ASCENSION . In many purely literary works the theme of a heavenly journey is employed only for adventure's sake, but according to the majority of religious traditions, an ascent to heaven represents a journey into divine realms where the soul, living or dead, reaps many rewards. The result of such a journey is not only a transcendent vision or spiritual knowledge, but the possibility of divinization or assimilation with the gods. Rituals of ascent involve the living person becoming initiated into a new, sacred status.
Many cultures record ways that such a journey can be made (via, for example, a mountain path, a ladder, a tree, a rope, or even a cobweb). Some cultures also offer the further possibility of magical flight. The theme of the celestial ladder has been developed in monotheistic religions from Genesis 28:12, which describes Jacob's dream of a ladder reaching up to heaven upon which angels ascend and descend. Similarly, Muḥammad saw a ladder with angels in the temple in Jerusalem, and some Christian mystics, in particular John Klimakos (seventh century), used the ladder as a symbol to represent the phases of spiritual ascent. Likewise, from East Asia to the Americas, from ancient Greece to Israel, the ascent of a mountain is considered a privileged means by which one can enter into the presence of God.
Because the theme of ascension has been variously developed in different cultures, it is difficult to ascertain the relationship among the religious ambits where ascension is attested and where it often involves the quest for origins and possible reciprocal influences. Scholars have tried to trace the ascension theme back to a precise milieu, be it Iranian, Greek, Jewish, or shamanistic; psychological approaches have also been attempted. However, rather than looking for origins, it is important to compare the different testimonies so as to establish interferences or cross-cultural contacts, as well as universal typologies.
Apocalypse and Ecstasy
Some general patterns can be ascertained, comprehensive of different and more complex features, such as otherworldly journeys or the descent (followed by a glorious ascent) of a supermundane entity, with the subsequent redemption or ascensus of the soul of those who receive revelation. Accounts of heavenly journeys share many features with apocalyptic literature, whose definition owes much to J. J. Collins's research. Apocalypse is, in fact, considered a literary genre in which the narrative framework features a revelation mediated to a human recipient because of his or her merits toward the divine realms. A topical pattern in apocalyptic literature is thus the extramundane journey, performed—bodily or spiritually—with a celestial or angelic guide who discloses a transcendent reality involving both eschatological salvation and revelation of a supernatural world.
Ascension is often linked to ecstasy, or separation of the soul from the body. This is explained as a transcendent state of awareness (trance), or as a psychogenic reaction according to the dictates of the visionary's mind. Such a state is seen as an expression of the conscious and unconscious desires of the ecstatic person, or even as a condition of psychic dissociation. In fact, the literal Greek term ekstasis means to escape from one's own rational and definite position. In this sense, ecstasy has the same aims as mysticism: to transcend the assumed limits of personality. In yoga, ecstatic techniques are somewhat different; the cosmic layers are experienced as a number of internal "principles," and the journey to the other world is considered a journey within oneself (enstasy). Analogous schemes of a passage from objectification to interiorization have also been applied to late antiquity, and particularly to inner experiences in Neoplatonic and Christian mysticism.
Rituals in shamanistic culture are universally considered examples of objective ecstatic performance, especially after Mircea Eliade's investigations. The recurrent and central idea of "flight" or "riding" in reference to shamans is simply the figurative expression for ecstasy, which is controlled throughout shamanistic rituals in conformity with traditional prescriptions. The shaman is, by means of ecstasy, allowed to experience primordial time and to reach planes accessible to ordinary people only through death. Although a competent shaman can control ecstasy voluntarily, others receive the god's commands in dreams or visions, or by the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms (such as the fly agaric) and narcotics. The mental states that result from sensory overload and emotional arousal require great physical and mental exertion, which is achieved through dancing, drumming, and singing. Furthermore, every aspect of the behavior and paraphernalia of the shaman is oriented toward one principal goal—the journey to heaven or the netherworld. This journey is performed before the eyes of those who engage the shaman for practical purposes, and it is accompanied by such purificatory acts as frenetic drumming or the frenzied imitation of a bird call.
The ecstatic experiences that determine the shaman's vocation involve the traditional scheme of an initiation ceremony: suffering, death, and resurrection. The direct link that the shaman has with the supernatural world is not forged without difficulty or pain; the initiation into the otherworld is experienced as an upheaval that involves the destruction of the whole person by spirits, followed by a kind of resurrection as a new being who exists in both the mundane and the spiritual world. Visions are tied to an internal transformation and a spiritual mission. Ascent to the sky and dialogue with the gods, as well as descent to the underworld and conversation with spirits and the souls of dead shamans, are fixed patterns of this ritual. For example, the birch tree (in central and northern Asian shamanism), or, in different traditions, other trees around which the ceremony often develops, symbolizes the "world tree," and the steps of the ritual represent the various heavens through which the shaman must pass on his or her ecstatic journey to the highest heaven. It is probable that the cosmological schema implied in this ritual has an oriental origin, since the religious ideas of the ancient Near East penetrated far into Central and North Asia and contributed considerably to the features of Central Asian and Siberian shamanism.
When the theory of the so-called Himmelsreise der Seele (ascent of the soul to heaven) was developed at the beginning of the twentieth century by the representatives of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (by Wilhelm Bousset in particular, followed by other scholars, such as Richard Reitzenstein, Franz Cumont, Joseph Kroll, Rudolf Bultmann, and Geo Widengren), they sought the origins of this doctrine in Iranian religion. They inferred from eschatological Middle-Persian or Pahlavi texts that belief in the ascent of the soul, as well as Gnostic dualism, originated in ancient Iran and was propagated in late antiquity by means of the mysteries of Mithra.
