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Vehicles of soul’s ascension (1)

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01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

03 Religious festivals, cults, rituals and practices

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

04 Religious and philosophical literature and poetry

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

02 Religious and ideological symbols and iconographic motifs

01 Religious and ideological doctrines and imagery

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Souls ascended to heaven on foot, on horseback, in carriages and they even had recourse to aviation. Among the ancient Egyptians the firmament was conceived as being so close to the mountains of the earth that it was possible to climb up to it with the aid of a ladder. Although the stars had been relegated to an infinite distance in space, the ladder still survived in Roman paganism as an amulet and as a symbol. Many people continued to place in tombs a small bronze ladder which recalled the beliefs of distant ages; and in the mysteries of Mithra a ladder of seven steps, made of seven different metals and corresponding to the seven planetary spheres, still symbolized the passage of the soul across the planetary spheres.

It was possible to reach heaven on the back of a winged horse. Thus the large cameo called “The Apotheosis of Augustus,” represents a prince of his house, Germanicus or Marcellus, borne by a “Pegasus,” which doubtlessly has no connection with Bellerophon’s mount. Sometimes a griffin is preferred to Pegasus: the monster flies heavenwards carrying on its sturdy back the deceased raised to the level of the gods. The dead, however, more frequently travelled in the car of the Sun. The idea that the divine charioteer drives a team across the heavenly fields existed in very early times in Syria as well as in Babylon, Persia, and Greece. The horses of fire and the chariot of fire, which carried up the prophet Elijah in a whirlwind, are very probably the horses and chariot of the Sun. In the same way, when Mithra’s mission on earth was fulfilled, he had been conveyed in the chariot of Helios to the celestial spheres over the ocean, and the happy lot which the hero had won for himself he granted also to his followers. The emperors in particular were commonly reputed to become companions of the Sun-god after death, as they had been under his protection in life, and to be conducted by him in his chariot up to the summit of the eternal vaults.

There is a very wide-spread belief of Syrian origin that souls fly to heaven on the back of an eagle. According to the story, Etana in Babylon, like Ganymedes in Greece, had been carried off in this way. The pious shared this happy lot. This is why the eagle is used as the ordinary decorative motif on sepulchral stelae at Hierapolis, the holy city of the great Syrian goddess, and it appears with the same meaning in the West. At the funeral rites of emperors at Rome there was always fastened to the top of the pyre on which the corpse was to be consumed, an eagle, which was supposed to bear aloft the monarch’s soul, and art frequently represents the busts of the Caesars resting on an eagle in the act of taking flight, by way of suggesting their apotheosis. The reason is that in the East the eagle is the bird of the solar gods, and it carries to its master those who have been his servants in the world below.


Cumont 1912, 184-186Cumont, Franz. Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and Romans. American Lectures on the History of Religions 8. New York, London: G. P. Putnam's Sons 1912.

Amar Annus

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