The axis mundi takes many forms in all cultures throughout recorded time. It is essentially an imaginary vertical axis or linkage as a center pole, running from the sky through the ground, uniting heaven, earth and underworld. Some see it as a symbol of the “center of the world”, a microcosm of our universe, and a turning point of the world -- through the earth's center around which the universe revolves. The image expresses a point of connection between sky and earth where the four compass directions meet or (in ancient civilizations) where the four rivers flow. At this point, travel and correspondence is made between higher and lower realms of planes of reality and human beings.
"Yggdrasil", Norse tree of life
Different cultures represent the axis mundi by varied symbols such as a natural object (a mountain, a tree, a vine, a stalk, a column of smoke or fire) or of a product of human manufacture (a staff, a tower, a ladder, a staircase, a maypole, a cross, a steeple, a rope, a totem pole, a pillar, a spire). Its proximity to heaven may carry implications that are chiefly religious (a pagoda, temple mount, church) or secular (obelisk, minaret, lighthouse, rocket, skyscraper).1
Additionally, the axis mundi may be feminine (an umbilical providing nourishment), masculine (a phallus providing insemination into a uterus), or neither (e.g. the omphalos (navel). 2
celtic tree of life by omnitelik
earth on axis
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.
A ziggurat as an early man-made axis-mundi.
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.
"Spiral Jetty", photo by mediabistro
To many, Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” 1970, land art creation begins to suggest the notion of an axis mundi, reminiscent of medicine wheels created by indigenous cultures on the Great Plains.
In the mid 1990’s the DAST art team created an earthwork entitled “Desert Breath” in the Egyptian desert, six hours south of Cairo near the Red Sea.
On many levels, this proposes itself as a modernist axis mundi.
Working with architects, engineers, mathematicians and geologists, the finished project covers and area of 320,000 sq. ft, a diameter of approximately 1,500 ft.
One spiral is made from positive cones, those reaching to the heavens, rising above the desert grade. The other “negative” spiral, formed from cones below the desert grade. The positive cones were made from sand displaced to make the negative ones. At the center is a 30-meter-wide conical vessel that is sunk into the ground and filled to the brim with water; in fact, it is an incised cone, within which is a protruding cone whose cut-off tip rests at water level, suggesting a small island, a place of birth and rebirth, generation and regeneration.
photos of Desert Breath by Dana Stratou
1. Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrandt, The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols (London: Penguin Books, 1996)
2. J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1978)