Although some have questioned whether Zoroaster acted as a "shaman," arguing that his ecstatic journeys may not be the product of a merely artificial practice, ecstatic experiences induced by hallucinogens are attested in pre-Zoroastrian Iran. A narcotic drink called haoma (Sanskrit, soma ) was used to obtain visionary experiences, along with a sort of release or separation of the soul, as well as physical sleep. Zoroastrian reform, which was directed against wild ecstasy, fits into a wider Indo-Iranian mysticism that insists on inner vision and the mind's light, and came to be a theological contemplation of the fire. The so called younger Avestan priests reintroduced the cultic veneration of haoma and the use of exhilarants. Two such exhilarants have been identified as extractions from henbane and hemp, both called bang in Middle Persian (Avestan, bangha ; Sanskrit, bhang ).
It seems likely that ancient ecstatic or initiatory experiences developed into ritualistic practices, so that a voyage in an extraordinary dimension or a vision of spiritual realms became a symbolic representation or a devotional liturgy. It is in the context of such a historical development, rather than in a supposed evolution of Gathic spirituality, that scholars can recognize the relative antiquity (at least in its tenets) of the Ardā Wirāz Nāmag (Book of the righteous Virāz), which cannot be simply regarded as a late product from post-Sasanian times.
The Ardā Wirāz Nāmag, a well-known Pahlavi text probably written in the ninth century, is one of the preeminent sources for knowledge about the eschatological doctrines of ancient Iranian religion. The text describes Virāz's journey to the otherworld, and aims at demonstrating the efficacy of Zoroastrianism through its emphasis on ethical and moral teachings and its vivid description of rewards and punishments. In this sense it may be considered a catechetical work, but far from being a literary device, it represents a religious propagandistic document in the post-Sasanian age, when Mazdaism was under attack. Scholars have demonstrated how the term ardā (Avestan, ashavan ; Sanskrit, rtvān ) is related to eschatology in signifying a spiritual knowledge reached by the initiated or a condition of beatitude postmortem. After an introductory section, the Ardā Wirāz Nāmag describes how the soul of the pious protagonist Virāz flows out of his body, reaches the Mount of the Law at the center of the earth, and then crosses the Chinvat bridge that leads to the otherworld. Here Virāz first sees the souls of righteous people performing good deeds and observing religious precepts; then hell is revealed, with its terrible chastisements that conformably correspond to the faults of the souls found there. The text ends with the glorious and radiant vision of Ohrmadz (chap. 101 ff.). A similar narrative of a vision followed by conversion is attributed to Vishtasp, the prince who protected Zarathushtra, and is contained in a late collection of texts (Dēnkard 7, 4, 85).
Many motifs in these accounts are already attested in Zoroastrian literature: for example, the bridge, which could be large or narrow depending on the protagonist's behavior during life; the encounter with the daēna (Pahlavi, dēn ), a sort of "double" soul depicted as a wonderful girl; and the three heavens—consisting of humata ("fair thoughts," the stars), hūkhta ("fair words," the moon); and hvarshta ("fair deeds," the sun)—to which the anagra raoca, the layer of the "lights without beginning," must be adjoined. The three heavens reflect the old Avestan order, mythical rather than astronomical, linked to a sort of religious gradation of fiery purity and brightness as one ascends from earth to heaven. The origin of later schemes comprising six or seven spheres is connected with the six Amesha Spentas, or with the planetary order of Greek origin (the five known planets plus the sun and the moon). It is worth noting that in Greece the planetary order was liable to vary; therefore we speak of a Chaldaean or an Egyptian order.
More ancient (third century) and more conservative in their description are the four inscriptions drawn up by the famous fanatical high priest Kirdīr (or Kērdēr or Kartīr, according to different transliterations), the grey eminence of King Shāpūr and his successors. Although they are preserved in slightly different versions, they all refer to Kirdīr's experience and should be seen as more than a literary device or an "initiatory myth." Kirdīr's experience is deeply rooted in the culture of the Magi and in Mazdaism. Eschatological motifs also recur in these inscriptions: the daēna, the bridge, the balance where the soul is judged, the throne, and a probable vision of hell. Moreover, the complex anthropology described in these texts resembles shamanistic culture in its description of the state of apparent death, otherworldly journeys, such expressions as "bony body" and "bony soul," and such themes as the duplication of the soul or demons who are at the head of limbs. As a result, scholars have inferred that shamanistic practices existed in ancient Iran. It should be noted that Ossetic mythology shares similar patterns, which may be explained by cultural contacts with Persia.
Even though scholars possess only late documents concerning Iranian eschatology, and even though the resolute—and sometimes disputed—position held by the representatives of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule must in some cases be qualified (e.g., in considering Mesopotamian borrowings), it is nevertheless true that in the second half of the first millennium bce the Greeks were acquainted with the initiatory and mystical-ecstatic aspects of Iranian religious doctrines. Zoroaster's katabasis was so well known that Plato identified him with Er, son of Armenios, in the tenth book of his Republic, as well as with Aristeas. The ancient Greeks appear to have been interested in such themes as ecstasy or enthousiasmos (divine possession), and they were especially interested in the immortality of the soul and doctrines concerning its status after death, already professed by the Magi, as recorded by Eudemos of Rhodes (fourth century bce), who also offers accounts on Zalmoxis or Abaris.
