The axis mundi
The World of Shamanism
In shamanism we use various maps and models to depict the planes of reality and consciousness. They give us a sense of the territory and tools to work with, but they cannot depict the whole of reality, so leave room for different interpretations and adaptations. I will introduce you to three maps: the axis mundi, the cosmic spirit worlds and the four levels of human perception. All are widely used and have been adapted by contemporary practitioners.
The axis mundi
The axis mundi, also known as the cosmic axis, the cosmic tree and the centre of the world, is seen as a central axis that runs from the Earth to the sky, connecting the worlds. We find it in one form or another in almost all religions, philosophies and ancient cultures. It can take the form of places, such as mountains and hills, or images, such as trees, vines, pillars and staffs, and sometimes we find man-made structures, such as temples and pyramids, built in places that are seen as centres of the world.1
In shamanism, the axis mundi often takes the form of a tree. This cosmic tree has taken on many variations over time and place. The Iroquois’ cosmic tree stands at the centre of the world with its branches supporting the sun and the moon whilst its roots penetrate the primal Great Turtle, which carries the Earth on its back. There is a Mayan myth of the ’First Tree’, based on the ancient concept of the tree of life, which has also been used, for instance, in Genesis as the tree of knowledge. We find a tree with five branches in India and Persia. Siberian and Mongolian shamans utilize the world tree to ascend to the upper world for initiation ceremonies. It is also the home of ancestral souls. Our Christmas tree derives from the pagan cosmic tree in Scandinavia, and Buddha became enlightened under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India.
The central idea around the cosmic tree — often depicted with a solid trunk, wide-spread branches that reach into the sky and roots that reach deep into the Earth — has remained the same over time and in various cultures. It connects the three worlds or cosmic zones: the upper, middle and lower worlds, or the sky, Earth and underworlds. These three worlds are also the planes of consciousness accessible via altered states. In shamanism we can pass through an opening in the cosmic tree and travel to all worlds and all times.