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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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From mountain to temple to house

Bob Trubshaw

'All over the world, certain mountains are considered to be the abodes of the gods. Examples are numerous and cosmopolitan. The ancient Greeks had their Mount Olympus; the Hindus Mount Meru and Mount Kailas; the Tibetan Buddhists, Kanchenjunga; the North American natives, Bear Butte, Mount Shasta, and the San Francisco Twin peaks; the ancient Britons had Mount Snowdon and Glastonbury Tor; and the Jews Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb.' Nigel Pennick [1]

It seems all too long since Mercian Mysteries had an in-depth look at the subject of omphaloses and the concept of the sacred centre, so we cast back to the origins of hallowed places. A recent addition to Thames and Hudson's long-running Art and Imagination series, The temple by Dr John Lundquist, provides some detailed new insights into middle eastern temples and their role as symbolic centres of the cosmos. No amateur speculation this - rather the product of Lundquist's PhD research. Confusingly, I am supplementing related information from Lundquist's The temple with the work of an author called Robert Temple, who is far more speculative. But more on him later.

'The step pyramid introduced by the Egyptian king Zoser in the Third Dynasty was an architectural realization of the primordial hill, which was then modified into the true pyramid in the Fourth Dynasty. During the Ptolemaic Period, every temple was considered to be a replica of the primeval temple, which had been built upon the primordial mound after it had emerged from Nun, the primeval waters.' [2]

In ancient Sumer, the innermost sanctuary of the temple was sometimes referred to as the 'holy mound', and was again seen as the mound which first arose out of the primordial abyss. The hindu tradition also respects Mount Meru as the centre of the world. In Angkor (Cambodia), the temples of the Khmers reproduce the mythical five peaks of the world mountain with perhaps the most splendid architectural recreations of the sacred mound, with a numerical and astronomical symbolism which exceeds that of the European Gothic. No less than 22 solar and lunar sight-lines have been identified.

There is intense competition from other mound building cultures. As far apart as Shang dynasty China, India of the Upanishads, Aztec and Mayan central America and Babylonians with their ziggurats immense effort went into constructing artificial sacred mountains. Herodotus described the ziggurat of Babylon; in the words of a late nineteenth translation:

'The sacred precinct of Jupiter Belus, a square enclosure two furlongs [440 yards] each way, with gates of solid brass, was also remaining in my time. In the middle of the precinct there was a tower of solid masonry, a furlong [220 yards] in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside by a path which winds round all the towers. . . . On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple.' [3]

All such temples embody a sacred geometry which aims to provide a model of the cosmos. Accuracy was essential. This made the preparations for the foundations vital and subject to immense ritual. 'Chief among these was the "stretching of the cord", well attested in both ancient Egypt and India, a kind of "sacred surveying", which established the ground plan of the building, set its four corners - oriented to the cardinal directions - and brought the earthly building into relationship with the gods of the heavens and the constellations, or the gods in their guise as constellations. The ritual of stretching the cord is known in Egypt from as early as the Second Dynasty king Khasekhemwy to as late as the Ptolemaic Period Temple of Edfu (built between 237 and 57 BCE). . . . In the Egyptian ritual, which took place during the night, at the time of the new moon, the sky was first "stretched out", its ultimate boundaries determined and set out with particular reference to the constellation known in Egyptian as Mshtjw [Ursa Major].' [4] Similar obsession with minute detail can be found in Tibetan and Indian temple-building rituals.

Paul Devereux and Nigel Pennick have described the 'Etruscan Discipline' which was the detailed ritual of augury and surveying used by the Romans when laying out the cardo and decumanus (the north-south and east-west roads) which form the main geometry of their cities. Where they crossed a pit, the mundus, was dug and offerings buried in it. It was sealed by a stone, known as the umbilicus which means, as does the earlier Greek word omphalos, 'navel' - with inseparable overtones of being the cosmological centre point [5].

