Have you ever driven through your neighborhood and discovered that vandals had painted grafitti on your local church? Have you ever begrudged when they tore down your favorite teenage hangout spot in your hometown, or when the lake you used to vacation at as a child got overpopulated and contractors put up too many resorts, hotels or cabins along the shore? Have you ever lived in a neighborhood you loved as it was, with all its faults and quirky shops, and felt sadness or resentment when the real estate boom gentrified everything, and your favorite bar, bookstore or locally owned restaurant disappeared? Have you ever felt apprehension when the oil industry and fracking industry moved too close to where you live? If so, then you have felt a feeling that is at least somewhat similar to the experience of the indigenous Hawai’ians, who are currently protesting the building of the world’s largest observatory on Mauna Kea. To the indigenous Hawai’ians, Mauna Kea is a sacred site. It is a space that provides them with identity, and it is intrinsically tied to their understanding of land and personhood of nature.
Every culture in the world has sacred spaces. Churches, mosques, temples easily come to mind when we think of sacred spaces. However, many cultures, also Western cultures, have a concept of sacred spaces in nature. Often, we Westerners disguise our sacralizing of nature in a language of aesthetics, leisure, and environmental protection. If you enjoy vacationing in nature, you implicitly understand nature’s sacrality. Your enjoyment of beautiful mountains, the ocean, forests, rivers, beaches, the sun and rain, is your modern way of experiencing the age-old human reverence for nature, which other cultures have—and still do—experienced as sacred. Multiple scientific studies have shown that humans experience increased happiness from being around nature. It does not matter if you’re a game hunter, someone who loves to lounge on a tropical beach, a skier, or an avid mountaineer, the act of being in nature is the thing that enhances your enjoyment of the hobby that you live out in nature.
The United States of America was the first country in the Western World that intentionally created sacred natural sites. National parks were invented here, and the idea that some places should be left alone from human development so that they can be enjoyed for their quality of being natural sites, is intrinsically American. I would even venture the guess that, even though Scandinavians are perhaps known for their relative outdoorsiness, North Americans are on average more outdoorsy than Europeans. It’s just a guess based on personal observations.
In Scandinavia we have a longstanding tradition for reverence of nature and what I would call the ancestral landscape. In the Icelandic sagas there are numerous examples of how the landscape is imbued with spirit. The most famous one is perhaps the story about the land-taking ritual, which shows up in many sagas. The Vikings who sailed for Iceland would often bring their so-called High-Seat Pillars with them. According to the stories these were wooden pillars that the patriarch had placed next to their high-seat in their hall on the farmstead. In some instances the sagas describe how they had the images of Nordic gods carved in them.
The Old Norse word for these pillars, however, is öndvegissúla (sg.), which best translates to “spirit-way-pillar,” and it is likely that they were representations of the World Tree or some (other) spiritual link between the human world and the spirit-world. According to the sagas the Icelanders would throw them overboard and let them drift ashore, and wherever they landed, they would create their homestead. The pillars themselves facilitated the connection between the Viking settler and the landvættir, the land-spirits, who lived in Iceland. In order to not offend these land-spirits, the migrating Vikings were also poised to take down the dragonheads on the prow of their boats when they came within sight of Iceland.
Once in Iceland we see the Viking settlers integrated with land in spiritual ways. There are several examples of this, but one prominent one is Thorolf Mostar-beard, who lived in the vicinity of the mountain Helgafell (Holy Mountain). He revered this mountain as sacred and his land was dedicated to the god Thor. The saga tells us that he believed that he would go live with the gods inside Helgafell once he died. This is an example of how a family in Iceland integrated themselves with the landscape, and since it is featured in the saga as a prominent aspect of their beliefs, we can perhaps assume that it was a commonly held notion. The sagas are after all Christian literature, so when pre-Christian ideas are featured, they have a reason to be there; they were not transmitted without redaction.
These ideas about a close connectedness with the landscape and a tendency to perceive the landscape as inhabited by spirit were not new to the Viking Age settlers in Iceland. They came straight from an ancient tradition in Scandinavia. Scandinavia is littered with ancient place-names that suggest dedications to the Nordic gods. Our local folktales provide insight into how our traditions have always perceived the landscape with spirit. Most of these folktales have been turned around by Christianity, and now such land-spirits are considered evil in the tales. However, they were probably not unequivocally evil in pre-Christian times (they were many things, but that is a subject for another discussion).
Just like the natural features had spirit according to the folktales, so was the landscape populated with the spirits of the ancestors. Across Scandinavia you can find burial mounds. These mounds were erected over one or more ancestors belonging to the local community living in the area. The oldest ones are from the Stone Age, some 5,000 years ago. The youngest ones are from the Viking Age, when Christianity effectively put an end to the practice.
In the 19th century, when national romanticism (or romantic nationalism) inspired an intensified reverence for the past in Northern Europe and Scandinavia, the reverence for the old burial mounds came back. In some corners of Scandinavian culture, this never really went away, but with the rise in antiquarian interest, the burial mounds came back into the heart of the public as sacred sites. Aside from the burial mounds, love for the landscape and nature also became commonplace once again.
In modern Scandinavian societies, these ideas persist. All the Nordic countries are strong supporters of environmentalism, and they all have sites (natural, built, and otherwise) that are revered as centers of importance to the nations. Iceland’s tourist industry thrives off such sites as Thingvellir, Godafoss, and Vatnajökull. Denmark has a 1000 year old tradition of using Jelling, the site of Harold Bluetooth’s runestone and mound, as a spiritual, royal, and national focus point. In Sweden, Anundshög serves as a national monument, and in Norway the Borre Mounds, Haraldshaugen, and multiple natural sites are locations of immense national pride. They are tangible landscape evidence of our identities.
However, you don’t have to go to Scandinavia to understand this feeling. You don’t have to look outside of the United States to find this relationship to land and sacred sites. As I mentioned above, national parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion, and Joshua Tree are to many Americans what Mauna Kea is to Hawai’ians. Mount Rushmore (which was created by Danish immigrants) is conceptually very similar to Harold Bluetooth’s Jelling monument, and the Washington Monument is held in as high regard as Thingvellir is by Icelanders and Haraldshaugen is by Norwegians.
If at any point, you have thought to yourself that you would be sad to see Mount Rushmore or the Washington Monument destroyed or desecrated, then you know what the Hawai’ians feel. And as I suggested in the beginning of this post, you don’t even have to think of national monuments and parks; you can relate this to how you would feel if someone desecrated your local church; tore down that old 1950s burger joint that you loved going to when you were younger; or built a giant oil field in the middle of the neighborhood. It’s that easy.
Watch the video below to learn about the Hawai’ian relationship to Mauna Kea:
Screenshot from video by Bryce Groark.
Header image from Wikipedia by Vadim Kurland (IMG_2673.JPG on Flickr).