Of Time and the Rivers
SOCRATES’ INIMITABLE HABIT of discussing serious things while telling an improbable story makes it very much worth while to take a closer look at his strange system of rivers.
It appears again in Virgil, almost as a set piece. The Aeneid is noble court poetry, and was not intended to say much about the fate of souls; one cannot expect from it the grave explicit Pythagorean indications of Cicero’s Dream of Scipio. But while retaining conventional imagery and the official literary grand style which befitted a glorification of the Roman Empire, it repays attention to its hints, for Virgil was not only a subtle but a very learned poet, Thus, while Aeneas’ ingress into Hades begins with a clangorous overture of dark woods, specters, somber caves and awesome nocturnal rites, which betoken a real descent into Erebus below the earth, he soon finds himself in a much vaguer landscape. Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram . . . “On they went dimly, beneath the lonely night amid the gloom, through the empty halls of Dis and his unsubstantial realm, even as under the grudging light of an Inconstant moon lies a path in the forest.”
The beauty of the lines disguises the fact that the voyage really is not through subterranean caverns crowded with the countless dead, but through great stretches of emptiness suggesting night space, and once the party has crossed the rivers and passed the gates of Elysium thanks to the magic of the Golden Bough, they are in a serene land “whence, in the world above, the full flood of Eridanus rolls amid the forest.” Now Eridanus is and was in heaven—surely not, in this context, on the Lombard plain. And here also “an ampler aether clothes the meads with roseate light, and they know their own sun, and stars of their own.” There is no mention here of the “pallid plains of asphodel” of Homeric convention. Those hovering souls, “peoples and tribes unnumbered,” are clearly on the “true earth in heaven,” for it is also stated that many of them await the time of being born or reborn on earth in true Pythagorean fashion. And there is more than an Orphic hint in the words of father Anchises: “Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those life-seeds, so far as harmful bodies clog them not. . .” But when they have lived, and died, “it must needs be that many a taint, long linked in growth, should in wondrous use become deeply ingrained. Therefore, they are schooled with penalties, for some the stain of guilt is washed away under swirling floods or burned out in fire. Each of us suffers his own spirit.” Some remain in the beyond and become pure soul; some, after a thousand years (this comes from Plato) are washed in Lethe and then sent to life and new trials.
This is exactly Socrates’ belief. The words “above” and “below” are carefully equivocal, here as there, to respect popular atavistic beliefs or state religion, but this is Plato’s other world.
When Dante took up Virgil’s wisdom, his strong Christian preconceptions compelled him to locate the world of ultimate punishment “physically below.” But his Purgatory is again above, under the open sky, and there is no question but that most, if not quite all, of Virgil’s world is a Purgatory and definitely “up above” too. Socrates’ strange descriptions have remained alive.
But Virgil offers even more than this. In the Georgics (1.242f.) it is said: “One pole is ever high above us, while the other, beneath our feet, is seen of black Styx and the shades infernal” ( sub pedibus Styx atra videt Manesque profundi).
What can it mean, except that Styx flows in sight of the other pole? The circle which began with Hesiod is now closed. [n1 The symmetry of both polar Zones is clearly in the poet’s mind. “Five Zones comprise the heavens; whereof one is ever glowing with the flashing sun, ever scorched by his flames. Round this, at the world’s ends, two stretch darkling to right and left, set fast in ice and black storms. Between them and the middle zone, two by grace of the Gods have been vouchsafed to feeble mortals; and a path is cut between the two [the ecliptic], wherein the slanting array of the Signs may turn” (Georgics 1,233-38).].
Great poets seem to understand each other, and to use information usually withheld from the public; Dante carries on where the Aeneid left off. As the wanderers, Dante and the shade of Virgil as his guide, make their way through the upper reaches of Hell (Inferno VII. 102) they come across a little river which bubbles out of the rock. “Its water was dark more than grey-blue”; it is Styx. and as they go along it they come to the black Stygian marsh, here are immersed the souls of those who hated “life in the gentle light of the sun” and spent it in gloom and spite. Then they have to confront the walls of the fiery city of Dis, the ramparts of Inner Hell, guarded by legions of devils, by the Furies with the dreadful Gorgon herself. It takes the intervention of a Heavenly Messenger to spring the barred gates with the touch of his wand (a variant of Aeneas’ Golden Bough) to admit the wanderers into the City of Perdition. As they proceed along the inner circle, there is a river of boiling red water, which eventually will turn into a waterfall plunging toward the bottom of the abyss (baratro = Tartaros). At this point Virgil remarks (xlv.8S): “Of all that I have shown you since we came through the gate that is closed to none, there is nothing you have seen as notable as this stream, whose vapor screens us from the rain of fire.” Those are weighty words after all that they have gone through; then comes the explanation, a rather far fetched one: “In the midst of the sea,” Virgil begins, “there lies a ruined country which is called Crete, under whose kin. [i.e., Saturn] the world was without vice.” There, at the heart of Mount Ida where Zeus was born of Rhea, there is a vast cavern in which sits a great statue.
Dante is going back there to an ancient tradition to be found in Pliny, that an earthquake broke open a cavern in the mountain, where a huge statue was found, of which not much was said, except that it was 46 cubits high; but Dante supplies the description from a famous vision of Daniel, when the prophet was asked by King Nebuchadnezzar to tell him what he had seen in a frightening dream that he could not remember. Daniel asked God to reveal to him the dream:
“Thou, O king, sawest, and beheld a great image. This great image, whose size was immense, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of bronze. His legs of iron, his feet part of iron, and part of clay.
Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. . . and the stone that brake the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth.”
At this point Dante takes leave of Daniel, and with that insouciance which marks him even when speaking of Holy Prophets, whom he treats as his equals, he dismisses the royal shenanigans in Babylon. His instinct tells him that the vision must really deal with older and loftier subjects, with the cosmos itself. Hence he proceeds to complete the vision on his own. The four metals stand for the four ages of man, and each of them except the gold symbol of the Age of Innocence) is rent by a weeping crack from whence issue the rivers which carry the sins of mankind to the Nether World. They are Acheron, Styx and Phlegethon. We have noted that he describes the original flow of Styx as dark gray-blue, or steel-blue (perso), just as written in Hesiod and Socrates that he had never read. It may have come to him by way of Servius or Macrobius, no matter; what is remarkable is the strictness with which he preserves the dimly understood tradition of the lapis lazuli landscape of Styx, which will be seen to extend all over the world. As far as Phlegethon goes, the course of the stream follows quite exactly what Socrates had to say about Pyriphlegethon, the “flaming river.” We have seen in the Phaidon a low-placed fiery region traversed by a stream of lava, which even sends off real fire to the surface of the earth.
Whereas some interpreters thought it flowed through the interior of our earth, others transferred Pyriphlegethon, as well as the other rivers, into the human soul [n2 Cf. Macrobius. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio 1.10.11 (Stahl trans., p. 128): “Similarly, they thought that Phlegethon was merely the fires of our wraths and passions, that Acheron was the chagrin we experienced over having said or done something, . . . that Cocyros was anything that moved us to lamentation or tears, and that Styx was anything that plunged human minds into the abyss of mutual hatred.”], but there is little doubt that it was originally, as Dieterich has claimed [n3 A. Dieterich, Nekyia (1893). p.27.], a stream of fiery light in heaven, as Eridanus was. In any case, the flaming torrent, as the Aeneid calls it, goes down in spirals carefully traced in Dante’s topography, until it cascades down with the other rivers to the icy lake of Cocytus, “where there is no more descent,” for it is the center, the Tartaros where Lucifer himself is frozen in the ice. (Dante has been respectful of the Christian tradition which makes the universe, so to speak, diabolocentric.) But why does he say that the fiery river is so particularly “notable”?
