Heaven’s Maps

Sibusiso Mthembu, who lives near Durban, South Africa, has drawn a map of the way to heaven on the wall of his home. Pilgrims troop by to view this marvel and newspapers are reporting this as yet another weird event, something to chuckle over. But maps of heaven have been common throughout human existence and they are usually quite serious affairs.

Sibusiso Mthembu in front of his map to Heaven.

Sibusiso Mthembu in front of his map to Heaven.

Heaven is not necessarilly Paradise; it may be simply the Land of the Dead, the place human beings go after death. Still, it is a place and places are located by maps. Sibusio Mthembu is unusual, though, in that he has managed to return from Heaven. Usually this is a place that people only glimpse in dreams.

Journey of the Dead to Dhuwa, Land of the Dead for the Jiridja Australians, by Binyinyuwuy, 1948.

“Journey of the Dead to Dhuwa”, Land of the Dead for the Jiridja Australians, by Binyinyuwuy, 1948.

Humans have made maps for thousands of years but one culture’s version may be unreadable by other humans from other cultures. Maps derive from concepts of the World and people’s place in it. Medieval European maps used to place Jerusalem in the center and the known continents were arranged around it. The medieval concept of Heaven has to do with concentric rings of spheres of existence. Heaven is in the outermost sphere.

A map of Existence according to Dante. [via Kinkanon]

A map of Existence according to Dante. [via Kinkanon]

As Western concepts have become more technical, so Heavenly maps have become more diagrammatic:

Chart of Heaven by Clarence Larkin, about 1895.

Chart of Heaven by Clarence Larkin, about 1895.

But ecstatic visions still occur and are recorded by those who do not fear social judgment.Brenda Davis paints what she dreams. “I can’t help it. God knows I can’t read or write, so he tells me the stories.” Here is her “Map to Heaven”:


The most exact maps to Heaven are possibly those made by Athapaskan tribes in northeastern British Columbia. Hugh Brody has written of this in his great Maps And Dreams. Hunters, some of them, would dream of the hunt they would have and the game they would take. This was a special gift of a few. Amongst these, some would also dream of Heaven and the way to get there. The maps that are made from dreams are very special and not to be seen except on special occasions, such as when the Beaver people were trying to convince certain bureaucrats that they did indeed understand their area in geographic terms and had mapped it. They brought a moosehide bundle into the meeting place:

…they untied the bundle’s thongs and began very carefully to pull back the cover. …the contents seemed to be a thick layer of hide, pressed tightly together. With great care, Aggan took this hide from its cover and began to open the layers. It was a magnificent dream map.
The dream map was as large as the table top, and had been folded tightly for many years. It was covered with thousands of short, firm, and variously colored markings. …Up here is heaven; this is the trail that must be followed; here is a wrong direction; this is where it would be worst of all to go; and over there are all the animals….all of this had been discovered in dreams.
…it was wrong to unpack a dream map except for very special reasons. But…the hearing was important. Everyone must look at the map now. …They should realize, however, that intricate routes and meanings of a dream map are not easy to follow. There was not time to explain them all. The visitors crowded around the table, amazed and confused.
A corner of the map was missing…someone had died who would not easilly find his way to heaven, so the owner of the map had cut a piece of it and buried it with the body. With the aid of even a fragment…the dead man would probably find the correct trail, and when the owner of the map died, it would all be buried with him. His dreams of the trail to heaven would then serve him well.

But the bureaucrats did not understand the map nor the Beaver people’s claim to the land. Their mindset was biased toward the geological survey maps being used by the companies who wanted to build a pipeline through Beaver territory. So it is: we are unable to understand the maps of others and we lose our way to heaven.


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