The Man Who Climbs the Tree of the World

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The man who dealt with fundamental activities, such as tracking the annual solar cycle, monitoring the cycles of the night stars, or establishing the cardinal axes and their center, wielded enormous power (Krupp 1997a). Sometimes power was concentrated in the same person who held temporal power, as in Palenque, and sometimes the two figures remained distinct. From an ethnographic point of view, it is tempting to identify the holder of spiritual power with the figure of the shaman.

The word shaman originated among the Tungu, a people of eastern Siberia, and was coined in the 17th century. I am not sure that the designer of Newgrange and the author of the Dresden Codex would be happy to be labeled shamans, and perhaps we should describe them in a different way. One possibility would be to follow Mackie's definition of astronomer-priests, but admittedly one advantage to using the word shaman is that it is rooted in the real world.

The shaman (usually male, although the shaman may be a woman in some communities) is the custodian of the celestial cycles and of the calendar, and an intermediary between the human level and other levels (the gods and the spirits). He directs the rhythms of rites and celebrations, and is in a sense responsible of the cyclical renewal of nature. Consequently, this figure is nearly always linked, more or less explicitly, with knowledge of astronomy. But this self-proclaimed rapport with the skies goes much deeper: he believes (or pretends to) that he is able to open doors through which the two levels can communicate, and he often sets himself up as the only intermediary through whom such communication is possible.

One of the main experts on shamanism is the historian Mircea Eliade (1959, 1982), from whose work I shall cite a classic example, taken from the Turco-Altaic populations of central Asia. For these people the sky is the kingdom of the God Bai-Ulgan, and it is divided into nine levels, each of which is assigned to a sister of the God. This kingdom is visited by the shaman on a mystic flight, to which the iconography of a duck is related. During the flight (in a trance state, see below), the shaman imitates the duck's call. A birch pole carved with nine notches is placed at the center of the shaman's tent and represents the Tree of the World. As it is the central axis of the world, the tree is the ideal extension of the polar axis, and it is in fact the part of it that passes through the center, through the umbilicus of the world. By means of a simple stick with nine notches, then, the human plane is transformed into an image, a replica, of the cosmos, and the shaman's tent is the heavenly vault, the point at which the axis passes into the earth is the center of the world; in a way this provides certainty that the world exists and can thus be inhabited, and one can be certain of living in the right place.

This link with the axis of the world is therefore central to the shaman's living iconography. Shamans usually carry a wooden stick, sometimes topped with a carved symbol, often a bird. The stick symbolizes the axis, the same axis that anyone could trace by stretching an arm out to the celestial north pole, but one that only he can pass along, often represented by a one-legged being—as in the recess of Lascaux (Chapter 1) or in the astronomical ceiling of Senmut (Chapter 4) (Rappenglueck 1999).

The axis of the world is what allows the existence of directions, the breaking of spatial homogeneity, and is thus crucial for man's very survival. For example, for the Achilpa, an Australian tribe, the world was founded by a divine being who after creating order ("cosmizing") and creating their ancestors, made himself a pole out a rubber tree, scaled the pole into the sky, and disappeared. The pole is the axis of the world, and the Achilpa always carry it with them. Eliade says that they decide the direction to be taken according to its inclination. Certainly, carrying the axis of the world around all the time is what enables them to move, and legend has it that a group of Achilpa whose pole broke left themselves to die.

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