Like many of you, when I think of Christmas, I think of extruding the entrails of sacrificial victims onto boughs of trees in a ritualistic blood orgy through which we beseech the benevolence of the higher spirits, fulfilling our contractual obligations in exchange for rebirth from death and future prosperity.
The theory is that the modern Christmas tree derived, at least in part, from Norse sacrificial rituals, whereby a victim would have their guts strewn about tree branches to recreate the manner in which the god Odin sacrificed himself on the world tree Yggdrasil so as to achieve cosmic wisdom. There is doubt among scholars on the veracity of this story, and most seem to think that if this occurred, it was not particularly widespread and limited to the noble and priestly classes at most.
Nonetheless, the Germanic-Nordic contributions to the modern Western Christmas celebration cannot be discounted. Santa Claus was heavily inspired by Odin and his eight-legged horse Sleipnir riding through the skies during Yuletide on his Wild Hunt. Tradition has it that St. Boniface aborted an attempted ritualistic sacrifice of a boy on Thor’s Oak by cutting down the tree, from which a fir sprouted forth, thus representing the conquest of German paganism by Christianity. It was the Germans who popularized the modern concept of the Christmas tree, which they later brought over to America.
But this whole thing is strange, right? Bringing a tree inside your home and lighting it up during the darkest days of winter seems a bit arbitrary, no? It certainly does not appear logical. Yet, there is method to this merry madness.
In this essay, we will consider the concept of the Axis Mundi, a.k.a. the World Tree, a.k.a. the Cosmic Tree, a.k.a. the Cosmic Pillar, a.k.a the Tree of Life, a.k.a. the Navel of the World, etc., and see how this idea permeates virtually every culture across time (and even our living rooms during Yuletide).
We’ll then look at how George R. R. Martin has appropriated this concept to become a central figure within the A Song of Ice & Fire (ASOIAF) book series.
Finally, we try to understand how this idea is deeply archetypal to our being, and serves a useful purpose to gaining a deeper appreciation of the world and to ourselves.
The basic premise of the axis mundi is a device standing vertical which connects the divine, limitless heaven or spirit to the mundane earth. It connects life with death, and symbolizes the inherent relationship between the two.
In his study of mesolithic and neolithic religions, Mercea Eiade shows how this device may have evolved from archaic fertility rituals:
The agrarian cultures develop what may be called a cosmic religion, since religious activity is concentrated around the central mystery: the periodic renewal of the world. Like human existence, the cosmic rhythms are expressed in terms drawn from vegetable life. The mystery of cosmic sacrality is symbolized in the World Tree. The universe is conceived as an organism that must be renewed periodically—in other words, each year. “Absolute reality,” rejuvenation, immortality, are accessible to certain privileged persons through the power residing in a certain fruit or in a spring near a tree. The Cosmic Tree is held to be at the centre of the world, and it unites the three cosmic regions, for it sends its roots down into the underworld, and its top touches the sky.
One cannot possibly show the myriad examples in world myth and religion of the Cosmic Tree in a single essay. Eliade gives us an example from his native Romania where, in this case, they use pillars instead of trees:
In the Aeneolithic station of Căscioarele, 60 kilometers south of Bucharest, excavation has revealed a temple whose walls are painted with magnificent spirals in red and green on a yellowish-white ground. No statuettes were found, but a column 2 meters high and also a smaller one indicated a cult of the sacred pillar, symbol of the axis mundi. Above this temple another, of later date, was found, which yielded a terra-cotta model of a sanctuary. The model represents a decidedly impressive architectonic complex: four temples set on a high pedestal.
Any circumstance of a device rising toward the sky from the earth can be considered an axis mundi. It doesn’t matter if it is represented by pyramids, hills, towers, plinths, as they can all serve the same purpose.
Mountains are a great example of this, which explains the divine significance of Mount Olympus, Mount Fuji, Kilimanjaro or Uluru (i.e. Ayres Rock) to local indigenous peoples. Other notable examples are the Glastonbury Tor, Mount Meru, Machu Picchu and the Black Hills.
Where mountains or hills don’t exist, people made their own. Pyramids and similar structures are home to the gods. Their apexes rose toward the heavens and signified transcendence to the heavenly spirits. Often, as with the case of Mesopotamian ziggurats, there may not have been shrines at the top, as it was not a place meant for mere mortals. Within, pyramids were the resting place of the divine avatars, as with the pharaohs, who were god incarnate who were expected to rise again and ascend to heaven.
