THE MILKY WAY
TELLING IN ANCIENT TEXTS
the very fine website of Anne Wright
"There is a high track, seen when the sky is clear, called the Milky
Way, and known for its brightness. This way the gods pass to the
palaces and halls of the mighty Thunderer [Zeus/Jupiter]. To right
and left are the houses of the greater gods, doors open and crowded.
The lesser gods live elsewhere. Here the powerful and distinguished
have made their home. This is the place, if I were to be bold, I
would not be afraid to call high heavens Palatine." [Ovid, Met,
MILKY WAY MYTHS
THE MILKY WAY AS THE PATH TO THE OTHERWORLD:
A COMPARISON OF PRE-COLUMBIAN NEW WORLD CULTURES
Edwin L. Barnhart
Revised September 2003
(First written in the Fall of 1994)
(Please do not cite without permission from author)
The recently defined discipline of Archaeoastronomy has drawn
attention to how Pre-Columbian New World peoples viewed the night
sky. Countless studies now exist on the importance of sky watching
to Native American life. Like their European counterparts, early man
in the New World had many myths about the planets, the stars and the
universe. Indigenous built structures from Chile to Alaska have been
demonstrated to be observatories and models of the universe in
miniature. The application of archaeoastronomy to the studies of New
World cultures has greatly aided in the understanding of the customs
of those groups. Cross-cultural comparison using archaeoastronomy
has proven more difficult and few attempts in the literature exist.
The 1990 National Geographic article entitled "America's Ancient
Skywatchers", by John Carlson, is one notable exception. The article
compares the cosmologies of four New World cultures, the Inca, Maya,
Aztec and Navajo, and demonstrates that each believe in a three
planed universe; the earth plus an upper and under world. This paper
is a comparison of the role of the largest of all sky phenomena, the
Milky Way, as seen from the perspectives of eleven New World
cultures. The following culture groups will be discussed; Inca,
Tukano, Maya, Aztec, Apache, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Sioux, Shoshone,
Seneca and Kwakiutl (Figure 1).
This group of cultures was picked for a number of reasons. First,
the group is meant to be a representative sample of the three New
World areas, North, Central and South. Second, there are many
ethnographies of New World cultures but few breach the topic of sky
watching. Fewer still speak of the Milky Way. Many cultures are now
vanished from the earth or changed to such a degree as to retain
little of their Pre-Columbian customs. For those people, early
ethnographies are the only source left which records their customs
and beliefs. Thus, the cultures included in this study were also
chosen due to the quality of ethnographic information regarding
them. There are countless other culture groups that should be
included here but cannot due to lack of surviving information.
Unfortunately, information concerning the Milky Way cannot be found
for every New World culture. This should not be construed as a lack
of beliefs regarding the Milky Way. The examples given in this paper
are simply the beliefs that have made their way into the written
Each group discussed has their own myths regarding the creation and
character of the Milky Way. They involve local animals and
geography. The Milky Way is spoken of in terms of metaphors that
have special meaning to each individual culture. However, if one
looks beyond the metaphors, to the meaning and function of the Milky
Way in those same cultures, continuity emerges. Each of the cultures
discussed here regard the Milky Way as the Path to the otherworld,
traveled by spirits, deities and shamans in trance. The following
compilation of ethnographic information will demonstrate the
existence of this belief in eleven cultures, starting with the Inca
and moving northward. Moche, Navajo and Eastern Greenland Eskimos
will be tangentially discussed. Finally, a possible explanation for
the continuity will be offered.
Figure 1. Cultures discussed in this paper 2
At the time of contact, the Inca controlled the largest territory in
the history of the New World. The Inca Empire spanned the Andes,
from Chile into Ecuador. To the Inca, the Milky Way was, and still
is, referred to as a river flowing through the sky. Its source is
said to be terrestrial, the run off of the Vilcanota River, which
runs southeast/northwest through the heart Peru. The Vilcanota and
the Milky Way are said to be mirror images of one another and for
this reason the primary orientation of the Milky Way is said to be
running southeast/northwest (Urton 1981:38). During the twilight
periods of the solstices the Milky Way forms a cross in the sky.
This cross touches the four points on the horizon in which the sun
rises and sets during the equinoxes. Further, it divides the stars
into four separate directional quarters. Though a case for the cross
being formed by the ecliptic and the Milky Way can be made, Urton
provides abundant and convincing evidence that it is indeed formed
solely by the Milky Way (Urton 1981:54-65). The Milky Way is also
said to be home to a number of animals in the form of what Urton
terms "dark star constellations" (Figure 2). The dark patches in the
Milky Way have names like the Llama, the Toad and the Snake. Like
the celestial river they float in, these animals have terrestrial
origin. Further, some equate them with the deities Viracocha (the
Inca creation deity) designated as the patrons of animals (Urton
Figure 2. Inca Milky Way constellations (Urton 1981)
The souls of the deceased were said to go to the Hurin Pacha or "upperworld".
Even while a person was still alive, the soul visited the Hurin
Pacha during sleep. Dreams were believed to be views into the
upperworld as seen through the eyes of the soul (De la Vega
1990:84-86). As discussed above, the Milky Way connects heaven and
In the Inca creation myth, Viracocha himself follows the primary
axis of the Milky Way (southeast to northwest) on his journey from
earth to the upperworld after creation had been completed. If the
huacas whom the Inca ask for prosperous life abide in the upperworld,
then the Milky Way must be the channel through which they
communicate and the shrines the portals.
Just after the June solstice the Inca himself presided over the most
grave and serious ceremony of the year. It was called Intip Raimi,
"the Solemn Feast of the Sun". Absolutely every noble from all over
the Inca Empire was required to come to Cuzco for this ceremony and
all people, nobles and commoners alike, were encouraged to
participate (De la Vega 1966:356). The ceremony is a "centering of
the universe" around the Inca in the temple of the Sun at Cuzco. The
timing of the Intip Raimi in the ritual calendar coordinates with
the time Urton reports the Milky Way to align with the Vilcanota
River. It was this time, when heaven and earth come together, and
the sun rose and set in the Milky Way, that the people came together
with their king to pay homage to the sun.
The king was the center of the Inca world and Cuzco was the center
of the kingdom. As the Milky Way did to the night sky, the Inca
partitioned the realm into four sections. As the Milky Way lends
order to the universe, so does the Inca king to the empire. Indeed,
the cross created by the Milky Way at zenith was probably one of the
Inca symbols of office. De la Vega described an inner shrine in the
palace at Cuzco, a place where only those of royal blood could
enter. The room was called a huaca and housed an heirloom handed
down from king to king. It was a large cross of fine marble. De la
Vega strongly asserts that this was not a Christian cross and that
the Inca did not worship it but rather revered it as an ancestor or
huaca (De la Vega 1966:73). If this cross was not a European
influence than it is likely the Milky Way cross. The Inca kings
considered it a symbol of their ancestors and by doing so drew a
parallel between the Milky Way's function in the sky and the King's
function on earth. The function of the Milky Way is to partition
space and connect heaven and earth. The purest divine blood on earth
coursing through the veins of the Inca made him most able to perform
these tasks and the above discussion suggests that he did just that.
The Tukano are a small group who live in the equatorial rain forests
of the Columbian Northwest Amazon. For the Tukano, the Milky Way is
foam flowing up from Ahipikondia churned by celestial wind currents.
It is sometimes referred to as a giant wind skein flowing across the
night sky. A deity named Viho Mahse resides in the Milky Way. Viho
is the term for the hallucinogenic powder ingested by the payes (the
Tukano term for shaman) to induce vision. When a person becomes ill
they are said to be under attack from the spirit world. To cure
their patients, payes enlist the help of beings called Viho Mahsa
who also dwell in the Milky Way. Rivers and hills are common spots
for creating portals from which to make contact with the
supernatural world. Tukano informants state plainly and clearly that
the Milky Way connects the three worlds. Those three worlds are; the
lower world (Ahipikondia), the Earth and the upper world, home of
the spirits and Viho Mahse (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1967:43-47).
The Malocas, or longhouses, of the Tukano are built to be miniature
models of the universe. They are always built with their main axis
pointing east/west, the direction of rivers and the Sun's passage
across the sky. Three pairs of large forked posts and their
respective beams separate the interior space of the Maloca. The
sections are joined together from above by a single beam. This
central beam is said to symbolize the Milky Way, which connects the
three worlds and lies on the east-west axis. Interestingly, the word
for the beam is gumu. The words gumu and kumu come from the same
origin and mean "axis". Kumu is the title used to describe the most
powerful shaman in the tribe. Gumu can also refer to a bridge
created from a single trunk. Again, we see leader symbolizing the
connection between Earth and the Otherworld, the Milky Way.
