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The Cosmic Mill

Alby Stone

One image of the cosmic axis that is of great interest and cosmological significance is that of the World Mill, an image that occurs particularly in Scandinavian and Finnish myth. This image is based ultimately upon the structure of a hand-mill, consisting of a flat, stationary stone with another on top, turned by a handle fixed at the centre. This arrangement was a technological improvement upon grinding grain in a bowl or against a concave stone with a pestle or with a smaller, hand-held stone, a simple method that was still used during the early European Bronze Age. Its successor, the rotary quern, remained in use up to the Middle Ages in Europe, although it was eventually superseded by the water-mill and later the windmill, developments that led to the production of flour on a larger scale and dictated that milling became increasingly specialised work. From the rotary quern to the windmill, the structure of mills remained basically constant - one stone below, a turning stone above - and any structural changes were due to adaptation for new sources of power, and consequent increases in load and yield. The unmoving lower stone would thus represent the earth, while the upper one stands for the revolving dome of the sky. The axial point of this celestial millstone lies far in the north, marked by the Pole Star, the still point of the circling heavens.

In the Finnish epic poem Kalevala, the Sampo, forged by the smith Ilmarinen for the Mistress of Pohjola, is described in terms that make it clear enough that it is some kind of mill. Its structure is tripartite: one side grinds out corn, another produces salt, and coins come from the third. The Sampo is to be Ilmarinen's bride-price for the Maiden of Pohjola, a gloomy land in the far north. The primordial shaman V inminen persuades Ilmarinen to climb a great spruce tree with the constellation of the Great Bear at its top, and the smith is borne away to Pohjola by a mighty, supernatural wind. Ilmarinen meets the sinister Mistress of Pohjola, his prospective mother-in-law, and agrees to forge the Sampo, boasting: 'For 'twas I who forged the heavens'. The task takes three days and three nights, in the course of which the smith discards several unsatisfactory products, including a heifer with 'the Bear-stars on her forehead' and a solar disc on her head. On the third night, the Sampo appears in his furnace:

Now was grinding the new Sampo,
And revolved the pictured cover,
Chestfuls did it grind till evening,
First for food it ground a chestful,
And another ground for barter,
And a third it ground for storage.

The Mistress of Pohjola takes the finished Sampo to the Mount of Copper and secures it with nine locks; the Sampo puts out three roots, one deep into the earth, one into a mountain, while the third reaches out to the sea. Later in the poem, the Sampo is destroyed when Vinminen and Ilmarinen try to steal it. Some fragments fall into the sea and these are the source of the sea's wealth Other pieces are blown on the wind and scattered by the waves. The Mistress of Pohjola retains only one tiny fragment, which is why the far north is such a poor land. Vinminen, meanwhile, sows several fragments on the headland where he lives, so that they may grow and increase the fertility of his land.

The Sampo's three roots are similar to the three roots of Yggdrasill, the Scandinavian World Tree, and its three parts are a further reflection of an archaic tripartite division of the cosmos. The Sampo's 'coloured' or 'pictured cover' is a fairly explicit reference to the celestial canopy and the constellations. Ilmarinen has to travel to the northern wasteland by way of Ursa Major in order to construct it. The Sampo is even hidden in a manifestation of the Cosmic Mountain, another version of the axis mundi. It is destroyed when it is moved to a different location and the focus of fertility and plenty becomes shifted to a different region; but for the moment it is important to note that its power is focussed in the sea, albeit in a fragmentary form. Interestingly, the word Sampo is probably of Indo-European origin, a relative of Sanskrit skambha, 'pillar'.

According to the prose prologue to the poem Grottasongr, in the collection known as the Poetic Edda, the mill Grotti can grind out whatever its owner wishes. It is captured by the Danish king Frothi, as are the two giant-women who operate it, and made to grind out gold and peace. Tired of being overworked, the women decide to grind out Frothi's doom. That very night, Frothi is killed by the enigmatic Mysing, a king who comes from the sea and who then takes the mill for himself. For some reason, Mysing sets the women to work on board his ship, making them ceaselessly grind out salt. Eventually, the ship is so laden with salt that it sinks.

At that spot is now a whirlpool in the sea, where the waters rush in through the eye of the millstone. Since then the sea is salt.

The main body of the poem, however, seems to refer only to the period of servitude of the giant-women under Frothi, not to their ordeal on Mysing's ship, and it is plainly stated that it is then that the great mill - here characterised as a quern, but the actual word used in the Icelandic text is ludr - is destroyed:

The mighty maidens, they ground amain,
strained their young limbs, of giant strength;
the shaft tree quivered, the quern toppled over,
the heavy slab burst asunder.

The prose and verse sections of Grottasongr seem to preserve two different traditions concerning the mill. In one, the mill sinks into the sea, creating a whirlpool and making the sea salty. The other tells of the destruction of the mill, which is also the end of Frothi's reign of peace, a reign celebrated throughout Scandinavia - indeed, his name means 'peace'. Alternatively, the two strands may represent divergent traditions springing from a myth akin to the destruction of the Sampo, outlined above. Snorri Sturluson, quoting the poet Snaebjorn, associates the mill with Amlothi, the inspiration for Shakespeare's Hamlet. As he writes in Skaldskaparmal:

They say nine skerry-brides turn fast the most hostile eyluthr out beyond the earth's edge, they who long ago ground Amlothi's meal-ship. The ring-damager cuts with ship's prow the dwelling of the ships' slopes. Here the sea is called Amlothi's mill.

This poem is usually seen as a series of kennings, obscure poetic metaphors popular in Germanic poetic tradition. But there are indications that it is ultimately based on cosmological myth and that the imagery has been misunderstood and interpreted by either Snbjorn the poet, or by Snorri the scholar, in terms of one specific image, the sea. It may indeed be possible to interpret eyluthr as a kenning for the sea as a mill that grinds out islands, as some have done; but it is equally possible to see it as meaning a mill that is also an island, which would fit in with other references to the mill in Norse myth. The nine 'skerry-brides' may indeed be an allusion to the waves, the daughters of the sea-god gir; but they also call to mind the nine mothers of Heimdallr, a god closely associated with the axis mundi. The revolving structure in the sea is an image that is very much older than Snbjorn's poem, as we shall sea.

The luthr - literally a box-mill, its stand, or its wooden casing - occurs in the Norse account of the creation, as retold by Snorri. When the primal giant Ymir is killed by Odin and his brothers, his blood causes a great flood.

And when he fell, there flowed so much blood from his wounds that with it they [Odin and his brothers] drowned the whole family of frost-giants, all but one who escaped with his household. The giants call him Bergelmir. He went up on to his luthr with his wife and was saved there and from them come the families of frost-giants, as it says here:

Many winters before the earth was shaped, then was Bergelmir born. That is the first I remember, when that wise giant was laid on a luthr.

In his translation of Snorri's Edda, Anthony Faulkes renders luthr as 'ark', a decision he justifies by noting that the word can also mean 'cradle' or 'coffin' (a luthr is also a type of trumpet, but that is certainly not meant here), which Snorri may have associated with ork, which could mean 'coffin' or 'ark'. The passage quoted by Snorri comes from the poem Vafthruthnismal, which gives no further contextual clues, except for an apparently unrelated reference to one Mundilfoeri, who is said to be the father of the sun and moon. A mundil is a mill-handle and the second element denotes a turning motion. Mundilfoeri is thus 'the one who turns the handle of the mill', a name that has been linked with the fixed nature of temporal cycles. It must be said that, if someone is needed to turn the mill-handle, then there must surely be a mill. The nearest Vafthruthnismal comes to a mill is Bergelmir's luthr - the only other candidates in Scandinavian tradition are the mill Grotti and the mill of Amlothi. It can surely be no coincidence that Bergelmir's luthr is located in the sea, the product of Ymir's blood. It seems that Snorri has misunderstood the cosmological significance of the lr and has chosen to expand the text of Vafthruthnismal along lines dictated by his Christian belief, thus making Bergelmir into a Scandinavian version of Noah and giving him an unlikely ark on which to escape the deluge, rather than a mill.

