Center of the World

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CENTER OF THE WORLD . The importance of the symbolism of the center of the world can hardly be overstated, for it establishes the order of the universe, drawing together the spiritual destiny of collective humankind and that of the individual human being. The term center of the world refers to that place where all essential modes of being come together; where communication and even passage among them is possible. The center of the world is the heart of reality, where the real is fully manifest. The nature of this manifestation may vary greatly from one culture to another, taking the form of a vague, undefined power or of the direct appearance of a divinity. Since this center stands apart as the extraordinary place where the real is integral, it is always a sacred place, qualitatively different from mundane space. In the religious world view, every ordered and habitable area possesses such a center, a space that is sacred above all others. For this reason, the center of the world should not be portrayed in purely geometric terms or forms. It is because the center of the world is defined by its special relationship to the sacred that there can be multiple centers in any cosmos or microcosm. Cultures in Mesopotamia, India, and China, for example, saw no inconsistency in recognizing a large number of sacred places, each one called "the center of the world." The center of the world is a locus in mythic geography, a symbolic portrayal of the real, known, and essential aspects of the world, rather than a detached and objective reckoning of abstract space.

In cultures that conceive of the universe as multiple realms of heavens, hells, and strata for various kinds of beings, the center of the world is that point where all realms intersect and where the most direct contact with the sacred is obtained. Existence of a sacred center allows for the establishment of a world system, a body of imaged realities that are related to one another: a sacred point that stands apart from the homogeneity of general space; symbolic openings from one level of reality to another; an axis mundi (tree, mountain, ladder, vine, or pillar) that symbolizes the communication between cosmic regions; and the extension of an organized and habitable world that exists around the center. This cosmos constructed around a sacred center lies in opposition to the chaotic space beyond it, which has neither been ordered by the gods nor consecrated in rituals imitating the divine creative acts. That indeterminate space beyond the cosmos remains uninhabitable by human beings because it is a place where communication with the supernatural world is impossible. In the "other world" dwell demonic beings, ghosts, monsters, souls of the dead, or foreigners.

Symbolic Forms

In order to illustrate how widespread is the concept of the center of the world and how constant is its basic meaning, some of its most common symbolic forms may be noted. Amond these are the sacred mountain; the cosmic tree; the bridge or ladder connecting cosmic realms; sanctuaries, temples, tombs; sacred cities; domestic space; personal space; and sacred sound.

In Asia one finds the elaborate religious symbolism of Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain whose complex symbolic meanings are put forth especially in the post-Vedic literature of India, particularly in the Purāas of Hinduism, and in certain Buddhist texts. On its peak lie the cities of the gods. It has existed since the beginning of time. Upon its slopes the waters of immortality are stored in Lake Anavatapta. The sacred river Ganges flows from Mount Meru. It is the fixed point about which revolve the sun and the stars. Around it are gathered other sacred mountains. In ascending the slopes of Mount Meru, one passes through all possible spiritual states of being until, arriving at the summit, one transcends the particularities of any of them. Similarly, in early Daoism, Kunlun is a cosmic mountain paradise connecting heaven and earth. In some accounts concerning the primordial human being named Pangu, Kunlun makes its appearance from out of the chaotic flood waters that deluged the earth. It was here at the center of the universe that human life was created and the world regenerated.

In the Zhuangzi and Liezi, Kunlun is the place where the Yellow Emperor "dies" to the mundane world and flies to heaven in the immortal form of a bird-man. Also in the Liezi is a description of the mountain Hu-ling, which forms the center of a paradise whose inhabitants are rejuvenated by the water bubbling forth from the sacred spring on its summit. The spirit is the only vehicle that can transport one on a journey across the slopes of this cosmic mountain. To find one's way to this mountain is to return to the beginning of time, where one's adult body becomes once again virginal, and one's mind attains undifferentiated knowledge, limitless as a bottomless spring. The ascent transcends all particular states and attains the mode of preexistence, the condition of the "spirit man"(shen-jen), spoken of as the Daoist ideal of the holy man in the Liezi, Huainanzi, and the Zhuangzi.

