Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend. Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time. Boston, Mass.: Nonpareil Books/David Godine Publisher, 1977. Paperback, xxvii + 505 pages.
When I first read this amazing and beautifully written volume in its original 1969 hardcover edition, I was both impressed by the authors’ scholarship and delighted with their discoveries. I requested this paperback version only recently, because I felt that this book should be reintroduced to a new generation of readers, who may not have come across it yet.
The authors take the reader on a breathtaking, if circuitous, journey through the history, astronomy, mythology, and symbolism in order to explore the point of contact between science and mythology. As they painstakingly show, prior to the advent of science myths have been the vehicle for astronomical knowledge, notably the precession of the equinoxes, which is the main focus of this work.
That the phenomenon of equinoctial precession should have been discovered thousands of years ago and, it would appear, prior to the invention of writing, is astonishing in itself. Mainstream historical opinion still stubbornly credits Hipparchus (c. 120 B.C.) with this important discovery. The Earth’s axial wobble causes the imaginary zodiac to jump into action, which led to the archaic notion of world ages. Today we are supposed to be at the beginning of the so-called Aquarian Age, which, as the ancient peoples would have it, brings new challenges and opportunities to humanity.
The authors start their intellectual foray with Shakespeare’s story of Hamlet, variants of which can be found around the world and which contains astronomical code. This idea seemed farfetched when the book was first published but today is almost universally accepted as true. Archaeostronomy has become a regular subdiscipline of the study of the history of science.
The ancient peoples were deeply concerned about the activities in the celestial realm—the “mill” of the heavens. They believed in the mirroring of cosmic events at the terrestrial, human level. “As above, so below.”
Hamlet’s Mill, bold in scope and brilliant in analysis and style, has its problems. As has often been pointed out, the organization of the massive amount of material leaves much to be desired and makes comprehension difficult. Also, the authors linkages between the mythology of different cultures are not always convincing, and they got some of their facts wrong. But such is the business of science. Fifty years from now, some of the “facts” adduced by de Santillana and von Dechend’s critics will undoubtedly also have found their way to the scrapheap of history, and then possibly some of the authors’ alleged errors may even not seem quite so wrong.
Whatever its shortcomings may be, this pioneering volume has rendered important yeoman service in correcting our understanding of prehistorical knowledge, and it contains numerous intellectual treasures that await discovery by the patient reader. Certainly it will test and enhance the reader’s literacy and capacity for analytical thought. I can heartily recommend Hamlet’s Mill to anyone concerned with the connection between science and myth or between the great celestial periodicities and ordinary life, and the meaning of everything.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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