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The World Tree
In world mythology, The World Tree is the "axis mundi," world axis, or central axis of the cosmos. Images of the World Tree exist in virtually all cultures, and represent the world center and/or the connection between heaven and earth. The axis mundi links heaven and earth as well as providing a path between the two. Many ancient cultures incorporate the myth of the World Tree, Tree of Life, or Tree of Knowledge, as it is also known. It is familiar today as the Rod of Asclepius, the symbol of medicine. The staff is the axis itself, and the serpent or serpents are the guardians or guides to the other realm.
Shamans believe that this central axis and the universe it unites lie within the soul, within each of us. According to shamanic cosmology, there are three inner planes of consciousness: the Upper, Middle, and Lower Worlds. The roots of the World Tree touch the Lower World. Its trunk is the Middle World and its branches hold up the Upper World. Humans did not invent these inner realms; they discovered them. Far from being a human contrivance, these archetypal worlds are inherent in the collective unconscious, the common psychological inheritance of humanity. They are woven into the matrix of the psyche. They are a part of our psyche, a part of us whether we choose to become aware of it or not.
Through the sound of the drum, which is invariably made of wood from the World Tree, the shaman is transported to the axis within and conveyed from plane to plane. As Tuvan musicologist Valentina Suzukei explains, "There is a bridge on these sound waves so you can go from one world to another. In the sound world, a tunnel opens through which we can pass—or the shaman’s spirits come to us. When you stop playing the drum, the bridge disappears."1 The inner axis passes through an opening or hole through which the shaman traverses the inner planes in order to create and change experience and to help others do the same. It is an inward spiritual journey of rapture in which the shaman interacts with the inner world, thereby influencing the outer world. In the shaman’s world, all human experience is self-generated. Experience is shaped from within since the three realms that define our experience of reality exist within each of us.
The world above is the unseen realm of unmanifest potential, higher knowledge, and enlightenment. The Upper or Celestial Realm is the domain of gods, goddesses, and evolved teachers. It is in this inner realm that the archetypal patterns, which are the blueprints for all things, exist. According to Lakota shaman Nick Black Elk, "This is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world."2 The Celestial Realm forms the matrix of possibilities that correspond to the world we experience through our mind and senses. All situations, conditions, and states of being are a manifestation of a world of archetypes. Every event in the visible world is the effect of an image or pattern in the unseen world.
Shamans journey to the Upper World to acquire archetypal knowledge, to bring a vision into being, or to influence events in the material world. By interacting with the archetypes, the shaman interacts with their counterparts in the outer world. Shamans also go there for inspiration, insight, or to find ways to restore balance in the world. As anthropologist Felicitas Goodman points out, "One of the most pervasive traditions of shamanic cultures is the insight that there exists a patterned cosmological order, which can be disturbed by human activity."3 When harmony between the human realm and the original intended pattern is disturbed, the shaman makes a spirit journey to the Celestial Realm to bring back the balance.
The Middle World is the spirit counterpart of the material realm and the inner region that is most like outer reality. Nick Black Elk spoke of the realm "where there is nothing but the spirits of all things."4 In this parallel world exist the spirits that are the essence of everything in the material world. The Middle World is so truly parallel to the world in which we live that we can journey across it and visit all the places, people, and things we know in ordinary reality. Spirit journeys in the middle world provide a means of travel and communication without cars, planes, or telephones. It is a means of exploring territory to find the location of healing herbs or game or to establish communication links over great distances.
The Lower World is the realm of animal spirits, spirit guides, and the dead—the place to which human spirits travel upon physical death. This Lower World is not Hell as defined by the agricultural religious traditions such as Christianity. It is the place of tests and challenges, but also the realm of power where guardian animals or helping spirits are acquired. A spirit journey to the Lower World is generally undertaken to seek the help and guidance of an animal spirit, to recover lost power, or to find and return a sick person’s wandering spirit.
1. Kira Van Deusen, "Shamanism and Music in Tuva and Khakassia," Shaman’s Drum, No. 47, Winter 1997, p. 24.
2. John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), p. 71.
3. Felicitas D. Goodman, Jewels on the Path (Santa Fe: Cuyamungue Institute, 1994), p. 55.
4. John G. Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks, p. 71.
About the author:
Michael Drake is a nationally recognized writer, rhythmist, and shamanist. He is the author of The Shamanic Drum: A Guide to Sacred Drumming and I Ching: The Tao of Drumming. Michael's journey into rhythm began under the tutelage of Mongolian shaman Jade Wah'oo Grigori. For the past 20 years he has been facilitating drum circles and workshops nationwide. To learn more, visit Michael's web site at: http://ShamanicDrumming.com