) is revealing a possible answer: a significant preponderance of granitic rocks on the ridge that ring like bells, gongs, or tin drums when struck with small hammerstones. A clue to the fact that the area is rich in lithophones was secretly present all the time: the Welsh name of a Preseli village, Maenclochog, means “ringing rocks” or “bell stones.” Indeed, the community once had two Preseli bluestones instead of church bells!

An entirely different kind of soundscape was known of in Japan, where the idea of land having speech was lodged deeply in some schools of Buddhism – for instance, in early medieval Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kūkai. He likened the natural landscape around Chuzenji temple and the lake at the foot of Mount Nantai, near Nikko, to descriptions in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pure Land, the habitation of the buddhas. Kūkai considered that the landscape not only symbolised but was of the same essence as the mind of the Buddha. Like the Buddha mind, the landscape spoke in a natural language, offering supernatural discourse. “Thus, waves, pebbles, winds, and birds were the elementary and unconscious performers of the cosmic speech of buddhas and bodhisattvas,” explains scholar Allan Grapard.4

Mountain mystics in the Kunisaki Peninsula, Oita Prefecture Kyushu, Japan, thought of the landscape there as being the topographical embodiment of the Lotus Sutra, a major Buddhist text. The peninsula’s eight valleys were seen as landscape expressions of the eight scrolls of the scripture. Twenty-eight temples were built to correspond to the twenty-eight chapters of the text, and it is said that as many statues were carved and erected as there are words in the Lotus Sutra. Walking in these mountains and listening to the natural sounds was considered to be the equivalent of reading the sutra.

Although it is now performed in concert settings, Tuvan throat singing in Russia originated as a way of communicating with the land, a kind of precision technology used to elicit echoes in caves and from cliff faces. In Papua New Guinea, a tribe uses special musical instruments when there are distant thunderstorms, to ride the infrasonic waves of distant thunder. Sound was used in a myriad ways in ancient mindscapes, and we are only now beginning to hear it.

Mapping Our Worldviews

Such mythic and sensory relationship with the environment was called participation mystique by the anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl,5by which he meant a local relationship with the land that went beyond mere utility and subsistence. Another anthropologist, A. P. Elkin, put it well: “The bond between a person and his (or her) country is not merely geographical or fortuitous, but living and spiritual and sacred. His country . . . is the symbol of, and gateway to, the great unseen world of heroes, ancestors, and life-giving powers which avail for man and nature.”6

We may smile slightly condescendingly at these ancient and traditional ways of mapping the world, many of which have now gone or are on the verge of disappearing, yet while we consider our modern maps representations of the world-as-it-really-is, we forget that there are no maps of the world, only maps of worldviews. This holds true for us as much as for any tribe or society that has gone before, as Lewis Carroll demonstrated with the Bellman’s blank map of the ocean in his poem “The Hunting of the Snark” – a map the whole crew could understand because it was bereft of “conventional signs.” Indeed, our modern maps are superimposed with various kinds of imaginary markings, such as grids of lines, demarcations of tropical zones, international datelines, a variety of place symbols, different scales, and more. We take these nonactual features for granted.

Our present cultural worldview increasingly sees the land in terms of economic and social utility. Expressive qualities of place are remorselessly marginalized. The modern worldview can be mapped literally through history, with the mythic content in early cartographic essays (“here be dragons”) gradually being shunted to the margins until now we are left with our topographically exact maps, technical masterpieces bereft of mythic quality.

How a culture maps its world says much about the way it thinks about its environment, how its soul and the soul of the world, the anima mundi, interact. In today’s modern world, we are increasingly moving our viewpoint “off earth” with satellite navigation devices in our cars divorcing us from the actual experience of travelling through the countryside or urban landscape as well as from our understanding of routes as connections of places and ways to traverse a topography. We walk with cell phones or recording devices stuck to our ears, hardly aware of where we are. We are losing ourselves; we are no longer here. Perhaps it is time to reacquaint ourselves with other, more psychologically wholesome ways of being on this planet.

