The Universe is not confined to the physical world that you see, this includes the infinite expanse of space. Indigenous people have long known that the physical universe is but one part of a greater whole, and a very small part indeed. However, the world we see is separated from infinite other realms by barriers, may as simple as the inability to perceive certain forms of energy such as infra-red or ultra-violet, others still are separated by a veil of awareness that only a few can willingly penetrate, though, just as with being given a pair of glasses that would allow one to perceive further colours in the spectrum, if given the right tools, it is likely that anyone will be able to learn to pass these other barriers.
There are differing descriptions of the Universe according to different cultures, however among almost all descriptions are common themes.
- That the physical world is only one manifestation of the greater whole
- That other worlds exist beyond our normal perception, these are generally expressed as an Upper world and a Lower world which may or may not be divided into smaller worlds within each and that our physical world lies between them
- That these worlds are held together and are made accessible by a central pillar, mountain or tree
- That both the world we see and the other worlds are inhabited by beings which exist on other energetic levels
- That everything is alive and springs from a single ‘divine’ source
Depictions of this view of the cosmos are found throughout the world, some are very clear such as the Norse Yggdrassil, some are more ambiguous such as the Caduceus or the Abrahamic vision of Heaven, Earth and Hell. One could argue that some of these images represent an early, pre-scientific awareness of DNA, but even DNA links us back to the beginnings of life itself, thus another world. Other people would argue that these images are a map of the spine and certain energy centres, taken in the context that the universe is a reflection of the self and vice versa, this also stands up as a map of the cosmos.
The number of realms or worlds ‘above’ and ‘below’ differ from culture to culture; In the Vedas we find reference to 14 Lokas (Sanskrit ‘Loka’ meaning ‘World’) beside our own, seven above and seven below. In the Norse Pagan cosmological model there are commonly (though not universally) nine worlds, four of which are set around our world, two above and two below, each of these worlds is separated into smaller regions. This idea is reflected in certain Celtic medieval texts such as the Voyage of Bran mac Febail or in classical texts such as The Odyssey in which the heroes journey by sea to other “islands” inhabited by unearthly peoples and creatures.
It is important to note that despite common understanding that ancient or indigenous cultures believed that these world existed as other physical worlds, literally above and below our own, this is not true; The understanding is that these worlds exist on other energetic or vibrational planes.
Below then are brief descriptions of the Upper and Lower worlds and of the spiritual world which permeates lies alongside our own physical world. I will touch on some of the denizens of these worlds, however greater detail will be written into later posts elsewhere on this site.
The Upper World
The Upper world is mentioned in almost every culture on earth, usually as a place of heavenly beauty, purity and wisdom. beings of the highest vibrational frequencies (that is to say beings of a greater degree of spiritual purity and awareness) exist here and are commonly known as: Gods, Angels, Ascended Masters or even as Aliens.
Accessing the Upper World
Beyond the usual methods of Shamanic trance or intoxication, there are other methods of accessing the Upper world.
Birds are often seen as messengers of this plane or are seen to carry the dead up to this plane, for this reason, the eagle is often seen as a Totemic animal of Shamanic figures. A common theory on Neanderthal beliefs is that, due to archaeological finds of carrion bird feathers, particularly vulture feathers, at Neanderthal sites, the belief that birds act as messengers or carriers of the dead predates Homo Sapiens. This belief carries over into the Norse valkyrjur (or choosers of the slain, singluar: valkyrja) who are said to carry worthy souls to the halls of Valhalla and to the Goddess Freja who is herself a bird Goddess who carries souls to her own hall, Folkvangr (It is entirely possible that the valkyrjur are in fact personifications of Freja elevated to the stance of Angels by Christian scribes, and the the masculine, warlike Valhalla (Hall of the Slain) replaced the feminine, nurturing Folkvangr (Field of the People) in order to settle the people into a patriarchal faith before conversion. One of the earliest incarnations of the Hindu Devi Kali is as a bird spirit found at the edge of a battlefield and who carries the souls of the slain to the heavens. The Celtic Morrigan and Egyptian Nekhbet and later Isis bear similar characteristics and responsibilities.
The Lower World
Mentioned in many cultures with varying descriptions, the most common versions of the Lower world are as places of punishment or waiting. It is common practice in contemporary Shamanism as among many (but not all) ancient tribal cultures, to make journeys into the Lower world to receive aid from various spirits in healing ceremonies. Medieval Celtic Christian descriptions of various Celtic worlds, including Tir-Na-Og (The land of eternal Youth) place them ‘beneath the waves’ and medieval Christian Scandinavian descriptions of the Norse otherworld place at least two worlds beneath our own, including Helheim (Hel’s Home) which contrary to the Christian Hell is a place if cold and ice, a place where it is hard to move and there is no food. In ‘Viking’ mythology the Unworthy are placed in Helheim to await the final war, Ragnarok, where they will ride with Hel to destroy the world and the home of the Aesir (Apollonic Gods of wisdom and war), Asgard; again I feel this is a Christian influence. It is important to note that the Lower world is not the Christian Hell, in fact it is a place of power and beauty, of compassionate and helpful spirits and is the place where meeting a power animal is often easiest.
