Cosmology is often depicted in a form of duality: heaven and hell, the above and below, the chthonic and ouranic, and the sky and sea. Yet, throughout history, this has not always been the case. It is only after the popularization of Platonism did the distinction between the celestial and the chthonic, and between Theurgy and Goetia, became commonplace (Kadmus, 2018). The Olympians such as Zeus are associated with the skies and the heavens whereas the Titans such as Kronos and Gaia are associated with the earth and the underworld, creating a tension between the two seemingly opposing realms. This distinction, however, is flawed. Not only are there existing several deities – Dionysus and psychopomps such as Hermes, for example – who blurs and transgresses such duality, but the ancients often ‘understood the stars and constellations as maps of the Underworld’, a way of thinking that contradicts the common conceptions of the above and below (Kadmus, 2018).
Movement of the stars are believed to have occurred both in the heavens and in the netherworld. Gods of luminaries, such as Helios and the sun of which he is identified with, are believed to be both heavenly and underworldly (Kadmus, 2018). In the case of Helios, his domain over both the skies and the underworld is due to how the sun passes through the underworld at night, allowing it to share power over both realms (Kadmus, 2018). The later rise of Apollo would later change this attribution, as the sun and Apollo eventually takes on a more exclusively heavenly meaning (Kadmus, 2018). The myth of the sun journeying through the underworld is not unique to that of Ancient Greece either, but similar tales have existed both in Kemetism and the Vedic texts.
In Kemetism, it is believed that the sun makes a journey each night, descending into the primeval waters of Nun to be reborn again with the morning sunrise (Cheak, n.d.). As shown upon the sarcophagi and the royal tombs, the sun sets over the western horizon and returns each dawn on the eastern horizon, moving through the depths and traversing the twelve hours of the night (Cheak, n.d.). Likewise, Agni – who is identified with the fiery sun in the Rigveda – is described to have been ‘born from the waters’ in a way that could be interpreted as the sun’s birth from the east in the morning (Matsumura, 2014). In the Atharvaveda, this is further elaborated in how Agni becomes Varuna in the evening, a deity who dwells within the Netherworld and is associated with the direction of the west (where the sun sets), the waters, death, and the moon (Matsumura, 2014). The Kausitaki Brahmana states that the sun, ‘having entered the waters, becomes Varuna’, emphasizing again the water as being the locale in which the sun sinks from the above into the below, and rises up each day to return back into the sky (Matsumura, 2014).
Both in Kemetism and the Vedas, there is a belief in the waters the source of all life and creation. In Kemetism, Nu (later, Nun) is the personification of the primeval waters, the element that sustains, generates and animates all things (Cheak, n.d.). Similarly, in the Vedas it is believed that in the beginning there was only water, of which a small clod of earth rose to the surface where it floated about and became the world as we know it (Kuiper, 1975). In Vedic literature such as the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the entire universe is regarded as an ‘ocean of space’, an ocean with innumerable planets where each planet is called a dvipa, or island (Thompson, 2004). It is also interesting to note that in Vedic religion prior to the rise of Indra, Varuna holds the traditional title of the ‘lord of the waters’, and it is these primeval waters that Varuna holds domain over (Kuiper, 1975). The fact that Varuna also resides in the netherworld, at the roots of the Vedic world tree, either near to or within the subterranean cosmic waters, also suggests a chthonic quality to the waters (Kuiper, 1975). Hence, it could be inferred that much as the waters form the ocean of which celestial stars float upon, the waters also underpin the deepest crevices of the netherworld, perhaps being the substance that connects the ouranic to the chthonic.
Water, like the sun which sinks into and rises from it, is associated with both life and death, along with the rebirth that happens through drowning and deification. Drowning rites within the Greek Magical Papyri reflects the belief of the late periods of Ancient Egypt whereby the process of ‘divinsation by drowning’ was formally recognized. (Cheak, n.d.). However, these rites were not done as a common means of funerary rituals, but rather for the initiatic purpose of encountering death as a means to apotheosis (Cheak, n.d.). The act of drowning as a means of deification mirrors the cyclical rebirth of the sun-god who descends nightly into the watery depths of Nun to be reborn again with the morning sunrise, as previously discussed (Cheak, n.d.). Correspondingly, the Shatapatha Brahmana also explains that stars ‘are the lights of righteous men in Svar-galoka, and that the rays of the sun are their souls’ (Shushan, 2011). Here, in Vedic beliefs, the sun’s rays are also equated with the gods, thus associating the dead with the divine (Shushan, 2011). Moreover, the sun is considered to be the soul’s final destination, causing one ‘to die again and again in yonder world’, which again associates rebirth and reincarnation with the sun’s nightly cyclical journey through the sky and underworld (Shushan, 2011).
The netherworld and the ouranic heavens may not be worlds apart either, as a descent into the underworld may very well lead to an ascent up to the celestial heavens. Orphic gold tablets, which were thought to have been buried with initiates in order to guide them in the afterlife, have multiple lines of inscription upon them that refers to the act of jumping into milk (Graf & Johnston, 2013).
“You have become a god instead of a mortal. A kid you fell into milk.”
“Bull, you jumped into milk. / Quickly, you jumped into milk. / Ram, you fell into milk.”
