Sacred Design:
The Essential Astrological Component

By A. T. Mann

For "Making Sacred Places" Conference 1997

University of Cincinnati School of Architecture, Art & Planning,
Hebrew Union College and Old Saint George

"These words are the ladder to the firmament.
Whoever ascends it reaches the roof -
Not the roof of the sphere that is blue,
But the roof which transcends all the visible heavens."
By the Sufi poet Rumi in his "Mathnawi"

I studied architecture at Cornell University, worked in New York City as an architectural designer and have been a professional astrologer for 25 years. These two professions seem antithetical to the modern sensibility, but I discover more and more that they require each other in order to understand and recreate the sacred.

In an unexpected way my interest in astrology reactivated my earlier quest to understand architecture and the mysteries of number, proportion and form, and provided the underlying mystical tradition for which I had searched in vain since childhood. My astrological practice demonstrated beyond doubt that the three dimensions of traditional architecture (height, length and breadth) were often subsumed with the fourth and most powerful dimension, time. Indeed, sacred architecture is an integration of space and time, earth and heaven, and at its most profound accesses the timeless. And yet time was not discussed in my education.

The unique and mystical mathematical proportions of the human lifetime and psyche synchronise with planetary rhythms and geometry, as Plato, Pythagoras and the Hermeticists insisted. Geometry and number are the primary source of magical thought, linking humanity to cosmos. Magic circles, mandalas, meditation diagrams, healing spaces, as well as sacred megaliths and stone circles, all have architectural origins and foundations but sacred causes. Some Indian and Buddhist yantras (meditation diagrams) are literally temple complexes or cosmoses as seen from above.

The architecture I consider sacred is that which has a common root in the life of the soul and spiritual vision, rather than that which contains religious forms. Symbolism and meaning in architecture are more important than aesthetics.

This definition poses some problems because the "spirit" must also be defined. Spirit is the active, dynamic aspect of the psyche, independent of forms, yet an essence which seeks expression in and through the world, always invested in forms. Those forms into which spiritual energies flow reflect a sense of the divine, and a science of such forms has developed throughout history, a science based on symbolism. Symbols manifest spiritual archetypes according to definite laws, and express their essence through form. Symbolic qualities evoke inner beauty and truth to understanding in a way unavailable to pure form-creation. Symbolic architecture is based on principles which extend beyond formal rules, because it taps the depths of the unconscious and mythic layers of being, as well as activating higher spiritual qualities.

There seem to be a number of ways in which the symbolic or the spiritual is expressed through architecture: First, sacred architecture reflects the structure of the cosmos. Before there were buildings, humanity worshipped the stars and planets, the four elements, the earth, and its animals and plants, as gods and goddesses. In our progression from nomadic wandering to caves, to modern buildings, the symbolism of this early integration with the cosmos remains within us, and it provides access to the deepest essence within us, the core of our psyche.

Initially, sacred monuments were associated with a particular god or goddess and the natural or supernatural powers they represented. Their forces were identified with stars or planets in the sky, which represented force, god and goddess. These moving heavenly bodies were also geographically oriented and located in places significant to the gods. Some monuments were used by priests or priestesses as vantage points or observatories from which to measure the movements of planets or heavenly bodies that were worshipped. Others were sited in accordance with planetary motions. Most megalithic monuments echoed some or all of these functions in their siting, design and function. The form followed cosmic origins.

Stonehenge at Sunset

Stonehenge at Sunset

Second, sacred monuments were invariably organised using primary geometric shapes and proportions, described by a number symbolism in common with all other cultures. Kepler demonstrated that these Platonic solids also correspond to planetary orbits and their rhythms, which further reinforces the cosmic link. These traits are characteristic of the archetypal: similar self-reinforcing formal vocabularies evolve in different parts of the world and at different times, seemingly independently. Proportion systems resonate with and then amplify natural rhythms and patterns, and in the process bring a natural and organic energy and spirituality to sacred architecture - the building contains a cosmic as well as human quality as it evokes the spiritual.

Over the aeons, particularly since the ascendancy of patriarchal religions and then science, these sacred design criteria that gave certain monuments and buildings their sacred nature were modified, forgotten, ignored, misused, misunderstood, stylised or eliminated from architecture.

The development of sacred and symbolic numerology was natural. The sun, moon, planets and stars were gods and goddesses. They proscribed and marked the cycles of earthly lives, and they determined the length of and relationship between days, seasons, years and the larger cycles of world ages. Each deity was associated with a particular planetary body, attributions which are strikingly similar from culture to culture, and its activities and worship were related to the cycle of that body, the apparent measurements of the body, and any proportions used to describe its movements or position. Evoking the god or goddess recreated manifestations of the cycle or numbers associated with the related luminary, planet or star. Such a creation process in itself was a ritual and prayer to the deity.

