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The Mythical Space

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The mythical space was and is a concept for the design of our world in some parts of our planet. All the old cultures knew about it. It was the basis for countless ceremonies and rituals; the plan for the construction of temples, houses and whole cities. The city cultures in Mesopotamia, in the Indus valley, in Northern China, Central America, the central Andes and in the Yoruba territories in today’s Nigeria [1] were based on cosmological concepts, which do not occur in nature, but which were the inspirations of people who were qualified acting as priests. As true inspirations they were neither arbitrary nor irrational.

Picture 1: Vishnu shrine in Kathmandu, Nepal. Source: Author (see above).

Picture 2: Vishnu shrine in Kathmandu, Nepal, Detail. Source: Author:

 

Picture 3: Shrine in Sankhu, Nepal. Source: Author:

 

The pictures 1 to 3 show some aspects of the mythical space. They are special depictions of a cosmology.

  • They represent a three-dimensional, “vertical“ connection to cosmological concepts and connect them in a concrete, graspable and tangible way with the built reality.
  • Cosmological concepts shape the tangible reality. Even the collapse of the physical building does not affect the magic power attached to the place through the ritual of foundation.

The mythical space is a space of meaning and represents the interspace, the bridge between religious, mythical imaginations and our three-dimensional world of space and time.

What quality characterizes this mythical space?

Thanks to the mathematician Euclid (3rd century B.C.), we use a concept of space that is based on the principle of homogeneity and keeps leading to the same results. A pocket rule has always the same length, no matter where we use it. Thanks to this property, there is the level of verifiability and reliability needed for the functioning of a complex society. This space is uniform and has the same quality and density everywhere. It pleases the mathematicians, even though our experience of space in our everyday life is different. Certain places seem bigger to us than they are and we do not experience distances of the same length as being the same everywhere.

In contrast to Euclid’s space, there is the mythical space, which is characterized by Cassirer as follows:

In contrast to homogeneity, which prevails in the geographical terminological field, every place and each direction has its own special accent in the mythical conception of space  – and this accent goes back to the actual mythical basic accent everywhere, to the division of the profane from the holy.[2]

Mircea Eliade differentiates in 1957:

For the religious person space is not homogenous. There are ruptures and fissures; it contains parts which are different from the others in their quality […]

This means that there is a “holy”, i.e. a “strong” and meaningful type of space and there are other spaces which are not holy and therefore without any structure and stability, or in other words they are amorphous. A religious person experiences this inhomogeneity of the space as a contrast between the holy, i.e. the only true and really existing space and all the rest that surrounds it as a shapeless vastness. [The] religious experience of the inhomogeneity of the space represents a primordial experience, which we might compare to a “world creation”. It is not about any theoretical speculations, but about a primordial religious experience, which precedes all reflections about the world.[3]

If the mythical space is not only a speculation of some religious people, but a constitutive element of man’s orientation in space and if we follow the statement of Mircea Eliade who says that it is about “world creation”, in other words about cosmogonies, then mandalas are to be seen as cosmogrammes[4].

Mandalas

Mandalas are symbols of the explanation of the world and of cohesion, they appear in all cultures in very different forms and create a collective identity. They are inspirational in the sense that they are taken from the numinous by specialists (priests) and are translated into an everyday world. In this way an order which is behind everything becomes accessible and understandable.

Moreover, mandalas are not only cosmogrammes, but they also visualize the process of the unification with a universal order. This concept is based on the idea that the All-one is no longer known or permanently accessible to human beings because it “broke” into a diversity of realities. In order to recognize the divine context, to reactivate it in our consciousness and to experience it, we need inspirational images, since without the visualization of steps and the goal, the process would remain abstract. Mandalas can provide the “guiding principles”.

Picture 4: Mandala as a cosmogramme, Paro Dzong, Bhutan, Source: Gansser, Augusto, Gansser Ursula; Olschak, Blanche C. (1969): Bhutan. Land der verborgenen Schätze. Bern. Taken from the cover photo.

 

Picture 5: Mandala as a path to enlightenment. Source: Khanna, Madhu (1979): Yantra. The Tantric Symbol of Cosmic Unity. London. p. 75.

Bringing that which is not manifested

In order to understand something that is not immediately graspable, the human being needs stories, narratives, which bring the abstract and the timeless into the world of the present. Cosmogenous myths are such narratives that provide an explanation of the world and provide security in an uncontrollable and unstable world experience. Such narratives do, however, not only apply to the world as a whole, but particularly to cities. Cities were and are an accumulation of diversities which do not function without a superordinate worldview, which keeps potential conflicts under control.

A nice example is quoted by Volwahsen:

A long time ago there was something that existed, which was not defined by a name and which was unknown in its form. It was between heaven and earth.

When the Gods saw it, they grabbed it and pressed it to the floor face down. The way the Gods saw it, they kept it. Brahma asked the Gods to occupy it and he then called it Vastu Purusha[5].

Here it becomes clear that the process of “bringing” that which is not manifested into that which is manifested is not an automatic process: The abstract soul (or original man) (purusha) has to be supported, so that he can connect with the building ground as vastu purusha (space soul). This image can be seen in the foundation and initiation rituals for buildings and whole cities. This transformation to space-time is not an easy procedure.

