Architecture, Mysticism and Myth, by W.R. Lethaby, , at sacred-texts.com
'A tower of strength that stood
THE perfect temple should stand at the centre of the world, a microcosm of the universe fabric, its walls built four square with the walls of heaven. And thus they stand the world over, be they Egyptian, Buddhist, Mexican, Greek, or Christian, with the greatest uniformity and exactitude. When the world has become circular and spherical, the squareness is retained almost universally as a characteristic of the celestial earth, the four-square enclosure on the top of the world mountain, where the polar tree or column stands, and whence issue the four rivers. From the thought of such an enclosure we get, Lenormant states, our word 'Paradise.'
The significance of the direction of buildings is much wider than is understood by Orientation, a looking to the rising sun; for the pyramids, and the Babylonian and Mexican stepped temples, or rather altars, are square, and the Buddhist topes circular in a square enclosure, with no sanctuary to define direction. When, however, there is a major axis, it agrees (with some exceptions in Egypt) with the sun's path through the heavens.
The universal early use in temples was to have the entrance at the east, facing the sunrise, and the more sacred part of the sanctuary to the west, where was the throne of the presence. It was the god or the altar that thus fronted the sun as it rose through the eastern door, and the reversal of this later seems to have been the result of the temple becoming a place for congregation rather than a local habitation of the god.
Egypt furnishes some exceptions in temples, which have their axes at various angles. In a recent lecture (May 1891) before the Society of Antiquaries, Mr Norman Lockyer explained some conclusions he had reached as to complicated temple groups like that at Karnak. Starting with Mariette's dates obtained from the inscriptions, and searching the star-lists for each angle, he found that the temples were directed to watch certain important stars, such as Gamma Draconis, Canopus, and Vega. When, owing to the precession of the equinoxes, the star no longer rose or set through the open portal as viewed from the remote and dark sanctuary which was specially contrived like a great stone telescope for the purpose of receiving pure light, another temple was built at an angle with the first, and possibly across its 'fairway' to the horizon, for it was no longer required. This is evidently a refined and complicated system, and therefore comparatively late.
The pyramids, however, are set out with the greatest accuracy. Mr Petrie's careful survey shows that the Great Pyramid deviated only 5´, and he says that it is the world that has shifted rather than the structure—no fault to its builders! The group of three, moreover, stand en echelon, so that each has its four sides clear to the four quarters to which Mariette says they were dedicated. On the east side of each was a small
isolated temple with its door eastward. One of these is the so-called temple of the Sphinx. 'It is to be noticed,' Mr Proctor says, 'that the peculiar figure and position of the pyramids will bring about the following relations. Between the autumn and the spring equinoxes the rays of the rising and setting sun illuminated the southern face of the pyramids; whereas during the rest of the year, that is, the six months between the spring and autumn equinoxes, the rays of the rising and setting sun illuminated the northern face.' The slanting passage appears to have pointed directly to the pole star.
'Like the house of the living, the tomb was strictly oriented, but after a mystic principle of its own. In the necropolis of Memphis the door of nearly every tomb is turned to the east, and there is not a single stele which does not face in that direction. In the necropolis of Abydos both door and stele are more often turned towards the south; that is, towards the sun at its zenith. But neither at Memphis, at Abydos, nor at Thebes is there a tomb which is lighted from the west, or presents its inscription to the setting sun. Thus, from the shadowy depths where they dwell, the dead have their eyes turned to the quarter of the heavens where the life-giving flame is each day rekindled, and seem to be waiting for the ray which is to destroy their night, and to rouse them from their long repose' (Perrot and Chipiez). 'The major axis of the rectangle upon which these structures (tombs) are planned always runs due north and south; and at Gizeh, the necropolis of the west, they are arranged upon a symmetrical plan, so as to resemble a chessboard, on which all the squares are strictly oriented. The principal face of the tomb is turned to the east. In four cases out of five the entrance to its chambers, when there is one, is found upon this face. Next
after the eastern face in relative importance comes that which is turned towards the north' (Mariette).
