Hamlet’s Mill: an Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time

Santillana, Giorgio de and Hertha von Dechend. Hamlet’s Mill: an Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. Boston: Godine, 1977.


Image: Book Cover "Hamlet's Mill"


Chapter 1. The Chronicler’s Tale
Chapter 2. The Figure in Finland
Chapter 3. The Iranian Parallel
Chapter 4. History, Myth and Reality
Intermezzo: A Guide for the Perplexed
Chapter 5. The Unfolding in India
Chapter 6. Amlodhi’s Quern
Chapter 7. The Many-Colored Cover
Chapter 8. Shamans and Smiths
Chapter 9. Amlodhi the Titan and His Spinning Top
Chapter 10. The Twilight of the Gods
Chapter 11. Samson Under Many Skies
Chapter 12. Socrates’ Last Tale
Chapter 13. Of Time and the Rivers
Chapter 14. The Whirlpool
Chapter 15. The Waters from the Deep
Chapter 16. The Stone and the Tree
Chapter 17. The Frame of the Cosmos
Chapter 18. The Galaxy
Chapter 19. The Fall of Phaethon
Chapter 20. The Depths of the Sea
Chapter 21. The Great Pan Is Dead
Chapter 22. The Adventure and the Quest
Chapter 23. Gilgamesh and Prometheus
Epilogue: The Lost Treasure


AS THE SENIOR, if least deserving, of the authors, I shall open the narrative.

Over many years I have searched for the point where myth and science join. It was clear to me for a long time that the origins of science had their deep roots in a particular myth, that of invariance.

The Greeks, as early as the 7th century B.C., spoke of the quest of their first sages as the Problem of the One and the Many, sometimes describing the wild fecundity of nature as the way in which the Many could be deduced from the One, sometimes seeing the Many as unsubstantial variations being played on the One. The oracular sayings of Heraclitus the Obscure do nothing but illustrate with shimmering paradoxes the illusory quality of “things” in flux as they were wrung from the central intuition of unity. Before him Anaximander had announced, also oracularly, that the cause of things being born and perishing is their mutual injustice to each other in the order of time, “as is meet,” he said, for they are bound to atone forever for their mutual injustice. This was enough to make of Anaximander the acknowledged father of physical science, for the accent is on the real “Many.” But it was true science after a fashion.

Soon after, Pythagoras taught, no less oracularly, that “things are numbers.” Thus mathematics was born. The problem of the origin of mathematics has remained with us to this day. In his high old age, Bertrand Russell has been driven to avow: “I have wished to know how the stars shine. I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.” The answers that he found, very great answers, concern the nature of logical clarity, but not of philosophy proper. The problem of number remains to perplex us, and from it all of metaphysics was born. As a historian, I went on investigating the “gray origins” of science, far into its pre-Greek beginnings, and how philosophy was born of it, to go on puzzling us. I condensed it into a small book, The Origins of Scientific Thought. For both philosophy and science came from that fountainhead; and it is clear that both were children of the same myth. [n1 The Pythagorean problem is at the core of my Origins. My efforts came eventually to fruition in my Prologue to
Parmenides of 1964 (reprinted in Reflections on Men and Ideas (1968), p. 80).] In a number of studies, I continued to pursue it under the name of “scientific rationalism”; and I tried to show that through all the immense developments, the “Mirror of Being” is always the object of true science, a metaphor which still attempts to reduce the Many to the One. We now make many clear distinctions, and have come to separate science from philosophy utterly, but what remains at the core is still the old myth of eternal invariance, ever more remotely and subtly articulated, and what lies beyond it is a multitude of procedures and technologies, great enough to have changed the face of the world and to have posed terrible questions. But they have not answered a single philosophical question, which is what myth once used to do.

If we come to think of it, we have been living in the age of Astronomical Myth until yesterday. The careful and rigorous edifice of Ptolemy’s Almagest is only window dressing for Plato’s theology, disguised as elaborate science. The heavenly bodies are moving in “cycle and epicycle, orb in orb” of a mysterious motion according to the divine decree that circular motions ever more intricate would account for the universe. And Newton himself, once he had accounted for it, simply replaced the orbs with the understandable force of gravitation, for which he “would feign no hypotheses.” The hand of God was still the true motive force; God’s will and God’s own mathematics went on, another name for Aristotle’s Prime Mover. And shall we deny that Einstein’s space­time is nothing other than a pure pan-mathematical myth, openly acknowledged at last as such?

