OK, Stairway to Heaven!

My interpretation, by E. Alan Meece

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I have gone to great lengths to show the extraordinary esoteric meanings and correlations in Bach's magnificent Toccata in F Major for organ, BWV 540. I have presented this to a special group celebration at our church for the Summer Solstice. During one of these occasions, I asked the group who was the most spiritual composer of all time. A friend of mine named Bo called out, "Led Zeppelin" and people laughed. No I said, it is Johann Sebastian Bach. But the following year I thought, wait a minute; "Led Zeppelin" is not far off the mark. After all, their greatest (or at least their most popular) song is "Stairway to Heaven," which is just what I was talking about! I had built a "stairway to heaven" with cardboard circles on the floor to illustrate the 7 levels of the spiritual quest, up through the 7 chakras of kundalini and the seasons and planets within us, to the bliss of realization at the crown chakra and the summer solstice (see the solstice page), and experienced through Bach's Toccata. The "stairway to heaven" is also related to Jacob's Ladder in the Bible, to the Tree of Life of the kabbala and other mythologies, and to the pyramids built by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples. It is a venerable mystical tradition in many cultures, a ladder that exists within ourselves and in the stars (the planets and the zodiac; the starway to heaven), which we can climb in meditation and music to bridge the Earth and the Spirit.

I finally got around to putting a link to the song on the solstice page, which is currently posted on you tube. I first heard the song, and saw its lyrics, soon after it came out late in 1971 (thanks to my friend, David Rodriguez, an artist and song lyric connoisseur). In fact, it was also just months later that I first heard Bach's Toccata in F. Listening to it again recently, I have to admit, Stairway to Heaven IS (as I had always known) also a very spiritual and esoterically-meaningful piece of music. It can be called a new age prophecy, and it's full of pagan and alchemical symbols. I have known that the members of Led Zeppelin have occult and mythological interests and connections. In fact, a painting of the tarot's Hermit card graces the inside cover of the album ( Led Zeppelin IV ). More about the tarot and kabbalah here. This song is not one of my top favorites personally, like the Bach piece is; and certainly it's been played and touted well enough; but at least it made my list of Top 400 classic and oldie rock songs which I compiled in 1977 (and have only slightly revised since then). It is interesting though that this song is indeed the most popular classic rock song of all time (in the FM or AOR field), and has remained so for almost 4 decades; unlike the Bach piece which is mainly known by connoisseurs. Once again (in May 2011) it was voted all-time #1 on a Top 500 list produced by our local classic rock FM radio station. Somehow the youth of both yesterday and today have resonated to the vision and wisdom which resides in this song.                   

To start with, the song has 7 verses! That's one for each of the 7 chakras or soul centers, which are the stepping stones to higher consciousness within us, and in each verse, the main theme is repeated twice (again, 2 sections in each verse, like the chakras that have 2 currents around them). Like Bach's Toccata, the song builds energetically, slowly and step-by-step toward a climax, as if we are making a journey upward, to heaven, in 7 steps. Both pieces are 8 minutes long. But this song revs up the energy in a unique and innovative way, speeding up the tempo; as from the longer to shorter wavelengths of the rainbow colors up the chakras. And the main theme of the song has 22 notes (give or take, depending on the verse), and so do (more or less) the intro to the impressive guitar solo, and 2 repeats of the final base riff. 22 is the number of the paths to "heaven" in occult symbolism in the kabbalah's Tree of Life and the tarot's major arcana. As you can see from the lyrics posted below, since the syllables of the words match the notes heard in the song, the theme consists of one line of 12 notes (1 for each sign of the zodiac) followed by one line of 10 notes (1 for each planet); again matching common correlations to the Tree of Life. For example, "There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold" has 12 notes, and then "And she's buying a stairway to heaven" has 10 notes. But as the theme changes in verses 5 and 6, the split appears to be 13 or 14 to 9 instead; still adding up to 22 (or 23). This could refer to a 13th sign, proposed by some neo pagans and feminists (the 13th Moon), or to the Christ and/or Sophia coming into view, and maybe there's only 9 planets.

So as in Bach's piece, even in the music itself there are some interesting symbolic and numerological correlations to metaphysical ideas. Doubtless the closer I look, the more correlations I might find; check back and see if I find more! (I already have now)

Unlike in Bach's piece, however, we also have words. Are they really spiritually significant? Let's take a look, verse by verse; and chakra by chakra.

