The Stairway to Heaven

The navel of the World
Moon river and the mountains of the moon
Inuit belief

Click here for picture


The idea of a stairway, rope, ladder, tree, vine* etc. leading to heaven is one which occurs a lot in stories from all around the world. Sometimes the stairway leads to the moon other times the stairway often seems to represent the axis of the universe (or axis mundi if you like latin words), and presumably therefore, heaven was imagined to be located at the pole star, or the pole of the ecliptic (the centre of the zodiac). I recently came across a short fairy tale which sums up this idea very neatly. I have reproduced it here.
A bear standing next to a staff or tree trunk is a common heraldic symbol, and it has been suggested that this may represent the axis mundi [1], the bear representing either the great or little bear, the constellations which flank the pole star**.

I feel that it is not possible to draw a line between the versions of the story which concern the moon (such as the Kimbunda legend of the frog and the moon princess and Baron Munchausen's visit to the moon), and those that don't. In African legends, the moon (which is often the traditional location of heaven) is interchangeable with a Christian type heaven. This may be due to European influence.

The ancient Egyptians believed that souls ascended to heaven by ladder. The Papyrus of Ani has an illustration of a winged spirit flying up a kind of stairway. It has been claimed that the superstition about walking under ladders originated in ancient Egypt, the idea being that the act of walking under a ladder could (by some form of sympathetic magic) cause a soul to fall from the stairway to heaven, and haunt you for the rest of your life. Or possibly walking under a ladder would prevent your own soul from climbing the stairway. I don't have any references for this, so I'm a bit sceptical.

Led Zeppelin put their most famous song on their fourth album, which contains other lunar symbolism (See The man in the moon for more on this) . The song itself is influenced by "The White Goddess"

The navel of the world

The stone of Scone, which has recently been returned to Scotland after several centuries in Westminster abbey, was said to have been the stone which
Jacob rested his head upon when he had the dream of the stairway to heaven at Bethel, a Canaanite sanctuary, which was later taken over by the Israelites [9]. The Stone of Scone was brought from Ireland by the Scots and set up in the Pictish heartland to comemorate their victory over the Picts (I think). Early records describe the stone as having handles on either side, to assist in carrying it, and Celtic carvings all over it. The stone which sat under the throne in Westminster abbey is of the same type of rock that Dunfermline castle is built from, and resembles a block of masonry. What happened to the original stone is anybody's guess (for more on the Picts, click here).

There is a dome shaped carved rock at Delphi, which is said to have been placed there by Zeus, to mark the centre of the world. It replaced a meteorite (or thunderbolt), which fulfilled the same function. There is a similar stone somewhere in Ireland. Many of these places are imagined to be the navel or centre of the world. The stone at Delphi was called the Omphallos meaning "navel". The Peruvian site of Cuzco also means "navel" [5]. I have a vague feeling that Mexico city(known to the Aztecs as Teohoxysomethingorother) was also imagined to be the navel of the world. John Michell has written a book on this subject, which I would strongly recommend[8].

A few years ago a concrete traffic bollard was dumped by a truck driver in a remote part of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. In 1989 it was discovered by local mystic, Baba Kali Dass who declared it to be a Shiva lingam (click here for picture). By 1993, the bollard was attracting thousands of New-Age, Hindu and buddhist pilgrims, and claims of miraculous cures were circulating. A stone circle was constructed around the bollard, and in October 1993, the devotees asked for permission to build a permanent shrine. Park officials threatened to demolish the bollard, and Kali Dass's group filed a federal lawsuit, invoking the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom [2]. [top]

Moon river and the mountains of the moon

There is a Chinese legend, in which a hero named Chang Ki'en reached the moon by sailing up the River Huang Ho. When he got there he met the god of love and marriage,
Wu Kang and a hare

In the 5th century B.C. Herodotus visited Egypt and travelled up the Nile as far as Elephantine. On his journey, he met a priest who claimed to know where the source of the Nile was. There were apparently two mountains called Crophi and Mophi, and in the centre of each was a vast bottomless fountain. These two fountains gave rise to the Nile. Herodotus was sceptical. Ptolemy (A.D. 90 - A.D. 168)elaborated upon this story, and located the fountains in a range of mountains south of the equator, which he named "The Mountains of the Moon". Why he chose this name is not known for certain. Arab explorers in the dark ages spoke of the Mountains of Gumr. Gumr was believed to be a corruption of Kama meaning moon, but it could also be derived from kumr meaning pale green. Abu el Fadel, an Arab traveller, writing around A.D. 1098 suggested that the mountains are so called, "because the eye is dazzled by the great brightness" He goes on to explain that:

"Some have said that certain people have reached these mountains and ascended there and looked over the other side where they saw a sea with troubled waters, dark as the night. This sea being traversed by a white stream, bright as the day which enters the mountains from the north, and passes by the grave of the great Hermes, and Hermes is the prophet Idrisi.
It is said that Idrisi there built a dome. Some say that people have ascended the mountains and one of them began to laugh and clap his hands and threw himself down the other side of the mountain. The others were afraid of being seized with the same fit and so came back. It is said that those who saw it saw bright snows like white silver gleaming with light. Whoever looked at them became attracted and stuck to them until they died and this science is called human magnetism.
It is said that a certain king sent an expedition to discover the Nile sources and they reached copper mountains and when the sun rose the rays reflected were so strong they were burnt
It is said that in the days of Am Kaam, one of the kings of Egypt, Idrisi was taken up to heaven and he prophesied the coming of the flood so he remained on the other side of the equator and there built a palace on the slopes of Mount Gumr. He built it out of copper and made 85 statues of copper, the waters of the Nile flowing through the mouths of these statues and then flowing into a great lake and thence to Egypt"