I was at this point, lost between science and myth, when.. on the occasion of a meeting in Frankfurt in 1959, I met Dr. von Dechend, one of the last pupils of the great Frobenius, whom I had known; and with her I recalled his favorite saying: “What the I hell should I care for my silly notions of yesterday?” We were friends from the start. She was then Assistant to the Chair of the History of Science, but she had pursued her lonely way into cultural ethnology, starting in West Africa on the tracks of her “Chef,” which were being opened up again at the time by that splendid French ethnologist, the late Marcel Griaule. She too had a sense that the essence of myth should be sought somewhere in Plato rather than in psychology, but as yet she had no clue.

By the time of our meeting she had shifted her attention to Polynesia, and soon she hit pay dirt. As she looked into the archaeological remains on many islands, a clue was given to her. The moment of grace came when, on looking (on a map) at two little islands, mere flyspecks on the waters of the Pacific, she found that a strange accumulation of maraes or cult places could be explained only one way: they, and only they, were both exactly sited on two neat celestial coordinates: the Tropics of Cancer and of Capricorn.

Now let Dechend take over the narrative:

“To start from sheer opposition to ruling opinions is not likely to lead to sensible insight, at least so we think. But anyhow, I did not start from there, although there is no denying that my growing wrath about the current interpretations (based upon discouraging translations) was a helpful spur now and then. In that, there was nothing that could be called a ‘start,’ least of all the intention to explore the astronomical nature of myth. To the contrary, on my side, having come from ethnology to the history of science, there existed ‘in the beginning’ only the firm decision never to become involved in astronomical matters, under any condition. In order to keep safely away from this frightening field, my subject of inquiry was meant to be the mythical figure of the craftsman god, the Demiurge in his many aspects (Hephaistos, Tvashtri, Wayland the Smith, Goibniu, Ilmarinen, Ptah, Khnum, Kothar-wa-Hasis, Enki/Ea, Tane, Viracocha, etc.). Not even a whiff of suspicion came to me during the investigation of Mesopotamian myth–of all cultures!–everything looked so very terrestrial, though slightly peculiar. It was after having spent more than a year over at least 10,000 pages of Polynesian myths collected in the 19th century (there are many more pages available than these) that the annihilating recognition of our complete ignorance came down upon me like a sledge hammer: there was no single sentence that could be understood. But then, if anybody was entitled to be taken seriously, it had to be the Polynesians guiding their ships securely over the largest ocean of our globe, navigators to whom our much praised discoverers from Magellan to Captain Cook confided the steering of their ships more than once. Thus, the fault had to rest with us, not with Polynesian myth. Still, I did not then ‘try astronomy for a change’ -there was a strict determination on my part to avoid this field. I looked into the archaeological remains of the many islands, and there a clue was given to me (to call it being struck by lightning would be more correct) which I duly followed up, and then there was no salvation anymore: astronomy could not be escaped. First it was still ‘simple’ geometry-the orbit of the sun, the Tropics, the seasons-and the adventures of gods and heroes did not make much more sense even then. Maybe one should count, for a change? What could it mean, when a hero was on his way slightly more than two years, ‘returning’ at intervals, ‘falling into space,’ coming off the ‘right’ route? There remained, indeed, not many possible solutions: it had to be planets (in the particular case of Aukele-nui­a-iku, Mars). If so, planets had to be constitutive members of every mythical personnel; the Polynesians did not invent this trait by themselves.”

This text of Professor von Dechend, in its intellectual freedom and audacity, bears the stamp of her inheritance from the heroic and innocent and cosmopolitan age of German science around the eighteen-thirties. Its heroes, Justus von Liebig and Friedrich Woehler, were the objects of her work done before 1953. Another of those virtues, scornful indignation, will come to the fore in the appendices, which are so largely the product of her efforts.

