Originally published in Idunna #81, Autumn, 2009. A PDF version of this article is available.
The Well and the Web
–by Lorrie Wood
Borne on the winds of a million minds, the content comes….
Is it news? Births and deaths, single and wholesale.
Weather? The temperature in Tulsa, the typhoon in Taiwan, the humidity in Havana.
Stories? The tales of seventy Sigurds are here, in every key ever conceived.
A billion billion blog entries are begging to be born.
Here is potential, here is creation, here is chaos: here is Hvergelmir.
In this essay, I would like to hold up a mirror to the three Wells of Northern cosmology and the networks of computers with which I make my living. Beginning—as one should—at the beginning, we come to Hvergelmir, the boiling spring cradled in the depths of ice-locked Niflheim (Mist-Home). From this furious ferment spring many rivers. Perhaps the bubbling we see stems from the uncountable serpents writhing inside.
Refracting this through a prism and holding it up to the Internet, one sees raw data. It’s nothing so nice as a fully formatted web page, but rather all the ones and zeroes, pulses and silences, and flashes in the darkness from which these are made.
However, our Internet example is but a pale shimmer when compared to the real well. In the mighty spring, roiled by sulfur and serpents, one sees not only what is—real data—but the equally likely “shadow data”: might-be, couldn’t-be, always, maybe, and never, all jumbled together with been, being, and becoming, with nothing to differentiate one from another. It all comes too fast, is too raw, and with no way to tell the signal from the noise.
Seiðfolk rarely visit Niflheim to look into this well; this may be why.
But what of the other two? As the water (or data) flows from the boiling spring in one of the first worlds that ever was, who defines the process by which this moves towards manifestation?
For that, we must hold up this crude mirror to the other wells, and see what
Urðarbrunnr—Choice and Decision
From the boiling well in the frost-born land of mist, we move to more familiar ground: the second well (or spring, if you like), the Well of Wyrd, or in Old Norse Urðarbrunnr. Under the shelter of another root of the Tree, Wyrd’s Well is as much at the center of things as our own Midgard. The three mysterious maids, formerly from Jótunheim, are this well’s well-known stewards. Yet also found here, though often disregarded, are the seats of which the seeress spoke in Vóluspá: the judgement seats of our gods, or as James Chisholm calls them in his translation, “doom chairs”.
If Hvergelmir, seated in the world that is itself one of the sources of the others, is the source of the waters of the worlds, what at Urðarbrunnr is so important that our gods go there daily—when its older sibling spring goes unvisited and the third has such an exclusive clientele?
I contend that the raw, unchanneled “stuff” thrown out at Hvergelmir finds its first forms here, at Wyrd—that it is this ordering of things that draws so much daily attention. These choices, which develop some veins of raw creative, chaotic stuff while refusing others, play out across all the worlds. Indeed, as the most concrete appearance of the Nornir in Vóluspá comes directly before the Aesic-Vanic Wars, it is very easy to see this well, and the seats beside it, as a critical objective in that first war among the worlds.
How, then, is this Well reflected in the Internet? Just as the raw stuff of creation needs to be given first forms in order to make itself manifest, so that raw datastuff needs coherent form to make its meaning accessible.
In the world that we know from science and describe with mathematics, there are constants and formulae that describe how matter and energy coalesce into stars, planets—and living beings. On the Internet, this role is played by protocols that anyone connecting to it must use in order to communicate.
As an example, take the letters “http” which begin almost all addresses on the Web (you may never have typed them: your web browser will insert them for you if you don’t). This is an abbreviation for “Hypertext Transfer Protocol”, a set of rules that governs how your computer has a conversation with another. Of course, this is only one layer on top of several: beneath HTTP are DNS, TCP, IP, and several other spoonsful of alphabet soup. Those who can read, write, sing, carve, and blood these runes can command a fair price for proof of their mastery, even in a poor economy.
By these runes, and the bonds between them, a sea of data is bound and put to use. The magicians who first wrote them are—many of them—still alive, and many had no idea how what they had wrought would far outgrow them. From its humble beginnings in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Urd’s Internet is now a dream shared among hundreds of thousands of servers, dreaming unquietly in data centers around the world…and hundreds of millions of computers in homes including mine and likely yours as well.
As a system administrator, it’s my privilege, and joy, to have known a few of these personally.
