47

In ancient Greece, the gods lived up on a mountain, and Hades seems to have been a place that you could sail to.

Personally, I think in modern times the concept of a portal or wormhole is so familiar, we tend to retroactively assign its presence even when not described. Obviously, you can't just walk to Mount Olympus, so you must pass through some kind of transition from the real to the supernatural. That transition is some kind of gateway that, even if left undescribed by the people writing the original myths, we assume to be something like a portal.

It doesn't seem to me, though, that there is evidence that any of the writers of myths were thinking of portals like we do. It seemed more that Olympus was hard to find, but you could just walk there if given the right path. Their concept of what was unreachable was based more on unexplored lands beyond their maps than it was based on a notion of planes of existence.

Even Dorothy was blown by a Tornado to Oz, so maybe it's a place far over the horizon? Sure, she teleported back with magic shoes, but that's different from a portal, like the back of a closet into Narnia, or a special track at a train station. Teleportation is often portrayed as an instant transportation within the same plane of existence.

It must be fairly recent, but, what exactly is the first use in fiction of an explicit portal between two different realities? Where a protagonist in a story could look at a gateway and see an opening to a different reality. Whether by magic or by science.

  • 7
    Alice in Wonderland maybe...? – Questioner Dec 12 '14 at 13:44
  • 3
    What an interesting question. What prompted you to ask? – amalgamate Dec 12 '14 at 14:39
  • 12
    Chinese mythology enjoys "Fauna of Mirrors", which is some sort of other universe. If the harmony between our universe and the alternate is affected, beings could pass through the mirror in either direction. The mirror itself being the portal. The legend dates back to at least 2697BC. – Gorchestopher H Dec 12 '14 at 15:22
  • 3
    @Lodewijk 1: Those of us who lived through the 60's-early 70's have a little experience with that kind of trip. – Joe L. Dec 12 '14 at 23:25
  • 2
    Well, Asgard could only be reached via Bifröst, a burning rainbow bridge, if that counts as "portal". This would be something dating to approx. the 5th century, and written down in the 13th century. – Damon Dec 13 '14 at 14:05

12 Answers 12

8

George MacDonald's book Phantastes from 1858 seems to contain an early example, judging from this section of the Wikipedia plot description:

Anodos escapes this place and finds himself in a stormy sea. When a boat arrives, he boards it. It takes him to an "island" with a cottage with four doors which is inhabited by an ancient lady with young eyes. Anodos enters each door in turn, each containing a different world. In the first he becomes a child again, remembering the death of his brother. He comes back to the cottage crying. In the next door he finds the marble lady and Sir Percivale, alive, well, and in love. They are talking about him, and Anodos (previously unnoticed) makes a last outburst of his love for the marble lady. They leave, as does Anodos. The next door recounts the death of a loved one of Anodos, and he finds his family mausoleum. His ancestors help him back to the cottage. Finally, Anodos travels through the last door ("the door of the timeless") but is saved by the ancient lady without remembering anything. The ancient lady says that because she saved him, he must leave (the "island" in fact has an isthmus).

The article also notes that C.S. Lewis recalled reading the book at age 16, and said that "That night my imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized", so it's possible it was an influence on his stories featuring magical portals. And Lewis Carroll may also have been influenced by the book, since as mentioned in a footnote on this page, Carroll was good friends with George MacDonald and owned a signed copy of Phantastes. Furthermore, Carroll first showed his manuscript of "Alice's Adventures under Ground" to MacDonald, and first read it to MacDonald's daughters, whose enthusiasm helped convince Carroll to try to publish it.

Phantastes can be found online starting here, and the main character first encounters these magic doorways and walks through one in Chapter 19:

Thus she stood for a few minutes; then, slowly turning at right angles to her former position, she faced another of the four sides of the cottage. I now observed, for the first time, that here was a door likewise; and that, indeed, there was one in the centre of every side of the cottage.

...

I felt wonderfully refreshed; and a great desire to see more of the island awoke within me. I rose, and saying that I wished to look about me, went towards the door by which I had entered.