Biblical high places

However, we are getting ahead of my main theme. Let us stay for the moment with the transition from mountains to temples. In the Old testament the frequent mention of 'high places' (bamoth) always means 'sanctuaries'. Quite probably hill and mountain sanctuaries were insufficient or inconvenient once the ancient Semites began living in settlements. But the intention is clearly to retain the original sanctity of a mountain as the abode of an animistic spirit.

Some examples will suffice to support this: the sanctity of Mount Carmel is sufficiently clear from 1 Kings xviii - altars were raised there to both Bethel and to Yahweh. In later times it is referred to by Tacitus as a sanctuary where there is an altar but neither temple nor an image of any deity. Sacrifices were offered on Mount Tabor, in the liminal 'no man's land' between the territories of Issachar and Zebulon (Joshua xix 22; 1 Chronicles vi 77). Gibeah, which means 'hill', lay in the territory of Benjamin. In 1 Samuel x 5 it is called 'Gibeah of God' and in 1 Samuel xxii 6 it is stated there is a holy tree there. A different Geb ('hills') is revealed as a hilltop sanctuary in 2 Kings xxiii 8 'And he brought all the priests out of the cities of Judah and defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba.'

In 2 Samuel xv 30-32 the Mount of Olives is clearly seen to be an ancient sanctuary and this must be the same as that referred to in 1 Kings xi 7: 'Then did Solomon build a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the mount that is before Jerusalem . . .' [6]

Egyptian sacred centres

Some Mercian Mysteries readers may well be familiar with a book published in 1976 which picks up on the apparent anomaly of the Dogon tribe in Africa knowing of the existence of an invisible small star which is associated with Sirius. Now, the overall claims of Robert Temple's The Sirius mystery are held together with much thin air and mental gymnastics. Nevertheless, in the process of his research, Temple worked through quite a few back waters of learning. So it is, in this rather unlikely location, that I came across much information on middle eastern omphali, and various sources of detailed information. One of these was Peter Tompkins' book equally-specious book, The secret of the Great Pyramid. But, again, there are facts as well as fantasies, in this case based on the scholarly work of Livio Stecchini:

'The prime meridian of Egypt was made to split the country longitudinally precisely in half, running from Behdet on the Mediterranean, right through an island in the Nile just north-east of the Great Pyramid, all the way to where it crossed the Nile again at the Second Cataract. . . . Cities and temples, says Stecchini, were deliberately built at distances in round figures and simple fractions from the tropic or prime meridian. The predynastic capital of Egypt was set near the mouth of the Nile near Behdet, right on the prime meridian, at 31 deg 30 min. . . . Memphis, the first capital of united Egypt was again laid out on the prime meridian and at 29 deg 51 min, precisely 6 deg north of the tropic. . . . As each of these geodetic centres was a political as well as a geographical 'navel' of the world, an omphalos, or stone navel, was placed there to represent the northern hemisphere from equator to pole, marked out with meridians and parallels, showing the direction and distance of other such navels. In Thebes the stone omphalos was placed in the main room of the temple of Amon, where the meridian and parallel actually cross.' [7] Tompkins asserts that Amon was identified with the hemispheric omphalos stone, just as Apollo was with the omphalos at Delphi. The revolutionary Pharaoh Akhenaten moved the sacred centre from Thebes to Akhet-Aten (now known as Tell el-Amarna). This, quite pedantically, is situated at the centre of this geodetic system even though it is an inhospitable location for a major city and led to Akhenaten being labelled a despot by Egyptologists for squandering so much of his realm's resources on the project.

