Who is Giorgio de Santillana and what is the controversy surrounding Hamlet’s Mill?

Giorgio de Santillana was Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). and co-author with Hertha von Dechend of the controversial book Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time (1969). Recently, I picked up a copy of Hugh W. Nibley’s “magnum opus” One Eternal Round and quickly scanned its contents to find any references to de Santillana’s works. I was pleasantly surprised to find numerous citations.

Previously, Dr. Nibley wrote the following:

Hamlets Mill In recent years the early myths have acquired a new status and dignity. A steady accumulation of comparative studies tying this to that and these to those now crams the stacks of our libraries. Spread out before the mind’s eye, their myriad pages interweave into a grandiose texture, a vast shadowy tapestry in which we begin to discern the common backdrop of all history and religion. But the books are still sedulously segregated and widely distributed among the floors and alcoves of the library, and to bring them all together into the one organic whole from which they were taken is a task that will yet tax the capacity of the computer. Meanwhile, we must imagine the pieces of this huge jigsaw puzzle as heaped in separate piles, each representing a special field of study or cultural area, from Iceland to Polynesia. To date no one has taken the trouble to integrate the materials in even one of these hundred-odd piles; and as to taking up the whole lot and relating every pile to every other, so far only a few bold suggestions have come from men of genius like G. Santillana, Cyrus Gordon, or Robert Graves, whose proposals get chilly reception from specialized scholars who can only be alarmed by such boldness and appalled by the work entailed in painting the whole picture. But such study as has been done shows us that the old myths are by no means pure fiction, any more than they are all history. As the Muses told Hesiod, “We know both how to fib and how to tell the truth”; and, as Joseph Smith learned of the Apocrypha, “there are many things contained therein that are true, and there are many things contained therein that are not true” (see D&C 91)—all of which means that we must be very careful in accepting and condemning.1

Born in Rome, Giorgio de Santillana received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Rome and did graduate work in philosophy in Paris and physics at the University of Milan. He was an assistant to Federigo Enriques2 at Rome and was asked to help organise a department for the History of Science.” In the 1930’s, he emigrated from Italy to the United States and joined the faculty at M.I.T in 1941 as Professor of English and History.3 He was the author of numerous works such as:

  • The Crime of Galileo
  • Dialogue on the Great World Systems (ed.)
  • The Renaissance Philosophers – The Age of Adventure
  • The Development of Rationalism and Empiricism
  • The Origins of Scientific Thought

Why was – and is – Hamlet’s Mill controversial? In The New York Review of Books, Sir Edmund Ronald Leach, a British social anthropologist, wrote disparagingly:

. . . the murky confusion generated by reading any random twenty pages of Hamlet’s Mill is strongly reminiscent of Frobenius. Indeed, the whole operation is not much more than a gloss on two early works of that extraordinary author, Die Mathematik der Oceaner (1900) and Das Zeitalter des Sonnengottes (1904).

The theme of Hamlet’s Mill is that once upon a time (when or where is not very clear, but 4000 B.C. somewhere in the Middle East seems to be what the authors have in mind) there was an archaic civilization whose members had a sophisticated theory of the relations between time and astronomy. This theory rested on an understanding of the annual cycle of the constellations of the Zodiac and a recognition of the precession of the equinoxes, knowledge of which had been incorporated into a coherent cosmological schema expressed in the language of myth. Later mythological systems whether recorded in Greece in the fourth century B.C., in Scandinavia in the twelfth century A.D., or North Africa, or Guiana, or Polynesia at the present day, are all truncated remnants of this ancient astrological-astronomical mythology, and close attention to these “relics, fragments and allusions that have survived the steep attrition of the ages” will allow part of the ancient knowledge to be reconstructed.4

In response, Dr. de Santillana wrote concerning this “specialized scholar”:

Mr. Leach, the English anthropologist chosen to review my book, is cited by you as the author of several books dealing with the tribal relations of primitive villages, especially of the Far East. Dr. von Dechend and I, co-authors of Hamlet’s Mill, are historians of science, to which anthropology is a recent and very “step” relation. Moreover, ten years of specific studies in technical astronomy, ancient and archaeological history and myth lie behind the writing of Hamlet’s Mill. Mr. Leach was assigned by your publication a whole page in which to evaluate the book for an American audience innocent of his lack of authority—a lack of authority which is not suggested in his own comment except for his kind allusion to the reputation of the authors. The review itself, couched in irrelevant and inapplicable terms, nonetheless implies an expert knowledge in the field of the book and is made none the more graceful by its offensively jocular tone.

