AS THE SENIOR, if least deserving, of the authors, I shall open the narrative.
Over many years I have searched for the point where myth and science join. It was clear to me for a long time that the origins of science had their deep roots in a particular myth, that of invariance.
The Greeks, as early as the 7th century B.C., spoke of the quest of their first sages as the Problem of the One and the Many, sometimes describing the wild fecundity of nature as the way in which the Many could be deduced from the One, sometimes seeing the Many as unsubstantial variations being played on the One. The oracular sayings of Heraclitus the Obscure do nothing but illustrate with shimmering paradoxes the illusory quality of "things" in flux as they were wrung from the central intuition of unity. Before him Anaximander had announced, also oracularly, that the cause of things being born and perishing is their mutual injustice to each other in the order of time, "as is meet," he said, for they are bound to atone forever for their mutual injustice. This was enough to make of Anaximander the acknowledged father of physical science, for the accent is on the real "Many." But it was true science after a fashion.
Soon after, Pythagoras taught, no less oracularly, that "things are numbers." Thus mathematics was born. The problem of the origin of mathematics has remained with us to this day. In his high old age, Bertrand Russell has been driven to avow: "I have wished to know how the stars shine. I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved." The answers that he found, very great answers, concern the nature of logical clarity, but not of philosophy proper. The problem of number remains to perplex
us, and from it all of metaphysics was born. As a historian, I went on investigating the "gray origins" of science, far into its pre-Greek beginnings, and how philosophy was born of it, to go on puzzling us. I condensed it into a small book, The Origins of Scientific Thought. For both philosophy and science came from that fountainhead; and it is clear that both were children of the same myth. [n1 The Pythagorean problem is at the core of my Origins. My efforts came eventually to fruition in my Prologue to Parmenides of 1964 (reprinted in Reflections on Men and Ideas (1968), p. 80).] In a number of studies, I continued to pursue it under the name of "scientific rationalism"; and I tried to show that through all the immense developments, the "Mirror of Being" is always the object of true science, a metaphor which still attempts to reduce the Many to the One. We now make many clear distinctions, and have come to separate science from philosophy utterly, but what remains at the core is still the old myth of eternal invariance, ever more remotely and subtly articulated, and what lies beyond it is a multitude of procedures and technologies, great enough to have changed the face of the world and to have posed terrible questions. But they have not answered a single philosophical question, which is what myth once used to do.
If we come to think of it, we have been living in the age of Astronomical Myth until yesterday. The careful and rigorous edifice of Ptolemy's Almagest is only window dressing for Plato's theology, disguised as elaborate science. The heavenly bodies are moving in "cycle and epicycle, orb in orb" of a mysterious motion according to the divine decree that circular motions ever more intricate would account for the universe. And Newton himself, once he had accounted for it, simply replaced the orbs with the understandable force of gravitation, for which he "would feign no hypotheses." The hand of God was still the true motive force; God's will and God's own mathematics went on, another name for Aristotle's Prime Mover. And shall we deny that Einstein's space-time is nothing other than a pure pan-mathematical myth, openly acknowledged at last as such?
I was at this point, lost between science and myth, when.. on the occasion of a meeting in Frankfurt in 1959, I met Dr. von Dechend,
one of the last pupils of the great Frobenius, whom I had known; and with her I recalled his favorite saying: "What the I hell should I care for my silly notions of yesterday?" We were friends from the start. She was then Assistant to the Chair of the History of Science, but she had pursued her lonely way into cultural ethnology, starting in West Africa on the tracks of her "Chef," which were being opened up again at the time by that splendid French ethnologist, the late Marcel Griaule. She too had a sense that the essence of myth should be sought somewhere in Plato rather than in psychology, but as yet she had no clue.
