Hiroshige’s wood-block image depicts the whirlpools at Awa, their gentle involutions centered at the foreground of an expansive landscape, suggesting transition amid seeming impermanence. It is a meditative and tranquil image of whirlpools, the forceful currents brought about by an interaction of rising and falling tides. Carrying associations similar to those of the spiral, these currents are symbolically depicted in relation to the center, unaffected by the impelling forces that surround it. When coastal and ocean bottom configurations are both narrow and deep, however, a whirlpool may exhibit a fearsome downdraft, changing its aspect. The vortex produced by these currents can appear to create an aperture, falling away into immeasurable depths, sucking all things into the void and then disgorging them again. For this reason, the whirlpool is often personified as a monstrous force. In Homer’s The Odyssey, the whirlpool Charybdis swallows the sea down in the “yawning maw” of its funnel, exposing the black sand at the bottom of the abyss, and then vomits it back up “like a cauldron seething over intense fire” (Homer, 217), suggesting what it still might be for consciousness to be caught in the maelstrom energies of psyche.

Many nautical myths combine the benign and violent aspects of the whirlpool, allowing the chaotic maelstrom (from Dutch for “whirling stream”) to function as an initiation, and the center of the vortex to reveal a vision normally hidden from human perceptions. In eleventh century Teutonic myth, sailors entered a maelstrom that opened up onto an island of giants, their hidden gold temporarily ungaurded (Rydberg, 320). In the same sense, whirlpools suggest portals to other worlds and times, and in many literary representations, there is a sustained moment where the observer is witness to the underworld. A Cherokee myth details the adventures of two tribesman on a canoe at the mouth of Suck Creek. One was seized by a fish and never seen again. The other was saved after he “reached the narrowest circle of the maelstrom.” Here the water opens and as if looking down through the roof beam of a house, he can see at the bottom of the river a great company, which beckons him, but before they can seize him the swift current catches him up out of their reach (Mooney,340). In another story, the abyss has a different aspect (and the depths of psyche can feel equally ambivalent): Edgar Allen Poe’s “Descent int the Maelstrom” is based on the whirlpools located near the Lofoten Islands off the coast of Norway. Poe describes a state of calm intelligibility at the heart of the funnel, a transition from dread to hope, discovering in the gulf a “narrow and tottering bridge which…is the only pathway between Time and Eternity.”

Source: The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism, The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, p.46


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