Examples of cosmic mountains that stand at the center of the world make up a very long list. The central mountain of Uralo-Altaic cosmology, Sumbur, Sumur, or Semeru, lay directly under the North Star, which fixed the central point of the heavens. In Norse mythology, Hininbjörg, the "heavenly mountain," lies at the center of the earth, where the rainbow touches the celestial vault. In the Hebrew Bible (Jgs. 9:37) Mount Gerizim is referred to as abur ha-arets, "the navel of the earth." Indeed, there are traditions that report that the land of Palestine is so high, located as it is near the heights of the cosmic mountain, that it alone remained unflooded during the Deluge. Mount Tabor, in its very name, may share associations with the navel, abur, of the earth. A ninth-century Islamic tradition argued by al-Kisā'ī of Kufa holds the sacred Kaʿbah to be the highest place on earth, located directly beneath the North Star (i.e., at the center of the world). In a Christian tradition from the Syrian Book of the Cave of Treasures, Golgotha was the center of the world, the summit of the cosmic mountain, and the culmination of salvation history. It was there that Adam was created and buried, in the same place in which the blood of Christ was shed to redeem the world. The image of the cosmic mountain immediately introduces us to the concept of axis mundi, the "hub of the world," which symbolizes the communication between cosmic realms. It likewise brings up the symbolism of ascension, since one may transcend the planes of existence along a vertical axis.

Another widely known symbol of the center of the world is the cosmic tree, which transfixes the levels of the world, making communication and passage among them possible. At the center of the world in the Baltic religious traditions stood the Saules Koks, the "tree of the sun." It grew out of the top of the mountain of heaven, the farmland of the heavenly supreme being Dievs. It is the source of life. Although earthly species of tree may represent the tree of the sun, it is unique and inaccessible, it may be described as made of precious metal, gold, or silver. A supernatural orb descends through its branches, perhaps associated with Saule, the sun herself, who is the mother of all life. Likewise, among the Maya of Mesoamerica during the Classic period (300900 ce) the universe was centered on Yaxche, the "first, or green, tree," extending upward to the zenith (the white interval between east and west) and downward to the nadir (the yellow interval between west and east).

Certain Babylonian inscriptions refer to the black tree named Kiskanu that grows at Eridu, a place at the center of the world. This sacred tree is described in cosmic terms: it shines with the lapis-lazuli radiance of the starry night and spreads its boughs out toward the cosmic ocean that encompasses the world. It is the place where Ea (Enki), the god of fertility and of cultural skills, is present, and the resting place of Bau, Ea's mother, the goddess of abundant flocks and agriculture. The Vo̜luspá, the Scandinavian creation story, tells of Yggdrasill, the cosmic tree whose roots penetrate the center of the earth. Óðinn (Odin) leaves his eye in the Spring of Mmir ("memory" or "meditation"), located near Yggdrasill, in exchange for the privilege of refreshing his wisdom there whenever he returns. Near the foot of Yggdrasill, at the spring of Urðr (Urd) located there, the divinities pronounce judgments. Water is drawn from the spring of Urðr by three Norns, maidens who govern the fate of humans. In the branches of Yggdrasill, which spread out across heaven and earth, live supernatural animals. At the foot of the tree lies the enormous cosmic serpent, Niðho̜ggr (Nidhogg), who threatens the very existence of the tree by gnawing continually upon it. At the very top of the tree perches an eagle who does daily battle with the destructive serpent. The Vo̜luspá describes not only the creation of the world but its demise when it gives way to a paradisal epoch. Even at that time, Yggdrasill will endure.

The symbolism of the center of the world may be expressed through a range of other symbolsa ladder, a vine, a rope, a bridgeall of which serve as an axis mundi connecting heaven and earth or various cosmic realms of being. For example, for the Desana, a Tucano-speaking group of the Vaupés River area of southern Colombia, the center of the world is occupied by the Go'a-mëe, which transfixes all zones of the universe through their center. Go'a-mëe is likened to the penis of the creator Sun Father. In the image of a tubular bone (ve'e go'á), it joins all the cosmic levels together in an act of continuous intercourse. This immense phallus at the center of the world is a fundamental part of the creation, since it carries the "yellow intention," the solar semen of the creator, into the cosmic uterus, Ahpikondía ("river of milk"), from which all life comes.

