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This classic explores the symbolism of classical architecture. A milestone in relating mysticism to design, it shows the correlation between mythology and the design of St. Paul's Cathedral, the Taj Mahal, the Palace of Versailles, and other architectural masterpieces. This delightful book describes the symbolism of real-world architecture, as well as architecture described in fiction, myth and folklore. Lethaby believed that architecture reflected the macrocosm. He speculated that many of the seemingly ornamental details of classical buildings actually represented aspects of the land, the sea and the sky. This is one of those books like the Golden Bough or the White Goddess (albeit shorter and a less challenging read) that will turn you on to the mythopoetic side of reality, no matter whether you agree with its conclusions.
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By W.R. Lethaby
'Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images, that have been previously gathered and deposited in the memory: nothing can come of nothing: he who has laid up no materials can produce no combinations.'—REYNOLDS, Discourse II.
THE history of architecture, as usually written, with its theory of utilitarian origins from the hut and the tumulus, and further developments in that way—the adjustment of forms to the conditions of local circumstance; the clay of Mesopotamia, the granite of Egypt, and marble of Greece—is rather the history of building: of 'Architecture' it may be, in the sense we so often use the word, but not the Architecture which is the synthesis of the fine arts, the commune of all the crafts.
As the pigments are but the vehicle of painting, so is building but the vehicle of architecture, which is the thought behind form, embodied and realised for the purpose of its manifestation and transmission. Architecture, then, interpenetrates building, not for satisfaction of the simple needs of the body, but the complex ones of the intellect. I do not mean that we can thus distinguish between architecture and building, in those qualities in which they meet and overlap, but that in the sum and polarity of them all; these point to the response of future thought, those to the satisfaction of present need; and so, although no hut or mound, however early or rude, but had something added to it for thought's sake, yet architecture and building are quite clear and distinct as ideas—the soul and the body.
Of the modes of this thought we must again distinguish; some were unconscious and instinctive, as the desire for symmetry, smoothness, sublimity, and the like merely æsthetic qualities, which properly enough belong to true architecture; and others were direct and didactic, speaking by a more or less perfect realisation, or through a code of symbols, accompanied by traditions which explained them. The main purpose and burthen of sacred architecture—and all architecture, temple, tomb, or palace, was sacred in the early days—is thus inextricably bound up with a people's thoughts about God and the universe.
Behind every style of architecture there is an earlier style, in which the germ of every form is to be found; except such alterations as may be traced to new conditions, or directly innovating thought in religion, all is the slow change of growth, and it is almost impossible to point to the time of invention of any custom or feature. As Herbert Spencer says of ceremonial generally: 'Adhering tenaciously to all his elders taught him, the primitive man deviates into novelty only through unintended modifications. Every one now knows that languages are not devised but evolve; and the same is true of usages.' It has, rightly, been the habit of historians of architecture to lay stress on the differences of the several styles and schools of successive ages, but; in the far larger sense, all architecture is one, when traced back through the stream of civilisations, as they followed or influenced one another. For instance, argue as archæologists may, as to whether the columns at Beni Hassan are rightly called proto-Doric, it is a fact to be read as in an open book, that a Greek temple and an Egyptian temple are substantially at one, when we consider the infinite possibilities of form, if disassociated from tradition.
It has often been pointed out, how early examples of stone construction still repeat the forms of the manner of building in wood that went before, and so is it always. How long the steamship retained survivals of the sailing vessel, and how the vocabulary of the coachroad still answers for the railway.
What then, I want to ask, are the ultimate facts behind all architecture which has given it form? Mainly three: First, the similar needs and desires of men; secondly, on the side of structure, the necessities imposed by materials, and the physical laws of their erection and combination; and thirdly, on the side of style, nature. It is of this last that I propose to write; the influence of the known and imagined facts of the universe on architecture, the connection between the world as a structure, and the building, not of the mere details of nature and the ornaments of architecture, but of the whole—the Heavenly Temple and the Earthly Tabernacle. 'Has anyone,' says Mr Lillie in his "Buddhism in Christendom," 'puzzled over the fact, that the only modern representative of the initiates of the ancient mysteries should occupy themselves entirely with the business of the hodman and builder; what is the connection between the kingdom of heaven, and matter of fact mortar, tee-squares and trowels? Esoteric masonry occupied itself in reality, with a temple built without sound of hammer, axe, or tool of iron. It was the temple of the skies, the Macrocosmos, in point of fact.'
It will be necessary, not only to examine architecture in the monuments, but the contemporary statements which relate to them, the stories about buildings, and even the mythology of architecture, for such a mythology there is.
