Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Mai

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeurs: Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway) / Juri Mosidze (Tbilissi)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Mythological Mountain Culture

Anne Holden Rønning (Department of English, University of Bergen)



Mountains have been surrounded by an ideology of myth since time immemorial, often with religious connotations, as ways of exploring and explaining the origins and history of peoples, as well as topographical phenomena. Against theories of myth this paper will investigate some of the background for these beliefs, especially in relation to First Nations Peoples. This will be illustrated by looking at the role mountains or rocks play in Aboriginal myth and legend in particular.

A land best known for its deserts, Australia has some mountain ranges (e.g. the Blue Mountains) and a monolithic rock - Uluru (Mount Ayers) - both of which are imbued with the legend and myth of aboriginal 'Dreamtime.'



The ideology of myth surrounding mountains often posits them as sources of sacrality and lore, representing the myth of the unknown, the strange, the uncanny. In some communities, especially indigenous ones, myth making is a way of explaining the importance of association with the land, the effect of nature on the individual and the passing of sacred information from one generation to another, often closely linked to religious rites. Today, increasing tourism tends to ignore the traditional myths associated with mountains and ancient sites and thus abuses their symbolic spirituality. One example is the manner in which the whites and tourists have, in the eyes of the indigenous peoples, desecrated the monolith Uluru in Australia by, for example, putting up a rope to aid climbers - a colonisation of an ancient site. Mythical stories are linked to many mountain ranges in the Western as well as the non-Western world. Several of these myths are essentially negative even in Christian mythology, where old mountain shrines were often linked to evil powers and spirits such as witches, e.g. Pendle Hill in England. More positive in Christian belief and better known is of course Moses' descent from Mount Sinai with the tablets from God, and the ascent of Jesus to heaven. The latter is a good example of the combination of local myth and religious belief in that local mountainous topography is more common in depictions than that of the Middle East. However, the majority of associations with mountains and hills have in some form or other connotations that challenge the uncanny and or what Freud called the "unheimlich."

In this paper I want to discuss the concepts "myth" and "the uncanny" as ways of understanding the variety of legends and myths surrounding Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it was temporarily renamed by the Australian colonisers.



The Aborigines have sacred places in all of the Australian mountains, whether the "iced peaks of snow, golden-glowing pinnacles of the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory" or the "behemoth sandstone monoliths such as Ayers Rock and the Olgas" (Newman 8). Uluru is the world's largest monolith and was returned to the Aborigines in 1985. However, many guide books and even scholarly articles still refer to it as Ayers Rock, named as it was after the then governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers, by William Christie Gosse in 1873. Gosse, a government surveyor, set out for Alice Springs and describes his first impression of Ayers Rock thus:

This seems to be a favourite resort of the natives, judging from the numerous camps in every cave. They amuse themselves covering these with all sorts of devices - some of snakes very cleverly done, others of two hearts joined together; in one I noticed a drawing of a creek with an emu track down the centre. (35)

Uluru is the "Altar of the Australian Aborigines' Dreamtime. [The] Sleeping and resting place of their spirit, the Rainbow Serpent" (Oodgeroo, 97). For a detailed discussion of the Rainbow Serpent I refer the reader to the book edited by Ira Buchler and Kenneth Maddock The Rainbow Serpent. A Chromatic Piece (1978). Uluru is huge (348 m high, 9 kilometres in circumference), flat-topped and dome-shaped and lies about 200 miles south east of Alice Springs in the heart of the Australian Desert. Opinions differ as to its geological formation. Some say it is the summit of a buried mountain, others maintain it extends to an underground sea. Two notable features of the rock are the wind playing round it which gives a moaning sound - thought by the Aborigines to be the spirits of their ancestors; and secondly the change of colour throughout the day, but especially at sunrise and sunset, from orange to purple. Anyone who has visited the Australian deserts will remember the remarkable changes and variations that light plays on a landscape which in a photograph seems only one rust red colour. Surrounded by eleven waterholes that attract animals Uluru provides food for people in the Pitjandjara country. Though lacking in vegetation itself, its many 100m drop waterfalls make it a source of water irrigation and thus form an oasis in the desert. The base of the rock has numerous caves, with many paintings, affording shelter. Any discussion of the myths and legends surrounding Uluru is, therefore, inextricably linked to its topographical features.


Topographies and Dreamtime

Three topographical features are in general dominant in mountain mythology, sheer height and impregnability; clouds; and volcanoes. As Biedermann points out "The AXIS MUNDI is frequently imagined as a mountain in the far north around which the other STARS revolve" (229). This idea goes back to pre-Christian times, an example being found on an Akkadian seal from 2.500 B.C. depicting a deity atop a mountain (228). Clouds covering a summit inspire reflections on the unknown, the uncanny; and volcanoes are seen either as linked to the underworld and the evil spirits therein or as points of contact with superhuman beings, ancestors using them in battles, as, for instance, in Maori mythology. Since one of the oldest mythological traditions is associated with height, and a virtual symbol of proximity to God, or the home of the gods - in other words sacredness - it is understandable that Uluru with its enormous height and breadth in a flat desert landscape would be seen as holy.