In the publishing of over twenty books in my career, I have never before written to protest an adverse review. This one was so totally unjustified that I must ask you to give this letter of protest equal space and prominence with Mr. Leach’s review.5

And thus the so-called controversy began. Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, who was a member of the humanities faculty at M.I.T. from 1965 to 1968 had this to say about the book:

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.6

De Santillana and von Dechend’s Hamlet’s Mill is literally pregnant with meaning. However, it is difficult to decipher and understand. In searching for a somewhat coherent review of the book I happened across this:

There are essentially two separate theses in Hamlet’s Mill. The first thesis deals with the coherent nature of myths all over the world. This thesis takes up the majority of the book and is the primary thesis. The assertion is that all major mythologies from all over the world are fundamentally connected. To prove this the authors show the connections and similarities of myths from every major cultural group. The major point of this thesis is to show the reason why myths all over the world have a similar form is that they all draw from the same source, astronomy. The authors argue that myths from all over the world originally were references to astronomical observations. Thus all myths have common connecting threads and references.

They state that the only way to explain these similarities is to use astronomical observations, something the archeological and anthropological communities seemed to have ignored up to that point. In the introduction and the first few chapters the authors make a big deal out of the fact that other scholars in their field have never considered an astronomical (or cosmological) explanation to myths and legends. Therefore the authors feel it imperative that they explain their thesis so that others will consider this possibility. From their assessment it is the only explanation which makes sense, due to the striking similarities between myths all over the world. Furthermore they try to establish a direct connection between the myths and the actual astronomical observations made by ancient cultures.

By establishing a link between the different constellations and the growth and spread of the myths through out the world, the authors are attempting to show that the mythologies of ancient (and modern!) cultures first grew out of astronomy. This is to say that highly specific and accurate astronomical observations grew into and became the major world mythologies, as opposed to the commonly accepted idea that world myths (myths of creation and world phenomena such as weather) were the basis of and the inspiration for the original astronomical observations. To present it schematically the commonly accepted theory of the development of mythologies, and by extension astronomy, would be:

Mysticism –> Mythology –> Astronomical Observations motivated by the mythology –> Modern Astronomy

This is contrasted with the author’s approach which can be characterized thus:

Accurate Astronomical Observations –> Mythology motivated by the observations –> More Recent Astronomical Observations –> Modern Astronomy

The authors also argue that mysticism, at least the ancient mysticism that we “know” of grew out of the mythologies after people had forgotten that the myths were simply a way of remembering the complex astronomical observations. This conclusion and the reasoning behind the authors’ approach is based on an assumption that is central to the author’s second thesis.

The second thesis given in the book is most clearly expressed after Chapter Four in what they call an Intermezzo (Intermission), aptly titled A Guide for the Perplexed. In this chapter they pause in their narration of the myths and legends related to the story of Hamlet, to “take stock” and give some guidance to the admittedly complex narration. While they take this intermission to introduce the first and primary thesis they also incidentally layout the secondary thesis. The secondary thesis is arguably the more important of the the two and provides greater and farther reaching insight into ancient cultures. As presented by the authors the second thesis is no more than conjecture but gains support from the validity of the first thesis.

The second thesis is founded on the idea of cyclic time as opposed to linear time. This idea is integral with and underlies all arguments made by the authors regarding ancient cultures and how we should view them. The concept of cyclic time as opposed to linear time has two major applications in studying and understanding ancient cultures. The first deals with understanding how the ancient people viewed the world and the proper mindset that we should have in attempting to understand them. The second deals primarily with how we view them and their abilities of reason.

To understand the second thesis and its implications we need to understand the concept of cyclic time. Suffice it to say that our modern concept of time is inextricably linked to the concept of linear time, so being able to understand cyclic time is perhaps the hardest part of understanding anything in Hamlet’s Mill. In considering the ancient concept of cyclic time we must admit that we are approaching it with a bias (even by using the word ancient we express our bias) and we must be prepared to give up all that we know or think we know about the world.