"Stay a moment," said my hostess, with some trepidation in her voice. "Listen to me. You will not see what you expect when you go out of [237] that door. Only remember this: whenever you wish to come back to me, enter wherever you see this mark."

She held up her left hand between me and the fire. Upon the palm, which appeared almost transparent, I saw, in dark red, a mark like this

...

I opened the door, and stepped out. The moment my foot touched the smooth sward, I seemed to issue from the door of an old barn on my father's estate, where, in the hot afternoons, I used to go and lie amongst the straw, and read. It seemed to me now that I had been asleep there. At a little distance in the field, I saw two of my brothers at play.

...

My favourite brother and I shared the same bed. Some childish dispute arose between us; and our last words, ere we fell asleep, were not of kindness, notwithstanding the pleasures of the day. When I woke in the morning, I missed him. He had risen early, and had gone to bathe in the river. In another hour, he was brought home drowned. Alas! alas! if we had only gone to sleep as usual, the one with his arm about the other! Amidst the horror of the moment, a strange conviction flashed across my mind, that I had gone through the very same once before.

I rushed out of the house, I knew not why, sobbing and crying bitterly. I ran through the fields in aimless distress, till, passing the old barn, I caught sight of a red mark on the door. The merest trifles sometimes rivet the attention in the deepest misery; the intellect has so little to do with grief. I went up to look at this mark, [238/239] which I did not remember ever to have seen before. As I looked at it, I thought I would go in and lie down amongst the straw, for I was very weary with running about and weeping. I opened the door; and there in the cottage sat the old woman as I had left her, at her spinning-wheel.

  • The quote you provide definitely sounds like portals. I think that this puts this story in the lead, beating Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by about 13 years. – Questioner Dec 20 '14 at 4:40
20

Fauna of Mirrors - 2697BC

This probably doesn't count, but I believe mythology has this one in the bag. Specifically: the Chinese Myth of the "Fauna of Mirrors". It involves mirrors being used almost exactly as a portal in modern literature.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fauna_of_Mirrors

According to the myth, behind every mirror is a different universe (not sure if it's 1 universe per mirror, or 1 universe accessible by all mirrors). This universe is different in every way from our own, with otherworldly creatures and even shapes and colors unfamiliar to our own universe.

There exists some harmony that keeps our universes from mixing, but if the harmony is disrupted, beings from either side may be able to pass through the mirror into either world/dimension.

The myth dates back to around 2697BC.

Though the creatures within the "fauna" (mirror universe) apparently flooded through to our world in one of the more popular versions of this myth, the reverse was true in that people from our world could visit the fauna-realm. In this particular myth the Yellow Emperor used powerful magic to trap the beings of the fauna here on Earth, stripping them of their power, and subduing them to serve people of our own realm.

Note: According to the wiki article, the first known mention of this story was in Jorge Luis Borges' 1957 The Book of Imaginary Beings, and as noted in the article here, in this book "Borges also included some of his own inventions – The Creatures who Live in Mirrors, for example, a marvelous twist on the idea of the ghostly double."

  • 6
    Where does the date come from? Is this attested anywhere except in Borges' Imaginary Beings? – Kyle Strand Dec 12 '14 at 19:54
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    -1, sorry. Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings is from 1957 CE, not 2697 BCE, and I see no evidence that this "Chinese Myth" is any older than that. – ruakh Dec 13 '14 at 3:22
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    (To elaborate a bit on my previous comment: Borges was a genius, but he was also a hoaxster and an artist, and many of the things he wrote were not true. I'm not sure whether he seriously intended for them to be taken as true, but either way -- if Borges is your only source, then you don't actually have a source.) – ruakh Dec 13 '14 at 3:36
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    Such a precise date for so long ago is a nonsense. – Stop Harming Monica Dec 13 '14 at 15:15
  • 4
    We can only date Homer's Oddessy to around the 8th Century BC. How can there possibly be a specific year of authorship another 1800 years before that? – Stop Harming Monica Dec 14 '14 at 19:21
18

Some early examples, surely not the first:

  1. Arabian Nights, e.g. "The Adventures of Bulukiya". Arabian Nights subsequently became a big influence on European literature upon the 1704 translation. Would be from ~750 AD at the earliest.

