The Seven Heavens: An Irish Eschatological Tradition

In a country with an epithet like “The Land of Saints and Scholars”, one would expect to find a very rich and plentiful resource of religious beliefs when looking at the vast collection of manuscripts handed down to us from our forebearers. This is certainly the case and among these beliefs the medieval Irish seemed to have a special fondness towards the eschatological tradition. Within this tradition we find the subject of this current essay, the so called ‘seven heavens’. John Carey classes the ‘seven heavens’ as being the “most striking element in insular eschatological tradition”, a claim that is certainly hard to refute considering the fact that accounts of it can be found in manuscripts dating well into the 19th century. This popularity is especially striking considering the fact that many of the beliefs found therein had long since gone out of fashion. The main focus of these texts is on seven zones or heavens through which souls have to pass. Several of these ‘zones’ contain punishments of a purificatory nature, ultimately culminating in judgement before the divine.

This tradition of course does not originate in Ireland, nor is it limited to such. Carey argues for a Gnostic background for the tradition and although there are ten zones/heavens in many instances in the Coptic sources, they do in fact share a common denominator, the fact that these zones share the hell like torments that have a purifying effect on the souls involved. In the Irish sources though it is not common to connect the seven heavens with the seven known planets known at the time unlike what we see in, for example, the Egyptian sources where they often equate the seven heavens with the planetary bodies or the primeval week. The resemblance between the Irish, old English and Latin material pertaining to the seven heavens does at the very least point to the possibility of them all stemming from a common source. This theory of a common lost apocryphon can be argued for due to the schema relating to the passage of souls through the heavens and the remarkable similarities between the Irish, Old English and Latin sources. Each of these portrays the heavens as concentric with a gate or door to each entrance. The entrances of the first two of the seven heavens are guarded by 2 virgins and an archangel. Souls must pass through the zones facing obstacles such as fiery walls and streams with levels of time taken to pass through the obstacles being dependent on if the soul was righteous or a sinner. As they reach the 7th heaven they are subject to judgement by god with the sinners being eaten by a succession of twelve dragons until they are deposited into the devil’s mouth. By the time the tradition had evolved to the point of the more modern versions, such as in In Tenga Bithnua modern recension (hereafter TBNM) this description has become more graphic in terms of the dragons eating the soul and it being passed through the anus into the mouth of the next dragon. Also similar to the Seacht Neamha (hereafter SN), we see the use of classical names for rivers (such as Asceron, Styx etc.). This so-called ‘lost apocryphon’ of the seven heavens was proposed by Stephenson to have been derived from a mixture of the Greek version of the Gnostic Apocalypse of Paul and another apocalypse that was translated into Latin before reaching Ireland. This was more or less backed up by Carey although he views Pistis Sophia as being a better candidate over the Apocalypse of Paul. Whichever apocalypse informed it, it is clearly evident that there was indeed Coptic influence and it may be safely assumed that there were some now lost editions circulating that ultimately informed our own native insular seven heavens tradition.

In an Irish context we have a number of texts relating to the seven heavens that survive. As mentioned above these cover a large time period from the 12th century up until the 19th century. The primary texts relating to this tradition are the account of the seven heavens contained within Fís Adomnáin, ‘An Seacht Neamha’ in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum (hereafter LFF), and ‘In Tenga Bithnua’. The oldest account of the seven heavens that can be found in Ireland is contained within Fís Adomnáin (hereafter FA) and is found in Lebor na hUidre. This recension of FA has essentially the same framework as the Visio Santi Pauli but chooses to omit all the names of the doors and of the heavens. Also it would appear, according to Touati, that the FA seven heavens section could have been informed by the homily of the karlsruhe fragment which is Hiberno-Latin in origin and was very likely familiar to the author of FA.

Another Irish seven heavens text we are aware of is ‘In Tenga Bithnua’ (hereafter TBN). John Carey places the original composition of this to around the 9th century whereas Whitley Stokes had placed it to the 10th/11th century around the time of the crossover between old and middle Irish period. The popularity of this text can be seen from it being copied over many centuries, long after the belief systems contained within had become obsolete. There are numerous copies of this text extant in three recensions. The third recension, or modern recension (TBNM), can be found in 39 manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to the 15th century (this copy however does not have the seven heavens section ) and the latest of which are 18th and 19th cent. Of these later manuscripts twenty copies are from the 18th century and eighteen from the 19th century. The language in these recensions, in comparison to the others, has been modernised and due to this fact, can be dated to no earlier than the period in which they were written. Even though the language has been ‘updated’ as such, there are some similarities found there with phrases found in both SN and FA and while TBNM does not directly derive from them, it certainly shows influence from them. What is worth noting though is that in TBNM we see more attention paid to the names of the seven heavens unlike FA, with many of the names being similar to SN. Another development when looking at TBNM is that it is the only recension that features the ease of passage through the trials by the righteous and the prolonging of torments of the sinners that is in other seven heavens texts that is not evident in the first and second recensions of TBN.

So in conclusion we see that in the case of SN, TBN and FA that there are gates involving barring access to the heavens that would appear to be some sort of interface between the vertical and horizontal approach to the traditions. We also see virgins as guardians (only named in one instance) that have iron rods for scourging souls. And in some cases these heavens seem to be specifically concentric as opposed to ascent. In all cases these souls have to pass through various obstacles such as fiery rivers, walls etc, that increase in difficulty depending on the purity of the soul and the ultimate time needed to pass dependant on said purity. Each passes through these zones till they reach an antechamber of sorts in the sixth heaven and ultimately being judged by god himself in the seventh heaven. In all cases we also encounter twelve dragons who swallow the soul of those damned to hell, passing the soul from one to another till the damned soul is deposited into the jaws of the devil.

The remaining seven heavens text we find in Ireland is the An Seacht Neamha text found in the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum . This is the only version of this text that we have available to us. Also in this manuscript we see a deliberate attempt to modernise the language possibly to make it more accessible to the readers of the 15th century. We see many parallels between SN and TBN in the fact that they both have very close descriptions of the heavens. Both describe seventy two rewards in the paradisal zones and seventy two punishments in the hell like zones but as well as its similarities it has its own unique elements that cannot be found elsewhere. These elements include the naming of the virgins found in the second heaven. This naming of the virgins can also be found in the Old English homily along with identical naming of doors which leads us to believe that both derive from the same source.

‘The End and Beyond: Medieval Irish Eschatology’, Carey, J.,Nic Cárthaigh, E., and Ó Dochartaigh, C. (eds.), 2 vols (Aberystwth,2014), vol.1

Carey, J.,’The King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings’, (Dublin, 2000)

Carey, J.,’The Seven Heavens and the Twelve Dragons in insular apocalyptic’, in McNamara, M. (ed.), Apocalyptic and Eschatological Heritage: The Middle East and Celtic Realms, (Dublin,2003)

Herbert, M.,’Medieval Collections of Ecclesiastical and Devotional Materials: Leabhar Breac, Liber Flavus Fergusiorum and the Book of Fenagh’ in B. Cunningham and S. Fitzpatrick (eds.), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin,2009)

Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)

Stevenson, J., “Ascent through the heavens, from Egypt to Ireland”, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 5 (Summer, 1983)
Stokes, W.,’The Evernew Tongue’, Eriú 2 (1905)

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