Well, I’ve made up my mind, anyway. I want to see mountains again, Gandalf – mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest.
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Ring, “A Long-Expected Party”
Mountains are locations where the access to the sky is easier for mankind, where access to the sacred is within reach. It is where the
“summit touches the sphere of eternity, and its base branches out in manifold foothills into the world of mortals. It is the path by which humanity can raise itself to the divine and the divine reveals itself to humanity” 1
Even for modern and sometimes secular climbers, the mountain remains a formidable adversary to the human mind, body and soul. It is also a companion who demands respect and can be dreadful for the living 2. This mysterium tremendum et fascinans 3 has long been a hallmark of a sacred phenomenon in the vocabulary of religious experience 4.
The mountain is above all a physical location, and it requires physical experience. This physical contact with a sacred place on the fringes is akin to a pilgrimage. Mountains as a symbol are figures of the center, the axis mundi (axis of the world), that reflect upon our very own ascetical experience of climbing it 5. The more you ascend, the narrower it becomes. This is true individually, as our own cognitive focus narrows as we climb higher and it becomes more difficult. It is also true collectively, in that the more you climb (both a spiritual and physical mountain), the narrower the path becomes, with fewer people walking it 6. The higher you are, the more you can see around; it refines your sense experience and your perception of reality. When you reach the top, your experience narrows, but you perceive more of the universal 7.
In this article, we will take a look at various symbolic representations of the mountain and what it could mean to us in order to shed light on the Transfiguration, whose Christian feast was this past 6th of August. Many more things can be said about this particular event, but we will focus on Mount Tabor 8.
By doing so, we will try to integrate and elucidate some aspects of the mountain in the Christian tradition, including the Bible. The general question we will try to answer is this: what is the symbolism of Mount Tabor in the Transfiguration? Why is the event taking place on a mountain? To address this, we will tackle sub-questions such as how mountains are a privileged location for the sacred and in what way the mountain is sacred in Christianity ? The structure of the article will be as follows. First, we will look at various non-Christian traditions, starting in the East and delving more into one in particular, the Japanese Shugendo. Afterwards, we will take a look at various ancient traditions around the globe, including those of culturally Indo-European descent. Finally, we will come back to the Christian worldview and explore God’s use of mountains for our edification. 9
THE MOUNTAINS OF POWER
Mountains in the Asian World
In Tibet, the mountain is a symbol of stability and is linked to the establishment of world order in the fixing of cardinal points. In addition, the mountain is considered sacred in its physical attributes 10, as indicated by the customs of bringing earth or stones from expeditions to the caves at the top of Amnyé Machèn 11. In addition, it is associated with a post-mortem initiation which can be inferred from the sacred geography of that mythical place; for example, a path called the “path to hell” is named so because it is narrow and considered purifying.
In China, the mountain is a symbol of fertility which renews and sustains the world. Already in the Shu-Ching, we are told the story of a legendary ruler, Shun, who marked the whole of his territory and the cosmos by visiting the four summits which inscribed the quadrants of his kingdom 12. In micro-macrocosm correspondence, the highest officer of his court was called the “chief of the four mountains”. In Confucianism, the mountain was, as in the Tibetan world, a primordial symbol of stability which had its own virtues. The Taoists, on the other hand, went to the mountains to attain the “essence of reality that flows through all things [Tao]”; they received on those mountains revelations about the world. In this symbolism of an isolated place of revelation, the forest was also associated with this Other. For example Ko Hung, chronicler on the Tao, associated the mountain with supernatural beings and the danger of death at the same time as with a certain knowledge. Later, for Buddhism, the mountain was associated with solitary asceticism; the idiom itself “to enter the mountain” meant to practice religion or asceticism 13. In conclusion, for China, we could say that the mountain brought a cosmic balance by its reconciliation of the two opposites of the Earth and the Sky 14; this is reflected in Confucianism by the advent of order in society, and for Taoism a possibility of being in harmony with the Tao 15.
In Japan, the mountain symbolism inherited a tradition already present on the island, which was later institutionalized in Shintoism, and from the Chinese tradition (Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian influences that were spoken of earlier) from which it retained many elements. Japan itself is a highly mountainous place, with over 354 sacred mountains that house various yama no kami, mountain spirits. Some mountains are associated with the cycle of death and rebirth, both at the individual and cosmic level. The summit is the seat of different forces, sometimes divine, sometimes mythical in connection with saints or others. We will now turn to one particular case of this tradition, Shugendo.
Shugendo 16 is an esoteric religious tradition rooted in the perceptive nature of Shintoism, the ascetical practice of Buddhism and the personal and cosmic aspirations of Taoism. A lot of its rituals and symbols are aimed towards mountains. Shugendo is seen as a “means of acquiring power” against the passions and demons that assail humanity. Practitioners are sometimes called yamabushi-no-goyja, “those who sleep in the mountains” 17, or shugenja, “those who accumulate power and experience”. In that tradition, emphasis is made of the physicality of the experience: chanting, walking, “water torture” (i.e. extremely cold water bath), burning of offerings, etc. In the modern world, it is even more important as it is meant to take people away from the merely intellectual and passive aspects of spirituality.
In Shugendo, one of the main pilgrimages and rites of passage is made through the ascension of a mountain with a specific ritual taking place at the top. The intent of that ritual is the death and rebirth of the person in a more primordial state, one of harmony and awakening. That ritual could be divided in five parts: departure ceremonies (sometimes with fire, sometimes with water, but all linked to purification of mind and body); ascension of the mountain; the Nishi No Nozoki ritual for neophytes as a rite of passage; exploration and additional training at the summit (Oku No Gyuba); and then return to the “plain”, i.e. the normal world.
As soon as the participants enter the mountain, they enter asceticism. The discourse is aimed at the search for peace in the mind, but also of the experiential truths of Buddhism through the purification of passions and attachments. The mountain itself must be reached after having undergone a certain purification, which consists, among other things, in not bringing their vain illusions about the world. Ascension takes place as a quest for transcendence of the physical and social body, exhausted by the conventions of life. Nothing in the various trials—cave explorations, sutra recitations, etc.—is explained. Understanding comes through experience: the mountain (considered here as a feminine womb) is the teacher 18.
