Fixed places in the environment like Mt. Shasta allow people to “dwell” with meaning, or allow people to reflect how they belong, or associate themselves with their particular environment. When there is no permanent place in the world, people use their imagination to transform a place into something sacred and awe-inspiring. Sacred places are associated with deities, persons, saints, sacred objects, legends, environmental attributes, and relative popularity.
The most sacred places are remote and may be considered the most authentic because only certain people know of their location. In these ways, landscapes help to shape culture and people react to landscape based on individual experiences. People in small, isolated communities like Mount Shasta are less likely to spread their ideas and beliefs to the larger, more dominant culture. This is because it is difficult to maintain communication with these secluded groups.
Inclusion vs. Exclusion of Place
Through interpretation, numerous meanings can be applied to a place, which is why sacred places are often politically and religiously contested areas. A sacred place holds multiple meanings, but it is also powerful because it is owned, possessed, and appropriated. There is a negotiation of ownership of the sacred and its symbols and therefore, a sacred place is not constrained by its own spatial limits. In other words, the actual place is not contested, only its symbols are available for appropriation. These sacred places are claimed, owned, and operated by those people with vested interests. In Mount Shasta, it is the occult groups that function here, as well as New Agers.
Sacred places also incorporate the politics of exclusion and inclusion. Exclusion can never be total and appropriation will never be final; this is why sacred places will always be contested areas. When space is negotiated, some people are left out and boundaries are maintained and reinforced. These exclusionary practices are integral in creating a sacred place. Accordingly, sacred places are about the politics of exile, loss, alienation, and even nostalgia for the sacred; the sacred is for people who find themselves powerless.
What Makes a Site Sacred?
There is a combination of cultural, religious, and ecological forces that create a sacred site. Anthropologists and cultural geographers identify a sense of place by the people living in it. Cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in Topophilia uses the word topophilia to describe how people feel towards a particular place. Tuan defines topophilia as “the affective bond between people and place or setting.” The response to any environment may be aesthetic at first. “It may then vary from the fleeting pleasure one gets from a view to the equally fleeting but far more intense sense of beauty that is suddenly revealed. The response may be tactile, a delight in the feel of the air, water, the earth” (Tuan). The place is home, where memories remain and where a livelihood is formed.
Landscape features such as mountains, water bodies, groves, springs, wells, streams, coastal protuberances, and caves are often identified as sacred places. Caves have long figured as entryways to other worlds, worlds of spirit beings, of different lands, and different times. They are portals to other existences. Mountains are seen as the home of the gods, like Kilauea in Hawaii or Mount Olympus, and as places to uncover spiritual insight like Mount Athos or the Black hills. Mount Fuji in Japan and T’ai Shan in the Shantung province of China, are considered deities themselves.
“It is, of course, impossible to pretend that the American people sprang from common ancestors, from a mythic tribe in the mists of antiquity, as so many other nations do, and so it is necessary to define the group by its relation to a common territory” (Smith).
Sacred Place vs. Sacred Space
Place serves as an anchor in existence, especially in American society where there is a feeling of displacement and constant migration. People who are alienated in their societies may be lured to sacred places, particularly in natural landscapes. These fixed areas serve as an anchor to many people because starting over and relocating is operative in contemporary American life. Thus, there is no permanent place for people to identify as home. This is why natural landscapes are important for people to identify and claim as sacred; these places become facets of individual and group identity.
There is a difference between sacred space and a sacred place. Space is where events take place and where events are controlled; it is also an area where a group operates, held by popular consciousness and a narrative that represents the space as meaningful. Everyday life is inscribed in space and takes on meaning for people. Space is lived or experienced. In contrast, a place is spatial, environmental, and has a human appraisal. A place is familiar and local but can include larger areas of network, connections, and patterns of activities. A sacred place can be either a natural configuration or artificial construction like a church or mosque. Usually, sacred sites are sacred because of the people associated with them; these people have religious significance or credibility.
The United States is unique because people identify first with a locality, a state, and then a nation. In other words, people identify with parts of the United States, as well as all of it. For that reason, the American landscape is not homogeneous because it varies by locality. Federal legislation, mass media, and large corporations lend apparent uniformity and a false sense of community. There are imagined benefits of identity bound to a common territory.