Axis Mundi: The World Centre

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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.

A Toast to “The Professor”

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“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” 
J.R.R. Tolkien

To The Professor

Tonight, I joined other J.R.R. Tolkien fans from around the world in raising a glass to toast the birthday of this much loved author at precisely 21:00 (9:00pm) local time. The toast was simply “The Professor.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings, and The Silmarillion, created a collection of legends set in a fictional universe.  He once said that “War deepened and sobered my imagination and stimulated my love of fantasy.”  The months in the trenches of WWI made a lasting impression, which is reflected within his writings.  Even so, J.R.R. Tolkien did not yield to despondency.  His response was to embrace life as a grand adventure to be experienced abundantly and completely.

Over the past few months, I have considered the role of mythology in our world. We have an insatiable desire to give meaning to our existence and purpose for our involvement within family structures and within the wider community. What better time to start a series of posts on mythology than on J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday.

Roads Go Ever On

By J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon. Continue reading

Green – The Promise of New Life

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“When the green woods laugh with the voice of joy, and the dimpling stream runs laughing by; when the air does laugh with our merry wit, and the green hill laughs with the noise of it.”

Lord Byron

Green

The primary colours of blue and yellow unite to create green. Green is the symbolic meaning for new life, resurrection, hope, fertility and environmental awareness.  In ancient Egypt, green was associated with the Nile, the source of regeneration and rebirth. In neighbouring Greece, Aristotle believed that green was placed somewhere between black, the symbol for earth and white, the symbol for water.  The Romans had special reverence for green as it was the colour  belonging to Venus, the goddess of gardens, vegetables and vineyards.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the neolitic people in northern Europe used the leaves of the birch tree to make inferior quality dyes. Archaeology, however, has not shed any light on how the ancient Mesopotamians were able to create their vibrant green costumes. Indeed, the production of green dyes remained illusive even in the middle ages.  It was not for want of trying.  They used ferns, plantains. Buckthorn berries, the juice of nettles and leeks, and the digitalis plant to name just a few, to produce a dye that was resistant to washing and sunlight.  A breakthrough came in the 16th century.  It was a two-step process, where cloth was first dyed blue with Woad, and then yellow with Yellow-weed.

The Green Knight was one of the most renowned characters in the King Arthur narratives. Legend portrays fairies, dragons and monsters as green. Beau Brummel, the famed British fashion icon, wore a green suit.  The Suffragettes used the colour green to symbolize hope.

Today, our earth is in need of hope.  Decades ago, Theodore Roosevelt said, “Here is your country. Cherish these natural wonders, cherish the natural resources, cherish the history and romance as a sacred heritage, for your children and your children’s children. Do not let selfish men or greedy interests skin your country of its beauty, its riches or its romance.” 

May we heed his warning…

“The world has changed.

I see it in the water.

I feel it in the Earth.

I smell it in the air.

Much that once was is lost,

For none now live who remember it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

The Professor – On Hobbits

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“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien

“Hobbits really are amazing creatures. You can learn all that there is to know about them in a month, and yet after a hundred years, they can still surprise you.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

Water

In 1920, Tolkien was appointed Reader in English Language at Oxford University, marking the beginning of a distinguished academic career. One day, when he was marking examination papers, Tolkien found that a student left one blank page in his answer book.   On impulse, he penned these words on that page: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit”.  And so began the journey.  J.R.R.Tolkien determined to find out what a Hobbit was, what sort of a hole it lived in and why it lived in a hole.

J.R.R. Tolkien pursued this idea with keen resolve, travelling the time and the world in which Hobbits lived.  He found that Hobbits loved to celebrate life, to seek comfort over adventure, preferring to share a generous meal with a friend, rather than embarking on a strange journey.  Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien’s greatest discovery is captured in his words: “I am in fact, a hobbit in all but size”

Every year, on January 3rd, J.R.R. Tolkien fans from around the world are invited to raise a glass and toast the birthday of this much loved author at 21:00 (9:00 pm) local time. The toast is simply, “The Professor.”

He would want us to continue the adventure…

“Don’t adventures ever have an end? I suppose not. Someone else always has to carry on on the story.” 
J.R.R. Tolkien

The Professor – On Endings & Beginnings

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“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.” 

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

Beginnings always have eager expectancy that something significant will happen.  We revel in adventures that challenge us to leave our comforts behind and take the first tentative step on an unfamiliar pathway; we yearn to be explorers who sail uncharted waters or climb mountains that reach to the heavens.  Instinctively, we know that our lives will, in some way, be changed forever.  Excitement and anticipation become our companions.

Endings bring finality and a profound closure.  We have changed, but so has our world.

Endings bring farewells, the poignant leave-taking.

J.R.R. Tolkien viewed endings as another beginning, as a circle rather than a straight line.   “The Road goes ever on and on…”

 

The Scottish Highlands

The Road goes ever on and on
Out from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone.
Let others follow, if they can!
Let them a journey new begin.
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.” 

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

The Professor – On Good & Evil

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“I do not believe this darkness will endure.” 

“The world is indeed full of peril and in it there are many dark places.
But still there is much that is fair. And though in all lands, love is now
mingled with grief, it still grows, perhaps, the greater.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

Goodness

J.R.R. Tolkien experienced the shadow of evil and the tragedy of death and destruction.  The struggle between good and evil is a recurring theme throughout all of his writings.  Darkness exists in our world.  It is relentless in its need to triumph over good.  J.R.R. Tolkien believed that the essence and nature of evil could not prevail against goodness and decency.  And yet, darkness takes a toll and there are some that will bear the scars forever.

“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart, you begin to understand, there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep…that have taken hold.” – Frodo 

J.R.R. Tolkien