Axis Mundi

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AXIS MUNDI , the "hub" or "axis" of the universe, is a technical term used in the study of the history of religions. It comprises at least three levels of reference: the images themselves, their function and meaning, and the experiences associated with them.

Vivid images of the axis of the universe vary widely, since they depend on the particular worldview entertained by a specific culture. Foremost among the images designated by the term axis mundi is the cosmic mountain, a sacred place deemed to be the highest point of the universe and perhaps identified with the center of the world and the place where creation first began. Well-known examples of the cosmic mountain are Mount Meru of South Asian cosmology, Haraberazaiti of Iranian tradition, and Himinbjörg of Scandinavian mythology.

The cosmic tree, at whose top abides the celestial divinity, is another frequent image standing for the axis of the world. The roots of such a tree may sink into the underworlds, while its branches traverse the multiple world planes. At the center of the classical Maya vision of the world stood Yaxche, the "first tree," the "green tree," whose place marked the center of all meaningful directions and colors of the universe.

A cosmic pillar may also serve as an axis mundi. Such is the case with the Delaware (Lenape) Indians and other Eastern Woodland peoples of North America. The center post of their ceremonial cult house supports the sky and passes into the very hand of the celestial deity. The Milky Way is often viewed as another form of cosmic pillar that supports the heavens and connects them with earth.

Many other images fall under the designation axis mundi because they share in the symbolic meaning represented by a cosmic mountain, tree, or pillar that joins heaven, earth, and underworld. This category includes cities, especially imperial capitals deemed "heavenly" sites by virtue of proximity to the divine realm; palaces or temples that continue the imagery of the cosmic mountain (e.g., the Babylonian ziggurat); vines or ropes that pass from heaven to earth; and sacred ladders such as the seven-rung ladder, described by Origen, that brings the candidate in the cult of Mithra through the seven heavens.

None of these images has a static function. They are all places of active passage and transition. As places of dynamic union where beings of quite different natures come together or pass into one another, the images of axis mundi may be associated with the coincidence of oppositesthat is, the resolution of contradictions by their progress onto a more spiritual plane.

Because the axis mundi serves as the locus where cosmic regions intersect and where the universe of being is accessible in all its dimensions, the hub of the universe is held to be a place sacred above all others. It defines reality, for it marks the place where being is most fully manifest. This connection of the axis mundi with the full manifestation of being is often expressed as an association with the supreme being to whom the axis provides access. This axis mundi is often traversed and its heights attained in a state of ecstasy brought about by spiritual techniques. Hence the term axis mundi implies an intersection of planes through which transcendence to other kinds of being may be achieved.

There is a tendency to replicate the image of the axis mundi in multiple forms. Such is the case with the crossthe cosmic tree of Christianity. Re-creating the image of the axis mundi in the form of village sites, house plans, ritual furnishings, personal ornaments, and even kitchen items tends to identify the universe as a whole with the fullness of being characteristic of action at that sacred place. It ensures that contact with the fullness of reality is everywhere possible. As a result, the meaning and function of the axis mundi rest not in abstract and geometrical concepts alone but in everyday gestures that can effect the same transcendence.

All these symbols imply a particular quality of experience. The symbols of axis mundi are ambivalent: on the one hand, they connect realms of being but on the other hand they emphasize the distance between such realms. In short, they point to the need for a rupture of planes of existence, for experience of an order quite different from that of the ordinary world.

See Also

Architecture; Mountains; Trees.


For a wide-ranging discussion of the general concept of axis mundi, see Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), pp. 367387, which concern the "center of the world," and pp. 265303, which treat the question of the axis mundi manifest as cosmic tree. See also Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York, 1959), pp. 2067, and Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York, 1961), pp. 2756, which provide bibliographies tracing the history of this concept in scholarly study of religion.

For contemporary studies representing investigations of specific aspects of axis mundi, the following may serve as illustrations: for the image of mountain, I. W. Mabbett's "The Symbolism of Mount Meru," History of Religions 23 (August 1983): 6483; for cosmic tree, Y. T. Hosoi's "The Sacred Tree in Japanese Prehistory," History of Religions 16 (November 1976): 95119; as a city, Werner Müller's Die heilige Stadt (Stuttgart, 1961) and Paul Wheatley's The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City (Chicago, 1971), esp. pp. 411476. For an examination of the temple as place of union of beings and manifestation of sacred presence, see David Dean Shulman's Tamil Temple Myths (Princeton, 1980).

For a consideration of the liturgical function of sacred geography and spatial images when seen as expressions of being, see Kees W. Bolle's "Speaking of a Place," in Myths and Symbols, edited by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Charles H. Long (Chicago, 1969), pp. 127140.

New Sources

Feuerstein, Georg, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley. In Search of the Cradle of Civilization. Wheaton, Ill., 1995.

Michell, John, and Christine Rhone. Twelve-Tribe Nations and the Science of Enchanting the Landscape. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1991.

Schama, Simon. Landscape and Memory. New York, 1995.

Lawrence E. Sullivan (1987)

Revised Bibliography