Flavin’s Corner

The Woman Who Wondered

Prof. Dr. Hertha von Dechend (1915-2001) passed recently.  A well respected scholar and professor emeritus at the IGN (Institut für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften or Institute for the History of Science, at the J. W. Goethe University of Frankfurt), she’s most often associated with her co-authorship with Giorgio de Santillana of Hamlet’s Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time (Boston: Gambit, Inc., 1969).  Of course she accomplished much more, still the association is a grand one!  Hamlet’s Mill continues to spark debate, inspire radical syncreticism, and is appreciated for its multi-disciplinary sincerity (or, at least, an attempt) by nearly everyone.  Frau Von Dechend wondered about wonderful things.  Surely, the heavens are dimmer.

She studied under the great explorer and cultural diffusionist, Leo Frobinius, at the University of Frankfurt, where she remained throughout her career, except in the ‘60s when she lectured at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.  Although she majored in archaeology and ethnology, Von Dechend concentrated most of her efforts in the study and teaching of the history of science.  Some of her critics have alleged the significant influence of Frobinius in an attempt to somehow diminish her bold accomplishments, but such minor attacks are usually regarded as petty attempts at character assassination and dismissed.  That Frobinius possessed a natural curiosity, believed in the sharing of tradition and technology by ancient people, and dared to put his ideas into writing is nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, Frobinius is still cited in a number of different areas of research.  Frau Von Dechend may well have been inspired by Frobinius, however the direction and method of her work was entirely her own.

Her major publications were few, a situation many have sought to alter for many years.  Von Dechend’s unpublished Ph.D. thesis in 1939 about cultural diffusion in Polynesia established interests she would return to again and again throughout her career.  In 1953 she contributed a scholarly overview and edited a volume about the ground-breaking organic chemist, Justus von Liebig (1803-1873), and his relationships with his contemporaries in Justus von Liebig in eigenen Zeugnissen und Solchen seiner Zeitgenossen (2nd edition, 1963).  One may only guess as to what wonderful things she was considering when De Santillana met her in Frankfurt in 1959.  In the Preface to Hamlet’s Mill, De Santillana comments: “Number gave the key.  Way back in time, before writing was even invented, it was measures and counting that provided the armature, the frame on which the rich texture of real myth was to grow.”  With these words the authors begin to share their wonder and their wondering.  I can’t help but to smile in appreciation, when I think of De Santillana whisking Von Dechend away, leaving her colleague at the IGN, Willy Hartner, who wrote his classic paper, “The Earliest History of the Constellations in the Near East and the Motif of the Lion-Bull Combat” (by Willy Hartner, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 24, No.’s 1 & 2, 1965, pp. 1-16), while she was lecturing in America.  Those must have been wonderful times, indeed. [Note:  For more writings of Von Dechend, see bibliography below.]

Hamlet’s Mill argues that the study and understanding of number, as well as the related field of mathematical astronomy, are our only exact sciences, and that there is a wealth of evidence to suggest divers ancient people knew something about numbers and such before the emergence of the Greek scientific approach of Ionian naturalism, followed by the geometry of Hippocrates of Chios, c. 450 BCE and Eudoxus, 408-355 BCE, and the beginnings of our modern scientific method.  This knowledge was subsequently expressed in a “language” which utilized art, myth, legend, and religion, as well as such functional applications as the calendar, musical scale, and the alphabet.  A book-cover blurb quoting the French savant, Charles François Dupuis, that: “Mythology is the work of science; science alone will explain it,” is well-intentioned window dressing, and only suggests what wonders are contained in the book.  The authors’ sense of wonder was profound, their efforts to pass along that wonder have not escaped supportive criticism, but Hamlet’s Mill remains a cherished treasury enriching our understanding of the past.

Much controversy has surrounded a perception that the authors suggested an ancient awareness of the Precession of the Equinoxes, well before Hipparchus, c.127 BCE, who was the first to describe (read: define) the process.  Did they?  Or, did they elegantly squirm and eruditely wiggle and allow a varied near-global awareness by the ancients that the heavens changed, number assisted in an understanding, and a model, an “essay” about the wonder of it all wasn’t only appropriate for the day, but a noble effort as honest (read: imperfect) as anyone could ask for?  Well, sure, they did.  Bless them and repeat their names often to your children and grandchildren.  Still, their honesty and unabashed wonder, while respected, is not beyond criticism.  Everyone learns from criticism. 

