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Angel entering heaven

Stairway to Heaven: Ancient Concepts About Heaven and the Afterlife


We recognize heaven as a place to which we will go after our deaths if we have led a good or virtuous life. It is a paradise accessible by earthly beings depending on their standards of faith or goodness. On the other hand, hell is home to evil, misery and many other unpleasant things - a place to which we will be sent if we have led unvirtuous lives. However, the concept of the afterlife in the ancient world is more varied and somewhat more complicated. Unlike travelling to hell, which seems to be a much quicker process, a soul’s journey to heaven consist of various tests and layers before it could reach its final resting place.

Prometheus Forms Man and Animates Him with Fire from Heaven by Hendrik Goltzius (1589) (Public Domain)

Prometheus Forms Man and Animates Him with Fire from Heaven by Hendrik Goltzius (1589) (Public Domain)

Indian Svarga and Greek Elysian Fields

Indian religions describe svarga (‘heaven) as a transitory place for righteous souls who have performed good deeds in their lives but are not yet ready to attain enlightenment. Therefore, a soul would pass through svarga before it is subjected to rebirth in different living forms according to the good or bad karma it has managed to gather in its life. This is somewhat similar to Greek and Roman mythology where the dead would usually either travel to the Underworld where they would stay or to the Fortunate Isles (or Isles of the Blessed), an earthly paradise for those who were judged as pure enough in their three lifetimes to gain entrance to the Elysian Fields, the final resting place of the souls of the heroic and the virtuous.

Sumerian Irkalla

For the ancient Mesopotamians, heaven is divided into three domes. The lowest dome of heaven was the home of the stars and the middle dome was the home of the Igigi - the younger gods. The highest and outermost dome of heaven was personified as An, the god of the sky. However, no ordinary mortal would ever have access to any of these domes no matter how virtuous they were in their lives as the heavens were the home of the gods alone. Unlike the more modern belief of the importance of a person’s action in determining whether they will go to heaven or hell, the ancient Mesopotamian belief was that all souls went to the same afterlife. Therefore, a deceased person’s soul went to Irkalla, the underworld below the surface of the earth.


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Martini Fisher is a Mythographer and author of many books, including "Time Maps: Matriarchy and the Goddess Culture”  |Evolution of Languages and Writings (Time Maps Book 3)  Check out

Top Image: Angel entering heaven (Public Domain)

By Martini Fisher

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Martini Fisher comes from a family of history and culture buffs. She graduated from Macquarie University, Australia, with a degree in Ancient History. Although her interest in history is diverse, Martini is especially interested in  mythologies, folklores and ancient funerary... Read More

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