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Seventh Heaven

Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase "I’m in seventh heaven", referring to a state of utter personal happiness and bliss. Considering its origins, this has got to be one of the oldest human language expressions still in common use today.

Over a thousand years before the first biblical texts were written, the ancient Sumerians carved into stone winged figures descending from the first of their seven heavens to pour water into the cup of the king. In the ancient Semitic religions of the Near East, the visible sky was simply the first of seven consecutive heavens, or realms beyond the earth. To "ascend to the seventh heaven" was to approach the very presence of El, the Almighty, for that was the heaven in which he resided. The plurality of the heavens is asserted in the very first verse of Genesis: "In the beginning God (Elohim) created the heavens . . ."

The notion of the seven Heavens appears in The Testament Of The Twelve Patriarchs and other Jewish apocrypha, and was familiar to the ancient Persians and Babylonians. The Persians pictured the Almighty as residing in the highest of the seven Heavens, "seated on a great white throne, surrounded by winged cherubim." Much later, the Koran also speaks of seven Heavens.

The ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was taken through the seven spheres of the planets to the Ogdoad, an eighth realm that lay above the lower heavens.  This notion was preserved in later Gnostic cosmological schemes.

The book of Ezekiel contains a vivid description of a fiery chariot riding through the heavens. This book’s origin is from the time of Jewish captivity in Babylon. Babylon was an ancient city full of magic and the oldest pantheon of deities known to man, whose name means "Gateway of the Gods." Abraham was from Ur, a city not far from Babylon. He was a Sumerian, not a Hebrew. Both Babylon and Ur were full of step-pyramid ziggurat temples, each with seven levels. Priestly initiates would climb these levels to reach the ultimate gateway to heaven. The Tower of Babel was said to be a ziggurat, and it was built, as the Bible story tells us, for the express purpose of reaching heaven.

In the earliest Hebrew tradition, the divine cosmology was reformulated to be as follows:

  • The first or "lowest" heaven was Shemayim. This was the dome of the sky which covered the earth. It was occupied by seven camps or armies of angels, including the "wandering stars" (planets), who were thought to be heavenly beings, not just inorganic objects.

  • The second heaven was Shemai-Shemayim, the "heaven of heavens" referred to in Psalm 148:4 ("Praise him, ye heavens of heavens, and ye waters that be above the heavens"). The beings who occupied this sphere resided on 12 steps, which likely represented the signs of the zodiac. (Astrology was well known to the Hebrews, and it was commonly believed that God controlled happenings on earth through the movements of the stars.)

  • The third heaven was divided into three groups of angels. Some apocryphal texts have Saint Paul ascending to this plane.

  • The fourth heaven was the sphere around which the Sun (Shamash) was drawn in his chariot by a team of 31 angelic armies in daylight, and by another team of 31 at night.

  • The fifth heaven was occupied by the "Princes of Glory" who ruled the 12 months of the calendar and who made known what will happen in each month of the year.

  • The sixth heaven was the domain of two warlords. One occupied the east with his 28 armies, and the other resided in the west with 31 armies.

  • Finally came the seventh and highest heaven, the realm of El, the father of those who formed the Assembly of the Gods.

Retaining its Jewish origins in essence, Christian cosmology focused on describing a hierarchy of divinely created angelic presences. Particular orders of angels were associated with the various celestial realms. This view was reflected in later Islamic cosmologies as well.

Given the notion of a number of overarching layers of creation, it becomes logically obvious to consider this in terms of successive, time-based "emanations" from the highest Godhead. This idea bore fruit in later Hebrew schools of mysticism, notably in the Merkabah and Kabbala traditions. It was also the central focus of Gnostic religious thought -- whose development actually predated slightly the Christian era. Indeed, nowhere else is the origin, history and future of the heavenly realms fleshed out in more intricate detail than in the various Gnostic schools.

Much of what we know about the early Gnostic beliefs is taken from the writings of the early Christian Bishop Ireneaus (in Against Heresies, written sometime around 175 AD). According to him, the Gnostics pictured a material world sandwiched between a higher divine realm and a mysterious lower realm and surrounded by the waters of chaos. Most Gnostic cosmologies agree that above the material world exist at least seven heavens (some schools indicated more, eight or nine and possibly as many as twelve). Before the material world came into existence, there was the Light. From this Light came a series of Emanations, various cosmic beings in male-female pairs (syzygies). Within the Light were three especially important beings: The Father, the Mother, and the Son. The other Emanations dwelt below, in a primordial mass consisting of Water, Darkness, the Abyss, and Chaos. One of these, Sophia (Wisdom), decided to create life without her male counterpart. The result was a twisted being named Yaldabaoth, the demiurge. Believing himself to be the most powerful being in the universe, he declared himself God and stated that there were none besides him.

The lower seven heavens were created by Yaldaboath to serve as homes for himself and his own offspring. The Apocryphon of John provides one account of these heavens, describing which Archon rules each celestial realm. However, there is considerable disagreement between the Gnostic sources as to which Emanation rules the various heavenly spheres.

Here is a table that attempts to consolidate some of the characteristics and rulers of each heavenly sphere:

Heaven #



Angel? (Order)


Sacred Vowel




Athoth or Oraios







Eloaio (Ailoaois) or








Astraphaios or Seth

Raguael / Ruhiel






Yao (Jao) or Esaldaios (El Shaddai)



White Gold




Sabaoth or Eloiein

Zerachiel / Araqael


Silver (again)




Adonein or Elilaios








Yaldaboath (Ialdabaoth) or Sabbateon or Yahweh or El (Elohim)

Remiel or Cassiel or Metatron




The angelic hierarchy given in this table is from the Ethiopic Enoch text, which has the earliest known reference to the angels of the seven spheres. You can pick your own hierarchy from the many other disparate sources out there.

I include the association of the seven spheres with vowels, since Christ and His disciples were said to have often broken out in a gibberish consisting solely of vowels ("speaking in tongues"). Many Gnostic magic spells have come down to us on inscribed amulets and tablets consisting of vowels alone. Some modern scholars of Gnosticism (Ruelle, Poirée, and Leclercq) are convinced that each vowel represents one of the seven planets, or Archons. A Gnostic’s possession of these spells and spoken magical formulae -- for one example, the term abracadabra -- along with the "true names" of the daemons, would give him control during his ascent to the seventh heaven, the kingdom of light. A principal feature of Gnosticism was the secret transmission to one another of doctrines about the being, nature, names, and symbols of the seven daemons who would otherwise bar the way to achieving their ultimate goal.

This is old stuff, a couple of thousand years old. It seems incredible to me that our secular language still contains scraps of this arcane "sacred knowledge". Imagine a couple thousand years from now, when our most sublime spiritual beliefs turn into mere colloquialisms whose origins and meanings have become irrevocably lost. Or into nonsense words that children use during play. Or into idle idioms and aphorisms whose original meanings have long since been buried by the sands of time.

Probably just as well. There is little new of spiritual value that we’ve managed to come up with in the last few thousand years, anyway.

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Sources used for this article:














The woodcut image at the top of the page may be under copyright by somebody, but I just can't find the original source at the moment.  I've seen it used a million times:  the shepherd poking through the edge of the visible world to see what lies beyond.  While it looks medieval, I recall reading somewhere years ago that  it was actually rendered in the Victorian era.

According to some Gnostic texts, Abracadrabra is to be uttered progressively, rapidly and without pause between lines as follows:










Be very wary when doing this.


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