The Mill of Time


Celestial Cycles And Ancient Mythological Science

Terry Alden

We are on the verge today of a much greater appreciation for the scientific achievements of the world's most ancient civilizations and an understanding of the workings of the ancient mind. At a time when it is still fashionable for scientists to dismiss the possibility that the learned men of remote antiquity, long before the classical-period Greeks or the later Romans, could have known about phenomena like precession (the extremely slow wobble of the Earth's axis of rotation) without modern instruments, or about the spherical shape and dimensions of our planetary spacecraft or its orbit about the Sun as the center of a solar system, a few lone investigators have recently found traces of a very high degree of scientific sophistication and knowledge of the natural world preserved in a metaphorical code which we call myth.

It is ultimately the purpose of this article to provide a solution to the long-standing mystery of the "Star of Bethlehem" and, in a closely-related problem, to announce the date of the beginning of the New Age, the Age of Aquarius, as determined by a method believed to be the same one used by the ancient Magi of Chaldea and other astronomical priesthoods in very early times. These topics will indeed be covered in the second part of this report.

The validity of the statements to be made on these subjects, however, rests on the foundation of the logic and integrity of the system or method of very-long-term time reckoning which the Magi and others, it is believed, followed -- a system based on both planetary and precessional cycles. Therefore, it is necessary to develop the background or context in which our more specific later tasks will be seen to fit before dealing with them individually. This context turns out to be nothing less than the ancient holistic world-view or paradigm which Joseph Campbell identified as the World Monomyth.

A good indication of the alienation of the modern psyche from the ways of thought in ancient times is the current connotation of the term, 'myth.' A myth to us is a fabrication, a made-up story based solely on imagination, a lie. Outside of this 'definition,' most people today have no idea of what a myth actually is. Myths are metaphors expressing aspects of life in the natural world of human experience.

Campbell once asked an interviewer he didn't particularly like to give an example of a myth. After a long, uncomfortable silence the disconcerted man finally came up with: "The man runs like a deer." "That's not a myth," retorted Campbell. (It is a simile.) "The man IS a deer," stated Campbell. "But that's a lie," said the man. "No, that's a myth," said Campbell.

The meaning and intent of both expressions are much the same, to declare the swiftness of a particular man, but there is a subtle and profound difference. In the former case this is done merely through a comparison of one factor, speed, between separated entities, while in the latter there is an identification with and participation in the qualities of the deer in a holistic and non-separative sense. The ancient perception could distinguish between a man and a deer as readily as any other, but a man might identify with and celebrate admired qualities of animals in this metaphorical way without contradiction.

Holistic, simultaneous, non-separative perception is for us a very difficult proposition. It is involved in spiritual or religious perception. It is the opposite of the logical, sequential, objectified and difference-based mode of perception which we revere as the hallmark of civilized and scientific thought.

Mythology has been the victim of our scientific way of looking at things. We saw only illogical stories and fantastic adventures and not the resonance with life and nature which is its reason for being. We relegated the subject to world literature never guessing it might contain elements of wisdom to help harmonize human life with the conditions of the environment, and, in its fullest development, comprise an integrated body of naturalist observation and recording amounting to a 'pre-scientific' science.

Those readers familiar with the theory of the perceptual qualities associated with the right and left hemispheres of the brain will quickly relate the mythological form of knowing in terms of a direct participation in the wholeness of nature with the spiritual right hemispheric perception. The logical and analytical left hemisphere is clearly the one dominant in the scientific mode of perception.

Modern scholarship is indebted to the late mythologian, Joseph Campbell, for rescuing mythology from its fallen state and for discovering the common themes in the mythologies of all times and all lands. He showed its origins in the basic facts and conditions of life abstracted in icons, ritual objects and other artistic renderings and in the fundamental realities of life -- the masculine and feminine mystiques, birth and child rearing, food gathering, the transformations into adulthood and so on. The ground of mythology was shown as the expression of natural order in metaphorical form.