The image of the center as the locus of all powers and passage makes clear the religious significance of a range of holy sites, from informal sanctuaries to temples, cathedrals, or even whole cities. The Mandan, a Plains Indian group now living in North Dakota, placed a circular shrine in the center of each of their villages. It was constructed of wood panels nearly two meters in height. In the center of the shrine stood a cedar post, the image of the supernatural being named One Man, who lived in the times spoken of in myth. One Man was the brother of the first human being. The Achilpa, an Aranda (Arunta) tribe in Australia, install Kauwa-auwa, a sacred pole fashioned from the trunk of a gum tree, in their settlements. It is the pillar that their legendary ancestor Numbakula constructed, anointed with blood, and used to ascend into the sky during the mythic period. It is the means of communication between this world and the world above; between this period of time and the mythical time of the ancestor. Whenever the Achilpa wander as a group, they carry Kauwa-auwa with them and head in the direction toward which the sacred pole inclines. In this way communication with the supernatural will always be possible.

Standing at the center of the world, the temple too spans all levels of reality. The Rock of Jerusalem reaches down into the waters below the earth (Heb., tehom ). Directly over this watery chaos, the Mishnah locates the Temple. The Rock of the Temple of Jerusalem thus closes "the mouth of the tehom. " The Babylonian sanctuaries of Nippur and Larsa were given the title duranki, "link between heaven and earth." In ancient Babylon the temple also served to connect heaven and earth: it was built upon babapsu, "gate of apsu ", the watery chaos that existed before creation. The stupa of Borobudur in Java was built in the form of a mountain occupying the center of the cosmos. It is here at the center of the universe that one may have the most direct contact with Buddhahood. By ascending the stages of the stupa, the pilgrim passes through all realms of reality.

In some cases, a city becomes the sacred place where heaven and earth come together. Architects designing sacred capitals oriented the sites to the cosmic powers that filled them with their sacred force and rendered them habitable. Ritual actions focused the supernatural power of a kingdom within the city confines. In Thailand a new monarch performed a ceremonial tour (liap mo'a) around his capital. In Egypt, a ceremony called the Circuit of the White Wall was celebrated when a new pharaoh came to Memphis. The practice was modeled on the actions of Menes, who had designed the sacred city. When Romulus determined the circumference of Rome, he plowed a furrow in such a way as to form the city on the model of the cosmos as a whole. This line, the pomerium, was marked then by stones and considered holy. Not only was the capital city made habitable by its consecration as a sacred place, the capital itself became the center for diffusion of sacred forces throughout the wider kingdom. Through the city gates, sacred power, generated at the center of the capital during its ceremonies, passed out to the extended world. In this way, the city, often built on a heavenly model, becomes a source of resanctification and sacred renewal for a world corrupted over time. Such was the function of the sacred cities of Cuzco, the Inca capital in the Andes of South America, and Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital and center of life forces throughout Mesoamerica in the early sixteenth century ce. Tenochtitlán was called "the root," "the navel," and "the heart" of the earthly layer in the cosmos. It was the "supreme" place in which the world of humans was joined with the Giver of Life, for it supported the multiple layers of the celestial realm and communicated with the underworld. As the Aztec adage says: "Who would conquer Tenochtitlán? Who could shake the foundation of heaven?" (cited in Miguel León-Portilla, Pre-Colombian Literatures of Mexico, Norman, Okla., 1968, p. 87).

The symbolism of the center of the world is by no means limited to extravagant cases. The house often contains the center of the world. The Barasana of the northwest Amazon conceive of their maloca, the longhouse in which an extended family lives, in the image of the universe, especially at the time of the Yurupary festival. During the rites known as He, the longhouse becomes the center of the universe, where life began when a mythic ancestor anaconda swam there and disintegrated into the many separate parts which formed the separate lineages of the tribe. From his long bones came the sacred flutes and long trumpets played during the festival. These instruments are laid end to end to reconstructliterally to rememberthe ancestor as he was, whole and entire, at the beginning of time at the center of the house-universe. In the Barasana tradition the whole house is "cosmicized" for the cermonial occasion. In other cultures, some structure in the house serves as an image of the center of the world; a central beam, center post, or chimney, the smoke hole or hearth, and so on.