The mill is a highly appropriate cosmological symbol. Not only does it accurately represent the structure and movement of the cosmos as perceived by pre-industrial cultures, but it reflects a notion of the world itself as the great provider of nourishment and riches, a source of abundance. Perhaps it is no accident that a symbol derived from the processing of agricultural produce was also associated, in Norse poetry at least, with the passage and recording of time. As Vafthruthnismal says, Mundilfri is the father of the sun and moon; and the poem Voluspa asserts that it was at the first appearance of the two great celestial lights that the reckoning of time began. It must also be remarked that milling is at once both a destructive act and a creative one: it destroys grain, but produces flour, which is then used to make bread and suchlike. Metallurgy is a similar act of deconstruction followed by creation, from rough ore to finished metal goods, which may explain why the Sampo needs to be forged, rather than hewn. The Cosmic Mill, unlike its mundane counterparts, seems to require no grist; it creates directly from the base fabric of the cosmos, from the watery stuff of primal chaos. This magical production of sustenance and wealth, apparently from nothing at all, also characterises the magical vessels of Celtic tradition and their descendant, the Grail. Mill and vessel are not one and the same thing, although they share a location at or near the axis mundi - but it is that location that determines their shared characteristics.

The same themes occur in ancient Indian traditions of the churning of the oceans. The Mahabharata tells how the gods, conferring on Mount Meru, decide to churn the ocean in order to make amrta, ambrosia. Brahma instructs the great serpent Ananta to uproot Mount Mandara and the gods and demons join together to perform the operation. Mandara is rested, peak downward, on the back of the supreme tortoise, and the serpent Vasuki is used as the cord to turn the mountain. The gods take one end of Vasuki and the demons grasp the other, and so Mandara is twisted back and forth like a churning-stick.

The violence and friction of this churning produces smoke and fire - thus associating the operation with that other great creative process, making fire by twisting or rubbing one stick against another - and there is great destruction. But out of the chaos come a variety of exotic and beautiful creatures, including the sun and moon; then a poison that suffuses the universe. Afterward, there is a violent struggle when the gods refuse to give ambrosia to the demons. During the battle one of the demons, Rahu, takes some of the ambrosia by force and manages to consume a little. For his temerity, he is decapitated by Vishnu.

The churning, like the motion of Mundilfri, gives birth to the sun and moon, so it would be fair to suppose that we are dealing with two divergent versions of the same archaic myth. The effusion of poison from water recalls the venom that congeals upon the primal waters in Snorri's account of the Scandinavian creation myth. Both images relate to the production of solid matter from liquid, like the coagulation of blood or the manufacture of butter or cheese from milk; a further example of creation using one form or substance to make another. While the Mahabharata version is different in many ways from the Scandinavian and Finnish traditions, it does attest to the great antiquity of the rle of the rotary structure in the creation of the cosmos. The inherent power of the image has resulted in it being occasionally used to illustrate the workings of the cosmos in Christian contexts. lfric, the tenth-century English abbot noted for his Homilies, a series of sermons, used the image of the water-mill to symbolise the three realms: heaven, earth and hell being respectively represented by the upper and lower millstones and the vertical paddles used to power them. An illustration from a fourteenth-century Provencal manuscript, now in the British Museum, shows two angels turning handles to operate the mechanism that turns the sky - a conceptualisation that is not too far from the two giant-women and the mill of Grottasongr.

Select bibliography

Jean Gimpel, The Medieval Machine (2nd edition 1988).
Lee M. Hollander, The Poetic Edda (1962).
W.F. Kirby, Kalevala (2nd edition 1985).
Tim W. Machan, Vafthuthnismal (1988).
Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Hindu Myths (1975).
Snorri Sturluson, Edda (edited by Anthony Faulkes, 1982; translated by Anthony Faulkes, 1987).

This article was originally published in The Occult Observer November 1993 and reprinted in Mercian Mysteries No.24 August 1995.

See also Alby Stone's article The Nine Sisters and the Axis Mundi


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Created April 1996; updated November 2008