Here, the branches (see July 28th blog) begin to thicken.
For it didn’t take long for people to realize that since rivers were of vital importance to them, so must be the mountains that actually sent the rivers down to their various settlements on the plain simply by virtue of their slope; scarcely to mention that the mountain forests provided much in the way of sturdy building materials, a wide variety of food animals—including some that they’d never seen before—and even some new medicinal plants and herbs.
And so Our Lady of the Mountains forked into being. The Shinto Japanese know her as Kono-Hana-Sakuya-Hime-No-Kami (usually shortened to simply Sakuya-hime).
As the deity representating all Japanese mountains, she’s said to make her home atop the country’s highest and most sacred peak, 12,389′ Mt. Fuji, atop which she has an important shrine and popular pilgrimage site.
The worship of mountains as an important form of the Earth-mother is very old. You may have already heard of the ancient Sumerian deity Ninhursag, whose name translates as simply ‘Lady of the Sacred Mountain’.
To which I would here add such deities as Dyang Makiling, a modern Philippine mountain deity whose name simply means ‘Noble Lady of Mt. Makiling’; Giriputri (‘giri’ = mountain, ‘putri’ = female), an early Balinese deity; Dindymene, the ancient Greek deity of Mt. Dindimus; Ho-Hsien-Ku, the ancient Chinese goddess of mountains; the list goes on and on—since there are, or have been in the world’s ‘pagan’ past about as many mountain goddesses as there are mountains!
Of course, many of them are volcanic; but that has never stopped people from worshipping them as the source of just about everything that they needed in order to to survive and prosper; they just tried to avoid saying or doing anything that might make her mad!
In case you didn’t know it, much revered Mt. Fuji is a volcano—and an active one, at that.
Just about everyone has heard of Italy’s volcanic Mt. Aetna; but how many know that it’s named after it’s ancient goddess Aetna? Bet you’ve heard of Mt. St. Helens, too; it’s goddess is Loo-wit. Up in the Aleutian Islands, the native Aleuts also have a volcano named after the mountain’s goddess, Chuginadak. Down in Nicaragua, a similar situation centers on the goddess Masaya. Before the onslaught of the Indian, Christian, and Islamic missionaries, the Supreme Being of the Hiligaynon people in the Philippines was the goddess of volcanic Mt. Kanlaon, Kan-Laon.
And now how could we forget our own, beloved Pele. Among the many legends of her origin is one claiming that this brat was born way out in the western Pacific, where she lived with her father and sister until one day, she was caught trying to seduce her sister’s husband—at which point, her father threw her out of the house, after which she sailed eastward, angrily creating volcanoes on every island that she passed until finally she reached the island of Hawaii—which was so beautiful that she decided to remain there, and as our luck would have it, created volatile Mt. Kilauea as her new home.
But then, once upon a time—as people gradually got into the spirit of the thing—they actually built some mountains . . .
Some 4700 years ago, the remains of Egyptian kings and queens were routinely committed to mud-brick, flat-roofed tombs called ‘mastabas’. Then, during the following century, someone named Imhotep, chief architect for the third dynasty’s King Djoser, having been ordered to come up with some new tomb designed to make it easier for the king’s spirit to find its way to the hereafter in the sky, conceived of fashioning mastabas out of limestone blocks instead of mud and then placing them on top of one another, with each layer a little smaller than the last and the whole finally bearing a protective facing of bricks—in the end, creating a kind of pyramid that would ultimately become Egypt’s first pyramid-shaped tomb (seen above).
More than a hundred thirty Egyptian rulers would eventually order tombs similar to Djoser’s—which within a century or so, started to be conceived of and built as true pyramids, geometrically speaking; while the most famous of these—if only because at 480′ high, it’s the tallest pyramid of any kind in the world—is the Pyramid of Khufu, seen second from the top in the photo above.
We’re not particularly interested in tomb-type pyramids here, but in the kind that bear temples on the peak—which exist all over Central America, and to some extent in Asia—but before we leave Khufu’s behind, it will be instructive to learn to just what lengths people might go to bring a religious ideal to reality.
Choosing a site in an ancient necropolis, or ‘city of the dead’ high up on the Giza plateau on the west bank of the Nile, Khufu’s building engineer first laid a square limestone foundation, with the roughly 755-foot sides carefully oriented to the cardinal compass points—using true north, believe it or not, rather than magnetic north—ultimately covering some thirteen acres.
