The portal to the amphitheater of eternal wisdom in Heinrich Khunrath’s book of the same name is an excellent example of the motif of the heavenly ascent. It is given heightened meaning as the portal is at the summit of a mountain, arguably a species of the axis mundi or center of the world. The idea of the axis mundi is prevalent throughout traditional cultures, and another alchemist Thomas Vaughan explicitly uses the imagery of an invisible, magical mountain (Mons Magorum Invisibilis) to portray it in his Lumen de Lumine:
“There is a mountain situated in the midst of the earth or centre of the world which is both small and great. It is soft, also above measure hard and stony. It is far off and near at hand, but by the providence of God invisible. In it are hidden most ample treasures, which the world is not able to value.”
Carl Jung cites a passage from Khunrath, “the salt-point in the midst of the great fabric of the whole world”. The connection between axis mundi and the hieratic ascent is that the central axis, especially in mountain imagery, is the point where heaven kisses earth. Although, with examples like the Nordic Ygdrassil, we find the idea of it connecting earth to more than a vertical level of reality; it is the thread that binds the universe in all of its elements together. Perhaps this is more clearly expressed by Patrick Olivelle’s introduction to his translation of the Upanishads:
“The assumption is that the universe constitutes a web of relations, that things that appear to stand alone and apart are, in fact, connected to other things. A further assumption is that these real cosmic connections are usually hidden from the view of ordinary people; discovering them constitutes knowledge, knowledge that is secret and is contained in the Upanisads…. upanisad means “connection” or “equivalence.” In addition, the term implies hierarchy; the Upanisadic connections are hierarchically arranged, and the quest is to discover the reality that stands at the summit of this hierarchically interconnected universe. It is, however, assumed that such connections are always hidden.”
And so this hierarchy implies a summit, hence the hieratic ascent into the sky or heavens. Now, just as the axis mundi is – so far as I can accurately ascertain – a common theme among cultures, (just as the world flood is a widespread myth), so too is the vertical entry into the heavens. This isn’t to say that the various cross-cultural examples are all agreed on what it means or how it is interpreted. We could imagine the ‘Man in Christ” in Corinthians 12:2 having a different take than Mohammed during the night journey to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount and then to the heavens (Isra and Mi’raj), and can equally consider whether Neiahrdt’s description of Black Elk’s journey into the sky, then to the “high and lonely center of the earth…the tall rock mountain at the center of the world” as incompatible with the preceding traditions. All of the variations in Eliade’s seminal book on shamanism are more material for contrasting the variations on this motif. Surely there are differences, however superficial or substantial. Still, it is worth reflecting upon Joseph Epes Brown’s translation of Black Elk in The Sacred Pipe:
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Tanka , and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us…This center which is here, but which we know is really everywhere, is Wakan-Tanka.”
In Khunrath’s case, there is an allusion to Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin at the top of the portal, which is an example of a general trend in Western European Alchemy of alluding to and connecting greco-roman mythologies and other classical sources, suggesting an eclecticism or conversation at least with the various other sources of the journey into the beyond (while the portal in this illustration is an ascent of seven steps, the quotation from Virgil is before Aeneas goes into the underworld or Hades). We may wonder whether this eclecticism of Khunrath is one of taking what one wishes in order to develop a system with no recourse to whether there is any compatibility. But in any case, Christ is central to his thinking in this work, as we see here, however that may figure.
The Corinthians 12:2 verse brings up the question of whether this Man in Christ’s ascension was out-of-body or in-the-body. It seems to me that with respect to “initiation”, say into the mysteries at Eleusis or the Mithraic or Orphic or what have you, the content of the experience was an artificial induction of an out-of-body experience, interpreted as a separation of the soul from the body just as is expected to occur upon death. We see this precise exercise of separating the soul from the body as the definition of philosophy in Plato’s Phaedo, and not long after this precise definition of Philosophy as ‘dying while you live’, Socrates makes an allusion to the mysteries! Added to this is what we find the ferryman Charon saying to Aeneas, concerning the underworld:
“This is a place of shadows, of Sleep and drowsy Night”.
It seems obvious to me that the poetic analogy of sleep and death is intuitive, but we find evidence of this connection in Thomas Browne – another exponent in same general milieu as Khunrath:
“Sleep is a death; oh, make me try
By sleeping what it is to die,
And as gently lay my head
On my grave as now my bed.”
Another pertinent observation in Corinthians 12:2 is that the experience is “inexpressible” and also “no no one is permitted to tell.” Perhaps the same is why the allusion to Virigil’s Aeneid presides over the top of Khunrath’s portal; the excerpt is a warding away of the “profane”, and another example of so much of what we see in esotericism, that the knowledge is hidden and imperceptible, and that only purified and upright souls are able to make safe passage into the beyond – whether in the philosophic practice or after physical death – toward the final destination of a blessed afterlife in paradise.
Some final thoughts, first on what is meant by the ascent: We see Atwood commenting on the significance of the Sphinx at a temple of Isis:
“By her animal form, combined with the human face and summit, is indicated the twofold capability and diffusion of such a life; for she is the summit of the irrational mind relying on instinct, and the basis whereon to build the rational and transcend opinion in indivisible science. Her wings are images of the elevating power which the imagination possesses, by which likewise she is rendered capable of divine assimilation and of returning within and upward to a region of vivid intellection everywhere resplendent with light.”
Note that the sphinx is commonly found at temples and tombs, both places being associated with the threshold between this world and the beyond. Mohammed’s mythical steed, the Buraq – which conveys him to the heavens -, is NOT a sphinx, although depictions convey a similar image in that it is, in many iterations, a human-headed composite of a horse, often shown with a peacock’s tail (though this last feature is not shown in the proceeding image):
Perhaps now we can come to terms with the puzzling assertion of Jacob Boehme in his Signature of All Things:
“Paradise is yet in the world, but man is not therein, unless he be born again of God; then as to that new regeneration he is therein, and not with the Adam of the four elements…the artist seeks paradise; if he finds it, he has the great treasure upon the earth: but we understand the magical soul, the summum bonum, the good treasure which lies hidden in the outward world.”
All of which is quite summarily expressed in Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditations:
“You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars”!