The Problem of the Code

One of the more unfortunate aspects of the "creeping evolution'' mindset is the idea that scientific knowledge can only be handed down through the written word, along with the concomitant notion that the only knowledge that can be passed on orally is of a mythological or roughly historical nature (traditions, lives of the ancestors, etc.).

But if you think about it for a moment, you realize that there is no reason why this should be so. Information of the quantitative sort, such as scientific information, could have been committed to memory and repeated just as easily as any other, just as it could have been recorded on alternative "supports" that we might not even recognize as such, like a Quipu.

A further, interesting possibility, however, is that information was codified. Codification of astronomical knowledge might be embedded in a variety of ways in any number of practices. It could have been incorporated into rituals, like the period of invisibility of Sirius that coincided with the duration of the mummification ritual in ancient Egypt, or it may have been materially manifested in a building or other architectural structure, like the duration of the 260-day "religious" calendar, codified at Teotihuacan in the orientation of the city's layout. In other cases it may have taken the form of elitary knowledge reserved for adepts, such as the memorization of the Vedas (Chapter 5), just as it could have been embedded in esoteric occult practices. However, even if knowledge was actually passed on in any or all of these ways, it should not be necessarily thought of in terms of a "secret code.'' Mythology, for example, by definition available to all, is acknowledged to have been used for the transmission of technical information, and it is possible that it was also used to pass on astronomical knowledge.

The first scholars to systematically investigate the idea that mythology contains a code for the transmission of ancient astronomical knowledge were Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha Von Dechend in their study Hamlet's Mill (1983). The Mill is a highly complex book, written by two people with encyclopedic knowledge that enables them to move about in space and time with balletic ease. It has often been misinterpreted, particularly by those driven to expose at all costs its mystical or blatantly ahistorical aspects. Yet the central hypothesis of the book is quite simple and, in principle, provable: de Santillana and Von Dechend posit that myth—typically, but not necessarily handed down without the use of the written word—may constitute a sort of technical language, analogous to the "language" of chemistry, devised to describe celestial events, in particular the existence and dynamics of the precessional cycle. Indeed, although every book of history of science reports that the discovery of precession was made by Hipparchus of Rhodes around 127 BC, and therefore quite "late," the Egyptians, Babylonians, and other civilizations had been studying astronomy for millennia.

According to de Santillana and Von Dechend, all of the cultures that took a deep interest in astronomy (the aforementioned Babylonians and Egyptians, but also the Mayas and the Indo-Sarasvati) were quick to recognize the phenomenon of precession, though this neither implies nor excludes that they would have understood the physical reasons for it. de Santillana and Von Dechend maintain that, in a certain sense, the discovery was traumatic—so traumatic as to have been cast as the cornerstone of the principal cosmological myths. The trauma was that precession is a rupture of the harmonically cyclical repetition of the celestial rhythms. In particular, precession causes the constellations of the ecliptic plane to appear ever later for their appointment with the sunrise, eventually giving way to the next constellation. So the position of the equinox point that moves along the ecliptic plane demarcates extremely long "hours" of the precessional cycle, each of which measures the duration of the sun's being in a given constellation. Since there are 12 constellations of the zodiac and the cycle lasts approximately 26,000 years, each "hour" is roughly 2,200 years long.

According to de Santillana and Von Dechend, the discovery of precession was, thus, traumatic because precession is almost hidden, a phenomenon whose rhythm is so slow as to be barely perceptible over the course of a single human life. No other natural cycle is so drawn out, not even the relatively long one of the lunar stations. So if nature's rhythms were the mirror and the motor of earthly cycles, then the existence of "precessional ages,'' once discovered, could only correspond to the existence of related human cycles. As a consequence, according to these two authors, precession (often visualized as a millstone, hence the book's title) dictated a succession of "world ages'' that fell under the various zodiacal constellations: the Age of Taurus, the Age of Aries, and so forth.

Hamlet's Mill offers a great number of hints to support this thesis, covering all imaginable times and places and cultures, invariably finding the same images, the same numbers, and the same mythological structures. However, these hints lead us into extremely perilous terrain, in the sense there is nothing more intellectually reckless than to trust analogical reasoning based on images, numbers, or the roots of names.

Images, such as the "wheel" that makes the world turn, which de Santillana and Von Dechend find just about everywhere, can have different meanings in different places. Numbers, such as 72—the number of years that must pass in order to observe a single degree of precessional movement—typically depend on the unit of measure being used (in this case the measure of the angles in degrees), which varies from culture to culture. Finding the same numbers in different times and places therefore means, in and of itself, absolutely nothing, though this does not stem the flood of ink that continues to be spilled in the name of "numerology." Lastly, shared or similar etymological roots can be no less misleading, for they may have been influenced or modified in ways that are impossible for us to know, or they may simply be coincidental.

The main thesis of Hamlet's Mill, therefore, is to be considered not as demonstrated in the text but rather presented in a reasonable way, and remains untethered to the massive amounts of quantitative research that would be necessary to either prove or disprove it. For example, Sellers (1993) concentrates on predynastic Egypt, seeking to determine the origin of the myth of Osiris's death and resurrection in precessional terms. Sellers's work, however, though interesting, employs the same method as Hamlet's Mill and therefore fails to demonstrate its validity; the same applies to Sullivan's (1996) work on the Incas.

In my view, Hamlet's Mill nonetheless constitutes an extremely interesting attempt to break free of existing schemas, particularly that of the written word, to look for other codes, other means of communication that may have been utilized to pass on knowledge. As for the question of its scientific validity, there is still no adequate study on the discovery of precession by ancient civilizations, and such a study would be a necessary prerequisite for any serious effort to address the problems raised in Hamlet's Mill. But the present book does provide us with enough material to at least attempt an outline of the status of this problem.

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