From the aboriginal tribes of Australia to the Celtic tribes of Europe, there is evidence that ancient peoples revered central places within their territories, and organised their societies accordingly. Why were these centre places so important – sacred even – to ancient peoples? We look at the work of several authors in search of answers.
The symbolism of centre
The concepts of origin myths and sacred space have been around since time immemorial. They were explored in some depth by the Romanian historian of religion Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), who was a professor at the University of Chicago.
A recurrent theme in Eliade’s analysis of myth was the axis mundi. Also known as the cosmic axis, world pillar or world tree, the axis mundi is the centre of the world, or – in other terms – the connection between Heaven and Earth. It is sometimes depicted as a celestial or geographic pole.
Eliade noted that, when traditional societies founded a new territory, they often performed consecrating rituals that established the centre and founded the world. Eliade gave the example of an Australian aboriginal tribe, the Achilpa…
“according to the traditions of… the Achilpa, 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 a cosmic axis, for it is around the sacred pole that territory becomes habitable, hence is transformed into a world”
The Achilpa carried their sacred pole with them as they travelled, so they were always in “their world”, and at the same time in communication with the sky into which Numbakula vanished. For the pole to be broken denoted catastrophe; the end of the world, and a reversion to chaos.
This symbolic catastrophe was experienced for real in eighth century Europe. The Saxons of Germany worshipped a wooden pillar in their national sanctuary at Eresburg – it was called the Irminsul. It was said to be “the pillar of the universe which as it were supports all things”. When Charlemagne, King of the Franks, fought with the Saxons, he destroyed their famous Irminsul.
Elaide observed that the same cosmological image is found in ancient cultures around the world, including in ancient India and in such distant cultures as those of Indonesia and British Columbia (Canada). Clearly, the axis mundi and the sacred centre were very important to ancient peoples.
Author and researcher Paul Devereux, who is also co-founder and editor of Time & Mind, wrote about ”centre place” in his book Sacred Geography. The book was published in 2010 and sub-titled Deciphering Hidden Codes In the Landscape.
Like Eliade, Devereux notes that the world centre was an “extremely widespread concept”. And he draws a distinction between a world centre in the form of a world navel or omphalos, and its vertical extension, the world axis or axis mundi.
Devereux describes how the axis mundi could take many symbolic forms, including a cosmic mountain, a primordial tree, a giant arrow stuck into the earth, a cosmological bread basket, a stone or rock, the hearth or smoke hole in a yurt or other dwelling, and even a pit in the ground.
One culture using the ‘pit in the ground’ approach was the “now-vanished, mysterious Etruscans” of northern Italy. It formed part of their ritual for establishing new community centres. As Devereux explains:
“When founding a town, the Etruscans dug a pit of shaft and laid out the street grid from it. The pit was supposed in myth to reach down to the underworld and was capped by a large stone, which was lifted only a special days when the dead were allowed to wander among the living, or when the first fruits were cast into the shaft as a harvest offering”
The Etruscans had a strong influence on the Romans, who adopted many of their traditions. According to Devereux, it was Etruscan surveyors or geomancers who laid out the foundations of Rome.
For their part, the Romans always put down a mundus (central pit) at the centre of their towns, and even of their military camps. It marked the crossing point of the foundational north-south (cardo) and east-west (decumanus) roads.
In Britain, which was occupied by the Romans for several hundred years, the mundus location of market towns founded by the Romans later came to be called the ‘Cross’ or ‘High Cross’.
Locating sanctuaries and meeting places
Another author who wrote about sacred central places was John Michell (1933-2009). In amongst his many books on ancient mysteries, Michell wrote At the Centre of the World (1994), sub-titled: Polar symbolism discovered in Celtic, Norse and other ritualized landscapes. This was later re-published as The Sacred Center – the Ancient Art of Locating Sanctuaries.
In the book, Michell observed how every tribe and state had its “generation center”, a sacred area within its heartland where its legendary founders gave birth to its people and established their laws. This centre point or sanctuary marked the midpoint of their home territory, around which everything revolved. It was the focus of “a perpetual cycle of rituals and festivals that passed with the seasons”.
Michell gave many examples of centre places in his book, including Ting Holm Law, site of the all-Shetland parliament and law court. This was upon an islet (now a promontory) that was located half way along the main axis of Shetland mainland, the line between its northern and southern extremities.
Michell described how in old English, Celtic, Nordic and Germanic societies, meetings and meeting places abounded. These meetings and gatherings were held in the open open air, ‘under the eye of the sun’. In Michell’s words, the usual set-up was as follows:
“Law courts were typically held upon natural or artificial mounds commending a wide view of the district. At the centre was a tree, stone or pit, or a combination of these, and the periphery was defined by one or more rings of stones or earth. Inside (the fence of the court) was hallowed ground, where rules of conduct were prescribed by law and religion”
Another example Michell gave was of the Isle of Man, which he described as “the omphalos of the British Isles”. This was due to its central location in relation to Britain, Ireland and their associated islands. Legends indicate that the Isle of Man was once a centre of the Druidic mysteries.
Indeed, Michell suggested that, whoever originated the idea of establishing symbolic centres of counties and territories, they may have been “priestly diviners who were trained, as Caesar says of the Druids, in astronomy, astrology, geodesy and land measurement”.
The power of centre
The last authors we feature are Gary Biltcliffe and Caroline Hoare. If you want a thorough grounding in the subject ancient sacred centres, then the book to consult is their 2018 publication: The Power of Centre – Rediscovering Ancient Cosmology and the Celtic Goddess at the Omphalos Sites of the British Isles (2018).
Biltcliffe and Hoare cover many of the concepts and traditions already written about by the other authors we have featured, but their book is particularly insightful, stemming from their extensive field research in Britain and Ireland.
They introduce the concept of energy in the landscape, stating that: “Many ancient cultures built a central shrine at the navel of their kingdom where they controlled the natural energy of the landscape, symbolic of a serpent or dragon, by staking it to the ground, then fixing it to a central feature or object”.
They observe that many of the world’s legendary dragon-slayers are depicted pinning their dragon foe to the ground, without actually piercing its skin. The omphalos stone at Delphi – which is “carved with serpents” – was set into the ground on the spot where the god Apollo was said to have speared a dragon.
Biltcliffe and Hoare also describe the methods than ancient geomancers, augurs, diviners and dowsers used to locate hidden pathways within the landscape, and the secret places of power which we are re-discovering today.
Finally, they discuss the role of the Earth Mother (called Uni by the ancient Etruscans), and the origins of the British Goddess (Brittannia, Brigantia or Bride), who is often depicted with an omphalos stone at her feet.
This article is merely an introduction to the concept of ancient sacred centres, and the role of sacred geography and symbolism in the lives of ancient peoples. There are links below to books and webpages if you wish to explore these subjects further, and you can add your own comments as well. We hope to feature other central places of Britain’s countries and territories in future articles.
Mercia Eliade – The Sacred and the Profane – The Nature of Religion, Harcourt, 1959
Paul Devereux – Sacred Geography – Deciphering Hidden Codes in the Landscape, Gaia, 2010
John Michell – At the Centre of the World – Polar symbolism discovered in Celtic, Norse and other ritualized landscapes, Thames and Hudson, 1994; also published as…
John Michell – Sacred Center: The Ancient Art of Locating Sanctuaries, Inner Traditions, 2009
Gary Biltcliffe & Caroline Hoare – The Power of the Centre – Rediscovering Ancient Cosmology and the Celtic Goddess at the Omphalos Sites of the British Isles, Sacred lands Publishing, 2018
For more about ‘earth navels’ (omphalos)