Temples and time: discovering their common root

 Temples as scale models of the universe  

Temples were often at the center of Latin and Greek life and poetry. So here is an old quotation from the poet Nevio. It is from the Latin writer Varro.

… where land’s semicircle lies, fenced by the azure vault.

Temples: when talking of them, people generally imagine a building for the worship of God, but the original meaning of the term is another.

Temples from earliest times have been built as scale models of the universe. The first known mention of the Latin word templum is by Varro (116-27 B.C.) for whom it designated a sort of cosmic observatory.

Temples and the observation of the sky

The Latin word for Templum was linked to the observation of the sky: ancient Templa were scientific natural observatories. The Universe was considered to be a temple: a compendium of the Macrocosmus but localized in the tiny limits of a Microcosmus. Templum in terra corresponded to a Templum in aere, that is to say, the mundane temple was a model of something greater. According to Varro there are three temples, one in heaven, one on earth and one beneath the earth. That is the knot that ties earth and heaven together, the Gordian knot, the seat of cosmic dominion.

Virgil and the book of Aeneid

Virgil gives an interesting picture of  Apollo’s temple in the sixth book of Aeneid, calling Dedalus to the mind of the reader as well as Icarus, the Labyrinth, the Minotaur and much more. It could be interesting to examine the symbolic meaning of this description, but here is not the time to start this sort of deep analysis in the Greek mythology.

As already said, the Latin word for Templum was connected to the observation of the sky. At the beginning, the word was meant to denote the celestial sector that the Latin augur fixed within ideal lines in order to observe the movements of the celestial bodies.  In the course of time, it started to indicate the place where these observations were made, a place to search a contact with the divine. The basic cornerstone where temples were set was charged with a cosmic value as a representation of the center of the world.

About etymologies

So, let’s find some etymologies:

  1. templum

    It was the space of sky which the augur marked off with his lituus, by imaginary lines, the cardo from north to south and the decumanus from east to west, thus dividing the space observed into four regions. Templum has the same root of the Greek temenos, a word deriving from the verb temno, to cut. It represented a piece of land reserved to the cult.

There’s a common Indo-European root TEM  that indicates a separation, a cutting, an enclosure also meaning a sacred place.

2. augur

This is a fusion of two different roots: AUG and UR.  AUG is linked to augmentation, Augustus, increase, expansion but UR  is connected to the sacred fire, the divine energy, to burning, Uranous, Mercurious, Saturnus. Augur was the one who, having the knowledge of the divine energy, was able to expand and increase it for some benefit of people…

Temple and time have a common root

Templum usually denoted the demarcation and limits of space but templum was sometimes also used to denote a “cut portion” of time. According to Roman law, “the sunlit day is the equivalent in time to the space of the Templum”.

So temple and time are intimately connected, they have a common root: temple, time, tense, terminus, temperature, tempest, temporary, temporize, contemplate, esteem, estimate are all linked by the core meaning of “section cut off” that is Measure.

Temples in the Jewish, Christian and Muslin Worlds

Many other things could be said about this fascinating subject, but for a start, it will be enough to say that the temple of Solomon itself presented, in its essentials, similar cosmic symbolism, its measurements were all sacred and prescribed with strict rules about its orientation and architectural dispositions. From the temple at Jerusalem went forth ideas and traditions that are found all over the Jewish, Christian and Muslin worlds. It was in conscious continuity with these models that the Muslim conceived of the Ka’ba  in Mecca.