As the authors tell it, the academic community does more than merely overlook the concept of cyclic time, they either ignore it or hold it in contempt, but they contend that if we are to understand anything about ancient cultures we must understand the concept of cyclic time. I have previously run across the concept from two unrelated sources so, since Hamlet’s Mill was written it seems that the concept has at least been mentioned in academic circles but the lack of more mention of it is a good indication that there has been absolutely no progress in understanding ancient cultures since Hamlet’s Mill was published.

To put it simply the modern concept of time is linear and the ancient concept of time involves cycles. To put it bluntly, ancient peoples did not view the world the same way we do. For us we think of time as having a definite duration and direction, as in thinking of time as an arrow. For ancient people time repeated itself just like a wheel will rotate and come back to where it started from. Time consists of cycles, the cycle of a day (the sun rises it moves through the sky, it sets and starts over), the changing of the seasons, the movements of the planets, stars and moon. Even the cycle of life repeats itself. Thus to the ancient cultures all things were governed by cycles of time, some longer and some shorter.

Indeed the different cycles of time could be ordered in such a way from the least to the greatest, with the greater (longer) governing the lesser (shorter), just as the equinoxes govern the seasons and the seasons the days (that is the seasons determine what the days will be like, and the equinoxes govern when the seasons will come). So as there are cycles which govern each aspect of life it is the longer cycles that ultimately govern over all other cycles and the longest cycle that ancient cultures knew of was the precession of the equinoxes, which has an approximately 26,000 year cycle. Thus as the precession of the equinoxes was the longest and greatest known cycle it governed over and determined all others. To the ancient mind it could be considered the ultimate driving force behind all aspects of life. Just as the seasons bring with them warmth and life or cold and death, the thing which governed over the seasons (the equinoxes) were thus more important for determining the fate of men. With this in mind it would only be natural to conclude that that which governed over the equinoxes was more important than them all.7

For the intrepid, an online version of the book can be found here.

Sources:

  1. Myths and Scriptures”. Old Testament and Related Studies. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1986. 41. This article was originally published in the October 1971 New Era magazine.
  2. An Italian mathematician who is known as  “the first to give a classification of algebraic surfaces in birational geometry.” Wikipedia. 29 May 2010.
  3. Thompson, Garyd D. “Critics and Criticisms of Hamlet’s Mill”. 29 May 2010.
  4. Bedtime Story”. 29 May 2010. The entire review is not available online. A subscription is necessary to read the whole of the book review.
  5. “In Response to Bedtime Story”. 12 Feb 1970. The New York Review of Books. 29 May 2010.
  6. The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light: Mythology, Sexuality, and the Origins of Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. 268-269. Google Book Search. Retrieved 29 May 2010. See also the picture of the “altar” or millstone from San Luis, Colorado at his personal web site on the page entitled “The Lindisfarne Chapel”.
  7. Quantumleap42. “Book Review: Hamlet’s Mill”. 12 Jul 2009. 29 May 2010.

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  1. Tyler’s avatar

    Anthony Larson’s work delves a lot into this very theme.

  2. Greg’s avatar

    Yes it does, and his site is in our blogroll.

  3. Agent Snowflake’s avatar

    Song on the Equinox – Thank you Greg
    *
    Sing me a song on the precession of the
    equinoxes, sing me a song that will lift my
    heart above the here and now and give me
    hope for a revival of hope and belief, sing
    me a song about the sun’s ancient meaning
    to kindle the fire of passion in my mind:

    ‘Myths tell about stars and planets, the sky
    above, true observations by ancient peoples,
    says De Santillana, myths commemorate
    complex cosmological facts – the modern
    idea of linear time as an arrow flying for
    a duration in a certain direction, differs
    from ancient concepts of cyclic time

    The ancients conceived time repeats itself –
    like a rotating wheel returning to a starting
    point in daily cycles, rising sun moving
    through sky, setting, starting again,
    the changing of seasons, the
    planets, moon and stars
    moving about

    The cycle of life repeating itself
    governed by time cycles, the longer
    cycles governing shorter ones – therefore
    the equinoxes determine when seasons will
    come while the seasons determine what
    the days will be like

    Cycles govern all aspects of
    life, precession of the equinoxes
    as the longest cycle of 26,000 years
    governs all other cycles, the driving
    force behind all aspects of life
    determines the fate of men’

    I LOVE these theories inspiring authors like
    Zecheria Sitchen to interpret the meaning of
    ancient myths, concluding modern astronomy
    is recapturing ancient knowledge; what a thrill
    to delight in ancient times being victorious
    over the limitations of modern theories!

