PSYCHOLOGY AND COMPARATIVE RELIGION
PSYCHOLOGY AND COMPARATIVE RELIGION: A STUDY OF THE SYMBOLISM OF THE CENTRE MIRCEA ELIADE THE VOCATION, or, if you prefer, the trade of the historian of religions is to many laymen an object of envy. Where could one find a nobler or more enriching occupation than one which involves familiarity with the great mystics in every religion, a life surrounded by symbol and mystery, and the ability to read and understand the myths of all nations? The historian of religions, thinks the layman, has an equal comprehension of Greek and Egyptian myth, of the real meaning of the Buddha’s message, of Taoist mysteries, and of the secret initiation rites of ancient societies. Perhaps such lay opinion is not entirely at fault in imagining us as constantly confronted by those problems which are the really great and important ones, and as preoccupied with deciphering all the mightiest symbols and loftiest and most complex myths to be found in the mass of material available to us. But we are, in actual fact, far more modest than this, and, I may add, infinitely more humble. There are many historians of religions who are so absorbed in some special study of their own that they know little more of Greek or Egyptian myth, of the Buddha’s message or of the techniques of Taoists or Shamans, than any well-read non-expert. Most of us have a good knowledge of only some small, meagre portion of the vast field of comparative religion. And, unfortunately, the treatment of even this small sector is usually of a somewhat external nature. It is a mere matter of deciphering, editing and translating texts, producing studies of chronology and the influences at work, writing historical monographs and accounts of monuments, and so on. Forced to narrow our field of work, we feel that our standards of scientific probity
are demanding the sacrifice of that fine spiritual career of which we dreamt when we were young.
But, with a few happy and distinguished exceptions, these excessive scientific standards have had the effect, in the long run, of alienating the educated public. These very rare exceptions apart, specialists in comparative religion are not read outside the narrow circle of their own colleagues and pupils. The public does not read our books because they are too technical, or simply because they are boring; the reason being that they are without any spiritual interest. Having heard Sir James Frazer, for example, repeating for some twenty thousand pages that everything that was thought, imagined or desired by man in primitive society, every one of his myths and rites, all his gods and all his religious experience, were nothing but a monstrous collection of stupidity, cruelty and superstition which rational progress has fortunately abolished, and having heard the same thing, more or less, repeated on every occasion, the public has at last come to accept it as true and to lose interest in the objective study of religions. Some members of it try to satisfy their legitimate curiosity by reading extremely bad books on the mysteries of the Pyramids, the miracles of Yoga, ” primitive revelations “, lost Atlantis, etc.all the shocking literature produced by dilettante neo-spiritualists and pseudo-occultists.
We are to a certain extent responsible for this state of affairs. We have made it our aim to present, at all costs, an objective study of religions, without always remembering that what we called ” objectivity ” was conditioned by the fashion of thought proper to our own time. We have been struggling for nearly a century to establish comparative religion as an autonomous discipline, and we have not yet succeeded; for, of course, it is still involved with anthropology, ethnology, sociology, religious psychology and even oriental studies. The aim of achieving, at all costs, the rank of a ” science ” has subjected comparative religion to all the internal crises through which modern science has passed: its representatives have been in turn, as some of them still are, positivists, empiricists, rationalists and historicists. What is more important, not one of the ” fashions ” which have in turn dominated it, not
one of the general, universal theories which have been applied to the phenomenon of religion, has been produced by an expert in the field. They have sprung from hypotheses put forward by eminent linguists, anthropologists, sociologists or ethnologists, and accepted one after the other by everyone, including specialists in comparative religion.
The present situation amounts to this: there has been a great advance in our knowledge of the material, which has been won at the cost of excessive specialization to the point of partly sacrificing our vocation (for most of us have become specialists in oriental or classical studies, ethnologists, etc.); and there is considerable dependence on the methods which have been elaborated by modern historiography or sociology (and a failure to remember that historical study of some myth or rite is not exactly the same thing as the history of a country or a monograph on some primitive people). One essential fact has been neglected: namely, that if we speak of ” the history of religions “, the emphasis should not be on the word history but on the word religion. For there are innumerable fields of historical work, from the history of technccs to the history of human thought; but there is only one way to approach the subject of religion, and that is to attend to religious facts. Before writing a history of anything, it is well to understand that thing itself, in itself and on its own account. Hence the importance of the work of Professor Van der Leeuw, who has done so much for the phenomenology of religion, and whose numerous brilliant publications have reawakened in the educated public an interest in comparative religion.
This renewal of interest has also been indirectly due to discoveries made by psychoanalysis and depth psychology, especially in the work of Professor Jung. It has been observed that the vast field of the history of religions represents an inexhaustible mine of material for comparison with the behaviour. of the individual and collective psyche as studied by psychologists and analysts. It is common knowledge that such use of socio-religious material by psychologists has not always won the support of students of comparative religion. We will shortly examine the objections raised against such comparisons; they are in fact often injudicious.
But let it be stated here that if comparative religionists had retained a more spiritual perspective in approaching their subject, if they had endeavoured to penetrate more profoundly into religious symbolism, many interpretations made by psychologists and psychoanalysts which now appear to the specialist to be unsound would never have been suggested at all. Psychologists have found excellent material in our books, but seldom any interpretations in depth. This has led them to supply the lack themselves, and so to take the place of the comparative religionists for the purpose of putting forward universal hypotheses which have sometimes been of over-hasty construction.
Summing up, our difficulty today is two-fold: (a) having elected to stand as an objective, ” scientific ” branch of historiography, comparative religion is obliged to meet all the objections brought against historicism as such; ( on the other hand, it is also required to meet the challenge thrown down by psychology, especially depth psychology, which has begun to work directly on historicoreligious material and propounded working hypotheses which are more felicitous, more fruitful, or at least more stimulating than those current among specialists in the field.