Hamlet’s Mill has been dismissed by small-minded individuals as over-reaching and more fiction than fact.  Most critics and readers (myself included) are intimidated by the sheer scope of their central thesis, have unrealistic and unrequited expectations for further commentary and proof, and often avoid a concise assessment because such could never exist and be fair.  Hamlet’s Mill deserves more than a concise treatment.  Much more.  Frau Von Dechend undertook a revised, second edition in (Die Mühle des Hamlet. Ein Essay über Mythos und das Gerüst der Zeit, Berlin: Kammerer und Unverzagt, 1993), but a possible English translation is still being considered.  Actually, it’s much worse.  I telephoned the publisher of Hamlet’s Mill to inquire about a revised, second edition and they weren’t even aware of the passing of Von Dechend.  Perhaps it is best to think of time on a large scale, as the immediate, day-to-day scale is often disappointing.  Of all the many reviews of Hamlet’s Mill, none accomplish the supportive criticism of the late Prof. Harald A. T. Reiche’s in Classical Journal (October/ November, 1973, pp. 81-83).  The book needed a copy-editor and should have been longer.

At issue is Hamlet’s Mill as a usable text.  The wonder remains for all to enjoy; unfortunately Hamlet’s Mill provides little beyond serving as a template for further research, which is in and of itself, a highly respected accomplishment.  To quote the authors and not take in mind work done since 1969 (and, sometimes, a bit before), is to be unoriginal and disrespectful to the wonder shared by the authors.  They were in awe.  That they wrote too fast and loose is only acknowledged by those who want more.  Everyone else gets glassy-eyed when contemplating their “essay.”  Responding to an unsolicited e-mail, I wrote in a recent column:

Now, precession figured into the usage of the zodiac after Hipparchus  (190-120 BCE). That the precession of the equinoxes was only rediscovered by Hipparchus and was known thousands of years before, see Hamlet’s Mill: an essay on myth and the frame of time Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (Boston: Gambit, 1969). What's wrong with many of your questions (and makes my answers so nonspecific) is the retrocession of unreasonable attributes by later commentators onto earlier people/places/things. For example (gee, I've always wanted to wing something like this):

"The preceding age [to Pisces, RDF], that of Aries, had been heralded by Moses coming down from Mount Sinai as 'two-horned,' that is, crowned with the Ram's horns, while his flock disobediently insisted upon dancing around the 'Golden Calf', that was, a 'Golden Bull', Taurus."  Hamlet’s Mill, see above, p. 60.

Because such statements are not supported with references, many scholars avoid Hamlet’s Mill. While medieval paintings exist showing Moses with horns, this is understood as confusion based upon the Latin cornuta (horned or cuckolded) and coronata (haloed or crowned). Exodus 34:29 today is translated and reads that Moses' face was "radiant" and "aglow," as opposed to having horns, leprosy, or something else wrong with it. Poor work habits of Eusebius Hieronymus (aka St. Jerome), 347-420 CE, or a later transcriber?  It matters not in this, as the "two-horned" tradition cannot be shown to predate Jerome. That between the original publication of Hamlet’s Mill and today archaeologists have discovered a household statue of a golden calf in Philistine Ashkelon, which demonstrates some partial evidence of a valid tradition as described in Exodus, furthers the implausibility of zodiacal symbolism in Hebrew scripture (apart from simple number). The association of Moses with the zodiac certainly happened, but when?  Not early enough for this discussion…"

I’m uncomfortable with the above, yet the example was necessary.  Indeed, the authors often do not distinguish with scholarly prejudice between primary and secondary sources, nor do they appear to differentiate between attested early traditions and later ones.  These are serious, but not fatal, flaws in the authors’ presentation and methodology.  They inspired William Sullivan's The Secret of the Incas (New York: Crown, 1996), which demonstrates their ability.   I experience their wonder, however I find myself struggling, researching, wrestling with every claim and advancement of Hamlet’s Mill.  Perhaps this is how it should be.  Yes, both authors were highly respected teachers and would have wanted their students to think for themselves.  They’ve given us much to think about with Hamlet’s Mill.

Selected Bibliography*

Die kultishe und mythische Bedeutung des Schweins in Indonesien und Ozeanien, Ph. D. dissertation, Frankfurt University, 1939.

Der Mythos von der gebauten Welt als Ausdrucksform archaiser Naturwissenschaft, Frankfurt University habilitation, 1960.

"Il concetto di simmetria nelle culture arcaiche," in La Simmetria, a cura di Evandro Agazzi, 1973.

"Bemerkungen zum Donnerkeil", in Festschrift für Willy Hartner, Wiesbaden: Verlag, 1977.

I'd like to thank Irene Reiche and Emma Duchane for help with the above selected bibliography, as well as sharing their memories of Frau Von Dechend with me.

Wondering what happened to the wonder,

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