The tendency to find the center of the universe in multiple locations may be carried as far as the discovery of it within one's own body. Such is the case in certain Tantric schools that rejected the validity of an external maala but insisted rather on locating the center of the maala within the yogin. The interior maala, an image of the universe, enabled the yogin to identify his "mystical body" as a whole microcosm. As each internal cakra, the "wheel" where cosmic life and psychic life intersect, is activated, the practitioner progressively penetrates into the center of an interior maala, an image of the universe.

There is an impulse to replicate the image of the center of the universe in multiple forms. At one stage in the creation of the universe, according to the Dogon of Mali, a supernatural being connected the heavenly and earthly realms with thread fibers into which he wove symbols of the creative word spoken by Amma, the supreme being. The symbolism of fibers passing back and forth from heaven to earth is repeated in the image of a special drum, whose two heads are bound together in an intricate pattern of thread fibers. The same meaning is continued in children's games in which the child's hands are identified with the hands of the supernatural being, and the "cat's cradle" of thread drawn between the child's fingers imitates the creative word-threads communicated between heaven and earth. Weaving itself, and the loom, are invested with the same symbolic value. Rains are imagined to be moist breath-threads rewound into the heavens along the sun's rays by the copper spirals of moisture that entwine the sun. This sort of replication of the image of the axis mundi in village sites, house plans, ritual furnishings, personal ornaments, games, and cooking utensils tends to identify the fullness of being characteristic of the center of the world with the universe as a whole.

Although emphasis falls on the center of the world as a point of contact with the heavenly world and, therefore, associated with the symbolism of ascent, it should be made clear that, at the center of the world, one also communicates with underground realms of being. Insofar as these underground realms may be connected with death and the descent of the soul at death, rituals that employ symbolic death (such as initiations) often take place at the center of the world. Death requires passage from one state of being to another. On the Northwest Coast of North America the Kwakiutl candidate, undergoing a symbolic death during his initiation into a dancing society, declares "I am at the center of the world!" He stands at the foot of a cedar "cannibal pole" wrapped in red bark, which imbues it with supernatural power, nawalak. On the other hand, the kind of death associated with the center of the world may be more literally conceived. In these cases, the tomb comes to be the center of the world.

Intriguing also is the suggestion that at the center of the world is found a sound or set of sounds, usually sacred music of some sort, which effects the transition between world levels. Already mentioned is the image of the Dogon drum, the percussive instrument that effects transition and embodies the image of the axis mundi in its own construction. In the universe of the Warao Indians of the Orinoco Delta of Venezuela, transition from one realm of the cosmos to another is made by crossing a snake-bridge. The snake has musical bells on its horns. The shaman learns how to pass from one cosmic zone to another by singing the sounds he hears (sung by flowers, insects, supernatural beings) when he first makes the journey. The Chiripá shamans of eastern Paraguay sing a sacred song that is said to be "like a bridge" that permits communication between the heavenly and earthly worlds. Especially in religious worldviews wherein every kind of being possesses sounds unique to it, ritually controlled combinations of sound in sacred music "convocalize," or convoke, different realms of being by bringing them together at one time. The spatial images discussed earlier bring multiple realms of being together in the same place; sacred music and sound may bring together multiple realms of being in the same time.

Associated Actions and Attitudes

Even these few illustrations demonstrate a number of actions consistently appropriate to the range of ideas and symbols associated with the center of the world. To begin with, the sacred place, the locus of the center of the world, is set apart, deliberately made sacred; that is, in spite of its ordinary and profane aspects it is a place where communication with extraordinary beings is possible. The place may be made sacred by the arbitrary and unprovoked appearance of a supernatural power (kratophany), or the sacralizing event may be the appearance of a god (theophany). Generally speaking, we may say that a place may be set apart by an appearance of the sacred (hierophany). A second means of setting a place apart from profane space is through acts of deliberate consecration carried on by human beings in ritual. The examples cited show how closely the center of the world is associated with creation. This makes it easier to understand why the ritual construction of sacred spaces repeats, in stylized and symbolic form, the actions of the cosmogony. Just as the primordial moment of creation underlies all creative instances, so too does the place of origin become the point toward which all other life-filled space is oriented.