To make the difficulty clearer, let us turn to the subject of this article. When I say that my subject is the rites of the Centre, and the ritual approach to immortality, a comparative religionist has the right to ask me: ” What do you understand by such terms? With what rites are you concerned? With what peoples and cultures? What sort of immortality do you mean? For, ” he may go on, ” the days of Tylor, Mannhardt and Frazer are over, you know. You haven’t any right, today, to talk about myths and rites ‘in general ‘, or of any unity in primitive man’s reactions to Nature. Those general terms are mere abstractions, like that of ` primitive man’ itself. What is concrete is the religious phenomenon as it appears in history and through history. And the simple fact that it appears in history means that it is limited and conditioned by history. Then what meaning can there be in a formula like `the ritual approach to immortality’? You must say at once what immortality you are talking about. For, speaking a priori, we have no certainty that humanity as a whole has had any
spontaneous intuition or even desire for immortality. Then you talk about ` the rites of the Centre ‘. Have you, as an historian of religions, the right to do so? Can you make such a light-hearted generalization? It would be better to begin by asking in what culture, after what historical events, can be discerned a crystallisation of the religious notions of the ‘ Centre’, and of immortality. How are these notions integrated and validated in the organic system of such and such a culture? In what way have they been propagated, and among what peoples? It is only when you have dealt with all these preliminary questions that you will have the right to talk about immortality rites or Centre rites in general. Otherwise, what you produce may be psychology, philosophy or even theology, but not the true study of comparative religion.”
I regard all these objections as justified, and as an historian of religions I intend to take account of them. But I do not think they are insuperable. I know very well that we are dealing with religious phenomena, and the fact that they are phenomenathings that manifest and reveal themselves to us-means that they are stamped like a coin with the marks of the historical moment in which they came into being. There is no such thing as a ” pure ” religious fact, divorced from history and time. The noblest religious message, the most universal mystical experience, the most widespread human behaviour-like, e.g., religious fear, rites, prayers-must be particularized and delimited as soon as it begins to be. When the Son of God became incarnate as the Christ, he had to speak Aramaic; he could not behave otherwise than as a Hebrew of his own time-and not as a Yogi, a Taoist or a Shaman. His religious message, universal though it was, was conditioned by the past and present history of the Hebrew people. If the Son of God had been born in India, his spoken message would have had to conform to the structure of the Indian languages and to the historic and proto-historic traditions of that assemblage of peoples.
This statement of principle is a clear indication of the progress made in speculative thought between Kant-who must be considered the precursor of historicism-and the latest historicist and
existentialist philosophers. Man as a concrete, historical, authentic being is in situ. His own authentic existence has its place in history, in time, in his time-which is not his father’s. Nor is it that of his contemporaries in another continent or even another country. This being so, how can we have the right to speak of man’s behaviour in general? This ” man in general ” is a mere abstraction. His existence is due to a misunderstanding, an imperfection in language.
This is not the place for a philosophical critique of historicism and historicist existentialism. In any case, that critique has already been made by authors more competent than myself. We will only observe in passing that this ” historical conditioning ” of the spiritual life of man is a re-application, on a different level and with different dialectic means, of theories, now regarded as slightly out of date, of other ” conditionings “-geographical, economic, social and physiological. All are agreed that a spiritual fact, because it is a human fact, is necessarily conditioned by everything which goes to make up a man, from anatomy and physiology to language. In other words, any spiritual fact must presuppose a human being in his totality: physical entity, social man, economic man, and so on. But the sum total of these conditionings gives no exhaustive account of the spiritual life.
What distinguishes an historian of religions from an ordinary historian is that he is concerned with facts which, while they are historical facts, are manifestations of behaviour far transcending the ordinary historical behaviour of human beings. While it is true that man is always in situ, his situation is not always simply historical; it is not always, that is to say, conditioned solely by that moment of history which is contemporary with him. Man, as a totality, is aware of other conditions than his historical one. He is acquainted, for instance, with dream and day-dream states, with melancholy and detachment, with aesthetic beatitude and escape, and so on. These states are not all ” historical “,-but they are just as authentic and just as important in human existence as a man’s situation in history. Moreover, man is aware of many temporal rhythms, not only that of historical time, meaning by this his own time, the rhythm of contemporary history. Ile has
only to listen to good music, or to fall in love, or to start prayingand at once he has gone out of his ” historic present ” and rejoined the eternal present of love and religion. He only has to open a novel or watch a play in order to rediscover a different temporal rhythm-something one might term contracted time, which is certainly not the same as ordinary historical time. It has been too readily supposed that authentic existence can only be attributed to what is experienced with historical consciousness. In actual fact, the part played in the totality of human consciousness by this historical consciousness is only a minor one-quite apart from any consideration of the areas of the unconscious and the subconscious, which also form part of the total man. Indeed, the more a mind is consciously aware of itself, the more it transcends its historic limits. We have only to remember the mystics and sages of all times, and especially those of the East.
But we will now leave these objections which it is possible to bring against historicism and historicist existentialism, and return to our own problem-the dilemma facing the historian of religions. I was saying that the latter is too ready to forget that he is dealing with a type of human behaviour which is both primeval and integral, and that he should not therefore limit himself to a mere record of the historical events in which that behaviour is revealed; he should try to penetrate more deeply into its meaning and its internal relationships. To take an example: we now know that there are certain myths and symbols which have been propagated through the world by cultures of a certain type; myths and symbols, that is to say, which were not spontaneously discovered by primitive man, but created by a clearly defined, elaborate cultural complex, embodied in particular human societies. These creations have travelled long distances from their original home and been assimilated by peoples and societies which would not otherwise have known of them.
I think that a rigorous study of the relations between certain religious syntheses and certain forms of culture, and of the various
stages of their diffusion, should be enough to satisfy an ethnologist; but it should not be enough for a comparative religionist. Once the findings of ethnology have been accepted and integrated, he should start asking himself further questions: why was it possible for such and such a myth or symbol to be so diffused? What was it that it revealed? Why, in the process of diffusion, do certain details-very important details sometimes-get lost, while others continue to survive? What is it to which these myths and symbols represent a response, that they should spread so far afield? Such questions ought not to be left to psychologists, sociologists and philosophers, for none is better equipped to resolve them than the comparative religionist.
It is only necessary to study the problem to realise that, whether received from elsewhere or discovered spontaneously, symbols, myths and rites are always a revelation of man in his ultimate situation, not in his historical situation. What they reveal is the situation that man discovers when he takes stock of his position in the universe. The comparative religionist can fulfil his task by shedding light on these ultimate situations; it is here that his researches come to meet those of depth psychology and even philosophy. Such a study is possible, and furthermore it has already been begun. There need no longer be any hesitation in undertaking it, since depth psychology has drawn attention to the survival of mythical symbols and themes in the psyche of modern man, and showed that the spontaneous rediscovery of the archetypes found in primitive symbolism is something generally experienced amongst all men, without distinction of race or historical background. I shall shortly give some examples of such spontaneous rediscoveries, and we shall see what a comparative religionist should be able to learn from them.
