In my piece: Heavenly Spheres, I explored the geocentric model of the universe that was the standard in both Christian and Islamic thought in medieval times,
I described how this cosmological view, while evidently not reflecting the material reality of the solar system as we know it today, nevertheless remains powerful and valuable as a symbolic truth that closely reflects how we actually experience our place in the universe. There is no contradiction between the knowledge of the space age and this ancient model, as long as we understand they occupy different frames of reference.
While the form I used was finalized by Ptolemy and owed much to the Greeks, it had been essentially the same for several thousand years; extraordinarily, all the planets up to Saturn were already known in Prehistory. Uranus, Neptune and the now controversial Pluto are very recent revelations, and therefore missed out on a place in this cosmology.
In the context of my work on cosmological themes, I decided to create a series for the planets individually, so they could be seen as individual bodies in their own right. This should have been 7 planets, up to Saturn, but leaving it at that disturbed me. It occurred to me then that perhaps the system could be updated. And why shouldn’t it? All living traditions evolve; it’s only when they fall into disuse that they freeze in a given state. If the geocentric system had been preserved as a symbolic system till our day, it is no stretch to imagine that each new planetary discovery would have been greeted as a significant event, a new revelation from the heavens, and that the planet would have taken its place in the cosmic mandala. This did not happen, but creative imagination can fill in. I would, then, complete our solar system for this art series.
The main difficulty for my purposes was the fact the new planets have no Arabic name! Instead, arabicized versions of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto are used. This is not surprising: The Arabic names of the earlier planets predate written history and identify them as, or associate them with, ancient deities. Shams was the sun-goddess, also goddess of justice, and the most popular deity in South Arabia, though feared (with good reason) by the Bedouins. Qamar is but one of the names of the moon-god Hilâl in his full form, other names being an-Nayyir (“the luminous one”), Wadd (“platonic love”), Warakh (“the wanderer”). Al-Zuhara (“the brilliant one”) is another name of al-‘Uzza, Meccan goddess of power, might and the planet Venus as evening star. Zuhâl was the goddess to whom the Kaaba was consecrated, and like her equivalent Saturn, had power over cultivation and the produce of the soil, and punished anyone who ruined arable land. Al-Marrikh, also known as al-Muharriq (“the burner”), was a fierce deity of the underworld, worshiped in a red shrine, whose attributes were fire, the planet Mars and the desert. ‘Utarid was the patron god of writing, learning and eloquence, not unlike his equivalent Mercury. And al-Mushtari, “the reliable one”, was an epithet of the benevolent god of Jupiter, Akhwar, also called al-Jadd and al-Sadiq. Despite attempts, in early Islam, to find a more acceptable terminology, these animistic names stuck to astronomy and astrology, and survived into our times, although shrouded in deep amnesia.
By the time the further planets were discovered (between the 18th and 20th centuries), there was no possible question of carrying on this naming pattern. Indeed Islam had so radically obliterated all traces of ancient Arabian religions that the connection of planets to deities is today entirely forgotten by Arabic speakers. Since it was out of the question to use their Western names, I realized with some trepidation that I would need to “find” the planets’ proper Arabic names from the same pre-Islamic pantheon (not to mention appropriate colours!) This was made quite difficult by the extreme scarcity of information — tragically, efforts to wipe out the mere memory of original Arab nature cults were very thorough — but I found what I was looking for. I do not claim any historical value for my results: this remains an artistic exploration. But for myself, the matches feel deeply right, and in tune with the Latin/Greek names that are now firmly ingrained in our collective consciousness. The names, revealed in the parade of planets below, have become for me their real names, so familiar I can no longer use others.
The Ten Planetary Spheres
Note: In this series I am using the colours corresponding to the planets in Islamic lore. In Heavenly Spheres I was using their corresponding metals, in the form of pigments. This is why some colours don’t match between the two artworks. The order is still that of the perceived distance from our standing point on Earth.
al-Qamar القمر – the Moon
Traditional colour: white or silver
Traditional colour: turquoise (azure)
Here the colour has a mysterious purple sheen, to reflect the “mercurial” quality of this sphere.
Traditional colour: green
Traditional colour: yellow or gold
Traditional colour: red
Traditional colour: “sandalwood” (brown)
Traditional colour: black
Neptune presented no difficulty: Bahar was the south Arabian god of the ocean, and the word bahr still means “sea” in our daily language. Colour: Ultramarine or lapis-lazuli, which is part of the traditional palette but was not assigned to any planet; it actually matches the gorgeous blue of Neptune’s surface.
Pluto’s role is filled by Lât, goddess of the Underworld. Her colour is the grey of the lower world, but with a blue shimmer that appears from different angles. While we’ve come to think of the underworld as “the world of the dead”, it is really the Unconscious, which is dark and unfathomable yet the source of all that is new, and a doorway to a much wider universe.
Some may ask why I kept Pluto now that it’s been demoted to “dwarf planet”, and that several other dwarf planets of a similar size are now known. At the time, I was going with a strong imperative feeling that Pluto was essential to the arrangement. I can now articulate why:
In a certain sense, Pluto really is the ultimate planet in our solar system, a position it occupied in the collective imagination for nearly 100 years. In the early 21st century, several similar bodies have been discovered and named, but who knows about them? Drowned out by the abundance of new data being currently gathered, they have made no imprint whatsoever on humankind. Pluto is real and dear to us, while we are simply not interested in the growing number of dwarf planets being discovered and named: there is no engagement, and they are not able to penetrate our consciousness. So while we are living exciting times for astronomy, the last great planetary revelation as far as lay humanity is concerned was Pluto, and there will likely not be another within our home solar system.
Let’s also remember that Pluto is the god of the underworld, that is to say he, like my chosen counterpart Lât, is the underworld, which is often described as being at the outer bounds of the ocean surrounding the world. It begins somewhere, but doesn’t end anywhere that we know of. As far as I’m concerned, “Pluto” can refer to the entire outer reaches of the solar system, not just that one dwarf planet, but the entire body of dwarf planets, and fall neatly between the sphere of Neptune and the medieval Sky of Fixed Stars, which is itself a collective sphere: it groups the zodiacal constellations and is the extreme limit of the physical world. Pluto as seal to the planets and transition to another category of sphere makes sense within the system.
By bringing the number of planetary spheres to 10, the system has reached its perfect completion. The number 10 is, in Pythagorean thought, the all-embracing, all-limiting “mother”. “As the sum of the first four natural numbers (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10) it was associated with the primordial one existence, the polarity of manifestation, the threefold activity of the spirit, and the fourfold existence of matter as seen in the 4 elements. Thus the 10 contained everything….” (Annemarie Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers). In addition: “In 10, multiplicity turns again, on a higher level, into unity, for 10 is the first step towards a new multiplicity that leads to yet another step that begins with 100, and so on. Mystically speaking, 1 and 10 are the same, as are 100 and 1000.”
So it could be said that in updating this tradition at long last, we realize its completion, which is simultaneously the first step of a potential, whole new tradition for our times.
Watch the making of this series in this short video: