Sacred Mountains of the World

Edwin Bernbaum

University of California Press 1997
A book review by Danny Yee © 1998
Kangchenjunga and Everest, the Hindu Kush and the Pamir, Sinai and Ararat — for me these are names of power, names to conjure with, names that speak of the splendours of geology, the depths of myth, and the sweep of history. For many, however, such mountains are less remote — they are living forces, sources of power and symbols of the sacred. Sacred Mountains of the World is an exploration of the ways in which mountains embody the sacred.

The first two hundred pages are a region by region traversal of the world, with detailed treatment of a few key peaks in each region. Bernbaum covers the Himalayas (Everest and Khumbila, Kailas, Nanda Devi, Annapurna and Machapuchare, Kangchenjunga), China (T'ai Shan and the five imperial peaks, Wu-t'ai Shan and the four Buddhist mountains), Central Asia (the K'un-Lun, Amnye Machen, and Muztagh Ata), Japan (Fuji and Koya), South and Southeast Asia (Adam's Peak and Gunung Agung), the Middle East (Sinai, Ararat, Mt Zion), Europe (Olympus, Athos, Glastonbury Tor, Mt Blanc, and the origins of the modern Western "mountain" aesthetic), Africa (Kilimanjaro/Kibo and Mt Kenya), North America (McKinley, Rainier, Shasta, the sacred mountains of the Navajo and Hopi, and Katahdin and Marcy on the East coast), Latin America (Popocatapetl, Iztaccihuatl, and Tlaloc in Mexico, and Ausangate and Kaata in the Andes), and Oceania (Ayers Rock/Uluru, Hawaii).

Despite the breadth of this survey, Bernbaum never loses his feel for the individuality of mountains (or cultures). In the first chapter of part two he attempts a trans-cultural analysis of the symbolism of sacred mountains, arguing against attempts at reduction to a single theme or archetype but finding some common themes and recurring patterns. He makes no attempt, however, at integrating this into a general theory of sacred places.

The focus in all this is primarily on religious beliefs, but Bernbaum also explores secular visions of the sacred, using the experiences of travellers, explorers, mountain climbers, and others. The remaining chapters of part two expand on this. One looks at mountains in literature (Kalidasa, Li Po, Basho, Dante's Inferno, Mann's The Magic Mountain, Daumal's Mount Analogue) and art (Hokusai, Bierstadt, C├ęzanne, and others). Another is devoted to the spiritual aspects of mountaineering. (Bernbaum is a mountain climber himself, and many of his stories are based on personal experiences.) And an emotional final chapter describes — or rather pleads for — the place of mountains in popular conceptions of wilderness and conservation, and in bringing the sacred into everyday life.

Sacred Mountains of the World is in large format on glossy paper, and somewhere between a quarter and a third of it is devoted to colour photographs. These do as much justice to their subjects as can be done in two dimensions, and the result would make a fine coffee-table book. In combination with Bernbaum's scholarly but engaging prose, the result is a volume which should have genuinely broad appeal.

This review is dedicated to the memory of David Jackson, who may have preferred caves but never scorned mountains.

August 1998

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%T Sacred Mountains of the World
%A Bernbaum, Edwin
%I University of California Press
%D 1997
%O paperback, colour photographs, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520214226
%P xxiii,291pp