But it is already becoming clear what great prospects would open before comparative religion if it could learn to profit from all its own discoveries and from those of ethnology, sociology and depth psychology. The study of man not only as an historical being but also as a living symbol could make of comparative religion-if we may be excused the use of such a word-a metapsychoanalysis. For its result would be to re-awaken and restore
to consciousness the primitive symbols and archetypes which are still living, or continuing in a fossilized state, in the religious traditions of the whole of humanity. I ventured to use the term ” meta-psychoanalysis ” because the technique to be employed will have to be something spiritual, intended to clarify the theoretical content of such symbols and archetypes, to make intelligible and coherent what is allusive, cryptic or fragmentary. I might also call it a new form of maieutics; for just as Socrates, according to the Theaetetus (149 A sq., 161 E), acted as midwife to the mind, delivering it of thoughts it contained without being aware of them, so comparative religion may succeed in bringing forth a new man; a man who will be more authentically himself and more complete, for by the study of religious traditions he will not merely have rediscovered what primitive behaviour was like, but will have become aware of the spiritual riches implicit in such behaviour.
A maieutic technique of this sort, making use of religious symbolism, will also help to free modern man from the cultural provincialism from which he suffers, and more especially from historicist and existentialist relativism. For it will become extremely plain that man stands over against history even at the very moment when he is engaged in making it, even at the very moment when he is claiming to be nothing else but ” an historical fact “. And in the measure in which a man transcends his moment in history and gives free rein to his desire to relive these archetypes in himself, he fulfils himself as an integral, universal being. In the measure in which he stands over against the historical process, modern man rediscovers his archetypal situation. His very sleep, his very orgiastic impulses are charged with spiritual meaning. The mere fact of rediscovering the rhythms of the cosmos in the heart of his own being the rhythm of day and night, or summer and winter, for instance-brings him a fuller consciousness of his destiny and significance.
Again, the study of comparative religion can help modern man to rediscover the symbolism of that anthropo-cosmos which is his own body. The achievements in this direction of imaginative techniques, especially those of poetry, are insignificant in
comparison with what comparative religion could do. Everything is there still, even in modern man; it is only a question of revivifying it and bringing it up to the conscious level. A recovery of the sense of his own anthropocosmic symbolism-which is simply one aspect of primitive symbolism-would give modern man a whole new dimension of existence, a dimension quite left out of account by current forms of existentialism and historicism. It is a primary, authentic mode of being, a bulwark against nihilism and historicist relativism, which yet in no way abstracts man from his place in history. Indeed, history itself may one day discover its own true meaning and become an epiphany of humanity in its absolute and glorious state. We need only remember the position accorded to historical existence in the Judaeo-Christian tradition to realise how, and with what sense, these words ” glorious ” and ” absolute ” could find their place in history.
Of course there is no question of pretending that the rational study of comparative religion should or can be a substitute for real religious experience, least of all for the experience of faith. But even a Christian mind will find that a maieutic technique of this sort employed by an interpreter of primitive symbolism is something fruitful. Christianity, as we all know, was the heir to very old and very complex religious traditions which survived, structurally, within the Church, though their spiritual meaning and theological bearing were changed. In any case, no believer can be indifferent to anything whatever which-to use Christian terms-is a manifestation in this world of the excellent Glory.
And finally, such a study will bring to light a fact which has until now been the object of too little attention-the fact that there is a logic of symbols, that at least certain classes of symbols show a coherency, a logical connection with one another; that they can be systematically formulated and translated into rational terms. This internal logic in symbols raises a problem big with consequences: is it that the domain of the logos extends into certain zones of the individual and collective unconscious-or are we here faced with manifestations of a trans-conscious? This is a problem which cannot be solved entirely by depth psychology, because the latter is largely concerned with deciphering symbols in
a scattered and fragmentary state appearing in minds in a condition of crisis or even of pathological regression. If we are to grasp the real structure and function of symbols, we must turn to the vast mass of material gathered by comparative religion. And even then we must know how to select. For much of our material consists of forms which are decadent, aberrant, or just mediocre. If we want to arrive at an adequate understanding of primitive religious symbolism we must select; if we were wanting to assess the literature of some foreign country we should not, after all, simply take the first ten or a hundred books we happened to find in its nearest public library. We must hope that some day historians of religion will imitate their colleagues, the historians of literature, in grading their material according to its value and the state it is in. But here, too, we are only at the beginning.
Primitive and traditional societies think of the world around them as a microcosm. The borders of this closed world represent the beginnings of the unknown, the formless. On one side is that space which constitutes the cosmos, because it is inhabited and organized; on the other, outside this familiar space, there is the unknown and fearful world of demons, larvae, dead men, strangers -chaos, death and night. This picture of the inhabited world as a microcosm surrounded by waste lands identified with chaos or the kingdom of the dead survived even in very advanced civilizations like those of China, Mesopotamia and Egypt. In many texts, enemies advancing to attack the national territory are identified with larvae, demons and the forces of chaos. Pharaoh’s enemies were ” sons of ruin, wolves, dogs ” etc. Pharaoh himself was identified with the god Re, the conqueror of the dragon Apophis, and his enemies with the mythical dragon.’ The fact that they are attacking and endangering the equilibrium, and indeed the very life of the city (or of any other inhabited, organised territory) is enough to identify the enemy with the demoniac
1 See my Le Mythe de l’Eternel Retour: Archetypes et repetition (Paris, Gallimard, 1949), pp. 68 seq.
powers; for they are trying to re-absorb the microcosm into the state of chaos, which means to suppress it. The destruction of an established order, the abolition of an archetypal image was the equivalent of a regression into chaos, into the unformed, undifferentiated state which preceded the cosmogony. We may observe that the same images are used in our own day to formulate the dangers menacing a certain type of civilization; the talk is still of ” chaos “, ” disorder “, ” darkness ” in which ” our world ” will go down. These are all felt as expressions signifying the abolition of an order, a cosmos, which has been built up, and thus re-immersion in a fluid, amorphous, chaotic state.
