Ancient Cosmology

The most important theme of ancient cosmology is a moral one: The condition of man is terrible; the world is askew; humanity has decayed from an earlier age of bliss. This is the biblical theme of original sin and expulsion from the garden east of Eden. But the concept of paradise and the expulsion of the human race from it is not peculiar to biblical religion. Ancient cosmologies were concerned with the basic problem confronting all religions: Why is there evil in the world? This is an imperfect world and the condition of mankind oscillates between happiness and sorrow. To this problem, which is the greatest question facing mankind, the ancients gave a cosmological answer: because the cosmos is not constructed in the right way, because its measurements are not what they should be. But there was another explanation which went much deeper cosmologically and assumed that what was wrong with the world was much more serious: The world in which we live is a crooked world because the ecliptic forms an angle with the equator. The ecliptic is the great highway of the sky: it is the course not only of the sun, but also of the moon and of the five planets. We know today that this results from the fact that all the bodies of the solar system move on a single plane, except for deviations of a few degrees.

The two most important points in the world are the points where the ecliptic meets the equator, the equinoctial points. Ancient astronomical systems considered as the year zero, the year from which the shifts in the position of the stars resulting from the precession of the equinoxes begin to be counted. According to the basic conception, the happy time prevailed long ago when the equinoxes were near the stars a Gemini and g Sagittarii. At this time not only the circle of the ecliptic and the circle of the equator met at one point, but the circle of the Milky Way as well, which then formed a right angle with the circle of the equator.

At the point where the three circles of the cosmos used to meet there were the three Gorgons; their name means “pivot.” The Greeks said that two of the Gorgons were immortal and one was mortal, for it was no longer true that the Milky Way met at one point with the ecliptic and with the equator. But long ago, when the three great circles—the Milky Way, the ecliptic, and the equator—coincided at the Vernal Equinox, the world was in its right shape and the human race lived in a state of eternal spring. Therefore the notion was also current that the state of mankind and of the cosmos changes when an Equinox becomes a Solstice and inversely; this happens as a result of a rotation of 90° caused by the precession. If the Great Year of the precession is computed by the round figure of 24,000 years, the happy state of mankind existed 6,000 years earlier. This is the reason why one of the biblical chronologies computes 6,000 years from Adam to Jesus. Jesus was born at the moment in which the sun passed from the constellation of Aries to the constellation of Pisces.

In the centuries preceding Jesus the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians, and the Egyptians had started to count the years backwards from the date of -6 (there are small variations in the reckoning of the final year), expecting that at that moment there would have come the culmination of a great period which had started when the Sun had entered the constellation of Gemini. The best known evidence for these expectations is the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil, on the basis of which the Roman poet came to be considered a Christian prophet. But even though in this specific case the period of 6,000 years was given a fixed ending and a fixed beginning, there was a vague conception simply that there had been a happier time when the Milky Way and the river Nile, which was closely identified with it, were turned 90° relative to their present position. For this reason in this blissful time the Nile went from west to east. As such it was known as the river Oceanus.

The frame of ancient geography was based on the assumption that the Nile is the Basic Meridian of the inhabited earth. The Nile begins from two lakes at the Equator and can be conceived of as ending at 30°, 31°, or 31°30’N, all highly significant latitudes. The Nile is closely identified with the Milky Way which in its ideal position goes from the extreme south to the extreme north, arching over the earth. The Milky Way is the Nile of the Sky or the Nile is the Milky Way of the earth.

If the Milky Way passes over our heads and coincides with the Basic Meridian, it follows that six hours earlier and six hours later it coincides with the Equator, i.e., it is at the level of the primeval water from which the cosmos emerged. Hence, the Milky Way marks not only the Basic Meridian, but also the line of the Equator. Since the Nile corresponds to the Milky Way, there must also be a Nile that flows to the east and to the west along the equator. Arab geographers of the Middle Ages conceived that from a great lake of central Africa there originated three Niles: The Nile of Egypt that empties into the Mediterranean, the Nile of Mogadiscio, that flows into the Indian Ocean, and the Nile of the Land of the Black (Sudan) that ends in the Atlantic Ocean. This equatorial Nile was called Oceanus by the Greeks. Since it merges with what we call the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean, the name Oceanus came to be given to these bodies of water. Strictly speaking Oceanus makes a circle along the Equator, but the ancients had problems with projections as we do. If we imagine ourselves in any of the places that the ancients considered navel of the world, at Thebes for the Egyptians, at Delphi or Rhodes for the Greeks, at Jerusalem for the Jews and for Dante, the Oikoumene, or inhabited earth, will appear as a flat circle, even if we are standing on a hemisphere. As a result of this it was conceived that the river Oceanus surrounded the inhabited world, meaning Africa, Europe and Asia, rather than the entire hemisphere of earth above the Equator.