After a digression showing how Stecchini had reconstructed the techniques needed for this fantastic exercise in surveying, Tompkins continues: 'According to Hebrew historians the original Jewish centre of worship was not Jerusalem, but Mount Gerizim, a strictly geodetic point 4 deg east of the main axis of Egypt. It was only moved to Jerusalem after 980 BC. The two great oracular centres of Greece - Delphi and Dodona - were also geodetic markers according to Stecchini. Delphi is 7 deg and Dodona 8 deg north of Behdet, the northernmost part of Egypt, on the prime meridian of Egypt.' [8]

Apart from the intriguing geomancy, the sites which form Temple's eastern and western 'chains' of omphaloses are often linked with sacred mountains:

On the west the sites, separated by one degree of latitude, are: Dodona (Mount Tomaros); Delphi (Mount Parnasus); Delos (Mount Cynthus); the next site is doubtful and may be Thera which was destroyed in a major volcanic eruption; the next omphalos is Thenae near Knossos on Crete; then a site on the south coast of Cyprus - perhaps the Temple to Aphrodite at Paphos; a site near Lake Tritonis in Libya/Tunisia; then El Marj, Lybia; and finally Behdet itself.

On the east Temple suggests: Metsamor (Mount Ararat); Sardis (Mount Sipylus); Miletus, also known as Didyma or Branchidae (Mount Latmus); Hierapolis; then, after two doubtful 'links in the chain', Sidon (Mount Lebanon); Babylon; with Hebron as the eastern end at the same latitude as Bahdet.

From Egyptian to Greek omphalos

Temple also draws our attention to a passage in Herodotus (Book Two, 54):
'At Dodona . . . the priestesses who deliver the oracles have a . . . story: two black doves, they say, flew away from Thebes in Egypt, and one of them alighted at Dodona, the other in Libya. The former, perched on an oak, and speaking with a human voice, told them that there, on that very spot, there should be an oracle of Zeus. Those who heard her understood the words to be command from heaven, and at once obeyed. Similarly the dove which flew to Libya told the Libyans to found the oracle of Amon - which is also an oracle of Zeus. The people who gave me this information were the three priestesses at Dodona.'

There are several tentative reasons for suggesting that Delphi was founded by the Egyptians. That Dodona and Thebes are linked by Herodotus's myth adds indirect evidence. Temple suggests that the presence of the monstrous Typhon at Delphi (later killed by Apollo) may also derive from Egyptian sources - especially when it is noted that the Egyptian word tephit means 'cave, cavern, hole in the ground' - describing perfectly the chasm at Delphi ion which Python was supposed to lie rotting, his corpse giving off fumes (Greek for 'smoke' or 'vapour' being typhos). If this sounds far-fetched, bear in mind that our word 'abyss' comes from the Greek abyssos which itself originates with Sumerian abzu. (Beyond that written language ceases to exist, itself lost in the abysses of time.)

There is a bird legend associated with the founding of Delphi too, although the source here is Strabo, who states that Zeus let two gold eagles. They flew off in different directions around the world. Where their flights crossed marked the centre of the world, and this happened at Delphi. While not fitting in directly with any of the above ideas, it does reinforced a 'geomantic siting' for the oracular temple.

But neither Strabo or indeed any Greek was the inventor of the myth. Egyptian illustrations of omphalos stones frequently depict a pair of birds. Tantalisingly, in the Persian Avesta, in the branches of the sacred tree growing on the Mountain of Paradise (clearly a World Tree/axis mundi image) there are two birds roosting - Amru and Chamru, the two eagles of the sky. Are these also related to the Egyptian precursors, and those at Dodona and Delphi? Probably, but we cannot be certain.

What is certain is that Delphi was preeminently the centre of the Classical Greek world. Even Plato was moved to write that Apollo in his temple there 'sits in the centre on the navel of the Earth.'

Delphys means 'vagina' and it is said that from a rock cleft at Delphi the oracle voice of the deity could be heard, intoxicated by noxious fumes rising from the Earth itself. However, modern visitors to Delphi, while no doubt overawed by the dramatic setting, will find no rock cleft, still less one with fumes emitting. Although the area is very liable to rock falls which may have concealed an earlier cleft, the geology of the region makes natural fumes exceedingly unlikely. Perhaps, the intoxication was from burning laurel leaves, as Plutarch suggested. Another contemporary author, Lucian, insisted the oracle was intoxicated from chewing laurel leaves. Again, this would be ineffectual as there is no psychoactive chemical in laurel or bay leaves (although Greek mythology clearly regards the species as a 'symbolic' intoxicant) [9; 10]. Whatever it was that gave such oracular powers to the priestesses of Delphi seems to have been inherited from the long-established sanctity of this dramatic location.