If we trace the artistic forms of things, made by man, to their origin, we find a direct imitation of nature. The thought behind a ship is the imitation of a fish. So to the Egyptians and Greeks the 'Black Ship' bore traces of this descent, and two eyes were painted at the prow. The custom still lingers on the Mediterranean and on the waters of China: the eyes are given, it is said, to enable the ship to see its way over the pathless sea. Tables and chairs, like the beasts, are quadrupeds; the lion's leg and foot of modern furniture come to us from the Greeks, and, earlier, they were used in Assyria and Egypt. Thrones had beasts on either hand, a custom traditionally followed for thrones, Hittite, Chaldean, or Hindu, that of Solomon, the imperial throne at Constantinople, or our own Coronation chair. The Egyptian funeral bier seems like a joke, so frank and unmodified is the imitation: it looks, as shown on the mummy cases, like a long, flat-backed lion, tail and all; the example preserved in the Boulak Museum, has the ordinary parallelogram of a bed, each leg being a lion's leg; a head is attached to the middle of the front rail, and a tail, like a pump handle, projects far behind in a great sweeping curve.
Where else, indeed, should we go for the highest imagination? In the modern Greek folk stories, the hero usually has three marvellous robes; one embroidered with the heavens and its stars, the second with the sea and fish swimming there, the third with the earth in May and all its flowers. Could anyone produce finer designs?
The commonplaces of poetry, in which the world is likened to a building, 'heavenly vaults,' or 'azure domes,' 'gates of sunrise,' and the rest, are survivals of a time when the earth was not a tiny ball, projected at immeasurable speed through infinite space, one, among other fireflies of the night, but was stable and immovable, the centre of the universe, the floor on which the sky was built. The whole, a chamber lighted by the sun, moon, and stars.
The ceremonial of religion during the great building ages in Chaldea, Egypt, and India, was going through the phase of Nature worship, in which the sky, the sun, the sea were not so much veiled, as afterwards to the Greeks, until they became persons, not things; but open and understood, astronomical observation was closely associated as part of the cultus.
In all this there is enough to dispose us to receive evidence of a cosmical symbolism in the buildings of the younger world, and we shall find that the intention of the temple (speaking of the temple idea, as we understand it) was to set up a local reduplication of the temple not made with hands, the World Temple itself—a sort of model to scale, its form governed by the science of the time; it was a heaven, an observatory, and an almanack. Its foundation was a sacred ceremony, the time carefully chosen by augury, and its relation to the heavens defined by observation. Its place was exactly below the celestial prototype; like that it was sacred, like that strong, its foundations could not be moved, if they were placed foursquare to the walls of the firmament, as are still our churches—and was it not to be like the heavenly sanctuary, that Solomon built the temple without the sound of tool?
I do not necessarily claim that this was the origin of all structures set apart for a purpose in a sense sacred; nor possibly in every case was this the first interpretation of some of the symbols. Customs have many explanations. I claim that, given the idea of a universe and universe gods, the phase here set out was a necessary one; and as this stage certainly everywhere preceded the age, when works, worthy the name of architecture, were produced—buildings which enshrined ideas—it is here we shall find the formative factor in their design. And for this there is ample authority; De la Saussaye, in his comprehensive 'Manual of the Science of Religion' (1891), says 'the symbolism of temple buildings sometimes seems to refer to the structure of the world, sometimes to the religious relationship of men to the gods.'
Beginning with the form of the world in the first chapter, the three or four which follow, deal with the relation of the building to it as a whole, and the rest with parts and details.
We need not suppose that temples were a sum of these symbols in all cases, if in any; but that from this common book of architecture, each took what he would, little or much, sometimes openly, sometimes with more or less translation, sometimes at first hand, often as a half-remembered tradition.
The ritual side of symbolism is entirely neglected here, but there is ample evidence that sacred ceremony, the state that surrounded a throne, and the pageant of war, all had reference to the ritual and pomp of nature; so that man might be one with her and share her invincible strength. Ridiculous as, at first, it may seem, the Throne, Crown, and Orb of Her Majesty Queen Victoria can only be explained in this way: they are all symbols of a God in his temple; and hereditary kingship has everywhere, as Mr Spencer has shown, claimed divinity, God descent, and afterwards God consent—the right divine. As is said in the old Chinese book, the Li Ki (Sac. Books of E. Vol. 28), 'all ceremonial usages, looked at in their general characteristics, are the embodiment of the ideas suggested by heaven and earth; take their laws from the changes of the four seasons; imitate the operation of the contracting and developing movements in nature, and are conformed to the feelings of men. It is on this account that they are called the Rules of Propriety; and when anyone finds fault with them, he only shows his ignorance of their origin.'
