Friday, August 17, 2007

Heaven in many cultures

Halloween Postcard published by Woodruff House in Ohio, 1901. Courtesy Wikimedia



This is the afterlife of the Ashanti people of Africa. They say it is just like an Ashanti village on earth, only better. No drought, famine or the like. Though the dead still have to farm and tend animals.

City In The Sky: A common belief among a number of African tribes is that the dead go to a great city in the sky, it is like regular village life only in reverse. People rise as the sun sets, and sleep during the day, men to women's work and women do men's work etc. The City is connected to earth by rainbows.


If we examine surviving Anglo-Saxon literary evidence we can speculate and piece together a possible Anglo-Saxon cosmology, which although can not be confirmed historically as a genuine ancient Anglo-Saxon view, can be viewed as a genuine attempt to reconstruct, in modern Heathen terms, an outlook on life and the universe which is true to the Anglo-Saxons and their descendants.

But if the Anglo-Saxons did have a belief in seven worlds, what could these worlds be? Again we can look to Anglo-Saxon evidence to find possible answers.

The first two possible worlds are Heaven and Hell, these two words are found in many ancient Germanic languages. In Old English we have Heofen and Hel, in old Norse we find Himinn and Hel, plus other variants such as Halja (Gothic) and Helle (old Frisian). And as Brian Branston points out, common tradition shows that Heaven was always up, and hell was always down. And as we already know, one of the worlds of which the Norse peoples believed in was Hel, and like our English Hell, this was a place of the dead.


In the final analysis, heaven can be seen partly as a state of nearness to God; hell is a state of remoteness from God. Each state follows as a natural consequence of individual efforts, or the lack thereof, to develop spiritually. The key to spiritual progress is to follow the path outlined by the Manifestations of God.

Beyond this, the exact nature of the afterlife remains a mystery. "The nature of the soul after death can never be described," Bahá'u'lláh writes.

British/Celtic Ancient

In Irish mythology, Mag Mell ("plain of joy") was a mythical realm achievable through death and/or glory (see also Tír na nÓg and Ablach). Unlike the underworld in some mythologies, Mag Mell was a pleasurable paradise, identified as either an island far to the west of Ireland or a kingdom beneath the ocean. In its island guise it was visited by various Irish heroes and monks forming the basis of the Adventure Myth or "echtrae" as defined by Myles Dillon in his book Early Irish Literature. This otherworld is a place where sickness and death do not exist. It is a place of eternal youth and beauty. Here, music, strength, life and all pleasurable pursuits come together in a single place. Here happiness lasts forever, no one wants for food or drink. It is the Celtic equivalent of the Greek Elysium or the Valhalla of the Norse.


Many non-Buddhists think that the Pure Land is akin to Heaven or Paradise where one receives their wings and halo or where young virgins await the faithful. Ultimate reality in Buddhism has nothing to do with these fanciful notions. The Pure Land, which is called Sukhavati in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, means Land of Utmost Bliss; in most countries, it is most commonly referred to as the Pure Land. The prefix sukha means the highest bliss and is the opposite from the Sanskrit world dukkha, which means suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Dukkha is well explained in our Buddha’s teaching of the First Noble Truth.

In Shin Buddhism, the Pure Land is the realm of supreme enlightenment and the ultimate dimension. In addition, it is synonymous with Nirvana which is defined as the formless realm of peace, devoid of ignorance, hatred and greed, beyond any conventional understanding. As for the location of the transcendent Pure Land, it is described as being everywhere, in everything, in everyone yet it can not be found in any specific place.


Historically, Christianity has taught "Heaven" as a generalized concept, a place of eternal life, in that it is a shared plane to be attained by all the pious and elect (rather than an abstract experience related to individual concepts of the ideal). The Christian Church has been divided over how people gain this eternal life. From the 16th to the late 19th century, Christendom was divided between the Roman Catholic view, the Orthodox view, the Coptic view, the Jacobite view, the Abyssinian view and Protestant views.

