Sep 26, 2014

What did the ancient people think of the axis mundi (world axis)?

In the footsteps of Mircea Eliade, mythologists and anthropologists tend to think of the axis mundi or ‘world axis’ as a straight object running through the cosmos vertically. While this is, of course, correct for the astronomical axis of the earth, the ‘sky pillar’ populating the pages of myth offers a much less straightforward picture. This column is sometimes presented in bent form, even as an arc. Although it usually has one extremity in the sky above and one in the earth or underworld below, both ends may come down to form the image of a curved bridge or two juxtaposed columns joined at the top by an arch. Whether a cylinder, a bent cone or a loop, the entity fulfills the same mythological functions, such as supporting the sky, joining the sky to the earth, facilitating the transportation of mythical beings or furnishing the world’s first light.

In spite of the practically universal belief that the axis mundi was tragically destroyed towards the end of the ‘age of myth’, some traditions relate the curvature to an extant slanted, conical or arched object in the sky, such as the permanent tilted rotational axis, ecliptic band, zodiacal light and Milky Way or the transient rainbow and auroral arc. For example, in Greek mythology Nonnus of Panopolis (5th century CE) asserted that Atlas, the giant stanchion of the heavens linked to the rotational axis, inclined during the fiery destruction visited upon the world by Phaethon:

“There was tumult in the sky shaking the joints of the immovable universe: the very axle bent which runs through the middle of the revolving heavens. Libyan Atlas could hardly support the selfrolling firmament of stars, as he rested on his knees with bowed back under this greater burden.”

The Wadi Wadi, a subgroup of the Dharawal (Burragorang Valley, southeastern New South Wales, Australia), perceived the Galaxy as “the ‘pukkan’ or track up which departed spirits often reached the world to which they went”, which was scarred during a “mighty upheaval which gave us many of the wonders of Nature”. A member of the Gumbaynggirr (region of Coffs Harbour, New South Wales) described how Ngudgeegullum (the barnjull or native cat) transformed the intestines of a dismembered koala into a “bridge” arching across the sky:

“The little boy’s brother-in-law, Ngudgeegullum, came along. He brought with him a dungirr, a koala bear. … Then he took the intestines and threw them at the boy and hit him in the stomach with them. … He took the koala bear’s intestines down to the beach and started to blow them up with his mouth. … Those intestines started to go right up into the sky. The little boy blew into them, boombi, we call them. They began to curve over the sky and make a bridge. All those people, those tribes on the island, started to walk across on that bridge. Ngudgeegullum, the brother-in-law, went first and the little boy followed him.”

The bridge enabled the first “people” to migrate away from the primordial “island” to which they had been confined after the deluge, which “might have been that country called Africa.” Its eventual severance, a steadfast element of axis mundi mythology, led to its transformation into the rainbow: “As they walked across the bridge, Ngudgeegullum kept saying, ‘I’ll cut it off now! I’ll cut it off!’ He wanted to cut the bridge with his stone-axe. But the little boy said, ‘Don’t do that! Wait until we are all over there.’ When all the people landed on the beach at Middle Head – that’s where the bridge ended when it went across the sky – Ngudgeegullum cut it off with his stone tomahawk. ‘Now’, he said, ‘you can float away. I don’t want to see you any more. Now you can turn into a rainbow.’ So the bridge turned into a rainbow and floated away.”

The Dusun (Tempassuk district, west coast of Sabah) also viewed the rainbow as an axis mundi:

“Long ago the rainbow was a path for men. Those who lived up country used the rainbow as a bridge when they wished to go down country in search of wives. … they made the rainbow as a bridge and you can see the floor and hand rail of the bridge in the rainbow to the present day. … The men replied, ‘When we want to go down country with our wives we will put it in place, but when we do not want it we will take it away’, and thus they do to the present day. What the men were I do not know, but they were more than ordinary men. It is an old time tale of our people.”

The Nivaklé (Paraguay and northwest Argentina) likewise contended that “the two trunks of the sky … grew and became firm” to stabilise “Sky and Earth” after the inversion of the latter: “When Rainbow came down to earth, the sky did not have its supports yet, but it received them as soon as the rainbow’s two ends had reached the earth and sunk into it.” And the Icelandic Younger Edda avers that “the gods built a bridge to heaven from earth called Bifrost”, which they ride daily and may be “what you call the rainbow”: “It has three colours and great strength and is built with art and skill to a greater extent than other constructions. And strong as it is, yet it will break when Muspell’s lads go and ride it … The red you see in the rainbow is burning fire. The frostgiants and mountaingiants would go up into heaven if Bifrost was crossable by everyone that wanted to go.” At “the bridge’s end where Bifrost reaches heaven” stood “a place called Himinbiorg”, the abode of Heimdall, “the gods’ watchman” who “sits there at the edge of heaven to guard the bridge against mountaingiants.” Some researchers suspected that Bifröst’s conceptual origins lay not in the rainbow, but in the zodiacal light or the aurora.