Now I resume:

Years before, I had once looked at Dupuis’ L’Origine de tous les cultes, lost in the stacks of Widener Library, never again consulted. It was a book in the 18th-century style, dated “An III de la Republique.”

The title was enough to make one distrustful–one of those “enthusiastic” titles which abounded in the 18th century and promised far too much. How could it explain the Egyptian system, I thought, since hieroglyphics had not yet been deciphered? (Athanasius Kircher was later to show us how it was done out of Coptic tradition.) I had dropped the forbidding tome, only jotting down a sentence: “Le mythe est né de la science; la science seule l’expliquera.” I had the answer there, but I was not ready to understand.

This time I was able to grasp the idea at a glance, because I was ready for it. Many, many years before, I had questioned myself, in a note, about the meaning of fact in the crude empirical sense, as applied to the ancients. It represents, I thought, not their intellectual surprise, not the direct wonder and astonishment, but first of all an immense, steady, minute attention to the seasons. What is a solstice or an equinox? It stands for the capacity of coherence, deduction, imaginative intention and reconstruction with which we could hardly credit our forefathers. And yet there it was. I saw.

Mathematics was moving up to me from the depth of centuries; not after myth, but before it. Not armed with Greek rigor, but with the imagination of astrological power, with the understanding of astronomy. Number gave the key. Way back in time, before writing was even invented, it was measures and counting that provided the armature, the frame on which the rich texture of real myth was to grow.

Thus we had returned to the true beginnings, in the Neolithic Revolution. We agreed that revolution was essentially technological. The earliest social scientist, Democritus of Abdera, put it in one striking sentence: men’s progress was the work not of the mind but of the hand. His late successors have taken him too literally, and concentrated on artifacts. They have been unaware of the enormous intellectual effort involved, from metallurgy to the arts, but especially in astronomy. The effort of sorting out and identifying the only presences which totally eluded the action of our hands led to those pure objects of contemplation, the stars in their courses. The Greeks would not have misapprehended that effort: they called astronomy the Royal Science. The effort at organizing the cosmos took shape from the supernal presences, those alone which thought might put in control of reality, those from which all arts took their meaning.

But nothing is so easy to ignore as something that does not yield freely to understanding. Our science of the past flowered in the fullness of time into philology and archaeology, as learned volumes on ancient philosophy have continued to pour forth, to little avail. A few masters of our own time have rediscovered these “preliterate” accomplishments. Now Dupuis, Kircher and Boll are gone like those archaic figures, and are equally forgotten. That is the devouring way of time. The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppies.

It is well known how many images of the gods have to do with the making of fire, and an American engineer, J. D. McGuire, discovered that also certain Egyptian images, until then unsuspected, presented deities handling a fire drill. Simple enough: fire itself was the link between what the gods did and what man could do. But from there, the mind had once been able to move on to prodigious feats of intellect. That world of the mind was fully worthy of those Newtons and Einsteins long forgotten–those masters, as d’ Alembert put it, of whom we know nothing, and to whom we owe everything.

We had the idea. It was simple and clear. But we realized that we would run into formidable difficulties, both from the point of view of modern, current scholarship and from the no less unfamiliar approach needed for method. I called it playfully, for short, “the cat on the keyboard,” for reasons that will appear presently. For how can one catch time on the wing? And yet the flow of time, the time of music, was of the essence, inescapable, baffling to the systematic mind. I searched at length for an inductive way of presentation. It was like piling Pelion upon Ossa. And yet this was the least of our difficulties. For we also had to face a wall, a veritable Berlin Wall, made of indifference, ignorance, and hostility. Humboldt, that wise master, said it long ago: First, people will deny a thing; then they will belittle it; then they will decide that it had been known long ago. Could we embark upon an enormous task of detailed scholarship on the basis of this more than dubious prospect? But our own task was set: to rescue those intellects of the past, distant and recent, from oblivion. “Thus saith the Lord God: ‘Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ ” Such poor scattered bones, ossa vehementer sicca, we had to revive.