The axis mundi concept works especially well when there also exists a corresponding underworld regime. As an example, the palace of Knossos on Minoan Crete was the home of both “the divine patroness and of the priest-king who serves as intercessor between her and men:”
The dance floors surrounded by tiers of steps, the inner courts in which altars stand, the storerooms themselves, are religious installations. The throne was an object of veneration, as is proved by the symbolic griffons that flank it at Cnossus and Pylos; possibly it was even reserved for the epiphany of the goddess rather than for the sovereign.
Within the Minoan throne room, there were also columns and pillars topped with statuettes of birds “to represent the soul as well as the epiphany of a goddess.” Below the palace was the labyrinth, carved in stone, and home to the monstrous Minotaur. It’s a dangerous place, where youths were sacrificed on a regular basis, but where Theseus was able to win a princess and glory for his name by defeating the beast.
But these underworlds didn’t have to be so ornate as the pyramids or palaces to be considered Cosmic Trees. Long before the ancient Egyptians, megalith complexes were being built all over northern and western Europe, from Portugal, to Ireland and over to Sweden. One of the most famous of these can be found in Los Millares in the southern Spanish province of Almeria. This complex features menhirs (large, long stones set vertically in the ground), cromlechs (menhirs set into half-circle patterns), and dolmen (upright stones topped with capstones to arrange an enclosure). The dolmens were was originally covered by a large mound and served as a burial place.
There are hundreds of these at Los Millares. Eliade points out that “sometimes the burial chambers have a central pillar, and remains of painting can still be discerned on the walls.” These pillars are huge, far greater than what is required to honor their ancestors, particularly as they are buried under the earth after construction. It’s almost as if they create the corresponding root structure of a significantly huge tree.
The permanency of these structures impresses Eliade:
When we contemplate the grandiose megalithic monuments of the earliest agriculturalists of western Europe, we cannot but call to mind a certain Indonesian myth. In the beginning, when the sky was very near to the earth, God hung his gifts on a cord in order to bestow them on the primordial couple. One day he sent a stone, but the ancestors, surprised and indignant, refused it. Some days later, God let the cord down again, this time with a banana, which was immediately accepted. Then the ancestors heard the creator’s voice: “Since you have chosen the banana, your life shall be like the life of that fruit. If you had chosen stone, your life would have been like the existence of stone, unchangeable and immortal.”
Ancient Jewish Cosmology
Given the literature and deep history, Jewish mythos features many examples of the Cosmic Tree. For example, Moses climbs Mount Sinai to obtain the Ten Commandments and thus deliver the basis of the law of authority required to build a just and successful society.
According to the biblical narrative, it was three months after the departure from Egypt, and in the Sinai Desert, that the theophany took place. “The mountain of Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. Like smoke from a furnace the smoke went up, and the whole mountain shook violently. Louder and louder grew the sound of the trumpet, Moses spoke, and God answered him in peals of thunder” (Exod. 19:18-19). Then Yahweh appeared to the Israelites, who had remained at the foot of the mountain, and made a covenant with them, dictating the Laws of the Covenant, which begins in the Decalogue and includes a number of prescriptions for the cult (Exod. 20:22-26 and chaps. 24-26).
The prophet Elijah later visits a cave on Mount Horeb (traditionally the same place as Mount Sinai) and encounters God.
One of the noteworthy axis mundi sites acknowledged through ancient Judaism is Bethel, or “House of God.” This is the site where Abram (later Abraham) built an altar to God on his way to and from Egypt. As mentioned in my previous essay, Jacob Israel dreamed of his famous ladder and then set up a pillar at this location. A prophetess named Deborah is said to have resided there and is later buried under a palm tree at the site. The Ark of the Covenant was kept in Bethel for a duration, and subsequent temples became a pilgrimage destination for many biblical characters.
Another similar high holy place is the Temple Mount of Jerusalem. This is where Abraham was to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and was later the site of two Jewish temples, and the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.
Once again, we should note that the top of the Cosmic Tree is no place for the layperson. Only God’s specially anointed priests may approach the heavens. The story of the Tower of Babel, where man sought to replace God, shows us the consequences of that.
Often, Christian church architecture has been designed to replicate the cosmological features of the cross. Cathedrals in particular are almost always oriented east-to-west to face the rising sun (Son) and are laid out in the shape of the cross, with the altar at the center. Domes or spires reach up toward the sky, while the floor serves as a symbolic (or literal) burial ground for the faithful.