That orientation in a limited sense was not the object to the Egyptians, but rather a desire to make their building square with the cardinal sides of earth and sky, is again and again expressed in the inscriptions. That of Thothmes III. on the foundations of Karnack says that 'after the position of the building had been fixed according to the position of the four quarters the great stone gates were erected' (Brugsch). This laying out the lines to square with the world is a part of ceremonial at foundations in all countries at all times; we see it again and again repeated, as also the thought that there was a magic influence in it, the magic of correspondence; for, as the foundations of heaven and earth are firm, 'not to be moved for ever,' so the building imitating them would share their stability. In Egypt it is expressed in a regular formula—'It is such as a heaven in all its quarters,' 'firm as the heavens.' In the Psalms, as also in the Vedas, the firmness of the world temple is extolled.
The Buddhist buildings are strictly related to the heavens. The circular tope is surrounded by an enclosure exactly square, with a gateway to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west; the east gate being the chief entrance, the west the exit. The temples containing statues of Buddha were entered at the east—'Statue of Buddha facing the east,' Fa-Hian reiterates. The Hindu temple of Jagannatha follows the same rule. In the temples of Japan, a mirror hangs at the far end; and in the old temples of Peru a golden disc of the sun, over the altar, fronted through the open door the dawn of day.
The Greek temples were entered at the east. Mr Penrose finds that, like the Egyptian temples, the
axis through the open door was directed to the point of rising of some star which appeared above the horizon before dawn. The Syrian and Persian temples were also entered at the eastern end.
In Western Asia (again to quote from Perrot) 'the inhabitants of Mesopotamia were so much impressed by celestial phenomena, and believed so firmly in the influence of the stars over human destiny, that they were sure to establish some connection between those heavenly bodies and the arrangement of their edifices. All the buildings of Chaldea and Assyria are oriented; the principle is everywhere observed, but it is not always understood in the same fashion. Mesopotamian buildings were always rectangular and often square on plan, and it is sometimes the angles and sometimes the centres of each face that are directed to the four cardinal points. The earlier Chaldean structures, as Warka, follow the former method, as do the remains at Nineveh.' 'On the other hand, in those ruins at Nimroud that have been identified with the ancient Calah, it is the sides of the mound and of the buildings upon it that face the four cardinal points. The first of these two methods of orientation had the advantage of establishing a more exact and well-defined relation between the disposition of the building and those celestial points to which a peculiar importance was attached.' The two small temples excavated at Nimroud by Layard were entered at the east, and had their sanctuaries to the west. The inscriptions repeat very much the thoughts which we have seen were present to the Egyptian builders. In the inscription on the great bulls at the entrance gates of the square enclosure at Korsabad the founder says, 'I placed the lintels in the four heavenly directions, I opened eight gates in the direction of the four cardinal points. Towards the four regions of the sun
[paragraph continues] I disposed the cornices and the door posts' (Inscription of Sargon, B.C. 710, 'Records of the Past').
Of this four-sided world, each quarter had a 'regent,' apparently in their origin the winds. These four guardians of the regions play a part in many systems, and generally under the symbols of amorphous persons or beasts.
That this was the case in Egypt we have the word of Mariette; they are the 'four powers of the Amenti,' whose heads, three animal and one human, surmount the four funereal vases in the burial ceremonies.
In the northern system of the Edda the heavens,. which were set up with four sides, have a dwarf supporting every corner.
In the myths of ancient America these creatures play a large part, and are defined clearly as the four winds. 'In the mythology of Yucatan the four gods Bacab were supposed to stand one at each corner of the world, supporting like gigantic caryatides, the overhanging firmament. When at the general deluge the other gods and men were swallowed by the waters, they alone escaped to people the earth anew. . . . The East was distinguished by yellow, the South by red, the West by black, the North by white, and these colours appear again in different parts of the world with the same meaning, as representing the four quarters of the world' (M. Müller, Gifford Lect. 1890).