In Greece, belief and practice concerning catalepsy and the flight of the soul were widespread, and existed apart from the belief in Dionysos, the ecstatic divinity par excellence. Karl Meuli, Eric R. Dodds, and others have argued that Mediterranean religions exhibit a pattern of prophecy and heavenly ascension that has much in common with shamanism. Such features are shared by the so-called iatromanteis (from iatros [healer], and mantis [seer]), Greek medicine men and oracles connected with a divinity (interpreted as Apollo) who dwelled in Hyperborea, the mysterious land of the north. To the category of iatromanteis belonged such notable personalities as Empedocles and Pythagoras and, perhaps less influential but no less typical for this religious complex, Abaris, Aristeas of Proconnesus, Bakis, Epimenides of Crete, and Hermotimos of Clazomenae. Some of these were reported either to fly or to free their souls and leave their bodies in a state of catalepsy. It would be brash to say that their catalepsy was induced by hallucinogenic substances, even if a plant called alimos (literally, "hungerless"), which probably contained an alkaloid, is mentioned in their biographies. The soul of Aristeas, taking the form of a raven, was said to travel as far as Hyperborea; the soul of Epimenides, to converse with the gods; and the soul of Hermotimos, to visit faraway places and record local events. A similar account reports the loss of Hermotimos's soul from the body after his death, which permitted him to condemn his wicked wife and his enemies.
Although the pre-Socratic philosophers and the poet Pindar were acquainted with beliefs concerning the immortality of the soul and its consequent elevation to heaven, the cataleptic separation between body and soul, during which the soul was supposed to have supernatural experiences, was resumed by Plato in the apocalypse of Er in the tenth book of The Republic. Er, son of Armenios of Pamphylia (Asia Minor), was wounded in a battle and appeared to be dead. His catalepsy lasted twelve days, until the very moment his body was going to be burned. Er then came back to life and reported all the secrets of the afterlife that had been revealed to his soul.
Plato's pupil Heracleides Ponticus (fourth century bce) took direct inspiration from the iatromanteis. In his lost dialogues he was concerned with catalepsy and its treatment, and in one of these (Abaris, or "On things in hell"), Heracleides introduced a fictitious character, Empedotimos (derived from Empedocles and Hermotimos ). Some scholars have attributed to Heracleides an important innovation in Greek eschatology, namely the complete suppression of any subterrestrial place for punishment of the dead. Other scholars have claimed that the spread of celestial eschatology was due to the influence of Pythagoreanism and Stoicism, and indeed, Stoicism might have played an important role in the transformation of Hellenistic eschatology. It is worth noting that the Latin writer Cicero (first century bce) ends his Platonic work, titled Republic, with an account of Scipio's dream, wherein the hero was granted an ascent throughout the heavens and a vision of the Blesseds. This well-known account became the object of allegorical interpretation during late antiquity, and the Neoplatonist Macrobius wrote an extensive commentary on it at the end of the fourth century.
By the end of the first century ce, the idea of an underground Hades was no longer fashionable, so in rearranging the great eschatological Platonic myths, Plutarch's ambition was to give a "modern" version of them in order to meet the intellectual exigencies of the time. Plutarch offers interesting details about catalepsy and incubation in his dialogue On Socrates' Daemon, based on traditions concerning the famous oracular cave of Trophonius at Lebadea, near Chaeronea. If Lamprias, Plutarch's brother, was a priest of that sanctuary, Plutarch may have had access to the wooden tablets on which those consulting the oracle were supposed to write down their experiences. The hero of this apocalypse is Timarch, whose soul leaves his body and visits the heavenly Hades, remaining below the sphere of the moon, which is only the first among the seven planetary spheres. Here, as well as in the dialogue On the Face in the Moon, the moon is the receptacle of souls that are freed of their bodies, with the exception of those that fall again into the circle of transmigration (metensōmatōsis). The earth represents the lowest and meanest point of the universe. Another important myth is contained in the dialogue On the Delayed Revenge of the God, which resumes many elements of the apocalypse of Er. The dishonest Aridaeus of Soloi, after having experienced a cataleptic state and after his soul has watched the judgment of the dead and witnessed the painful lot of the sinners, changes his attitude, becomes a pious man, and begins calling himself Thespesius ("godly").
Late Hellenism was dominated by an obsession with human liberation from the world and out of the world, in, or beyond, the heavenly spheres. This is reflected, for example, in the Gnostic systems of the second and third centuries ce and in their polemic against astrology. The seven "planets" themselves, the signs, the decans, and the degrees of the zodiac are often represented as evil archons, or heavenly rulers. These are extremely important for the embodiment and disembodiment of the individual soul. The heavenly ascent of the soul through the spheres is therefore considered a central tenet of Gnosticism. The techniques that are intended to assure the Gnostic's soul a safe passage through the spheres of the hostile archons up to the plērōma (fullness) of the godhead actually form the most important part of gnosis.
One of the first testimonies for the Gnostic theory of the embodiment and disembodiment of the soul is the doctrine of Basilides, who was active in Alexandria around 120 ce, and of his son Isidorus, according to whom the transcendental spirit of human beings is temporarily attached to a soul. During its descent, the planetary vices attack the soul and stick to it in the form of concretions of "appendages" (prosartēmata).
The technical expression antimimon pneuma, or "counterfeit spirit" (sometimes antikeimenon, or "evil spirit"), occurs for the first time in the Apocryphon of John, one of the oldest surviving Gnostic treatises, extant in Coptic translations. Some scholars claim that the Apocryphon of John predates even Basilides, whose theory of the prosartēmata is based on the antimimon pneuma doctrine. In fact, the antimimon pneuma is an appended spirit, an intermediary between the soul and the material body. The soul itself is a creation of the evil heavenly archons (i.e., the seven "planets") or, to be more precise, of the seven attributes forming conjunctions (syzygies) together with the archons.
The formation of the antimimon pneuma is more explicitly stated in the Pistis Sophia, also preserved in Coptic. The "counterfeit spirit" derives directly from the archons of the heimarmenē, or astral destiny, which are the seven "planets." The antimimon pneuma follows the soul in all its reincarnations (metabolai) and is itself a cause of reincarnation. The goal of Gnostic mysteries is to free the soul from bondage to the antimimon pneuma. On the basis of the planetary order in chapter 136 of Pistis Sophia and in other texts of late antiquity, it seems likely that this doctrine derives from the Hermetic astrological treatise Panaretos, which includes a discussion of the degrees (klēroi) or positions (loci) of the planets; that is, the coordinates within the horoscope of nativity, where each planet is supposed to confer its principal qualities upon the subject. However, Gnostics mention only the negative qualities or vices derived from the planetary influence.