The existence of a river Oceanus as an extension of the Nile along the Equator was considered a serious reality in Greek times. Probably the upper course of the river Congo suggested the course of the Oceanus. Furthermore, just where the mouth of the Oceanus should have been, on the Atlantic, there was a large estuary of the river Mano (00°02’N), which has been given the name Gabon, “cloak,” by the Portuguese because of its shape. As a result of the assumption that there was a river Oceanus linking the Atlantic with the sources of the Nile, the theory was formed that the floods of the Nile are caused by water of the Atlantic Ocean forced up Oceanus (or the equatorial Nile) by the Etesian winds. The physical philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras believed in this theory. But this opinion about the causes of the Nile Flood is referred to with disapproval by Herodotus. Herodotus rejected the theory that the flood of the Nile is caused by the melting of snow because he believed in the existence of the river Oceanus. Herodotus expresses his doubts about the existence of the river Oceanus, but leaves unsettled the question of an equatorial Nile, extending from the true sources of the Nile to the Atlantic Ocean. There were several reasons for which it was conceived that there should be a Nile running along the Equator, among which one is that, since the basic meridian of the earth was indicated by the course of the Nile, continued by the course of the Boristhenes, and since basic parallels were indicated by the axis of the Mediterranean (36°N) and the Danube (45°N) the reasoning can be reversed by assuming that there is a big river wherever there is a fundamental line of longitude. This reasoning is well indicated by the epic Argonautica in which the ship Argo navigates not only across existing seas and rivers, but also overland along important lines of latitude and longitude.

A further reason for believing that there was an equatorial Nile was that in the original cosmological conception which had not been completely superseded, the earth was a sphere that floated in the water of Oceanus up to the middle.  When the stars and the planets go below the Equator they are conceived of as going below water. Later it was realized that the earth is dry also below the Equator, but even in the age of Ptolemy there was a difficulty in explaining concretely the extension of the Oikoumene below the Equator. For Dante, the earth below the Equator belongs to the realm of the dead. When it was accepted that the inhabited earth extends below the Equator, the Oceanus was reduced to a river running along the equatorial line.

Herodotus declares that he is not well informed about the Nile that runs across Libya, because it traverses an area that is uninhabited and desert—which means unmapped in his terminology—but that he believes that it extends as far west as the Danube extends from its mouth to its source. He adds that, whereas there may be uncertainty about the course of the Nile across Libya, the course of the Danube is well known since it cuts across Europe, a familiar area. In spite of this specific declaration, the greatest majority of scholars asserts that Herodotus had childish and absurd notions about the course of the Danube.

There cannot be any doubt that the Nile that “divides Libya into two” (II 33) was at the Equator, because it is identified with the land of the Pygmies. The ancients associated the Pygmies with the Equator and from their reports it seems that they occupied more or less the area they occupy today: about 5° north and south of the Equator, from the area of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

Herodotus relates (II 32-34) that in the Greek city of Cyrene he learned from some of the inhabitants that they had been told by Etearchos, King of the Oasis of Ammon, that some young Nasamonians (inhabitants of the area of present northern Libya) had crossed the desert, reaching the land of the Pygmies, and continuing their march through a marshy part of the land of the Pygmies (which can be readily identified with the great marshy area along the middle course of the river Congo around the city of Coquilhatville at the Equator) they came to a river in which the water flowed from west to east. It was believed that the water of the Equatorial Nile flowed from west to east; water does flow in this direction in the Gabon when the tide is rising and the Etesian winds are blowing. Etearchos believed that the river reached by the Nasamonians was the Nile. Herodotus quite soundly leaves in doubt the question whether the river was the Nile, but declares himself willing to believe the positive datum ascribed to Etearchos, that there was a river that flowed from west to east beginning at the longitude of the sources of the Danube near Pyrene.

