Severian of Gabala and the heavens as a “tent”

Severian is famous — or infamous — because he compared the sky to a “tent” and then to a “pavilion” in his sermons on Genesis, e.g. in homily 1, 3:5.  I’ve been thinking about this.  A tent to us is a square thing, and the idea is outlandish.  But what did the word mean to Severian?  What is being said?

To find out, we need to see the Greek. 



This I rendered from French as follows:

5. Let us now ask where the sun goes down, and where, during the night, it purses its course?  According to our adversaries, under the land; and we who look at the sky as a tent, what is our feeling on this?  Look and see, I beg you, whether we are in error, or whether the truth of our opinion appears clearly, and whether reality is in agreement with our hypothesis.  Imagine that above your head a pavilion has been set up.  East would be there, north here, south there and west there.  When the sun has left the East and starts to set, it will not set under the land; but crossing the limits of the sky, it traverses the northern areas where it is hidden by a kind of wall from our gaze, the upper waters concealing his journey from us; and, after having traversed these areas, it returns to the East. And where is the proof of this assertion?  In Ecclesiastes, an authentic and not interpolated work of Solomon: “The sun rises and the sun sets,” it is written there;  “while rising, it moves towards its setting, then it turns to the north;  it turns, it turns, and it rises again in its place.”  Eccl., i, 5.

The first word used — rendered “tent” by Bareille in his French translation — is σκηνή, which LSJ at Perseus give with a range of meanings.  The word “skene” is what we get “scene” from, in a theatrical sense, as in the stuff on the stage, referring to the wall at the back of the stage behind which things went on.

I. a covered place, a tent, Hdt., Soph., etc.: —in pl. a camp, Lat. castra, Aesch., Xen.
      2. generally, a dwelling-place, house, temple, Eur.
II. a wooden stage for actors, Plat.:—in the regular theatre, the σκηνή was a wall at the back of the stage, with doors for entrance and exit; the stage (in our sense) was προσκήνιον or λογεῖον, the sides or wings παρασκήνια, and the wall under the stage, fronting the orchestra, ὑποσκήνια.
       2. οἱ ἀπὸ σκηνῆς, the actors, players, Dem.
      3. τὸ ἐπὶ σκηνῆς μέρος that which is actually represented on the stage, Arist.; τὰ ἀπὸ τῆς σκηνῆς (sc. ᾁσματα), odes sung on the stage, id=Arist.
       4. metaph. stage-effect, unreality, σκηνὴ πᾶς ὁ βίος “all the world’s a stage, ” Anth.
III. the tented cover, tilt of a wagon, Aesch., Xen.: also a bed-tester, Dem.
IV. an entertainment given in tents, a banquet, Xen.

There is quite a range of meanings in there, and there may be post-classical meanings that LSJ doesn’t have.  Is “tent” quite adequate?  Wouldn’t “covered area” be better?

The second word used is καμάραν — rendered “pavilion”.  This also has a range of meanings:

καμάρ-α, Ion. καμάρ-η μα, ἡ,
 [A] anything with an arched cover, covered carriage, Hdt. 1.199, D.C. 36.49 ; covered boat or barge, Str. 11.2.12, cf. Gell. 10.25 ; vaulted chamber, Agatharch. 62, PStrassb. 91.5 (i B.C.), D.S. 18.26, BGU 731 (ii A.D.) ; vault of a tomb, CIG 2241 ( Chios ), 3007 ( Ephesus ), 3104 ( Teos ), IG 7.2725.4 (Acraeph.); vault of heaven, LXX Is. 40.22 ; vaulted ceiling, τοῦ ἑπτακλίνου PCair.Zen. 445.9 (iii B.C.) ; tester-bed, Arr. An. 7.25.4 ; vaulted sewer, as gloss on ψαλίς, Sch. Pl. Lg. 947d, Hsch.
 [II] Medic., hollow near the auditory meatus, Poll. 2.86 .
 [III] pl., = ζῶναι στρατιωτικαί, Hsch. (Cf. Avest, kamarā ‘girdle’, Lat. camurus, unless Carian, cf. καμαρός 11 .)

which all adds up to “something with a curved top”.  The LXX meaning in Is. 40.22 of “vault of heaven” is perhaps what is in mind here, conceived of as curved.

Cosmas Indicopleustes adopted the idea of Severian — which was speculation by the latter.  His model was a cube with a domed roof.  The fact that this meant the world had corners was no problem — on the contrary! — because the bible talks about the four corners of the world.  I haven’t read enough of Severian to find his reference to corners, but it looks as if this is the pattern here too.


11 thoughts on “Severian of Gabala and the heavens as a “tent”

  1. I think covered area is exactly what the author is deliberately trying to get away from. This discussion reminds me of the reason why Jews and Samaritans build deliberately flimsy “booths” at Sukkot. If you read Stephen’s attack in Acts against the contemporary Jewish religion, the temple is bad because it goes beyond the “tent” which contained the divine Presence at the time of Moses. I think heaven is a “tent” because it is a similarly “open” structure where God is present.

  2. I’m not 100% sure, but heaven and the firmament were two different concepts, although they are closely linked. The visible part of the sky, the “vault of the sky”, is the “beaten out” part (raqa). The heavens in general is shamayim, the stretched-out circle of heaven, a word in the dual that includes the visible part (the sky) and the the rest of the heavens. That’s probably the tent. Better would be “canopy”, because it’s a term that stands for the firmament even today (German: Himmelszelt = “heaven’s tent”). Another word used in the Bible is “curtain”. This cosmic concept is based directly on the Babylonian model, like many other things in the OT. (A similar model was existent in ancient Egypt.) It’s closely connected to water, e.g. the ocean beyond the heavens, so the “canopy” under which mankind can dwell is a logical notion, because a tent keeps away the rain, the water. On top of the highest part of the firmament is God’s “throne”, or the “footstool” of his throne (Isaiah 40:22), and sometimes the “throne” and the “tent” are even one and the same. So it’s clear that the ancient heavens were often viewed as a solid substance, as raqa also implies, which is a term usually connected to beaten-out metal etc. In essence, the whole thing is Babylonian: a very prominent image is the primordial water. God only creates the heaven and the earth, but not the water. The water was preexisting, and the Babylonian god only divided the light and dark, then the waters, then created the firmament (the tent) to keep the water back (Genesis; Psalm 148:4). (In shamayim the root ma, like mayim, means “water”, and shamayim literally means “from the waters”, standing generally for a celestial deity; cf. the Babylonian sun god Shamash; e.g. as Shemesh in Malachi 4:2 = sun-god worship etc.) The Books of Enoch also contain a lot of the pre-Biblical cosmic ideas, also from Egypt (zodiac discs), the circle, the “metal sun” etc.

  3. In Severian we find all the basic attributes of the Babylonian model, transmitted by the Old Testament: the “arched cover”, the “tent” or “pavilion”, the four corners (with North being the ancient place of the underworld, I think), the “upper waters”.

  4. Severian will be using the Old Testament (hardly Babylonian sources!), I agree. But what references do we have for the ideas in question? Canopy may indeed be a good word.

  5. Severian writes in a Christian context, so the OT would be sufficient for reference. (That this cosmic model is of Babylonian origin, is in my view not necessary as an argument here.) Psalm 148:4 would be a reference for the “upper waters”. The “canopy” or “tent” is in Isaiah 40:22. I’m not sure, but there are probably references to the orientation, e.g. North. (But a Northern wall?) The heaven as an arch is quite prominent, I think.

  6. At the Wikipedia it says: “[Severian] is notorious for his six sermons on the Creation, in which he expresses “absurdly literal” views including support for the Flat Earth.” The flat-earth model is the old Babylonian model also present in the OT (Earth as circle; Isaiah 40:22). A simplified depiction is here. Interesting is the layered heaven, and I’m pretty sure that there’s also a reference to the “third heaven” in the OT. (Maybe also in one of the NT epistles?)

  7. Thank you for these comments.

    Unreferenced claims are not very useful, and insofar as they make vague and unsubstantiated claims about “Babylonian models” — which Severian certainly would have rejected — they are very unhelpful. Can we avoid these? We need to work out what he has in mind, and be able to prove it.

    Probably more would become apparent if we had more of Severian in English.

    As for the Wikipedia article, I wrote it myself. What I am doing here is looking at the raw data, rather than the secondary sources.

  8. If one goes for καμάρανα = “vault of heaven” as in LXX Is. 40.22, then the whole sentence becomes more confusing because the text reads ὁ κατέχων τὸν γῦρον τῆς γῆς καὶ οἱ ἐνοικοῦντες ἐν αὐτῇ ὡς ἀκρίδες ὁ στήσας ὡς καμάραν τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ διατείνας ὡς σκηνὴν κατοικεῖν and, as a result, it cannot be translated ‘… stretches out the heaven like a “vault of heaven.”

    καμάρανα has been commonly translated as vault or curtain which makes me think that the word had to point to the function of the “thing” that is that of covering. As for the shape or materiality of the “thing”, this is open to interpretation as words and their meanings are nuanced in a given culture and religion, and in case of Severian of Gabala, in a complete lack of appreciation for “scientific” cosmology, or rejection of the Ptolemaic cosmological system or ridicule of the allegorical hermeneutical model.

    From the passage, it is clear that the Severian’s shape of the heaven is not a sphere or even a hemisphere but its shape is of a tent or tabernacle, and all of this because he discusses about the movement of the sun. He concludes that the sun does not ascend (on a curved surface) but travels at night through the northern parts of the earth of the flat earth where it was hidden by a high wall. Therefore, the meanings of καμάρανα and σκηνή are to be approached in the light of the main point which Severian attempts to make.

    The same words, καμάρανα and σκηνή, have been taken as opposing the pagan meaning of σφαῖρα. WANDA WOLSKA. La Topographie. Chretienne de Cosmas Indicopleustes. Theologie et science au VIe siecle, Paris, 1962, p. 131.

  9. Thank you very much indeed for these notes, which are very helpful. I entirely agree that Severian’s thought needs to be read in context. The specific words used are important, lest we impose a meaning on him that he doesn’t actually make. But the passage about the sun seems clear enough to illuminate the rest.

    That he is indeed trying the tabernacle idea seems clear to me. We need not lash him for ignoring “scientific cosmology”, tho. When he wrote there wasn’t any. There was merely the speculations of philosophers with no certain knowledge themselves. We must not be anachronistic, and presume it was an obviously silly thing to say, because it probably wasn’t obvious at the time. It’s also an interesting consequence of St. Paul’s treatment of “Greeks” and “Jews”, that the Christians of 400 AD had a tendency to reject philosophy etc as “Greek”, i.e. impious.

    I’ve translated quite a bit of the whole of the first sermon and it is clear that he is speculating — he even says “just because the fathers before me said something does not mean they are right” (!) — and he is trying out an idea on his listeners, rather than dogmatising. The unfortunate Cosmas does dogmatise, of course.

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