Sounds rather simple, doesn’t it? But true north can only be found by people who really, really know the stars. And even the smallest of those limestone blocks, most of which obviously had to have been hauled to the construction site from nearby quarries, has been estimated to weigh several tons—including some that could only have come from a quarry on the river’s eastern shore; meaning that they would have to have been floated over to the site.
At one point, when the plans had called for the actual burial chamber to be encased by granite, stones weighing as much as eighty tons must have been floated downstream from the Aswan area—almost five hundred miles away.
Ultimately, Khufu’s pyramid would require roughly 2.3 million building blocks, or some 5.5-million tons of limestone, 8,000 tons of granite, and half a million tons of mortar, altogether attaining a volume of 81 million cubic feet; while it’s estimated to have taken somewhere between fifteen and twenty years to complete.
In the New World—long before the coming of those who would see it as that—people built a different type of pyramid: a kind of artificial mountain with a modest temple on top where their priests might consult with the gods and perform their various ceremonies and sacrifices. Moreover, they built several large, bustling cities squarely around these—the reason for the manmade ‘mountains’ in the first place, since of course, people couldn’t hope to lay out much of a city on even the most sacred real mountain—and eventually developed great ceremonial centers throughout Mesoamerica that included more than one of these pyramids, simply because people worshipped more than one important god or goddess in the region. The one above, known to the Aztecs as Tlachihualtepetl(‘made-by-hand mountain’), an ancient, 4.45cc monster covering more than 44 acres but only 217 feet high, is easily the world’s largest known pyramid by volume—and in fact, as a structure consecrated to the great Mesoamerican god whom the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl, the Yucatan Mayans Kukulkan, the K’iche’ Mayans Q’uq’umatz, and so forth, it’s the largest religious edifice of any kind ever known to have existed, anywhere. Already overgrown by vegetation by the time that the Spanish arrived in the area, they thought that it was just some grassy hill and built a rather impressive little church, which still stands today, on its summit—probably hoping to dazzle the natives, you know?! As indicated in our photo, the pyramid is currently under excavation by archaeologists.
Some seven centuries ago, when a semi-nomadic, Nahuatl-speaking people calling themselves Mēihcah first drifted south from North America’s Great Basin region into the area that we now know as the Valley of Mexico—named after them, notwithstanding that we ourselves have come to refer to them as the Aztecs—they came across the remains of what appeared to have once been a great city built around an impressive ceremonial center.
Then completely devoid of human habitation, they hardly knew what to make of it; but judging by the sheer size of its temples and monuments and the number of its remaining dwellings—for in the end, the whole area had been sacked and burned, and by then was almost entirely overgrown with vegetation—it was plain that at some point in the past, it had been an important religious center for hundreds of thousands, or over the centuries, even millions of people. And so they named the place Teotihuacán, or ‘city of the gods’.
Of course, since then we’ve learned that Teotihuacán, containing some of the largest buildings ever erected by the New World’s indigenous peoples and at one point one of the largest cities in the Americas, with more than a hundred fifty thousand inhabitants at its peak—about ninety percent of the people in the valley actually lived there—had been built almost a thousand years before the Aztecs stumbled onto it; that for whatever reason, the city contained large quantities of mica, with almost every remaining building having at least some in it—mildly strange in itself, inasmuch as it was eventually found to have come from a site almost three thousand miles away in Brazil—and finally, that the city had been sacked around 700, and completely abandoned shortly thereafter.
The 248 steps of this two thousand year old pyramid consecrated to the Sun-god once led to a temple at its peak, more than 200′ above its modest, 760×720′ base.
In addition, we might note that the present façade actually covers an earlier pyramid consecrated to the Rain-god!
This ceremonial center was built by the Mayans—an important Mesoamerican people with three thousand years of history that we know about.
Each side of this pyramid has 90 stairs plus the step onto the platform, for a total of 365 – one of the central numbers of the Mayan calendar; 79′ high. Note the temple on top.
Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, 2 vol., ed. Maria Leach, 1949
GodFinder, Table of Gods http://godfinder.org/index.html
3: Live Science https://www.livescience.com/23050-step-pyramid-djoser.html
6: History Channel https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/pyramids-in-latin-america
9: Fifteen interesting . . . https://www.cancuntochichenitza.com/15-facts-about-chichen-itza/
10: DK Find Out! https://www.dkfindout.com/us/earth/landmarks-world/chichen-itza/
12: Sacred Sites https://sacredsites.com/americas/mexico/palenque.html
13: History Channel https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/pyramids-in-latin-america
14: History Channel https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/pyramids-in-latin-america
17: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikal
18: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tikal_Temple_II
19: Wikipedia https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yaxha