The Wheel’s Hub: the Axis Mundi in Tolkien’s Middle Earth

Note:  this post is intended to be part of the “Journeying to Otherworlds” synchroblog hosted by Mahud here.  Other participants include:

  1. Faith and the Hero’s Journey (Hawk’s Cry: The voice of a witch)
  2. Journeying to Otherworlds: Access Denied (Between Old and New Moons)
  3. Lions at the Door (Quaker Pagan Reflections)
  4. More Than These Words (Aquila ka Hecate)
  5. Journeying to Otherworlds (The Dance of the Elements)
  6. Mythology Synchroblog 4: Children’s Story for Mabo (Pagan Dad)
  7. Underground Ruminations (Gorgon Resurfaces)
  8. Synchroblog: Journeys to the Otherworld (Bubo’s Blog)
  9. Otherworlds Synchroblog: Olympus (Paleothea: the Ancient Goddess)
  10. Symbolic Saiho-ji and Otherworld Journeying (Symbolic Meanings)
  11. Becoming pagan in America – an otherworld journey (Executive Pagan)

The World with No Axle

ire7The Axis Mundi (Latin, literally “world’s axle”) is the mythological center of the world.  Not all mythological systems have such an Axis, but the vast majority do.  The list includes Mt. Meru and the Bodhi Tree in Buddhism, Mt. Olympus and Delphi for the Greeks, Yggdrasil for the Norse, Mt. Fuji for the Japanese and Mt. Kun-Lun for the Taoists, the Black Hills for the Lakotah, Tara for the Irish, the North Star for the Finns, and Mt. Zion and the Garden of Eden for the Abrahamists.  The Axis Mundi is not just the physical center of the universe, nor yet only a spiritual center, but contains within it a reflection of everything surrounding it; it is a microcosm of all creation.  Thus it is a symbol of the universe, as well as its center, and a journey to the Center is really a journey to the All.

Among the mythological systems with no clear Axis Mundi is Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.  Tolkien has no central mountain, no great World Tree, no Middle Kingdom; and on the face of it this is odd, because the traditions he drew upon — primarily Norse, Celtic, and Finnish — certainly had it.  But I don’t think the omission was accidental.

In this article I’m going to look at why Tolkien had no Axis Mundi, and speak briefly to the role of the Axis Mundi in the life of an individual — in particular, the significance of your own spiritual center, and what it means to have one, and to lose it.

The Spring of Arda

In the beginning, when Tolkien’s gods were first shaping Middle Earth (Arda), they conscientiously added an Axis Mundi at the center of the world.  It consisted of a Great Lake surrounding the Isle of Almaren, and the gods lived there.  At that time there was no sun, moon, or stars, so Aule the Smith-god created two vast pillars with lights set on top, one to the north and one to the south, and thereby illuminated the world.  But this nice orderly arrangement was destroyed by Melkor, the evil god; he cast down the lanterns, smashing the symmetry of Arda and forcing the other gods to flee to a continent in the far west of the world.  (In one version, Melkor tricks Aule into making the light-pillars out of ice, which naturally eventually melts from the heat of the great lamps.)

From this point on, Arda is asymmetrical, broken — the Axis Mundi is gone forever.  The implication is that since evil is in the world, struggling against good, there can be no true center.  Instead, there can at best be two centers — one good and one evil.  And in fact that is what appears:  Melkor sets up his power center at Utumno and Thangorodrim, vast fortresses in the frozen north of the world; while the good gods establish the realm of Valinor in the west, led by Manwe sitting atop the snows of Mt. Taniquetil.

In Valinor, to replace the two lamps, Yavanna, goddess of growing things, created the Two Trees of light — one silver, and one gold.  Later, the sun and moon were created as blossoms of these trees; and descendants of the silver tree — which did not glow as the original had, but were nonetheless beautiful — were carried to Middle-Earth as symbols of the good Axis.

As the long history of Middle Earth unrolled from here on, there would continue to be no central Axis; but there are local Axes, small-scale centers that act as an Axis for a region, a culture, or a story.   But no central axis is allowed to remain long without being destroyed or counterbalanced by an opposite axis.

Numenor

At the end of the First Age, the gods fought a terrible battle with Melkor, eventually defeating him and destroying his fortresses.  Thus the evil Axis was removed, leaving only the good Axis.  However, the battle had wrought vast destruction, and the lands of the far west were trampled into the sea.  The gods retreated back into their land, largely abandoning Middle Earth to fend for itself.

Still, the surviving elves and humans who had fought on the side of Good deserved to be rewarded.  The gods allowed the elves to come to Valinor and live in bliss there forever; but they could not give the same gift to the humans.  Instead, they gave them an island in the midst of the great sea, halfway between Middle Earth and the land of the gods, a star-shaped land crowned with huge Mt. Meneltarma.  It was called Numenor, the Flame of the West, and those who lived there had lives longer and happier than any other people.

