Lake Titicaca, the Island of the Moon,
and the holy mountains of Ancohuma and Illampu, Bolivia
Long before there were religions, there were regions of the earth. Early people, following herds of animals, wandered these regions as hunters and gatherers. Walking over large areas of land and in tune with the vital earth, they occasionally discovered certain places of power, perhaps a spring, a cave, or a mountain, or maybe a site that had no remarkable visual appearance. Yet these places had a mysterious power, a numinosity, and a spirit. Because of this quality, ancient peoples began to mark these magical places in different ways, often with piles of stones, so that they might be seen from a distance if other humans passed that way in years to come. With the continuing seasonal movements of the animal herds, the early nomads moved too, thereby gradually discovering more and more power places on the living earth.
Eventually, at different times and places, early humans learned to grow their own crops and to domesticate animals. Now, for the first time ever, they could settle in permanent locations. Where did they settle? What sites did they choose? Archaeological excavations reveal that these people often settled at or near those potent power places first discovered by their wandering ancestors. The first groupings were small, as we know from studies of more recent nomadic settlers. Yet the groups grew in size to become clusters of huts, then villages, then towns, and then cities such as Paris, Mexico City, London, Lima, Cairo, and Calcutta. As the social centers grew, so did people’s awareness of the characteristics of the power places. These magical focal points, through their mysterious powers, affected people in different ways. This was noticed and talked about, and slowly, over long periods of time, myths arose with the descriptions of the power places.
Living at or near these sites and feeling their energy on a daily basis, people began to notice that there were temporal fluctuations to the power of place. During the course of the yearly cycle, there were periodic increases and decreases of the localized energy. Wondering about this cyclic fluctuation of the earth spirit, early humans noticed a relationship between the positions of different celestial objects and the amplification of the power of place. Slowly they understood that the sun and moon had a periodic influence upon the emanations of earth spirit at the power places.
Desiring to know of these charged periods in advance of their arrival, humans began to observe the night skies with greater attention. To observe with precision, they had to innovate and construct astronomical observation devices. These were quite simple in design yet extremely accurate in function; purposeful arrangements of individual standing stones that made it possible to set up sight lines pointing towards the horizons. These sight lines were used to carefully monitor the rise and fall of different celestial bodies along the horizons.
Cycles of Heaven
Early humans recognized that the sun and the moon had different cycles, so specific arrangements of stones were set up to monitor those cycles. Perhaps the first cyclic period discovered was that of the sun. During the course of the year, the sun was observed to rise and set at different positions along the horizon. This annual back-and-forth movement of the sun — north, then south, then north again — repeats endlessly over the passage of centuries. The most northerly and southerly rising and setting positions are called the solstices. Solstice is a Latin word meaning “sun stands still” and this is exactly what appeared to happen twice each year. For a few days in between its northerly and southerly passage the sun seemed to stop its movement and to rise and set in the exact same position. These periods became the two most important times for ancient people. Throughout the ancient world, countless myths speak of the energies or spirits being more present during these phases.
The next most important periods of the sun’s movement were the equinoxes. An Equinox (Latin for “equal night”) was the time occurring only twice each year, when the day and night were of equal duration. These equinoctial times were also determined with the standing stones by watching the shadows and their relationship with the yearly movement of the sun across the sky. These equinoxes were midway between the two solstices; thus, archaic humans observed a division of time into four nearly equal periods. From this observation of celestial cycles, and the resulting periodic fluctuation of earth spirit energies, came the earliest proto-religious festivals of humankind. In later eras, these four periods would become associated with agricultural planting and harvesting. Yet long before the development of agriculture, humans were watching the heavens and observing its effects upon the earth.
