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Hamlet's Mill

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Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth
1st hardcover edition, dust cover art
AuthorGiorgio de Santillana, Hertha von Dechend
Cover artistWilliam Barss (1st hardcover edition, Gambit, 1969);
Sara Eisenman (1st paperback edition, 1977)
SubjectMythology and Astronomy
PublisherGambit Incorporated (1969, hardcover, 1st edition, 1st printing);
Harvard University Press (1969, hardcover);
David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. (1977, softcover)
Publication date
November 1969
Publication placeUnited States
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages505 (1st paperback edition; includes the 25 chapters, 39 appendices, bibliography and indices)
ISBN0-87645-008-7 (Harvard)
LCCN 69013267 (Gambit)
ISBN 978-0-87923-215-3 (Godine)

Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and Its Transmission Through Myth (first published by Gambit, Boston, 1969) by Giorgio de Santillana (a professor of the history of science at MIT) and Hertha von Dechend (a scientist at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität) is a nonfiction work of history and comparative mythology, particularly the subfield of archaeoastronomy. It is mostly about the claim of a Megalithic era discovery of axial precession and the encoding of this knowledge in mythology. The book was severely criticized by academics upon its publication.



The main argument of the book may be summarized as the claim of an early (Neolithic) discovery of the precession of the equinoxes (usually attributed to Hipparchus, 2nd century BC), and an associated very long-lived Megalithic civilization of "unsuspected sophistication" that was particularly preoccupied with astronomical observation. The knowledge of this civilization about precession, and the associated astrological ages, was encoded in mythology, typically in the form of a story relating to a millstone and a young protagonist—the "Hamlet's Mill" of the book's title, a reference to the kenning Amlóða kvern recorded in the Old Icelandic Skáldskaparmál.[1] The authors indeed claim that mythology is primarily to be interpreted as in terms of archaeoastronomy ("mythological language has exclusive reference to celestial phenomena"), and they mock alternative interpretations in terms of fertility or agriculture.[2]

The book's project is an examination of the "relics, fragments and allusions that have survived the steep attrition of the ages".[3] In particular, the book reconstructs a myth of a heavenly mill which rotates around the celestial pole and grinds out the world's salt and soil, and is associated with the maelstrom. The millstone falling off its frame represents the passing of one age's pole star (symbolized by a ruler or king of some sort), and its restoration and the overthrow of the old king of authority and the empowering of the new one the establishment of a new order of the age (a new star moving into the position of pole star). The authors attempt to demonstrate the prevalence of influence of this hypothetical civilization's ideas by analysing the world's mythology (with an eye especially to all "mill myths") using

[...] cosmographic oddments from many eras and climes...a collection of yarns from Saxo Grammaticus, Snorri Sturluson ("Amlodhi's mill" as a kenning for the sea!), Firdausi, Plato, Plutarch, the Kalevala, Mahabharata, and Gilgamesh, not to forget Africa, the Americas, and Oceania....[4]

Santillana and Dechend state in their introduction to Hamlet's Mill that they are well aware of modern interpretations of myth and folklore but find them shallow and lacking insight: "...the experts now are benighted by the current folk fantasy, which is the belief that they are beyond all this - critics without nonsense and extremely wise". Consequently, Santillana and Dechend prefer to rely on the work of "meticulous scholars such as Ideler, Lepsius, Chwolson, Boll and, to go farther back, of Athanasius Kircher and Petavius..."

They give reasons throughout the book for preferring the work of older scholars (and the early mythologists themselves) as the proper way to interpret myth; but this viewpoint did not sit well with their modern critics schooled in the "current anthropology, which has built up its own idea of the primitive and what came after".[5]

Santillana had previously published, in 1961, The Origins of Scientific Thought, on which Hamlet's Mill is substantially based. Compare various statements in Hamlet's Mill to this quotation from The Origin of Scientific Thought: "We can see then, how so many myths, fantastic and arbitrary in semblance, of which the Greek tale of the Argonaut is a late offspring, may provide a terminology of image motifs, a kind of code which is beginning to be broken. It was meant to allow those who knew (a) to determine unequivocally the position of given planets in respect to the earth, to the firmament, and to one another; (b) to present what knowledge there was of the fabric of the world in the form of tales about 'how the world began'."[6]



