In previous posts we discussed the myths of Inanna and Orpheus which feature descents to the underworld. These were compared to shamanistic narratives of journeys to the land of the dead to retrieve souls as well as undergo initiation ordeals.
Shamanic lore also speaks of visionary ascents to the “upperworld”– the heavenly realm–where the shaman communed with god and the celestial spirits, receiving prophecies and healing remedies. The earliest literary account of a mystical ascent through the heavens is the Sumerian Epic of Etana, recorded around the 3rd millennium BCE. It’s protagonist, Etana, was a historical figure, one of the earliest kings of the city of Kish in Sumeria. His adventure to the heavens on the back of an eagle clearly recalls the shaman’s flight to the upperworld:
In the beginning an eagle and serpent inhabit a tall poplar tree—the eagle nesting in its branches and the serpent in its roots. The two become friends, swearing an oath before Shamash the sun-god to share their prey with their young. However, one day while the serpent is out hunting, the eagle betrays their trust and eats the snake’s young. The serpent in his grief complains to Shamash, who counsels him to trap the eagle while it is feasting on prey, then cut its feathers and imprison it in a pit.
Meanwhile, Etana, distraught that he has been unable to produce an heir, approaches Shamash, asking his help to find the magical “plant of birth” that his wife may conceive. The god advises him to search for the eagle who will help him with his quest. Etana finds the trapped bird, feeds it and nurses it back to health. As a reward, the eagle offers him his friendship, saying: “ask of me whatever you desire and I shall give it to you”. Etana tells him of his wish to ascend to heaven to find the “plant of birth”. The eagle agrees to help, saying:
“…Come, let me take you up to heaven,
Put your chest against my chest, Put your hands against my wing feathers,
Put your arms against my sides”. He put his chest against his chest,
He put his hands against his wing feathers, He put his arms against his sides,
Great indeed was the burden upon him. When he bore him aloft one league,
The eagle said to him, to Etana: “Look my friend, how the land is now,
Examine the sea, look for its boundaries. The land is hills…
The sea has become a stream”. When he had borne him aloft a second league,
The eagle said to him, said to Etana,“Look my friend, how the land is now!
The land is a hill.”When he had borne him aloft a third league,
The eagle said to him, said to Etana, “Look my friend, how the land is now!
The sea has become a gardener’s ditch”…
Etana and the eagle continue their climb, soaring further above the earth, entering the heavenly realms of the gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea. They pass through the gates of the gods—the moon god Sin, Shamash the sun god, and Adad the god of storms. They finally come to a heavenly palace where Etana finds the beautiful young goddess Ishtar seated on a throne under which lions crouch. Etana then asks the eagle to take him home. On the way back he falls off the eagle however, plummeting towards the earth, but is rescued by him in mid-flight. Unfortunately, due to a missing portion at the end of the tablet, the tale remains unfinished, leaving us in suspense…
Etana apparently did find the “plant of birth” though–perhaps given to him by Ishtar, the goddess of fertility–since according to the Sumerian king list he indeed had a male heir.
The Epic of Etana, featuring magical flight through the heavens on the back of an eagle shares many similarities with shamanistic narratives found world-wide. The eagle is a well known spirit-helper of shamans. In Siberian myths the first shaman was born from the mating of a woman and eagle, and eagles figure prominently in shamanic initiations and costumes. The Native Americans see the eagle as a powerful medicine animal, the messenger between humans and the Creator. In a legend from the Pacific Northwest, the Thunderbird carries a man to his home in the sky and befriends him, eventually returning him to the earth where he becomes a great shaman.
Returning to the Epic of Etana, the tree in which the eagle and serpent dwell bears an uncanny similarity to the Ygdrassil Tree of Nordic mythology, in whose upper branches an eagle dwells, while the serpent Niohoggr gnaws on its roots. Ygdrassil spans the worlds, joining them together and providing nourishment for all creatures, similar to the World Tree of shamans.
In fact, the mythic motif of World Tree inhabited by bird and serpent (or dragon) can be found in myths as widespread as the Near-East, Persia, Siberia, China, Indonesia, Mesoamerica and elsewhere. The serpent is usually associated with the powers of the underworld, while the eagle represents the heavenly realm. These two creatures appear together in many other myths as well, symbolizing the opposites of height/depth, light/dark, heaven/earth, etc.
A similar account of a king’s ascent to the heavens can be found in the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt (2,400-2,300 BCE) where the pharaoh is instructed to shapeshift into his ba—soul, imagined as a human headed bird, then ascend to the sky to reunite with the sun-god Re and eventually be reborn as a star.
The heavenly ascents of Etana and the pharaoh anticipate by millennia the visionary ascents through the seven-heavens by mystics of late antiquity: the Hermeticists, Gnostics, Theurgists and Jewish Merkabah riders. During their ascensions, some of them imagined passing through palaces of each celestial sphere where they encountered angelic guardians, similar to Etana’s journey. These imaginal ascents were usually performed with the intention of attaining the unio- mystica, or mystical union with divinity, and were believed to “divinize” or transform the mystic into a god or angel.
Modern kabbalistic magicians continue the practice of visionary ascent using the technique of “pathworking” on the Tree of Life. This is a symbolic road-map of the cosmos in the form of an abstract tree diagram consisting of ten sephirah (spheres) and twenty-two paths connecting them, associated with the four elements, planets, zodiacal signs, angels and deities, etc.
During a pathworking, the Tree is ascended in imagination by the magician, starting at its base in the sphere of Malkuth—the material world. The various paths are traversed in sequence, each associated with its particular archetypal symbols and transformative experiences. The journey eventually culminates in the first sphere of Kether, the crown of the Tree of Life, symbolizing the god-head. This process is described by the modern Jewish kabbalist Z’ev ben Shimon Halevi as an inner spiritual journey in which the aspirant climbs the Tree of himself, continually balancing and perfecting himself at each stage. He writes; “In this way the ascent is safely made from Earth to Heaven while the man is still in the flesh”.
The concept of the kabbalistic Tree of Life was possibly influenced by the ancient Mesopotamian Sacred Tree which appears as early as the fourth millennium, according to assyriologist Simo Parpola, who notes the many parallels between Mesopotamian esotericism and the Jewish Kabbalah. According to him, the Sacred Tree was used by the Assyrians as a symbolic diagram representing the “world order” upon which the deities or divine powers were placed—similar to the Tree of Life. The Mesopotamian tree-motif as found in the Etana myth clearly seems to have been influenced by the World Tree of prehistoric cultures which symbolized the axis-mundi or world-axis connecting the worlds together.
Likewise the modern magician’s visionary ascent of the paths of the Tree of Life could be compared to the shaman’s ecstatic ascent up the branches of the World Tree into the heavenly realms—and is driven by the same archetypal quest for wisdom, healing and spiritual transformation.