The idea of things having a centre is one that is psychologically important to us and which allows us to orientate ourselves in relationship to it. English villages were once built around a central green and towns around the market cross, while sprawling conurbations still have a ‘town centre’. We recognise other centres in our everyday lives: the navel is the centre of our bodies; our homes are the centre of our lives. According to Nigel Pennick, Pat Collins, the King of the Showmen, used to stamp his heel into the ground to mark out the geomantic centre of the fairground where the main ride, usually a carousel, would be situated with the rest of the amusements laid out around it. This sense of finding the centre was so important that when he died and was to be buried in a newly consecrated extension to the graveyard, his son walked the area, stamping his heel into its geomantic centre, and declared that his father should be buried on that spot.[i]
The concept that the manifest world has a sacred centre, a foundation point where it connects to the upper and lower world, goes back to at least Neolithic times, and is virtually pan-global: “As the individual’s spirit is centralised in the body, and the body has a physical location, so the world’s spirit was thought of as centralised at a fixed point.” [ii]
Every nation has believed, at some point in its history, that it occupied that centre of the world, that its people were the original people or ‘chosen race’. The centre of the world was understood to be a place of particular spiritual energies where the commonplace world was closest to the upper and lower realms. A rock or pillar marked the spot, and through this the world was connected to those domains; in other words, this was where the cosmic axis penetrated the earth. At noon, on the summer solstice, the sun stood directly above the pillar and cast no shadow, thus ‘proving’ it was the centre of the world. [iii]
For the Greeks, the sacred centre was the Omphalos at Delphi. For the Babylonians it was Eridu where the sky god Anu first created humans from clay. The Islamic text Midrash Tanhuma stated that just as a human being had a central naval, so Israel lay at the middle of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre of Israel, with the Temple at its heart, and the Ark at the centre of the Temple, while the foundation stone in front of the Ark was the foundation stone of all the world. The latter was the Dome of the Rock from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. In Christian lore the centre is Golgotha, founded on Adam’s skull and the place where Jesus was crucified. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is now built there and its summit is kissed by pilgrims. The centre of the Jewish world is nearby, the Rock of Foundation on the Temple Mount, which is meant to be the naval of creation, the first solid point God made.[iv] In the mediaeval period, Jerusalem was also thought to be the sacred centre of the world and early maps, such as the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral, show Jerusalem as the hub, with the other known countries laid out around it.
Every Celtic country had its own sacred centre. For the Hebrideans, it was Iona. The Manx centre was at Keeill Abban, situated in the middle of the island where the north-south axis crosses the east-west axis. [v]. The earliest monument there is the Tynwald Mound alongside the Royal Road. Originally there may have been a Pagan temple on the site now occupied by St Luke’s Church
In Ireland it was Tara, situated in the region of Midhe (‘Middle’), the royal heart incorporating the Lia Fail, the Stone of Density, used for the coronation of the High Kings of Ireland. The kings met there every Beltane at a natural outcrop now known as Aill na Mireann, but probably earlier as Carraig Choithrigi (‘the Stone of Divisions’), which is situated near earthworks on the Hill of Uisnech, the actual geographical mid-point of Ireland.
No such clear evidence exists for the use of a sacred centre in England, though one tale does imply that it was once extremely important. In the Celtic tale of Llud and Llevelys, King Llud was instructed to overcome the difficulties facing his kingdom by measuring the land to find the exact mid-point, where he would find two dragons fighting. When he did this and found the dragons, the problems were solved.
