The idea of heaven is bound up with that of eternal life. Descriptions of many heavens make a special point of mentioning immortality, whether of the gods or of human souls. In the Norse Asgard, for example, the gods guard a precious treasure—the golden apples of immortality.
The apples of eternal life also grow on the Celtic island of Avalon, a name that means “apple isle.” In Penglai, one of the 108 different heavens in the Chinese Taoist tradition, the Dew of Eternal Life flows through streams and fountains, offering immortality to anyone who drinks it—but only insects, birds, and the gods can ever reach Penglai. Continue reading Heaven and Immortality
Creation myths of ancient Mesopotamia typically begin with the separation of heaven and earth, giving rise to a three-story universe that includes heaven above, earth in the middle, and the underworld below. The high gods reign in the heavens as an assembly or council. Earth is the realm of mortal humans, whose purpose is to serve the gods by providing them with sacred dwellings, food, and tribute; it is also populated by minor gods and demons who play a role in magic. At death human beings descend to the underworld, a dreary land of no return; only a few exceptional human heroes are permitted to enter heaven.
In the epic of Gilgamesh, a cycle of Sumerian and Akkadian legends about the king of the Mesopotamian city-state Uruk, Gilgamesh searches unsuccessfully for immortality only to have the sober truth of human mortality brought home: “When the gods created mankind, death for mankind they allotted, life in their own hands retaining.” Good relations with heaven were nonetheless considered vital to the well-being of the living. The Gilgamesh epic suggests that the social order of Uruk was threatened not only by Gilgamesh’s unrealistic ambition to conquer death but also by his unwillingness to enter into sacred marriage with the goddess Ishtar (Sumerian: Inanna), whose temple was the centre of civic and cultic life. Concern for good relations with heaven is reflected as well in the massive body of Mesopotamian texts devoted to celestial observation, astronomical theory, and astrological lore, all of which served to discern and cope with the perceived influence of heaven on human affairs. Continue reading Heaven and Religion
Heaven, in many religions, the abode of God or the gods, as well as of angels, deified humans, the blessed dead, and other celestial beings. It is often conceived as an expanse that overarches the earth, stretching overhead like a canopy, dome, or vault and encompassing the sky and upper atmosphere; the Sun, Moon, and stars; and the transcendent realm beyond.
In most cultures, heaven is synonymous with order: it contains the blueprints for creation, the mandate by which earthly rulers govern, and the standards by which to measure beauty, goodness, and truth. In religious thought and poetic fancy, heaven is not only a place but also a state of being. As such it is characterized negatively as freedom from hunger, thirst, pain, deprivation, disease, ignorance, and strife and positively as complete contentment, perfect knowledge, everlasting rest, ineffable peace, communion with God, and rapturous joy. Heaven is also understood as the reward for a life well lived, the fulfillment of the heart’s deepest desire, and the ultimate reference point for all human striving and hope. Continue reading Heaven – Overview