A Multiplicity of Centers
There is a Zuni legend that when the Water Skate was given magical powers by the Sun Father, he stretched his four legs out upon the waters.
His front right leg stretched first to the northeast, the place of the summer solstice sunrise; his front left leg stretched next to the northwest, the place of the summer solstice sunset; his back left leg then stretched to the southwest, the place of the winter solstice sunset; his back right leg then stretched to the southeast, the place of the winter solstice sunrise.
Where his heart then rested marked the “Center Place,” the center of the land that is surrounded by the four seas and the heart of the Earth Mother. It is below this center, below the heart of the Water Skate which is the heart of the Earth Mother, that the village of Zuni was established.
At the center of the village, another center resides. This is on a permanent altar in the chief priest’s house, where a heart-shaped rock (known as “the heart of the world”) rests. Within this rock are arteries that reach toward the four solstice points.
These centers, it is easy to see, form a series of centers that are both atop each other in an obvious layering effect and also all the same in their overlay. None of these centers can exist without the others, and they seem to form around one another in ever tightening rings. Each center is itself, unique; each center is also all the other centers.
Eliade indicates that religion itself is an orienting force, one that gives us a focal point from which to make sense of the world. When we are in a profane state, one that is not sacred, we have no point of reference. It is only through the breakthrough of the sacred into the profane world, the hierophany, that orientation is possible. “The heirophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a center.”
It is the finding of this fixed point, this center, that allows us to make sense of the world. If religion is, indeed, about finding ways to orient ourselves, to place ourselves in relative location to everything else, then we must find those centers, even if we must create them. The creation of those centers is similar to founding the cosmos.
Centers themselves are different from the rest of the world. They are places that allow this orientation, an orientation that the profane world cannot provide. Many of us are familiar with the axis mundi, or the axis of the world from Eliade. These cosmic pillars can only exist, according to Eliade, at the center of the universe, and all things extend about it. It supports the sky and finds its roots deep within the earth, and its presence is not an ordering force, but a break, a rip in the fabric of the profane world that allows the sacred to pour into and destroy the homogeneity of space.
The destruction of the homogenous space is made possible by openings to other worlds, allowing travel and communication between them. In the case of the Zuni, there are four upper worlds and four underworlds that the axis mundi allows access to. Time also begins at the center, and mythical time exists at the outskirts of their cosmos.
In ADF cosmology, we find that the center of the world has three parts: Well, Fire, and Sacred Tree. Often, we think of the Tree as the axis mundi, but it is not the only center in ritual. Indeed, all the hallows are a center, and they combine to form the center. The center is not complete with only the tree, for while the tree grows high and is rooted deep, it cannot devour our sacrifices as the fire can, nor can it carry our voices to the depths of the earth as the well can.
Instead, the center must make use of all parts of the hallows: Well, Fire, and Tree. Beyond that, though, there is also the center of the earth, the heart of the Earth Mother, upon whose breast we build our Fire, root our Tree, and sink our Well. We establish the center above her heart, above the center of the earth.
The Grove itself has a center, the place in the middle of those Grove members gathered that the energies and the focus of the ritual is centered. Within each other, we find our own orientation, our own center: there is no stronger center, no larger axis, no more powerful hierophany than that of a Grove standing together, orienting themselves to one another, and finding their place in the centers others can offer.
Most important, though, is another center that must not only be found, but that the ritual cannot happen without: the center of ourselves. Each of us, within our own heart, must find the center of our beings, the inner center that allows us to stand in the center, to be our own axis mundi. From us, all things radiate, and within ourselves we can discover a rift between the sacred and the profane.
If we cannot find the center of ourselves, if the hierophany of our hearts cannot be seen, then others cannot find it within us. If the Grove cannot orient itself by combining these centers, then it cannot find the center of the earth, the heartbeat of the Earth Mother. If we cannot orient ourselves to that center, then we cannot orient our hallows, and the Well, Fire, and Tree will not stand at the center of the worlds.
Centers are unlike any other thing in ritual: they are where we establish them. Yes, they can appear naturally, and there are places that a center is more likely to appear than others, but to truly do the work of magic, we need to learn to establish them, to place them atop one another, to blend them and to maintain their distinctions. We must find them in ourselves, either through meditation or ritual, and we must learn to use the point of reference created by our own center to orient ourselves to the other centers around us.
For the Water Skate myth and Zuni centers, see “New Directions in American Archeoastronomy“, edited by Anthony F. Aveni: Oxford, England: 1988. ISBN 0860545830. The article in question is “Directionality as a Conceptual Model for Zuni Expressive Behavior” by M. Jane Young.
For further reading on Eliade’s theory of hierophany and centers, see “The Sacred & the Profane: The Nature of Religion” by Mircae Eliade. ISBN: 015679201X