The Nihi No Nozoki, also called the test of courage, is the initiatory point of the pilgrimage. The uninitiated are suspended by a rope by their feet, at the top of a peak, in the void, and must answer questions about religious precepts, their family and their sins. The aim is to create a preliminary shock and to bring about an internal transformation of the individual, to see him change his ontological perception of death, fear and being 19.
Julius Evola observes a fact that echoes what one can find in such a ritual: that is to say that the modern world is deeply marked by a loss of means to allow spiritual realization 20. He notes two trends which establish this state of affairs. On one end is the attachment to the abstract character of our civilization, where the spiritual is linked to the library, to intellectual erudition totally detached from experiential knowledge which becomes a game for the mind. On the other end, the glorification of a blind and frenzied obsession with activity and hyperactivity leaves us hungry. This obsession of activity seems almost rooted in a “religious” state of mind: all these physical facts and sports information cloud participants to all but their immediacy which becomes goals in themselves 21. For him, the slow and difficult ascent of the mountain as a sacred and terrible object is a spiritual quest to those who want to see it: the mountain therefore becomes the symbol of the ascent to the spiritual, and the physical effort is linked to spiritual effort of self-purification 22; the mountain, linking heaven to earth, also links the profane to the sacred, the mundane and the extra-mundane, and thus abolishes the dichotomy between the spiritual and the material for the ascetic and the pilgrim 23. This is directly echoing the Christian tradition that puts high emphasis on experiential knowledge of Christ as the Truth. This leads to immediate participation and cooperation with Him through asceticism and the liturgical life: we see God each time we go to the altar, but also every time we address his Creation 24.
THE MOUNTAIN AS A SACRED LOCALITY OUTSIDE ASIA
Now that we have seen how mountains can be both a physical and spiritual experience, we will turn towards studying the sacred location in itself as a symbol that is replicated and safeguarded in myths, legends, rituals and language. The goal of this is to help us identify how this previously described experience comes about, and how it is replicated in various patterns of the spiritual life of Christian or pre-Christian culture.
In the Indo-European cultural world, the mountain is a very powerful symbol of sacrality. Herodotus already noted that the Persians climbed the high peaks to offer sacrifices to the supreme deities 25; it represents an important axis mundi, the first figure to appear at sunrise 26.
For the Greeks, the mountain is oros, as opposed to the polis. We oppose here two conceptions of the sacred: that of the cult of the city, and that of the wild sacred of the mountain (which can be understood as both “hill” and “forest”) 27; it is the ambivalence between the mysterium tremendum and the mysterium fascinans 28. It serves as the original matrix, and therefore the point where the border with the gods is porous or even abolished. Langdon also mentions that the mountain is sacred because it is the site of a sacred event (the myth) 29. But above all, for the Greeks, the mountain was not born from primordial Chaos, but from Gaia, without Ouranos, as Hesiod reports: it is primordial and unique. However, this sacredness is not mystical or animist: the divine must have come into contact with the place. Joël Thomas reminds us that at Mont Bego, the ancient cave/mountain with many artforms, the main occurence of upright representations evokes the God-Father / Sun: in this high place difficult to access, the meeting with the sacred took place, in the Uranian form of the storm god, i.e. the principal sky-god. Thomas speaks of a place where we are witnessing the “collapse of distinctions” between the sacred and the profane 30.
In Mesoamerica, in the Andes mountains, more specifically among the Ayllu, the mountain is considered a holy body. It is holy because it represents unity (for the Andeans, sacredness is synonymous with “totality”), and it is a body because it reflects the human body, as well as the social body of the Andeans. For them these three levels (physical body, social body and cosmic body) are imbricated in said mountain. The head represents the sky and the summit, and the underground caverns form the world of the dead. Their representation is cyclical and everything is interconnected in the symbolism of the mountain. Different parts of the social body with different agricultural roles inhabit different levels of the mountain, just as the members of the human body are arranged vertically for different tasks 31. Also, in the ancient pyramidal constructions (associated with the mountain) of the now defunct empires, the mountain is imbued with cosmic consideration, i.e. orientation and astronomical function. The pyramid / mountain becomes the meeting place of natural life (physical space in the city, agricultural and military life) and metaphysical allegories concerning creation (e.g. cosmic cycles) 32.
Among the Huichols of Mexico 33, the main pilgrimage of the community 34, in the form of initiation, is that of peyote hunting. The latter occurs on a long journey through the arid lands surrounding the communities, and culminates in the exploration of a hill that serves as a gathering place for peyote, the sacred ingredient par excellence. On this adventure, unity is presented in the form of the abolition of dualisms. By a complex inversion of all forms of normal communication (for example, the normal word used for “goat” will become the word for “apple”), and by the acquisition of divine position (the shaman in charge becomes the father of the gods, the youngest in the group becomes the youngest deity of the mythology, and so on), we eliminate the dichotomies of the secular world so that once we reach the mountain (a hill with caves in the heart of the sacred territory of Wirikuta) and the main hunt, there is only left a state of primordial non-dualism, deeply linked to the mountain itself which links the sacred to the profane through heaven and earth. Here, then, is linked the communitas of pilgrims and the mountain as an object of pilgrimage for the attainment of a primordial state 35.