With the passage of time, humans became ever more interested in celestial mechanics and developed increasingly sophisticated observational devices with which to watch the sun, moon, stars, and planets. All across the globe, spanning many different archaeological epochs, people created a variety of structures that functioned both as astronomical observation devices and spiritual temples. Numerous examples can be found in different cultures, from Europe, Asia, and Africa to the Americas. Some of the oldest and most mathematically advanced examples were those created by the megalithic (great stone) culture of Europe, which existed from approximately 4000 to 1500 BCE. From Scandinavia to Iberia, several types of structures exist that have astronomical and ceremonial functions, including single or multiple standing stones known as menhirs and dolmens, respectively; enormous earthen mounds with rock-lined passages and hidden chambers; and the stunningly beautiful stone rings, of which Stonehenge and Avebury are the most famous examples.
More than nine hundred stone rings exist in the British Isles, and scholars estimate that twice that number may originally have been built. Research conducted over the past thirty years, combining insights from archaeoastronomy, mythology and geophysical energy monitoring, has demonstrated that the stone rings functioned as both astronomical observation devices and ceremonial centers. The recent scientific recognition of megalithic stone rings as astronomical observatories is the accomplishment of Alexander Thom, a professor of engineering at Oxford University. In 1934, Thom began meticulously surveying megalithic sites. By 1954, he had surveyed and analyzed over six hundred sites in Britain and France and had begun to publish his findings. Initially his claims were not well received. Professor Thom was not an archaeologist but an engineer, and the archaeological community did not welcome what they considered to be heretical views of an untrained outsider.
Thom's evidence, however, could not be dismissed. Both overwhelming in quantity and highly accurate in presentation, it indisputably demonstrated the astronomical knowledge, mathematical understanding, and engineering ability of ancient megalithic people. Indeed, these abilities were so advanced that they surpassed that of any European culture for more than four thousand years. Thom's books, Megalithic Sites in Britain (1967) and Megalithic Lunar Observatories (1971), show with certainty that megalithic astronomers knew the yearly cycle to be a quarter of a day longer than a year of 365 days, and that they recognized the precession of the equinoxes and various cycles of the moon, which allowed them to predict eclipses accurately. Furthermore, these megalithic builders were keen engineers and architects, skilled in advanced geometry two thousand years before Euclid recorded the Pythagorean triangle theorems and more than three thousand years before the value of pi (3.14) was discovered by Indian mathematicians. These ancient builders surveyed sites with an accuracy equal to that of a modern theodolite (a surveying instrument). They also developed a unit of measure — the megalithic yard of 2.72 feet (83cm) — that they used in stone monuments from northern Scotland to Spain with an accuracy of — 0.003 feet, or about 1/28th inch (0.9mm).
Simply stated, many of the megalithic stone structures are situated at places with measurable geophysical anomalies (the so-called earth energies) such as localized magnetism, geothermal activity, specific minerals, and the presence of underground water. While there is nothing paranormal about these forces, what is fascinating is that ancient people located the specific sites where these energies were present. For reasons still not fully understood, these energies seem to fluctuate in radiant intensity according to the cyclic influences of different celestial bodies (primarily the sun and moon but also the planets and stars). The architectural configurations of the megalithic structures were designed to determine those particular periods of increased energetic potency at the sites. Those periods were then used by people for a variety of healing, spiritual and oracular purposes.
The tradition of pilgrimage in megalithic times consisted of people traveling long distances to visit sites known to have specific powers. Due to the absence of historical documentation from the megalithic age, it is often assumed that we cannot know how and for what reasons different power places were used, but this is a narrow view based on the mechanistic rationality of modern science. An analysis of relevant mythology, however, reveals that the legends and myths of sacred sites are in fact metaphors, or messages, indicating the magical powers of these places.
Festivals of Regeneration
Students of mythology and cultural anthropology will be familiar with the fact that many ancient cultures held festivals on the solstices and equinoxes. The most common interpretation of these festivals is that they were symbolic occasions for renewal — the renewal of the people and the land by the celestial powers, as well as the renewal of the land and the celestial beings by the agency of human intention and celebration. The interpretation usually stops there. Discussion may continue regarding the characteristics of the festivals or their sociological function of contributing to the bonding of a particular cultural group, but a deeper or more comprehensive interpretation concerning the times and original purpose of the festivals is rarely pursued. Why would this be so? The answer is quite simple.
