Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part IV

Universal Architecture

Let’s commence, then, to unwind some involuted mysteries. We’ll begin with what I have called “Universal Architecture”, that is, the way the cosmos itself is constructed and arranged.

It is the so-called Ptolemaic Universe I will be talking about, which in any case continued to be the model of poets, thinkers, and theologians long after Copernicus and Galileo supposedly consigned it to the ash-heap of science. In Paradise Lost, Milton alludes repeatedly to Galileo’s “optic tube”; but the route Satan travels on his way to reconnoitre Eden is nonetheless that old, familiar Ptolemaic ladder, suspended from the floor of heaven by Homer’s “golden chain” and descending by steps down to Earth. Why? Because as C.S. Lewis has observed, it struck Milton, and Milton’s fellow poets, as incomparably beautiful and fecund with meaning.

The Ptolemaic universe is, at its practical, the universe you see when you look out at the night sky: a structure that rests on the floor of Earth and rises vertically through ten stories, or spheres, as they were called, each storey being curvilinear in shape and all rotating concentrically.

Above the Earth are the seven planetary spheres: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond these seven is the Stellatum, the sphere of the Fixed Stars, called so because seen from the remoteness of Earth, they appear not to move at all, though in fact their apparent slowness of rotation was usually interpreted to mean that they were revolving in the opposite direction from that of the planets. Beyond the Stellatum is the Primum Mobile (the First Mover), which carries no heavenly bodies, is itself immobile, but imparts motion to the rest (hence also called the “Unmoved Mover”) And beyond these nine spheres lies the Tenth Heaven, the Empyraean or Coelum Coelorum, the true abode of God and the saints, if you are Dante, or God and the Ideas, if you are a disciple of Plato, which has neither position nor velocity nor movement nor duration, which is eternal and infinite, and to which all space-time measurements are irrelevant.

Like the cosmos as a whole, each of the stars and planetary spheres (with the exception of the Earth, of course) is a divine animal, ensouled by the Olympian deity after which it is named, if you wish to be archaically literary, by an Idea or divine Intelligence, if you are a pagan Platonist, or by an angel, if you are a Christian one.



Physically, if you wish to be a scientific literalist, the universe is geocentric: the planetary spheres and stars revolve around the Earth. Spiritually, that is to say, in reality, it is theocentric, the planets and stars revolving around God. God is the stationary source and cause of their movement, and as Lady Philosophy explains to Boethius, all bodies in the cosmos trace a grand circle around Him, moving away from their Centre and Beginning in Him, but then returning under the impulse of the love and yearning for Him from whom all things are engendered and in whom they have their life and being.

The fact of the apparently opposite rotational direction of the planets and the fixed stars was moralized in a similar way, the direction of the planets representing all the outward, downward, and inferior worldly and material tendencies of the cosmos, the opposite direction of the fixed stars all of its nostalgic yearning for its divine Source. The “counter-rotation” of the fixed stars thus serves to restrain the downward-tending energies of the planets, and to keep them in obedient orbit around God. In this capacity, as Lady Philosophy also observes, the Stellatum corresponds to the human Reason in restraining the worldly appetites and passions of man’s lower soul.

In the spiritual sense, then, the Earth is located not at the universal centre but on the outer circumference, in the remote suburban fringes of the cosmos, a sort of cosmic Scarborough or Mississauga. Being farthest from God, the Earth is, morally and indeed literally, soulless and godless. By the time the Divine Fire has radiated from its centre in the Empyraean outward and downward to the Earth’s heavy atmosphere, it has grown weak and cold. In the upper reaches of the cosmos, the Divine Fire passes through the aether, which is pure and lucid, a virtually incorporeal quintessence. But below the Moon, where everything is “mortal and doomed to decay”, as Scipio describes the sublunary world in Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, the atmosphere becomes increasingly dense and impenetrable. And though, as Anchises assures us in Virgil’s sixth Aeneid,

…the heavens, the earth, the watery plains
Of the sea, the moon’s bright globe, the sun and stars are all
Sustained by a Spirit within; for immanent Mind, flowing
Through all its parts and leavening its mass, makes the universe work,

yet, on Earth,

…it is deadened and dimmed by the sinful bodies it lives in – 
The flesh that is laden with death, the anatomy of clay:
Whence those souls of ours feel fear, desire, grief, joy
But encased in their blind, dark prison discern not the heaven-light above.

