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Credit: Rens van der Sluijs


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Dec 07, 2004
The Bifurcated Mountain

Across the world, the ancients utilized complex systems of criteria to determine which places would be suitable for worship. One landscape feature of unfathomed importance was the notion of a twin-peaked or bifurcated mountain.

The image above is a view of Parnassus, possibly the most revered mountain in ancient Greece. Ovid referred to it as Parnasosque biceps, which literally means “(and) two-headed Parnassus”. Between the twin peaks, as close as technically possible, was Delphi, celebrated as the centre of the world.  The double aspect of Parnassus might have been passed over in silence were it not that countless other sacred mountains around the world were endowed with this feature.

Archaeologists rarely comment on the fact that the ruins of Mycenae were located squarely in the middle of a mountain with two tops. Çatal Hüyük, one of the earliest known walled settlements in what is central Turkey today, was built in the shape of a single mound of flattened twin hills, which give the mound “the shape of a fork”. This lay-out must have been a deliberate replication of Hasan Dağ, a twin-peaked volcano close to the town. The Hittite rock carvings of Yazılıkaya, include the image of a large divine figure placed above two mountain peaks; the deity probably represents the storm god Teshub. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun god rose from the Khut, the twofold “Mount of Glory” and some of the more archaic Pyramid Texts describe how the splitting of the mountain precipitates the glorious birth of the sun. Iconographical evidence supports the Egyptian concept of the twin-peaked cosmic mountain.

 Similarly, the Babylonians typically portrayed the sun god Shamash as stepping out of the hollow between two mountain peaks. Ararat, the mountain on which the Israelite ancestor Noah stranded after the deluge, was identified with several bifurcated mountains in Armenia. “Ebal” and “Gerizim”, the sacred mountains that the Samaritans identified as the centre of the world, were actually the two outcrops of a single elevation, separated by a ridge. The Vedic Mount Meru, thought to be located at the pole, was celebrated as the tricutadri, the “mountain of three summits”. And the theme extends far beyond the Old World. The Australian Walbiri and Ngalia tribes aver that the primeval serpent, Jarapiri, originally dwelt on the summit of Winbaraku, "a spectacular double-peaked hill" identified as a "cosmic mountain". The Maya spoke of a mountain called Split‑Place or Yax‑Hal‑Witz, “First‑True‑Mountain”, which was full of food, and the Aztec god Ometeotl, whose name means “god of duality”, was located in Omeyocan, the “place of duality”, at the summit of the world mountain “where duality began”. What this may have meant is shown by manuscripts such as the Codex Vindobonensis, where the supreme deity Quetzalcoatl is portrayed standing between twin peaks.

Seeing how common this motif apparently was in the past, one wonders what underlying logic may have compelled ancient cultures to single out bifurcated mountains. The most important hint has already been given away in the fact that many of these split mountains, such as Parnassus, the Khut, and Meru, had demonstrable connections to the pole as the centre of heaven and earth. As Mircea Eliade has asserted at length, so-called hierophanies or locations transformed into sacred places were consciously adapted to the prototype of the cosmic centre and the axis mundi. The bifurcated mountain was a face of the cosmic mountain located at the pole. Because an obvious, visual prototype for the image is lacking, however, Eliade and other 'uniformitarian' thinkers will forever regard the mountain and its dual aspect as fanciful or highly imaginative symbols.

This is different in the model presently proposed, according to which the worldwide symbolism of the cosmic axis originated as a set of universal eye-witness accounts of an intense aurora that occurred in the 4th or 3rd millennium BCE. On the basis of petroglyph morphologies, plasma physicist Anthony Peratt has concluded that the plasma in the earth's ancient magnetosphere must have glowed and assumed the form of a luminous column reaching from the visible horizon to the “top of heaven”. Laboratory experiments established that among the complex instabilities experienced by the plasma column was a phase in which the top extremity of the discharge, which acts as an anode, is split down the middle, giving the column the appearance of the letter Y. In addition, the plasma tube would occasionally have experienced shockwave phenomena, which would have further enhanced the extremities at the top. No better prototype for the image of the split mountain could be imagined.

Picture and narrative contributed by Rens van der Sluijs


David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
Amy Acheson
  CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Mel Acheson, Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
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