Today is another Christian holiday that doesn’t get much press these days, Ascension Thursday. This is when Jesus, after being resurrected on Easter Sunday and hanging around for forty days, ascended bodily into Heaven. I’m sure we’ve all seen the illustrations. I remember there being one in some Bible storybook that my grandparents gave me back in my childhood.
As with most myths about the Nazarene, however, this idea was hardly original with Jesus. In fact, there were tales of bodily ascensions told in Jesus’ own religion. There’s a Wikipedia page that gives examples of this in various religions, and I’m going to highlight a few of them. Some were from before Jesus and some after, but all have the same basic theme.
Enoch – You remember this guy, right? He was the seventh in the line of antediluvian patriarchs, and unlike all the others, he isn’t said to have died. Instead, Genesis tells us, “And Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” Exactly what this means isn’t clear, but it developed into a belief that Enoch was taken bodily to Heaven by God to live forever. In the Book of Enoch, it’s said that he will someday return as the Messiah.
Elijah – Perhaps second only to Moses in terms of legendary Jewish prophets, this advocate of Yahweh and miracle worker was active in the time of King Ahab of Israel. The Bible credits him with a direct line to God, and the power to work all kinds of magic through the deity. He raised the dead, produced food, called for rain, and summoned fire from the heavens. He was also famed as an opponent of Baal, the storm god who was Yahweh’s main rival at this point in history. Elijah is also said to have not really died, but rather ascended to Heaven in a whirlwind. Flaming chariots drawn by flaming horses accompanied this divine cyclone, but the wording in 2 Kings 2 makes it sound like Elijah didn’t actually ride in one of the chariots. Some pictures of the event do show the prophet as riding, however.
The only earthly witness to this ascension was Elijah’s protege Elisha, who took up his old master’s mantle and position. There’s no tradition of Elisha ascending to Heaven, however, and he’s recorded in 2 Kings 13 as dying a fairly ordinary death. His corpse does apparently retain some of his miraculous power, as it reanimates another dead man a year later, but it’s hardly the fanfare Elijah received. Not surprisingly, there are stories that Elijah will return someday, and some people think it’s already happened. Malachi has a passage about Elijah returning at “the Day of the Lord.”
Hercules – When his wife Deianira was tricked by the dying centaur Nessus into using some of the centaur’s own blood to poison the legendary Greek hero, Hercules ended up in so much pain that he longer for the release of death. He was burned alive on a funeral pyre, but Zeus took him up to Olympus and granted him status as a full god before the fire could totally consume him. I’ve seen it suggested that, what with the Greek influence on Christianity, the ascension of Christ was based on that of Hercules, but I don’t see any more similarity here than between Jesus and Elijah, really. Not that the story of Hercules couldn’t have been a partial inspiration, but I think this is another one of those mythological tropes that shows up in unrelated cultures.
Yudhisthira – In Hindu belief, he was a pious and righteous king, the son of Pandu and Kunti of Hastinapura.
He was an adept warrior specializing in the use of the spear, sometimes said to be able to fight thousands of opponents at a time. He became the king of Khandavaprastha and Indraprasth, and later performed the sacrifice known as Rajasuya to become Emperor of the World. I’m not sure how official this ranking was, but he was quite popular in India at least. He apparently had his flaws, though, as he was forced to go into exile for a few years due to gambling away his kingdom. He did eventually win it back, but you’d think a wise man wouldn’t have agreed to such high stakes. On the other hand, it DID guarantee him free rooms at the casino hotel for life. Seriously, though, Yudhisthira and his brothers all retired at the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the most depraved of the four ages. According to the Surya Siddhanta, this would place his retirement at the end of the thirty-second century BC. The brothers took to hiking in the Himalayas, but only Yudhisthira himself was virtuous enough to survive. Indra took the warrior-king to Heaven in his chariot, at first insisting that Yudhisthira leave his faithful dog behind. The former emperor refused to abandon his canine companion, however, and in true mythological fashion this turned out to be the right answer after all. The dog was actually the god Dharma in disguise.
The Eight Immortals – In Taoism, there are eight people who achieved immortality in various ways, some of them as a reward and others through complete accident. They now live on the heavenly mountain of Penglai, and have been popular in Chinese art and literature for centuries. You can learn more about the individual immortals here and here.
Mary – In Catholic, Episcopalian, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, it’s believed that Jesus’ mother was eventually taken bodily to Heaven. To Catholics, however, this is referred to not as ascension (only Jesus did that), but rather assumption. I guess the difference is that it was passive on her part, and active on her son’s. This tradition dates back at least as far back as the fourth century, but it was only defined as official Catholic dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
Muhammad – The founder of Islam is said to have been taken to Heaven by the angel Gabriel, then returned to Earth to give his revelations to the people. He first journeyed from Mecca to Jerusalem on a Buraq, an incredibly fast white steed with extending legs that’s longer than a donkey but smaller than a mule. I wonder why you never see any of them around anymore.
After reaching the Palestinian city, Muhammad ascended from the Temple Mount into Heaven, and chatted with the Jewish prophets and Allah Himself. His ascension is commemorated with the Dome of the Rock, supposedly built on top of the Foundation Stone from which Muhammad made his heavenly journey.
The mountain is, of course, the one where the Jewish Temple stood until its destruction by the Romans in the first century AD. It’s also regarded as the place where Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isaac until God intervened at the last minute. Some Islamic scholars feel that Muhammad’s magical mystery tour actually took place in a dream, and that the prophet never actually went to Jerusalem. The Quran apparently doesn’t specify that the event occurred in Jerusalem anyway, but simply at “the farthest mosque.”