The huge pyramid shape of The Reek, more properly known as Croagh Patrick, reared ahead of us as we turned out of the airport.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
This was my first view of Ireland – and what a view. Atmosphere and distance had smoothed out the bumps and crags, showing us a smooth, straight-sided, magical mountain. I knew nothing – at that stage in my journey – of the history, mythology and symbolism connected to the island’s holiest mountain. I didn’t need to. It’s majesty simply took my breath away.
I see the same phenomenon with my local sacred mound – Glastonbury Tor – which is a few yards down the road from where I’m writing this.
Seen up close, it’s an uneven, sprawling hill. Sometimes steep, sometimes less so. It has grazing sheep, pedlars selling scraps of jewellery, small screeching boys with wooden swords, pagans with dreds and drums, panting tourists in Adidas tee shirts, dog walkers, portly goddesses in pink and purple frocks with floral wreaths in their hair and parties of French schoolchildren with designer backpacks.
There are neat concrete steps inserted by the National Trust, a green bin for dog waste and a couple of benches. At the top is an empty tower – all that remains of St Michael’s Church. Inside, it’s usually littered with a coke can or two, sweet wrappers and some withered flowers. At what would once have been, presumably, the other end of the church is a concrete table with one of those round view-finder compass things. Strange undulations, variously defined as medieval terracing, a ritual maze or soil erosion adorn the sides of the hill.
Don’t get me wrong; even close up, it can be a magical place if you time your visit right, or can block out the distractions. For me, though, the Tor’s true magic is glimpsed from afar.
Travel along almost any road in the area and, sooner or later, you’ll catch a glimpse of what appears to be a perfect conical shape, topped with its tower, rising out of the flat, featureless Somerset Levels. (My personal favourite is the view you see as you round a bend coming down Bristol Hill into Wells.)
There are hills, mountains, pyramids – sacred high places all across the globe that have this effect. It matters little whether they were created by human hand, naturally occurring or a combination of the two. What matters is the ‘WOW!’ effect. It’s a moment of sheer awe and wonder. It can’t be captured in words, or even photographs. There is a deep, stirring connection between the self and the structure. It calls to you, reaches out to you, pulls you up short and fills you with a recognition and knowing that has affected your ancestors, back through the ages in exactly the same way. Not every high place stirs us this way; it isn’t simply the height or the shape which affects us. In these special sites, though, there’s a palpable dialogue between you and the structure.
“Remember?” it says into your mind.
And for that brief moment, you do.