The doctrine of antimimon pneuma became influential in Hermetism, where it merged with the idea of the soul's descent into the world and its return to heaven. During its descent through the planetary spheres, the soul acquired from each planet the dominant vice ascribed to it in astrology, while during its ascent, those concretions were put off (Poimandres 25–26). The ascent of the soul in Gnosticism could be much more complicated, and the ritual performances or "mysteries" intended to assure the soul an easy passage through the archons differed widely, although they presented some fixed patterns, such as learning by heart magical names or invocations. Some Sethian treatises from Nag-Hammadi (Zostrianos, Allogenes, The Three Steles of Seth), where the path of ascent shows Platonic nuances, prelude the life-intellect-being triad later developed by Plotinus.
It should also be noted that the same motif of secret names or watchwords and seals indispensable for passing through the heavenly customs is also described in magic literature and in the Jewish mysticism of the merkavah. An important example is the famous Mithrasliturgie (Papyri Graecae Magicae VI, 475–824), which describes how to gain immortality by an elevation process.
The second-century Platonic writer Celsus (attested by Origen, Contra Celsum 6, 22 ff.) ascribed to the Persian god Mithra, whose veneration increased during late antiquity and who was reshaped to suit the changed religious attitude of Hellenism, a ritual object consisting of a ladder with seven steps or "gates" (klimax heptapylos), representing the planets. Similar objects are also depicted in Mithraic temples. According to Celsus, this object symbolized the passage of the adept's soul through the planetary spheres, which could be accomplished in concomitance of the magnus annus of Plato's doctrine (Timaeus 39d). This interpretation raises some difficulties, however, since the steps are arranged according to the order of the days of the planetary week, which is explained by Celsus in accordance with the musical theory of the tetrachordon. Celsus linked this doctrine to a related diagram ascribed to the Gnostic sect of the Ophites. Some interpreters have argued that these steps and their associated rituals represent a meditative technique to obtain inner knowledge of the self, and the steps are thus structured as an interior journey.
In Hellenistic culture a relationship was established between the seven "planets" and the levels that the soul had to transverse in its heavenly ascent. It can thus be maintained that, as far as the mysteries of late antiquity are concerned, their divinities, in some cases traditionally connected with the earth and the underworld Hades, are transported entirely to heaven, where they are supposed to receive the souls of their adepts after death. Moreover, Gnostic polemics against astrology gave rise to the formation of the influential theory of the passage of the soul through the spheres, fashionable among Neoplatonists from the third to the sixteenth century ce. It is impossible to state whether Neoplatonists (e.g., Porphyry, Proclus, and Macrobius) took this theory from Numenius of Apamea or from the Gnostic-Hermetic tradition. It should also be noted that the Christian writer Arnobius, at the beginning of the fourth century, directed his polemic against a group of Neoplatonic mystics who maintained the doctrines of the Chaldaean Oracles, attributing to them formulas and other means for transporting their clients to heaven.
The embodiment (ensōmatōsis) of the soul entails a descent from the top of the cosmos to the bottom, through the planetary spheres that confer certain characteristic features upon the soul. Disembodiment is the reverse of this process. In late Neoplatonism, which borrowed this doctrine from Chaldaean theurgy, the ethereal body that enveloped the soul and that was formed by planetary qualities was its "vehicle" (ochēma). Sometimes this "vehicle" was distinguished from others that were meant to serve as intermediaries between the soul and the material body, according to a theory of Aristotle that was influential in Greco-Roman and Arabic medicine. The theory of the passage of the soul through the spheres was taken over from Macrobius by medieval medicine and psychology. Through the works of Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499), it became one of the most widespread doctrines from the time of the Renaissance down to the end of the sixteenth century and even into the seventeenth.
Another interesting Latin document preserving a description of an initiatory ascension is De Nuptiis, written in the fifth century by Martianus Capella. Despite the far-fetched and heterogeneous material collected in De Nuptiis (the author aimed at offering an encyclopedia of the seven liberal arts), its allegorical stamp emerges from the first two books and is testified by commentaries written during the Middle Ages. The hierogamy between Philology, allegory of human knowledge, and Mercury is prepared by a complicated ritual and by Philology's ascent throughout the seven spheres in order to purify herself from earthly filth. Chaldaean and Neoplatonic borrowings are palpable.
Judaism and Early Christian Literature
The heavenly journey is a constant pattern in Jewish and, later, Christian apocalypses. Apart from the Scriptural references (Gen. 5:24; 2 Kgs. 2:11; Sir. 44:16; 48:9; Ez. 1; and Dn. 7:13, important for later interpretations), among the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha there are numerous texts describing both an elective ascension of patriarchs (Abraham, Enoch, Isaac, Jacob, Levi, Moses, and Shem) or prophets (Baruch, Esdra, Isaiah, Elijah, and Ezekiel), and the granting of a vision.
Extensive and detailed accounts of ascensions begin with 1 Enoch, the oldest parts of which were completed at the end of the third century bce. Enoch's adventures are recounted in this text in much more detail than in the Bible. Written originally in Aramaic (fragments were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls), 1 Enoch is fully preserved only in an Ethiopian translation that is based on a Greek version. No less than five works, written over a period of centuries, are included in this collection. The book of 2 Enoch, which seems originally to have been written in Greek, survives only in a translation into Old Church Slavonic. Much of the material in it probably dates back to the early centuries ce, although its final form appears to be the result of a long process of transmission. According to this work, Enoch ascended to heaven and was given a tour of the celestial realm, where he was transformed into an angelic being when he came before the throne of God. This is the background of the story narrated in 3 Enoch, which begins with the ascent of R. Ishmael to the seventh heaven and his encounter with God and the angels. One of them, Metatron, reveals that he was once the man Enoch, but he was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot as a witness to the generation of the flood. After having been challenged by the angels, he was finally enthroned by God.
The voyage through seven or three heavens became a commonplace of Jewish apocalyptic literature with the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (second century bce). Seven is the prevailing number in the mystical tradition related to the merkavah, the chariot carrying God's throne in the famous vision of Ezekiel. Under the name ma'aseh merkavah ("work of the chariot"), this form of speculation goes back to the Pharisees of the Second Temple. From the second or third to the sixth century ce, merkavah mysticism is mainly expressed through hekhalotic literature (from hekhal, "heavenly palace"), represented by various groups of testimonies of different dates. Jewish magic, as recorded in, for example, the Sefer ha-razim (sixth or seventh century ce), was also concerned with the vision of seven heavens, which was fundamental to merkavah mysticism and hekhalotic literature. The related writings contain the revelation of seven "heavenly palaces," which the adept was supposed to attain after strenuous preparation. In Jewish mysticism, the seven heavens are never associated with the seven planets. Some scholars have argued that both the Second Temple apocalypses and hekhalot literature are fictitious or clearly literary events, while others have underlined patterns kindred to shamanism.
The same basic ecstatic experience is reflected in Christian accounts of celestial elevation, including Paul's and the enigmatic and indirect autobiographical account in 2 Corinthians (12:2 ff.). This reference to visions and revelations of the Lord may suggest either that Paul's opponents, against whom the epistle is directed, boasted of such experiences, or that they decried his apostolic title because it was based on a "vision." It is interesting to note that the Hellenic writer Lucian (second century ce) caricatured Christianity by describing "the Galilean…who went by air into the third heaven" (Philopatris 12).
A long section of the early Christian apocryphal text Ascensio Isaiae (dating back to the second century ce, probably to Syrian ambit, and preserved in different fragmentary versions of varying length and chronology) contains an apocalyptic account. In this text, the prophet Isaiah, helped by an angel, rises to the seventh heaven, where he can contemplate the preexistent Christ together with the Holy Spirit, and the coming of Christ in the world. Ascensio Isaiae puts into evidence not only eschatological themes, but also attempts at enucleating a complex Christology, sometimes pervaded with Gnostic or dualistic features. The link between ascension and the manifestation of God's glory (kavod) was inherited by many other apocryphal Christian texts, including, for example, the Gnosticizing Gospel of Thomas.
Any inquiry concerning heavenly journeys in ancient Christianity cannot omit consideration of the ascension of Christ, considered dogma from the earliest times and the earliest credo formulas. Its account is recorded by Luke both in the Gospel and in the proemial section of the Acts; only the Markan appendix contains something parallel (16:19). This double reference—which can be considered a climax to the latter part of the Gospel of Luke, from chapter 9 (the transfiguration)—makes it clear that one has to reckon with this ascension account as the crucial marker that distinguishes the period of the church from that of Jesus. The term ascension has a different meaning in this case, since it does not simply refer to a motion upward through the "heavens" but also involves the notion that the ascended Christ joins his heavenly Father in "glory," and the disciples behold Jesus in this state. Nevertheless, all scholars have emphasized how Christ's ascension sums up the tradition of biblical heavenly ascensions, explaining his role as both redeemer and mediator between God and humans.
The early tradition that Luke makes use of is otherwise expressed in terms of Jesus' "exaltation" (e.g., in the pre-Pauline formulation echoed in Philippians 2:9). However this belief is partly an attempt to define more clearly the relation between the living Jesus who died on the cross and the risen Lord who appeared to the apostles by explaining, for example, where the "life" of Jesus had been during the three days following his death. While Paul shows no awareness of the problem, the question was bound to arise eventually, and the answer depended on the view taken about the relation between soul and body. According to the Pauline view, the resurrection was the passage from earth to heaven, or it was identical to the ascension, but the views of Luke and John, which the early church adopted, held that the resurrection was a temporary restoration of Jesus' intercourse with the disciples on earth, which ended with the ascension.
The most famous example of an ascension in Islamic culture is the Mi˓rāj, or ascent of the prophet Muḥammad, developed and expanded from an enigmatic hint in the Qur˒ān (17:1). This account is preserved in various Arabic texts from the eighth and ninth centuries ce, as well as in medieval Latin versions. Accompanied by the archangel Gabriel, the Prophet is transported to Jerusalem and then to heaven either on Burāq (a sort of winged horse with a peacock's tail) or in a tree growing with vertiginous speed up to the sky.
Other accounts of heavenly journeys are recorded in Arabic literature (in turn influenced by Persia), some of them equally characterized by the common denominator of Gnostic trends and by a mythic and symbolic geography (what Henry Corbin called the mundus imaginalis ). A precursor of the grail legend is recognizable in the account of the visionary Kay Khosraw in Firdawsī's Book of the Kings from the late tenth century. In addition, the Si Murg describes the journey of thirty birds toward their king, the Phoenix (Simurgh ), through seven dreadful valleys. At the end they realize that the Phoenix is nothing more than themselves, with a word-play on the title, expressing at the same time one of the principal Gnostic tenets—that divinity dwells in the inner self. Furthermore, the allegorical works by the Gnostic philosopher Suhrawardī Maqtūl (d. 1191), written in a style similar to Avicenna's tales, feature the leitmotiv of the soul's redemption from its corporeal bonds and the laud to its true homeland, na-kaja-abad (place without space).
