Thursday, June 30, 2022

The Firmament, Its Opening, & the Milky Way

photo by Kevin Trotman (
It looks like a Magritte painting, doesn’t it?

Sky doors are not something we often visualize let alone view, and even then they’re not likely to take on the precise image you see here. It’s a little different from the black hole at the middle of our galaxy, the Milky Way, we’re hearing about in recent news stories. I was thinking about sky doors once again after some photos were made public of that supersized black hole scientists call “Sagitarius A*” Well, it may well be a black hole, but it doesn’t look all that black and anyway, they confess to colorizing for the sake of contrast. I don’t want to overdraw possible analogies, because it is so doubtful anyone living before our times would have had the means of knowing this or any other black hole was out there. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with imagining even when it’s hard.

Not too many are aware of this interesting fact, but Tibetan language has a unique and particular term་for what we know as the Milky Way. The word is dgu-tshigs (དགུ་ཚིགས་), or ‘nine jointed.’ I understand it to be analogous to the Tibetan shamanic implement called the tshigs gsum (ཚིགས་གསུམ་), or ‘three joints,’ a ritual staff with, as you may guess, three joints (or three jointed sections?), likely made of cane or willow. This jointed staff may correlate with the notched stick or log used in other Tibetan contexts, or similar objects used in north Asian shamanism. Stein (p. 202 and note 56 on p. 334) noticed that dgu-tshigs is a word for Milky Way while discussing the nine levels of the heavens, but does no more than imply there may be some connection between the two sets of nine.*

(*Stein, pp. 183-95, and especially p. 202 and note 56 on p. 334.)

I base my belief in the Tibetan term’s uniqueness on its absence from the six types identified in world mythologies by Michael Witzel (listed below, noting also Gyarmati). Sometimes a longer term for it appears in Tibetan sources, dgu-tshigs skya-mo (དགུ་ཚིགས་སྐྱ་མོ་), where the last word means ‘pale, lightish.’ The paleness in itself accords well with the milkiness in the Milky Way and makes it a little less unique, but just a little. We still have to wonder where the nine jointedness came from.

I’ve turned the problem over and over again and haven't come to any definite rationale let alone a conclusion. Still, my inclination is to connected it with concepts of a nine-tiered (sometimes 13-tiered) reality towering above the earth according to some ideas of inestimable antiquity found throughout Asia, and not only in Tibet (Stein’s book). At least in a poetic sense, the Milky Way can be taken to correspond to the cosmic ladder / rope / stairway of various myths.

I’ve been developing ideas about the various Tibetan words for “sky” and related concepts, but since these are still in seedling stage, I won’t bother you with them just yet. I wanted to make a more limited argument about the Tibetan word gnam as used in particular Tibetan cosmogonical contexts, being understood as the sphere of the fixed stars or the firmament. But first a few words about the use of the word “firmament” in general.

I think if you are fortunate to live in one of those quickly shrinking places where you can still actually see the full set of stars you only need to stay up late to see for yourself what that looks like. It looks like a canopy or an upside-down bowl arching over the earth and ending at the horizons all around you. This kind of view of a starry dome or vault with the immobile stars implanted in it is, by reason of this obviousness, universal among people not well versed in (or not [yet?] entirely immersed in) whatever scientific systems are available in their time and place. And this holds true not only in the past but today. Not only do most people not deny the obvious, they go on to make it a basis for their way of dwelling in a world as rich in symbolism and correspondences as it most surely is.


Anonymous engraving, first published in 1888 by Camille Flammarion
(1842-1925) and later colorized.
This might be what it means to look outside the box. 


