Axis mundi

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Mount Kailash, depicting the holy family: of Shiva and Parvati cradling Skanda with Ganesha by Shiva's side

The axis mundi (also cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar, columna cerului, center of the world, world tree), in religion or mythology, is the world center or the connection between Heaven and Earth. As the celestial pole and geographic pole, it 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.[1] Communication from lower realms may ascend to higher ones and blessings from higher realms may descend to lower ones and be disseminated to all.[2] The spot functions as the omphalos (navel), the world's point of beginning.[3][4]

The image is mostly viewed as feminine, as it relates to the center of the earth (perhaps like an umbilical providing nourishment). 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). Its proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious (pagoda, temple mount, minaret, church) or secular (obelisk, lighthouse, rocket, skyscraper). The image appears in religious and secular contexts.[5] 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". In Mircea Eliade's opinion, "Every Microcosm, every inhabited region, has a Centre; that is to say, a place that is sacred above all."[6] The axis mundi is often associated with mandalas.

Background[edit]

The symbol originates in a natural and universal psychological perception: that the spot one occupies stands at "the center of the world". This space serves as a microcosm of order because it is known and settled. Outside the boundaries of the microcosm lie foreign realms that, because they are unfamiliar or not ordered, represent chaos, death or night.[7] From the center one may still venture in any of the four cardinal directions, make discoveries, and establish new centers as new realms become known and settled. The modern name of China "中国" (pinyin: Zhōngguó), meaning "Middle Kingdom", is often interpreted as an expression of an ancient perception that the Chinese polity (or group of polities) occupied the center of the world, with other lands lying in various directions relative to it.[5]

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 center, the axis mundi. High mountains are typically regarded as sacred by peoples living near them. Shrines are often erected at the summit or base.[8] Japan's highest mountain, Mount Fuji, has long symbolized the world axis in Japanese culture.[citation needed] Mount Kun-Lun fills a similar role in China.[9] For the ancient Hebrews Mount Zion expressed the symbol.[citation needed] Sioux beliefs take the Black Hills as the axis mundi.[citation needed] Mount Kailash is holy to Hinduism and several religions in Tibet. The Pitjantjatjara people in central Australia consider Uluru to be central to both their world and culture. 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 Hindu temples in India are often situated on high mountains. E.g. Amarnath, Tirupati, Vaishno Devi etc. 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.[10] 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.[11] 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 centers: mountains, trees, temples.

Because the axis mundi is an idea that unites a number of concrete images, no contradiction exists in regarding multiple spots as "the center of the world". The symbol can operate in a number of locales at once.[6] Mount Hermon was regarded as the axis mundi in Caananite tradition, from where the sons of God are introduced descending in 1 Enoch (1En6:6).[12] 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 the Temple Mount and Mount Sinai, Christianity has the Mount of Olives and Calvary, Islam has Ka'aba, said to be the first building on earth, and the Temple Mount (Dome of the Rock). In Hinduism, Mount Kailash is identified with the mythical Mount Meru and regarded as the home of Shiva; in Vajrayana Buddhism, Mount Kailash is recognized as the most sacred place where all the dragon currents converge and is regarded as the gateway to Shambhala. In Shinto, the Ise Shrine is the omphalos.[citation needed] In addition to the Kun Lun Mountains, where it is believed the peach tree of immortality is located, the Chinese folk religion recognizes four other specific mountains as pillars of the world. In Mormonism, the omphalos is the Temple Lot in Independence, Missouri, United States.[13]

Sacred places constitute world centers (omphalos) with the altar or place of prayer as the axis. Altars, incense sticks, candles and torches form the axis by sending a column of smoke, and prayer, toward heaven. The architecture of sacred places often reflects this role. "Every temple or palace--and by extension, every sacred city or royal residence--is a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Centre."[14] 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 center.[15] A mandala creates a world center within the boundaries of its two-dimensional space analogous to that created in three-dimensional space by a shrine.[16]

Yggdrasil, the World Ash (Norse)

Plants[edit]

Plants often serve as images of the axis mundi. The image of the Cosmic Tree provides an axis symbol that unites three planes: sky (branches), earth (trunk) and underworld (roots).[17] 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. In Hindu religion, the banyan tree is considered sacred and is called "Ashwath Vriksha" ("I am Banyan tree among trees" - Bhagavad Gita). It represents eternal life because of its seemingly ever-expanding branches. The Bodhi Tree is also the name given to 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 center 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.[18] Entheogens (psychoactive substances) are often[who?] regarded as world axes[clarify], such as the Fly Agaric mushroom among the Evenks of Russia.[citation needed] In China, traditional cosmography sometimes depicts the world center marked with the Jian tree 建木. Two more trees are placed at the East and West, corresponding to the points of sunrise and sunset (Huainanzi). The Mesoamerican world tree connects the planes of the Underworld and the sky with that of the terrestrial realm.[19]

Human figure[edit]

