The interesting facet of this particular dream image, involves the steep vertical ascent and conversely, descent, of the ladder itself. This physical reality may imply a rapid ascent into our new perception or emotion. At the same time, there may be an equally obvious risk of falling from these same exaggerated heights. As such, we may need to consider the relative soundness of each rung and what we perceptually find at each level of experience. In any case, the ladder may imply a social, sexual, economic, or even spiritual, rise, which needs to be scaled very slowly, and with extreme caution.
All the different aspects of ladder symbolism bring us back to the single problem of the relationship between heaven and Earth.
Ladders display a gradual ascension and a channel of communication, in both directions, between different levels. All realization of potential, Bachelard observes, is conceived as elevation, and all elevation is depicted as a rising curve. Verticality is the line which describes the quality and height of that elevation, horizontality its quantity and extent. Height would be the individual’s dimension viewed externally, depth that same dimension viewed from within. In art, ladders are the imaginary stairways of spiritual ascension.
Ladders may be made of pegs hammered into mountain-sides, or even, according to the Pacific legend, of flights of arrows, each one shot into the tail of the one before, and the first sticking into the vault of Heaven. Ladders may also be made of such airy substances as the rainbow or, on the spiritual plane, from the stages of inner perfection.
The notion that in the beginning Heaven and Earth were joined and that this connection was subsequently broken, is almost universal. In Shinto there is a belief that this connection was preserved by Amaterasu, who borrowed ‘the Ladder of Heaven’; and this belief is current, too, among the Montagnards of southern Vietnam. In these different contexts the ladder clearly plays the same part as the World tree. Its symbolism is exactly the same as that of Jacob's Ladder, with its angels descending and ascending; as that of the ladder made from two naga, on which the Buddha came down from Mount Meru; as the mi'raj of the Prophet Muhammad; and as the seven-notched birch trees of Siberian shamans. It should also be observed that the Vietnamese Emperor Minh-Hoang reached the Moon with the help of a ladder.
It is significant that the Siberian birch has seven (or NiNe or sixteen) notches, that the Buddha’s staircase is of seven colours, that the ladder in the Mithraic Mysteries was made of seven metals and that used in the Kadosch by Masons of the Scottish Rite has seven rungs. To pass from Earth to Heaven requires the passage of seven cosmic stages, corresponding to the seven Planetary Spheres and Dante’s Seven Liberal Arts which are also mentioned on the Kadosch ladder. These liberal arts may correspond to more esoteric knowledge, the rungs to grades of initiation, as is patently the case with the Mithraic Mysteries. Passing from Earth to Heaven is accomplished in a series of spiritual states, their order marked by the rungs of the ladder and symbolized as well by the angels on Jacob’s Ladder.
If we confine ourselves to the means, we shall find that the notion of the ladder (klimax in Greek) recurs among the early Fathers and especially in St John Climacus, who derives his surname from one. The means involved are a strict gradation of spiritual exercises, mounted rung by rung. ‘Thus,’ wrote St Simeon the New Theologian, ‘the individual will succeed in raising himself from Earth and ascending into Heaven.’ St Isaac the Syrian adds: ‘The ladder of this kingdom is hidden within thee, in thy soul. Cleanse thyself, therefore, from sin and thou shalt find the rungs whereon to mount up.’ Buddhist jhana are similarly depicted.
As we have said, ladders are one of the symbols of ascension. They stand as units where the upper and the lower, Heaven and Earth, can meet. They make a bridge in the sense used by Iamblicus (d. 330), when he issued the invitation to rise to the heights as though on a bridge or ladder. The whole of spiritual life is expressed in terms of elevation, which is why St Ambrose was to speak of the ‘soul of the baptized person rising to Heaven’.
The Hebrew word sullam, translated as scala in the Vulgate, recurs throughout the Old Testament. Jacob’s Ladder may be the best-known example, but there are other significant uses, as in the three storeys of Noah’s Ark (Genesis 6: 16), the six steps of Solomon’s throne (1 Kings 10: 19) and the steps in Ezekiel’s Temple (Ezekiel 40: 26, 31). Psalms 120-34 are known as Gradual Psalms or ‘Songs of Degrees’.
During her martyrdom, St Perpetua saw her ascension as a brazen ladder of extraordinary length mounting from Earth to Heaven, but so narrow that people could only climb it one behind the other. On the rungs were set spikes, hooks and blades to tear the flesh of the unwary and underneath the ladder a huge dragon which tried to catch at the climbers and frighten them away from the ascent. St Perpetua says that as she set her foot on the bottom rung of the ladder she trod down the dragon’s head and that as she climbed she caught sight of a vast garden. In his commentary on this vision, St Augustine was to say (Sermons 280: 1) that the dragon’s head formed the bottom rung of the ladder. Nobody can begin to climb until he or she has trampled the dragon underfoot.
According to St John Cassian, the ladder which will reach to Heaven has ten rungs, while St Benedict holds that they are twelve in number and describes them in Chapter 7 of his Rule. St John Climacus, in his treatise entitled The Ladder, speaks of thirty rungs commemorating the thirty years of Christ’s hidden life. Jacob’s Ladder provided a basic theme for many writers, including St Gregory the Great and St Isidore of Seville. From this rich and well-proportioned treasury, the writers of the Middle Ages were to construct their varied explanations of the mystic ladder linking Earth with Heaven, which the soul is invited to climb in proportion to its longing, its knowledge and its love.
