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Magical Mindscapes

Paul Devereux

Glastonbury TorSacred geography is where land and mind meet. Ancient and traditional peoples have found many different ways to invest their home territories with mythological or spiritual meaning. Such geographies could be small and intimate or cover large tracts of ground; they could be natural or constructed, or a combination of both.  

One of the earliest and most basic forms of sacred geography was the veneration of natural landscape features, such as certain mountain peaks, hill summits, and cliffs—especially where they formed landmarks, like Glastonbury Tor in southern England, which became a rich repository of mythology.

Other key examples of sacred peaks include Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, sacred to Hindus and Buddhists alike; Croagh Patrick in Ireland, the focus of present-day Christian pilgrimages but venerated from pagan times; and Mount Fuji in Japan, sacred in Mount ShastaShinto religion. In northern California, Mount Shasta was (and probably still is) sacred to the Wintu people—there are even subtle markers in the landscape around the mountain designed to guide souls of the departed to its sacred peak.

Caves were another major type of venerated feature; they were in effect the first cathedrals, as we know from finds indicating rituals (usually related to bear worship), and rock-wall paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. Other typical types of natural sacred place were water locations such as waterfalls, springs and selected lengths of rivers. To American Indians and Celtic peoples alike, springs were portals of the spirit otherworld, and waterfalls were places where prophetic dreams could be had. Certain trees and groves, too, were deemed sacred.

Landscape Look-alikesThe 'Carn Brea Giant', Cornwall, England. A great outcrop of granite sculpted by wind and rain into the perfect likeness of a human profile. A Stone Age settlement was located next to it.

Natural features that attracted special veneration were rock outcrops, cliffs, or mountain outlines that looked like human, animal or iconic shapes—. Just about every religion and culture in the ancient world responded to such natural simulacra. To this day, there are Buddhist pilgrimages in the Himalayas to glaciers and mountains that resemble the image of a god or goddess, or saint. Native Americans venerated rocks and mountains that looked The twin peaks known as the Paps ("breasts")  of Jura viewed from Lough Finlaggan on the adjacent island of Islay. The lough was viewed as sacred from at least 5,000 B.C. as determined by archaeological finds around it. A row of standing stones pointed towards the buffalos or the profile of a chieftain. In pagan Celtic lands twin hills and mountain summits with rounded shapes would be called “paps,” breasts, and were seen as earth goddess figures forming the topography. As the anthropologist Lucien Levy-Bruhl put it when speaking about the Australasian Aborigines: “The land is a living book in which the myths are inscribed ... A legend is captured in the very outlines of the landscape.”  

Selected natural places therefore were the first temples, found rather than built by human hand. It was the land that first whispered in the ear of humanity about the idea of sacred place. The land became a repository for the tribal myths. It became sacred text and a tribal memory bank.

“Improving on Nature”

Eventually, due to humanity’s innate urge to “improve on nature,” the venerated natural features began to be embellished, perhaps with a low wall, a temenos, or by rock art markings, and then more boldly modified, until eventually entirely artificial features were created—monuments and temples. Even whole landscapes were superimposed by sacred geographies. Particularly notable examples are the mysterious desert lines of the Americas.

The most famous desert markings are the so-called “Nazca lines,” but there are numerous other straight line An ancient, giant geoglyph in the Colorado River Valley, southern California. It is on what was a pilgrimage trail of the ancestral Pima Indians.markings and features ranging from Chile to Ohio. Many of the Nazca lines contain deeply entrenched ruts formed by people walking intensely, just like the Kogi Indians of northern Colombia still ritually walk their ancient stone pathways—Kogi shamans, the mamas, say these paths are physical traces of otherworld roads that only they can see to their full extent.

Also inscribed on the land are “geoglyphs,” giant images of humans and animals, and sometimes weird abstract patterns, either cut into desert surfaces, or formed by low earthen mounds, or laid out with small rocks—“petroforms”.A mysterious petroform (boulder pattern) on exposed rock surface at Tie Creek, Manitoba. The feature is thought to be about 1500 years old, and its meaning is not known.