Hamlet's Mill was severely criticized by academic reviewers[7] on a number of grounds: tenuous arguments based on incorrect or outdated linguistic information;[8] lack of familiarity with modern sources;[9] an over-reliance on coincidence or analogy;[10] and the general implausibility of a far-flung and influential civilization existing and not leaving behind solid evidence. At most, it has been given a grudging sort of praise. Thus, Jaan Puhvel (1970) concluded that

This is not a serious scholarly work on the problem of myth in the closing decades of the twentieth century. There are frequent flashes of insight, for example, on the cyclical world views of the ancients and on the nature of mythical language, as well as genuinely eloquent, quasi-poetic homilies.[4]

Writing in The New York Review of Books, Edmund Leach noted:

[The] authors' insistence that between about 4000 B.C. and 100 A.D. a single archaic system prevailed throughout most of the civilized and proto-civilized world is pure fantasy. Their attempt to delineate the details of this system by a worldwide scatter of random oddments of mythology is no more than an intellectual game. [...] 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.[11]

H. R. Ellis Davidson referred to Hamlet’s Mill as:

[...] amateurish in the worst sense, jumping to wild conclusions without any knowledge of the historical value of the sources or of previous work done. On the Scandinavian side there is heavy dependence on the fantasies of Rydberg, writing in the last [19th] century, and apparent ignorance of progress made since his time.[12]

In contrast the classical scholar Harald Reiche positively reviewed Hamlet's Mill.[13] Reiche was a colleague of Santillana at MIT, and himself developed the archaeoastronomical interpretation of ancient myth in a series of lectures and publications similar to Hamlet's Mill (dealing more specifically with Greek mythology), including an interpretation of "the layout of Atlantis as a sort of map of the sky".[14]

The Swedish astronomer Peter Nilson, while recognizing that Hamlet's Mill does not qualify as a work of science, expressed admiration for it as well as it being a source of inspiration when he wrote his own book on classic mythologies based on the night sky: Himlavalvets sällsamheter (1977).

Barber & Barber (2006), itself a study aiming to "uncover seismic, geological, astrological, or other natural events" from mythology, appreciates the book for its pioneer work in mythography, judging that "Although controversial, [Santillana and von Dechend] have usefully flagged and collected Herculean amounts of relevant data."[15] Nevertheless, the conclusions the authors draw from their data have been "virtually ignored by the scientific and scholarly establishment.”[16]

Publishing history


The full hardcover title is Hamlet's Mill: An Essay on Myth & the Frame of Time. Later softcover editions would use Hamlet's Mill: An Essay Investigating the Origins of Human Knowledge and its Transmission Through Myth. The English edition was hastily assembled and published five years prior to Santillana's death. Hertha von Dechend (who is generally held to have written most of the book)[17] prepared an expanded second edition several years later. The essay was reissued by David R. Godine, Publisher in 1992. The German translation, which appeared in 1993, is slightly longer than the original. The 8th Italian edition of 2000 was substantially expanded.[18]

  • First English paperback edition: Boston: Godine, 1977
  • Italian editions: Giorgio de Santillana, Hertha von Dechend, Il mulino di Amleto. Saggio sul mito e sulla struttura del tempo (Milan: Adelphi, 1983, 552 pages). Giorgio de Santillana, Hertha von Dechend, Il mulino di Amleto. Saggio sul mito e sulla struttura del tempo (Milan: Adelphi, 2000, 8th expanded Italian edition, 630 pages)
  • German edition: Giorgio de Santillana, Hertha von Dechend: Die Mühle des Hamlet. Ein Essay über Mythos und das Gerüst der Zeit (Berlin : Kammerer und Unverzagt, 1993. ISBN 3-926763-23-X)
  • French edition: Giorgio de Santillana; Hertha von Dechend, Claude Gaudriault (tr.) Le moulin d'Hamlet : la connaissance, origine et transmission par les mythes (Paris : Editions Edite, 2012)

