In efforts to represent the basic structure of the cosmos, the same shapes are used universally: the circle for Earth and the universe, the square for the arrangement of space and an axis as the center of Earth. In this center are the world tree, the world mountain, Paradise or a meteorite. Here emerges man, who must restore contact between heaven and earth and quadrate the circle.
Again, duplication is central: man preferably creates (ideal) scale models of the universe: bowls, mandalas, Greek coins, mosaics, Persian carpets. On the one hand this gives man the illusion of controlling the chaos, but, on the other hand, the sense that he lives in a model ruled by a higher power. Insight interweaves with veneration.
Practically all traditional cultures recognize one or more holy axes connecting heaven and earth. Manifestations could be a world tree such as Norse cosmogony's Yggdrasill, or a square tower such as the Babylonian E-Temen-An-Ki, or Nimrod's round tower in Babel (perhaps this is the same tower).
Usually the axis mundi is situated on a mountain as a prop for the heavens. Examples of holy mountains are the one in the Garden of Eden (Ezekiel 28:16), Mount Meru, Mount Tabor, Mount Zion and Golgotha where, some believe, Adam is buried under the cross.
The roots of the world tree on the Icelandic shaman's drum are in the underworld, while the tree grows through the inhabited earth to the divine spheres.
The oceans and continents are arranged in circles around the world mountain. In Sanskrit the cosmogram is called mandala, circle or disk. The mandala as a means to meditate on man's place in the universe is used not only in India but also by Buddhists. Monks make mandalas out of sand wherein each line and color has a specific meaning. Once completed, the mandala is erased.
In the famous mandala of the Nepalese Vasudhara the goddess is in the center of the celestial palace of the God of the Universe. Three circles and a square represent the universe. The square has four gates and is divided into four triangles that refer to the cosmic directions, the elements and the visible and invisible traits of the divinity in the center.
Mandalas are tools for meditation: mystical truths are depicted in geometrical forms; and, conversely, knowledge obtains a mystical value. They point to the four cardinal directions as well as to the inert center. In this way they express stillness and the passing of time.
In the Tibetan Lamaism cosmogram the five elements rotate in a sea of fire, depicted by circles of light. These circles expand until they fill the interspace, after which the four continents and the subcontinents emerge out of the primordial sea. Meru, the world mountain, rises to heaven in five stages of increasing width; the unfolded diagram implies the third dimension.
The World Turtle
In prints from India we can see Mount Meru in the middle of the disk of Earth which rests on four elephants, themselves standing on a cosmic turtle. The World Turtle appears in Hindu, Buddhist and even Native American cosmologies. The elephants support Earth under the compass points. They cause earthquakes when they move.
Ziggurats in ancient Mesopotamia and the Borobudur in Indonesia also support the heavens. These temples are not only world axes (axis mundi) but also a scale model of the world (imago mundi); their seven stories refer to the world's seven heavens.
Arab and Japanese gardens are attempts to bring order into nature's chaos. The garden reflects the personal relationship between the individual, the community and the cosmos. Every garden, and even every garden carpet, rolled out on desert sand, can reflect paradise. (Conversely, heaven may be rolled up at the end time. Revelation 6:14)
In the cosmogram of the Mexican Aztecs the circle and the square are evident. A cross surrounded by the four perished worlds (destroyed in a catastrophe) and the present world in the center are occupied by the god Tezcatlipoca; he was celebrated in May and was associated with the night sky, storms, the north, the Earth, conflict, temptation, jaguars, sorcery, beauty, war and obsidian. The four ancient worlds are arranged around a world tree with two branches of two twigs each; a bird of heaven perches at its top, while the first humans stand right and left. The trees function as compass points with east at the top.
According to the Maya religion, the apocalypse exists of four phases. In the first, the world will be consumed by flames; in the second it will be ravaged by water; in the third by wind (hurricanes). But in the fourth it will be destroyed by jaguars (the stars in the sky take on the form of jaguars who pounce onto Earth and devour the human race).