Nearly all scholars and writers possessing the academic knowledge to be able to discuss ancient cultures and their mythologies have acquired that knowledge while spending their lives in towns or cities, removed from the very land-based experience which allows a sensory, or felt, understanding of the subtle energy rhythms of the natural world. In other words, the tendency of modern urban-based life to isolate people from the natural world automatically instills and perpetuates a bias that often limits anthropologists and archaeologists (and most everyone else) from experientially understanding the nature-based life of Neolithic cultures. We moderns may, with sometimes quite admirable scholarship, catalogue the behaviors of the ancients, yet a deep appreciation of the motivations and meanings of those behaviors often eludes us. This is especially true regarding the festivals of renewal that occurred on the solstices and equinoxes at the power places.
Prehistorians and archaeologists speak about the myths of renewal of ancient cultures, but to the ancient people their festivals were not symbolic celebrations of myth but rather celebrations of their current reality. That reality, and the focus of events in celebration of it, was profoundly influenced by the periodic energetic effects of solar, lunar, and stellar cycles on human beings, the animal kingdom, and the earth itself.
Stars, Deities and the Power of Place
An archaeoastronomical study of numerous ancient sites around the world reveals that a variety of stars and constellations of stars exerted significant influences on the development of archaic religious cosmologies. In Old Kingdom Egypt, astronomers keenly observed the stars and precisely aligned a multitude of temples with the Orion constellation and Gamma Draconis, while the Dogon culture of western Africa had a particular fascination with the three stars of the Sirius system. In addition to their remarkable solar alignments, many of the Khmer temples at Angkor in Cambodia display an enigmatic terrestrial resonance with the Draco constellation and the Corona Borealis. In Europe, researchers have shown that the round towers of Celtic monasteries throughout Ireland are positioned to represent the location of certain stars.
Across the Atlantic, a number of native cultures also watched the heavens and fashioned structures to mark particular periods. The Mayans of Mexico, besides developing some of the most accurate calendrical systems of the ancient world, were deeply concerned with the movements of Venus, planetary conjunctions, and the slowly changing relationship of the earth with the galactic center. Andean cultures such as the Inca were concerned with the constellation of Scorpius and its relation to the plane of the ecliptic (the plane containing the earth’s orbit around the sun), the rise of the Pleiades, and the constellations of Vega and the Southern Cross. Even the nomadic Indian tribes of North America built astronomical observation devices, commonly called medicine wheels, which indicated the solstices and equinoxes as well as the rise of stars like Aldebaran and Rigel.
Why were the myths and legends of so many ancient cultures associated with these types of celestial phenomena? Furthermore, why were particular stars often associated with certain types of deities? Could it be possible, in some mysterious way, that different celestial objects and their cycles of movement might exert subtle influences on human behavior and evolution? In support of this notion, it is useful to bring attention to the unimaginably old practice of astrology, which has evolved in variant forms around the world but always as a descriptive analysis of how the sun, moon, and different stars influence human behavior.
Another important matter to ponder is why certain shrines were dedicated to either feminine or masculine deities. In ancient China, for example, Feng Shui (pronounced fung shway) geomancers spoke of the yin (feminine) or yang (masculine) essence of the power places. In Buddhism we find temples dedicated to feminine and masculine Bodhisattvas called Avilokitesvara (Guan Yin) and Manjushri. And in many geographical regions, there are sacred mountains and holy wells dedicated to either feminine or masculine deities. Seeking an explanation, various scholars have suggested that feminine and masculine deities may be mythic expressions of the subtle gender-specific energies of different sacred places. While contemporary science has not yet authenticated this explanation, it is vital to realize that everywhere across the ancient world, a wide variety of cultures dedicated their sacred places to feminine and masculine deities.
