caves10002 smallPaul Devereux asks us to consider why some places are sacred

The concept of the temple is a particularly familiar one to Freemasons because of the legendary associations of masonry with the Temple of Solomon. Less familiar is how the very notion of temples, or sacred places of worship in general, originated. The answer emerges if we look at examples of temples from three ancient cultural periods, namely ancient Egypt, Minoan Crete, and the pre-Columbian Americas.

While engaged in fieldwork in the Valley of the Kings in 1991, Egyptologist V. A. Donohue suddenly noticed that in the cliff face behind Hatshepsut’s temple there is a natural, highly eroded configuration of rocks hundreds of feet high resembling a pharaoh with a cobra rearing up behind, a major symbol of royal power in dynastic Egypt. It is so big and so eroded that nobody had noticed it before. Although the likenesses were essentially natural and accidental, Donohue suspects that the configuration may have been subtly enhanced by human art.

Directly across the Nile in the Temple of Karnak at Luxor (the ancient Thebes), a sculpture was uncovered that showed a pharaoh beneath a towering cobra, the precise arrangement in the cliff-face behind Hatshepsut's temple. Wondering if the locations of other temples along the Nile could have been determined by such simulacra in natural rock formations, Donohue went on to discover several other instances.

One example is a pre-dynastic rock-hewn temple dedicated to Min (later the Roman god, Pan) carved into a massive rock outcrop which bears the startling natural appearance of the profile of an aged man – old Min himself? In another example, a pre-dynastic temple was hewn out of a rocky hillock that had an enhanced form looking suspiciously like a proto-sphinx. Whether landscape configuration informed the religious iconography of ancient Egypt, or whether iconographic symbols were seen in the natural forms of the landscape remains an unanswered question.

caves10003 smallCretan mountains that have cleft or twin peaks were venerated from Stone Age times on the island, and the Bronze Age Minoans built shrines on them and had their temples refer to them. Take the famous palace-temple of Knossos, for example. Atop Mount Juktas, the cleft peak overlooking the site, the ruined walls of a Minoan peak shrine are still visible, enclosing a natural fissure into which offerings were cast. Various other Minoan palace-temples, like Phaistos, for example, orient on similarly distinctive mountains.

The Yale professor emeritus, Vincent Scully, is convinced that this cleft-peak shape was originally seen as representing the breasts or vulvic area of a landscape goddess, and triggered the sacred iconography of the Minoans, visible in such artefacts as their ‘Horns of Consecration’, the ubiquitous double-axe or labrys, as well as the upraised arms salute shown time and again in Minoan figurines. As with ancient Egypt, it is the same open question as to whether land configurations informed religious imagery, or vice versa. Whichever was the case, the relationships of temples with cleft-peak mountains found its way onto mainland Greece during the later Mycenaean period.

In the New World, the Olmec of La Venta on Mexico’s Gulf Coast built a giant clay model of the mighty volcano San Martin Pajapan, and this was the forerunner of the later stepped pyramid temples of the Maya and Aztecs which were also in effect models of sacred mountains. Similarly, in the Andes 2,000 years ago the people of Tiahuanaco built a great pyramid, the Akapana, containing materials from distant sacred peaks.

Ancient peoples almost everywhere saw their gods and sacred symbols in the natural forms around them. The landscape acted as a kind of giant sacred text.

As well as sacred mountains, caves were considered places of natural sanctity in prehistory. Twenty thousand years ago Palaeolithic shamans conducted their rituals in such places, and left their paintings on the walls. The ancient Maya similarly felt that caves were entrances to the underworld. In some cases Mayan priests carved stalactites in order to enhance the faces and forms glimpsed in their natural folds.

caves10001 smallTrees were undoubtedly also a focus of natural sanctity in ancient times, and tangible proof of this came in 1998 with the discovery of ‘Sea Henge’, a feature that emerged out of the sands on the Norfolk coast. This was a timber circle surrounding a tree bole, inverted so its roots stuck up in the air causing it to resemble a crude idol, exactly as the Saami of Lapland did up until recent centuries. Radiocarbon dating linked to the tree’s own annual rings showed very precisely that it had been felled in the year 2050 BC. In addition, Stone Age Europeans built great timber temples as well as megalithic sites.