As a final example from South America, look at these two paintings
from the sides of pottery vessels originating from the Moche culture
(Figures 3 and 4). The Moche occupied the Peruvian coast starting at
200BC. The Moche were absorbed by the Chimu Empire around 750AD and
then by the Inca before European contact. The men in the scene may
be identified as shaman and the arc above them is a rainbow or the
Figure 3. Moche vessel painting featuring the Milky Way (Hocquenghen
Figure 4. Moche vessel featuring the Milky Way (Hocquenghen 1987) 5
The Maya have occupied Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Mexico,
Honduras and El Salvador for almost 3000 years. For the Maya, both
ancient and modern, the Milky Way plays a central role in a
re-enactment of creation that is cyclically displayed in the night
sky. Primarily, it is associated with the World Tree that reaches
from Earth into the heavens. The great false Sun, Seven-Macaw, sat
in this tree in the third creation. On the dates August 13 and
February 5, dates especially associated with creation, the night sky
goes through a cycle from dusk to dawn that recounts the story of
the transition from the third creation into the present one. During
those evenings, when the Milky Way runs along a North-South Axis it
is the World Tree. A constellation identified as the great bird,
Seven-Macaw, is positioned falling out of the top of the Tree in
north. As it tilts towards the horizon, the Milky Way becomes the
Crocodile Tree. When it reaches the east-west axis it switches into
the canoe carrying the Maize God to the Place of creation (Freidel
et al. 1993:93-99).
Figure 5. Pakal's sarcophogus lid, tree only (Brundage 1981)
While oriented on the north-south direction, the Milky Way also
forms a cross with the elliptical path of the Sun. It is called the
K'an Cross and correlates to a well-known symbol in Classic Maya
iconography and writing (Freidel et al. 1993:94). Crosses are
especially visible at the ruins of Palenque. Palenque's Cross Group
was named for its abundance of the symbols. The cross is also
displayed on Palenque's most recognizable scene, the sarcophagus lid
on the tomb of Pakal. Brundage (1981) published a drawing of the lid
omitting Pakal and leaving only the cross (Figure 5). The book Maya
Cosmos suggests that this image shows Pakal falling down the Milky
Way to the same path once taken by the Maize God and his brother
towards Xibalba. One enters the road in the south, at the base of
the tree when it is helping to form the cross in the sky (Freidel et
al. 1993:351). The Maya Milky Way is the path to the Otherworld.
The cross in the sky formed by the Milky Way and the ecliptic
stretches out in all four directions. The place where they meet is
the center of the universe. From the creation myth, the Popol Vuh,
we know that the three hearthstones were set at this center. The
first act was the setting of the stones, followed by the raising of
the sky and the establishment of the four corners and sides. The
Milky Way and the ecliptic form the four partitions and a triangular
constellation identified by Dennis Tedlock forms the three
hearthstones (1985:261). The responsible deities left the story of
creation in the sky for all Maya to see and remember.
The Aztec creation myth begins when the Fourth Sun ended and the sky
fell from its great height, covering the earth with its ruins. The
celestial waters flooded the earth. Texcatlipoca and QuetzalcoatI
heaved the sky back up into place. The two gods then transformed
themselves into World Trees to provide more stable support. During
the setting of the sky a path was worn through the wilderness of the
stars that was to become known as the Milky Way (Brundage 1982;
243). The path is said to have been created on the first day of the
first year (Brundage 1982; 146). In another version of the same
story, Texcatlipoca and QuetzalcoatI transform into two intertwined
dragons that coil around the earth to reshape it for the fifth world
(Brundage 1982; 147). The outermost band of the famous Aztec
Calendar Stone shows exactly that. A double headed dragon or
serpent, wrapped around the Aztec universe, with the heads of two
gods emerging from their mouths, as QuetzalcoatI and Texcatlipoca do
in the creation myth (Figure 6). The connection of this image to the
Milky Way is clear.
Figure 6. Aztec Calendar Stone
The Milky Way contemporary Aztec times, aside from its role in
creation, was conceptualized as a road across the sky and was
presided over by two divinities, the male Citallatonac, Starshine,
and the female Citlalinicue, Star Skirt. Citlalinicue was the Great
Mother of the stars and was especially associated with the Milky
Way. Her messenger was the hawk (Brundage 1979; 34).
APACHE - NAVAJO
In 1907 Edward S. Curtis published the first volume of a
twenty-volume set of works entitled The North American Indian, a
collection of photographs and descriptions of the indians of the
United States and Alaska. Theodore Roosevelt, who had high praise
for the book and its author, wrote the foreword of this first
volume. The subject was the Apache and Navajo Indians of the
Arizona, New Mexico area. Curtis strongly believed that the two
tribes were one in prehistoric time due to similarities in languages
and mythologies (Curtis 1907;4). In a section headed "Mortuary
Customs" he briefly recorded the Apache beliefs concerning the Milky
Yolkai Nalin is the name of the most feared and venerated deities in
Apache mythology. She is the goddess of Death and the afterlife. She
controls all souls that pass on to the future world. The road to
this afterworld is supposed to cross her shoulders and is symbolized
by the Milky Way, a trail made by departing spirits (Curtis 1907;
34). The souls of the dead follow the path for four days and finally
arrive in a land of peace and plenty, where there is no disease or
death (Curtis 1907; 134).
The Pawnee villages, before the tribe's relocation to Oklahoma, were
located in present day Nebraska. To the average Pawnee individual
the Milky Way was spoken of as "Buffalo Dust". The name came from a
story of race between a horse and a buffalo in which an enormous
cloud of dust is kicked up. To the priests, however, the Milky Way
was "the Pathway of Departed Spirits". A Pawnee constellation
located next to the Milky Way depicts two men carrying a third in a
stretcher, a sick or dead man being taken along the road. The
Northstar, probably Polaris, was said to greet the dead and act as
gatekeeper to the path. The South Star presided over the spirit
world and stood at the end of the path. The Southstar was also said
to be the deity of tornados because their violent winds were akin to
the winds that carried the dead along the path (Von Del Chamberlain
1982:113). Pawnee priests conducted bundle rituals in which they
contacted deities and ancestors (Murie 1981:12). The Milky Way was
the channel between worlds and the bundle was a terrestrial portal
to the channel.
In Volume Six of The North American Indian by Curtis, the Cheyenne
are discussed. His information comes from the group living on the
Tongue River Reservation in Montana. The southern group lived in
Oklahoma at the time. Briefly, again under the heading of "Mortuary
Customs", while discussing the soul after death, the following
statement was 8
recorded; "The future world was the usual material, ideal world,
reached by the Milky Way. Suicides and murderers went in a opposite
direction to that taken by others." (Curtis 1911; 158). Though
brief, the statement clearly supports the hypothesis of this paper.
The Sioux are a large culture that is further subdivided into
multiple smaller tribes. The Oglala and the Lakota Sioux will be the
groups discussed below. Both tribes are found in the upper mid-west
United States. The information on the Oglala presented here comes
from William K. Power's book Qqlala Religion (1975). The testimony
comes from people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern
South Dakota. Power reports that the Oglala believed that souls
traveled along the Wanagi Tacanku or "Ghost Road", the Milky Way.
They go until they meet an old woman who judges the soul's life on
earth and sends it on to the other world or back to earth to be a
shade (Power 1975; 93). The light in the Milky Way is the campfires
of ghosts on the road (Power 1975; 53).
The Sioux, Life and Customs of a Warrior Society by Royal B.
Hassrick, discusses the Lakota Sioux conception of death and the
afterlife in some detail. At death, it was believed that the spirit
or nagi left the body to travel the "spirit trail" or Milky Way to
the "land of Many Lodges". Like the Oglala, during the journey the
Lakota spirit must pass by an old woman. She would examine each one
for the proper tattoo marks which must appear on the wrist, forehead
or chin. If they were marked correctly they were allowed passage
into the "land of many lodges" where all one's ancestors pitched
their tipis and buffalo roamed in unending abundance (Hassrick 1964;
The Lakota rituals involving proper burial lasted over a year. At
the end of the process, the shaman assisting the family opens the
spirit bundle outside the door of the lodge, under the night sky, so
that the spirit might be properly released to make its journey to
the spirit road, the Milky Way (Hassrick 1964; 264).