Old architecture lived because it had a purpose. Modern architecture, to be real, must not be a mere envelope without contents. As M. Cesar Daly says in his Hautes Etudes, if we would have architecture excite an interest, real and general, we must have a symbolism, immediately comprehensible by the great majority of spectators. But this message cannot be that of the past—terror, mystery, splendour. Planets may not circle nor thunder roll in the temple of the future. No barbaric gold with ruddy bloom; no jewels; emeralds half a palm over, rubies like an egg, and crystal spheres, can again be used more for magic than for beauty. No terraced temples of Babylon to reach the skies; no gold-plated palaces of Ecbatana, seven-walled; no ivory palaces of Ahab; nor golden houses of Nero with corridors a mile long; no stupendous temples of Egypt at first all embracing, then court and chamber narrowing and becoming lower, closing in on the awed worshipper and crushing his imagination; these, all of them, can never be built again, for the manner and the materials are worked out to their final issue. Think of the Sociology and Religion of all this, and the stain across it, "each stone cemented in the blood of a human creature." Those colossal efforts of labour forced on by an implacable will, are of the past, and such an architecture is not for us, nor for the future.
What, then, will this art of the future be? The message will still be of nature and man, of order and beauty, but all will be sweetness, simplicity, freedom, confidence, and light; the other is past, and well is it, for its aim was to crush life: the new, the future, is to aid life and train it, 'so that beauty may flow into the soul like a breeze.'
'Tales of ages long forgotten
Now the legends of creation
Once familiar to the children.'—KALEVALA.
IF we erase from the mind absolutely all that science has laboriously spied out of the actual facts of the material universe, and ask ourselves what would have been the thoughts by which man attempted at first to explain and image forth the natural order, we may put ourselves in sympathy with notions that at first seem absurd. We may see that the progress of science is merely the framing and destruction one by one of a series of hypotheses, and that the early cosmogonies are one in kind with the widest generalisations of science—from certain appearances to frame a theory of explanation, from phenomena to generalise law.
In thus putting ourselves back into the early world, not only must we remember the limitations to the knowledge of phenomena, but also the inadequate means of expression. Not only must we ask ourselves what primitive man—to use the phrase for what it is worth, not letting it betray us—can have observed: we must ask at the same time; what images can he have had before him to which he might liken the wonder of the sky and the might of the sea? Or rather, these are two phases of the same question by which we may realise the early systems, for in these things at least concepts were immediately linked with words, words which were descriptive comparisons.
The unknown universe could then only be explained in terms of its known parts; the earth, shut in by the night sky, must have been thought of as a living creature, a tree, a tent, a building; and these each form the world system to peoples now living. 'Given the data,' says Herbert Spencer, as known to him, the inference drawn by the primitive man is the reasonable inference.'
A tree with wide over-arching branches must have formed an apt and satisfactory explanation, for legends of a world tree are so widely distributed; we meet with them at the dawn of record, and they still strike their roots where wild in woods' the savage runs.
The Chaldean inscriptions describe such a tree as growing at the centre of the world; its branches of crystal formed the sky and drooped to the sea. The Phœnicians thought the world like a revolving tree, over which was spread a vast tapestry of blue embroidered with stars. Traces of this scheme linger late into times of culture, and would account for a story in 'Apollonios of Tyana' that the people of Sardis doubted if the trees were not created before the earth; an idea exactly parallel to the controversy in the Talmud, as to the priority in creation of the heavens or the earth; one side maintaining that the object was made first and then the pedestal; the other, that the foundation is laid before the building is erected.
All the East knew of such a tree; in Japan the gods broke their swords against it in vain; in Greece its memory seems long to have survived as the olive of the forest of Colonas.
In the Norse system a vast tree, the world-ash, rises in the centre of the earth, its branches forming the several heavens of the gods, its roots strike deep into hell, and there—
' . . . . . . A serpent evermore
Lies deep asleep at the world's dark core.'
Maori science still represents such a tree as rising to the heavens, 'that dark nocturnal canopy which like a forest spreads its shade,' its mighty growth first forced asunder Heaven and Earth. Such an idea is probably very uniform at a certain early stage of civilisation—'The fundamental conception of these myths,' says Lenormant, which never appear in perfection except under their oldest forms, represents the universe as an enormous tree.' Its trunk transfixes the earth, projecting upwards into heaven and below into the abyss, the heavens revolve on this axis, and may be reached by climbing the stem.