This book reflects the gradually deepening conviction that, first of all, respect is due these fathers of ours. The early chapters will make, I think, for easy reading. Gradually, as we move above timberline, the reader will find himself beset by difficulties which are not of our making. They are the inherent difficulties of a science which was fundamentally reserved, beyond our conception. Most frustrating, we could not use our good old simple catenary logic, in which principles come first and deduction follows. This was not the way of the archaic thinkers. They thought rather in terms of what we might call a fugue, in which all notes cannot be constrained into a single melodic scale, in which one is plunged directly into the midst of things and must follow the temporal order created by their thoughts. It is, after all, in the nature of music that the notes cannot all be played at once. The order and sequence, the very meaning, of the composition will reveal themselves–with patience–in due time. The reader, I suggest, will have to place himself in the ancient “Order of Time.”

Troilus expressed the same idea in a different image: “He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding.”


Much of the research for this book was supported by a grant from the Twentieth Century Fund.

Lines from “As I Walked Out One Evening,” by W. H. Auden. Copyright 1940 and renewed 1968 by W. H. Auden. Reprinted from Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, by W. H. Auden, by permission of Random House, Inc.

Line from Ulysses by James Joyce, reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc. Copyright 1914, 1918 by Margaret Caroline Anderson. Copyright 1934 by The Modern Library. Copyright 1942, 1946 by Nora Joseph Joyce. New edition, corrected and reset, 1961.


Hamlet’s Mill

An essay on myth and the frame of time




David R. Godine, Publisher, Boston. 1977


The Precession of the Equinoxes, shown in the order of signs, with the dates marked on the left.
R. Eisler, The Royal Art of Astronomy, Herbert Joseph Ltd., London, 1946.

God creating the stars.
Courtesy Verlag Karl Alber, Freiburg im Breisgau.

The Precession of the Equinoxes.
Courtesy Stefan Fuchs, University of Frankfurt.

“The internal motion of the cosmic tree,”
according to North-West Africans.
Courtesy Institut d’Ethnologie, Paris.

The ways of the Demiurge during creation.
Courtesy International African Institute, London.

Mount Meru, the world mountain, rising from the sea.
A. Gruenwedel, Altbuddhistische Kultstaetten in Chinesisch Turkestan, D.
Reimer, Berlin, 1912.

The collapse of the hourglass-shaped Meru.
A. Gruenwedel, Altbuddhistische Kultstaetten in Chinesisch Turkestan, D.
Reimer, Berlin, 1912.

The Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus.(between 90-91)
Courtesy Tall Tree Library, Jenkintown, Pa.

The whirlpool, here called “Norvegianus Vortex.”
Athanasius Kircher, Mundus Subterraneus, 1665.

The subterranean flow of rivers.
Athanasius Kircher, Mundus Subterraneus, 1665.

How Kronos continually gives to Zeus “all the measures of the whole creation.”
Courtesy C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Munich.

The Precession of the Poles.
[1] [2]
Courtesy Flarnmarion Publishers, Paris.

Horus and Seth in the act of drilling or churning.
Egyptian Mythology, The Hamlyn Group, Middlesex, 1965.

The “incomparably mighty churn” of the Sea of Milk.
A. B. Keith, Indian Mythology, MAR 6, 1917.

The simplified version of the
Courtesy Smithsonian Institution.Press, Washington, D.C.

The Maya Codex Tro-Cortesianus presents the same event.
Courtesy Akademische Druck. una Verlagsanstalt, Graz.

The Mesopotamian constellation of the Bow and Arrow.
Courtesy Birkhauser Verlag, Basel.

The Chinese constellation of Bow and Arrow.
Courtesy’ Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague.

The star maps for the celestial globe.
Courtesy Cambridge University Press, New York.

Drawing the bow at Sirius, the celestial jackal.
J. C. Ferguson, Chinese Mythology, MAR 8, 1917.

The so-called “Round Zodiac” of Dendera.
Courtesy Springer Verlag, Berlin.

The Polyhedra inscribed into the planetary orbits.
Courtesy C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Munich.

A detailed illustration of the motions of the Trigon of Great Coniunctions.
Courtesy C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Munich.

The shepherd is shown on the left sighting first the pole star.”
R. Eisler, The Royal Art of Astronomy, Herbert Joseph Ltd., London, 1946.

The Chinese picture illustrates the surveying of the universe.
Sir Aurel Stein, Innermost Asia, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1928.

