Earth and the Heavens
Why were all early temples and sacred places built at the highest point available to the builders? Because this is the place nearest the sky. And why is the most sacred space nearest the sky? Because the sky is the divine opposite of life on earth, home of all that is eternal in contrast to the mortal life of earth. When primitive man looked up at the heavens, he saw a vast cavalcade of divine figures regularly passing before his eyes—the cosmic drama, breathtaking in its eternal order and predictability. Here are the eternal prototypes and models for mortal life; but a great gulf yawns between the two spheres, for the life of the heavens, the life of the gods, is immortal and everlasting, while life in the earthly sphere is mortal, ending in death. For the earliest human beings—the first creatures to look upon the drama of the heavens with comprehension—these insights required little reasoning and no discussion; they were immediate and obvious, self-evident truths. This meditation on the heavens was the aboriginal religious experience. In the words of the preeminent modern scholar of religion Mircea Eliade:
The phrase “contemplating the vault of heaven” really means something when it is applied to primitive man, receptive to the miracles of every day to an extent we find it hard to imagine. Such contemplation is the same as a revelation. The sky shows itself as it really is: infinite, transcendent. The vault of heaven is, more than anything else, “something quite apart” from the tiny thing that is man and his span of life. The symbolism of its transcendence derives from the simple realization of its infinite height. “Most high” becomes quite naturally an attribute of the divinity. The regions above man’s reach, the starry places, are invested with the divine majesty of the transcendent, of absolute reality, of everlastingness. Such places are the dwellings of the gods; certain privileged people (like Lugalbanda) go there as a result of rites effecting their ascension into heaven…. The “high” is something inaccessible to man as such; it belongs by right to superhuman powers and beings; when a man ceremonially ascends the steps of a sanctuary, or the ritual ladder leading to the sky, he ceases to be a man.
As we continue to climb to the sanctuary, the primeval worldview of the people who built the steps we tread becomes ever more evident. The cosmology of the Sumerians was based on perceptions of societies, now irretrievably ancient, that had preceded them; and, with a few adjustments, it would be received as truth by almost all societies that followed the Sumerians, right down to the threshold of modern times. Earth was a flat circle, attached at its perimeter to the dome of Heaven. Between Earth and Heaven was the element of Air, in which, high up, hung the astral bodies passing before the eyes of Earth-dwellers, pictorial projections of the drama of Heaven, which was also of course predictive of life on Earth, itself a kind of weak imitation of the heavenly drama. Just beneath the circle of Earth was the realm of Death—Hades, Sheol, the shadowy hell to which the dead were consigned—a sort of basement of the Sea of Chaos that surrounded the Earth-Heaven on all sides, whence rain fell and flood rose. Each of these great elements was a god: Heaven was father; Earth was mother; Air, which contained the eternal but ever-revolving pictures of the cosmic drama and clues (for the insightful interpreter) to our life on Earth, was mediator between Heaven and Earth and therefore the most important god in the Sumerian pantheon; and the Sea was necessarily an unpredictable and troubling ally, to be treated with caution.
— Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews, pp. 40-42