Explore some more

Anonymous, A History of Buddhism in India and Tibet: An Expanded Version of the Dharma’s Origins Made by the Learned Scholar Deyu, Dan Martin, trans., The Library of Tibetan Classics series no. 32, Wisdom Publications (forthcoming in July 2022), in 952 pages.  Translation of a never before fully translated Tibetan text dated to 1261 CE with introduction, notes and bibliographies. See in particular pages 477-8 on the very early Tibetan cosmology entitled “The Seating Order of Divinities in the Firmament.” of course the word in the title that I take to be yog, not yo-ga or yi-ge, is with some hesitancy translated as “firmament.” It appears to mean a covering that wraps or envelops (g.yog). See p. 34 — note 58 on Tibetan words for sky — and pages following. On p. 467, when Tibet’s first and future king was still a god in the sky, he had to move up to the oculus of the heavens to get his first glimpse of his future home, “Then the skylight of the sky opened up, the cloud covering cleared away, and he looked down upon the narrow earth below.”

John Vincent Bellezza, Flight of the Khyung (January 2016).  Go to the link and scroll down to the final several paragraphs. 

David Ebbinghaus and Michael Winsten, “Tibetan dZi (gZi) Beads,” The Tibet Journal, vol. 13, no. 1 (1988), pp. 38-57.  In yet another realm within Tibetan culture, we may see that one popular pattern found in the etched agates called gzi (གཟི་), is the one called “sky door earth door,” in which a square on one side of the bead opposes a circle on the other. The square is the earth door, while the circle is the sky door.

Imre Gyarmati, “The Names of the Milky Way in the Turkic Languages,” Acta Orientalia Hungarica, vol. 46, nos. 2-3 (1992-93), pp. 225-233. As much as one might expect or suspect the contrary, the Turkic languages terms studied here do not appear to have anything in common with the Tibetan dgu-tshigs.

Sarah Harding, tr., Machik’s Complete Explanation: Clarifying the Meaning of Chöd, a Complete Explanation of Casting Out the Body as Food [expanded edition], Snow Lion (Boston 2013). If you were thinking sky doors have nothing to do with Padampa Sangyé, you ought to notice that an important initiatory ritual of the Cutting school is called “Opening the Door of the Sky” (ནམ་མཁའི་སྒོ་འབྱེད་). It is associated with a practice of consciousness transference (འཕོ་བ་) through the fontanelle (ཚངས་བུག་). This brings in a question that needs further reflection. How does the fontanelle in the human body correspond to the door in the atmosphere? It would appear to be another instance of those microcosm-macrocosm relationships we detect so often in human cultures. 

Chris Impey, “Say Hello to Sagitarius A*, the Black Hole at the Center of the Milky Way,” posted May 6, 2022 on Astronomy website.

Petra Maurer, “Landscaping Time, Timing Landscapes: The Role of Time in the sa dpyad Tradition,” contained in: Petra Maurer, Donatella Rossi and Rolf Scheuermann, eds., Glimpses of Tibetan Divination Past and Present, Brill (Leiden 2019), pp. 89-117. The terms sky door and earth door, along with mountain door, have specific meanings within the realm of Tibet’s Chinese-derived system of geomancy (see pp. 109-110 in particular, but also Stein, p. 199).

Hulisani Ramantswana, “Day Two of Creation: Why Is the Râqîa‘ (Firmanent) Not Pronounced Good?” Journal for Semitics, vol. 22, no. 1 (2013), pp. 101-123.  This interprets the Genesis creation account as being scripted in conscious correspondence to the building of a temple: The firmament is the divider between God and creation analogous to the curtain (פָרֹכֶת paroket) dividing the Holy of Holies (the divine throne room) from the rest of the tabernacle or temple.

Paul S. Seely, “The Firmament and the Water Above,” Westminister Theological Journal, vol. 53 (1991), pp. 227-240. Turning on scholarly understandings of the “firmament” (Hebrew רקיע raqia‘) in Genesis, this article argues that indeed a solid dome (and not just an atmospheric expanse) is intended just as the Vulgate (firmamentum) and Septuagint (στερέωμα) imply in their translation choices. In large part this argument is based on the omnipresence of the idea in earlier world cultures. The widespread idea of a window or hole in the sky is brought forward (pp. 229-230) in support of it, and this is clearly relevant to the account of Tibet’s first king (see above). Still, in Biblical mentions of windows in the sky they are likely to allow the upper waters to descend on the earth as rain, not something we have perceived in our Tibetan texts. Actually, if we have any doubts about the solidity of the raqia‘, they will dissolve if we note that the roots of the word indicate a pounding, as in beaten metal, the pounding out of metal on an anvil. This etymological meaning is played upon or perhaps more seriously intended in Job 37:18, “hard as a molten mirror.”

