The Frame of the Cosmos
La mythologie, dans son origine,
est l'ouvrage de la science; la
science seule l'expliquera.
IN GREEK MYTH, the basic frame of the world is described in the famous Vision of Er in the 10th Book of the Republic. In it we find Er the Armenian, who was resurrected from the funeral pyre just before it was kindled, and who describes his travel through the other world (10.615ff.). He and the group of souls bound for rebirth whom he accompanies travel through the other world. They come to "a straight shaft of light, like a pillar, stretching from above throughout heaven and earth-and there, at the middle of the light, they saw stretching from heaven the extremities of its chains; for this light binds the heavens, holding together all the revolving firmament like the undergirths of a ship of war. And from the extremities stretched the Spindle of Necessity, by means of which all the circles revolve."
Cornford adds in a note: "It is disputed whether the bond holding the Universe together is simply the straight axial shaft or a circular band of light, suggested by the Milky Way [n1 Cf. O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte (1905), p. 1036, n.1: "probably the Milky Way."], girdling the heaven of fixed stars." [n2 Plato's Republic (Cornford trans.), p. 353.] Eisler understood it as the zodiac, strange to say [n3 Eisler, Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt (1910), pp. 97ff.]. Since those "undergirths" of the trireme did not go around the ship horizontally, but were meant to secure the mast (the
"tree" of the ship) which points upwards, we stand, on principle, for the Galaxy, which, however, had to be "replaced" by invisible colures in later times [n4 Cf. also the discussion in J. L. E. Dreyer, A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler (1953), pp. 56ff. Concerning the "chains," which he translates "ligatures," Dreyer states: "The ligatures (desmoi) of the heavens are the solstitial and equinoctial colures intersecting in the poles, which points therefore may be called their extremities (akra)."]. But Er also talks of the adventures of the souls between incarnations, and in this context we might rely on the Milky Way. Surely the "model" is far from clear, even, on Cornford's concession, obviously intentionally so. And indeed, a few paragraphs later, there comes the complete planetarium with its "whorls," the "Spindle of Necessity" held by the goddess, by which sit the Fates as they unwind the threads of men's lives. The souls can listen to the Song of Lachesis, if they are still in the "meadow," but the chains and shaft or band are no longer in the picture. Plato refuses to be a correct geometrician of the Other World, just as he would not be sensible about the hydraulics of it. But previously in the Phaedo, Socrates had been ironic about the "truths" of science, and insisted that the truths of myth are of another order, and rebellious to ordinary consistency. It is here as if Plato had juxtaposed a number of revered mythical traditions (including the planetary harmony) without pretending to fit them into a proper order. And so his image of the "framework" of the cosmos is left inconclusive. But somehow the axis and the band and the chains stand together, and this, one concludes, was the original idea. The rotation of the polar axis must not be disjointed from the great circles which shift along with it in heaven. The framework is thought of as all one with the axis. This leads back to a Pythagorean authority whom Plato was supposed to have followed (Timon even viciously said: plagiarized) and whom Socrates often quotes with unfeigned respect. It is Philolaos, surely a creative astronomer of high rank, from whom there are only a few surviving fragments, and the authenticity of these has been rashly challenged by many modern philologists [n5 G. de Santillana and W. Pitts, "Philolaos in Limbo," ISIS 42 (1951), pp. 112-20; also in Reflections on Men and Ideas (1968), pp. 190-201.]. In fragment 12 of Philolaos, there is a brief definition of the cosmos, very much in the spirit of Plato's "dodecahedron" quoted in chapter XII.
"In the sphere there are five elements, those inside the sphere, fire, and water and earth and air, and what is the hull of the sphere, the fifth." [n6 See H. Diets, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (1951), vol. I, pp. 412f.]. Notwithstanding Philolaos' graceless Doric, the statement is perfectly clear. The "hull," (olkas) was the common name for freighters, built for bulk cargo, broad in the beam. It is really more adequate than Plato's slim trireme; and it is closer in shape to what both men meant apparently: the dodecahedron, the "hull," i.e., the sphere, the actual containing frame. It is clear from Plato that the "fifth" is the sphere that he calls ether which contains the four earthly elements but is wholly removed from them. Aristotle was to change it to the crystalline heavenly "matter" that he needed for his system, but it remained for him a "fifth essence." There has thus been twice repeated the original "hull," the frame that has been sought. What happened, and was noted in chapter VII, was that the etymology of Sampo was discovered to be in the Sanskrit skambha.
