De Santillana Giorgio - Von Dechend Hertha - An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth

Authors : De Santillana Giorgio - Von Dechend Hertha
Title : An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth
Year : 1977

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The Authors. The text of Hamlet’s Mill covers 349 pages and includes another 100 pages of appendices. The authors of this thorough study are respected scholars. Hertha von Dechend was professor of the history of science at the University of Frankfurt, and a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for five winters, 1962 to 1967. For many years she emphasized in her work the relationship between ancient myth and astronomy. Giorgio de Santillana, not to be confused with the Italian philosopher George Santiyana, was for many years professor of the history and philosophy of science at M.I.T. By 1969, when Hamlet’s Mill was published, he had authored numerous articles and books (e.g., Santillana 1955, 1961, and 1968). Whatever these authors have to say should be considered in all seriousness. Santillana seems to be the primary speaker; he served as editor for von Dechend’s material and compiled other material relating to her thesis. Hamlet’s Mill traces the transformations of mythic imagery around the globe on a search and rescue mission, to breathe life back into an archaic insight into the nature of the cosmos. It seems, admittedly, that an a priori feeling, or insight, drives the book onward to its conclusion, which is really more of a new beginning. This archaic insight is a cherished discovery of the two authors, the culmination of their academic careers, and they seem driven to quickly document and consolidate their thesis-one that von Dechend actually espoused for many years-and share it with the world. There are problems with Hamlet’s Mill, but they are more in terms of the book’s organization rather than a faulty reasoning. However, some citations, especially those of Mesoamerican myth, are somewhat off the mark. In this case, the reason may have more to do with the embryonic state of Mesoamerican studies in the 1960s. As for other glitches, these hurried flaws can be explained when we consider the context in which the book was written. Giorgio de Santillana published a book of his own the previous year and was still lecturing at M.I.T., so his work load during the late 1960s must have been intense. In fact, he was ill at the time. As William Irwin Thompson writes: "Professor de Santillana worked on editing von Dechend when he was sick and near death, and so this book is not the best expression of their theories. Encyclopedic, but rambling, it is often as chaotic as it is cranky. This weakness, however, should not mislead the reader. The work is very important in seeking to recover the astronomical and cosmological dimensions of mythic narratives" (Thompson 1982:268-269). This may explain the variations in the narrative, the ebb and flow of the sequence in which the book was ordered, and the generally chaotic character of the book’s organization. Nevertheless, the bulk of the text conveys ruthless interpretation and careful documentation of international scholarship in linguistics, archaeology, comparative mythology, and astronomy. In addition, an informal and usually engaging, if somewhat loquacious, prose style prevails throughout. Hertha von Dechend, long-time German historian and mythologist, seems to be the director behind the scenes: "Von Dechend has argued that the astronomy of the most ancient civilizations is far more complicated than we have hitherto realized. She sees myth as the technical language of a scientific and priestly elite; when, therefore, a myth seems to be most concrete, even gross, it is often using figurative language to describe astronomical happenings . . . Von Dechend’s thesis that there is an astronomical dimension to myth that is not understood by the conventional archaeologists of myth is, I believe, quite correct" (Thompson 1982:173). "Archaeologists of myth" is a strange statement, but what discipline does this study belong to? It certainly isn’t astronomy, because astronomy’s technicians have nothing to do with ancient myth. Is it ethnology, mythology, or science? The burgeoning field of archaeoastronomy perhaps gets closest to the mark. Since the 1970s, two different academic journals have been devoted to elucidating and exploring the topic of archaeoastronomy. Norman Lockyear pioneered this field in the late 1800s with the publication of The Dawn of Astronomy in 1894. The next real advance in this field came with the Stonehenge studies of Gerald S. Hawkins in the 1960s. As a result of Hawkins’ new "astro-archaeology" picking up where Lockyear left off, and a growing academic interest in what the field had to offer, Giorgio Santillana saw fit to arrange the reprinting of Lockyear’s The Dawn of Astronomy in 1964, for the occasion of its 70th anniversary. Much of humanity’s oldest myths were derived from celestial observations. This is probably the most important contribution that Hamlet’s Mill offers, one that has