The Whirlpool


Tre volte il fe' girar con tutte l'acque

alla quarta voltar la poppa in suso

e la prora ire in giu, com'altrui piacque

Infin che'l mar fu sopra noi richiuso.


DANTE, Inferno


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 VI) 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 [1956], 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 XXII, ."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 XII) 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 XIX) 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 zalos must, 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.




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