Hamlet’s Mill

Hertha Von Dechend & Giorgio De Santillana

A simultaneously wonderful, annoying, fascinating and baffling book. Cited by many (such as Mayanologist John Major Jenkins) as a flawed but seminal prelude to recent advances in archaeoastronomy, condemned by many more as a woefully muddled throwback to late 19th century “Panbabylonism”, its very nature as a bold, disputed, unclassifiable mess endears it to me.

Its central argument is that the precession of the equinoxes—the 25,000-year cycle that changes the positions of the (otherwise) fixed stars due to a slight wobble in the Earth’s axis—was discovered by late Neolithic / early Bronze Age Mesopotamians (and not by the usual suspect, Hipparchus, a Hellenistic Greek bloke). Shifting things deeper down in history or prehistory always carries a certain mesmerizing charge to it, a kind of psychocultural expansion that often muddies the issue at hand—due to both those who are blinded by it and those who like to ridicule those who are blinded by it. The authors only make things worse for themselves in the eyes of the latter by trying too trace the course of this knowledge, and the cosmic frame or mythological “implex” it is embedded in, through a bewildering array of world mythologies, even scraps of folklore. My God, these people even commit etymology! Didn’t this kind of speculation die out with those poor misguided fellows in 19th century Germany?

Last night I attended a fascinating talk given by Grevel Lindop, editor of the definitive edition of Robert Graves’ The White Goddess—surely a sibling of Hamlet’s Mill, in its scope, ambition, labyrinthine structure, and capacity to annoy academics in the fields it touches on. Lindop related how Graves was seized by a poetic mania in its writing, composing the bulk of the work in about two months. He also offered a summary of the book’s conception, involving Graves’ discussions of separate but connected topics with different people, and a breakdown of the various “types” of chapter that Lindop found the book to be composed of. Essentially he discerned two separable themes—the nature of poetic inspiration, and a historical thesis about the suppression of goddess worship—interspersed, and in turn interwoven with chapters compiling resonant information which nevertheless, in a strict sense, were unnecessary for the main themes. The White Goddess is really three books in one. However, difficulties and inaccuracies aside, Lindop pointed to the sheer number of people who hold the book to be precious, a crucial source of inspiration. He argued that the logically haphazard, even infuriating structure of the book, was a product of and was capable of inspiring poetic thought. The book’s overtly didactic aims were, in the end, subservient to a more pervasive, dispersed, structural teaching which, by its very nature, wouldn’t get everyone in the same way. There will be heated disputes as to whether this is a valid method of writing or just an excuse to be incoherent as long as there is a qualitative difference between poetic and scientific thought.

The composition of Hamlet’s Mill seems to have been unfavourable to a coherent outcome. Both authors—though not poets—were clearly seized by something in conceiving the book; but Graves’ poetic background and sole authorship perhaps served The White Goddess better. One critic notes with obvious disdain that de Santillana apparently “would conduct Tarot readings (and seemed to earnestly believe in the veracity of such)”—which indicates a certain propensity towards associational thinking. He also supposedly “held the fantasy that he was the reincarnation of Merlin travelling backwards in time”! However, there are levels of “fantasy” on which such ideas can be interesting, even healthy, experiments with consciousness; it seems unlikely that de Santillana was a closet nutter. In any case, he was a respected writer as well as an MIT historian of science, and the task of editing von Dechend’s obviously voluminous research was largely his; unfortunately, his health was rapidly deteriorating during this process, which can’t have helped.

At the core of the conceptual grounding for Hamlet’s Mill is the authors’ notion that the archaic image of the cosmos that they believe they have unearthed from myth has the nature of an “implex” or “fugue” (a working title for the book was The Art of the Fugue). There is no logical beginning. They begin with (and ultimately found their title in) the Scandinavian folklore behind Shakespeare’s Hamlet—“a favourable starting point” which “came by chance.” In one sense, there is nothing radical here. The non-linear nature of mythical thinking is quite well established. The radical move, for the would-be scientist, is to allow their work to be touched by it, to let the poetic infuse and almost derail their prose, without losing the thread. There is mixed success here. A suffusing poetic effect may be held responsible for the book’s undoubted influence, despite its difficult nature and its errors. But the clash between poetry and science here leaves substantial wreckage, in the form of dense footnotes (not unusual for a book of this type, to be sure), and more blatantly in the copious appendices (39 spread over 100 pages).

