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The Nine Sisters and the Axis Mundi

Alby Stone

According to the medieval Icelandic poet Snaebjorn, as quoted by Snorri Sturluson in the Skaldskaparmal section of his Prose Edda, 'nine skerry-brides turn fast the most hostile island-box-mill out beyond the land's edge'. This mill (eyludr) is cognate with mills mentioned or hinted at in other Icelandic texts - the poems Grottasongr and Vafthrudhnismal from the Poetic Edda; and Snorri's own Gylfaginning - and closely related to the mill-like Sampo described in the Finnish traditions preserved in the Kalevala. These mills, sources of wealth and abundance, are cosmic structures; they are models of and metaphors for the world itself. The essential image is that of the rotary quern, comprising a flat, unmoving lower millstone and an upper stone revolved by turning a handle. The lower stone represents the earth as perceived by early cosmologists: a flat, immobile disc. The upper stone represents the sky, which is seen as revolving about the celestial axis in the far north. The imagery is extended by the English abbot lfric in his Homilies, composed in the last decade of the tenth century. He incorporates the paddles used to power early vertical water-mills, so that the earth and sky are augmented by the underworld, giving a tripartite division of the cosmos, in accordance with other, pagan cosmological patterns.

The nine 'skerry-brides' who power the mill in Snbjorn's poem are a curiosity. In Grttasongr, the mill is said to be operated by two giant-women; while in Vafthrudnismal the mill is implied by the name of Mundilfoeri, who is the father of the sun and moon. The name Mundilfoeri means, roughly, 'he who turns the handle of the mill', so the character may be presumed to have had some important cosmological function. The only other Scandinavian mill of any significance is the box-mill (ludr) that saves the family of the giant Bergelmir, when he and his kin climb upon it to avoid a deluge; but that is all we are told concerning it. The Sampo operates under its own power, but when it is concealed within the Mount of Copper it is secured with nine locks.

Now, while it is ultimately a representation of the entire cosmos, the world-mill has a specific affinity with the axis mundi, the notional centre of the earth, which is analogous to the celestial axis, the point about which the sky rotates. The location of the latter is observably in the far north, and is marked by the Pole Star; while the former can be located at any appropriate sacred or significant place. The relationship that exists between the two centres is defined by a number of parallels in form and function. For example, the Sampo has three world-encompassing roots, like those of Yggdrasill, the World Tree of Norse tradition, and its name derives from the same source as Sanskrit skambha, which denotes a pillar or support. Furthermore, both terrestrial and celestial centres are closely associated with bodies of water. There is said to be a well beneath each of Yggdrasill's roots; when Charlemagne destroyed the Irminsul, the cosmic pillar of the Saxons, there was first a drought and then a flood at the site; in Irish tradition, the druidical centre at Uisnech was supposed to have had a white-rimmed well, source of the twelve major Irish rivers; and in another tradition nine hazels grew above the inspirational Well of Segais, whence sprang the seven chief rivers of Ireland. The world-mill of Snbjorn's poem is on an island; Bergelmir's mill saves him from a flood; and the mill Grtti and the Sampo are both lost or destroyed at sea.

The Norse god Heimdallr is said in the poem Voeluspa hin skamma to be the son of nine giant-women 'at the edge of the earth'; Snorri says that Heimdallr's mothers were nine sisters, and that he lives at a place called Himinbjorg, 'Sky Mountain', close by Bifrost, the 'trembling path' that joins earth and sky. Despite his name, 'He Who Shines upon the World', Heimdallr is by no means a solar deity. Other texts refer to his immobility, which is not a characteristic of the sun, or of any other heavenly body but one. That exception is the Pole Star, which appears to remain stationary in the night sky while all the other stars seem to revolve around it. Heimdallr's home, Himinbjorg, suggests the cosmic mountains of the Indo-European and Uralic traditions, which are either located directly below the Pole Star or are given other axial traits. However, Heimdallr is more or less equivalent to Agni, the Indian god of fire, with whom he shares many traits, including multiple maternity - nine mothers are claimed for Agni, but their number is variable, unlike those of Heimdallr.