The most detailed account of the Delphi temples - for there are a whole series of remains of differing ages - that I have come across is in the informative yet entertaining book by A.R. and Mary Burn, The living past of Greece [11].

Islamic omphali

The notion of a cosmic centre did not cease with the demise of Delphi. Rather, it gained importance in the medieval mentality.

In pre-Renaissance christian minds the sacred centre was Jerusalem, the heart of the place that is still known today as the 'Holy Land'. Early maps of the world were used as altar pieces - the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral being a well-known example. The known countries of the world are laid out as a circle with Jerusalem at the centre. In an age when maps have become just a tool for knowing the material world it is difficult to imagine a world-view in which such mandala-like icons had a primarily religious symbolism of the order of the cosmos that led to them, deservedly, taking a prominent place within the church, typically being installed behind the altar.

Although the physical city of Jerusalem was never laid out on the principles of 'sacred geometry', the main christian sites give the natural topography an indelibly sacred manifestation, with Mount Sion the most auspicious of the holy mountains. It is beyond the scope of this article to digress further on this matter; those interested in reading about the 'sacred way' through Jerusalem would do well to read Wendy Pullen's article in a recent edition of Cosmos [13].

Similar evidence from islamic texts is also available. In the Midrash Tanhuma it is said:
 'Just as the navel is found at the centre of a human being, so the land of Israel is found at the centre of the world. Jerusalem is at the centre of the land of Israel, and the temple is at the centre of Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies is at the centre of the temple, the Ark is the centre of the Holy of Holies, and the Foundation Stone is in front of the Ark, which spot is the foundation of the world.' [14]

According to Jewish legend, it was this primordial rock on which Jacob slept and raised his stone, from which it was known as Bethel. The same rock then came to be placed in the Holy of Holies of the Temple of Solomon and, according to islamic tradition, is the same rock from which the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. The second most sacred mosque of islam now covers it, the Dome of the Rock [15].

As a different example of sacred cosmology at city scale, in islamic times the city of Baghdad was entirely rebuilt on a circular plan. Although the majority of the houses and shops were crowded into the periphery, in the centre was a vast open space, in the centre of which was the Caliph's palace. In the centre of this, under a green dome, was his throne. As a schematic representation of the cosmos this has not been exceeded, although the very different context of T'ang China and its capital of Chang'an provides a parallel [12].

Home is where the navel is

Let us now move from all this cosmic stuff to something decidedly more domestic. In many traditional societies, houses too are laid out with the sort of rituals also devoted to temples. Or, to put it in the scholarly terms of C.B. Wilson: 'The practice of cosmocising houses is remarkably widespread among traditional peoples . . .' [16] This 'cosmocising' is especially common among shamanistic societies 'though with varying degrees of explicitness.' ('Surprise, surprise', I suspect you're surmising.)

Saving you much more of Wilson's contorted language, it is suffice to say that he draws examples from the Dogon of West Africa, the Tukanoans of Amazonia, the Australian Aborigines, Madagascar and Pueblos in New Mexico. For Wilson, the highest human aim is invariably to realise one's potential as a microcosm. Even in such 'abstract' religions as taoism or sufism, the exalted sages may be seen as the restoration of primordial unity.

Wilson gives a detailed assessment of the ceremony of positioning the ridgepole during the construction of a Chinese house, which leaves no doubt as to its deep-rooted cosmological significance, with specific overtones of human initiation into manhood and various alchemical interactions. Less obviously, Wilson notices that the Chinese custom has surprisingly close parallels with the ritual used by Black Elk (an Oglala Sioux indian) to establish an altar 'at the centre of the world'. In the same way that the standard taoist ritual uses smoke to purify the five directions so the Sioux methodically points his axe then takes a smoking stick to draw lines from the cardinal directions, and from the heavens and from the Earth [17].