Not only is mythology based on nature, but there is an unexpected similarity in the major themes of the core mythologies of cultures widely separated by geography and time. Campbell came to the conclusion that it was as though the same story was being told over and over again, but with a vast number of minor variations as each retelling occurred in one culture and/or time period to the next. This universal story he termed the One Myth or Monomyth.

The existence of a universal mythology is unexpected because of the vast distances between ancient civilizations and cultures spread around the entire globe and the presumed lack of contacts between them. Here again, the modern scientific predisposition is to assume separation and lack of contact. But even without contacts, ancient cultures could have developed similar myths because all are based on the same natural order to a large extent with some variation for climate, locale, food sources, etc.

Another possibility is that the core myths of world mythology are much older than we suppose and have been handed down in a continuous stream as a verbal but non-written tradition perhaps from the earliest beginnings of human awareness. We have records and artifacts dating back only about 5 - 6000 years, a period which is brief by comparison with the time span of sentient man on Earth.

Joseph Campbell saw the symbols of myth as universal archetypes, as did psychologist Carl Jung, which appear again and again in dreams and are the inspiration for religion and art. He interpreted the heroic story of the Monomyth as a metaphor representing the inner psychological transformations and spiritual potentialities awaiting every man on his journey through life.

Contemporary with Campbell but much less well known is another investigator who wrote about the universality of the themes of world mythology and connected them not with the inner life of man but with his external environment, particularly the celestial vault. His name is Giorgio de Santillana, and, back in 1969 when his book, Hamlet's Mill, was first published, he was a Professor of Humanities at M.I.T. It is largely on the work of Prof. de Santillana that this article and the suggestions regarding the Star of Bethlehem and the Age of Aquarius in the concluding part are based.

It is highly instructive and appropriate that Campbell and de Santillana, though studying the same body of material, world mythology, would arrive at what would seem to be two totally different, even irreconcilable, interpretations of the significance of the Monomyth narrative. On the one hand, Campbell emphasized the inner psychological and spiritual dimensions of the story and had much less to say about any connections with astronomy. On the other, de Santillana had little to say on the psychology of the Monomyth story, but wrote nearly 500 pages connecting it with observational astronomy.

In the holistic mode of ancient thought, however, both perspectives are valid simultaneously. The ancient dictum, "As above, so below," is precisely an expression of this unity. The motions of the stars and planets were thought to express the same energies and natural laws as those which governed society and the internal workings of the human body. The basic ideas of astrology were born of this union of above and below. The nighttime sky was like a blackboard on which appeared messages from the Deity written in mysterious moving lights. If man could understand the signals of the gods and even predict some of their features, he might partake of divinity himself and control his own destiny.

It is not possible to go into every facet of de Santillana's argument and its extensive body of supporting material. Those interested in this are referred to the book by de Santillana and von Dechend cited above. However, an outline of the mythological code which enshrined and preserved ancient knowledge of the heavens can be given. De Santillana's own account is episodic and somewhat difficult to follow. One of the present tasks, therefore, is to collate his material and make it more coherent and unified.

The Craftsman God is responsible for having constructed the Universe we observe in nature. He is often depicted as a giant blacksmith hammering out a piece of iron to fit up for the roof of heaven. Sometimes he fashions the Universe by shaping it on a potter's wheel which he spins with his feet.

He is also the possessor of a magical mill, similar to ancient stone mills or querns used for grinding flour, except that this mill produces not flour from its turning but Time. Never ceasing, it turns out the days, years, centuries, millennia and eons of time. The lower stone of the mill is the earth as the foundation of heaven and the upper stone is the sky endlessly turning on its axis by day and by night. The Craftsman God, under many names in many cultures, rules the axis of the Earth's rotation and the machine which generates Time.

The fixed stars, since their patterns in the constellations do not appear to change over long periods, symbolize eternity, the transcendent realm, that which is beyond or outside of time and space. Saturn, which takes the longest time to travel around the Zodiac of all the planets which are seen without a telescope, was, therefore, considered the symbol of Time and identified with the Craftsman God.