Chartres Cathedral is a splendid example of this, with its soaring vaulted ceilings and spectacular stained glass to illuminate and inspire. It also features a famous stone labyrinth pattern in the floor, where the penitent are to circumambulate their way to the center where both death and enlightenment await.
The ultimate expression of the axis mundi in Christianity is Golgotha, or Calvary, where Jesus Christ was sacrificed on a cross. The name may mean “place of the skull,” which could refer to it being a site of execution. However, the name also implies the shape as being that of a skull, or a rounded hill.
Golgotha lies outside the gates of the city of Jerusalem, with crucifix “trees” sprouting on its top. A short distance away is the crypt which became the sepulchre of Jesus, where He is said to have risen from the dead (Hell).
Later, a basilica was built over the traditional site of the sepulchre, and it was said that the location of the cross was directly above the tomb.
The blood of Jesus spilled during the cruxifixction is said to have soaked into the rock below to create the bloodstone (heliotrope) mineral.
Even the body can serve as the axis mundi. In tantric philosophies, going at least as far back as the Vedic texts, the Kundalini is the lowest chakra from which the primordial cosmic energy (shakti) flows through the spine to the “thousand-petaled lotus” (Sahasrara) at the crown of the head. This is a classic internal cosmological alignment toward the heavens.
Yggdrasil is the mythical tree of the world in Norse myth.
The tree Yggdrasill, situated at the Center, symbolizes, and at the same time constitutes, the universe. Its top touches the sky and its branches spread all over the world. Of its three roots, one plunges into the land of the dead (Hel), the second into the realm of the giants, and the third into the world of men. From the time of its emergence (that is, from the time that the world was organized by the gods), Yggdrasill was threatened with ruin: an eagle set out to eat its foliage, its trunk began to rot, and the snake Níðhöggr began gnawing at its roots. On some not distant day, Yggdrasill will fall, and that will be the end of the world (Ragnarök).
Obviously, we have here the well-known image of the Universal Tree, situated at the “center of the world” and connecting the three planes: Heaven, Earth, and Hades…
It could be said that Yggdrasill incarnates the exemplary and universal destiny of existence itself: every mode of existence—the world, the gods, life, men—is perishable and yet capable of rising again at the beginning of a new cosmic cycle.
Part of Germanic-Nordic folk culture, Yggdrasil is an ash tree that traditionally encompasses the “nine realms” and is closely associated with the god Odin. The name seems to mean “Odin’s horse” (i.e. a gallows) and is thought of as the tree upon which Odin (i.e. Óðinn, Wodin, Woden, or Woten) hanged and/or impaled himself as a means to attain enlightenment, bringing forth to mind the cruxifixction of Jesus. And, as mentioned above, the Germanic-Nordic reverence for the tree resulted in the modern Christmas tree, which is essentially a form of the Paradise Tree, or Tree of Knowledge from the Garden of Eden.
Yggdrasil as a cosmic tree represents our cosmological existence. It is fed by three springs or wells in the underworld, symbolizing that spiritual creation and regeneration comes from these realms. A dragon or serpent is constantly nibbling at the root of Niflheim (primordial cold), symbolizing time’s eating away of the root of our tradition, while four stags eat away at the trunk, symbolizing the constant erosion of our present existence. A squirrel named Ratatoskr constantly runs back and forth between the eagle above and the dragon below, relaying messages between heaven and hell. We humans reside in the very center of the trunk in Midgard, or “middle earth.”
Axis Mundi Symbology
All right, that’s plenty enough of the examples. Before I move on, I’ll summarize the components of our cosmology of experience from the top down.
First, we have the divine spirit. This is our guiding principle toward a successful life. It is meant to inspire and aspire too, but is necessarily abstract and unobtainable. Symbols of the divine include:
- Light, particularly if elevated (e.g. beacons, aurora, lamps)
- Sun, moon or stars
- Home to heavenly beings (e.g. birds, angels)
- Other inspirational elements
Next, in order to view the aspirational spirit, or to journey into the unknown, we require a physical connection between divine, human and underworld realms. The axis mundi is the ultimate physical connection between these realms, represented by the following:
- Mountains or hills
- Towers or spires
- Pyramids or temples
- Pillars or plinths
- Ladders or stairs
- Ascending or descending passageways
- Gates or doors
- Bridges or rainbows
- Wind, whirlwinds
- Transcendental portals
- Home to divine, psychopomp messengers (e.g. angels, serpents, Hermes, Ratatoskr)
- Other devices of transference
Finally, the underworlds lay beneath us, hidden from view. They are the source of chaos or creation, or of potential despair or treasure, and so should be approached with both trepidation and hope.