The image of the enemy as a demoniac being, an incarnation of the powers of evil, has also survived into our own day. Psychoanalysis of such mythical figures still operating in the modern world may perhaps show us the extent to which we project on to these enemies our own destructive desires. But such a problem goes beyond my competence. What I want to bring out here is that for the primitive world, generally speaking, the enemies menacing the microcosm were not dangerous as human beings, as such, but because they were incarnations of hostile, destructive powers. It is probable that the defensive systems of cities and inhabited places began in the first place as magical defences; for these ditches, labyrinths, ramparts, etc. are laid out so as to prevent invasion by evil spirits rather than attacks by human beings.’ Even late in history, in the Middle Ages, for instance, the walls of cities were ritually consecrated as a defence against the devil, disease and death. It was, of course, in no way difficult for primitive symbolism to identify a human enemy with the devil and with death. In the last analysis, the result of their attacks, diabolical or military, is always the same-ruin, disintegration and death.
Every such microcosm, every inhabited region, possesses what we may call a ” Centre “: a sacred place par excellence. Here, at the Centre, the Holy manifests itself in some total form. It may be in an elementary hierophany, as amongst ” primitives ” with
1 Cf. W. F. J. Knight, Cumaean Gates (Oxford, 1936); Karl Kerenyi, Labyrinth-Studien (Zurich 195o, Series ” Albae Vigilae “, vol. x).
totemic centres such as the caves where they bury tchuringas, etc.; it may be in the more advanced form of direct epiphanies of the gods, as in traditional civilizations. But we must not think of this symbolism of the Centre as having the geometrical implications provided by the western scientific spirit. There may be several ” centres ” for each one of these microcosms. As we shall soon see, all the eastern civilisations-Mesopotamia, India, China, etc.-have not merely one, but an unlimited number of” centres “. Furthermore, every one of them is thought of, and indeed described in so many words, as the ” Centre of the World “. Since we are here dealing with sacred space, as defined by a hierophany or constructed by a ritual, and not with profane, homogeneous, geometrical space, a plurality of ” Centres of the Earth ” within one inhabited region is a matter of no difficulty.’ We are here confronted with sacred, mythical geography, the only geography which is effectively real-not with profane, ” objective ” geography, which is in a sense abstract and non-essential, a theoretical construction of a space and a world where nobody really lives and which, consequently, nobody knows.
In mythical geography, sacred space is real space par excellence, because, as has been recently pointed out,2 for the primitive world myth is real as recounting manifestations of the true reality, which is the Holy. It is in such space that there is direct contact with the Holy-whether incarnate in certain objects (tchuringas, representations of the Divinity, etc.) or manifested in such hiero-cosmic symbols as the World Pillar, the World Tree, etc. In cultures which have the idea of the three cosmic regions of Heaven, Earth and Hell, the Centre is the point where the three intersect. Thus it is the point at which partitions can be broken and communication between the three regions made. We have reason to think that the image of these three regions is very old; it is to be found, for instance, among the Semang pygmies in Malacca: at the centre of the world there rises an enormous rock, Batu-Ribn; underneath ‘ See my Traite d’Histoire Des Religions, Payot, Paris 1949, PP. 315 seq.
2 Cf. R. Pettazzoni, Mid e Leggende (Turin, 1948), I, p. v; id., ” Verita del Mito ” Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni, 1947-8, vol. xxi, pp. 104-16; G. van der Leeuw, ” Die Bedeutung der Mythen “, Festschrift fur Alfred Bertholet (Tubingen, 1949) PP. 287-93; M. Eliade, Traite d’Histoire des Religions, pp. 350 seq.
it is hell. Once there was on Batu-Ribn a tree-trunk, rising up towards heaven. I Hell, the centre of the earth and the ” gate ” of heaven are thus on the same axis; it is along this axis that it is possible to pass from one region to another. We should hesitate to accept the authenticity of this cosmological theory among the Semang, if it were not that we have some reason to think that the same theory had already appeared in prehistoric times .2 The Semang say that there was a time when the tree-trunk linked the summit of this Cosmic Mountain, this Centre of the World, with heaven. Here we have an allusion to a very wide-spread mythical theme: once, communication with heaven and relations with the Divinity were easy and ” natural “; then, because of a ritual fault, the communication was broken, and the gods withdrew still higher into their heaven. Now it is only medicine men, shamans, priests, heroes and kings who are able to re-establish communications, and that only in a transient form and for their own exclusive use .3 The myth of a primordial paradise lost by some fault is an extremely important one; but, though it does in a sense touch on my subject, I cannot discuss it here.
Let us come back to the image of the three cosmic regions linked by an axis running through the ” Centre “. We find this archetypal image especially in the ancient civilizations of the east. The name of the sanctuaries at Nippur, Larsa and Sippar was Dur-anki, ” link between heaven and earth “. Babylon had a multitude of names, amongst others ” house of the foundation of heaven and earth “, ” link between heaven and earth “. But it was also at Babylon that there was a meeting-place between the earth and the nether regions, for the town had been built upon bab-apsi, the ” gate of apsu “; apsu being the name of the waters of Chaos before the Creation. We find this same tradition among the Hebrews. The rock of Jerusalem reached far down into the waters under the earth (tehom). It is told in the Mishna that the Temple stands just above tehdm (which is the Hebrew equivalent of apsu). 1 P. Schebesta, Les Pygmies (French trans., Paris, 1940), PP. 156 seq.
2 Cf., e.g., W. Gaerte, ” Kosmische v orstellungen im Bilde prahistorischer Zeit: Erdberg, Himmelsberg, Erdnabel and Weltenstrnme “, Anthropos, 1914, ix, PP. 956-79.
3 See my article on shamanism in Revue Historique Des Religions, vol. 131, Jan. _.June 1946, pp. 5-52.
And just as at Babylon was the ” gate of apsu ” so the rock of the Temple of Jerusalem closed ” the mouth of tehdm “. We find similar traditions in the Indo-European world. Amongst the Romans, for instance, the mundus is the meeting place between the nether regions and the terrestrial world. The Italic temple was the place of intersection of the upper (divine) world, the terrestrial and the subterranean (infernal) world.’
