The Journey to Other Worlds

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality - Michael Harner 2013

The Journey to Other Worlds

Given ethnocentric spirits, as well as other spirit problems and conflicts of our Middle World, it is not surprising that some shamans leave for other worlds where they can find and enlist the help of unconditionally compassionate spirits, hereafter simply referred to as the “compassionate spirits,” who provide divine knowledge, wisdom, healing knowledge, and power to help shamans and their patients. This is the approach of many of the “sky shamans” in Siberian Tuva and other shamans elsewhere on the planet who specialize in getting help from the compassionate spirits or beings beyond our world. It is also a significant reason for the use of the journey in core shamanism, based upon experience and experimentation by many thousands of Westerners over approximately four decades.

The shaman’s journey (sometimes called the “magical flight” or “soul journey”) to the worlds above and below us in another reality is a distinctive aspect of shamanism compared to other spiritual traditions.1 The main purpose of these journeys is to obtain extraordinary knowledge and help from the other worlds for others or for oneself.

Consequently, the shamanic journey is often a centerpiece of shamanism, engaging fully compassionate spirits of other worlds to effect “impossible” (i.e., miraculous) results in healing and divination. In this work, the shaman is not merely a supplicant so much as someone actively engaged with a helping spirit to alleviate the suffering and illness of another. Through this temporary but intimate alliance, shamans in indigenous cultures are typically expected by their peoples to produce healing and helping results beyond those available from prayer alone.


The journeys of the shamans involve three worlds: the one below us, popularly called the underworld; the one above us, often called the heavens; and the one in between, where we live, the Middle World. I first became aware of the importance of distinguishing them while living and learning shamanism with the Conibo people of the Ucayali River region of eastern Peru in 1960–61.

Several years later (1964), in reading Mircea Eliade’s book, newly published in English, I realized the widespread cross-cultural existence of the concept, which he sometimes referred to as the “three cosmic zones,” stacked one above the other along the Axis Mundi, or World Tree.2 Instead of three cosmic “zones,” I have long preferred the term “the three worlds,” for indeed there is a whole world to be discovered above us in nonordinary reality, and another below us, with multiple levels or zones within each. Thus, we usefully speak of the Upper, Middle (ours), and Lower Worlds. (See Plates 6 and 7.)

In addition, there exist what I call “Interworlds,” narrow bands of particular spirits at the interfaces of the Middle World with the Upper and Lower ones. I discovered these in the late 1970s while doing soul-retrieval work. An Interworld resembles what is commonly called “limbo.” More about that later. The preceding remarks do not exclude the possibility of other worlds horizontally at the extremities of the Middle World, or that both the Upper and Lower ones may unite around us as a kind of cosmic sphere. A great and exciting exploration of nonordinary reality continues to beckon.


Cross-cultural reports on the number of levels in each world vary considerably, and counts can be affected by individual experiences and by cultural constraints related to counting. In many nonliterate populations, people rarely needed to count beyond their fingers, perhaps partly because the needs of civilization for counting with regard to tribute, taxation, and commerce had not yet become part of their lives. In such groups, as in the Peruvian Amazon, shamans seem to have enumerated only a few levels in the Upper and Lower Worlds. In contrast, shamans living close to major civilizations where counting was well developed (such as in China) reported the greatest number of levels. In Inner Asian and Siberian societies, shamans counted up to forty-nine levels or “skies” in the Upper World.

“Official” statements about the number of levels or about characteristics are not part of core shamanic methodology. Instead individual shamanic journeyers draw working conclusions as they progress in their firsthand investigations. As people practice shamanic journeying, they gradually become acquainted with the sequences of levels in the Upper and Lower Worlds, what is to be found on them, and under what circumstances.


Like core shamanism in general, the following information was arrived at inductively through cross-cultural study, experimentation, and practice. Three main barriers have been noticed involving the two realities in shamanic work. The barriers are also sometimes called “transition zones.” People, when trained, normally can cross all of them relatively easily with the help of auditory driving. Spirits, however, usually are not able to cross them without some shamanic help. A notable exception is the power animal, which commonly seems to be able to transcend all barriers with ease.

The first is the important barrier between ordinary and nonordinary reality, which is transcended by shifting from the OSC to the SSC, as noted earlier. For about 90 percent of Westerners, this can be easily facilitated by means of adequately loud and repetitious drumming in the range of about 220 beats per minute, coupled with a basic knowledge of shamanism and a serious intention to enter the other reality for some planned purpose.

Once in NOR, the shaman may work primarily here in the Middle World, going in and out of NOR as is common in certain types of healing, and calling in help from another world, or going to it. That latter choice brings us to the second type of barrier, the one between this, the Middle World, and the others.

Stereotypical and mundane as it may sound, the barrier to the Upper World is commonly a cloud layer or a membrane of some type, sometimes with a hole in it. It is usually transcended easily, although doing this may take practice.

The third type of barrier is within the Upper World and often presents itself as another cloud layer or membrane. Typically, this third type of barrier is transcended with the least difficulty. There is no fixed number of these; each person has to discover this individually. Also at times the levels may expand or collapse together, like an accordion.

The situation for the Lower World is analogous. The first barrier separates the Middle World from the Lower and is usually earth or water with passage made by means of a tunnel. The subsequent barriers are typically more easily transcended, usually by using tunnels. As with the Upper World, each person has to discover the number of these.


