German word of the day: Himmelszelt

Literally meaning ‘heaven’s tent’, this is one of the most beautiful German words you will come across.

German word of the day: Himmelszelt
Photo: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

This poetic term is unlikely to become part of your everyday vocabulary, but it holds a particular religious and literary significance.

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Though das Himmelszelt can mean the sky itself, it usually refers to a view of the vast arch of sky stretching out above you, often at night. It was particularly common in early references to cosmology and described the portion of sky that could be seen by an individual when looking upwards towards the heavens. 

The word is closely associated with Christian beliefs and the firmament is mentioned in the Bible as a divine creation. Early interpretations of the text suggested the Himmelszelt was a solid dome created by God above the earth. 

The description of the firmament as a ‘heavenly tent’ gives the sense that the sky and the heavens beyond are finite and able to safely contain the sun, moon and stars. 

Though the literal interpretation of Himmelszelt began to waver as a better understanding of cosmology developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the literary use of the word persevered. 

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As there was such mystery and spirituality associated with the Himmelszelt, the celestial term was a favourite of German poets, writers and playwrights. Goethe used this idea in his infamous Faust.

In his exploration of the story of Isis in Faust, Part Two you will find the appeal:

Höchste Herrscherin der Welt!

Lasse mich, im blauen,

Ausgespannten Himmelszelt

Dein Geheimniß schauen

Mightiest empress of the world,

Let me, in the blue

Pavilion of the sky unfurl’d,

Thy mystery view!

Use it like this:

Er lag unter dem sternenübersäten Himmelszelt.

He lay under the starry canopy of the sky. 

Die klare Nächte hier sind wunderbar. Ein Himmelszelt voller heller weißer, gelber und bläulicher Sterne.

Clear nights are wonderful here, the heavens full of white, yellow and blue stars. 

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German phrase of the day: keine Ahnung

Asked a question and haven't a clue how to respond? Then use this phrase.

German phrase of the day: keine Ahnung

Why do I need to know keine Ahnung?

This widely-used phrase is the German equivalent of the English “no idea” so it’s a great expression to know in these very confusing times. The full expression is: Ich habe keine Ahnung! (I have no idea).

Where does it come from?

The feminine noun Ahnung comes from the verb ahnen, which means “to foresee” or “to guess” which can have a slightly sinister connotation and is often used to express an indistinct, dark sense of foreboding.

Put together with the pronoun keine, however, the noun Ahnung takes on a much more flippant meaning and is commonly used as a response to a question to convey complete cluelessness.

The term keine Ahnung is also part of a popular German saying which comes from the middle ages: von Tuten und Blasen keine Ahnung haben which literally translates as “to have no idea about tooting and blowing”.

The phrase has its origins in the fact that the work that was least respected in medieval cities was that of the night watchmen, who carried a horn as a warning. 

From the point of view of the townspeople, their only competence was to stay up at night, walk around and blow the horn in case of danger. If someone was not able to do even this, then they were good for nothing. 

How to use it:

Weißt du, wann er zurückkommt?
Keine Ahnung!

Do you know when he’s coming back?
No idea!

Ich habe keine Ahnung was das bedeutet.

I have no idea what that means.