last updated November 14th,
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THE SECOND BOOK was Hamlet's Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana, a professor of the History of Science at MIT and Hertha von Dechend, in the same field at Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. The thrust of this book was that myth, on one level, represented what they called a "technical language" designed to record and transmit astronomical observations of great complexity, particularly those connected with the precession of the equinoxes. In fact this study--styled by the authors as a "first reconnaissance" into an ancient philosophical system based on a particular kind of astronomical knowledge disseminated throughout all areas of "high culture" around the planet--appeared to describe just that knowledge whose loss, at about the time of Plato, was lamented by Aristotle.
Again, the evolution of this work is worth recounting. The discoveries were Dechend's. As a graduate student in the history of science in Frankfurt, she was interested to learn more about the deus faber, the creator, or fabricator god found in so many cultures as the genius of civilized arts. Her particular interest lay in Polynesian myth, and, after making her way through ten thousand pages of primary materials, she reached a single, immutable conclusion: that she understood nothing whatsoever of what she had read.
At this point, astronomy was the last topic on Dechend's mind. In fact, at the time of her graduate work, various scholarly attempts to understand myth in terms of astronomy had already foundered. For example, Max Muller's "solar hypothesis," which sought to "explain" the Vedas in terms of an overarching schema of solar astronomy, was very popular at first, but soon fell into disrepute when it became obvious that such a structure could not bear the full weight of the rich Vedic texts. Then there was the work of Alfred Jeremias (1929). Although Jeremias had a number of uncanny insights into the astronomical level of myth, his mercurial temperament, combined with a tendency to state as fact hypothetical dates with which archaeology could not concur, led to the eclipse not only of his work, but of the very idea that myth and astronomy had anything to do with each other.
It was in this atmosphere, and with a strict intention to have nothing whatsoever to do with astronomy, that Dechend persevered with the Polynesian material. She immersed herself now in the secondary sources, looking for something--anything--that might provide a way into the Polynesian mind. Then came a day when she was occupied with trying to understand a minor mystery of Polynesian archaeology: why two islands, separated by three thousand miles of open water, should be strewn with dozens of "temples" of a design not found elsewhere. She consulted an atlas and noticed something that had not been noticed before--or rather, not for a very long time. One island lay on the Tropic of Cancer, and the other on the Tropic of Capricorn. It was then that, with the utmost reluctance, she muttered to herself, "Ech, astronomy!" Transmission received.
Her subsequent work would lead her to discover an extraordinarily wide distribution in cultures all over the world of a particular set of verbal conventions designed to encrypt astronomical observations within myth. She found that the central preoccupation of those myths was the phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes. The precession is a slow wobble of the earth's axis that causes the earth slowly but continuously to change its orientation within the sphere of fixed stars. This motion is very much like that of a gyroscope, which, after a time, heels over and, spinning all the while, begins slowly to wobble on its axis. A single such precessional wobble of the earth's axis requires 26,000 years to complete.
To get an idea how precession might appear to the naked eye, imagine that some time-traveler had undertaken to photograph the stars rising in the east just before sunrise on spring equinox in Jerusalem, each year from the birth of Christ to the present. If those photos were put together in sequence, one would have a motion picture of the constellation Pisces setting in the east, with the constellation Aquarius "descending," that is, also being pulled eastward to replace Pisces as the constellation marking the spring equinox. Thus, "this is the dawning of the age of Aquarius."
Perhaps the most important
contribution of Hamlet's Mill is its explication of the conventions
of the technical language whereby myth transmits information
concerning precessional motion. There are three simple rules. First, animals
are stars. (Our word zodiac comes from the Greek meaning "dial of animals.")
Second, gods are planets. And finally, topographic references are metaphors
for locations--usually of the sun--on the celestial sphere.