For Guénon 36, the journey inside the cave is linked to initiation rites. It represents the womb of birth, and is likened to other related symbols, as in the case of both the birth and death/resurrection of Jesus Christ. Said cave is a place of passage from darkness to light, and thus comes to project a symbolism of passage from one (internal) state to another. The cave in question therefore becomes an imago mundi of creation (which is fulfilled in Christ as He is the Creator). The cave, associated with the labyrinth, therefore becomes a symbol of pilgrimage and peregrination. Both the cave and the mountain are considered to be axial spiritual centers; the cave being the hidden face of the mountain. The cave is therefore the interior reflection of the mountain; it is a situation that takes into consideration the inherent dichotomy of the two entities in binary oppositions where the cave represents smallness and the mountain represents greatness, the cave represents darkness and the mountain represents light. However, this dichotomy is resolved in the non-dualism represented by the entire axis itself. The cave is associated as a spiritual center with the heart (see Sanskrit guhâ which means as much cave as the internal cavity of the heart; from the root guh which means to hide). In some languages, there is a linguistic connotation that establishes a link between the cave and the mountain. This heart is also associated with the “Egg of the world”, that is, the creation of the cosmos; for the cave is the center within the axis mundi, and it is the object of initiatory rebirth, it is thereby assimilated to the re-creation of the world.
It is possible to say much more about mountains and their symbolism, and only specific parts were addressed 37. One major point however, is that the mountain is a symbol of power. Not merely “might” (although it is that), but power as in potentiality and concentration of divine influence: it is a “physical cosmic body”, where body is understood as a “nexus of potentiality” (cf. Fr Stephen de Young). In the next part, we will take a look at the biblical and Christian worldview with regards to the symbolism of the mountain by delving into near-eastern symbolism, biblical symbolism and early Christian symbolism, and see how this view of the physical cosmic body is understood with relation to God.
THE MOUNTAIN AS A FOCI OF GOD’S PRESENCE
What we have seen so far in looking at various traditions throughout the world, is that the mountain is understood as being both an experience and a location of great spiritual potency. It is a center and a summit: in all those cases, it is a place of transition from one state to another, both on the micro-cosmic scale (individual initiation) and macro-cosmic scale (creation of the world). Now we will take a look specifically at the Christian tradition by looking at its roots in Near-Eastern and Mesopotamian thought, the ancient Hebrew and Israelite thought of the Old Testament (including Second Temple Judaism), the Bible and Gospels and finally the medieval tradition 38.
To properly understand the ancient Christian view of sacred mountains, it is important to first understand how ancient Christians could conceive of “sacred space” per se. To do this, I will use modern language and propose an understanding of that ancient view. I have already used this same tripartite conception of reality elsewhere when looking at movies 39. Basically, a thing is a threefold layered reality: material, structural and functional. Material is what the thing “is made of”, which is not strictly equivalent to its physical component. It can also denote quality above quantity. Structure is about the inner relation of the material and how it can be reproduced as a “framework”, i.e. the pattern. Finally, function is about the telos of the thing intertwined with its complex web of relationships.
To illustrate this, let’s use a specific example: a church building you find in the middle of nowhere. In our example, it is made of stones. If you pick up the stones, move them 100 paces from there, and rebuild a house, your house will have church stones, maybe even here and there some crosses that were etched on it and so on, but it will be first and foremost a house. That’s what I call a “material” lineage. Now, if you empty the church, and transform it into a library, you’ll still have the actual architectural structure of the building. This has many implications, notably in the way you approach time & space, the way your brain registers information, the way you make mental links (such as memory), etc. But at the end of the day, it’s not a “church” anymore per se since you don’t experience it fully as a liturgical space. That’s what I call a “structural” lineage 40. Now if you go into the church, sacralize it and use it for liturgy, even though you didn’t build it, you are using it for what it is and you are giving it back its full meaning and “function” (i.e. putting back where it belongs in the order of things, in the web of meaning). That’s what I call “functional” lineage.
This kind of teleological understanding of reality in Orthodox Christianity 41, where function is the true identity and telos of things, is crucial to understanding sacred space. In the traditional Hebrew and Christian understanding of the world, places are what they are by their teleology: it is not so much by the material or structural elements that they are recognized, but by their function. Things are what they are because of their purpose and their place in a web of relationships within reality which help create our own map of meanings. Therefore, it is very difficult to understand from a purely geographical (time-space) position where God dwells with regards to this or that mountain. For this reason, many physical mountains have been “the mountain of God”. There is only “one”, but it’s not confined to one geographical space-time location as we modern people understand it.
The relationship therefore to sacred mountains is to be reversed: it’s not that this is God’s mountain because we prepare it for him (potentiality) or name it so, but rather that this is God’s mountain because He is there. This might seem contradictory to what we have said before (mountains as power and potentiality stemming from human experience), but as we will see, it is not so since our experience of God is what allows us to recognize this teleology to mountains. As with many things in Christianity, it’s not a case of “this or that”, but rather “this and that”.
ANCIENT NEAR-EASTERN AND MESOPOTAMIAN VIEW OF THE MOUNTAIN
The mountain of God in the Bible is sometimes referred to as “the mountain of assembly”, i.e. where God’s divine council dwells and where He sits on His throne to rule over it and all creation. This is not only in the Bible: lots of gods in many religions meet there in Mesopotamia and near-eastern mythology. For example, some portion of the Egyptian creation myth starts with a mountain or mound.
The Mesopotamian view of the cosmos is that of a thin-disk surrounded by a mountain chain, i.e. the mountain as a liminal aspect of reality. This is also true of personal experience of mythological figures: Gilgamesh for example camps on a mountain each day with the dream ritual in book IV. In book V, he fights Humbaba, the guardian of the forest, on a mountain. He uses caves to access special roads and paths in book IX. In general, ancient Mesopotamian myths use mountains as places of transition and power.
Mountains could also be, as we mentioned, the abode of gods: for example, Baal-Zephon meant the Lord of Mount Zaphon. But this is not just conceptual or cosmological: mountains are where gods and spirits were encountered in direct experience. This is why some cultures saw the separation of heaven and earth as being a void that needed to be filled: mounds, ziggurats, pyramids and other structures that acted as temples were built to reach out to heaven; hence, temples were man-made mountains that could house gods to bring about an experience of them. Mountain gardens are where the gods are “stationed” and kept as a recreation of those sacred abodes. Sometimes Gods lived in tents on top of those mountains (see Gen 12:8). The idol (body made for the worshipped gods) was installed in the temple at the center 42. Those temples were foundational for the city-state of those regions and were effectively the center of social and cosmological life. All of this points to the fact that mountains-temple were seen as the most potent form of “physical points of connection between the human and divine realms” 43.