Every city of the east, in fact, was at the centre of the world. Babylon was a Bab-ilanii, a ” gate of the gods “, because it was there that the gods came down to earth. The Chinese sovereign had his capital near the miraculous tree ” Upright Wood “, Kien-mou, where Heaven, Earth and Hell met. Innumerable further examples could be given. All these cities, temples and palaces, considered as centres of the world, are so many replicas of one primitive image: the World Mountain, the World Tree, the central Pillar which holds up the three zones of the cosmos.
The symbol of a mountain, tree or pillar standing at the centre of the world is, of course, extremely wide-spread. We need only remember Mount Meru in Indian tradition, Haraberezaiti of the Iranians, the Germanic Himingbjorg, the ” Mountain of the Lands ” in Mesopotamian tradition, Mount Thabor in Palestine (which may be tabbur, navel, omphalos), Mount Garizim, in Palestine again, which is actually called ” navel of earth “; and Golgotha, which Christian tradition regarded as the centre of the world, etc .2 The fact that a certain territory, city, temple or royal palace was at the centre of the world-i.e. at the top of the World Mountain-meant that it was the highest place in the world and hence was not covered by the Flood. ” The land of Israel was not drowned in the Flood, ” says a rabbinical text. According to Islamic tradition the highest place on earth is the Ka’aba, because ” the Pole Star shows that it faces the centre of Heaven “.3 The very names of the Babylonian sacred towers and temples indicate their assimilation to the World Mountain, i.e. the centre of the world: ” Mountain of the House “, ” House of the Mountain of all lands “, ” Mountain of tempests “, ” Link between Heaven 1 Cf. Le Mythe de PEternel Retour, PP. 32 seq.
‘- Cf. Traiti, PP. 321 seq.; Le Mythe de PEternel Retour, PP. 30 seq. 3 Cf. the texts in Le Mythe de PEternel Retour, P. 33
and Earth “, etc. The ziqqurat was properly speaking a cosmic mountain-a symbolic image of the Cosmos. Its seven steps represented the seven heavens of the planets; mounting up them, the priest came to the summit of the Universe. The same symbolism is carried out in the vast building of the temple of Barabudur, which is built as an artificial mountain. The climbing of it is equivalent to an ecstatic journey to the Centre of the World; when the pilgrim reaches the highest terrace he breaks through into a new level; he transcends material space and penetrates into a ” pure region “. We have here a ” Rite of the Centre”.’
The peak of the World Mountain is not only the highest point on earth. It is also the navel of the earth, the point at which creation began. ” The Most Holy created the world like an embryo,” states a rabbinical text. ” As the embryo grows from the navel, so God began to create the world at the navel, and from there it spread in all directions.” ” The world was created begin ning at Sion,” says another text. The same symbolism is to be found in ancient India: in the Rig Veda, the universe is conceived as coming into being from a central point.2
The creation of man, repeating that of the cosmos, also took place at the centre of the world. According to Mesopotamian tradition, man was made at ” the navel of the earth “, at the same place as we find Dur-an-ki, the “link between Heaven and Earth “. Ohrmazd creates the first man, Gajomard, at the centre of the world. Paradise, where Adam was created of clay, is of course at the centre of the cosmos. Paradise was the ” navel of the earth “, and according to a Syrian tradition it was set ” on a mountain higher than any other “. According to the Syrian book The Cave of Treasures, Adam was created at the centre of the earth, at the very spot where the cross of Jesus was later to stand. Judaism retained the same tradition concerning the creation. The Judaic apocalypse and the midrash assert that Adam was created at Jerusalem. Since Adam was buried at the very spot where he was created-at the centre of the world, on Golgotha-the blood of the Lord redeems him too. 3
1 Texts in Traite, pp. 323 seq. z Traite, p. 324; Le Mythe, p. 36. 8 Traite. pp. 323 sea.: Le Mvthe. on. 32 sea.
The most wide-spread variant of this symbolism of the Centre is that of the World Tree, which stands in the midst of the universe and is the axis supporting the three worlds. This World Tree, its roots plunging into Hell and its branches touching Heaven, is to be found in Vedic India, in ancient China, in Germanic mythology, as well as in ” primitive ” religions. In the mythologies of Central and Northern Asia, its seven or nine branches symbolise the seven or nine zones of Heaven, i.e. the seven heavens of the planets. We have no space here to linger over the complex symbolism of the World Tree.’ What concerns us here is its role in the ” Rites of the Centre”. In general, we may say that the majority of the sacred and ritual trees encountered in the study of comparative religion are replicas, imperfect copies, of the archetype of the World Tree. This means that sacred trees are considered as being at the centre of the world; and the ritual trees or stakes consecrated before or during a religious ceremony are so to speak magically projected into the centre of the world. We must here be content with a few examples.
In Vedic India the sacrificial stake (yupa) is made from a tree identified with the Universal Tree. While it is being cut down, the sacrificing priest addresses it as follows: ” Let not thy top tear Heaven, let not thy centre injure the air . . .” Here we have the World Tree itself. From the wood of this Tree is made the sacrificial stake, and the latter becomes a sort of cosmic pillar: ” Rise, O Lord of the forest, on the summit of the earth! ” it is invoked in the Rig Veda (III, 8, 3). ” With thy top thou dost support Heaven, with thy middle part thou dost fill the air, with thy foot thou dost make firm the Earth,” proclaims the Satapatha Brahmana (III, y, I, 4).
The setting up and consecration of this sacrificial stake constitute a ” Rite of the Centre “. Being identified with the World Tree, the stake in its turn becomes the axis linking the three zones of the cosmos. Communication between Earth and Heaven is made possible by the mediation of this pillar. The sacrificing priest does in fact climb skyward, alone or with his wife, up this stake which ritual has transformed into the Axis of the World. 1 Cf. Traite, pp. 236 seq.
Setting a ladder against it, he says to his wife, ” Come, let us go up to Heaven! ” His wife replies ” Let us go up ! ” (Sat. Br., V, 2, I, 9). They begin to climb the ladder. At the top, touching the capital of the column, the priest cries ” We have reached Heaven! ” (Taittiriya Samhita, Sat. Br., etc.). Or, as he climbs up the steps, he stretches out his hands, like the wings of a bird, and cries, as he reaches the top, ” I have reached Heaven and the gods: I have become immortal! ” (Taittiriya Samhita, I, 7, 9). ” Truly “, says the Taittiriya Samhitd (VI, 6, 4, 2) again, ” the priest makes himself a ladder and a bridge by which the heavenly world can be reached “.
