by Bryan Carr alias Skholiast
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.
According 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.
This book 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.