"Stairway To Heaven" (words by Robert Plant, music by Jimmy Page)

There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

In alchemy, turning lead (led) into gold, untarnished and everlasting, is the symbol for the quest of enlightenment. We don't know how to get there at first, but we are attracted by its glitter. At first we are stuck in the materialistic 1st chakra, believing we can "buy" our way into heaven, and unable to distinguish true values, but we soon learn we can also create heaven through the use of our word (imagination, spell casting, ritual, learning, magic, words of wisdom, etc.). And enlightenment has to be paid for in one way or another. Remember, the Magician is also linked to the first chakra, and was originally a figure of commerce; able to persuade people "with a word" to part with their money. In the Fool's Journey of the tarot, elucidated by Robert Place, Joan Bunning and others, greed or worldliness is where we start from, but it's only the starting point, not the meaning of the whole song; which ascends a 7-step stairway into spirituality or "heaven." And this positive interpretation would best fit with Robert Plant's own description of his lyrics as "a song of hope."

There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder, Ooh, it makes me wonder.

The word can be confusing; words are only signs or symbols. So our thoughts often lead us astray, or cause misgivings, since in the 2nd chakra they are often dominated by subconscious emotions; but we can find the truth in Nature instead, which is also related to the sensuous 2nd chakra. The Tree by the watery brook refers to the Tree of Life, which in occult lore grows on the sea in the west (see next verse), nourished by the 2nd chakra's waters of love and desire (water is the element linked to the 2nd chakra). The Tree of Life holds the path to liberation and eternal life, and you can find it in music (a songbird) more than in the words. And wonder is the beginning of wisdom and rebirth.

There's a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.

In this verse the author speaks personally, giving voice to our own yearnings to go higher on the stairway. Those who "stand looking" may be wise teachers like The Hermit, guiding us on the path. And the Hermit is the one who "leaves" in order to retreat from the world for introspection. In our imagination, we can see that there is more to the world than meets the eye (smoke rings; perhaps can be taken as representing psychedelics, the "little smoke" that dissolves normal consciousness). This line also resembles Bob Dylan's "take me dissappearing through the smoke rings of my mind" (Mr. Tambourine Man) which refers to going beyond illusions. And where there's smoke, there's fire (3rd chakra element); and the ring is the Wheel of Fortune, a time for decision. Like The Clash say, should I stay or should I go? Some say the "west" refers to greedy, materialistic Western civilization, which many of us "hippies" and "new agers" since the late 60s have wanted to "leave," preferring the Eastern spiritual path; if so, the lyric refers to the right direction (since I correlate the 3rd chakra with the East on the Medicine Wheel). In the third chakra, we develop our will. The electric guitar first comes in here to symbolize it. This Strength, as shown on the tarot card, allows us to make our own choices; working with others too, as the lyrics suggest. The smoke could also refer to the Earth burning up from pollution while people stand looking and do nothing-- the sad legacy of the industrial West again. In my Bach essay I attribute Strength, the Wheel of Fortune and The Hermit all to the 3rd chakra.

And it's whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.

In the 4th verse, the heart chakra, we get the prophecy of the new age dawning, as people felt in the 60s/70s, and many still do today. It isn't coming right away, but it comes to those who perservere, like The Hermit. To find the way, we need to listen to the music in our hearts, our inner place of trust and innocence, for music is the means of liberation (as occultist Paul Foster Case said). "Reason" refers to Justice, the virtue of the heart chakra; and in general, to higher truth, integration, balance, justice and brother/sisterhood for all people. According to Plato, Reason is the highest part of the soul. The call is there, always waiting for us to tune in and resonate with, together in serendipity.

If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on.
And it makes me wonder.

This verse sounds like the 5th chakra of purification and "cleaning," as well as 5th chakra powers of "change" and adaptation. It also refers to pagan celebrations of spring, an opportunity to express ourselves freely (which we do through the throat). But freedom comes from choosing the right road. We can let our temptations rule us, or take the more conscious path (the virtue of Temperance, found in the 5th chakra). And in May, when we enter Gemini (a 5th chakra sign), we are approaching Summer. It is a time of "bustling" new growth, which the thyroid gland of the 5th chakra stimulates. Since the famous alleged "backmasking" or reversed speech of this verse supposedly reveals "Satan," it might confirm my attribution of the Devil tarot card (temptation) to the 5th chakra.

Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know,
The piper's calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.

We need to quiet our thoughts in order to see the visions in our third eye, the 6th chakra in our brains, which whisper to us on the wind; a symbol of spirit and its flight, like the two wings of the 6th chakra. "Whispering" refers to the "still small voice" of intuition. In the 4th verse it said the call would come soon; now it's happening, and the pathway is clear. The male Piper and female Lady are joining, as in the Divine Marriage.

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

And she's buying the stairway to heaven.

As we "wind" down the spiral path, the "wind" is now at our backs as we reach the song's climactic crown chakra, where the divine connects us beyond our soul to the greater soul. There are 4 parts to the verse now, instead of just two (perhaps signifying the 4 members of Led Zeppelin, and their symbols, or the 4 creatures around the Throne of God on The World card; see a kind of "throne" below). Plus there's an extra line for the 5th member within them, "the Lady we all know," who can only be the Goddess: Sophia, Psyche, Mary, Diana, Frigg, the Lady on the World tarot card; she has many names, the universal divine feminine. She is the inner self of the Lady who originally bought the stairway to heaven, as the seeker on the path. She now appears in glorious white light and gold, which refers to the crown chakra where we feel the bliss of realization in which all are one and one is all. Saying that the all "are" one emphasizes that this truly is the many and the one, as one. This is the real meaning of turning lead into gold, like the spiritual alchemists do. And we can see the gold in all things (or their radiance, as in The Celestine Prophecy). Hearing the music of liberation, promised us in the 2nd, 4th and 6th verses, nirvana comes to us-- the rock of peace that stills all the rolls of craving (as Buddha called it), such as the fear of life's troubles. This rock is also the philosopher's stone of alchemy, and Pete Townshend refers to the same "rock" at the end of Quadrophenia, another great alchemical spiritual journey in rock music.

And it's an ongoing process; there's much gold still to buy, much work still to do, many shadows yet to dispell, and many others to help climb the stairs. Repeating the line from the first verse at the end shows this; that our end is in our beginning, or as above, so below.

Pretty good, Led Zep! And all their millions of fans.

I still like Bach better though! (and he has a lot of fans too)

Stairway to Heaven
Stairway to Heaven
Stairway to Heaven
Bach, chakras, tarot
Summer Solstice Celebration
The Tarot Journey by E. Alan Meece
Reinterpretations of Spiritual Philosophy
Neoplatonism and Alchemy
Another good interpretation of the song I mostly looked at this site after I wrote mine.
Interpretation by Shmoop University
Interpreted as a commentary on greed
I have already cited Stairway to Heaven as a bewitched song
Wikipedia article on the song
Rock-songs.com article on the song and their Top 500 list
Stairway to Heaven tribute site
Led Zeppelin official website
Good Wikipedia article on Led Zeppelin
Stairway to Heaven T-shirts shows The Hermit
10 interesting facts
MY favorite rock band, The Who and great Wikipedia article on them
My Top 400 list
The Chakras by Anodea Judith
Chakras by Yogendra Nath Yogi
Tree of Life
The Stairway to Heaven by Zecharia Sitchin
The Knowledge of Wisdom, JMB Productions
The Ladder of Ascent: A talk for Mildenhall Megamoot
Philo's Cosmology
Somewhere Over the Rainbow If Stairway to Heaven is considered by many to be the greatest song of the rock era, critics agree that this is the greatest movie song, or greatest song of the Broadway/Big Band/Tin Pan Alley era (and it's my favorite). And since the chakras are a rainbow bridge between heaven and earth, then these two songs say the same thing.

Final footnote: some might say that, if I wanted to, I could find these kinds of meanings and correlations in any piece of music, or any movie, and the fact that I find them so abundantly in two such different pieces, and also in several movies and TV shows, shows this. But considering that I have also tried this with other pieces and other songs, and other media, so far I would have to disagree. And as with the other cases, I am not claiming that these meanings were intended by the writer; they are just my own interpretation, and other such interpretations might be just as valid.

Hey, since Jimmy Page put a picture of The Hermit on the fourth Led Zeppelin album, maybe I should look into the music of Herman's Hermits.

Just kidding.

One further personal note of synchronicity: this month (May-June 2011, the month of starting this website, but before I thought of it), after decades of waiting, I bought a new ladder in order to more-safely fix my roof. Not counting the top, it has 7 steps.

Look what you started, Bo my friend, in one second's time....