Picture 6: Vastu Purusha Mandala and the division into Padas, Source: Volwahsen, Andreas (1968): Indien. Bauten der Hindus, Buddhisten und Jains. Fribourg. p. 44.

The figure in the square represents the original form, which is the basis of any built form. At the same time it is an ordering principle. The vastu purusha faces the earth and this is where its task lies: organizing the complexity of nature and forming a livable space for the gods and man. The foundation mandala symbolizes the directed and ordered space. It provides a connection with the non-visible, but nonetheless real space. This connection is made by means of the foundation ritual.

Sidelights into the Modern Times

We are living in a world where our spheres of life are fragmented, with fragments that are globally networked. At the same time our lives are more and more singular and the old common beliefs are dissolving. With the exception of consumption-based values, there is no universally binding principle. Guiding principles influenced by religion have lost their binding power.

The egocentric conception of man, the psychological ego of modern times was formed during the Renaissance period. The Florentine Philippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) is known to have discovered the central perspective, which puts the I-observer into the center. This is how people have “fallen” out of the mythical space and observe objects from their own individual perspective. Descartes (1596-1650), the pioneer of the enlightenment era, dethroned God in the heavens. He emphasized the maturity of the human being, shifted religion to the individual’s responsibility and paved the way for today’s mentality. In such a context it is difficult to bind people to a collective regulatory scheme of the world and the cosmos.

Jürgen Habermas stated in 1968 that concerning the recognition and legitimation of guiding principles, our modern society differs from traditional societies in that it provides a legitimation which “is not fetched down from the heavens of the cultural traditions, but can be taken up from the basis of the societal work”. In plain language, in our modern society the explanatory patterns of a pre-modern kind, as we see them in the example of the mythical space, have become obsolete.

The present result of the “societal work” is that we put the consumption space in lieu of a purposeful mythical space.

The French anthropologist Marc Augé[6] spoke about the fact that the meaninglessness of space evolves into “non-places”:

Yet the non-places are the measure of our time which can be quantified and which we could take by using […] the sum of the flight routes, the railroad lines and the motorways, the mobile “homes” called “means of transport” (airplanes, trains, cars), airports, railway stations and space stations, the large hotel chains, the leisure parks, the shopping centers and the complicated tangle of wired or wireless networks which use the extra-terrestrial space for a strange kind of communication, which often just helps the individuals to get in touch with an image of themselves.

In other words, the physical space becomes devoid of sense , and non-places, i.e. meaningless places, are emerging. The connection to sense providing structures is weakened; churches and temples become memorial sites and/or places of historic preservation. Meaning is shifted into virtual spaces.

New things emerge

These rather culture pessimistic statements have to be opposed by saying that the above-mentioned developments might also be options for a “good life”, which would be impossible without the dissolution of the old. Three aspects are worth mentioning:

It is modern science which puts its own paradigm, namely that an empirical finding must always be provable, in quantum physics upside down. What is shown here can be seen as an analogy to the construction of the mythical space which comes about through its observers. The result of certain experiments depends on the consciousness of those who carry them out. Further, we learn in quantum theory that that which is infinitely distant and large has a close connection with that which is infinitely nearby and small. The two may even be one and this One manifests itself in different ways. Thus, we are rediscovering and reformulating concepts known already in pre-modern era of science.

On the societal level we see that people’s need for meaning beyond rationality has not decreased. Habermas speaks about a “post-secular” world[7], in which religion reappears as a provider of value. Actually, modern societies have never become secular down to the depths of individual sensations – which is shown by the esoteric shelves in the book shops as well as by the boom of esoteric event offers and groups. What is different from the past is that this trend is about finding our “own” private way of sense and life.

Finally, we can observe – opposed to the process of individualization – a tendency to get together, a collective quest for sense and values, which is typically not tied to one place only. Trans-local networks unfold a surprisingly wide reach – not just as consumer groups, but as trans-national collectives pursuing a common goal. What is interesting is that this trend goes hand in hand with a re-valuation of concrete space, i.e. places where people gather physically. Obviously, those networks need the meaningful and concrete places just as much as they need virtual communication. The modern “mythical” space is as well trans-local consisting of “fields” spanning over large distances – and in this way bringing life also to non-places – and also local, needing concrete places for gatherings.

 


[1] Wheatley, Paul (1971): The Pivot of the Four Quarters. A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and Character of the Ancient Chinese City. Chicago. p. 225ff.

[2] Cassirer, Ernst (1953), (first edition 1925): Die Philosophie der symbolischen Formen. Band 2: Das mythische Denken. Darmstadt. S. 106. English translation by LOGON.

[3] Mircea Eliade (1990)(First publ.1957): Das Heilige und das Profane. Hamburg. p. 123. English translation by LOGON.

[4] Tucci, Giuseppe (1961): The Theory and Practice of the Mandala. London.

[5] Volwahsen, Andreas (1968): Indien. Bauten der Hindus, Buddhisten und Jains. Fribourg. pp. 43-44. English translation by LOGON.

[6] Augé, Marc (1992): Non-Lieux. Introduction à une anthopologie de la surmodernité. Paris. in German (1994): Orte und Nicht-Orte. Vorüberlegungen zu einer Ethnologie der Einsamkeit. Frankfurt. p. 94. English translation by LOGON.

[7] Habermas, Jürgen (2001): Glauben und Wissen. Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels 2001. Frankfurt.

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