A terra-cotta mask of Humbaba/Huwawa.
S. Langdon, Semitic Mythology, MAR 5, 1931.

Tlaloc, the so-called “rain-god” of Mexico.
Courtesy Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, Graz.

The movements of the planets Mercury and Saturn.
Courtesy Verlag Freies Geistesleben, Stuttgart.

The Egyptian goddess Serqet, or Selket.
Courtesy Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, Cambridge.

A green jasper scarab of Greco-Phoenician origin shows the Scorpion lady.
Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 3.11.14, New York.

The Scorpion goddess in the Maya Codex Tro-Cortesianus.
Courtesy Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, Graz.

The Mesopotamian cylinder seal shows in the upper part the “God Boat.”
Courtesy Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.

The “God Boat” surrounded by the crescent moon, three single stars, and constellations.
Courtesy Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris.

The “God Boat” in the Maya Codex Tro-Cortesianus.
Courtesy Akademische Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, Graz.

The “God Boat” on the Arabian celestial globe made by Tabari.
P. Casanova, Bulletin of the Institut Franfais d’Archeologie Orientale 2, Editions A. & J. Picard et Cie., Paris, 1902.

The Pegasus-square, called “l-Iku,” with the circumjacent constellations.
Courtesy Birkhauser Verlag, Basel.

The same Babylonian constellation, according to A. Ungnad.
A. Ungnad, Das wiedergefundene Para dies, 1923.

The same square in the round and rectangular zodiacs of Dendera.
A. Ungnad, Das wiedergefundene Paradies, 1923.

A calabash from the Guinea Coast, Africa.
Courtesy Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, Muenster/Westfalen.

Another calabash from the Guinea Coast.
Courtesy Zeitschrift fur Ethnologie, Muenster/Westfalen.

The zodiacal Pisces, as drawn by the Toba Batak of Sumatra.
A. Maass, Tijdschrift voor Indische Taal-, Land-, en Volkenkunde 64, 66, 1924-26.

A New World picture, described as “composite animal.”
Courtesy American Anthropological Association, Washington, D.C.


The unbreakable fetters which bound down the Great Wolf Fenrir had been cunningly forged by Loki from these: the footfall of a cat, the roots of a rock, the beard of a woman, the breath of a fish, the spittle of a bird.

—The Edda


Toute vue des choses qui n’est pas étrange est fausse.


THIS IS meant to be only an essay. It is a first reconnaissance of a realm well-nigh unexplored and uncharted. From whichever way one enters it, one is caught in the same bewildering circular com­plexity, as in a labyrinth, for it has no deductive order in the abstract sense, but instead resembles an organism tightly closed in itself, or even better, a monumental “Art of the Fugue.”

The figure of Hamlet as a favorable starting point came by chance. Many other avenues offered themselves, rich in strange symbols and beckoning with great images, but the choice went to Hamlet because he led the mind on a truly inductive quest through a familiar landscape–and one which has the merit of its literary setting. Here is a character deeply present to our awareness, in whom ambiguities and uncertainties, tormented self-questioning and dispassionate insight give a presentiment of the modern mind. His personal drama was that he had to be a hero, but still try to avoid the role Destiny assigned him. His lucid intellect remained above the conflict of motives–in other words, his was and is a truly contemporary consciousness. And yet this character whom the poet made one of us, the first unhappy intellectual, concealed a past as a legendary being, his features predetermined, preshaped by long­standing myth. There was a numinous aura around him, and many clues led up to him. But it was a surprise to find behind the mask an ancient and all-embracing cosmic power-the original master of the dreamed-of first age of the world.

Yet in all his guises he remained strangely himself. The original Amlodhi, [* The indulgence of specialists is asked for the form of certain transliterations throughout the text; for example, Amlodhi instead of Amlodi, Grotte instead of Grotti, etc. (Ed.)] as his name was in Icelandic legend, shows the same characteristics of melancholy and high intellect. He, too, is a son dedicated to avenge his father, a speaker of cryptic but inescapable truths, an elusive carrier of Fate who must yield once his mission is accomplished and sink once more into concealment in the depths of time to which he belongs: Lord of the Golden Age, the Once and Future King.

