Monday, December 27, 2004

Seven Heavens

Many cultures think of the universe as consisting of seven heavens or layers. The concept may relate to some ancient Paleolithic thinking, to independent invention even possibly to diffusion. Whatever the case, what is more unusual is that they should represent the seven heavens in the form of a seven-staged ziggurat.

Yet we find that from Sumer to India and Southeast Asia and across the seas to Central America, the seven-staged cosmic mountain isthe default type.

Whatever the significance of the number seven, whether it is related to some astronomical phenomenon or the like, I do believe I know the source of the general prototype. As I mentioned earlier, the land of the sacred volcanoes was often represented by the spiral.

The spiral represents a serpent, the daughter of the Sun. This serpent was seen as lining the horizon at dawn with the double-peaked mountain in the foreground giving it a wavy appearance. The serpent is also mentioned in the Churning of the Milky Ocean story where a giant snake is used as a rope wrapped around Mt. Mandara.

If you think of a serpent coiled along the sides of a mountain looking down at the mountain from the top, a spiral appears. Starting from the outside of this spiral as you work your way toward the center you ascend the mountain.

This spiral motif easily converts into the Mt. Meru symbol of concentric circles. These circles, again from the top view, represent from the outside towards the center different stages of ascent of the mountain. Such a concept of a staged mountain would come natural among people who terraced hillsides for agricultural purposes.

Rice Terraces

According to the Japanese treatise on pottery trade, the Tokiko, all jars coming from the island of Rusun were marked with the rokuro (spiral) symbol:


The Japanese had great interest in jars coming from a region of islands in the southern seas known as Mishima, the "Three Islands." These islands were called Rusun, Amakawa and Formosa. In Taoist belief there are three islands linked to the search for immortality somewhere to the east of China but inaccessible in early times. These islands were thought to have floated around in the sea before being anchored down by giant sea turtles. This may be an allusion to the apparent movement of islands due to rising sea levels.

The Tokiko also mentions that pottery made with clay from Rusun is marked with symbols resembling and upper or lower-case letter "T". I mentioned earlier that this symbol likely is that of the tree of life and is connected with the bird clan.

While it is difficult to know how far back the practices mentioned in the Tokiko extend, we do know that the symbols involved appear often in the area deep into antiquity.

Mt. Meru designs on bracelets from Ban Chiang

Paul Kekai Manansala