The Shoshone are another large culture group divided into separate
tribes. Their territory ranged from California to Utah and from
Oregon to Arizona. The information below comes from tribes occupying
the heartland of the Shoshone territory, Nevada and eastern
The generation before the extensive scholarship of Franz Boas and
his colleagues, James Mooney did a study of the Ghost Dance
Tradition of the Plains Indians in an attempt to explain the
behavior that lead up to the "Sioux outbreak of 1890". John Wesley
Powell founded the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington D.C.
in 1885 and appointed Mooney ethnologist, a career he kept with
until his death in 1921. He did exhaustive studies of the rituals of
the Cherokee, Kiowa, Arapaho, Sioux, Comanche and Shoshone. The
Paiute tribe he identifies as part of the great Shoshonean stock and
describes their territory as covering most of Nevada, together with
adjacent parts of southwestern Utah, northwestern Arizona and
southeast California. At one point, Mooney described a song sung
often in the Ghost Dance of the Paiute involving the Milky Way and
wrote in passing, "In the mythology of the Paiute, as of many other
tribes, the Milky Way is the road to the dead, the spirit world"
(Mooney 1896:290). His casual reference to man tribes believing this
makes it appear as if he felt that that piece of information was
well known, though he makes no reference to the Milky Way in regard
to any other tribe in particular.
Curtis published his fifteenth volume in 1921, its sole subject the
Shoshone. The tribes in the Paiute area he refers to as the Plateau
Shoshone. In their tradition, the spirits of the dead are said to
rise straight through the air to the Milky Way and travel southward
to the end of the trail, where they find a lake with a conical rock
in the middle. Down through the hole in the apex of the rock they
pass. At the bottom they emerge, living bodies, in Pugwainumu -
muguwa - bitighan ("Place where spirit goes in"). Some say that
below the Milky Way is another earth like this one of ours, but with
more abundant grass and flowers. Tales from those who have died and
returned say that one cannot see anything there. One hears the
voices of people like the humming of "unnumbered flies" (Curtis
Near the end of the origin myth recorded by Curtis the Numu-naa,
People Father, and the Numu-biya, People Mother leave the earth
headed southward. Mother didn't want to leave her children but
Father consoled her saying that when their human children grew and
multiplied there would be death and the spirits would then come to
live with them again. They walked to the ocean, the clouds rose up
like a great door in the sky and they climbed up a ladder to pass
through it. They now reside there. When anybody dies, their spirit
goes up along Kasipo, the Milky Way, to this place. People's Father
places the soul in a box and after a time it becomes a living
person. The land they live on has white soil and there is no
sickness (Curtis 1921; 134).
The Seneca are an Iroquois tribe. In the 1790's the Iroquois Nation
tribes were split up into various reservations. One of the Seneca
chiefs of the time was a man named Cornplanter. He was one of the
chiefs of the Iroquois Nations in support of peace with the white
man and had a large role in negotiations that ended the Indian
resistance. Cornplanter and his branch of the Seneca established
themselves around the Allegheny River, in a few little towns on both
sides of the Pennsylvania border. They made treaties with the U.S.
government for the land and in 1792 there were over 350 Seneca
living in the area, a large portion of the believed 1800 total
Seneca survivors of the day (Wallace 1972; 168).
The start of a new life on the reservation was difficult on
Cornplanter's tribe of rag tag Seneca collected from the aftermath
of the war against the whites. Mass depression and alcoholism were
major problems. In the spring of 1799 a man from the tribe named
Handsome Lake began having a series of visions that were to change
all that and give the Seneca a new focus. From 1799 to 1801, he
taught the Seneca of Cornplanter's reservation through his visions,
condemning whiskey and the evil ways of his people. A Quaker named
Henry Simmons was living among and recorded Handsome Lake's accounts
of his visions. On the night of August 7th, 1799, Handsome Lake was
ill and lay half dead in his bed. During this period he had his
second vision, a vision that would become the core of the new Seneca
religion's theology. During the trance Handsome Lake had the vision
of the "sky journey". Led by a guide who carried a bow and arrow and
was dressed in sky-blue clothes, he traversed heaven and hell and
was told the moral plan of the cosmos. The following is a section
out of Simmons record of the words of Handsome Lake concerning this
"Suddenly as they looked, a road [the Milky Way] slowly descended
from the south sky and came to where they were standing. Now there
upon he saw the...tracks of the human race going in one direction
[the individual stars] were all different sizes from small to great.
This road, which they soon were treading themselves, was the path by
which human souls ascended into the afterworld. On it could be
observed, in various situations, many different types of people
striving heavenward, and from its vantage point a vast panorama of
the human scene could be observed." (Wallace1972; 243).
Simmons goes on to add to this description of the path that judges
stood at the fork in the Milky Way. The good people went on the
narrow path to the lands of the creator. His informants referred to
the Milky Way as "the Great Sky Road" (Wallace 1972; 245).
As a final note, a comment from one of the many stories collected by
Wallace (1972). The path to the village of the dead is a wobbly
tree-trunk bridge guarded by a dog that sometimes pushes souls over
the edge toward the raging river below (1972; 101). Again, masked in
the individual mythology of the Seneca the image of the Milky Way
In 1885 Franz Boas lived with the Kwakiutl for two years. The group
he stayed with lived in Fort Rupert, just northeast of Vancouver
Island on the west coast of Canada. During that time, he taught
George Hunt, a half-blooded indian, and trained him as an
anthropologist. Together, the two men produced volumes of monographs
on the Kwakiutl. In 1975 Irving Goldman wrote a synthesis of these
works, created for the purpose of investigating the nature of
Kwakiutl religion. It is from Goldman's synthesis that much of the
following information is collected.
There were 13 separate tribes in the Kwakiutl language group at the
time of Boas' study. He included the entire group into a larger
category he classified "Northwest Coast Culture". As mentioned
earlier, his time was spent primarily with the Kwakiutl living in
Fort Rupert, deeded to them through treaty. For the purposes of this
paper, the most important ceremony that Boas witnessed and recorded
was the Winter Ceremony. The Milky Way plays a central role in the
Winter Ceremony. Its connection is described below.
The Winter Ceremony takes place within a lodge especially
constructed for the purposes of ritual. It is a reenactment of a
myth played out by chiefs and warriors of the tribe. The main role
in the ceremony is "Man Eater", a deity located at the headwaters of
the rivers at the north end of the world. The highest-ranking chief
has the honor of impersonating this powerful and feared deity. A
warrior is tied to a great pole that extends up through the center
of the lodge. It is the role and identity of this pole that allows
us insight into the Kwakiutl conception of the Milky Way. A smooth
mast of cedar some 40 feet tall, it projects through the roof of the
lodge. It is said to be the channel for spirits arriving from the
otherworld (Goldman 1975; 195). It is also referred to as a bridge
to the sky. Named the Cannibal Pole, it's the great symbol of death
and resurrection (Goldman 1975; 93). The Cannibal Pole is the Man
Eater's own tree that connects him with the sky.
The entire set of animals associated with Man Eater is elaborately
carved into its sides (Goldman 1975; 110). The animal image carved
into the top of the pole, the Eagle is also associated with the
Milky Way. The Eagie rests upon the Grizzly, "the guardian of the
doorway". In tribal ranking systems, the Eagle is associated with
the highest ranked chief and more generally with shamanism (Goldman
1975; 111). The lodge and pole are further said to be connected to
the life of the lineage chief. The lodge is torn down at the death
of one chief and rebuilt in stages over a period of four years. The
four years correspond to the rite of elevation of the heir (Goldman
1975;65). Again, as we see with many cultures in this study,
connections between the lineage chief and the Milky Way are drawn.
A final image comes from East Greenland Eskimos entitled, "The way
to the afterworld" (Figure 7). The ethnography from which this
drawing comes never speaks of the Milky Way. However, considering
the evidence given thus far in this paper, the drawing speaks for
The preceding collection of myths and testimonies demonstrates
clearly that the identification of the Milky Way as the path to the
otherworld was a Pan-New World concept, established long before
European contact. The question then becomes, why such continuity in
the beliefs about the Milky Way but not regarding the other elements
of the sky? Beliefs regarding the Sun, the Moon, the planets and the
stars vary widely across the New World. What makes the Milky Way
different? The explanation offered here is that the Milky Way, as
the path to the otherworld, is central to the ancient tradition of
shamanism. Eliade's landmark research of the 1960's convinced most
scholars that shamanism is a tradition shared by all new world
cultures. Shamanism entered the New World through the Bering Strait
land bridge with the first peoples to cross over from Asia. Thus,
Eliade places the origins of the shamanic complex in Asia. Over
millennia, people who entered the New World spread out and settled
into geographical niches and developed their own ethnicities.
Shamanism was there from the beginning and was such a core element
of people's lives that it survived the processes of cultural
evolution. The power of shamanism is the ability to contact the
Otherworld and they do so via a path between the worlds. This paper
has attempted to prove that cultures across the New World identified
that path with the Milky Way.
