Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Monday, 16 May 2011
Tuesday, 17 May 2011 00:00

Hourglass Configurations

In response to the Focus 'Beyond the Pale: Architecture in Taiwan' Pierre Maranda would like to introduce readers to what world-famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote on the subject of religious and cosmic interpretation of traditional Chinese architecture. With this aim Pierre gives you a quote of the first two pages of the chapter Lévi-Strauss wrote for a book he edited. The book is availible under hardcover and also as an e-book from the University of Toronto Press in Canada: P. Maranda (ed.) The Double Twist: From Ethnography to Morphodynamics. Toronto-Buffalo-London. 2001, 316 p.

It was in 1977, in Japan, facing the Ise Shrine, that the reflections I am sharing here took shape in a somewhat disorderly fashion. I was struck, as would be most people, by the roof frames of which the principal rafters cross in an X and jut out past the ridge. The Izumo Shrines, also of archaic style, have a similar appearance, but due to crossbeams which are not part of the structure but are affixed to the roof as a decoration.

This is reminiscent, of course, of islands in the South Seas where the roofs of certain houses resemble those of Ise: a further indication of the links which existed between Japan and that area of the world, already manifest when one compares their myths[i]. However, to apprehend what this kind of structure could signify to the Japanese themselves, we must let their ancient texts speak. According to the Kojiki, a ritual formula accompanied the construction of a palace or a shrine: "Root the posts of your palace firmly in the bed-rock below and raise high the crossbeams unto [the upper world][ii]." In this manner, the shape of the roof frame, which one might say recalls that of an hourglass, reproduces the form of the universe. The part below the roof ridge corresponds to the earthly world, the part above it, to the heavenly world which rises up to the "plain of the highest heaven" inhabited by the gods.

This representation of the cosmos comes to us, by way of China, from India. It may have originated in Mesopotamia, but this will not be my concern; rather, I will consider its extension in the opposite direction. Paul Mus has often evoked, in its Indian form, the axial Mountain which carries the lower stories of the divine worlds, while more immaterial worlds float above its peak.[iii] "The first feature to be considered" of this axial Mountain, center of the world, Meru or Sumeru in Sanskrit, writes Rolph Stein, "is the mountain's shape. [...] it is a pointed cone emerging from the sea and carrying on its summit another, inverted cone that represents the abode of the [...] Gods. [...] The whole thing resembles an hourglass. Wide above and below, it is narrow in the middle.[iv]"

A feature of religious architecture thus refers to a cosmology. These hourglass forms, in their application to architecture or to movable objects imbued with symbolic meaning, are also found in the New World that Orientalists have left out of their investigations.

Before coming to America it is appropriate to make a stop in eastern Siberia, en route to Bering Strait. In his investigation of the relationship between architecture and religious thought, Stein has mentioned the Koryak who reside in wooden houses, roughly hexagonal in shape, with roofs in the form of a funnel or an inverted umbrella. [FIG. 3] Like other commentators, he has reiterated Jochelson's utilitarian explanation in which this unusual structure functions to protect the entrance hole in the roof from snow, or to break the force of the wind during a blizzard so as to prevent snow from covering the house[v]. Stein remarks in a note, however, that this inverted umbrella-shaped roof evokes the form of K'un-Lun (Chinese name for the cosmic mountain) and that of Mount Sumeru[vi].



Whatever the practical utility of such an appendice, one must not exclude that it may also be imbued with symbolic meaning. This appears even more credible since other parts of the house or furnishings, such as a notched central post used as a ladder, the hearth, a fire-drill, etc. all have symbolic value and because, for the entire region of the Far East, the house and each of its parts have symbolic significance, as Stein has admirably shown.

Hourglass Configurations by Claude Lévi-Strauss. Translation from the French original by Robbyn Seller, Anthropology, McGill University, Montréal, Canada.


[i]. C. Lévi-Strauss, "La place de la culture japonaise dans le monde", Revue d'esthétique, 18, 1990, p. 12-14.

[ii]. Kojiki. Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Donald L. Philippi, University of Tokyo Press, 1968, ch. 24 (14), 27(3), 39 (18); see also Nihongi. Translated by W.G. Aston (Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, London), 2 vols. 1896, Vol. I, p. 132-133.

[iii]. P. Mus, La Lumière sur les six voies (Travaux et Mémoires de l'Institut d'Ethnologie, T.XXXV), Paris, 1939, pp. 42, 54, 172-174, 284 sq.

[iv]. R.A. Stein, Le Monde en petit, Paris, Flammarion, 1987, p. 232. (English translation, Phyllis Brooks, The World in Miniature, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990, p. 246.)

[v]. R.A. Stein, l.c., p. 163 sq. (English translation, p. 169); W.W. Fitzhugh and A. Crowell, Crossroads of Continents. Culture of Siberia and Alaska, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988, pp. 33, 200, 201.

[vi]. R.A. Stein, l.c., p. 318 n. 93. (English translation, p. 323, n. 60).


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