Hamlet’s Mill & the Wheel of Heaven

“A thought ruled by time can only be expressed in myth.” —Giorgio de Santillana, Hamlet’s Mill (Introduction)

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For millennia, people have found meaning by watching the night sky as it changed over time, looking for repeating patterns and searching for changes that could portend danger. Sparkling points of light in the dark sky could be tracked and named. For example, the stars of Ursa Major became a dipper, a plough, a wagon, or the hind leg of an ox to different cultures. The sky “moves” every day because of Earth’s rotation on its axis. The sky also changes each month as Earth orbits the Sun through a different slice of sky, progressing through the twelve zodiac constellations, and the Moon also goes through its monthly phases. The Sun’s apparent daily motion is divided into dawn, noon, dusk, and midnight. Like the four phases of the day, the Moon’s cycles are also four-fold: new, the quarters, and the full Moon. The year is divided into four by the seasons, marked off by the equinoxes and solstices. In this way time can be seen as circular and its frame as a sphere where the four seasons intersect the circle of the year.

But there are much longer cycles that generations of sky watchers were able to perceive. One of these cycles is called axial precession, or non-technically, precession of the equinoxes, since the spring and fall equinoxes move very slowly westward along the ecliptic (apparent path of the Sun) relative to the stars at the rate of one degree of arc every seventy-two years. This slow motion causes a different part of the dawn sky to appear relative to the seasons, or cardinal points, of the year. Precession occurs because Earth wobbles as it spins, tracing imaginary circles in the sky, like two styluses on a spinning top. Moving in the opposite direction to the solar zodiac, the astrological ages “precess,” or inch backward through the more familiar sequence of signs. This cycle of precession is called a Grand Year, or Platonic Year, and lasts roughly twenty-six thousand Earth years.

Hamlet’s Mill, by Giorgio de Santillana & Hertha von Dechend, is a scholarly work and a daunting piece of research, accumulating myths from around the world that demonstrate similarities of theme and imagery, showing how knowledge of the stars was encoded into the stories. The thematic myth has Norse Icelandic origins with a character named Amlodhi, who owned a mill. In his time the mill ground out peace and plenty, but as time passed and circumstances declined, the mill ground out salt. Finally, the mill sunk to the bottom of the ocean where it ground out rocks and sand, creating a whirlpool that was a vast maelstrom, the “grinding stream.”

The metaphor of the mill describes the polar axis, piercing the center of the earth, and the frame of time, and points toward the northern and southern axes of the sky. A dust jacket comment from Hamlet’s Mill explains that numerous myths from cultures as diverse as “Iceland, Norway, Finland, Italy, Persia, India, Mexico, and Greece, to name a few,” have a churning mill as their central theme. Much care was taken, and the assistance of gods, goddesses, and tremendous forces of nature were sought, to assure that the mill of heaven ground smoothly and without incident. Santillana and von Dechend believe the persistence of this image and the mill’s motion provides a cosmic timepiece.

The authors’ thesis is that this symbolism represents precession, the slow movement of the Sun through the stars of the zodiac, which determines the world ages. Each age is said to have a characteristic era, or dispensation, followed by a “twilight of the gods.” At the end of an age the supporting pillars of that aeon collapse, and floods and cataclysms trumpet the unfolding of a new age. The subtitle of Hamlet’s Mill is “an essay on myth and the frame of time.” Because we have four clearly defined seasonal events, two equinoxes and two solstices, the year is automatically divided into four. This quartering of the circle is an ancient and worldwide practice. The fourfold division of time seems to lead naturally to a four-fold division of space.

This mythical earth is conceived as a flat plane intersected by the “frame” of the equinoxes and solstices, the cardinal points of the year. This is why the earth is often said to be quadrangular. The intersections are the four seasonal points, the four directions, and the four winds. “The four zodiacal constellations rising heliacally at both the equinoxes and solstices form parts of the frame and determine the ‘earth’ or age.” There is a conceptual “hoop” of four signs of the same modality that form seasonal signposts at the cardinal points of the year.

“Every world age has its own ‘earth.’ It is for this very reason that ‘ends of the world’ are said to take place,” the authors say. A new age causes a new ‘earth’ to arise when another set of zodiacal constellations move into the seasonal framework and determine the year’s four points. However, the zodiacal constellation that rises heliacally (before the Sun), at spring equinox in the northern hemisphere constitutes the overarching mythic theme of the current age. In our time, as the age of Pisces ends, it is the Omega star of the constellation of Pisces that rises before the Sun on spring equinox dawn. Soon, stars of the constellation of Aquarius will take its place.