What kind of conclusions does this continuity lead to? The process
by which a linguist constructs theoretical models provides an
appropriate analogy. A linguist starts with a group of mutually
unintelligible languages a finds common ancestry between them. It is
done by keying on core words in vocabulary known to change little
over time. Proto-languages are reconstructed in this way. This paper
suggests that this singular explanation of the Milky Way is
analogous to the core words in vocabulary that related groups of
modern languages share. Along with the tradition of shamanism, the
identification of the Milky Way as the path to the otherworld is
further evidence for the theory of a proto-New World culture, with
common roots in Asia.
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1926 The North American Indian, Being a Series of Volumes Picturing
Describing The Indians of the United States and Alaska. Volume 15.
Johnson Reprint Corporation, New York, New York.
de la Vega, El Inca, Garcilaso
1966 Roval Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru,
Translated by Harold V. Livermore. University of Texas Press,
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Princeton, NJ 14
Freidel, David, Linda Schele and Joy Parker
1993 Maya Cosmos - Three Thousand Years on the Shaman's Path.
Morrow and Company Inc., New York.
1975 The Mouth of Heaven. An Introduction to Kwakiutl Reliqious
John Wiley & Sons, New York, London, Sydney, Toronto.
Hassrick, Royal B.
1964 The Sioux, Life and Customs of a Warrior Society, University of
Kleivan, I. and B. Sonne
1985 Eskimos Greenland and Canada, Institute of Religious
State University Groningen, E.J. Brill,Leiden.
1896 The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890,
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London.
Murie, James R.
1981 Ceremonies of the Pawnee Part I: The Skiri, Ed. Douglas R.
Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington, D.C.
1981 Ceremonies of the Pawnee Part II: The South Bands. Ed. Douglas
Smithsonian Institute Press, Washington, D.C.
Powers, William K.
1975 Oglala Religion, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln/London.
1971 Amazonian Cosmos - The Sexual and Religious Symbolism of the
Indians. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
Schele, Linda and David Friedel
1990 A Forest of Kings - The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya. Quill
Morrow, New York.
1985 Popol Vu. a translation. Simon and Schuster, New York.
1981 At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky - An Andean
University of Texas Press, Austin.
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1982 When Stars Came Down to Earth - Cosmology ofthe Skiri Pawnee
Indians of North America, Ed. Thomas C. Blackburn. Ballena Press,
1982 The Skiri Pawnee Earth Lodge as an Observatory.
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1984 Living the Sky - The Cosmos of the American Indian. University
Thanks to Edwin L. Barnhart for so kindly sharing this brilliant
Ancient tellings and analysis of the Cosmos and the Galaxy
The Stone and the Tree
IN GREEK MYTH, the basic frame of the world is described in the
famous Vision of Er in the 10th Book of the Republic.
In it we find Er the Armenian, who was resurrected from the funeral
pyre just before it was kindled, and who describes his travel
through the other world (10.615ff.). He and the group of souls bound
for rebirth whom he accompanies travel through the other world.
They come to "a straight shaft of light, like a pillar, stretching
from above throughout heaven and earth-and there, at the middle of
the light, they saw stretching from heaven the extremities of its
chains; for this light binds the heavens, holding together all the
revolving firmament like the undergirths of a ship of war. And from
the extremities stretched the Spindle of Necessity, by means of
which all the circles revolve."
Cornford adds in a note: "It is disputed whether the bond holding
the Universe together is simply the straight axial shaft or a
circular band of light, suggested by the Milky Way [n1 Cf. O.
Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte
(1905), p. 1036, n.1: "probably the Milky Way."], girdling the
heaven of fixed stars." [n2 Plato's Republic (Cornford
trans.), p. 353.] Eisler understood it as the zodiac, strange to say
[n3 Eisler, Weltenmantel und Himmelszelt (1910), pp. 97ff.].
Since those "undergirths" of the trireme did not go around the ship
horizontally, but were meant to secure the mast (the
"tree" of the ship) which points upwards, we stand, on principle,
for the Galaxy, which, however, had to be "replaced" by invisible
colures in later times [n4 Cf. also the discussion in J. L. E.
Dreyer, A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler (1953),
pp. 56ff. Concerning the "chains," which he translates "ligatures,"
Dreyer states: "The ligatures (desmoi) of the heavens are the
solstitial and equinoctial colures intersecting in the poles, which
points therefore may be called their extremities (akra)."].
But Er also talks of the adventures of the souls between
incarnations, and in this context we might rely on the Milky Way.
Surely the "model" is far from clear, even, on Cornford's
concession, obviously intentionally so. And indeed, a few paragraphs
later, there comes the complete planetarium with its "whorls," the
"Spindle of Necessity" held by the goddess, by which sit the Fates
as they unwind the threads of men's lives. The souls can listen to
the Song of Lachesis, if they are still in the "meadow," but the
chains and shaft or band are no longer in the picture. Plato refuses
to be a correct geometrician of the Other World, just as he would
not be sensible about the hydraulics of it. But previously in the Phaedo, Socrates had been ironic about the "truths" of science,
and insisted that the truths of myth are of another order, and
rebellious to ordinary consistency. It is here as if Plato had
juxtaposed a number of revered mythical traditions (including the
planetary harmony) without pretending to fit them into a proper
order. And so his image of the "framework" of the cosmos is left
inconclusive. But somehow the axis and the band and the chains stand
together, and this, one concludes, was the original idea. The
rotation of the polar axis must not be disjointed from the great
circles which shift along with it in heaven. The framework is
thought of as all one with the axis. This leads back to a
Pythagorean authority whom Plato was supposed to have followed
(Timon even viciously said: plagiarized) and whom Socrates often
quotes with unfeigned respect. It is Philolaos, surely a creative
astronomer of high rank, from whom there are only a few surviving
fragments, and the authenticity of these has been rashly challenged
by many modern philologists [n5 G. de Santillana and W. Pitts,
"Philolaos in Limbo," ISIS 42 (1951), pp. 112-20; also in
Reflections on Men and Ideas (1968), pp. 190-201.]. In fragment
12 of Philolaos, there is a brief definition of the cosmos, very
much in the spirit of Plato's "dodecahedron" quoted in chapter XII.
"In the sphere there are five elements, those inside the sphere,
fire, and water and earth and air, and what is the hull of the
sphere, the fifth." [n6 See H. Diets, Die Fragmente der
Vorsokratiker (1951), vol. I, pp. 412f.]. Notwithstanding
Philolaos' graceless Doric, the statement is perfectly clear. The
"hull," (olkas) was the common name for freighters, built for
bulk cargo, broad in the beam. It is really more adequate than
Plato's slim trireme; and it is closer in shape to what both men
meant apparently: the dodecahedron, the "hull," i.e., the sphere,
the actual containing frame. It is clear from Plato that the "fifth"
is the sphere that he calls ether which contains the four earthly
elements but is wholly removed from them. Aristotle was to change it
to the crystalline heavenly "matter" that he needed for his system,
but it remained for him a "fifth essence." There has thus been twice
repeated the original "hull," the frame that has been sought. What
happened, and was noted in chapter VII, was that the etymology of Sampo was discovered to be in the Sanskrit
The abstract idea of a simple earth axis, so natural today, was by
no means so logical to the ancients, who always thought of the whole
machinery of heaven moving around the earth, stable at the center.
One line always implied many others in a structure. So, apparently
one must accept the idea of the world frame a an implex (as
used here and later this word involves the necessary attributes that
are associated with a concept: e.g., the center and circumference of
a circle, the parallels and meridians implied by a sphere), of which
Grotte and Sampo were the rude models with their ponderous moving
Like the axle of the mill, the tree, the
represents the world axis. This instinctively suggests a straight,
upright post, but the world axis is a simplification of the real
concept. There is the invisible axis, of course, which is crowned by
the North Nail, but this image needs to be enriched by two more
dimensions. The term world axis is an abbreviation of
language comparable to the visual abbreviation achieved by
projecting the reaches of the Sky onto a flat star map.
It is best not to think of the axis in straight analytical terms,
one line at a time, but to consider it, and the frame to which it is
connected, as one whole. This involves the use of multivalent terms
and the recognition of a convergent involution of unusual meanings.
As radius automatically calls circle to mind, so axis must invoke
the two determining great circles on the surface of the sphere, the
equinoctial and solstitial colures. Pictured this way, the axis
resembles a complete armillary sphere. It stands for the system of
coordinates of the sphere and represents the frame of a world-age.