- Darkness, shadows
- Tree roots
- Graves and sepulchres
- Wells, baths
- Primordial (salt) water
- Rivers, lakes, ponds
- Mires, bogs
- Subterranean structures (e.g. dungeons, mines, pits, etc.)
- Natural depressions (e.g. caves, caverns, crevasses, etc.)
- Outside walls
- Unknown territory (i.e. terra incognita or mare incognitum)
- Home to demonic beings (e.g. dragons, serpents, guard dogs, etc)
- Other transgressive elements
Now, let us consider these symbols as we stroll through the World of Ice and Fire for examples of the axis mundi.
At the heart of the godswood, the great white weirwood brooded over its reflection in the black pool, its leaves rustling in a chill wind. When it felt Bran watching, it lifted its eyes from the still waters and stared back at him knowingly.
The obvious analog to Yggdrasil in ASOIAF is the mythical weirwood tree. Lucifer Means Lightbringer makes an especially compelling case that the greenseers in the weirwoods were largely inspired by Odin. Check out his post “Garth of the Gallows”:
It’s easy to see how this mythology has influenced the greenseer wierwood relationship. Bloodraven and the others singers enthroned in the cave are pinioned through by the wierwood roots, for all intents and purposes hung on the tree – only they’re in the underworld part of the tree, instead of hanging from its branches or tied to its trunk. Odin is pinioned to the tree by a spear as well as tied, and Bloodraven is actually pierced through by the snake-like weirwood roots as well as wrapped up in them. As a matter of fact, the idea of a snake or dragon in the roots of Yggdrasil is part of the Yggdrasil mythology… I think you’re going to like this….
We can see what Martin has done – he has taken Odin’s hanging on the world tree Yggdrasil and moved it downstairs, combining it with the idea of the dragon amongst the roots. Thus emerges the picture of a dragon-blooded greenseer hung and pinioned on the tree, but beneath it, in the snake-like roots. He’s sacrificed his physical self to look out of the eyes of a god. And though his body may be trapped beneath, the tree does allow Bloodraven to gain magical awareness of time and space, as Yggdrasil does for Odin.
There is a deliberate corporeal motif going on here, as if the weirwood was a living body stripped of its flesh. The core and smooth bark of the weirwood is described as “bone white.” The leaves are large and flat, consisting of five points and colored “blood red.” Most weirwoods feature unusual faces carved into their trunks, ostensibly by the children of the forest but possibly also by the First Men and other followers of the old gods. The sap is described as frozen blood, especially when pooling in the eyes of these faces. This is a truly creepy tree.
The Wiki of Ice and Fire website describes the weirwood as “deciduous” but the leaves do not appear to fall off in the autumn. In fact the entire tree appears to never fall apart or decay on its own. It merely grows slowly over hundreds and thousands of years.
Time is different for a tree than for a man. Sun and soil and water, these are the things a weirwood understands, not days and years and centuries. For men, time is a river. We are trapped in its flow, hurtling from past to present, always in the same direction. The lives of trees are different. They root and grow and die in one place, and that river does not move them. The oak is the acorn, the acorn is the oak. And the weirwood … a thousand human years are a moment to a weirwood, and through such gates you and I may gaze into the past.
There is no indication that a weirwood ever stops growing either. The size of the oldest ones must be enormous. The tree constructed for the Game of Thrones television series cannot do it justice, particularly as the branches of the heart tree – “standing like some pale giant frozen in time” – can apparently be spied over the 100-foot walls of Winterfell.
In this sense, it departs from Yggdrasil symbolism in that it is not decaying or being consumed and constantly rejuvenated. Weirwoods preserve; they merely abide.
Lucifer Means Lightbringer has rightly compared the expanding red canopy to a burning tree, or an mushroom-cloud explosion. It certainly reaches toward the heavens and mingles with the spirits found in the wind.
Osha studied him. “You asked them and they’re answering. Open your ears, listen, you’ll hear.”
Bran listened. “It’s only the wind,” he said after a moment, uncertain. “The leaves are rustling.”
”Who do you think sends the wind, if not the gods?” She seated herself across the pool from him, clinking faintly as she moved. Mikken had fixed iron manacles to her ankles, with a heavy chain between them; she could walk, so long as she kept her strides small, but there was no way for her to run, or climb, or mount a horse. “They see you, boy. They hear you talking. That rustling, that’s them talking back.”