Also important is the Seir al-˒Ibad ilà ˓l-Ma˒ad (Journey of the servants of God toward the reign of the goals), a poem written in the twelfth century by Sanā˒ī. The purpose of the journey that is described in this poem is to reach the "Supreme Goal" through a progressive divinization, which is described in the introductory section, with the exhortation to forsake the "bony body." The spiritual guide is represented by the Intellect (˓Aql), disguised as an old man. The traveler ascends through the four elements first, a place ruled by the passions and death, then it reaches a hell in which the sovereign is represented as a whale. Finally, after passing through eternal Time's crystal gate, the traveler rises to the planets, symbolizing the vices (an inheritance from the Mazdean tradition), as far as the ninth sphere. The ninth sphere represents the World Soul, in conformity with the strong emanationism pervading the poem. Although the narrator is inclined to stop his ascent at this point, the Intellect persuades him to continue. The final section is the most gnosticly marked, since there is an overlap or identification between the storyteller and his Intellect, in order to accomplish divinization.
Medieval Christianity and Dante
Late Hellenistic Christian apocalypses continued to play an important role during the Middle Ages. The Latin Vision of Esdra, transmitted in a tenth-century manuscript, was extremely influential. From the twelfth century, which was particularly productive of revelations, three works are most important: the Vision of Alberic (1127), written by a monk of Montecassino, possibly influenced by the Mi˓rāj legends, transmitted by Constantine the African (1020–1087), a translator from Arabic who spent the last years of his life in that monastery; the Vision of Tundal (1149); and the Purgatory of Saint Patrick (1189), which is similar to ancient Irish models and to the Latin legend of Saint Brendan's life (ninth century).
The most important account of a heavenly ascension in Western culture is considered to be Dante Alighieri's epic poem The Divine Comedy, written in the early 1300s. The Divine Comedy is not only a literary masterpiece, it is also a summation of medieval philosophical and religious ideas, in which different sources seem to flow together. For example, the Christian apocalyptic tradition involving Paul's experience (2 Cor. 12:2–4) is explicitly asserted in the Inferno (2:28 ff.) and Paradiso (1:74 ff.). Classical reminiscences also appear, including Aeneas's catabasis, which derives from the sixth book of Vergil's Aeneid. The poet uses these two models to insert himself into a line of exemplary people who are worthy of seeing the celestial realms, even if he always remarks that providential action operated by divine grace in offering to a human the possibility of ascending to supernatural spheres. Moreover, after Miguel Asín Palacios's seminal suggestions (partly questioned), scholars have begun looking for traces of Islamic descriptions from the Mi˓rāj in the Commedia. This hypothesis is highly probable, since translated versions of the so-called Liber scalae circulated in Europe during the thirteenth century, and one of them had been arranged by a Tuscan dignitary, Bonaventura da Siena, as Enrico Cerulli has demonstrated. If Dante employed such heterogeneous sources, this may be considered the clearest—and the most important—example of an osmotic interaction (sometimes not free from polemic) between Arabic and European culture in the Middle Ages, an interaction that lasted until the sixteenth century. Dante may also have been inspired by the Arabic philosophical apocalypses described above, even though these were radically different in their purpose: Whereas the latter were deeply influenced by Gnostic ideas and praised the role of intellect, Dante's guide in his pilgrimage is Beatrice, who symbolizes Christian love after the defeat of human reason (represented by Vergil). It should be noted that Gnostic interpretations of Beatrice have been put forward, but these are not convincing.
Such a majestic text has been the object of manifold interpretations due to its difficulty and its elaborate literary frame. In the final part (cantica ) of The Divine Comedy, the narrator, after having passed through hell and purgatory with Beatrice, rises to the heavenly spheres, where he is granted a vision of the Virgin Mary and God. In his description of the universe Dante follows Ptolemaic astronomical conceptions in which the earth is stationary and central, with the seven planets revolving around it at various speeds. Beyond these are the spheres of the fixed stars and the material heavens, the last of which is called the Crystalline, or the Primum Mobile, because the other heavens derive their slower motions from its infinite speed. In Dante's universe, the grace of God increases as one moves into the higher and higher heavens. Nine angelic orders rule and control the heavenly spheres, which influence human life and character. The various souls are described according to the corresponding predominant character of their earthly lives. When the Blesseds crowd, they vary their voices and sounds into a sweet and exultant harmony.
Dante and Beatrice reach the heaven of the Moon first, they then travel to the heaven of Mercury, and then the third heaven (ruled by Venus), where lovers dwell. A whirling light glows in the heaven of the Sun, whose inhabitants are philosophers and theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure, as well as Siger de Brabant. The heaven of Mars is trimmed with a white gleaming cross, while in the heaven of Jupiter the spirits (rulers and sovereigns) form a gigantic eagle, symbolizing imperial power. In the next heaven, that of Saturn, Dante is faced with a great golden ladder upon whose steps manifold splendid lights (the contemplative spirits) ascend and descend. From here Dante can look back toward the earth, which appears to him in all its paltriness. As soon as he arrives in the heaven of the fixed stars, Dante is presented with a procession of the triumph of Christ, while at the same time he is examined by the saints in order to rise toward the ninth heaven and finally to the Empyrean, which exists outside of time and space, pervaded by eternal intellectual light and holy love, and where angels and saints live, their blessedness consisting of an eternal vision of God. The thrones of the saints and the biblical figures (Eve, Rachel, Sarah, Rebecca, Judith, Adam, Moses, Saint Peter, Saint John, Saint Francis, Saint Augustine, Saint Lucy, as well as Beatrice) sit there in ranked order, with the Virgin sitting at their radiant peak. In the end, Saint Bernard begins a prayer to the Virgin so that the poet can preserve the blessedness he saw. She deigns to look down at him and the light of God shines down on Dante, granting him the beatific vision and the ultimate salvation.