So Gabriel descended and, saluting Bulukiya, opened the gate to him, saying, 'Enter this door, for Allah commandeth me to open to thee.' So he entered and Gabriel locked the gate behind him and flew back to heaven. When Bulukiya found himself within the gate, he looked and beheld a vast ocean, half salt and half fresh, bounded on every side by mountain ranges of red ruby whereon he saw angels singing the praises of the Lord and hallowing Him.

  1. This was a recurring theme of Victorian-era author E. Nesbit, specifically children traveling by magic (portals or artefacts) to fantastical/imaginary places or times.

    In particular, her Psammead series:

    • (1902) Five Children and It
    • (1904) The Phoenix and the Carpet
    • (1906) The Story of the Amulet
  • 1
    This is a strong contender. However, as I mention in a comment on another answer, it's not entirely clear that the door Bulukiya walks through is a portal like we conceive of it, or a threshold to another realm that is still within our dimension. If, when Bulukiya closed the door, he looked behind him and the door was no longer there, or standing on it's own in a way that one could walk around it, then it's definitely a portal. But, if that door is still there and part of a wall or something, then we might imagine he has merely stepped over a border. – Questioner Dec 19 '14 at 10:35
  • 1
    @Questioner: perhaps, but "mountain ranges of red ruby with angels on them" doesn't sound like this world to me? – smci Dec 19 '14 at 16:26
  • It is definitely a magical realm, but the hypothesis of my question is that, earlier in history people thought magical realms as being a part of our reality. That gods lived on mountains, and demons out at sea, and all sorts of magic and beasts existed beyond the maps. A place where there are ruby mountains and angels is definitely magical and wondrous, but nonetheless part of this plane of existence, from the perspective of a person from that age. It may sound like not our world to you, because of a modern perspective, but was it a seperate dimension to the person who wrote it? – Questioner Dec 19 '14 at 16:57
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    Actually, it is seems clear to me that this is a portal in the standard sense. When Bukiya enters the gate, he beholds a vast ocean, bounded on all sides by mountains of ruby. He would have seen the mountains of ruby before the gate, had they been spatially contiguous. Mountain ranges have two sides, after all. And unless we construe entering the gate as "walking a mile," the gate would have transported him through the mountain in any case, thus qualifying as a portal. – Adamant Apr 16 '16 at 7:43
5

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871

The titular looking-glass forms a portal to another world, identical (but mirrored) in everything that can be seen from the mirror, but fantastical in every other way.

More arguable, the ancient Greeks did have the concept of portals (or gates) between realities. The "gate of horn" and the "gate of ivory" are barriers between reality and dreams in The Oddessy, 800 BC, and in The Aeneid, 19 BC, they can be used to exit the underworld.

  • I don't think the "gates of horn" leading into or out of dream worlds is like our modern concept of a portal. They are gates at the thresholds of other realms, yes, but I believe that those other realms occupy space in our dimension. I don't think you could walk around a gate of horns and still be in our world. If there's a specific text that describes a character doing that, then I would be very interested to read it. – Questioner Dec 19 '14 at 10:49
  • @Questioner Unfortunately. the whole point of a gate is that you can't walk around it. – Stop Harming Monica Mar 19 '16 at 12:37
  • Which is why it doesn't count as a portal as sought after in the question. – Questioner Mar 21 '16 at 3:59
5

And he came towards a valley, through which ran a river; and the borders of the valley were wooded, and on each side of the river were level meadows. And on one side of the river he saw a flock of white sheep, and on the other a flock of black sheep. And whenever one of the white sheep bleated, one of the black sheep would cross over and become white; and when one of the black sheep bleated, one of the white sheep would cross over and become black. And he saw a tall tree by the side of the river, one half of which was in flames from the root to the top, and the other half was green and in full leaf. Peredur the Son of Evrawc, The Mabinogion

The river crossing near the split tree is taken is the entry into the 'not-world'; the sheep cross too and fro and are changed, later the otherworldly Earl won't cross the water himself but sends a page to collect his kill.

