|Claiming Our Sacred Lands
by Jeff Bishop
published on January 17, 2010
This month's MythNow Blog piece is written by JCF Associate Jeff Bishop. Jeff is a member of the JCF Mythological RoundTable® Group in Newnan, Georgia, and the president of the Georgia chapter of the Trail of Tears Association. He edits a history blog, trailofthetrail.blogspot.com, and is a staff writer and editor at the Times-Herald newspaper and Newnan-Coweta Magazine.
Joseph Campbell sometimes spoke of what the Icelanders refer to as “land-nam,” or the sanctification of new land through mythology. It was “land claiming,” he said. By naming a particular cave or tree or mountain and by telling its story, the land became an extension of the people occupying it. One, Campbell explained, would locate within one's self a “spiritual region, or condition of the mind,” wherein phenomenal forms such as those in the landscape are “recognized as revelatory of transcendence.”
Native Americans, Campbell observed, endow every feature of their landscape with layers of meaning:
“The coyotes, the various mountains, watercourses, frogs, serpents, rainbows, spiders, red ants, dragonflies, and so on ... wherever they go and whatever they see, they are in mind of supporting powers.”
Land-nam is a way of “sanctifying a region, converting it thereby into an at once psychologically and metaphysically symbolic Holy Land.”
Every land should be a Holy Land, Campbell said. “One should find the symbol in the landscape of the energies of life there. That’s what all early traditions do. They sanctify their own landscape.”
He called this a “fundamental function of mythology.”
One can see this very clearly, Campbell said, when Native Americans identify a Northern Mountain, a Southern Mountain, and Eastern and Western Mountains, and then a Central Mountain. Why does the door to a traditional Southeastern Native American home normally face east? Why was the fire of the earliest homes located in the center?
That very local center becomes also the “cosmic center,” he said, “with the smoke coming up through the hole in the center so that the scent of the incense goes to the nostrils of the gods.” Wherever man is, even in his own home, he is “related to the cosmic order.”
“People claim the land by creating sacred sites, by mythologizing the animals and plants – they invest the land with spiritual powers,” said Campbell. “It becomes like a temple, a place for meditation.”
This cosmic order is often absent in the world we live in today. A tree is just a tree. A rock is just a rock, a mountain a mountain. We do not see the deer and the chipmunks as echoes of ourselves, nature communing with itself. The tree is not to be treated as a “thou.” The tree is simply an “it.”
Campbell lamented that life “has become so economic and practical in its orientation that, as you get older, the claims of the moment upon you are so great, you hardly know where the hell you are, or what it is you intended. You are always doing something that is required of you. “Where is your bliss station?” Campbell asks. “You have to try and find it.” Our highways seem to me like a great place to begin.
At first this might sound strange. What’s holy about a highway? In what way is a road like a church? But how many of us get in the car and drive just to get away from our day-to-day concerns for even a short while, to think over some problem or to listen to some music or to just think of nothing and watch the landscape roll on by?
I know I need that escape.
The highways, like it or not, are the primary means through which we encounter our landscape today. Formerly, people walked (like Johnny Appleseed and Rip Van Winkle) or traveled by boat (like Huck Finn and Marlowe), and our stories reflected that.
But now we go by car.
We lose something when we do that -- something of the intimate relationship with the surroundings. We can no longer name individual berries and leaf types, like our grandfathers, or locate the den of a fox or a cardinal’s nest. And that seems like such a shame. We seem cut off from our environment.
But I think we forget that when we use our vehicles as our primary means of encountering our landscape, something is gained, too. Scope. Breadth. We can cover much more distance in a shorter length of time. We can call a wider area of our surroundings our “home land,” or Holy Land.
For the members of the Trail of Tears Association – an organization which consumes most of my volunteer hours -- that Holy Land is what is commonly referred to as the Trail of Tears. The forced removal of the native people from their ancient home lands is a story well worth telling. And, thanks to the automobile, we are not limited to simply reading about these events in a book, or on the Web. You can see and experience the Trail of Tears for yourself by getting into your car and driving it.
To get something approaching a true experience, you must travel these paths yourself. With the help of the National Park Service and an army of volunteers and partner organizations, many of the guideposts have been provided. (Or maybe the Civil War is the story that speaks to you. Or vernacular architecture. Or street art.)
Many of the paths we travel in our day-to-day lives are ancient. They are ingrained. The land tells us where the road will go, just as it told those before us. The path may veer east because this location was much more suitable for a ferry than the place where we once forded; or we may re-route to the north because it was a much more sensible location for a bridge. Modern technology allows us to build a tunnel through a mountain or a hill that once had to be climbed or walked around. But it’s amazing the extent to which the integrity of the ancient paths is maintained from century to century, much like the courses of the rivers and streams.
The story of our collective history is written into the landscape itself.
The road follows the old rail path, the dry streambed, the geological fault line. The asphalt covers old stage coach routes, old Indian footpaths, and even battlefields with their unmarked graves.
The road, from this perspective, is indeed holy ground.
We just have to “change the focus of the eye,” as Campbell said, and see what is right before us.
I would urge you to try to look past the billboards, past the glowing Golden Arches, the crumbling strip malls. The ghosts are all around us, all of the time, wandering this land. This land is your inheritance. Like the Icelanders, you should name it. Claim it. There is another world, after all. And it is this one.
The highway is the means by which we navigate the outer landscape. But as we travel outwardly, we can make the inward journey as well, keeping our eyes open for what the Celts called “thin places” all along the way.