The abstract idea of a simple earth axis, so natural today, was by no means so logical to the ancients, who always thought of the whole machinery of heaven moving around the earth, stable at the center. One line always implied many others in a structure. So, apparently one must accept the idea of the world frame a an implex (as used here and later this word involves the necessary attributes that are associated with a concept: e.g., the center and circumference of a circle, the parallels and meridians implied by a sphere), of which Grotte and Sampo were the rude models with their ponderous moving parts.
Like the axle of the mill, the tree, the skambha, also represents the world axis. This instinctively suggests a straight, upright post, but the world axis is a simplification of the real concept. There is the invisible axis, of course, which is crowned by the North Nail, but this image needs to be enriched by two more dimensions. The term world axis is an abbreviation of language comparable to the visual abbreviation achieved by projecting the reaches of the Sky onto a flat star map.
It is best not to think of the axis in straight analytical terms, one line at a time, but to consider it, and the frame to which it is connected, as one whole. This involves the use of multivalent terms and the recognition of a convergent involution of unusual meanings.
As radius automatically calls circle to mind, so axis must invoke the two determining great circles on the surface of the sphere, the equinoctial and solstitial colures. Pictured this way, the axis resembles a complete armillary sphere. It stands for the system of coordinates of the sphere and represents the frame of a world-age. Actually the frame defines a world-age. Because the polar axis and the colures form an indivisible whole, the entire frame is thrown out of kilter if one part is moved. When that happens, a new Pole star with appropriate colures of its own must replace the obsolete apparatus.
Thus the Sanskrit skambha, the world pillar, ancestor of the Finnish Sampo, is shown to be an integral element in the scheme of things. The hymn 10.7 of the Atharva Veda is dedicated to the skambha, and Whitney, its translator and commentator [n7 Harvard Oriental Series, vol. 8, p. 590.] sounds puzzled in his footnote to 10.7.2: "Skambha, lit. 'prop, support, pillar,' strangely used in this hymn as frame of the universe or held personified as its soul" Here are two verses of it:
12. In whom earth, atmosphere, in whom sky is set, where fire, moon, sun, wind stand fixed, that Skambha tell. . .
35. The Skambha sustains both heaven-and-earth here; the skambha sustains the wide atmosphere, the skambha sustains the six wide directions; into the skambha entered this whole existence.
The good old Sampo sounds less pretentious, but it does have its three "roots," "one in heaven, one in the earth, one in the water-eddy." [n8 K. Krohn, Kalevalastudien 4. Sampo (1927), p. 13.] To make a drawing of a pillarlike tree (let alone a mill), with its roots distributed in the manner indicated, would be quite a task. Notably it takes the "enormous bull of Pohja"—obviously a cosmic bull—to plow up these strange roots: the Finnish heroes by themselves had not been able to uproot the Sampo.
In the case of Yggdrasil, the World Ash, Rydberg tried his hardest to localize the three roots, to imagine and to draw them.
Since he looked with Steadfast determination into the interior of our globe, the result was not overly convincing. One of the roots is said to belong to the Asa in heaven, and beneath it is the most sacred fountain of Urd. The second is to be found in the quarters of the frost-giants "where Ginnungagap formerly was," and where the well of Mimir now is. The third root belongs to Niflheim, the realm of the dead, and under this root is Hvergelmer" the Whirlpool (Gylf. 15) [n9 We are aware that either Grotte "should" have three roots, or that Yggdrasil should be uprooted, and that the Finns do not tell how the maelstroem came into being. All of which can be explained; we wish, however, to avoid dragging more and more material into the case. Several ages of the world have passed away, and they do not perish all in the same manner; e.g., the Finns know of the destruction of Sampo and of the felling of the huge Oak.].
This precludes any terrestrial diagram. It looks as though the "axis," implicating the equinoctial and solstitial colures, runs through the "three worlds" which are, to state it roughly and most inaccurately, the following:
(a) the 'sky north of the Tropic of Cancer, i.e., the sky proper, domain of the gods
(b) the "inhabited world" of the zodiac between the tropics, the domain of the "living"
(c) the II sky south from the Tropic of Capricorn, alias: the Sweet-Water Ocean, the realm of the dead.
The demarcation plane between solid earth and sea is represented by the celestial equator; hence half of the zodiac is under "water," the southern ecliptic, bordered by the equinoctial points. There are more refined subdivisions, to be sure, "zones" or "belts" or "climates" dividing the sphere from north to south and, most important, the "sky" as well as the waters of the south have a share in the "inhabited world" allotted to them [n10 To clear up the exact range of the three worlds, it would be necessary to work out the whole history of the Babylonian "Ways of Anu, Enlil, and Ea" (cf. pp. 431f.), and how these "Ways" were adapted, changed, and defined anew by the many heirs of ancient oriental astronomy. And then we would not yet be wise to the precise whereabouts of Air, Saltwater, and other ambiguous items.].
