October 23, 2017

The cosmic in art, architecture and ecology at the Millennium

Published in A Sacred Trust: Ecology and Spritual Vision, edited by David Cadman and John Carey. Tenemos Academy Papers No. 17, 2002.

In this essay, Edward Goldsmith argues that the original role of art is to express mankind’s relationship with the cosmos.

*     *     *

Original note: Towards the begin­ning of his remarks, Edward Goldsmith related an anecdote which captured the spirit of much of his Lecture, and also of the essay given here:

“I once took a taxicab in Wellington, New Zealand and the driver happened to be Samoan. I asked him if he owned the cab and he replied: ‘No, I can’t, because I am Samoan’. I said that I did not know there was a law in New Zealand forbidding Samoans to buy taxicabs. He answered that this was not the point, the point was that ‘in my society, if we make any money we must distribute it amongst our family and community members, so if I do that how can I put aside the money to buy a taxi? But I am thinking of becoming like you, a Pakeha [white man] and then I am going to tell my family and community to go to hell, and I will put aside the money to buy a taxi.'”


“The Millennium coincides with a widespread yearning for individual and Earth healing. Individuals and societies, global and local, and the whole Earth community suffer as never before under unsustainable human impact. The healing ministry should be broadened to include the earth, the living soil, plants, animals, water and climate, and the science and technology, which, when arrogantly misused, threaten the very continuatlon of our species and the biosphere as we know it.” [117]

Edward Echlin

Contrary to what mainstream scientists tell us, I have consistently argued that natural systems at different levels of organisation seek, consciously or not, to maintain the order of the larger wholes of which they are part. The biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy was struck by the “whole maintaining character” of life processes at the level of the biological organism. [118] So was the Austrian biologist Ungerer, who was so impressed by this process that he decided to replace the biological consideration of purpose with that of wholeness. [119]

That the constituent parts of any natural system must strive to maintain its overall order is clear, because those parts have evolved to fulfil their specific functions within that system and are thereby totally dependent on its preservation for their welfare and indeed for their survival. Eugene Odum, whose Fundamentals of Ecology was the standard textbook in American universities for decades, points out that

“the individual cannot survive for long without its population, any more than the organ would be able to survive for long as a self perpetuating unit without its organism.” [120]

Thus children brought tip in a broken home, as any social worker will confirm, will often tend to be emotionally unstable and have a far greater chance of becoming social misfits, delinquents and criminals.

The family, however, cannot thrive as a little oasis of order in a sea of social disorder. It needs to be part of a cohesive community, which is of such importance in the traditional world that people cannot imagine life outside of it. Nor, of course, can individuals, families and communities survive if the order of the natural world or of the ecosphere is destroyed, as even the most extreme adept of the cult of selfishness will soon realise.

Unfortunately, this key principle only becomes apparent when life processes are seen in terms of their relationships with the whole of which they are part. Mainstream scientists who insist on looking at life processes in isolation from the whole – the whole whose very existence most of them choose to ignore – continue to see those processes as random, malleable, goal-less, and self-serving. This interpretation could not be better illustrated than by the writings of professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, for whom there is no selective advantage in displaying any concern for the stability and integrity of the larger whole.

If behaviour is looked at reductively, there is no way in which its ‘whole-maintaining’ function can be established and hence no way of distinguishing between behaviour that serves to maintain and that which serves to disrupt the order of the living world. This key distinction is foreign to mainstream science, though critical to early archaic religions. A brief consideration of some early architecture and weaving will demonstrate some of these principles of wholeness.