Nonary themes are also associated with Yggdrasill, according to the poem Voeluspa, in a difficult stanza, part of which is usually rendered along the following lines: 'I remember nine worlds, nine abodes of the famous World Tree'. This is the usual interpretation; but it is by no means as straightforward as it might seem. For a start, heima - translated above as 'worlds' - can also mean 'homes' or 'dwelling-places'. That, in itself, does not raise any great problems; but ividi, commonly translated as 'abodes', is a different matter entirely. One school of thought holds that it means 'voids' or 'spaces', thus repeating the meaning of heima with a different emphasis. Another idea is based on a reconstruction of a putative Old Icelandic word from a known Old Swedish one, innvidir, 'internal supports' (i.e., 'pillars'), which would be cosmologically satisfying if it were less doubtful. However, one manuscript version of Voeluspa gives the word as ividjur, the plural of vidju, which occurs in other texts with the meaning 'troll-wife' - that is, a woman of divine or supernatural provenance. This form ividju may originally have meant something like 'she who dwells in the woods'. It would partly fit in with another interpretation of the word, as 'twigs' or 'wands'. The word that is usually rendered 'World Tree', is mjoetvid, literally 'measuring-tree', which can be taken as a reference to the way that Yggdrasill encompasses and limits the whole of the cosmos.

The lines can plausibly be read thus: 'I remember nine homes, nine tree-women of the measuring-tree'. It is not clear if the 'tree-women' would have had anything to do with giants mentioned earlier in the stanza, who are said to have given birth to the seeress whose words the poem purports to be; but it is a distinct possibility. If such is the case, then the nine 'tree-women' are probably to be identified with the nine mothers of Heimdallr. These nine, who give birth to Heimdallr 'at the edge of the earth' - by or in the sea, in other words - can in turn be identified with the nine giant-women who power the eyludr in Snaebjorn's poem.

Alternatively, the nine ividi might be rendered as 'branches'. This would accord with those traditions in which the World Tree has nine branches or levels. For example, the Yakut shaman uses a tree with nine notched steps to facilitate his celestial journeys. Other Asian shamans set up groups of nine trees to represent the different levels. The cosmic structure is also reflected in the divine family, so that the Buryat and Mongols believe that the supreme god has nine sons. Indeed, in Central and North Asia, the number nine is interchangeable with seven as the most important cosmological number, usually relating to the cosmic centre or to the supreme, celestial deity that dwells there. The god Bai Ulgn, according to the Altaic Tatars, has seven sons and nine daughters.

While the cosmological significance of the number seven can be traced ultimately to the position and prominence of the seven main stars of the constellation Ursa Major, the number nine is more difficult to pin down. The two numbers are closely linked, as Celtic traditions testify. In Irish and Welsh myth and cosmology, seven and nine are as interchangeable as they are in Altaic and Uralic lore, with a similar emphasis on themes associated with images of the axis mundi, and as expressions of wholeness and totality. Of particular interest here are certain groups of nine women or goddesses, such as the nine maidens whose combined breath heats the cauldron of the Head of Annwfn in Caer Sidi, the rotating island-fortress of the poem Preiddeu Annwfn; the nine sisters who rule the Fortunate Isles; and so on. Various Celtic texts also refer to a tradition of nine-roomed royal halls - although seven or twelve rooms are also mentioned in this context, again indicating a cosmological motif - which is reminiscent of the nine worlds or dwellings claimed for Yggdrasill.

The cosmic centre is often associated with serpents, such as Nidhoeggr, who gnaws at one of Yggdrasill's roots from below; the various serpents and dragons, such as the Lambton Worm, associated with terraced hills and similar landmarks; and the fighting dragons at the centre of Britain in the Welsh tale Lludd and Llevelys. These serpents are also associated with bodies of water - Ndhggr with the primal well Hvergelmir, the Lambton Worm with a well, and the dragons of Lludd and Llevelys with a vat of mead. The Lambton worm is thrown into the well when it is quite small, but leaves when it has grown to an enormous size, wrapping itself around Penshaw Hill; similarly the Midgardsormr, the world serpent of Norse myth, starts out as a tiny creature, but grows mightily after it is flung into the sea, eventually circling the entire world. It is also known as Joermungandr, the second element of which denotes a magic staff or wand, suggesting the axis mundi represented as a pillar. The serpent's two names hint at the way the axis mundi symbolises the whole cosmos, in addition to being the central point.

In a similar vein, in Greek myth there is Ladon, the serpent who guards the apple-tree on the island garden of the Hesperides; and the primal serpents Ananta and Vasuki, who in the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata help the gods to churn the ocean with Mount Mandara, to make ambrosia.

