Wednesday, April 3, 2013

DOORS: Myths and Legends

Doors are as ancient as the human abode and so have become part of our conscious and subconscious being. Throughout history and across cultures doors, doorways, portals, gates and thresholds have been potent objects and symbols of superstition, rites and rituals, psychological change, transcendental and religious experience. Doors occur metaphorically in our expressions and recur in our dreams.

Etymologically Doors have been known as: dor (middle English), duru (old English) dur (proto-Germanic), dwer-dwor (proto-Indo-European), Gothic (daúr), Danish dør, Tür (German), turi (old High German), dyr (Icelandic), dyrr (old Norse), foris (Latin), thýra (modern Greek, thura (ancient Greek), dar (Persian), and dver (Russian), Kiwad (Urdu= door shutter).

Doors are synonymous with many objects and expressions such as entrance, gate, gateway, passage, portal, access, adit, admission, admittance, ingress and way. Doors are also refereed to in terms of: indoor -inside a built or enclosed space, outdoor -outside in the open, next door -neighbouring property or territory, at the door -outside or inside the door but on the verge of crossing it, waiting for permission or opportunity to leave or enter, by the door -passing by, at one's door -as compliance or submission, for being responsible, door to door -going or made by going to each house in a neighbourhood, out of doors -deposition, thrown out, removed, through the door -through an appropriate channel, to show the door -thrown out, asked to leave, open-door policies -barriers less, closed doors -private, protected, doors of opportunity, door to success -change of position for success, doorways to the future -future reached through breach or opening.

Doors have been part of our folklore and legends, often with diverse meanings. Doors have been dealt in their interior as well as exterior expressions. The interior expressions relate to way of life, virtues, good manners, exemplary behaviour, restraints, and exterior manifests as supernatural, unpredictable, dilemmas. Doors are equated with other building elements like walls, windows etc. to juxtapose the physical character.

I'm talking to the door, but I want the walls to hear me. The ear is only a door. Walls have ears, paper sliding doors have eyes.

When God shuts one door, He opens another. At death's door a man will beg for the fever. The doorstep weeps for forty days whenever a girl is born. Misfortune only comes in when the door is open.

If you want to keep camels, have a large door. A doorstep is the highest of all mountains. The best kind of closed door is the one you can leave unlocked.

Every dog is a great barker at the door of his own house. Earth is like a prison: we all go in through the same door, but we stay in different cells. Insects do not nest in a busy door-hinge.

He who wants to tell the truth will always stand before closed doors. Luck stops at the door and inquires whether prudence is within. He who is outside the door has already a good part of his journey behind him.

Many open a door to shut a window.

When a door opens not to your knock, consider your reputation.

The door, physically and symbolically, involves a change of state. At mundane level, a door means control over illumination, intrusion, acoustical disturbance, visual engagement, social interference and movement of air and pollution and thermal emission. At symbolic level a door offers hope, new life or fresh beginning, isolation from the familiar, ventures into unknown, initiation into mysteries, fear and expanded communications. At spiritual level it provides an encounter with the supernatural, a communion and unification with the creator. As Christ said, 'I am the door,' and 'no one comes to the Father but through Me.'

A door leads one out of a space to another space and a door perceptible somewhere. The door here is a bridgehead over the connecting passage. The door also takes one out to exploration of an illusive opportunity or intangible entity. The passage, in the first case is narrow with dangers of falling off it, whereas in the second case there are no options except backtracking to the reality of home.


A door comes into being by three phenomenal elements: a Top, Bottom and the Sides. Japanese gate Torii is essentially composed of the eaves, the omnipresent top. A single stroke did not suffice, so two or three strokes emphasize the horizontal at top (as in Sanchi gate). An Indian door is epitomised by the Laxman Rekha. A territorial mark on the ground that defines whether one is included or excluded from the macrocosm. Here the threshold exists in spite there being no door. The Egyptian temple entrance consists of tall sides formed by a pair of columns, pylons or obelisks. The lintel or head is architecturally less significant, just incidental. A formal door requires all three to be present, and concurrently.