All over the East these four kings of the regions are known. In the Avesta and other Persian writings they are described as 'four chieftains appointed on the four sides.' They are the four Maharajas of the Buddhists. 'Great champions of the earth and the heavens against the demons. These four are represented in full armour with drawn swords' (Sir M. Williams). In a mystical form they enter into Jewish.
tradition. They appear as the four composite creatures of Ezekiel's vision, full of eyes, that support the firmament, 'the colour of the terrible crystal which stretched forth over their heads above,' with faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. They seem to stand at the four cardinal points, the lion on the right side (south), and the ox on the left (north).
The pseudo Enoch writes: 'I also beheld the four winds which bear up the earth, and the firmament of heaven,' and in his vision of heaven he 'heard the voices of those upon the four sides magnifying the Lord of Glory.' He asks whose were the four voices of the four sides, and is told that they are Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and the fourth Phanuel.
In the Apocalypse, it is these, the beast symbols of the North, South, East, and West, round about the throne, who 'cease not day nor night, saying, Holy, holy, holy.' The 'four winds of the four corners of the earth' are also mentioned in Revelation vii. 1.
Compare the like forms of the protecting genii of the Chaldeans given by Lenormant (Magic, p. 121). The four riders in the Revelation on horses white, red, black, and pale resemble the four chariots with horses, red, black, white, and grisled in Zechariah (chap. vi.). 'These are the four spirits (or winds) of the heavens.' Renan thinks the riders of the Apocalypse are planets, but see how each is associated with one of the four beasts, and how they had power over a fourth part of the earth. Lenormant tells us (Contemp. Rev. Sept. 1881) that the four rivers spouted out from their fount on Meru through the mouths of four symbolic animals of four colours and metals. E. white or silver, S. red or copper, W. yellow or gold, N. brown or iron. These are the colours of the four castes and of all kindred who set out from Meru to people the world.
Then there are the four ages 'of the gradual degeneracy
of successive ages, which is expressed by the metals the names of which are applied to them; gold, silver, bronze, and iron' (Lenormant). Remark also how in Daniel vii., 'Four great beasts diverse from one another,' symbolise the coming of four great kingdoms.
These four symbols we find present in our microcosm the temple. In the Buddhist temples of China, 'two colossal wooden statues meet the eye on each side, these are the four great Kings of Devas; they govern the continents lying in the direction of the four cardinal points from mount Sumeru.' They are called Tein-Wang, 'the Princes of Heaven.' Miss Bird saw them in Japanese temples painted in bright colours, and trampling demons under foot. The 'Celestial' army, according to directions in the ancient books, was to be marshalled under the banners of these four regents of the quarters; to the East a blue Dragon, West a white tiger, a red bird to the South, and to the North a black warrior.
The celestial mount Meru was of different colours on the four sides. In the temple to the Spirits of Land and Grain at Pekin, 'the terrace is laid with earth of five colours arranged according to the ordinary Chinese distribution of the five colours among the cardinal points: blue is east, red is south, black is north, white is west, and yellow is central. The inner wall is built with different coloured bricks on each of its four sides, according to position' (Edkins, in Williamson's Journeys).
If we rearranged these colours for ourselves, white might reasonably stand for the east as the point of light, red for the meridian sun of south, blue for the west of evening, and black for north.
Sometimes there appears to have been eight regents, who thus guarded the angles as well as the sides of the
square, just as the four winds became eight. In the Ramayana the City of Ayodhya is described: 'Every gate of the city was guarded by mighty heroes who were as strong as the eight gods who rule the eight points of the universe.' These eight giant porters are sculptured in pairs on the side posts of each of the four gates at the Sanchi tope.