been suppressed and scoffed at for much of this century. In addition to its ancillary use in archaeoastronomy, this concept is being reclaimed as a guiding principle for those who study Maya mythology. The Maya, the most mathematically and calendrically advanced culture of the ancient New World, also preserved complex myths which are now being interpreted as referential to astronomical features and processes. For example, Maya epigrapher Linda Schele has promoted the Mayan Sacred Tree, one of the oldest motifs in Mayan myth, as a description of the intersection of the ecliptic with the Milky Way. Many breakthroughs in this regard are recorded in books she coauthored with David Freidel and, with some amazement, she even goes as far to say, "With that discovery, I realized that every major image from Maya cosmic symbolism was probably a map of the sky" (Freidel et al. 1993:87). Elsewhere she writes "The cosmic monster is also the Milky Way" (Freidel et al. 1993:87) and, in a direct linkage of myth to the sky: "Clearly Orion was the turtle from which the Maize God rose in his resurrection. The Milky Way rearing above the turtle had to be the Maize God appearing in his tree form as he does on the Tablet of the Cross at Palenque. The image of the first turtle really is in the sky" (Freidel et al. 1993:82). Major mythic images describe celestial features or processes. Von Dechend was saying the same thing about Old World and Polynesian mythology decades earlier. Now that scholars have caught up with and recognized the importance of the perspective pioneered by von Dechend and de Santillana, we can look at Hamlet’s Mill with new appreciation. Unfortunately, it is a difficult book. As one writer put it, "Their book is rich and interesting but not easy to read. Many different themes and an extraordinarily large and diverse collection of data fold over each other in its chapters like some origami nightmare" (Krupp 1991:298). Notice that the various commentators on Hamlet’s Mill acknowledge the value of it while noting its problems; this isn’t a question of naïve or blind acceptance of something appealingly fantastical. Neither can it be accused of New Age sensationalism as a marketing strategy, and in 1969 the age of rampant spiritual materialism was still off in the future. Moreover, the Castaneda-style of scholarship, unprecedented in its originality and audacity, had yet to be identified. Hamlet’s Mill was a straightforward and honest attempt to elucidate a valuable aspect of ancient science and myth previously overlooked. So, in this appendix, I will sort out the wheat from the chaff, and offer a summation of the essential message of Hamlet’s Mill. What I have felt since my first reading is that this book is groundbreaking, the beginning of a new way of understanding the origins of civilization. In the intervening twenty-five years since it was first published (it is presently still in print with David R. Godine, Publisher), other disciplines have supported its tenets in various ways. For example, the work of Marija Gimbutas, James Mellart and Riane Eisler demonstrate that there was a stylistically unified Old Europe civilization in place before the advent of "civilization as we know it" in ancient Sumer. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell spoke of this in some depth, describing the 18,000-year old Magdalenian culture as "a peaceful Golden Age." Despite this new information, scholars are generally cautious on new turf. Many people who have read Hamlet’s Mill are initially impressed, but soon encounter the politically dangerous nature of "speculating." Observe the words of the Finnish-born poet Anselm Hollo: "Then, came my encounter with Giorgio de Santillana’s astounding book Hamlet’s Mill, which resulted in a slightly embarrassing countre-temps with a Finnish ambassador to the U.S. During the ten minutes preceding my modest speculative reading of Santillana’s thoughts on the Sampo theme, at a major American city’s Kalevala Day, said ambassador delivered himself, in a manner reminiscent of Heinrich Mann’s Der Untertan, of a speech to the effect that the Kalevala was simply so great that it did not, ever, require any form of interpretation . . . it had to be taken at face value" (Hollo 1989). This kind of treatment has no doubt had the effect of dampening the enthusiasm of many students. Whether it be politics or academics, some areas are simply "sacred ground," not to be trampled. Usually this indicates exactly where progress can be made. The quote above mentions the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala, and the Sampo, a cosmological artifact of Central Asian shamanism (see Ervast (1916), 1998; Jenkins 1995e; Jenkins 1998a). Speaking of Ivory Towerism, Edmund Leach, a scholar of the old school, provided a rather indignant review of Hamlet’s Mill: "(The) authors’ insistence that between about 4000 B.C. and 100 A.D. a single archaic system prevailed throughout most of the civilized and proto-civilized world is pure fantasy. Their attempt to delineate the details of this system by a worldwide scatter of random oddments