Egyptian Ancient

In Egyptian mythology, the fields of Aaru (alternatives: Yaaru, Iaru, Aalu), are the heavenly underworld where Osiris ruled.

Only souls which weighed the same as Ma'at (symbolically represented as a feather) were allowed to start a long and perilous journey to Aaru to exist in pleasure for all eternity.

Aaru was usually placed in the east, where the sun rises, and is described as eternal reed fields, very much like those of the earthly Nile delta: an ideal hunting and fishing ground, and hence those deceased who after judgement were allowed to reside there were often called the [eternally] living, those excluded for the weight of their sins said to suffer a second death. More precisely Aaru was envisaged as a series of islands, covered in Fields of rushes (Sekhet Aaru), Aaru being the Egyptian word for rushes. The part where Osiris himself dwelt was sometimes known as the field of offerings, Sekhet Hetepet in Egyptian.

Greek Ancient


Elysium (also called Elysian Fields or Elysian Plain) was a paradise inhabited at first only by the very distinguished, but later by the good. Elysium first appears in Homer's Odyssey as the destination of Menelaus. It is located at the western ends of the earth and is characterized by gentle breezes and an easy life like that of the gods. Closely related to Elysium is Hesiod's Isles of the Blessed, mentioned in his Works and Days, which was located in the western ocean.


The early Hindus never believed in heaven, and never prayed to attain a permanent place there. The earliest concept of afterlife, say Vedic scholars, was that the dead reunite with Mother Nature and live in some other form on this earth — just as Wordsworth wrote, "with rocks and stones and trees." Going back to the early Vedic hymns, we find an eloquent invocation to the fire god, where the prayer is to assimilate the dead with the natural world:

"Burn him not, scorch him not, O Agni,
Consume him not entirely; afflict him not…
May your eye go to the Sun,
To the wind your soul…
Or go to the waters if it suits thee there,
Or abide with thy members in the plants..."
~ The Rig Veda

The concept of heaven and hell evolved at a later stage when we find such amendments in the Veda as "Go thou to the heaven or to the earth, according to thy merit…"

In Hinduism, Svarga (or Swarga) is set of heavenly worlds located on and above Mt. Meru. It is a Heaven where the righteous live in paradise before their next reincarnation. Svarga is seen as a transitory place for righteous souls who have performed good deeds in their lives but are not yet ready to attain moksha, or union with God which requires punya (virtuous deeds) as well as abstinence from pāpa (sin). The capital is Amaravati and the entrance is guarded by Airavata. Svarga is presided over by Indra, a chief deva.

In Slavic religion Svarga is Heaven, the residence of god Svarog.


The central god of the Incan religion was the sun-god, the only god that had temples built for him. The sun-god was the father of the royal family. There were many gods among the Incas, but the sun-god outshone them all. The Incas also believed that there was a heaven, a hell, and a resurrection of the body after death. Yes they did!!


There are seven levels of heaven in Jain cosmology. The top level, "the Realm of the Jinas" is reserved for liberated souls. The next level down is the realm of the gods.

The Jain heaven consists of a safe quite happy place, no ageing, no pain, no disease or death.


While the concept of heaven (malkuth hashamaim מלכות השמים—The Kingdom of Heaven) is well-defined within the Christian and Islamic religions, the Jewish concept of the afterlife, sometimes known as "olam haba", the world to come, seems to have been disputed between various early sects such as the Sadducees, and thus never set forth in a systematic or official fashion as was done in Christianity and Islam.[citation needed] Jewish writings refer to a "new earth" as the abode of mankind following the resurrection of the dead. Judaism does, however, have a belief in Heaven, not as a future abode for "good souls", but as the "place" where God "resides".