Elsewhere in the Mabinogion, water again is a transition of our world and the not-world, where Llew is only vulnerable if caught between the worlds in a particular way:

The day after they came and looked at the bath. “Wilt thou go into the bath, lord?” said she. “Willingly will I go in,” he answered. So into the bath he went, and he anointed himself. “Lord,” said she, “behold the animals which thou didst speak of as being called bucks.” “Well,” said he, “cause one of them to be caught and brought here.” And the buck was brought. Then Llew rose out of the bath, and put on his trousers, and he placed one foot on the edge of the bath and the other on the buck’s back."

Thereupon Gronw rose up from the bill which is called Bryn Kyvergyr, and he rested on one knee, and flung the poisoned dart and struck him on the side, so that the shaft started out, but the head of the dart remained in.

The Mabinogion is based on tales found in books dating to 1350, but the tales themselves appear to date from around 1060 to 1200, and draw on pre-Christian tradition.

  • This is an interesting answer, but I'm sorry to say that it's not very clear to me what is happening. There is a river, or a bridge, and a bath...? Where exactly is the portal? – Questioner Dec 14 '14 at 4:08
  • The water in these and other similar cases is a clear forerunner of the portals the question asks about, and definitely related, but I would not consider them to themselves be portals as the question uses the term. Still a relevant and useful data point, but not really an answer to the question. – Matthew Najmon Dec 14 '14 at 15:27
  • @Questioner in crossing the river the sheep "pass through some kind of transition from the real to the supernatural", hence fit the OP's description of a portal. Llew is neither inside nor outside, neither on land or on water, so is also in some state of transition. But 'not very clear' could be used to describe most of the Mabinogion. – Pete Kirkham Dec 15 '14 at 16:26
  • After some thought, I don't think this is a portal. Yes, the land on the other side of the river is magical and, like was done to the sheep, changes you if you go there. But, note that the area on that side of the river is viewable from anywhere, occupies space in this realm. If it were the case that the other side of the river looked just like any other place in the world, but was different only when passing on a certain bridge, then that bridge would be a portal. As it stands now, this, like others, seems to just be a magical place occupying space in our reality. – Questioner Dec 20 '14 at 4:35
5

H. G. Wells, 'The Door in the Wall', from 1911 may be a good contender.

It's probably a slightly different variant, since it's left questionable if the story is about an imaginary door or a real one, but it's still a door to another world. From right near the end:

I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something--I know not what--that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world.

Since I believe it's well past Copyright, you can read it online here.

3

The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World by Margaret Cavendish, printed first in 1666 and reprinted in 1668.

The protagonist, a woman, travels to another world at the North Pole. You have to go to the actual pole, and try to travel trough it, in order to reach the other world. There's a comment by the author that suggests there are many worlds ("skilful Astronomers have often observed two or three Suns at once.")

There's no small doorway, but this link between worlds does allow for seeing from one into the next.

This other world is clearly defined as being a separate world (even with its own sun, which moves differently in the sky than ours). It also has strange creatures (such as Bear-Creatures and Fox men) that aren't the typical Fey creatures from folklore. This other creatures even have their own language, which the Lady learns.

It's not as concrete of an example as in Phantastes, where different doorways lead to different worlds, but it does show us that writers were thinking of ideas such as travelling to unique new worlds at least as early as the mid-1600s.

Travel to the other world:

Neither was it a wonder that the men did freeze to death; for they were not onely driven to the very end or point of the Pole of that World, but even to another Pole of another World, which joined close to it; so that the cold having a double strength at the conjunction of those two Poles, was insupportable: At last, the Boat still passing on, was forced into another World; for it is impossible to round this Worlds Globe from Pole to Pole, so as we do from East to West; because the Poles of the other World, joining to the Poles of this, do not allow any further passage to surround the World that way; but if any one arrives to either of these Poles, he is either forced to return, or to enter into another World: and lest you should scruple at it, and think, if it were thus, those that live at the Poles would either see two Suns at one time, or else they would never want the Sun's light for six months together, as it is commonly believed: You must know, that each of these Worlds having its own Sun to enlighten it, they move each one in their peculiar Circles; which motion is so just and exact, that neither can hinder or obstruct the other; for they do not exceed their Tropicks: and although they should meet, yet we in this World cannot so well perceive them, by reason of the brightness of our Sun, which being nearer to us, obstructs the splendor of the Sun of the other World, they being too far off to be discerned by our optick perception, except we use very good Telescopes; by which, skilful Astronomers have often observed two or three Suns at once.

