image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In The Undying Stars, I explain that I employ a very broad understanding of the terms "literalist" or "literalism" in categorizing approaches to ancient scriptures.
On page ii of the preface, for instance, I write that:
For the purposes of the discussions in this book, all those teachings which assert that these scriptures are primarily intended to be understood as describing literal historical figures are grouped under the term 'literalist," while recognizing that there still exists a wide range within literalism regarding hermeneutics and doctrine.
In other words, in this very broad application of the term, interpreters using a "literalist" hermeneutic may also acknowledge many deep layers of additional metaphorical, typological, and even esoteric meaning in addition to the literal interpretation of what is being described. But if those interpreters are of the opinion that one cannot jettison the literal and historical event while holding on to the additional metaphorical layers (and this position characterizes most of what has been considered "orthodox" doctrine in the west for the past seventeen centuries), then that is what I call a literalist hermeneutic.
Saying an interpretation is broadly "literalist" is not intended to imply that those using that interpretation are unaware or resistant to additional layers of meaning -- but it does imply that they would be most uncomfortable, or even vehemently opposed, to the suggestion that a passage is entirely metaphorical and that it did not also take place in literal history largely as described.
As I further explain in a recent interview on Gnostic Warrior Radio, I also believe that everyone is entitled to examine the evidence and reach his or her own conclusion regarding the degree to which the ancient sacred mythologies of humanity should be taken literally.
However, I qualified that statement by saying that when a literalist hermeneutic is used to support systematic violation of the inherent human rights of other men and women, then it should be clear that some kind of serious mistake has been made, and the connection between the literalist understanding and the violation of natural universal law should be closely examined and the points being used to falsely condone such violations should be exposed and argued against (while at the same time, of course, the criminal behavior that they are being used to support should be stopped and restitution made as appropriate to those whose rights have been violated).
Unfortunately, it can be clearly demonstrated that there have been many historical examples of the use of literalist interpretations of the scriptures to support massive, institutionalized, systemic violations of natural universal law, including atrocities which can be seen to fit the modern definitions of genocide, including the forced conversions to Christianity at the point of a sword by the armies of Charlemagne in northern Europe and the brutal destruction of previous forms of worship and culture, the horrific atrocities visited upon the Native American peoples of Central, South, and North America and the deliberate and systematic destruction of their way of life, and the longstanding system of racist intergenerational slavery instituted with the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the Americas following their "discovery" by Columbus and his companions.
If all of the examples of literalist interpretation of ancient scriptures in the previous paragraph happen to involve the literal interpretation of the Biblical scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, I believe that is because the virulent literalist version of Christianity which was successively instituted in the western Roman Empire during the decades stretching from the reign of the emperor Commodus through to the emperor Constantine and finally to the emperor Theodosius was created to impose literalism in place of the esoteric, shamanic, and (using the term broadly) gnostic understanding of sacred myth which had been present before and which the literalists set out to suppress and even destroy.
As the previous post entitled "The sacred celestial metaphors refute racism and sexism" argues, literalist approaches to the scripture, which must by definition assert that the stories describe literal historical events enacted by literal historical human beings (and sometimes divine or semi-divine beings) on earth, often end up teaching the exact opposite of the message that would be reached through a metaphorical, allegorical, or esoteric approach to the text.
For example, in that previous post, it was alleged that the literal understanding of the Genesis 9 episode involving Shem, Ham (or Ham's son Canaan) and Japheth and the inebriated Noah (their father) has been used to divide humanity in the past, because the literal approach sees Shem, Ham (and Canaan) and Japheth as literal, historical individuals (or at least literal, historical nations of people), and then tries to trace the lineage of descent to various groups living today.
If, however, Shem, Ham (and Canaan) and Japheth -- along with their father Noah -- are all seen to be metaphorical representation of events depicted in the stars and constellations, then a very different conclusion can be reached . . . because it is much more unlikely that lineages and genealogies of living groups of men and women will be traced back to constellations, since constellations are not normally thought of as being capable of procreating and bearing children.