The human body can express the symbol of world axis.[20] 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. The Buddha represents a world centre in human form.[21] Large statues of a meditating figure unite the human figure with the symbolism of temple and tower. Astrology in all its forms assumes a connection between human health and affairs and the orientation of these with celestial bodies. World religions regard the body itself as a temple and prayer as a column uniting earth to heaven. The ancient Colossus of Rhodes combined the role of human figure with those of portal and skyscraper. The image of a human being suspended on a tree or a cross locates the figure at the axis where heaven and earth meet. The Renaissance image known as the Vitruvian Man represented a symbolic and mathematical exploration of the human form as world axis.[18]

Homes[edit]

Homes can represent world centers. The symbolism for their residents is the same as for inhabitants of palaces and other sacred mountains.[14] The hearth participates in the symbolism of the altar and a central garden participates 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. Mircea Eliade noted that "the symbolism of the pillar in [European] peasant houses likewise derives from the 'symbolic field' of the axis mundi. In many archaic dwellings the central pillar does in fact serve as a means of communication with the heavens, with the sky."[22] 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.[23]

Shamanic function[edit]

A common shamanic concept, and a universally told story, is that of the healer traversing the axis mundi to bring back knowledge from the other world. It may be seen in the stories from Odin and the World Ash Tree to the Garden of Eden and Jacob's Ladder to Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. It is the essence of the journey described in 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. It is also a central tenet in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.[24]

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, or guides to, knowledge.[25]

Traditional expressions[edit]

Asia[edit]

Middle East[edit]

Africa[edit]

Europe[edit]

The Americas[edit]

Australia[edit]

Modern expressions[edit]

Axis mundi symbolism continues to be evoked in modern societies. The idea has proven especially consequential in the realm of architecture. Capitol buildings, as the direct descendents of palaces, fill this role, as do commemorative structures such as the Washington Monument in the United States. A skyscraper, as the term itself suggests, suggests the connection of earth and sky, as do spire structures of all sorts. Such buildings come to be regarded as "centers" of an inhabited area, or even the world, and serve as icons of its ideals.[26] The first skyscraper of modern times, the Eiffel Tower, exemplifies this role. The structure was erected in 1889 in Paris, France, to serve as the centerpiece for the Exposition Universelle, making it a symbolic world center from the planning stages. It has served as an iconic image for the city and the nation ever since.[27] Landmark skyscrapers often take names that clearly identify them as centers.[28]

Designers of skyscrapers today routinely evoke the axis mundi symbolism inherent in ancient precedents. Taipei 101 in Taiwan, completed in 2004, evokes the staircase, bamboo stalk, pagoda, pillar and torch. The design of the Burj Khalifa (United Arab Emirates) evokes both desert plants and traditional Arab spires. William F. Smith, one of the designers, states that "the goal of the Burj Dubai [subsequently renamed Burj Khalifa] is not simply to be the world's tallest building--it is to embody the world's highest aspirations."[29] Twin towers, such as the Petronas Towers (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and the former World Trade Center (Manhattan), maintain the axis symbolism even as they more obviously assume the role of pillars. Some structures pierce the sky, implying movement or flight (Chicago Spire, CN Tower in Toronto, the Space Needle in Seattle). Some structures highlight the more lateral elements of the symbol in implying portals (Tuntex Sky Tower in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, The Gateway Arch in St. Louis).[30][31]

The places with economic importance and where skyscrapers are founded are recognised as Financial centres. Examples of financial centres are London, New York City, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Chicago, Seoul, Shanghai, Toronto, Montreal, São Paulo, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam.

A geodesic place is another modern symbolism. Brasília, capital of Brazil, is known as a Geodesic place, where it is positioned at the middle of the country, on a drainage divide.

Ancient traditions continue 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 modern Asian skyscrapers (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 housing the California Department of General Services. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright conceived the Guggenheim Museum in New York as an inverted ziggurat. The Washington Monument is a modern obelisk.[32]

Artistic representations of the world axis abound. Prominent among these is the Colonne sans fin (The Endless Column, 1938) an abstract sculpture by Romanian Constantin Brâncuși. The column takes the form of a "sky pillar" (columna cerului) upholding the heavens even as its rhythmically repeating segments invite climb and suggest the possibility of ascension.[33]

The association of the cosmic pillar with knowledge gives it a prominent role in the world of scholarship. University campuses typically assign a prominent axis role to a campus structure, such as a clock tower, library tower or bell tower. The building serves as the symbolic center of the settlement represented by the campus and serves as an emblem of its ideals. This symbolism of the center is closely tied to the widespread symbolism of the world axis.[34] The image of the "ivory tower", a colloquial metaphor for academia, sustains the metaphor.[31]

The image still takes natural forms as well, as in the American tradition of the Liberty Tree located at town centers. Individual homes continue to act as world axes, especially where Feng shui and other geomantic practices continue to be observed.

The corner of Haight and Ashbury Streets in San Francisco, California is regarded as the axis mundi in the hippie subculture. Christopher Street in Manhattan in New York City is the axis mundi in the gay subculture. Folsom Street, also in San Francisco, is the axis mundi in the leather subculture.