The raw stuff is brought into the worlds at Hvergelmir, just as raw data comes from uncountable sources and minds. At Urðarbrunnr, the Nornir and the gods decide how it should be ordered in the world, and the data is channeled by protocols, circumscribed in silicon runes, and loosed onto the Internet by great herds of switches, routers, and servers.
What, then, do we make of the third well?
Mímisbrunnr—Where Meaning Is Made
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There is a third cave under a third root, and underneath, a third Well. Of this one, as the first, little notice is taken in Vóluspá, but for different reasons.
At Trothmoot in Indiana some years ago, Winifred and Dean Rose-Hodge laid out a labyrinth in Tiki torches and surveyor’s twine, leading to a basin of water in the center.
When it was complete, we gathered at the entrance and Winifred described it to us as a journey to Mimir’s Well.
Everyone there who identified strongly with Odin started to mutter uneasily, and Winifred asked why.
I raised my hand. “Ma’am, you’re not expecting us to drink from it, are you?”
She blinked. “No! Of course not!”
We made variously relieved noises, and proceeded through the maze with everyone else.
This anxiety arises from a single cryptic stanza in the Vóluspá:
She sat out, all alone, there, where the old one came,
the awesome Ase looked in her eye.
“What do you ask of me? Why test me?
I know well, Odin, where your eye is hidden—
in the water of Mimir’s well. Mimir drinks mead
each morning from Valfather’s pledge.
Vóluspá 28, Chisholm translation
But I wonder if I have already drunk from this well, and paid its price?
We are conceived and born, and our existence begins. As we move through the worlds, we spin our own meaning from the slender fibers with which we have been provided. We may ply with others’ threads, braid with them, weave, plait, wear, fray…and try to cut. Necessarily, our perspective narrows: I was born in a large city and know little of how things work on Daithi Haxton’s farm, although he and I can talk about computers and Troth politics all night. In this and similar ways do each of us trade breadth for depth of perspective.
In this way each of us has traded half our sight for a narrow sort of wisdom.
Yet, the wonder of Odin’s ordeal on the Tree is not so much that he hanged and was speared, but that he came back with the runes. Many of those who associate strongly with the Old Man, find a similar wonder hidden at the bottom of Mimir’s Well: the eye he left there still sees.
Having gone so far, may I propose further? Consider, if you will, the concept of the parallax, a word typically found in astronomy, but useful here nonetheless:
- the apparent displacement or the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object
It is by the slight parallax between one side of your own nose and the other that humans possess depth perception. Contrariwise, animals whose eyes are placed more towards the sides of their heads, like most herbivores, possess far greater breadth of perception, sacrificing almost all depth for it. Breadth and depth alike have their uses.
I propose that one of the mysteries and challenges that we may encounter at Mimir’s Well is that we may gain both depth and breadth of perception…if we have wit and will enough to win them.
Or, at least, that’s one of the things I read into verse 18 of Hávamál:
He alone knows, who has wandered widely
and has fared over the fells
what mind stirs in each man
if he himself has wits.
To know a thing not only in the depth of focused study, but also in the breadth of its relationship to other things, is the beginning of true wisdom.
This is the challenge that stares at Mimir’s severed head each morning, as it drinks from Odin’s pledge.
Yet, how do we apply this to a study of the Internet seen as a microcosm of the three Wells?
The content existed at Hvergelmir. At Urðarbrunnr, the laws were laid down that separated the real data (the constant π is defined as the proportion of the diameter of a circle to its circumference) from the not-real, “shadow” data (this constant is not equal to 3.00). At Mímisbrunnr, where depth meets breadth, do wheels actually start to roll.
At Mimir’s Well, in the software that runs on those servers, routers, and switches, channeled through the established protocols, we tell each other which data are relevant to what we are doing: search engine results are drawn from here, as are annoying advertisements, the current weather of Salina, Kansas, and my latest blog entry.
In your own life, you shape yourself, and the Eye in the Well marks which perspectives you choose to value, when you value depth over breadth and vice versa. Ultimately, your own perspective defines how you choose your deeds and make your meaning, all in the waters of this third well.
What might be seen through all that, above all that? I submit, as one answer, the short story “At Mimir’s Well”, published in the first Odin theme issue, Idunna 41.
The seiðfolk do not often fare here, either—the ones who affiliate most strongly with Odin have simultaneously great interest in and aversion to this Well—but I am always keen to hear the stories of what they find, as I am happy to share my own in turn.