The metaphorical understanding can actually lead to a message that unites humanity, rather than dividing humanity the way the literalist interpretations can often tend to do. This is because the assertion that we are "descended" in some way from the celestial figures of Shem, Ham and Japheth can only be seen metaphorically, and thus it is teaching us something about the human condition -- something that applies to all mankind (after all, we all share the same stars over our heads: the stars are global in scope and do not belong to one specific group of people living in one specific point on the planet).
All that being said, the previous post did not actually trace out the celestial origins of Shem, Ham and Japheth, but merely noted that Noah can be shown to be closely connected to the zodiac constellation of Aquarius (this is detailed in The Undying Stars, pages 47 - 50), and that if their father is a constellation, then Shem, Ham and Japheth cannot be literal human beings but must be metaphorical as well.
But, can we find any celestial connections for Shem, Ham and Japheth, based on the clues which are provided in the ancient Hebrew scriptures?
Indeed, I believe we can! And, as far as I know, these connections that I am about to articulate have not been argued previously. This is my interpretation of the text, and its relationship to the stars, based on my understanding of the celestial system of metaphor which can be seen to be operating in the sacred myths and traditions of cultures around the globe and across the millennia.
I believe that the critical clues regarding the identity of Shem, Ham and Japheth can be found in the events related in Genesis 9:20-27 (the same verses which have been used in the past to argue that "Hamitic" people or those deemed to be descended from Ham have been "cursed" and can be made to serve those claiming to be the descendants of Ham's two brothers).
There, we read:
20 And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21 And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23 And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.
24 And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him.
25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
This incident can be seen depicted in art, above in an image from 1493, and also in the image below from around 1360 -- in the second image, the action of Shem and Japheth to suspend a sheet between the two of them and walk backwards to cover up their inebriated father's nakedness without seeing it (as they would if they walked the sheet forward) is perhaps more clearly illustrated:
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
In both pictures, Ham is labeled (on the far left in the image just above, and in the center of the two brothers in the image at the top of this post, where he is labeled as Cham, since an /h/ can be a "pharyngeal fricative" in non-English languages, particularly Hebrew, which means that Ham is very probably related to Khem, which is the ancient name of the land of Egypt).
Now, if our identification of Noah with Aquarius is accurate, we must ask ourselves if there are any constellations nearby which might resemble a "sheet," and in particular a sheet which is "held up in between" two other figures, so to speak.
Below is a screenshot of the region of the night sky surrounding the constellation Aquarius, taken from the helpful and user-friendly Neave Planetarium online browser-based application. The constellations are not outlined with the user-friendly outlines suggested by H. A. Rey (whose system I wholly endorse for visualizing the constellations). Those outlines will be supplied in the chart which will follow, but the screenshot below is provided so that you can see what the region looks like without all the labels, and so that you can see that there is indeed a great square "sheet" which is suspended in between two other celestial figures: it is the Great Square of Pegasus (labeled in the next diagram) and it is suspended between the two fish of Pisces (who are tied together by a long, V-shaped "band"):
I believe that Shem and Japheth are the two "fishes" of Pisces, and the "sheet" which they lay upon their shoulders and carry backwards in order to cover their inebriated father's nakedness (he being the constellation Aquarius) is in fact the Great Square of Pegasus.
If the two "good brothers" are the two carrying the sheet (that is, carrying the Great Square), then who is playing the role of the third brother, Ham? Who is the one who angers Noah by seeing his nakedness, and who is subsequently "cursed"?
Look again at the diagram above (and the chart below in which I have outlined all the pertinent constellation-actors in the story, with labels), and you will see that Ham is almost certainly the zodiac constellation Capricorn, who can be seen to be "staring" almost straight at the "nakedness" of the drunken Aquarius (that is to say, at the part of Aquarius which could be interpreted as referring to a specific and distinctive part of the male anatomy, which feature of the constellation Aquarius gave rise to the story's reference to the "nakedness" of Noah in the first place):
In the above diagram, all the players upon the celestial stage are labeled. We have Noah, who has become inebriated and passed out (spilling his wine out of his wine-jug). We have Ham, in the figure of Capricorn, seeing his father's nakedness (Genesis 9:22). And we have the "sheet," in the figure of the Great Square of Pegasus, being born upon the shoulders of Shem and Japheth, who in this instance are the two fishes of the zodiac constellation of Pisces.
