Axis mundi

Manufactured Mountains

2 March 2024

Chichen Itza Alfred Maudslay Alfred Maudslay
Chichen Itza, circa 1900

In many of the world’s religious traditions (Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, etc.), we see humans worshipping or conspiring with gods on mountains. If innate ideas do exist, the mountain-god concept might be one of them.

Mountains hold such an important role in human religious ideas that early civilizations constructed artificial mountains when natural ones were not available. I refer to these structures, built for spiritual or religious purposes, as “manufactured mountains.” They serve as analog, surrogate mountains, erected to bridge the physical and spiritual distance between humanity and the divine. Where these “manufactured mountains” are found, we usually encounter deities linked to the sky or the cosmos, such as sky gods, sun gods, and planetary deities.

Even in areas where natural mountains existed, temples and religious complexes were created in their image. In both Mesoamerica and Mesopotamia, for example, civilizations erected massive temple compounds from stone — pyramids and ziggurats, respectively — that mimic mountains in their shape and scale. In the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, the architecture of temples — typically smaller in scale than pyramids and ziggurats — serves as a symbolic mountain, a cosmic axis.