The glowing stream flowing across a dark sea sounds to me like a description of the Milky Way***. Perhaps this story is allegorical, or maybe it was originally an African version of the tale of Chang Ki'en****. The story seems to have influenced "Beach house on the moon" by Jimmy Buffet

After this the Mountains of the Moon appeared on many maps, but no one was sure exactly where they were supposed to be. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar both sent unsuccessful expeditions up the Nile. In 1858 Burton and Speke led an expedition to find the source of the Nile. They reached Lake Tanganyika, and then illness and personal differences caused them to split up, Burton remaining at camp, while Speke headed north. 16 days later Speke reached Lake Victoria, and returning, declared that he had found the source of the Nile. Burton disagreed, insisting that the source was at the Mountains of the Moon, which he suggested lay between Lake Victoria and the most southerly known part of the Nile. Speke suggested that they lay between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. Speke made a number of further expeditions, and accounts of his explorations were published in 1863 and 1864. but the dispute continued. A public debate between Burton and Speke on the subject was planned, but on the day that it was due to happen, Speke died mysteriously, shot by his own gun while hunting.

In 1885, Stanley discovered the Ruwenzori mountains close to Burton's suggested location of the Mountains of the Moon, and after that, the Ruwenzoris were The Mountains of the Moon. Whether they were the same Mountains of the Moon referred to by Herodotus, Ptolemy et al. is anyone's guess.

On Bubembe, an island in Lake Victoria, is a temple containing a stone which (legend has it) fell from heaven, and points east or west, depending on the phase of the moon. [4]

"She" by H. Rider-Haggard, was published in 1885, and seems to be set some way to the south of this region. The Hammer film version of the book was set in the mountains of the moon [7].

Osiris was said to have been born at Mount Nissa in Ethiopia, perhaps this was imagined to be "The Mountain of the Moon". Osiris' Greek counterpart, Dionysus, was born at Mount Nyse in Greece - which may be the origin of his name [1]. There are also three Nyssas in Asia minor, three Nysias in Thrace, a Nyza near Mosul and a Nysia in Arabia. According to Diodorus, this last place was where Isis was born [3]. Anyway what I'm getting at is that sometimes the stairway to heaven may have been imagined as a river. Perhaps Osiris, the fertility god of Egypt was sometimes imagined as a personification of the river Nile - the source of Egypt's fertility, and was thus born at the place where the source of the Nile was imagined to be. This is probably a good time to put in a link to the section about Osiris and Set.[top]

When the nephew of a Oonark Inuit Shaman was informed that a man had walked on the moon, he was distinctly unimpressed. "That's nothing! My uncle went to the moon lots of times"[13]. Inuit shamans claim the ability to ascend to the moon and consult with the man in the moon. See also the sections on the fool on the moon, Baron Munchausen and the man in the moone, for more on lunar exploration.

*For example, the Campa Indians of Eastern Peru, believe that the sun climbed to heaven by a vine which had been put in place by a hummingbird. They also have a legend about a man named Mashikinti who discovered the hallucinogenic vine ayahuasca and subsequently flew up to heaven on a raft. In one version of the story, his brother in law, Porinkari was pursued by a warrior wasp in human form and climbed a rope up to heaven, receiving an arrow in his leg in the process. The Campa believe the belt and sword of Orion to be Porinkari. This may have some relevance to the stuff on the page called Jack [11][back]

**In the castle at St. Michaels Mount in Cornwall, there is an antique hatstand in the shape of a tree with a small bear in it's upper branches and a large bear at it's foot. It was apparently made in Bavaria, and said to be unique, although I remember seeing a similar one, although darker in colour in a pub somewhere. Andy Depledge emailed to say that there is one like it in The Salisbury Arms in Hertford, a former coaching Inn (which may be the pub I was thinking of). He kindly sent me a couple of photographs. Local rumour says that there is only one other like it, and that one used to belong to the BBC props department. It featured in Fawlty Towers apparently. So how many of these "unique" hatstands are there? Was the one in St Michael's Mount formerly used by Basil Fawlty? I'm sure the guide book would have said so! If you have seen a hatstand which may or may not represent the axis mundi, please leave a message in the guestbook .
The design seems appropriate anyway: St Michaels Mount is an island near to the South West tip of Britain. It may have been the earliest "city" in Britain, founded by Greek and Phoenician merchants who came in search of copper and tin (for more on the secretive Cornish tin industry click here). One of the leading Nazis (I think it was Himmler) said that if/when England was conquered, he would make St Michaels Mount his home. There is something quite mystical about the place, and the Nazis were known for their occult beliefs. [back]

***El Fadel's story makes no sense if it is describing somewhere on earth:
If the sea is to the south of the mountains, and the stream flows across it to the mountains, then the stream would reach the mountains from the south, not the north.
If the sea which is "dark as night" is meant to be the night sky, and the stream is the milky way, then this makes slightly more sense:
At certain times, the milky way can be seen running (roughly) south across the sky to the horizon. I have heard it claimed that the Egyptians imagined the Nile to be the earthly equivalent of the Milky way. (I don't have a source reference for this, but I think it was the same people who noticed the similarity between the position of the pyramids and the stars of Orion)[

****The Huang Ho runs roughly west to east. To someone who believes the world to be flat, it is not unreasonable to imagine travelling east or west to the edge of the world, where the sky meets the earth, and thus meeting the rising or setting sun or moon. The Nile on the other hand flows south to north. Unless you live within a few degrees latitude of the arctic, you will never see the moon on the horizon, when you are looking due south. This niggling detail kind of undermines my theory. [back]

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Pictish Nation More on the stone of Scone

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