The temple was built not just as an image of a god on earth, but was also believed to be the precinct or territory of the god. The mythology of the sky goddess Nut is an example of this. Her body was the night sky, across which the moon and planets passed on their barques. She made love to the earth god Geb by arching over him during the night hours. Her goddesses of the night hours were the houri, who danced each hour past in turn. They were the prototypical "women of the night", which we now call whores. The night also symbolised the underworld where the spirits of the dead remained. It was natural in funeral architecture to invoke Nut and give the ceiling of the tomb her stars and the arched shape of the heavens.

The planets and sun floated on the cosmic ocean and moved in their patterns across the sky-ocean in regular motions. During the day the stars, which constituted Nut's body and the goddess herself, were hidden. The sun and stars existed in two different domains of the sacred, separated by the boundary of the horizon. Ancient cultures worshipped these intersections between day and night as celestial creation points and also as boundaries of their known universe. What happened beyond or under or over this vaulted void of being was mysterious, only accessible to the gods.

Nut's body is the brilliant blue of the clear night sky, and the stars are her flesh and blood. The universe was the "Great Dwelling" to the Egyptians. Set had dominance over the hall of the earth, while Nut reigned over the hall of the heaven, and she is also shown inside mummy cases.

.Egyptian Goddess Nut - painting by Caroline Smith

Egyptian Sky Goddess Nut by Caroline Smith

The representation of the firmament opened the eyes of the faithful, revealing the gods who populated the heavens. The luminaries, the sun and moon, passed across the sky, escorted by planets, against the backdrop of constellations and decans. All these were considered living spirits. Even the genii of the months and days in procession were worshipped. In its use of doubled proportions the temple reflected the universe - the horizon separated above from below, the microcosm from the macrocosm, the heavenly from the earthly. Humanity lived at that intersection.

Rhythms sacred to the Moon goddess with her crescent crown were correlated to the lunar month, of which there were approximately thirteen in a solar year. The Egyptians utilised a fifty-year cycle which reconciled the lunation cycle and the solar year by using the Golden Section or phi (the proportion of 1:1.618) - fifty solar years contained 618 lunations. It was also found in the proportions of the ideal human body. The possibilities for spiritual integration were greatly enhanced at those times when the solar and lunar calendars coincided. Temples were created which aligned to these events, designed for the festivals, which reinforced their worship. The temple therefore contained the proportions found in solar/lunar and god/human interactions.

Many such monuments were simultaneously calendars and astronomical observatories, integrating spirituality and science in cultures, which made no distinction between them. The numerology of planetary cycles infiltrated early megalithic monuments and subsequent architecture until it became inextricably integrated with the sacred. The number and the god/dess became one.

Pythagoras revered the "music of the spheres," the planetary harmonies that govern the workings of the physical universe. Each number is a symbol possessing its own particular significance, mechanisms and harmonic relationships to other numbers. Numbers participate in a continuum, a structure that unfolds in time, and contain meaning because they mediate between the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual worlds. Astrology evolved to develop and refine this idea.

Pythagoras claimed that sacred proportions were musical, and it is true that the harmonious blending of musical intervals is governed by the phi series. According to Helmholtz, fundamental tones described by this series create pleasurable consonance in the brain, possibly because the visual nerves affect analogous centres of the brain. Kepler called it the divine proportion. In Eastern thought the regular geometric solids are correlated with the seven chakras in the human body. Chakras are formative energy vortexes along the spine - it is known that certain shaped spaces resonate with their equivalent chakras to modify mood and spiritual insight. But these geometric rhythms needed orientation to bring them to earth. Indeed Peter Dawkins proposed a chakra structure governing the location and orientation of Egyptian temple centres along the Nile.

The first Hebrew tabernacle was a rectangular tent with a pitched canvas roof. The early Christian fathers used the tabernacle to describe creation and the structure of the universe. The house of god was sometimes a travelling trunk with a rounded lid, similar in form to the Egyptian tombs featuring paintings of the sky goddess Nut. The tabernacle of Moses enclosed the sun, the stars and the heavens surmounted by a gigantic double ceiling.

The temple, whether Solomon's Temple, the Jewish Tabernacle, the Parthenon or the Ka'aba (Arabic for "cube") at Mecca, was originally the dwelling place of the god or goddess, who was represented within by a statue, a mystic symbol or invisible oracle. The tabernacle was itself symbol and symbolised. It was movable and oriented its axis towards the rising sun, a common practice.