of mythology is no more than an intellectual game... Something like 60 percent of the text is made up of complex arguments about Indo-European etymologies which would have seemed old-fashioned as early as 1870... Despite their claims to scholarship the authors avoid all reference to the currently relevant literature" (Leach 1970). In fact, de Santillana and von Dechend do refer to contemporary literature, but point out that much "modern" scholarship is biased, built upon sand castles of past assumptions. In the 1960s, and to a large degree still today, the prevailing notion among historians of science was that "civilization" progressed in a Darwinian model of advance, from lesser to greater sophistication. It then follows that no "primitive" culture could know things that "modern" man does not. Observe Leach’s use of the terms "civilized" and "proto-civilized"; this implicit bias precludes the possibility of socially or perceptually refined people living in the Neolithic. 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). This is not to say that Hamlet’s Mill presents some kind of Atlantis theory to explain the preponderance of similar cosmological myths around the globe. Instead, cosmological myths are understood to be stories that come from the sky, encoded maps about the arrangement of celestial features and the movement of planets and stars during the year. The universal storyboard of the night sky is viewed around the globe and, in this way, similar cosmologies and metaphors arise to explain the great questions: human origins, the mystery of life, time, and death, and the exploits of deities (who are really stars and planets). Echoes of a unified Neolithic world religion? Even in Greco-Roman myth it is obvious that Saturn, Jupiter and other mytho-cosmic deities refer to planets. Regardless of Leach’s words, which clearly illustrate the type of scholasticism threatened by Hamlet’s Mill, other reviewers were less reactionary and were even optimistic: "Drawing on various learned disciplines, the authors have attempted to construct a master theory of myth-a theory, that is, which accounts for the appearance of identical mythical motifs in areas between which no cultural contact can be discovered or even surmised" (Atlantic) In a clear summary of the likely impact of Hamlet’s Mill, Phoebe Adams wrote, "This courageous enterprise has produced a difficult, disorderly (no conscientious examination of myth can be anything but disorderly), and provocative book, based on the assumption that the great international myths represent an explanation of the structure of the universe, and that this explanation-long since forgotten except in its picturesque narrative form-was actually mathematical and derived from astronomical observation. If this scandalously oversimplified description boggles imagination, let the reader not take alarm; the book is equally boggling but much more persuasive. It is likely to draw howls of protest from the scholars whose fields have been raided" (Adams 1969) De Santillana raided his own field (the history and philosophy of science), draws from others, and, furthermore, advises his colleagues (especially mythographers) to educate themselves in basic astronomy. Another reviewer emphasized the challenge that Hamlet’s Mill posed thinkers unaccustomed to new ideas: "(The authors) open a speculative inquiry into the origins of science that has great relevance for both the history and philosophy of science... This book presents an intellectual challenge to those accustomed to think of ancient Greece as the unique cradle of Western science" (Basilia 1969) It is amazing to think, and it is a testimony to the painstakingly cautious "advance of science," that not too long ago Greece was considered to be the "unique cradle of Western science." Today we know that Pythagoras, Plato and other influential Greek thinkers took initiation from dying Egyptian mystery schools, whose accrued knowledge went back millennia. The cosmological and philosophical insights which those Egyptian schools afforded inspired the scientific brilliance of Greece, Byzantium and Islam as well. Serendipitously, the final reviewer suggests that there is more to be found here, that Hamlet’s Mill is a bent key to a series of gates: "It is natural that so rich and complex a first unriddling is flawed... The book is polemic, even cocky; it will make a tempest in the inkpots. It nonetheless has the ring of noble metal, although it is only a bent key to the first of many gates" (Morrison 1969) And this is where I pick up the lead. A clear analysis will first unbend the key. I will not only be commenting on Hamlet’s Mill, but will also be interpreting it, based upon new information, and will finally tie its essential meaning to recent discoveries half-way around the globe, in the ancient calendric cosmology of the Maya. What emerges is not only an essay about a unified mythic astronomy from the archaic past but, according to this long lost perspective, an impending doorway through an uncertain collective future. ...

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