Chapter 9: Introduction

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Throughout their history of cultural and religious development, humans have always discovered or created places that are special to themsites where they might gather to participate in social rituals or where they might retreat for solitude and reflection. In such places, many people claim to experience a sense of the sublime, something larger than life. Others, while in a solemn place of worship or in a beautiful natural setting, attest to feeling a special energy that raises their consciousness and perhaps even heals their physical body.

Mysterious megaliths (from the Greek: "mega" means large, "lithos" means stones) are those placed at a site by ancient people who left no records explaining how they managed to lift and transport stones weighing several tons. Such sites include the standing stones of Brittany, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming, the monoliths of Zimbabwe, and the monuments of Easter Island. All of these places were ostensibly significant to an ancient society or religion, but many were long abandoned by the time they became known to the larger world, and the meaning of the megaliths remains unexplained.

The most popularly known megalithic structures are probably Stonehenge in Great Britain and the complex of pyramids and the Great Sphinx in Egypt. Like many ancient megalithic structures, those sites have been examined, written about, mythologized, and speculated upon for centuries, yet they still continue to conceal old secrets and occasionally yield surprising information that forces new historical interpretations of past societies.

Rising up on a plateau called Giza, 10 miles west of present-day Cairo, Egypt, the Great Pyramid, its two companion pyramids, and the Sphinx are probably the world's oldest and best-known enigmas. Among the mysteries of the pyramids are the questions of where the immense amount of rock forming them (11 million cubic yards of stone for the Great Pyramid alone) was quarried, and how it was moved and then erected into an astonishingly precise structure. Academic debates are ongoing concerning what surveying methods and equipment were used to ensure that the landscape was level and that measurements were accurate. Many researchers argue about the number of workers needed for such an undertaking and wonder how such an army of laborers could be mobilized, housed, and fed.

Other mysteries surrounding the pyramids are the contentions that the structures are situated at cardinal points on the compass, and their numerous astronomical uses show knowledge of mathematics in advance of other civilizations. In addition, the body of the pharaoh Khufu (Cheops) for whom the tomb was built, and precious objects that usually surround the bodies of royalty in Egyptian tombs, have never been found. In fact, all three of the pyramids at Giza were allegedly erected as tombs, yet not a single body has been found in any of them.

Other places have become mysterious sites because things have happened there that are impossible to document fully, yet physical evidence remains that promotes further speculation. The claimed miraculous healings at Lourdes, the accounts of spiritual illumination at Jerusalem and Mecca, and the sacred visions at Taos provide testimonies of faith and wonder that must be assessed by each individual.

This chapter also deals with accounts of vanished civilizationsplaces where ruins are found that offer mute evidence to the majesty and glory of prior cultures. No one can dispute the evidence of the Mayan temples, the splendor of Tiahuanaco, the mystique of Angkor Wat, but scholars fiercely debate the intricacies of the purpose of certain of these structures and the lifestyles of their inhabitants. Uncertainty also persists about why so many of these ancient peoples suddenly chose to abandon settlements that they labored so hardsometimes for centuriesto build. The Mayans of Mexico and Central America left behind immense structures that were eventually overrun by the surrounding rainforest. In present-day Bolivia, the amazing structures of Tiahuanaco were constructed and abandoned before the great Inca dynasty conquered the area in the fifteenth century. The Great Houses of the Anasazi in the southwestern area of the present-day United States were left behind more than five centuries before they were seen by the first white settlers.

Some sites acquire a reputation for being eerie because of their appearance or because of events that are alleged or rumored to have happened there. The Nazca Lines of Peru and various so-called "spirit pathways" are cloaked in mystery as to their actual purpose as places of worship, initiation, or contact with alien beings. Lines where spirits or natural energies pass have been traced in Great Britain (where they are called Ley lines) and Germany (where they are called holy lines). Based on the idea that earlier civilizations were more attuned to mysterious Earth energies and built their sites along those lines, proponents of leys attempt to recreate those lines by tracing alignments of ancient sites. Many ancient structures were erected with consideration for the surrounding landscape and adjacent structures. In that sense, the community erecting the structure viewed the area as a sacred landscape. The landscapes were integral to rites performed there.

More than 2,500 years ago, a legend first began to spread about an ideal society of the past that enjoyed an abundance of natural resources, great military power, splendid building and engineering feats, and intellectual achievements far advanced over those of other lands. Called Atlantis, this ancient society was described as existing on a continentsized area with rich soil, plentiful pure water, abundant vegetation, and such mineral wealth that gold was inlaid in buildings. In the ensuing centuries, no evidence of Atlantis has been found, but its attributes have expanded to include engineering and technological feats that enhance its legendary status in the popular imagination. Atlanteans are commonly thought by enthusiasts to have had cosmic connections with extraterrestrial life.

The truth behind such alleged places of mystery and power as the Bermuda Triangle, an area off the coast of Florida where ships and aircraft are said to vanish without a trace; El Dorado, the city of gold which drove the Spanish conquistadors on endless fruitless searches; and Avalon, the mystical place where the legendary King Arthur was taken after receiving mortal wounds in battle are also examined. Although the stories of Camelot, Arthur, and the Knights of the Round Table are only myths, there are actual sites on which Avalon may well have been based. Some sources suggest that Avalon lies off the coast of Great Britain or is possibly the island of Greenland. Others have considered Arran, an island off the coast of Scotland, as a possible model for Avalon.

Sometimes legends really do come to life. The Lost City of Willkapanpa the Old, a principal city rumored to consist primarily of Incan rulers and soldiers, was not discovered until 1912 when a historian from Yale University found the site now known as Machu Picchu hidden at 8,000 feet in altitude between two mountains, Huayana Picchu ("young mountain") and Machu Picchu ("ancient mountain") in Peru. The ridge overlooks a sacred river and valley called Urubamba. The most accepted view of Machu Picchu is that it was a religious sanctuary that served high priests and "virgins of the sun" (Incas worshipped the sun). Even though many mysteries abound about Machu Picchu, many researchers have been inspired to call it "the eighth wonder of the ancient world."

Everyone has his or her own special and private place of mystery, power, and wonder. This chapter shall explore those sitesboth sacred and secularthat have fascinated and inspired men and women for thousands of years.

Delving Deeper

Gaddis, Vincent H. Invisible Horizons: True Mysteries of the Sea. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1965.

Gordon, Stuart. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends. London: Headline Books, 1993.

Harpur, James, and Jennifer Westwood. The Atlas of Legendary Places. New York: Konecky & Konecky, 1997.

Ingpen, Robert, and Philip Wilkinson. Encyclopedia of Mysterious Places. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1999.

Kusche, Lawrence D. The Bermuda Triangle Mystery Solved. New York: Harper and Row, 1975.

Larousse Dictionary of World Folklore. New York: Larousse, 1995.

Spence, Lewis. The History of Atlantis. New York: University Books, 1968.

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Chapter 9: Introduction

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Chapter 9: Introduction