Hypaethral – A Roofless Temple

Hypaethral Temple of Apollo at Didyma, Turkey. (http://www.utexas.edu/courses/citylife/architecture1.html)

Hypaethral Temple of Apollo at Didyma, Turkey. (http://www.utexas.edu/courses/citylife/architecture1.html)

I came across a new word today in my inbox – hypaethral (\hye-PEETH-rul\).  Webster defines this adjective as:

1  : having a roofless central space
2  : open to the sky1

What caught my interest was that this word is applied mostly to ancient temples.  The example sentence that was given was:

During our tour of Egypt, we visited the hypaethral temple of Philae, which was dismantled and relocated after the construction of a dam caused its original site to be submersed. 2

Webster’s given etymology of the word explains why it is often associated with temples:

Ancient Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius used the Latin word “hypaethrus” to describe temples in which the “cella” (the part of the temple housing an image of the deity) was wholly or partially uncovered. “Hypaethrus” is a word sculpted from the Greek prefix “hypo-,” meaning “under or beneath,” and the Greek word “aithēr,” meaning “air or heaven.” In the late-18th century, English classicists adopted the remodeled form “hypaethral” in their writings of ancient architecture. Another adjective that they occasionally employed is “cleithral,” which designates temples having roofed central spaces. (“Cleithral” comes from “kleithra,” the Greek word for “lattice.”)3

In other words, the innermost sanctuary of ancient temples (known in the Israelite tradition as the Holy of Holies) was sometimes open to the sky, hyp-aethral, or “under heaven.”  This was likely due to the temples’ often association with the cosmos.  While although the “Hypaethral Temple” at Philae may not have actually been open to the sky in its heyday, a couple examples of this scenario might be found in Stonehenge and Göbekli Tepe.

Read more in the Wikipedia article on hypaethral.  Dr. William R. Long also has a good description and study of this word, including this interesting quote from Henry David Thoreau4, who used the term figuratively:

Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself – an hypaethral temple, consecrated to the service of the gods?5

  1. “hypaethral.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 26 November 2008
    <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hypaethral> []
  2. Email – “hypaethral: M-W’s Word of the Day,” November 26, 2008. []
  3. ibid. []
  4. Elder Perry spoke of this philosopher in the last General Conference []
  5. Hentry David Thoreau, “Life without Principle.” []


  1. Bill Hamblin
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    In a sense the court of Solomon’s Temple with its pillars, altar and brazen sea could be viewed as a hypaethral temple.

  2. Posted December 1, 2008 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    Hey Bryce,
    “This was likely due to the temples’ often association with the cosmos.”
    I think that this is a mistaken assumption, at least with regard to Didyma. First, the Didyma temple was associated with the Apollonian oracles, which didn’t have a cosmological feature.
    Second, it should be noted that this temple was never completed, so its lack of a roof may be more of an accident than an intentional feature. Third, there was a spring in the middle of this temple which was the central cultic feature, indicating that star-gazing was not the purpose, but also that the smaller roofed structure inside the cella didn’t need to be covered by a second roof.

    Lots of temples had outside features. Actually, they all did since altars were always outside. Not sure that qualifies them as hypaetheral in Vetruvian terms since these are not part of the cella.

  3. Bill Hamblin
    Posted December 1, 2008 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Good point.

  4. Posted December 2, 2008 at 9:26 am | Permalink


    I wasn’t referring specifically to Didyma. In any case, many such temples are still referred to as hypaethral today, even if they weren’t built with that intention.

  5. Posted December 2, 2008 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    You’re right that temples without roofs are hyphaethral. I wasn’t suggesting otherwise since this is simply a tautological statement. Rather, I was challenging your assertion that “this was likely due to the temples’ often association with the cosmos.” In one of the four examples you give, this assertion doesn’t fit the actual evidence. There are many reasons that temples might lack roofs. Association with the cosmos is one possibility, but such an assertion requires evidence. I happen to be familiar with the Didyma temple, so I commented on that one.

  6. Posted December 2, 2008 at 10:30 am | Permalink


    Ok. So I should have said, “This might have been due to the temples’ often association with the cosmos.” Is that better?

