Mythical Mountains (And the Beings that Live There)
Updated: Mar 3, 2022
Tales of Gods, Magical Creatures, Heroes are still popular today, with books, films, games and legends still inspired by them. But not all legends are about people or monsters. There are many legends that tell the story of mythical places – just as magical as the immortals and magical creatures thought to dwell there.
In many cases, these mythical lands are islands. After being gravely injured in battle, King Arthur is thought to have retreated to the magical realm of Avalon. The idyllic island of Atlantic is thought to have sunk beneath the waves. And the three Djanggawul (deities who created the land) of Australia were born on the island of Baralku, with one still thought to dwell there.
However, it is not only islands that have formed the basis of these myths, and mountains and volcanos are just as popular as places for gods, immortals and magical creatures to dwell.
Mount Olympus is one of several locations that is both real and mythicised. Found in Greece, on the outskirts of Athens, Mount Olympus was said to be home to the gods – particularly the twelve primary gods and goddesses. The actual list of these twelve varied by region and period, but generally included: Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Poseidon, Ares, Artemis, Demeter, Aphrodite, Dionysus, Hermes and Hephaestus.
Interestingly, although Hades is an important Greek god, he is not one of this number, as he does not live on Mount Olympus, instead presiding over the underworld.
Mount Olympus is said to be the seat of Zeus’ throne. It is the highest mountain in Greece, and while the mountain is often covered in clouds (perhaps contributing to beliefs that the gods lived above them) according to legend, it never rains or storms there. While it is the Athenian mountain that we know today as Mount Olympus, in truth the Greeks used the name liberally, and there were many settlements that named the highest peak relative to their own location after the mythical mountaintop. The Gods were said to each have their own palace, built themselves, within one of the mountain’s many gorges. As the king of gods, the palace of Zeus was, of course, said to be the most luxurious and extravagant.
The Eight Pillars
Also known as the Eight Pillars of the Sky, the Eight Pillars are not one mountain but instead (as the name suggests) eight, each said to be located along one of the main compass points. According to Chinese mythology, the mountains were thought to hold up the sky, although only seven still maintain this purpose. The eighth, Buzhou (of the North Western point) was damaged by the water god Gong-Gong in a fit of pique after he lost a battle to claim the throne of heaven.
One of the mountains, Kunlun, was home to the Yellow Emperor, or Huangdi as he was originally called. A semi-historic mythical figure credited with the introduction and creation of wooden houses, boats, bows and arrows, and even writing. His wife is said to have first created the process of silk production – historically one of China’s most important exports.
Another Chinese deity thought to call one of the Eight Pillars their home was the Queen Mother of the West, or Xiwangmu. She lived on the slopes of the Kunlun (although some versions also credit her with living on The Jade Mountain) where the peaches of immortality grew. Every 3,000 years the peach trees would bear fruit, and all the immortals would be invited to dine on them. Due to her role tended these peaches, Xiwangmu was considered a Goddess of life, fertility and immortality. She is one of China’s oldest gods, referenced as far back as 15th Century BC, although the majority of her mythology originates from the 2nd Century BC.
Another mountain in Chinese myth is Penglai. The mountain is said to be found on a remote island in the Bohai sea, one of five islands which house the immortals. Its counterparts were called; Fangzhang, Yingzhou, Daiyu and Yuanjiao. The mountain is thought to be the home of the Eight Immortals. The Eight Immortals are not, exactly gods, but are instead eight humans who ascended to immortality through some great deed, skill or dedication, assisted by Taoist magic.
The mountain is an idyllic paradise, inaccessible to normal humans and covered in trees which bear jewels and fruit which can cure illness and grant immortality. The palaces of the Eight Immortals were made of platinum and gold, and their cups and bowls never ran empty.
Qin Shi Huang, the founder of the Qin dynasty is said to have searched, unsuccessfully for the island, as part of his efforts to locate, or create and elixir of life. He sent Taoist Xu Fu on a journey across the Eastern sea to find the mountain, however Xu Fu never returned.
Like Mount Olympus, Teide is another mountain that is both real, and exists in mythology. The actual Teide is a volcano on the island of Tenerife, Spain. The mountain was considered sacred to the Guanches – the native residents of the island.
The malicious god, Guayota is said to have kidnapped the sun deity, and kept them hidden within the heart of the volcano, which served as one of the entrances to the underworld. Trapped in darkness, the Guanches implored Achamán, their father deity and king of the skies to save them. Achamán fought Guayota and won, he trapped Guayota in the volcano, sealing the exits and released the sun back into the sky.
The eruptions from Teide were thought to be Guayota struggling to escape, and the native Guanches would light fires to scare Guayota back into the mountain.
This mythological mountain was said to be home to the Jotun, Suttungr, a giant from Norse mythology. He possessed the mead of poetry. A magical beverage made of honey and blood, that can turn everyone who drinks it into a poet and a scholar. Those who drink were able to answer any question, and it was also a source of artistic inspiration.
Suttungr kept the mead hidden deep inside Hnitbjorg where it was guarded by his daughter, Gunnlod. The god Odin, Allfather managed to sneak inside in the form of a snake. He seduced Gunnlod and persuaded her to allow him three sips of the mead. He managed to down all three containers and fled the mountain – now the only one to contain the mead of poetry and the knowledge that it promised.
According to Arab and Persian myth, Mount Qaf is a mountain located on the furthest point of the earth beyond the ocean that circles the world. In some accounts it is made of emerald, in others the mountain is such a deep shade of blue, that it is the mountain itself that gives the sky its colour. Its slopes reflecting against the sky. The mountain is home to many mythical and religious figures – including angels, djinn, dragons and phoenixes.
Mount Qaf is also said to be one of the only places that the mighty Roc will land. The Roc is a legendary bird, gigantic in size and capable of lifting fully grown elephants of the ground, killing and devouring them. The Roc is said to be very similar to an eagle in appearance and would have been indistinguishable if not for its giant size, and forked, snake-like tongue.
Sadly, with the exception of the legends which are known to be associated with genuine mountains – Olympus, and Teide – the others are entirely mythological. While historians and explorers have attempted to find these mountains (for example, possible locations for the island mountain that inspired Penglai have included island off the coast of Japan, Korea and Taiwan) there is little evidence that they existed at all. And therefore, it is very unlikely that we will ever definitively know whether these mythical mountains were inspired by real places, or whether they were not.