The guardians of the corners of the world stand at the four angles of the Egyptian sepulchral chamber shown in the papyrus of Ani, published by the British Museum: and as the four powers of the Amenti they always accompany the throned Osiris. Under the form of the four beast-symbols of the Evangelists they rightly fill the pendentives of the domed heavens of Byzantine churches, as at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. At St. Mark's the four Evangelists stand over the four heavenly rivers, which pour out their waters one in each angle; and we seem still to preserve in the nursery the tradition of these watchers—
In Chaldea there were powers, not beneficent guardians, but to be guarded against. 'From the four cardinal points the impetuosity of their invasion burns like fire. They violently attack the dwellings of man' (Chaldean Magic).
They were legion, but certain spirits of the winds seem to have had distinct forms according to the quarters from which they approached. These demons had horrible compound forms made up of lion, eagle, bull, scorpion, and whatever beast bites, thrusts, and stings, and Lenormant remarks how the talisman consisted of the form of the power to be combated
placed to face the quarter from which each one acted; for so terrible was each of them in appearance, that it was affrighted by its own image, like a Gorgon slain by a mirror. Besides the great bulls and lions guarding the doors, there were sculptured on the walls of the façade a combat between the Chaldean Hercules, Gilgames (Gizdhubar), 'Patrol of the four regions,' and one of these creatures.
At Persepolis there are four colossal sculptures of this kind, of which fine photographs are given in Dieulafoy's great work, and they are described by Sir R. K. Porter as—(1) A compound of lion with head of eagle; (2) a winged lion with eagle's claws; (3) a horned lion; and (4) a unicorn bull. All these the hero, in this case Cyrus the King, calmly slays with the sword, a token to the demons what they were to expect.
The world walls made a vast square, the type of all perfect gardens and cloisters, the enclosure four-square, in which, according to the Avesta, man was first placed. The square paradise of Yima, where men were saved from the flood. The word Yard (garth) is but the Scandinavian Garth, the world.
The Sacred Court, the Temenos of the Greeks, the Haram or Mosque of the Arabs, preceded the temple; the steps probably being—(1) The Sacred Site; (2) the Enclosure delimiting this; (3) the Altar; (4) the Shrine by the Altar in the Court, the dwelling of the Deity worshipped from without by procession and prostration; (5) the Altar is brought within the building; and (6) the temple becomes a place for congregation, the orientation being changed.
The Book of Enoch, after describing the rising and setting of sun and moon, proceeds to account for the winds: 'I beheld twelve gates open for all the winds;
three of them are open in the front of heaven, three in the west, three on the right side of heaven, and three on the left. The first
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This is the perfect type of the Temple enclosure, or the City wall; 'on the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates.'
Compare Ezekiel's vision (c. 48) of the ideal city 4500 measures square, and three gates to each quarter, with the plan of an Assyrian, or a Hindu enclosure, or with the walls of the City of Pekin (Taidu), as described by Marco Polo: 'The
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[paragraph continues] The perfect type of these cities is the Chinese square enclosure, with twelve gates of the 'Hall of Distinction,' as figured in Dr Morrison's 'Dictionary,' or of the Temple of Earth at Pekin given by Du Halde. That the gates should face the cardinal aspects is quite universal. Was it not on issuing from the four gates of the city in succession, beginning at the east, that Buddha saw the sights which made him enter on 'the path'? The towns in England of Roman foundation still have north, south, east, and west gates, following the camps and the Etruscan cities. The east gate was reserved for the prince as directed by Ezekiel. When there are three gates together, the central one is the Royal Gate, 'and kept shut, except when the Khan passes that way,' as Marco Polo says; just as in the great churches from Constantinople to Chartres, the middle door is the King's. From the triple eastern gate the main avenue ran westward, as at Alexandria. At Palmyra, over fifteen hundred columns, sixty feet high, were disposed in four rows. At Damascus 'the street called Straight' started from the east gate, and had two rows of Corinthian pillars. 'Every great city of the East had a via recta—a "straight street," or high street, somewhat similar in plan and ornament to that at Palmyra' (Porter, 'Bashan').
