The Waters Under The Earth

We have found that the constant movement and change

manifested in the circulation of the waters of the globe

impressed the mind of Thales and largely determined the course

of his speculation. When his great successor, Heracleitus,

passed from water to fire, in his search for the _Welt-stoff_, he

by no means became insensible to the mystic appeal of running

water. "All things are flowing." Such was the ancient expression

of the universal flux; and it is plainly based on the analogy of a

stream. If Heracleitus was not its author, at any rate it became

his favourite simile. "We cannot step" (he said) "into the same

river twice, for fresh and ever fresh waters are constantly

pouring into it." And yet, in a sense, though the waters change,

the river remains. Hence the statement assumed a form more

paradoxical and mystical--"We step into the same river, and we

do not step into it; we are, and we are not."

Moving water, then, has the power of stimulating emotion and

prompting intuition; and this power is manifested in exceptional

degree when the source from which the water issues, and the

goal to which it flows, are unknown. These conditions are best

satisfied in the case of streams that flow in volume through

subterranean caverns. The darkness contributes its element of

undefined dread, and the hollow rumblings make the darkness

to be felt. What more calculated to fill the mind of the child of

nature with a sense of life and will behind the phenomena? The

weird reverberations are interpreted by him as significant

utterances of mighty, unseen powers, and the caves and chasms

are invested with the awe due to entrances into the gloomy

regions where reign the monarchs of the dead.

True, it may be said, for the child of nature. But are such

experiences possible for the modern mind? Yes, if we can

pierce through the varied disguises which the intuitional

material assumes as times and manners change. Coleridge, for

instance, is thrown into a deep sleep by an anodyne. His

imagination takes wings to itself; images rise up before him,

and, without conscious effort, find verbal equivalents. The

enduring substance of the vision is embodied in the fragment,

"Kubla Khan," the glamour of which depends chiefly on the

mystical appeal of subterranean waters. We are transported to


"Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man,

Down to a sunless sea."

These three lines make a deeper impression than any others in

the poem, and form its main theme.

Nor is the feeling of the supernatural unrecognised. Spirits are

near with prophetic promptings. From a deep chasm the sacred

river throws up a mighty fountain, and for a short space

wanders through wood and dale, only to plunge again into its

measureless caverns, and sink in tumult to a lifeless ocean:

"And mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war."

Thus when Coleridge's imagination was set free, the mode of

feeling declared itself which had persisted down the ages to the

present. The primitive experience is there in its essentials,

enriched by the aesthetic and intellectual gains of the

intervening centuries. Doubtless there is a living idea, or rather

a group of living ideas, behind the phenomena of subterranean


Wordsworth has described a more personal experience which

chimes in with all that has been said.

"Through a rift

Not distant from the shore on which we stood,

A fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing place--

Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams

Innumerable, roaring with one voice!

Heard over earth and sea, and, in that hour,

For so it seemed, felt by the starry heavens."

If the modern poet could be thus affected, how much more the

primitive man who looked down on water falling into chasms,

or rushing through their depths. It was natural that such

experiences should find expression in his systems of

mythology. The general form they assume is that of springs and

rivers in the underworld, the best known of which appear in the

Graeco-Roman conceptions of Hades. Homer makes Circe

direct Odysseus thus. He is to beach his ship by deep-eddying

Oceanus, in the gloomy Cimmerian land. "But go thyself

to the dank house of Hades. Thereby into Acheron flow

Pyriphlegethon and Cocytus, a branch of the water of the Styx,

and there is a rock and the meeting of the two roaring waters."

Such were the materials which, with many additions and

modifications, developed into the Hades of Virgil's sixth

AEneid, with its lakes, and swamps and dismal streams. The

subterranean waters figured also in the Greek mysteries, and are

elaborated with much detail in Plato's great Phaedo Myth--in all

these cases with increasing fullness of mystical meaning. In the

popular mind they were incrusted with layers of incongruous

notions and crude superstitions. But, as Plato, for one, so clearly

saw, there is always at their core a group of intuitions which

have their bearing on the deepest problems of human life, and

are capable of moulding spiritual concepts.

Still more obviously suffused with mystic meaning and

influence are the Teutonic myths concerning the waters of the

underworld. The central notion is that of Yggdrasil, the tree of

the universe--the tree of time and life. Its boughs stretched up

into heaven; its topmost branch overshadowed Walhalla, the

hall of the heroes. Its three roots reach down into the

dark regions beneath the earth; they pierce through three

subterranean fountains, and hold together the universal structure

in their mighty clasp. These three roots stretch in a line from

north to south. The northernmost overarches the Hvergelmer

fountain with its ice-cold waters. The middle one overarches

Mimur's well with its stores of creative force. The southernmost

overarches Urd's well with its warmer flow. They are gnawed

down below by the dragon Nidhoegg and innumerable worms;

but water from the fountain of Urd keeps the world-ash ever


Hvergelmer is the mother fountain of all the rivers of the world--

below, on the surface of the earth, and in the heaven above.

