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Axis Mundi

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Ancient cultures emphasize the contrast between the center and the periphery. The center is a cosmic axis around which the world revolves, thus Eliade terms it the axis mundi.

mircea eliade axis mundi diagram
The Garden of Eden, an axis mundi, from where the four rivers flow. © LMC

The center of the world (or at least the world inhabited by that religious-cultural unit) is characterized by blessing and stability, while the periphery is characterized by instability, chaos and the unknown. This notion is represented all the way from the most primitive sacred pole to the sacred city of Jerusalem. In the most primitive cases, as with the pole, the tribe may be aware of other tribes' axis mundis -- but for that tribe, the world (the land they occupy) is indeed anchored at the center by the sacred pole around which they live, and the rest is merely an unknown non-sacred periphery. Their pillar is indeed the center of the world: it is at their core, and they live around it, as the focal point of their inhabited land; and the rest of the world is an outside.

We have a sequence of religious conceptions and cosmological images that are inseparably connected and form a system that may be called the "system of the world" prevalent in traditional societies: (a) a sacred place constitutes a break in the homogeneity of space; (b) this break is symbolized by an opening by which passage from one cosmic region to another is made possible (from heaven to earth and vice versa; from earth to the underworld); (c) communication with heaven is expressed by one or another of certain images, all of which refer to the axis mundi: pillar (cf. the universalis columna), ladder (cf. Jacob's ladder), mountain [Meru in India, Haraberazaiti in Iran, Gerizim in Palestine], tree, vine, etc.; (d) around this cosmic axis lies the world (= our world), hence the axis is located "in the middle," at the "navel of the earth"; it is the Center of the World. ... The territory that surrounds it, and that constitutes "our world," is held to be the highest among countries. (Eliade, p 37 - 38)

In literature the same terms appear repeatedly to refer to the center of the earth: it is a sacred mountain; the pillar on which the world resides; a holy city, the place where God resides.

Not only was the home of the deity atop the sacred mountain (or whatever represents the axis mundi), but as such it was where the divine and the earthly realms met. Going further away from the sacred mountain meant departing from harvest, abundance, order and into chaos. The further from the deity's home, the closer to the realm of demons and monsters.

The axis mundi allowed the fundamental belief that the home of the god was the sacred realm and that was where the pious wanted to be. The axis mundi is the most sacred land as it is closest to the divine; it is a place that is neither heaven nor earth, but a refuge from the non-sacred where the two realms intersect and the divine is present.

A non-sacred example of a similar feeling is the longing, awe and idealism felt for where one was born, or had one's first kiss, or any another event that anchors the world around it.

1 Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised
in the city of our God.
His holy mountain, 2 beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great KIng.
3 Within its citadels God
has shown himself a sure defense. (Psalm 48)