37. Holding the Boat of Million Years


Air, as the most invisible of the four elements on earth, is connected with the multitude. It provides the space to cater for the innumerable. Air was seen, for that very reason, as a supporting medium. The Egyptian god of air was called Shu, holding time and place (fig. 248).


 Fig. 248 – Shu, the goddess of the air is holding the Boat of Million Years with the gods of the First Time.  The phases of the sun (2 x 4) are seen in the middle in the darkness. A page of the ‘Book of the Dead‘. Papyrus of Anhai. 20st Dyn., c. 1100 BC, British Museum. In: IONS (1982/1986).


Fig. 249 – The Egyptian god of heaven Nu, supported by the air god Shu. The god of the earth (Geb) is on the floor. From the Book of Dead, 10th cent. BC. British Museum. In: DURHAM PURRINGTON (1983).


Fig. 250 – Shu, the god of the atmosphere, lift his daughter Nut of Geb and creates the world. Funeral coffin of Butehamon, Museo di Antichita, Turin. In: IONS (1982/1986).

The Greek philosopher Anaximander puts the air as a central medium in his world view and regarded the infinite and the boundless as crucial elements. VLASTOS (1947) called his philosophy a ‘cosmology with sense of aesthetic symmetry with equality as the main motif’. He added to it that: ‘every student of Greek science must feel how profound was the debt of subsequent cosmology to Anaximander.’ The whirlwind was mentioned as an example. The upwards spiraling wind, which can be seen on a hot summer day, providing a model of innumerable worlds and a free moving earth between the sun and the stars.

Nature was regarded by Anaximander as a self-regulating equilibrium, in which the search for order was of prime importance (this in contrast to the present second law of thermodynamics, which proclaims that nature tends to chaos). Air has its vibrations, whirlings, clouds and thunderstorms, but always returns to a state of rest. The harmony of spheres, as depicted in a late twelfth century illustration for the so-called ‘False Decretals’ (Time and division  fig. 50), showed the god Aer, ruling the four winds. He is surrounded by the nine muses (according to Martianus Capella). The inner circle of Aer’s influence exhibits Arion on a dolphin (symbol of literature), Pythagoras (symbol of science) and Orpheus (symbol of music).

Another medieval representation of the (wheel of the) winds exhibited a mundus/cosmos with the four winds, each assisted by a pair of sub-winds, making up a total of twelve (fig. 251). The illustration is drawn in a copy of Isidore of Seville’s ‘De Natura Rerum’, dating from the ninth century. The numerological reference to the twelve apostles and the power of multiplication (3 x 4) are associated with Air as a central-divided figure, protecting a square earth/cosmos.


Fig. 251 – The wheel of the winds. An illustration in a copy of Isidore of Seville’s ‘De Natura Rerum’. The four winds and their paired associates visualize a union between three- and four-partite thinking, with a reference to the ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ of John Scotus Eriugena). The four-parted division was, in his view, a symbol of human/earthly interaction, while the three-parted division was the domain of divine/heavenly communication. In: HEER (1975).

The unity of the element ‘air’, which had been for ages regarded as an indivisible element, was broken by the Irish-born chemist Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) in the seventeenth century. His first published scientific work was called ‘New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects’ (1660) and dealt with the physical nature of air. Boyle defined, one year later (1661) in his book ‘Sceptical Chymist’, the element as ‘certain primitive and simple, or perfectly unmingled bodies; which not being made of any other bodies, or of one another, are the ingredients of which all those called perfectly mixt bodies are immediately compounded, and into which they are ultimately resolved’. Boyle could  write ‘The General History of the Air’, which was published in 1692, the year after his death. ‘Air’ had fallen apart in hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and other gases (in small quantities). From that moment onwards, it seemed, that the elements lost their power to support a tetradic way of thinking. However, this was only partly true.

Firstly, DOBERER (1991) pointed to the fact that Robert Boyle, in his ‘Sceptical Alchemist’ used an alchemical way of thinking and criticized the ‘unscientific’ manner in which alchemy was practiced rather than the method itself. Secondly, air – now as a collective name for several gases – continued to behave in the way Anaximander described it long time ago. It still represented the recurrent order of nature.

The search for the vacuum, which was launched simultaneous with the discovery of the divisibility of air, had a strong philosophical element, related to division thinking. Within a dualistic context, air (now that it is known to consist of several gases) needs an opposite pole of non-air (vacuum). When this search was crowned with success by the Italian physicist and mathematician Evangelista Toricelli (1608 – 1647) – who saw (in 1644) a ‘nothingness’ appear above his mercury column – the triumph for the dual way of thinking was complete. Aristotle’s physical theory, that total nothingness was impossible, suffered a hard blow. The ‘horror vacui’ of nature turned out to be untrue. New dualists, like Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), worked hard to fill the gap (with Gods mercy).

The present meaning of the vacuum is not expressed in absolute terms. It is not a space of total nothingness, but rather an area where the specification of gases awaits definition. Air, in all its different appearances, is a philosophical element, which poses the question of the fundamental divisions of nature. In order to grasp the invisible nature of air it is important  to understand the visible elements (like earth and water) as well.


Fig. 252 – Gortel (Veluwe) – 25 nov 2006 (Photo: Marten Kuilman)

DOBERER, Kurt K. (1991). Die Goldmacher: zehntausend Jahre Alchemie. Ullstein-Sachbuch, Ullstein, Berlin. ISBN 3-548-34790-8

DURHAM, Frank & PURRINGTON, Robert D. (1983). Frame of the Universe. A History of Physical Cosmology. Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 0-231-05392-4

HEER, Friedrich (1975). Charlemagne and his World. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. ISBN 0 297 76888 3

IONS, Veronica (1982/1986). Egyptian Mythology (Library of the World’s Myths and Legends). Newnes Books. ISBN 0 600 34286 7

VLASTOS, Gregory (1947). Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies. Classical Philology. Vol. XLII, No. 1 (jan. 1947). The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.

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