The anthropologist Henrick Kraemer notes how, in primal societies,

“the dominating interest is to preserve and perpetuate social harmony, stability and welfare. Religious cults and magic practices have chiefly this purpose in view. Everyone who has lived with a ‘primitive people’ and has tried to immerse his or her mind in theirs, knows the deep-rooted dread fostered towards any disturbance of the universal and social harmony and equilibrium. Whether a violation of this harmony issues from the universal sphere – for example, by an unusual occurrence in nature – or from the social, by a transgression of tradition or a disturbing event, it calls forth a corporate and strenuous religious activity towards restoring the harmony and thereby saving the fertility of their fields, their health, the security of their families, the stability and welfare of their tribe from becoming endangered.” [121]

Most practices of primal peoples are geared to the achievement of this same end, whether these be their agricultural activities: the technologies they use; the designs of their houses, their temple and their settlements: or the performance of sacred rituals. Beyond their utilitarian functions, these practices all serve to maintain the order of the cosmos. It is worth noting how totally irreconcilable this approach is, with the principle that all living things are fundamentally egoistic, individualistic and aggressive, a principle underlying Neo-Darwinism, sociobiology and (I am afraid to say) modern reductionistic ecology.

For primal people, a plan to build a new village or city meant first building a holy house or temple, on the cosmic model. The settlement that subsequently surrounded that structure was thus integrated into the cosmic hierarchy, or cosmicized. The traditional ceremony performed for that purpose was, according to Eliade’s description, a re-enactment of the original act of creation, or cosmo-genesis.

Reichel-Dolmatoff demonstrates how the temples built by the Kogi Indians of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta are still seen as small-scale versions of the cosmos:

“Kogi temples are meant to be models of man’s relationship with the cosmos, models that convey a sense of world order and, simultaneously, are interpreted as the body of the Mother. Each post, beam or rafter, up to the smallest detail of roof construction, thatch or vines, used in tying together the different parts, has its specific symbolic values. A temple construction can be read as an anatomical model, a geographical model, a model of social structure and organisation, or priestly ritual, or of the upper and nether worlds; it also is an instrument for astronomical observation.” [122]

Coomaraswamy tells us that

“man has always . . .correlated his own constructions with cosmic or simple supramudane proto-types. For example, the Indian seven-storeyed palace (prasada) with its various floors or ‘earths’ (bhumi) has always been thought of as analogous to the universe of seven worlds”.

Coomaraswamy quotes Mus in his great monograph on Barabadur. Mus tells us that the Buddhist stupa cannot be understood simply from the “functional point of view”: its importance resides in its symbolic meaning. For Mus, the stupa “represents a universe in parvo”, the axis of the stupa representing the axis of the universe, the dome representing the heavens. [123]

This aspect of symbolic representation was also true of the ancient Temple of Jerusalem. According to the Midrash Tanhuma, the Temple “corresponds to the whole world and to the creation of man who is a small world”. [124] In an ancient Jewish legend, Yahweh orders Moses to build him the Tabernacle. “But how shall I know how to make it?” Moses asks. Yahweh answers:

“Do not get frightened . . . just as I created the world and your body, even so will you make the Tabernacle . . . You find in the Tabernacle that the beams were fixed into the sockets, and in the body the ribs are fixed into the vertebra, and so in the world the mountains are fixed into the fundaments of the Earth. In the Tabernacle there were bolts in the beams to keep them uptight, and in the body limbs and sinews are drawn to keep man upright, and in the world trees and grass are drawn in the earth. In the Tabernacle there were hangings to cover its top and both its sides, and in the body the skin of man covers his limbs, and his ribs on both his sides, and in the world the heavens cover the Earth on both its sides. In the Tabernacle the veil divided between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, and in the body the diaphragm divides the heart from the stomach, and in the world it is the firmament which divides between the upper waters and the lower waters.” [125]

By seeing his body, his house and his settlement as reflecting the same critical order – which is also that of his society, of the natural world and of the cosmos itself – vernacular man understands that his life is subject to the same single law that governs the cosmic hierarchy, and that he is a participant in the great Gaian enterprise, whose goal is to maintain the critical order of the cosmos.

Titus Burckhardt shows that early Christian churches were also once designed on the cosmic model. He makes this quite clear in his beautiful book on Chartres Cathedral, wherein he describes the body of Christ as “inscribed in the ground plan of the church”. The cross itself was “formed by the axes of the heavens”; Christ’s head “lies towards the east, His feet towards the west, His arms and hands extend from north to south”.

According to the church fathers Jerome and Basil, “the axial cross of the heavens is the pre-ordained prototype of the wood on which the Saviour was nailed”. Indeed, for the people of antiquity the cross represented the axes of the heavens and was “the direct expression of cosmic law”. It was assumed that a transgressor of this law was executed on a cross, “this was in order to re-establish, both symbolically and practically, the disturbed cosmic equilibrium”. [126]

The cosmic symbolism of early Christian churches could not be clearer than in the case of the cathedral of Edessa (now called Urfa) in north-west Mesopotamia, which was once one of the greatest centre of Christendom. The cathedral was built in the sixth century, like Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and like the latter was dedicated to Holy Wisdom. The description provided by an early Syriac hymn could not be more illustrative:

“Wonderful it is that this building in its smallness resembles the wide world, not through its size, but in its character: water surrounds it, just as the ocean surrounds the world; its roof is wide like heaven, without pillars, vaulted and everywhere closed, and decorated with golden mosaics as is the firmament with shining stars.

Its noble cupola resembles the heaven of heavens. The upper part of the building rests on the lower part like a helmet. Its wide and splendid arches represent the four sides of the world. Through their multiplicity, its colours recall magnificent rainbows.” [127]

Traditional societies did not produce artefacts designed to satisfy none but utilitarian purposes. All products were replete with symbolic meaning, based on knowledge that had a superhuman origin. This was true of basketwork, of pottery, and in particular of weaving. Thus the weaving of the cosmic veil that in the original Temple of Jerusalem separated the hekal (representing the earth) from the debir or Holy of Holies (representing the heavens) had to be made in accordance with very strict and ancient procedures. [128]

The veil itself as Josephus tells us, represented the created world; it was:

“. . . of Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvellous skill. Nor was this mixture of materials without its mystic meaning: it typified the universe. For the scarlet seemed emblematical of fire, the fine linen of the earth, the blue of the air, and the purple of the seas; the comparison in two cases being suggested by their colour, and in that of the fine linen and the purple by their origin, as the one is produced by the earth and the other by the sea. On this tapestry was portrayed a panorama of the heaven . . .” [129]

The ceremonial tunic of the high priest of the Temple of Jerusalem was also replete with cosmic symbolism, as is pointed out both by Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. Josephus tells us that the tunic:

“signifies the earth, being of linen, and its blue the arch of heaven, while it recalls the lightnings by its pomegranates, the thunder by the sound of its bells. His upper garment, too, denotes universal nature, which it pleased God to make of four elements; being further interwoven with gold in token, I imagine of the all-pervading sunlight.” [130]

Not only the clothes woven for high priests or the fabrics of the veils and curtains of the temples in which they officiated were of cosmic design. In traditional societies, cosmic design affected weaving in general. One obvious example is the weavings made by the Kogi Indians, fabrics filled with symbolic meanings. The Colombian anthropologist Geraldo Reichel-Dolmatoff who spent some 40 years studying the Kogi and other Colombian Indian tribes, tells us that when a Kogi starts to weave a piece of cloth he sings the following:

“I shall weave the fabric of my life;

I shall weave it white as a cloud;

I shall weave some black into it;

I shall weave dark maize stalks into it;

I shall weave maize stalks into the white cloth;

Thus I shall obey divine Law.”

These are not empty words, as Reichel-Dolmatoff notes,

“The dress a Kogi wears is a ‘fabric of life’ and by weaving a piece of cloth a man is ‘weaving his life’. He is symbolically organising his personal feelings and his social existence by the act of weaving.”

For a Kogi,

“a man’s thoughts are like threads: cotton thread is white, ‘good’ thought, and the act of spinning represents the act of thinking.”

The Kogi explain:

“To spin is to think. When one sits and twists the thread on one’s thigh, one thinks a lot: one thinks about one’s work, one’s family, one’s neighbours, everything. The yarn we spin is our thoughts.”

More significantly, during the act of weaving these thoughts are interlaced into “the web that is society, the weaver’s social relationships, his social network”.