  7. Posted December 2, 2008 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    Well, yes, that would be a start. But after you make that claim, you would then need some compelling evidence for it since we have seen that lacking a roof in itself does not imply a cosmological element in the cult. You would need to give some other corroborating evidence, such as inscriptions, texts, or other instruments associated with the temple in question that suggest a cosmological dimension to the temple.

    In short, you can’t begin with the faulty assumption that ancient temples have an “association with the cosmos” as an explanation for the lack of a roof. Rather, you begin with the evidence that some temples lack roofs and then look at the specific conditions that best explain why that is the case.

    So, for the other three examples that you cite, are there reasons to believe that those temples had a cosmological element to the cult, which are all from different cultures and time periods, besides simply the lack of a roof?

  8. Posted December 2, 2008 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Clearly this post could have been much longer, but I did not intend it to be. I was introducing a word. Nothing more. As for the statement which concerns you so much, I was solely speculating as to why many ancient temples may have been hypaethral. It was not meant to be a definitive study or analysis of such an idea.

    We already know from scholarship much greater than my own that temples often had a cosmological association (e.g. Nibley’s Temple and Cosmos). The lack of a roof may have been one more element in that connection. There has been much said about Stonehenge as an ancient astronomical calendar, for instance. In order to make such observations, this temple would have had to be hypaethral.

  9. Posted December 2, 2008 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    As for introducing a term, that is great. Again, that is not where I am trying to enter into conversation with you. Rather, I am trying to find evidence for your claim that temples that lack roofs “may” be associated with cosmological observation.

    Maybe. It is certainly a possibility. However, if you can’t point to a single example of a temple without a roof that was used for cosmological observation, then there isn’t any reason to make this assumption. Of course this post wasn’t intended as a definitive study, but that is besides to the point. You made an interesting suggestion and I am responding to it.

    Stonehenge is obviously a complicated case since there is so little known about it, except that it was a burial site. The suggestions that it may be a calendar are certainly interesting (I’m no expert in this period). Whatever it is, it certainly strains our definition of temple, at least as known in the mediterranean, wherein there is an object of cultic veneration and a altar for sacrifices. These differences are surely worthy of note. Besides lacking a roof, on what basis does Stonehenge warrant comparison with ANE or Greco-Roman temples?

    Nibley may very well be right that some ancient temples were related to cosmological speculation. I have some doubts about this and I am not sure that the evidence he provides for this claim is very convincing, at least not for a widespread, cross-cultural assertion about all ancient temples in all places. But his conclusions should never be taken as the starting point for analysis. Rather, they need to be tested against the evidence.

  10. Posted December 2, 2008 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    TT, we can make assumptions and speculate without having definitive proof or examples. My assumption is based on the fact that temples have often been closely tied with the cosmos, including our very own temples which are adorned with cosmological symbols. There are many examples of this. The fact that some ancient temples also seem to have been hypaethral, or open to the sky, is evidence enough to speculate that it may have been that way for cosmological observation and veneration. Of course that assumption is uncertain. To turn that speculation into a better theory or fact we would need many more examples, texts, inscriptions, or other scholarship to verify it. We can certainly do that, and I would hope someone has done it or will do it. I am probably not qualified to make that kind of in-depth study, but I would welcome it.

  11. Bill Hamblin
    Posted December 3, 2008 at 12:17 am | Permalink

    It is worth noting that the first explicitly Israelite sanctuary was, in fact, an open air sanctuary created by erecting stone pillars (see Ex 24:3–8, especially 24:4 where they set up twelve “pillars” (maṣṣebāh)), by an altar where they offered sacrifice. Although it is not clear, it was probably a circle, since each pillar represented one of the twelve tribes, and were likely arranged paralleling the later layout of the camp with three tribes on each side of the central tabernacle/altar. This shrine was duplicated by Joshua at Gilgal (Josh 4:20), where they likewise set up twelve stones, one for each tribe, and likewise offered sacrifice (Josh 5:10, 1 Sam 10:8, 11:15).

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