    Summary of information found at:

    Hamlet’s Mill • Believe All Things
    http://www.believeallthings.com/4667/hamlets-mill/#ixzz0qGOvODKd

    “Hamlet’s Mill”
    An essay on myth and the frame of time
    GIORGIO de SANTILLANA & HERTHA von DECHEND
    David R. Godine . Publisher. Boston. 1977
    *
    Thank you Greg for directing me to Hamlet’s Mill on line, I am reading it now and enjoying it veruy much!

  4. Agent Snowflake’s avatar

    Panmathematizing Ideation*

    I know the power of unbounded belief
    the excitement of mystery, but why
    should we see the belief of the ancients
    as so much more superior than ours
    why should we feel inferior when we
    read of the archaic sense of time

    I believe we have the power to make
    anything true; to reinstate the feeling
    of determination that held sway over
    the ancients does not seem more
    preferable to me than present-day
    wide-ranging ideas and dreams

    I LOVE learning about ancient culture
    and their obsession with mills grinding
    out of control and world ages lasting
    26 000 years at least; but why should
    everything modern be regarded as
    inferior by De Santillana

    And Von Dechend, surely there must
    be place for everybody and every theory?
    I prefer making freedom my doctrine to
    the belief that the universe is ‘determined
    on many levels at once’ – why should we
    subscribe to ‘panmathematizing ideation’

    Just because our brilliant forefathers did?

    http://www.believeallthings.com/4667/
    hamlets-mill/#ixzz0qGOvODKd

    Quote taken from:

    “Hamlet’s Mill”
    An essay on myth and the frame of time
    GIORGIO de SANTILLANA & HERTHA von DECHEND
    David R. Godine Publisher Boston 1977

  5. Steven F. Lornitzo’s avatar

    I merely wanted to add to Greg’s fine article by simply saying that the discovery of precession, and the acknowledgment and maintenance of its reality inspired the construction of the pyramids, the great sphinx, stonehenge, cuzco, and was preserved in mediaeval cathedral construction–as we have learned more definitely since. Santillana considers that the zodiac is far far older than we can know, for instance and this makes sense, since the stars of the zodiac would serve as mile-posts along the vast precessionary cycle. Finally, the book was certainly not the kind of thing one could just breeze through. One had to set aside some time for reading, meditation, and further research. I strongly believe that Giorgio de Santillana was as astounded as many of us now are, just how unpredictable the past is becoming, and how shakey are the foundations of our haughty belief that we are at the pinacle of human achievement.

  6. Travis’s avatar

    Late comment, but I enjoyed the post. I have read Hamlet’s Mill a couple of times and am still far from assimilating most of it. It should be noted that the mature Nibley appears to be much less impressed by it than he had been earlier, to judge by his comment in the preface to the article “The Sacrifice of Isaac” in Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless, where he says “Finally men like Graves and Santillana [he leaves out Gordon, significantly, I think] who confront us with huge agglomerations of somehow connected matter that sticks together in one loose, gooey mass, compacted of countless resemblances that are hard to explain, but equally hard to deny.”

    For what it is worth.

    A small quibble: surely the book is not literally pregnant?

    Thanks for the post, there should be more of this sort of thing.

  7. Greg’s avatar

    Travis – You might be surprised. Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless was published in 1978. A number of his later works contain numerous citations from de Santillana’s works, and many reference concepts that were first presented in Hamlet’s Mill, but are not explicitly stated. While Hamlet’s Mill is certainly “pregnant” with meaning, it is also rewarding to study and contemplate some of the book’s tentative conclusions. At least that’s my take!

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