Hamlet’s Mill

I have taken quite a lot of editorial license in distilling this from the commentary, introduction, and preface of Hamlet’s Mill.  You are welcome to read any or all of it for yourself:  http://www.incapabledesetaire.com/edito3/hamlet.pdf

A close look at the introduction of Hamlet’s Mill will provide a clear orientation to de Santillana and von Dechend’s thinking. Extracts from the jacket flap give the impression that the overall viewpoint of the book is neither outrageous nor unfounded. We also learn here why Hamlet (Shakespeare’s Hamlet), appears in the title:

“Contradicting many current notions about cultural evolution, this exploratory book investigates the origins of human knowledge in the archaic, preliterate world. Selecting Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a congenial introductory figure, the authors begin their journey proper with Amlodhi, Hamlet’s counterpart in Scandinavian myth.”

The statement “current notions about cultural evolution” refers to a type of social Darwinism in which human society today is supposed to be hierarchically more refined and advanced in every essential way than our grunting, dirty, cave dwelling, “primitive” ancestors of the Neolithic. This view is naïve; compare life in a typical Third World urban slum of today with the cosmopolitan city dwellers of Alexandria 2,000 years ago. Technology and science is not the barometer of cultural sophistication. Social Darwinism has entered the realm of cliché, although still to a surprising degree it holds currency in the underlying assumptions of many people, including scholars.

Continuing with the book jacket’s summary, we encounter the central theme of the book. The mythic Amlodhi character was the owner of a magnificent Mill. In those ancient times it ground out peace and plenty. Later, however, in decaying days, it ground out only salt.

“Now, at the bottom of the sea, it grinds rock and sand, and has created a vast whirlpool, the Maelstrom, which leads to the land of the dead. The ultimate significance of this Mill, and of many similar mythical constructions, is what the authors set themselves to discover.”

This points us to the central idea without precisely defining it. The authors trace mythic metaphors of cosmological processes around the globe and in so doing, must compare different metaphors and identify similar motifs. One can then deduce that a story describing a hero’s journey into the belly of a giant to retrieve magical knowledge is the same cosmological event as a shamanic journey up the sacred tree to the North Star. Mythic cosmography speaks in mixed metaphors. De Santillana and von Dechend interpret widely scattered myths with the assumption, which many now feel is essentially correct, that cosmological mythic narratives unfold, like given stories, from events observed in night sky. The most ancient myths, though cloaked in culture-specific garb or expressed via different creative metaphors, describe an identical underlying celestial map:

“The places referred to in myth are in the heavens and the actions are those of celestial bodies. Myth, in short, was a language for the perpetuation of a vast and complex body of astronomical knowledge.”

The well-known historian Will Durant entertains other possibilities:  “Immense volumes have been written to expound our knowledge, and conceal our ignorance, of primitive man… Primitive cultures were not necessarily the ancestors of our own; for all we know they may be the degenerate remnants of higher cultures that decayed when human leadership moved in the wake of the ice”  (Durant, cited in Childress 1992:570).

“Way back in time, before writing was invented, it was measures and counting that provided the armature, the frame on which the rich texture of real myth was to grow.”

“The places referred to in myth are in the heavens and the actions are those of celestial bodies. Myth, in short, was a language for the perpetuation of a vast and complex body of astronomical knowledge.”

I should point out here that Mithraism developed quickly, as if filling a dormant position, and became widespread throughout the Greco-Roman empire. World Age doctrines certainly do not begin with Mithraism, so one wonders if Mithraism simply represented a new flowering of ancient knowledge. Today we have a popular astrological belief that the Age of Pisces is giving way to the Age of Aquarius. This, however, occupies a dubious place as a modern folk belief, being associated by rationalists with snake oil and magic. Mithraism is supposed to be the first proponent of this World Age thinking, so the astrological belief of World Ages theoretically must be traced to Mithraism. Since precession was allegedly “discovered” by Hipparchus just prior to the founding of Mithraism, it should go no further than that. However, Mithraism was an extremely secretive religion, and the central mystery could not be revealed under penalty of death.

This is why its true nature eluded scholars up until just recently. Furthermore, the numbers associated with astrological ages and estimates of precession appear much earlier than Greece-back to Egypt and even in the earliest mathematical formulations of Sumer. In fact, the key numbers of Babylonian-Sumerian mathematics (including the sixty-based system still being used) were derived from astronomical observations, and point us to the traditional estimate of precession: 108 x 4 x 60 = 25,920 years. These numbers also appear in the Hindu Ages of Kali. In comparison, Hipparchus estimated the complete precessional cycle to be 36,000 years. Clearly, precessional knowledge and the attendant World Age doctrine are much older than Greek astronomy and Mithraism.

In the introduction to Hamlet’s Millde Santillana also mentions some very ancient ideas about Ursa Major, the Milky Way, and the Pole Star, writing,  “These notions appear to all have a common doctrine in the age before history… born of the great intellectual and technological revolution of the late Neolithic period”  (Santillana and von Dechend 1969:3).

Knowing that human beings have, basically, remained unchanged for at least 40,000 years, how can we say that our remote ancestors could not observe the subtle celestial shifting of precession? Our concept of how difficult this might be is tempered by the problems of our own age, when the skies are obscured by smog and light pollution, when basic math skills are the property of the few, and no one has the time or inclination to read and explore the obscure depths of human history. If we can admit that our remote ancestors were intelligent enough to conceive of this majestic and complex doctrine of World Ages, we might allow ourselves to be smart enough to let go of destructive tendencies and move into a healthier new era.