During Aagaman -while entering one must either go in or stay out. And during Nirgaman -while exiting one must either get out or stay in. A door is a point of uncertainty. Ones action must be very certain, and one must never stay put in the door itself. One must be very cautious on crossing a door threshold, as trouble lurks in both directions. All activities in the door space or frame, such as standing, seating, eating, drinking or doing anything else is a taboo. One must not look backward during entry or exit, or the willpower and physical strength will dissipate. The homeward (return) journey must be accomplished without an intermediate stop or engagements. On Aagaman, before entering the house door, one must purify own self (disinfect) with appropriate Vedic ritual, like bathing, washing the feet or at least sprinkling of holy water over the head. The Nirgaman, if for a journey to an unknown destination or for an uncertain purpose must be conducted with the permission of elders, masters or gurus, and goddess of the family (Kuldevi).

Mystically, an open door represents good fortune, a new opening in life, or a desire to open up the feelings. A revolving door means a monotonous period ahead and a trap door predicts shocking news, a door knob means unexpected good luck, hinges bring family problems. A locked door shows missed opportunities, denial of opportunities, or can represent ‘need to close the door over the past’. A door opening outward may show that one needs to be more accessible to others. However, an inward opening door may represent the desire for inner exploration and self-discovery. A front door is a normal entrance and a back door a nominal one. A house with one door is a preferred abode. Evil spirits enter the house from a back door.


A Grih-Pravesh, -a ceremony of entering a home, by crossing over a threshold -Udumbara with right foot forward. It is conducted while entering into a new home, when a new member joins the family like a bride, new born baby, groom, a disciple or an apprentice, and when someone returns after some lapse of time such as recovery from an illness, achievement or trip. Grih Pravesh ceremonies have many forms but it is mainly performed at the door. Most common elements are: a Kumbha either filled with rice or water, a cocoanut and Arati.

The threshold is an element that is to be crossed without touching it. If one stumbles over a threshold by accident the entry or exit must be postponed. The western tradition of lifting the bride by the husband over the threshold reflects similar attitude. A threshold is not always considered an untouchable element, people do touch it with their head to pay obeisance to the place or its owner or touch it with right hand to take a few dust particles and place them over the forehead. The dust near the thresholds or doors of temples, prostitutes’ houses, and very rich persons’ mansions are considered auspicious, and are also used for construction of the Havan kund (ceremonial and sacrificial fire place).

‘The tradition to carry a bride over the threshold of the married couple's home is a very old one and followed in many societies of the world. The belief is nearly same everywhere, that a bride must not trip over a threshold. Some believed demons haunted doorways and could cause the bride to trip. Others felt that threshold was ominous of evil, and one must never step on to it, but rather cross over it. But people do touch the threshold in reverence. Some believe that one must open a door at midnight to allow evil spirits to depart, and that the first person to open the door on Christmas morning will have good luck. It's bad luck, some believe, to leave a house by a different door than the one used to enter the house or to eat in front of a door’. Ogden Nash has stated that ‘only a door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of’, and for some, the dame luck also stays on the wrong side, at least most of the time.

‘A woman who had just given birth was forbidden to tread on another family's threshold, for it was believed that the woman would become a threshold cleaner in her next life. In Liaoning province of North-East China, people still follow the tradition during Dragon Boat Festival (the 5th day of the 5th lunar month) of sitting on the threshold of the door to eat an egg before sunset. After finishing the egg, they throw all the shells outside the house. Such an act is believed to clear the house of disease and bad luck in the following year’.
Houses confirming to Vastu have a properly oriented entrance door, so the place for home-entrance ceremony is also well set. In grih pravesh ceremony the home owner enters the house by touching the right shoulder to the right jamb, and by crossing the threshold with right foot first, but without touching it.


The rising sun and the East face entrance have a very intimate relationship in many cultures across the world. The spiritual relationship of Eastern light falling on to an East facing deity (sited in the western section of the building) or place of worship is a well-established fact.

