During the latter part of the twentieth century, three divergent speculative perspectives opened up on the ancients’ cosmology: astronomical, musical, and metrological. The astronomical perspective found its classic expression in von Dechend and de Santillana’s Hamlet’s Mill. The musical perspective was spelled out, almost single-handedly, by Ernest McClain, beginning with his work The Myth of Invariance. The metrological perspective diverged into the practical (descending from Alexander Thom’s surveying in the nineteenth century), and the more theoretical work associated perhaps most famously with John Michell’s View Over Atlantis.
These three perspectives shared an awareness that number was an
indispensable guide. Number is invariant; three is always three, and always one
plus two. Mathematics is a realm of order, and recurrent patterns like the
seasons or the harmonic scale call for mathematical descriptions precisely
because such descriptions find stability in change.
As scoffers and skeptics like to point out, however, where there is
pattern-finding, there is also often unconscious wishful human ingenuity.
Moreover, because the astronomical, musical, and metrological perspectives were
carried on sometimes in isolation from one another, their results diverged, and
an apparent incommensurability emerged: how could they all be true? This
gave scoffers an argument that was, on the face of it, difficult to answer: why
not none of them instead? Perhaps the real answer was the skeptical
shrug: the ancient myth-tellers and builders of stone circles were acting more
or less haphazardly or moved by very terrestrial, local, and historical
concerns. Was this not the simplest explanation?
Richard Heath for a quarter of a century has been building towards a
case diametrically opposed to this. From the beginning he worked with
Thom’s practical metrological results, bringing them into dialogue with Michell
and John Neal; then later with a further expansion of astronomical results that
far outpaced von Dechend and de Santillana’s speculations on the precession of
equinoxes. In The Harmonic
Origins of the World, Heath goes a further step,
bringing McClain’s results into dialogue with his previous work. Heath
provides ample demonstration that the results of these various
perspectives can clearly be seen to not diverge from one another. Suddenly
it is very plausible that they might indeed “all be true,” because
they were never, for the ancients, separate at all.
to Heath, there exists in our solar system a harmony of extraordinary
beauty among planetary cycles. This harmony was observed by ancient
astronomers, and enshrined in megalithic monuments; it was transmitted in oral
and literary culture via a musical grammar of proportion, easily reproducible
across various cultures, which informs scripture and speculation (in McClain’s
phrase) “from the Rg Veda to Plato.” These assertions are of
course controversial and deserve scrutiny. But they give the lie to any facile
dismissal of ancient cosmological sophistication on the grounds that
reconstructions are inconsistent. Astronomy, metrology (practical and
theoretical), and music are all comprehensible under a single analogical system.
They hang together in a coherent, living dialogue.
is the most recent chapter and the most comprehensive introduction to a vital
adventure in ideas. It is a detailed account of how human beings on the ground
could make sense of the sky by way of the octave. In it, rigor and common sense
meet wonder and awe.