The time when the Oceanus was flowing was conceived of as the ideal time in which the three pivots of the world coincided. This was the happy period of the garden east of Eden according to the Old Testament; the corresponding concept in Greek mythology is the Garden of the Hesperidesin the extreme West. This garden is placed in the west because the course of the primeval Nile was from west to east. For this reason the ladies in the garden acquired the name of Hesperides, “ladies of the west.” To this conception may have contributed the notion that the land of the dead is at the west. In the Garden there is a tree and an apple, guarded by a serpent[1]; the tree is the pivot of the cosmos, and the apple is the sphere of the cosmos. In this time if one had gone down the Nile to the Equator, one would have reached the pivot. This was a happy time because one was able to navigate down the Nile and continue with the boat on the Milky Way, the Milky Way being the place where the happy departed souls dwell. For this reason some of the great poems of the world deal with a voyage to the realm of the dead.

The Greek epic of the  Argonauts presents the ship Argo going to the end of the  inhabited earth to search for the golden fleece, which is the desired pivotal point where one can enter the Milky Way. The Odyssey also preserves traces of having been conceived as a trip to the land of the dead. Odysseus finally reaches Ithaca which was considered the end of the world and, as Emile Mireaux has properly seen, interpreting the last lines of the poem, jumps to his death from the rocks of Cape Leukadas.

As even Christians are supposed to believe, the important problem is not the inevitability of death but of dying with the knowledge that one will be able to pass to the land of eternal bliss. The Divine Comedy is quite close to the model of ancient cosmology: by a voyage underground Dante reaches a mountain at the extreme south, Purgatory, from where he can climb to heaven. It is significant that at the top of Purgatory there is the Garden of Eden. Whereas Dante travels underground, the souls of the departed reach Purgatory on a ship that leaves from the mouth of the Tiber. This indicates that since the Aeneid presents a voyage of the traditional type that ends at the Tiber, this river was understood to be one of the ends of the world.

If the Nile is rotated by 90° it can follow the equatorial course, the course of Oceanus, but there were other alternative interpretations. One could conceive that the mouth of the Nile remained the same, and that the primeval Nile ran along latitude 30° or 31°, depending on whether the primeval Nile ended at the present shore or at the apex of the Delta.

In the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius instructions about the geography of the earth are introduced with these words:

Think of a time when the wheeling constellations did not yet exist; when one would have looked in vain for the sacred Danaan race, finding only the Apidnean Arcadians, who are said to have lived before the moon itself was there, feeding on acorns in the hills. These were the times when the noble race of Deucalion ruled the Pelasgian land, when Egypt, mother of an earlier race, was known as the grain-rich country of the Dawn, and the Nile that waters all its length was called Triton, a generous river flowing through a rainless land, yet by its floods producing crops in plenty.

This was a time preceding the flood in which Deucalion performed the role of the biblical Noah. At that time the Nile ran where the ancients placed Lake Tritonis, that is, the series of swamps that are at the southern margin of the mountains of Tunisia and Algeria and which were deeper and more extensive in ancient times. The swamps of Lake Tritonis were taken as evidence of the earlier course of the Nile. The text also refers to the passage of the Nile through the Sahara desert. This means that the Nile came from mount Atlas, beyond which was the Island of the Hesperides. According to a passage of the Odyssey (I. 45) that some interpreters consider a later addition, Odysseus was kept prisoner on the island of Atlas, “navel of the seas,” an island that has the sea on two sides, where the pillars are that hold at one end the earth and at the other end the sky.

