(host) Majestic, mysterious forms that hold the secrets of the universe, or big, inscrutable rocks that take a lot of effort to climb.
In pretty much every culture, it's all about majesty and mystery when it comes to mountains.
Home to mighty deities, sacred grounds, and sublime phenomena, mountains loom large in our collective imagination.
[intro music] Throughout history, real and mythical mountains have been used to discuss both natural and supernatural activity, from weather and volcanic eruptions to everlasting youth and ethereal beings.
But they also embody some of our most existential questions about life-- our position in the universe, our spiritual doubts, and our desire to transcend the self.
In the earliest written records of human history, mountains were depicted as sources of life.
Dating the third millennium BCE, tablets found at the ancient Sumerian city of Nippur, now Iraq, are very clear about where the first Sumerian god spawned the rest of his team-- "On the mountain of heaven and earth, Anu spawned the Anunnaki gods."
"Hursag," meaning mountain or hill, is the first word on the tablet, making it one of the oldest surviving written words.
On the peak of the mountain, the Anunnaki gods created sheep and grain before sending them down to mortals living on the slopes, thus allowing human society to flourish.
This ancient myth carries a few key ideas that are common to mountain mythology.
First, the mountain acts as the site of creation.
We see this idea unfolding across the world.
In ancient Tibet, for instance, the first ruler was believed to be a god who descended from the sky using a rope of woven light to the peak of Yarlha Shampo, a place that would also serve as the instrument of creation.
In the Hindu Puranas, deities and demons tied an enormous serpent around the mythical Mount Mandara, then used the mountain as a stick for churning the celestial ocean, creating the universe itself.
Second, the mountains are also the dwelling place of the gods.
Many cultures locate their gods on a mountain summit.
The supreme Hindu deity Shiva resides on Mount Kailash, while in Greek mythology, the principal gods camp out on Mount Olympus.
These lofty abodes testify to the awesome, and frankly, sometimes terrifying power of the divine.
In Homer's Iliad, Zeus boasts of his power to drag the Earth and sea up the mountain on a golden rope and dangle them off the sacred peak.
The third important feature of the Sumerian creation myth is a vision of mountains of a life-giving, ever-present force that provides both spiritual and material sustenance.
In another Sumerian legend, this belief is personified in Ninhursag, goddess of the mountains, who produced milk and mothered humans and animals from her seat at the summit.
And in Tibetan mythology, the Five Sisters of Long Life each occupy their own Himalayan perch.
The resident goddess of Mount Everest, Miyolangsangma, is believed to be in charge of inexhaustible giving.
This fearsome goddess rides a tiger, a bowl of food in one hand, and a jewel-spitting mongoose in the other.
This illustrates her dual role as both a supreme nurturer and a potentially hazardous force, rather like the mountain itself.
As a mythical origin point and lofty spiritual home but also an enduring source of food, land, and shelter for those who live below, mountains are places where the celestial and terrestrial collide with awe-inspiring results.
Throughout history, mountains were not only used to explain the origins and governing of the universe but were seen as forces of cosmic balance in their own right.
Mythical mountains often function as axis mundi, or a "stabilizing axis that extends through the Earth "to connect its surface with the underworld and the heavens."
In Norse mythology, a heavenly mountain was said to rise at the point where the rainbow meets the dome of heaven, thus acting as a force for celestial harmony.
And in Iranian mythology, the legendary Hara Berezaiti was an enormous mountain rising from the center of the Earth and tethered to the sky.
The stars and moon revolved around it, while the sun rested behind its peak at night.
In addition to its spiritual significance, Hara was used in early scientific theories of the universe.
Many other cultures endorsed this idea of the mythical mountain connecting the underground, Earthly, and heavenly planes.
Another axis of the world, Mount Meru, or Sumeru, is venerated in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cultures.
Hindu cosmology traces specific mythical geographies around Meru, with the mountain occupying the center of the universe, the city of the moon rising in the north, the city of the ocean god occupying the west, the Devas, or divinities, dwelling in the east, the realms of Yama, the god of death, in the south, and the Asanas, or infernal demons, lurking below.
Mount Meru was also used as an astronomical reference point with the pole star position directly above its peak tied to other heavenly bodies by ropes of wind.
In ancient Jainian philosophy, Meru was also used to theorize the movement of celestial bodies.
As these axis mundi show, mountains were at the center of human attempts to explain the cosmic structure of the universe as well as the spiritual significance of its realms.
