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Hamlet's Mill
An Essay Investigating The Origins Of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth

This nOde last updated November 14th, 2001 and is permanently morphing...
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book _Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge
and Its Transmission Through Myth_ authored by Giorgio de Santillana (internal linkMIT) and Hertha von Dechend

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 internal linkWolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. The thrust of this book was that myth, on one level, represented what they called a "technical internal linklanguage" designed to record and transmit astronomical observations of great complexity, particularly those connected with the internal linkprecession 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 internal linkevolution 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 internal linkVedic 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 internal linkmercurial 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 internal linkintention 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 internal linkwater, 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 internal linkprecession 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 internal linktime-traveler had undertaken to photograph the stars rising in the east just before internal linksunrise 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 internal linkinformation 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.
Information in formation

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 internal linkprecessional 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 internal linkimpression 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 internal linkimagination, a failure of faith with those who had gone before, a product of the "deteriorated expectations of our time."
Imagination manifests realities


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., internal linktime) 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 internal linklibraries around the world?

I simply had to know if these ideas were true.

- William Sullivan - _The Secret Of The internal linkIncas - Myth, Astronomy, and the WarAgainst Time_

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From the Preface
Over many years I have searched for the point where myth and science join. It was clear to me for a long time that the origins of science had their deep roots in a particular myth, that of invariance. The Greeks, as early as the 7th century B.C., spoke of the quest of their first internal linksages as the Problem of the One and the Many, sometimes describing the wild fecundity of nature as the way in which the Many could be deduced from the One, sometimes seeing the Many as unsubstantial variations being played on the One, The oracular sayings of Heraclitus the Obscure do nothing but illustrate with shimmering paradoxes the illusory quality of "things" in internal linkflux as they were wrung from the central intuition of unity. Before him Anaximander had announced, also oracularly. that the cause of "things" being born and perishing is their mutual injustice to each other in the order of internal linktime, "as is meet," he said, for they are bound to atone forever for their mutual injustice. This was enough to make of Anaximander the acknowledged father of physical science, for the accent is on the real "Many." But it was true science after a fashion.

Soon after, internal linkPythagoras 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, internal linkBertrand 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 internal linkflux. 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 internal linkmetaphysics 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 internal linkpuzzling 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, internal linkorb in orb" of a mysterious motion according to the divine decree that circular motions ever more intricate would account for the universe. And internal linkNewton himself, once he had accounted for it, simply replaced the orbs with the understandable internal linkforce of internal linkgravitation, 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 internal linkEinstein's spacetime is nothing other than a pure pan-mathematical myth, openly acknowledged at last as such?
Albert Einstein collage

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 theinternal linkwaters 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 internal linkflow of internal linktime, 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 internal linkpatience - 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_

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Chapter Titles

     i. The Chronicler's Tale
     ii. The Figure in internal linkFinland
     iii. The Iranian Parallel
     iv. History, Myth and internal linkReality
     Intermezzo: A Guide for the Perplexed
     v. The Unfolding in India
     vi. Amlodhi's Quern
     vii. The Many-Colored Cover
     viii. internal linkShamans 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 internal linkTime and the Rivers
     xiv. The Whirlpool
     xv. The internal linkWaters 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 internal linkPan Is Dead
     xxii. The Adventure and the Quest
     xxiii. Gilgamesh and internal linkPrometheus
     Epilogue: The Lost Treasure

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