Many of the early myths related to the sky. Gazing at the sky, Karen Armstrong suggests, may have given people their first notion of the divine. The sky offered a religious experience without any sense of a god behind it – it offered the essence of the mysterium tremendum, teribile et fascinans.
This early worship did not have a self-serving agenda. Despite the modern narrative about the purpose of early religion, Armstrong argues, people did not want anything from the sky and knew that they could not influence what it did. Humans have always experienced our world as inherently mysterious. The sense of awe and wonder that accompanies this realisation is the essence of worship. These experiences of transcendence are satisfying and fulfilling in themselves. Contemplating the vastness of the sky gave people an experience of ecstasy by becoming aware of the nature of existence, seeing their smallness and place in the universe. Glimpsing this reality transcended their own lives and lifted them ‘emotionally and imaginatively’ beyond their circumstances.
The myths that people created helped them to participate in the sacred mystery in some way and these myths only remain vital if they primarily speak to the problems and concerns of humanity, rather than addressing the supernatural. A myth, argues Armstrong, does not transmit factual information but rather is a guide for behaviour. The truth of myth is only realised when it is practiced in ritual or ethics. When it is purely intellectual or abstract it becomes remote and loses relevance.
In all cultures there have emerged myths with themes of flight and ascent which would seem to express the desire for freedom and transcendence. Myths should never be read literally. Jesus ascending to heaven does not mean that he literally rose up through the clouds. When Muhammad flies from Mecca to Jerusalem and climbs the ladder to the divine throne it is a symbol that he has risen to a higher level of consciousness. Likewise, the prophet Elijah ascending to heaven in a fiery chariot. Spiritual flight is not a physical journey but an inner experience of the ecstatic.
In more recent times, Nietzsche expressed this repeatedly in his philosophy and search for a higher humanity. Joseph Campbell noted that the serpent and the bird (often an eagle) are present in all myths. The bird symbolises the desire for flight and transcendence, while the serpent spoke of the necessity of connecting and remain bonded to the earth.