The Choreography of Geography

Another kind of sacred geography was the routes devised for pilgrimages to sacred places, whether natural or built. All ancient pilgrimage routes are choreographed so that the pilgrim gets glimpses of the holy destination from certain points along the way, or else the route takes him or her by places where miracles or other events associated with the pilgrimage are said to have taken place. The Hindus call these “faithscapes,” such as at Braj, India, which is a Krishna landscape: the pilgrims follow a designated route that takes them past locations where Krishna performed various acts. At certain times of the year actors actually re-enact these at the appropriate places.

Constructed temples and monuments were on occasion arranged to relate to one another in a given landscape, or to acknowledge a natural, revered feature. This has been noted in England, for instance, where stone circles were placed so that a formerly venerated natural feature is visible, sometimes so subtly and accurately that it is at the limits of visibility. In these cases, if the stone circle was placed even a hundred metres differently the visibility link would be lost.


Not all sacred geographies relied on visual cues—some were sensory in other ways, particularly in the creation of sacred soundscapes. Echoes, burbling streams or roaring waterfalls, musical rocks (lithophones), soughing wind, and other acoustic phenomena were often considered to signal the presence of spirits or divinities of various kinds. And acoustic locations could come in many forms. For instance, Petroglyph Rock, near Peterborough in Ontario, is a large, sloping marble slab covered with several hundred ancient engravings—it is said to be the most carved rock in the whole of Canada. Why? The answer most probably lies with a fissure about 16 feet (5 m) deep that cuts across the rock’s surface. Ground water sporadically flows along the bottom of the fissure causing noises remarkably like whispering voices to issue forth. The Indians in this part of the Americas, like many others elsewhere, had a belief that spirits, manitous, lived inside certain rocks and behind cliff-faces, so voice-like sounds emerging from this rock would readily have been identified as the spirits speaking. It is easy to understand, therefore, why it became a sacred place, perhaps an oracle centre.Part of the rocky ridge known as Carn Menyn in the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales. The Stonehenge bluestones were sourced here.

It is even beginning to appear that the Stonehenge bluestones, the first stones to be erected at the monument, also came from a soundscape—the Carn Menyn ridge in the Preseli Hills of southwest Wales, nearly two hundred miles distant. It has long been a puzzle why the Stone Age builders sourced these stones so far from the location of Stonehenge. Now, a project ( under the auspices of the Royal College of Art in London, in which the writer is involved, is revealing a possible answer. It has found that there is a significant preponderance of granitic rocks on the ridge that ring like bells, gongs or tin drums when struck with small hammerstones. A clue to the fact that the area is rich in such lithophones was secretly present all the time: the Welsh name of a Preseli village, Maenclochog, means “ringing rocks” or “bell stones”. Using a small hammerstone to strike rocks on Carn Menyn to see if they are lithophones (to see if they make a ringing sound).

An entirely different kind of soundscape was known of in Japan, where the idea of the land having speech was lodged deeply in some schools of Buddhism—in early medieval Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, founded by Kūkai, for instance. He likened the natural landscape around Chuzenji temple and the lake at the foot of Mount Nantai, near Nikko, to descriptions in the Buddhist scriptures of the Pure Land, the habitation of the buddhas. Kūkai considered that the landscape not only symbolised but was of the same essence as the mind of the Buddha. It spoke in a natural language, offering supernatural discourse. “Thus, waves, pebbles, winds, and birds were the elementary and unconscious performers of the cosmic speech of buddhas and bodhisattvas,” explains scholar Allan Grapard.

Although it is now performed in concert settings, Tuvan throat singing in Russia originated as a way of communicating with the land, a kind of precision technology used to elicit echoes in caves and from cliff faces. In Papua New Guinea, a tribe uses special musical instruments when there are distant thunderstorms, to ride the infrasonic waves of distant thunder. Sound was used in a myriad ways in ancient mindscapes, and we are only now beginning to hear it. 