See also


Further reading



  1. ^ Chapter VI, Amlodhi's Quern: "Shakespeare's Gentle Prince [...] who was known once upon a time as a personage of no ordinary power, of universal position, and, in the North, as the owner of a formidable mill. [...] The Mill is thus not only very great and ancient, but it must also be central to the original Hamlet story. It reappears in the ' Skaldskaparmal, where Snorri explains why a kenning for gold is 'Frodhi's meal'"
  2. ^ "Nevertheless, the expression of this proto-scientific vision of the cosmos was not mathematical but mythological. All the gods are stars, and mythological language has exclusive reference to celestial phenomena: for example, "earth" in myth means only "the ideal plane laid through the ecliptic" (p. 58); all stories of floods "refer to an old astronomical image" (p. 57). Without bothering to refute alternative positions which hold that some, at least, of the gods and myths stemmed from concern with fertility or meteorological phenomena, the authors merely mock "the fertility addicts" (p. 308) and "the Fecundity-'Trust" (p. 381)." White (1970:541).
  3. ^ Hamlet's Mill, as quoted in Leach 1970
  4. ^ a b Puhvel, Jaan (1 December 1970). "Hamlet's Mill. An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time". Reviews of Books. The American Historical Review. 75 (7): 2009–2010. doi:10.1086/ahr/75.7.2009. JSTOR 1848027.
  5. ^ All quotations are from the Introduction to Hamlet's Mill, first edition.
  6. ^ As quoted in pages 35-36 of Feyerabend, Paul (2000). Against Method (3rd ed.). London: Verso. ISBN 0-86091-481-X.
  7. ^ "The cowed reviewer is soon reduced to wondering whether mere critical prose should even be expended on something that obviously solicits the suspension of disbelief." Puhvel (1970). "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." (Leach 1970) "De Santillana has served us well once more by underscoring a pioneering idea, but von Dechend's implementation of that idea will prevent many scholars from recognizing its validity." White (1970).
  8. ^ "The long-forgotten period-piece etymologies of Max Müller and Adalbert Kuhn ("surely a great scholar", p. 381) are blithely resurrected (for example, Sanskrit Pramantha matching Greek Prometheus, p. 139), while more up-to-date authorities are caricatured as "severe philologists, slaves to exact 'truth'" (p. 294). Puhvel (1970)
  9. ^ "..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 [...] Academic arrogance of this sort is impenetrable; in the certitude of their faith out 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." Leach 1970.
  10. ^ "Her only proofs are analogy, often strained. On a single page (425) she connects myths of Greece, Japan, Egypt, Iceland, the Marquesas, and the Cherokee Indians. On page 309, a rabbinical and a Pawnee tradition show "mistakable" identity. On page 320 we read "here ancient Greek myth suddenly emerges in full light among Indian tribes in America, miraculously preserved." One might quote such passages indefinitely." White (1970:541).
  11. ^ Leach, Edmund (12 February 1970). "Bedtime Story". The New York Review of Books. 14. American Historical Association: 36.
  12. ^ Davidson, H. R. Ellis (1974). "Review of Hamlet's Mill". Folklore. 85: 282–283.
  13. ^ "Hamlet's Mill, review by: Harald A. T. Reiche". (1973). The Classical Journal, 69(1): 81-83.
  14. ^ "1980JHAS...11...95T Page 100".
  15. ^ Barber, Elizabeth Wayland and Barber, Paul T., When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. 2006. Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-12774-3. p. 185, n.3.
  16. ^ Roy G. Willis and Patrick Curry (2004), Astrology, Science and Culture: Pulling Down the Moon, p.45.
  17. ^ "The mass of the book, including thirty-nine appendices, is clearly von Dechend's work." White (1970:541).
  18. ^ From 552 to 630 pages (see 'Editions').
  • White, Jr., Lynn (Winter 1970). "Untitled review of Hamlet's Mill. An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time". Isis. 61 (4): 540–541. doi:10.1086/350690. JSTOR 229468.