It was universal early practice for the great door to be 'the Gate of Sunrise.' This door of enormous size was properly the sole opening to the temple, serving as much for light as to enter by, it was thrown open at dawn. Dr Hayes Ward in the American Journal of Archaeology (Vol. 3), shows some dozen Babylonian seals, with intaglios of the Sun-god passing through the double-valved gate of the East and beginning to climb the mountain of the sky. The gate has two guardian figures.

It was usual to cover the Eastern door with shining metal for it to glow in the morning sun rays. Sun rays were also received on the metal-clad shiny inclined top faces of the tall obelisks, shining metal finials over tall masts and over furling flags and festoons. The Sun is also metaphorically represented by soaring eagles, circular objects like a wheel, red disc or the winged globe. Images of soaring Eagles and wheels (Chakra) were part of door heads. The moving Dharma-Chakra of the Buddhist temples and stupas atop a Stambha -pillar is perhaps reminiscent of this.

Babylon temples had ‘gate of glory as brilliant as the sun’. In Syria it was the same; at the temple of Mabog (Hierapolis) the doors were gilded, as also was the entire sanctuary, walls and ceiling. ‘Two immense columns, one hundred and eighty feet high, flanked the door, inside which, on the left, was placed the throne of the sun’.

The preference for East for the main door changed when in pre Gothic period cathedrals began to have Western entrances, so that deities could be backlit with stained glass in the morning sunlight.

Egyptian’s temples and tombs had two openings: the Gate of the East, and the Gate of the West. Through the former the sun enters in the morning to pass out from the other in the evening, and there from pursue its journey way back by the dark path of the under world.


In the tombs of early dynasties a false door was the focus of the offering chamber that was adjacent to the tomb. It was here the family members placed their offerings for the deceased on a slab in front of the door. False doors were most typically placed on the west wall of the offering room. It was a threshold between the world of the living and the dead. It was a point through which the spirit of the deceased could transit. In some instances, there were two false doors affixed to the west wall, with the left one serving the tomb owner while the right door was meant for his wife.

In Egyptian tombs of earlier period, the false doors were indicated like the door of an ordinary house, low, small and narrow but not pierced through. These doors were not copies of real doors, bur rather a combination of an offering niche and a stela with an offering table. The doors were engraved on a single piece of wood, alabaster or stone panel, or drawn on the walls. They often had one, two or even three pairs of jambs leading to a central niche, so arranged to convey the illusion of depth and a series of frames, a foyer, or a passageway. The niche within the false door had carved statues and the side panels had inscriptions naming the deceased along with the titles, and a series of standardized offering formulas. These texts extol the virtues of the deceased and express positive wishes for the afterlife.


A door as an entrance needs protection so that evil spirits are warded off it, and as an exit point good fortunes or luck does not escape out of it. Doors have protective charms. The most common charm for the door is the horse shoe. Other objects include olive branches, statuettes of gods, angels and saints. (For more refer to Chapter: 4.3 Openings systems: Treatments).

Portals, doors and gates had inevitable protectors or guardians in the form of real or horrible humans, beasts and monsters. These figures 'fawn on all who enter, but rend all who would pass there again (after death)’. The creatures were such as: winged genii in the form of bulls, scorpions, human-headed lions -the sphinx, lions, Dwarpal, Yaksha. Other forms like Christ, Michael, Gabriel, archangels, Ganesha, Hanuman, signs of the zodiac and sculptures of the months. In India, China, Siam, Japan, the gates are protected by Dwarpal, and presence of the Kshetrapal (the guardian of the local territory) was also necessary.

China has many legendary door guardians. The guardians are brave warriors. The pictures of door gods are hung in pairs, facing each other, it is considered bad luck to place the figures back-to-back.

There are two types of door gods: martial door gods and literary door gods. Martial door gods are usually generals depicted in life-size proportions, wearing full battle armour and wielding weapons, loyal men, great fighters. Commonly seen door gods of this type include ‘Shen Tu and Yu Lu’, ‘Qin Qiong and Weichi Gong’, ‘Zhong Kui’, ‘Guan U’ and ‘Guan Sheng’. Whoever the door gods may be, the common denominator of all front gate door gods is their trustworthiness, strength and loyalty, bolstered by a fierce martial countenance and impressive weaponry. In the past, each Chinese household hosted numerous gods, such as the stove god, door gods, the property god, the wellness god, etc. To keep ghosts and monsters at bay, prints of such door gods were pasted on front doors.

