Sacred Sites in Legend

The Legendary Discovery of Sacred Sites

Myths and legends, fables, and fairy tales have always strongly influenced human beings. They give instruction in moral behavior, inspiration for the spiritual quest, and encouragement in times of hardship and distress. Well-known examples are the legend of Jason and the Argonauts, the story of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, the myth of Parsifal and his search for the Holy Grail, and many tales from the Old and New Testaments. Legends regarding the discovery of sacred sites have also exerted a powerful effect upon many people, mainly when the discovery of a holy place resulted from miraculous events. Such an event might be the manifestation of a deity at a cave, spring, or mountain peak, an animal leading people to a specific site, or a saintly person seeing visions indicating the location of a long-forgotten holy place. These miraculous events confer a spiritual magnetism upon sacred sites, drawing pilgrims across centuries and great distances. Consider the following verses from an ancient Mexican Indian legend describing the finding of the sacred site of Talpa…

From the Seven caves,
They came with sorcerers and dancers,
Sent by Cihuacoatl in search of new land.

Higher and higher,
They climbed to a bowl in the mountains,
A verdant valley stretched before them,
They crossed a crystal clear stream.

There the chieftain stopped and said to his tribesmen:
In the midst of these thorns, I will plant my banner!
Here, the Goddess commands us to stop!

Dancing we came,
Dance ye to Cihuacoatl, Goddess of the Earth!
She who is painted with the blood of serpents
Shall wear eagle feathers in her crown.

As we dance, we worship her.
In this new land we have found,
The Goddess of the Earth shall reign over us,
And we shall dance to her, and dance and dance.

Commenting on the legendary discovery of sacred sites, anthropologist Mircea Eliade says:

The idea of a sacred space involves the notion of repeating the primeval hierophany which consecrated the place by marking it out, by cutting it off from the profane space surrounding it....A sacred space is what it is because of the permanent nature of the hierophany that first consecrated it. That is why a Bolivian tribe, when they feel the need to renew their energy and vitality, go back to the place supposed to have been the cradle of their ancestors. The hierophany therefore does not merely sanctify a given segment of undifferentiated profane space; it goes so far as to ensure that sacredness will continue there. There, in that place, the hierophany repeats itself. In this way the place becomes an inexhaustible source of power and sacredness and enables man, simply by entering into it, to have a share in the power, to hold communion with the sacredness....The continuity of hierophanies is what explains the permanence of these sanctified spots....The place is never "chosen" by man; it is merely discovered by him; in other words, the sacred place in some way or another reveals itself to him. (18)

This idea of sacred sites revealing themselves to human beings is evident in many of the legends and myths of holy places worldwide. Writing of the discovery of sacred sites in early Christian Europe, Mary Lee Nolan tells us:

Sacred objects are said to have arrived on pack animals or in ox carts that, in some versions, were unattended by people. Resultant shrines developed where the animals stopped and refused to move farther, where the beasts fell and refused to get up, or where they dropped dead. Along with several of the stories of ships that would not leave harbors, most of the animal stories involve an object that was being transported to a place other than where it eventually came to be venerated.... Putting a found or unexpectedly miraculous object on a pack animal or in a cart and letting the animal go seems to have been a fairly common way of deciding exactly where to build a shrine, at least since the tenth century in Europe....Some images are found by shepherds, often as the result of a dream, vision, strange lights, heavenly music, strange animal behavior, or some combination of these. Sometimes the image appears in an animated form, but becomes mute stone or wood thereafter. The shepherd either takes the image to a village church or notifies the local people who carry it to the community. The next morning, however, the image is gone and is rediscovered in the place where it was originally found. This usually happens three times, whereupon a chapel is built to house it at the place of discovery. Pilgrims come; and when additional miracles and wondrous events occur, the shrine becomes fully established....In two fifteenth-century German stories, sick persons dreamed they would be cured if they could find the place where they saw Mary in their dreams. In both cases, the seers found the place, discovered images of Mary attached to trees, and were cured. (19)

Foundation legends such as these are tremendously influential in attracting pilgrims to sacred sites and reinforcing peoples' beliefs concerning the miraculous power of the sites. Knowing that miracles have occurred at sacred sites in previous times, pilgrims are confident that miracles could again happen in their own lives. Such confidence in the recurrence of the miraculous creates within the pilgrim's heart a charged field of possibility that magically invokes the presence of the divine.