Saturn was also thought to be closest to the fixed stars and the eternal realm because the planets were imagined to be caught up in a Zodiacal whirlpool, and, as such, the ones closer to the center revolved faster than the ones farther out, an excellent model for the true structure and behavior of the planets of our solar system revolving around the Sun.

The Sun was at the center of the whirlpool and the chief object of Creation as the god which provided light and warmth for the continuance of life, but Saturn seems to have held a special position as King of all the Planets and Creator of the World, the Sun and Moon being included as 'planets.'

Saturn had a rival, however, in the visually much brighter planet, Jupiter, and Jupiter could regularly be seen to catch up to and pass Saturn in the Zodiac due to his faster speed. This rivalry and periodic close proximity seems to have led to some interesting results for timekeeping in the way the ancients used natural cycles to set up a system for studying time and space.

The Sun, of course, circuits the Zodiac in one year and defines the seasons as it goes, so the year is bound to be one of the fundamental units or cycles of time. Saturn takes nearly 30 years and Jupiter nearly 12 years to complete their cycles. The numbers, 30 and 12, have clearly been very important in setting up our temporal and spatial units and coordinates.

Is it because Jupiter takes 12 years to move around the Zodiac that there are 12 constellations instead of some other number? Multiplying 12 by 30 gives 360, the number of degrees in a circle or a Zodiac of 12 signs of 30 degrees each. On the Equinoxes we have 12 hours each of daylight and night. The day has 24 hours (twice 12) of 60 minutes (twice 30) each. The number 360 is also close to the number of days in a year. The ancients had a calendar of 12 months of exactly 30 days each, the extra five days inserted between calendars being dedicated to the Lord of Misrule because they didn't fit in to the system. This was the festival period of the Saturnalia when the normal order was suspended and the fool was paraded as mock king.

De Santillana correlated the myths of cultures from all over the world and identified their similarities, a major task considering the sheer number of them. Most of the heroes of world mythology have not been associated with actual planetary bodies in the physical Universe in modern scholarship. Even the association of the Greek god Zeus with the planet Jupiter or Kronos with Saturn has been resisted by specialists in language, for example, specialism being another sign of the separatism and non-integration of modern science. Some have resisted the phonetic connection between the Greek name for Saturn, Kronos, and the root of English words related to time, such as 'chronic' and 'chronometer.' Nevertheless, for the purpose of demonstrating the large number of correlations which de Santillana has made to the universal myth, a table has been created. [See Table 1.]

Table 1

World Monomyth Gods/Heroes -- Forms of the Craftsman God

Ptah  <S>                            Egypt -- Memphis                      

Khnemu <S> Egypt -- Elephantine

Thoth <S><*> Egypt -- Hermopolis

Osiris <S><*> Egypt -- Abydos

Amen, Amon, Amun <J> Egypt -- Thebes

Ra, Aten <*> Egypt -- Heliopolis, Akhetaten

Enki <S> Sumeria

Gilgamesh <S> Sumeria, Babylonia

Enlil <*> Sumeria

Marduk <J><*> Assyria, Babylonia

Ilmarinen <S> Finland, Esthonia

Kaleva, Kullervo <S> Finland, Esthonia

Hermes <S> [also Mercury] Greece

Hephaistos <S> Greece [form of Ptah]

Dionysos Greece

Hercules <J> Greece

Kronos, Cronus, Chronos <S> Greece

Zeus <J> Greece

Prometheus <S> Greece [>India]

Pan Greece

Phaethon <S> Greece

Adonis-Tammuz Greece

Orpheus <S> Greece

Odysseus, Ulysses Greece

Oedipus Greece [>Egypt]

Freyr, Frodhi <S> Iceland, Norway

Orendil, Orwandel Iceland, Norway

Hamlet, Amleth, Amlodhi <S> Iceland, Norway

Saturn <S> Rome

Jupiter, Jove <J> Rome

Kavag, Kaweh, Kawa <S> Persia

Kai Ka'us <S> Iran, Persia

Kai Khusrau <S> Iran, Persia

Jamshyd, Yima, Yama <S> Iran, Persia

Huang-ti <S> China

Yu <S> China

K'uei <S> China

Vishnu India

Krishna India [incarnation of Vishnu]