In early Christian cosmology the universe was likened to a chamber, a cubical box with a lid of the heavens surmounting it. Either the entire box was seen to revolve, or just the lid. The centre of revolution was the constellation of the Great Bear, which was worshipped for its stability. Instead of moving like the other constellations, it simply rotated. As it is adjacent to the dragon surrounding the pole star, it is a marker for the equinoctial precession.

All over the globe, places have intentionally evoked the sacred by marking alignments of heavenly bodies on earth. The quality of the reflection was a gauge of the magical efficacy of the monument. And there was always identification between the centre of the sacred precinct and the elusive centre of the psyche.

It is characteristic of ancient versions of universal structure that the two geometrical shapes that predominate are the square and the circle. It is through the reconciliation of these two primary shapes that the essence of sacred architecture emerges. The square does not exist in nature, as it is created by humanity-dreamed and constructed by us. Yet the circle is godlike, and indicative of wholeness. The symbolic relationship between square and circle is that of humanity to deity, physical world to spiritual world, terrestrial to celestial. The integration of square and circle is a metaphor for the relationship between Earth and Heaven and is expressed through and by the temple.

The cross and square symbolise the four cardinal directions in material space on its periphery, while the circle focuses upon its timeless centre. In earliest cultures sacred places were identified by circle and cross, oriented to the cardinal directions, like at Cerrito el Chapin. The temple here is the archetypal symbol of earth, as well as being the human inhabiting the earth.

Norse Yggdrasil World Tree

Norse Yggdrasill World Tree

Early 'chamber' type universes depicted the earth as a mountain, the base of which floats upon a bounding ocean. Beyond is a high range of mountains which forms walls bounding the enclosure of the earthly plane; the ceiling is either domed or vaulted and rests on the walls at strategic points. The world mountain or world tree sometimes supports the firmament. The heavens are the floor of the celestial realm above, and humanity is understood as having descended from the intersection of heaven and earth. The Scandinavian mythic universe is the Yggdrasil tree, seen here with its domed heaven. Its branches and leaves penetrate into heaven and its roots, enwrapped by the serpent, penetrate into hell. The world was an egg enwrapped by the ouroburos snake, symbolising time. Indeed surrounding the pole star in most cosmologies is the constellation we call Draco the Dragon.

The form of temples reflecting the circular vaulted dome of the sky gradually metamorphosed from a cosmic monument or stone circle beneath the sky representing astronomical principles within the precinct of the king to a temple, which contained and centralised the sky. As the spokes of a wheel are connected both with the hub and the rim, so all creatures, all Gods, all worlds, all organs are bound together in the temple of the world soul.

In cultures after megalithic times, the place of prayer was often a small cube with a hemispheric cupola above. Whatever the religion, the form was similar. One can still see such buildings all over the Mediterranean; from Turkey to Spain. The temple or temenos is a protected place, circumscribed and separated by augurs from the mundane world, a microcosm of the world as it was pictured in those times - depicts a cubical world and hemispherical heaven. The very word "templum" means a place from which stellar observations are made. The juxtaposition of square and circle permeates all the ancient mythologies, their pictorial representation, and the early architecture that emerges from the attempt to re-create the universal structure on earth.

While many circular forms in architecture derive from the hemispherical image of heaven brought down to earth, the tent-pole remains a central symbol of the universal core. By extension, the tent-pole was the polar axis. Images exist of the Egyptian gods Horus (the Sun) and Set (Saturn) drilling, which is an image of creation. It is not accidental that the drill itself resembles the human sperm containing its DNA signature. The Indian churn of the gods created the Milky Way, and includes an image of a serpent, symbolising time.

Native American medicine lodges had 28 poles radiating from a central pole, an omphalos or centre of the world. The number of poles correlates to the days in the lunar month and align with important star orientations unique to each Native American tribe. A central post was placed by the Medicine Man and intersected by the four sacred paths, which converged at the centre pole. Ceremonial pipes were smoked to celebrate the finding of the centre again, and other rituals utilising the lodge reflected cosmic movements and were carried out as aspects of the creation. The entrance to the lodge was to the east, the direction from which the Sun enters the world. The building and taking down of the lodge reflected the creation and destruction of the world.

Native American Tents

Native American teepees at Glacier Lake

Lake and River Water - Water filters for drinking water from lakes and rivers.
Refreshing Drinking Water - Water filters for creating drinking water in the field.
Filtration Methods - An exhibition on water filters over the generations.
Nature's Resources - How to filter one of natures most valuable resources
The Best Water Filters - Information about water filters
Clean Water and Health - Information about ceramic water filters.