Foreign tongue:

No sooner was the Lady brought before the Emperor, but he conceived her to be some Goddess, and offered to worship her; which she refused, telling him, (for by that time she had pretty well learned their Language) that although she came out of another world

Other creatures:

The rest of the Inhabitants of that World, were men of several different sorts, shapes, figures, dispositions, and humors, as I have already made mention, heretofore; some were Bear-men, some Worm-men, some Fish- or Mear-men, otherwise called Syrens; some Bird-men, some Fly-men, some Ant-men, some Geese-men, some Spider-men, some Lice-men, some Fox-men, some Ape-men, some Jack daw-men, some Magpie-men, some Parrot-men, some Satyrs, some Gyants, and many more, which I cannot all remember;

A different universe (or part of the universe):

Having thus finished their discourse of the Sun and Moon, the Empress desired to know what Stars there were besides? But they answer'd, that they could perceive in that World none other but Blazing Stars, and from thence it had the name that it was called the Blazing-World; and these Blazing-Stars, said they, were such solid, firm and shining bodies as the Sun and Moon, not of a Globular, but of several sorts of figures: some had tails; and some, other kinds of shapes.

And:

At last, the Empress commanded them to go with their Telescopes to the very end of the Pole that was joined to the World she came from, and try whether they could perceive any Stars in it: which they did; and, being returned to her Majesty, reported that they had seen three Blazing-Stars appear there, one after another in a short time, whereof two were bright, and one dim; but they could not agree neither in this observation: for some said, It was but one Star which appeared at three several times, in several places; and others would have them to be three several Stars;

And:

Wherefore I'le conferr with them, and enquire whether there be not another World, whereof you may be Empress as well as I am of this? No sooner had the Empress said this, but some Immaterial Spirits came to visit her, of whom she inquired, Whether there were but three Worlds in all, to wit, the Blazing World where she was in, the World which she came from, and the World where the Duchess lived? The Spirits answered, That there were more numerous Worlds then the Stars which appeared in these three mentioned Worlds.

And:

Besides, said she, the Fire-stone will serve you instead of Light or Torches; for you know, that the World you are going into, is dark at nights (especially if there be no Moon-shine, or if the Moon be overshadowed by Clouds) and not so full of Blazing-Stars as this World is, which make as great a light in the absence of the Sun, as the Sun doth when it is present; for that World hath but little blinking Stars, which make more shadows then light, and are onely able to draw up Vapours from the Earth, but not to rarifie or clarifie them, or to convert them into serene air.

And:

Thus after all things were made fit and ready, the Empress began her Journey; I cannot properly say, she set Sail, by reason in some Part, as in the passage between the two Worlds (which yet was but short) the Ships were drawn under water by the Fish-men with Golden Chains, so that they had no need of Sails there, nor of any other Arts, but onely to keep out water from entering into the Ships, and to give or make so much Air as would serve, for breath or respiration, those Land-Animals that were in the Ships;

In this story, there's much talk about Stars in the sky. Even the world is named Blazing-World because of the blaze of all the stars in the sky is so bright that the night isn't dark, like in our world. When they observe our world they see only 3 stars, but they can't even decide if it was 1 star seen thrice, or three stars seen once apiece.

If these worlds were actually physically joined at their poles, such as two spheres stacked atop another, then there should be more visible to the astronomers with their telescopes.

How this reads to me is that the two worlds are either:

  • Joined at their poles by a space-time bridge, such as a Tesseract from A Wrinkle in Time
  • Coexisting in the same "space" but on different planes

I lean towards the second explanation, because throughout the tale there is mention of Spirits and Souls. The Lady speaks with both of these immaterial beings (and has the Soul of the Duchess of Cavendish, the author, brought before herself). This indicates that the reality/plane that the Blazing-World exists on is different than that of ours, which has only material beings visible.