This four squareness was a talismanic assurance of permanence and stability. The thought that, as the heavens were stable upon the earth, so any building four square with them would be immovable, seems, as we have seen, a natural analogy. Fa-Hian says of a Buddhist monastery, 'The side is forty paces square; though heaven should quake and the earth' open, this spot would not move.' Professor Beal in a note compares this with the Egyptian treasure city of Rameses, 'solid upon the earth like the four pillars of
the firmament.' In the Talmud the Temple of Jerusalem is called the 'immovable house;' and it is surely the same symbol of indestructibility that is taken by St. John in the cubical city of the Apocalypse.
The most ancient form of Rome, 'the City of Romulus,' was called Roma Quadrata; it was built on the Palatine Hill, and enclosed by a wall, around which the sacred pomœrium was marked out by a plough furrow, a religious ceremony in the foundation of towns by the Etruscans. 'Within the area of Apollo (temple on the Palatine) was also a mysterious object which appears to have symbolised the ancient Roma Quadrata. This sacred object, which was probably a cubical block of stone used as an altar, was called Roma Quadrata, and was surrounded by a circular trench, the Mundus, a symbol of the mystic plough turned furrow, by which the pomœrium or sacred circuit line was marked in accordance with the primitive religious ceremonies performed while founding a new city' (Middleton, 'Ancient Rome').
Of all forms, the cube and the hemisphere are the most sacred; the first was that of the Sanctuary at Jerusalem, and that chosen by St John as the type of the Holy City; 'its length, breadth, and height were equal.' Mr Fergusson tells us that the temple of Herod was 100 cubits long in the body, 100 cubits high, and 100 cubits broad on the façade, 'so as to make it practically a cube, or at least a building of three equal dimensions.' The cube was the form of the shrine of one stone forty cubits every way that Herodotus saw in Egypt; the Phœncian shrines found by Renan at Amrit; and the Caaba, 'the cube,' of Mecca. The temples of Janus Quadrifrons were 'built with four equal sides, with a door and three windows on each side.'
[paragraph continues] The hemisphere is the form of the Buddhist topes. To combine the two has been the builder's problem in all ages.
Another form is also persistent—the double-square; Vitruvius, indeed, says, 'The length of a temple must be twice its width;' and, roughly, this is the proportion to which classic examples conform. Plato makes the temple that surmounted his ideal city one stadium long by half a stadium wide. The King's chamber in the great Pyramid is exactly of this proportion, as was the Cella of the Temple of the Jews. We have seen the classic geographers of the fourth century, B.C., amongst whom is Pytheas, making the earth of precisely this form, and a reason has been suggested sufficient to account for it. Another, however, which must strongly have confirmed their view is to be found in the range of the sun along the horizon from the winter to the summer solstice. Symmetrical both on the rising and setting horizons, and subtending an angle which seemed just within the ends of a parallelogram of which the width was equal to half its length.
Now to the Hindus east to west is 'lengthways,' north to south is 'crossways.' In the Persian Bundahish it is said, 'From where the sun comes in on the longest day to where it comes in on the shortest day is the East; from where it comes in on the shortest day to where it goes off on the shortest day is South; where it goes in on the shortest to where it goes in on the longest day is the West; from where it comes in on the longest to where it goes off on the longest day is the North.' In the Talmud an exactly similar account is given. The sun rages, up and down the eastern and western horizon like a mighty beast prisoned in a cage; it cannot go farther because of the enclosing sides of the firmament. The gates
for it to pass to the lower world and rise again are only found in the ends of the box.
We need barely refer to the actual use of the Temple as a calendar; the sun ray entering at the eastern door at the moment of its appearance above the horizon was certainly registered, and so gave in a long series an accurate observation of the solar year; once a year more especially it exactly fell on the altar. Even now in some of the French cathedrals—Bourges and Nevers, for instance—diagonal lines maybe seen right across the floor graduated into a scale of months and days.
The observations and ceremony connected with determining the orientation, and laying the foundation stone, were of the greatest importance. Brugsch gives an inscription recording the foundation of Abydos: 'I gave the order,' says the King, 'to prepare the cords and pegs for the laying of the foundation in my presence. The advent of the day of the new moon was fixed for the festival of the laying the foundation stone.'