OLD COVENANT VIEW OF THE MOUNTAIN
Ancient Hebrew and Israelite conceptions of mountain symbolism possess many points which we already tackled but also new ones that require specific consideration: we will shift our point of view from mountains as sacred general places to mountains as the Mountain of God.
The first mountain we can see in the Bible is Eden. Eden is traditionally seen as being set on top of a mountain 44. However, this garden-mountain is not made by Man so that God dwells on it, as if bound to that place, but rather created by Him to allow God’s creation, Man, to dwell on it. This is a deep inversion of the Mesopotamian view (or rather, it is the true significance of it that the pagan view twisted): it can even be surmised from the fact that God breathes into Man’s nostrils to bring him to life, mirroring the ritual of pagan Mesopotamia where the idol at the center of the mountain-temple had life breathed into it and was afterward taken care of. In Eden, God takes care of his creation, Man.
Eden might be the prototypal sacred mountain, yet it is not the only place where God dwells: the “function” of a physical mountain is up to God to change, and it is what grants the mountain its identity. Therefore, any mountain can become the (permanent or temporary) Mountain of Assembly. For example, Sinai is set to become one in the story of Moses. He gets there, enters the divine council, sees the tabernacle, receives something from the Lord and goes back to normal space (effectively a form of divine initiation). 45 It is where Moses received God’s word (Exodus 19-20), where he has a divine vision, but also where he teaches and brings back down from “heaven” a portion of the divine for all to participate in: this ties in directly with Jonathan Pageau’s view of the mountain as a continuum of multiplicity and unity. The sacred aspect of Sinai is also confirmed by how God assures the destruction of the Amalekite and how Moses reacts to their attack 46: they are laying siege to the Throne of God. It is not a matter of allegory: Sinai, at that point in time and space (from our human perception), IS functionally the Throne of God.
Mountains also have a general positive connotation in the Bible. For example, when the flood ends, Noah is on a mountain (Mount Ararat, Genesis 8:1-5) and he too, like Moses, receives a law. It is common that mountains become a secure place to flee to, both for groups and individuals. We see that from the group of survivors of Sodom or Gomorrah for example, or, individually, for Lot in the same episode (Gen 19) 47. It is also a place of “seeing”, both in the literal and symbolic sense (see Numbers 13:17, Deuteronomy 3:25, Deuteronomy 34:1, etc.). It can also become a place of judgement, especially in combat (see how 1 Samuel 17:3 uses the same structure as 1 Samuel 23:14). It is extremely important in that aspect since Mount Tabor is where the Israelite army triumphed over the Canaanite, but also where Jesus Christ’s Transfiguration took place: both were judgement and revelation of God’s glory.
The mountain is sometimes where God needs to be worshipped, such as we see in the story of Moses (Exodus 3) but also in Isaiah’s prophecy about how all nations would flow to the Lord (Isaiah 2:2). The Temple itself was built on Mount Zion by Solomon (1 Kings 8) after David conquered it and made it a sacred and holy city (2 Samuel 5). In it, the altar itself (as is still the case in Orthodoxy) was set higher. It is said that Jerusalem is the Mountain of the Lord (Zechariah 8:3). It is also where God shows proper worship through Elijah at Mount Carmel (1 King 18).
THE MOUNTAIN IN THE GOOD NEWS OF CHRIST’S VICTORY
The representation of the mountain in the Gospels is in line with the Old Testament, as is expected. Mountains are places of sacred significance that can be linked to birth, death, resurrection, glory, worship and teaching.
Jesus Christ’s birth is implied according to tradition to take place inside a cave, which in itself is the womb of a mountain 48. More than that, the Theotokos herself is described as “paradise” (i.e. the garden of God) and Uncut Mountain in hymns and services. She is the eastern gate through which Christ enters the world. She is the “place where God dwells”, i.e. the mountain of God.
One of the distinctive features of Saint Matthew’s Gospel is that, among other things, Christ is presented as the new Moses, a teacher to the Israelites 49. This can be inferred from the fact that He gives His main teaching from the mountains: He is then both Moses (the human teacher) and Himself (the Word of God). Doing this, He takes humanity “one level higher” in the sense that He teaches directly to His flock instead of giving the word to Moses so that he can translate it. It also means that whichever mountain He stands on to teach thereby becomes a “mountain of God”.
With regards to death and resurrection, there are also signs and recapitulation of mountain symbolism. First, there is the praying and sorrow at the Mount of Olives. Also, Mount Golgotha is where Jesus Christ is crucified and dies, it is where the Cross receives all the glory of a death-defying symbol. It is also on that mountain that the world is resolved and everything fulfilled through the Cross 50: it is a link between Heaven, Earth and Hell (cf. the Harrowing of Hell). It is also in a tomb, i.e. inside a mountain, in which the divine mystery of the Resurrection happens.
It doesn’t end with the Gospels, however. The book of Revelations notably has a mountain: a holy mountain on which Jerusalem, the heavenly city, stands. There is no need for a temple on top of that mountain because God stands on it and is present there. During the Armageddon, it is also made clear that evil forces besiege or want to besiege the heavenly city, just like the Amalakite lay siege to the mountain of assembly with the dragon and get destroyed.
LATER CHRISTIAN VIEW OF THE MOUNTAIN
Medieval and eastern imperial Christianity used this symbolism profusely in its culture and art. This is true first of all for hagiography and hymnography. For example, Saint Alban was beheaded on a mountain and his first miracles were on a mountain, including making water gush out of stone like Moses. This is also true of other saints related to mountains, as is the case with the Kontakion of Thomas of Malea in the Plagal of the Fourth Tone: “Leaving the army that is earthly and corruptible, thou didst ascend into the mountain of unceasing prayer, joining battle with the spirits of nether darkness. And since thou didst overcome thy fleshless enemies, thou was brought to thine eternal King in victory; hence we cry to thee: Rejoice, O Thomas of godly mind”. Another important saint with regards to mountain symbolism is Saint Symeon of the Wondrous Mountain. First, being a stylite atop a pillar for asceticism clearly creates a link between “being up”, “asceticism”, and “reaching God”. Secondly, as he himself went atop the Wondrous Mountain, he received a vision of the Lord: this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone at this point. It is where he established a monastery (akin to Moses that established the tabernacle based on his vision with God on a mountain).