Peering back in time to earlier ages, such as the Age of Gemini, there were many “twin” deities, like Isis and Osiris. Looking even further back, convincing evidence has also been presented by authors such as Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock that the lion-bodied Sphinx of Egypt gazed due east at equinox sunrise at its heavenly counterpart 12,000 years ago during the Age of Leo.

As we look for other evidence of markers or icons of past ages, we can see in Old Kingdom Egypt that during the Age of Taurus, 6,000 to 4,000 years before the present, bulls were the primary symbol. At the end of that age Moses cast down the golden calf to end the age of Taurus. In Middle Kingdom Egypt 4,000 to 2,000 years before present, the ram was the symbolic animal for the Age of Aries, the Ram, and sacrificial rams were also the choice for offerings in the Bible. As the wheel turned to the Age of Pisces 2,000 years ago, Jesus, the symbolic Lamb of God became The Fisher of Men for the Age of Pisces—the Fishes. The fish has been a predominant symbol of the Christian religion.

We are now poised at another such juncture on the turning wheel as the Age of Pisces gives way to the dispensation of the Age of Aquarius. Aquarius is the Water Bearer, and it certainly seems apt that water would be the symbol of transforming energy for a new age at a time when water may well be our most precious natural resource. During the Age of Aquarius, the famous Royal Stars of Persia will once again move into the seasonal marker positions.

Hamlet’s Mill relates that the time when the cogs of the great mill shifted, heralding the beginning of a new age was seen as especially fraught with peril. How did the ancient knowledge of those who watched the skies in long ago times determine that this was true? What could be the mechanism driving the timing, character, and overarching lessons of the ages? Perhaps there is some inherent magic in the geometry of twelve that relate to music, vibration, and frequency. Or perhaps it is the stars themselves and their unique energies that drive the influences of the ages and of astrology itself? The Tibetans are custodians of star knowledge that includes awareness of the “personalities” of certain bright stars and the nature of their frequencies. These are mysteries we may well be unable to penetrate, but if we are wise, we will pay attention.

The authors make a compelling case in their monumental work for sophisticated knowledge among the ancients, and their contribution to our understanding of antiquity is inestimable. The authors demonstrate repeatedly that myth was never intended to be fiction or fable but, rather, to serve as a clever mnemonic device, enabling people to recall and transmit complex astronomical information through stories. In other words, using sky lore as the mechanism and the night sky as the canvas, myth became a brilliant device, an astronomical allegory, for teaching and transmitting sky lore over vast periods of time.

As I was finishing this article a science news post reported that the observable Universe contains about two trillion (that’s twelve zeroes) galaxies—more than ten times the number previously estimated. I find that an impossible number to conceive. This stunning announcement was the result of the first significant revision of the galaxy count in two decades. Christopher Conselice of the University of Nottingham, U.K, led the research team. The Hubble telescope allowed researchers to directly observe only about 10% of the two trillion galaxies, but Conselice says, “That will change in 2018 when Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is deployed. That telescope will peer much further back in time to see how galaxies started to form.”

In November of 2013, based on Kepler space mission data, astronomers reported there could be as many as forty billion Earth-sized planets orbiting the habitable zones of stars in the Milky Way. Eleven billion of these planets may be orbiting sun-like stars, and the nearest planet may be only four light-years away. Astronomers now estimate there are roughly two thousand stars at a distance of up to fifty light-years from our solar system. Sixty-four of them are yellow-orange “G” stars like our Sun.

As science and technology advance and we are able to view more of the Cosmos, we can’t help but be awed by the size and fantastic potential for other life among the stars. The narrow scope of what we were able to observe just a short time ago is expanding at what seems to be an exponential rate. How do we find additional meaning, living on the “pale blue dot” that Carl Sagan showed us during the Voyager I mission in 1990?

Author and teacher Joseph Campbell spoke of a “magic ring of myth” that flows through every culture. He said that a “mythology is a system of images that incorporates a concept of the universe as a divinely energized and energizing ambience within which we live.” Myths are single stories in this grand scheme that interlock in some way to create a tapestry. Campbell explained that myths are not created or invented in the way stories are. He said they are inspired, and arise in the same way dreams do, and that they speak to the deep of both the individual and all that is. As we face a juncture in our own time of shifting cogs on the Great Wheel, I believe we desperately need new myths, new archetypal stories of a cosmos too big to imagine, in which we are not diminished by its size but are, rather, ignited by the understanding that we are part of a magnificent creation that can be known. As the Age of Aquarius begins in earnest, so does our journey of exploration.


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By Julie Loar