Note additionally that Ham (the son who receives the "curse" in Genesis 9) is associated with one of the two signs that are found at the very bottom of the zodiac wheel (Capricorn the Goat, who shares the position at the very Pit of the year alongside Sagittarius). This position is consistent with Capricorn's association with the "cloven-hoofed" devil figure, and also with the concept of the "scape-goat" (who receives the curse -- exactly as Ham is seen to do, in this passage).
Note also that this identification of Ham with Capricorn at the bottom of the lower half of the zodiac wheel is consistent with the arguments presented in the post entitled "No hell below us . . . " that stories in the Old Testament about going "down to Egypt" or being imprisoned in Egypt refer to the lower half of the zodiac wheel. Remember that the name Ham when pronounced with a "hard 'h'" or "fricative h" can be seen to be closely related to the name Khem, or Egypt. Because the Old Testament system of allegory uses "the Promised Land" for their "upper half of the wheel," they use Egypt as the lower half of the wheel, whereas in the Iliad of ancient Greece, Troy and the Trojans play the role of the lower half of the wheel, and Achaea and the Achaeans or Danaans play the role of the upper half.
These details should help cement the argument being presented for the identity of Ham and his father and brothers in the constellations, and to help us see that none of this is literal: we don't have to be sad for a literal Ham who received this curse from a literal Noah, and we can immediately see that any racist ideologies which try to support their ideas with the story of Shem, Ham and Japheth are gravely mistaken.
The color-coding used in the star-chart above (with Shem in red, Japheth in green and Ham in blue) is consistent with that used in some of the many maps which have been prepared throughout the centuries to identify actual groups of people who are supposedly descended from these scriptural characters (based on a literalist interpretation, of course, since it would be difficult to argue that any actual people-groups on earth are physically descended from a group of stars).
In the map below from 1839 by Charles Monin, for instance, people deemed to be descendants of Shem are underlined in red (as is the broad label across the middle of the map designating the extended family of Shem), people deemed to be descendants of Japheth are underlined in green, and people deemed to be descendants of Ham are underlined in blue. The three brothers can even be seen to be wearing those colors (red for Shem, green for Japheth in his headband, and blue for Ham) in the 1493 artwork depicting the scene at the top of this post.
You can go to the actual map at its address on Wikimedia commons here, and click on the map and enlarge it, and then click on it again to enlarge still further in order to read the many labels on this fascinating map (based as it is upon what I believe to be a misguided literalist hermeneutic).
Much more could be said about the significance of the fact that Shem, Ham and Japheth are actually celestial figures and not literal historical human beings who walked the earth, but some of the most important points perhaps are those that have been made many times previously, one of which is that if the scriptures are saying that we are all descended from the stars, then this teaching implies that we are connected to the stars ("as above, so below") and by extension that we are connected to all the universe and to all of nature as well.
This also means that every human being you ever meet is a "little universe," containing the entire universe and thus a wondrous creation worthy of respect and dignity, which can be expressed in the greeting or the mudra for "Namaste" as well as the ancient word and hand-gesture for "Amen."
Additionally, if the scriptures are telling us that we are all descended from the stars or from the realm of the stars, this can metaphorically be understood as teaching us something about the cosmology of the universe and about human existence itself -- and can be interpreted as teaching the existence of a spirit worldfrom which we and in fact everything in this material world are somehow "projected," and which we and every other person we meet and all of nature around us somehow contain as well (the "divine spark" buried in each incarnate human being, and pulsing below the surface of every rock, leaf, tree, bird, and beast and so forth).
Once again, the metaphorical and celestial understanding of the mythical story can be seen to be a unifying and uplifting message (as well as a shamanic message) -- which is very different from the way this story has often been used to divide and to oppress based upon a literalistic understanding of the passage. Now that you understand its celestial foundations, you can take this unifying and uplifting message into your own life, and -- if appropriate -- share it with others.