The critical role played by weaving in the social world of the Kogi is quite consistent with Kogi cosmogony, for the spindle represents the centre of the Earth – the axis mundi that holds up the heavens. When the Mother Goddess created the earth, she pushed a spindle

“upright into the newly created and still soft earth, right in the centre of the snow peaks of the Sierra Nevada, saying ‘This is the central post’, and then picking from the top of the spindle a length of yarn, she drew with it a circle around the spindle-whorl and said ‘This shall be the land of my children!’ “

A Kogi spindle, then, is a model of the cosmos: the flat disk of the spindle-whorl is our Earth and on top of it rests the high, cone-shaped body of cotton yarn wound tightly around the world axis.

On occasion this whorl is decorated with four little dots engraved on opposite sides of the circular object. They represent the “World-Quarters, or else [the World-Quarters are designated by] two incised intersecting lines in the form of a cross”. The white yarn is “the thought of the sun”; it represents life light – a male seminal concept of fertility and growth.

The white cone is seen as divided horizontally into four ascending levels that represent the Upper World. At the summit is the sun. Underneath the world disk is another, inverted, cone of yarn, and the Kogi talk of an invisible cone of black thread, also divided into four levels that represent the Lower World:

“The sun, by spiralling round the world, spins the Thread of Life and twists it around the cosmic axis; during the day a left-spun white thread and during the night a right-spun black one.” [131]

Weaving plays an important role in the social and spiritual lives of many Central American peoples, including the Maya in the highlands of Chiapas. The Maya weaving tradition is a very old one. Most ancient Maya art forms did not survive the collapse of Classic Maya society in the tenth century, let alone the Spanish Conquest in the sixteenth.

Mayan woven textiles were exceptionally beautiful and elaborate. As Walter F. Morris notes, the huipil, a rectangular blouse that is the ceremonial costume of the ancient and modern Maya, “is woven with designs that symbolise their vision of the cosmos and the beings that bring rain and life to the world”. The weaver is enveloped “in a diagram of the world about to flower”. Morris provides a beautiful description of the weaver in her ceremonial finery with all its cosmic imagery:

“Radiating from her head are diamonds that depict the sun’s movement through the sky and underworld. Along the edges of the brocade the musicians of rain, the toads, dance with the Earthlord who creates the clouds and reigns over the flowering plants that appear in growing rows of designs that cover the sleeves. A weaver may include depictions of the ancestors, the patron saints, the people of the first world who became monkeys, the monsters defeated by the Earthlord, and the animal spirits with their jaguar Lord. She interweaves these designs and the power they symbolise into a harmonious vision of the world renewed in flower.” [132]

Very much the same is true of weaving in the islands of the Sumba group that are at present part of Indonesia. The anthropologist Danielle Geirnaert-Martin has made an exhaustive study of the cosmic symbolism in the textiles produced on one of the islands called Laboya. For the Laboyans, the weaving of cloth is seen as essential for maintaining the stability and order of a woman’s life, that of her family, and that of the natural world and the all-encompassing cosmos.

“There is an analogy between spinning and birth: the ball of thread symbolises a foetus or a newborn baby. It can be made into warp and weft and then woven: for the process of weaving cloth and rearing children is one of equivalence. The positions women take while weaving is said to be good for coitus and bearing children. It is most important to ensure that the warp threads are evenly spaced before beginning. If they are not even, the woman may have miscarriages, the waters of the land may flow out, and the earth may dry up. If the threads cross, it is likened to incest. In a newborn, the elements of the soul need to be welded together using a loom swift, in the same way that it is used to wind yarn from a skein into a ball, other-wise the mawo (breath, life force) may become restless and leave the body. The swift also represents the link between Heaven and Earth, between the living and the dead.” [131]

As with the Kogi, the rationale for such beliefs is found in their creation myths. In one myth the Laboya ancestor, Ubu Raba, took the form of a python and wove the land into existence. He wove the fountains, beating the weft into the warp with the sword until all springs were well enclosed by the woven land. This is how the earth grew moist and young again. Human beings are said to have originated by being plaited or spun and the moon is responsible for welding together their physical and spiritual properties. The Laboyans divide the sea and the land into seven layers each. Weaving restores the seasons and the fertility of land, animals and humans. Ubu Raba established order within society by passing the shuttle in the correct direction and he set out conditions for obeying the rules as he wove the cloth of the world.