Actually the frame defines a world-age. Because the polar axis and
the colures form an indivisible whole, the entire frame is thrown
out of kilter if one part is moved. When that happens, a new Pole
star with appropriate colures of its own must replace the obsolete
Thus the Sanskrit
skambha, the world pillar, ancestor of the
Finnish Sampo, is shown to be an integral element in the scheme of
things. The hymn 10.7 of the Atharva Veda is dedicated to the
skambha, and Whitney, its translator and commentator [n7
Harvard Oriental Series, vol. 8, p. 590.] sounds puzzled in his
footnote to 10.7.2: "Skambha, lit. 'prop, support, pillar,'
strangely used in this hymn as frame of the universe or held
personified as its soul" Here are two verses of it:
12. In whom earth, atmosphere, in whom sky is set, where fire, moon,
sun, wind stand fixed, that Skambha tell. . .
35. The Skambha sustains both heaven-and-earth here; the skambha
sustains the wide atmosphere, the skambha sustains the six wide
directions; into the skambha entered this whole existence.
The good old Sampo sounds less pretentious, but it does have its
three "roots," "one in heaven, one in the earth, one in the
water-eddy." [n8 K. Krohn, Kalevalastudien 4. Sampo (1927),
p. 13.] To make a drawing of a pillarlike tree (let alone a mill),
with its roots distributed in the manner indicated, would be quite a
task. Notably it takes the "enormous bull of Pohja"—obviously a
cosmic bull—to plow up these strange roots: the Finnish heroes by
themselves had not been able to uproot the Sampo.
In the case of Yggdrasil, the World Ash, Rydberg tried his hardest
to localize the three roots, to imagine and to draw them.
Since he looked with Steadfast determination into the interior of
our globe, the result was not overly convincing. One of the roots is
said to belong to the Asa in heaven, and beneath it is the most
sacred fountain of Urd. The second is to be found in the quarters of
the frost-giants "where Ginnungagap formerly was," and where the
well of Mimir now is. The third root belongs to Niflheim, the realm
of the dead, and under this root is Hvergelmer" the Whirlpool (Gylf.
15) [n9 We are aware that either Grotte "should" have three roots,
or that Yggdrasil should be uprooted, and that the Finns do not tell
how the maelstroem came into being. All of which can be explained;
we wish, however, to avoid dragging more and more material into the
case. Several ages of the world have passed away, and they do not
perish all in the same manner; e.g., the Finns know of the
destruction of Sampo and of the felling of the huge Oak.].
This precludes any terrestrial diagram. It looks as though the
"axis," implicating the equinoctial and solstitial colures, runs
through the "three worlds" which are, to state it roughly and most
inaccurately, the following:
(a) the 'sky north of the Tropic of Cancer, i.e., the sky proper,
domain of the gods
(b) the "inhabited world" of the zodiac between the tropics, the
domain of the "living"
(c) the II sky south from the Tropic of Capricorn, alias: the
Sweet-Water Ocean, the realm of the dead
The demarcation plane between solid earth and sea is represented by
the celestial equator; hence half of the zodiac is under "water,"
the southern ecliptic, bordered by the equinoctial points. There are
more refined subdivisions, to be sure, "zones" or "belts" or
"climates" dividing the sphere from north to south and, most
important, the "sky" as well as the waters of the south have a share
in the "inhabited world" allotted to them [n10 To clear up the exact
range of the three worlds, it would be necessary to work out the
whole history of the Babylonian "Ways of Anu, Enlil, and Ea" (cf.
pp. 431f.), and how these "Ways" were adapted, changed, and defined
anew by the many heirs of ancient oriental astronomy. And then we
would not yet be wise to the precise whereabouts of Air, Saltwater,
and other ambiguous items.].
This summary is an almost frivolous simplification, but for the time
being it may be sufficient.
Meanwhile, it is necessary to explain again what this "earth" is
that modern interpreters like to take for a pancake. The mythical
earth is, in fact, a plane, but this plane is not our "earth"
at all, neither our globe, nor a presupposed homocentrical earth.
"Earth" is the implied plane through the four points of the year,
marked by the equinoxes and solstices, in other words the ecliptic.
And this is why this earth is very frequently said to be
quadrangular. The four "corners," that is, the zodiacal
constellations rising heliacally at both the equinoxes and
solstices, parts of the "frame" skambha, are the points which
determine an "earth." Every world-age has its own "earth." It is for
this very reason that "ends of the world" are said to take place. A
new "earth" arises, when another set of zodiacal constellations
brought in by the Precession determines the year points.
Once the reader has made the adjustment needed to think of the frame
instead of the "pillar" he will understand easily many queer scenes
which would be strictly against nature—ideas about planets
performing feats at places which are out of their range, as both the
poles are. He will understand why a force planning to uproot (or to
chop down) a tree, or to unhinge a mill, or merely pull out a plug,
or a pin, does not have to go "up"—or "down"—all the way to the pole
to do it. The force causes the same effect when it pulls out the
nearest available part of the "frame" within the inhabited world.
Here are some examples of the manipulation of the frame, beginning
with a most insignificant survival. Actually this is a useful
approach, because the less meaningful the example, the more
astonishing is the fact of its surviving. Turkmen tribes of southern
Turkestan tell about a copper pillar marking the "navel of the
earth," and they state that "only the nine-year-old hero Kara Par is
able to lift and to extract" it [n11 Radloff, quoted by W. E.
Roescher, Der Omphalosgedanke (1918), pp. 1f.]. As goes
without saying, nobody comments on the strange idea that someone
should be eager to "extract the navel of the earth." When Young
Arthur does it with Excalibur, the events have already been fitted
into a more familiar frame and they provoke no questions.
In its grandiose style, the
Mahabharata presents a similar
prodigy as follows:
It was Vishvamitra who in anger created a second world and numerous
stars beginning with Sravana . . . He can burn the three worlds by
his splendour, can, by stamping (his foot), cause the earth to
quake. He can "sever the great Meru from the Earth" and hurl it to
any distance, He can go round the 10 points of the Earth in a moment
[n12 Mbh. 1.71, Roy trans., vol. 1, p. 171.].
Vishvamitra is one of the seven stars of the Big Dipper, this at
least has been found out. But each planet is represented by a star
of the Wain, and vice versa, so this case does not look particularly
helpful [n13 The notion of "numerous [newly appointed] stars
beginning with Sravana" should enlighten us. Sravana, "the
Lame," is, in the generally accepted order, the twenty-first lunar
mansion, alpha beta gamma Aquilae, also called by the name Ashvatta, which stands for a sacred fig tree but which means
literally "below which the horses stand" (Scherer, Gestirnnamen,
p. 158), and which invites comparison with Old Norse Yggdrasil,
meaning "the tree below which Odin's horse grazes" (Reuter,
Germanische Himmelskunde, p. 236). Actually, the solstitial
colure ran through alpha beta gamma Aquilae around 300 B.C., and
long after the time when it used to pass through one or the other of
the stars of the Big Dipper; the equinoctial colure, however, comes
down very near eta Ursae Majoris. Considering that eta maintains the
most cordial relations with Mars in occidental astrology,
Vishvamitra might be eta, and might represent Mars, and that would
go well with the violent character of this Rishi. But even if we
accept this for a working hypothesis, there remains the riddle of
the "second world," i.e., "second" with respect to which "first"
world? Although we have a hunch, we are not going to try to solve it
here and now. Two pieces of information should be mentioned,
however: (1) Mbh. 14-44 (Roy trans., vol. 12, p. 83)
states: "The constellations [= lunar mansions, nakshatras]
have Sravana for their first"; (2) Sengupta (in Burgess' trans. of
Surya Siddhanta, p.xxxiv) claims that "the time of the
present redaction of the Mahabbarata" was called "Sravanadi kala,
i.e., the time when the winter solstitial colure passed through the
A cosmic event of the first order can be easily overlooked when it
hides modestly in a fairy tale. The following, taken from the Indian
"Ocean of Stories," tells of Shiva: "When he drove his
trident into the heart of Andhaka, the king of the Asuras, athough
he was only one, the dart which that monarch had infixed into the
heart of the three worlds was, strange to say, extracted." [n14 N.
M. Penzer, The Ocean of Story (1924), vol. 1, p. 3.].
A plot can also shrink to unrecognizable insignificance when it
comes disguised as history, but this next story at least has been
pinned down to the proper historical character, and even has been
checked by a serious military historian like Arrianus, who tells us
Alexander, then, reached Gordium, and was seized with an ardent
desire to ascend to the acropolis, where was the palace of Gordius
and his son Midas, and to look at Gordius' wagon and the knot of
that chariot's yoke. There was a widespread tradition about this
chariot around the countryside; Gordius, they said, was a poor man
of the Phrygians of old, who tilled a scanty parcel of earth and had
but two yoke of oxen: with one he ploughed, with the other he drove
his wagon. Once, as he was ploughing, an eagle settled on the yoke
and stayed, perched there, till it was time to loose the oxen;
Gordius was astonished at the portent, and went off to consult the
Telmissian prophets, who were skilled in the interpretation of
prodigies, inheriting—women and children too—the prophetic gift.
