Sacred Geography

The Location of Sacred Sites According to Regional Configurations of Sacred Geography

Throughout the ages, many cultures have conceived of geographic space and expressed those conceptions in various ways. One expression of these conceptions has been the establishment of sacred geographies. For this essay’s purpose, sacred geography may be broadly defined as the regional (and even global) geographic locating of sacred places according to various mythological, symbolic, astrological, geodesical, and shamanic factors. Let us briefly discuss examples of each of these kinds of sacred geographies.

Perhaps the oldest form of sacred geography with its genesis in mythology is that of the aborigines of Australia. According to aboriginal legends, in the mythic period of the beginning of the world known as the Dreamtime, ancestral beings in the form of totemic animals and humans emerged from the interior of the Earth and began to wander over the land. As these Dreamtime ancestors roamed the Earth, they created landscape features through everyday actions such as birth, play, singing, fishing, hunting, marriage, and death. At the end of the Dreamtime, these features hardened into stone, and the ancestors' bodies turned into hills, boulders, caves, lakes, and other distinctive landforms.

These places, such as Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Katatjuta (the Olgas Mountains), became sacred sites. The paths the totemic ancestors had trod across the landscape became known as dreaming tracks, or songlines, and they connected the sacred places of power. The mythological wanderings of the ancestors thus gave the aborigines a sacred geography, a pilgrimage tradition, and a nomadic way of life. For more than forty thousand years - making it the oldest continuing culture in the world - the Aborigines followed the dreaming tracks of their ancestors.

During the course of the yearly cycle, various aboriginal tribes would make journeys, called walkabouts, along the songlines of various totemic spirits, returning year after year to the same traditional routes. As people trod these ancient pilgrimage routes, they sang songs that told the myths of the dreamtime and gave travel directions across the vast deserts to other sacred places along the songlines. At the totemic sacred sites, where the mythical beings of the Dreamtime dwelt, the aborigines performed various rituals to invoke the place's kurunba, or spirit power. This power could be used for the benefit of the tribe, the totemic spirits of the tribe, and the health of the surrounding lands. For the aborigines, walkabouts along the songlines of their sacred geography were a way to support and regenerate the spirits of the living Earth and also a way to experience a living memory of their ancestral Dreamtime heritage.

Another example of a sacred geography, deriving from the realm of the symbolic, may be found in the landscape mandalas of Japanese Shingon Buddhism. Used as aids in meditation by both Hindus and Buddhists, mandalas are geometric arrangements of esoteric symbols or symbolic representations of the abodes of various deities. Drawn or painted on paper, cloth, wood, or metal and gazed upon by meditators, mandalas usually are no more than a few square feet in size. On the Kii peninsula in Japan, however, Shingon Buddhism projected mandalas over enormous geographical areas from as early as the eleventh century AD.

Considered to be symbolic representations of the residence of the Buddha, these landscape mandalas produced a sacred geography for the practice and realization of Buddhahood. The mandalas were projected upon a number of pre-Buddhist (Shinto) and Buddhist sacred mountains, and the practice of monks and pilgrims was to travel from peak to peak in order to venerate the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas residing on them. Just as a meditator would "enter" a painted mandala through visual concentration upon it, a pilgrim to the landscape mandalas of the Kii peninsula would enter the mountains, thereby entering the realm of the Buddha. The passage through the landscape mandalas was made according to a specific and circuitous route. Ascents of the sacred mountains were conceived of as metaphorical ascents through the world of enlightenment, with each stage in the long walking pilgrimage representing a stage in the process through the realms of existence conceived of by Buddhism. (6)

Another fascinating form of sacred geography was practiced in ancient China. Called feng-shui (pronounced fung-shway) in Chinese, it was a mixture of astrology, topography, landscape architecture, yin-yang magic, and Taoist mythology. One of the first Westerners to study feng-shui, the nineteenth-century Christian missionary E. J. Eitel commented…

The Chinese look upon nature not as a dead, inanimate fabric, but as a living, breathing organism. They see a golden chain of spirited life running through every form of existence and binding together, as in one living body, everything that subsists in heaven above or earth below. (7)

This living spirit or life force was called chi, and it was believed to manifest in three forms: one that circulates in the atmosphere, one in the earth, and another that moves through the human body (and also the bodies of animals). The practice of acupuncture concerned the study and stimulation of chi within the body, while feng-shui was involved with the study and use of terrestrial chi.

Beginning as early as 2000 BC, the Chinese conducted skilled topographical surveys and interpreted landforms according to Taoist mythology and astrology beliefs. By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), all of China south of the Great Wall had been organized into a vast sacred geography. Mountainous regions were believed to have vigorous rushing chi, while flat and monotonous land had sluggish, slow-moving chi. Feng-shui, which means "wind-water," was the practice of harmonizing the chi of the land with the chi of human beings for the benefit of both. Temples, monasteries, dwellings, tombs, and seats of government were established at places with abundant good chi. At specific sites, varying degrees of landscape alteration would be undertaken to further improve the presence and movement of chi. Hills would be contoured or truncated, and the course of rivers would be changed to produce the best energetic conditions for various human activities. These naturally occurring power places that humans structurally altered became some of the primary sacred sites of China.

This delineation of sacred geography and the ensuing practice of large-scale landscape architecture astonished the first Europeans visiting China. Having neither a similar tradition nor a term to describe feng-shui, early Western writers dubbed it geomancy. While this term has lately gained a certain popular currency, it is an incorrect use of the word. The word geomancy means "earth divination" (geo-mancy), and it is believed to have been coined by Pliny, the Elder, when he met a group of mystics who tossed stones on the ground and then divined the future according to their configurations. The term terrestrial astrology more accurately describes the practice of feng-shui.