Samson Kolyvanovic Russia

Samson Agonistes Israel [form of Orion]

Jehovah <S> Israel

Susanowo <S> Japan

Quetzalcouatl <S> Mexico [Mayas]

Tane-of-Ancient-Waters <S> Polynesia

Tahaki <J> Polynesia

King Conchobar, King Arthur Celts

Cuchulainn, Sir Gawain Celts

Sir Lancelot, Sir Galahad, Perceval England

Parzival, Parsifal Germany

<J>=Jupiter <S>=Saturn <*>=Sun

In this table, I have listed most of the mythological god names mentioned in Hamlet's Mill and indicated their national origins. It will be seen that the list covers the globe with no major world civilization being left out. Secondly, while most of these heroes are archetypes associated with the Craftsman God and Saturn, in some cases, where the indications seemed fairly clear, the identification may be with Saturn's mythological son or rival, Jupiter, or with the Sun. The letter <S> after the name indicates Saturn, <J> indicates Jupiter, <*> indicates Sun. A few have no attribution; their mythologies have elements of the Monomyth but it is not clear which planet may have been meant.

Upsetting the divine order and regularity of the cosmos was an evil factor and this was associated with the phenomenon of the precession. This is the very slow gyroscopic wobble of the Earth in which its axis of rotation completes a circle in the sky in about 25,800 years. [See Figure 1.] The motion causes the seasons of the year to very slowly get out of sync with the stars normally associated with those seasons. For example, Orion is a winter constellation for us in the nighttime sky, being mostly invisible in daytime skys during our summer months. In about 13,000 years, it will be a summer constellation, seen at night in the warm months.

The stars in the sky according to egyptians

There isn't usually a North Star either. The axis now happens to point near Polaris but through most of the precession cycle there is no star to mark the pole. In about 13,000 years another star, Vega, will be near the North Celestial Pole.

The extreme slowness of the change made it seem insideous, and the fact that it contradicted the perfection of heavenly order caused it to be symbolized by the idea of "working iniquity in secret." Thus, in the story of the Monomyth, a tyrant usurps the legitimate authority, usually murdering the rightful king and marrying his queen, setting the stage for the hero (the rightful king's son) to journey into exile, live in disguise until the right moment and ultimately avenge his father.

The story of Hamlet was adapted by Shakespeare from the Icelandic and Norwegian myth of Amlodhi or, in a later version of the name, Amleth, which became Hamlet. It is a Norse retelling of the Monomyth. And Amlodhi was associated with a mill and the planet Saturn, hence "Hamlet's Mill."

Current scholarship claims that precession was unknown before the 2nd Century B.C. when it was 'discovered' by a Greek named Hipparchus. This is because the effect is too small to be detected in one human lifetime without modern precision instruments. Our science doesn't say how Hipparchus discovered it without modern instruments, however.

But modern instruments are not, in fact, required -- only dedication and persistence in observing the major features of the heavens over long periods of time, at least a few centuries. This the ancients possessed in abundance. Festivals were held on the solstices and equinoxes. The spring equinox was particularly important. The Zodiacal constellation rising in the East before the Sun as night turned to dawn was memorialized in myth.

These celebrations went on year after year for centuries and precise astronomical records were also kept in many of the high civilizations of antiquity. After only a century or two, the changes due to precession would be noticeable to a trained astronomical priesthood. And after 2000 years a whole new constellation would be rising before the Sun on the Vernal Equinox. The Equinox point itself moves backwards through the Zodiac at a rate of about one degree in 72 years, or one 30 degree sign in about 2160 years. De Santillana believed that the ancients not only knew about the phenomenon but were virtually obsessed by it.

This is not to say that precession was understood in the terms we know today, involving a torque or force on the spinning planet from the gravitational pull principally of the Sun and Moon acting upon the uneven distribution of the planetary mass. It only means that they were well capable of observing its long-term effects. They also knew the length of the precession cycle to some degree of accuracy. Plato is said to have used a figure of one degree per century which is a bit too slow, but the excellent star watchers of ancient Babylon and Persia may have had a more precise value.