We even see a transition from the Indo-European model to the Christian model in certain places at the beginning of the Middle Ages, where the sacred Indo-European mountains are associated with holy mountains 51; i.e. the saints come to actualize the “abode of the gods” through their own holiness 52. The mountain therefore becomes the locus amoenus; the pleasant place which normally serves to describe paradise and primordial Eden 53. It is the place exposed to the impressive forces of nature (snow, winds, lightning); shrouded in clouds (mystery); it is remoteness and isolation (isolation associated with asceticism and hardship) 54.
There are also places that have been traditionally considered sacred and linked with mountains, one of the most important being Mount Athos. There is a tradition that says the Virgin Mary claimed Mount Athos for God through her own action 55. This mountain is also linked with other traditions of sleeping emperors/kings, saints, prophecies and so on. It is a site of high sacred energy.
This is true also of later Western Christianity, in Dante for example. In his Divine Comedy, there is a clear representation of mountains and ascension as a symbol for spiritual ascension. It is by going through the Inferno that he starts climbing back into the Purgatorio to reach the greatest height of Paradisio. It is also true of the Grail and Arthurian mythos where divine visions or even the Grail is associated with mountains 56. Linked with this, many princes, kings and emperors (and sometimes saints) have been either laid to rest in mountains, or said to be “sleeping” in the mountains to come back later in history 57. The most prominent of these are Charlemagne, Constantin (the first), Constantin (the last, said to reside in Mount Athos) and even King Arthur himself 58.
THE TRANSFIGURATION OF CHRIST ON TABOR
It is not uncommon to hear people speak of the mountain of the beatitudes as being an “unknown” mountain. In reality, it is anything but unknown: it is God’s dwelling place, the Mountain of Assembly. This is true because it occupies, at that time and space, the function of God’s mountain. This is only logical considering the content of the beatitudes as being both an exemplification and a radicalization of the Law, but also a structuring of the cosmos itself 59.
This idea is made even more evident in the events surrounding the Transfiguration. Up until now, we have shown how mountains are sacred potentialities and how God uses them to bring forth His Glory and energies into the world, i.e. theo or hierophanies. We will now take a look at the texts surrounding the Transfiguration to explain this and why God chose Mount Tabor to perform this.
This is made even more evident from the various chants and liturgical texts for the Feast of the Transfiguration on the 6th of August in the Orthodox Church. First, looking at the first Antiphon of the Divine Liturgy, taken from various sources including the Psalms (Antiochan tradition), we read:
(v1) Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised, in the city of our God, in His holy mountain
(v2) Who settest fast the mountains by Thy strength, Who art girded around about with power, Who troublest the hollow of the sea; as for the roar of its waves, who shall withstand them?
(v3) Confession and majesty hast Thou put on, Who coverest Thyself with light as with a garment
(v4) The mountains shall rejoice at the presence of the Lord, for He cometh; yea, He is come to judge the earth
This Antiphon really puts forward the majesty of God through the Transfiguration event (i.e. the garment of Light), shedding any doubt on the identity of Christ, hence strengthening the fact that Mount Tabor is the Mountain of the Lord. Doubly so, considering that the first verse puts forward the link between Sion and His holy Mountain (see the second Antiphon below). Interestingly, it is said that all mountains shall rejoice at the presence of the Lord when Judgement comes, i.e. making an important link between the presence of God and mountains.
Secondly, looking at the second Antiphon, taken from various sources including the Psalms (Antiochan tradition), we read:
(v1) His foundations are in the holy mountains
(v2) The lord loveth the gates of Sion more than all the dwellings of Jacob
(v3) Glorious things are spoken of thee, O city of God
(v4) A man will say: Mother Sion, and: That man was born in her; and: The Most High Himself hath founded her
There is a link made with both God, Jesus Christ’s Transfiguration and the holy mountains (plural) with relation to creation (foundations) and the end times (Sion, the holy city atop the mountains). This goes further if we take a look at the Idiomela by Cosmas the Monk (Tone 4) as is sung during the Transfiguration Vespers:
Before Thy Crucifixion, O Lord,
the mountain became as heaven,
and like a tabernacle the cloud spread itself out,
when Thou wast transfigured, and the Father bore witness to Thee.
Peter was present with James and John,
since they were to be with Thee at the time of Thy betrayal,
that, having seen Thy wondrous works,
they might not be afraid of Thy sufferings.
Grant us to venerate Thy sufferings in peace, through Thy mercy!
A single link is made between the Mount of Tabor and the Mount of the Crucifixion: the Glory of God is made manifest in his crucifixion; God’s glory is cruciform 60. This is also the case of the Kondakion:
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God, / and Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it; / so that when they would behold You crucified, / they would understand that Your suffering was voluntary, / and would proclaim to the world, / that You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
Much more could be said of the various chants, psalms and texts sung around the Transfiguration, but I would like to get to the readings themselves, the second epistle of Saint Peter and the Gospel of Matthew. Saint Peter, in his epistle, clearly wants to show us that the Transfiguration is a direct recounting of God’s glory:
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
Therefore this recounting is meant to strengthen faith in the identity of Jesus Christ. He is explaining that he saw that glory (uncreated light) which clearly, in retrospect, made him feel the presence of God. The mountain was, for Saint Peter, sacred. Why is this important for him to mention? Let’s turn to the Gospel:
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
On Mount Tabor, the location on which He stands becomes the Mountain of God where the divine council meets. This is explicit from the fact that representatives of that council are present 61 and the reaction of Saint Peter (setting up a tent for them as was done customarily on the mountain of assembly and as was commanded to Abraham in Genesis as we already mentioned). The sacred mountain therefore shows God’s greater glory to mankind, and that greater glory is a direct allusion to God’s crucifixion as He himself says “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”. Hence, the answer to the question “why God chose Mount Tabor to perform this” is now more evident: Mount Tabor is a sacred mountain because God chose so, because it was His Mountain of the Lord, His Mountain of Assembly, and that’s where He showed His glory to His disciples. He chose a mountain because all mountains have, as we have seen, a sacred potentiality (evident from both our initial investigation and the fourth verse of the first Antiphon) within them that enables us to partake of the presence of the Lord.