Mapping Worldviews

How a culture maps its world says much about its way of thinking about its environment, how its soul and the soul of the world, the anima mundi, interact. In today’s modern world we are increasingly moving our viewpoint “off earth,” with satellite navigation devices in our cars divorcing us from the actual experience of travelling through the countryside or urban landscape, of understanding routes as connections of places and ways traversing a topography. We walk with cell phones or recording devices stuck to our ears so we are hardly aware of where we are. We are losing ourselves; we are no longer “here,” so it is perhaps timely to reacquaint ourselves with other, more psychologically wholesome ways of being on this planet.

If we can learn to make our environment sacred once again, then right environmental behaviour will come naturally, as a matter of course. It is worthwhile, therefore, to take a longer look at the cartography of former or disappearing worldviews, at the varieties of sacred geography. While we should not revert to the sacred geographies of ancient cultures, they nevertheless contain a lesson, a fundamental wisdom, we would be wise to heed—the mapping of the physical world needs to be integrated with the geography of the soul.


This article touches on material fully explored and referenced in the highly-illustrated Sacred Geography (US, UK, French, and Norwegian editions), by Paul Devereux. Additional information on this new title can be found in the Bookstore on the righthand sidebar.

Paul Devereux is a research affiliate of the Royal College of Art, London, and is a specialist in the anthropology of consciousness, archaeoacoustics, and psi phenomena. He is a founding co-editor of the peer-review publication, Time and Mind - The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture. He has field researched ancient places ranging from European Stone Age sites, to Mayan temples, to vision quest locations in the US, and many more. Besides articles, peer-reviewed papers and magazine columns, he has authored or co-authored 27 books in as many years, including Re-Visioning the Earth, The Sacred Place, Stone Age Soundtracks, and Sacred Geography.

Read more about Paul Devereux

Comments (3)
  • This is a fascinating, ground-breaking book and will delight anyone who wishes to understand the roots of spirituality in the pre-literate world.

    — Anne Baring on February 25, 2011

  • I appreciate this article tremendously, a beautiful complement to Llewellyn Vaughan Lee’s recent Prayer to the Earth in which he also discusses the inherently ‘singing’ nature of the earth. I agree that we are dangerously deaf to the subtle sounds of Nature, not just the audible sounds but the broader range of ‘voices’ that are available to us in many landscapes.
    As a classically trained pianist, my work shifted some time ago from ‘performance’ to deep listening, attracted by the humming whispers of the plants and stones in my garden. This focused listening opened a very rich vein of two-way conversation, for the response from Nature in the energy-field in my garden was as dynamic as the unfolding of my ‘human’ life. As an natural intuitive, I realize now that 15 years of this deep listening to the heart of Nature was the clearest and most precise training I could possibly have for working with the more complex variables of my fellow human beings! I continue to reference the increasingly articulate voice of the earth with a team of people in the Toronto area through a venture we are calling EarthSong Mysteries. Part of our mandate is to create sacred space, for ourselves and others, to participate in the ongoing mysteries of the earth through authentic song, deep listening, and always with an open-hearted respect for what we do not know…
    Thank you, Paul, for this reminder of the many natural and ‘magical’ ways that others in the past listened and tuned themselves to the living library. This is a wonderful article.

    — andrea mathieson on February 25, 2011

  • Fascinating pictures and story’s
    about sounds-capes particularly the
    Preseli hills blue stones and Stonehenge connection, i am planning a once in a lifetime visit there soon
    Mr Paul Deveux work is familiar to me some how i have intended this
    trip for many years now is the time.

    — ronald harper on June 14, 2011

24 February 2011

Tagged Under
sacred, cosmology, Earth, wisdom, Buddhism, environment, Hinduism, sacred geography, Living Universe, animals, mind, ancient cultures,
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