Hamlet’s Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth

Hamlet’s Mill, subtitled An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth, is a vast work of comparative mythology, similar in scope and impact to the writings of Joseph Campbell. Giorgio de Santillana, a professor of the history of science at MIT, teamed up with researcher Hertha von Dechend, who had worked in West Africa and Polynesia, to write the book. It has had an inordinate impact on the studies of ancient writings, and particularly on the relevance of myth to understanding history and ethnographic studies.

The contention of de Santillana and von Dechend is that, prior to the traditionally accepted beginnings of “Western civilization” (i.e., Ancient Greece circa 800 BCE), cultures in many places around the world were aware of highly complex astronomical patterns and movements, and recorded these in myths that have been passed down to us. The central celestial mechanism that these myths referred to is the precession of the equinoxes — the 25,700-year cycle in which the Earth travels through the “houses” of the zodiac. According to de Santillana and von Dechend, this movement was envisioned as a “tree” or “tower” or “mill” above the Earth, and the figures of the zodiac were symbolized by various characters in oral and written literature.

The “Hamlet” of the title refers to the precursor of the Shakespeare play: the Nordic Amleth, or Amloidhe. As Snorri describes in his Skaldskaparmal: “The Nine Maids of the Island Mill stir amain the host-cruel skerry-quern — they who in ages past ground Hamlet’s meal. The good chieftain furrows the hull’s lair with his ship’s beaked prow. Here the sea is called Amlodhi’s Mill.” In the old myths, as in the play, Hamlet’s father is killed by his uncle. He undergoes a quest in which he brings gold to his home. On arriving, he brings down “the hanging his mother had knitted, which covered the inner as well as the outer walls of the hall,” killing himself and the lords of the land. A new king takes the throne.

In de Santillana’s and von Dechend’s interpretation, this story relates to many others across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas. The “mill,” which grinds out gold, is in fact the turning of the heavens. The eventual destruction, in which Hamlet brings down the “hanging his mother had knitted,” represents the periodic cataclysms that accompany the shifting alignments of the heavenly bodies.

A second story they dissect in great detail is the biblical story of Samson. They tie Samson to his powerful-hero counterparts Gilgamesh, Hercules, Thor, and (especially) Orion. Like Samson, Orion was a giant who wielded a weapon and was blinded. The authors note that the “jawbone of an ass” that Samson used to smite his enemies is explicitly tied in the Hebrew text to the Hyades. The hill where the jawbone was laid to rest was En-hak’kor-e, which, as the authors note “was the name given by the Babylonians to the Hyades, which were placed in Taurus as the ‘Jaw of the Bull.’” The constellation Taurus was known in many cultures around the world as a bull, even in environments that did not have cattle. In South America, the Hyades formed the jawbone of a tapir; in North America, Taurus was a buffalo. Taurus, it turns out, is a central figure in the (relatively) recent precession of the equinoxes, and its “death” (in reality, the passing of the Earth from its “house”) is symbolized in many cultures. The “Age of Taurus” spanned the years 4000 to 2000 BCE.

One of the great delights of the book is the sheer amount of material the authors draw on, and the dexterity with which they bring the various stories into play. For example, they touch on the story of King Arthur, whose anointment by drawing a sword from a stone has a counterpart in the Sanskrit skambha, or world axis. Skhamba, they note, is related to the Finnish Scampo, which is a great mythological mill, and is possibly also related to the word “Samson.” By drawing the sword, Arthur shifts the axis of the world; a new power assumes the throne.

The book, partly because of the density of its references and the compacted stories, is a slow, weighty read. However, the persistent reader will emerge, like the heroes the authors describe, with a golden treasure of stories and a new appreciation for the wisdom of the ancients.

Author of No Solid Ground: Renewable Contentment and Sustainable Happiness in an Age of Uncertainty.