G. Rabuse [n4 Der kosmische Aufbau der Ienseitsreiche Dantes (1958), pp. 58-66 , 88-95] has solved this puzzle in a careful analytical study of Dante’s three worlds. First, he has found by way of a little-known manuscript of late antiquity, the so-called “Third Vatican Mythographer,” that the circular territory occupied by the Red River in Hell was meant “by certain writers” to be the exact counterpart of the circle of Mars in the skies “because they make the heavens to begin in the Nether World” (3.6.4) [n5 See Scriptores Rerum Mythicarum Latini, ed. G. H. Bode (1968 1st ed. 1934) vol. 1, p. 176: Eundem Phlegethontem nonnulli, qui a caelo infernum incipere autumant, Martis circulum dicunt sicut et Campos Elysios . . . circulum Jovis esse contendunt.]. So Numenius was not wrong after all. The rivers are planetary. Dante subscribed to the doctrine and worked it out with a wealth of parallel features. Mars to him was important because, centrally placed in the planetary system, he held the greatest force for good or evil in action. As the central note in the scale, he can also become the harmonizing force. Both Hermetic tradition and Dante himself are very explicit about it. Is he the planetary Power that stands for Apollo? That requires future investigation.
In the sky of Mars in his Paradise Dante placed the sign of the Cross (“I come to bring not peace but a sword”), a symbol of reckless valor and utter sacrifice, exemplified by his own ancestor the Crusader with whom he passionately identified. In the circle of Mars in Hell he placed, albeit reluctantly, most of the great characters he really admired, from Farinata, Emperor Frederick I , his Chancellor Pier della Vigna, to Brunetto, Capaneus and many proud conquerors. In truth, even Ulysses belongs in it, clothed in the “ancient flame,” the symbol of his “ire” more than of his deceit. Virtues appear down there with the sign minus; they stand as fiery refusal, “blind greed and mad anger” which punish themselves: but their possessors are nonetheless, on the whole, noble, as, in the Nihongi, Brave-Swift-Impetuous-Male, the force of action par excellence. The meek may inherit the earth, but of the Kingdom of Heaven it has been written: violenti rapiunt illud. Christ stands in Dante as the Heliand, the conquering hero, the judge of the living and the dead: rex tremendae majestatis.
However that may be, the equivalence of above and below, of the rivers with the planets, remains established. By artifice Dante brings in at this point the figure of the Colossus of Crete, built out of archaic mythical material. By identifying the rivers with the world-ages, he emphasizes the identity of the rivers with Time: not here the Time that brings into being, but that of passing away—the Time that takes along with it the “sinful dirt,” the load of errors of life as it is lived.
Men’s minds in the 13th century were still very much alive to the archaic structure. But over and above this, by way of the Circle of Mars, an unexpected insight appears. Through the solemn Christian architecture of the poem, through the subtle logical organization, beyond the “veil of strange verses” and the intention they cloaked, there is a glimpse of what the author cared for more than he would say, of the man Alighieri’s own existential choice. Poets cannot guard their own truth. Ulysses setting out toward the southwest in a last desperate attempt foreordained to failure by the order of things, trying to reach the “world denied to mortals,” swallowed by the whirlpool in sight of his goal, that is the symbol.
It is revealed not by the poet’s conscious thinking, but by the power of the lines themselves, so utterly remote, like light coming from a “quasistellar object.” To be sure, the Greek stayed lost in Hell for his ruthless resourcefulness in life as much as for his impiety: he was branded by Virgil as “dire and fierce”; the sentence was accepted. But he was the one who had willed to the last, even against God, to conquer experience and knowledge. His Luciferian loftiness remains in our memory more than the supreme harmony of the choirs of heaven.
To pursue this hazardous inquiry the first source is Homer, “the teacher of Hellas.” The voyage of Odysseus to Hades is the first such expedition in Greek literature. It is undertaken by the weary hero to consult the shade of Teiresias about his future. The advice he eventually gets is startlingly outside the frame of his adventures and of the Odyssey itself (10.508ff.). It will be necessary to come back to this strange prophecy. But as far as the voyage itself goes, Circe gives the hero these sailing instructions:
“Set your mast, hoist your sail, and sit tight: the North Wind will take you along. When you have crossed over the ocean, you will see a low shore, and the groves of Persephoneia, tall poplars and fruit-wasting willows; there beach your ship beside deep-eddying Okeanos, and go on yourself to the dank house of Hades.
There into Acheron, the river of pain, two streams flow, Pyriphlegethon blazing with fire, and Cocytos resounding with lamentation, which is a branch of the hateful water of Styx: a rock is there, by which the two roaring streams unite. Draw near to this, brave man, and be careful to do what I bid you. Dig a pit about one cubit’s length along and across, and pour into it a drink-offering for all souls. . .”
Many centuries later, a remarkable commentary on this passage was made by Krates of Pergamon, a mathematician and mythographer of the Alexandrian period. It has been preserved by Strabo [n6 1.1.7. Referring to Odyssey 1l.639-12.3. See H. J. Mette, Sphairophoiia (1936), pp. 75, 250.]: Odysseus coming from Circe’s island, sailing to Hades and coming back, “must have used the part of the Ocean which goes from the hibernal tropic [of Capricorn] to the South Pole, and Circe helped with sending the North Wind.”
This is puzzling geography, but astronomically it makes sense, and Krates seems to have had good reasons of his own to make the South Pole the objective.
The next information comes from Hesiod in his Theogony(775-814), and very obscure it is. After having heard of the “echoing halls” of Hades and Persephone, he says:
“And there dwells the goddess loathed by the deathless gods, terrible Styx, eldest daughter of backflowing Ocean. She lives apart from the gods in her glorious house vaulted over with great rocks and propped up to heaven all around with silver pillars. Rarely does the daughter of Thaumas, swift-footed Iris, come to her with a message over the sea’s wide back.
“But when strife and quarrel arise among the deathless gods, and when anyone of them who live in the house of Olympus lies, then Zeus sends Iris to bring in a golden jug the great oath of the gods from far away, the famous cold water which trickles down from a high and beetling rock.
“Far under the wide-pathed earth a branch of Oceanus flows through the dark night out of the holy stream, and a tenth part of his water is allotted to her. With nine silver-swirling streams he winds about the earth and the sea’s wide back, .and then falls into the main; but the tenth flows out from a rock, a sore trouble to the gods. For whoever of the deathless gods that hold the peaks of snowy Olympus pours a libation of her water and is forsworn, lies breathless until a full year is completed, and never comes near to taste ambrosia and nectar, but lies spiritless and voiceless on a strewn bed: and a heavy trance [coma] covers him.
“But when he has spent a long year in his sickness, another penance and a harder follows after the first. For nine years he is cut off from the eternal gods and never joins their councils or their feasts, nine full years. But in the tenth year he comes again to join the assemblies of the deathless gods who live in the house of Olympus. Such an oath, then, did the gods appoint the eternal and primeval water of Styx to be: and it spouts through a rugged place.
“And there, all in their order, are the sources and limits of the dark earth and misty Tartarus and the unfruitful sea [pontos] and starry heaven, loathsome and dank, which even the gods abhor. And there are shining gates and an immoveable threshold of bronze having unending roots and it is grown of itself. And beyond, away from all the gods, are the Titans, beyond gloomy Chaos.”