Sacred geography is in itself an immense subject that would require its own series of articles. Here we are of course only dealing with mountains, but much more could be said on rivers, trees, stars, cardinal points, maps, etc., which are all complex themes inside of sacred geography that could be tackled in great detail. In any case, mountains are a particular case of expressed sacrality in geography and time-space perception. Mountains are a form of three-dimensional circles: peak and base, peripheral and concentric rings, high and low, etc., and can all be seen both from above, from below and from an horizontal point. All of the various points we mentioned can be seen reproduced (structurally mostly) in many cultural expressions of ages past (such as myths and legends), but also modern instantiation including books (see the importance of mountains in Lord of the Ring, notably the crack of Doom) and movies 62.
Of course, this is not just a matter of conceptual or abstract reasoning: it has great and important ramifications in our spiritual life. This is evident in the reading for the Transfiguration in Saint Peter when he says the following line as an introduction to his retelling of the Transfiguration: “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
First of all, it is at the basis of our spiritual warfare: where God dwells, the enemies of God will lay siege. It is not so much to destroy God, as this is futile, but to destroy His creation and that which He loves. This also means Christians, since they received the Holy Spirit and have become temples of God, i.e. a place where God dwells. Secondly, it means that we can acquire spiritual and powerful experience by engaging bodily with reality and nature, and that includes climbing mountains; the first one being the church in which we serve and participate in the liturgy 63. This should help us appreciate much more the role of liturgy and how we can live it. There is sanctity to places where God dwelled (i.e the Theotokos), and this is also true of every church that celebrates and conducts the Divine Liturgy on Sunday 64.
- Daumal, René. Mount Analogue, 2004, Éditions Gallimard
- Mountains are dangerous and can lead to near-death (or death) experience quite often. Twight, Mark. 2001. p. 17. Kiss or Kill: The Confession of a Serial Climber. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books.
- On that concept, see Rudolf Otto’s work. For a brief definition, see: https://www.britannica.com/topic/mysterium-tremendum-et-fascinans
- The sacred is opposed to the profane, that is to say which comes from the Other, by hierophany or symbolic representation. See Mircea Eliade on this subject. According to Georges Bataille and Rudolph Otto, it is also the overflow of Life that seeps into the profane. Bataille speaks of a sacred / secular opposition in terms of energy / substance.
- Some physical components of the cosmos are “naturally” better markers and centers, such as tall features like mountains. On this, see this talk by Jonathan Pageau on “Sacred Space in Secular Terms”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AequEqC5Fec
- Although not tackled in this article, there is also the matter of grace: some extremely competent people have died while climbing because of “bad luck”, and vice-versa, some people survived dreadful conditions while being inexperienced. Just as with asceticism and purification of the soul, it is with God’s grace that we can reach the summit, not by our own human effort. Cf. Matt 19:26 “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”.
- See Jonathan Pageau “The Symbolism of Mountains”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RupeqP3GS6k
- For example, the Light, the Glory of God, the Energy/Essence distinction, etc.
- Our presupposition and definition is that hierophanies are clear expressions of the sacred, i.e. God’s energies and grace, in our living experience, are perceived and registered through symbols in the same sense that myths are realized in reality through rituals.
- “ ‘The power of such a mountain is so great and yet so subtle that, without compulsion, people are drawn to it from near and far, as if by the force of some invisible magnet; and they will undergo untold hardships and privations in their inexplicable urge to approach and to worship the center of this sacred power. Nobody has conferred the title of sacredness on such a mountain, and yet everybody recognizes it; nobody has to defend its claim, because nobody doubts it; nobody has to organize its worship, because people are overwhelmed by the mere presence of such a mountain and cannot express their feelings other than by worship ” Lama Anagarika Govinda in Bernbaum, Edwin. 1997. Sacred Mountains of the World. Los Angeles : University of California Press. 291p.
- Buffetrille, Katia. 1998. p.116. «Pèlerinage et montagnes sacrées». Tibétains, 1959-1999 : 40 ans de colonisation, Katria Buffetrille et Charles Ramble (dir.). Paris : Éditions Autrement.
- Bernbaum (1997. Sacred Mountains of the World) explains that in some taoist beliefs, the virtue of rulers could leave them and go back to inhabit mountains’s heights.
- This can even be surmised by the sheer physicality of mountains where, while the bases of two mountains may touch each other at the ground level, the higher they go, the more solitary they become.
- The Sky was considered the supreme deity. Its son was the emperor and its cult centered around the mythological and topographical location of T’ai Shan. Entering T’ai Shan meant “dying”. The doors to this mountain are still named “Heavenly Gates” within modern-day pilgrimage.
- Although far outside the scope of this article but still bearing some meaning, note that a Chinese translation of the Gospel of John translate the Logos with the Tao, i.e. “In the beginning was the Tao”. See Christ the Eternal Tao by Hieromonk Damascene.
- To have a better grasp of both this tradition and the content of their reverence to mountains as symbolic sacred places, it is suggested to watch the documentary “Shugendo Now” from Abela, Jean-Marc and McGuire, Mark Patrick. 2007.
- It is important to note that the cognate “bushi” can also mean “warrior” or “combattant”. Some symbols associate the ascetic with the warrior that is fighting against chaos and inner passions. For example, some practitioners carry a sword named “Fudo’s Sword of Wisdom” that is used to fight demons.