The remains of the kiva at Aztec Ruins in New Mexico (which have nothing to do with the Aztec people) show it to be based upon a similar creation ritual with zodiacal connotations. The kiva appears from a distance as a mound in the desert punctuated by regularly spaced openings. It echoes the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe and is also a burial mound signifying the place of internment and rebirth. A parallel was established between the sun's movements across the sky and the passage of the dead ferried over the waters of infinity that surrounded the earth. The world of the dead was therefore likened to the geographical boundary of the known world of earth, reproduced within the temple.

Different beliefs about the creation of the world yielded views about its construction and form. The terms and process of construction of the universe forms some of the most evocative and powerful poetry of the Hindu Vedas. The Hindus perceived the Sun as the measurer of the universe, dividing day from night and also the earthly from the heavenly realms. The division by light is a recurring motif in all early cosmology and sacred architecture.

Hindu temples contain the shakti or Divine Spirit, which is a present entity or force, flowing through the forms in a determined way. This explains their interest in the laws governing the activation of architecture. They also devoted a building to a pious, living human, a precedent for the Christian habit of naming churches after Saints.

The Hindus integrated their temple with astronomical and astrological symbols. Once the sun has determined the orientation, the internal arrangement of the building is decided by a set pattern. A square mandala form describes each of the required temple plans. The overall square corresponds to major and minor functions of the temple, and the central square is symbolically situated outside of the cosmic order as the place where Brahma dwells.

The Hindus created a ritual to establish the cardinal axes, which they identified with the significance of sun and moon. They first consecrated a position for the altar after consulting the oracles. Next a vertical post or pillar was erected from which the sun would cast its shadow. A circle is traced around the post, and during the ceremonial day, often a day dedicated to the god or goddess to whom the temple was offered, the shadow cast across the circle by the extremes of the sun's movement across the sky determined two critical points. When the points on the circle are connected, they form an east-west axis. The circle generates a square and the four cardinal points are established perfectly in relation to the altar. The square then determines the plan of the temple and its proportions. The god Purusha, who symbolises the temple, is also the temple itself. He is pictured as the victim in a Vedic sacrifice: his head is to the East, his feet to the West, and his hands touch the No rtheast and Southeast corners of the square. He is the primordial victim whom the devas sacrificed at the beginning of the world, and who is incarnated in the cosmos. The cardinal axes provided an intermediary place between the circular heaven and the terrestrial square.

The rituals of orientation were very important in ancient China and Japan. The Sacred Island shrine of the Hall of Ritual Dances at Hiroshima is axial, apparently focusing upon the upraised symbol in the sea. In reality the temple celebrates the goddess of creation by pointing towards the position in the distant hills behind which her vehicle, the moon, rises on ritual days. (Slides)

Vitruvius mentions that the Romans used it to establish the cardinal axes of their cities after consulting the augurs to determine the location. Medieval mason/builders used the same process to determine the orientation of the great cathedrals. As the altar lays to the east and the main entrance to the west, the master mason aligns the axis to the sunrise shadow cast from the gnomon away to the west. This is the long axis of the building and also means that on the day of the Saint in whose honour the cathedral was erected, the rising sun enters along the axis. In this way it is possible to determine the Saint honoured in any great cathedral by determining the correct axis.

Often the temple deviates from the true north-south and east-west axes. In Hindu temples, it is considered improper to align the energies of buildings nearby with the temple itself. They see the principal axes and diagonals as sensitive points and vital energy nodes, and it lessens their potency to include them in walls, foundations or pillars. Axial similarity of adjacent buildings is also avoided for the same reason. Transgression causes trouble for the donor of the building and the congregation worshipping within. As a result, all elements are displaced in a minor way to slightly distort the symmetry of the building. When this principle is applied to the entire building, it is irregular in every element, but the whole carries a level of harmony that is so obvious that it is palpable. The variation from perfect mathematics creates the life of the building and its essential character.

Orientation fixes and locates the temple in time and space in relation to the sun and moon. The orientation and plan of temples express both a cosmology and an astrology, crystallising thought forms in time and space, and transforming the mundane into the cosmic and godlike.

The Aztec of Tenochtitlán worshipped the Pleiades, which played a central role in their religion and its complex calendar based upon the idea of cyclical time. For the Aztec the world ended at the culmination of a 52-year cycle (a bundling of the years of four groups of 13 years), at which they performed a New Fire Ceremony on top of Cerro de la Estrella, the "Hill of the Star." From the astronomically oriented temple built on the apex of the hill the priests watched as the Pleiades passed the zenith, signalling the salvation of the world, after which a human victim was sacrificed and another cycle began.