For the Second Age of Middle Earth, Numenor was the Axis Mundi.  A descendant of the Silver Tree grew in its capital city.  The Numenorians built tall ships and sailed all over the world, trading with (and eventually conquering) elves and people everywhere along the coasts.  They made great strides in learning and the arts, as well.  But as is fitting for an Axis Mundi, Numenor was a reflection of the great world outside it — the great world that was still divided between good and evil.  The Numenorians grew proud, and the island became split between those who still loved the gods, and the ones who were resentful against them for not allowing them to come live in Valinor (thus condemning them to eventually die, as they thought).

Eventually they sailed in armed might against the gods themselves, and Numenor was cast down into the sea, and the gods left the physical world forever.  When that happened, they removed the Axis Mundi (Numenor), as well as the good Axis (Mt. Taniquetil), leaving utter chaos behind.

The Realms in Exile

Not all Numenorians had turned against the gods, and not all had been destroyed in the cataclysm.  They sailed to Middle Earth and established new kingdoms:  Arnor and Gondor.  If they had made just one kingdom, then it might have consisted of a new Axis Mundi; but instead, from the very beginning, their force was divided.  Gondor, indeed, effectively had three capitals:  Minas Anor (the Tower of the Sun), Minas Ithil (the Tower of the Moon), and Osgiliath (the City of Stars).  Osgiliath was the mightiest, and the true capital, and, when Arnor fell, it might have served as a central city; but it was destroyed in the wars with Mordor, and Minas Ithil was taken by evil and became Minas Morgul (City of Wraiths) and Minas Anor became the capital, with its name changed to Minas Tirith (Tower of Guard).  Again, Middle Earth had two Axes, a good one (Minas Tirith) and an evil one (Sauron’s tower, Barad-dur); and this continued until Sauron was defeated at the end of the Third Age.

Minas Tirith

Minas Tirith is an interesting example of an Axis Mundi.  In fact, it has some resemblances to Mt. Meru.  Meru stands in the middle of seven concentric rings of mountains, and the valleys between each ring are filled with liquids of various sorts.  At the base of Meru itself live a race of unpleasant giants, and on the slopes of Meru and above it are various heavenly realms of gods and demigods, culminating in the ultimate godhood itself at the topmost pinnacle.  Minas Tirith stands on a hill circled by seven walls, and each of the seven areas guarded by the walls is devoted to different professions and residents.  At the top of the hill stands the White Tower of Ecthelion, which long contained one of the Stones of Seeing, and has a topmost chamber into which only the Steward may enter.  At the foot of the tower is the White Tree, a descendant of one of the Silver Tree of Valinor, thus providing a link with the other good Axis.

Tolkien never gives us an insider’s view of Sauron’s Axis at Barad-dur, but one can imagine that it would have a parallel structure.

Weathertop

One final example, this time of a more geographical and cultural axis.  The realm of Arnor was founded in the region of Eriador, which consists of all the territory bounded by the Misty Mountains on the east, the Blue Mountains in the west, the icy wastes in the north and the ocean to the south.  Weathertop is a sizeable hill planted right in the center of Eriador, the tallest and southernmost of the Weather Hills.  Around it rise concentric rings of downs:  the North and South Downs, the Barrow Downs, Bree Hill, and the Trollshaws on the inner circle; beyond that, the Hills of Evendim, the White Downs and the Far Downs and Tower Hills.

Politically, Weathertop was the center of Arnor, the northern Numenorian Realm in Exile.  Arnor had three of the seven Stones of Seeing, and the chief of them was placed in a tower on Weathertop.  When Arnor was divided into three kingdoms, Weathertop lay at the center where they all bordered; and the three kingdoms began to fight over Weathertop’s Stone.  The tower there was ruined, and the area around it became an abandoned waste.

The Broken Axle

So why did Tolkien continually raise and destroy these Axes?  Partly, I think, to make things more interesting.  An Axis Mundi that is toppled, overthrown, and fought over is inherently more interesting than a vision of perfection.

But beyond that is a core fact of Tolkien’s universe:  it is not one in which all is ultimately perfect, and everything is settled into place forever, like many of the pagan worldviews listed above.  It is a dynamic place, one in which a titanic struggle is going on for uncounted eons, and the scars of the past may be weathered and covered over, but they are never healed.  As such it is much more a Christian vision than a pagan one, and much more Western than Eastern.  Taoist, Buddhist, Hindu, Sioux, Celt, pagan Greek:  these cultures view the world as essentially eternal, with no lasting changes.  Certainly there are origin stories, but there is no sense of a great arc of history, no progress toward (or regression away from) some far-off goal.  The Christian (and indeed, Abrahamic, and ultimately Zoroastrian) worldview is fundamentally different — for the world is now imperfect, locked in a great struggle.  Things were very different in the past, and they will be different again in the future.  In such a world, no Axis Mundi can long endure.