Additionally, the matter of different energetic characteristics at the power places sometimes went beyond the categorization of deities according to gender. Hinduism and other mythically rich religions give specific tales from the lives of deities. These tales are extremely important because they function as more precise indicators of the distinctive power of a place. The deities, be they feminine or masculine, exhibited a variety of behaviors. In light of this, the crucial questions are: where exactly did the particular mythic actions of the deities occur, and what were those actions? The legendary material associated with the different deities may, if properly decoded, indicate specific ways that certain power places will affect human beings. While most deities are considered to be a manifestation of one universal spirit, some of them also express distinct visual and mythic messages indicating the unique energetic characteristics of the sacred sites with which they are associated. My own experience is that the sacred sites of different deities are source points of particular energetic frequencies. Because of this, it is beneficial to understand the deeper meaning of deity mythology, learn about the types of sites associated with different types of deities, intuitively recognize which sites might enhance well-being, and then go on a pilgrimage to such sites.
As we discover power places in the ancient world and become familiar with them, we become conscious of the existence of clusters of power places within specific geographical regions. This is known as sacred geography, which may be defined as the regional, and even global, geographic positioning of sacred places according to various mythological, symbolic, astrological, geodetic, and shamanic factors.
Perhaps the oldest form of sacred geography, and one that has 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 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 features of the landscape through such everyday actions as birth, play, singing, fishing, hunting, marriage, and death. At the end of the Dreamtime, these features hardened into stone, and the bodies of the ancestors 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 traveled 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.
Another example of sacred geography, which derives 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 are normally 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 11th 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 monks and pilgrims traveled from peak to peak, venerating the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas residing on them.
A fascinating form of sacred geography practiced in ancient China, feng shui, was a mixture of astrology, topography, landscape architecture, yin-yang magic, and Taoist mythology. (It should be noted that the forms of feng shui currently practiced in the United States and Europe often show little relation to the original traditions of ancient China.) Beginning as early as 2000 BCE, the Chinese conducted topographical surveys and interpreted landforms according to feng shui philosophy. Feng-shui, which literally means “wind-water,” was the practice of harmonizing the vital energy, or chi, of the lands with the chi of human beings for the benefit of both. Temples, monasteries, dwellings, tombs, and seats of government were established at places with an abundance of good chi.
Astrology has also been the basis of sacred geographies found in different parts of the world. In an undeniable, though currently little-perceived way, the Phoenicians, Hittites, Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans created a vast sacred geography indicating correspondences between the constellations of the zodiac and the positioning of temple sites on the ground. Studies reveal immense astrological zodiacs overlaid on the mainland and islands of Greece. With central points at such sacred sites as the island of Delos, Athens, and the oracles of Delphi and Siwa (in Egypt), the zodiacs extended across the lands and seas, passing through numerous important pilgrimage centers of great antiquity.
Several sacred geographies have their basis in geodesy, a branch of applied mathematics concerned with the dimensions of the Earth and the location of points on its surface. The early Egyptians were masters of this science. The prime longitudinal meridian of pre-Dynastic Egypt was laid out to bisect the country precisely in half, passing from 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.
We also find tantalizing evidence of landscape geometries in Europe, where researchers have found linear arrangements of ancient sacred sites over long distances. Sometimes called ley lines, they were first brought to modern attention by the British antiquarian Alfred Watkins with the publication of The Old Straight Track in 1925. These enigmatic lines are particularly evident in England, France, Italy, and Greece. Still another example, in the Languedoc region of southern France, is a complex arrangement of pentagons, pentacles, circles, hexagons, and grid lines laid out over some forty square miles (about 100 square kilometers) of territory. Ancient builders erected a vast landscape temple, situated around a natural and mathematically perfect pentagram of five mountain peaks, whose component parts were precisely positioned according to the arcane knowledge of sacred geometry.
Finally, 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, and the extensive linear markings left by the Anasazi Indians in the vicinity of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.
