Symbolism of Mountains

In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, C.G. Jung talks about his childhood dream of going to the Swiss mountains. Owing to the fact that he was born in a poor family his dream came true only in late childhood. One day his father took him to Lucerne:

“My father pressed a ticket into my hand and said, ‘You can ride up to the peak alone. I’ll stay here, it’s too expensive for the two of us. Be careful not to fall down anywhere.'”

When he reached the peak of Rigi, which here in Switzerland is called the Queen of the Mountains, he was filled with reverence:

“It was all very solemn, and I felt one had to be polite and silent up here, for one was in God’s world.”

J.M.W. Turner, “The Blue Rigi”

For Jung, mountains (and other features of the landscape) symbolized “the essence of God.” Snow-capped mountains are indeed nothing less than divinity incarnate. Every high mountain, like the mythical Mount Meru of India, is for the one standing at her feet the centre of the universe.

The theme of reverence is crucial when talking about the mountains. This attitude seems to be missing among the throngs of climbers flocking to Nepal with the hope of conquering the highest mountain in the world. We know it as Mount Everest while its local name is Chomolungma, which translates as Mother Goddess of the World:

“Thus, Everest and her flanks are blessed with spiritual energy, and the Sherpas say that one should behave with reverence when passing through this sacred landscape. Here, the karmic effects of one’s actions are magnified, and even impure thoughts are best avoided. When climbing, opportunities for fateful mishaps abound.”

via https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/article/130501-mount-everest-fight-sherpas-sahibs-world-mountain-climbing

Tibetans believe that the top of Chomolungma is the abode of Miyolangsagma – Goddess of Inexhaustible Giving.

Miyolangsagma

Jungfrau (The Virgin), the most iconic Swiss mountain, was unconquerable for centuries, certifying to her name as the one who is pristine, complete in herself. Together with Eiger (most probably Ogre) and Mönch (Monk) it constitutes perhaps the most famous Swiss image. Now is the season when in the valley at her feet Alpine roses are in full bloom.

Jungfrau
Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau – photo by Thomas Weber via here

Mountain peaks, where heaven and earth touch, are places of divine revelation. An ascent to a mountain top is a symbol of initiation. Yet, the symbolism of the mountain is not exhausted by the metaphor of spiritual heights. In the mountains soul and spirit touch each other. In this communion of soul, spirit and body there is a feeling of sublime humility. In one of his most beautiful letters, The Dalai Lama spoke of the difference between spirit and soul:

“I call the high and light aspect of my being spirit and the dark and heavy aspect soul.
Soul is at home in the deep, shaded valleys. Heavy torpid flowers saturated with black grow there. The rivers flow like warm syrup. They empty into huge oceans of soul.
Spirit is a land of high, white peaks and glittering jewellike lakes and flowers. Life is sparse and sounds travel great distances.” (1)

Nicholas Roerich, “Prophet Muhammad on Mount Hira”

In his Dictionary of Symbols, Cirlot included an interesting thought pertaining to the symbolism of the mountain as a life force:

“Seen from above, the mountain grows gradually wider, and in this respect it corresponds to the inverted tree whose roots grow up towards heaven while its foliage points downwards, thereby expressing multiplicity, the universe in expansion, involution and materialization. This is why Eliade says that ‘the peak of the cosmic mountain is not only the highest point on earth, it is also the earth’s navel, the point where creation had its beginning’—the root.”

The mountains with their luscious, fertile valleys and unforgiving peaks, which are referred to as death zones in the Himalayas, seem like an all-encompassing symbol that marries all kinds of dualisms: soul and spirit, spirit and matter, masculine and feminine, life and death. All kinds of treasures come from the mountains – starting with precious metals and finishing with the majority of the world’s freshwater resources. Perhaps this is why mountains have been likened to prima materia in symbolism:

“Gestating within the mountain’s hollow, uterine interior are precious metals, an image alchemy adopted to describe the mysterious prima materia, the undifferentiated stuff we start with when we mine our depths…” (2)

Coming back to Jung, also in Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he describes an encounter with Pueblo Indians. An elder of the tribe asked him a question:

“Another time I stood by the river and looked up at the mountains, which rise almost another six thousand feet above the plateau. I was just thinking that this was the roof of the American continent, and that people lived here in the face of the sun like the Indians who stood wrapped in blankets on the highest roofs of the pueblo, mute and absorbed in the sight of the sun. Suddenly a deep voice, vibrant with suppressed emotion, spoke from behind me into my left ear: ‘Do you not think that all life comes from the mountain?’ An elderly Indian had come up to me, inaudible in his moccasins, and had asked me this heaven knows how far-reaching question. A glance at the river pouring down from the mountain showed me the outward image that had engendered this conclusion. Obviously all life came from the mountain, for where there is water, there is life. Nothing could be more obvious. In his question I felt a swelling emotion connected with the word ‘mountain,’ and thought of the tale of secret rites celebrated on the mountain. I replied, ‘Everyone can see that you speak the truth'”.

Cosmology manuscript panel showing Mount Meru and Ananda the cosmic fish, The British Museum

Notes:

(1) See my older post for more details; for the full letter turn to the comments section https://symbolreader.net/2014/01/08/of-mountains-and-valleys/

(2) The Book of Symbols, Reflections on Archetypal Images, ARAS, edited by Ami Ronnberg, p. 108

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9 Responses to Symbolism of Mountains

  1. litebeing says:

    Love mountains and vividly remember flying over the Alps on the plane to Europe. As always, the images are lovely. Do you know the song Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music? Very powerful

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jeff says:

    Great post. Mountains featured prominently in the writers of the Romantic period, which produced some of my favorite writers. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Jeff. I know you love mountains, too. The Romantics did indeed write a lot about the Alps. Byron comes to mind and his hero Manfred, who wanted to jump to his death from Jungfrau but was stopped by a Swiss chamois hunter.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful post, Monika, I loved it, and especially the Turner and Roerich paintings – two artists, so very different, whose work I love. Thank you! It also brought back poignant memories for me since we fulfilled one of my husband Ian’s greatest wishes a couple of years before he died: we travelled to Switzerland, and he was able to climb (by rail!) to the top of the Jungfrau. We both just loved those marvellous mountains…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. …Just shared it on my Facebook page with a little intro…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nate says:

    Great post. I had a dream months back of a mountain shaking like thunder while the top lifted, revealing a bubbling yellow substance before lowering back into place. I connect this to a stage in the alchemical process for interpretation, though my knowledge on the topic itself is rather limited.

    Like

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