This essay will follow the figure farther and farther afield, from the Northland to Rome, from there to Finland, Iran, and India; he will appear again unmistakably in Polynesian legend. Many other Dominations and Powers will materialize to frame him within the: proper order.

Amlodhi was identified, in the crude and vivid imagery of the Norse, by the ownership of a fabled mill which, in his own time, ground out peace and plenty. Later, in decaying times, it ground out salt; and now finally, having landed at the bottom of the sea, it is grinding rock and sand, creating a vast whirlpool, the Maelstrom (i.e., the grinding stream, from the verb mala, “to grind”), which is supposed to be a way to the land of the dead. This imagery stands, as the evidence develops, for an astronomical process, the secular shifting of the sun through the signs of the zodiac which determines world-ages, each numbering thousands of years. Each age brings a World Era, a Twilight of the Gods. Great structures collapse; pillars topple which supported the great fabric; floods and cataclysms herald the shaping of a new world.

The image of the mill and its owner yielded elsewhere to more sophisticated ones, more adherent to celestial events. In Plato’s powerful mind, the figure stood out as the Craftsman God, the Demi­urge, who shaped the heavens; but even Plato did not escape the idea he had inherited, of catastrophes and the periodic rebuilding of the world.

Tradition will show that the measures of a new world had to be procured from the depths of the celestial ocean and tuned with the measures from above, dictated by the “Seven Sages,” as they are often cryptically mentioned in India and elsewhere. They turn out to be the Seven Stars of Ursa, which are normative in all cosmological alignments on the starry sphere. These dominant stars of the Far North are peculiarly but systematically linked with those which are considered the operative powers of the cosmos, that is, the planets as they move in different placements and configurations along the zodiac. The ancient Pythagoreans, in their conventional language, called the two Bears the Hands of Rhea (the Lady of Turning Heaven), and called the planets the Hounds of Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Far away to the south, the mysterious ship Argo with its Pilot star held the depths of the past; and the Galaxy was the Bridge out of Time. These notions appear to have been common doctrine in the age before history-all over the belt of high civilizations around our globe. They also seem to have been born of the great intellectual and technological revolution of the late Neolithic period.

The intensity and richness, the coincidence of details, in this cumulative thought have led to the conclusion that it all had its origin in the Near East. It is evident that this indicates a diffusion of ideas to an extent hardly countenanced by current anthropology. But this science, although it has dug up a marvelous wealth of details, has been led by its modern evolutionary and psychological bent to forget about the main source of myth, which was astronomy–the Royal Science. This obliviousness is itself a recent turn of events–barely a century old. Today expert philologists tell us that Saturn and Jupiter are names of vague deities, subterranean or atmospheric, superimposed on the planets at a “late” period; they neatly sort out folk origins and “late” derivations, all unaware that planetary periods, sidereal and synodic, were known and rehearsed in numerous ways by celebrations already traditional in archaic times. If a scholar has never known those periods even from elementary science, he is not in the best position to recognize them when they come up in his material.

Ancient historians would have been aghast had they been told that obvious things were to become unnoticeable. Aristotle was proud to state it as known that the gods were originally stars, even if popular fantasy had later obscured this truth. Little as he believed in progress, he felt this much had been secured for the future. He could not guess that W. D. Ross, his modern editor, would condescendingly annotate: “This is historically untrue.” Yet we know that Saturday and Sabbath had to do with Saturn, just as Wednesday and Mercredi had to do with Mercury. Such names are as old as time; as old, certainly, as the planetary heptagram of the Harranians. They go back far before Professor Ross’ Greek philology. The inquiries of great and meticulous scholars such as Ideler, Lepsius, Chwolson, Boll and, to go farther back, of Athanasius Kircher and Petavius, had they only been read carefully, and noted, would have taught several relevant lessons to the historians of culture, but interest shifted to other goals, as can be seen from current anthropology, which has built up its own idea of the “primitive” and what came after.

One still reads in that most unscientific of records, the Bible, that God disposed all things by number, weight and measure; ancient Chinese texts say that “the calendar and the pitch pipes have such a close fit, that you could not slip a hair between them.” People read it, and think nothing of it. Yet such hints might reveal a world of vast and firmly established complexity, infinitely different from ours. But the experts now are benighted by the current folk fantasy, which is the belief that they are beyond all this–critics without nonsense and extremely wise.