On the Laboya loom, the warp is continuous: the warp beam is attached to the horizontal tie-beam above the floor and the bottom beam is tied to the weaver’s back at the waist. According to Geirnaert-Martin, a Laboyan who weaves in the “proper” order ensures “a correct relationship with above and below, with the Earth and the Sky”:

“It is only then that the cycle of the celestial bodies and the alterations of the seasons is resumed. Uba Raba created life using a continuous warp and this is a metaphor for the human life cycle. Cotton is likened to woman’s breath or life force. As the original ancestor, Ubu Raba wove cosmic order, the natural environment and the possibility for regeneration.” [134]

Laboyans weaving their traditional textiles are also weaving the cosmos – thereby maintaining its critical order. If they fail to perform the sacred rites involved, they are violating the sacred laws that govern their society, the natural world, and indeed the all-encompassing cosmos. To weave in any other way would, in many traditional societies, be regarded as taboo.

In the words of Roger Caillois, “an act is taboo because it disrupts the universal order, which is at once that of nature and society”. If that order is disrupted, “the Earth might no longer yield a harvest, the cattle might be struck with infertility, the stars might no longer follow their appointed course, death and disease could stalk the land”. To violate a taboo is to be guilty of cosmic sin. [135]

This may appear to be true. The recent storms and floods in Orissa and Vietnam and the increased incidence of devastating droughts throughout the world, are the result of cutting down forests and of the chemical composition of the atmosphere and hence disrupting the order of the ecosphere. Whether we like it or not, the religio-culture tribal peoples tells them truths about their relationships with the cosmos. These truths are imparted in a way understood and believed in, not just intellectually but through heart and soul, in the way that is most likely to be acted upon.

Although these ideas figured prominently in the theologies of our early mainstream religions, we now have lost sight of them. Cosmic consciousness must be resuscitated, for only in this way can religion and the arts inspire people to unite against the forces of chaos that today are threatening our very survival.


In the discussion which followed Edward Goldsmith’s talk, one exchange seemed especially pertinent to the wider issues addressed.


“I am concerned that you have come across as being against progress. Surely the question is one of scale? Nowadays aspects of life in pre-industrial times are magnified a hundred or thousand-fold and so have become totally out of balance – isn’t that the issue?”

Edward Goldsmith

“It is, but it is more than that. You see I am against progress. I have to admit it and I am sure that is not the way to become popular The obvious manifestation of progress is economic development. Let us examine one aspect of what we call economic development. If you look at a traditional society, the family and the community fulfil almost all the functions that satisfy the requirement of basic needs. In our society corporations and the state fulfil these needs.

In the traditional society the community produced food and cooked it, looked after the old and young, educated into the culture of the society, organised and performed the religious rituals that were required and governed themselves – until quite recently in Switzerland, for instance, political power theoretically resided in the village or commune, the residual power only going to the canton. They did nor produce food or artefacts to satisfy economic requirements.

“All these things were fulfilled without money. Carl Polanyi, the great economic historian, has pointed out that the formal economy is something new. In these traditional societies economic relations were totally embedded in social relations. If you look at the definitions of poverty in the First World, all of them involve money. In our society everything is going to become commercialised, we are removing all social relationships, nothing will be done for free. This is a very unstable and hopeless situation.

“Economic development means dis-embedding functions that have always been fulfilled at a family and community level from their social context. It means monetizing and commoditizing these functions so that we become dependent on the economy. The economy is collapsing now and without the money to fulfil these functions it will vanish.

You can see today that we are dismantling the welfare state slowly but systematically. Jobs are becoming precarious, with short-term contracts etc, and we will have to return to what was the original source of security, which was provided by membership of a family and a community.

Traditional peoples understand this. The closest thing to the meaning of the word ‘poor’ in West Africa is the word ‘orphan': someone who is deprived of social relations.”


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