- The feminine aspect of the mountain can be seen from various angles. First, as an earth-symbol, it is linked with “being fertilized” from above: God forms the mountain. Secondly, every mountain is keeping something hidden, a certain potentiality. This is made evident in the cave-symbol that represents a womb.
- Wolfe, Steve. 2011. «Confronting Primordial Fear: A Shugendo Journey to Mount Omine». Intercultural Studies 15. Ryukoku : Ryukoku University. pp.27-35.
- On that subject, Paul Ricoeur says: “Modern persons no longer have a sacred space, a center, a templum, a holy mountain, or an axis mundi. Their existence is decentered, eccentric, a-centered. They lack festivals, their time is homogenous like their space.” 1995. Figuring the sacred: religion, narrative, and imagination.
- One only has to look on the one hand at the religious aspect of team sports and team sports fans, and on the other at the religious and ritualistic aspects of high level sporting events, such as the literally pagan opening ceremony of the Olympics.
- This question of self-purification to attain something else, but also of the ‘quest’, will be alluded to later with regards to Christianity.
- Evola, Julius. 1998. Meditation on the Peaks. Vermont: Inner Traditions. 120p.
- On this aspect, see my previous article on our perception of God: https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/bible/perceiving-the-invisible-god/
- Gnoli, Gherardo.1995. p.122. «L’Iran antique et le zoroastrisme». In L’homme indo-européen et le sacré
- The mountain as an axis mundi is a recurring theme in the Indo-European world: the German-Scandinavian Walhalla is on the roof of the world at the top of a mountain, the Indo-Aryans perceive a long slope towards the mountain as their center, linked with the above mentioned Persians (very present in the texts of the Avesta) but also the Mont Mrru of the Hindus, etc.
- In Indo-European languages, mountains can appear as forest in some cases; the origin of the word for those and for ‘stones’ seems to come from roots related to “elevation” or “elevate” (see On the notions of ‘stone’ and ‘mountain’ in Indo-European by Eric P. Hamp). Additionally, the mountain is associated with zoomorphic creatures, hybrids and sacrilege (see Caillois, Roger. 1970. pp. 37-59. L’homme et le sacré. Paris: Gallimard). It is a place of reversal, especially in hunter-hunted stories, or, as in the Odyssey, of transgression in the episode with Helios and his pasture. About the mountain imagination in ancient Greece. Quantin, Francois. In Brunet, Serge; Julia, Dominique et Lemaitre, Nicole (eds.). 2005. Montagnes sacrées d’Europe. Publications de la Sorbonne.
- Desplat, Christian. 2005. “Introduction” in Les Montagnes sacrées d’Europe. Sorbonne publications. For example, we could give as an example the Roman tradition the story of Aeneas in Book IV of the Aeneid, where the “wild” union of Aeneas and Dido occurs in a mountain within a cave, with all the tragedies that will follow. Thomas, Joël. 2003. «La symbolique des gravures rupestres du Mont Bego». L’Anthropologie 107 (2003). Éditions scientifiques et médicales Elsevier SAS. p. 287.
- Langdon, Merle K.. 2000. p. 463. «Mountains in Greek Religion». The Classical World, Vol. 93, No. 5, The Organization of Space in Antiquity (May -Jun., 2000). The Johns Hopkins University Press
- Thomas (2003, p.278) makes an equally interesting note about oros as savagery: it is a place where anything is possible, anti-structural. This echoes Turner’s idea of communitas. “This is undoubtedly why the pilgrims who made the ascent of Mont Bego insisted on representing themselves among the gods, in the form of these little characters who, too, brandish halberds and who, by imitative harmony, are therefore like the gods (except that they do not have their feet turned inwards and therefore belong to the world of the living)” Thomas, Joël. 2003. p. 277. We will see that this idea of “the mountain as the meeting place of the divine beings” (i.e. divine council) is something that will indeed come back in our investigation of the Bible.
- Bastien, Joseph W.. 1985. p.50. Mountain of the Condor : Metaphor and ritual in an Andean Ayllu. Long Grove : Waveland Press.
- Townsend, Richard Fraser. 1982. p.54. Pyramid and Sacred Mountain. New Haven: Annals New York Academy of Science, JSTOR.
- Ancient Mexican mythology has the same connotation and also links with other aspects of this article, such as the link between mountains, pyramids and the gods (the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan is said to be a mountain itself, Doris Heyden, An Interpretation of the Cave underneath the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan, Mexico). It was also true of the ‘womb’ aspect of the mountain symbolism. For example, Heyden says: ”In much of Mexican mythology, the earth’s womb from which ethnic groups sprang was a cavern or series of caverns.” (ibid, p. 134). Xiuhtechtli, God of Fire, is said to live at the “center of the earth” where caverns (which terminology links them with ancestors) reaches him (ibid, p. 136). On these subjects, see also Pyramid and Sacred Mountain by Richard Fraser Townsend
- Main because it is the foundation of their web of meaning, but also because it allows the community to harvest the peyote which is fundamental to all the ceremonies and medicines of the community. Each member of the community is expected to experience it at least once in their lifetime, and is under the tutelage of the shaman, an extremely important figure in the community.
- Myerhoff, Barbara G.. 1974. p.125. Peyote Hunt : The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians. London : Cornell University Press.
- See Chapter XXIX to LIV in Guénon, René. 1962. Symboles de la Science sacrée. Paris : Gallimard.
- It is possible to look at Wikipedia or other encyclopedia to see more examples of this in various cultures or even more details about cultures already addressed previously: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_mountains
- This Part 2 is heavily in debt to Father Stephen de Young and the Lord of Spirits Podcast in general. I will not quote him everywhere, but most of the information can be surmised from his various works and podcasts.
- To see it applied, see here: https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/the-symbolic-structure-of-movies-batman-v-superman-2016-part-i/. This tripartite conception is based on the works of Jacques Pierre, a french-canadian thinker and academic, which has not been published in English on that matter.