In 1941 Sir Charles Arden-Close, director general of the Ordnance Survey, located it on the Watling Street four miles ESE of Atherstone, between the villages of Higham-on-the-Hill and Caldecote. However, a stone cross in Meriden claims to mark the exact centre of England, though the monument was moved two hundred years ago by a few yards. At the Bulls Head pub there is a brass plaque on the floor inscribed with an eye, a target and crossed arrows (the village was a legendary haunt of Robin Hood) which is also said to mark the middle of England. It was made by Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s.[vi]
For the Romans, the centre of England was a few miles away at Venonae, the modern High Cross where the old Roman roads of the Fosse Way and the Watling Street cross, five miles south of Hinckley. There is a monument there, in very poor condition, in the garden of a house set back from the road. It was erected in 1712 but was struck by lightening in 1791. Before that, there was a monument with four arms erected in 1640 by Anthony Flaunt of Claybrooke. The site lies on the boundary of Leicestershire and Warwickshire, and wrestling matches between youths of the rival counties took place there until the middle of the eighteenth century.
With a revival of interest in sacred centres amongst Pagans and earth-mystery enthusiasts in the 1980s, many efforts were made to identify the geomantic sacred centre of England. As well as the above, another suggestion includes Dunstable, which lies at the crossing of the Roman roads the Watling Street and Icknield Way. The four streets of the town were named after the four cardinal directions.[vii]
The Omphalos- the Navel Stone
The Greek word omphalos means ‘navel’. The navel is obviously the centre of the body, but it is also the place by which we are attached to the nourishment of the mother while in the womb. The Omphalos Stone stood at Delphi. Delphys means ‘vagina’ [viii] suggesting this is the place where the Goddess gave birth to the world. Omphalos stones marked the hub of the world in various cultures, giving us an image of the sacred centre attaching us to the primal source of the Goddess as the creatrix at the core of creation. Omphaloi are usually near a well, cave or natural cleft in the earth, giving access to the underworld womb of the Goddess and its oracular powers. From the omphalos the four rivers of paradise are said to flow out, the source of all goodness, perhaps identified with local springs or streams.
Several other naval stones are known, and some of them were said to be meteoric black stones, fallen from the sky and thus creating a link between the earth and heaven. [ix] Numerous standing stones in the British Isles are reputed to have fallen from the stars. The now-lost Star Stone marked the meeting of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. An also-vanished stone at Grimston, Leicestershire, was also said to have such an origin. [x]
Meteoric stones were used as representative of the Goddess in the ancient world. One such is the Ka’bah at Mecca which stands in the centre court of the Great Mosque. It was originally a shrine of Al’Lat (‘Goddess’) where she was served by seven priestesses, representing the seven known planets (pilgrims still circle the stone seven times). Nearby is an ever-flowing well, an image of the Goddess as giver of life. [xi] The setting crescent moon, an ancient symbol of the Goddess, still appears in the national flags of many Islamic nations.
Goddesses of other cultures were also associated with stones. The earliest form of Cybele’s name may have been Kubaba meaning either ‘cube’, ‘a hollow vessel’ or ‘cave’. The ideograms for Kubaba in the Hittite alphabet are a lozenge or cube, a double-headed axe, a dove, a vase and a door or gate – all images of the Goddess in Neolithic Europe. [xii] Aphrodite was said to have come ashore on Cyprus after her birth in the foam. She was represented by a black stone which can still be seen at the museum close by her temple. Astarte was represented by a stone at Byblos and Artemis of Ephesus by a sculpture carved from a black meteorite.
Chiefs and kings were installed at the world rock, giving them the power to speak from the gods. This was certainly true of the Lia Fail (‘Stone of Destiny’) at Tara and the various ‘king stones’ (such as Kingston upon Thames) where medieval English kings were crowned. British monarchs are still crowned on the Stone of Scone. In Celtic lore, a footprint was carved into the upper surface of a rock at the place of installation, and it only fitted the foot of each rightful king. Such an indentation, known as ‘the giant’s footprint’, can be seen near Boscawen-un circle in Cornwall, a place of gorsedd or law giving mentioned in the Welsh triads. The power of the king was drawn from the sacred centre, which was also regarded as the birthplace of the tribe. If he was a good king, and ‘straight’, the land prospered, if he was ‘crooked’, it failed, and battles were lost.
The centre of the city of London was once believed to have been the London Stone, an insignificant rock now housed behind a grating in Cannon Street, but once the old Roman Terminus, sacred to Jupiter, the stone that stood at the centre of every Roman city where the main axis of the north-south road crossed the east-west road.