De Santillana suggested that the Zodiacal figure rising before the Sun on the Vernal Equinox held a special place in the religious worship of ancient peoples and was celebrated in ritual and storytelling during its tenure, on the average about 2160 years, before the next constellation took its place. The period of the precession of the Vernal Equinox Point backwards through one Zodiacal group is referred to as a World Age, and each figure so rising before the Sun (called heliacal rising) gave its name to the Age.

In all of recorded history, covering a mere 6000 years, only three World Ages have taken place. These are the Ages of Taurus (about 4400 - 2200 B.C.), Aries (2200 - 0 B.C.) and Pisces, the current era (about 1 - 2200 A.D.). In the Taurean Age, according to de Santillana, the Bull was worshipped as the chief religious symbol. In the Arian, it was the Ram or Lamb, and, in the Piscean, it is the Fishes, though this practice has been mostly forgotten now.

Each age apparently put its own symbolic imprint upon the World Monomyth and reworked the story with a new cast of characters. Mostly it was just the names and incidental details which were new; the basic themes did not change much. There was always a hero whose birth was foretold by signs and portents in the heavens who would come to save the people from the rule of a tyrant. The tyrant is usually a usurper who has killed the former king, often his own brother, tried to kill the hero while still an infant because he is the legitimate heir, and has taken the former king's queen for his wife.

The child is spirited away for his protection and grows up in exile or in some foster home. He is recognized to have special powers and often plans his revenge from an early age. However, he must disguise himself and hide his great abilities from the evil forces of the state until the proper time arrives to act. To do this he feigns madness or folly. He convinces everyone that he is either insane or a simpleton by doing and saying absurd things. The chief Tarot card of the series of 22 major trumps, number 0, The Fool, is the symbol of the Monomyth hero in his disguise. It is also a pictorial representation of the bright constellation, Orion.

In some versions, as that of Hamlet, for example, he thwarts the tyrant-king's plots to find out if he is only pretending to be mad and to kill him by sending him away with companions whose orders are to see that he never returns. In these cases he always shows his true genius by discovering the plot and turning the situation to his advantage. There's no way the tyrant can get rid of him. In the end, he always returns, kills the usurper with his own sword and terminates the evil order. A new World Age then begins.

Support for the idea that ancient religious worship was centered on the constellations rising before the Sun on the Spring Equinox has come from a recent book about the religion of Mithras which has, for its central symbol, the killing of a bull. Author David Ulansey has this to say in The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries (p. 83):

"... it would be difficult to conceive of a more appropriate symbol for the precession than the symbol of the death of a bull, representing the death of the previous Age of Taurus brought about by the precession..."

While the ancients could easily have been aware of the effects of precession in shifting the constellations with respect to the seasonal reference points, the equinoxes and solstices, and could have known the length of the Great Year, as they called it, fairly well, they could not easily have determined the exact moment of the start of a New Age and end of the old by observing precession alone to an accuracy better than plus or minus a few centuries. The movement is just too slow and the constellations rising before the Sun on the Spring Equinox are bathed in the growing light of dawn. This would make the fainter stars disappear well before the full constellation had risen and make the visual sighting of constellation boundaries a very tricky matter.

This technique is obviously very inaccurate. However, nature and human ingenuity contrived a very precise system for inaugurating World Ages, making it possible to identifiy a period as short as a day or two for the great transition rather than a century or more. The ancients observed everything going on in the skies and made records particularly of planetary motions which covered long periods. They discovered a peculiar cyclic pattern in the coming together of the planets Jupiter and Saturn which they called Great Conjunctions to distinguish them from the more frequent lesser conjunctions involving the other, faster-moving planets. Great Conjunctions occurred about every 20 years but every third Great Conjunction, in about 60-year intervals, occurred most often in the same constellation of the Zodiac.

