The axis mundi, also known as the cosmic axis, world axis, or the center of the world, is a symbol representing the center of the world - a place where the heaven touches the earth.
In different cultures axis mundi was represented by various naturally occurring landscape features such as mountains, trees, stalks, columns of smoke. Man-made objects such as staffs, towers, ladders, staircases, maypoles, crosses, totem poles, pillars, or spires also functioned as a symbolic axis mundi.
The axis mundi takes a prominent place in shamanic cultures and in animist belief systems, but it also appears in the most technologically advanced cultures whenever there is an impulse to link an architectural structure with the idea of the center of the world.
Throughout the history, most cultures regarded their own territory as the center of the entire world. Within this territory a spot symbolizing the axis mundi was designated as a place of worship and veneration. Typically, high mountains were considered sacred and shrines were often erected at their summits or at the base.
Mount Kailash in Tibet, Mount Kun-Lun in China, or Mount Fuji in Japan are examples of these beliefs in Asia. The Sioux regarded the Black Hills as the axis mundi.
Ancient cultures such as the Sumerians, or the Babylonians erected artificial mountains, the ziggurats.
The pre-Columbian residents of Teotihuacán in Mexico erected huge pyramids with staircases leading to heaven.
All sacred places symbolize the center of the world (omphalos) with an altar or place of prayer that constitutes the axis. Altars, incense sticks, candles and torches form the axis by sending a column of smoke, and prayer, toward heaven. The sacred architecture often reflects this mystical role.
Cathedrals are laid out in the form of a cross, with the vertical bar representing the union of earth and heaven as the horizontal bars represent union of people to one another, with the altar at the intersection.
A steeple in a church or a minaret in a mosque also symbolize the connection of earth and heaven. Structures such as the maypole, derived from the Saxons' Irminsul, and the totem pole among indigenous peoples of the Americas also represent world axis. The calumet, or sacred pipe, sends out a column of smoke (the soul) rising form a world center.
In many cultures a tree represented the axis mundi. The image of the Cosmic Tree provided an axis symbol that united three planes: heaven (branches), earth (trunk) and the underworld (roots). The Nordic people, the Germanic tribes, the Celts, all had sacred trees. The Christmas tree of Christianity finds its origins in that pre-Christian lore.
A common shamanic concept, and a universally told story, is that of a healer traversing the axis mundi to bring back knowledge from the other world.
This motive is seen in the stories of Odin and the World Ash Tree, of the Garden of Eden and Jacob's Ladder, and that of Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. It is also the essence of the journey described by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy. This Renaissance work describes a hero's descent and ascent through a series of spiral structures that take him from through the core of the earth, from the depths of Hell to the celestial Paradise.
Although the myth of axis mundi does not consciously play any such central role in our lives, modern centers of power such as financial districts of Hong Kong, New York, London, or Frankfurt erect skyscrapers to remind us that they are the places where only "sky is the limit".
Written after original source