According to the poet Hesiod, who is not much younger than Homer, Atlas, son of a nymph of the Oceanus, holds up the sky at the limits of the world, “in front of the Hesperides” (Theogony 517-519). The poet also states that the Hesperides were created together with Shame and painful Suffering; the image is quite close to that conveyed by the Old Testament in the story of the garden east  of Eden. They were created also with the Moirai, the divinities that the Romans called Parcae and the Old Germans called Nornen; these figures correspond like the Hesperides to the three circles joined at one point that determine the motion of the cosmos. Since the misfortune of man began at the moment in which the equinoctial points moved away from their original position, Hesiod lists all the evils that befel mankind: with the Hesperides there were born Nemesis, Deceit in Lovemaking, Old Age, Contention, Painful Work, Forgetfulness, Hunger, Pains, Brawls, Battles, Murders, Massacres, Quarrels, Deceptive Words, Disputes, Lawlessness and Disaster. To this list there is added also the Night, because, according to ancient cosmology, in the original state of bliss it was always noon.

From the geographical point of view it is difficult to ascertain where Mount Atlas was. Certainly it was a mountain in the area inhabited by Berbers. It would seem that the term Atlas derives from the Berber noun adrar, “mountain,” pronounced by a foreign nation. The trouble is that the area of the Maghreb and of the Sahara is full of places called Adrar. Herodotus mentions a mount Atlas which he calles Pillar of the Sky, which is one of the peaks of the Ahoggar that dominate the central Sahara. The Ahoggar is at the Tropic. Since the Nile was understood to be originating at the Little Cataract, which is at the Tropic, there could have been a conception to the effect that the primeval Nile flowed from west to east along the Tropic. Later I shall submit evidence of this conception. But the Greeks in early times applied the name of Atlas to that part of the chain of the Atlas that extends into the Ocean between Mogador (31°40’N) and Agadir (30°32’N) and hence roughly corresponds to the latitude of the Nile Delta. In classical times the name of Islands of the Blessed was given to the Canary Islands. The name of Atlas was given also to those mountains that reach the Ocean just north of the river Dra, the southern limit of ancient Mauritania and of present Morocco, so that the Canary Islands could be conceived of as being directly in line with the Atlas.

There was an Egyptian conception, which became the standard one, by which the Elysian Fields were entered by a gap between rocks at Abydos, on the right bank of the Nile. It not difficult to see why this point was chosen: it is the point that corresponds with the only section of the Nile within Egypt in which the river runs from east to west.

But if the primeval Nile runs from Abydos to the west, Mount Atlas must be placed more or less on this line. In substance the primeval Nile was conceived of as running through the desert to the west of Egypt and ending at some mountain which overhangs the Atlantic. It was a matter of opinion which physical features could be interpreted as evidence of this earlier course. From Greek geography it appears that several rivers or wadi of the desert between Egypt and the Atlantic were identified with the former course of the Nile.

Because of this east-west course of the Nile, Greek geographers, obviously drawing on an earlier tradition, identify the Islands of the Blessed with the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands could be conceived of as being beyond the Straits of Gibraltar or, even better, against the mentioned points of the Chain of the Atlas that extends into the Atlantic.

Later I shall discuss a conception by which the Islands of the Blessed were identified with the Islands of Cape Verde, since they are against Cape Verde, the most westerly point of Africa. This conception is linked with the notion that the river Senegal, which was conceived of as a continuation of the Niger (the sources of the two rivers are close to each other) represented the primeval Nile.

One conception associated the entrance to the Elysian field with the Strait of Gibraltar. It is called by the Greeks “the place of passage":[2] This passage or limit was originally known by the name of Tartessos, which was a great city beyond the straits. Later it was called by the name of Gades.

In the period of the maritime expansion at the beginning of the first millennium B.C., the people of Tyre associated the Straits of Gibraltar with the two pillars that represented the omphalos in the Temple of Melqaart in their city. As a result the Greeks referred to the Straits of Gibraltar as Pillars of Hercules.[3] The name of Melqaart was usually rendered by the Greeks by “Herakles,” but also by “Kronos.” Hence the Straits of Gibraltar were associated also with the name of Kronos, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond them was called the Sea of Kronos.

The Pillars were conceived of as being located in a specific place. The northern column was associated with the present rock of Gibraltar. It had the name of Kalpe, but more interesting is the fact that it had also the name of Alybe. The same name was given to the southern Pillar, which was identified with a hill near the shore to the west of Ceuta, the present Gebel Musa, “Mountain of Moses.”

