How Abu Ma'shar Accidentally Inspired "Hamlet's Mill" and the Modern Myth of the Amazing Science of a Lost Civilization
My research over the past couple of weeks in to Islamic treatises on antediluvian times and Hermetic lore has yielded an unexpected revelation. It came to me because the libraries around me don’t have what I need. In 1968, David Pingree published his important study of astrologer Abu Ma‘shar’s The Thousands, an influential but lost book that established (indirectly) the myth, so popular in fringe history, that the pyramids were built in antediluvian times to preserve science from the Flood, typically identified today with the end of the last Ice Age. As Edward Sachau noted in 1875, scholars had all but ignored both Abu Ma‘shar and the Thousands, meaning that until Pingree that was very little written about either. But Pingree’s book is a bit of a specialty item, especially since it is 50 years old, and WorldCat says that there isn’t a copy within nearly 100 miles of me. One of these days I should probably request an interlibrary loan, but it has literally two minor references to the Egyptian pyramids in it that I have not already read and otherwise is a massive study of astrology that I do not care about.
Because of this, I’ve been doing some reading about the Book of Thousands and assembled many of the fragments that Pingree used for my Library just so they’d be in one place. They can be found here. But in that reading, I came across a book review of the Pingree’s Thousands by the German physicist Willy Hartner in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1972. Hartner was not a historian by training, and by our good luck he also happened to have been taken in by some of the New Age fringe history beliefs of his time. In his review, he suggested that Abu Ma‘shar had inherited an ancient global science of explaining the slow movement of the stars over time—the so-called precession of the equinoxes—from an ancient lost intellectual culture that believed that cataclysms occurred when conjunctions of all the planets fell in certain sectors of the zodiac. His footnote was telling: “See for instance G. de Santillana and H. von Dechend, Hamlet’s mill, in which a great many examples of astral myths serving to express astronomical phenomena are analysed and interpreted.”
If you are a regular reader of this blog, I need not tell you why my ears pricked up. Hamlet’s Mill, published in 1969, is one of the foundational texts of the “alternative archaeology” movement because its writers mined global mythology to hunt out factors and multiples of 72 in order to claim that such numbers proved that world myths all encoded scientific data from a lost civilization about the precession of the equinoxes, in which the stars rotate backwards through the zodiac by one degree every 71.6 years, roughly 72 years to the nearest integer. Thus, numbers like 12, 36, 72, 432, 36,000, etc. all become important “precessional numbers” suggesting remnants of this lost science.
This argument has been the foundation of the modern alternative history argument that ancient people were possessed of advanced scientific, mathematical, and astronomical skills equal to or in advance of those of today.
While Harnter saw Abu Ma‘shar as a recipient of such a science, because he believed in Hamlet’s Mill, I think he got it exactly backward. Abu Ma‘shar is actually the zero point where this idea originated, and the authors of Hamlet’s Mill, who wrote their manuscript before Pingree’s Thousands became available, were unaware of this vector and therefore misunderstood their topic. Indeed, they mention Abu Ma‘shar only once in Hamlet’s Mill, in passing, when they decry early European scientists and natural philosophers who dismissed him as basically an occultist. This is a glaring oversight since, even accepting their argument, Abu Ma‘shar should have been a major figure in their system.
In a 1952 article written in the German language, B. L. van der Waerden (who, weirdly enough, is cited in Hamlet’s Mill for different articles) made the case that the concept of recurrent catastrophe associated with the zodiac originated in Babylon and was inherited by the Greeks in the West and the Persians in the East, and both bequeathed it to Islam. He believed that the belief system held that disaster struck when all the planets conjoined at the 0° point of the zodiac, which is to say at the dividing point between Pisces and Aries, with the zodiac starting at the first degree of Aries and ending at the last degree of Pisces. However, I think he rather exaggerated the strength of the evidence, since Berossus, our only witness to this belief in Babylon, locates the Flood in Capricorn and the Conflagration in Libra (Seneca, Natural Questions 3.29). Similarly, another of his major sources, Plato, writing in the Timaeus, describes the Great Year as the return of all the planets and stars to their first positions, but he offers no inkling of precession, nor does he associate the zero point with cataclysm. Closer material can be found in references to Aristotle’s lost Protrepricus as described in another lost work of Cicero (Servius, commentary on Aeneid 3.284), Solinus (Collecteana 33.13), etc., where the Great Year is given as 12,960 years (Cicero’s 12,954 is a translation error of an unfamiliar old usage of Greek into Latin). Anyway, Aristotle’s figure probably came from Eudoxus of Cnidus.