Islam is similar to that found in Judaism and Christianity. The Qur'an contains many references to an afterlife in Eden for those who do good deeds. Heaven itself is commonly described in the Qu'ran in verse 35 of Surah Al-Ra’d: "The parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised! Beneath it flow rivers. Perpetual is the fruits thereof and the shade therein. Such is the End of the Righteous; and the end of the unbelievers is the Fire, wherein a person dwells forever." Since Islam rejects the concept of original sin, Muslims believe that all human beings are born pure and will naturally turn to God, but it is their environment and lack of will power which influences them to choose ungodly ways of life. In Islam, therefore, a child who dies automatically goes to heaven, regardless of the religion of his or her parents. The highest level of heaven is Firdaws (فردوس)- Pardis (پردیس), which is where the prophets, the martyrs and the most truthful and pious people will dwell.[12]

Native American

It's possible that [James Fenimore] Cooper's happy hunting grounds is a real Indianism, but the fact that it first appears in a fictional work inspires some doubt. Cooper's use of other Indianisms and supposed Indianisms in The Last of the Mohicans and other installments of The Leatherstocking Tales doesn't offer much clue one way or the other. He indiscriminately uses both genuine Indianisms like Great Spirit and terms like paleface that are probably spurious.

Regardless of the authenticity of the term, was Chingachgook accurately portraying how real Indians thought of the afterlife when he called it the "happy hunting-grounds"? Whether Mahican or Mohegan, Cooper's fictional Indian would have been part of the Algonquian culture, to which most tribes in what is now the northeastern U.S. belonged. The Algonquians believed in an afterlife, but their ideas about it were not well defined. In general, they believed every person (and animal) had two souls. The body soul or shadow was associated with the heart and provided the person with his memory and intelligence in life. It remained with the body after death forever, usually resting quietly. On the other hand, the free soul or "real" soul was associated with the brain and in life provided the person with his sensations and experiences. The Algonquians believed that the free soul wandered during sleep or while in trance and that after death it made the long journey to the afterlife.

The land of the dead, away to the south or west and sometimes called the "Big Sand," was universally believed to be a pleasant place, but the souls there carried no memories of their previous existence. The Algonquians did not concern themselves too much with what it was like. Some believed the souls there didn't need to eat, others believed they ate rotten wood (which doesn't strike me as very conducive to happiness). And, yes, some believed the souls ate meat, which they got from hunting the spirits of animals that also went there after death.

So at least some Algonquians believed in what might accurately be called the "happy hunting grounds." But I find no evidence that the Algonquians, or any other Indians, actually called it that before Cooper put it in his book. It's as if I, a godless heathen, were to call the Christian heaven the "happy harping grounds." It's not totally out of tune with the general idea of what heaven is supposed to be like, but there's no evidence any real Christian ever called it that.

Scandinavian Ancient

Valhalla (also Valhall, Walhalla, Valhöll, meaning "Hall of the Slain")

Valhalla is the great hall of the Einherjar - the heroic dead. Warriors who died in glorious battle were chosen by Odin to wait in Valhalla until Ragnarok.

The large strucure, built by Odin himself in Asgard, had over five hundred doors, each large enough for eight hundred warriors to march out of at the time of Ragnarok so that they could fight the futile battle with the gods.

Valhalla was the heaven of the Vikings - a large hall where wounds healed quickly and meat was readily available. A constant routine of fighting and feasting ensured that the warriors were at their physical peak when Ragnarok came.

[Note that Valhalla was the destination of only the slain warriors. Everyone else who died, went to the realm of Hel, the name of both the goddess who ruled there and the Norse underworld, a mild and twilight place where everyone lived in peace. ~M~]


Chinvato Peretav

According to Zoroastrianism after a person dies the soul stays with the body for 3 days. On the forth day angles of protection accompany it to the north to Chinvato Peretav, or as it is also called Al-sirat, or the Bridge of the Separator.

The bridge in question is as thin as a hair and as sharp as a razor and spans a chasm filled with monsters. At the foot to the bridge the angels and some demons debated the worth of the dead soul. You can guess the rest.

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