German word of the day: Das Himmelszelt

German word of the day: Das Himmelszelt
Archive photo shows a man on the 2,500 metre high viewing platform of the Alpspitze, below a vivid 'Himmelszelt'. Photo:picture alliance / dpa | Peter Kneffel
Literally meaning ‘heaven’s tent’, this is one of the most beautiful German words you will come across.

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 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. 

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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!

Examples:

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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