The best evidence comes from the Roman writer Censorius, who gives the account closest to that of Abu Ma‘shar in his De die natali 18:
There is also a year which Aristotle calls Perfect, rather than Great, which is formed by the revolution of the sun, of the moon and of the five planets, when they all come at the same time to the celestial point from which they started together. This year has a great winter called by the Greeks the Inundation and by the Latins The Deluge; it has also a summer which the Greeks call the Conflagration of the world. The world is supposed to have been by turns deluged or on fire at each of these epochs. According to the opinion of Aristarchus this year was composed of 2484 solar years; according to Arestes of Dyrrachium, it was 5552 years; according to Heraclitus and Linus it was 10,800; according to Dion it was 10,884; according to Orpheus it was 10,020 years; and according to Cassandrus it was 3,600,000 years. Others have thought it infinite; and that it would never recur. (trans. William Maude)
This evidence proves that there were beliefs about fire and flood—just as the Jewish fire-and-flood myth of Adam’s prophecy and the Pillars of Wisdom confirms—but nobody could agree as to how to calculate them or whether they were one-time deals or repeating cycles.
Abu Ma‘shar inherited this material—particularly Aristotle’s lost work—and in The Thousands developed a complex astrological system whereby he imagined that the entire universe ran on a clock of interlocking cycles, which could then be used to predict events until the End Times. The Thousands attempted to prove the accuracy of this system by presenting a chronology of world history drawn from Christian and Persian historiography and showing that each event coincided with an astrological conjunction. The Flood was the most important, occurring, he said, in 3101 BCE, during a specific conjunction in Aries. The details are not important but can be read on my Thousands page.
His cycle, however, was not just Greek. Because the Greeks could not decide on the dates, he drew on other sources, including Babylonian, Persian, and—crucially—Indian materials. It was this merging of traditions that created the imaginary ancient system that de Santillana and von Dechend thought they had uncovered.
The mathematical details are kind of painful to get into and complicated enough to need whole articles and books to explain, so forgive me for oversimplifying a bit. Basically, Abu Ma‘shar wanted to take the Babylonian/Greek zodiac of 360° and make it work with the 4.32 billion years of a Hindu kalpa and the 360,000 years of a medieval Persian “world-year.” These numbers occur in the surviving fragment of the Thousands given by al-Sijzī, where al-Sijzī tells us at Abu Ma‘shar used the Persian world-year of 360,000 years and reckoned the kalpa as 12,000 Persian cycles. He adopted, though, the Hindu belief—not found in Persian sources—that at the beginning of the kalpa all planets were conjoined at the 0° mark, which, when he translated it into the Babylonian or Greek zodiac, placed them at 0° of Aries.
The reason these cycles could work together is because they all, basically, boiled down to multiples of 12. The twelve months gave rise to the idea of 12 as a sort of perfect factor for units of time, and Abu Ma‘shar developed the most elaborate system of interlocking Greek, Persian, and Hindu cycles. However, to make his system always yield integer results for key conjunctions and cycles required a false number—though he didn’t know it was false. To do so, he assumed that precession occurred at 1° per 100 years, the estimate known to him from Ptolemy (following Hipparchus), though the real figure is 1° per 72 years. Using the ancient but wrong number he could make the stars spin across 36,000 years, or ten times in his world cycle of 360,000 years. This worked well with the cycles of the visible planets—Jupiter at 12 years, Saturn at 30 years, etc. You can almost see the beauty of these interlocking systems multiplied out by factors of 36 across a celestial sphere of 360°. Never mind that all of the numbers, in reality, are slightly askew—Saturn is 29.5 years, for example, not 30. Also: Modern analysis suggests Abu Ma‘shar fudged the numbers from time to time by adopting elements of the different astrological systems to get his desired results. Consistency wasn’t necessarily his strong suit.
Not to belabor the point, but Abu Ma‘shar’s system was extremely influential and could be found from Spain to the Hindu Kush—wherever Islam spread. It entered the Latin West, though not always accurately and not always with authors knowing who originated it. It also influenced the occult beliefs of some of the men who later recorded the myths and legends of European paganism.
The long and short of it is that when de Santillana and von Deschend looked across the Old World and saw what they perceived as “fragments” of a lost science, they were looking in the wrong direction. The use of multiples of 12 and 30 across the Old World wasn’t the decay of a lost system of knowledge but rather the contributing factors toward Abu Ma‘shar’s unified system. The numbers themselves were easily explained—they derived from the months of the year, the cycles of Jupiter and Saturn, and Babylonian astrology. The cyclical planetary values also left their traces in non-Western cultures, who also could see the sky and needed no help from the Old World or Atlantis to count to 12 and 30. (Of course, some in contact with the Islamic world borrowed Islamic astrology, too.) That these numbers all were reducible to multiples of 12 and 30 was harmonious, but required no knowledge of axial precession. It was merely coincidence that the drift of stars was also close to a multiple of 12, 72. That is what allowed the authors of Hamlet’s Mill to miss the actual facts behind the supposed secret connections and imagine a lost science that wasn’t really there.
Just to drive home the point, al-Birunī, Abu Ma‘shar’s great critic, noted that the whole system is based on the recurring conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, which recur every 360 years (12 × 30), and this was the basis, he said, of Babylonian astronomy.
But Abu Ma‘shar deserves some sort of booby prize in historiography. Not only did the master astrologer—a dubious achievement in itself—transmit the myth of antediluvian pyramids to modern times and preserve the Enochian story of the Watchers for Islamic historians, but he also accidentally inspired an entire pseudoscience of devoted to the sacred numerology of a “lost” antediluvian civilization.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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