In ancient China, the oldest form of this myth is likely found in the battle between two gods, usually the fire and water gods, that causes the great mountain, the earth's pillar, to collapse. The goddess Nu Gua, of the Dong Yi peoples in Shandong, sacrifices a turtle and uses the legs of the sacrifice to prop up the sky.
Mount Penglai, one of the three blessed islands, was the oldest version of the cosmic mountain -- the home of the immortals, destination of the dead and source of the fruits of immortality.
Penglai was vaguely located in the seas east of Shandong. Nusantao traders and migrants working their way up the Chinese coast may have brought stories of their own sacred volcano that gave rise to the myth in Shandong.
For practical purposes, Mount Penglai was localized to Mount Tai, or Taishan, in Shandong Province. It was on Taishan that 72 emperors performed the Feng sacrifice proclaiming the success of the empire to Heaven. By the first century CE, the Chinese also began to believe that the dead went to Taishan as well as Penglai.
However, the lure of Penglai never totally faded. The 4th century BCE kings Wei, Xuan of Qi and Zhao of Yan all sent failed expeditions to find Penglai and the two other blessed isles of the East. The First Qin Emperor sent a mission in 219 BCE and Han Wudi in 130 BCE but again without success. The legend goes that the three islands drifted about on the backs of giant turtles and eluded the explorers. The turtle under Mt. Penglai reminds us both of Nu Gua's sacrifice and of the turtle used to support Mt. Mandara in the Indian Churning of the Milky Ocean tale.
Starting around the middle of the second century BCE, immortality becomes more associated with the Kunlun range in eastern Turkestan and the "Queen Mother of the West." Here also was shifted the "Mountain of Fire" originally associated with Nu Gua. In a sense, the Queen Mother of the West becomes the new Nu Gua and her yang counterpart the King Father of the East would represent Fu Hsi, the husband of Nu Gua (and founder of the Dong Yi lineage). To attain immortality at Mt. Kunlun, one must invariably cross the supreme obstacle of the Mountain of Fire.
The Book of Enoch also describes a Mountain of Fire during the patriarch's angelic journeys through the world.
"And from there I went to another place on earth and he showed me a mountain of fire that burned day and night."
-- I Enoch 24:1
On the mountain was the throne of God and the Tree of Life. In another passage the "Garden of Righteousness" and the Tree of Knowledge are mentioned. The descriptions place the mountain both in the east and the south far beyond the lands of cinnamon and aloeswood.
"The fruit [of the Tree of Life] shall be given to the elect for life, towards the north it will be transplanted to the holy place, to the temple of the Lord [in Jerusalem], the eternal King."
-- I Enoch 25:5
"And thence I went over the summits of all these mountains, far towards the east of the earth, and passed above the Erythraean sea and went far from it, and passed over the angel Zotiel. And I came to the Garden of Righteousness."
-- I Enoch 32:2
In Ezekiel 28, the fiery holy mountain of God is also equated with the Garden of Eden. It was here that the two trees -- of life and knowledge -- were located (Genesis 2).
In the Book of Jubilees, which like the Book of Enoch was eventually banned by the western church it states:
"And he knew that the Garden of Eden is the holy of holies, and the dwelling of the Lord, and Mount Sinai the centre of the desert, and Mount Zion -the centre of the navel of the earth: these three were created as holy places facing each other."
-- Book of Jubilees 19-20
"And he knew that a blessed portion and a blessing had come to Shem and his sons unto the generations for ever -the whole land of Eden and the whole land of the Red Sea, and the whole land of the east and India, and on the Red Sea and the mountains thereof, and all the land of Bashan, and all the land of Lebanon and the islands of Kaftur, and all the mountains of Sanir and 'Amana, and the mountains of Asshur in the north, and all the land of Elam, Asshur, and Babel, and Susan and Ma'edai, and all the mountains of Ararat, and all the region beyond the sea, which is beyond the mountains of Asshur towards the north, a blessed and spacious land, and all that is in it is very good. And for Ham came forth the second portion, beyond the Gihon towards the south to the right of the Garden, and it extends towards the south and it extends to all the mountains of fire..."
-- Book of Jubilees 21-22
Shem's territory, according to this source, started in the extreme East in the Garden of Eden and then extends westward through all the lands of the "Red Sea" (Indian Ocean) and the lands of the East and India, and then through the Persian Gulf to Lebanon and Ararat and east again to include Mesopotamia.
Curiously both the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees formed an important core of the literature of the Essene sect of Qumram. Among Christians, Enoch in particular is directly quoted in the canonical Epistle of Jude, and many verses from the New Testament appear to owe their origin to this work.
However, in the second century CE, the rabbis began attacking the Book of Enoch, and it was banned among Christians along with the Book of Jubilees by the Council of Laodicea in the fourth century. Only the Ethiopian Orthodox Church accepted these works as part of their official canon.
The geography of Enoch and Jubilees and their location of Eden in the extreme East still managed to survive into medieval times as shown by early maps of this period.
The Kalacakra Mandala is a model of the universe or the cosmic mountain. The outermost circle is, in fact, known as me-ri "the mountain of fire."
When Muslim traders began coming into the Southeast Asian region they noticed an active volcano near the kingdom of Zabag.
"...near Zabag is a mountain called the Mountain of Fire, which cannot be approached. Smoke escapes by day and fire by night and from its foot comes a spring of cold, fresh water and a spring of hot water.
-- Akbar al-Sin (9th century)
The geographer al-Masudi, referring to the islands of Zabag, repeats the description of a mountain giving off smoke by day and fire by night. This resembles the story in Exodus describing a pillar of cloud or smoke by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Such phenomenon is a common feature of many volcanoes that give off large amounts of water vapor, which is visible in the day but masks the fiery aspects of the volcanic plume. At night, the vapor becomes invisible and the plume appears fiery instead.
Idrisi in the 12th century mentions a "Hill of Fire" near or in Mayt (Chinese Mait "Mindoro").
Along the way in India, the Muslim travelers may have heard the myth of the great Mt. Mandara taken to churn the far eastern Ocean of Milk on the back of a great cosmic turtle. The mountain became enveloped in flames due to friction caused by the churning and one of the many by-products of this event was the elixir of immortality.
Paul Kekai Manansala
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Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, Chicago: Serindia Publications, Inc, 2004.
Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, London: Routledge, 1988.
Ling, Shun-Sheng. Turtle sacrifice in China and Oceania, Taipei: Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, Monograph No. 20 (in Chinese), 1972.
Luttikhuizen, Gerald P. Paradise Interpreted: Representations of Biblical Paradise in Judaism and Christianity Brill Academic Publishers, 1999.
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