It has been possible to erect this ladder, or bridge, because the place is a Centre of the World. So too with the ladder Jacob saw in his dream which touched the heavens. And ” the angels of God ascended and descended on the ladder” (Gen. xxviii. i I seq.). The Indian rite alluded to immortality as being obtained by this ascent to Heaven. As we shall shortly see, many other ritual approaches to the Centre involve a conquest of immortality.
This assimilation of the ritual tree to the World Tree is even more transparently obvious in the shamanism of Central and Northern Asia. The climbing of such a tree by a Tatar shaman signifies his ascent into Heaven. Seven or nine notches are cut in the tree, and as he climbs up them the shaman declares in so many words that he is climbing into Heaven. He describes to the congregation everything that he sees in each of the heavenly zones as he penetrates into it. In the sixth heaven he venerates the moon., in the seventh the sun. Finally, in the ninth, he prostrates himself before Bai Ulgan, the Supreme Being, and offers him the soul of the horse that has been sacrificed.’
The tree is a replica of the World Tree, rising in the middle of the universe; at the top is the supreme god, or the sun-god. The seven or nine notches in the shaman tree symbolise the seven or nine branches of the World Tree, i.e. the seven or nine heavens. The shaman, moreover, is conscious of other mystical links between himself and the World Tree. In the dreams he has at
1 Cf. the material and bibliography in my Le chamanisme (Paris, 1951), pp. 29 seq., 171 seq.
the time of his initiation the future shaman is said to approach the World Tree and to receive three branches from it, from the hand of God Himself, to use as the barrels of his drums.’ The drum has a most important part to play at shamanite seances. It is chiefly by the use of their drums that shamans induce ecstasy. Now, if we remember that these drums are made of the very wood of the World Tree, we can understand the symbolism and religious value of shaman drum-beats. As he beats his drum the shaman is projected, in ecstasy, to the proximity of the World Tree .2 We have here a mystical journey to the ” Centre “, and so to the highest Heaven. Thus both his climb up the ceremonial column with its seven or nine notches, and the beating of his drum, are for the shaman journeys to Heaven. But he is only able to break through from one cosmic level to another, so as to be able to ascend or fly in ecstasy through the Heavens, because he is conscious of being at the very Centre of the World. For, as we have seen, only in such a Centre is it possible to communicate between Earth and Heaven and Hell .3
Very probably, at least in these Central Asian and Siberian religions, the Centre symbolism has been influenced by cosmological schemes derived from Indo-Iranian, and ultimately Mesopotamian, sources. This seems evident from, amongst other things, the importance of the number seven. But it is important to distinguish between a borrowed cosmological theory elaborated round the symbol of the Centre-like that of the seven zones of heaven-and the Centre symbol itself. As we have already seen, from its presence among the pygmies o£ the Malacca peninsula, this symbolism is extremely old. And even if we could assume
‘A. A. Popov, Tavgijcy. Materialy po etnografi avamskich i vedeevskich tavgicev (Moscow-Leningrad, 1936), pp. 84 seq; see my Le chamanisme et les techniques archaiques de l’extase, pp. 16o seq.
z Cf. E. Emsheimer, ” Schamanentrommel and Trommelbaum “, Ethnos, vol. iv, 1946, pp. 161-81.
Initiatory climbing of a ceremonial tree is also to be found in the shamanism of Indonesia, South American (Araucan) and North America (Pomo): cf. my book Le chamanisme.
some remote Indian influence on these Semang pygmies, we should still have to explain the Centre symbolism to be found in various prehistoric remains (the World Mountain, the Four Rivers, the Tree and Spiral, etc.). Further, it has been shown (by the Graebner-Schmidt school) that the symbol of the world-axis is already to be found in such primitive cultures as those of the Arctic and North American peoples; amongst these peoples the central roof-tree is assimilated to the World Axis. At the foot of this beam offerings are laid in honour of the heavenly powers, for it is only up this axis that they can ascend to heaven. When the type of house changes, the but giving place to the yurt (as amongst the pastoral peoples of Central Asia, for instance), this mythico-ritual function of the roof-tree is preserved with the help of the central chimney-hole. When sacrifice is to be offered, a tree is brought into the yurt, and set up with its top sticking up through this hole. The tree has seven branches, for the seven spheres. Thus the house is made one with the Universe, and regarded as being at the centre of the world, for its chimney-hole is set facing the North Star.
I shall return shortly to this symbolic identification of the house with the Centre of the World, for it demonstrates a most instructive aspect of the religious behaviour of primitive man. But for the moment, let us pause and consider the ” ascension rites ” which take place at the Centre. The Tatar or Siberian shaman, as we have seen, climbs up a tree, and the Vedic priest goes up a ladder. Both rites have the same purpose of effecting an ascension into heaven. Many myths speak of a tree, a liana, a rope, a thread of spider’s web, or a ladder linking earth to heaven, by which certain privileged beings can really climb up to heaven. We have seen that there are rites-Shaman tree and Vedic columncorresponding to these myths. An important part is also played by the ceremonial stair. I will give only a few examples: Polynaeus (Stratagematon, VII, 22) speaks of Kosingas, a priest-king in Thrace, who threatened his subjects that he would leave them by going up a wooden stairway to the goddess Hera. This shows that there was in existence a ritual stair, and that it was believed 1 Q- l o chamanisme, nn. 235 sea.
that the king could go up it to heaven. It is probable that an ascension into heaven by going up a ceremonial stair formed part of one of the Orphic initiations. We certainly find it in Mithraic initiation. In the Mithraic mysteries the ceremonial ladder (climax) had seven rungs, each one made of a different metal. According to Celsus (Origen, Contra Celsum, VI, 22), the first rung was of lead and corresponded to the heaven of the planet Saturn, the second of tin (Venus), the third of bronze (Jupiter), the fourth of iron (Mercury), the fifth of ” the alloy used for coins ” (Mars), the sixth of silver (the moon), the seventh of gold (the sun). The eighth rung, says Celsus, represents the sphere of the fixed stars. As he went up this ladder, the initiate passed through the seven heavens and mounted to the Empyrean; just as a man could climb to the highest heaven up the seven levels of the Babylonian ziqqurat, or pass through the various regions of the cosmos by climbing the terraces of the temple of Barabudur, which was, as we have seen, both a World Mountain and an imago mundi.
