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 Schematic representation of the axis mundi. © Seong Hee Jo. 


More Than Meets the Eye
Aug 18, 2010

While the axis mundi is only a geometric notion with no physical substance, a smattering of mythological and early cosmological traditions describe it as a conspicuous luminous column endowed with a large number of specific morphological features.

In astronomical terms, the axis mundi or ‘world axis’ is the imaginary line that extends outward into space from the rotational poles of the earth. From a viewpoint on earth, it marks the celestial pole, around which the stars and planets appear to rotate in a daily cycle. From the Roman period onwards, natural philosophers were well aware of the theoretical nature of the axis’ existence. The Roman astrologer, Marcus Manilius (1st century CE) spoke of the tenuis axis, the “insubstantial axis” that “controls the universe, keeping it pivoted at opposite poles”. He elaborated on the “insubstantial” nature of the axis:

“Yet the axis is not solid with the hardness of matter, nor does it possess massive weight such as to bear the burden of the lofty firmament; but since the entire atmosphere ever revolves in a circle, and every part of the whole rotates to the place from which it once began, that which is in the middle, about which all moves, so insubstantial that it cannot turn round itself or even submit to motion or spin in circular fashion, this men have called the axis, since, motionless itself, it yet sees everything spinning about it.”

Much later, the African writer Martianus Capella (5th century CE) also commented on the ‘theoretical’ nature of the axis mundi – as well as the poles: “I myself do not consider an axis and poles, which mortals have fastened in a bronze armillary sphere to assist them in comprehending the heavens, as an authoritative guide to the workings of the universe. For there is nothing more substantial than the earth itself, which is able to sustain the heavens. Another reason is that the poles that protrude from the hollow cavity of the perforated outer sphere, and the apertures, the pivots, and the sockets have to be imagined – something that you may be assured could not happen in a rarefied and supramundane atmosphere. Accordingly, whenever I shall use the terms axis, poles, or celestial circles, for the purpose of gaining comprehension, my terminology is to be understood in a theoretical sense …” Centuries later, again, the anonymous author of a tract attributed to the Venerable Bede (12th century CE) observed with respect to the earth that “an intelligible line passes through the middle of it from the arctic pole to the antarctic”.

So far, so good. The intellectual challenge arises upon the discovery that, while the axis is only a geometric notion with no physical substance, a smattering of mythological and early cosmological traditions describe it as a conspicuous luminous column endowed with a large number of specific morphological features.

At the outset, it is important to acknowledge the distinction between the astronomical definition of the axis, as above, and the way the same term is often used in anthropological and archaeological literature. Scholars in the humanities typically employ the term axis mundi in the loose sense of a roughly vertical and stationary connection between ‘sky’ and ‘earth’ that is mythically expressed as a radiant tree, mountain, pillar, ladder, rope, giant, and so on. In this sense, which was popularised by Mircea Eliade in particular, the polar location of the sky pillar is rarely specified.

The mythological and cosmological literature worldwide is replete with references to the axis mundi in the loose, generic sense of the word – in the form of stories and statements concerning the former existence of a stupendous visible linkage between the realms of the ‘sky’ and the ‘earth’. Yet even much rarer reports concerning the world axis in the strict astronomical sense occasionally portray the column as a visible entity. An example of the latter is the famous ‘pillar of Er’ described in Plato’s dialogue The Republic. In this, Socrates recounts the phenomena a certain Er of Pamphylia had observed during what would nowadays be diagnosed as a Near-Death Experience:

“… they came in four days to a spot whence they discerned, extended from above throughout the heaven and the earth, a straight light like a pillar, most nearly resembling the rainbow, but brighter and purer. To this they came after going forward a day’s journey, and they saw there at the middle of the light the extremities of its fastenings stretched from heaven; for this light was the girdle of the heavens like the undergirders of triremes, holding together in like manner the entire revolving vault. And from the extremities was stretched the spindle of Necessity, through which all the orbits turned.”

This description is fairly arcane, perhaps because Socrates needed to speak in concealed terms to safeguard him from hidebound politicians. Nevertheless, its astronomical intent is beyond dispute and a number of ancient as well as modern commentators were agreed that the awesome “straight light like a pillar” was the axis mundi, around which the fixed stars and planets revolved in circles. Historians of astronomy have argued over the question whether Plato conceived of the axis as an imaginary line or as a solid object. The Neo-Platonic philosopher, Proclus Lycaeus (412-485 CE), who headed the Platonic Academy in Athens for some time, rejected the interpretation of the ‘pillar of Er’ as the axis mundi on the ground of the axis’ palpable invisibility: ‘For to think, as some of our predecessors have done, that the world axis was meant by the light … is quite absurd. What sort of a light is the axis really, or how does it have a colour more radiant than the rainbow, as it is an incorporeal force?’

With the advent of the Space Age and the emergence of plasma cosmology, it is high time to revisit the issue and enquire whether a column more lustrous than the rainbow could have marked the polar regions of the atmosphere at a time in the past, long before Manilius and Proclus could confidently assert the non-reality of the world axis. Could a highly enhanced influx of energetic particles into the earth’s magnetosphere once have produced aurora-like effects of such an intensity that the Birkeland currents joining the ionosphere to the solar wind themselves emitted light in the visible spectrum? After more than a century of heated debate, the existence of these Birkeland currents has become irrefragable. As these field-aligned currents eventually reach the auroral ovals above the earth’s magnetic poles, the hoary notion of one or two ‘pillars’ joining the ‘sky’ to the earth has taken on a surprisingly down-to-earth physical reality – except that they cannot be seen at this time. Whereas the rotational axis mundi remains a purely mathematical or geometric concept, the proximity of the magnetic pole warrants the association with the very tangible reality of the earth’s highly structured magnetosphere – a domain populated by ions and electrons that will give off light whenever incoming plasmas alter its electric and magnetic fields.

It can be established to a high level of confidence that these Birkeland currents, down to the finest details, correspond to the detailed descriptions of a sky column in mythological and early cosmological sources – the axis mundi in the loose sense of the word. For that reason, interdisciplinarians would be well advised to look into the question of possible historical visibility of magnetospheric features.

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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