Approaching a Telmissian village, he met a girl drawing water and
told her the story of the eagle: she, being also of the prophetic
line, bade him return to the spot and sacrifice to Zeus the King. So
then Gordius begged her to come along with him and assist in the
sacrifice; and at the spot duly sacrificed as she directed, married
the girl, and had a son called Midas.
Midas was already a grown man, handsome and noble, when the
Phrygians were in trouble with civil war; they received an oracle
that a chariot would bring them a king and he would stop the war.
True enough, while they were discussing this, there arrived Midas,
with his parents, and drove, chariot and all, into the assembly. The
Phrygians, interpreting the oracle, decided that he was the man whom
the gods had told them would come in a chariot; they thereupon made
him king, and he put an end to the civil war. The chariot of his
father he set up in the acropolis as a thank-offering to Zeus the
king for sending the eagle.
Over and above this there was a story about the wagon, that anyone
who should untie the knot of the yoke should be lord of Asia. This
knot was of cornel bark, and you could see neither beginning nor end
of it. Alexander, unable to find how to untie the knot, and not
brooking to leave it tied, lest this might cause some disturbance in
the vulgar, smote it with his sword, cut the knot, and exclaimed, "I
have loosed it! "-so at least say some, but Aristobulus puts it that
he took out the pole pin, a dowel driven right through the
pole, holding the knot together, and so removed the yoke from the
pole. I do not attempt to be precise how Alexander actually
dealt with this knot. Anyway, he and his suite left the wagon with
that the oracle about the loosed knot had been duly fulfilled. It is
certain that there were that night thunderings and lightenings,
which indicated this; so Alexander in thanksgiving offered sacrifice
next day to whatever gods had sent the signs and certified the
undoing of the knot [n15 Anabasis of Alexander 2.3.1-8
(Robson trans., LCL).].
Without going now into the relevant comparative material it should
be stressed that in those cases where "kings" are sitting in a wagon
(Greek hamaxa), i.e., a four-wheeled truck, it is most of the
time Charles' Wain.
Alexander was a true myth builder, or rather, a true myth attracting
magnet. He had a gift for attracting to his fabulous personality the
manifold tradition that, once, had been coined for Gilgamesh.
But the time is not yet ripe either for Alexander or for Gilgamesh,
nor for further statements about deities or heroes who could pull
out pins, plugs and pillars. The next concern is with the decisive
features of the mythical landscape and their possible localization,
or their fixation in time. It is essential to know where and when
the first whirlpool came into being once Grotte, Amlodhi's Mill, had
been destroyed. This is, however, a misleading expression because
our terminology is still much too imprecise. It would be better to
say the first exit from, or entrance to, the whirlpool. It appears
advisable to recapitulate the bits of information that have been
gathered on the whirlpool as a whole:
The maelstrom, result of a broken mill, a chopped down tree, and the
like, "goes through the whole globe," according to the Finns. So
does Tartaros, according to Socrates. To repeat it in Guthrie's
words: "The earth in this myth of Socrates is spherical, and
Tartaros, the bottomless pit, is represented in this mythical
geography by a chasm which pierces the sphere right through from
side to side." [n16 Orpheus and Greek Religion (1952), p.
It is source and mouth of all waters.
the way, or one among others, to the realm of the dead.
Medieval geographers call it "Umbilicus Maris," Navel of the Sea, or
Antiochus the astrologer calls Eridanus proper, or some abstract
topos not far from Sirius, "zalos," i.e., whirlpool.
M. W. Makemson looks for the Polynesian whirlpool, said to be "at
the end of the sky," "at the edge of the Galaxy," in Sagittarius.
A Dyak hero, climbing a tree in "Whirlpool-Island," lands himself in
But generally, one looks for "it" in the more or less
northwest/north-northwest direction, a direction where, equally
vaguely, Kronos-Saturn is supposed to sleep in his golden cave
notwithstanding the blunt statements (by Homer) that Kronos was
hurled down into deepest Tartaros.
And from those "infernal" quarters, particularly from the (Ogygian)
Stygian landscape, "one"—who else but the souls?—sees the celestial
South Pole, invisible to us.
The reader might agree that this summary shows clearly the
insufficiency of the general terminology accepted by the majority.
The verbal confusion provokes sympathy for Numenius (see above, p.
188), and the Third Vatican Mythographer who took the rivers for
planets, their planetary orbs respectively. We think that the
whirlpool stands for the "ecliptical world" marked by the whirling
planets, embracing everything which circles obliquely with respect
to the polar axis and the equator-oblique by 23 ½ degrees, more or
less, each planet having its own obliquity with respect to the
others and to the sun's path, that is, the ecliptic proper. It has
been mentioned earlier (p. 206, n. 5) that in the axis of the Roman
circus was a Euripus, and altars of the three outer planets
(Saturn, Jupiter, Mars), and the three inner planets (Venus,
Mercury, Moon) on both sides of the pyramid of the sun, and that
there were not more than seven circuits because the "planets are
The ecliptic as a whirl is only one aspect of the famous "implex."
It must be kept in mind that being the seat of all planetary powers,
it represented, so to speak, the "Establishment" itself. There is no
better symbol of the thinking of those planet-struck Mesopotamian
civilizations than the arrogant plan of the royal cities themselves,
as it has been patiently reconstructed by generations of
Orientalists and archaeologists.
Nineveh proclaimed itself as the seat of stable order and power by
its seven-times crenellated circle of walls, colored with the seven
planetary colors, and so thick that chariots could run along the
top. The planetary symbolism spread to India, as was seen in chapter
VIII, and culminated in that prodigious cosmological diagram that is
the temple of Barabudur in Java [n17 P. Mus, Barabudur (1935).]. It
is still evident in the innumerable stupas which dot the
Indian countryside, whose superimposed crowns stand for the
planetary heavens. And here we have the Establishment seen as a Way
Up and Beyond, as Numenius would have seen immediately, the
succession of spheres of transition for the soul, a. quiet. promise
of transcendence which marks the Gnostic and Hinduistic scheme. The
skeleton map will always lack one or the other dimension. The Whirl
is then a way up or a way down? Heraclitus would say, both ways are
one and the same. You cannot put into a scheme everything at once.
This general conception of the whirlpool as the "ecliptical world"
does not, of course, help to understand any single detail. Starting
from the idea of the whirlpool as a way to the other world, one must
look at the situation through the eyes of a sou1 meaning to go
there. It has to move from the interior outwards, to "ascend" from
the geocentric earth through the planetary spheres "up" to the fixed
sphere, that is, right through the whole whirlpool, the ecliptical
world. But in order to leave the ecliptical frame, there must be a
station for changing trains at the equator. One would expect this
station to be at the crossroads of ecliptical and equatorial
coordinates at the equinoxes. But evidently, this was not the
arrangement. A far older route was followed. It is true that it
sometimes looks as though the transfer point were at the equinoxes.
The astrological tradition that followed Teukros [n18 F. Boll, Sphaera (1903), pp. 19,28,47,246-51. Antiochus does not mention
any of these star groups.], for example provided a rich offering of
celestial locations for Hades, the Acherusian lake, Charon the
ferryman, etc., all of them under the chapter Libra. But this is a
trap and one can only hope that many hapless souls have not been
deceived. For these astrological texts mean the sign Libra,
not the constellation.
All "change stations" are found invariably in two regions: one in
the South between Scorpius and Sagittarius, the other in the North
between Gemini and Taurus; and this is valid through time and space,
from Babylon to Nicaragua [n19 The notion is not even foreign to the
cheering adventures of Sun, the Chinese Monkey (Wou
Tch'eng Ngen, French trans. by Louis Avenal ). One day,
"harponneurs des morts"
get hold of him, claiming that he has arrived at the term of his
destiny, and is ripe for the underworld. He escapes, of course. The
translator remarks (vol. 1, p. iii) that it is the constellation Nan
Teou, the Southern Dipper, that decides everybody's death, and the
orders are executed by these
"harponneurs des morts."
The Southern Dipper consists of the stars mu lambda phi sigma tau
zeta Sagittarii (cf. G. Schlegel,
, pp. 172ff.; L. de Saussure, Les Origines de l'Astronomie
Chinoise , pp. 452f.).].