It is easy to see in this Mithraic ladder a World Axis, standing at the centre of the universe; for it was here that a ” breakthrough ” from one level to another had to take place. ” Initiation “, as we know, meant the death and resurrection of the neophyte, or, in other terms, a descent into hell followed by an ascent into heaven. Death-whether in an initiation or not-is the supreme break-through. That is why climbing is the symbol for it; there are many funeral rites which utilise ladders or stairways. The soul of the dead man walks up the paths of a mountain, or climbs a tree, or a creeper, to reach heaven. This idea is to be found practically everywhere in the world, from ancient Egypt to Australia. The ordinary Assyrian expression for dying is ” to take hold of the mountain “. In Egyptian too, ” to take hold ”
is a euphemism for ” to die “. In Indian mythical tradition, Yama, the first man to die, ” climbed the mountain ” and traversed ” the high passes ” to ” show the way to many men ” (Rig Veda, X, 14, I). The way of the dead, in popular Uralo-Altaic belief, is a way up the mountains; Bolot, the Kara-Kirghiz hero, and Kesar, the legendary king of the Mongols, penetrate into the other
world, in their initiatory trials, through a cave at the top of the mountains; similarly, the shaman’s descent into hell is through a cave. Egyptian funeral texts used the phrase asket pet (asketstep) to indicate that Rd’s ladder is a real ladder, linking Earth and Heaven. ” The ladder is set up for me to see the gods “, says the Book of the Dead; and again, ” The gods make him a ladder, that he may use it to go up to heaven.” In many earlyand middle-dynasty tombs, amulets have been found representing a ladder (maqet) or stair. And the use of a ladder in funeral rites is still to be found today: many primitive Asiatic peoples–the Lolos and the Karens, for instance-place ritual ladders on their tombs by which the dead are to climb up to heaven.
We have just seen that an extremely rich symbolism attaches to the stairway-rich, but quite coherent. It is an image of that break-through from one level to another which makes possible a passage from one mode of being to another; in cosmological terms, makes possible communication between Heaven, Earth and Hell. Hence the important part played by stairways and climbing in rites and myths of initiation and in funeral rites, to say nothing of royal and sacerdotal enthronements, and marriage rites. Now, it is well known that climbing and step symbolism often appears in psychoanalytical literature, which indicates that we have here a primitive characteristic of the human psyche, and not merely a product of history, dating from some particular period such as that of ancient Egypt or Vedic India. I will here give only one example of a spontaneous rediscovery of this primitive symbol.=
In his Journal for the fourth of April, 1933, Julien Green observes: ” In all my books, it seems that the idea of fear, or of any other fairly strong emotion, is linked in some inexplicable way to that of a staircase. I noticed this yesterday when I was thinking 1 See Traite d’histoire des Religions, pp. 96 seq.
2 See my study, ” Durohana and the ‘waking dream’ “, Art and Thought, A volume in honour of the late Dr. Ananda K. Coomaraswanmy (London, 1947), pp. 2o9 seq.
about the novels I have written . . . [He gives references.] I am wondering how I can have repeated this effect so often without noticing it myself. As a child I used to dream that I was being chased on a staircase. My mother had fears of a similar kind when she was young; perhaps something of this has remained with me . . . ”
It is easy to see why he associated the idea of fear with the image of a staircase, and why the crises he described in his books -love, death or crime-took place on a staircase. Climbing, going up steps, symbolise a journey towards absolute reality; any ordinary person approaching such a reality is conscious of an ambivalent sensation-fear and joy, attraction and repulsion, etc. The symbol of a stairway carries the ideas of sanctification, death, love, and liberation. And each of these aspects of existence represents an abolition of commonplace humanity, a break in the level of being: love, death, holiness, metaphysical knowledge are ways by which man passes, as the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad says, ” from the unreal to reality “.
But we must not forget that a staircase only symbolizes these things because it is felt as something that stands in the centre, and thus makes possible communication between the different levels of being; because, in fact, it is a concrete form of the mythical ladder, creeper, thread, World Tree or Universal Pillar which links together the three zones of the cosmos.
As we have seen, it was not only temples that were considered as being at the Centre of the World, but any holy place, any place where the Sacred penetrated into profane space. Moreover, such points of sacred space could be constructed. But their construction amounted in a sense to a cosmogony, a creation of the world; this is easy to understand, since, as we have seen, the world was created embryonically, from a centre. Thus, for instance, the construction of the Vedic fire-altar was a reproduction of the creation of the world, and the altar itself was a microcosm, an imago mundi. The water in which the clay is mixed is the primordial Water, says the Satapatha Brahmana (I, 9, 2, 29; VI, 5, I seq., etc.), the clay of the altar’s base is the Earth; the sides represent the Air, etc. (We should perhaps add that this also implies a construction of
cosmic time, but there is no space to treat of this question here: cf. Le Mythe de l’Eternel Retour, pp. 122 seq.).
We need not linger on the fact that ritual construction of the Centre is of frequent occurrence. But I will point out one important matter: in proportion as holy places, temples or altars of long standing lose their religious efficacy, other formulas are discovered and applied-geomantic, architectural or iconographical formulas which represent, sometimes in an amazing manner, this same symbolism of the Centre. Let us consider, as an example, the construction and function of the mandala.1 The term means ” circle “; in Tibetan usage it is sometimes translated by ” centre “, sometimes by “that which surrounds “. A mandala in fact consists of a series of circles, whether concentric or otherwise, within a square. The various divinities of the Tantric pantheon come and take up their positions within this diagram, which is drawn on the ground with coloured threads or coloured rice-powder. The mandala is at once an imago mundi and a symbolic pantheon. Initiation consists in a penetration by the neophyte into the different zones and different levels of the mandala. This rite of penetration may be considered as the equivalent of the rite of walking round a temple (pradaksina), or that of the gradual ascent, terrace by terrace, to the ” pure ground ” of the highest level of the temple. On the other hand, the neophyte’s penetration into the mandala is like initiation by penetration into a labyrinth; some mandalas have, indeed, a definitely labyrinthine character. Its function may then be considered as at least two-fold; on the one hand penetration into it is equivalent to an initiation ritual; on the other, it ” defends ” the neophyte from all harmful external forces, helping him to concentrate, to discover his own ” centre “.