  • But they didn't go down through the pole, in the manner of a doorway in the ground--the plot description on p. 100 of Building Imaginary Worlds says "the other planet, the Blazing-World, hovers near the North Pole, so close to the Earth that it can only be reached by boat." So that makes it sound like it inhabits the same physical space that our planet and the other bodies of the solar system do, and just happens to be very close to Earth, rather than it being in some other dimension accessible by traveling through a portal. – Hypnosifl Feb 14 '15 at 19:21
  • No, if you read it, it's very clear that you go through the pole to a whole new world, and you can only reach it by going all the way North then continuing. You can't reach in by going East to West. It's not through the ground they go, but they continue on into the world they can't reach from any other physical location. The boat is necessary because the location is over water. It also says the other world is too far away to be perceived easily from our world and has it's own son. This is all in the first excerpt. The entire read is available at the 1668 link. – user31178 Feb 14 '15 at 19:35
  • I guess I can interpret your comment as meaning in our same reality, just in a different part of the universe. Even then, the link isn't physical because it would bridge space. The book you linked to even says, "First, it the earliest story set on another planet, away from the Earth-moon system". That's at the bottom of the same p. 100 you linked to. This helps illustrate that the fictional world is not in our solar system. As for Different reality vs. different part of this one, later the character goes on to discuss making more immaterial worlds. This supports different "dimensions" – user31178 Feb 14 '15 at 19:43
  • I don't see anything in the first excerpt that rules out the interpretation that these are just two planets joined at the poles, like one ball resting on top of another one (maybe with a region joining them like the middle of a peanut). The quote "away from the Earth-moon system" probably just means "neither on Earth nor on the moon" (it may be that all previous stories of fantastical lands were set on one or the other), not "in a region of space far away from the Earth and moon", since the author specifically said the planet "hovers near the North Pole" and that it's "so close to the Earth". – Hypnosifl Feb 14 '15 at 20:00
  • How do you join two worlds at the poles, supposing they occupy nearby space, without the other planet being visible by looking up? I'm trying to understand your interpretation, but I'm missing something. Especially when trying to reconcile their being a third son, of a world they don't go to. If they're physically nearby, how do you position three spheres so that they all have a touching pole at the same point? – user31178 Feb 14 '15 at 20:37
2

Clifford D. Simak's City has this scene:

City, Part VII, Aesop:

There were other doors and Jenkins strode to one. With his hand upon the latch he told himself the futility of opening it, the futility of searching any further. If this one room was old and empty, so would be all the other rooms.
His thumb came down and the door came open and there was a blast of heat, but there was no room. There was desert—a gold and yellow desert stretching to a horizon that was dim and burnished in the heat of a great blue sun.
A green and purple thing that might have been a lizard, but wasn’t, skittered like a flash across the sand, its tiny feet making the sound of eerie whistling.
Jenkins slammed the door shut, stood numbed in mind and body.
A desert. A desert and a thing that skittered. Not another room, not a hall, nor yet a porch—but a desert.
And the sun was blue—blue and blazing hot.
Slowly, cautiously, he opened the door again, at first a crack and then a little wider.
The desert still was there.

The novel City was published in 1952, but City is a fix-up novel compiled from stories published between 1944 and 1951. The short story Aesop was first published in the December, 1947 issue of Astounding (see footnote 2).

  • If anyone's wondering, Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky came out in 1955: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunnel_in_the_Sky – Wayfaring Stranger Dec 12 '14 at 14:42
  • Asimov's It's Such A Beautiful Day (portals used so often for transport nobody goes outside anymore) was first published in 1954 in Star Science Fiction Stories No.3. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It%27s_Such_a_Beautiful_Day – Joe L. Dec 12 '14 at 14:52
  • C.S. Lewis included a few portals in the Narnia books (the Wardrobe in TLTWATW, the Doorway made of sticks in Prince Caspian, the painting in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, etc.), but the first of those came out in 1950. – K-H-W Dec 12 '14 at 14:57
  • The ideas in Aesop sound remarkably similar to the Clifford Simak story The Big Front Yard. Is one a repackaging of the other? – Don Wakefield Dec 14 '14 at 3:43
  • @Don Wakefield: Like most prolific writers, Simak sometimes recycled ideas. The Big Front Yard was written some years after Aesop. – Joe L. Dec 14 '14 at 5:20
2

