The Upper and Lower Worlds, and the World Center

Throughout Siberia as well as among many Native American groups people
believe that there are three worlds laid upon one another in the universe.
In some ways, ideas about the upper and lower worlds seem to imply a
concept of parallel worlds rather than that of three worlds being literally
stacked like layers on a cake. While the sky is believed to be infinite in
depth, shamanists nevertheless insist that there is a doorway to go beyond
the heavens. In the same way, while the earth is believed to be deep and
solid, there are many passages which allow spirits and shamans to penetrate
beyond to the lower world. Another aspect of the idea of the other two
worlds is the fact that they are very similar to Earth in that they too
have a sun, moon, forests, and humanlike inhabitants. The dwellers of the
upper and lower worlds are invisible in our middle world, and people
traveling from here to those worlds are likewise invisible. The presence of
such intruders will be betrayed by a sudden crackle in the fire, barking by
foxes, or by being visible to shamans.

The lower world is basically similar to this world except that its
inhabitants have only one soul, rather than the three possessed by human
beings. The ami soul, which causes breathing and warmth in the body, is
lacking, so lower world dwellers are cold and have dark blood. Furthermore,
some of the dwellers in the lower world are actually the suns souls of
human beings awaiting reincarnation. The sun and moon are not as bright as
in this world; the Samoyed say it is because the sun and moon of the lower
world are actually half rather than full orbs. The lower world has forests,
mountains, and settlements just like this world, and its inhabitants even
have their own shamans.

The ruler of the lower world is Erleg Khan, son of Father Heaven. He has
authority over the disposition of souls, when and where they will
incarnate. Shamans often must appeal to him when recovering souls which
have prematurely wandered away to the lower world before the body has died.
Outside of these situations, people from the middle world rarely enter the
realm of Erleg Khan except after death.

Travel to and from the lower world goes by many routes. One route is by way
of the World River, which flows into the lower world, and its entrance is
protected by Mongoldai Nagts, who prevents souls from entering the lower
world before the body is truly dead. Nevertheless, sometimes souls slip
through and must be retrieved before the illness caused by the soul’s
absence causes permanent damage. Travel along the World River is very
perilous and it is full of rapids. It is said that when a shaman falls dead
during a lower world soul retrieval it is because the trip was too
dangerous and his soul was lost. During his journey to the Lower World the
shaman also may need to confront and placate Mongoldai Nagts and Erleg Khan
and convince them to let the soul return. The lower world may also be
entered through caves, whirlpools, springs, or one of the many tunnels
through the earth which lower world beings use to travel up to this world.

The upper world, like the lower world, appears very similar to this world.
The upper world, however, does not normally house the spirits of human
beings, although shamans may travel there. It is brighter than this world,
some legends say that it has seven suns. Descriptions of the upper world
say that it resembles the earth, but nature in that world is still
unspoiled and its inhabitants still live in the traditional ways of the
ancestors. The ruler of the upper world is Ulgen, who is also a son of
Father Heaven. Sometimes the brightness of the upper world will be revealed
when the doorway between the worlds is opened. This will be seen as rays of
sunlight shooting out from beyond the clouds, and prayers said when this
occurs are especially powerful.

Travel to the upper world requires flight, and shamans often change
themselves into birds in order to make the journey. They may also ride upon
a flying deer or horse for the journey. The route may be straight upward,
or toward the south, to the source of the world river. Some accounts of
shaman initiations involve travel to the upper world and initiation by the
spirits there before the shamans’ initiation in this world. Another way of
travel to the upper world is climbing the toroo, Tree of the Universe,
which is represented by a tree at shaman ceremonies. The shaman will climb
the tree while in a state of ecstasy and his soul will at the same time
ascend the actual toroo tree to the heavens. Yet another route is suggested
by the Dagur Mongol word for shamans’ power dreams—soolong. In standard
Mongolian solongo means rainbow, and the shaman may be traveling in his
sleep over the rainbow to the upper world in order to retrieve the
information he brings back from the dream.

Earlier in this chapter the ger was said to represent the center of the
world. In reality, each person stands at the center of the world in his own
consciousness. Shamans in doing their work also locate themselves in the
center of the world during their rituals. Many different images are
associated with the center of the world. The most familiar one is that of
the place of the fire in the ger, which is the meeting point between the
earth and the axis connecting the three worlds. The other is the toroo
tree, which also creates an axis as well as a pole for ascent and descent.
Siberian and Mongolian traditions locate the tree at the center of the
world, but also in the south, where the upper and middle worlds touch. By
the world tree, which some say “stands at the border of day and night”, the
world river enters the middle world from the its sources in the upper
world. According to the traditions of the Altay, Bayan Ami, lord of the
forest animals, will be encountered during the ascent of this tree and will
grant the shaman geese to assist him on his journey to the upper world. The
top of the toroo tree touches the sky by the pole star, the altan hadaas,
the sky nail which holds up the heavens. The other image of the center of
the world is the peak of Mount Sumber, the world mountain. The peak at the
center of the world is close to the pole star, and its roots rest upon a
turtle in the lower world.

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