Bob Trubshaw wrote about Croft Hill as a possible English omphalos, an idea first mooted in the nineteenth century by T.L. Walker, who suggested it as the British Druidic centre equivalent to the omphalos of the ancient Gauls on the River Loire.[xiii] The River Soar flows through the village of Croft, corresponding to the stream said to flow beside the navel, while the hill itself has an ancient and interesting history. Croft Hill is mentioned in a land grant by King Wiglaf of the Mercians in 836 CE, while the Mercian Court met at Croft Hill, giving it credibility as a central law-giving place. In the Domesday Book it is recorded as Crebre, or Crec, one of the few Celtic names in the area, from bre meaning hill and cre from cræft meaning a rotating machine, i.e. a mill. It is recorded as being held by Ralph,
“…with 4 ½ carucates of land and one bovate. In the demesne is one plough and two slaves, eight villains with one sokeman, four bordars have two ploughs. There is a mill rendering 4s and twelve acres of meadow.”
The hill itself is quartz-rich granite and much of it has been quarried away, with extraction beginning in Roman times. It is steeped in local legends with various UFO sightings and earth-lights witnessed. The low hills nearby are called ‘Shepherd’s Tables’, where it is said herders gathered on Old May Day to sing and celebrate the turning out of their animals into the summer pastures. Trubshaw speculated that as Shepherd’s Race was a name sometimes given to turf labyrinths, this perhaps indicated a ritual pathway up this hill, like the spiral path up Glastonbury Tor. It is one of the places where I work; indeed, it was instrumental in my own shamanic initiation. It is a brooding presence in the otherwise low landscape, a place of many moods, changing dramatically with the seasons. Sometimes it is welcoming, at others inhospitable when it would not be wise to stay; people the genius locus doesn’t like are quickly discouraged and feel obliged to leave. There is definitely a correct way to approach the hill and to climb it, with pockets of different energies which sometimes must be visited in turn.
The Mountain at the Centre of the World
Certain mountains are regarded as abodes of the gods, places where the human can approach the high realm of spirit. Moreover, the mountain considered to be the centre of the world held a special place in myth and shamanic practice. This ‘cosmic mountain’ was given different names in different cultures. The Egyptians knew it as the Primordial Mound, the Israelites as Sinai or Zion, and the Greeks as Olympus or Parnassus. The Hindus called the divine peak Meru or Sumeru, the Chinese Kun-lun, Sung-shan, or Bu-zhou, the Icelanders Himinbjörg, the Aztec Colhuacan, and the Choctaw Nunne Chaha.
In Black Elk Speaks, Black Elk described becoming sick before a shaman came and adapted him to the gods, and also the powers he encountered. He had prophetic visions of the future of his tribe and saw himself on the central mountain ‘which is everywhere’, the cosmic axis, the point where stillness and movement, time and eternity are together. He commented “God’s centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere”.[xiv]
The idea of the world arising from a central mound occurs in several cultures which reproduced it in man-made structures and temples. The Egyptian pyramids may be reproductions of the primordial mound, and during the Ptolemaic Period, every temple was considered to be a replica of the original temple which had been built upon the prehistoric mound after it had emerged from Nun, the primeval waters. In ancient Sumer, the innermost sanctuary of the temple was sometimes referred to as the ‘holy mound’, and was again seen as the mound which first arose out of the abyss.
[i] Nigel Pennick, pers comm.
[ii] Nigel Pennick, The Ancient Science of Geometry, Thames and Hudson, 1979
[iii] John Michell, At the Centre of the World, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994
[vii] Bob Trubshaw, The Quest for the Omphalos, Heart of Albion Press, Wymeswold, 1991
[xiii] Bob Trubshaw, The Quest for the Omphalos, Heart of Albion Press, Wymeswold, 1991
[xiv] John G. Neihardt Black Elk Speaks, Pocket Books, 1982