Emperor Tang Taizong (599 : 649 AD) was beset by demons howling outside of his bedroom at night. Qin Shubao and Hu Jingde, two generals volunteered to guard the door to the emperor's chamber. Thereafter there was no more trouble. In honour of the two brothers' bravery the emperor ordered pictures of the two to be drawn and posted on the palace gates. The two came to be associated as the Guardians of Doors or Door Gods. Qin Shubao has a white face, and Hu Jingde either a red or black one. They protect households from the evil forces outside, as well as marking ‘spaces safe’.

Shentou and Yulei are other immortals who were ordered by the Jade Emperor to guard peach trees which demons were gnawing at. Shentou and Yulei carry a battle axe and a mace, respectively. Zhong kui is not a door god but a mythical exorcist (ghost catchers) whose image is often displayed as the ‘backdoor general’.

‘According to an ancient Chinese text, "The Classic of Mountains and Seas" (shanhaijing?), there was a very large peach tree on Dushuo Mountain (dushuoshan?) whose branches formed an archway through which evil spirits could pass between the spirit world and the earth. The Emperor of Heaven (tiandi ?) was concerned that the evil spirits might harm the people on earth and so he assigned two brothers, Shen Tu and Yu Lei, to guard the passageway. If the evil spirits caused any harm, the two brothers were instructed to tie them up and feed them to the tigers which lived at the base of the mountain’.

A tradition gradually developed to engrave their portraits in peach wood which were then hung on gates and doors for protection from evil influences. Images were also painted on the doors, but only few could afford it. Ordinary people placed a light-coloured broom and a black piece of coal outside their doorways to represent Chin and Yu-Chih, respectively. With the advent of wood block printing in the Sung Dynasty, (960-1297) artistic renderings of deities became easily available. It was during this period that door God charms (taofu?) were replaced by auspicious verses written on red paper (spring couplets -chunlian?). The verses are hung above and at the sides of doors and gates. Traditionally prior to the Chinese New Year houses are cleaned and red trimmings are placed on doorways and windows to scare away the monster Nian as it is afraid of the colour red. Red banners featuring words like ‘longevity’, good luck’, ‘happiness’, etc., are displayed in homes.

Door guardians used for Buddhist temples are different from those at Taoist temples. At Buddhist temples, the most commonly seen door gods are Wei Tuo and Chia Lan, two guardians of the blessed state of enlightenment. The four Buddhist grand lords flank their sides, each holding, either a musical instrument, sword, umbrella or snake. At Taoist temples, such as those dedicated to Matsu, Goddess of the Sea, the most popular characters for painting on the entrances are the Thousand-Mile Eye God and the Wind Ear God. The Chinese temples dedicated to Confucius, are not decorated with door gods, for the Great Sage did not speak of superstition, deities or demons.

Over the years not only many different guardians for doors evolved but many different image versions became available. The door gods protected one from evil influences of demons and endowed luck, wealth, longevity and happiness. Each character is believed to have different powers. For example, images of the infant door god are suitable for the bedrooms of newly-weds, whereas the ox door god is appropriate for cowsheds.


In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings and endings. Janus also represented the sun and the moon. Janus is always associated with some form of duality. Janus is depicted with two faces -looking in opposite directions.

Janus symbolized change and transitions such as: the progression of past to future, of one condition to another, of one vision to another, and of one universe to another. Janus was worshipped at the beginnings of all events like planting and harvesting, births, marriages, etc. He was representative of the middle ground between barbarity and civilization, rural country and urban cities, and youth and adulthood.

Janus once caused a hot spring to erupt to stop the would-be attackers and forced them to flee. In honour of this, the doors to his temples were kept open during war so that he could easily intervene. The doors and gates were to be kept closed during peace, which rarely happened. But in the time of Augustus it was closed, after he had overthrown Marc Antony, and before that, when Marcus Atilius and Titus Manlius were consuls, it was closed for a short time; then war broke out again at once, and it was opened. Of the several places, Janus had a temple at Rome with double doors, which were called the gates of war.