An extract from Dr Tylor's 'Early History of Mankind' will lead us to a later point of view. Man now surrounded by his own works sees in the universe a larger 'tent to dwell in,' a chamber, and ultimately a most elaborate structure, a conception which lasts long even in the direct line of descent of science. This idea it is children find so difficult to shake off—that there must be a brick wall somewhere circumscribing the universe, and we still recognise it in the phrase to 'make the welkin ring.'
'There are,' says Dr Tylor, 'other mythological ways besides the heaven-tree by which, in different parts of the world, it is possible to go up and down between the surface of the ground and the sky or the regions below. . . . Such tales belong to a rude and primitive state of knowledge of the earth's surface, and what lies above and below it. The earth is a flat plain surrounded by the sea, and the sky forms a roof on which the sun and moon and stars travel. The Polynesians who thought, like so many other people ancient and modern, that the sky descended at the horizon and enclosed the earth, still call foreigners "heaven bursters," as having broken in from another world outside. The sky is to most savages, what it is called in the South American language, "the earth on high," and we can quite understand the thought of some Paraguayans that at death their souls would go up to heaven by the tree which joins earth and sky. There are holes or windows through the sky-roof or firmament where the rain comes through; and if you climb high enough, you can get through and visit the dwellers above, who look and talk and live very much in the same way as the people upon earth. As above the flat earth, so below it, there are regions inhabited by men or manlike creatures, who sometimes come up to the surface, and sometimes are visited by the inhabitants of the upper earth. We live, as it were, upon the ground-floor of a great house, with upper storeys rising one over another above us, and cellars down below.'
This stage of thought lasted so long, embracing the great architectural ages in its span, that one cannot but see that there must have been a relation and reaction between such a world structure and the buildings of man, especially the sacred buildings set apart, as they mostly were, for a worship that thought it found its object in earth, sky, and stars.
It would appear generally that to the great civilising races a square formed universe preceded the hemispherical; indeed, we are much in the hemispherical age at present, it is just archaic enough to furnish the poet with his similes, but an old poet like Job found his comparisons in the chamber-form, a cubical box with a lid on. In the centre of this vast box whose lid is the sky rises the earth mountain, which is its prop and the pivot of its revolutions. It was seen that the centre of this revolution is at a point within the space guarded by the great bear, and that beyond this the stars dip under the earth of the northern horizon. Thus the earth mountain in the North furnishes a most adequate explanation of the apparent motions of the heavens; the crystal or metal heaven of the fixed stars revolves about it, and consequently the stars are hidden behind it in every revolution. The sun, moon, and planets issuing from a hole at the east, and sinking into another at the west, move overhead and find their way back by a subterranean path. The motive power was sometimes given by active beings, as in the Book of Enoch, or by the winds; thus the universe was like a great mill.
It is likely that the dome was the next step, although as yet they were hard put to it to convey the idea, so a skull or half an eggshell furnished the comparison for the whole canopy of heaven, as in the northern system of the Edda:—
Earth was not formed nor heaven above, a yawning gap there was, but grass nowhere. The earth is made fast in the midst, the sea round about it in a ring. The firmament in the form of a skull was set up over the earth with four sides, and under each corner they set dwarfs. The earth, called Midgard, is round without, and beyond is the deep sea; in the midst of the world was reared Asgard, where Odin is enthroned seeing over the whole world and each man's doings. Without in the deep sea lies the Midgard-worm, tail in mouth. The holiest seat of the gods is at Yggdrasil's ash, its boughs spread over the whole world. Three roots it has, one in heaven, one in hell, where is Nidhogg, one where before was Yawning-gap, and there is the Spring of Knowledge. A fair hall is there, and from it issue three maidens—Has-been, Being, and Will-be—who shape the lives of men. On the boughs of the ash sits an eagle, wise in much, and between his eyes a hawk, while a squirrel runs up and down the tree bearing words of hate betwixt the eagle and the worm.