In 1959 I wrote:

The dust of centuries had settled upon the remains of this great world-wide archaic construction when the Greeks came upon the scene. Yet something of it survived in traditional rites, in myths and fairy tales no longer understood. Taken verbally, it matured the bloody cults intended to procure fertility, based on the belief in a dark universal force of an ambivalent nature, which seems now to monopolize our interest. Yet its original themes could flash out again, preserved almost intact, in the later thought of the Pythagoreans and of Plato.

But they are tantalizing fragments of a lost whole. They make one think of those “mist landscapes” of which Chinese painters are masters, which show here a rock, here a gable, there the tip of a tree, and leave the rest to imagination. Even when the code shall have yielded, when the techniques shall be known, we cannot expect to gauge the thought of those remote ancestors of ours, wrapped as it is in its symbols.

Their words are no more heard again

Through lapse of many ages. . .

We think we have now broken part of that code. The thought behind these constructions of the high and far-off times is also lofty, even if its forms are strange. 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 (with the zodiac) was tilted up at an angle with respect to the equator, and the cycles of change came into being.

This is not to suggest that this archaic cosmology will show any great physical discoveries, although it required prodigious feats of concentration and computing. What it did was to mark out the unity of the universe, and of man’s mind, reaching out to its farthest limits. Truly, man is doing the same today.

Einstein said: “What is inconceivable about the universe, is that it should be at all conceivable.” Man is not giving up. When he discovers remote galaxies by the million, and then those quasi-stellar radio sources billions of light-years away which confound his speculation, he is happy that he can reach out to those depths. But he pays a terrible price for his achievement. The science of astrophysics reaches out on a grander and grander scale without losing its footing. Man as man cannot do this. In the depths of space he loses himself and all notion of his significance. He is unable to fit himself into the concepts of today’s astrophysics short of schizophrenia. Modern man is facing the nonconceivable. Archaic man, however, kept a firm grip on the conceivable by framing within his cosmos an order of time and an eschatology that made sense to him and reserved a fate for his soul. Yet it was a prodigiously vast theory, with no concessions to merely human sentiments. It, too, dilated the mind beyond the bearable, although without destroying man’s role in the cosmos. It was a ruthless metaphysics.

Not a forgiving universe, not a world of mercy. That surely not. Inexorable as the stars in their courses, miserationis parcissimae, the Romans used to say. Yet it was a world somehow not unmindful of man, one in which there was an accepted place for everything, rightfully and not only statistically, where no sparrow could fall unnoted, and where even what was rejected through its own error would not go down to eternal perdition; for the order of Number and Time was a total order preserving all, of which all were members, gods and men and animals, trees and crystals and even absurd errant stars, all subject to law and measure.

This is what Plato knew, who could still speak the language of archaic myth. He made myth consonant with his thought, as he built the first modern philosophy. We have trusted his clues as landmarks even on occasions when he professes to speak “not quite seriously.” He gave us a first rule of thumb; he knew what he was talking about.

Behind Plato there stands the imposing body of doctrine attributed to Pythagoras, some of its formulation uncouth, but rich with the prodigious content of early mathematics, pregnant with a science and a metaphysics that were to flower in Plato’s time. From it come such words as “theorem,” “theory,” and “philosophy.” This in its turn rests on what might be called a proto-Pythagorean phase, spread all over the East but with a focus in Susa. And then there was something else again, the stark numerical computing of Babylon. From it all came that strange principle: “Things are numbers.” Once having grasped a thread going back in time, then the test of later doctrines with their own historical developments lies in their congruence with tradition preserved intact even if half understood. For there are seeds which propagate themselves along the jetstream of time.

And universality is in itself a test when coupled with a firm design. When something found, say, in China turns up also in Babylonian astrological texts, then it must be assumed to be relevant, for it reveals a complex of uncommon images which nobody could claim had risen independently by spontaneous generation.

