Alternative thinkers put great weight on the subject of the precession of the equinoxes, the slow drift of the apparent position of the stars relative to a fixed point on earth caused by the wobble of the earth’s axis. This nearly imperceptible movement—1.4 degrees per century, or, as alternative theorists prefer to state it, 1 degree per 71.6 years—supposedly has great astrological significance for defining the World Age, based on the astrological sign in which the sun rises on the spring equinox. But most alternative thinkers do very little thinking about this.
Almost all modern alternative claims derive from the work of Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in Hamlet’s Mill (1969), which argued that “measures and counting,” specifically as related to astrology, were “the frame on which the rich texture of real myth was to grow.” That phrase—real myth—gave the authors license to selectively choose which myths were “real” based on how closely they conformed to an imagined prehistoric knowledge of precession.
The authors took their title from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but only just. The actual origin comes from Shakespeare’s source for Hamlet, the Scandinavian tale of Amleth, as given by the Danish author Saxo Grammaticus. This tale is cognate with that of Amlodhi in Iceland, who Snorri Sturlson wrote possessed a mill which ground out peace and plenty. Snorri, in turn, was quoting a tenth-century sailor named Snæbjörn Galti. This is the entirety of the scant millstone atop which the cathedral of alternative belief rests:
De Santillana and von Deschend interpret this as referring not, as it explicitly states, to the ocean but rather to the sky, where the churning of the cosmos around the World Axis is likened to a mill, and the setting of each constellation over time likened to a Great Flood washing away the old World Age. They find direct parallels to this story in myths from Rome, Finland, Iran, and India and looser thematic parallels elsewhere.
But what if the mill metaphor doesn’t mean what they say it does?
Undoubtedly, the Romans, Finns, Persians, and Vedic Indians shared a myth of the hero or god who has a great mill. But this connection isn’t cosmic but rather Indo-European. All of these peoples (except the Finns) are Indo-Europeans whose stories descend from a common source. (We can dispense with the non-Indo-Europeans the authors mention since they have no mills and are brought into the story only by analogy with the “precession” myth the authors invented from Indo-European sources. The Finns were heavily influenced by surrounding Indo-European myth systems.)
De Santillana and von Dechend write that “current anthropology” denies any connection between myth systems, let alone one dating back to the Neolithic or earlier (p. 3). Contrary to alternative authors’ claims that this mill has been dismissed by serious scholars as a simple myth without meaning, in fact this mill was thoroughly investigated by German philologists in the nineteenth century, and the results of their investigations have been known in English since at least 1863, when Walter Keating Kelly reported them in Curiosities of Indo-European Tradition and Folk-lore. Scholars of the nineteenth century recognized that the story was of Indo-European origin, and they knew that meant it was exceedingly ancient. The Indo-European myth system is current thought to have last been united around the fourth millennium BCE—the exact Neolithic period de Santillana and von Dechend targeted but wrongly believed scholars were unwilling to accept could be the source of myth. Tellingly, the Indo-Europeans do not appear in the index to Hamlet's Mill.
According to the nineteenth century scholars, the key to understanding the mill imagery is the relationship between its mythic significance and fire. Far from being associated with the stars and the night, it rather is part of a constellation (pardon the pun) of myths related to Prometheus and the descent of fire. These myths can be traced back to Indo-European roots on philological grounds without question, and the mill goes with them. It has long been recognized that the mill was once part of the equipment of the heavens rather than the sea, and it first belonged, apparently, to the sun god. Amlodi’s mill was exactly parallel to the Danish Frodi’s mill, owned by a legendary first-century king. Like Amlodi’s mill, it ground peace or war, and it was also operated by maidens. Frodi, in turn, is believed to be a rationalization of Freyr (or Fro), the sun god. Snorri and Saxo rationalize the other gods as earthly kings, too, so there is no great leap here.
The sun, in turn, has been associated with a flaming wheel or wheeled-chariot since Proto-Indo-European times, and the grinding wheel-stone of the mill is but another version of this myth.
(Later writers would expand the idea of solar mythology to ridiculous extremes, but their wrongheaded theories have no bearing on the present question.)
Many Indo-European myths discuss the kindling of the sun each day, because it was once felt that the sun was born anew each dawn after extinguishing in the ocean at night. (By contrast, non-Indo-European Near Eastern peoples imagined the sun reigning in the underworld at night.) This is where the fire comes in. To make fire requires the churning of a stick against another stick or stone. (Think of how Boy Scouts make fire.) In Vedic literature the stick is called the pramantha, from a word for violent churning, cognate with the Greek Prometheus, the bringer of fire. (This connection is well-established and has been for more than 150 years.) Thus, the gods had a mill that churned each day to rekindle the sun. According to legends preserved in Germany down to the nineteenth century, the Milky Way was the meal that spewed forth from the churning mill as it worked to light the sun each night.
So, de Santillana and von Dechend were partly right: There is a relationship between Hamlet’s mill and the stars. But it has nothing to do with precession and can be completely explained by well-recognized Indo-European myths, supported by well-established Indo-European linguistics. That this was all known in English from 1863 and in German decades earlier but is forgotten by most alternative writers speaks volumes. De Santillana and von Dechend recognize the fact (though they trace it only to 1886), discuss it in an appendix, and simply assert that the order is reversed, that in reality the Prometheus myth about fire is a derivative of a precession myth of the churning skies, that fire and the sun take a back seat to the imperceptible motions of the stars.
But this requires two layers of metaphor—that the Atlanteans (or whoever) invented a churning metaphor to describe precession and that the Indo-Europeans then applied this metaphor downward to the very real churning needed to create fire and sent it back up into the sky as Prometheus. Clearly, this is much more complicated than the logical sequence of kindling a fire > kindling the sun > churning to light the sun. The authors’ appendix teems with outrage at the philologists, but I think it’s mostly because the philological explanation of the relationship of fire to the mill in the sky undermines everything Hamlet’s Mill stands for, and does so clearly and logically, with no need for elaborate number games, secret knowledge, or a vanished civilization.
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