In the lightless prison of the body, the soul of man is a deracinated fragment, spark, or ember of the Divine Fire, ever in danger of suffocation and extinction.


“And in hymself he lough…”

The great distance of the Earth from God is an index, as I have said, of Earth’s spiritual poverty, and it is only from the true perspective of Heaven that its paltry insignificance can be appreciated. Elevated in his vision to the eighth sphere at the side of his great ancestor, Scipio the Younger observes that “the earth below seemed to me so small that I was scornful of Rome’s empire, which covers only a single point, as it were, upon its surface”. From the celestial vantage point – the perspective of reality, because it is the abode of the intelligible Ideas, and also the birthplace and true home of the soul – the vanity of earthly fame, power, riches, and the other pomp and circumstance of the world are exposed.

Scipio’s ascent and dissertation on the theme of contemptus mundi was thus a recurrent topos in Western literature. Some of you might remember Troilus’ rendition of it, when his ghost leaves his body and wafts up to the same eighth sphere,

And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe, that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his lokyng down he caste.
And in hymself he lough…

Troilus’ laughter is, throughout the history of Western literature down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the only salutary and appropriate response to worldly glory, pride, brief good fortune, on the one hand, and to their opposites, injustice, misery, or despair, on the other.


What is the cosmos made out of, the material body of the Divine Animal, that is?


Elements and Contraries

As I’ve already mentioned, above the Moon the substance of the universe is a quasi-material Aether, called the Quintessence, that is the Fifth Essence or element. Below the Moon all individual things are the product of a providentially proportionate combination of the other four. It is not unlike modern molecular theory, really, only the combinations are ordained by the divine Wisdom rather than chance, and the elements can be charted on a very small and easily memorized Periodic Table.

If we think universally – that is, beyond the limits of individual particular things – then, as Ovid explains, the elements are arranged in layers, with the lightest, least corporeal, and most transparent, Fire, at the top, down through Air and Water to Earth, the heaviest and most materially dense and opaque. Each of the elements is the product of opposite qualities, or contraries. Fire is hot and dry; Air, hot and wet; Water, cold and wet; Earth, cold and dry.

Beyond these, the elements are also determined by other pairs of contraries. Fire and Air, being the least dense and closest to Heaven, are the two “divine” elements; Water and Earth, the mortal.

And then of course, there is another pair of contraries, or rather the archetype in fact of all contrariety (both symbolically and literally), the male and the female. As such, Earth, Water, Air and Fire are in themselves primordial and universal symbols.


The Sexual Image

That Earth and Water are feminine is obvious enough. As symbols, they are inflections of what Jung calls the Mother Archetype.

The maternal womb is a watery vessel; so that when an endangered Perseus, Moses, Osiris or Noah is placed in a life-saving ark and floated down a river or sea, he is figuratively re-entering his mother’s womb, and being re-born. More generally, the great Ocean that envelopes the world-disc was, in Ancient Near Eastern myth, considered the source and womb of all creation. The Egyptian cosmogony thus begins with Nun, the primeval Sea, who gives birth to the Ogdoad, the first generation of the gods from whom the rest proceeds.

No less obvious is the conception of Earth as a Universal Mother. She is the Mother of all the agricultural bounty upon which life depends. Every winter she is fertilized by the seed that dies and descends into her subterranean womb, from which the new birth arises in the spring. The seed is another organically masculine symbol. The Latin word for seed is, of course, semen.

To understand this, think, if you can – I know you can – of the members of generation (as the Wife of Bath so delicately calls them) in the act of coitus. The male convexity is the active agent; it invades and fills the female concavity, which is a passive receptacle. (The brilliant lesbian feminist critic Camille Paglia has explained the whole adventuresome and extraverted male personality in terms of this anatomical distinction.)

