Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review: Hamlet's Mill

The book I am reviewing is entitled Hamlet's Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. I am using the 1969 edition published by Gambit Inc.

Hamlet's Mill is not an easy read. At first glance the book seems disorganized and disjointed. The authors make a number of obscure references to ancient texts and stories that they assume the reader is familiar with. They also have a tendency to insert critical phrases in Latin or French without translation, thus a knowledge of the Romantic languages is necessary to get some of the finer points of the book (they do give translations to quotes given in German, but they seem to assume that anyone reading the book also knows all the languages they know). Also a good working knowledge of world history is fundamental as the authors are not attempting to create a coherent story of world history, nor do the feel the need to include any further explanation. If the reader is not familiar with all the stories, cultures and references it would be a good idea to read Hamlet's Mill with quick access to a reliable encyclopedia to get the general background the authors just assume you know.

There are essentially two separate theses in Hamlet's Mill. The first thesis deals with the coherent nature of myths all over the world. This thesis takes up the majority of the book and is the primary thesis. The assertion is that all major mythologies from all over the world are fundamentally connected. To prove this the authors show the connections and similarities of myths from every major cultural group. The major point of this thesis is to show the reason why myths all over the world have a similar form is that they all draw from the same source, astronomy. The authors argue that myths from all over the world originally were references to astronomical observations. Thus all myths have common connecting threads and references.

They state that the only way to explain these similarities is to use astronomical observations, something the archeological and anthropological communities seemed to have ignored up to that point. In the introduction and the first few chapters the authors make a big deal out of the fact that other scholars in their field have never considered an astronomical (or cosmological) explanation to myths and legends. Therefore the authors feel it imperative that they explain their thesis so that others will consider this possibility. From their assessment it is the only explanation which makes sense, due to the striking similarities between myths all over the world. Furthermore they try to establish a direct connection between the myths and the actual astronomical observations made by ancient cultures.

By establishing a link between the different constellations and the growth and spread of the myths through out the world, the authors are attempting to show that the mythologies of ancient (and modern!) cultures first grew out of astronomy. This is to say that highly specific and accurate astronomical observations grew into and became the major world mythologies, as opposed to the commonly accepted idea that world myths (myths of creation and world phenomena such as weather) were the basis of and the inspiration for the original astronomical observations. To present it schematically the commonly accepted theory of the development of mythologies, and by extension astronomy, would be:

Mysticism --> Mythology --> Astronomical Observations motivated by the mythology --> Modern Astronomy

This is contrasted with the author's approach which can be characterized thus:

Accurate Astronomical Observations --> Mythology motivated by the observations --> More Recent Astronomical Observations --> Modern Astronomy

The authors also argue that mysticism, at least the ancient mysticism that we "know" of grew out of the mythologies after people had forgotten that the myths were simply a way of remembering the complex astronomical observations. This conclusion and the reasoning behind the authors' approach is based on an assumption that is central to the author's second thesis.

The second thesis given in the book is most clearly expressed after Chapter Four in what they call an Intermezzo (Intermission), aptly titled A Guide for the Perplexed. In this chapter they pause in their narration of the myths and legends related to the story of Hamlet, to "take stock" and give some guidance to the admittedly complex narration. While they take this intermission to introduce the first and primary thesis they also incidentally layout the secondary thesis. The secondary thesis is arguably the more important of the the two and provides greater and farther reaching insight into ancient cultures. As presented by the authors the second thesis is no more than conjecture but gains support from the validity of the first thesis.

The second thesis is founded on the idea of cyclic time as opposed to linear time. This idea is integral with and underlies all arguments made by the authors regarding ancient cultures and how we should view them. The concept of cyclic time as opposed to linear time has two major applications in studying and understanding ancient cultures. The first deals with understanding how the ancient people viewed the world and the proper mindset that we should have in attempting to understand them. The second deals primarily with how we view them and their abilities of reason.

To understand the second thesis and its implications we need to understand the concept of cyclic time. Suffice it to say that our modern concept of time is inextricably linked to the concept of linear time, so being able to understand cyclic time is perhaps the hardest part of understanding anything in Hamlet's Mill. In considering the ancient concept of cyclic time we must admit that we are approaching it with a bias (even by using the word ancient we express our bias) and we must be prepared to give up all that we know or think we know about the world.

As the authors tell it, the academic community does more than merely overlook the concept of cyclic time, they either ignore it or hold it in contempt, but they contend that if we are to understand anything about ancient cultures we must understand the concept of cyclic time. I have previously run across the concept from two unrelated sources so, since Hamlet's Mill was written it seems that the concept has at least been mentioned in academic circles but the lack of more mention of it is a good indication that there has been absolutely no progress in understanding ancient cultures since Hamlet's Mill was published.

To put it simply the modern concept of time is linear and the ancient concept of time involves cycles. To put it bluntly, ancient peoples did not view the world they same way we do. For us we think of time has having a definite duration and direction, as in thinking of time as an arrow. For ancient people time repeated itself just like a wheel will rotate and come back to where it started from. Time consists of cycles, the cycle of a day (the sun rises it moves through the sky, it sets and starts over), the changing of the seasons, the movements of the planets, stars and moon. Even the cycle of life repeats itself. Thus to the ancient cultures all things were governed by cycles of time, some longer and some shorter.