This summary is an almost frivolous simplification, but for the time being it may be sufficient.
Meanwhile, it is necessary to explain again what this "earth" is that modern interpreters like to take for a pancake. The mythical earth is, in fact, a plane, but this plane is not our "earth" at all, neither our globe, nor a presupposed homocentrical earth. "Earth" is the implied plane through the four points of the year, marked by the equinoxes and solstices, in other words the ecliptic. And this is why this earth is very frequently said to be quadrangular. The four "corners," that is, the zodiacal constellations rising heliacally at both the equinoxes and solstices, parts of the "frame" skambha, are the points which determine an "earth." Every world-age has its own "earth." It is for this very reason that "ends of the world" are said to take place. A new "earth" arises, when another set of zodiacal constellations brought in by the Precession determines the year points.
Once the reader has made the adjustment needed to think of the frame instead of the "pillar" he will understand easily many queer scenes which would be strictly against nature—ideas about planets performing feats at places which are out of their range, as both the poles are. He will understand why a force planning to uproot (or to chop down) a tree, or to unhinge a mill, or merely pull out a plug, or a pin, does not have to go "up"—or "down"—all the way to the pole to do it. The force causes the same effect when it pulls out the nearest available part of the "frame" within the inhabited world.
Here are some examples of the manipulation of the frame, beginning with a most insignificant survival. Actually this is a useful approach, because the less meaningful the example, the more astonishing is the fact of its surviving. Turkmen tribes of southern Turkestan tell about a copper pillar marking the "navel of the earth," and they state that "only the nine-year-old hero Kara Par is able to lift and to extract" it [n11 Radloff, quoted by W. E. Roescher, Der Omphalosgedanke (1918), pp. 1f.]. As goes without saying, nobody comments on the strange idea that someone should be eager to "extract the navel of the earth." When Young Arthur does it with Excalibur, the events have already been fitted into a more familiar frame and they provoke no questions.
In its grandiose style, the Mahabharata presents a similar prodigy as follows:
It was Vishvamitra who in anger created a second world and numerous stars beginning with Sravana . . . He can burn the three worlds by his splendour, can, by stamping (his foot), cause the earth to quake. He can "sever the great Meru from the Earth" and hurl it to any distance, He can go round the 10 points of the Earth in a moment [n12 Mbh. 1.71, Roy trans., vol. 1, p. 171.].
Vishvamitra is one of the seven stars of the Big Dipper, this at least has been found out. But each planet is represented by a star of the Wain, and vice versa, so this case does not look particularly helpful [n13 The notion of "numerous [newly appointed] stars beginning with Sravana" should enlighten us. Sravana, "the Lame," is, in the generally accepted order, the twenty-first lunar mansion, alpha beta gamma Aquilae, also called by the name Ashvatta, which stands for a sacred fig tree but which means literally "below which the horses stand" (Scherer, Gestirnnamen, p. 158), and which invites comparison with Old Norse Yggdrasil, meaning "the tree below which Odin's horse grazes" (Reuter, Germanische Himmelskunde, p. 236). Actually, the solstitial colure ran through alpha beta gamma Aquilae around 300 B.C., and long after the time when it used to pass through one or the other of the stars of the Big Dipper; the equinoctial colure, however, comes down very near eta Ursae Majoris. Considering that eta maintains the most cordial relations with Mars in occidental astrology, Vishvamitra might be eta, and might represent Mars, and that would go well with the violent character of this Rishi. But even if we accept this for a working hypothesis, there remains the riddle of the "second world," i.e., "second" with respect to which "first" world? Although we have a hunch, we are not going to try to solve it here and now. Two pieces of information should be mentioned, however: (1) Mbh. 14-44 (Roy trans., vol. 12, p. 83) states: "The constellations [= lunar mansions, nakshatras] have Sravana for their first"; (2) Sengupta (in Burgess' trans. of Surya Siddhanta, p.xxxiv) claims that "the time of the present redaction of the Mahabbarata" was called "Sravanadi kala, i.e., the time when the winter solstitial colure passed through the nakshatra Sravana."].
A cosmic event of the first order can be easily overlooked when it hides modestly in a fairy tale. The following, taken from the Indian "Ocean of Stories," tells of Shiva: "When he drove his trident into the heart of Andhaka, the king of the Asuras, athough he was only one, the dart which that monarch had infixed into the heart of the three worlds was, strange to say, extracted." [n14 N. M. Penzer, The Ocean of Story (1924), vol. 1, p. 3.].
