Greek mythology is eminently a mythology of place. All events pertaining to gods and demi-gods have a precise location. I live in a part of the world where this is more readily understood than in others. In Australia, landscape is precisely scripted by the events of the Dreamtime.
To aboriginal experience the land was sung into being by the dreamtime spirits. The deeds, meetings, destinies and conflicts of the ancestral gods shaped the country. Here, songlines of creation weave a tight tapestry of meaning in which defining deeds become defining landmarks. To know the land means to know the story that created it. And to really know the story means to re-experience the initial deeds through ritual and initiatory states of mind. Thus landscape is meaning, history, explanation, orientation, home, identification, ritual, worship and much else. It can and must be read in order to be related to. Nothing is neutral. Everything is charged, and some things powerfully so.
For the indigenous population this was and sometimes still is a living experience. For the newly arrived population this awareness is not directly available, although it may be unconsciously active. In spite of the wholesale rejection and suppression of indigenous spirituality of place, this spirituality has nevertheless begun to claim the western mind.
Perth was established at a place of major corrobboree and most suburbs of modern Perth correspond exactly to the tribal moieties of the Nyungar people. Perth’s green spot, Kings Park, features The Pioneer Women’s Memorial in a place once sacred to aboriginal women. Today a bronze sculpture of a woman with child stands in the place where indigenous women gathered to give birth. I know of an orphanage for boys standing in the same place where young men were initiated. Hospitals stand in former places of healing and community centres where gatherings were held.
The western reading of place is largely unconscious, incomplete, irreverent, and at times detrimental, a contemporary stutter rather than a grand ancestral song. But it is there nevertheless.
Those artistically inclined will often have a sense for the patterning of place, the qualities of sites, the challenges and gifts of location. To them the idea of a living location, a scripted place, of sites that carry meaning and landscapes that speak a language of their own will be familiar. And they will readily recognise it in places other than Australia. For while geoliteracy was vibrantly kept alive on the southern continent until very recent times, the understanding of place is foundational to most, if not all cultures.
The Celts readily understood the potential of place and enhanced it with edifices of stone. The many Menhirs, Dolmens and gigantic stone circles such as Stonehenge and attest to their recognition of place. Some of their sacred sites were later turned into Christian sanctuaries. In spite of this transformation the local theme continued under a different guise. One such place is the famous Cathedral of Chartres.
Long before it became a Christian sanctuary, the granite promontory rising over the limestone plain of La Beauce was the centre of worship for the Carnutes, a Celtic tribe mentioned by Julius Caesar for its fierce resistance against Roman invasion. The cult of the Carnutes was centred on a seated female figure, holding a child. The figure was life size, carved from pear wood and blackened by smoke. Every autumn this ‘Black Mother Goddess’ was ritually transferred into a natural underground grotto on the granite promontory. Every spring the figure was returned to the light and worshipped above ground, rebirthed by the cycle of the year.
According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea, travelling with the three Maries (Mary Magdalen, Mary Cleophas and Mary the Egyptian) passed through Chartres on his way to Glastonbury. Impressed with the sight, he sent messengers to Ephesus to ask Mary, the Mother of Christ for permission to dedicate the place to her. The permission was granted and thus the worship of the Mother goddess continued in Christian garb. The statue of the Black Mother kept in the Grotto became the Black Madonna kept in the Crypt.
In the twelfth century an influential school of theological learning developed in Chartres. The Chartres masters taught a form of semi-heretic Christianity that focused on the Divine Wisdom, the Holy Sophia, the female or dark side of God. Central to the Chartres curriculum was the path of learning that ascended through the Seven Liberal Arts to divine wisdom: Grammatica, Dialectica, Rhetorica, Musica, Mathematica, Geometrica, Astronomica. Chartres Masters imagined these arts as seven grand female figures, angelic muses presiding over one province of wisdom, handmaids of the eternal feminine, aspects of the Divine Sophia or as she was commonly called: Mary. The aim was nothing less than to birth the spirit child from the womb of wisdom. They taught what the Celtic statue expressed.
Hebrew, Christian and Islamic traditions acknowledge that places have their stories and stories their appropriate places in which they unfold. The attraction between locale and what happens in that locale is not restricted to religion.
There are reasons why Holland has any number of painters that shaped the history of art but few writers who have done the same. There are reasons why Ireland has writers of world importance and no painters who have achieved global renown.
There are reasons why Vienna was the capital of classical music; why Gluck, Hayden, Schubert, Bruckner, Hugo Wolf, Schoenberg and Mahler were born in in the Danube residence, and why Mozart and Beethoven lived there most of their lives, to name but the most famous.
It is for similar reasons that Athens became the undisputed capital of ancient philosophy. Long before Anaxagoras brought philosophy to the capital of Attica, and indeed long before Philosophy even existed, the city was already dedicated to Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom and thought. According to myth, this thoughtful goddess, who was born from the head of her father Zeus, claimed Athens for herself. Here too, like in many other instances, myths prepared what later became reality. And they prepared reality because they revealed in pictures what was already imprinted in place.
It was because of this this latent possibility of locale that Anaxagoras, Protagoras and Diogenes unfolded much of their work in Athens. And so it is not surprising that the holy trinity of Greek thought made it the site of their work: Plato and Socrates were born in Athens, and Aristotle lived there most of his life.
Sparta, on the other hand, Athens’ unlikely twin, excelled in political stability and military prowess. But it never birthed nor housed any philosopher of renown. The cultural contributions of the valiant city-state remained ‘Spartan’ indeed.