In the Timaeus, Plato calls the inchoate matter out of which the universe is created ananke, which he defines as “receptacle” and “nurse”. The Forms, the male agencies of creation, must inform, that is, inseminate and infuse their material and maternal receptacles in order to bring the universe into existence. The whole cosmic Divine Animal, with its immanent Divine Soul and its enveloping Body, is thus an image of Male and Female in fecund embrace.

In terms of the antinomies of archetypal symbolism, the divine, the incorporeal, and the “inner” are thus also masculine categories of being, while the merely mortal, corporeal, and external are feminine. Which owes profoundly more, I might point out, to the situation of the soul in the body and its mystic analogy to the sexes in conjunction than it does to any “plot” by the Patriarchy.


The upper two elements, fire and air, are masculine; the lower two, feminine. This is obvious enough, and therefore the subject of widespread depiction in myth. Father Sky reclines upon Mother Earth, and from their union spring the gods and the world.

In the form of wind and light, air and fire are obviously sky phenomena. One way that Father Sky fertilizes Earth’s womb is by penetrating her with the blazing rays of the Sun. As Donne writes in Progress of the Soul of the Sun’s inseminating potency, “By thy male force, is all wee have begot”. You might recall this mythologem from Ovid’s fable of the impregnation of Danae (the name by which the Olympian mythographers remember the pre-Olympian Theban Mother Goddess) by Zeus in the form of a “golden shower” (a phrase that can easily be misinterpreted, as I discovered from a recent class of students, who were, as usual, much more familiar with deviant modern fashions than ancient myths). Father Sky’s other modality is the spring rain that falls into Earth’s bosom (where, in the form of rainfall, water is still conceived by the mythic imagination as an atmospheric phenomenon).

Finally, let me remind you of Ovid’s account of the creation of man by Prometheus, who instills heavenly Fire into man’s body made from the clay of the Earth. This too is, at base, a sexual image.

Like Fire, Air is the primordial substance and symbol of the Divine, probably because of the primitive belief that the soul is constituted of breath or wind. As a close analogue to the way in which the divine child Perseus is conceived in the womb of his mortal mother Danae by Zeus’s celestial Fire, Jesus is conceived by his Father in Heaven of a mortal Virgin through the agency of the Holy Spirit.



Spiritus, which means both spirit and soul, comes from the Latin verb spiro, spirare, spiravi, spiratum, “to breathe”, “respire”. The word “expire”, which means literally to breathe out, conveys the primitive superstition that when a man dies his soul departs his body with the exhalation of his last breath. The word “inspire” carries the same connotation. A poet, artist, prophet, or sage is “inspired” when his Muse or God breathes her or his creative idea, indeed, her or his whole divine substance into him; and thus idea-fied and deified, he is privy to truths and mysteries unavailable to him in his normal mortal state.

When the God of Genesis 2:7 “breathes life into Adam’s nostrils”, it amounts to the same thing: Man is created by being deified, his female body, made of the dust of the Earth, is impregnated and animated by the male spirit of God. The word for breath in Hebrew is ruach, whose primary meaning is “wind”. (So too, by the way, is the other Latin word for soul, anima, from which we get the English “animal” and “animate”).

What the J redactor of the Old Testament is remembering in his story of the creation of Man is the Babylonian myth in which Marduk creates the world by inflating the innards of the maritime chaos-dragon, Tiamat, with the winds of a great cosmic hurricane. Tiamat, like her biblical counterpart, the sea-serpent Leviathan, is the maternal sea: the watery womb from which (as evolutionary biology still believes), all life first arose. Marduk impregnates Tiamat with the wind of his divine soul and from it the lesser gods and the world are born.

The same Babylonian myth stands in the background of Genesis chapter one, where the creation of the world begins with the Spirit of God brooding (pregnantly, we might say) upon the face of the watery deep.

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