The classic study devoted to the ascension of the soul is Wilhelm Bousset, "Die Himmelsreise der Seele" in Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 4 (1901): 136–169; the same view is shared by Karl Hönn, Studien zur Geschichte der Himmelfahrt im klassischen Altertum (Mannheim, Germany, 1910). Among the scholarly production influenced by this critical trend, it is worth mentioning Eduard Norden's impressive commentary on the sixth book of the Aeneid (P. Vergilius Maro, Aeneis Buch VI, Leipzig and Berlin, 1903; 3d ed., 1934), which, especially in the introductory section, deals with apocalyptic and eschatological literature from Empedocles to the Middle Ages. Important methodological remarks on the subject are provided by Carsten Colpe, "Die 'Himmelsreise der Seele' ausserhalb und innerhalb der Gnosis" in Le Origini dello Gnosticismo, edited by Ugo Bianchi (Leiden, 1967), pp. 429–445; see also Colpe's "Die 'Himmelsreise der Seele' als philosophie- und religionsgeschichtliche Problem" in Festschrift für Joseph Klein, edited by Erich Fries (Göttingen, 1967), pp. 85–104.
Two books by Ioan Petru Culianu, Psychanodia: A Survey of the Evidence concerning the Ascension of the Soul and Its Relevance, vol. 1 (Leiden, 1983), and Expériences de l'extase: Extase, ascension, et récit visionnaire de l'hellénisme au Moyen Age (Paris, 1984), offer detailed commentary on Judaic, Christian, and Islamic literature from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages, as well as a scholarly history marked by a strong criticism of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule view. Fascinating, but not strictly scientific, is Elémire Zolla, Lo stupore infantile (Milan, 1994), pp. 77–91 and 111–120. See also Ioan Petru Culianu, Out of this World. Otherwordly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein (Boston and London, 1991, 2001).
Among the manifold contributions on apocalyptic literature and its distinctive patterns and purposes, see David Hellholm, ed., Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near-East: Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Apocalypticism, Uppsala, Aug. 12–17, 1979, 2d ed. (Tübingen, 1989), and Claire Kappler, ed., Apocalypses et voyages dans l'au-delà (Paris, 1987). See also the synthesis by John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York, 1984).
The best single book on shamanism and related ecstatic phenomena in different religious contexts remains Mircea Eliade's Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, translated by Willard R. Trask (New York, 1964); on yoga techniques viewed in a broad historico-religious scope see Eliade's Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed., translated by Willard R. Trask (Princeton, 1969). On related themes see Alexander Golitzin, "'Earthly Angels and Heavenly Men': Nicetas Stethatos, the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and the Tradition of 'Interiorized Apocalyptic' in Eastern Christian Ascetical and Mystical Literature" in Dumbarton Oak Papers 55 (2001): 125–153.
On ecstasis induced by hallucinogens in ancient Iran see David S. Flattery and Martin Schwartz, Haoma and Harmaline: The Botanical Identity of the Indo-Iranian Sacred Hallucinogen "Soma" and Its Legacy in Religion, Language, and Middle Eastern Folklore (Berkeley, 1989). For Iranian apocalypticism, Philippe Gignoux has translated and written a commentary on the Ardā Wirāz Nāmag in Le livre d'Ardā Vīrāz (Paris, 1984), as has Fereydun Vahman in Ardā Wirāz Nāmag: The Iranian "Divina Commedia" (London, 1986). On Kirdīr's inscriptions, see Philippe Gignoux, Les quatre inscriptions du Mage Kirdīr, Texte et Concordances (Paris, 1991), as well as Gignoux's many contributions on Iranian eschatology and shamanistic features. On the same theme there is also an important paper by Gherardo Gnoli, "Asšavan: Contributo allo studio del Libro di Arda Viraz" in Iranica (Naples, 1979), pp. 387–452. Antonio Panaino's "Uranographia Iranica I: The Three Heavens in the Zoroastrian Tradition and the Mesopotamian Background" in Au carrefour des religions: Mélanges offerts à Philippe Gignoux, edited by Rika Gyselen (Bures sur Yvette, France, 1995), pp. 205–225, deals with the threefold division of universe and planetary order.
On the Greek iatromanteis and their relationships to shamanism see Karl Meuli, "Scythica," in Hermes 70 (1935): 121–176; as well as chapter 5 of Eric R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkeley, 1951). On Shamanic features in Greek oracular practice, see Pierre Bonnechere, Trophonios de Lébadée: cultes et mythes d'une cité béotienne au miroir de la mentalité antique (Leiden, 2003).
The magnificient book by Franz Cumont, Lux Perpetua (Paris, 1949), deals with eschatology and the otherworld in the Hellenistic age. Plutarch's eschatology is investigated by Frederick Brenk, In Mist Apparelled: Religious Themes in Plutarch's Moralia and Lives (Leiden, 1977). On the mysteries of Mithra and their relationship to the ascent of the soul, see Robert Turcan, Mithras platonicus: Recherches sur l'hellénisation philosophique de Mithra (Leiden, 1975), and Bernd Witte, Das Ophitendiagramm nach Origens' Contra Celsum 6: 22–38 (Altenberge, Germany, 1993). On Macrobius and the passage of the soul through the spheres, a good survey is Jacques Flamant's Macrobe et le néo-platonisme latin, à la fin du quatrième siècle (Leiden, 1977). The survival of this doctrine during the Renaissance is investigated by Daniel P. Walker, Spiritual and Demonic Magic: From Ficino to Campanella (London, 1958), and Ioan Petru Culianu, "Magia spirituale e magia demonica nel Rinascimento" in Rivista di storia e letteratura religiosa 17 (1981): 360–408.