Perhaps the most astonishing matter concerning many of these landscape geometries is that they show signs of having originated from an even more ancient, though now lost, sacred geography that spanned the entire globe. In support of this controversial notion, a number of maps dating from the European medieval era still exist. Among them are the Orontius Finaeus Map (named after the French cartographer Oronce Fine, who created it in 1530), the Piri Reis Map (created by an Ottoman naval captain of the same name in 1513), and also the portolans (port-to-port navigational charts). These maps accurately depicted hundreds of miles of coastlines in South America long before Europeans charted those areas in the eighteenth century. Even more intriguing, the maps show the coastline of Antarctica before it was covered by ice. Many of the maps contain written notes indicating that they were copied from much older maps whose sources are unknown. Many scholars believe that these astonishing maps suggest the existence of an advanced culture that explored and charted the planet a long time before recorded history.
Any discussion of the sacred geographical arrangement of temple sites upon the land must also mention the sacred geometry with which many of those temples were constructed. Certain naturally occurring shapes and forms are mysteriously pleasing to the human eye, such as the graceful swirl of a nautilus shell, the crystalline structures of the mineral kingdom, and the remarkable patterns found in snowflakes and flowers. However, the subject matter is not the only thing that captures our attention. Equally important are the proportional arrangements of the individual parts comprising the total form.
The same is true with certain works of human art, such as classical paintings. The positioning of elements within the frame of a painting was considered as important as the subject matter itself. Late medieval and Renaissance painters laid out the basic structure of their paintings according to the mathematical principles of the golden ratio, or phi — a geometric ratio occurring throughout the natural world that the ancients believed to be a divine proportion. European classical painters are said to have inherited these positioning formulas from the Greeks and Arabs, who in turn received them from the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians and other cultures of antiquity derived these formulas by observing the natural world.
The English writer Paul Devereux explains sacred geometry in a most lucid way in his book Earth Memory (1992):
The formation of matter from energy and the natural motions of the universe, from molecular vibration to the growth of organic forms to the motions of planets, stars, and galaxies are all governed by geometrical configurations of force.
He goes on to discuss how this geometry of nature is the essence of the sacred geometry used in the design and construction of so many of the world’s ancient sacred shrines. These shrines encode ratios of creation and thereby mirror the universe. Certain shapes found in ancient temples, developed and designed according to the mathematical constants of sacred geometry, actually gather, concentrate, and radiate specific modes of vibration. For example, a particular structural geometry and the precise directional
orientation of a pyramid completely alter the electromagnetic properties of the space contained within the pyramid. Three dimensional structure and vibration are absolutely, though mysteriously, connected. This is well known to makers of musical instruments. It was also known to the makers of ancient temples. Certain shapes resonate to cosmic frequencies too fine to be registered on the electromagnetic spectrum. The fineness of the vibration is the key to their powerful effect. It is similar to the concept behind homeopathy, where the slighter the application, the greater the response.
Fundamentally, sacred geometry is simply the ratio of numbers to each other - 2:1, 5:4, 3:2. When such numerical ratios are incorporated into three-dimensional form, we have the most graceful and alluring architecture in the world. Goethe once said, "Architecture is frozen music." He was describing the relationship between musical ratios and their application to form and structure.
An ancient Hindu architectural sutra says, "The universe is present in the temple in the form of proportion." Therefore, when you are within a structure fashioned with sacred geometry, you are within a model of the universe. The vibrational quality of sacred space thus brings your body, mind and soul into harmony with the universe.
Sacred Sites and the Historical Religions
Over the long pageant of civilizations — endlessly rising, falling, and rising again — one phenomenon has remained constant in the background: the continuing use of the power places by one culture after another. Prehistoric and historic cultures have come and gone, yet the power places have exerted a spiritual magnetism that transcends human time. The great religions of the historical era — Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — have each taken over the sacred places of earlier cultures and made them their own.