In the rites of Vedic sacrifice, for example, "the sacrificer makes himself a ladder and a bridge to reach the celestial world" (Taittirīya Sahitā Before he (sometimes in company with his wife) can ascend to the upper world, the sacrificer must first prepare and consecrate the sacrificial stake, the yūpa. This is fashioned from a tree likened to the cosmic tree. After the yūpa is made, it is installed as a cosmic pillar, upholding and connecting all realms of being: "Lift thyself up, O Lord of the Forest, unto the summit of the earth!" (gveda 3.8.3.) The idea is made explicit in the Śatapatha Brāhmaa ( "With thy summit thou dost hold up the heavens, with thy branches thou fillest the air, with thy foot thou steadiest the earth." While ascending the stake, he may extend his arms, just as a bird stretches out its wings, and exclaim, "I have attained to heaven, to the gods: I have become immortal!" (Taittirīya Sahitā, 1.7.9.)

The consecration of sacred space undertakes to create the world, in symbolic terms, and thus make it habitable; that is, make communication possible with powerful beings who are the source of creativity. Consecration, then, involves installation of the structures of the cosmos. The sacred lodge of the Algonquin people of North America embodies the essential structures of the universe. The construction itself is the cosmogony: the doors and windows are the four cardinal directions, each with its own color. The roof is the vault of heaven, the floor the earth. Human beings situate their cultic life at the center of this microcosm. The rites of the center include not only constructions reenacting the cosmogony but also rites of ascent, descent, and transition between states of being. Rites of sacrifice are properly celebrated at this point, where the spirit of the victim may pass from one plane to another. Construction sacrifices consecrate foundations and give life to the forms of buildings and bridges by using the cosmogony as their model. Curing rituals are often performed at the center, where life can be regenerated, powerful and fresh, just as it was once generated for the first time at the moment of creation.

All of these symbolisms of the center reflect the spiritual need for orientation to what is sacred. It is this proximity to the sacred that makes human life possible, for it satisfies the mature spiritual need for what is real and has meaning.

The examples depict an ambivalence inherent in the symbolism of the center. The spatial images themselves suggest two things at the same time: communication and distant separation. The very cosmic tree and mountain that join heaven and earth together also hold them apart from one another. This ambivalence of the center describes well a primary quality of religious experience. On the one hand, the journey to the center may be arduous and dangerous. No one may have access to the center, to different states of being, without careful preparation and spiritual strength. The journey to the center may require a complete transformation of one's spiritual being. On the other hand, the image of the center of the world is replicated in multiple forms. This ensures that communication with the fullness of reality is everywhere possible. Easy access to other modes of being is reminiscent of the paradisiacal state of the universe when it first came into being. The difficulty of passage to the center appears to be founded on the experience that communication with or acquisition of new states of being means a cessation, or "death," of one's profane state of being. Nevertheless, the ease with which one may enter the center of the world draws upon a profound knowledge of the nature of religious symbolism, in this case, the symbolism of the center: its multivalent character makes it capable of extending its significance to multiple levels of meaning and planes of reference. For example, the symbolism of the center, with great consistency of meaning, applies to the center of the universe, the center of the residential unit, the center of the village, the home, the ritual space, the human physiology mystically conceived, and the act of spiritual concentration. On every plane, the significance of the symbolism of the center of the world underlines the fact that at the heart of existence lies an experience and a mode of being entirely different from the ordinary world centered on it. Paradoxically, it is from this conjunction of beings that the reality of this world derives.

See Also

Axis Mundi; Bridges; Cities; Consecration; Home; Mountains; Orientation; Temple; Trees.


Extensive bibliography and lucid discussion of the symbolism of the center of the world can be found in Mircea Eliade's Patterns in Comparative Religion (New York, 1958), esp. pp. 367387. See also Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (New York, 1959), pp. 2067, and his Images and Symbols: Studies in Religious Symbolism (New York, 1969), pp. 2756.