The following may serve as a general description of what we may call the chamber type, either square or round, with a ceiling or a dome. The earth is a mountain, and around its base flows the ocean, or it floats on the ocean; beyond is a high range of mountains which form the walls of the enclosure, and on these is either laid the ceiling in one great slab, or it is domed (sometimes the system is a compromise, the earth square, the sky circular, and they do not seem to have realised the difficulty of the pendentives!). The firmament is sustained by the earth mountain in the centre; as in the Esquimaux account given by Dr Rink 'the earth with the sea supported by it, rests upon pillars, and covers an under-world accessible by various entrances from the sea, as well as from mountain clefts. Above the earth an upper world is found, beyond which the blue sky, being of solid consistence, vaults itself like an outer shell, and, as some say, revolves around some high mountain top in the far north.' A man in a boat went 'to the border of ocean, where the sky comes down to meet it.' (H. Spencer, Sociology, I.) Man was created on the mountain top, where it is in contact with heaven, and all earthly vegetation springs from the seeds of the central tree. In the South Pacific, Mr Andrew Lang tells us, the sky is a solid vault of blue stone. In the beginning of things the sky pressed hard on the earth, and the god Ru was obliged to thrust the two asunder. Ru is now the Atlas of Mangaia, 'The sky-supporting Ru.'
Above the firmament is the Over-sea, and the rain falls from it through perforations; it serves as the floor of the upper regions, and flowing down the firmament, or down the sides of the mountain, supplies earthly seas; the stars are either attached to the firmament or float on this over-sea. There is an amusing story of this celestial sea as late as Gervase of Tilbury. Some people coming out of church were surprised to see an anchor dangling by a rope from the sky, which caught in the tombstones, presently a man was seen descending with the object of detaching it, but as he reached the earth he died as we should if drowned in water.
The Egyptian system would seem to have been of the square type. The Egyptian, says Champollion, 'compared the sky to the ceiling of an edifice;' illustrations which figure the Cosmos in personified forms are frequent on the temples and mummy cases. An example is given by Lenormant (Histoire Ancienne) showing Seb the Earth-Mountain, Tpe the firmament, and Nut the heavenly waters. In the Book of the Dead the soul passes through the gateway of this world into the other, 'the House of Osiris,' and that too was shut in by a wall with a great gateway for the sun at the east to reach our land; the dead had to be ferried over the waters which surrounded the earth, and so the river of death had purely a geographical import in its origin.
Renouf says that 'Ra is addressed as Lord of the great dwelling. The "great dwelling" is the universe, as the Hall of Seb is the earth, the Hall of Nut the heaven, and the Hall of the twofold Maat is the netherworld.'
Water was with them the primordial element in the formation of the universe, of which Maspero gives this account: 'For the astronomers of Egypt, as for the writer of the first chapter of Genesis, the sky was "fluid" (une masse liquide), and enclosed wholly the earth resting on the solid atmosphere; when the elemental chaos took form, the God Schou raised on high the waters and spread them out in space. It is on this celestial ocean, Nut, that the planets and stars float, the monuments show us them as genii of human or animal form navigating each his bark in the wake of Osiris. There was another widely known conception which presented the stars fixed like suspended lamps to the celestial vault, and they were lighted afresh each night by Divine power to give light to the nights of earth.'
The cosmogonic theories in the Veda have been abstracted by Mr Wallis and summarised in a review in the Academy (November 1887). 'The Rig Vedic hymns disclose three distinct lines of thought in regard to the creation of the world, yielding three separate views as to its construction. The simplest theory is that the building of the world was done very much as the building of a house, by architects and artificers.' 'What, indeed, was the wood? What, too, was that tree,' asks a hymn, 'from which they fashioned the heaven and the earth?' The space was laid out with the measuring rod of Varuna. This measuring-rod was the sun; and hence the measurers of the earth are the solar deities, especially Vishnu, 'who measured the regions of the earth, and made fast the dwelling-places on high, stepping forth the Mighty Strider in three steps.' The edifice had three stories or flats—the earth, the air, and the heavens—the measurement beginning from the front of the structure, or the East. 'Indra measured out as it were a house with measures from the front.' 'The Dawn shone with brilliance and opened for us the doors;' the doors that 'open high and wide with their frames.' The roofing of the house is referred to in the epithet of the sky as 'beamless or without rafters.' The firmness of the edifice is marvelled at and praised. While the design and general structure are assigned to the greater deities, and especially to Indra as their representative, the woodwork and other details are done by artificer gods. As the first act of the Indian peasant on taking possession of a new house is to bring in sacred fire, so, says Mr Wallis, 'the first act of the gods after the formation of the world was to produce the celestial Agni.'
In the Avesta the sky is said to be 'like a palace built of a heavenly substance firmly established with ends that lie far apart.' The idea of the temple of the sky is common to the classic poets, and becomes the palace or temple of glass of the Romancers.