Beyond the natural world, mountains were referenced throughout ancient architecture that evoked the sacred and aspirational.
Both Hindu and Buddhist architecture reinforces the importance of Mount Meru with towers and temples evoking its sacred peak and garden monuments or water structures echoing its position in the universe.
In ancient Mesopotamia, raised structures called ziggurats were built as dwelling places for deities.
These consisted of up to seven stories that echoed ascending heavenly tiers with only priests permitted to enter their base layers and the upper layers reserved for the gods.
And in ancient Egypt, the primordial mound known as Benben was revered for its status as the first item that emerged from a watery abyss at the beginning of the world.
This sacred mound provided a template for the capstones of the pyramids and surfaces throughout Egyptian symbols and iconography.
In other cultures, the worship of mountains blends natural and mythical phenomena.
In Hindu cosmology, Mount Kailash is not only the home of the powerful deity Shiva but the source of the holy river Ganges, which cascades from heaven and pours through his hair before continuing on throughout the land.
Here, the mountain is seen again as a life-giving force with awesome powers.
In the Diné, or Navajo origin story, the Creator placed the first people in the middle of four mountains-- Blanca Peak, Mount Taylor, San Francisco Peak, and Hesperus Mountain.
Here, the mountains delineate a homeland, one that once stretched over a vast space but was protected by these natural fortresses.
Elsewhere, the power of the mountain is a little more ambivalent.
In Hawaiian mythology, the goddess Pele commanded volcanoes.
She was believed to have created the Hawaiian islands and was just as feared for her ability to cause eruptions as she was revered for the creation of rich new land.
The Aztecs also honored volcanic mountains-- for example, in the form of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.
According to myth, Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl were once young lovers who were separated when Popocatépetl was called off to war.
Believing her beloved had perished, Iztaccíhuatl wasted away from grief, only for Popocatépetl to return very much alive.
Distraught, he constructed a funeral mound for Iztaccíhuatl and lay by her side, with their bodies eventually transforming into mountains.
The rising smoke was believed to signal either their eternal funeral torches or their still-burning love.
While these examples venerate and explain natural phenomena, they also show how people's understanding of mountains as natural resources was always entwined with ancient storytelling.
While mythical mountains have generated their own cosmological, astronomical, and geological theories, they're also supernatural worlds that no human knowledge system can account for.
In Chinese mythology, for instance, Mount Kunlun is the mountainous home of deities and immortals that props up the sky and forms a ladder from heaven to Earth.
Guarded by a tiger with nine human faces, Kunlun is a space of abundance, from the peaches of immortality and grain that can grow up to 40 feet to the self-regenerating cow's meat.
While these strange riches are not easy to access, ancient texts promise many rewards for climbing Mount Kunlun.
Reaching the first tier would bestow immortality, the second, the ability to control wind and rain, and the third would grant you permanent access to the divine realm-- not bad a reward after a big hike.
To the east of Kunlun is another mountainous paradise, Mount Penglai, which is governed by eight immortals who can create and destroy life at will.
In this land of brilliant sunshine, immortality is guaranteed for all.
The water conveys eternal youth, there is no knowledge or sickness or pain, fruit remains ripe all year round, and the bowls of rice are perpetually brimming.
Referred to as Horai in Japanese literature, one Shinto text describes the mountain as not only a paradise, but an alien space that stretches the limits of human perception.
No matter your belief system, mountains are indisputably sublime, which is why they remain near universal sites of pilgrimage.
As sites of spiritual excursion, mountains promise a transcendence of earthly conditions.
From the barefoot journeys undertaken by Catholics to climb the rocky slopes of Croagh Patrick-- one of the highest and holiest mountain in Ireland-- to Hindu pilgrimages to the sacred hill Govardhan, home to temples and the site of divine activity, devotees visit and climb mountains as a ritual that signals spiritual and literal ascension.
While mountain climbing is an ostensibly secular activity, many climbers have spoken of a similar aspiration to transcend the self and reach higher plains of understanding.
Mountains, then, are not only enormous landmarks; they inspire some pretty strong feelings.
As seeds of creation and axes of the universe, they've helped people narrate where they came from and anchored our sense of location in an often-confusing world.
But they're also sites of magic and mystery in their own right.
Whether using mountains to track the movements of stars, curry favor with the gods, or explain seismic shifts, it's clear that mountains have always driven our imaginations to new heights.
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