It is interesting that several medieval Germanic sources associate serpents with the number nine. The Old English Nine Herbs Charm says that 'Woden took nine glory-twigs and struck the adder so that it flew into nine parts'. The cognate Scandinavian god Odin, of course, hung upon the World Tree for nine nights to acquire knowledge of the runes, according to the poem Havamal. The nine 'glory-twigs', wuldortanas, echo the nine vidhi of Voeluspa. Two continental German charms, known as Contra Vermes and Pro Nessia, begin with identical lines: 'Go out, worm, with nine wormlings'. These two charms are designed to counter infestations of parasitical worms, rather than to get rid of snakes; but it must be borne in mind that invertebrate worms were seen as smaller versions of genuine serpents, and terms for the two types of creature were more or less interchangeable. In Greek myth, the Lernaean Hydra, a serpentine beast with nine heads (but sometimes eight, or even fifty or more), lived beneath a tree that stood at the 'sevenfold source' of the river Amymone.

The association of the cosmic centre with groups of nine or with ninefold structures appears to have arisen partly because that number is three multiplied by itself. The cosmos has three main levels - sky, earth, and underworld - and Indo-European societies have, from a very early period, been divided into three social strata, based upon a division of society into priests, warriors, and farmers/artisans, a division that is reflected by and codified in sociogonic myth and religious organisation. The cosmic and social tripartitions are probably jointly responsible for an archaic threefold organisation of land - fossilised in the three 'ridings' of Yorkshire, and hinted at by Tacitus in his Germania, where he tells us that the Germans are divided geographically according to their descent from the three sons of Mannus - and an ancient division of the year into three parts, of which only vestigial traces remain. The basic tripartition has become merged with other structural factors, such as the horizontal division of the earth into quadrants based upon the four directions, changes in social requirements, festive and calendrical developments, and so on; but it is still discernible.

Important though the tripartition of the physical and social aspects of the cosmos undoubtedly is, it can only have had an incidental influence upon the association of ninefold motifs with the axis mundi. The idea that nine is the cosmic tripartition multiplied by itself is attractive, as it stresses the notion of the cosmos as a self-contained and complete structure, accomplished by the interaction of the social and physical totalities. It also reduces the need to look elsewhere for a possible template for the nonary phenomena discussed above, leaving a suitably economic and elegant hypothesis. However, explaining the cosmological signficance of the number nine as three multiplied by itself is really only a justification of one number in terms of another. There are a number of problems.

For one thing, it does not really explain the cosmological significance of ninefold structures in those traditions which have only a minor link with those of Indo-European cultures, and which either do not share the inherited socio-religious tripartition or have had little influence from that quarter. The Uralic and Altaic traditions have had prolonged and repeated contacts with Indo-European traditions, it is true; and the same can also be said, if to a lesser extent, of the Chinese, whose bureaucratic organisation, always cosmologically based, stressed the number nine as a power, reflecting the nine celestial 'Palaces' and the ninefold land division of feng shui. But as an expression of three times three, nine is not a factor in Chinese systems. The ninefold pattern is actually a development of the basic pentadic structure of the Chinese cosmos: the central point plus the four cardinal directions subdivided to accommodate the eight trigrams of the I Ching, compiled in the second millenium BCE; although there is some evidence to suggest that the resulting ninth place, the central point, was also subdivided at one stage, so doubling the original pentad. The same explanation - the centre plus eight directions - has been given for ninefold structures in European myth; but these eight directions are a late development, a consequence of increasingly complex navigational requirements. In China, ninefold cosmological structures are clearly not derived from Indo-European tripartite social models. Nor, indeed, is the ninefold underworld of the Maya of Central America.

It must also be recognised that early cosmologists almost certainly tended to limit themselves to those phenomena that could be observed, or those that could be inferred from existing and accepted patterns; and that magical or significant numbers were primordially derived from the observation of nature rather than from ponderous mathematical abstractions. In his book The Ancient Wisdom (London, 1977), Geoffrey Ashe has demonstrated that, whatever mathematical properties have been attributed to it through the ages, the mystique of the number seven derives first and foremost from the seven stars of the Great Bear, and the constellation's relationship to the celestial axis. Seven is important because there is a group of seven stars that is highly important in ancient cosmological traditions throughout Europe and Asia. In a different way, the cosmological importance of the number four is based on the human body: the four directions are left, right, front, and back, imposed upon the landscape by orientation, where the observer faces the rising sun; and the analogy is extended to the four outstretched limbs, as in Vedic myth. Three is important because of the three perceived levels of the cosmos; but in Indo-European culture that is reflected in the three levels of the human body: the head; chest and arms; belly, genitals, and legs - the cosmos conceived in human form -and these in turn relate to the tripartition of society into rulers, defenders, and feeders/workers. Likewise, the number two is significant because of observed dualities, interactive opposites, in nature: night/day; dark/light; male/female; fire/water; and so on.