According to Berosos, the gods taught the Chaldeans the rules for the foundation of towns and building of temples. Of the modern Buddhist custom, Bock gives us an instance from Siam: 'The site being duly dedicated to the purpose, eight round stones are taken, and a parallelogram marked out with them, one being placed at each of the eight points of the compass.' In the old Latin rites (quoting the French Dictionary of Antiquities) one of the chief duties of the augurs was to set out the new temple foundation from the heavens. The usage 'appears to have been to direct the Cardo according to the meridian when the observer faced the south, and had at his left the east, "the happy side," later they adopted the Etruscan
practice, and turned towards the west, with the view of combining the ideas of the Etruscans, who placed the seat of the gods to the north—therefore the happy side—and the Roman custom which had placed the north to the left in turning to the east. It has been thought that at times the Cardo was not the axis, but the diagonal of a square, and that the augur stationed at the centre directed his vision to the angles.'
To the late Romans of the time of Vitruvius the aspect seems to have been opposed to what had been the universal earlier practice. He tells us, 'If there be nothing to prevent it, and the use of the edifice allow it, the temples of the immortal gods should have such an aspect that the statue in the Cella may have its face towards the west, so that those who enter to sacrifice, or to make offerings, may have their faces to the east as well as to the statue in the temple. Thus suppliants and those performing their vows seem to have the temple, the East, and the Deity, as it were, looking on them at the same moment. Hence all the altars of the gods should be placed towards the east.' In another place he explains how the true north may be obtained. In a marble slab or a level space a gnomon is placed upright. The shadow cast by the gnomon is to be marked about the fifth hour before the meridian, the extreme point being accurately determined, and from the centre of the gnomon a circle is described equal in radius to the length of the shadow just obtained. After the sun has passed the meridian watch the shadow until the moment when it touches the circle again at another point; a line drawn from the centre bisecting the arc thus obtained will indicate the north.
Christian buildings at first followed the old westward direction of the Jewish temple; for instance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem built by
[paragraph continues] Constantine. So also early churches in Italy, and even here in England, were 'occidented' rather than oriented. This ultimately gave way to the eastward direction; all Justinian's churches have their prospect towards the east, and it becomes of interest to determine if this is with the object of their being directed towards Jerusalem, or of conforming to orientation. The great church built by Constantine at Bethlehem, which is directly south of Jerusalem, and only a few miles off, lies east and west, not north and south, as it would if directed to the Holy City. Still further south the Coptic Churches of Egypt are described by Mr Butler as having the entrance 'almost invariably towards, if not in the western side, while the sanctuaries lie always on the eastern.' Far south in Abyssinia the curious excavated monolithic churches follow the same axis west to east.
A passage in Procopius gives a clear statement of the purpose in the orientation of Sta Sophia, the great Church of Christendom. He says, 'The part where the sacred mysteries are performed in honour of God is built towards the rising sun.' And of the Church of the Apostles, rebuilt by Justinian, in Constantinople, he gives this interesting relation: 'The lines were drawn in the form of a cross, joining one another in the middle, the upright one pointing to the rising and the setting sun, and the other cross line towards the north and the south wind. These were surrounded by a circuit of walls, and within by columns placed both above and below; at the crossing of the two straight lines, that is, about the middle point of them, there is a place set apart that may not be entered except by the priests, and which is consequently termed the sanctuary. The transepts which lie on each side of this about the cross line are of equal length; but that part of the upright line towards the
setting sun is built so much longer than the other part as to form the figure of the Cross.'
The old Antiquary Stukeley gave a very clear account of orientation anticipating the points here set out. 'Ever since the world began, in building temples or places of religious worship, men have been studious in setting them according to the quarters of the heavens; since they considered the world as the general temple, or house of God, and that all particular temples should be regulated according to that idea. The east naturally claims a prerogative, where the sun and all the planets and stars rise. The east they therefore considered the face and front of the universal temple.'