Good Questions: Pointing towards the stars

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Why is a five-pointed star such a favourite among those who design national flags and military emblems? As far as I know it has no significance of any kind, apart from looking vaguely like a star. (John Humbach, Brussels)

The five-pointed star has a long history of significance in both Christian and mystical societies. In the Middle Ages, it was believed to have the power to ward off evil. The Christian explanation involved the five points of the star representing the five wounds inflicted on the body of Christ, which terrified devils.

More mystical accounts rely on numerology, with the number 1 - representing God or man - added to 4 - representing the elements of the physical universe - coming together as the five points of the pentagram, a symbol of the divine power of man over the universe. The mystical power of the number five has also been linked to its association with man's five senses.

According to ancient magical lore, the pentagram may be used to repel evil if drawn inside a circle, its points touching the rim, with two downward points at the base, and one upwards at the apex. Carried upside down, the same symbol (the 'Pentagram of Solomon') represents evil.

Had the poet Victor Neuberg known all this, he would probably not have been turned into a camel by Aleister Crowley, who was, incidentally, a former president of Cambridge University Chess Club.

Principal source: The Black Arts by Richard Cavendish.

A state of great happiness is often referred to as 'being in seventh heaven'. What are the other six like, and is there anything better than seven? (Ms E Bannerman, London SW3).

Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable lists the three heavens of the Jewish system (the air, starry firmament, and palace of Jehovah), the five heavens of the Ptolemaic system, (the planetary system, the sphere of fixed stars, the vibrating 'crystalline', the primum mobile which gives motion to the lower heavens, the empyrean, where God and angels live), and the nine heavens of ancient astronomy (one each for the Moon, Venus, Mercury, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, another for the firmament and the last for the crystalline). The Seven Heavens of Mahomet are the ones referred to in the question. These are as follows: one of pure silver, where the stars are hung on golden chains. Here the prophet found Adam and Eve; one - where Noah was found - of polished steel; one studded with precious stones too brilliant for the eye of man. Here Azrael, the angel of death, keeps his lists of the living and dead; Another of finest silver, where dwells the Angel of Tears, whose height is 500 days' journey; one of purest gold, where the Avenging Angel lives; one of Hasala, 'a form of carbuncle', where the Guardian Angel of heaven and earth is to be found. Here Mahomet saw Moses, who 'wept with envy'. This seems not to be the same sort of carbuncle of which Prince Charles so disapproves; and the seventh 'formed of divine light beyond the power of tongue to describe. Each inhabitant is bigger than the whole earth, and has 70,000 heads, each head having 70,000 tongues and each tongue speaks 70,000 languages, all for ever employed in chanting the praises of the Most High.'

Why, in my map of pre-war Europe, is Upper Silesia lower than Lower Silesia? (W Polhill, Exeter)

The upper and lower refer to the direction of flow of the river Oder, with Upper Silesia up-river from Lower Silesia.

The history of Silesia is much neglected these days, though it abounds in splendidly named monarchs such as Boleslaw III, the Wry-Mouthed, who bequeathed Silesia to his son Wladyslaw in 1138. Later rulers included Wladyslaw's two sons, Boleslaw the Tall and Mieszko the Knock-Kneed, and Boleslaw's son, Henry the Bearded.

Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

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