The Christian usurpation of pagan holy places during the medieval era is an intriguing manifestation of this practice. Christian rulers seeking to convert indigenous cultures to Christianity often syncretized the sacred places of the cultures already inhabiting those lands. With a strategy exercised over multiple centuries, sacred sites of the megalithic, Celtic, Greek, and Roman cultures were rededicated to Christ, Mary, and a variety of Christian saints and martyrs. An excerpt of a letter from Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus in 601 AD illustrates that very early on this had become a policy for all of Christendom:
When, by God's help, you come to our most reverend brother Bishop Augustine, I want you to tell him how earnestly I have been pondering over the affairs of the English: I have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols in England should not on any account be destroyed. Augustine must smash the idols, but the temples themselves should be sprinkled with holy water and altars set up in them in which relics are to be enclosed. For we ought to take advantage of well built temples by purifying them from devil worship and dedicating them to the service of the true God. In this way, I hope the people, seeing their temples are not destroyed will leave their idolatry and yet continue to frequent the places as formerly.
During the early centuries of Christianity’s spread into Europe, hundreds of churches were erected upon pagan religious sites. A Christian holy-day calendar was also imposed; it was almost an exact duplicate of the solstice-equinox festival cycle of the earlier people.
During the late medieval period of the tenth to the fifteenth centuries, large numbers of people began traveling across Europe to visit these new Christian shrines. A little known fact about this movement was that the numbers of people going on religious pilgrimage exceeded those traveling due to commerce and warfare combined. Why were so many people traveling to the holy places? The answer given by the Christian authorities was that different types of miracles were occurring at the shrines. Yes, miracles did occur, but they were not so much happening because of the presence of saints’ relics (often of dubious authenticity) but more likely because of the locations of those Christian shrines at the power places of the preceding cultures. This is evident at hundreds of pre-Reformation Christian shrines throughout Europe. Well known Christian holy places such as Canterbury and Glastonbury in England, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres in France, Assisi and Monte Gargano in Italy, and Santiago de Compostela in Spain were all pre-Christian sacred sites.
Rich and poor, nobleman and peasant were drawn to the pilgrimage shrines. Kings and knights would go to pray for victory in war or give thanks for battles that they had just won, women would pray for children and ease in childbirth, farmers for crops, diseased persons for miraculous healings, monks for ecstatic union with God, and everyone for a remission of the burden of sin which medieval Christians believed was their preordained lot in life. Richard the Lionheart visited Westminster Abbey; Louis IV walked barefoot to Chartres; Charles VII visited the shrine at Le Puy five times; Pope Pius I walked barefoot through the snow to a shrine in Scotland; and hundreds of thousands of peasants, merchants, and monks undertook multi-year pilgrimages through bandit-infested territories and foreign lands.
Pilgrims visited these relic shrines primarily in the hopes that their prayers would induce the shrines’ saints to intercede with Christ or Mary on their behalf. As more and more pilgrims visited the shrines, miracles did indeed begin to occur. Word of a shrine's miracle-causing ability began to spread to the surrounding countryside and then to the far corners of the European continent. With the extraordinary numbers of pilgrims visiting the shrines — often as many as 10,000 in a single day — church coffers increased in wealth, monasteries became politically powerful, and the enormous cathedrals of Canterbury, Lincoln, Chartres, Reims, Cologne, Burgos, and Santiago were built. Larger cathedrals attracted even greater numbers of pilgrims and thus followed more and more reports of miracles.
The religion of Islam has a similar usurpation of pre-existing pagan holy places. Mythological, archaeological, and historical research clearly proves that several major holy places at the center of the Islamic world were sacred sites long before the birth of Muhammad and the ensuing growth of Islam. A few examples are important to note. The primary Muslim sacred sites in and around Mecca, such as the Ka’ba, Mt. Hira, and the plain of Arafat were each venerated holy places of pre-Islamic Arabic peoples. Traditions state that in 1892 BCE, Abraham and his son Ishmael constructed the first Ka’ba, where Mecca now stands, and placed within it a sacred stone given to Ishmael by the angel Gabriel. With the passage of centuries and the addition of various pagan elements, the plaza around the Ka’ba became home to other shrines. The pilgrims of pre-Islamic times visited not only the house of Abraham and the sacred stone of Gabriel but also a collection of stone idols, representing different deities, housed in other shrines around the Ka’ba.