Astrology has also been the basis of sacred geographies in other parts of the world. Writing in Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks, Jean Richer says:

The evidence of the monuments shows in an undeniable way, but not yet clearly perceived, that during more than two thousand years, the Phoenicians, the Hittites, the ancient Greeks, and then the Etruscans, the Carthaginians, and the Romans, had patiently woven a fabric of correspondences between the sky, especially the apparent course of the sun through the zodiac, the inhabited earth, and the cities built by humanity. (8)

In his extensively researched books, Richer presents diagrams of immense astrological zodiacs overlaid on the mainland and islands of Greece. With central points at such sacred sites as the Parthenon in Athens, the oracle shrines of Delphi and Siwa, Egypt, and the island of Delos, the zodiacs extended across the lands and seas, passing through numerous essential pilgrimage centers of great antiquity. The architects of these vast terrestrial zodiacs were making their country a living image of the heavens. While the knowledge of how people initially used these great landscape temples is long forgotten, the locations of many of the individual sacred sites comprising the zodiacs are still known.

Other sacred geographies have their basis in geodesy. A branch of applied mathematics, geodesy is concerned with the magnitude and figure of the Earth and the location of points on its surface. The early Egyptians were masters of this science. The prime longitudinal meridian of predynastic Egypt was laid out to bisect the country precisely in half, passing from the city of Behdet on the Mediterranean coast, through an island in the Nile near the Great Pyramid, all the way to where it crossed the Nile again at the Second Cataract. Cities and ceremonial centers were purposely constructed at distances precisely measured from this sacred longitudinal line. At each geodetic center, a stone marker called an omphalos (sometimes translated as "navel of the Earth") was placed in a temple and marked with meridians and parallels, showing the direction and distances to other sacred sites. Writing of the practice of geodesy in ancient Greece, Robert Temple tells us the oracle centers in the eastern Mediterranean region...

seem at casual glance to be dotted around apparently at random. However, there is actually a pattern in their distribution which indicates a highly advanced science of geography in ancient times....The oracle centers of Dodona, Delphi, Delos, Cythera, Knossos and Cyprus are linked as a series, they are all separated from each other by a degree of latitude and are integral degrees of latitude from Behdet in Egypt....It is extraordinary that if you place a compass point on Thebes in Egypt you can draw an arc through both Dodona and Metsamor....The fact is that an equilateral triangle is formed by the lines joining Thebes with Dodona and Mt. Ararat. These facts cannot possibly be an accident. (9)

We also find compelling evidence of ancient landscape geometries in France, Germany, and England. In the Languedoc region of southern France, for example, preliminary research revealed a complex arrangement of pentagons, pentacles, circles, hexagons, and grid lines laid out over forty square miles of territory. Situated around a natural yet mysteriously mathematically perfect pentagram of five mountain peaks, ancient builders erected a vast landscape temple whose parts were precisely positioned according to the arcane knowledge of sacred geometry. (10)

Researchers in England and Germany have found extensive evidence of another form of sacred geography, the linear arrangements of ancient holy sites over long distances. The English lines, more so than the German, are mainly well known. With the publication of The Old Straight Track in 1925, the British antiquarian Alfred Watkins first brought them to modern attention. For many years, Watkins had trekked across the English countryside, visiting and photographing prehistoric sites such as mounds, standing stones, and rock cairns. His habit was to mark the locations of the sites he had visited on detailed topographic maps. Gazing at his maps one day in 1921, he noticed that many sites were situated on alignments stretching for miles across the countryside. Calling these alignments ley lines, Watkins conjectured that he had found the remnants of a vast system of traders' tracks constructed in Neolithic times. Archaeological dating has since confirmed the Neolithic origin of these lines. Still, it has disproved the notion that the lines were used for transportation because they ran arrows straight across the land, making them impractical for transportation.

Since Watkin's initial research, many other landscape lines have been found in Britain linking ancient sacred sites and pre-Reformation churches, which were often situated at places of known pre-Christian sanctity. The purpose and extent of the lines remains a mystery. In his later years, Watkins stopped using the term ley lines, preferring to call the landscape markings straight tracks. The term ley line has stuck, however, and has come to mean something entirely different than what Watkins conceived initially. As the so-called new-age movement incorrectly uses the term, ley lines are said to be paths of energy running across the earth's surface. Watkins, however, never described ley lines in this way. Yet even though Watkins did not speak of ley lines as energy lines, there is some energy or force flowing along the lines. Dowsers and other people with particularly keen sensitivities to earth energies have noted this throughout the British Isles and at many other places worldwide.

In this brief discussion of sacred geographies, we must also consider the enigma of the straight lines left on the landscape by archaic cultures in the Western Hemisphere. Examples include:

  • The Nazca lines in Peru.
  • Similar lines on the altiplano deserts of western Bolivia.
  • The extensive linear markings left by the Anasazi Indians in the vicinity of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Mystified as to the origin and purpose of the Chaco lines, mainstream archaeology interprets them as ancient traders' tracks. This explanation is untenable. The lines do not follow the terrain's natural contours but rather run straight across the land, often going up the face of vertical cliffs, making them entirely unsuitable for transporting people or supplies. Furthermore, terrain-specific roads and tracks dating from the same periods as the straight lines have been found nearby, thus undermining the explanation that the Chacoan straight lines were used for transportation.

The English earth mysteries writer Paul Devereux has put forth an interesting interpretation of the straight lines at Chaco and other places where they are found around the world. He suggests they may be spirit lines – markings left upon the surface of the Earth to represent the spirit journeys, magical flights, and out-of-body experiences of ancient shamans. The lines are thus the physical correlates of the routes of shamanic flight in the spirit landscape. (11)