The tree does not appear to have consciousness in of itself. Rather, it harbours the souls of the old gods, people and children of the forest and who knows what else. These souls are a collective consciousness. The most prominent of these souls are those of the greenseers, who seem to take over the carved faces.
A leaf drifted down from above, brushed his brow, and landed in the pool. It floated on the water, red, five-fingered, like a bloody hand. “… Bran,” the tree murmured.
They know. The gods know. They saw what I did. And for one strange moment it seemed as if it were Bran’s face carved into the pale trunk of the weirwood, staring down at him with eyes red and wise and sad. Bran’s ghost, he thought, but that was madness.
The black pool at the foot of the heart tree represents the realm of the dead, as do the roots. Sacrifices were had at these trees. Bran sees one in his vision —a woman slices a man’s throat at that very spot long ago—and the Starks continue the ritual to the present day.
Catelyn fund her husband beneath the weirwood, seated on a moss-covered stone. The greatsword Ice was across his lap, and he was cleaning the blade in those waters black as night.
The weirwoods relish in the taste of blood, as Bran discovers. Though this is not mentioned, it is could be that sacrifices were also made at these locations via hanging, like the Viking rituals. Evidence in the text also suggests that sacrificial offerings were even burned within the hollow of tree north of the Wall.
Hollow Hills of Westeros
Wizz the Smith, an excellent researcher at the Westeros.org forum, created a classic post on the numerous “hollow hills” found in the ASOIAF universe. I give oodles of credit to the work done on this and referred to it extensively in this next section. If you ever wanted more evidence that Martin is aware of the axis mundi concept, say no more.
The Seats of the Lords Paramount
Every single seat of the major lords of Westeros represents a cosmic tree.
Winterfell was built on the hills around an ancient weirwood topping an immense crypt structure. It is likely that the roots of the weirwood provided the structure of the original crypt, which was later carved out toward the First Keep over thousands of years by the Starks. The peasants believe that a dragon sleeps under the castle accounting for the hot geothermal waters piping through the walls.
The Red Keep in Kings Landing was built with a labyrinth of tunnels and hidden passageways deep into Aegon’s High Hill. The bones of Targaryen dragons can be found in these tunnels. Four levels of dungeons lie beneath the Red Keep, from the lowest of which a man will never again see the sun. Also, the Iron Throne is a giant mass of swords forged into the shape of a horrifying metal tree.
The massive tower of Storm’s End features a hidden seaward cave entrance. We are told that Stannis burned down the castle’s weirwood when he converted to the R’hllorism.
The massive mountain fortress Casterly Rock is mined through with tunnels and caves and features a hidden water gate along the shore. A small godswood there includes a twisted weirwood tree.
The castle at Highgarden was built on a large hill situated over the Mander River. Highgarden’s throne is made from an old oak, while the godswood features three intertwined weirwoods called “the Three Singers.”
Three-sided Riverrun’s towers rest above the junction of the Red Fork and Tumblestone river. A manmade ditch was carved into the landward side, creating a moat while the castle is under siege, while a lower bailed leads the way to the Water Gate on the Tumblestone side.
The Eyrie is near the top of the Giant’s Lance, and is accessed through a winding staircase up through the mountain.
Castle Pyke towers over the stormy seas of the Iron Islands.
The stronghold of Sunspear features the famous Spear Tower and the Tower of the Sun. A black marble pedestal, roughly eight feet high, is notably in the throne room. There is no mention of tunnels beneath the structure, but it is surrounded by the Summer Sea on three sides, while beside the fourth nestles the shadow city, described as “a warren of narrow alleys” and bazaars.
It doesn’t end there. Virtually every other castle in the Seven Kingdoms also fits this pattern.
Oldtown’s Hightower is a, uh, high tower on Battle Island topped by a towering inferno. The foundation is a fused black stone into which a labyrinth of tunnels has been carved.
The Twins’s keeps and bridge are situated directly over the Green Fork river.
At White Harbour, the Manderlys built the New Castle on a hill above the ancient Wolf’s Den keep, which is situated on the White Knife river. Dungeons and passageways scurry underneath the walls and steps between the two structures.
Dungeons notoriously sit below the walls of the Dreadfort, under which Boltons are buried.
Deepwood Motte’s walls enclosed “a wide, rounded hill with a flattened top, crowned by a cavernous longhall with a watchtower on one end, rising fifty feet above the hill.” Also, “beneath the hill was the bailey, with its stables, paddock, smithy, well, and sheepfold…”
Harrenhal – towers, baths, dungeons, a bear pit – definitely qualifies.