Even though much has been written on the subject of the Pillars of Herakles, the most revealing fact that it has an Egyptian name has not been noticed. The development of the route through Gibraltar has been ascribed to practically all nations of the Mediterranean, to the Ligurians, to a not-too-well identified nation called Tyrrhenians, to the Etruscans, to the Cretans, to the Carians, to the Phoenicians, to the Greeks of Phokaia, but not to the Egyptians.

Strabo calls the southern Pillar by the name of Elephant, and Pliny writes that Mount Abyla produces elephants.[4] This suggests that the name Alybe corresponds to the Greek term for elephant, elephas, which is certainly a foreign word in Greek; the second element of it has been explained by the Egyptian yeb (ebu in Coptic), “elephant, ivory.”[5] The first element seems to be the Egyptian word ‘ab or ‘ab, “tusk, elephant tusk"; apparently since the word yeb could mean both “elephant” and “ivory,” there was prefixed a word that made clear that the Gebel Musa was not an elephant, but an elephant tusk.[6]

The association of the Pillars of Herakles with the tusks of an elephant is most significant. The island which marks the southern end of Egypt proper and is below the Little Cataract on the right bank of the Nile was called Yebu by the Egyptians and Elephantine by the Greeks. In Indian astronomy the constellation of Taurus was represented not by a bull, but by an elephant; apparently this alternative representation existed also in Egypt at some time. The bull and the elephant have in common their two horns or tusks. The two horns of our constellation of Taurus mark the limit on the right or eastern bank of the Milky Way when it crosses the Ecliptic. This explains why the bull has the most important role in the Egyptian conception of how one enters the Elysian Fields. Raymond Weill in the first part of his study of The Elysian Fields in Egyptian Texts, has clarified the role of the bull, except that he has not seen the astronomical meaning. To gain admittance to the Elysian Fields, the hero must defeat the bull; he enters as the conqueror of the bull that guards the route to the West, that guards the Elysian Fields.  One of Pyramid texts reads: “The Bull of the Sky inclines his horn, so that he [the deceased] may pass.”[7] At times  the bull  instead of being presented as an enemy is a friend who helps in   in crossings; the bull itself is identified with the hero and becomes the actor of the triumphant crossing: “He comes out into the sky. He crosses the vault of heaven, lively and powerful, he crosses the foamy Oceanus, overthrowing the wall of Shu.” At times the bull is a ladder, the ladder that gives access to the sky. Weill observes that the deceased is presented as moving towards Orion, so that the bull is “most probably” Orion itself; but Orion and Sirius (Sothis) are mentioned as guides to the bull because the two most important stars are also on the bank of the Milky Way, just below the two horns of Taurus.

Weill has also ascertained that the deceased enters the Elysian Fields by flying through the air holding onto the horns of the bull. He properly observes that the conquering hero is a torrero. This provides a clear explanation of the most important sacred ceremony of Cretan religion, the taurokatapsia, the ritual in which champions grab the horns of a bull and vault over it. It also explains why the bull is such an important symbol in Cretan religion; it does not mean that the Minoans worshipped bulls or believed that bulls were gods. Every sensible person recognizes that the Spanish bullfight is rooted in a sacred rite, a survival of an ancient religion. The conclusive point of the bull-fight, el momento de la verdad, is when the torrero exposes his chest to the horns of the bull in order to lean over the animal’s head and plant the sword between the horns. Such an act obviously implies a defiance of death.

Whereas Eratosthenes considers the beginning of the inhabited world to be at the Strait of Gibraltar, Ptolemy follows a tradition by which the first meridian is placed at the Canary Islands; this tradition is based on the principle by which the Persians set their capital, Persepolis, at latitude 30°00’N, at a point that is half way between the Canary Islands and the coast of China, the middle of the Oikoumene. This point is exactly 3 x 7°12’ east of the geodetic point Pi-hapy (30°00’N, 31°14’E), the end of the Upper Nile. Persepolis was intended to be exactly at the middle of the width of the Oikoumene. I shall have occasion to show that there was established a system of geodetic squares, extending from latitude 30°N to latitude 36°N, each 7°12’ wide, such that 9 squares to east of Persepolis and 9 squares to the west covered the entire Oikoumene from the coast of China (117°38’E) to the west coast of Africa (11°58’ W).

