The Stairway to Heaven
The navel of the World
Moon river and the mountains of the moon
Click here for picture
IntroductionThe 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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
. 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
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 . [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.
"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 .
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
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 .
Anyway what I'm
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". 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
**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.
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).
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)[back]
****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.
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