In shamanic cultures the upperworld is believed to be the realm of the supreme being and celestial gods. The Northern Siberians envisioned the heavens as the roof of a vast tent held up by the Pole Star, through which shamans travelled in visionary flight into the highest heaven. There they visited the supreme god to gain information about the weather and harvest, as well as converse with celestial spirits who granted prophecies and healing remedies.
The heavens were divided into three, seven, nine, or more levels. The Evenks of Siberia believe the highest the region is the dwelling place of the Supreme Being, Amaka Sheveki. The second heaven is the region of Esheri Shevek, protector of birds, animals, fishes and plants. In the other heavens abide the sun, moon, thunder, stars, clouds, etc. The upperworld of the Siberian shaman, though similar to this world, is described as brighter and some say it has seven suns. To travel there, shamans shape-shift into the forms of their animal-helpers such as birds, flying deers or horses. This ascent is sometimes accomplished by climbing the “axis-mundi” represented as the World Tree or Cosmic Mountain which spans the earth and heavens, or a ladder or stairway of seven steps in the sky.
The belief in the soul’s celestial origins was widespread in shamanic cultures. Among the tribes of North America it was thought the dead crossed the Milky Way, called the “Path of Souls” on their return to the sky world. The Mandan tribe believed that newborn children were stars descended to earth, and people returned to the stars after dying. The spirits of deceased Huichol shamans were thought to live in the sun.
Ancient Egyptian religion was largely oriented to the heavens, and temples were aligned toward the risings of the sun and stars on the horizon, which were venerated as deities. The sky goddess Nut, represented as arched over the heavens and spangled with stars, was a personification of the Milky Way galaxy in the opinion of modern astronomers. The constellation Orion was associated with the god Osiris, and the nearby star Sirius with his wife Isis. Their yearly heliacal rising heralded the life giving annual flood of the Nile and the New Year. The 36 decans or star groups used for measuring time were associated with their own ruling gods or spirits and thought to influence events on earth. The northern circumpolar stars were called the “imperishable ones” as they were visible nightly and never set, symbolizing immortality. They were believed to be the afterlife abode of the souls of pharaohs who ruled there throughout eternity. Ra, the sun-god, sailed across the sky each day and in some accounts the souls of the righteous dead joined him in his “boat of millions of years”. The planets were called “the stars that know no rest” and like the sun-god were represented sailing across the heavens in their own barques.
The Mesopotamians developed the cosmology of the celestial spheres which were believed to encircle the earth. The first and highest heaven of the Babylonians was the abode of Anu, god of the sky. Anu’s heaven was thought to be made from red stone speckled with patches of black and white colors. The middle heaven was ruled by Marduk, king of the gods, whose heaven was made of dark blue stone. Within this realm the major deities dwelled, associated with the seven visible planets including the sun and moon. The third and lowest heaven was made from translucent stone upon which the gods engraved the figures of the starry constellations. In the Babylonian creation story the Enuma Elish, Marduk constructed stations for the great gods “fixing their astral likenesses as the stars of the Zodiac”. These and other constellations were seen as “the writing of heaven” by which the gods communicated their intentions to mankind. Celestial omens were interpreted by astronomer-priests who specialized in observing the nightly positions of the planets as they travelled through the heavens as well as other phenomena such as eclipses and comets. Mesopotamian star-lore was later appropriated by the Hellenistic Greeks who borrowed the planetary gods and zodiac from them, replacing them their own Olympic gods and mythic figures–thereby establishing the basis of Hellenistic astrology and astronomy.
Ancient myths tell of magical flights to the heavens by kings and heroes, sometimes assisted by eagles, echoing shamanic lore where birds serve as spirit-helpers. The Sumerian Epic of Etana, one of the earliest texts ever written, tells the story of a journey to the sky by king Etana on the back of an eagle in search of the “plant of life”. The Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt instructed the pharaoh to rise up in his ba–the part of his soul represented by the hieroglyph of a human headed bird–to the heavens to become a star. In Greek myth, Ganymedes is carried to the heavens by an eagle where he becomes the cup bearer of the gods.
Similar to magical flights of shamans, the mystics and magicians of late antiquity–the Hermeticists, Gnostics, Theurgists, and Merkabah riders ascended in visionary flights through the seven heavens. Their destination was the eighth heaven, the Ogdoad, where they aspired to the unio-mystica–the union of their souls with divinity. As Hellenistic astronomy and astrology gained in popularity, they encouraged the spread of a new conception of the afterlife–the souls of the dead were now believed to ascend to dwell in the heavens–replacing earlier beliefs of the underworld as “land of the dead”. The Greek philosopher Plato, who promoted a religion of the stars, understood the soul’s purpose as returning to heaven where it originated, to live in enraptured contemplation of the eternal ideas, goodness, truth and beauty. These ideas influenced the notion of heaven in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There the souls of the righteous were believed to dwell in the company of angels.
The iconography of angels, depicted as winged humans, was undoubtedly influenced by representations of winged gods, goddesses and genies of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks and other ancient cultures. These in turn could be traced to archaic traditions of birds as spirit-helpers of shamans, who assisted them in their flights to the heavens.