By the time of our meeting she had shifted her attention to Polynesia, and soon she hit pay dirt. As she looked into the archaeological remains on many islands, a clue was given to her. The moment of grace came when, on looking (on a map) at two little islands, mere flyspecks on the waters of the Pacific, she found that a strange accumulation of maraes or cult places could be explained only one way: they, and only they, were both exactly sited on two neat celestial coordinates: the Tropics of Cancer and of Capricorn.
Now let Dechend take over the narrative:
"To start from sheer opposition to ruling opinions is not likely to lead to sensible insight, at least so we think. But anyhow, I did not start from there, although there is no denying that my growing wrath about the current interpretations (based upon discouraging translations) was a helpful spur now and then. In that, there was nothing that could be called a 'start,' least of all the intention to explore the astronomical nature of myth. To the contrary, on my side, having come from ethnology to the history of science, there existed 'in the beginning' only the firm decision never to become involved in astronomical matters, under any condition. In order to keep safely away from this frightening field, my subject of inquiry was meant to be the mythical figure of the craftsman god, the Demiurge in his many aspects (Hephaistos, Tvashtri, Wayland the Smith, Goibniu, Ilmarinen, Ptah, Khnum, Kothar-wa-Hasis, Enki/Ea, Tane, Viracocha, etc.). Not even a whiff of suspicion came to me during the investigation of Mesopotamian myth--of all cultures!--everything looked so very terrestrial, though slightly peculiar. It was after having spent more than a year over at least
10,000 pages of Polynesian myths collected in the 19th century (there are many more pages available than these) that the annihilating recognition of our complete ignorance came down upon me like a sledge hammer: there was no single sentence that could be understood. But then, if anybody was entitled to be taken seriously, it had to be the Polynesians guiding their ships securely over the largest ocean of our globe, navigators to whom our much praised discoverers from Magellan to Captain Cook confided the steering of their ships more than once. Thus, the fault had to rest with us, not with Polynesian myth. Still, I did not then 'try astronomy for a change' -there was a strict determination on my part to avoid this field. I looked into the archaeological remains of the many islands, and there a clue was given to me (to call it being struck by lightning would be more correct) which I duly followed up, and then there was no salvation anymore: astronomy could not be escaped. First it was still 'simple' geometry-the orbit of the sun, the Tropics, the seasons-and the adventures of gods and heroes did not make much more sense even then. Maybe one should count, for a change? What could it mean, when a hero was on his way slightly more than two years, 'returning' at intervals, 'falling into space,' coming off the 'right' route? There remained, indeed, not many possible solutions: it had to be planets (in the particular case of Aukele-nuia-iku, Mars). If so, planets had to be constitutive members of every mythical personnel; the Polynesians did not invent this trait by themselves."
This text of Professor von Dechend, in its intellectual freedom and audacity, bears the stamp of her inheritance from the heroic and innocent and cosmopolitan age of German science around the eighteen-thirties. Its heroes, Justus von Liebig and Friedrich Woehler, were the objects of her work done before 1953. Another of those virtues, scornful indignation, will come to the fore in the appendices, which are so largely the product of her efforts.
Now I resume:
Years before, I had once looked at Dupuis' L'Origine de tous les cultes, lost in the stacks of Widener Library, never again consulted. It was a book in the 18th-century style, dated "An III de la Republique."
The title was enough to make one distrustful--one of those "enthusiastic" titles which abounded in the 18th century and promised far too much. How could it explain the Egyptian system, I thought, since hieroglyphics had not yet been deciphered? (Athanasius Kircher was later to show us how it was done out of Coptic tradition.) I had dropped the forbidding tome, only jotting down a sentence: "Le mythe est né de la science; la science seule l'expliquera." I had the answer there, but I was not ready to understand.
This time I was able to grasp the idea at a glance, because I was ready for it. Many, many years before, I had questioned myself, in a note, about the meaning of fact in the crude empirical sense, as applied to the ancients. It represents, I thought, not their intellectual surprise, not the direct wonder and astonishment, but first of all an immense, steady, minute attention to the seasons. What is a solstice or an equinox? It stands for the capacity of coherence, deduction, imaginative intention and reconstruction with which we could hardly credit our forefathers. And yet there it was. I saw.