The phrase ‘you have become a god instead of a mortal’ most likely alludes to some kind of post-mortem transcendence or ascension, accomplished through jumping or falling into milk, much like the act of deification through drowning in Kemetic rituals. Graf & Johnston (2013) discussed how the milk may have been a reference to the Milky Way, reflecting how Orphic initiates are ‘children of starry Sky’ who will return to the sky to experience their well-earned bliss. Yet, Graf & Johnston (2013) views this to be contradictory to other signs in the tablet that points to ‘a subterranean location for the initiates’ paradise’. However, it could be argued that the contradiction only exists if the celestial skies and the subterranean afterlife are considered to be two separate locales. In early Vedic literature, Yama (the god of death) alongside Varuna, is associated with both the upper and lower realms (Shushan, 2011). In the Rigveda, it can be inferred that the underworld exists within the sky, while two words for ‘heaven’ – Paraloká and asáuloká – refer to the underworld in the Jaiminiya Brahmana (Shushan, 2011).
Is it a coincidence that the lord who rules over the primeval waters of creation – later delegated to ruling the night, and the rivers, seas, oceans and rain – also holds domain over the abode of the dead? According to Bodewitz (2019), Varuna presides over the dwelling place of the dead called the ‘stone-house’ in the netherworld. This stone house, located at the depth of the cosmic mountain (sometimes described to be a cosmic tree in other texts) is not only where the dead will arrive to greet Yama and Varuna, but also where the sun sinks to when it sets at night, hence becoming the ‘the sun in the rock’ (Bodewitz, 2019). In my opinion, the fact that Varuna holds domain over both water and the dead makes perfect sense. Water has always been associated with death in many cultures, from the Greek to Thai to Slavic to Celtic.
In Greek mythology, the river Styx separates the land of the living from that of the dead. Likewise, there existed a similar belief in the Lanna kingdom of Thailand regarding a river that the dead are required to cross in order to reach the afterlife (Nimmanahaeminda, 2005). This river is also present in Slavic beliefs, where the realm of Veles is located in a field in the far west behind the water that separates the worlds of life and death (Kajkowski, 2015). The location of the realm of the dead being in the west, a direction where the sun sets at, is an intriguing point. Moreover, the Slavs originally did not differentiate between Heaven and Hell as there existed only one ‘otherworld’ surrounding ‘our world’, located ‘somewhere behind the waters (especially the Milky Way) in the form of an abyss which pulled one inside by means of a vortex’ (Kajkowski, 2015). The commonality also extends to Celtic beliefs regarding the Otherworld. Access to the Otherworld could be gained by many means with some examples being through the fairy mounds or by going across or under water, especially that of the western sea, which was considered to be one of the boundaries of the Otherworld (Koch & Holley, 2006).
To conclude, water has always acted as gateways to other realms– realms which may not be so far apart, after all. A descent through drowning, whether into milk or water, may lead to an ascent into the stars. As the stars are maps of the underworld and the underworld exists within the sky, the upper and lower realms are connected or may even be one and the same. The sun, which sinks into the sea in the west each night only to rise in the east each morning represents the cycle of katabasis that souls may go through. Several implications therefore arise from this revelation. First, is how it may not always be beneficial to harshly distinguish gods and spirits as being strictly ouranic or chthonic. Secondly, is the implication that a journey to the netherworld or the celestial world may be reached through traveling to either realms. Finally, is the fact that waters are doorways to both of these places. Although some may wish to differentiate between the primeval waters of creation and the mundane waters of the earth, it is my personal view that all water – whether it be from the rain, the rivers, the seas or the ocean – are sacred, and holds the capacity to act as conduits and become crossroads in their own right. Water is therefore a crucial component when one wishes to engage in necromantic, chthonic or stellar workings.
- Bodewitz, H. (2019). Life after death in the Ṛgveda Saṁhitā. Vedic Cosmology and Ethics, 94–110. https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004400139_009
- Cheak, A. (n.d.). Waters Animating and Annihilating. Aaron Cheak. Retrieved February 13, 2022, from http://www.aaroncheak.com/waters-animating
- Graf, F., & Johnston, S. I. (2013). Ritual Texts for the Afterlife: Orpheus and the Bacchic Gold Tablets. Routledge.
- Kadmus. (2018). True to the Earth: Pagan Political Theology. Gods & Radicals Press.
- Kajkowski, K. (2015). Slavic Journeys to the Otherworld: Remarks on the Eschatology of Early Medieval Pomeranians. Studia Mythologica Slavica, 18, 15. https://doi.org/10.3986/sms.v18i0.2828
- Koch, J. T., & Holley, A. (2006). Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO.
- Kuiper, F. B. J. (1975). The Basic Concept of Vedic Religion. History of Religions, 15(2), 107–120. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1061926
- Matsumura, K. (2014). Mythical Thinkings: What Can We Learn From Comparative Mythology? Countershock Press.
- Nimmanahaeminda, P. (2005). Water lore: Thai-tai folk beliefs and literature. MANUSYA, 8(3), 27–39. https://doi.org/10.1163/26659077-00803003
- Shushan, G. (2011). Afterlife conceptions in the Vedas. Religion Compass, 5(6), 202–213. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00275.x
- Thompson, R. L. (2004). Vedic Cosmography and Astronomy. Motilal Banarsidass.