Axis mundi symbolism may be seen in much of the romance surrounding space travel. A rocket on the pad takes on all the symbolism of a tower and the astronaut enacts a mythic story.[35] Each embarks on a perilous journey into the heavens and, if successful, returns with a boon for dissemination. The Apollo 13 insignia stated it succinctly: Ex luna scientia ("From the Moon, knowledge").[36]

Modern Storytelling[edit]

The axis mundi continues to appear in fiction as well as in real-world 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, a Norse legend that figures prominently 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 (1848–74).
  • 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 center of the four compass directions.
  • In The Dark Tower series by Stephen King, the eponymous Dark Tower serves as the axis of all the universes.
  • In Supernatural, the Axis Mundi was a road (or tunnel, or river — depended on the person's perspective) that lead through heaven to its center ('heaven's garden').
  • Filmmakers have placed axis mundi symbols in Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Gotham City. In Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005) the city's symbolic centre is a skyscraper built by Bruce Wayne's father. The same role is filled by a fantastic cathedral in an earlier film by Tim Burton (1989). Burton's cathedral unites the images of steeple, skyscraper, staircase, ladder and rope.
  • The maypole and related images appear in a number of popular songs. "The Wheel and the Maypole" by XTC explicitly riffs on the axis mundi idea.
  • The Island in the ABC drama Lost is revealed in its sixth season to function as a sort of axis mundi.
  • In God of War: Chains of Olympus the axis mundi appears in a literal way as it separates Earth from Hades. It is destroyed in Persephone's scheme to destroy all life, and after its destruction Atlas is punished by replacing the pillar.
  • In World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, The world pillar appears in a literal form, having been broken Azeroth and Deepholme threaten to collapse on one another, leaving Thrall and the Earthen ring to hold the worlds apart while players try to help repair it.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.48-51
  2. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.40
  3. ^ J. C. Cooper. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. Thames and Hudson: New York, 1978. ISBN 0500271259.
  4. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Willard Trask). 'Archetypes and Repetition' in The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton, 1971. ISBN 0691017778. p.16
  5. ^ a b Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.61-63, 173-175
  6. ^ a b Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.39
  7. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.37-39
  8. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.41-43
  9. ^ Wang, Chong. Lunheng Part I: Philosophical Essays of Wang Ch'ung. Trans. Alfred Forke. London: Luzac & Co., 1907. p.337.
  10. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.680-685
  11. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.681
  12. ^ Kelley Coblentz Bautch (25 September 2003). A Study of the Geography of 1 Enoch 17-19: "no One Has Seen what I Have Seen". BRILL. pp. 62–. ISBN 978-90-04-13103-3. Retrieved 28 June 2011. 
  13. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. p.681
  14. ^ a b Mircea Eliade (tr. Willard Trask). 'Archetypes and Repetition' in The Myth of the Eternal Return. Princeton, 1971. ISBN 0691017778. p.12
  15. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.148-149
  16. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.52-54
  17. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.42-45
  18. ^ a b Chevalier, Jean and Gheerbrandt, Alain. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.1025-1033
  19. ^ Miller, Mary; and Karl Taube (1993). The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson. p. 186. ISBN 0500050686. 
  20. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Symbolism of the Centre' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.54
  21. ^ Mircea Eliade (tr. Philip Mairet). 'Indian Symbolisms of Time and Eternity' in Images and Symbols. Princeton, 1991. ISBN 069102068X. p.76
  22. ^ Mircea Eliade. 'Brâncuși and Mythology' in Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts. Continuum, 1992. ISBN 0826406181. p. 100
  23. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.529-531
  24. ^ Townsend, Richard F. (2004). Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-10601-7. 
  25. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.142-145
  26. ^ Judith Dupré. 'Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings.' Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998/2008. p.137
  27. ^ Judith Dupré. 'Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings.' Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998/2008. p. 19
  28. ^ Judith Dupré. 'Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings.' Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998/2008. pp. 45, 69, 81, 91, 97,135, 136, 143
  29. ^ Judith Dupré. 'Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings.' Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998/2008. p.136-7
  30. ^ Judith Dupré. 'Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings.' Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998/2008
  31. ^ a b Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp.1020-1022
  32. ^ Judith Dupré. 'Skyscrapers: A History of the World's Most Extraordinary Buildings.' Black Dog & Leventhal, 1998/2008. p.15
  33. ^ Mircea Eliade. 'Brâncuși and Mythology' in Symbolism, the Sacred, and the Arts. Continuum, 1992. ISBN 0826406181. p.99-100
  34. ^ Mircea Eliade (1954). The Myth of the Eternal Return. New York: Princeton University Press 1991, ISBN 0691017778. p.12-17: "The Symbolism of the Center"
  35. ^ Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt. A Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin Books: London, 1996. ISBN 0140512543. pp. 18, 1020-1022
  36. ^ Nasa Apollo Mission: Apollo 13. 2007-08-25