Symbolism of Place
II. Natural Places
For ancient man all the natural places of the world were filled with symbolism. In The Sacred & The Profane Mircea Eliade observes that for religious man "nature is never 'only natural'; it is always fraught with a religious value." The earth was to early man a divine creation of the gods and the gods manifested the "different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena."
The manifestation of the earth's different "modalities" and the "religious value" attached to these made the world one great and vast symbol. Every natural place and phenomena had a particular "transparency" about it and ancient man saw through this transparency. Places represented something else beyond the world, something from the gods. Eliade notes that:
"This divine work always preserves its qualities of transparency, that is, it spontaneously reveals the many aspects of the sacred. The sky directly, 'naturally', reveals the infinite distance...The earth too is transparent; it presents itself as universal mother and nurse. The cosmic rhythms manifest order, harmony, permanence, fecundity."
For example, the earth's sky possessed a symbolic transcendence. Eliade notes that for ancient man it was "pre-eminently the 'wholly other' than the little represented by man and his environment." This transcendence, or really symbolism, was "revealed by the simple awareness of infinite height. In this way, "most high" spontaneously became "an attribute of divinity" and the higher regions which were inaccessible to man acquired the "momentousness of the transcendent." It was in these places that the gods dwelt.
The places of the world came to symbolize aspects beyond their mere physical reality. Mountains which reached into the sky became associated with divinity and light just as the depths of the ocean represented aspects of the devil and darkness. The symbolism of places developed through history and exists all around us in our modern world. Before exploring the powerful symbolic aspects of place it is necessary to first develop a useful classification of the natural places of the world. What is the description of this "transparent" world that ancient religious man was confronted with?
One obvious starting point in describing our symbolic world is with the development of some system of classifying places and the factors which separate them from other places. A system of classification developed by geographers and listed in a modern world atlas is a good place to begin.
Geographers have long searched for ways of classifying the geography of the world. They have used conditions such as climate, vegetation, landscape and soil to describe general similarities and differences in the various places of the world. The first method of organizing the major places of the world was based around climatic patterns. They provided a convenient global division into natural regions or biomes.
Divisions of the world based on climate were first suggested by Aristotle and these ideas were used until about 100 years ago. Aristotle posited a number of climate zones called torrid, temperate and frigid which were defined by latitude. Since latitude is based on north and south location of places in relationship to the equator, classification of world places was first based around north and south direction.
With time it became apparent that the complex distribution of atmospheric pressure, winds, rainfall and temperature could not be related to such a simple framework. As noted in the Rand McNally Deluxe Illustrated Atlas of the World edited by James Hughes, nineteenth-century scientists divided the world into 35 climatic provinces. Then in 1900 the German meteorologist Wladimir Koppen produced a more sophisticated climatic classification based on temperature and moisture conditions related to the needs of plants. At about the same time other scientists studied the distribution of vegetation types throughout the world. These studies provided the basis for much of the later work on climatic regions.
An important discovery was made in 1904 by the British geographer A.J. Herbertson. He argued that subdivision of physical environments should take into account the distribution of the various phenomena as they related to each other. He proposed the idea of natural regions, each having a "certain unity of configuration (relief), climate and vegetation." The final classification of Herbertson contained four groups or regions: Polar Types, Cool Temperate Types, Warm Temperate Types and Tropical Hot Lands. Within each of these natural regions proposed by Herbertson are located sub-groups. The Polar Type contains areas called Taiga and Tundra. The Cool Temperate Type contains temperate forests and grasslands and the great mountain chains of the world. The Warm Temperate Type contains tropical rainforests, savanna and the Mediterranean region. The Tropical HotLands contains deserts and the monsoon regions.
Attempts at classification of world places was also being influenced by ideas outside the area of climate. The term ecology, or the relationship of living things between each other and their surrounding, was first used by Ernst Haeckel a German biologist. It did not catch on as a general perspective until the end of the nineteenth century with the theories of the British botanist A.G. Tansley who was a leading exponent of ecological thinking. It was Tansley who first introduced the term ecosystem to describe a group of living organisms and its effective environment. Tansley's definition in 1935 referred to the whole system, including "not only the organism complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment of the biome."
Relating to the concept of ecosystems is that of resource systems. This geographic theory clarifies the interrelations of societies and environments and their change over time. It is a model of a population and their social and economic characteristics, including technical skills and resources, together with aspects of their natural environment that affect them and which they influence. The Deluxe Atlas notes that it involves "the sequences by which natural materials are obtained, transformed and used" and "attempts to show how societies are organized according to their natural resources, the effects of that use, and the ways in which natural conditions limit or expand the life and work of the society."
These concepts and classifications of geography are obviously important in formulating a classification of the major symbolic places of the world. However, such a classification should combine both the early climate theories with the later systems theories emphasizing ecosystems and resource systems. In other words the manmade places of nations and the continents they are located within should be included with the major apsects of our physical world. We need to locate within our classification the places which have a universal symbolic significance which have been used in storytelling throughout the ages.
We propose first of all to consider our earth as a place and briefly review its symbolism. Throughout history it has been considered the only place but with recent space exploration and the increasing probability of colonies on distant planets it becomes another place within the universe and within the imagination of mankind. Photos from space and particularly the one taken on the moon make us aware of earth as another place rather than the only place.
After consideration of the place of the earth we formulate a classification of the major symbolic places of the world. Our classification begins with the large areas and then moves towards the smaller ones. We begin with continents and nations and propose that they offer overall symbols relating to the systems their culture has established throughout history. As I argue throughout this book these symbolic aspects translate into psychic aspects in mankind. Broad generalizations are, of course, very risky but in the area of symbolism we have a greater liberty with taking them. In this sense, the European and North American continents symbolize thinking and rational functions of the head. The Asian continent and its cultures symbolize the intuitive and irrational aspects of man. The South American continent symbolzes the feeling aspects, the emotional aspects of the psyche and the African continent the primitive aspects.
Pervading the classification of continents and nations is the important symbolism of the direction and its components of east, west, south and north. Symbolism based around direction has been influential in story forms throughout history and has a strong relationship to the symbolism associated with the various continents and nations.
We then move to defining the major symbolic regions or ecosystems of the world. The classifications of Herbertson and natural regions is modified for our purposes and we arrive at the seven broad symbolic places of deserts, prairies, jungles, forests, oceans, mountains and polar. This classification is based in part on climate conditions but also on other aspects of place symbolism we discuss later in the book relating to color, space, time, phenomena and elements.
Within these major places particular natural places occur. We have classified these as rivers, shores, bays, peninsulas, lakes, valleys, canyons, caves and hollows.
In the following chapter, we move from the symbolism of natural places to that of manmade places. We argue that the symbolism of these culturally created places mirror the symbolism of natural places.