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Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch circa 1490.
Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy.


Apr 11, 2008

The Spirit of Mythology – Part Two

Why does the mythical axis mundi – a cosmic tree, mountain or pillar – feature so prominently in traditional descriptions of “heaven” or “paradise”, the place where souls go after death or during a mystical vision?

The desirable abode of a radiant “sun god” at the apex of the axis mundi, a widely documented theme, is indistinguishable from the celestial “paradise” inhabited by a congregation of blessed souls. “Up on the Astrolabe Range”, to quote a Papuan belief, “there blooms invisible to mortal eye a great and gracious tree, in and around which dwell for ever, free from care and happy, all those who have lived good lives ere death claimed them”.

The Dayak people, of Borneo, envisioned the land of the souls as a large settlement enclosed by seven mountains, within its midst a “strikingly large tree”, Bating Garing, that possesses the property of rejuvenation. The Maya of Yucatán, similarly, envisioned the destination of those that had behaved well as “a most delightful place where nothing would cause them sorrow and where there would be rich food and drink in abundance, and a cool, shady tree that they call yaxché (the silk-cotton tree), in the shade of whose branches they would all rest and be in peace forever.”

Just why did traditional societies in such diverse places conceive of the starry sky and the axis mundi as prime destinations for posthumous or “questing” souls? Certainly, the answer must take into account the remarkable similarity between the cosmic axis as a radiant pillar surmounted by gods and the “tunnel of light, reaching to Deity” as perceived in a typical Near-Death Experience (NDE) or Out of Body Experience (OBE). So close is the connection that some ancient reports can be read as indicative of both.

In Plato’s description of the vision of Er the Pamphylian, for instance, Er, along with a host of other souls, transcends into the sky where he observes a spectacular pillar of light, “most nearly resembling the rainbow, but brighter and purer.” This adamantine column formed the central shaft of the universe, to which all planets and stars were attached as to a spindle whorl. Neo-Platonists, Gnostics and medieval hermeticists continued to position the illuminated soul on a miraculous radiant pillar that doubles as an auroral axis mundi and a “tunnel of light” marking the near-dead condition of the mystic’s enthralled soul. As late as the 15th century, Hieronymus Bosch could depict the souls of the dead being led by angelic beings towards heaven through a tube of light.

But what does this tell us? Reductionist supporters of a psychological theory of myth may be inclined to explain the entire mythology of the axis mundi as an embellished set of reports of Near-Death Experiences. This approach is invalid for two reasons. Firstly, worldwide descriptions of the axis mundi imply a level of consistent detail and an internal chronological history that cannot be derived from “tunnel visions”, which are relatively poor in recurrent detail.

Secondly, creation myths seem to form the original context on which later impressions of the cosmic itineraries of the soul were based. A “contemporary” belief that souls turn into stars is almost certainly a development from earlier creation myths in which the stars were formed from “people” that had formerly lived on earth. Examples of the latter motif are abundant. The tunnel seen in Near-Death Experiences lacks a perceived link with the creation of the world and is “timeless” in that sense.

This leaves the possibility that Near-Death and Out of Body Experiences could in ancient times simply have been secondarily associated with cosmological notions about the stars and the axis mundi. They would have reinforced the impression that the axial pillar, though vanished at the end of the “Golden Age”, could somehow still be accessed by the “enlightened” souls of the dead and the visionaries.

A detailed structural analysis of traditions about the axis mundi and the “creation of the world” in general suggests that the prototype was a complex high-energy-density auroral configuration produced during a violent geomagnetic storm towards the end of the Neolithic period. If true, this sky-reaching column as well as its many constituents were really formed of glowing plasma. Considering the surprisingly life-like properties of plasmas in high-energy environments, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that traditional cultures worldwide portray this axis as a veritable “lifeline”, a “tree of life”, the embodiment of primordial life, and the original repository of life forms. This animated nature could explain the intimate association between the axis and a world of “souls”, clarifying in the process why human societies have always tended to imagine souls to be like glowing, gaseous clouds or sparks not unlike little stars.

On a far more speculative note, the electric nature of the nervous system invites the possibility that whatever the “soul” is, it may indeed bear a relationship to plasmas interacting with the geomagnetic environment. Could there be more to the ancient tendency to depict a human being as a microcosmic replication of the universe, whose spinal column corresponded to the macrocosmic polar axis?

Intriguing though these possibilities are, scientists will ultimately have the last word on the nature both of the soul itself and of the “hallucinatory” trajectories of light the soul may follow in its course. The truly inquisitive spirit secures enlightenment not through revelatory visions or inspired guesses, but through reliable research methods.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Further Reading:

The Mythology of the World Axis; Exploring the Role of Plasma in World Mythology

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon


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