Such an ascensional symbol is an indication of both hierarchy and motion. The earthly condition is the point of departure; the angelic state the goal of arrival. Between them the different rungs, or temporary halts, not only indicate resting-places but glimpses of the beauty and peace which reassure the climber and encourage him or her to persevere and face the struggles which lie ahead. The more the climber can strip off and cast aside, the easier the climb will become. This is why self-denial is so important. It should be observed that the seven rungs described by the mystics bear some relation to the seven gates of Heaven to be found in Mithraic rites of initiation. Each of these was guarded by an angel and the adept had, each time, to strip himself, so that he could attain to the resurrection of the body.
It should also be made quite clear that, in the vertical plane of ascent (ascensus) and descent (descensus), the peak is directly over the base. Thus Master Eckhart can write: ‘What is most high in unfathomable godhead, corresponds with what is most low in the depths of humility.’ There is the same meaning behind Macrobius’ statement that ‘in nature one thing follows another in continuous succession descending, like the rungs of a ladder, from the highest to the lowest rung. Examined with balance and in depth, it will be seen that all things from Almighty God down to the foulest slime are one and are linked mutually by bonds which can never be broken’ (In somnium Scipionis 1: 14, 15).
Clearly this aspect of ladder symbolism is true to the Platonic tradition which describes the ascent of the soul from the phenomenal to the intellectual world.
As a symbol of ascension, a ladder has come to represent the ascent (mi'raj) of Muhammad. When the angel Gabriel snatched the Prophet up to Heaven, as he ascended through the darkness, a magnificent ladder (mi'raj) appeared. It is towards this ladder that the dying direct their gaze and it is used by the spirits of mankind to rise up to Heaven. Sufis consider ascension the symbol of the elevation of the soul as it slips the bonds of Earth and attains mystic knowledge.
The rungs of a ladder also symbolize the years of a human life. ‘Algerian peasants at Zakkar in the Sheliff Valley still set headboards of olive wood on their graves, standing diagrammatically for the seven Heavens reached by the earthly ladder’.
In Ancient Egyptian tradition, Ra’s ladder linked Heaven and Earth. The Egyptian Book of the Dead refers to a ladder which allows one to behold the gods. In Ancient Egypt, the notion of the ladder was associated with the myth of the centre of the world. However, all holy places can become centres and thus make contact with Heaven.
The Uralo-Altaic shaman performed his ascent to offer the soul of the sacrificial horse to Bai-Ulgen by means of the seven rungs notched in a birch tree. Each of these rungs also marked his passage through one of the planetary spheres. As in the Mithraic Mysteries, the sixth rung corresponded to the Moon and the seventh to the Sun. Travelling from Asia to America, shamanism is found to preserve the same symbolic framework. As Metraux explains, among the Taulipang Indians in Amazonia ‘in order to reach the land of spirits, the shaman drinks an infusion made from a liana whose form suggests a ladder’.
The Turks have the same ascension symbol. ‘In the Uighur poem Kadatku Bilik, a hero dreamed that he was climbing a fifty-runged ladder, at the top of which a woman gave him water to drink; thus revived he was able to get to heaven’.
Eliade sums up the lesson to be drawn from all these examples, that all ascension symbols ‘signify a transcending of the human and a penetration into higher cosmic levels’.
Ladders, however, may be used by deities to come down to Earth from Heaven. In eastern Timor the Sun-Lord, the supreme deity, comes down once a year into a fig-tree to make his wife, the Earth Mother, pregnant. To help him down, a seven- or ten-runged ladder is set up against the fig-tree. This festival is held at the start of the rainy season.
In many accounts of Amerindians there are references to a ladder which leads up to the rainbow, and the rainbow itself is often depicted as a ladder, for example by the Pueblo Indians. The rainbow is the road taken by the dead. It is, however, a road which leads down as well as up, and along it the inhabitants of Heaven make contact with those on Earth, as if by means of a ladder.
From the rainbow one is led naturally to consideration of the especial symbolism of the double ladder. This is an extremely ancient image, believed to originate with the Chaldaeans. Sometimes it is drawn within a star or a crowned circle. It is the symbol of justice since ascent and descent are precisely matched, as crime and punishment should be. Similarities have been drawn between the two equal lengths of ladder swivelling upon the bar which joins them at the top, and the scales and the symbol of immanent justice. All crime automatically releases destructive forces upon the guilty party and, in a series of concentric circles, upon his or her sphere of influence. Punishment is subject to a sort of psychic determinism.
Climbing, stairways and ladders occupy an important place in psychoanalytic writing. In dreams, in so far as ladders are means of ascent, they engender terror, fear and anxiety or their opposites, happiness, a sense of security and so on. Waking dreams offer all sorts of suggestions of rising and falling and their interpretation is mainly derived from a dialectic of verticality, with the occasional anxious fear that the ladder may overbalance. When associated with the notion of rhythm the ladder symbol may sometimes hold an erotic explanation, the ascent becoming the swelling of the libido into orgasm.