Friday, January 20, 2012

Has Hamlet's Mill been "debunked"?

I have been thoroughly enjoying the conversations and discussions I've been having as Author of the Month for January 2012 on the Graham Hancock website. The quality of the comments and insights that other participants have offered has been consistently excellent, and the discourse has been very valuable to me, helping me see the issues from different perspectives and offering many new avenues for future exploration.

It is important to note that challenges and criticism of some of my arguments has also been very valuable. I believe it is always important to examine the assertions that others make (this is related to the concept of "due diligence" discussed in other posts) and it is also important to examine one's own assumptions and one's own analysis, and to be clear on the reasons that one has for arriving at various conclusions. Just going through the process of articulating one's own reasons to others is a valuable process.

Further, as I have said before, we all have our own different strengths stemming from our own personal and professional experience and study, and we all also have gaps and biases and blind spots, such that community and conversation and discourse and the council of others is very valuable to bring in the strengths and experiences of others that are different and potentially complementary.

As the great philosopher Rocky Balboa once said, "I got gaps, she got gaps: together we fill gaps" (or words to that effect).

With this in mind, it was worthwhile to respond to a challenge to the thesis put forward by de Santillana and von Dechend in Hamlet's Mill (1969), which I believe to be a very important book and one that provides a great deal of valuable insight for anyone intent on understanding the evidence left to us from ancient civilizations in the form of mythology.

It turns out that of the two "external references" provided for Hamlet's Mill in the current Wikipedia entry, one is a link to an online version of the entire book, and one is a link to an essay which is very critical of Hamlet's Mill and its authors, calling it "an amazing exhibition of academic narrow-mindedness, unrestrained speculation, and lack of expert knowledge, on the part of its authors."

During one discussion of some of the aspects of the Mathisen Corollary book on the message board, this critical essay by Gary David Thompson was brought up as evidence that the material in Hamlet's Mill "has been shown to be severely flawed." I replied in a post which can be read here, much of which is reproduced in the argument below. I give my reasons to believe that the essay does not prove that Hamlet's Mill has been "debunked" at all.

On the contrary, I would argue that the examples the author brings out to "debunk" Hamlet's Mill (when he finally gets around to bringing them out) demonstrate his lack of understanding of their thesis and argument. Admittedly, Hamlet's Mill is a dense and somewhat convoluted read. It takes a lot of time to piece through it and tease out the direction of the arguments. However, that (in and of itself) does not invalidate the arguments. This author apparently has not taken the time to grasp the argument completely.

It is somewhat ironic that Gary David Thompson accuses the authors (he is especially critical of von Dechend) of being disorganized, saying: "The contents of the book are poorly organised and presented. The book contains an immense amount of loosely related information but there is no persuasive evidence presented for the connections being made." Ironic because Mr. Thompson's essay can also be accurately described as containing an "immense amount of loosely related information." The first 2/3 of his essay reads like a disjointed recitation of everything that came out of a very vigorous web search, with no explanation as to the significance of the information, how it is connected, or why Mr. Thompson included it at all (or why the reader would be interested in learning it). I am not sure why the room number of lectures from the 1960s or the times that seminars met is important to his argument at all, nor why I should want to know which airport Dr. de Santillana flew out of on a trip to Europe.

In fact, the first part of Mr. Thompson's criticism of the authors of Hamlet's Mill recalls the ad campaign describing an imaginary syndrome called "search overload," in which jumbles of information without any context would be recited by a character in a trance-like state, to humorous effect (see this video for an example -- the first half of the article suffers from the same problem).

I can only believe that Mr. Thompson included all of that very detailed information about the personalities and lives of de Santillana and von Dechend as a giant ad hominem attack that is supposed to discredit them and dissuade anyone from reading their work. I do not believe that is a good way to determine whether or not someone's analysis has merit -- I believe it is much more important to examine the person's analysis itself and make a judgment that way. I believe it is quite unfair to attack the author, as if there are any human authors about whom you cannot find plenty to criticize. I personally do not care if de Santillana and von Dechend received their insights directly from aliens -- if their insights and analysis appears to be supported by close examination of the myths or astronomical phenomena that they describe, then it may be worthwhile in advancing human knowledge (in fact, even if only some of their insights turn out to be borne out by independent analysis, then it can be said to be of value).

I have personally examined their text very carefully and I can attest to the fact that their insights are absolutely borne out by close examination of the contents of myths from the familiar episodes of Homer to the less-familiar mythology of Polynesia (some of the examples I use in my book come from myths reported by independent researchers of the cultures of the Pacific, many of them published before Hamlet's Mill was published).

Of course I do not agree with every sentiment espoused by de Santillana and von Dechend, nor with every aspect of their own personal belief systems or with everything they did during their lifetimes. But to mock them for things they did or believed during the decades that they lived (which were very different times in the world of academia than those of today or of the past couple decades) is both uncharitable and unhelpful. I have published a blog post in which I point out that the "blind spots" of previous eras are often more obvious to us today than the "blind spots" that we have which we do not see ourselves. This fact is related to the literary trope in which mystery stories are almost always solved by an "outsider" (see Sherlock Holmes or Scooby Doo).