Horn Hill, seat of House Tarly, is built on a hill that sits over a pond, which may or may not itself be inside a cavern.
Standfast, featured in The Sworn Sword, is a small holdfast tower underlain by a large, cavernous cellar . The cellar includes a bathing pool.
Barrow Hall, House Dustin’s keep at Barrowton, sits on a high barrow (obviously), said to be the final resting place of the First King of the North. The Barrowlands gains its name from the multitude of these structures in the area.
The Whispers is an abandoned seat above the caverns of Crackclaw Point. Its godswood features a prominent weirwood.
Oldstones, the ancient home of the river kings, sits in ruins atop of a hill overlooking the Blue Form river near High Heart. There is no mention caves or tunnels at this location, but the sepulcher of King Tristifer IV Mudd rests there. The epilogue of A Storm of Swords has Merritt Frey discovering his half-grand-nephew Petyr Pimple hanging at Oldstones, and he soon joins him.
Moat Cailin sits in a bog on the only road to the north. Theon enters one of the towers and finds the stench of death and decay. It’s kinda yucky.
The abandoned holdfast near God’s Eye where Arya and the Night’s Watch recruits sought refuge ended up with both a burning tree and an escape tunnel.
Castle Darry is not very large, but it is temporarily the home of King Robert and his entourage. The tower is called the Plowman’s Keep (shout out to my kin!), while in the cellar, the Darrys have hidden Targaryen dragon tapestries.
Castle Black sits beside the massive ice wall. A switchback stairway and hoist takes you to the top of the Wall. Below, “wormwalks” tunnels connect the buildings and provide storage and travel during the cold winter. It is also home to the castle library. A snake-like tunnel has also been carved through the ice to the north side of the Wall. Ice cells built into the Wall store meat and other perishable materiel. Ancient tombs are located just to the east of the castle.
The Nightfort has a caved-in domed kitchen, through which a young weirwood is growing beside the well. Walking down stairs in the well, a brother of the Night’s Watch may access the Black Gate and go to the north side of the Wall.
A free folk legend tells of the brothers Gendel and Gorne, who led a wildling army through a cave that “was part of a greater chain of caverns that eventually passed beneath the Wall.” This expedition came to a disastrous end. It is possible that the direwolf found by the Stark party at the beginning of AGOT passed through these caverns south of the Wall.
Hills and Mountains
High Heart features a grove of felled weirwoods on a large hill, under which dwells an old woods witch.
Bloodraven’s cave, the cavern home of many greenseers, lies under a massive weirwood on a hill north of the Wall.
The Quiet Isle has a “hermit’s hole” under a hill, where a holy man “worked wonders” at one point in the distant past.
“The Westerlands are a place of rugged hills and rolling plains, of misty dales and craggy shorelines, a place of blue lakes and sparkling rivers and fertile fields, of broadleaf forests that teem with game of every sort, where half-hidden doors in the sides of wooded hills open onto labyrinthine caves that wend their way through darkness to reveal unimaginable wonders and vast treasures deep beneath the earth.”
The Mother of Mountains is the holy mountain beside Vaes Dothrak. Beside it is the lake known as the Womb of the World, where Daenerys Targaryen bathes naked before the dosh khaleen crones proclaim her unborn child to be “The Stallion Who Mounts the World.” The Dothraki believe that the first man on earth was created in the lake and rose out of the water riding a horse.
Cities and Towns
Vaes Tolorro, shown in A Clash of Kings, is an interesting example. The “city of bones” lies in the middle of the Red Waste and acts as a literal crossroads for Daenerys:
How long the city had been deserted she could not know, but the white walls, so beautiful from afar, were cracked and crumbling when seen up close. Inside was a maze of narrow crooked alleys. The buildings pressed close, their facades blank, chalky, windowless. Everything was white, as if the people who lived here had known nothing of color. They rode past heaps of sun-washed rubble where houses had fallen in, and elsewhere saw the faded scars of fire. At a place where six alleys came together, Dany passed an empty marble plinth.
Above the town of Sisterton rises the Night Lamp lighthouse, while in the murky underbelly of the community lurks the Belly of the Whale tavern.
Mole’s Town doesn’t seem like an obvious world tree, but the symbolism is there:
Mole’s Town was bigger than it seemed, but three quarters of it was under the ground, in deep warm cellars connected by a maze of tunnels. Even the whorehouse was down there, nothing on the surface but a wooden shack no bigger than a privy, with a red lantern hung over the door.