AT Mann Sagittarius Aztec Sun Disk

Twelve Mandalas – Aztec Sun Disk by A T Mann

The temple was a living organism whose physical body was a reflection of the body of the gods, the solar system. A standard for inner and outer organisation was initiated in the temple, and spread outward to government and social institutions at every level.

Newgrange was the home of the Irish god of wisdom Daghda, who was also the god of the sun. His son was magically conceived and born at Newgrange during a lengthening of the day. To this day the mounds are not just considered burial places, but also as homes of the living gods. Although it was not adopted by the later Celts, the symbolism of the sun permeates early Irish mythology. The interior contained a cross-shaped passage lined with large flat stones. At the winter solstice the sun's rays penetrated all the way into the monument and shone on the back wall almost 30 metres within. Due to the details of the construction the light enters through a roof-box above the doorway.

Mecca is where heaven and earth meet, and all Moslem prayers and sacred places on earth face in its direction, and every precinct in which the daily prayers are practised is a replica in miniature of the Ka'aba itself. The orientation of buildings are as important as their space and form, and their shapes and geometry. The square Ka'aba is repeated in classical courtyards, which also symbolise its stability and contemplative qualities. As eight angels support the Divine Throne, so the dome of the Islamic mosque is often built onto an octagonal base, and can also be aligned with the four cardinal points the four intermediate points of heaven on earth.

In modern architecture the absolute conformity of its shapes, building elements and materials creates an idealised perfection whose artificiality lacks any organic vitality. The ideal shape is too close to perfect for comfort. Modern buildings represent an inversion of the normal relationship between essential forms and contingent forms, the result of which is a sort of visual inactivity incompatible with the sensitivity - or the 'initiating substance' - of the contemplative artist. In modern buildings too often the subtle currents are entrapped within the structure and stylised facade, leaving the building itself dead and lifeless. Sacred buildings should be seen in this light - they have their own unique spirit and soul, like man and the universe, which responds to light and darkness, and is a carrier of cosmic energies which animate them. The architect confers their own spirit into a creation, and participates in the transformation of this ineffable spirit into matter.

Feng Shui is a form of geomancy (geographical divination) which utilises astrology and geometry to determine the location, form and orientation of a building or monument. Buildings that utilise the natural elements of the land and tap into its energy are auspicious places to live, work or bury the dead, while places that are antagonistic to these energies are inauspicious. The link with the environment has magical qualities, and the Chinese believe that the placement of a building affects the landscape as well as the other way around. The best possible result is when a man-made object enhances and supports the environment from which it in turn receives energy. Everything in the world interacts energetically, and when sensitivity and knowledge are used together, the blend is harmonious and supportive to both. In this sense it is a shared legacy which anticipates the Green Revolution so desperately required today.

The Chinese understand the universe in which houses and tombs are built as an alive, organic whole into which it is the responsibility of every human to integrate. They acknowledge that astrology, geomancy, divination, mythology and magic must combine in order for humanity to live in peace with themselves and the gods.

Luxor shows how axial integration operates over larger time spans. The shifts in axis at Luxor reflect the changing angle of the pole star throughout the hundreds of years of its construction. As each section of the temple was designed and built, the axis shifted, requiring a new alignment so that the rising sun would shine through the halls of pillars to the shrine within. What is revolutionary about Schwaller de Lubicz' ideas about the axis shift is that he assumes that they knew the entire form of the building before it was built, and acknowledged that they would have to adjust it according to the earth's astronomical movements. As they certainly knew about the mechanics and mathematics of the precession, they would have known beforehand and integrated such knowledge into their masterpiece.

Schwaller de Lubicz believed the Egyptians temples to be alive, both in the sense of being based upon natural proportions and also that they oscillate, reverberate and harmonise with humanity, and in this sense are a kind of subtle healing device. He felt that the builders of the cathedrals, who incorporated similar inconsistencies in their designs, understood the same secret. But he knew that these buildings did not just get designed, but rather grew from consciously planted seeds. Just like plants create stems according to the golden mean, so the proportions governed the increase and multiplication of parts into the whole. This principle also led to the recycling of Egyptian temples, which were taken down when they were obsolete and their building materials used as the seeds for subsequent buildings. He found traces of such seedlings at Luxor. It is as though once their time was served a sacred building was dissolved and its energies redistributed in an appropriate way.

The New Sacred Architecture begins with the acknowledgment that heaven as well as earth are bridged in our designs. When we make our sacred monuments calendars to enshrine our life cycles, we see the world within ourselves. We must, like the priests of Hathor in ancient Egypt, walk up to the sun and join the gods of heaven.

All images copyright from the Sacred Architecture book by A T Mann.

See "Designing Desires," from Doors of Perception, Amsterdam, 1995