A plot can also shrink to unrecognizable insignificance when it comes disguised as history, but this next story at least has been pinned down to the proper historical character, and even has been checked by a serious military historian like Arrianus, who tells us the following:
Alexander, then, reached Gordium, and was seized with an ardent desire to ascend to the acropolis, where was the palace of Gordius and his son Midas, and to look at Gordius' wagon and the knot of that chariot's yoke. There was a widespread tradition about this chariot around the countryside; Gordius, they said, was a poor man of the Phrygians of old, who tilled a scanty parcel of earth and had but two yoke of oxen: with one he ploughed, with the other he drove his wagon. Once, as he was ploughing, an eagle settled on the yoke and stayed, perched there, till it was time to loose the oxen; Gordius was astonished at the portent, and went off to consult the Telmissian prophets, who were skilled in the interpretation of prodigies, inheriting—women and children too—the prophetic gift. Approaching a Telmissian village, he met a girl drawing water and told her the story of the eagle: she, being also of the prophetic line, bade him return to the spot and sacrifice to Zeus the King. So then Gordius begged her to come along with him and assist in the sacrifice; and at the spot duly sacrificed as she directed, married the girl, and had a son called Midas.
Midas was already a grown man, handsome and noble, when the Phrygians were in trouble with civil war; they received an oracle that a chariot would bring them a king and he would stop the war. True enough, while they were discussing this, there arrived Midas, with his parents, and drove, chariot and all, into the assembly. The Phrygians, interpreting the oracle, decided that he was the man whom the gods had told them would come in a chariot; they thereupon made him king, and he put an end to the civil war. The chariot of his father he set up in the acropolis as a thank-offering to Zeus the king for sending the eagle.
Over and above this there was a story about the wagon, that anyone who should untie the knot of the yoke should be lord of Asia. This knot was of cornel bark, and you could see neither beginning nor end of it. Alexander, unable to find how to untie the knot, and not brooking to leave it tied, lest this might cause some disturbance in the vulgar, smote it with his sword, cut the knot, and exclaimed, "I have loosed it! "-so at least say some, but Aristobulus puts it that he took out the pole pin, a dowel driven right through the pole, holding the knot together, and so removed the yoke from the pole. I do not attempt to be precise how Alexander actually dealt with this knot. Anyway, he and his suite left the wagon with the impression
that the oracle about the loosed knot had been duly fulfilled. It is certain that there were that night thunderings and lightenings, which indicated this; so Alexander in thanksgiving offered sacrifice next day to whatever gods had sent the signs and certified the undoing of the knot [n15 Anabasis of Alexander 2.3.1-8 (Robson trans., LCL).].
Without going now into the relevant comparative material it should be stressed that in those cases where "kings" are sitting in a wagon (Greek hamaxa), i.e., a four-wheeled truck, it is most of the time Charles' Wain.
Alexander was a true myth builder, or rather, a true myth attracting magnet. He had a gift for attracting to his fabulous personality the manifold tradition that, once, had been coined for Gilgamesh.
But the time is not yet ripe either for Alexander or for Gilgamesh, nor for further statements about deities or heroes who could pull out pins, plugs and pillars. The next concern is with the decisive features of the mythical landscape and their possible localization, or their fixation in time. It is essential to know where and when the first whirlpool came into being once Grotte, Amlodhi's Mill, had been destroyed. This is, however, a misleading expression because our terminology is still much too imprecise. It would be better to say the first exit from, or entrance to, the whirlpool. It appears advisable to recapitulate the bits of information that have been gathered on the whirlpool as a whole:
The maelstrom, result of a broken mill, a chopped down tree, and the like, "goes through the whole globe," according to the Finns. So does Tartaros, according to Socrates. To repeat it in Guthrie's words: "The earth in this myth of Socrates is spherical, and Tartaros, the bottomless pit, is represented in this mythical geography by a chasm which pierces the sphere right through from side to side." [n16 Orpheus and Greek Religion (1952), p. 168.].
It is source and mouth of all waters.
It is the way, or one among others, to the realm of the dead.
Medieval geographers call it "Umbilicus Maris," Navel of the Sea, or "Euripus."
Antiochus the astrologer calls Eridanus proper, or some abstract topos not far from Sirius, "zalos," i.e., whirlpool.
M. W. Makemson looks for the Polynesian whirlpool, said to be "at the end of the sky," "at the edge of the Galaxy," in Sagittarius.
A Dyak hero, climbing a tree in "Whirlpool-Island," lands himself in the Pleiades.