This is Hesiod’s version of the “Foundations of the Abyss.” Its very details make confusion worse confounded, as befits the subject. The difficult word ogygion, translated often with “primeval,” seems to designate things vaguely beyond time and place; one might say, the hidden treasure at the end of the rainbow. It was also the name for the resting place of Kronos, where he awaited the time of his return. But the paradoxical piling up of sources, limits, “unending roots” of earth, sea, heaven, and Tartaros too, remove any thought of a location at the earth’s core, such as the cryptic words were popularly felt to convey. This “deeper than the deep” must have been “beyond the other side of the earth,” and for reasons of symmetry, opposite to our pole. The shining gates and the immovable threshold of bronze are said elsewhere in the text to be the gates of Night and Day. Two centuries later, Parmenides, taking up Hesiod’s allegorical language, speaks again of those gates of Night and Day [n7 G. de Santillana, Prologue to Parmenides, U. of Cincinnati, Semple Lecture, 1964. Reprinted in Reflections on Man and Ideas (1968), p. 82.]. But his image becomes clearer, as befits his invincibly geometrical imagination. The gates are “high up in the aether,” leading to the abode of the Goddess of Truth and Necessity, and in his case too they must be at the Pole for explicit reasons of symmetry. We once tentatively suggested the North Pole, but many concurrent clues would indicate now the other one, the unknown, the Utterly Inaccessible. Hesiod says that Styx is a branch of Okeanos in heaven, “under the wide-pathed earth”; its dreaded goddess lives in a house “propped up to heaven all around with silver pillars,” the water drips from a high rock. It can be reached by Iris coming with her rainbow “from snowy Olympus in the north.” This ogygion region, that the gods abhor, has to be both under and beyond the earth; this should mean something like “on the other side of heaven.” Homer never spoke of “above” and “below” in the strict sense. He simply made Odysseus land on a flat shore far away.
But what of the dreadful Styx which seems to be the core of the mystery? A river of death, even to gods, who can at least expect to come out of their coma at the appointed time.
It is inimical to all matter: it cracks glass, metal, stone, any container. Only a horse’s hoof is proof against it, says the legend [n8 Pausanias 8.184-6; ed. J. G. Frazer, Pausanias’ Description of Greece 4, pp. 248-56; also O. Waser, Roscher 4, cols. 1574, 1576. Pausanias leaves it open whether or not Alexander was killed by means of Stygian water, as was fabled.]. It adds that to men that water is inescapably lethal—except for one day of the year, which no one knows, when it becomes a water of immortality. This leads finally to the tragic ambiguity which gives drama to the tale of Gilgamesh and Alexander.
It is clear by now that the rivers are understood to be Time—the time of heaven. But images have their own logic. Where are the sources? The Colossus of Crete is Dante’s own invention. Before him, there were many other accounts of the cracks from which flow the world-ages. Kai Khusrau, the Iranian Amlethus, was persecuted by a murderous uncle, established a Golden Age and then moved off in melancholy into the Great Beyond. The bad uncle, Afrasiyab, in his desperate efforts to seize the holy legitimacy, the “Glory” (Hvarna), had turned himself into a creature of the deep waters and plunged into the mystic Lake Vurukasha, diving after the “Glory.” Three times he dove, but every time;: “this glory escaped, this glory went away”: and at every try, it escaped through an outlet which led to a river to the Beyond. The name of the first outlet was Hausravah, the original Avestan name of Kai Khusrau. This should make the epoch and design tolerably plain.
An equally ancient story of three outlets comes from Hawaii. It appears in Judge Fornander’s invaluable Account compiled a century ago, when the tradition was still alive. The “living waters” belong to Kane, the world-creating Demiurge or craftsman god. These waters are to be found in an invisible divine country, Pali-uli (= blue mountain), where Kane, Ku, and Lono created the first man, Kumu honua (“earth-rooted”) or alternatively, the living waters are on the “flying island of Kane” (the Greek Hephaistos lived also on a floating island). Fornander describes the spring of this “living water” as
beautifully transparent and clear. Its banks are splendid. It had three outlets: one for Kane, one for Ku, one for Lono; and through these outlets the fish entered the pond.
If the fish of this pond were thrown on the ground or on the fire, they did not die; and if a man had been killed and was afterwards sprinkled over with this water he did soon come to life again [n9 A. Fornander, An Account of the Polynesian Race, Its Origin and Migrations (1878), vol. I, pp. 72f. cf. Fornander Collection of Hawaiian Antiquities and Folk-Lore, Mem. BPB Mus. 6 (1920), pp. 77f.].
An extraordinary theme has been set, that of the “revived fish” which will later show itself as central in Mid-Eastern myth, from Gilgamesh to Glaukos to Alexander himself. And then there are again the three outlets. These may help individualize the notion of Kane’s “spring of life,” which might otherwise sound as commonplace to folklorists as the Fountain of Youth. But something really startling can be found in good sound Pythagorean tradition. Plutarch in his essay “Why oracles no longer give answer” tells us (422E) that Petron, a Pythagorean of the early Italian school, a contemporary and friend to the great doctor Alcmaeon (c. 550 B.C.) theorized that there must be many worlds—183 of them. More about these 183 worlds was reported by Kleombrotos, one of the persons taking part in the conversation about the obsolescence of oracles, who had received his information from a mysterious “man” who used to meet human beings only once every year near the Persian Gulf, spending “the other days of his life in association with roving nymphs and demigods” (421A). According to Kleombrotos, he placed these worlds on an equilateral triangle, sixty to each side, and one extra at each corner. No further reason is given, but
they were so ordered that one always touched another in a circle, like those who dance in a ring. The plain within the triangle is . . . the foundation and common altar to all these worlds, which is called the Plain of Truth, in which lie the designs, moulds, ideas, and invariable examples of all things which were, or ever shall be; and about there is Eternity, whence flowed Time, as from a river, into the worlds. Moreover, that the souls of men, if they have lived well in this world, do see these ideas once in ten thousand years; and that the most holy mystical ceremonies which are performed here are not more than a dream of this sacred vision [n10 Plutarch, De defectu oraculorum, ch. 22, 422BC.].
What is this? A mythical prefiguration of Plato’s metaphysics? And why this triangular “Plain of Truth,” which turns out again to be a lake of Living Water?
Pythagoreans did not care to explain. Nor did Plutarch [n11 Proclus (comm. on Plato’s Timaeus 138B, ed. Diehl, BT, vol. 1, p. 454) claimed this to be a “barbarous opinion” (doxe barbarike). He shows no particular interest in the triangular plain of truth, alias our “lake” with its outlets, but he has more to say about the 180 “subordinate” and the 3 “leading” worlds (hegemonas) at the angles, and how to interpret them. To which Festugiere, in his (highly welcome and marvelous) translation of Proclus’ commentary, remarks (vol. 2, p. 336, n. I): “On notera que Proclus donne a la fois moins et plus que Plutarque. A-t-il lu ces elucubrations pythagoriciennes elles-memes?”]. But here is at least one original way of linking Eternity with the flow of Time. When it came to geometric fantasy, no one could outbid the Pythagoreans.
DANTE KEPT to the tradition of the whirlpool as a significant end for great figures, even if here it comes ordained by Providence. Ulysses has sailed in his “mad venture” beyond the limits of the world, and once he has crossed the ocean he sees a mountain looming far away, “hazy with the distance, and so high I had never seen any.” It is the Mount of Purgatory, forbidden to mortals.
“We rejoiced, and soon it turned to tears, for from the new land a whirl was born, which smote our ship from the side. Three times it caused it to revolve with all the waters, on the fourth to lift its stern on high, and the prow to go down, as Someone willed, until the sea had closed over us.” The “many thoughted” Ulysses is on his way to immortality, even if it has to be Hell.
The engulfing whirlpool belongs to the stock-in-trade of ancient fable. It appears in the Odyssey as Charybdis in the straits of Messina-and again, in other cultures, in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific. It is. found there too, curiously enough, with the overhanging fig tree to whose boughs the hero can cling as the ship goes down, whether it be Satyavrata in India, or Kae in Tonga. Like Sindbad’s magnetic mountain, it goes on in mariners’ yarns through the centuries. But the persistence of detail rules out free invention. Such stories have belonged to the cosmographical literature since antiquity.
Medieval writers, and after them Athanasius Kircher, located the gurges mirabilis, the wondrous eddy, somewhere off the coast of Norway, or of Great Britain. It was the Maelstrom, plus probably a memory of Pentland Firth [n1 See for Ireland, W. Stokes, “The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindsenchas,” RC 16 (1895), no. 145: “A great whirlpool there is between Ireland and Scotland on the North. It is the meeting of many seas [from NSEW]-it resembles an open caldron which casts the draught down [and] up, and its roaring is heard like far off thunder. . .”]. It was generally in the direction north-northwest, just as Saturn’s island, Ogygia, had been vaguely placed “beyond” the British Isles by the Greeks.