Why was it ever done in the first place? Because of the Galaxy,
which has its crossroads with the ecliptic between Sagittarius and
Scorpius in the South, and between Gemini and Taurus in the North.
MEN's SPIRITS were thought to dwell in the Milky Way between
incarnations. This conception has been handed down as an Orphic and
Pythagorean tradition [n1 See F. Boll, Aus der Offenbarung
Johannes (1914), pp. 32, 72 (the first accepted authority has
been Herakleides of Pontos); W. Gundel, RE s.v. Galaxias;
(1899), pp. 22f.; F. Cumont, After Life in Roman Paganism
(1959), pp. 94. 104. 152f.] fitting into the frame of the migration
of the soul. Macrobius, who has provided the broadest report on the
matter, has it that souls ascend by way of Capricorn, and then in
order to be reborn, descend again through the "Gate of Cancer." [n2
Commentary on the Dream of Scipio 1.12.1-8.]. Macrobius talks
of signs; the constellations rising at the solstices in his time
(and still in ours) were Gemini and Sagittarius: the "Gate of
Cancer" means Gemini. In fact, he states explicitly (l.12.5)
that this "Gate" is "where the Zodiac and the Milky Way intersect."
Far away, the Mangaians of old (Austral Islands, Polynesia), who
kept the precessional clock running instead of switching over to
"signs," claim that only at the evening of the solstitial days can
spirits enter heaven, the inhabitants of the northern parts of the
island at one solstice, the dwellers in the south at the other [n3
W. W. Gill, Myths and Songs from the South Pacific (1876),
pp. 1566ff., 185ff.]. This information, giving precisely fixed
dates, is more valuable than general statements to the effect that
the Polynesians regarded the Milky Way as "the road of souls as they
pass to the spirit world." [n4 E. Best, The Astronomical
Knowledge of the Maori (1955), p. 45.]. In Polynesian myth, too,
souls are not permitted to stay unless they have reached a stage of
unstained perfection, which is not likely to occur frequently.
Polynesian souls have to return into bodies again, sooner or later
[n5 Since so many earlier and recent "reporters at large" fail to
inform us of traditions concerning reincarnation, we may mention
that according to the Marquesans "all the souls of the dead, after
having lived in one or the other place (i.e., Paradise or Hades) for
a very long time, returned to animate other bodies" (R. W.
Williamson, Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia
, vol. I, p. 208), which recalls the wording of the case as we
know it from book X of Plato's Republic.].
Two instances of relevant American Indian notions are worth
mentioning without discussion. The important thing is that the
tradition is there, more or less intact. Among the Sumo in Honduras
and Nicaragua their "Mother Scorpion. . . is regarded as dwelling at
the end of the Milky Way, where she receives the souls of the dead,
and from her, represented as a mother with many breasts, at which
children take suck, come the souls of the newborn." [n6 H. B.
Alexander, Latin American Mythology (1916), p. 185.]. Whereas
the Pawnee and Cherokee say [n7 S. Hagar, "Cherokee Star-Lore," in
Festscbrift Boas (1906), p. 363; H. B. Alexander, North
American Mythology, p. 117.]: "the souls of the dead are
received by a star at the northern end of the Milky Way, where it
bifurcates, and he directs the warriors upon the dim and difficult
arm, women and those who die of old age upon the brighter and easier
path. The souls then journey southwards. At the end of the celestial
pathway they are received by the Spirit Star, and there they make
their home." One can quietly add "for a while," or change it to
"there they make their camping place." Hagar takes the "Spirit Star"
to be Antares (alpha Scorpii).
Whether or not it is precisely alpha, because the star marks the
southern "end" of the Galaxy, the southern crossroads with the
ecliptic, it is at any rate a star of Sagittarius. or Scorpius [8
This is no slip of the tongue; the zodiacal Sagittarius of
Mesopotanian boundary stones had, indeed, the tail of a Scorpion:
but we just must not be drowned in the abyss of details of
comparative constellation lore, and least of all in those connected
with Sagittarius, two-faced as he is, half royal, half dog.]. That
fits "Mother Scorpion" of Nicaragua and the "Old goddess with the
scorpion tail" of the Maya as it also fits the Scorpion-goddess
of ancient Egypt and the Ishara tam.tim of the Babylonians. Ishara
of the sea, goddess of the constellation Scorpius, was also called
"Lady of the Rivers" (compare
Considering the fact that the crossroads of ecliptic and Galaxy are
crisis-resistant, that is, not concerned with the Precession, the
reader may want to know why the Mangaians thought they could go to
heaven only on the two solstitial days. Because, in order to "change
trains" comfortably, the constellations that serve as "gates" to the
Mi1ky Way must "stand" upon the "earth," meaning that they must rise
heliacally either at the equinoxes or at the solstices. The Galaxy
is a very broad highway, but even so there must have been some
bitter millennia when neither gate was directly available any
longer, the one hanging in midair, the other having turned into a
Sagittarius and Gemini still mark the solstices in the closing years
of the Age of Pisces. Next comes Aquarius. The ancients, no doubt,
would have considered the troubles of these our times, like over
population, the "working iniquity in secret," as an inevitable
prelude to a new tilting, a new world-age.
But the coming of Pisces was long looked forward to, heralded as a
blessed age. It was introduced by the thrice-repeated Great
Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Pisces in the year 6 B.C., the
star of Bethlehem. Virgil announced the return of the Golden Age
under the rule of Saturn, in his famous Fourth Eclogue: "Now the
Virgin retbrns, the reign of Saturn returns, now a new generation
descends from heaven on high. Only do thou, pure Lucina, smile on
the birth If the child, under whom the iron brood shall first cease,
and a golden race spring up throughout the world!"
Although promoted to the rank of a "Christian honoris causa" on
account of this poem, Virgil was no "prophet," nor was he the only
one who expected the return of Kronos-Saturn [n9 See, for example,
A. A. Barb, "St. Zacharias the Prophet and Martyr," Journal of
the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 11 (1948), pp. 54f., and "Der
Heilige und die Schlangen," MAGW 82 (1953), p. 20.]. "lam
redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna." What does it mean?
Where has Virgo been, supposedly, so that one expected the
Aratus, in his renowned astronomical poem (95-136), told how
Themis-Virgo, who had lived among humans peacefully, retired at the
end of the Golden Age to the "hills," no longer mingling with the
silver crowd that had started to populate the earth, and that she
took up her heavenly abode near Bootes, when the Bronze Age began
[n10 Cf. Al-Biruni, dealing with the Indian ages of the world, and
quoting the above passages from Aratus with a scholion (Alberuni's
India, trans. E. C. Sachau , vol. 1, pp. 383-85).]. And
there is Virgil announcing Virgo's return. This makes it easy to
guess time and "place" of the Golden Age. One need only turn back
the clock for one quarter "hour" of the Precession (about 6,000
years from Virgil), to find Virgo standing firmly at the summer
solstitial corner of the abstract plane "earth." "Returning," that
is moving on, Virgo would indicate the autumnal equinox at the time
when Pisces took over the celestial government of the vernal
equinox, at the new crossroads.
Once the Precession had been discovered, the Milky Way took on a new
and decisive significance. For it was not only the most spectacular
band of heaven, it was also a reference point from which the
Precession could be imagined to have taken its start. This would
have been when the vernal equinoctial sun left its position in
Gemini in the Milky Way. When it was realized the sun had been there
once, the idea occurred that the Milky Way might mark the abandoned
track of the sun-a burnt-out area, as it were, a scar in heaven.
Decisive notions have to be styled more carefully, however: so let
us say that the Milky Way was a reference "point" from which the
Precession could be termed to have taken its start, and that the
idea which occurred was not that the Milky Way might mark the
abandoned track of the sun, but that the Milky Way was an image of
an abandoned track, a formula that offered rich possibilities for
"telling" complicated celestial changes.
With this image and some additional galactic lore, it is now
possible to concentrate on the formula by which the Milky Way became
the way of the spirits of the dead, a road abandoned by the living.
The abandoned path is probably the original form of the notions
insistently built around a projected Time Zero. If the Precession
was seen as the great clock of the Universe, the sun, as it shifted
at the equinox, remained the measure of all measures, the "golden
cord," as Socrates says in Plato's Theaetetus (153C). In
fact, apart from the harmonic intervals, the sun was the only
absolute measure provided by nature. The sun must be understood to
be conducting the planetary fugues at any given moment as Plato also
showed in the Timaeus. Thus, when the sun at his counting
station moved on toward the Milky Way, the planets, too, were termed
to hunt and run this way.