Now to my point about Mr. Thompson's failure to understand de Santillana and von Dechend. He takes them to task in parts 2, 3, and 4 for things like this (the quote is from Mr. Thompson's essay):

Erra is an Akkadian warrior god. The result of Erra's assault is that the world is plunged into darkness and as a result Marduk is displaced from his throne and forced to descend to the underworld. Erra temporarily seizes control of Babylon from Marduk during the latter's temporary absence. As the phenomena of precession is completely unconnected with any occurrence of celestial darkness this type of imagery can hardly be descriptive of precession. The theme of the chosen imagery of the Erra-Epic is believed to refer to a disastrous military event that occurred to the city of Babylon in the "dark age" at the beginning of the first millennium BCE.

To say that the displacement of a god, after which he is forced to descend into the underworld, "can hardly be descriptive of precession" is just plain wrong. This is exactly the pattern we see in the Osiris myth in Egypt, as well as in the Kronos myth in ancient Greece, both of which can clearly be explained in terms of precession (Jane Sellers does an excellent job explaining exactly how this can be seen as descriptive of precession in her well-known and well-written book Death of Gods in Ancient Egypt, and I discuss it at length in my own book and give some shorter discussion of the same topic on my blog in posts such as this one and this one).

In other words, the examples Mr. Thompson brings up to discredit Hamlet's Mill do not discredit Hamlet's Mill at all (if anything, they generally reinforce the arguments of de Santillana and von Dechend and show that Mr. Thompson does not understand their thesis).

He brings up a book by William Thompson which interprets the fairy tale of Rapunzel as "involving the sun and moon and the planetary motion of Mercury, Venus and Mars." This interpretation is not dealt with directly (in other words, no argument is offered to demonstrate that Rapunzel is not about celestial bodies) but rather is "discredited" by saying that William Thompson knew Hertha von Dechend and that she "discussed her ideas on ancient mythology and astronomy with him at their lunches in the student cafeteria." This does not discredit the thesis of Hamlet's Mill at all either! In fact, the possibility that Rapunzel contains such information is further validation of their thesis (Hamlet's Mill cites several cases in which folk tales appear to contain the same celestial information as epics and sagas contain, but using more "rustic" characters such as the farmer's cat instead of great heroes or warriors). I have compared this to actors who appear in very different costumes in different movies or plays, but who are the same actors (see this blog post).

Mr. Thompson is also critical of what he calls, "The influence of Higgins' concept of an ancient world-wide secret religious order sharing knowledge" and dismisses the idea on the basis that if such an order existed to share celestial scientific knowledge, then why didn't it also encode other knowledge, saying: "My only comment is why didn't the channels of communication - whatever they supposedly were - also get used to carry other technical information such as metalworking."

That's a good question, but it doesn't disprove the possibility that myths were used to encode celestial knowledge. One rather obvious answer is that it is quite possible that some ancient knowledge was perceived as dangerous to let out to everyone, while other knowledge (such as metalworking) was not. I have discussed other less obvious reasons why such knowledge might have been perceived as needing to be kept secret, in a blog post entitled "If the ancients really knew so much, why didn't they just come out and say it?" In that post, I reference some very good arguments offered by both Robert Temple and by John Anthony West.

Finally, while Hamlet's Mill deals primarily with evidence in mythology, my own examination of the evidence from physical archaeology (measurements of ancient monuments, etc) leads me to believe that archaeological evidence supports the evidence found in mythology, and that this further supports the general thesis of de Santillana and von Dechend. Needless to say, many others have found similar evidence and the evidence appears overwhelming that ancient cultures knew about precession long before conventional history says that they should have. This confirmatory evidence from archaeology indicates that we should not dismiss Hamlet's Mill so readily.

The extensive evidence that ancient civilizations could and did traverse the world's oceans (and that they knew the earth was round and what size it was) should silence the circular argument found in some criticisms of Hamlet's Mill which state to whit, "We know there was no advanced ancient civilization, so this book arguing that there was must not be taken seriously" (see for example the criticism cited which says that de Santillana and von Dechend's insistence that there was some ancient unified culture or civilization is "pure fantasy" and that therefore their attempts to assemble details of such a culture can be "no more than an intellectual game"). This is simply circular logic. There is a very real possibility that the timeline of history as it is currently being presented is wrong. The evidence from myth that de Santillana and von Dechend present is only one category of evidence -- other categories include human artifacts such as massive monuments and inscriptions of "Old World" languages and writing systems found in the "New World," as well as actual human remains, which are even more difficult to dismiss as "pure fantasy."

This lengthy response is not intended as an attack on any Graham Hancock Message Board participant. The point that we should not uncritically accept the analysis of anyone (including de Santillana and von Dechend) is well taken. There are doubtless some errors in Hamlet's Mill, and plenty of room for criticism. However, I disagree that their entire thesis has been disproven, or that their very insightful text needs to be thrown out. I also disagree with the ad hominem tactics of the essayist cited.

My own research indicates that Hamlet's Mill is an extremely valuable work and one which, while certainly difficult to read, provides many indispensable insights to inform our search for answers to the mysteries of mankind's ancient past.