On further search this juxtaposition seems to be the result of the usual confusion between uranography and geography. There is frequently a “gap” in the northwest (“Nine-Yin” for the Chinese) of the heavens and inasmuch as the skeleton map of earth was derived from that of the sky, the gap was pinned down here as the Maelstrom, or Ogygia. Both notions are far from obvious, as are the localizations, and it is even more remarkable that they should be frequently joined.
For the Norse (see chapter 6) the whirlpool came into being from the unhinging of the Grotte Mill: the Maelstrom comes of the hole in the sunken millstone. This comes from Snorri. The older verses by Snaebjorn which described Hamlet’s Mill stated that the nine maids of the island mill who in past ages ground Amlodhi’s meal now drive a “host-cruel skerry-quern.” That this skerry-quern means the whirlpool, and not simply the northern ocean, is backed up through some more lines which Gollancz ascribes to Snaebjorn; not that they were of crystal clarity, but again mill and whirlpool are connected:
The island-mill pours out the blood of the flood goddess’s sisters [i.e., the waves of the sea], so that [it] bursts from the feller of the land: whirlpool begins strong [n21. Gollancz, Hamlet in Iceland(1898), pp. xvii.].
No localization is indicated here, whereas the Finns point to directions which are less vague than they sound. Their statement that the Sampo has three roots-one in heaven, one in the earth, the third in the water eddy-has a definite meaning, as will be shown.
But then also, Vainamoinen driving with his copper boat into the “maw of the Maelstrom” is said to sail to “the depths of the sea,” to the “lowest bowels of the earth,” to the “lowest regions of the heavens.” Earth and heaven-a significant contraposition. As concerns the whereabouts of the whirlpool, one reads:
Before the gates of Pohjola,
Below the threshold of color-covered Pohjola,
There the pines roll with their roots,
The pines fall crown first into the gullet of the whirlpool.
[n3 M. Haavio, Vainamoinen, Eternal Sage (1952), pp. 191-98.]
Then in Teutonic tradition, one finds in Adam of Bremen (11th century) :
Certain Frisian noblemen made a voyage past Norway up to the farthest limits of the Arctic Ocean, got into a darkness which the eyes can scarcely penetrate, were exposed to a maelstroem which threatened to drag them down to Chaos, but finally came quite unexpectedly out of darkness and cold to an island which, surrounded as by a wall of high rocks, contains subterranean caverns, wherein giants lie concealed. At the entrances of the underground dwellings lay a great number of tubs and vessels of gold and other metals which “to mortals seem rare and valuable.” As much as the adventurers could carry of these treasures they took with them and hastened to their ships. But the giants, represented by great dogs, rushed after them. One of the Frisians was overtaken and torn into pieces before the eyes of the others. The others succeeded, thanks to our Lord and Saint Willehad, in getting safely on board their ships.
[n4 V. Rydberg, Teutonic Mythology (1907), p. 320.]
The Latin text (Rydberg, p. 422) uses the classical familiar name of Euripus. The Euripus, which has already come up in the Phaedo, was really a channel between Euboea and the mainland, in which the conflict of tides reverses the current as much as seven times a day, with ensuing dangerous eddies-actually a case of standing waves rather than a true whirl [n5 We meet the name again at a rather unexpected place, in the Roman circus or hippodrome, as we know from J. Laurentius Lydus (De Mensibus 1.12.), who states that the center of the circus was called Euripos; that in the middle of the stadium was a pyramid, belonging to the Sun; that by the Sun’s pyramid were three altars, of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and below the pyramid, altars of Venus, Mercury and the Moon, and that there were not more than seven circuits (kykloi) around the pyramid, because the planets were only seven. (See also F. M. Cornford’s chapter on the origin of the Olympic games in J. Harrison’s Themis (1962), 228; G. Higgins’ Anacalypsis (1927), vol. 2, pp. 377ff.) This brings to mind (although not called Euripus, obviously, but “the god’s place of skulls”) the Central American Ball Court which had a round hole in its center, termed by Tezozomoc “the enigmatic significance of the ball court,” and from this hole a lake spread out before Uitzilopochtli was born. See W. Krickeberg, “Der mittelamerikanische Ballspielplatz und seine religiose Symbolik,” Paideuma 3 (1948). pp. 135ff., 155, 162.].
And here the unstable Euripus of the Ocean, which flows back to the beginnings of its mysterious source, dragged with irresistible force the unhappy sailors, thinking by now only of death, towards Chaos. This is said to be the maw of the abyss, that unknown depth in which, it is understood, the ebb and flow of the whole sea is absorbed and then thrown up again, which is the cause of the tide.
This is reflection of what had been a popular idea of antiquity. But here comes a version of the same story in North America [n6 J. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee (1900), p. 340.]. It concerns the canoe adventure of two Cherokees at the mouth of Suck Creek. One of them was seized by a fish, and never seen again. The other was
taken round and round to the very lowest center of the whirlpool, when another circle caught him and bore him outward. He told afterwards that when he reached the narrowest circle of the maelstroem the water seemed to open below and he could look down as through the roof beam of a house, and there on the bottom of the river he had seen a great company, who looked up and beckoned to him to join them, but as they put up their hands to seize him the swift current caught him and took him out of their reach.
It is almost as if the Cherokees have retained the better memory, when they talk of foreign regions, inhabited by “a great company”—which might equally well be the dead, or giants with their dogs—there, where in “the narrowest circle of the maelstroem the water seemed to open below.” It will be interesting to see whether or not this impression is justifiable [n7 See illustrations (p.60) showing Mount Meru in the shape or an hourglass.].
Snorri, who has preserved the Song of Grotte for us, does not actually name the whirlpool in it, but there is only one at hand, namely the “Hvergelmer” in Hel’s abode of the dead, from and to which all waters find their way.” [n8 Grimnisma126; cf. Snorri, Gylf. 15.]. Says Rydberg:
It appears that the mythology conceived Hvergelmer as a vast reservoir, the mother fountain of all the waters of the world. In the front rank are mentioned a number of subterranean rivers which rise in Hvergelmer, and seek their courses thence in various directions. But the waters of earth and heaven also come from this immense fountain, and after completing their circuits they return thither.
The myth about Hvergelmer and its subterranean connection with the ocean gave our ancestors the explanation of ebb and flood tide. High up in the northern channels the bottom of the ocean opened itself in a hollow tunnel, which led down to the “kettle-roarer,” “the one roaring in his basin” (hverr=kettle; galm=Anglo-Saxon gealm= a roaring). When the waters of the ocean poured through this tunnel down into the Hades-well there was ebb-tide, when it returned water from its superabundance then was flood-tide.
Between the death-kingdom and the ocean there was, therefore, one connecting link, perhaps several. Most of the people who drowned did not remain with Ran, Aegir’s wife, Ran, received them hospitably, according to the Icelandic sagas of the middle ages. She had a hall in the bottom of the sea, where they were welcomed and offered . . . seat and bed. Her realm was only an ante-chamber to the realms of death.
[n9 Rydberg, pp. 414, 421f. Cf. the notions about the nun Saint Gertrude, patron of travelers, particularly on sea voyages, who acted also as patron saint of inns “and finally it was claimed that she was the hostess of a public house, where the souls spent the first night after death” (M. Hako; Das Wiesel in der europaischen Volksuberlieferung, FFC 167 , p. 119).].