The town of Stoney Step was the location of a key battle during Robert’s Rebellion. Bobby B was hiding in the cellars by the smallfolk when the bells in the tower started ringing, bringing him out of hiding.
The free city of Braavos is guarded by a towering titan with a beacon in its eyes. It sits on a maze of lagoon canals. There is too much symbolism to mention here, but we can note the Iron Bank of Braavos built out of an old mine, the Drowned Town that lies on the north end of the lagoon, and the Patternmaker’s Maze, among other attractions.
And yo! check out Maidenpool:
At Maidenpool, Lord Mooton’s red salmon still flew above the castle on its hill, but the town walls were deserted, the gates smashed, half the homes and shops burned or plundered. They saw nothing living but a few feral dogs that went slinking away at the sound of their approach. The pool from which the town took its name, where legend said that Florian the Fool had first glimpsed Jonquil bathing with her sisters, was so choked with rotting corpses that the water had turned into a murky grey-green soup.
Other Cosmic Structures
The Great Pyramid of Meereen is the (hopefully) temporary home of Queen Daenerys. Her residences is just below the top level, which features a persimmon tree and a pool. Deep below is a dark dungeon that is home to two dragons.
Then there’s Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre, with the flame above and the sacrificial altar of Mirri Maz Duur below.
The image of the stormlands from the Arienne chapter of The Winds of Winter includes a cavern featuring “a forest of stone columns” with faces carved into them by the children of the forest. The cavern lies under a rainforest with immense trees.
There’s a place called the White Wood in the Riverlands that overlays a hollow hill.
The House of Black and White fits this motif to a T:
The knoll on which the temple stood was honeycombed with passageways hewn from the rock. The priests and acolytes had their sleeping cells on the first level, Arya and the servants on the second. The lowest level was forbidden to all save the priests. That was where the holy sanctum lay…
Oh, and there is also Ygg, the “legendary demon tree who fed on human flesh.” The Grey King was said to have carved the first longship from Ygg’s hard pale wood.
The Forsaken Tree
One of my favorite examples occurs in the Forsaken sample chapter of TWOW. Here, Martin shows us several underworld realms (“It was always midnight in the belly of the beast”) where Aeron Damphair is being kept captive by Euron.
On his ship the Silence, Euron hangs a lamp on a pole above Aeron, who is forced to drink shade of the evening. The induced psychedelic episode envisions Euron sitting first on a mound of skulls and then on a demonic version of the Iron Throne.
Also in this chapter, “saltwater sloshed about his legs” in a dungeon of another castle, this one near the Arbor. Aeron is then taken by Euron’s mutes from the darkness, up a spiral staircase, and glimpses a beautiful shaft of sunlight, and then enters a high-ceiling hall with bodies hanging from the rafters.
After this, Aeron and other priests are tied to the wooden prows of Euron’s ships over the salt water as the castle begins to burn.
Euron is Odin.
Symbologist and icon carver Jonathan Pageau delivers an excellent explanation on the ontological hierarchy — heaven, earth and hell — and the cosmic tree’s role in connecting these realms.
Go way back to the beginning of Genesis, and you see how the story of our existence starts with an empty void of chaos and darkness called “the deep,” as represented by the primordial water. God creates light and then the firmament (the heavens), which separated the waters above and the waters below. On the waters below the firmament, the earth was created. Boom, there’s your ontological order.
Pageau references St. Ephrem the Syrian and his description of this cosmic order in his Hymns on Paradise. Ephrem describes the Garden of Eden as being on top of a mountain. The Tree of Life is at the summit, while a bit further down is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Lower still is the wall all around the garden, upon sits the cherub holding a flaming sword. Outside the wall is the unknown, inhabited by strangers who represent death and rebirth. The unknown could be danger but it could also be the source of creation. One must venture into the dark depths of the unknown to gain enlightenment, or sometimes even to survive.
In this sense, the Fall of Man is a descent from the apex of the mountain. As an example, Cain takes Abel to the plain—down the mountain and into the unknown—to kill him.
Pageau explains further that Noah’s ark is symbolized as a sarcophagus in iconography, as is the mouth of the Jonah’s fish, which becomes the mouth of hell. It is also the bottom of the ladder of divine ascent.
When the Israelites encounter the Red Sea in Exodus, a great wind from the east blows in from the top of the mountain. The wind opens the sea and reveals dry land from under the sea of chaos. The Israelites travel on the dry ground to freedom while the Egyptians get caught in the chaos when the sea returns.
