Bedtime Story

Hamlet’s Mill

by Giorgio de Santillana, by Hertha von Dechend
Gambit, 484 pp., $10.00

As will presently be apparent, my reaction to this book is hostile—so, before my prejudices get out of hand, let me try to explain what it is all about. Both authors are internationally celebrated professors of the History of Science, the one from M.I.T., the other from Frankfurt. The latter has the additional qualification of having been a pupil of Leo Frobenius, the romantically inclined German ethnologist who, in 1897, originated the concept of Kulturkreis, an intellectual tool by means of which the geographical distribution of cultural elements might be used to reconstruct an historical sequence of hypothetical past civilizations.

In later years, when the Kultur-kreislehre had been misappropriated by the ethnologists of the Vienna school, the distinctive feature of Frobenius’s theorizing was the concept of Ergriffenheit (emotional involvement), which he held to be “the crucial event in the emergence of a culture. Once man is gripped by the world about him, the particular nature of the things in his world and the existential order within which he lives are revealed to him.” Frobenius has never been highly regarded by the professional anthropologists of the Anglo-Saxon world though, in retrospect, it can be seen that his work had a powerful influence on Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1935) and thence derivatively on the “Culture and Personality” phase of American anthropology.

All this is relevant because 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.

The particular fragment with which our authors are specially concerned is the poetic image by which the rotation of the sky around the pole star was conceived as a gigantic upper millstone driven by a cosmic whirlpool (maelstrom). The product of the mill was not only the salt and sand of the sea and soil …

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Letters

Credentials May 7, 1970