There are several features of the Phaedo here, but they will turn up again in Gilgamesh. This is not to deny that Hvergelmer, and other whirlpools, explain the tides, as indicated previously. (Perhaps it will be possible to find out what tides “mean” on the celestial level.) But it is clear that the Maelstrom as the cause of the tides does not account for the surrounding features, not even for the few mentioned by Rydberg—for instance, the wife of the Sea-god Aegir who receives kindly the souls of drowned seafarers in her antechamber at the bottom of the sea—nor the circumstance that the Frisian adventurers, sucked into the Maelstrom, suddenly find themselves on a bright island filled with gold, where giants lie concealed in the mountain caves.
This island begins to look very much like Ogygia I, where Kronos/Saturn sleeps in a golden mountain cave, whereas the reception hall of Ran—her husband Aegir was famous for his beer brewing, and his hall it was, where Loke offended all his fellow gods as reported in the Lokasenna—would suggest rather Ogygia II, the island of Calypso, sister of Prometheus, called Omphalos Thalasses, the Navel of the Sea. Calypso as the daughter of Atlas, “who knew the depths of the whole sea.” She, Calypso, has been authoritatively compared [n10 See chapter 22, .”The Adventure and the Quest.”] to the divine barmaid Siduri, who dwells by the deep sea and will be found later on in the tale of Gilgamesh.
Mythology, meaning proper poetic fable, has been of great assistance but it can help no further. The golden island of Kronos, the tree-girt island of Calypso, remain unlocatable, notwithstanding the efforts of Homeric scholars. Through careful analysis of navigational data, one of them (Berard) has placed Calypso in the island of Perejil near Gibraltar, another (Bradfield) in Malta, others even off Africa. Presumably it should not be too far from Sicily, since Ulysses reaches it riding on the mast of his ship, right after having escaped from Charybdis in the strait of Messina, in the setting that Homer describes so plausibly. It appears throughout time in many places [n11 The last learned attempt to locate it—by H. H. and A. Wolf, Der Weg des Odysseus(1968)—proves as illusionistic as the previous ones.]. Some data in Homer look like exact geography, as Circe’s Island with its temple of Feronia, or the Land of the Laistrygones, which should be the bay of Bonifacio. But most elements from past myth, like Charybdis or the Planktai, are illusionistic. They throw the whole geography into a cocked hat, as do the Argonauts themselves.
Without trying to fathom Ogygia, or Ogygos, the adjective “Ogygian”—which has been used as a label for the Waters of Styx—has also assumed the connotation of “antediluvian.” As for Hvergelmer, “roaring kettle,” it is the “navel of the waters” but it is certainly “way down,” as is the strange “Bierstube” of Aegir. And when it is found, as it soon will be, that Utnapishtim (the builder of the Ark, who can be reached only by the road leading through the bar of the divine Siduri and hence also, one would say, through the inn of beer-brewing Aegir) lives forever at the “confluence of the rivers,” this might have charmed Socrates with his idea of confluences, but it will not make things much clearer.
Yet there are some footholds to climb back from the abyss. It is known (chapter 12) that Socrates and the poets really referred to heaven “seen from the other side.”
It has been shown that the way through the “navel of the waters” was taken by Vainamoinen, and we shall see (chapter 19) that the same goes for Kronos-Phaethon, and other powerful personalities as well, who reached the Land of Sleep where time has ceased. One can anticipate that the meaning will be ultimately astronomical. Hence, backing out of fable, one can turn again for assistance to the Royal Science.
That there is a whirlpool in the sky is well known; it is most probably the essential one, and it is precisely placed. It is a group of stars so named (zalos) at the foot of Orion, close to Rigel (beta Orionis, Rigel being the Arabic word for “foot”), the degree of which was called “death,” according to Hermes Trismegistos [n12 Vocatur mors. W. Gundel, Neue Astrologische Texte des Hermes Trismegistos (1936), pp. 196f., 216f.], whereas the Maori claim outright that Rigel marked the way to Hades (Castor indicating the primordial homeland). Antiochus the astrologer enumerates the whirl among the stars rising with Taurus. Franz Boll takes sharp exception to the adequacy of his description, but he concludes that the zalosmust, indeed, be Eridanus “which flows from the foot of Orion.” [n13 Sphaera (1903), pp. 57,164-67.]. Now Eridanus, the watery grave of Phaethon—Athanasius Kircher’s star map of the southern hemisphere still shows Phaethon’s mortal frame lying in the streamwas seen as a starry river leading to the other world. The initial frame stands, this time traced in the sky. And here comes a crucial confirmation. That mysterious place, pi narati, literally the “mouth of the rivers,” meaning, however, the “confluence” of the rivers, was traditionally identified by the Babylonians with Eridu.
But the archaeological site of Eridu is nowhere near the confluence of the Two Rivers of Mesopotamia. It is between the Tigris and Euphrates, which flow separately into the Red Sea, and placed rather high up. The proposed explanation, that it was the expanding of alluvial land which removed Eridu from the joint “mouth” of the rivers, did not contribute much to an understanding of the mythical topos of pi narati, and some perplexed philologist supposed in despair that those same archaic people who had built up such impressive waterworks had never known which way the waters flow and had believed, instead, that the two rivers had their source in the Persian Gulf.
This particular predicament was solved by W. F. Albright, who exchanged “mouth” and “source” [n14 “The Mouth of the Rivers,” AJSL 35(1919), pp. 161-95.]; he left us stranded “high and dry”—a very typical mythical situation, by the way in the Armenian mountains around the “source.” And though he stressed, rightly, that Eridu-pi narati could not mean geography, he banished it straightaway into the interior of the planet.
The “source” is as unrevealing as the “mouth” has been, and as every geographical localization is condemned to be Eridu, Sumerian mulNUNki is Canopus, alpha Carinae, the bright star near the South Pole, as has been established irrefragably by B. L. van der Waerden [n15 “The Thirty-six Stars,” JNES 8 (1949), p. 14. “The bright southern star Canopus was Ea’s town Eridu (NUNki dE-a).”], a distinguished contemporary historian of astronomy. That one or another part of Argo was meant had been calculated previously [n16 See P. F. Gassmann, Planetarium Babylonicum (1950), 306.]. And that, finally, made sense of the imposing configuration of myths around Canopus on the one hand, and of the preponderance of the “confluence of the rivers” on the other hand. This unique topos will be dealt with later.
One point still remains a problem. The way of the dead to the other world had been thought to be the Milky Way, and that since the oldest days of high civilization. This image was still alive with the Pythagoreans. When and how did Eridanus come in?
A reasonable supposition is that this was connected with the observed shifting of the equinoctial colure17 due to the Precession. But the analysis of this intricate problem of rivers will come in the chapter on the Galaxy [n17 The equinoctial colure is the great circle which passes through the celestial poles and the equinoctial points: the solstitial colure runs through both the celestial and ecliptic poles and through the solstitial points. Macrobius has it, strange to say, that “they are not believed to extend to the South Pole,” whence kolouros, meaning “dock-tailed,” “which are so called because they do not make complete circles” (Comm. Somn. Scip. 1.15.14). The translator, W. H. Stahl (p. 151), refers, among others, to Geminus 5.49-50. Geminus, however (5-49, Manitius, pp. 6061), does not claim such obvious nonsense; he states the following: “Kolouroi they are called, because certain of their parts are not visible (dia to mere tina auton atheoreta ginesthai). Whereas the other circles become visible in their whole extension with the revolution of the cosmos, certain parts of the Colures remain invisible, ‘docked’ by the antarctical circle below the horizon.”].
One thing meanwhile stands firm: the real, the original, way from the whirlpool lies in heaven. With this finding, one may plunge again into the bewildering jungle of “earthly” myths concerning the Waters from the Deep.