In Topographies Hillis Miller has posed the question of whether we can divorce the contours of a place from the toponymics of the place - the significance of naming. The very derivation of the word topography 'topos' (place) and 'graphos' (inscribing) is illustrated well in the case of Uluru. The use of the native term allows us to gain access to what is behind it, whereas the name Ayers Rock indicates the colonial, even Western, way of honouring people by giving their names to topographical features.

Hillis Miller has described how topography "originally meant the creation of a metaphorical equivalent in words of a landscape. Then, by another transfer, it came to mean representation of a landscape according to the conventional signs of some system of mapping. Finally, by a third transfer, the name of the map was carried over to name what is mapped" (3-4). We may say that this is what has happened at Uluru. Scientists may explain the innumerable markings on the rock sides of Uluru as caused by water erosion over the centuries. However, Dreamtime would attribute to each some mythical meaning explaining narrated history. For example, Uluru itself, the Great Rainbow Serpent, is regarded as a symbol of fertility because the horseshoe shape of the monolith resembles a womb. This idea of an ancestor leaving a visible mark on the topography is in contrast to Western mythology of mountains that is more based on optical illusions.

If we study photographs such as those in Layton's and Mountford's books, we can understand how the imagination could turn the vast number of rivulets into carpet snakes, covering as they do one side of the monolith - marking a move from the topographical landscape to indigenous convention. Other less symmetrical crevices represent the poisonous snakes, Uluru thus encompassing both the good and the evil. Mountford's detailed study Ayers Rock (1965) illustrates in no uncertain manner how boulders and rock formation could be interpreted as human beings asleep or dead (37). This is not peculiar to indigenous peoples, however, we have only to think of the mountain top on Dunmail Rise in the English Lake District locally known as the Lion and the Lamb, or from another angle visualized as an old woman playing the organ.

Aborigines have, for centuries, long before the white man came, used naming to explain history and to show belonging. In postcolonial theory this concept is frequently interpreted as meaning that if you name something you have power over it. Naming the monolith Ayers Rock made it part of colonial Australia, whereas naming it Uluru underlines its sacredness to Aboriginal people. We can thus hardly separate the contours of a place from its toponymics - naming gives us access to what is behind it, to the myths attached to the place.



In Aboriginal belief, Dreamtime is a central concept, which comprises the history of creation when the ancestors walked over the earth, leaving their mark. It also embraces the intimate relationship between man, nature and the sacred. In Oodgeroo's collection of Aboriginal Stories titled Dreamtime, one section of the book is entitled "Stories from the Old and New Dreamtime," underlining the continuous renewal process which is fundamental to this Aboriginal concept. Dreamtime is thus inextricably bound up with both past and present-day Aboriginal culture and is embedded in oral literature and songs that form the basis for social rituals and norms. This is evident in the various interpretations of the markings on Uluru, since it is a place that belongs not only to one tribal group, because its central place within the Australian landscape has meant that the tracks of several "mobs" cross here. Hence the diversity of legends and myths that have arisen to explain the remarkable features of this monolith. According to Robert Layton, "The view of the world expressed in [such] narratives gives meaning to many aspects of traditional social life (...) a vision of the order behind the world today" (14).

Oral tradition and mythology allow for change, for a living "adapted" tradition, since dreaming places are regarded as sacred sites, and it is a duty to hand on the tradition and legends associated with them and to care for them. Today many of the topographical features of Uluru are still used in connection with initiation rites, asking for rain/water, and plentiful food, e.g. by rubbing stones, marking a continuation of the ongoing creative process. Mountford found that in some of the caves this rubbing had gone on so long that the stones were worn smooth, and the yellow ochre colour has become imbedded in the rock. He also found during his several visits to the caves that the paintings were changed, as if each generation and group used them to express their own interpretation of history.

How can we as Westerners understand such a concept as Dreamtime? Would the use of our Western literary paradigms amount to yet another form of colonization? Yet they can help us to throw some light on and understanding of how such myths and legends have arisen. It is, therefore, with all due respect to indigenous thought processes behind the myths of Uluru, that I propose looking at Barthes' ideas on mythology from the 1950s and Freud's concept of the "unheimlich" to illustrate that a concept such as Dreamtime does have certain parallels in Western thought about myths and legends.