Where, then, does nine occur in nature? Some have suggested that Heimdallr's nine mothers are waves, because of the tradition that every ninth wave is bigger and stronger than the eight preceding it. However, the ninth wave is observably not more powerful than any other; and, in spite of his connections with water, Heimdallr is quite definitely not a sea-god in the accepted sense. The tradition of the ninth wave, in fact, would appear to derive from the same image or template that underlies the other examples cited above. Also of interest in this context is Odin's golden ring Draupnir, from which dripped eight more identical rings every ninth night. In other words, on every ninth night there were nine rings. The idea here seems to be that the nine represents a complete cycle or pattern that brings fruition. This can be seen in the nine nights that it takes Odin, hanging on Yggdrasill, to attain knowledge of the runes. With this in mind, it seems obvious that the elusive template is one of the most basic human physical characteristics, the nine months of pregnancy - actually the nine periods, analogous to lunar cycles, when an adult woman's menstrual cycle does not take place. The ninth bloodless moon brings fruition, childbirth. The heathen English festival known as modranect, 'mother night', observed at midwinter, the axial point of the year, seems to owe something to this concept.

Thus, Heimdallr has nine 'mothers', as Agni is often said to have. These are related to the nine 'skerry-brides' that operate the eyludr, the cosmic mill that, like the nine-locked Sampo, makes the sea fruitful; and perhaps nine 'tree-women' who dwell in Yggdrasill. Similar to these are the nine maidens whose breath heats the cauldron in Caer Sidi, which is cognate with the cauldron of rebirth that occurs elsewhere in Celtic tradition. The nine black-clad disir or fylgjur, and the same number dressed in white, of the Icelandic Flateyjarbok and Brennu-Njals saga, women who represent the luck and well-being of a family, as well as promoting the fertility of its female members, may also be relevant in this context. The disir are similar in some respects to the three nornir, who dwell at the root of Yggdrasill, and who are sometimes represented in folklore as overseers of childbirth and bestowers of gifts at birth.

This links with the axis mundi as a source of fecundity and wealth, the riches of earth and sea. The image of the mill is particularly apt in this respect, as is the World Tree, which bears numerous fruits, including wisdom - the runes and the nine hazels at the Well of Segais - and humanity itself, created by the gods from trees, according to Norse myth. As the primordial tree, Yggdrasill is present in all trees, so humanity is indeed its offspring; and so the nine months of pregnancy are appropriately reflected in the nine heima and vidhi. Heimdallr and Agni, who father the ancestors of the different social classes, are sons of the nine mothers, personifications of the human reproductive process.

The serpent has a particular connection with the bodies of water associated with the cosmic centre or which delineate the cosmos. This has meant that, in myth, the serpent has acquired some characteristics more properly attributed to other aspects of axial tradition. One such characteristic is the use of the number nine to denote totality. It would seem more useful if the charms Pro Nessia and Contra Vermes urged the worm to come out with all its wormlings, rather tham just nine; but the idea seems to be that nine are specified because that number signifies the creature's offspring in their entirity. The same factor has influenced the fate of the adder in the Nine Herbs Charm, and also occurs in the Greek myth of the Hydra. The World Serpent dwells in the water below or surrounding the cosmic axis, which contains within itself the image and structure of the cosmos at large. It guards the centre and the wealth it produces, like Ladon, who guards the apples of the Hesperides. But serpents are also chthonic creatures, signifying death, rebirth, and the underworld, which are often seen in terms of a return to the womb of the Earth, as ancient funerary practices testify. The nine underworlds of the Maya are probably to be viewed in the same way: each underworld corresponding to one of the bloodless moons, and together recreating the duration of human pregnancy.

See also Alby Stone's article The cosmic mill.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.16 August 1993.


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