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 of the earth out the astrological destiny of each individual human being.
Whether any such cosmic legend ever existed anywhere at all, all in one piece, seems, on the evidence of this book, to be extremely doubtful, but those who want to believe in such improbabilities as flying saucers are never likely to be put off by mere lack of evidence. The protests of Doubting Thomas can always be smothered by an avalanche of erudite footnotes—of which anon.
The whole enterprise is rather like a demonstration that Francis Bacon wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. Provided you are certain of your answers before you start, the clues and acrostics can be found almost anywhere. If you look hard enough, cosmic mills will emerge from the circle of Stonehenge or the painted calendars of Cortes’s Mexico—who knows? All things are possible.
Had the authors set themselves a more modest objective, their problem need not have proved wholly intractable. Every human society necessarily operates within some kind of framework of cosmological ideas which enable the people concerned to count on the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow morning and that the moon will wax and wane over the next thirty days. But we know that such cosmological systems can vary enormously, and our authors’ insistence that between about 4000 B.C. and 100 A.D. a single archaic system prevailed throughout most of the civilized and protocivilized world is pure fantasy. Their attempt to delineate the details of this system by abstraction from a world-wide scatter of random oddments of mythology is no more than an intellectual game.
If they had concentrated their analysis onto a geographically more limited range of materials, they could at least have produced a readable book which might then perhaps have carried some conviction.
As it is, only now and again, when the far-flung argument happens to impinge on something that we know already, does the text begin to make any sense at all. There is a nice point, for example, with regard to time and space. In Descartes’s system, which is roughly our own, space provides the fixed coordinates and time is that which moves, but “In Plato’s philosophy, Archaic Time stayed intact…[it] is the universe, like it circular and definite. It is the essence of definition…. In that world it was Space which, if taken by itself, brought in indefiniteness and incoherence” [p. 340]. Unfortunately, gems of this sort are hard to find. 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.
Hamlet’s name in the title is just a come-on, his connection with the story is tenuous. Shakespeare’s hero derived from Saxo Grammaticus’s Amlethus, and in an Icelandic work written about 1230 A.D. there is a reference to a place where “the sea is called Amlodhi’s Mill.” This is, I think, the only extant reference to the “shadowy Icelandic Amlodhi,” but we are assured that scholarship has shown that he is “identical” with Amlethus and hence with Hamlet. What this means, I don’t know. This kind of playing with names is characteristic of the whole exercise and leads back to an even more ancestral figure than Frobenius, namely the nineteenth-century Sanskritist, Max Müller. The latter was the originator of the doctrine that all mythology is “a disease of language” resulting from the personification of natural phenomena and the subsequent confusion of names.
One of Müller’s examples was: “Luchegenes, the son of light—Apollo, was changed into a son of Lycia, Delios, the bright one, which gave rise to the myth of the birth of Apollo in Delos.” Hamlet’s Mill is packed with this sort of thing, but the authors have got a bit behind the times. To take one example of many: It was proposed by Kuhn in 1852 that the name Prometheus is a corruption of Sanskrit Pra-mantha, a fire stick. Although this etymology has long ago been completely rejected as linguistically quite impossible (see Pauly-Wissowa Real Encyclopaedie Vol. XXXIII (i) (1957) p. 690) Hamlet’s Mill (pp. 139ff.) not only resurrects the equation but gives it enormous elaboration so that Prometheus’s fall from celestial grace is made to provide evidence that our ancestors of 6000 years ago could recognize a shifting in the position of the Pole Star!
This is all so silly that perhaps the proper treatment of the book would be to rate it as bedtime reading for the children—in its mixedup way it does contain many picturesque fables—but more serious condemnation is unavoidable. After all, the subject matter, the place of myth in human thought, has considerable importance and is currently the focus of much scholarly attention. The authors of Hamlet’s Mill are persons of distinction, and their views should carry weight: where then does their book fit in with the rapidly expanding literature in this field? The answer is: not at all. Despite their claims to scholarship the authors avoid all reference to the currently relevant literature! This is quite a feat and calls for elaboration.
The bibliography runs to thirty pages and includes at a rough estimate 750 separate items; in addition, almost every page is heavily laden with footnotes in the germanic style. These footnotes include dozens, perhaps hundreds, of references which do not appear in the bibliography. Since the Leitmotif of the book is that myth incorporates an ancient pre-classical corpus of astronomical knowledge, one might have expected that, in all this welter of supporting documentation, the authors would have found space to give the reader some clear guide as to where he might look for other recent (or even not so recent) treatments of the same theme, but this is not the case.
On the cosmological side, the names of Duhem, Martin, and Heath are all missing, and equally, in the field of myth analysis, the names of Cassirer, Lévi-Strauss, Eliade, and even Robert Graves, whose celebrated The White Goddess (1948) was an essay in the same style. Cassirer, it is true, earns as an afterthought three pages of uncalled-for abuse (pp. 326-328) apparently because the authors had come across his philosophy of Symbolic Forms (1924) only as they were going to press, but in all other respects they choose to ignore almost completely nearly everything that has been written about their subject matter over the past forty years. The single major exception is that they approve of Griaule’s work relating to the cosmological ideas of the Dogon of West Africa. Academic arrogance of this sort is impenetrable; in the certitude of their faith our authors are bound to dismiss all criticism as tendentious, and so, as critic, I have nothing left to say except that I do not believe a word of it.
But the skeptic need never feel browbeaten by the battery of footnotes and appendices. Half the time the authors get their references wrong anyway. For example, at p. 142 they blandly assert that “during the last hundred years it has been taken for granted that no one could have detected the Precession (of the Equinoxes) prior to Hipparchus’s alleged discovery of the phenomenon in 127 B.C.,” and they then go on to argue that evidence of a much earlier understanding of the phenomenon is to be found in ancient mythology. But this is just false. The issue has been discussed repeatedly, notably by Th. H. Martin who wrote a whole monograph on the subject, and Duhem (Le Système du Monde Volume II, Chapter 3). Incidentally, the topic was even discussed in the fifth century A.D. One good reason for thinking that Hipparchus’s discovery was not a piece of ancient knowledge resurrected was that Proclus Diadochus (410-485 A.D.) refused to believe in the Precession of the Equinoxes at all on the ground that, if it had been true, the Ancient Egyptians and the Chaldeans would have been aware of it!
But who cares about that?
February 12, 1970