The Uncanny

Let us first look at the term that typifies the appeal of mountains, the unknown, but is also a source of fear. In Western terminology there is a close connection between myth and the "uncanny." In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Gothic fiction and an interest in the subconscious led to an increased demystification of traditional, often regarded as superstitious, beliefs in ghosts and a world of fairies, elves, little people etc. According to Castle such beliefs lost their "social relevance" and their function "as a kind of social control" desisted (168). He argues that "the act of internalizationthe uncanny absorption of ghosts and apparitions into the world of thoughtwas actually a momentous event in the history of Western consciousness with paradoxical consequences for the modern theory of imagination" (171). First Nations peoples have by and large not undergone this change, which was presaged by Enlightenment thought in Europe.

There is little doubt that to some people the myths surrounding Uluru might be conceived as interpretations of the "uncanny," as was the case prior to twentieth-century social anthropology. Research by anthropologists, especially from the 1920s onwards, has established and mapped the diverse features of Uluru and the myths associated with them. The anthropologists have demonstrated that the Aboriginal interpretation of events is more in keeping with mediæval and earlier understandings of inexplicable phenomena, which by adding a sacred note turned these phenomena into tradition and belief. This does not mean that First Nations peoples do not experience the same uncanny which was defined by Freud, but that they have not relinquished the association of such with tradition and history as we have in the Western world. Our scepticism has not as yet been transferred to them. An example from Aboriginal writing is an occasion in Auntie Rita when Rita Huggins describes a visit to Uluru:

During a long weekend we hired a car and went to Uluru, a place I had only dreamed about. I was overcome by its presence and beauty. A kindred spirit had opened up inside me. For one of the very few times in my life I was speechless as we drove around it. I noticed every little crevice and wondered how all the old people once survived in harmony around it. (...) as we drove past Uluru, I pointed out the Aboriginal warrior's face on the rock. The English lass swore she could not see it. I've always wondered if it is only something Black people can see, as every Murrie I have spoken to who has been to Uluru has seen it. (126)

In Western thought "fear of disruption and disintegration" is a result of the conflict between a visible and invisible presence or absence (Bronfen 113), whereas in Aboriginal dreamtime it is a source of power and understanding of life and creation. It is thus tempting to pose that Christianity has been the cause of our association of the uncanny with dread and horror, related as it is to frightening experiences often associated with evil, as in Gothic fiction. First Nation peoples look on the uncanny rather as proof of the existence of spirits and ancestors who survive, for example the sacred mountain in Sami land. Similarly Maori myth and legend surrounding New Zealand mountains is closely linked to interpretations of the coming of the Maori to New Zealand, especially in the North Island.

Freud's use of the term unheimlich (literally not homely) in an essay in 1919 to signify a sudden feeling of strangeness and discomfort, often in places where a person feels secure, or with which he or she is familiar, might be applicable to aboriginal dreamtime. The frequent reference to colour and spectacular colour changes on Uluru according to the light and time of day, for example, give rise to ideas of the uncanny. However, though in Western thought the uncanny arouses dread or horror, because these senses are internalized and thus even more inexplicable, in indigenous thought it is more positive, seen as a source of power and belonging.

An example of the internalization of the uncanny and an invisible presence is the occasion Wordsworth experienced as a boy rowing on Grasmere and recounted in "The Prelude".

... a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned
... ; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams. (I, 378-385, 390-400)

The fear and dread recounted here and elsewhere in Wordsworth's description of his childhood relation with Nature is in contrast to that of indigenous writing. Take for instance the opening stanza of Errol West's poem "Misty mountains tell me the secret you hold, of men":

Misty mountains tell me the secrets you hold, of men
and women, the young and the old who graced your treed
slopes and from your sweet water streams drank to their
content. Are their spirits still occupying your beautiful form
as totemic beings ensuring your continued existence. (Sabbioni 148, 1-5)


Mythology can be seen as a fictitious narrative embodying popular ideas concerning natural and/or historical phenomena. The body of mythic narrative provides symbolic meaning for events, and has power to inform both the micro and the macro grand narrative. The vast variety of rock forms on Uluru and their changing interpretation through time, and even from one group to the other, open up for a reading of aboriginal lore as myth.

the knowledge contained in a mythological concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations. One must firmly stress this open character of the concept; it is not at all an abstract, purified essence; it is a formless, unstable, nebulous condensation, whose unity and coherence are above all due to its functions (...) The fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated. (119)

In Mythologies (1957) Roland Barthes discussed mythology in relation to contemporary culture. In this text he claims that "myth hides nothing; its function is to distort, not to make disappear" (121). It is a refocalization of time past and constitutes a system of communication: "Myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message" (109). The interrelation Barthes sees between myth, semiology and the interpretation of signs makes it particularly appropriate for explaining the many legends and myths about Uluru, as we saw in relation to Hillis Miller's theories of topographies. Knowledge of sacred sites and lore is not public, and is often only oral in Aboriginal thought, hence it quickly becomes mythological and will vary from mob to mob.

