We recognize heaven as a place to which we will go after our deaths if we have led a good or virtuous life. It is a paradise accessible by earthly beings depending on their standards of faith or goodness. On the other hand, hell is home to evil, misery and many other unpleasant things – a place to which we will be sent if we have led unvirtuous lives. However, the concept of the afterlife in the ancient world is more varied and somewhat more complicated. Unlike travelling to hell, which seems to be a much quicker process, a soul’s journey to heaven consists of various tests and layers before it could reach its final resting place.
Indian religions describe svarga (‘heaven) as a transitory place for righteous souls who have performed good deeds in their lives but are not yet ready to attain enlightenment. Therefore, a soul would pass through svarga before it is subjected to rebirth in different living forms according to the good or bad karma it has managed to gather in its life. This is somewhat similar to Greek and Roman mythology where the dead would usually either travel to the Underworld where they would stay or to the Fortunate Isles (or Isles of the Blessed), an earthly paradise for those who were judged as pure enough in their three lifetimes to gain entrance to the Elysian Fields, the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous.
For the ancient Mesopotamians, heaven is divided into three domes. The lowest dome of heaven was the home of the stars and the middle dome was the home of the Igigi – the younger gods. The highest and outermost dome of heaven was personified as An, the god of the sky. However, no ordinary mortal would ever have access to any of these domes no matter how virtuous they were in their lives as the heavens were the home of the gods alone. Unlike the more modern belief of the importance of a person’s action in determining whether they will go to heaven or hell, the ancient Mesopotamian belief was that all souls went to the same afterlife. Therefore, a deceased person’s soul went to Irkalla, the underworld below the surface of the earth.
Historically unappealing descriptions of the Underworld
Literary accounts of the underworld are generally dismal. The underworld is described as a dark ‘land of no return’ and the ‘house which none leaves who enters’. However, Ur-Namma A (‘the Death of Urnamma’) describes the spirits of the dead rejoicing and feasting upon Urnamma’s arrival in the underworld. Grave iconography, specifically symbolism related to the goddess Ishtar who descended and returned from the underworld, indicates a belief in a more desirable afterlife existence than the one described in many literary texts. The Mesopotamian underworld is therefore best understood as neither a place of great misery nor great joy, but as a somewhat dulled version of life on earth.
Much like the ancient Mesopotamians, the Aztecs believed that the heavens were divided into levels – in this case 13 levels. The most important of these 13 levels were the last two, which included Omeyocan, the dwelling place of the founder of the universe. However, for the Aztecs, it was how a person died that determined his lot in the afterlife. Warriors who died in battle or by sacrifice would go to a paradise in the east and joined the sun’s rising in the morning or join the war god Huitzilopochtli in battle. Women who died in childbirth went to a paradise in the west and joined the sun’s descent in the evening as they were considered just as courageous and honorable as warriors. People who died from particularly violent deaths or death by nature such as lightning or drowning went to Tlalocan, a paradise presided over by the rain god Tlaloc. In contrast, those who died of common illnesses, old age, or an otherwise unremarkable death went to Mictlan, the underworld, where they had to traverse through a harsh terrain with many trials in order to descend to its final level. This highlights the Aztecs’ tradition of placing greater esteem for people who died from premature but honorable deaths than for people who lived uneventful lives into old age.
In some cultures, although a particular realm presented the same characteristics as heaven, people did not necessarily have to die to visit it. In fact, although their journeys involved leaving their world to another world, the person was still very much alive. Therefore, for this purpose, the term ‘otherworld’ is more appropriate. Welsh mythology called the otherworld Annwn. The Welsh tale of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, ends with the survivors of the great battle feasting in the Annwn, forgetting all their suffering and sorrow, as well as becoming unaware of the passage of time.
Crossing a river or a bridge to get to the Otherworld
In Irish mythology, the otherworld has many names, including Tir na nOg (‘land of the young’), Mag Mell (‘plain of delight’) and Emain Ablach (‘isle of apples’). The Tech Duinn (‘house of the dark one’) may be the closest to the image of the underworld as it is where the souls of the dead gather. A 9th century poem says that the dying wish of Donn (‘the dark one’), god of the dead and ancestor of the Gaels, was that all his descendants would gather at his house after their deaths. The 10th century tale Airne Fíngein (‘Fíngen’s Vigil’) says that Tech Duinn is where the souls of all the dead gather.
