Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating  the Origins of Human Knowledge & Its Transmission Through Myth

Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge & Its Transmission Through Myth

by Giorgio De Santillana

Ever since the Greeks coined the language we commonly use for scientific description, mythology & science have developed separately.

This fascinating book throws into doubt the self-congratulatory assumptions of Western science about the unfolding development & transmission of knowledge.

This is a truly seminal & original thesis, a book that should be read by anyone interested in science, myth & the interactions between the two.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 4.27
  • Pages: 450
  • Publish Date: March 24th 2015 by Nonpareil Books
  • Isbn10: 0879232153
  • Isbn13: 9780879232153

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Ancient stories in the Nordic Eddas continue on back through Ireland, the mainland, and down to the Near East; the tales recorded much later in the Shahnama are as ancient as the hymns of the Rig-Veda, and the whole mass circles throughout the Shamanism of the steppes and the Indus river valley religions and finally to a nearly global treasury of universal myth. We wander through Plato's Pythagorean "world above" and the rivers and oceans of space between heaven and earth; the whirlpool with the tree overhanging it common from Greece to Polynesia, with "the way of the dead" being through the Milky Way. Ancient star maps are discussed, showcasing the constellations common from Egypt to China such as the Arrow. The cosmological conceptions spreading from the Ancient Near East to India in the great Temple-building complexes which grew out into the Indonesian islands culminating in such monuments as Barabudur are shown to have commonalities with a great surplus of art, such as the African calabashes with cosmic scenes inscribed on their surfaces. The Shaman climbing the notches like stairs on his post or tree is mimicking an ascension to Heaven just as did the Mesopotamian Priest on his seven-planetary-spheres-tiered Ziggurat; the Chinese myths are even more explicitly calendrical and sky-conscious, and the Siberian cosmological drums contain a wealth of performance-based records of stellar events. What is ultimately shown through the wild untamed mass of material Santillana and von Dechend have collected is how the typical view of cultural history as a steady rise from primitive man to our modern enlightened age is simply not based on evidence. A more literal and a more figurative reading are not mutually exclusive; that is, even if the myths are used to record and name astrological principles, the personages they take their names from don't always have to be imaginary as well. In the ancient cosmology, Nut can be the Mother of the Sky both symbolically when related to the zodiac, and literally as a Queen of Heaven giving birth to the Stars, the souls of humanity.

In other words, if an event needed explanation, some aspect of the wheel of the stars and its axis was called on: For example, the great flood (most likely the abrupt filling of the Black Sea basin some 8,000 years ago) was caused when a mythic figure pulled the axle of the wheel from its mooring, allowing the waters to escape. Now we believe the great flood happened when the barrier between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea abruptly gave way many thousand years ago, but our confidence in the mechanical could turn out, when Hamlet's Mill has turned many more times, to be no more justified than the archaic world's belief that as above, so below.

I would certainly be willing to acknowledge an astrological influence in some of the myths they explore, just not in all of them. If one does accept this supposition, it simply begs other questions such as: how does stock astrological myths get shared by civilizations that are also separated by language? That disparate civilizations shared this base astrology would be equally difficult to prove.

There are similar stories and themes in myths around the world, not necessarily because there was an Atlantis providing a cultural heritage for everyone on earth, but because everyone observes the same skies. The sun always appears to make the same annual journey through the background stars, and ancient cultures were also very much aware of precession. Such knowledge tells us civilizations were devoting a minimum of several centuries to careful astronomical observation, because it would take generations to notice a one degree change. As so many ancient cultures have myths about the world tree (used as an axis shaft) being chopped down or having its roots gnawed away at, or the sudden unhinging of the mill peg, and the destruction of the mill, we must wonder why ancient writers did not view the pole of rotation as a permanent fixture. Is it merely because they noticed gradual change, with a series of pole stars over the 25,800 years of precession?

It is an anthropological detective story that traces the origins of myths throughout the world and finds common elements in their origins. The principle of fire, and the means of producing or acquiring it are best approached through them." (p 316) The essence of human knowledge seems bound up in these mythological origins.

The authors point is not to dismiss the modern scientific method but to say that there is a tendency to look at the history of human knowledge in a reductively linear way, from less to more sophistication and mastery of complexity, and that such a view actually runs counter to the evidence provided even by what little we have of these early cosmologies.

The theory which it presents is fascinating and the authors leave very few details unstated. Ancient myth has captivated and fascinated many modern men, but attempting to read the stories from within the mindset of ancient man is a different experience entirely.

Full of shining gems of thought, encrusted with all but impenetrable allusions.