The potentials of place are as readily recognised in the east as in the west. India is brimming with significant sites. Towering above them all are the Himalayas to the north of the subcontinent, the imposing citadel of snow-capped peaks that have drawn yogis into solitary seclusion and monks into monastic life for millennia.
I recently saw a documentary on the Indian yogi-saint Yogananda who had a life-long love for the Himalayas. He died on stage while giving a presentation to an American assembly. Just before he collapsed he spoke about the Himalayas. His last words were ‘I am hallowed because I touched that turf’.
It moved me deeply that this holy man should feel hallowed because he had touched Himalayan ground. I took it as a testimony to the esteem these mountains are held in by those who live in their proximity.
It is in keeping with the theme of this mountain range that it inspired the last theocracy in Tibet. This bastion of elevated monasticism held its ground against western influences until the Chinese invasion. The nation was as fervently orientated to spiritual pursuits as western nations are to commerce. The monastic community with its strict ritual and high ethics became the centrepiece of Tibetan life, the monk the highest ideal.
There are many other mountain ranges and some almost as imposing as the Himalayas. But neither the European Alps, the Moroccan Atlas, the American Rockies or Andes, nor the Caucasus have inspired such fervent, ongoing and sincere dedication to the spiritual life. The whole mountain range strikes me like a gigantic monastery of nature, an assembly of mountain monks with their snow white hoods, steeped in silence and solidly meditating on matters of earth.
The undisputed abbot among the many high-ranking peaks is Mount Kailash, surpassing all others, not in height but inner weight: Kailash means crystal for obvious reasons. The power of the jutting peak is palpable, the sight overwhelming. Even an image of this mountain inspires awe and reverence.
Four of the longest rivers of Asia have their source below Kailash. Four major religions regard it as a place of highest significance. Every year thousands of Hindus and Buddhist circumambulate Kailash in clockwise fashion, Jains and the followers of the Tibetan Bon walk counter clockwise: a gigantic human prayer mill turning in both directions at once.
According to Buddhist tradition it was here that Milarepa, the poet-saint and champion of tantric practice, overcame his shamanic opponent and so established Buddhism in Tibet.
To the Hindus, Kailash is the abode of Shiva, lord of ascetics and fierce destroyer of ignorance and illusion.
To the Jains it marks the place where their first spiritual master Tirthankara achieved enlightenment. The adherents of the ancient Tibetan Bon see it as the seat of all spiritual power, the place where the founder of their religion, Tonba Sherab, descended to earth.
The reasons why the four religions relate to mount Kailash are different. The theme, however, is the same: spiritual attainment, break-through, initiation.
The ancient pilgrimage tradition of the four eastern creeds is today joined by a western one. The Himalayas have become the mecca of mountaineers. Mount Everest has become the Kailash for those who aspire to height measured in metres rather than to spiritual elevation. The mountaineers seek through the challenge of body what saints find by trials of mind. Climbing, for them, is the yoga of the externalised age, a way of attainment. Though greatly changed, the ancient theme continues in a new garb.
Many landscapes of course have their own brand of ‘holy mountain’: Mount Shasta in California; Agung in Bali; and their smaller but no less powerful kin, the Table Mountain presiding over Capetown; Micheal Skellig in the west of Scotland; St Michel mount in Glastonbury; the Extern Rocks close to Bader Born in Germany; the five Holy Mountains of Chinese traditions; the four peaks sacred to Taoists, the three sacred mountains of Japan; and of course the enigmatic, powerful rise of red sandstone in the centre of the Australian continent: Uluru or Ayers rock.
The spiritual centre of the indigenous culture, it is the centrepiece of songlines and known to the aboriginal population: a red, slow pulsing heart in the open air. It is the knot tying all song lines into a coherent whole. Since the dreamtime this rock has been a place of pilgrimage and corrobboree for the indigenous population. Today, similar to Himalayas, travellers come from all over the world on walkabout to see this symbol of indigenous Australia rising like a statuary statement of the earth itself.
But there is a difference. And the difference concerns the emerging geoliteracy on Australian ground. Many unsuspecting tourists, (wether agnostics, atheists or believers in some faith) admit to the powerful, numinous experience in the presence of the imposing monolith. I have met a number of people in no way inclined to such experiences who admitted to something more than they had bargained for.
This place was a site of initiation for those immersed in aboriginal culture, a locale that supported major shifts that left those who underwent them profoundly changed. Even today the power of the place is too palpable to leave outsiders entirely untouched. Thus this major place of transition for indigenous society has become a minor place of transformation for western travellers from all over the world. Here is one of the locations where the earth speaks loudly enough to be heard even by those whose hearing is habitually weak or impaired. It is a point of cross cultural corrobboree, where the world’s oldest culture can impart its most defining gift, the reading and relating to place to younger cultures who need this awareness to make the notion of Gaia more than a scientific theory.
I bring all this because Greek mythology, like dreamtime lore, is highly localised. Greece is thickly mapped with myth: Almost every story has a place and almost every place a story. Every river is a river god and every well a nymph. The mythical river of the underworld, Acheron, is also a real river and no less mythical for that. The gods reside on Olympus. The muses have their abode on Mount Parnassus. Pegasus kicking the top of Mound Helicon opened the spring Hippokrene. Zeus was reared in a cave at Mount Ida.
Every place had its deity and every landscape its God. The island of Delos was sacred to Apollo. Athens was Athena’s place and the copper island Cyprus favoured by Aphrodite. Zeus had his oracle at Dodona and his sanctuary in Olympia. Demeter initiated her followers in Eleusis and Artemis in Ephesus. Asclepius healed the sick in Epidaurus.
Every important place was mapped by myth. And no place more profusely than the navel of the world: Delphi.