2008-03-20

Centre of the World

The axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar and centre of the world) is a ubiquitous symbol that crosses human cultures. The image expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet. At this point travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms. Communication from lower realms may ascend to higher ones and blessings from higher realms may descend to lower ones and be disseminated to all. The spot functions as the omphalos (navel), the world's point of beginning.

The axis mundi image appears in every region of the world and takes many forms. The image is both feminine (an umbilical providing nourishment) and masculine (a phallus providing insemination). It may have the form of a natural object (a mountain, a tree, a vine, a stalk, a column of smoke or fire) or a product of human manufacture (a staff, a tower, a ladder, a staircase, a maypole, a cross, a steeple, a rope, a totem pole, a pillar, a spire, a pagoda, a statue). Its proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious (pagoda, temple mount, church) or secular (obelisk, minaret, lighthouse, rocket, skyscraper). The image appears in religious and secular contexts. The axis mundi symbol may be found in cultures utilizing shamanic practices or animist belief systems, in major world religions, and in technologically advanced 'urban centers'–wherever the impulse exists to link a column with the idea of a centre.



Symbolism

The image originates in a natural and universal human psychological perception: that one's native land and home stand at 'the centre of the world.' Home is indeed the centre of one's known universe, the point at which all experience of the larger reality begins. From this spot we may venture in any of the four cardinal directions, make discoveries, and recognize new centres. The name of China, 'the Middle Kingdom,' expresses the perception of that land's ancient occupants that they stood at the world centre, with other nations lying in various directions relative to the spot.

Within the central known universe a specific locale–often a mountain or other elevated place, a spot where earth and sky come closest–gains status as center of the centre, the axis mundi. High mountains are typically regarded as sacred by peoples living near them. Shrines are often erected at the summit or base. Japan's highest mountain, Mount Fuji, has long symbolized the world axis in Japanese culture. Mount Kun-Lun fills a similar role in China. For the ancient Hebrews Mount Zion expressed the symbol. Sioux beliefs take the Black Hills as the axis mundi. Mount Kailash is holy to several religions in Tibet. In ancient Mesopotamia the cultures of ancient Sumer and Babylon erected artificial mountains, or ziggurats, on the flat river plain. These supported staircases leading to temples at the top. The pre-Columbian residents of Teotihuacán in Mexico erected huge pyramids featuring staircases leading to heaven. Jacob's Ladder is an axis mundi image, as is the Temple Mount. For Christians the Cross on Mount Calvary expresses the symbol. The Middle Kingdom, China, had a central mountain, Kun-Lun, known in Taoist literature as 'the mountain at the middle of the world.' To 'go into the mountains' meant to dedicate oneself to a spiritual life. Monasteries of all faiths tend, like shrines, to be placed at elevated spots. Wise religious teachers are typically depicted in literature and art as bringing their revelations at world centres: mountains, trees, temples.


Representations

Places

Because the axis mundi is an idea that expresses a subjective experience through a variety of concrete images, no contradiction exists when multiple spots on the planet serving as 'the centre of the world.' The symbol can operate in a number of locales at once. The ancient Greeks regarded several sites as places of earth's omphalos (navel) stone, notably the oracle at Delphi, while still maintaining a belief in a cosmic world tree and in Mount Olympus as the abode of the gods. Judaism has Mount Sinai and Mount Zion, Christianity has the Mount of Olives and Calvary, Islam has the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock) and Mecca, said to be the place on earth that was created first. In addition to Kun-Lun the ancient Chinese recognized four mountains as pillars of the world.

All sacred places constitute world centres (omphalos) with the altar as the axis. Altars, incense sticks, candles and torches form a column of smoke, or prayer, that unites earth with heaven. Shrine architecture reflects this role in many ways. The stupa of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, reflects Mount Meru. Cathedrals are laid out in the form of a cross, with the vertical bar representing the union of earth and heaven as the horizontal bars represent union of people to one another, with the altar at the intersection. Pagoda structures in Asian temples take the form of a stairway linking earth and heaven. A steeple in a church or a minaret in a mosque also serve as connections of earth and heaven. Structures such as the maypole, derived from the Saxons' Irminsul, and the totem pole among indigenous peoples of the Americas also represent world axes. The calumet, or sacred pipe, represents a column of smoke (the soul) rising form a world centre.