After seeing an apparition of the angel Gabriel in a cave on the sacred mountain of Hira, Muhammad took control of Mecca in 630 AD. He destroyed 360 pagan idols, with the notable exception of the statues of Mary and Jesus. The idol of Hubal, the largest in Mecca, was a giant stone situated atop the Ka’ba. Following the command of the Prophet, Ali (the cousin of Muhammad) stood on Muhammad’s shoulders, climbed to the top of the Ka’ba, and toppled the idol. After his destruction of the pagan idols, Muhammad linked certain ancient Meccan rituals with the Hajj pilgrimage to Mt. Arafat (another pre-Islamic tradition), declared the city of Mecca a center of Muslim pilgrimage, and dedicated it to the worship of Allah. In other words, he developed a pilgrimage practice and route that incorporated pre-existing holy places and rituals. Muhammad did not, however, destroy the Ka’ba and the sacred stone it housed. Rather, he made them the centerpiece of the Muslim religion, based on his belief that he was a prophetic reformer who had been sent by God to restore the rites first established by Abraham and that had been corrupted over the centuries by the pagan influences. Thus, by gaining both religious and political control over Mecca, Muhammad was able to redefine the sacred territory and restore Abraham's original order to it.
In the years following the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, a succession of Caliphs sought to extend the influence of Islam throughout the Middle East. It is an irrefutable historical fact that as Islam spread across this geographic region, its first great mosques were situated directly upon the foundations of pre-existing holy places. Jerusalem is an excellent example. That ancient sacred site, whose name means City of Peace, has hosted several millennia of different cultures and their temples. Of vital importance is the fact that each shrine, temple, mosque, and church was built upon the same physical place. This holy place had been venerated for a hundred centuries before the advent of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as also was the ancient city of Damascus, in Syria. In Jerusalem, all at the same place and overlaid upon one another like books in a stack, were built temples to the Aramaean god Haddad and goddess Atargatis, followed by the Roman god Jupiter, two temples of the Jews, then a Christian church of St. John, and finally an Islamic mosque. Five different cultures with five different religions — and each of those religions using the exact same site for their major religious structures. Although certainly a measure of syncretization, this is also an undeniable indication that places such as Jerusalem have a continuous, powerful quality.
Types of Sacred Sites and the Reasons for their Power
Numerous different types of power places and sacred sites may be found around the world. Based on three decades of visiting many hundreds of sacred sites in one hundred and twenty-five countries and reading more than a thousand books on the subject, I have identified the following list of distinct categories:
- Sacred mountains
- Human-built sacred mountains
- Sacred bodies of water
- Sacred islands
- Healing springs
- Healing and power stones
- Sacred trees and forest groves
- Places of ancient mythological importance
- Ancient ceremonial sites
- Ancient astronomical observatories
- Human-erected solitary standing stones
- Megalithic chambered mounds
- Labyrinth sites
- Places with massive landscape carvings
- Regions delineated by sacred geography
- Oracular caves, mountains, and sites
- Male deity / god shrines / yang sites
- Female deity / goddess shrines / yin sites
- Birthplaces of saints
- Places where sages attained enlightenment
- Death places of saints
- Sites where relics of saints and martyrs were/are kept
- Places with enigmatic fertility legends and/or images
- Places with miracle-working icons
- Places chosen by animals or birds
- Places chosen by various geomantic divinatory methods
- Unique natural features
- Ancient esoteric schools
- Ancient monasteries
- Places where dragons were slain or sighted
- Places of Marian and other deity apparitions
When reading this list it is important to understand that some of these categories overlap and that many sacred sites could be listed in two or more categories. Nonetheless, the many different ways to indicate the types and locations of power places are clearly evident. Ancient legends and modern-day reports tell of extraordinary experiences that people have had while visiting these holy and magical places. Different sacred sites have the power to heal the body, enlighten the mind, increase creativity, develop psychic abilities, and awaken the soul to a knowing of its true purpose in life.