From this vast reservoir issue all the waters, and thither they

return. On their outward journey they are sucked up and lifted

aloft by the northern root of the world tree, and there blend into

the sap which supplies the tree with its imperishable strength

and life. Rising through the trunk, they spread out into the

branches and evaporate from its crown. In the upper region,

thus attained, is a huge reservoir, the thunder-cloud, which

receives the liquid and pours it forth again in two diverse

streams. The one is the stream of fire-mist, the lightning, which

with its "terror-gleam" flows as a barrier round Asgard, the

home of the gods; the other falls in fructifying shower upon the

earth, to return to its original source in the underworld. The

famous maelstrom is the storm-centre, so to speak, of the

down-tending flood. The fountain Hvergelmer may therefore be

regarded as embodying impressions made on the Teuton mind

by the physical forces of the universe in the grand activities of

their eternal circulation. But their source was hidden.

The southernmost well has the warmer water of the sunny

climes--the fountain of Urd. The Norns, the three sisters who

made known the decrees of fate, come out of the unknown

distance, enveloped in a dark veil, to the world tree, and

sprinkle it daily with water from this fountain, that its foliage

may be ever green and vigorous. Urd is the eldest of the three,

and gazes thoughtfully into the past; Werdandi gazes at the

present; and Skuld gazes into the future. For out of the past and

present is the future born. The fountain of Urd may be regarded

as the embodiment of impressions of a spiritual force which

upholds and renews the universe.

Mimur, the king of the lower world, is the warder of the central

fountain, and round its waters are ranged his golden halls. The

fountain itself is seven times overlaid with gold, and above it

the holy tree spreads its sheltering branches. It is the source of

the precious liquid, the mead, which belongs to Mimur alone,

and rises from an unknown depth to water the central root. In its

purity, it gives the gods their wisdom and power. But the mead

which rises in the sap is not entirely pure; it is mixed with the

liquids from the other fountains. Thus earth is not like heaven.

Nevertheless, though thus diluted, it is a fructifying blessing to

whomsoever may obtain it. Around it grow delightful beds of

reeds and bulrushes; and bordering it are the Glittering Fields,

in which grow flowers that never fade and harvests that are

never reaped; in which grow also the seeds of poetry. In short,

Mimur's well is the source of inspiration and creative power.

These Teutonic notions of the waters under the earth have been

dwelt upon somewhat fully, partly because they are not so well

known as the classical myths--partly because they present such

a decided contrast to the classical myths--but mainly because of

their wealth of mystic suggestiveness. Let it not be thought that

they form a group of elaborate symbols--were that the case their

interest for the natural mystic would be vastly decreased. They

are almost wholly the spontaneous product of the mythopoeic

faculty; they were genuinely believed as presentations of

realities. They are primitive intuitions embodied to form a

primitive philosophy of life. They glow with mystic insight.

Under the forms of subterranean fountains that well forth life,

physical, aesthetic, spiritual, is mirrored the life of the universe,

which wells from unknown depths, and returns to the deeps

from which it emanated. And inasmuch as these ideas were

largely suggested by the circulation of the waters of the globe, the

Teutonic child of nature joins hands with the nature-philosopher

Thales. The Reality is ultimately the same for both; the

substance of the universe is living movement.

Yet another type of the mystic influence of subterranean

watercourses will serve to illustrate the deepening processes to

which all concrete forms, derived from intuitions, must be

subjected. Near to Banias in Northern Palestine, at the base of

an extensive cup-shaped mound, afar from human habitations,

is one of the two chief sources of the Jordan. The rushing waters

pour out of the ground in sufficient volume to form at once a

river. The roar and tumult are strikingly impressive. Peters, on

whose description of the place I have largely drawn, presumes

that this was the site of an ancient temple of Dan. The worship

at this temple was of the primitive sort, "such as was befitting

the worship of the God who exhibited himself in such nature

forces." We are therefore carried back to the mythological

stage, for which the gushing forth, in volume, of subterranean

waters was a manifestation of the life in, or behind, the natural

phenomenon, and roused a peculiar kind of emotion.

We are carried on to a much more advanced stage when we

come to the feelings represented in the 42nd Psalm. Peters

argues that this Psalm, which so vividly describes the roaring of

the waters was, "in its original form, a liturgical hymn sung at

the great autumnal festival by worshippers at this shrine, where

served, according to tradition, the descendants of Moses." On

this supposition how pregnant with historical import become the

well-known words: "One deep calleth another because of the

noise of the water-pipes; all thy waves and billows are gone

over me." It is no mere analogy or symbol that is here employed

(though such elements may be mingled in the complex whole)

but an intuition yearning to express itself that life's burden

would be lightened if the secret of the gushing waters could be


And it is thus that we arrive at the fundamental intuition

common to the various modes of experience just reviewed. The

subterranean waters spring from an unknown source, or fall into

an unknown abyss. In both cases there is a sense of having

reached the limits of the knowable, combined with a sense of

inexhaustible power. The beyond is vague and insubstantial, but

it is instinct with life and purpose. Man's spirit may shrink

before the unknown--but he fills the empty regions with forms

and objects which rob them of much of their strangeness and

aloofness, and bring them within the range of his hopes and

fears. There, as here (he feels), there must be interpenetration

of spirit by spirit.

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