- This is mostly what movies and stories are made of. Narratives are heavily influenced by structural lineage, sometimes unbeknownst to them, i.e. tropes.
- cf. Lord of Spirits “Boat of Theseus” podcast episode
- Hence why the Tower of Babel event is so crucial: men wanted to force God down to earth and to encase him into a “tower” (ziggurat, i.e. temple). God rebuked this attempt and considered these people as dangerous to themselves and so appointed celestial beings to rule and guide them.
- G.J. Wightman, “The Sacred Mountain”” in Sacred Spaces. That book is highly suggested for a good overview of historical development and application of the mountain/temple.
- This can be deduced from the fact that four rivers are flowing from it: i.e. an elevated spot. The Nile, Tigris, Ephratus and Danube are all said to come from it and nourish the earth (contrary to the underworld that receives five rivers but nourishes nothing), although not in a geographical manner: rather, it is understood that the whole world is nourished in water by Eden where God dwells. Additionally, Ezekiel refers to it as a mountain in his visions.
- This link between Moses and mountains is crucial to our later understanding of Christ.
- The Amalekites are a giant-related clan with evil intent. It is why the Israelites are sent to destroy them (see Exodus 17:8-16). On that, see the Lord of Spirits podcast episode on giants and also on the mountain.
- It is true of many other episodes: Judge 1:34, 1 Samuel 23:14, Psalm 11:1, etc.. This is also true of specific mountains, such as Zion being a safe refuge (1 Judge 3:5).
- Justin Martyr mentions this in his Dialogue with Trypho. The same is true of the protoevangelium of James. The Church of the Nativity itself in Bethlehem, as built by Saint Helen, the mother of Saint Constantine, contains a cave-manger. The symbolism of some of our liturgical processions with opening and closing of doors – especially around the Nativity of the Lord – and the architecture also makes a link between the church, the womb and the mountain.
- Although there is no room to explain that feature in this article, I will only note that Saint Matthew’s Gospel is aimed at the Hebrews and Israelites and has more hints to Moses, notably through the question of the Law and its fulfillment. On the question of mountains, there are about ten mentions of mountains (more than the other Gospels) and a lot of things happen at mountains, near a mountain or starting from a mountain.
- Octoechos hymn of the Crucifixion (Plagal of the First Tone): “The Place of the Skull [i.e. Golgotha] became Paradise; for no sooner had the Tree of the Cross been planted, that it straightway brought forth the Grape-cluster of life, even Thee, O Saviour, for our gladness of heart. Glory be to Thee.”
- Not only that, but it’s very common for monks to set-up their monastery on mountains or hills, if not in caves. The reasons for it should be apparent to the reader.
- It’s not uncommon to see monks on mountains, and there is a link with the desolate aspect of the desert and the mountain (ερημος being cognate in greek with desolation and wilderness).
- Talbot, Alice-Mary. 2001. p. 270. «Les saintes montagnes à Byzance». Le sacré et son inscription dans l’espace à Byzance et en Occident. Kaplan, Michel (dir.). Publications de la Sorbonne
- Ibid., 44
- “There is a strong belief among the monks living on Mount Athos that Mary through the centuries continued visiting her island to manifest herself as its patron and protector. Gregory Palamas, in his Life of St. Peter the Athonite (PG150, 1005, 11) records the Virgin’s words and promise for those living on the “mountain that I have chosen out of all the earth.”” See “Mount Athos and Mary” by Father Johann G. Roten https://udayton.edu/imri/mary/m/mount-athos-and-mary.php
- In certain legends, the Grail is moved to a fortress in the Pyrenees, at Montsegur, and then hidden within a mountain. In certain traditions, it is hidden in a desolate and dangerous place, either an island or the mountain of Montsalvache. Evola, Julius. 1994. p. 74. The Mystery of the Grail. Vermont : Inner Traditions. It could be possible to link the Grail (the cup and the blood of Christ), the quest and the mountain, on one hand, and on the other, link the altar (the eucharist and the chalice), the liturgy and the church.
- There are many of them and it is suggested to read about them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_asleep_in_mountain One of the reasons is that kings have to deal with marginality and limits. They are examples of liminal figures. This is true of Indo-European kingship ideology where the king is the representative of the cosmos in its human aspect (i.e. tripartite functionality of the society all combined into one), roman ideology (Constantine after all is the “episkopos ton ekton”, i.e. the overseer of the exterior/external things) and Christian narrative (the King of the Cosmos, the Logos, is what will bring everything together in its proper form and place at the end of time). However, this is a subject for a future article. Meanwhile, some aspect of it are tackled in the Universal History series of Jonathan Pageau with Richard Rohlin: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVX4HUUPrIY_M2uZP3yW6EEiod3fGD6FD
- For more on this, see the episode “Universal History: The Immortal Emperor” with Dr. Margio Baghos on the Jonathan Pageau Youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSst-2ABm9I
- Jonathan Pageau, the Symbolic Structure of the Beatitudes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ryNfmZgoJCA
- For more on that, see Father Freeman, https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2020/08/05/the-light-of-christ-and-the-transfiguration/?fbclid=IwAR3mlnlMX0-uZ0KDTlcdj3DNkAbUlyEuPD04AxNcsh_yjyNM8CMqAbyiDJ8
- Both Elijah and Moses are present. Those two are those who saw the Hypostasis of the Son on the mountain of God in their own time-space and have been both raised to God: it is therefore again a reproduction of those events from another perspective.
- On that topic, see the importance of the mountain in the Conan the Barbarian movie from a previous article: https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/movies-tv/the-symbolic-structure-of-movies-conan-the-barbarian-1986/
- As was said by Richard Rohlin, “The mystical requires the physical”: both are interlinked and we experience physically the sacred space.
- To learn more about how liturgy is a meeting place with God, it is suggested to read my previous article on the presence of God: https://thesymbolicworld.com/articles/bible/perceiving-the-invisible-god/