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On the Medicine of Mountains

Z. Janson, Banff National Park

[He] who enters his mountain,
With or without sword in hand,
[He] who enters his mountainside,
He will learn.

To Enter your Mountain, Bathory (Twilight of the Gods, 1991)

In many Traditional cultures across the world, mountains are understood as implicitly spiritual places. Often believed to be the home of gods or spirits, the concept of heights-as-metaphor for the esoteric is common, and perhaps borders on a cultural universal, for human societies that inhabit mountainous regions, foothills, and flatlands where mountains can be seen from afar.

Mount Olympus is a motif that many are familiar with, upon which the twelve principal Greek deities, the dōdekátheon, were said to reside. The Stoney (Nakoda) people of the Canadian Rockies have a similar belief that Mount John Laurie (Yamnuska), as well as many other mountains with steep, vertical faces, are inhabited by Thunder Beings – a race of supernatural entities comparable to the Judeo-Christian concept of the angelic Ophanim (“wheels within wheels”). Both were considered taboo to summit by the respective cultures that honour them; Yamnuska still is by the Nakoda people. Both are easily accessible to anybody fit enough to endure a multi-hour hike, and are popular today with modern outdoorsmen and tourists, a clear desacralisation of what was once considered an act steeped in taboo and avoided out of fear of the almighty. It is the simple fact that, in pre-modern, agrarian or hunter gatherer societies, the underlying otherness of the mountain as a spiritual and mythic motif supersedes its status as an obstacle of material conquest.

Some, like the mountains described above, or others like Mount Zaphon, which was sometimes equated literally with the Canaanite god Baal, are easy to understand as clear representations of divine beings or their abodes. But what of mountains with less obvious, less explicit spiritual connotations? Nobody can deny, in looking at mountains of considerable height, with the tops sheathed in fog, clouds, or the obscurity of blue snowstorms, there is a majesty that approaches the tempered zeal of the monk, in silent, seated contemplation of the almighty. Evola noted this nature and man’s relationship with it in his Meditations on the Peaks. What of those who dare, in the case of mountains not governed by taboo, to summit peaks that pose real risk, that can’t be bested by weekend travelers and wives in Arc’teryx jackets? Think of the man of the mythical early age of mountaineering, leatherbound goggles fixed across eyes that would otherwise be assaulted by the glare of innumerable glaciers, turning away as Perseus from the Gorgon. Picture the heroic crossing of crevasses on ladders slung over abysses that so closely resemble hell, reflect unbeing, reflect failure so abject that nobody will ever find your bones.

Who can look on this character, teetering on precipices far above the mortal world, in the realm and the image of gods, and not see a cæsar? The atmosphere of the high peaks, the act of man rising from lowly holdings on the flatlands, speaks to the transformative action of vertical movement, speaks more to the spirit within the mountain, and within the man, than the material mechanics of body over stone, or boots over rock. In this way we see a mirroring of the stalwart spiritual stuff that informs both summit and summitter: while the intrepid climber finds himself growing in the atmosphere and under the influence of the mountain, there also existed a likeness in spirit before the mountaineer ever set foot on the scree, a likeness that was developed, nurtured by the self-transformative experience of his journey.

There is a medicine in the industriousness of self-sacrifice, of the disconnection from the middling, small worries and meaningless actions that bear no actual spiritual consequence, hold no objective transcendental value, yet almost exclusively inform the modern, profane world. There is nobility in placing the self on a pyre, and like so many corpses on the Ganges, floating internally to a state of greater spiritual development. This is the medicine of mountains, the doctrine of blue squalls and roaring gales, of alpine wastes that seem beyond death, yet bloom resplendent with wildflowers in the summer sun. The seemingly initiatory practice that so many modern people focus on, the simple material act of placing one’s feet at the pinnacle of a mountain, is lost in the background noise of a million other things to post about online, a million other things to check off the bucket list. With the simple acknowledgement of the notion that you could die, that in actuality even mountains of relative technical simplicity are chaotic places that exist in a realm of spiritual initiation rather than physical, the dichotomy becomes clear.

There is a place in the Canadian Rockies, on the edge of Kananaskis Country, where red petroglyphs decorate a secluded rock wall up the side of a mountain. Their creators were Hopi people, indigenous to the American Southwest, and they traveled across the continent, leaving a subtle and transient mark in a place most people will probably never see. Some competing theories posit that the cultural motifs may have been graphical spoils of war, the rights to use them having been won by a rival tribe. Though the area in which the markings are found is not at a particularly stunning elevation, given the locale, it offers insight into the spiritual significance of the markings. A medicine man, hand outstretched holding a ring, or a drum, show the triumphant posture of a hero made for the vertical journey beyond self-limiting materialism, through the rigors of spiritual tests, up the side of a mountain, with a thundering will that bore him 2,400 km to find mountain-nature within himself.

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