We are able to look into the Otherworld and sometimes pass into it. The later is a dangerous practice as attested by myths and legends. People that pass into the land of the fairies become trapped or find that moments spent in the Otherworld equate to hundreds of years in the mortal world.
As for the location of the Otherworld of our ancestors, we are probably best looking downwards rather than up. A heaven in the sky is a Judeo-Christian concept. To many in the ancient world the Otherworld lay beneath their feet, deep in the earth or below this plane of existence. This makes sense if communication with Otherworld spirits begins in caves. The Sun also sets and disappears behind the horizon each day, does it pass into the Otherworld below? And does the Moon rise out of the Otherworld each night? Gods and Goddesses are later thought to inhabit a world below our feet, their power expressed in tremors, eruptions or water rising through hot springs, as at the temple of Sulis-Minerva in Roman Bath for example.
Our prehistoric ancestors drew abstract and strange depictions of some spirits and beings, and in later periods any number of mythical beings were accepted as living either in the Otherworld, or belonging to the Otherworld and coming into ours. They can help us, harm us or are indifferent. Some protect sacred places. They are too numerous to discuss here.
But the Otherworld also contains the spirits of plants and animals as found in our world. Importantly, a belief in a life beyond death leads us to suppose that our ancestors pass into the Otherworld. It is a reflection of our world.
The word reflection is important here. Before the invention of mirrors, the only place that our ancestors would see a reflection of our world would be in water. They probably also noted that things were reversed in the reflection. If this were the Otherworld looking back, could some dualities be taken to be reversed? Perhaps a short time in the Otherworld was long in ours, maybe death became life. And given that you could glimpse the Otherworld in water, was water a conduit to that world? The answer is probably yes, for we have so many legends of Otherworld journeys through water and so much evidence of offerings being placed into water, right up to the 14th century in England (Witham Fens, Lincoln). Places near and in water were important. Wells and springs were sacred places of worship.
Aside from water are there other gateways to the Otherworld? Caves and underground places were definately gateways and these interact with water too. Water flows into the ground at some places and out at others. And can things reaching deep into the earth be gateways, things like trees and rocks? And can we erect gateways in this world that are reflected in the other, things like standing stones?
Recent theories on the meaning of standing stones lend weight to the idea that they are a conduit between worlds. It is suggested that the stones represent ancestors and are places representing our death in this world. This is based on archeological study into the interrelatedness of ancient sites and current anthropology. Only yesterday I watched a YouTube clip of a native American Ojibwa Grandmother talking about a walk around the great lakes. They came across seven rocks on which their ancestors had left carvings and she described the rocks as Grandparents. She also talked about the sacredness of the waters and trying to get men to help in the journey (that elusive male principle again).
So when we touch standing stones are we touching ancestors on the other side? Can we send them messages through the stones, do we honour them at stones and are they aware that we do? And when we erect a stone on this plane of existence is there a mirror image on the other side? It is tempting to suggest that there is when we find sets of standing stones, banks and even a central hearth arranged like a house as at the Ring of Brodgar, Stenness in Orkney. Even the entrance is aligned to face the local settlement linking the living with the dead (or perhaps the still alive).
In contrast to stone circles it seems that wood henges were used to represent life. At wood henges there is evidence of large gatherings and feasting involving numbers well in excess of the local population. Maybe this is where thanks were given for life and abundance, or perhaps where blessings were received. Could ancestors in the Otherworld send blessings through the wood from one world to the other? The henges were made of trees, beings with their branches in the sky and their roots in the underworld. Beings that cross worlds, as the ash Yggdrasil does in Norse mythology. Was fertility, health and prosperity transmitted from the Otherworld into the henge and the surrounding land?
Stone Henge and Wood Henge on Salisbury Plane are linked like this. It seems that life was celebrated at Wood Henge and death at Stone Henge. The two were linked by a watery journey down the river Avon. Perhaps the dead were feasted at wood henge and taken to Stone Henge for a final blessing. Stone Henge is also aligned with the sun, that symbolically dies and is reborn on the winter solstice, a fitting metaphor for passage to the next life.
So ancestors were clearly important in ancient belief and were very much a part of everyday life. We know this because our own ancestors kept theirs very close. Burials are seen in doorways, under hearths and even in post holes. It is only later that burials take place away from the home in cemeteries, perhaps as beliefs in haunting become prevalent. The Romans belived that ghosts or Lemures could roam and cause problems so they buried outside their city walls. But for the most part our ancestors kept their ancestors close.
The great tombs that housed our ancestors show that they were honoured. And could these tombs have been a conduit to the otherworld? Some are erected around standing stones so could the tomb be a portal to the Otherworld? Again, alignment with the solstice sun might suggest that the illumination of the remains at a time of death and rebirth could facilitate transit. Newgrange in Ireland and Maeshowe in Orkney are the most famous examples.
So belief in an Otherworld was essential to our ancient ancestors and it remains with us today.