Wells of Nectar, Pools of Life

The yogic world of medieval India was dominated by the Nath Yogis, whose poetic and mythological traditions were remarkable for their rich and varied imagery. One such image represented the head and torso of the yogic body as a set of wells, the one turned downward and the other upward. Here, the abdominal lower well was the place of fire, the heat of askesis, while the cranial vault was imagined as a well brimming with the cool nectar of immortality. This configuration reproduced that of the two-chambered reaction vessels of medieval Indian alchemy, in which mercury, embedded in the mineral ores heated in the lower chamber was made to sublimate and recondense on the inner surface of the downturned upper chamber. It was here, in India’s medieval alchemical traditions, that this image of mystic wells of quicksilver became a prominent feature of the medieval imagination. Mercury, which was considered to be both a chemical reagent and a living supernatural being, “lived” at the bottom of a set of wells scattered across India’s religious landscape. In order to draw it out of its secret habitats and up to the surface of the earth, alchemists had to resort to various strategies. The most colorful of these involved sending a menstruating maiden on horseback past the mouth of the well, which would invariably cause the mercury to erupt out of its mouth and pursue her across hill and daleWhat I have discovered in my ongoing research on “daimon-ology east and west” is that this strategy was not unique to medieval India. It is also attested in Syriac- and Chinese-language works from as early as the sixth century. More importantly, this strategy is in fact an alchemical variation on a far more ancient body of myth, dating from as far back as 2000 BCE and attested from ancient India to medieval Ireland, of a living god of fire who erupted out of his subterranean well or pool, to chase after humans who violated his sacred sanctuary.

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David Gordon White
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