In a series of posts a few years ago, I talked about the function of fiction. What is it for? What purpose does it serve? After all, it’s all a pack of lies — and what’s more, it’s lies that everyone knows are false.
In that article I argued that fiction’s primary purpose was to change beliefs about how the world works. Even though it describes false events, the skillful author writes in such a way that the reader believes they could happen; and in doing so, can change the reader’s beliefs about what is possible, or the way the world works, or human nature. The readers of Tolkien may not end up believing in hobbits, but they may be more likely to believe in things like this:
- There is a guiding force to events, which works indirectly through seeming ‘chance’ or ‘happenstance’ (e.g. Bilbo’s finding the Ring; the manner of the Ring’s destruction).
- Despite this, people have free will, and the responsibility to choose wisely.
- Loyalty to one’s king and country is a great virtue, as is military service when necessary.
- Greed for power (and knowledge!) corrupts.
- The world was once much more beautiful and pure than it is now.
- Not all wrongs can be righted, but even tragedy can be beautiful.
Since then I’ve been thinking more about this, and I think I’ve found a perhaps more direct function of fiction. It’s a shamanistic technique, similar to meditation or trance, which actually operates directly on the reader’s subconscious or spiritual connections.
Note: this post is intended to be part of the “Journeying to Otherworlds” synchroblog hosted by Mahud here. Other participants include:
- Faith and the Hero’s Journey (Hawk’s Cry: The voice of a witch)
- Journeying to Otherworlds: Access Denied (Between Old and New Moons)
- Lions at the Door (Quaker Pagan Reflections)
- More Than These Words (Aquila ka Hecate)
- Journeying to Otherworlds (The Dance of the Elements)
- Mythology Synchroblog 4: Children’s Story for Mabo (Pagan Dad)
- Underground Ruminations (Gorgon Resurfaces)
- Synchroblog: Journeys to the Otherworld (Bubo’s Blog)
- Otherworlds Synchroblog: Olympus (Paleothea: the Ancient Goddess)
- Symbolic Saiho-ji and Otherworld Journeying (Symbolic Meanings)
- Becoming pagan in America – an otherworld journey (Executive Pagan)
The World with No Axle
The 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.
My nine-year-old daughter absolutely adores the Chronicles of Narnia. Nothing unusual about that, really — lots of kids do — but why?
After all, isn’t Narnia Christian allegory? It’s blatantly obvious to anyone who gives it a moment’s thought. But I’ve argued elsewhere that children are natural born pagans. So what’s the attraction? Does Christianity touch something in children, after all? Or is Narnia not wholly Christian?
The following is a poem attributed to one of the greatest Irish heroes, Fionn Mac Cumhaill, said to have been composed by him shortly after gaining the gift of poetry from the salmon of wisdom.
May-day, season surpassing!
Splendid is color then.
Blackbirds sing a full lay,
if there be a slender shaft of day.
The dust-colored cuckoo calls aloud:
Welcome, splendid summer!
The bitterness of bad weather is past,
the boughs of the wood are a thicket.
Summer cuts the river down,
the swift herd of horses seeks the pool,
the long hair of the heather is outspread,
the soft white bog-down grows.
Panic startles the heart of the deer,
the smooth sea runs apace-
season when ocean sinks asleep-
blossom covers the world. Read more
A big part of my candidate year for the AODA is poetry — learning to read it, write it, and appreciate it. I admit that when I was younger I considered most poetry that I read to be too old, too pompous, too idiotic, and too cynical; but now that I am getting older, more pompous, more idiotic, and very slightly more cynical, — well, I admit it, most poetry still seems old, pompous, idiotic, and cynical.
Below I’ve copied in a remarkable ancient Irish text, “The Instructions of King Cormac“, taken from the Book of Ballymote, which dates to about 1390. The “Instructions” themselves are certainly much older — probably they date to pre-Christian times, since they fail to mention God anywhere. Ellen Hopman drew attention to it on the Druid mailing list I belong to.
The thing that strikes me most forcefully about the text is its similarity to Asian philosophies, particularly Taoism. It’s a similarity that many others have remarked on. The juxtaposition of opposites, common in the East, seems to kick the logical mind into neutral, giving the spirit a chance to reach its own understanding.