The early system of Chaldea belongs to the hemispherical class, and it is an interesting fact that modern evidence goes to show that the dome was first known in the Land of the Plain. 'The Turanians of Chaldea represented the earth like a bark inverted and hollow underneath, not one of those oblong boats in use with us, but of a kind entirely round which the reliefs show, and which are still used on the Euphrates. In the interior hollow was concealed the abyss—the place of darkness and of death; upon the convex surface was spread the earth, properly so called, enveloped on all sides by the stream of Ocean. Chaldea was regarded as the centre of the world, and far beyond the Tigris reposed the mountain of the east which united the heavens and the earth. The heavens were in the form of a vast hemisphere, of which the lower rim rested upon the extremity of the terrestrial bark beyond the river of ocean.'
'The firmament was spread out over the earth like a curtain; it turned, as if on a pivot, around the mountain of the east, and carried with it in its never-resting course the fixed stars with which its vault was studded. Between the heavens and the earth circled about the seven planets like large animals full of life; then came the clouds, the winds, the thunder, the rains. The earth rested on the abyss, the sky upon the earth. The early Chaldeans had not yet asked themselves upon what rested the abyss' (Maspero).
It is delightfully appropriate that to the heroic age of Greece a shield (probably circular and convex with a central boss) figured the form of the earth. To Homer the land where appeared the phantoms of the dead is beyond the ocean. We may suppose that this was the lonely shore of the belt of mountains from which the firmament would spring. The abyss is Tartarus, as in Iliad VIII., 'gloomy Tartarus very far from hence (Olympus), where there is a very deep gulf beneath the earth, and iron portals and a brazen threshold as far below Hades as heaven is from earth.' Hesiod is more particular; in nine days would a brazen anvil fall from Heaven to Earth, and nine other days from earth to Tartarus.
Thus the Homeric scheme knew the earth as depicted by the shield of Achilles; it was surrounded by ocean, and was midway between the solid metal heavens and Tartarus, probably, like a disc in a spherical envelope. Many-peaked Olympus, where the gods assembled, is rather the celestial Olympus—the surface of the vault of heaven, than a mere earthly mountain. A good account of this is given in Duncker's 'History of Greece' (I. IX.), on its summit was the 'all-nourishing lake' from which flowed all the waters of the world; the earthly Olympus was but a symbol of the heavenly mount. Anaxagoras taught that the celestial vault was made of stone. Theophrastus said the milky way was the junction of the two halves of the solid dome so badly joined that the light came through; others said that it was a reflection of the sun's light on the vault of heaven (Flammarion, 'Astronomical Myths').
Later when Phœnician voyagers had explored the Western seas, and a knowledge of India opened up the East, it was evidently felt that the world extended east and west, and with the same climate, while north and south the range was inconsiderable and the climate changing; so that Herodotus says, 'I smile when I see many persons describing the circumference of the earth who have no sound reason to guide them; they describe ocean flowing round the earth, which is made circular as if by a lathe.' Certain, however, that it was planned on some simple geometrical form, the proportion of 2 to 1 was accepted. Mr Charles Elton, writing of the traveller Pytheas of Marseilles 330 B.C., and the extension of the estimate of size necessitated by his voyages, says, 'The world was thought to be twice as long as its own breadth; the total breadth from the spicy regions of Ceylon to the frozen shores of Scythia being taken at about 3400 miles; the length from Cape of St Vincent to the ocean east of India at about 6800 miles.' Pytheas increased the estimate, thus making the world 4700 miles wide, and being compelled by the accepted formula to extend its length to 9400 miles.'
The next step was to accept the spherical theory for the earth as well as for the heavens. We shall find a return to the Middle Ages to the proportion of the double square.
Pythagoras seems to have borrowed the fully-developed Eastern scheme; for the Babylonians had later arrived at a highly complex and carefully reasoned structure of several heavenly spheres; which apparently were elaborated in this way. The blue heaven of the fixed stars is seen to revolve around the pole at a constant rate, sweeping the whole of the stars with it. But the sun and moon and five other planets do not for long occupy their positions relative to the other bodies; it is seen that they have a motion through the signs proper to themselves from the thirty days of the moon to the thirty years of Saturn, and so the Chaldean astronomers assigned a revolving sphere to each of these: seven concentric spheres revolving at rates proportioned to their distance from the centre on a common axis through the pole star. 'The Chaldean astronomers,' says Lenormant (Magic), 'imagined a spherical heaven completely enveloping the earth; the periodical movements of the planets took place in the lower zone of the heavens underneath the firmament of the fixed stars; astrology afterwards ascribed to them seven concentric and successive spheres. The firmament supported the ocean of the celestial waters.' These seven spheres, forming as many regions above in the heavens or below in the underworld, were distinguished by colours such as Herodotus describes for the walls of Ecbatana of the Medes, 'a symbolism which,' continues Lenormant, 'was borrowed direct from the Babylonian religion—the colours of the seven planetary bodies.' It is necessary that this system should be firmly grasped; it is the perfected structure of astrology which for two thousand years solved the problem of the universe over the whole of civilisation; it is the system embodied in all Mysticism, Astrology, and Arts magic. It was by irresistible analogy that the earth also became a sphere.