Seeking to explain this miraculous phenomenon, I suggest that there is a definite field of energy that saturates and surrounds the immediate locality of these sacred places. Concentrated at particular holy sites is a subtle field of influence extending in space and continuing in time. How may we explain the origin and ongoing vitality of these site-specific energy fields? What is it that makes a power place a power place? What invigorates their undeniable spiritual magnetism? In my research, I recognize many different factors that contribute to the localized energy fields at the sacred sites. In the detailed writings on my web site, SacredSites.com, I classify and analyze those factors according to the following four categories:
- The influences of the Earth.
- The influences of celestial objects.
- The influences of the structures at the sacred sites.
- The influences of human intent.
Previous sections of this introduction discussed the first three categories. The fourth factor contributing to the power of the sacred sites is perhaps the most mysterious and the least understood. This is the accumulated force of human intention and the effect that it has upon the amplification of the power or the influence of a sacred site. Just as photographic film (a small piece of earth) can record the energy of light, and as audiotape (another small piece of earth) can record the energy of sound, so also can a sacred site (a larger piece of earth) record or somehow contain the energy and intention of the millions of humans who have performed a ceremony there. Within the shrines and sanctuaries is the intention — the energy — of countless priests, priestesses, and pilgrims who have gathered there over hundreds or thousands of years. Praying and meditating, they have continuously charged and amplified the presence of love and peace, healing and wisdom. The megalithic stone rings, Celtic healing springs, Taoist sacred mountains, Mayan temples, Jewish holy sites, Gothic cathedrals, Islamic mosques, Hindu shrines, Buddhist stupas, and Egyptian pyramids are repositories of the concentrated spiritual aspirations of humanity. These are the places where the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Guru Nanak, Mahavira, and other sages and shamans awakened to the deepest realizations of spiritual wisdom.
The Transformational Powers of Sacred Sites
Given my long fascination and familiarity with the sacred power places, you might ask what my philosophy is regarding them. I believe it is highly beneficial for people to make pilgrimages to sacred sites because of the transformational powers available at them. These legendary places have the mysterious capacity to awaken and catalyze within visitors the qualities of compassion, wisdom, peace of mind, and respect for the earth. The development of these qualities in increasing numbers of the human species is of vital importance, considering the numerous environmental and social problems occurring in the world. At the root of all these problems may be found human ignorance. Many human beings are out of touch with themselves (both their bodies and the deeper states of spiritual consciousness), their fellow beings, and the earth they live on. Sacred sites and their subtle fields of influence can assist in the awakening and transformation of human consciousness and thereby in the healing of the earth.
In closing, let me say a few words about how to approach and benefit from the sacred sites. The experience of a sacred place actually begins well before a pilgrim arrives at the site. First, choose an area of the world whose power places you would like to explore. Next, consult the bibliography at the end of this book or on my web site SacredSites.com, which will give you the names of books concerning sacred sites in the region of your interest. In the months prior to your journey, read about the places you will visit and begin to journey to them in your imagination.
When you finally reach the immediate area or city of the pilgrimage site, make the conscious mental effort to approach the shrine with the focused intention that you are going to plug into the power of place as you would plug an electrical appliance into a wall socket. This metaphor is very helpful to embody as it actually predisposes you to a more intense connection with the sacred site. Then go to the site with a free and open mind. Maybe you will wander around first and then meditate, or perhaps it will be the other way around. Alternatively, you may take a nap or pray or play. There are no rules. Simply let the spirit of the place and your own presence come into a relationship, and then let it go, letting it be whatever it is.
The energy transference at the power places goes both ways: earth to human and human to earth. The wondrously beautiful living earth gives us human beings subtle infusions of spirit, and as pilgrims, we give the earth something like planetary acupuncture in return. True, the power places were discovered mostly in ancient times but they remain vital today, still emanating a potent field of transformational energy. Open yourself to this power of cosmic grace. Let it touch and teach you, while the planet is in turn graced by your own love.