So what meaning may we draw from the confluence of these three mighty streams?
The Wells nurture the Tree, the Tree supports the Worlds.
If I can readily relate the Internet to the Wells, then what might that nurture? What might arise from those unknown roots?
I have no answers, although I find the speculations…fascinating. Here, I’ll share one with you:
A Visit to the Wells
I have shown the right tokens, said the correct words to the guardian, passed the proper portals, and walked up three steps into the data center. No rough-hewn walls here– narrow-gauge, powder-coated, chain link fence channels this place into narrow runs and wide cages, punctuated by humming banks of air and power conditioners. Above, once the fences of the cages and runs are too high to easily scale, they stop, and the canopy begins: emergency power dangles like fruit from a woven tapestry of ducting, highlighted here and there with the bright orange of fiber optic cables, spun glass that transmits data in flashes of ruby light.
In the world outside, night has fallen, but whether Sunna, Mani, or neither ride the skies, here the weather is kept brisk, breezy, and dry. Air is filtered and scrubbed: no scent rides this wind, and its whisper is shouted under the muted roars of thousands of other fans.
At present, most of the overhead lights are turned off, reducing the usual harsh glare to a soft half-light. I produce the correct key and rattle the last gate aside as I enter the heart of my employer’s realm—my little kingdom, a slice of myself few ever see.
To both sides of an aisle rise orderly stacks of black boxes, each with a cheerful blue LED to tell me at a glance that it is well. In this gloaming, surrounded by black-powdered steel and embraced by a flickering blue glow, the slightest shift of consciousness makes it easy to superimpose another view:
Beneath my feet, beneath the raised metal decking, the lightning-serpents deliver the electricity that is the first fuel of the servers and switches that surround me. Ground, you ask? Let us tell you of ground: the sowilo-snakes come in threes: two bright ones that makes the circuit round, and one dull-colored earth-serpent, strongest of all, to carry his brothers’ mad excesses and never falter. A few slender tendrils of their might slip into the canopy overhead, offering themselves in emergencies.
But if only electricity is given these silicon servants, they are idle, and this is a terrible thing. Salvation sings in the canopy above: more wyrms, but unlike the copper ones beneath me, these are spun of fine glass. Unlike the lightning below, the wyrms above flicker with ruby light beneath their orange warning scales. If I tried to look one of these in the eye, I would lose mine for it, and win nothing.
The fiber-wyrms make their nest at the core of this cage, the center of a copper-wrought, web of data, the one that speaks to my servers and gives them work to fulfill their dim purposes. These cabled strands are blue, weaving around this cage in dense loops and falls. Surely these spiders are kin to Sleipnir: the strands of their webs end in clear hooves, and each bears eight small legs, twined in pairs to murmur to each other, like and unlike the lightning-serpents in the floor.
I learn these mysteries more deeply every day: the golden snakes below, bringing current, and the glass, ruby, and blue spiderwebs above, bringing data. The software written to address these data is a dynamic emerald layer, flowing and pooling among the computers as tasks require.
With practice, I can hold this one small enclosure in my mind in any of its several layers of complexity, but now, in this moment—
I see that one of the pleasant blue LED’s has turned a mildly fussy amber, accompanied by a beep every few seconds, sure to interrupt any attempts at meditation. This is why I’m here in the middle of the night: memory chip X in server Y has died, taking the critical task Z with it, and it simply cannot wait ‘til morning to be fixed. I make my notes and call the technician, who will be here…in a couple of hours. He has to get out of bed too.
In the meantime, among the machines, where it is never truly night, I open myself once more…
Around me, questions for data are asked and speedily answered. I race along the webs as a spider may, and I am come to the edge of my domain in a way that reveals the cage as no cage, but a walled garden, a Tree.
Just over the wall, worlds of light are arrayed, as real as anything Gibson ever dreamed. In their interlace, I see the raw data refined through protocols, and the servers around me choose which streams are fit to have meaning made from them.
I stand at the edge of Mimir’s Well, overlooking an unknowable, unending ecstasy of dreams, damnations, and mere data.
It has never not been the Information Age, and as I strive toward deeper understanding of the mysteries before me, the Old Man, watching with both eyes, finally smiles.
Vóluspá, Hávamál, The Eddas, trans. James Chisholm, Runa Raven Press, PDF
“parallax” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 16 September 2009
Paxson, Diana L. “At Mimir’s Well”, Idunna 41, Autumn, 1999