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The Waters of Sacrifice

The Ash Yggdrasil, F.W. Heine

In the northern tradition of Germanic mythology, there lies a well beneath the world tree, Yggdrasil. Located at the lowest reaches of the Nordic peoples’ understanding of the cosmic order, it sits in the shadow of a root that reaches into Jötunheimr, the land of the giants, associated with the ungovernable aspects of the natural world. The well is watched over by a mysterious being known as Mímir (roughly, “the remember”), whose origin and nature are decidedly obscure, but is noted in the  Völuspá as being potently enlightened (compare the symbol of the character Tom Bombadil in the Tolkien mythos). It is stated explicitly that his wisdom is derived from the influence of the wellwater.

As is the case with many of the themes present in mythology, the character of Mímir’s Well can be understood as being primarily symbolic. The situation of the well in an area that is so suprachthonic, beyond even a material concept of obscurity, and existing on a plane so spiritually devoid of light that it sits beneath the roots of all of creation, is no accident, and can likewise be interpreted as a nod to the nature of Ginnungagap — the primordial state of nonbeing from which all phenomena, both material and immaterial, emerged at the beginning of time. The mutable quality of the water as a force that takes on the shape of the vessel in which it is contained (be it cistern or body), its association with sagacity and freeness of thought, and its place in the structure of the universe, also speaks to the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious: something available to anybody brave enough to descend to the darkest roots of the inner and outer worlds in order to sample its quality. This is a theme also echoed in the symbols of two other wells present at the roots of the world tree in Norse myth, Urðarbrunnr (the well of wyrd), tended by the three Norns, goddesses of fate, and Hvergelmir (the boiling spring), from which all waters originate.

Reciprocity is the highest law of the universe. The material and decidedly positivistic field of physics teaches us that every action begets a reasonable reaction at parity with the original impulse. Hermeticism teaches us, echoed in the outstretched palms of the Magician of the Major Arcana, that there is congruence both “above and below”. Naturally, when the reputation of Mímir’s well aroused the interest of the gods Óðinn and Heimdallr, they were not exempt from this rule. Óðinn, having hanged himself by the neck already in the very fabric of the universe, was no stranger to the doctrine of self-oblation, and cast his eye, a powerful symbol of his sensory relationship with the external world, into the depths of the well. Heimdallr, the guardian spirit of the realm of the divine, whose conservatory nature binds him to the blowing of his signal trumpet, the Gjallarhorn (roughly, “yelling horn”) at the end if the world, likewise sacrifices his ear. Óðinn finds the influence of the well and its curator so tempting, that after his death, he carries Mímir’s severed head around, consulting it for advice.

A similar anecdote, perhaps derived from a common source, comes to us from the part of the Prose Edda known as the Skáldskaparmál (the “language of poetry”), is the story of the fabled mead of poetry, from which Óðinn derives his creativity and aptitude at composing verses. After the war that pitted the two tribes of gods in the North Germanic tradition, the Æsir and Vanir, against one another, peace was sealed by way of  a communal ritual of spitting into a cauldron. The saliva, imbued with the power of the now-united pantheon, grew into a man of considerable wisdom, skill, and intelligence, known as Kvasir, whose name is probably derived from a Proto-Indo-European root, to ferment or crush, *kwh₂et-, a stem that brought us Latin cāseus (cheese) and the Slavic beverage kvass. Kvasir travels among mankind, spreading the consequence of his intellect, and is eventually killed, ostensibly through misadventure, his blood being mixed with honey and turned into mead — thereby ensuring his abilities will last thereafter through the effects of alcohol. This process of beverage-as-currency-for-inspiration is echoed in the Indo-Aryan tradition of soma or haoma, the Vedic botanical ritual beverage, the origins of which are still debated.

In all of these paradigms, there is a common theme of sacrifice, of appendages that represent connection with the material world, of old grudges being laid down for common good, and the balm both of creativity and alcohol serving to unite pantheons and inspire humanity both. Not even supernatural beings are permitted to receive wisdom as gratuity. Certainly, you are not permitted to receive inspiration for free. The internal process of invigoration that allows us to transform our inner feelings and perspective into tangible results, artistic or practical, are not spontaneous (though they sometimes may seem to be), and cannot be created from nothing. Before the external work to spur results into existence is undertaken, inner work must be undertaken, and inner work must start with a catalyst that comes from without, however obscure or unconscious its origin may be. There can be no blood from Kvasir without the impetus of the spit from different mouths, there can be no wisdom without the removal of the part of the ego that thinks it already possesses the awareness to see what takes place in front of its face.

 And likewise, without the courage to descend, in the Jungian fashion, to the depths of the darkest places of the world, whether they be war or the reaches of the mind lowest and closest to the proverbial roots of the tree, there can be no opportunity for these gifts to be received. As the Medieval alchemical maxim was applied to the psyche of man by Jung himself, in sterquiliniis invenitur, or, put simply, “in filth, it will be found”. That which one seeks is often derived from its situation in the darkest, least tolerable places. These are the only waters from which the mead of life can be made:

The waters of sacrifice.

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