The Riddle of the Celestial Axis

  • Dirk L. Couprie
Part of the Astrophysics and Space Science Library book series (ASSL, volume 374)


The tilting of the axis of the heavens must have been one of the big riddles for the ancients who studied the skies. Why does it look as if the stars turn around a point in the northern region of the heavens, and not around the zenith? In other words, why is the axis of the heavens tilted? One would expect myths to be told about this phenomenon. However, I know of only one, from ancient China, where, just as in Presocratic Greece, people believed that the earth is flat. The legendary hero Kung-kung struggled with the also legendary emperor Chuan Hsü about the sovereignty of the empire. In great anger, he threw a mountain that shattered the pillars of the heavens. Since that time, the heavens are inclined toward the north-west (see Needham 1959: 21). It is strange that the heavens are said to tilt in the direction of the north-west instead of the north, as we might expect. Perhaps one source gives a reason for this anomaly, as there it is added: “the earth does not fill the South-East, so the rivers and the rain floods find their home there” (Graham 1990: 96). Broadly speaking, one might say that the great Chinese rivers flow to the south-east. Here, the same identification of the tilting of the heavens with a dip of the earth as in Presocratic Greece, which I discuss below, seems to be the case.


North Pole South Pole Celestial Pole Spherical Earth Celestial Equator 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dirk L. Couprie
    • 1
  1. 1.MaastrichtNetherlands

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