Shamans’ maps are in their minds. Therefore it is essential for them to know where they start from, just as a surveyor must use a benchmark as a reference point from which all mapping is done. As shamans make more journeys from the same departure locations, they are able to add more and more details to their mental maps.

The departure places are ones that shamans know firsthand in ordinary reality. Usually each shaman has one specific departure site from which he or she repeatedly starts for the Upper World and another one from which to start for the Lower World. These departure points become fixed in a shaman’s mind, to be visualized and utilized over and over again in order to travel with the greatest accuracy into the vast cosmos of nonordinary reality.

Whatever departure point a shaman uses, it becomes for each the Center of the Universe, since all subsequent mental mapping proceeds from the points used. If a shaman uses one place to depart for the Upper World and another for the Lower World, each is the Center of Universe in terms of mapping the journeys made from that point. Since the shamans know the distance and direction in the Middle World of these two departure sites, they can easily map their Upper and Lower World discoveries in relation to them. Sometimes shamans have a single special departure place for going both up and down. In such a case, the coordinated mapping of the Upper and Lower Worlds is even easier.

In these journeys, one can travel “outside of time” through a normally imperceptible universe otherwise known mainly through dream and myth. “Outside of time” is the fortuitous phrase coined by distinguished Russian ethnographer Waldemar Bogoras to describe the journeys of the Siberian tribal shamans about whom he published in the early twentieth century.3 While there is no evidence that Bogoras undertook shamanic training and practice himself, he did seem to understand and respect the profound cosmic nature of the shamans’ experiences during their journeys.4

The late Siberian shaman Tubiyaku, of the Nganasan people, asked my Russian ethnologist friend, the now-deceased Yuri Simchenko, to get him a computer, of whose abilities he had heard. As Tubiyaku’s memory was declining, he needed help to remember what discoveries he had made where in his shamanic journeys. Without electricity and a knowledge of computers, saving his memories in this way was not possible.

Now Tubiyaku has long since passed on, and his knowledge with him. However, today we do commonly have electricity and computers, so it is possible to record and map one’s own discoveries. And that brings us to the Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory.


In the 1960s I began amassing a large library of publications connected with shamanism. Then, in the 1970s, I also began collecting the accounts of Western students who made shamanic journeys or who had other kinds of shamanic experiences. Today these form part of the Foundation’s Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory, which also includes a vast collection of publications connected with indigenous shamanism, as well as shamanic artifacts.

The purpose of collecting the Western reports was to see “if there was anything out there.” Like a good old-fashioned ethnographer, I accepted the stories of the “natives” (in this case, Westerners) without judgment and recognized my responsibility to preserve them for future generations to study and to compare to non-Western accounts of the Upper and Lower Worlds. Also I was frankly curious to see what they found, and I wanted at some point to personally compare them to firsthand indigenous accounts unaffected by Westernization, which so far has been a vain hope.5

Eventually, with the support and help of many persons, including donors, Foundation members, former students, and a few dedicated staff members,6 we expanded and formalized the procedure by setting up the Mapping of Nonordinary Reality project (MONOR) as part of the work of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies. (The “mapping” term is meant primarily to cover written descriptions but also includes diagrammatic maps. See Plates 8 and 9.)

Today the Foundation carefully preserves these irreplaceable reports in the Western Archives of its Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory in Marin County, California, as well as at secure locations elsewhere in North America and Europe. The Western Archives are unique in the world because of their content and size. As of the last count, made June 25, 2007, the archives included 2,528 accounts of shamanic ascension to the Upper World by Westerners, with more added since. As of April 15, 2008, the archives had accumulated records of 2,397 descents to the Lower World.

In recent years, I decided to make a “Celestia Study” of the Upper World documents. The ascension experiences in the following pages were selected from that study as representative examples. Because of limitations of time and resources, it has not yet been possible to undertake an equivalent “Netheria Study” of Lower World experiences.

Each person’s description of a shamanic journey is a cosmographic fact, just as in classic anthropological fieldwork each informant’s statement is an ethnographic fact, recorded as such in the fieldworker’s notebook. In the pages that follow, I sometimes group statements of the various Westerners into broad categories with little individual analysis on my part. Generally I try to resist the temptation to go farther. There are good reasons for this. First, the journeys are so individually rich with multiple experiences that their grouping according to a single experience does not do them justice. Secondly, I wish to encourage readers to make such observations themselves and to feel free to exercise their spiritual independence.

The approach of the following pages tries to reflect this view. One caveat: sometimes I do offer suggestions or speculations. These are not offered as dogma but as personal ideas intended to stimulate the thinking of others. Ultimately, interpreting the meaning of an Upper World experience is the province of the experiencer.

It is virtually impossible to know the total significance of what happened to another person in nonordinary reality. Even that person may not realize much of an experience’s significance without doing additional ascensions for more information. Unfortunately, it was not possible to undertake follow-up interviews with the Westerners and include hindsight commentaries in this book.7

The accounts are typically presented as originally given. For the requirements of this book, they are sometimes edited for conciseness, but virtually all the originals are preserved in the Shamanic Knowledge Conservatory. One last note: the terms “Westerners” and “students” are interchangeable in the following pages since they refer to the same population, virtually all being persons who at some point participated as students in the North American core shamanism programs of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.