You might consider the 1908 novel 'The House on The Borderlands' by William Hope Hodgson. That amazing story fulfils a lot of firsts. It was written during the first Edwardian flirtations with what we would consider 'real SF' as opposed to the often politically-motivated satires of Wells. It also principally involves what today might be considered a 'soft spot' in the barriers between dimensions and times - offering the protagonist a view of a FAR future Earth which is inhabited by creatures so far removed from our own world they would be at home in Lovecraft's much later offerings.

A portal in every sense of the word.

  • Have you read House on the borderlands @Richard? It concerns a time portal to another far-future world. It also involves entities from that future straying in to our world. – user38114 Dec 12 '14 at 23:04
  • Fair enough! It is done. – user38114 Dec 12 '14 at 23:18
2

Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, circa 1308-1321.

"Trough me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov'd:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
"All hope abandon ye who enter here."
Such characters in colour dim I mark'd
Over a portal's lofty arch inscrib'd:
Whereat I thus: "Master, these words import
Hard meaning."  He as one prepar'd replied:
"Here thou must all distrust behind thee leave;
Here be vile fear extinguish'd. We are come
Where I have told thee we shall see the souls
To misery doom'd, who intellectual good
Have lost."  And when his hand he had stretch'd forth
To mine, with pleasant looks, whence I was cheer'd,
Into that secret place he led me on.

They enter into a gate, or tunnel, or cave, depending on the translation/depiction. The entry way is dark, so they can't see into the other world, but they can hear into the other world before entering.

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In this case, the other world is one of the levels of hell in Inferno.

They travel through this gate, at first not being able to see anything different. This is much like the question's example of the Narnia books. When Lucy first enters into Narnia from the wardrobe, she's not able to see that she's entering a new world. However, she's able to feel and hear that she's entering a new world, because of the crunch of snow and feel of branches:

Then she noticed that there was something crunching under her feet. "I wonder is that more mothballs?" she thought, stooping down to feel it with her hand. But instead of feeling the hard, smooth wood of the floor of the wardrobe, she felt something soft and powdery and extremely cold. "This is very queer," she said, and went on a step or two further.
Next moment she found that what was rubbing against her face and hands was no longer soft fur but something hard and rough and even prickly. "Why, it is just like branches of trees!" exclaimed Lucy.

-The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

This work of fiction:

  • Predates Phantastes, Simak's City, The House on the Borderlands, anything by H.G. Wells, anything by Lewis Carroll,
  • Is not a myth like Fauna of Mirrors
  • Is easy to trace when this story was created, unlike the story mentioned in the One Thousand and One Nights collection. (We don't know when exactly the story was included prior to the English translation, which was made post-Divine Comedy)
  • Is easy to trace when this story was written, unlike the story mentioned in Mabinogion whose main manuscripts are from 1350-1410, which is post-Divine Comedy
  • Is not an oral tradition (which are often tied to folklore or mythology)
  • Is not a religion
  • Has influenced many modern works of fiction and art

Please note that I'm not submitting this translation merely because of it's use of the word portal. There are many translations. I read "portal" in this case as "door", "entry", or "gate", which is also reflected in other translations:

These words of gloomy color I beheld
inscribed upon the summit of a gate;

