Myth and Symbol in Architecture

“As pigments are but the vehicle of painting, so is building but the vehicle of architecture, which is the thought behind form.”

William Lethaby
Architecture, Mysticism and Myth

In the nascent ages of human civilization, there was no ‘sacred architecture’ for all architecture was sacred. To erect an edifice into the world, a community needed to make peace with the universe, to appease the gods, to give the cosmic forces their due and pray for their good will. There were no precedents or schools of architecture that the ancient builders could study; they looked to the Mountain to learn about form and to the Cave to learn about space. In shamanic intoxication, visions instructed their holy men on the structure of the Cosmos and they imbued the plans and sections of their temples with that secret knowledge. The act of building was a ritual, a reenactment of the time when the gods constructed the world.

For the ancients, the world was an object of religious fear and veneration – it was sacred. When they set out to build their temples they looked to the Cosmos, the original Temple, for guidance. In the Rig Vedic Hymns we find:

“What, indeed, was the wood? What, too, was the tree from which they [the gods] fashioned the heaven and the earth?”

Our contemporary architecture can benefit by looking back at these faded traditions of building. The beliefs and practices of that young world where sorcery, dream, and reality were interwoven in equal measure seem awkwardly out of place in the world of today, a place of crisp digital resolution, codified in numbers and facts. However, as Carl Sagan put it, “you have to know the past to understand the present.” So let’s have a look at the obscure ideas and practices of our forefathers and how they gave shape to what we now call architecture.

For a brief investigation into ‘primitive’ building traditions the most useful building type to look into is the temple. The act of building a temple was the most sacred ritual to the religious collective imagination of prehistoric societies.

The temple has always manifested the Centre. Conceptually, it is the manmade equivalent of the hallowed mountaintop, the axis mundi where the earth realm touches the celestial realm. Like the holy mountain, the temple is a place imbued with magic which allows for the communion between the world of men and the world of gods. However, for the mystical experience to take place, the temple must be erected in perfect harmony with the natural order; certain requirements must be met. If the ancient scriptures were to be translated as a contemporary design manual, they would read something like this:

  1. The temple should be the mandalic centre of the world. The ancients always began the construction of their towns with the building of a temple. That temple would not only become the geographical centre of the town, but also the mystical and sacred centre of the world.

    “The world is like the eyeball of a man; the white is the ocean that surrounds the world, the black is the world itself, and the pupil is Jerusalem, and the image in the pupil is the Temple.” (From William Lethaby’s Architecture, Mysticism and Myth.)

  2. The temple should be founded on a sacred site. In Hindu tradition a sacred site would usually be next to a pool or a stream of water. There would be legends that explain the sanctity of the site, but often the site would be known as hallowed long before the legends about it would arise. For the ancient Hindus astronomy, astrology, mysticism, and architecture were one field. The construction of the temple would begin only at times of significant celestial alignment. The movement of the stars was no less important than the movement of the soil when it came to the erection of a temple.
  3. The ceremonial temple layout should be square to the cardinal directions. Its four walls should embody the mountains on the fringes of the world, its dome or ceiling should be fashioned like the firmament, its floors should embody the land.
  4. The temple gate should be aligned to the golden gate of the Sun in the east, or it should face south where the sun is at its zenith. This is particularly important to Egyptian tombs. There, the doors and steles would always face either the east or south so that the life-nourishing magic of the Sun may renew the souls of the dead with life. The tombs would never look onto the west, where the Sun enters the netherworld. The reminder of death would be a grave offence to the departed.
  5. The temple may be divided into three levels which correspond to the hidden architecture of the universe. Namely: the underworld and all the worlds beneath it, the overworld and all the worlds above it, and our world, the middle world.
  6. A mandala, or a similar symbol of centrality, may be placed in the central hall of the temple. On the floor at the temple of Delphi there stood a stone called by the Delphians ‘the Navel’ and was told to be the centre of the world. This idea of an energetic and social centre was strongly related to fire (perhaps originating from the campfire tradition of our hunter-gatherer ancestors). The civil hall of an ancient city would hold the sacred fire of the people. At the centre of the dwelling would burn the fire of the hearth. Like the temple’s mandala and the civic hall’s fire, the hearth was the social and metaphysical centre of the dwelling. Symbolically, it represented the great fire at the centre of Creation.

The above are only a handful of the many sacred laws that used to surround the erection of a temple. Perhaps it was the scale of buildings compared to other works of man that drove the first builders to identify them with the Cosmos. Or perhaps it was their function; buildings are enclosures for life and they mirror the universe as the one great enclosure for life. In any case, whereas nowadays architecture is an industry, it was originally a ritual. Architecture’s original purpose was to conjure spirits and please the gods, to create a focal point for the energies of the natural world.

To forget the past is as perilous as to naively reproduce it in an immature burst of postmodernistic nostalgia. To start erecting temples in the spirit of our ancestors would be to betray that very spirit. The builders of old used to build not in imitation of others, but in imitation of life. Nowadays life is different, and so is our architecture, but perhaps a reminder of why we build and why we have always built might do us good.

Designers need to be aware that their lineage traces back not only to artisans, but to shamans and sorcerers too. Indeed, it traces back to the original designers, the gods themselves. But instead of fueling their already inflated ego, such an awareness should impart the sense of responsibility which has always rested on the shoulders of builders and makers. The responsibility to produce work that is true to the universe and life. Work that embodies the beliefs and hopes of the people and conciliates the world that we see with our eyes to the world that we see with the soul’s eye. To build bridges between what is within and what is without.

The relief and sculpture that covers Hindu temples is a visual representation of Hindu myths and legends. Instead of being a “crime,” this temple ornamentation is a form of devotional story-telling.
Photo by richi choraria from Pexels.