The 20-year conjunction points are roughly one-third of the Zodiacal Circle around from each other. If the points are connected, they form a near equilateral triangle within the circle. Each successive 60-year Great Conjunction occurs an average of about nine degrees farther down the track, in the forward direction through the Zodiac, from the previous one. Therefore, the entire triangle can be thought of as rotating in the forward direction through the Zodiac in increments of nine degrees every 60 years. This grand pattern is referred to as the "Rotation of the Trigon of Great Conjunctions." Any one of the corners of the triangle or trigon will move through 30 degrees in about 200 years and completely around the Zodiac in 2400 years. These intervals were easily discoverable by the ancients with simple observational persistence and record keeping; no sophisticated instruments were required.

Could this 60-year periodicity in the meetings of Jupiter and Saturn in the same constellation have given extra importance to the number 60 such that it was incorporated in the number of seconds in a minute and minutes in an hour? Could the Trigon of Great Conjunctions have suggested a harmony between all constellations one-third of the circle around from each other that came to be enshrined in the astrological idea of the triplicities -- the air, fire, water and earth signs?

The time of one full rotation of the Trigon of Great Conjunctions, 2400 years, is of an order close to the length of an average World Age, roughly 2200 years. The Trigon would, therefore, make a fine vernier for subdividing the lengthy ages into smaller time units while still utilizing observable features of the heavens. The sky becomes a Great Clock the 'hour hand' of which is the Vernal Point moving very slowly backwards through the Zodiac by precession and the 'minute hand' of which is any corner of the Trigon of Great Conjunctions moving forward through the Zodiac.

It doesn't matter that a complete rotation of the Trigon is not exactly the length of an average World Age. All of these observations would have been made in the real sky against the background of the actual constellations of stars. The constellations, as we know, are not of the same size.

Some, like Virgo and Scorpio, cover nearly twice as many degrees along the Zodiac or Ecliptic as some others, like Cancer and Libra. Therefore, the World Ages of Virgo and Scorpio may be expected to last much longer than those of Cancer and Libra, by as much as 1000 years or more! Similarly, a corner of the Trigon will take longer to traverse the larger constellations than the smaller ones.

All that is needed to precisely mark the moment of the beginning of a New Age, however, is a unique but predictable event selected from a convenient and known system for breaking down world-age periods into smaller intervals. Here is how de Santillana believed it was done. The mythology prescribes a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn "at the place of passage," meaning as close as possible to the location of the Vernal Equinox Point as it precesses into the next World Age constellation. This is all that is required, with some judicious reasoning regarding constellation boundaries, to identify the exact moment when a New Age might commence. The two hands of the Cosmic Clock must coincide.

In mythological terms the Great Conjunctions were associated with a magnanimous motif in which "Father Time," Saturn, King of the Planets, gives "...all the measures of the whole creation" to his son, Jupiter. Saturn is also "Lord of the Measures," that is, of the sacred units for measuring the Universe he created, the units of time, space and mass or weight. As his first official act following Creation, the Craftsman God measures everything he has made using himself as the fundamental unit-maker. Thus he measures time and space "by his stride." And we have seen that the orbital periods of Saturn and Jupiter may have provided numbers which came to be the basis of our coordinate and time-measuring systems.

The writer hopes that something of the unity and naturalism of this magnificent system for reading the signs and messages of the gods writ large in the heavens, of its coherence and integration on many levels from the celestial to the inwardly human, and of the great reverence and worship which the ancients gave to the cosmos as the inspiration for their mythology and religion will come through to the reader. One must use one's own right-hemispheric appreciation of wholeness and intuitive insight to put the pieces of so large a puzzle together -- that of rediscovering the significance of ancient mythological science.

In Part 2, the world-age time-reckoning system developed here will be applied to the question of the meaning of the Star of Bethlehem or Star of the Magi and to the determination of the true dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Some of the implications of the World Monomyth for history and religion will also be examined. And finally, the question will be posed whether a resetting of coordinates in astrology will be needed when the New Age begins.


1. Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill: An essay on myth and the frame of time, 2nd paperback ed. (Boston: David R. Godine, 1983).

2. David Ulansey, The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries, 1st paperback ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Part 2

Last Updated: June 22nd, 2011