Scholars have wondered why King Darius, when he founded a new capital in order to sanction the establishment of his Empire, selected this particular area and even more why he selected an odd location within the area. The immense cluster of palaces that constituted Persepolis were erected on the slopes of a hill in a position such that they had to rest on an artificial terrace supported by huge walls on three sides. Apparently Persepolis was the place closest to the geodetic point 30°00’N, 52°50’E that was fit for a city. At exactly this geodetic point there was erected the greatest cluster of monuments outside Persepolis itself, among which there were the tombs of King Darius the Great, the founder of Persepolis, and of three of his successors. Persepolis was built on the opposite bank of the river Puluar, at 29°58 ‘N, 52°53’E. Perhaps the Persians intended to have the city of the living separated from the city of the dead, as it was done in Egypt. The geodetic point was established with a precision of at least one minute of degree both in latitude and in longitude, which is quite a feat by any standard. A survey in situ would establish which limit of precision was achieved beyond the minute of degree.

Ptolemy based himself on this system except that, by distorting, as it is well-known, the east-west distances, he made the geodetic squares 10° wide, in order to arrive at a width of 180° for the Oikoumene instead of the correct 120° (half of the circumference of the earth);[8] furthermore, he anchored his presentation on the Western Axis of Egypt (29°50’E) instead of the Main Axis (31°14’E), thereby giving more importance to Alexandria and initiating his reckoning from the easternmost of the Canary Islands (Fortunate Isles). In this he conformed to the policy of the Ptolemies whose first king, in order to break the Egyptian national tradition, forced to Alexandria the Egyptian astronomers of Heliopolis, whose observatory was at longitude 31°14’E. The small shift of Ptolemy undermined the links of the Persian Empire and of Pharaonic Egypt with the cosmic order.


[1]Euphorion, (Amsterdam, 1977), fg. 153: kai ton ta khrusa méla tôn Esperidôn phrourounta ophin képouron ômase.

[2]poros (Diod. 4,18; Polyb. 3,39) porthmos (Strabo 58), diaplous (Herodotus, Strabo), pyla, pylai, stoma, (Polyb. 3,39)  perata (Steph. Byz. s.v. belos)  horos (Plato, Tim. 25 C), ohoroi, termones (Euripides), fauces (Liv 28, 30), ostium (Cicero 2, 86).

[3]“Der Heraklestemple von Gades,” Festschrift f.d. 55 Philol. Versamm. (Erlagen, 1925), p. 71. In Malta there have been found two arrows with the inscription “To our master Melqaart, Lord of Tyre” and in Greek “To Herakles, the colony-founder.” (Corpus Inscr. Sem. I, 122). The name of Melqaart of the Straits of Gibraltar is also rendered into Greek by Belos, that is, Ba’al (since Melqaart was the Ba’al of Tyre), by Briareos, a giant, and by Aigaion, a giant who was god of the Sea.

[4]The name Abinna or Abenna has an ending that is most common in geographical names all around the Mediterranean, and which is ascribed to a language or to a culture called pre-Greek, Asianic, or Mediterranean, a culture of which Minoan Crete seems to have been one of the important elements. Names like Tartessos belong to the same linguistic group. The name is reported as Abila, Abilyx, Abenna, Abinna, and Alybe.

[5]If the ending -enna is excluded, the root appears to be the Egyptian yeb, “elephant, ivory,” Coptic ebu. The word occurs in Latin as ebur, “ivory” but in Greek it occurs in the form el-ephans, used by Homer, Hesiod and Pindar for “ivory” and by Herodotus for “elephant.” For the first element of the Greek term there have been suggested only unacceptable explanations: that it is the Arabic article and that it is an Indo-European word meaning “horn.” But the Pillar of Herakles is called not only Abenna or Abinna, but also Abila, Alybe, and Abilyx, which seems to correspond to the Greek form.

[6]A form *abiba was dissimilated either into abila or into aliba.There is a possibility that when the Phoenicians identified Mount Alybe with one of their sacred stones that mark the omphalos, they reinterpreted the name Abinna or Abenna as being in their language the equivalent of the Hebrew eben, “stone, marking stone.”

[7]Pyramid Text No. 1432.

[8]It was because of this distortion introduced by Ptolemy or his source that Columbus believed that India could be reached by sailing 180° to the West.