In the Western world the scheme attributed to Pythagoras gives in all twelve spheres, which succeed each other in the following order, beginning from the remotest: (1) Sphere of the fixed stars; (2) of Saturn; (3) Jupiter; (4) Mars; (5) Venus; (6) Mercury; (7) Sun; (8) The Moon; (9) Sphere of Fire; (10) Sphere of Air; (11) Sphere of Water; (12) The Earth. 'The early Pythagoreans further conceived that the heavenly bodies, like other moving bodies, emitted a sound; these they supposed made up a harmonious symphony. Hence they established an analogy between the intervals of the seven planets and the musical scale' (Sir G. C. Lewis, 'Astronomy of the Ancients').
The motive power in the Chaldean system was the energy of seven spirits who governed the several spheres; these, as angels of the stars, survived to the Middle Ages, and in their cabbalistic form—Zadkiel, Raphael, and the like—are still familiar to those who put their trust in prophetic almanacks. We shall see what Dante says of the orders of angels.
The most picturesque prospect of these whirling spheres is that in Cicero's vision of Scipio.—'The globular bodies of the stars greatly exceeded the magnitude of the earth, which now to me appeared so small that I was grieved to see our empire contracted as it were into a very point. Which, while I was too eagerly gazing on, Africanus said:—"How long will your attention be fixed upon the earth? Do you not see into what temples you have entered? All things are connected by nine circles, or rather spheres; one of which (which is the outermost) is heaven, and comprehends all the rest, inhabited by the all-powerful God, who binds and controls the others; and in this sphere reside the original principles of those endless revolutions which the planets perform. Within this are contained seven other spheres that turn round backward; that is, in a contrary direction to that of the heaven. Of these, that planet which on earth you call Saturn occupies one sphere. That shining body which you see next is called Jupiter, and is friendly and salutary to mankind. Next, the lucid one, terrible to the earth, which you call Mars. The sun holds the next place, almost under the middle region; he is the chief, the leader, and the director of the other luminaries; he is the soul and guide of the world, and of such immense bulk, that he illuminates and fills all other objects with his light. He is followed by the orbit of Venus and that of Mercury as attendants, and the Moon rolls in the lowest sphere enlightened by the rays of the sun. Below this there is nothing but what is mortal and transitory, excepting those souls which are given to the human race by the goodness of the gods. Whatever lies above the moon is eternal. For the earth, which is the ninth sphere, and is placed in the centre of the whole system, is immovable, and below all the rest, and all bodies by their natural gravitation tend toward it." Which, as I was gazing at in amazement, I said as I recovered myself, "From whence proceed these sounds so strong and yet so sweet that fill my ears?"' It is the melody of the spheres which human sensibility is too dulled by use to be conscious of hearing.
The distinction of above and below was not lost nor the solidity of the spherical heavens, as seen in this extract from the Astrologer Manilius:—
'Come, then, prepare your mind for learning the Meridians; they are four in number, their position in the firmament is fixed, and they modify the influence of the signs as these speed across them. One is placed where the heaven rises springing up to form its vault, and this one has the first view of the earth from the level. The second is placed facing it on the opposite border of the æther, and from this begins the falling-away of the firmament and its headlong sweep down to the Nether-world. The third marks the highest part of the heavens aloft, when Phœbus reaches this he is weary, and his horses out of breath; here, then, he rests a moment while he is giving the downward turn to the day and balancing the shadows of noon. The fourth holds the very bottom of all, and has the glory of being the foundation of the round world; on it the stars cease their sinkings and begin their upward course once more; it is equidistant from the setting and the rising.' The flatness of the earth was not necessarily affected in popular view. Strabo finds it necessary to argue that the earth must be of a spherical form, for if it was of an infinite depth it would transfix the planetary spheres and prevent them going round!
This seven-fold system came westward with Latin civilisation, and made the world-scheme for our Saxon forefathers.
