Eliade’s Aboriginal cosmic axis

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

Mircea Eliade in 1933

In this essay I’d like to discuss the thesis championed by Romanian historian of religion, Mircea Eliade: that one of the most primal and universal elements of human cosmology is the axis mundi, the idea of a cosmic axis around which everything — both literally and metaphorically — revolves. This axis is seen as the umbilical cord which connects our mundane material realm to the higher strata of sacred power.

Before we look into the depth of this image’s history, we can appreciate its significance better by looking at the symbolic cultural impact of the Copernican Revolution. In seventeenth-century Europe it became clear that Earth isn’t the centre of the cosmos, as was previously assumed. The axis mundi was never precisely equated with the literal axis of Earth, but there was always a heavy overlap between the imaginal and literal axes. So when the literal axis was shown merely to be the axis of Earth’s rotation — and not the axis of the whole cosmos, centred on Earth — the status of the imaginal axis suffered greatly. Its unseating was the prime symbolic aspect of the wider challenge to spiritual cosmology mounted by increasingly materialist science. For Eliade, and the Traditionalist school of thought which he often echoes, the Copernican Revolution’s literal impact on astronomical science was dwarfed by its symbolic impact on the ancient cosmology which hinged on this idea of the axis mundi.

There were two intimately related shifts involved in this revolution, which served to severely undermine the axis and the centralised, hierarchical vision of the cosmos it epitomised. If we look at the impact of these shifts, we’ll be in a better position to appreciate why the ancient geocentric cosmology was so important to Eliade, and why he was so convinced that it stretched all the way to the origins of human culture.

Statue of Giordano Bruno in Campo de’ Fiori, Rome, where he was burned in 1600, in part for his Copernican idea of a decentred, moving Earth

Firstly, there was the decentralisation initiated by the Copernican argument that the cosmos did not — despite appearances — revolve around our humble earthly home. This decentralisation wasn’t unequivocal. The radically decentred vision of an infinite universe in which every star is a sun — championed before Copernicus by Nicholas of Cusa, and after Copernicus by Giordano Bruno — was too much for most to take on board. Our new local centre, the sun, inherited much of the symbolic power of the ancient image of the cosmic axis transpiercing Earth. Royalty’s social centrality easily became ‘solar’, as Louis XIV demonstrated. Also, the flourishing of humanism in the centuries after Copernicus showed that while our home may have lost its cosmic pre-eminence, we were very capable of retaining our own centrality. All the same, the destabilisation of the old polar cosmos, with Earth as its absolute centre, caused great shockwaves in the psychic depths of Europe.

Alongside this, the work of Galileo and Newton ended another venerable certainty. Since ancient Greece, at least, civilised philosophers had seen the space of the heavens above as being fundamentally, qualitatively of a different order from the space of Earth below. The divine bodies in the sky seemed to move in circles, in their eternal, unchanging rounds. But let go of a lowly material object here, and it moved in a line, straight down — and then decayed or eroded in its resting place. All vitality in terrestrial bodies was seen as being sourced in the Empyrean — the radiant home of divinity beyond the sphere of the fixed stars — and channelled down to the otherwise moribund sublunary realm via networks of correspondence. But Galileo’s telescope confirmed dark rumours of the unthinkable — change in the heavens, a star appearing where previously there was no star. Later, Newton’s work on universal gravitation supplied an explanatory framework for both the motion of heavenly bodies and falling bodies here on Earth. Even more than the Copernican decentralisation, this Newtonian collapse of the cosmic hierarchy profoundly upset the ambient order of European society.

Briefly, for some — such as the Diggers, Levellers, and other radical nonconformists in the English Civil War — this decentralisation and collapse acted to spread the divinity which had been hoarded in the empyreal heights back across the earthly plane. This symbolic spread was both mirrored in and reflective of their call for egalitarian distribution of power previously hoarded by elites. For an increasing number of other people, the loss of a fundamental separation of above and below signalled the banishment of divinity itself. A new, homogeneous, purely material world was heralded — perhaps a liberation from old superstitions, perhaps a descent into a barren wasteland of nihilism.

In any case, the old spatial division between Heaven and Earth gave way to a new temporal division between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ — with the former realm of spiritual glory cast as superstitious and fusty, and the latter cast as a thrilling new realm of freedom and power. And in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, which further cemented the unfamiliar new cosmic order (or lack of order), there was an inevitable backlash which tried to salvage the psychic reassurances of the ancient polar cosmos. Spiritualist communication with the dead and fundamentalist dogmatism about the word of God are instances of this backlash in the popular sphere. Among intellectuals reacting against the modern onslaught, Traditionalism and its fringes sought to justify a new valorisation of the ancient order of things.