Rolf A. Stein, The World in Miniature: Container Gardens and Dwellings in Far Eastern Religious Thought, translated into English by Phyllis Brooks, Stanford University Press (Stanford 1990), the 1987 French edition had the title Le monde en petit: jardins en miniature et habitations dans la pensée religieuse d'Extrême-Orient. He discusses Tibetan terms for the sky door on pp. 155-6, among them skar-khungs (སྐར་ཁུངས་), or “star hole,” gnam sgo (གནམ་སྒོ་) or “gate of heaven,”  gnam khungs (གནམ་ཁུངས་), “sky hole,” and mthongs (མཐོངས་), a syllable that alone or in various combinations points to the smoke-hole of human domiciles (whether yurt, tent, or cave), but I think more generally and symbolically corresponds to the oculus.  It not only lets smoke out, it lets light come in. Note, too, on p. 184, how the Yakuts locate the hole into Heaven in the Pleiades. The Buryat Mongols locate the smoke hole of the Earth in the north, perhaps at the pole star (p. 187).

H. Torczyner, “The Firmament and the Clouds, Râqîa‘ and Shehâqîm,” Studia Theologica, Nordic Journal of Theology, vol. 1, nos. 1-2 (1947), pp. 188-196. This argues for raqia‘ as meaning patching [of holes in cloth] or plating over [of metal]. I think there is irony here, in the sense that patching over [some level of] the sky would seem to eliminate all the access points, whether doors or windows.

E.J. Michael Witzel, The Origins of the World’s Mythologies, Oxford University Press (Oxford 2012). Figure 2.2 on p. 39 has a global mapping of a variety of terms for the Milky Way. The types are keyed as Way of birds, Ski-track, Dropped straw, River, Serpent or fish, and Sky seam. Prof. Witzel, of Harvard University, has highly relevant discussions about the ways of connecting earth and sky if you want to pursue that aspect. There are cultural concepts to be found about the Milky Way being a kind of prop holding up the sky somehow, or leading up into it.

Benjamin Ethan Zeller, “Scaling Heaven’s Gate: Individualism and Salvation in a New Religious Movement,” Nova Religio, vol. 10, no. 2 (November 2006), pp. 75-102. There is a lot of sensationalist hack-journalism out there on the internet, which is just the reason I steer you instead to a serious academic study of a movement so many made fun of after the tragic suicides of its devoted followers. I suppose everyone remembers how they had a five-dollar bill and three quarters in their pockets. I only mention them because they might come to some people’s minds. I think the members of this saucer cult believed a hole would open for them in the train of the Hale-Bopp, a comet that only returns every 2,533 years. That idea makes them special, and unlike other ideas of sky openings mentioned here.



PS on the number thirteen:  

In my limited experience Tibetans regard as preposterous the very idea that there might be something ill-omened or otherwise bad about the number 13. See these:

Robert B. Ekvall, “Significance of Thirteen as a Symbolic Number in Tibetan and Mongolian Cultures,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 79 (1959) p. 188 ff.

Karl-Heinz Everding, “Herrschaft im Zeichen der Dreizehn. Die Dreizehn als Schüsselelement der tibetischen und mongolischen Herrschaftslegitimation in der Zeit des 13. bis 17. Jahrhunderts,”  Zentralasiatische Studien, vol. 39 (2010).

Penglin Wang, “The Power of Numbers in Shamanism: A Patterned Explanation of Shaman Names in Inner Asia,” Central Asiatic Journal, vol. 55, no. 1 (2011), pp. 91-127.


Pantheon (Rome) - Dome interior
The Oculus at the Center of the Cement Dome of
The Pantheon in Rome

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