The Buddhist perspective is particularly interesting in this respect.  While Buddhism contains the Mt Meru myth, it also fundamentally claims that life is dukkha — that is, off-center, disjoint.  Dukkha in particular literally refers to a wheel that is not properly on its axle.  In other words, there is an Axis Mundi, but it is not fitted properly.

Pagan mythologies often contain stories of what happens when the Axis Mundi is destroyed or broken.  The story of Conary Mor in Irish mythology is an excellent case.  Conary Mor is the King of Ireland, dwelling in Tara, and as such he is symbolically married to and joined with Ireland herself.  He dwells in the center, in Tara, and he is the reflection of the land, a microcosm of it.  He is told at the outset of his reign that he will be a magnificent king as long as he follows a set of prohibitions and rules laid out by prophesy.  The rules and prohibitions seem oddly arbitrary to modern ears:  he can only travel clockwise around Tara; he cannot go into the house of a red man if three red men have preceded him; etc.

In the legend, circumstances conspire to have him break all the prohibitions, one after another, and in the end Tara is consumed in battle and fire.  The end of the myth is particularly poignant:  as he fights to defend his kingdom, he is consumed by a terrible thirst, and he asks a loyal servant to go find him a drink.  The servant goes to the well and finds no water; he goes to the local river and finds no water…  He travels all over Ireland, visiting each of her great rivers and all her lakes, and finds they are all dry.  At last he manages to find a tiny bit of water in one of the lakes of his own fiefdom, and carries it back to his lord.  But Conary Mor has already died, and his body is motionless on the battlefield.  Grieving, the loyal servant pours the water into the king’s dead lips, and, against all reason, asks the king whether the water is good.  And from the Otherworld the king replies in the affirmative.

The Real Axis Mundi

Which begs the question:  does our world have a spiritual Axis Mundi?  Or is it broken and imperfect, like Tolkien’s vision?  The answer depends on who you ask.  A Tibetan Buddhist knows that the center of the world is the Himalayas; the Sioux know it is the Black Hills of South Dakota.  They are both right, of course.

And this is the real secret:  there are Axes Mundi wherever you look, including — especially — inside yourself.  Whether you believe that you are created in the image of God, or your spirit was breathed into you by the world-carver Odin, you (like everyone else) are the center of the universe.  And like Conary Mor, if you are centered properly within yourself, the universe is bountiful and all is well; but if you are disconnected, all the rivers are dry, and the land is barren.

For the Axis Mundi is you.  You contain within yourself a reflection of everything surrounding you; you are a microcosm of all creation.  Thus you are a symbol of the universe, as well as its center, and a journey to your Center is really a journey to the All.
ire6

Comments

  1. A really good exploration of the difference between the Pagan and Christian worldviews, though I disagree that the Pagan worldview is static. In the Pagan worldview, the dynamic is the interplay between expansion and contraction, Yin and Yang, life and death; it is this that stirs the ocean that surrounds Mount Meru.

    You missed out my contribution to the synchroblog.

  2. Thanks, Yvonne! It wasn’t really what I intended to explore when I started the post, but I guess that’s what emerged. 🙂

    Which may be why I perhaps wasn’t clear by calling many pagan worldviews “non-dynamic”. Certainly pagan theologies allow for change; everything isn’t frozen. However, the large-scale structures are not changeable. While the seas around Mt. Meru may shift, Mt Meru itself will never be knocked down. It is always and eternal. Contrast this with Christianity, which promises an Axis Mundi in the (far) future (the City of God, the New Jerusalem).

    There are some pagan systems that do seem to have fundamental change built-in — I’m thinking of the Norse theology in particular. First, there is the fact that the World Tree is specifically said to be continually nibbled on by deer and other animals, and a poisonous dragon gnaws at its root. Second, of course, there is the struggle between the gods and the jotuns, which will end everything rather unpleasantly. Of course, these versions of the tales are ones written down after centuries of extensive contact with Christianity; I wonder whether, in some older form, the basic architecture of the Norse cosmology was seen as more permanent…

    Yvonne, your synchroblog (which was fascinating, by the way!) appears as #5 in the list above.

  3. Thanks for an interesting post!

    The phrase “begs the question” (which your post used) always gives me pause when it appears in any English-language USA or Canadian utterance/document dated later than (say) the mid-1960s.

    Before that date, when English-speakers said “to beg the question,” they meant “to fallaciously ‘prove’ a conclusion by making that hoped-for conclusion into a spoken or unspoken premise of the argument” — the usage that other languages with the same phrase employ as the *only* meaning of the phrase “beg the question.”