The classic book on magic literature is Albrecht Dieterich, Eine Mithrasliturgie, 3d ed. (Leipzig, 1923), which must be supplemented by Hans-Dieter Betz, Gottesbegegnung und Menschwerdung: Zur religionsgeschichtlichen und theologischen Bedeutung der Mithrasliturgie (PGM IV, 475–820) (Berlin and New York, 2001). See also Betz's English translation and commentary, The Mithras Liturgy (Tübingen, 2003).
Good surveys of the Jewish mysticism of the merkavah are Gershom Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism, Merkavah Mysticism, and Talmudic Tradition (New York, 1960; 2d ed., 1965), and Ithamar Gruenwald, Apocalyptic and Merkavah Mysticism (Leiden, 1980). See also Peter Schäfer, The Hidden and Manifest God: Some Major Themes in Early Jewish Mysticism, translated by Aubrey Pomerance (Albany, N.Y., 1992); Martha Himmelfarb, Ascent to Heaven in Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (Oxford, 1993); and James R. Davila, "Shamanic Initiatory Death and Resurrection in the Hekhalot Literature" in Paul Mirecki and Marvin Meyer, eds., Magic and Ritual in the Ancient World (Leiden, 2002), pp. 283–302, together with his monograph Descenders to the Chariot: The People behind the Hekhalot Literature (Leiden 2001). See also James H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, N.Y., 1983).
Contributions on how Christianity developed the ascension theme are offered by Alan F. Segal, "Heavenly Ascent in Hellenistic Judaism, Early Christianity and Their Environment" in Aufstieg und Niedergand der Römischen Welt II, 23, 2 (Berlin and New York, 1980), pp. 1333–1394; and James D. Tabor, Things Unutterable: Paul's Ascent to Paradise in its Graeco-Roman, Judaic, and Early Christian Context (New York, 1986). Further bibliographical references can be found in Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke (Anchor Bible 28–28A; New York, 1981); and Karin Wilcke, Christi Himmelfahrt. Ihre Darstellung in der Europäische Literatur von der Spätantike bis zum ausgehenden Mittelalter (Heidelberg, 1991). A critical edition and commentary of the Ascensio Isaiae is provided by Paolo Bettiolo, Alda Kossova, Claudio Leonardi, Enrico Norelli, and Lorenzo Perrone (Turnhout, Belgium, 1995; CCSA 7–8). See also Enrico Norelli, L'Ascensione di Isaia: Studi su un apocrifo al crocevia dei cristianesimi (Bologna, 1994), and April De Conick, Seek to See Him: Ascent and Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas (Leiden, 1996).
The relationships between Persian and Arabic religious literature are investigated by Henry Corbin, Corps spirituel et terre céleste: De l'Iran mazdéen à l'Iran shi'ite, 2d ed. (Paris, 1979); on the same subject see also Alessandro Bausani, Persia religiosa: Da Zaratustra a Bahā˒u˒llāh, 2d ed. (Cosenza, Italy, 1999), available in English as Religion in Iran: From Zoroaster to Baha'ullah, translated by J. M. Marchesi (New York, 2000). On the Mi˒rāj see Geo Widengren, Muhammad: The Apostle of God and His Ascension (Uppsala, Sweden, 1955).
A good survey of the most important medieval visions and apocalypses is given in Sir John D. Seymour, Irish Visions of the Other-World (London, 1930), and Jacques Le Goff, La naissance du Purgatoire (Paris, 1981), available in English as The Birth of Purgatory, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (London, 1984). On Dante's Commedia see Charles S. Singleton, Journey to Beatrice (Dante Studies 2; Cambridge, Mass., 1958). A detailed commentary is offered by Anna Maria Chiavacci Leonardi in a new edition of the Commedia (Milan, 1997). In English see Charles Singleton's commentary in the Princeton translation (1970–1975). Dante's knowledge of Islamic sources is discussed in Miguel Asín Palacios, La escatologia musulmana en la Divina comedia, seguida de la historia y crítica de una polémica, 2d ed. (Madrid, 1943)—the first edition of this work was translated by Harold Sunderland as Islam and the Divine Comedy (London, 1926). Asín Palacios's views were reconsidered and corrected by Enrico Cerulli, Il "Libro della Scala" e la questione delle fonti arabo-spagnole della Divina Commedia (Vatican City, 1949), and Nuove ricerche sul "Libro della Scala" e la conoscenza dell'Islam in Occidente (Vatican City, 1972).
Chiara Ombretta Tommasi (2005)
- Assumption of Virgin Mary belief that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven. [Christian Tradition: NCE, 1709]
- crescent moon Mary often depicted standing on or above moon. [Christian Iconog.: Brewer Dictionary, 726]
- Elijah transported to heaven in fiery chariot. [O.T.: II Kings 2:11]
- Helen of Troy soars away into the air from the cave in which Menelaus left her. [Gk. Drama: Euripides Helen ]
- Jesus Christ 40 days after Resurrection, ascended into heaven. [N.T.: Acts 1:1–11]
- Marguerite borne to heaven by angels. [Fr. Opera: Faust, Westerman, 183–185]
- mi’raj Muhammad’s night journey to paradise. [Islam: Leach, 731]
- Romulus taken to the heavens by Mars in a fiery chariot. [Rom. Myth: Brewer Dictionary, 775]
- stars, garland of emblem associated with the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. [Christian Iconog.: Jobes, 374]
‘Ascension’ may also refer to the ascent of the Prophet Muḥammad to heaven: see MIʿRĀJ.
‘Ascension’ is then applied to many descriptions of other-world journeys, especially among shamans.
as·cen·sion / əˈsenshən/ • n. [in sing.] the act of rising to an important position or a higher level: his ascension to the ranks of pop star. ∎ (Ascension) the ascent of Christ into heaven on the fortieth day after the Resurrection.
Also ascent XVII. f. ASCEND, after the pair descend, descent.