This does not make very sound geometrical sense, but it shows how an
image can dominate men's minds and take on a life of its own. Yet,
the technical character of these images should not be forgotten, and
it is to prevent this that the verbs "to term" and "to spell out"
are used so often instead of the customary expression "to believe."
To the American Plains Indians, the Milky Way was the dusty track
along which the Buffalo and the Horse once ran a race across the sky
[11 J. Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee, 19th ARBAE 1897-98
(1900), p.443.]. For the Fiote of the African Loango Coast the race
was run by Sun and Moon [n12 E. Pechuel-Loesche, Volkskunde van
Loango (1907), p. 135.]. The East African Turu took it for the
"cattle track" of the brother of the creator [n13 S. Lagercrantz,
"The Milky Way in Africa," Ethnos (1952), p. 68.], which is
very close to the Greek legend of Herakles moving the herd of Gerion
[n14 See W. Gundel, RE s.v. Galaxias.]. The convergence of so many
animal tracks along this heavenly way is, once again, not a
pointless conjunction of fancies. The Irawak of Guyana call the
Galaxy "the Tapir's way."
This is confirmed in a tale of the Chiriguano and some groups of the
Tupi-Guarani of South America. According to Lehman-Nitsche, these
people speak of the Galaxy as "the way of the true father of the
Tapir," a Tapir -deity which is itself invisible [n15 O. Zerries,
"Sternbilder als Ausdruck jagerischer Geiteshaltung in Sudamerika,"
Paideuma 5 (1951), pp.220f.]. Now, if this hidden deity turns
out to be Quetzalcouatl himself, ruler of the Golden Age town
Tollan, no other than "Tixli cumatz," the tapir-serpent dwelling in
the "middle of the sea's belly," as the Maya tribes of Yucatan
describe him [n16 E. Seler, Gesammelte Abbandlungen (1961),
vol. 4, p. 56], the allusions begin to focus. Finally, the actual
scheme is found in that Cuna tradition described earlier: the Tapir
chopped down the "Saltwater Tree," at the roots of which is God's
whirlpool, and when the tree fell, saltwater gushed out to form the
oceans of the world.
Should the Tapir still seem to lack the appropriate dignity, some
Asiatic testimonies should be added. The Persian Bundahishn calls
the Galaxy the "Path of Kay-us," after the grandfather and coregent
of Kai Khusrau, the Iranian Hamlet [n17 Bdh. V B 22, B. T.
Anklesaria, Zand-Akasih. Iranian or Greater Bundahishn
(1956), pp. 69, 71.]. Among the Altaic populations the Yakuts call
the Milky Way the "tracks of God," and they say that, while creating
the world, God wandered over the sky; more general in use seems to
have been the term "Ski-tracks of God's son," whereas the Voguls
spelled it out "Ski-tracks of the forest-man." And here the human
tracks fade out, although the snowshoes remain. For the Tungus the
Galaxy is "Snowshoe-tracks of the Bear." But whether the figure is
the son of God, the forest-man, or the Bear, he hunted a stag along
the Milky Way, tore it up and scattered its limbs in the sky right
and left of the white path, and so Orion and Ursa Major were
separated [n18 U. Holmberg, Die religiosen Vorstellungen der
altaischen Volker (1938), pp. 201f.]. The "Foot of the Stag"
reminded Holmberg immediately of the "Bull's Thigh" of ancient
With his penetrating insight he might easily have gone on to
recognize, in that potent thigh, the isolated "one-leg" of
Texcatlipoca, Ursa Major again, in Mexico-the day-sign "Crocodile"
(Cipactli) had bitten it off-the great Hunrakan (= 1 leg) of the
Maya Quiche [n19 Going further south, he would have found there
again the lining up of Ursa and Orion and the violent tearing up of
celestial figures. Says W. E. Roth ("An Inquiry into the Animism and
Folk-lore of the Guiana Indians," 30th ARBAE 1908-09
, p. 262; cf. Zerries, pp. 220f.) of the Indians of Guiana:
"All the legends relating to the constellations Taurus and Orion
have something in common in the detail of an amputated arm or leg."
And that goes for parts of Indonesia too. But then, Ursa Major is
the thigh of a Bull, and the zodiacal Taurus is so badly amputated,
there is barely a half of him left. More peculiar still, in later
Egyptian times it occurs, if rarely, that Ursa is made a ram's thigh
(see G. A. Wainwright, "A Pair of Constellations," in Studies
Presented to F. L. Griffith , p. 373); and on the
round zodiac of Dendera
(Roman period) we find a ram sitting on that celestial leg
representing Ursa, and it even looks back, as befits the traditional
zodiacal Aries. We must leave it at that.].
There is an insistent association here, right below the surface,
which is still revealed by the old Dutch name for the Galaxy,
"Brunelstraat." Brunei, Bruns, Bruin (the Brown) is the familiar
name of the bear in the romance of Renard the Fox, and is as ancient
as anything that can be traced [n20 The notion of the Milky Way as
"Brunelstraat" seems to be present in ancient India: the
Veda 18.2.31 mentions a certain path or road called rikshaka.
Riksha is the bear in both senses, i.e., the animal and Ursa Major
(see H. Grassmann, Worterbuch zum Rig-Veda  s.v.
Riksha). Whitney (in his translation of AV, p.840 ) suggested rikshaka as a road "infested by bears (?).” A. Weber, however,
proposed to identify rikshaka with the Milky Way ("Miszellen
aus dem indogermanischen Familienleben," in Festgruss Roth
, p. 131). Since the whole hymn AV 18.2 contains "Funeral
Verses," and deals with the voyage of the soul, that context too
would be fitting. (That the souls have to first cross a river "rich
with horses" is another matter.)]. It is a strange lot of characters
that were made responsible for the Milky Way: gods and animals
leaving the path that had been used at "creation" time [n21 The
shortest abbreviation: the Inca called Gemini "creation time"
(Hagar, in 14th International Amerikanisten-Kongress ,
p. 599f.). But the very same notion is alluded to, when Castor and
Pollux (alpha beta Geminorum) are made responsible for the first
fire sticks, by the Aztecs (Sahagún) and, strange to say, by the
Tasmanians. (See below, chapter XXIII, "Gilgamesh and
Prometheus.")]. But where did they go, the ones mentioned, and the
many whom we have left out of consideration? It depends, so to
speak, from where they took off. This is often hard to determine,
but the subject of "tumbling down" will be dealt with next.
As for Virgo, who had left the "earth" at the end of the Golden Age,
her whereabouts in the Silver Age could have been described as being
"in mid-air." Many iniquitous characters were banished to this
topos; either they were thrown down, or they were sent up—Lilith
dwelt there for a while, and King David [n22 See J. A. Eisenmenger,
Entdecktes Judenthem (1711), vol. I, p. 165; vol. 2,
pp.417ff.], also Adonis [n23 "Es ton eera," see F. K. Movers,
Phonizier (1967), vol. I, p. 205.], even the Tower of
Babel itself, and first of all the Wild Hunter (appendix
This assembly of figures "in mid-air" helps to give meaning to an
otherwise pointless tale, a veritable fossil found in Westphalian
folklore: "The Giants called to Hackelberg [= Odin as the Wild
Hunter] for help. He raised a storm and removed a mill into the
Milky Way, which after this is called the Mill Way." [n24 J. Grimm,
TM, pp. 1587f.]. There are other fossils, too, the wildest perhaps
being that of the Cherokee who called the Galaxy "Where the dog
ran." A very unusual dog it must have been, being in the habit of
stealing meal from a corn mill owned by "people in the South" and
running with it to the North; the dog dropped meal as he ran and
that is the Milky Way [n25 Mooney, pp. 253, 443.]. It is difficult
here to recognize Isis scattering ears of wheat in her flight from
Typhon [n26 See R. H. Allen, Star Names (1963), p. 481; W. T.
Olcott, Star Lore of All Ages (1911), p. 393.]. And yet, the
preference of the very many mythical dogs, foxes, coyotes—and even
of the "way-opening" Fenek in West Sudan—for meal and all sorts of
grain—more correctly "the eight kinds of grain" –a trait which is
hardly learned by eavesdropping on Mother Nature, could have warned
the experts to beware of these doggish characters. They are not to
be taken at their pseudo-zoological face value.
Thus, everybody and everything has left the course, Wild Hunter, dog
and mill—at least its upper half, since through the hole in the
lower millstone the whirlpool is seething up and down.
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
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
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
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
[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
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
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
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
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 XXII) 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
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.
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
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 XIII, "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
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
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
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
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.
inscribed in the sphere of Saturn is only the last witness of an
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,
(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
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
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
(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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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),
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