From the fragments collected by Cory of the writings attributed to Zoroaster, it would appear that the Persian Universe was fashioned in the like form: 'For the Father congregated the seven firmaments of the world, circumscribing them of a convex figure.' These seven firmaments are conceived of in the old Persian writings as transparent 'mountains,' one without the other.
The ancient Hindus understood the universe to be formed by seven concentric envelopes around the central earth-mountain Meru, on which the waters of the celestial Ganges fell out of heaven, and circling it seven times in its descent, distributed its waters in four great streams to the whole earth. And the Mexicans had nine heavens distinguished by different colours one over the other.
The Arab system is clearly set forth by Lane:—
'According to the common opinion of the Arabs, there are seven heavens, one above another, and seven earths, one beneath another; the earth which we inhabit being the highest of the latter, and next below the lowest heaven. The upper surface of each heaven and of each earth are believed to be nearly plane, and are generally supposed to be circular. Thus is explained a passage of the Koran in which is said that God has created seven heavens and as many earths or storeys of the earth. Traditions differ respecting the fabric of the seven heavens. In the most credible account, according to a celebrated historian, the first is described as formed of emerald; the second of white silver; the third of large white pearls; the fourth of ruby; the fifth of red gold; the sixth of yellow jacinth; and the seventh of shining light. Some assert Paradise to be in the seventh heaven; indeed, I have found this to be the general opinion of my Muslim friends; but the author above quoted proceeds to describe, next above the seventh heaven seven seas of light, then an undefined number of veils or separations of different substances seven of each kind, and then Paradise, which consists of seven stages one above another (these are distinguished by the names of precious gems) canopied by the Throne of the Compassionate. These several regions of Paradise are described in some traditions as forming so many degrees, or stages ascended by steps.'
'The earth is believed by the Arabs to be surrounded by the ocean, which is described as bounded by a chain of mountains called Kaf, which encircles the whole as a ring, and confines and strengthens the entire fabric; these mountains are described as composed of green chrysolite like the green tint of the sky. Mecca, according to some, or Jerusalem, according to others, is exactly in the centre. The earth is supported by successive creations one beneath the other. The earth is upon water, the water upon the rock, the rock on the back of the bull, the bull on the bed of sand, the sand on the fish, the fish upon a still suffocating wind, the wind on a vale of darkness, the darkness on a mist, and what is beneath the mist is unknown. It is believed that beneath the earth and the seas of darkness is Jahennem, which consists of seven stages, one beneath another.'
Dante himself sums up in that culminating year 1300 of the Middle Ages all lore Classic and Oriental, and in the Convito gives the clearly reasoned system on which he constructs the world scheme of the 'Divine Comedy:'—
'I say, then, that concerning the number of the heavens and their site, different opinions are held by many, although the truth at last may be found. Aristotle believed, following merely the ancient foolishness of the Astrologers, that there might be only eight heavens, of which the last one, and which contained all, might be that where the fixed stars are ('fixed' in the sense of attached) that is the eighth sphere, and that beyond it there could be no other. Ptolemy, then, perceiving that the eighth sphere is moved by many movements, seeing its circle to depart from the right circle, which turns from east to west, constrained by the principles of philosophy, of necessity desires a Primum mobile, a most simple one, supposing another heaven to be outside the heaven of the fixed stars, which might make that revolution from east to west, which I say is completed in twenty-four hours nearly, that is, twenty-three hours, fourteen parts of the fifteen of another, counting roughly. Therefore, according to him, and according to that which is held in Astrology and in Philosophy, since these movements were seen, there are nine movable heavens, the sight of which is evident and determined, according to an art which is termed Perspective, Arithmetical, and Geometrical, by which and by other sensible appearances it is visibly and reasonably seen, as in the eclipses of the sun it appears sensibly that the moon is below the sun. And by the testimony of Aristotle, who saw with his own eyes, according to what he says in the second book on Heaven and the World, the Moon being new, to enter below Mars, on the side not shining, and Mars to remain concealed so long that he reappeared on the other bright side of the Moon which was towards the west. And the order of the houses is this, that the first that they enumerate is that where the moon is; the second is that where Mercury is; the third is that where Venus is; the fourth is that where the Sun is; the fifth is that where Mars is; the sixth is that where Jupiter is; the seventh is that where Saturn is; the eighth is that of the Stars; the ninth is that which is not visible except by that movement which is mentioned above, which they designate the great crystalline sphere, diaphanous, or rather all transparent. Truly, beyond all these the Catholics place the Empyrean Heaven, which is as much as to say the Heaven of Flame, or rather the Luminous Heaven, and they assign it to be immovable.'
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