This motif is repeated time and time again in the Bible. For example, Jacob’s chosen one — Joseph — descends into a cistern, goes into the land of the foreigner. Daniel descends into the lion’s den. Jonah is thrown into waters by foreign sailors before being swallowed by a great fish.
The motif of the stranger is also important. This foreigner is a duality, both an image of chaos and of resurrection. One encounters the Other while travelling through a strange land, placing oneself at extreme risk of becoming a stranger in one’s own right. It’s the story of personal transformation.
This journey is expressed in Psalm 69:
Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
I am become a stranger unto my brethren, and an alien unto my mother’s children.
Deliver me out of the mire, and let me not sink: let me be delivered from them that hate me, and out of the deep waters.
Let not the waterflood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up, and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me.
Or take Jesus’s baptism. He comes out of water, the spirit descends from above, and the voice of God comes from heaven. In iconography, Christ is the bridge between heaven and earth, as he emerges from the water, his head above the river Jordan. Versions of the baptism icon even has him at the doors of Hades, or even in a cave.
Pageau says, “It’s a vision of how the entire creation participates in the Incarnation.” He notes that at the bottom of the baptism icon, there is often a sea receding from the feet of God. The sea is fleeing Him. It’s the guise of the ancient river gods, fleeing the presence of Christ.
(This might be why immortal Olympian gods, even Zeus, feared the wrath of the river gods. They represent the Chaos that continually threatens the order of authority and competence represented by the Olympians.)
It also adds resonance to Jesus walking on the water, standing on top of the chaos and pulling out Peter—the rock—toward the heavenly spirit, just as God pulled the earth out of the primordial waters in Genesis.
Jordan B Peterson tells us that the cross is the centre of the world, where each individual is. It is a tragic place where one is exposed to tragic suffering. This is why it is Christianity’s most sacred symbol. It’s the very heart of who we are as persons and our residence at the crossroads between heaven and hell. It is an acknowledgement that we are in a position to interchange between both realms simultaneously and repeatedly.
That said, it’s important to know that the primordial chaos is not something to be avoided at all costs. It requires a connection to your being as well as to the divine spirit. The underworld is the source of creation matter. It is fraught with peril but it is an inevitability in life, and so must be experienced from time to time. The greatest danger is to become lost in this depression, never finding your way back again. Thus, we need this center of the world to both experience tragic suffering but continually guide us back to the light.
I relied heavily on the Christian interpretation of the axis mundi for this essay, but that’s more a matter of convenience than anything. I grew up in the Judeo-Christian tradition and am familiar with its stories and motifs, but this exercise could have likely been done from the Norse tradition, or through the Ancient Greek cosmology, or any number of global or local cultural beliefs. The tree or a version thereof exists in all.
And this just isn’t an abstract concept either; we truly experience the world this way. We look to the skies for inspiration, and we fear the unknown below. When we’re happy, we walk with our chins up and shoulders back; when in depression, we carry ourselves lower.
But sometimes going deep is a good thing. We need to tear ourselves down and rebuild our conceptions of the world from time to time, as individuals and as societies, in order to revive our chances at survival. The key is to not lose sight of the spirit that guides our path. We cannot neglect the inherent wisdom and order which has gotten us thus far. Our suffering and impending death defines our experience, but it is the spirit of our ancestors and our culture that gives us our suffering meaning.
Therefore, we need to climb up and down that tree, like the angelic messengers, or Ratatoskr the squirrel, moving back and forth, between the two realms, to find our path. Jung calls this the circumambulation, with the navel of the world at our center.
I suspect that this is what is meant by the “theta” or “phi” symbol we see popping up everywhere in the “Game of Thrones” show.
Tell me that phi-shape isn’t a pillar with a circular path around it.
This perspective ties in nicely with the tragic Ice and Fire relationship. It’s the union of two diametrically opposed elements, one no more necessary than the other. It seems that there is an imbalance occurring, signified by the erratic seasons and the seemingly magical properties we see with ice and fire motifs.
It’s obvious Martin is aware of this connection and has symbolized it repeated throughout the text. It’s a fundamental component of his theme. He’s been getting us all worked up on the Others and what their plan is when, really, it’s a story about internal conflicts, or societal conflicts, that require the characters to die and be reborn again (or, in the case of Beric Dondarrion, again and again and again and again…). These characters need to be transformed before they can confront the icy death white-walking oh-so-slowly to the south.
And to do this, they require an alignment with the spirit. The weirwoods might help with this regard.
But for us, we can stick with our Christmas tree.