The Waters from the Deep
THERE IS A TRADITION from Borneo of a “Whirlpool island” with a tree that allows a man to climb up into heaven and bring back useful seeds from the “land of the Pleiades.” [n1 A. Maass, “Sternkunde und Sterndeuterei im Malaiischen Archipel” (1924), in Tijdschrift lndische Taal-, Land, en Volkenkunde 64, p. 388.]. The Polynesians have not made up their mind, apparently, concerning the exact localization of their whirlpool which serves in most cases as entrance to the abode of the dead; it is supposed to be found “at the end of the sky,” and “at the edge of the Milky Way.” [n2 M. W. Makemson (The Morning Star Rises: An Account of Polynesian Astronomy , no. 160) suggests Sagittarius. For Samoa, see A. Kraemer, Die Samoa-Inseln(1902), vol. I, p. 369. For Mangaia, see P. Bue, Mangaian Society (1934), p. 198; and R. W. Williamson, Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia (1924), vol. 2, p. 251.].
On this side of the Atlantic the Cuna Indians also knew the basic scheme [n3 C. E. Keeler, Secrets of the Cuna Earthmother (1960), pp. 67ff., 78f.], although they, too, failed to give the accepted localization: “God’s very own whirlpool” (tiolele piria) was right beneath the Palluwalla tree, “Saltwater-Tree,” and when the Sun-God, or the Tapir, a slightly disguised Quetzalcouatl, chopped down the tree, saltwater gushed forth to form the oceans of the world.
There are three elements here, which combine into a curious tangle: (a) the whirlpool represents, or is, the connection of the world of the living with the world of the dead; (b) a tree grows close to it, frequently a life-giving or -saving tree; (c) the whirl came into being because a tree was chopped down or uprooted, or a mill’s axle unhinged, and the like. This basic scheme works into many variants and features in many parts of the world, and it provides a very real paradox or conundrum: it is as if the particular waters hidden below tree, pillar, or mill’s axle waited only for the moment when someone should remove that plug-tree, pillar, or mill’s axle-to play tricks.
This is no newfangled notion. Alfred Jeremias remarks casually, “The opening of the navel brings the deluge. When David wanted to remove the navel stone in Jerusalem, a flood was going to start [see below, p. 220]. In Hierapolis in Syria the altar of Xisuthros [= Utnapishtim] was shown in the cave where the flood dried up.” [n4 HAOG, p. 156, n. 7 (“wo die Flut versiegte”).].
The pattern reveals itself in the Indonesian Rama epic [n5 W. Stutterheim, Rama-Legenden und Rama-Reliefs in Indonesien (1925), p. 54.]. When Rama is building the huge dike to Lanka (Ceylon) the helpful monkeys throw mountain after mountain into the sea, but all of them vanish promptly. Enraged, Rama is going to shoot his magic arrow into the unobliging sea, when there arises a lady from the waters who warns him that right here was a hole in the ocean leading to the underworld, and who informs him that the water in that hole was called Water of Life.
Rama would seem to have won out with his threat since the dike was built. But the same story comes back in Greece when Herakles crosses the sea in order to steal the cattle of Geryon. Okeanos, represented here as a god, works up the waters into a tumult which are the waters of the original flood; Herakles threatens with his drawn bow, and calm is re-established.
Neither whirlpool nor confluence are mentioned in these cases, but they clearly extend to them. This gives great importance to the Catlo’ltq story from the American Northwest that is paradigmatic. (see chapter 22) of the maiden who shoots her arrow into the “navel of the waters which was a vast Whirlpool” thus winning fire. Some very fundamental idea must be lurking behind the story, and a pretty old one, since it was said of Ishtar that it is “she who stirs up the apsu before Ea.” [n6 “Descent of Ishtar to the Nether World,” obv. l. 27, ANAT, p. 107; see also W. F. Albright, “The Mouth of the Rivers,” AJSL 35 (1919), p. 184.].
A strange pastime for the heavenly queen, but it seems to have been a rather celestial sport. The eighth Yasht of the Avesta [n7 Yasht 8.6 and 8.37 (H. Lommel, Die Yashts des Awesta ).], dedicated to Sirius-Tishtriya, says of this star: “We worship the splendid, brilliant Tishtriya, which soars rapidly to Lake Vurukasha, like the arrow quick-as-lightning, which Urxsa the archer, the best archer among the Aryans, shot from Mount Aryioxsutha to Mount Huvanvant.” [n8 See for the feat of this unpronounceable archer (Rkhsha) the report given by Al-Biruni, who spells him simply Arish (The Chronology of Ancient Nations, trans. E. Sachau , p. 205). The background of the tale: Afrasiyab had promised to restore to Minocihr a part of Eranshar (which had been conquered by him) as long and as broad as an arrow shot. Arish shot the arrow on the 13th day of the month Tir-Mah, after having announced: “I know that when I shoot with this bow and arrow I shall fall to pieces and my life will be gone.” Accordingly, when he shot, he “fell asunder into pieces. By order of God the wind bore the arrow away from the mountain of Ruyan and brought it to the utmost frontier of Khurasan between Farghana and Tabaristan; there it hit the trunk of a nut-tree that was so large that there had never been a tree like it in the world. The distance between the place where the arrow was shot and that where it fell was 1,000 Farsakh.” (See also S. H. Taqizadeh, Old Iranian Calendars , p. 44,) Tir or Ira is the name for Mercury (see T. Hyde, Veterum Persarum et Parthorum Religionis historia , p. 24: “Tir, i.e., Sagitta. . ., quo etiam nomine appellatur Mercurius Planeta propter velociorem motum”), but it is also, along with Tishtriya, the name for Sirius (see A. Scherer, Gestirnnamen bei den indogermanischen Volker , pp. 113f.), and the 13th day of every month is dedicated to Sirius-Tishriya (see Lommel, p. 5). We must leave it at that: Sirius-the-arrow has made more mythical “noise” than any other star, and also its connection with the ominous number 13 appears to be no Iranian monopoly.]. And what does Sirius do to this sea? It causes “Lake Vurukasha to surge up, to flood asunder, to spread out; at all shores surges Lake Vurukasha, the whole center surges up” (Yt. 8.31; see also 5.4). Whereas Pliny [n9 9.58. cf. Aristotle, Historia Animalium 8.15.599B-600.] wants to assure us that “the whole sea is conscious of the rise of that star, as is most clearly seen in the Dardanelles, for sea-weed and fishes float on the surface, and everything is turned up from the bottom.” He also remarks that at the rising of the Dog-Star the wine in the cellars begins to stir up and that the still waters move (2.107)—and the Avesta offers as explanation (Yt. 8.41) that it is Tishtriya, indeed, “by whom count the waters, the still and the flowing ones, those in springs and in rivers, those in channels and in ponds.” [n10 Trans. E. Herzfeld, Zoroaster and His World (1947), p. 587.].
This is, however, no Iranian invention: the ritual text of the Babylonian New Year addresses Sirius as “mul.KAK.SI.DI. who measures the depth of the Sea.” mul is the prefix announcing the star, KAK.SI.DI means “arrow,” and it is this particular arrow which is behind most of the bewildering tales of archery. The bow from which it is sent on its way is a constellation, built from stars of Argo and Canis Major, which is common to the spheres of Mesopotamia, Egypt and China [n11 There is strong circumstantial evidence of this bow and arrow in Mexico also: the bow of the Chichimeca, the Dog-people.]. And since the name Ishtar is shared by both Venus and Sirius, one may guess who “stirs up the apsu before Ea.”
And here is what the “fire” accomplished, according to a Finnish rune of origin [n12 K. Krohn, Magische Ursprungsrunen der Finnen (1924), pp. 115ff. See also F. Ohrt, The Spark in tbe Water (1926), pp. 3f.], after it had been “cradled. . . over there on the navel of the sky, on the peak of the famous mountain,” when it rushed straightaway through seven or nine skies and fell into the sea: “The spark. . . rolled. . . to the bottom of Lake Aloe, roaring it rushed to the bottom of the sea, down into the narrow depression (?). This Lake Aloe then, thrice in the summernight, rose foaming to the height of its firs, driven in fury beyond its banks. Thereupon again Lake Aloe thrice in the summernight dried up its waters to the bottom, its perch on the rocks, its pope [small fishes] on the skerries.”