Plants

A plant can serve as the axis mundi. The tree provides an axis that unites three planes: its branches reach for the sky, its trunk meets the earth, and it roots reach down into the underworld. In some Pacific island cultures the banyan tree, of which the bodhi tree is of the Sacred Fig variety, is the abode of ancestor spirits. The bodhi tree is also the tree under which Gautama Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, sat on the night he attained enlightenment. The Yggdrasil, or World Ash, functions in much the same way in Norse mythology; it is the site where Odin found enlightenment. Other examples include Jievaras in Lithuanian mythology and Thor's Oak in the myths of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis present two aspects of the same image. Each is said to stand at the centre of the Paradise garden from which four rivers flow to nourish the whole world. Each tree confers a boon. Bamboo, the plant from which Asian calligraphy pens are made, represents knowledge and is regularly found on Asian college campuses. The Christmas tree, which can be traced in its origins back to pre-Christian European beliefs, represents an axis mundi.

Human form

The human form can function as a world axis. World religions regard the body itself as a temple and prayer as a column uniting earth to heaven. A statue of a human figure in meditation combines the image of body, altar, temple and tower. Some of the more abstract Tree of Life representations, such as the sefirot in Kabbalism and in the chakra system recognized by Hinduism and Buddhism, merge with the concept of the human body as a pillar between heaven and earth. Disciplines such as yoga and Tai Chi begin from the premise of the human body as axis mundi. Astrology in all its forms assumes a connection between human health and human affairs with celestial bodies. The Renaissance image known as The Vitruvian Man represented a symbolic and mathematical exploration of the human form as world axis.

Houses

Houses also serve as world centres. The hearth participates in the symbolism of the altar and a central garden partipates in the symbolism of primordial paradise. In Asian cultures houses were traditionally laid out in the form of a square oriented toward the four compass directions. A traditional Asian home was oriented toward the sky through Feng shui, a system of geomancy, just as a palace would be. Traditional Arab houses are also laid out as a square surrounding a central fountain that evokes a primordial garden paradise. The nomadic peoples of Mongolia and the Americas more often lived in circular structures. The central pole of the tent still operated as an axis but a fixed reference to the four compass points was avoided.

Shamanic Function

A common shamanic concept, and a universally told story, is that of the healer making use of the axis to navigate between earthly, celestial or nether realms to bring knowledge back from another world. The theme appears in stories of Odin and the World Ash Tree, the Garden of Eden and Jacob's Ladder, of Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. Such a journey forms the essence of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The epic poem relates its hero's descent and ascent through a series of spiral structures that take him from through the core of the earth, from the depths of Hell to celestial Paradise.

Anyone or anything suspended on the axis between heaven and earth becomes a repository of potential knowledge. A special status accrues to the thing suspended: a serpent, a victim of crucifixion or hanging, a rod, a fruit, mistletoe. Derivations of this idea find form in the Rod of Asclepius, an emblem of the medical profession, and in the caduceus, an emblem of correspondence and commercial professions. The staff in these emblems represents the axis mundi while the serpents act as guardians of special knowledge.


Traditional Expressions

Asia

  • Bodhi tree
  • Pagoda
  • Stupa
  • Mount Meru in Hinduism
  • Mount Fuji (Japan)
  • Mount Kailash regarded by several religions in Tibet, e.g. Bön
  • Jambudweep in Jainism which is regarded as the actual navel of the universe (which is human in form)
  • Kailasa (India), the abode of Shiva
  • Mandara (India)
  • Kun-Lun (China), residence of the Immortals and the site of a peach tree offering immortality
  • Human figure (yoga, tai chi, a figure in meditation)
  • Central courtyard in traditional home
  • Bamboo stalk, associated with knowledge and learning

Middle East
  • Garden of Eden, four rivers
  • Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
  • Ziggurat (Tower of Babel)
  • Jacob's Ladder
  • Jerusalem: the Temple Mount
  • Mount Calvary
  • Cross of crucifixion
  • Steeple
  • Mecca: the Ka'aba; focus of Muslim prayer and locus of Adam's descent from heaven
  • Dome of the Rock where Muhammad ascended to heaven
  • Minaret
  • Dilmun
  • Land of Punt
  • Paschal candle
  • Garizim (Samaria)
  • Alborj (Persia)


Europe

  • Yggdrasil (World Ash Tree)
  • Mount Olympus
  • Delphi, Oracle of Delphi
  • Colossus of Rhodes
  • Montsalvat (Grail legend)
  • Maypole
  • Christmas tree
  • Jack's Beanstalk
  • Rapunzel's Tower
  • Hearth
  • Altar
  • Human figure, especially praying or crucified


The Americas

  • Teotihuacán Pyramids
  • Black Hills (Sioux)
  • Totem Pole
  • Tent
  • Calumet (sacred pipe)
  • Bamboo (Hopi)


Modern Expressions

Axis mundi symbolism abounds in the modern world. A symbolic connection between earth and sky is present in all skyscrapers, as the word itself attests. Spire structures readily come to be regarded as symbolic centres of a culture and as icons of its ideals. The first skyscraper of modern times, the Eiffel Tower in Paris France, exemplified this role in the nineteenth century, as did the Empire State Building in the twentieth. Taipei 101, a twenty-first century descendant, unites the images of staircase, bamboo, pagoda, and pillar; at night, it also evokes a candle or torch. The Washington Monument in the United States and capitol buildings of all sorts fill this role. The Burj Dubai (United Arab Emirates) will fill the role when it opens.