Indeed the different cycles of time could be ordered in such a way from the least to the greatest, with the greater (longer) governing the lesser (shorter), just as the equinoxes govern the seasons and the seasons the days (that is the seasons determine what the days will be like, and the equinoxes govern when the seasons will come). So as there are cycles which govern each aspect of life it is the longer cycles that ultimately govern over all other cycles and the longest cycle that ancient cultures knew of was the precession of the equinoxes, which has an approximately 26,000 year cycle. Thus as the precession of the equinoxes was the longest and greatest known cycle it governed over and determined all others. To the ancient mind it could be considered the ultimate driving force behind all aspects of life. Just as the seasons bring with them warmth and life or cold and death, the thing which governed over the seasons (the equinoxes) were thus more important for determining the fate of men. With this in mind it would only be natural to conclude that that which governed over the equinoxes was more important than them all.

When presented in this way an emphasis on equinoxes, and the movement of the sun through the zodiac, is no longer an ignorant and whimsical expression of pre-rational minds, but is a natural conclusion reached by intelligent and reasoning minds trying to make sense of the world. If presented in the proper context this way of looking at the world almost seems more intuitive and natural than our present concept of linear time. It is precisely this different view of time that allows the authors to conclude that the original astronomical observations were not motivated by mysticism or mythology, but the other way round. This is to say that the mythologies and stories associated with the constellations, planets and stars grew out of a need to preserve the complex astronomical observations. As a type of complex pneumonic device the stories were created to both entertain and to give a way of remembering the collected wisdom and scientific observations from previous generations.

Returning to the schematics that I presented above:

Mysticism --> Mythology --> Astronomical Observations motivated by the mythology --> Modern Astronomy

Accurate Astronomical Observations --> Mythology motivated by the observations --> More Recent Astronomical Observations --> Modern Astronomy

Without and understanding of the concept of cyclic time the second option seems almost absurd given the progression of modern thought and the discoveries of the last few hundred years in the area of astronomy. But with an understanding of cyclic time the second option seems almost natural, with the first being the absurd option. The key in understanding this lies in a rejection of Social Darwinism, which whether or not we realize it is derived from and integral to the concept of linear time. Because of the linear nature of our understanding of time it is a natural conclusion to think that mankind has progressed from a less advanced state to a more advanced state. The basis for this thinking lies in the technological advancements that we have achieved through out our history. The authors do not dispute this advancement but what they do dispute is the conclusion of Social Darwinism that the reasoning ability of mankind has progressed over the short time span of recorded (and even non-recorded) history.

The critical assertion of the authors is that even if ancient cultures did not have the same level of technological advancement that we now have does not and should not reflect on the mental or cognitive abilities of the ancient peoples. As the authors put it, "our ancestors of the high and far-off times were endowed with minds wholly comparable to ours, and were capable of rational processes--always given the means at hand. It is enough to say that this flies in the face of a custom which has become already second nature." (p. 68) This concept calls into question the idea that the gradual Darwinian progression can apply to cultural understandings and interpretations. Again as the authors put it, "The lazy word "evolution" had blinded us to the real complexities of the past." (p. 69) They assert that the time scale on which evolution works is much too long for it to be applied to the history of man.

The key understanding of the authors' second thesis is that the concept of cyclic time is central to understanding the world view of ancient societies, and while this world view may be radically different from ours it does not make them "primitive" or "'howling barbarians' who were, to say the least, utterly incapable of working out complex astronomical cycles...over many years" (p. 69). With this basis of understanding we may again approach the authors' first thesis, that the basis of ancient myths and legends is grounded in astronomical observations, and find that it makes more sense.

In concluding I feel I should mention the oddity of the authors' conclusion. The book finishes out with an epilogue entitled The Lost Treasure in which the authors bemoan the fact that the basis of understanding the ancient cultures is already lost. In their conclusion they end the book by saying, "the system as a whole may lie beyond all conjecture, because the creating, ordering minds that have made it have vanished forever." (p. 348) Given the entire premise of the book this seems like a rather misguided ending to the book. Essentially they spend the entire book attempting to prove that world myths from all over the world have a common generational basis and source found in astronomical observations, and that the ancient peoples were just as capable at complex reasoning as we are. But when they end the book they end it with a statement lamenting the fact that we have no possible basis to interpret and/or understand completely ancient cultures. The authors apparently have missed the fact that the basis of understanding lies in astronomical observations (which they spend most of the book trying to establish) and that if ancient peoples "were endowed with minds wholly comparable to ours" then surely we should be able to comprehend and recreate the same world view and mind set of our ancestors. The implication is that if they are "endowed with minds wholly comparable to ours" then they are capable of understanding our view point and we theirs.

Overall I would say that Hamlet's Mill is a very important book for understanding ancient cultures as it gives a correct mind-set in which to approach myths and legends. If understood the book gives the reader an approach to interpreting the work and methods of ancient peoples that other sources do not give out of bias, ignorance or laziness. It also raises certain questions of "standard" interpretations that have the potential to change entire fields of study. If the authors are correct then the true story of the growth of civilization is more amazing than we could have possible imagined, and we have so much more to learn.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Thanks so much for your review of the book and summary. I appreciate it so much.