Axis Mundi: The World Centre

Sacred Spaces

I wear a Druids Cross made of fine pewter these days, a remnant from my summer travels in the Scottish Highlands.  It is said that in the times of the Druids, those who wore this symbol had been given the duty of protecting the sacred sites across the land. Rather than wear a pendant, the emblem was tattooed on their bodies so that all that came in their presence would recognize their sacred task.

Mythology speaks to humanity’s search for an axis mundi, which is defined as the world centre, the link that joins Heaven and Earth. This is the point where communication, and perhaps some form of travel, can occur between higher and lower realms.   Many of these places are found in mountains or high places where the earth and sky seem to reach out to each other.  They are usually marked with a mythical object to signify sacredness. Yggdrasil, an immense ash tree whose branches extend far into the heavens and supported by three roots burrowed into three levels of the universe, is fundamental within Norse mythology.  Ancient Greeks, believing that omphalos stones granted the power of direct communication with the gods, were erected throughout the Mediterranean world, the most notable being at Delphi.

The remarkable ability of the axis mundi is that there can be numerous spaces that serve as the centre of the world simultaneously.  They can be found in a natural setting or in a human construction such as a temple or palace.  Every generation has been engaged in creating or acknowledging a place that transcends the ordinary.  From the ziggurats of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians to the totem poles of indigenous peoples of the Americas, to the modern day skyscraper such as the Eiffel Tower, we continue to look for ways to reach beyond our finite existence.

There are some who believe that the most important axis mundi is found within ourselves.  Thomas Merton once wrote, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.”

Perhaps our centre of the world is closer than we think.

Saying Yes to the Adventure

“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.”
Joseph Campbell

Washing Machine

The problem with the word “adventure” is definition.  No one can be certain of the exact description because it depends on the unique characteristics of an individual.  Most like the idea of an adventure, but when the call to the adventure comes, it may slip by unnoticed, or be considered an uninvited guest.    Saying a “hearty yes” is accepting both the good and bad of a journey, exploit or deed.

Joseph Campbell breaks down the Hero’s Journey into three acts with several stages.  Act one begins with the ordinary world, the safe place where we feel comfortable and fully in control of the situation.  We are unaware of what is to come.  Then comes the call, which is a demand for action to counteract a direct threat to ourselves or the well-being of family and friends.  But when we realize the difficulty that lies ahead, we refuse the call, doubting our ability to tackle the task.

I received “my call” the other night when I heard a dreadful clanging coming from my washing machine that resonated through our home.  It must be an anomaly, I reasoned as I added another load to my once-reliable washer.  The washer would not budge.  Herein lies the problem: I do not consider washing clothes by hand an adventure, nor do I think that I have a special talent in this area.   Besides, the idea of being on a Hero’s journey is incompatible within our world of the ordinary.

And then the unexpected happened.  Wringing out towels and feeling the ache in my arms, I came to understand my adventure.  I looked backward. I felt a kinship and respect for my grandmothers and great-grandmothers who washed for large families, hanging out their wash on clotheslines in the heat of summer and the cold of mid-winter.  I felt the deep need of the present.  I was washing my clothes with drinking water that many in our world lacked.   And finally, I felt a responsibility for the future.  Water conservation begins in small ways.

Adventures end with enlightenment, with a new-found understanding.   The repetitive nature of washing gave me a fresh perspective about the hero’s quest.   It is seeing the greater journey in the daily tasks that seem ordinary and inconsequential, even mundane.  There is meaning and consequences in everything we do.

May we always be able to say a “hearty yes.”

“Furthermore, we have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have one before us, the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Joseph Campbell

The Orkney Islands

These words were on my mind as I felt the plane lift off the runway heading towards Scotland to follow the bagpipes.  I am not an easy traveller as some who have no fear of flying, missing train schedules, or unexpected detours.   I want a plan with timetables and reservation numbers to confirm that there will be food and shelter at the other end of the journey.  In other words, I want security every step of the way.  There is safety in believing that somehow I remain fully in control of my circumstances and surroundings.

That is not the hero journey.  To travel that road, security and comfort must be set aside for something grander to occur.  The important thing, I reminded myself, is that I have taken a first step.

 

The Orkney Islands

The Hero Journey