A violent spark this seems to have been; yet—is it not also said of the old Sage: “Vainamoinen in the mouth of the whirlpool boils like fire in water” [n13 M. Haavio, Vainamoinen, Eternal Sage (1952), p. 196.]? Which goes to show that mythical “fire” means more than meets the eye. Actually, the enigmatical events in “Lake Aloe” cannot be severed from those occurring in lake Vurukasha and the coming into being of the “three outlets,” the first of which had the name Hausravahf/Kai Khusrau (see chapter 13, “Of Time and the Rivers,” p. 201).
Before we move on to many motifs which will be shown as related to the same “eddy-field” or whirl, it is appropriate to quote in full a version of the fire and water story from the Indians of Guyana. This not only provides charming variations, but presents that rarest of deities, a creator power neither conceited nor touchy nor jealous nor quarrelsome nor eager to slap down unfortunates with “inborn sin,” but a god aware that his powers are not really unlimited. He behaves modestly, sensibly and thoughtfully and is rewarded with heartfelt cooperation from his creatures, at least from all except for the usual lone exception.
The Ackawois of British Guiana say that in the beginning of the world the great spirit Makonaima [or Makunaima; he is a twin-hero; the other is called Pia] created birds and beasts and set his son Sigu to rule over them. Moreover, he caused to spring from the earth a great and very wonderful tree, which bore a different kind of fruit on each of its branches, while round its trunk bananas, plantains, cassava, maize, and corn of all kinds grew in profusion; yams, too, clustered round its roots; and in short all the plants now cultivated on earth flourished in the greatest abundance on or about or under that marvelous tree.
In order to diffuse the benefits of the tree all over the world, Sigu resolved to cut it down and plant slips and seeds of it everywhere, and this he did with the help of all the beasts and birds, all except the brown monkey, who, being both lazy and mischievous, refused to assist in the great work of transplantation. So to keep him out of mischief Sigu set the animal to fetch water from the stream in a basket of open-work, calculating that the task would occupy his misdirected energies for some time to come.
In the meantime, proceeding with the labour of felling the miraculous tree, he discovered that the stump was hollow and full of water in which the fry of every sort of fresh-water fish was swimming about. The benevolent Sigu determined to stock all the rivers and lakes on earth with the fry on so liberal a scale that every sort of fish should swarm in every water.
But this generous intention was unexpectedly frustrated. For the water in the cavity, being connected with the great reservoir somewhere in the bowels of the earth, began to overflow; and to arrest the rising flood Sigu covered the stump with a closely woven basket. This had the desired effect. But unfortunately the brown monkey, tired of his fruitless task, stealthily returned, and his curiosity being aroused by the sight of the basket turned upside down, he imagined that it must conceal something good to eat. So he cautiously lifted it and peeped beneath, and out poured the flood, sweeping the monkey himself away and inundating the whole land. Gathering the rest of the animals together Sigu led them to the highest points of the country, where grew some tall coconut-palms. Up the tallest trees he caused the birds and climbing animals to ascend; and as for the animals that could not climb and were not amphibious, he shut them in a cave with a very narrow entrance, and having sealed up the mouth of it with wax he gave the animals inside a long thorn with which to pierce the wax and so ascertain when the water had subsided. After taking these measures for the preservation of the more helpless species, he and the rest of the creatures climbed up the palm-tree and ensconced themselves among the branches.
During the darkness and storm which followed, they all suffered intensely from cold and hunger; the rest bore their sufferings with stoical fortitude, but the red howling monkey uttered his anguish in such horrible yells that his throat swelled and has remained distended ever since; that, too, is the reason why to this day he has a sort of bony drum in his throat.
Meanwhile Sigu from time to time let fall seeds of the palm into the water to judge of its depth by the splash. As the water sank, the interval between the dropping of the seed and the splash in the water grew longer; and at last, instead of a splash the listening Sigu heard the dull thud of the seeds striking the soft earth. Then he knew that the flood had subsided, and he and the animals prepared to descend. But the trumpeter-bird was in such a hurry to get down that he flopped straight into an ant’s nest, and the hungry insects fastened on his legs and gnawed them to the bone. That is why the trumpeterbird has still such spindle shanks. The other creatures profited by this awful example and came down the tree cautiously and safely.
Sigu now rubbed two pieces of wood together to make fire, but just as he produced the first spark, he happened to look away, and the bush-turkey, mistaking the spark for a fire-fly, gobbled it up and flew off. The spark burned the greedy bird’s gullet, and that is why turkeys have red wattles on their throats to this day.
The alligator was standing by at the time, doing no harm to anybody; but as he was for some reason an unpopular character, all the other animals accused him of having stolen and swallowed the spark. In order to recover the spark from the jaws of the alligator Sigu tore out the animal’s tongue, and that is why alligators have no tongue to speak of down to this very day [n14 W. H. Brett, The Indian Tribes of Guiana (1868), pp. 37-84; Sir Everard F. im Thurn, Among the Indians of Guiana (1883), pp. 379-81 (quoted in J. G. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament , vol. I, p. 265). The italics are ours.]
There are many more stories over the world of a plug whose removal causes the flood: with the Agaria, an iron smith tribe of Central India, it is the breaking of a nail of iron whch causes their Golden Age town of Lohripur to be flooded [n15 V. Elwin, The Agaria (1942), pp. 96ff.]. According to the Mongolians, the Pole star is “a pillar from the firm standing of which depends the correct revolving of the world, or a stone which closes an opening: if the stone is pulled out, water pours out of the opening to submerge the earth.” [n16 G. M. Potanin, quoted by W. Ludtke, “Die Verehrung Tschingis-Chans bei den Ordos-Mongolen,” ARW 25 (1927), p. 115.]. In the Babylonian myth of Utnapishtim,” Nergal [the God of the Underworld] tears out the posts; forth comes Ninurta and causes the dikes to follow” (GE 11.101 f.). But the new thing to be faced is the appearance of the Ark in the flood, Noah’s or another’s.
The first ark was built by Utnapishtim in the Sumerian myth; one learns in different ways that it was a cube-a modest one, measuring 60 x 60 x 60 fathoms, which represents the unit in the sexagesimal system where 60 is written as 1. In another version, there is no ark, just a cubic stone, upon which rests a pillar which reaches from earth to heaven. The stone, cubic or not, is lying under a cedar, or an oak, ready to let loose a flood, without obvious reasons.
Confusing as it is, this seems to provide the new theme. In Jewish legends, it is told that “since the ark disappeared there was a stone in its place. . . which was called foundation stone.” It was called foundation stone “because from it the world was founded [or started].” And it is said to lie above the Waters that are below the Holy of Holies.
This might look like a dream sequence, but it is buttressed by a very substantial tradition, taken up by the Jews but to be found also in Finno-Ugrian tradition [n17 L. Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews(1954), vol. 4, p. 96; cf. also vol. 1, p. 12; vol. 5, p. 14. We are indebted to Irvin N. Asher for the quotation, as well as for the ones from Jastrow that follow. Cf. V. J. Mansikka, “Der blaue Stein,” FUF 11 (1911), p. 2.]. The Jewish story then goes on:
When David was digging the foundations of the Temple, a shard was found at a depth of 1500 cubits. David was about to lift it when the shard exclaimed: “Thou canst not do it.” “Why not?” asked David. “Because I rest upon the abyss.” “Since when?” “Since the hour in which the voice of God was heard to utter the words from Sinai, ‘I am the Lord, your God,’ causing the world to quake and sink into the Abyss. I lie here to cover up the Abyss.”
Nevertheless David lifted the shard, and the waters of the Abyss rose and threatened to flood the earth. Ahithophel was standing by and he thought to himself: “Now David shall meet with his death and I shall be king.” Just then David said: “Whoever knows how to stem the tide of waters and fails to do it, will one day throttle himself.”