Water, too, was revered in ancient times, as remembered still in Christian baptism and the sacred bathing of Hinduism. Virtually all peoples worshipped lakes and pools, rivers, springs and waterfalls. In Mexico, the ancient Maya felt that cenotes – deep natural pools of water in limestone – were inhabited by deities, and could be used for divination.

The Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza was a major Mayan pilgrimage site, and human beings were sometimes thrown into it, as were inanimate offerings such as stone and ceramic figurines or jewellery. The Celts considered springs to be the entrance to the Underworld, and like peoples of other times and places heard the voices of spirits in the roaring sounds of waterfalls and so used them as places of divination – especially dream divination.

What seems a fairly distinct sequence of how venerated natural places gradually led to constructed sacred sites has now been identified, allowing for variations at different times and locations. The unadorned natural features must have been considered holy for untold generations before that instinctive human reflex of ‘improving on nature’ began to kick in. One of the first signs seems to have been the occurrence of offerings at venerated spots. In Britain, for instance, objects like pottery or Bronze Age weaponry have been found in concentrated deposits in certain reaches of rivers: archaeologists now realise that these were not ‘lost’ items or hoards but votive deposits offered to water deities by many people over long periods of time.

A variation of this was the sourcing of votive deposits from the material forming specific features. Precipitous locations high within the range known as the Langdale Pikes in Cumbria, for example, have been identified as the origin points of many ceremonial, votive stone axe heads – for unknown reasons, the axe was a widespread sacred symbol in prehistoric Europe. The most likely explanation for this is that the Langdale Pikes were considered to be holy mountains, for the same type of rock was available in much more convenient and safer spots. This is but one example of what Reading University archaeologist Richard Bradley calls the traffic of ‘pieces of places’ from one area to another: relics not of holy people as in medieval Christianity, but of holy places. This has a bearing on the debate as to how the Stonehenge bluestones were transferred from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales to Salisbury Plain. The real question is why. The answer has to be that to the builders of Stonehenge the rocks from Preseli embodied a special, mystical charisma.

Other types of embellishment of natural places included the building of subtle walls and boundaries – often imperceptible to the untrained eye today – around venerated spots, and the inscribing of markings and symbols onto natural rock features. The study of such rock art has become a major focus of archaeological enquiry, and astounding insights are being made. It is now thought, for instance, that the geometric, abstract patterns found in virtually all rock art everywhere derive from patterns produced in the human brain during ritual trance states – especially those produced by the use of mind-altering plants. This was first deduced in Bushman rock art in southern Africa, and similar findings have subsequently been made concerning Native American rock art and carvings in Ireland. Even representational rock art is thought to as often as not relate to visionary images and scenes as to everyday sights.caves10004 small

The final act in the evolution of sacred temple monuments from natural places was the creation of freestanding, wholly artificial features. In Western Europe this was marked by the onset of the Neolithic era, c.4,000 B.C., when various forms of stone-chambered structures and later stone circles appeared. Later, in other parts of the world, such as in the eastern Mediterranean region, more refined temples were constructed. As we have already seen, these latter structures still acknowledged venerated peaks by being within sight of them, or even aligning to them. This was also often true of megalithic monuments. In Preseli, for example, the stone circle of Gors Fawr is at the foot of the ridge from which the Stonehenge bluestones originated. Again, on Bodmin Moor, all the stone circles occur at the foot of natural tors, or were very accurately placed to be just at the extreme point of visibility from them.

The way early people perceived venerated spots in the landscape may hold both spiritual and ecological lessons for us today, as we increasingly lose our cultural sense of the spirit of place.

* Previously known as the International Order of Co-Freemasonry.

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