The Primal, Sacred ‘Nature/Earth Landscape’

MIRCEA ELIADE, the historian of religion, once noted that:

“It was the prophets, the apostles, and their successors the missionaries who convinced the western world that a rock (which certain people have considered to be sacred) was only a rock, that the planets and stars were only cosmic objects – that is to say, that they were not (and could not be) either gods or angels or demons.”[i]

Earth worship persisted up to about 500 CE in Europe and is thought to have originated in Mesopotamia and spread throughout the Near and Middle East, Europe, Africa and Asia. Earth worship corresponds to animism – the belief that everything is endowed with soul/spirit. Indeed, the concept of animism “extended to plants and animals because of the spiritual power (mana) they were perceived to have as children of the Earth Mother”.[ii]

Earth worship persists today among certain ‘native’ and aboriginal tribes who choose to retain their primal knowledge and traditions, with a relationship of kinship between human beings and all of creation – vegetation, animals, the elements and other planets.[iii] It is an holistic approach to life, with strong emphasis on the I-Thou relationship.[iv]

The traditional Maori landscape exemplifies the primal and sacred Nature/Earth Landscape. In the Maori cosmology all living things are descendents of Rangi (the Sky Father) and Papa (the Earth Mother) and thus are related. The ancient Maori regard for their land was such that “at times it seems doubtful whether it is the tribe who owns the mountain or river or whether the latter own the tribe”.[v]

For traditional Maori, separation from one’s landscape was a spiritual as well as a physical dislocation. The alienation of Maori land to Europeans was sometimes referred to as the death of the land.[vi] The intense and mysterious ties with the land were such that before being executed one Maori prisoner asked his captors to allow him to view his tribal territory once more and drink from his river.[vii]

The Nature/Earth Landscape ‘focus of perception’ was to change with the advent first of Judaism and then Christianity, where a monotheistic patriarchal God held dominion over nature and conferred human dominion over nature to ‘the chosen’ and ‘the righteous’. With the domination by missionary Christianity over primal peoples and their spirituality, the power balance shifted and the primal, sacred Nature/Earth Landscape was challenged and superseded by a new revelatory Anthropocentric Landscape.

Geographer of religion Erich Isaac (1960) drew the landscape distinction between primal “magical-cosmic religions” where “everything is potentially sacred, but only in a few chosen places is the potential realised” on the one hand, and the “great religions of revelation” where God is “in no way confined by space” and the divine is removed from the landscape, on the other.[viii]

For Isaac, religions of revelation “contrast with the magical-cosmic religions in that the divine is outside of nature and man, and no site is intrinsically holier than any other. Sites are hallowed by God’s choice of them at a particular historical moment. The tendency of religions of revelation is thus to remove the divine from the landscape”.[ix]

Paradoxically, “while God is conceived as in no way confined by space”, God is at the same time “confined in so far as He (sic) is regarded as peculiarly attached to certain specific localities” or holy sites.[x]

The man-made city in monotheistic religions came to symbolize the heavenly order. As Yi-Fu Tuan points out “The city symbolized heavenly order. Within its walls one found just rules and discriminations; beyond them lay chaos and arbitrariness. The most heart-felt eschatological longings drew on city imagery in utterance”.[xi] This reinforced the alienation felt for the Nature/Earth Landscape outside the city walls.

Jerusalem was the Holy City – the prime City of God. According to the Genesis myth of creation, “the earth was without form and void, darkness hovered over the face of the abyss and a mighty wind swept over the face of the waters” although, in the end, there is perfect order.

“St. John saw a new heaven and a new earth on which there no longer existed any sea or darkness for the glory of God gave light. In the beginning was confusion. In the end St. John beheld the holy city of Jerusalem, which had the crystalline structure and radiance of some priceless jewel (Revelation xxi).”[xii]

While God may be found in his Holy City Jerusalem, on the other hand it is argued by Belden C. Lane that for the Judeo-Christian tradition, a “God made proximate in place may be no God at all”.[xiii] The call to abandon the security of place is a persistent theme throughout Western religious thought. Samuel Terrien maintains that the theme of God’s elusive presence forms the heart and soul of biblical theology in both the Old and New Testaments.[xiv]

The Father-God is distanced from the Nature/Earth Landscape and in consequence it is de-sacralised. God is above nature. As Belden C. Lane points out, the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) “spoke of this insistent rejection of pagan animism to have resulted in a ‘disenchantment’ of the world within the western mind, a freeing of nature from its intense religious associations”.[xv]

The God of the Old Testament, while distanced from nature, nevertheless establishes dominance over nature and confers the privilege of domination to the ‘chosen’ – the righteous and the faithful. God has the power to use nature to punish transgressors with natural disasters.