What’s also fascinating to me is the complex tension between de Santillana’s scientific perspective and the almost religious emotions that sometimes seem to erupt from the text. Hamlet’s Mill is an excellent document of science as religion. His allegiance is to the primacy of “number, measure and weight,” but rather than viewing the mystical awe surrounding primitive mathematics and science as a superstitious encumbrance to be shed like some kind of placenta (as one might expect of a respected historian of science), de Santillana evidently feels something intensely valuable has been lost in the modern world. He rails against the misapplication of evolutionary theory to culture, wherein Early = Primitive = Less Sophisticated.

At the start of the book we find an antipathy to the implicit reverence for Classical Greece in our narratives of science and culture:

Classical antiquity has a magnetic quality for the scholarly mind. It acts upon it like the Great Lodestone Mountain in Sinbad. The frail philological bark comes apart as soon as Greece looms over the horizon.

The authors’ effort is to push past the lure of this historical attractor, to find the origins of a truly sophisticated and advanced conception of the heavens in the Neolithic.

Curiously, though, they merely supplant one prejudice with another. When it comes to the abundant traces of their “implex” in Siberian and North American shamanism, their conclusion is swift, reached without a great deal of discussion:

To sum it up—whether Shamanism is an old or a relatively young offshoot of ancient civilization is irrelevant. It is not primitive at all, but it belongs, as all our civilizations do, to the vast company of ungrateful heirs of some almost unbelievable Near Eastern ancestor who first dared to understand the world as created according to number, measure and weight.

What an astonishing passage! The “magnetic quality” of Greece has been replaced by a Mesopotamia manifesting a kind of hyper-gravity. Their new “true source” is replete with a numinous heroism usually reserved for myths themselves; not only are the authors analyzing myths, they are in fact also constructing a Promethean creation myth for science (unsurprisingly, they conclude with Prometheus). I’ve nothing against this per se; but to then class shamanic cultures as not only “not primitive” (i.e. unoriginal), but “ungrateful”, seems to be a demonic resurgence of the prejudices against primitive cultures they’ve tried in other passages to suppress.

Naturally, when it comes to their core argument, about the plausibility that ancient cultures were detecting so subtle a natural phenomenon as precession, there are certain technical issues of instrumentation and maintenance of observations through the passage of time. I’m certainly not qualified to speak authoritatively on this. But between their conviction that Siberian shamanism inherited its basic cosmology from ancient civilizations rather than developed it independently (or even gave it to those civilizations) sits ill-at-ease next to their admiration for Marcel Griaule‘s pioneering anthropological work uncovering “the universe of thought” stewarded by the Dogon in Africa.

(Anyone interested in the question of the direction of influence between Siberian shamanism and Mesopotamian or Indo-European civilization will find Geoffrey Ashe’s Dawn Behind The Dawn interesting reading. Ashe, not known for slovenly scholarship, calls de Santillana and von Dechend’s assertions on this count “pure assumption unsupported by any data, or by a scrap of evidence for a northward drift of population or influence. Evidence of that class […] points the other way.”)

So, out of the melting pot of bad editing, strident opinions, bewildering arrays of mythical sources and an incomplete fusion of poetic and scientific sensibility, what emerges at the end? Nothing, for me, that is conclusive, or that would catch me holding the book up as an unqualified gem to be taken on its own terms. However, I’m charmed by its ambitions and its lack of apology; occasionally stimulated to earth-shaking insight by their suggestive tapestry of mythical images; and ultimately, I’m fascinated by it as a document in the history of science and myth (rather than merely of this history). My fruitful disagreements with this text seem to be worth more than a dozen unassailable yet colourless historical tomes.

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