But generally, one looks for "it" in the more or less northwest/north-northwest direction, a direction where, equally vaguely, Kronos-Saturn is supposed to sleep in his golden cave notwithstanding the blunt statements (by Homer) that Kronos was hurled down into deepest Tartaros.
And from those "infernal" quarters, particularly from the (Ogygian) Stygian landscape, "one"—who else but the souls?—sees the celestial South Pole, invisible to us.
The reader might agree that this summary shows clearly the insufficiency of the general terminology accepted by the majority. The verbal confusion provokes sympathy for Numenius (see above, p. 188), and the Third Vatican Mythographer who took the rivers for planets, their planetary orbs respectively. We think that the whirlpool stands for the "ecliptical world" marked by the whirling planets, embracing everything which circles obliquely with respect to the polar axis and the equator-oblique by 23 ½ degrees, more or less, each planet having its own obliquity with respect to the others and to the sun's path, that is, the ecliptic proper. It has been mentioned earlier (p. 206, n. 5) that in the axis of the Roman circus was a Euripus, and altars of the three outer planets (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars), and the three inner planets (Venus, Mercury, Moon) on both sides of the pyramid of the sun, and that there were not more than seven circuits because the "planets are seven only."
The ecliptic as a whirl is only one aspect of the famous "implex." It must be kept in mind that being the seat of all planetary powers, it represented, so to speak, the "Establishment" itself. There is no better symbol of the thinking of those planet-struck Mesopotamian civilizations than the arrogant plan of the royal cities themselves, as it has been patiently reconstructed by generations of Orientalists and archaeologists.
Nineveh proclaimed itself as the seat of stable order and power by its seven-times crenellated circle of walls, colored with the seven planetary colors, and so thick that chariots could run along the top. The planetary symbolism spread to India, as was seen in chapter VIII, and culminated in that prodigious cosmological diagram that is the temple of Barabudur in Java [n17 P. Mus, Barabudur (1935).]. It is still evident in the innumerable stupas which dot the Indian countryside, whose superimposed crowns stand for the planetary heavens. And here we have the Establishment seen as a Way Up and Beyond, as Numenius would have seen immediately, the succession of spheres of transition for the soul, a. quiet. promise of transcendence which marks the Gnostic and Hinduistic scheme. The skeleton map will always lack one or the other dimension. The Whirl is then a way up or a way down? Heraclitus would say, both ways are one and the same. You cannot put into a scheme everything at once.
This general conception of the whirlpool as the "ecliptical world" does not, of course, help to understand any single detail. Starting from the idea of the whirlpool as a way to the other world, one must look at the situation through the eyes of a sou1 meaning to go there. It has to move from the interior outwards, to "ascend" from the geocentric earth through the planetary spheres "up" to the fixed sphere, that is, right through the whole whirlpool, the ecliptical world. But in order to leave the ecliptical frame, there must be a station for changing trains at the equator. One would expect this station to be at the crossroads of ecliptical and equatorial coordinates at the equinoxes. But evidently, this was not the arrangement. A far older route was followed. It is true that it sometimes looks as though the transfer point were at the equinoxes. The astrological tradition that followed Teukros [n18 F. Boll, Sphaera (1903), pp. 19,28,47,246-51. Antiochus does not mention any of these star groups.], for example provided a rich offering of celestial locations for Hades, the Acherusian lake, Charon the ferryman, etc., all of them under the chapter Libra. But this is a trap and one can only hope that many hapless souls have not been deceived. For these astrological texts mean the sign Libra, not the constellation.
All "change stations" are found invariably in two regions: one in the South between Scorpius and Sagittarius, the other in the North between Gemini and Taurus; and this is valid through time and space, from Babylon to Nicaragua [n19 The notion is not even foreign to the cheering adventures of Sun, the Chinese Monkey (Wou Tch'eng Ngen, French trans. by Louis Avenal ). One day, two "harponneurs des morts" get hold of him, claiming that he has arrived at the term of his destiny, and is ripe for the underworld. He escapes, of course. The translator remarks (vol. 1, p. iii) that it is the constellation Nan Teou, the Southern Dipper, that decides everybody's death, and the orders are executed by these "harponneurs des morts." The Southern Dipper consists of the stars mu lambda phi sigma tau zeta Sagittarii (cf. G. Schlegel, L'Uranographie Chinoise , pp. 172ff.; L. de Saussure, Les Origines de l'Astronomie Chinoise , pp. 452f.).].
Why was it ever done in the first place? Because of the Galaxy, which has its crossroads with the ecliptic between Sagittarius and Scorpius in the South, and between Gemini and Taurus in the North.