Janus’s most apparent remnant in modern culture is his namesake, the month of January. The name Genoa, the Italian city is believed to be derivation of Janus. The Latin word for door, ‘ianua,’ itself possibly came from the god Janus.

Cardea is the goddess of thresholds and door-pivots (cardo =door-pivot). She protected little children against the attacks of vampire-witches. She is also a goddess of health like Carna. Cardea obtained the office from Janus in exchange for her personal favours. Her powers were ‘to open what is shut and to shut what is open’.


Roman houses had doors that opened inward. Roman society permitted only rare individuals of high honour to have doors that opened out on to the Street. Plutarch wrote that the Roman people complimented Marcus Valorous, a founder of the Roman Republic, after his triumph with a house built on the Palatine at public expense, but with doors to open outwards as perpetual recognition of his merit as if ‘he might be constantly partaking of public honour’. Caesar was given this plus an additional pediment which Livy mentioned as a decree by the senate for honour and distinction.

For the Romans a door represented the character of the household and was an expression of the owner’s place in society. The front door was always open to a stranger and community. An open street door showed a willingness to serve the community participate fully in political and social life.

‘Pliny the Younger interpreted that an unwillingness to participate with the community was the same as a willingness to engage in a destructive manner against the community. The Roman’s inability, to see behind, the closed doors always caused fear and suspicion, an implication that the paterfamilias had something to hide. A place of concealment was a place of potential revolution as can be seen by the conspirator Catiline in 63 BC. Sallust wrote that Catiline gathered his most trusted friends behind closed doors to attempt overthrowing the Republic’.

The formal entrance to a Roman house was set with certain depth from the street. It was a decorative entryway flanked by half columns or pilasters to create a picture-like frame. Strangers and formal guests were impressed by the passage through the fauces and atrium. The family members, neighbours and other regular visitors however, used a simpler side or back doors set flush with the street. ‘In Roman culture, the front door was always open to a stranger and community but to understand and be treated equal to the family, one had to approach from other means’. Hillier and Hanson state that the side or back-door was left ajar for the working class and to encourage neighbours coming in unannounced. Since the back door typically led to the kitchen, an important room to a house, the entrance carries a high level of presence availability.


For the Japanese ‘the door to happiness opens outward. A door simply imposes itself upon the room when it opens inward. Having the door open inwards has the outside intruding upon the inside’. Feudal schools of etiquette prescribe all kinds of norms for opening a door and coming into a room. Sukisha, well-bred people use the hand, nearest the door to open it a few inches (the length of a forefinger, to be exact) and then switch hands to slide it back the rest of the way. A man is judged by how he opens a door and a woman by how she shuts. This is so because in a room with a group of men, a woman served the food and take a leave. She would be observed closing the door behind her with grace. The balanced and graceful action of folding down one's knees on the floor, moving into a room, keeping at a level equal to others already in the room, were part of larger ceremony. The skills of opening and closing a sliding Japanese doors are part of reishiki, proper form or etiquette.


Revolving doors, when began to be used in American buildings, were marketed with a lot of hype, as ‘doors that always remain closed’. With a clear Victorian attitude they declared as capable of avoiding the ‘noxious effluvia’ and ‘baleful miasmas’. The doors were supposed to save life, by preventing those deadly lung and throat diseases which are sure to overtake the unfortunate salesman, cashier, or clerk whose duty keeps him near the constantly opening front door.


In the early part of Industrial age children hired to work as trappers to operate trap doors in mines and railway yards. They sat in a hole hollowed out for them and held a string which was fastened to the door. When they heard the coal wagons coming, they had to open the door by pulling a string. This job was one of the easiest down the mine but it was very lonely and the place where they sat was usually damp and draughty. This was like lift operator boys who opened-closed the elevator doors, working for long hours, but in fancy places, in late 19th and early 20th C.