In some instances, an association with the sloping ecliptic band or zodiacal light – through which the sun, the moon and the planets are seen to move – may be inferred, but remains speculative. For example, the Toba Batak (Sumatra), who are careful observers of the sky, persistently qualify the cosmic tree that connects sky, earth and underworld as “the banian-tree, which grows slantingly into the upperworld”. For the Menik Kaien and the Kintak Bong (Malaysia), the “stone pillar, which … supports the sky is called the Batu Herem. … The Batu Herem pierces the sky, and supports it, and the portion which projects above the sky is loose, and balanced on the lower part at an angle. This loose part is above Tapern’s heaven, and is in a dark region named Ligoi.” The natives of the Andaman Islands envisioned an invisible celestial bridge, the eastern location of which suggests an affinity with the zodiacal cone:

“Between the earth and the eastern sky there stretches an invisible cane bridge (pī·dgalàrchàu·ga) which steadies the former and connects it with .jer·eg (paradise); over this bridge the souls (ōtyō·lo) of the departed pass into paradise, or to .jer·eglàrmū·gu, which is situated below it …”

And according to a creation myth from the Dogon (Mali), “a gigantic arch” descended from the sky after the separation of “an enormous egg” into two placentas, the upper one forming the sky and the lower one the earth:

“Seeing this, Amma decided to send to earth the Nommo of the other half of the egg, creators of the sky and the stars. They came down to earth on a gigantic arch, at the centre of which stood the two Nommo of the sky, who had assumed the guise of blacksmiths. … The arch constituted a new, undefiled earth; its descent coincided with the appearance of light in the universe, which till then had been in darkness.”

The prodigy was associated with the quotidian movement of the sun: “The advent of the arch of Nommo denotes not only the delimitation of space but also the measurement of times and seasons: the year was linked to the apparent movement of the sun, avatar of the other portion of the placenta of Yurugu”. Accordingly, the arch may have referred to the ecliptic band.

In some cases, defying an obvious astronomical identification, the celestial arc is combined with a vertical representation of the cosmic column. For example, the Warao (Orinoco region, Venezuela) pictured “a large cosmic egg” to the “Northeast of the world axis and on the plain near the top of the sky”: “Leading from the western portal of the house is a suspension bridge of ropes of tobacco smoke which connects the egg with the zenith and the world axis.”

In the mythology of the Sikuani (eastern Colombia), a prominent place is occupied by the Kalievírnae or ‘tree of life’, the branches of which carried all imaginable kinds of food. The sky was “very low, near the top of the food tree. … It was a big tree! The top nearly reached the sky.” The tree was “held above by a barbasco vine” (apparently Tephrosia toxicofera) or “supported by a barbasco vine that was attached to the sky … That was how long the vine was!” One informant described it as “a liana originating in the mountain and leading right to the tree; it served as a bridge”. When the tree was felled in order to gain access to its fruit, “there was a liana that tied the tree to the sky, and another one linking it to both sides of the forest. So although they had severed the tree, it simply would not fall down.” It was only when Talíkue (Toucan) “cut the section of the liana to the left of the tree”, Tsóko (Oropendola) “cut the right side” and Matérri (Squirrel) “cut the liana that tied the tree to the sky” that “The tree fell to the ground”.

Finally, the standard creation myth of Japan attributes the formation of the first land to a pair of twin deities plunging down the “jewel-spear of Heaven” (nu-boko or tama-boko) from the “floating bridge of Heaven” (ame-no uki hashi):

“Izanagi no Mikoto and Izanami no Mikoto stood on the floating bridge of Heaven, and held counsel together, saying: ‘Is there not a country beneath?’ Thereupon they thrust down the jewel-spear of Heaven, and groping about therewith found the ocean.”

Here, the “jewel-spear” represents a vertical axis, while the bridge suggests a curved structure.

One way to make sense of such accounts is to consider how a geomagnetic reversal or excursion would affect the aurora. As the dipole component of the earth’s magnetic field wanes, the inflowing charged particles responsible for auroral light by their interaction with atmospheric molecules will attain a global distribution. The visible structure of the aurora is simply that of the geomagnetic field itself, as the particles follow the contours provided by the field lines. Arcs abound in this structure, not least in the vicinity of the minor magnetic poles, and will accordingly appear in visible light, along with more vertical forms. Though still controversial, three excursions seem to have happened since the Last Glacial Maximum (18,000 BP), all of which may have contributed to human memories of arc-like imagery in the sky. Over time, as the aurora retreated to the poles and sank into oblivion among people at middle and lower latitudes, replacement metaphors based on extant heavenly curves and loops began to circulate.

Clearly, the mythology of the axis mundi has not yet been exhausted, but still holds surprises. It is only by assiduously following patterns and subtle clues in the traditions that unexpected insights can be reached. The learning curve remains as steep as ever.

Rens Van Der Sluijs

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