The very "earth" itself, as we shall see in due course, lies in the stars, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. And all the millennia of myths from around the world recounting the destruction of that world by flood, fire, earthquake, and so on--far from representing an ignorance of geological processes--"re-count" the solar year in terms of the "destruction" (via the passage of precessional time) of the old stars marking the solstices and equinoxes and the "creation" of a new "world" whose parameters are determined by the new stars, or "pillars," now upholding the "earth" at the solstices and equinoxes. This "earth," of course, is "flat," again, not as a matter of ignorance, but of terminology, a means of describing the ideal plane, the ecliptic, "supported" by the four "pillars." And all the "animals" in Noah's Ark did survive the "flood" when they landed on Ararat, the "highest mountain on earth," itself a term describing a particular position of the sun on the celestial sphere.
THE IDEAS IN Hamlet's Mill staggered me.
The book stood conventional notions of "prehistory" on their head. For
practical purposes, the definition of prehistory as "before recorded events,"
has always hinged on the presence of a written record. Prehistory means
pre-writing. This definition dismisses the possibility of any means other
than writing for transmitting important information from the past, and
thereby creates the impression
that such transmission was not a priority for our forebears. Hamlet's
Mill was making the startling assertion that the apparent gulf between
history and prehistory was a figment of the modern imagination,
a failure of faith with those who had gone before, a product of the "deteriorated
expectations of our time."
For me this book was a kind of food, nourishing my all-but-forgotten childhood intuitions about the interplay between past and present. More than that, I felt that I was looking--as if through the glass of a museum case--at the comprehensive tool kit, the very nuts and bolts, used by "prehistoric" humanity to fashion a critical component of human consciousness and transmit it unalloyed into the deep future. The implications of Hamlet's Mill appeared to me nothing short of revolutionary:
* Embedded within myths were astronomical observations at least as accurate as carbon dates, thus enabling investigators to compare the content of myths so dated with the archaeological record.
* Was it not possible that myth represented the "software" that would show us how to run the "hardware" of ancient astronomical monuments?
* Was it not possible that the term prehistory was a misnomer if oral tradition possessed the means to transmit not only the seminal philosophical ideas of the human race, but the precise skies (i.e., time) that inspired these thoughts?
* And, as a consequence, did not a completely unsuspected history of the human race--in the form of the recorded myths of ancient and contemporary "prehistoric" (nonliterate) peoples--lie gathering dust in libraries around the world?
I simply had to know if these ideas were true.
- William Sullivan - _The Secret Of The Incas
- Myth, Astronomy, and the WarAgainst Time_
Soon after, Pythagoras
taught, no less oracularly, that "things are numbers." Thus mathematics
was born. The problem of the origin of mathematics has remained with us
to this day. In his high old age, Bertrand
Russell has been driven to avow: "I have wished to know how the stars
shine. I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number
holds sway above the flux.
A little of this, but not much, I have achieved." The answers that he found,
very great answers, concern the nature of logical clarity, but not of philosophy
proper. The problem of number remains to perplex us, and from it all of metaphysics
was born. As a historian, I went on investigating the "gray origins" of
science, far into its pre-Greek beginnings, and how philosophy was born
of it, to go on puzzling
us. I condensed it into a small book,
The Origins of Scientific Thought.
For both philosophy and science came from that fountainhead; and it is
clear that both were children of the same myth. In a number of studies,
I continued to pursue it under the name of "scientific rationalism"; and
I tried to show that through all the immense developments, the "Mirror
of Being" is always the object of true science, a metaphor which still
attempts to reduce the Many to the One. We now make many clear distinctions,
and have come to separate science from philosophy utterly, but what remains
at the core is still the old myth of eternal invariance, ever more remotely
and subtly articulated, and what lies beyond it is a multitude of procedures
and technologies, great enough to have changed the face of the world and
to have posed terrible questions. But they have not answered a single philosophical
question, which is what myth once used to do. If
we come to think of it, we have been living in the age of Astronomical
Myth until yesterday. The careful and rigorous edifice of Ptolemy's Almagest
is only window dressing for Plato's theology, disguised as elaborate science.
The heavenly bodies are moving in "cycle and epicycle, orb
in orb" of a mysterious motion according to the divine decree that circular
motions ever more intricate would account for the universe. And Newton
himself, once he had accounted for it, simply replaced the orbs with the
for which he "would feign no hypotheses." The hand of God was still the
true motive force; God's will and God's own mathematics went on, another
name for Aristotle's Prime Mover. And shall we deny that Einstein's
spacetime is nothing other than a pure pan-mathematical myth, openly acknowledged
at last as such?