The design of a tower emphasizes different elements of the symbol. Twin towers, such as the Petronas Towers standing in Kuala Lumpur today and the World Trade Center towers erected in Manhattan in the 1970s, maintain the axis symbolism while more obviously assuming the role of pillars. Some structures pierce the sky in phallic fashion, implying upward movement or flight (Chicago Spire, CN Tower in Toronto, the Space Needle in Seattle). Others emphasize the more lateral elements of the symbol, in implying portals (Tuntex Sky Tower in Taiwan's southern port city of Kaohsiung, the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri USA).

Ancient images find new expressions in modern structures. The Peace Pagodas built since the 1947 unite religious and secular purposes in one symbol drawn from Buddhism. The influence of the pagoda tradition may be seen in the newer skyscrapers in Asia (Taipei 101, Petronas Towers). The ancient ziggurat has likewise reappeared in modern form, including the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC and The Ziggurat which houses the California Department of General Services. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the Guggenheim Museum in New York as an inverted ziggurat.

Artistic representations of the world axis abound in modern art. Prominent among these is The Endless Column (1938) an abstract sculpture by Romanian Constantin Brâncuşi. The column takes the form of an umbilical or pillar linking earth to sky even as its rhythmically repeating segments suggest infinity.

The association of the cosmic pillar with knowledge gives it a prominent role in the world of scholarship. University campuses typically assign an axis role to a campus landmark such as a clock tower, library spire or bell tower. The landmark represents as the symbolic centre of the academic world and becomes the emblem of its ideals on seals, stationery, and diplomas. The colloquial picture of the academy as an 'ivory tower' derives from the same image.

The image may still take natural forms, as in the American tradition of the Liberty Tree located at town centres. Individual homes continue to act as world axes, especially where Feng shui and other forms of geomancy are practiced.

Axis mundi symbolism may be seen in much of the romance surrounding space travel. A rocket on the pad takes on the symbolism of the tower and astronauts enact a heroic story. Astronauts, 'star voyagers', embark on perilous journeys into the heavens and, if successful, return with boons that benefit all. The insignia for the Apollo 13 mission stated the shamanic aspect of the endeavour succinctly: Ex luna scientia ('From the Moon, knowledge').


Modern Stories

The axis mundi continues to appear in modern stories as well as in modern structures. Appearances of the ancient image in the tales and myths of more recent times include these:

  • The ash tree growing in Hunding's living room, in Act 1 of Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), is one of many appearances of the image in the operas of Richard Wagner. Hunding's tree recalls the World Ash visited by Wotan, a central character in the Ring cycle of which this opera forms a part (1848-1874).
  • The sphinx in the science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) by H. G. Wells serves as centre for the world of the far distant future. The time traveller's explorations begin with it and the structure unites the planes of future human society.
  • The Emerald City in the land of Oz, depicted in the popular book by L. Frank Baum (1900) and the subsequent MGM film (1939), stands at the centre of the four compass directions.
  • Orodruin, location of the creation and destruction of the One Ring, is one of many representations of the symbol in The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien (1937-1949).
  • Two Trees of Valinor in Tolkien's tellingly named Middle-earth produce the light of the Supreme God (1937-1949).
  • The wooded hilltop and ascending and descending staircases in The Midsummer Marriage, an opera by English composer Michael Tippett (1955), explore Jungian aspects of the symbol.
  • The ark of the covenant and its accompanying pillar of fire link heaven and earth in the climax of Steven Spielberg's film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
  • The huge sheltering tree on a hilltop that appears near the end of Stealing Beauty, a 1996 film by Bernardo Bertolucci, crowns a series of images evoking the primordial Paradise garden.
  • The surreal urban world of Bruce Wayne's Gotham City has the Wayne Building as its symbolic centre in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005). A fantastic cathedral, incorporating the images of skyscraper, spiral staircase and ladder, fills the same role in an earlier film by Tim Burton (1989).

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References

J. C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols.
Thames and Hudson: New York, 1978.

Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols.
Editions Robert Lafont S. A. et Editions Jupiter: Paris, 1982. Penguin Books: London, 1996.

Mircea Eliade. The Myth of the Eternal Return. Bollingen, 1971.

Photo of Taipei 101 by Alton Thompson. All rights reserved.


A variant of this post was submitted in 2007 to Wikipedia and Answers.com for publication as an encyclopedaia article. Please see those sites for more substantial illustrations, cross-references and links.

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