“The theory about “how the world began” seems to involve the breaking asunder of a harmony, a kind of cosmogonic “original sin” whereby the circle of the ecliptic… was tilted up at an angle with respect to the equator, and the cycles of change came into being”  (Santillana and von Dechend 1969:5)

What they describe here, and elsewhere more precisely, is a specific era some 6,500 years ago when the position of the equinoctial sun was aligned with the band of the Milky Way. This provided an obvious celestial alignment, occurring twice a year on the equinoxes, when the sun would conjunct the Milky Way-the Bridge Out of Time-opening the way out of the plane of the living (the zodiac) and up to the cosmic center and source in heaven. A “breaking asunder” occurred when this great cosmogonic picture began to precess out of alignment. Presumably, when the “untuning of the sky” occurred, increasing social tension followed, leading to greater collective confusion and our descent into history. This simple summary is intriguing in itself, and is supported by evidence presented in Hamlet’s Mill at every step of the way. Some of the problems and questions this scenario evokes will be addressed as we proceed. For example, Hamlet’s Mill asserts that as a result of precession the zodiac was tilted up with respect to the celestial equator, “and the cycles of change came into being.”

However, I am not convinced that, in the minds of the ancient skywatchers, time “came into being” because of this particular event. It certainly could have led to a destabilization of the core institutions then in place, for example, the concept of the Earth-Mother-Goddess as the highest life principle. But I do not see it as a reason for the origin of time itself. It probably led to a belief that traditions formerly held to be “graven in stone” are indeed changeable. It could also have been seen as a great apocalyptic crisis-the destabilization of the corner pillars of the sky in respect to the center-such that one could only set sights on some far future time when the sky would realign itself and a new Golden Age could begin.

These ideas certainly remind us of the Flood, Greek thought, World Age destruction in Siberian shamanism, the adventures of Gilgamesh, the descent of Innana, and thus these cosmological ideas are not isolated or unfounded constructs. Nevertheless, the “untuning of the sky” was an actual astronomical occurrence. The whole goal of Hamlet’s Mill was to collect and interpret the world’s most ancient myths in light of the fact of this astronomical event in the Neolithic, and the assumption that human beings back then were sophisticated enough to notice it.

This ancient world moves a little closer if one recalls two great transitional figures who were simultaneously archaic and modern in their habits of thought. The first is Johannes Kepler, who was of the old order in his unremitting calculations and his passionate devotion to the dream of rediscovering the “Harmony of the Spheres.” But he was a man of his own time, and also of ours, when this dream began to prefigure the polyphony that led up to Bach. In somewhat the same way, our strictly scientific worldview has its counterpart in what John Hollander, the historian of music, has described as “The Untuning of the Sky.” The second transitional figure is no less a man than Sir Isaac Newton, the very inceptor of the rigorously scientific view. There is no real paradox in mentioning Newton in this connection. John Maynard Keynes, who knew Newton as well as many of our time, said of him:

Newton was not the first of the Age of Reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind that looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual world rather less than 10,000 years ago. . . Why do I call him a magician? Because he looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret, which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt to the esoteric brotherhood. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements (and that is what gives the false suggestion of his being an experimental natural philosopher), but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty–just as he himself wrapt the discovery of the calculus in a cryptogram when he communicated with Leibniz. By pure thought, by concentration of mind, the riddle, he believed, would be revealed to the initiate [“Newton the Man,” in The Royal Society. Newton Tercentenary Celebrations (1947), p. 29.].

Lord Keynes’ appraisal, written ca. 1942, remains both unconventional and profound. He knew, we all know, that Newton failed. Newton was led astray by his dour sectarian preconceptions. But his undertaking was truly in the archaic spirit, as it begins to appear now after two centuries of scholarly search into many cultures of which he could have had no idea. To the few clues he found, with rigorous method, a vast number have been added.  Still, the wonder remains, the same that was expressed by his great predecessor Galileo:

But of all other stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind must have been his who conceived how to communicate his most secret thoughts to any other person, though very far distant either in time or place, speaking with those who are in the Indies, speaking to those who are not yet born, nor shall be this thousand or ten thousand years? And with no greater difficulty than the various arrangement of two dozen little signs upon paper? Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of man.

Way back in the 6th century A.D., Gregoire de Tours was writing: “The mind has lost its cutting edge, we hardly understand the Ancients.” So much more today, despite our wallowing in mathematics for the million and in sophisticated technology.

As Goethe said at the very onset of the Progressive Age,

“It is still day, let men get up and going-

the night creeps in, when there is nothing doing.”

There might come once more some kind of “Renaissance” out of the hopelessly condemned and trampled past, when certain ideas come to life again, and we should not deprive our grandchildren of a last chance at the heritage of the highest and farthest-off times. And if, as looks infinitely probable, even that last chance is passed up in the turmoil of progress, why then one can still think with Poliziano, who was himself a master humanist, that there will be men whose minds find a refuge in poetry and art and the holy tradition “which alone make men free from death and turn them to eternity, so long as the stars will go on, still shining over a world made forever silent.” Right now, there is still left some daylight in which to undertake this first quick reconnaissance. It will necessarily leave out great and significant areas of material, but even so, it will investigate many unexpected byways and crannies of the past.

Now, scholars are finally beginning to honor the contribution of de Santillana and von Dechend. A progressive and profound interpretation of ancient science and mythology was put forward in Hamlet’s Mill. The next great alignment in this cosmological scheme which I call the archaic mono-myth is not only right around the corner, but was anticipated by the ancient Maya, as evidenced by the Maya calendar end-date, December 21, 2012 A.D


About michaellangford2012

Timber framer, boatbuilder, dreamer, writer, musician; collector of books, tools, aphorisms. "There is nothing, absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing…as simply messing about in boats."
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