The concept of the home being the centre of the world is quite specific in the most traditional of the south American cultures, that of the Kogi indians. Their secluded existence was portrayed in Alan Ereira's ennobling television programme, The heart of the world. In his book of the same name he explains that the Kogi perception of the world is in the form of a quartered circle, with other disc-like worlds both above and below. The circular ceremonial house of the Kogi has four fires, which represent this quartered earth. The conical roof symbolises the top half of the universe and, within its construction techniques, contains symbols of the worlds above. Conceptually at least, the cone is mirrored as a series of underworlds. 'The Kogi priests, the Mamas, sit in the ceremonial house as though it were a womb, and they are at the foot of an umbilical cord reaching down from the centre of the roof.' [18]

By the way, the four quarters are not the cardinal directions, but the points on the horizon touched by the rising and setting sun at the solstices. This attention to detail is followed even in the placing of the simple looms at which the Kogi men spend so much of their time - these too are orientated according to this fundamental conformation of the world.

The title of the film, The heart of the world, is a direct reference to the Sierra mountain on which the whole Kogi civilisation abides. 'Here the Mother stuck her spindle and spun it, turning the world on its axis, spinning out the thread which is time as well as space, and which heaps up in the cone of the Sierra, and which then develops, in an ever-widening spiral, into the whole of the world.'

This symbolism would be familiar to our Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian forebears. They too saw the great goddess Freya as spinning out the web of wyrd (fate or destiny), just as one of the Classical Fates was always depicted measuring out the span of human life in the form of a thread, with scissors or knife ever at the ready. That such a mundane, domestic chore as spinning could embody the widest cosmological concepts reinforces the notion that every family's home was also its navel.


1: Hitler's secret sciences, Nigel C. Pennick, Neville Spearman, 1981.
2: The temple, John M. Lundquist, Thames and Hudson, 1993.
3: Architecture mysticism and myth, W.R. Lethaby, 2nd edn 1892, reprinted The Architectural press 1974.
4: Lundquist, op. cit.
5: Lines on the landscape, Nigel Pennick and Paul Devereux, Robert Hale, 1989.
6: All biblical examples from examples cited in Hebrew religion - its origin and development W.O.E. Oesterley and T.H. Robinson, SPCK, 1930.
7: The Sirius mystery, Robert K.G. Temple, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1976.
8: Secrets of the Great Pyramid, Peter Tompkins, Harper and Row, 1971.
9: Persephone's quest, R. Gordon Wasson, S. Kramrisch, J. Ott, C.A.P. Ruck, Yale University Press, 1986.
10: The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, Julian Jaynes, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
11: The living past of Greece, A.R. and Mary Burn, Herbert Press 1980; reprinted Schoken Press (New York) 1986.
12: 'The symbolism of the rayed nimbus in early Islamic art', Robert Hillenbrand, Cosmos Vol.2, 1986.
13: 'Mapping time and salvation: early Christian pilgrimage to Jerusalem', Wendy Pullen, Mapping invisible worlds (Cosmos Vol.9), ed. G.D. Flood, Edinburgh University Press, 1993.
14: Cited in Lundquist, op. cit.
15: Lundquist, op. cit.
16: 'Dwelling at the centre of the world', C.B. Wilson, Sacred architecture in the traditions of India, China, Judaism and Islam, (Cosmos Vol.8), ed. E. Lyle, Edinburgh University Press, 1992. Wilson is developing the remarks of Mircea Eliade in Symbolism, the sacred and the arts, ed. Diane Apostolos- Cappadona, Crossroad (New York), 1986.
17: Wilson, op. cit., citing The sacred pipe: Black Elk's account of the seven rites of the Oglala Sioux, Joseph Epes Brown, Penguin, 1972. 18: The heart of the world, Alan Ereira, Cape, 1990.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.23 May 1995.

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