Take the origin of music. Orpheus and his harrowing death may be a poetic creation born in more than one instance in diverse places. But when characters who do not play the lyre but blow pipes get themselves flayed alive for various absurd reasons, and their identical end is rehearsed on several continents, then we feel we have got hold of something, for such stories cannot be linked by internal sequence. And when the Pied Piper turns up both in the medieval German myth of Hamelin and in Mexico long before Columbus, and is linked in both places with certain attributes like the color red, it can hardly be a coincidence. Generally, there is little that finds its way into music by chance.

Again, when one finds numbers like 108, or 9 X 13, reappearing under several multiples in the Vedas, in the temples of Angkor, in Babylon, in Heraclitus’ dark utterances, and also in the Norse Valhalla, it is not accident.

There is one way of checking signals thus scattered in early data, in lore, fables and sacred texts. What we have used for sources may seem strange and disparate, but the sifting was considered, and it had its reasons. Those reasons will be given later in the chapter on method. I might call it comparative morphology. The reservoir of myth and fable is great, but there are morphological “markers” for what is not mere storytelling of the kind that comes naturally. There is also wonderfully preserved archaic material in “secondary” primitives, like American Indians and West Africans. Then there are courtly stories and annals of dynasties which look like novels: the Feng Shen Yen I, the Japanese Nihongi, the Hawaiian Kumu­lipo. These are not merely fantasy-ridden fables.

In hard and perilous ages, what information should a well-born man entrust to his eldest son? Lines of descent surely, but what else? The memory of an ancient nobility is the means of preserving the arcana imperii, the arcana legis and the arcana mundi, just as it was in ancient Rome. This is the wisdom of a ruling class. The Polynesian chants taught in the severely restricted Whare-wiinanga were mostly astronomy. That is what a liberal education meant then.

Sacred texts are another great source. In our age of print one is tempted to dismiss these as religious excursions into homiletics, but originally they represented a great concentration of attention on material which had been distilled for relevancy through. a long period of time and which was considered worthy of being committed to memory generation after generation. The tradition of Celtic Druidism was delivered not only in songs, but also in tree-lore which was much like a code. And in the East, out of complicated games based on astronomy, there developed a kind of shorthand which became the alphabet.

As we follow the clues-stars, numbers, colors, plants, forms, verse, music, structures-a huge framework of connections is revealed at many levels. One is inside an echoing manifold where everything responds and everything has a place and a time assigned to it. This is a true edifice, something like a mathematical matrix, a World-Image that fits the many levels, and all of it kept in order by strict measure. It is measure that provides the countercheck, for there is much that can be identified and redisposed from rules like the old Chinese saying about the pitch pipes and the calendar. When we speak of measures, it is always some form of Time that provides them, starting from two basic ones, the solar year and the octave, and going down from there in many periods and intervals, to actual weights and sizes. What modern man attempted in the merely conventional metric system has archaic precedents of great complexity. Down the centuries there comes an echo of Al-Biruni’s wondering a thousand years ago, when that prince of scientists discovered that the Indians, by then miserable astronomers, calculated aspects and events by means of stars-and were not able to show him anyone star that he asked for. Stars had become items for them, as they were to become again for Leverrier and Adams, who never troubled to look at Neptune in their life although they had computed and discovered it in 1847. The Mayas and the Aztecs in their unending calculations seem to have had similar attitudes. The connections were what counted. Ultimately so it was in the archaic universe, where all things were signs and signatures of each other, inscribed in the hologram, to be divined subtly. And Number dominated them all (appendix #1).

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 world view 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 which 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.

It is undeniable that, notwithstanding our Classics Departments’ labors, the wilting away of classical studies, the abandonment of any living familiarity with Greek and Latin has cut the ompha­loessa, the umbilical cord which connected our culture–at least at its top level–with Greece, in the same manner in which men of the Pythagorean and Orphic tradition were tied up through Plato and a few others with the most ancient Near East. It is beginning to appear that this destruction is leading into a very up-to-date Middle Ages, much worse than the first. People will sneer: “Stop the World, I want to get off.” It cannot be changed, however; this is the way it goes when someone or other tampers with the reserved knowledge that science is, and was meant to represent.

But, 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.

Continue to Hamlet’s Mill: Part 2

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