Other studies, with helpful bibliographies, investigate specific images and instances of the center of the world. On the cosmic mountain, see Joseph W. Bastien's Mountain of the Condor: Metaphor and Ritual in an Andean Ayllu (Saint Paul, Minn., 1978), and I. W. Mabbett's "The Symbolism of Mount Meru," History of Religions 23 (August 1983): 6483. On the cosmic tree, see Y. T. Hosoi's "The Sacred Tree in Japanese Prehistory," History of Religions 16 (November 1976): 95119. For a discussion of ways in which the mountain, cosmic tree, city, cave, and temple may be drawn together and overlap in the symbolism of the center, see the essays in Mesoamerican Sites and World-Views, edited by Elizabeth P. Benson (Washington, D.C., 1981). Regarding the personalization of cosmic space, see Catherine L. Albanese's "The Multi-Dimensional Mandala: A Study in the Interiorization of Sacred Space," Numen 24 (April 1977): 125. On the image of a city, see Werner Müller's, Die heilige Stadt: Roma quadrate, himlisches Jerusalem und die Mythe vom Weltnabel (Stuttgart, 1961); Paul Wheatley's The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City (Chicago, 1971); and Paul Wheatley and Thomas See's From Court to Capital: A Tentative Interpretation of the Origins of the Japanese Urban Tradition (Chicago, 1978). See also Davíd Carrasco's "City as Symbol in Aztec Thought: The Clues from the Codex Mendoza," History of Religions 20 (February 1981): 199223. For a comparative treatment of the role of city as center in religious literature and poetry, see James Dougherty's The Fivesquare City: The City in the Religious Imagination (Notre Dame, Ind., 1980). For a discussion of the center of the world as that place where the creative act imposes order on chaos, see N. J. Girardot's Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Themes of Chaos (Berkeley, 1983).

For Buddhist cosmographies and descriptions of Mount Meru as the center of all world systems, see Georges Coedès's Les trois mondes (Paris, 1973). For treatment of the cosmic symbolism applied to the residence space, see Werner Müller's Die blaue Hütte (Wiesbaden, 1954). Concerning the "paradise" found as a sacred mountain in the center of the universe, see Michel Soymié's "Le Lo-feou chan: Étude de géographie réligieuse," Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient 48 (1956): 1139. On the conception of the house as a microcosm, with the hearth or dance plaza as the center for ritual, see Anthony Jackson's Na-khi Religion: An Analytical Appraisal of Na-khi Ritual Texts (The Hague, 1979) and Christine Hugh-Jones's From the Milk River: Spatial and Temporal Processes in Northwest Amazonia (Cambridge, 1979), pp. 4049, 235282. For a discussion of sacred sound as an image of the axis mundi, see Lawrence E. Sullivan's "Sacred Music and Sacred Time," World of Music (Berlin) 26, no. 3 (1984): 3352; and Rodney Needham's "Percussion and Transition," Man 2 (December 1967): 606614. For a discussion of how the cosmic winds of the four quarters become centered and "holy" in the sacred sounds of ritual speech, see James K. McNeley's Holy Wind in Navajo Philosophy (Tucson, 1982) and Gary Witherspoon's "The Central Concepts of Navajo World View," Linguistics 119 (1972): 4159. On the temple as a locus of the union of beings, see David Dean Shulman's Tamil Temple Myths: Sacrifice and Divine Marriage in the South Indian Saiva Tradition (Princeton, 1980).

For a consideration of the way in which the sacredness of the center relates, in a paradoxical way, to the boundaries of space, see Victor Turner's "The Center Out There: Pilgrim's Goal," History of Religions 12 (February 1973): 191230, and Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff's Amazonian Cosmos: The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the Tukano Indians (Chicago, 1971), esp. pp. 4755, 116117.

New Sources

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "To Live in a World with No Centerand Many." Cross Currents 46, no. 3 (Fall 1996): 318325.

Mircea Eliade (1987)

Lawrence E. Sullivan (1987)

Revised Bibliography