The otherworld, a supernatural realm of eternal youth, beauty and abundance, is said to exist alongside and can even intrude into our own – usually signaled by magic mist, sudden changes in the weather, or the appearance of divine beings or unusual animals. It is often reached by entering ancient burial mounds, such as those at Bru na Boinne and Cnoc Meadha, or by going across the sea. In Immrama (voyage) tales, such as the 8th century Immram Brain (maic Febail) (‘The Voyage of Bran son of Febail’), a beautiful young woman often approaches the hero and seduces him by singing to him of this happy land. Sometimes she offers him an apple (a sacred fruit) or the promise of her love in exchange for his help in battle. He follows her and they journey over the sea together never to be seen again. Even when the mortal manages to return to his own time and place, he is forever changed by his contact with the otherworld. The festivals of Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the end of the harvest season, and Beltane, the Gaelic May Day held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, are traditionally done in the times of the year when contact with the otherworld was more likely.
In many cases, such as in Persia, Greek, Germanic and Celtic beliefs, a soul had to cross a river with a boat sailed by an old man to allow entrance to the afterlife. In Greek and Indian mythology, the waters of this river were thought to wash away sins or memories whereas the waters in Celtic and Germanic myths imparts wisdom. The soul would then usually encounter a dog either in the capacity of a guardian of the underworld such as the Greek’s three headed hound of Hades, Cerberus, or as the soul’s guide, such as the Indian Sharvara, one of the four eyed hounds of Yama. Evidently, a companion dog of the ruler of the underworld also features in Celtic mythology as the Mabinogion. The Mabinogion, the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain, contains a story about Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, in which Pwyll offends Arawn, ruler of Annwn, by baiting his hunting hounds on a stag that Arawn’s dogs had brought down.
The Chinvat Bridge (‘bridge of judgement’) of Zoroastrianism is the bridge which separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. This bridge was guarded by two four-eyed dogs, much like the Hindu god Yama with his own dogs, and its appearance varies depending on the observer’s asha (‘righteousness’). According to the Bundahishn (‘Primal Creation’), if a person has been wicked, the bridge will appear narrow and the Vizaresh, a demon who hunts the souls of the dead, would emerge and drag their soul into the drujo demana (‘the House of Lies’), a place of eternal suffering. If a person had performed many good deeds in their lives, the Daena, a spirit representing revelation, will appear and lead the soul into the garo demana (‘the House of Song’). Those souls that successfully cross the bridge are united with Ahura Mazda (the sole creator in Zoroastrianism).
Slavic mythology describes Vyraj as a mythical garden to where birds flew for the winter and souls went after death. It was located in the crown of the cosmic tree which keeps human souls in its branches at the end of the Milky Way. The gates of Vyraj were guarded by Veles, the god of the underworld, who sometimes took the animal form of a Rarog, a fire demon often depicted as a fiery falcon, grasping the keys to the underworld in its claws. When the Slavic populations were gradually converted to Christianity, a new version of this belief became widespread in which Vyraj became split into two realms – a heavenly place where birds departed to and an underworld for snakes and dragons.
Worship of Heaven in China consisted of with the erection of shrines, the last and greatest being the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, the offering of prayers, and annual sacrificial rituals by the ruler of China.
Heaven, the divine ruler of men
In the Chinese Confucian traditions, tian (‘heaven’) is an important concept, as it is where the ancestors reside and from where emperors drew their mandate to rule. Heaven is said to see, hear and watch over all men. It has a personality and can be affected by man’s doings. It blesses those who please it and sends calamities upon those who offend it. This is similar to the Irish tale Baile in Scáil (‘the Phantom’s Frenzy’), in which Conn of the Hundred Battles visits an otherworld hall, where the warrior god Lugh legitimizes his kingship and that of his successors.
Chinese philosopher Mozi (470 – 391 BC) believed that heaven is the divine ruler, just as the emperor is the son of heaven (the King of Zhou in his time, and presumably the later emperors of China) and the earthly ruler. Although spirits and minor gods exist, Mozi believed that their function was merely to carry out the will of heaven, such as punishing evil-doers. Thus, they function as angels of heaven and do not distract from its monotheistic government of the world. Mozi championed a concept called jian’ai (‘universal love’), which believed that heaven loves all people equally and that each person should similarly love all people without distinguishing between his own relatives and those of others. In Mozi’s Tian Zhi (‘Will of Heaven’), he writes:
“Moreover I know Heaven loves men dearly not without reason. Heaven ordered the sun, the moon, and the stars to enlighten and guide them. Heaven ordained the four seasons, Spring, Autumn, Winter, and Summer, to regulate them. Heaven sent down snow, frost, rain, and dew to grow the five grains and flax and silk that so the people could use and enjoy them. Heaven established the hills and rivers, ravines and valleys, and arranged many things to minister to man’s good or bring him evil. He appointed the dukes and lords to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, and to gather metal and wood, birds and beasts, and to engage in cultivating the five grains and flax and silk to provide for the people’s food and clothing. “