Sacred Places and Rituals

Mount Shasta, California

The Importance of Myth and Place

            Myths help to negotiate concerns of life and provide a framework for relations with other people, nature, and the sacred. What people maintain as sacred includes myth, symbols, rituals, ceremonies, artifacts, places, and time. Myths provide a link between the known and the mysterious. There are specific features of the land that are also located in the mythical world. In combination, myths and sacred places create an orientation in space and time, creating both a human and individual identity.

It is through sacred places that the unknown becomes linked with the known. An example is the mythic gates of death through which all humans must pass. Sacred space is particularly sanctified because it is a gateway to the unknown. Groups may promise followers secrets to transcend the unknown through a physical place like mountains or caves (especially on Mount Shasta).


            Symbolic performances and rituals can be repeated in sacred places. In this way, sacred places are an anchor for a worldview. Active management of the land and human relations to the land is encoded in myth and upheld through rituals. Any place that is associated with great mystery is set apart from the mundane world through rituals. Because of this, peripheral places often become holy and have a feeling of otherworldliness. These places are segregated and are not transferable, nor do they need to be re-established for each generation.

            A sacred place is chosen by people who believe that the divine dwells there; it is an ordinary place transformed through rituals, which sets the site apart from the rest of the landscape as unique. Rituals are needed to practice control over these sacred places as a way to exert human power over them; otherwise, sacred places would exist apart from human control. A sacred place must possess multiple meanings for people to interpret and accommodate a diversity of beliefs.

Ritual activity and symbolic meaning must be ascribed to a sacred place. It is in this way that people create a historically crafted landscape. Emotions become anchored to a natural site like Mt. Shasta because of its aesthetic value, mythology, and historical importance. These places become part of mythology and holy places created by the gods and spirits, and by attributing an area to the creation of gods, it becomes sacred.

What Makes A Place Sacred?

            Sacred sites are often chosen by their association with earlier myths or legends. In mythologies, the natural world and the supernatural are not separate, and they impact human lives. Often, a site that is regarded as sacred is hierophantic, where a deity has manifested. It is also theophanic, where a person receives a message from a deity, and the person interprets it for others. An example is the Oracle of Delphi in Greece, where a person receives a message from the gods and interprets it for the inquiring person. Supernatural events that have occurred mark the landscape. However, a mystical experience is difficult to repeat, and returning to the site does not guarantee another renewed experience.

            Myths facilitate infrastructure and regional development by helping to unite people from different origins into a common fellowship. When there are two or more groups located in the same area, social and political instability may arise over competition for resources and recognition. The most notable impact of a belief system working in a restricted environment is when a new belief system competes with an already established one. An example is when a distinct denomination establishes itself in an area already dominated by a Protestant or Catholic community.

Differences between a group’s values and attitudes are highlighted if there are political, cultural, and ideological disagreements. In addition, the new group may try to modify the physical landscape to further their own teaching and belief system. Placing crosses or creating altars modifies the landscape in a way that affects those people who are not members of the particular group.

Further Reading

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