    E.g. when Joe Telepreacher says
    “We must trust the Bible because the Bible itself informs us that the Bible is trustworthy,”
    Joe Telepreacher has “begged the question”
    (of the Bible’s possible trustworthiness or otherwise) because, instead of actually working his way to the conclusion he wants his audience to reach, Joe has disguised that conclusion as a premise and has thereby tricked his listeners into granting him that conclusion “up front” (as a sort of hand-out to Joe, that he has not actually earned).

    However, sometime around the mid-1960s (and only, so far as I can tell, in North America), people rather suddenly stopped using “beg the question” to mean “fallaciously reach a conclusion by mis-using the conclusion as the argument’s premise,” and started using it to mean something very different: something roughly synonymous with “lead to a further question.”

    I cannot determine why this change happened, and I wonder if you might know.

    Since (as far as I can tell) hardly any North American who still uses the phrase “beg the question” employs it in its original meaning (or even has heard of that meaning) I have tried very hard to find out what an ordinary present-day North American would say if s/he really *did* want to talk about someone who mis-used conclusions as premises in order to cheat his/her way to those conclusions.

    In other words:

    Since in North America “Joe has begged the question” no longer means “Joe has fallaciously set his conclusion as his premise,” what word or phrase (if any) *does* now represent to a North American the notion formerly conveyed by “Joe has begged the question?”

    Or has North American English simply lost any easily understood, generally used way of expressing that notion?

  4. Jeff — Your analysis (of LORD OF THE RINGS as a story of the Axis Mundi’s repeated dislocation/destruction) reminds me somewhat of what Gregory Bateson wrote in his anthropological studies of Balinese myth and society (info he also used in parts of STEPS TO AN ECOLOGY OF MIND). Apparently, the Balinese have a phrase “the time when the world was steady” that means “the time before white people came to Bali and made it much harder for Balinese culture to keep its equilibrium” — the moment that happened, a new epoch began for the Balinese (and they refer to this, the present age, as “the world having grown unsteady”: apparently the metaphor they use here suggests a once carefully balanced person/object (such as a ceremonial dancer or headdress) sent perilously spinning near to collapse by a clumsy poke.

  5. Jeff Lilly says:

    Kate, concerning ‘begs the question’ —

    I think the new meaning is more precisely something like the following: if X begs the question, then X leads to / prompts the question. That is, given X, the question naturally comes to mind. It’s almost as if X is begging for the question to be asked. 🙂

    I don’t know for sure, but based on what I know of how language changes, I imagine that the phrase changed meaning because its new use is rather more intuitive and just as useful (if not more so). It may also be because rhetoric is no longer taught in schools, which I think is a great tragedy. I wish I’d taken it!

    I do love the old meaning, and I’d hate to see it disappear entirely. 🙂 Nevertheless, I think one can use the phrase “circular argument” to express the old meaning reasonably well.

    As for the Balinese phrase — extremely cool. I wonder how many cultures have similar terms and phrases? I thought perhaps the Aboriginal “Dreamtime” might be similar, but I see from looking it up that since it continues today, it may correspond better to the Celtic notion of the “Otherworld”.

  6. According to Finnish Mythology (see Kalevala), the World Oak was planted by the hero Vainamoninen. It grew to such an enormous size ,its far-reaching branches blocked out the sky, obscuring the celestial lights of the sun, moon and stars. The hero’s mother sent a sea creature that transformed into a giant, who chopped down the tree in tree blows. The remains of the tree were scattered across the world (to the four directions) and filled the world with magic power, bestowing everlasting well-being and everlasting joy and happiness.

    I think this a wonderful myth and ties in with the idea that there is no literal centre of the world or cosmos but indeed the centre is everywhere and within us all. Perhaps it’s an important part of the human experience to regrow this tree within ourselves.

    Thanks for participating in the synchroblog Jeff. Truly wonderful post.

    (I’ll have to show it to my girlfriend, as she’s into LOTR in a big way.)

  7. That is a great myth, Mahud, and I love your analysis of it too. I’m glad you liked my post! I had a lot of fun writing it.

Trackbacks

  1. […] The Wheel’s Hub: the Axis Mundi in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Druid Journal) New! 4 Replies […]

  2. […] The Wheel’s Hub: The Axis Mundi in Tolkein’s Middle Earth (Druid Journal) […]

  3. […] The Wheel’s Hub: the Axis Mundi in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Druid Journal) New! […]

  4. […] The Wheel’s Hub: the Axis Mundi in Tolkien’s Middle Earth (Druid Journal) New! […]

  5. […] The Wheel’s Hub: The Axis Mundi in Tolkein’s Middle Earth (Druid Journal) […]

Speak Your Mind

*