Legitimate concerns about the alienating impacts of modernity naturally became enmeshed with a nostalgia for the old geocentric cosmology — not necessarily in a denial of new astronomical realities, but in an attempt to downplay the importance of mere physics, and to revive the life of the spirit which still, in its embodied relation to the lived world, saw the stars turning around the celestial pole, and felt the apparent concentricity of the cosmos to be an imaginal grounding for the psyche. Henry Corbin, a philosopher and theologian greatly concerned with the cosmologies of esoteric Islam, thought that just as alchemy could and should be liberated by esotericism from a view of it as a primitive precursor to modern chemistry, geocentrism should likewise be set free from its status as a relic in the history of science.

Considering the perception of the world and the feeling of the universe on which it is based, it may be that geocentrism should be meditated upon and evaluated essentially after the manner of the construction of a mandala.

It is this mandala upon which we should meditate in order to find again the northern dimension with its symbolic power, capable of opening the threshold of the beyond. This is the North which was ‘lost’ when, by a revolution of the human presence, a revolution of the mode of presence in the world, the Earth was ‘lost in the heavens’.1

Corbin became a prominent member of Carl Jung’s Eranos discussion group in Switzerland in the middle of the twentieth century. Corbin’s call for a return to an ‘imaginal geocentrism’ of course resonated with Jung’s obsession with the mandala as an image of the Self. And this deep concern for the pre-eminence of the centre was also shared by another important Eranos attendee: Mircea Eliade.

Eliade’s work, hugely influential on the late twentieth-century revival of paganism and occultism, was overwhelmingly concerned with what he terms the axis mundi — the axis of the world as an image of connection between the mundane terrestrial plane and the transcendent home of the spirit above. Eliade saw the motif of the separation of Heaven and Earth in creation myths as a primary truth, signalling — like the Biblical expulsion from Eden — a fundamental alienation from the primordial unity of spiritual being. Consequently, people could only maintain their connection to the spiritual sources of meaning through an imaginal conduit, a bond between Heaven and Earth which became implicitly present in religious ritual, and which was embodied architecturally in important temples and sacred sites. The symbolic impact of the Copernican Revolution, then, was devastating. At once it literalised the axial sense of the world, dismissing its symbolic weight, and then demolished the axis in any case, revealing it to be an illusion of the naive senses. Bound up in this symbolic devastation were all the spiritual agony and ennui of modern humanity — perilously cut off from its grounding it transcendent spirit.

Eliade found evidence for this axis mundi across the ancient world, and throughout the documentation of traditional peoples — which was steadily mounting in Western libraries, and which he consumed voraciously. He was especially taken by ethnographies of Aboriginal Australians — for him, ‘true primitives’ whose isolation on their island continent seemed to be an assurance that their culture preserved genuine, living evidence of the very earliest human notions.2

One report of Aborigine beliefs served to root Eliade’s conviction of the primacy of an sky- and axis-orientated cosmos in the deepest strata of our species’ culture. Eliade first wrote of this in 1957’s The Sacred and the Profane:

According to the traditions of an Arunta tribe, the Achilpa [Tjilpa], in mythical times the divine being Numbakula cosmicized their future territory, created their Ancestor, and established their institutions. From the trunk of a gum tree Numbakula fashioned the sacred pole (kauwa-auwa) and, after anointing it with blood, climbed it and disappeared into the sky. This pole represents the cosmic axis, for it is around the sacred pole that territory becomes habitable, hence is transformed into a world. The sacred pole consequently plays an important role ritually. During their wanderings the Achilpa always carry it with them and choose the direction they are able to take by the direction toward which it bends. This allows them, while being continually on the move, to be always in ‘their world’ and, at the same time, in communication with the sky into which Numbakula vanished.3

The supreme importance of this pole couldn’t have been more forcefully impressed upon Eliade, confirming him in his convictions, than by the next ethnographic snippet:

For the pole to be broken denotes catastrophe; it is like ‘the end of the world,’ reversion to chaos. Spencer and Gillen report that once, when the pole was broken, the entire clan were in consternation; they wandered about aimlessly for a time, and finally lay down on the ground together and waited for death to overtake them.4

As Corbin was to write later:

The human person is only a person by virtue of this celestial dimension, archetypal, angelic, which is the celestial pole without which the terrestrial pole of this human dimension is completely depolarized in vagabondage and perdition.5

However, behind this apparent rooting of the polar cosmos in primal humanity lies a tangle of sloppy scholarship and prejudiced misunderstanding which can be taken as emblematic of the basic mistake of the Traditionalist project: a failure to understand the difference between Palaeolithic and Neolithic realities, between the world of hunter-gatherers and the world of farmers and city-dwellers.6

Jonathan Z. Smith, a historian of religion who studied with and succeeded Eliade at the University of Chicago, has pointed out that the account relied upon by Eliade — that of Australian anthropologists Walter James Spencer and Francis James Gillen — isn’t an account of present-day actions of the Achilpa tribe. Even at the start of the twentieth century, when Spencer and Gillen were collecting information on Aboriginal life, these people weren’t actually carrying a pole around to consecrate any place they set up camp. And they certainly weren’t lying down to die when the pole broke. Like Numbakula’s ascent into the sky, these events were mythical events, taking place in the Aboriginal ‘once upon a time’ epoch, the Dreaming.7 Eliade later corrected this mistake — but it isn’t the only problem.

