A wampeter is a concept invented by the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, which he used as part of the title of his collection of short writings, Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons (Opinions), published in 1974.
The following is Vonnegut's own explanation of a wampeter, along with two other concepts from his fictional religion, Bokononism:
Dear Reader: The title of this book is composed of three words from my novel Cat's Cradle. A "wampeter" is an object around which the lives of many otherwise unrelated people may revolve. The Holy Grail would be a case in point. "Foma" are harmless untruths, intended to comfort simple souls. An example: "Prosperity is just around the corner." A "granfalloon" is a proud and meaningless association of human beings. Taken together, the words form as good an umbrella as any for this collection of some of the reviews and essays I've written, a few of the speeches I made.
Vonnegut makes other references to the wampeter, in several verses from his "Books of Bokonon:"
No karass is without a wampeter, just as no wheel is without a hub.
This may be better understood by knowing Vonnegut's definition of a karass, a concept which is borne a close resemblance by the "Ka-tet" of Stephen King's series of Dark Tower novels:
a team that do God's Will without ever discovering what they are doing.
The two following passages are also indicated in context to refer to wampeters:
Around and around and around we spin,
with feet of lead and wings of tin...
Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from god.
A wampeter is elsewhere called "the pivot of a karass, around which the souls of the members of the karass revolve," and it is said that a karass has two wampeters at any time, one waxing and one waning.
The Last Rites of Bokononism also make reference to the wampeter:
I will go to heaven now.
I can hardly wait...
To find out for certain what my wampeter was...
And who was in my karass...
And all the good things our karass did for you.
With these primary statements by the author as our guide, we can attempt to guess some real-world wampeters. The Holy Grail is a highly expressive example: in the quest for the Grail, the Knights of the Round Table perform many incidental benevolent acts in the world, and they recruit many other individuals into taking benevolent action under the auspices of the Grail quest.
Real-world examples of wampeters might include flags and other symbols or icons, documents such as a Constitution or manifesto, myths or folk stories, or even people who a karass all regard as a figurehead or representative of their cause. They might also be said to include major catastrophic events affecting large numbers of people who are not typically found in the same location as one another, such as airplane crashes, or natural disasters which occur at tourist destinations, but this interpretation is reliant on regarding an event as an object. This interpretation is only justifiable if the ultimate consequences of these events were that the people affected went on to "perform God's will" in the world somehow. A wampeter is not stated by Vonnegut to be something which must empirically exist as a tangible phenomenon, so abstractions which oversimplify the nature of a problem, such as "a cure for cancer" or "saving the environment" might very well be wampeters.
Iron Noder 2020, 4/30