Doors in literature are used in their various physical constructs, metaphysical effects and metaphorical forms. J. R. R. Tolkien the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings refers directly or indirectly to a door, window, gate, or other passageway that leads to a change in a character’s physical, metaphysical, or metaphorical state. While not quite as omnipresent in The Silmarillion, the motif is still used extensively throughout the text. The function of transition refers to a passage point that signals some type of change in a character. Barriers are thresholds that represent the dichotomies of safety/danger, us/other, inclusion /exclusion, and control/chaos.

One of the metaphorical meanings of doorways and openings in Tolkien’s work conveys the idea of ‘becoming’. As one passes through the doorway and enters a new stage of development or experience, having gained the ‘key’ necessary to move forward, one ‘becomes’ something more—more capable, more perceptive, more knowledgeable. Although, we often cling to our comfort zone, it is only by venturing outside our experience that we come to know our true selves. In other words, we must cross the thresholds that paradoxically lead us both outward and inward to a deeper understanding of our strengths and weaknesses and recognition of our relationships with the cosmos, just like Tolkien’s fish out of water.

Tolkien’s exploration of openings, and especially doors, gates, and windows exist not only as a motif within his written works, but is something he contemplated outside Middle Earth through his sketches. It is likely that his attraction to such passageways grew out of his daily surrounds as he lived and worked among centuries old architectural icons. Images of tunnels leading to and from openings appear to represent these complex initiatory ideas within Tolkien’s work. Like the ‘Before and Afterwards’ sketches, tunnels, caves, and mines function as extended thresholds between what came before and what new challenges wait on the other side, and as the inner realm of conflict where obstacles are met and overcome.

Much of Tolkien’s dark woodland imagery is also tunnel-like. He juxtaposes the open land with forest. Forests are entrance points and open lands exit points. In most natural environments he inverts that usual association of ‘being inside’ with safety, and ‘being outside’ with danger. More often than not entering a forest is depicted as entering into a dark unknown, as is entering water, caves, and barrows. Coming out into the open light of the fields is to have survived the dark dangers of woods, water, and earth with newly gained knowledge and confidence. For Tolkien passageways as barriers are usually artificial constructs like gates, fences, doors, and bridges and much less frequently a natural element like water or forests. Tolkien has used artificial barriers to symbolically represent the artifice of separation between peoples. (For more Refer to 4.0.3 Openings in Literature)

Metaphorically, a Revolving door is an instance of the easy movement of individuals from one position or situation to another, and back again. For example, from government-related jobs to lobbying jobs and vice versa, resulting in a conflict of interest for those chosen to represent the public and/or special privileges and benefits to former government officials and personnel. A similar metaphor in the Japanese language is Amakudari, it refers only to former government employees joining companies they were once supervising. This is also used when describing early release of criminals who often end up back in prison after a short time.

The key to a door, permission to enter a door or a domain is given to a person of faith. It is at the door the alienation begins to manifest. To enter a premise, one needs to be consecrated by a person of authority, which means the visitor agrees to abide by the rules that prevail within.


A mihrab originally was a room for the great prophet to pray in. It was the focus of the wall that was indicative of the direction of Mecca. It later on became a decorative niche in the wall. Mihrabs vary in size, are usually ornately decorated and often designed to give the impression of an arched doorway or a passage to Mecca.

Doors and doorways frequently appear in metaphorical or allegorical situations, literature and the arts, often as a portent of change. Old buildings, castles, haunted houses, lair of villains or mansions of super heroes have secret passages accessed through doors, traps or openings. One enters or exits a building by triggering concealed levers, buttons or even surprising mechanisms. But one enters a supernatural realm, gets transported to another time and space setting, or even gets transformed into a different form by simply crossing a point or invisible threshold. The change is often secretive that is perceptible to few. Bizarre and secret entry ways are used in mythological stories, fiction, television programmes or films, and now video games to denote a change that is out of normal range. In Batman fiction and movies such secret entryways are used. In computer games such points may lead to new complications, new leads or bonuses, termination of the game or could be a false situation. In architecture entry ways are delayed in time and space that is the transition is not simple or immediate.


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