The Three Worlds

Altaic shaman's drum depicting the cosmos
Altaic shaman’s drum depicting the cosmos

The cosmological model of the “three worlds”the upperworld, middle and underworld–can be found in ancient cultures worldwide in one version or another, and was likely inherited from archaic shamanistic conceptions of the cosmos. The worlds were believed to be connected together by a central vertical axisthe axis-mundi. This was envisioned as a colossal tree, pillar, tent-pole or cosmic mountain. The Siberians envisioned the sky further divided into three, five, seven or more levels, inhabited by the supreme god and celestial spirits. The underworld in some accounts also had seven levels and was believed to be the abode of human as well as animal souls, awaiting rebirth on the earth.

The Babylonians sub-divided the upperworld into seven concentric spheres associated with the visible celestial bodies–the sun, moon and planets, each ruled over by a god or goddess. In the atmosphere between the heavens and earth dwelled a plethora of supernatural beings who embodied the destructive aspects of storms, thunder and tempest. The middle world of earth was the home of mankind, created by the gods to serve them. Below this was the Abzu, the underground waters inhabited by the Apkallu, the seven sages who emerged from the ocean to bring the gifts of civilization to mankind, as well as a host of mermaids, mermen and other denizens of the deep. Beneath this was the dark underworld ruled by Erishkegal, queen of the dead, and her husband Nergal, inhabited by chthonic gods, demons and souls of the dead. In the myth of the goddess Innana’s descent to the underworld, she entered seven gates, similar to the seven levels of the Siberian underworld. This realm was connected to the upper worlds by subterranean rivers and stairways placed at the eastern and western horizons. Up these stairs the sun passed each day on its nightly journey through the underworld, entering in the west at dusk and emerging at sunrise from the eastern stairway.

The vault of the heavens for the ancient Egyptians was personified by the goddess Nut, depicted as a woman spangled with stars, arched over the sky, her hands and feet touching the horizon. Astronomers have speculated her image originated in the spectacle of the Milky Way galaxy spanning the pre-dawn sky, resembling a giant figure stretched across the heavens. The earth was ruled by the green-skinned god Geb, husband of Nut. The two were continually joined together in lovemaking, giving birth to the gods. Finally Nut’s father Shu, god of air, stood between them holding them apart. By separating heaven and earth he created the world. In some myths, the sun god Ra sailed his barque over Nut’s body in his daily journey across the sky. As he set on the western horizon at dusk he entered the realm of the duat–the dark underworld–traveling all night beneath the earth to emerge at the eastern horizon at dawn, similar to the Mesopotamian conception. The duat was believed to be the land of the dead who dwelled there awaiting judgement by the god Osiris.

In Greek mythology the three worlds manifest as Olympus, the heavenly home of the gods, Hades the underworld abode of the dead, and the earth surrounded by Oceanus the world ocean. These realms were inhabited by their own gods, daemons and spirits. The ancient Germans envisioned each world along Yggdrasil, the World Tree, as containing three lesser worlds within it–for a total of nine worlds. Gods, giants, dwarves, elves and humans lived in their own worlds, though shamanic gods like Odin, by learning nine magical songs, could travel between different realms.

These ancient cosmologies integrated myth, astronomy and geography into a hierarchical scheme–an orderly cosmos in which mankind inhabited the central world while divine, demonic, and elemental powers occupied the worlds above and below. Through the practice of divination, humans could discover the intentions of the gods, and with magic threatening demons could be exorcised and supernatural powers appealed to for assistance.

It was the role of shamans and magicians to serve as mediators between the human world and the otherworlds, forming  beneficial relationships with the spirits of those realms–bringing healing, protection, abundance and spiritual guidance to their communities.

“Study for Jacob’s Dream” Gustav Dore
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