Thus geographer Jeanne Kay, writing in The Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 1989, maintains that human dominion over nature is inherent in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament within the Christian Bible):

“the Bible’s most persistent environmental message is that God confers human dominion over nature to righteous or faithful people, whereas God punishes transgressors with natural disasters… The themes of a beneficent environment as God’s rewards for good human behavior and a deteriorating environment as God’s punishment for evil resound throughout the Bible and were favorite themes of the prophets.”[xvi]

Christianity had followed in the Hebraic tradition of domination over nature. Yi-Fu Tuan points out that for early Christianity an express purpose was to “loosen man’s earthly bonds so that he might more easily enter the heavenly kingdom”.[xvii]

A CHANGE IN LANDSCAPE FOCUS AND IMAGINATION occurred, from one of perceiving the sacred in nature and the earth to an anthropocentric focus of perceiving the sacred to be in a heavenly ‘other world’ and in man’s soul – as distinct from his ‘profane’ physicality which linked him with other animals and the natural world .

This is well illustrated in the recounted experience of Petrarch, the fourteenth-century Renaissance humanist, poet and scholar. Taking a day off from his work on letters Petrarch decided to climb Mount Ventoux in southern France. From the summit of some 6,000 feet he took delight in the views of the distant chateau country of Avignon and the feeling of being “free and alone, among the mountains and forests”.[xviii] But as he stood in wonder he felt the urge to open Augustine’s Confessions, which he had brought along in his pocket, and there he read to his chagrin the Bishop of Hippo’s accusing words: “Men go gape at mountain peaks, at the boundless tides of the sea, the broad sweep of rivers, the encircling ocean, and the motions of the stars: And yet they leave themselves unnoticed; they do not marvel at themselves”.[xix] Petrarch later wrote that “I was abashed and I closed the book, angry with myself that I should still be admiring earthly things who might long ago have learned…that nothing is wonderful but the soul”.[xx] He left the mountain hurriedly, reflecting on how easily the world’s beauty can divert men and women from their proper concerns.

[i] Wendell, C, Bean & William G. Doty (eds.), Myths, Rites, Symbols: A Mircea Eliade Reader (New York: Harper & Row, 1975), I, 128.

[ii] Andree Collard and Joyce Contrucci, Man’s Violence Against Animals and the Earth (Indiana University Press, 1989), 8.

[iii] Ibid, 7.

[iv] H. and H.A. Frankfort, John A. Wilson, Thorkild Jacobsen and William A. Irwin, The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man – An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 4-7.

[v] C.M.G. Gudgeon, ‘Mana Tangata’. The Journal of Polynesian Society, v.14, no.54 (1905), 57. Cf. Hong-Key Yoon, Maori Mind, Maori Land, Eratosthene Interdisciplinary Series (Bern & New York: Peter Lang, 1986), 58.

[vi] William Martin, The Taranaki Question (London: W.H. Dalton, 1961), 39. Cf. Hong-Key Yoon(1986) Maori Mind, Maori Land, 57 & 59.

[vii] Elsdon Best, The Maori (Polynesian Society, Wellington (1941 [1924]) vol.1), 397.

[viii] Erich Isaac, ‘Religion, Landscape and Space’, Landscape v.9, no.2 (Winter, 1959-60), 14-15.

[ix] Ibid, 16-17.

[x] Ibid, 17.

[xi] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Sacred Space: Explorations of an Idea’, in: K. Butzner (ed.), Dimensions of Human Geography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 86.

[xii] Ibid, 86.

[xiii] Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred – Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), 189.

[xiv] Samuel Terrien, The Elusive Presence: The Heart of Biblical Theology (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978).

[xv] Lane (1988) Landscapes of the Sacred, 18.

[xvi] Jeanne Kay, ‘Human Dominion over Nature in the Hebrew Bible’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v. 79 (1989), 214ff.

[xvii] Yi-Fu Tuan, ‘Geopiety’, 26.

[xviii] Lane (1988) Landscapes of the Sacred, 187.

[xix] Ibid.,187- 188. Cf. Confessions of St. Augustine, X, viii, 5.

[xx] Ibid, 187-188.

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