But every Indian_ temple is a mandala, seen from above. Every Indian temple is both a microcosm and a pantheon. Then why make a mandala? What need is there for any new “Centre of the World “? It is simply that certain devout people, feeling the necessity of a more authentic and profound religious experience,
1 See my Techniques du Yoga (Gallimard, 1948), pp. 185 seq.; Giuseppe Tucci, Teoria e pratica del mandala (Rome, 1949); on mandala symbolism, see C. G. Jung, Psychologie and Alchemie (Zurich, 1944) PP. 139 seq.; Gestaltungen des Unbewussten (Ziirich, 1950), pp. 187 seq.
found that the ancient ritual had become fossilized. The building of the fire-altar, the ascent of the terraces of a temple no longer made it possible for them to discover their own ” Centre “. Unlike primitive man and Vedic man, the man of this Tantric phase discovered the need of a personal experience in order that certain primal symbols should come to life once more in his consciousness. This is why some Tantric schools renounced the use of the external mandala and had recourse to an interiorised one. This might be of two kinds: (i) a purely mental construction, playing a ” supporting ” role in meditation, or (2) a discovery of the mandala in one’s own body. In the first case, the Yogi enters mentally into the mandala and so effects both an act of concentration and a defence against distractions and temptations. The mandala concentrates, preventing dispersal and distraction. The discovery of the mandala in one’s own body indicates a desire to identify oneself as a mystical organism with the microcosm. A more detailed analysis of this penetration, by the techniques of Yoga, into what one might call one’s ” mystical body “, would take us too far. I will only say that the successive re-animation of the chakras-the ” wheels ” (circles) which are regarded as so many points of intersection of cosmic life and mental life-is identified with an initiatory penetration into the interior of a mandala. The awakening of the Kurdalini is equivalent to a break-through between ontological levels, i.e. to a full and conscious realization of the symbolism of the ” Centre “.
We have just seen that the mandala can., simultaneously or successively, sustain a concrete ritual, or an act of spiritual concentration, or a technique of mystical physiology. This multivalence, this capacity for operating on many different, though related, levels, characterises Centre symbolism in general. This is easily understood; for every human being tends, even though unconsciously, towards the Centre, and towards his own Centre, where he can find integral reality-” sacrality “. This deeply-rooted desire in man to be at the very heart of reality, at the very Centre of the World, where he can communicate with Heaven, explains the unrestricted use made of ” centres of the world “. We have seen, above, how the house is identified with the Universe, the
hearth or chimney-hole with the Centre of the World. And so all houses-like all temples, all palaces, all cities-stand on one and the same spot, which is the Centre of the Universe.
Is there no contradiction here? There is a mass of myths, symbols and rituals which all with one accord stress the difficulty that there must be in penetrating to the Centre; and, on the other hand, there is this series of myths and rites which affirm that the Centre is accessible. Pilgrimage to the Holy Places, for instance, is difficult; but any visit to any church counts as a pilgrimage. The World Tree cannot be reached; yet it is to be found in any yurt. The way which leads to the Centre is thick with obstacles; yet every city, every temple, every house is already at the Centre of the Universe. The sufferings and trials which Ulysses must undergo are fabulous; yet any and every return home is ” the same ” as the return of Ulysses to Ithaca.
What all this seems to show is that man cannot live except in a sacred place: except in the Centre. We see that there is one group of traditions witnessing to man’s desire to be at the Centre without effort, and another which insists on the difficulty, and hence the merit, of reaching it. I am not here concerned to go into the history of each. The fact that the first-the one that admits the possibility of the Centre’s being constructed in a man’s own house, the ” easy ” tradition-is to be found practically everywhere, suggests that it is the more significant one. It manifests a particular human situation which we might designate ” nostalgia for paradise “. This is to be understood as a desire to be, permanently and without effort, at the Centre of the World, at the heart of reality; to be able, naturally, to transcend our human condition and recover the divine condition-in Christian terms, the condition before the Fall.’
I should like to complete this study by recalling a European myth which, though it has only an indirect connection with Centre symbolism and rites, gathers them up and integrates them into a still vaster symbolism. It is a particular detail in the legend of Parsifal and the Fisher King.’ A mysterious, paralysing sickness 1 Cf. Traite d’Histoire des Religions, pp. 326 seq.
2 Perceval, ed. Hucher, p. 466; Jessie L. Weston, From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge 1920, pp. 12 seq.). The same motif appears in the Gawain Cycle (Weston, ibid.).
has come upon the old King, the holder of the secret of the Graal. Nor is it he alone who suffers; everything around him is falling into ruin and decay: palace, towers, gardens. The animals no longer breed, the trees do not bear fruit, the wells are drying up. Many doctors have tried to cure the Fisher King-without effect. Day and night, knights ride in and ask, as their first care, for news of the King’s health. One knight, and one only-poor, unknown, something of a laughing-stock-gives no heed to considerations of polite ceremonial. His name is Parsifal. Regardless of conventional courtesies, he goes straight to the King, approaches him, and asks, without any preamble: ” Where is the Graal? ”
In an instant, everything is changed. The King rises from his bed of sickness, the brooks and fountains flow again, plants begin to grow, the castle is miraculously restored. Parsifal’s words were enough to bring all Nature to rebirth. Those few words contain the central question, the only one which could arouse not only the Fisher King but also the whole Cosmos: where is the supreme reality, the Holy, the Centre of life, the source of immortality? Where is the Holy Graal ? No one, before Parsifal, had thought to put the central Question-and the world was dying of this metaphysical and religious indifference, lack of imagination, lack of desire for reality.
This detail from a magnificent European myth reveals at least one hidden aspect of the Centre symbol: not only is there a deep solidarity between the life of the universe and the salvation of man, but-it is enough simply to put the question of salvation, it is enough simply to state the central problem, the problem, for the life of the cosmos to be forever renewed. For death, this fragment of a myth seems to be telling us, is often only the result of our indifference to immortality.