Accessing the Lower World
‘Sonic-Driving’ (rattling, chanting or more commonly drumming to induce a Shamanic trance) or intoxication are commonplace in Shamanic practice to access the Lower world.
Once in the SSC (The Shamanic State of Consciousness as described by Micheal Harner) and settled within NOR (Non-Ordinary Reality, a contemporary name for the spirit world coined by Micheal Harner) the Lower world is often accessed through such places as caves, holes at the bases of trees, pools of water.
Serpents and Toads are said to be easily able to access the Lower world and are powerful Shamanic allies which have become considered to be Witch’s familiars. It is important to note that Witches fulfil many of the roles of the Shaman in cultures that have been separated from their ancestral Shamanic traditions. While Neo-Witch traditions like Wicca are not Shamanic, many of the traditional Witchcraft paths still hold Shamanic lore… in essence, Witchcraft is a branch of Shamanism, but not all Witches are Shamans.
The Middle World
All around us are various other layers of our own world that permeate our own. At times we are aware of these worlds and the entities which dwell within them. Some of these layers are simply deeper versions of our own, such as infrared or ultraviolet which many creatures are able to see, others can also sense the geomagnetic forces of our world, some creatures can hear infrasound and ultrasound. However, there exist many other layers beyond these and they are home to a wide variety of what we would call nature spirits. Generally speaking these realms and entities are an extension of our own world.
Accessing the Middle World
We already inhabit the middle world, however using certain intoxicants, moments of ecstasy, illness, deep meditation or Shamanic awareness allow us to perceive various other levels of this world and receive help and guidance from the spirits which dwell within it.
The World Tree / Pillar / Mountain
Holding the worlds together is always a central column of some sort which runs through the centre of each world. In Norse Mythology the worlds are held together by the great Ash tree Yggdrasil, at the centre of the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmos is Mount Meru, Neo-Celtic Paganism speaks of a world tree, the Anglo-Saxons saw it as Irminsul, the great pillar and in ancient Greece it was Mount Olympus. At the top of these is a place or being of great power (contrary to popular belief, Asgard, the home of the Aesir is not at the top of Yggdrasil, rather an Eagle sits there, yet another reference to birds as psychopomps and a reference to an earlier bird cult). Not all cultures recognise this axis mundi, however it is common throughout most. Siberian and Mongolian Shamans often climb a birch tree to reach the upper world and in certain South American cultures, the shaman has an ascension pole.
Qabalah focuses on its own World Tree, the Tree of Life which consists of eleven points representing cosmic emanations called sefirot. Ten of these sefirot are said to reside in the spiritual while the last, Malkuth is the physical manifestation of the others, it represents the physical world.
World trees are also found among many of the pre-Columbian native American cultures. The Oak is seen as the world tree in Slavic, Finish and Baltic Paganism, Jianmu is the Chinese world tree and Iroko is the world tree for the Nigerian Yoruba religion.
In Hindu philosophy along the spine the spine there is a central column called Sushumna along which we find seven energy centres called Chakras (wheels) which in turn reflect seven inner worlds of the human being. Two serpents, Ida and Pingala, ascend Sushumna as we approach enlightenment and awaken Kundalini, the great serpent within us all… perhaps another reference to DNA being the world pillar within ourselves.
Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality by Michael Harner: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cave-Cosmos-Shamanic-Encounters-Spirits/dp/1583945466
The way of the Shaman by Micheal Harner: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Way-Shaman-Michael-Harner/dp/0062503731/
The Shamanic Journey: A Practical Guide to Therapeutic Shamanism by Paul Francis: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shamanic-Journey-Practical-Therapeutic-Shamanism/dp/0995758603/
Shamanic Journeying: A Beginner’s Guide by Sandra Ingerman: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shamanic-Journeying-Beginners-Sandra-Ingerman/dp/1591799430/
Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shamanism-Archaic-Techniques-Ecstasy-Bollingen/dp/0691119422/
Chosen by the Spirits: Following Your Shamanic Calling by Sarangerel: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Chosen-Spirit-Following-Shamanic-Calling/dp/0892818611/
Up and Down the Tree: Exploring the Nine Words of Yggdrasil by Runic John: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Up-Down-Tree-Exploring-Yggdrasil/dp/1861633505/
The Celtic Shaman: A Handbook by John Matthews: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Celtic-Shaman-Handbook-Earth-Quest/dp/1852302453/