Although Barthes in the 1970s introduction to this text states that his writing on this "belongs to the past" (9), and has like many critics changed his views and stance on this issue, this does not necessarily prevent us as literary critics from finding value in applying his approach in Mythologies. According to Hiatt, Australian myths have been interpreted variously as history, charter, dream or ontology (3), which he sees as not incompatible. Hiatt's view would support the ideas of the changing nature of myth but widen that perspective to include not just difference over time but also within time. In Australian Aboriginal Mythology he elaborates on these concepts and what they mean for an understanding of Aboriginal myth.

One of the points made by Barthes is how a visual image understood and used to communicate history is more than what is actually visible, opening up for diverse readings. This is well demonstrated in the interpretations that lie at the base of the myths surrounding Uluru. In all there are several mythical stories associated with Uluru, so I will only refer briefly to some few here. The probably best known is the battles of the snakes (Mountford 31-33), where boulders and rock formations have been interpreted as dead warriors - (photographs make clear how remarkably these formations resemble humans) - and the stains and growth of red and green lichen on the rock are seen as symbolic of the remains of men, the dark stains being the blood of dying men (57). The pitted markings on the rock are interpreted as evidence of spearheads thrown in a battle between the poisonous snakes (Liru) and the carpet snakes (Kunia), who at the close of the creation period were transformed into natural features. A look at pictures of this reveals the possibility of such a mythical interpretation, as expressed in theories of myth.

Other legends are of the hare-wallabies (Mala), who moved to the northern face of Uluru, where rock formations are interpreted to explain the myths of initiation ceremonies. In yet another place it is the myth of the lizard men, Kandju and Linga, a myth which has its origins in a boomerang sent by Kandju which went far astray and landed at Uluru. The cavities in the sand are seen as the holes dug by Kandju to find the boomerang. These varied myths illustrate the point made by the poet Oodgeroo, one of the earliest champions Aborigine rights, that the past for Aborigines is always present:

Let no one say the past is dead.
The past is all about us and within.
Haunted by tribal memories, I know
This little now, this accidental present
Is not the all of me, whose long making
Is so much of the past. ("The Past" 1990, 86, 1-6)


A study of the myths of Uluru can provide us with a fascinating picture of how people have interpreted specific natural phenomena to inscribe their heritage and to explain the uncanny shapes and formations in nature. Myth is a central element in the history of these peoples and provides a tool for interpreting the landscape in which they live and roam. As such it has a seminal role in life, in contrast to traditional Western concepts of myth as something not related to everyday experience. The interpretation of history as in Dreamtime at Uluru, through the extensive use of myth, provides for phenomena, whether natural or imagined, what Barthes calls "a natural and eternal justification, it gives them a clarity which is not that of an explanation, but a statement of fact" (143).

© Anne Holden Rønning (Department of English, University of Bergen)


Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. 1957. Selected and translated by Anette Lavers. London: Vintage, 1993.

Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meaning Behind Them. Translated by James Hulbert. N.Y: Meridian, 1994.

Bronfen, Elisabeth. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity, and the Aesthetic. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Buchler. Ira B. and Kenneth Maddock. ed. The Rainbow Serpent. A Chromatic Piece. the Hague, Paris: Mouton Publishers, 1978.

Castle, Terry. The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth Century Culture and the Invention of then Uncanny. N.Y: OUP, 1995.

Davis, Jack, Stephen Muecke, Mudrooroo Narogin, Adam Shoemaker, ed. Paperbark: A Collection of Black Australian Writings. 1990. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 1993.

Hiatt, L.R. ed. Australian Aboriginal Mythology. Essays in honour of W.E.H. Stanner. Social Anthropology Series no. 9; Australian Aboriginal Studies no. 50. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1975.

Huggins, Rita and Jack Huggins. Auntie Rita. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1994.

Layton, Robert. Uluru: An Aboriginal History of Ayers Rock. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 1989.

Miller, J. Hillis. Topographies. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Mountford, Charles P. Ayers Rock: Its People, their Beliefs and their Art. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1965.

Newman, Dalys. Presenting Australia 1981. Brookvale, NSW: National, 1991.

Oodgeroo. My People. 1970. Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Wiley Ltd., 1990.

---. Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books, 1994.

Sabbioni, Jennifer, Kay Schaffer and Sidone Smith, ed. Indigenous Australian Voices: A Reader. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

West, Errol. "Misty mountains tell me the secrets you hold, of men" in Jennifer Sabbioni, Kay Schaffer and Sidone Smith, ed. Indigenous Australian Voices: A Reader. New Brunswick, New Jersey and London: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Wordsworth, William. "The Prelude." The Poetical Works of Wordsworth. 1904. Ed. Thomas Hutchinson and revised by Ernest de Selincourt. Oxford: OUP, 1950.

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic

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