If we can learn to make our environment sacred once again, then right environmental behavior will come naturally as a matter of course. In his wonderful essay, “The Rediscovery of North America,” nature writer Barry Lopez tells of how the tribespeople of Kenya taught him to sit in one place for hours at a time in order to learn something from the desert. He learned that he needed to pay attention to the land, to approach it “as we would a person, by opening an intelligent conversation” with it. “We will always be rewarded if we give the land credit for more than we imagine and if we imagine it as being more complex even than language,” he advises.7

Whether we realize it or not, we all live in a sacred geography. It is called Earth, and it is past time we regained the ability to map it with meaning. We cannot, and indeed should not, revert to the sacred geographies of ancient cultures, but they nevertheless contain a lesson, a fundamental wisdom, we would be wise to heed: The mapping of the physical world needs to be integrated with the geography of the soul.


This article is adapted from Sacred Geography, currently available in the US, UK, France, and Norway through bookshops, online booksellers, or from the author directly at

References and Notes

1. A. Ereira, The Heart of the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990).

2. C. Toren, Mind, Materiality, and History: Explorations in Fijian Ethnography (London: Routledge. 1999).

3. P. Hage, “Speculations on Pulawatese Mnemonic Structure,” Oceania 49 (1978).

4. A. Grapard, “Geosophia, Geognosis, and Geopiety: Orders of Significance in Japanese Representations of Space,” in  Nowhere: Space, Time, and Modernity, eds. R. Friedland and D. Boden (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).

5. L. Lévy-Bruhl, Primitive Mythology, (University of Queensland Press, 1983 edition).

6. A. P. Elkin, cited in ibid.

7. B. Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America (London: Vintage, 1990).

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  • Anonymous Icon

    uniqueme Oct 07, 2010

    I'm so upset about the Mamas of the Koji Indians at the start of this article, that treatment of a child amounts to child abuse. Without sunlight there is vitamin D deficiency and lack of eye development as well. I'm not surprised the child eventually develops into somebody a bit different. I just hope this isn't still going on. I'm too upset to read the rest of the article.

  • frequencytuner Oct 09, 2010

    Excellent article. Very well researched. The modern world's 'divorce' from nature has implications that extend far beyond human comprehension. I will not tag it as good or bad, just beyond comprehension.

    The ancient Hebrew aleph bet is believed to possess mystical powers that have been lost to humanity, much the same as Egyptian and Sanskirt dialects. I speak of language because language is communication and interaction, which defines the nature of existence. Without knowing the language of that which you want to communicate with, it is not possible. Language can be equated to tuning a frequency on your FM radio. Every form of life has it's unique frequency - language. Trees, rocks, water, wind, fire, birds, fish, humans, planets etc.

    Today we are tuned to our own human frequency and have thrown away all others for lack of understanding, ignorance or whatever the reason. These frequencies are all parts of us. It is similar to blocking the 20 Hz - 20 KHz frequency range from human comprehension - that would make us all ''deaf'.

    Every frequency channel we tune out is one aspect of ourselves we are unable to sense. We are the rocks and trees, but cannot communicate with them anymore to know it. We cannot hear them, they cannot hear us. That is why all of the natural world seems so foreign to us humans: we have uprooted, unplugged and detached from 'mother earth'.

    This disharmony is at the root of EVERY global problem humanity faces today.

  • frequencytuner Oct 09, 2010

    With regard to physical geography - in relation to human anatomy - energy meridians and centers (chakras or endocrine glands) resonate specific frequencies. The earth - as the larger 'body' - also has identical features that are referred to commonly as ley lines. The energy centers of the earth are marked along the meridians by these 'sacred' monuments around the globe.

    For example: the Great Pyramid in Egypt is the Heart Chakra. This can be easily distinguished by anybody who is adept in Chakra systems, astrology, sacred geometry and the significance of the star tetrahedron.

    A lot of this knowledge is extremely esoteric in nature and thus very difficult for most to understand. With a simple change in perspective, however, to see the earth as a larger reflection of the 'self' this knowledge becomes quite easy to understand. Regardless, the language is still lost.

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