I was at this point, lost between science and myth, when, on the occasion of a meeting in Frankfurt in 1959, I met Dr. von Dechend, one of the last pupils of the great Frobenius, whom I had known; and with her I recalled his favorite saying: "What the hell should I care for my silly notions of yesterday?" We were friends from the start. She was then Assistant to the Chair of the History of Science, but she had pursued her lonely way into cultural ethnology, starting in West Africa on the tracks of her "Chef," which were being opened up again at the time by that splendid French ethnologist, the late Marcel Griaule. She too had a sense that the essence of myth should be sought somewhere in Plato rather than in psychology, but as yet she had no clue.
By the time of our meeting she had shifted her attention to Polynesia, and soon she hit pay dirt. As she looked into the archaeological remains on many islands, a clue was given to her. The moment of grace came when, on looking (on a map) at two little islands, mere flyspecks on thewaters of the Pacific, she found that a strange accumulation of maraes or cult places could be explained only one way: they, and only they, were both exactly sited on two neat celestial coordinates: the Tropics of Cancer and of Capricorn.
We had the idea. It was simple and clear. But we realized that we would run into formidable difficulties, both from the point of view of modern, current scholarship and from the no less unfamiliar approach needed for method. I called it playfully, for short, "the cat on the keyboard," for reasons that will appear presently. For how can one catch time on the wing? And yet the flow of time, the time of music, was of the essence, inescapable, baffling to the systematic mind. I searched at length for an inductive way of presentation. It was like piling Pelion upon Ossa. And yet this was the least of our difficulties. For we also had to face a wall, a veritable Berlin Wall, made of indifference, ignorance, and hostility. Humboldt, that wise master, said it long ago: First, people will deny a thing; then they will belittle it; then they will decide that it had been known long ago. Could we embark upon an enormous task of detailed scholarship on the basis of this more than dubious prospect? But our own task was set: to rescue those intellects of the past, distant and recent, from oblivion. "Thus saith the Lord God: 'Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.'" Such poor scattered bones, ossa vehementer sicca, we had to revive.
This book reflects the gradually deepening conviction that, first of all, respect is due these fathers of ours. The early chapters will make, I think, for easy reading. Gradually, as we move above timberline, the reader will find himself beset by difficulties which are not of our making. They are the inherent difficulties of a science which was fundamentally reserved, beyond our conception. Most frustrating, we could not use our good old simple catenary logic, in which principles come first and deduction follows. This was not the way of the archaic thinkers. They thought rather in terms of what we might call a fugue, in which all notes cannot be constrained into a single melodic scale, in which one is plunged directly into the midst of things and must follow the temporal order created by their thoughts. It is, after all, in the nature of music that the notes cannot all be played at once. The order and sequence, the very meaning, of the composition will reveal themselves - with patience - in due time. The reader, I suggest, will have to place himself in the ancient "Order of Time."
Troilus expressed the same idea in a different image: "He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding."
- _Hamlet's Mill_
i. The Chronicler's Tale
ii. The Figure in Finland
iii. The Iranian Parallel
iv. History, Myth and Reality
Intermezzo: A Guide for the Perplexed
v. The Unfolding in India
vi. Amlodhi's Quern
vii. The Many-Colored Cover
viii. Shamans and Smiths
ix. Amlodhi the Titan and His Spinning Top
x. The Twilight of the Gods
xi. Samson Under Many Skies
xii. Socrates' Last Tale
xiii. Of Time and the Rivers
xiv. The Whirlpool
xv. The Waters from the Deep
xvi. The Stone and the Tree
xvii. The Frame of the Cosmos
xviii. The Galaxy
xix. The Fall of Phaethon
xx. The Depths of the Sea
xxi. The Great Pan Is Dead
xxii. The Adventure and the Quest
xxiii. Gilgamesh and Prometheus
Epilogue: The Lost Treasure