Some of what I have to say here is a development on previous comments made in this journal. More needed to be said – so here it is.
I still recall from high school biology class studying the physical structure of plants and trees. Xylem and phloem are the tubes and vessels that allow liquids to move through the stem, trunk, branches and fronds of a tree or a plant. They serve a very similar purpose to the human circulatory and respiratory systems.
We know that for the original heathens the whole world was arranged upon a massive tree – known by various names such as Yggrdrasil or Laerad. At the foot of the tree were three wells.
The first of these was Mimisbrunnr, the well over which the giant Mimir presided. This is the well to which Odin sacrifices his eye in exchange for a draught of wisdom.
The second was the Urdarbrunnr, over which the Norns, who administer to the shaping and passage of time – stand watch. Urd literally means ‘past’ – so this well, like the well of Mimir, seems to represent a repository of all that has come to pass.
The third well was Hvergelmir, the source of all the rivers (and in some interpretations the primal oceans) of the world. In Gylfaginning a spring in Niflheim is called Hvergelmir and is the source of the Elivagar rivers, which feed poisoned liquid into the Ginnungagap and thus assist in the quickening of creation.
Many scholars (Jan de Vries, Paul Bauschatz, etc) have suggested that originally there was a single well, and that the split into three is a later embellishment. That could well be true, though I don’t see that anything is lost from keep the triple well distinction. There are, after all, many triplet entities in Germanic mythology – Odin-Vili-Ve being the most obvious.
So the common theme between these three wells is that they are sources of origin. Mimisbrunnr is a repository of memory – and therefore it seems wisdom. Urdabrunnr is a repository of all past action – and since the past is the earth from which the present sprout it would seem to be the origin of all change and action in the world.
Hvergelmir is a source of water (which might represent life force itself), in fact, it is the source of all the waters of the world.
Now, following Paul Bauschatz and Bil Linzie, it would seem that the basic Germanic cosmology works like this – the wells are a repository of all that has been. This water then flows up through the world tree through all the worlds until it falls back down – in manifestation. Then it drips back down into the wells, forming the next layer of ørlög.
This understanding of time could be described as ecological, rather than linear or even circular. I think that this notion of ecological time is far richer and more nuanced than other models. Linear time is simplistic and doesn’t really even save the phenomena. Circular time is an improvement, but it is still very literal and one-dimensional.
Ecological time, on the other hand, allows for complexity – which is pretty essential in a model of how time works once we consider just how infinitely complex causality is (any lay or professional students of chaotic systems in the Elhaz readership? I really recommend James Gleick’s introductory book on the subject, it will teach you a lot about wyrd).
The ecological model of time articulated in this mythic portrait of well(s) and tree requires one other element to be fully rounded out. Since every being, object, entity is nourished by water from the well, every single thing might be regarded as sacred, magical, perhaps even as conscious.
At the same time as being utterly unique and magical, however, this flow of water and memory binds the cosmos together. At the heart of this model of Germanic cosmology – it seems to me anyway – is the classic insight that all things are interconnected and one, and yet at the same time different, separate and irreplaceably unique.
This delicate dance between interconnection and particularity runs as a motif throughout Germanic mythology. Often particular events in the myths seem at first to be isolated and particular – yet can have consequences that reach out across the worlds. Similarly, the gods play out their grand schemes through the immediate circumstances their followers must live.
This model of cosmology also offers a richer understanding of the Germanic notion of holy/unholy. The word “holy” has its origin in the notion of “wholeness”. It did not originally connate Christian separateness. It instead connoted a quality of being complete, well-rounded, healthy, fertile even. When something is bursting with life and breath it is holy.
Combining this with the notion that the waters of memory flow through all things – it would seem that what makes something holy is that it has a strong current of memory or wyrd flowing through it. Perhaps this is what having good ørlög means – or indeed what it is to have good luck or a strong hamingja.
Conversely to have poor luck, or to be unholy, simply means that a being is more or less cut off from the flow of waters. Perhaps its current is occluded or blocked or pinched. This might happen in any number of ways. By way of analogy: when we manage the environment in linear, instrumental and non-ecologically minded ways it becomes barren and lifeless.
If we adopt this interpretation of Germanic cosmology (and I have found no more complete, deep or thorough interpretation) then we are left facing a number of challenges and questions.
Most importantly, this view of Germanic cosmology forces a great deal of reassessment. Many heathens I have met in my time have adopted – to greater or lesser extent – the trappings of tradition without actually going into themselves and developing a different kind of experience of the world, a different consciousness.
As such they still see the world in a more or less linear (or sometimes circular) way. I do not consider that such individuals are truly heathen, regardless of how long their beards are or how many swords they own. They’re little better than tourists or hypocrites. Such people often seem to be very convinced of their own deep heathenry. How ironic.
I am going to spend a few journal entries exploring some dimensions of this reassessment, with an orientation towards practical things you can do to explore and experience the world through the doors of this metaphor, this myth, of well and tree.