Mathematics was moving up to me from the depth of centuries; not after myth, but before it. Not armed with Greek rigor, but with the imagination of astrological power, with the understanding of astronomy. 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.
Thus we had returned to the true beginnings, in the Neolithic Revolution. We agreed that revolution was essentially technological. The earliest social scientist, Democritus of Abdera, put it in one striking sentence: men's progress was the work not of the mind but of the hand. His late successors have taken him too literally, and concentrated on artifacts. They have been unaware of the enormous intellectual effort involved, from metallurgy to the arts, but especially in astronomy. The effort of sorting out and identifying the only presences which totally eluded the action of our hands led to those pure objects of contemplation, the stars in their courses. The Greeks would not have misapprehended that effort: they called astronomy the Royal Science. The effort at organizing the
cosmos took shape from the supernal presences, those alone which thought might put in control of reality, those from which all arts took their meaning.
But nothing is so easy to ignore as something that does not yield freely to understanding. Our science of the past flowered in the fullness of time into philology and archaeology, as learned volumes on ancient philosophy have continued to pour forth, to little avail. A few masters of our own time have rediscovered these "preliterate" accomplishments. Now Dupuis, Kircher and Boll are gone like those archaic figures, and are equally forgotten. That is the devouring way of time. The iniquity of oblivion blindly scattereth her poppies.
It is well known how many images of the gods have to do with the making of fire, and an American engineer, J. D. McGuire, discovered that also certain Egyptian images, until then unsuspected, presented deities handling a fire drill. Simple enough: fire itself was the link between what the gods did and what man could do. But from there, the mind had once been able to move on to prodigious feats of intellect. That world of the mind was fully worthy of those Newtons and Einsteins long forgotten--those masters, as d' Alembert put it, of whom we know nothing, and to whom we owe everything.
We had the idea. It was simple and clear. But we realized that we would run into formidable difficulties, both from the point of view of modern, current scholarship and from the no less unfamiliar approach needed for method. I called it playfully, for short, "the cat on the keyboard," for reasons that will appear presently. For how can one catch time on the wing? And yet the flow of time, the time of music, was of the essence, inescapable, baffling to the systematic mind. I searched at length for an inductive way of presentation. It was like piling Pelion upon Ossa. And yet this was the least of our difficulties. For we also had to face a wall, a veritable Berlin Wall, made of indifference, ignorance, and hostility. Humboldt, that wise master, said it long ago: First, people will deny a thing; then they will belittle it; then they will decide that it had been known long ago. Could we embark upon an enormous
task of detailed scholarship on the basis of this more than dubious prospect? But our own task was set: to rescue those intellects of the past, distant and recent, from oblivion. "Thus saith the Lord God: 'Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.' " Such poor scattered bones, ossa vehementer sicca, we had to revive.
This book reflects the gradually deepening conviction that, first of all, respect is due these fathers of ours. The early chapters will make, I think, for easy reading. Gradually, as we move above timberline, the reader will find himself beset by difficulties which are not of our making. They are the inherent difficulties of a science which was fundamentally reserved, beyond our conception. Most frustrating, we could not use our good old simple catenary logic, in which principles come first and deduction follows. This was not the way of the archaic thinkers. They thought rather in terms of what we might call a fugue, in which all notes cannot be constrained into a single melodic scale, in which one is plunged directly into the midst of things and must follow the temporal order created by their thoughts. It is, after all, in the nature of music that the notes cannot all be played at once. The order and sequence, the very meaning, of the composition will reveal themselves--with patience--in due time. The reader, I suggest, will have to place himself in the ancient "Order of Time."
Troilus expressed the same idea in a different image: "He that will have a cake out of the wheat must needs tarry the grinding."
GIORGIO DE SANTILLANA