Thereupon Ahithophel had the name of God inscribed upon the shard, and the shard thrown into the Abyss. The waters at once commenced to subside, but they sank to so great a depth that David feared the earth might lose her moisture, and he began to sing the fifteen “Songs of Ascents,” to bring the waters up again.
The foundation stone here has become a shard and its name in tradition is Eben Shetiyyah, which is derived from a verb of many meanings [18 The verb is shatan; the meanings are given in Jastrow’s dictionary.]: “to be settled, satisfied; to drink; to fix the warp, to lay the foundations of,” among which “to fix the warp” is the most revealing, and a reminder of the continuing importance of “frames.” Within that “frame” there is a surging up and down of the waters below (as in the Phaedo myth) which suggests catastrophes unrecorded by history but indicated only by the highly colored terminology of cosmologists. Had they only known of a Cardan suspension, the world might have been conceived as more stable.
Hildegard Lewy’s researches [n19 “Origin and Significance of the Magen Dawid,” Archiv Orientalni 18 (1950), Pt. 3, pp. 344ff.] on Eben Shetiyyah brought up a passage in the Annals of Assur-nasir-apli in which the new temple of Ninurta at Kalhu is described as founded at the depth of 120 layers of bricks down “to the level of the waters,” or, down to the water table.
This comes back to the waters of the deep in their natural setting. But what people saw in them is something else again. If David and the Assyrian king dug down to subsoil water, so did the builders of the Ka’aba in Mecca. In the interior of that most holy of all shrines there is a well, across the opening of which had been placed, in pre-Islamic times, the statue of the god Hubal. Al-Biruni says that in the early Islamic period this was a real well, where pilgrims could quench their thirst at least at the time of the Arab pilgrimage. The statue of Hubal had been meant to stop the waters from rising. According to the legends, the same belief had once been current in Jerusalem. Hence the holy shard. But Mecca tells more. Hildegard Lewy points out that, in pre-Islamic days, the god Hubal was Saturn, and that the Holy Stone of the Ka’aba had the same role, for it was a cube, and hence originally Saturn. Kepler’s polyhedron inscribed in the sphere of Saturn is only the last witness of an age-old tradition.
The humble little shard was brought in by pious legend to try to say that what counted was the power of the Holy Name. But the real thing was the cube: either as Utnapishtim’s ark or, in other versions, as a stone upon which rests a pillar which reaches from earth to heaven. Even Christ is compared to “a cube-shaped mountain, upon which a tower is erected.” [n20 In the ninth simile of the “Pastor of Hermas,” according to F. Kampers (Vom Werdegange der abendlandischen Kaisermystik , p. 53).]. Hocart writes that “the Sinhalese frequently placed inside their topes a square stone representing Meru. If they placed in the center of a tope a stone representing the center of the world it must have been that they took the tope to represent the world” [n21 Kingship, p. 179 (quoted by P. Mus, Barabudur , p. 108, n. 1).]—which goes without saying. But it is said otherwise that this stone, the foundation stone, lies under a great tree, and that from under the stone “a wave rose up to the sky.”
This sounds like a late mixture, with no reasons given; the way to unscramble the original motifs is to take them separately. But first, some stock-taking is in order at this point. There are a number of figures to bring together. The brown monkey, father of mischief in Sigu’s idyllic creation, is familiar under many disguises. He is the Serpent of Eden, the lone dissenter. He is Loke who persuaded the mistletoe not to weep over Balder’s death, thus breaking the unanimity of creatures. Sigu himself, benevolent king of the Golden Age, is an unmistakably Saturnian figure, who dwelt among his creatures, and so is lahwe, at least when he still “walked with Adam in the garden.” A ruler who “means well” is a Saturnian character. No one but Saturn dwelt among men. Says an Orphic fragment: “Orpheus reminds us that Saturn dwelt openly on earth and among men.” [n22 Orphicorum Fragmenta(1963), frg. 139, p. 186, from Lactantius.]. Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1.36.1) writes: “Thus before the reign of Zeus, Kronos ruled on this very earth” to which Maximilian Mayer crisply annotates: “We find no mention anywhere of such an earthly sojourn on the part of Zeus.” [n23 M. Mayer, in Roscher s.v. Kronos, pp. 1458f.]. In a similar way, Sandman Holmberg states with respect to Ptah, the Egyptian Saturn: “The idea of Ptah as an earthly king returns again and again in Egyptian texts,” and also points to “the remarkable fact that Ptah is the only one of the Egyptian gods who is represented with a straight royal beard, instead of with a bent beard.” [n24 M. Sandman Holmberg, The God Ptah (1946), pp. 83, 85.].
The Saturnalia, from Rome to Mexico, commemorated just this aspect of Saturn’s rule, with their general amnesties, masters serving slaves, etc., even if Saturn was not always directly mentioned. When this festival was due in China, so to speak “sub delta Geminorum”—more correctly, delta and the Gemini stars 61 and 56 of Flamsteed— “there was a banquet in which all hierarchic distinctions were set aside. . . The Sovereign invited his subjects through the ‘Song of Stags.'” [n25 G. Schlegel, L’Uranographie Chinoise (1875), p. 424.].
The cube was Saturn’s figure, as Kepler showed in his Mysterium Cosmographicum; this is the reason for the insistence on cubic stones and cubic arks. Everywhere, the power who warns “Noah” and urges him to build his ark is Saturn, as Jehovah, as Enki, as Tane, etc. Sigu’s basket stopper was obviously an inadequate version of the cube seen through the fantasy of basket-weaving natives. This leads to the conclusion that Noah’s ark originally had a definite role in bringing the flood to an end. A interesting and unexpected conclusion for Bible experts.
One of the great motifs of myth is the wondrous tree so often described as reaching up to heaven. There are many of them—the Ash Yggdrasil in the Edda, the world-darkening oak of the Kalevala, Pherecydes’ world-oak draped with the starry mantle, and the Tree of Life in Eden. That tree is often cut down too. The other motif is the foundation stone, which sometimes becomes a cubic ark.
These motifs must first be traced through. After reading the beautiful story of Sigu’s wonder tree, in whose stump are all the kinds of fish to populate the world, it needs patience to cope with the cubic stone which is found in the middle of the sea, under which dwells a mystic character whose guises vary from a miraculous fish, even a whale, to a “green fire,” the “king of all fires,” the “central fire,” to the Devil himself. The chief source for him are Russian [n26 V. J. Mansikka, Uber Russische Zauberformeln (1909), pp. 184-87, 189, 192.] and Finnish magic formulae, and these “superstition” (“left-overs”) are Stone Age fragments of flinty hardness embedded in the softer structure of historic overlay. Magic material withstands change, just because of its resistance to the erosion of common sense. As far as these magic formulae go, they became embedded in a Christian context as the particular populations underwent conversion, but they remain as witnesses for a very different understanding of the cosmos. For example, Finnish runes on the origin of water state that “all rivers come from the Jordan, into which all rivers flow,” that “water has its origin in the eddy of the holy river it is the bathing water of Jesus, the tears of God.” [n27 Krohn, Ursprungsrunen, pp. l06f.]. On the other hand, Scandinavian formulae stress the point that Christ “stopped up the Jordan” or “the Sea of Noah” (Mansikka, pp. 244f., 297, n. I) which, in its turn, fits into the Pastor of Hermas, where Christ is compared to a “cube-shaped mountain” (see above, p. 221).
From this it is not strange that the Cross becomes the “new tree,” marking new crossroads. One need not go as far as Russia for that. In the famous frescoes of Fiero della Francesca in Arezzo there is “the discovery of the True Cross.” It begins with the death of Adam, lying at the foot of the tree. The wood from the tree will later provide the material for the Cross. Later still, St. Helena, mother of Constantine, sees it in a dream and causes the wood to be dug up to become the holiest of relics. Fiero illustrated nothing that was not in good medieval tradition. This is, one might say, sensitive ground.