In fact, the two stories — of Numbakula’s ascent and the significance of the pole — have been greatly telescoped together by Eliade. In Spencer and Gillen’s work, they are separated by thirty pages of other tales. Not only that, the two snippets are also separated by thirty years between their being gathered.8 Even admitting that these incidents are myths, there seems to be no reason for conflating them into an expression of Eliade’s dual concern with the separation of Heaven and Earth (Numbakula’s ascent up the pole) and the essential nature of the axis mundi (consternation at the breaking of the pole). They are particular incidents in a vast narrative cycle — not centrally important keys to the Aboriginal cosmos.

To make matters worse for Eliade’s position, Spencer and Gillen’s source material is riddled with problems. Neither of these anthropologists were fluent in the language of their informants, and they relied heavily on their informants’ imperfect English. What’s more, it seems that one of Spencer and Gillen’s informants, whose English name was Charlie Cooper, had been a police tracker for 15 years before they talked with him. He would have been quite well versed in what whites were interested in hearing from Aboriginals — what these believers in an all-important sky god wanted to hear (not an uncommon anthropological trap). Anthropologist Theodor Strehlow has suggested that Cooper was actually making stuff up for Spencer and Gillen. In turn, this accusation is embroiled in colonial power struggles: ‘Strehlow frequently criticized Spencer. The criticism was part of Strehlow’s defence of his missionary father, Carl Strehlow, whose work on the Arrernte was frequently attacked by Spencer.’9

Even if Strehlow was wrong about Cooper, Eliade’s use of these fragments — by painting them as constitutive of Aboriginal cosmology — was radically misjudged. As Smith points out, a more balanced, wider-ranging survey of Aboriginal myths finds that the usual pattern for the disappearance of ancestral figures like Numbakula ‘is not one of celestial withdrawal, but of terrestrial transformation and continued presence.’10 As is often the case, the particulars of this story serve to memorialise the ancestor in a landscape feature. Here, the breaking of the pole is not significant in itself — it merely serves to account for a specific tall stone, the ‘broken end’ of the pole. The focus is not on the loss of something into the sky, but on the continued presence of something on the land. Thus, Smith concludes:

The horizon of the Tjilpa myth is not celestial, it is relentlessly terrestrial and chthonic. The emphasis is not on the dramatic creation of the world out of chaos by transcendent figures, or on the ‘rupture’ between these figures and men. Rather, the emphasis is on transformation and continuity, on a world fashioned by terrestrial wanderings across the featureless, primeval surface of the earth.11

This is the only piece of evidence rallied by Eliade to demonstrate the primal nature of the vertically hierarchical, concentric cosmos, its occurrence among pre-agricultural people — and it demonstrates nothing of the sort.

Evidence of such cosmological thinking can be found here and there among hunter-gatherers. But even where we can discount the potential influence of bygone or nearby civilisations or pastoralists (which is rarely the case), as Smith points out, the question is ultimately one of emphasis. Hunter-gatherers are famously sensitive to the details of the world, and would no doubt notice the basic structure of the heavens, revolving around a central point (outside equatorial latitudes). But why would they care about it? As sensitive to symbolism as any archaic people, why would these generally egalitarian nomads feel the need to emphasise and mythologise this structure of elevated immobility? Isn’t this natural structure more appealing to societies organised around a singular all-powerful leader? Isn’t the axis mundi generally the province of cultures under the sway of chiefs and kings? Smith’s conclusion is clear:

The language of ‘center’ is preeminently political and only secondarily cosmological. It is a vocabulary that stems, primarily, from archaic ideologies of kingship and the royal function.12

The basic mistake of Eliade, then, and of the Traditionalist school, was that they weren’t ‘traditional’ enough. In their efforts to establish their obsession with centralised cosmic hierarchy in the roots of human being, they projected the concerns of pre-modern agricultural myth — which is profoundly geared toward images of political stratification — back onto the pre-agricultural world of the hunter-gatherer. And this world was the entire human world until very recently — for more than 90% of our species’ existence. A true traditionalism would need to go beyond the narrow, constructed ‘naturalness’ of hierarchical society, and embrace our complex and diverse history — in which the decentred and fluid cosmos of mobile hunter-gatherers figures prominently.

The Copernican Revolution, then, rather than being a tragic loss of primal orientation, is in fact an ongoing opportunity to do what we did to survive the vast stretch of millennia before civilisation: forge new orientations to adapt to changing circumstances. New orientations, no longer fettered by the mundane patterns of power which have so successfully painted themselves in the colours of the sacred.