First excerpt from Project Gutenberg, second from Online Library of Liberty

  • Thank you for this suggestion. However, unless I am mistaken, the area within the cave exists spatially within the same dimension as the area outside the cave. To count as a "portal", it is not sufficient to have a gateway, or a magical place. The place you go to must also not occupy any area within the same dimension as the place you come from. Also note, myths are fine - the Fauna of Mirrors is simply not old enough, having no record going back beyond the 1950s. – Questioner Feb 14 '15 at 8:29
  • I guess that depends on your interpretation. They're going to Hell, which I interpret as not in the same dimension. If you read all the Cantos, there are 9 levels and some of them are gigantic, which also doesn't make sense to be just underground (even though it's supposed to feel below Earth) – user31178 Feb 14 '15 at 15:50
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    My point is exactly that, though, that our modern interpretations assume portals because of how we now conceive the relationship between our world and that of magical realms. But around the time of Dante's writing, it seems they literally thought of heaven as somewhere up above, and hell as literally somewhere below. By the quotes you describe, the cave in Dante's Inferno doesn't behave any differently than another cave, it just contains the levels of hell the same way another regular cave would contain bats and moss. – Questioner Feb 14 '15 at 16:48
  • I understand. I didn't expect this to be the answer, but I couldn't let Divine Comedy not be mentioned. – user31178 Feb 14 '15 at 17:15
  • Fair enough. :). Divine Comedy does bear mention as a point on the timeline of how fiction and myth evolved along with our sense of what dimensions and magical realms are. – Questioner Feb 15 '15 at 3:23
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In a way the earliest graves dug by the Neanderthals can be interpreted as portals to another worlds: the spirit of the dead is transcending into the next world. That is why they buried their people with full set of clothes, tools and weapons.

Later on during paleolithic era a cast of shamans emerged in society. They were believed to have some sort of mental or physical connection to the spirit world. If not the graves, then perhaps shaman's rituals can be considered as first instance of a portal?

In both cases this Wikipedia article is a good place to start reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_religion

I also remember reading several articles about stone-age religions, which mentioned that out ancestors treated some old trees and caves as gates to the spirit world, but unfortunately they weren't on first page of my google search, so no links on this one, sorry.

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    The asker asked for explicit portals between two realities, not metaphorical portals like you have listed here. – numaroth Dec 12 '14 at 23:03
  • So we should restrain ourselves to Science Fiction constructs like, say the eponymous structures in the stargate universe as opposed to the possibility that 'Call me Joe' offers as a portal to another world in the form of transferring your intelligence elsewhere? To my mind the question offers both possibilities? Perhaps the OP would clarify? – user38114 Dec 12 '14 at 23:16
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    We don't know specifics about stone age beliefs, most is archaeologists speculations. Most likely they weren't uniform. Some tribes could believe in actual, physical portals to the spirit world, others - in something more metaphorical. Also, please note my last paragraph: some places were considered as gates to the world of the dead. Gates as in "you walk through it and you are there". I'd say it is definitely in line with OP's intention. – Darth Hunterix Dec 12 '14 at 23:28
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    Do not make the mistake of running all the 'stoneage' together. The mesolithic was immensely different to the neolithic in both physical world and metaphysical belief as determined through the many finds. The mesolithic seemed to believe far more in a genius loci whereas the neolithic began the current trend towards distinct creator gods. You can directly infer this from the differences in funeral practices - cremation to crouching burials and so on. As this bears on the original question; a burial seems to infer physical movement to the next world - a 'portal'. A cremation less so. – user38114 Dec 12 '14 at 23:48
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"For the Kiowas the beginning was a struggle for existence in the bleak northern mountains. It was there, they say, that they entered the world through a hollow log."

"After a long time, Saynday saw a tiny spot of light above him. He kept
climbing until he reached another hole in the trunk. Slipping through, he found himself standing on the ground. It was daylight! The others came
out of the tree, one by one, laughing with joy because they had escaped
from the dark underground place. They saw a river, a grassy prairie, and herds of deer and antelope. Right then and there, Saynday and his people decided to make this sunny world their new home."

No good date, as it's from oral tradition.

  • Looks interesting.. But an explanation of where it's from might be helpful... – K-H-W Dec 15 '14 at 1:38
  • There is nothing in the quote that makes it clear whether the log transports people between dimensions, or is merely a tunnel from one part of a forest to another. Yes, they say they "entered the world", but that doesn't mean they necessarily thought of these two places as being different realities. Much like how north and south America were referred to as "the new world" while they were being explored by Europeans. – Questioner Feb 15 '15 at 3:28

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