Monday, June 13, 2011

Aristotle's "ancient treasure"

In previous posts (see for instance here, here, and here), we discussed the concept raised by Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend in Hamlet's Mill that the gods were derived from the planets, rather than the planets being named after the gods, and that the myths and legends handed down to us from our ancient ancestors encode the motions of the planets against the backdrop of the stars.

As de Santillana and von Dechend explain:
[. . .] what emerges here lifts the veil of a fundamental archaic design. The real actors on the stage of the universe are very few, if their adventures are many. The most "ancient treasure" -- in Aristotle's word -- that was left to us by our predecessors of the High and Far-Off Times was the idea that the gods are really stars, and that there are no others. The forces reside in the starry heavens, and all the stories, characters and adventures narrated by mythology concentrate on the active powers among the stars, who are the planets. A prodigious assignment it may seem for those few planets to account for all those stories and also to run the affairs of the whole universe. What, abstractly, might be for modern men the various motions of those pointers over the dial became, in times without writing, where all was entrusted to images and memory, the Great Game played over the aeons, a never-ending tale of positions and relations, starting from an assigned Time Zero, a complex web of encounters, drama, mating and conflict. 177.
We have cited the "ancient treasure" of Aristotle referenced above once previously, in the post discussing the activities of Mars and Venus and the Pleiades. The phrase comes from the last paragraph in Part 8 of Book XII of Aristotle's Metaphysics, in which Aristotle appears to make a somewhat veiled reference to the very concept that de Santillana and von Dechend outline above.

There, Aristotle says:
Our forefathers in the most remote ages have handed down to their posterity a tradition, in the form of a myth, that these bodies are gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature. The rest of the tradition has been added later in mythical form with a view to the persuasion of the multitude and to its legal and utilitarian expediency; they say these gods are in the form of men or like some of the other animals, and they say other things consequent on and similar to these which we have mentioned. But if one were to separate the first point from these additions and take it alone-that they thought the first substances to be gods, one must regard this as an inspired utterance, and reflect that, while probably each art and each science has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished, these opinions, with others, have been preserved until the present like relics of the ancient treasure. Only thus far, then, is the opinion of our ancestors and of our earliest predecessors clear to us.
This is a very curious and important passage. Aristotle has already spent a great deal of time enumerating arguments about the characteristics of various heavenly phenomena, refuting various opinions using reason and logic (such as various theories about the Milky Way, and why they cannot be correct), and putting forward scientific explanations for what we see from earth.

Now in this passage he voices the opinion that "our forefathers in the most remote ages" thought that the planets were gods (by "these bodies" he is referring to the five visible planets and the sun and moon, which he discussed in the preceding paragraphs). He then reflects that the stories about the gods somehow encapsulate an "art and a science" which was developed to a very advanced state in the distant past and then perished, and that the myths we have today are the remnants of what they knew -- "like relics of the ancient treasure."

This opinion is almost the opposite of what we are generally taught in school today (including in the halls of "higher education"). The general opinion of myth is that it is a sort of primitive understanding of the world around us, a record the gropings of the pre-scientific human mind. What Aristotle suggests in the passage above is that the myths in fact contain the relics of an ancient and forgotten science, a science that developed "as far as possible and then perished," leaving a corpus of encoded knowledge that demonstrates how much our most remote human predecessors actually achieved.

If we examine the evidence objectively, it appears that Aristotle's view may in fact be the correct one. We have noted in previous posts the very widespread presence of precessional numbers in myths around the world, which encode a very precise understanding of the motion of precession -- more precise than anything that was understood in Aristotle's day, or that was understood by later astronomers including Hipparchus (190 BC - 120 BC or 126 BC) and Ptolemy (AD 90 - AD 168). These precise numerical codes appear to have been present in very ancient myths, including the myths of Osiris and Set which are found in the Pyramid Texts dating to before 2300 BC, myths which are probably much older than the Pyramid Texts as well.

The idea that our most ancient forefathers may have been far more advanced than the Greeks and Romans who came thousands of years later is quite startling to those raised on the conventional timeline and who have heard the conventional assumptions repeated from the time they were in the earliest grades of school. However, it is worth considering very carefully -- especially when it is propounded by a thinker of the stature of Aristotle.