Decoding the Past – Ring Composition and Sacred Numbers

Anthony Blake

An overview of some books, including new ones by Richard Heath and Simon Weightman.

Richard led us on our Enchanted Albion trip and is a student of the ideas of Bennett. Like William Sullivan, our guide in Peru, he has been inspired by the book Hamlet’s Mill. Both Richard and William have thought a great deal about Bennett’s view of history. Simon was a student of Bennett and drew on his ideas in developing a theory of language and a scheme of mysticism based on his Energies.

Hamlet’s Mill, an Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time, Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend

Sacred Number and the Origins of Civilizationthe Unfolding of History through the Mystery of Number, Richard Heath

Rumi’s Mystical Design, Reading the Mathnawi Book One, Seyed Safawi and Simon Weightman (as yet unpublished)

Thinking in Circles: An Essay in Ring Composition, Mary Douglas

Hamlet’s Mill was one of the inspirational books of the twentieth century, now well known amongst people at all concerned with the reality of ancient wisdom rather than its fantastic distortions in popular culture, but hardly at all amongst the general public. In this extensive, complex and original essay, the authors explored the frame of time through myth, beginning with the mill or grindstone of the original Scandinavian Hamlet and reaching back through the sampoof the Finnish Kalavelato primitive images of the gods churning the waters of the galaxy, coming to the conclusion that all such stories and myths point to one self consistent ‘memory’ or idea of the discovery that even the heavens change; now known as the ‘precession of the equinoxes’, in which the axes of rotation of the Earth slowly describes a tight circle over 25,000 years, the ancient Great year. This mind-blowing discovery, so Santillana and Dechend hint, may go back ten thousand years or more; they seemed further to suggest that the myths recorded from little more than three thousand years ago may have been a very late attempt to enable the remembrance of vastly ancient discoveries, the frame of time measured in the cycles of the heavens, in pure number.

Far from being a primitive prelude to the modern age of science and technology, the age of myth was more likely, in fact, to have been the last echo of an earlier time of measurement and knowledge. Putting the ancient science into myth was a technique of transmission, just as modern day television is used to spread elements of the noosphere, the biosphere coming to know itself through humanity. Santillana and Dechend speak of the mytheic language as capable of transmitting exact knowledge over long periods of time through unsophisticated ordinary people:

“The main merit of this language has turned out to be its built-in ambiguity. Myth can be used as a vehicle for handing down solid knowledge independently from the degree of insight of the people who do the actual telling of stories, fables, etc. In ancient times, moreover, it allowed the members of the archaic “brain trust” to “talk shop” unaffected by the presence of laymen: the danger of giving something away was practically nil.”

“…one should emphasize that it is, of course, satisfactory to have cuneiform tablets and that it is reassuring that the experts know how to read different languages of the Ancient Near East; but Gilgamesh and his search for immortality was not unknown in times before the deciphering of cuneiform writing [i.e. because the same story is present in other myths but with slightly different characters and details]. This is the result of that particular merit of mythical terminology that is handed down independently from the knowledge of the storyteller. (The obvious drawback of this technique is that the ambiguity persists; our contemporary experts are as quietly excluded from the dialogue as were the laymen of old.) Thus, even if one supposes that Plato was among the last who really understood the technical language, “the stories” remained alive, often enough in the true old wording.”

Richard Heath’s book takes up the theme of Atlantean wisdom as an intermediary stage between the deep past of original astronomical discoveries and measure, or primordial number consciousness, and the historical world reaching into our present time from the age of myth creation. There is no descent into fantasies of claiming to know where ‘Atlantis’ was, or to elaborate imaginary notions of a previous civilization now utterly effaced. Heath’s attention is to the information and know-how of an ancient way of knowing deep rooted in the properties of number, which found expression in astronomy thousands of years before the Babylonians, Greeks and Druids made their name on the basis of their celestial understanding.

The transmission of ancient knowledge was a deliberate act (legonomismas Gurdjieff called it), not the mere accidental leaving behind of relics that require modern thinking to make sense of; it was the making of a language built into the Earth itself, using the natural properties of land landscapes as reflections of the patterns of movement of the skies. In Heath’s picture, the original Atlantean culture arose before the onset of agriculture and was perhaps subdued by climatic change at the ending of the Ice Age. What did survive, which was in substance a form of ideas, came through rituals into the megalithic era, starting some six thousand years ago, lasting for a whole epoch. This left a legacy that eventually became manifest once more in monumental building, this time of monasteries and cathedrals across Europe. Even to this day, Heath concludes, there are echoes of the original ‘big bang’ of insight brought into landscape and architecture, as evidenced in the placing and lay out of Washington D.C.

If Richard Heath’s gripping story takes us from Atlantis to the city planning of Washington, then Simon Weightman’s co-authored book on the structure of the Mathnawi, the greatest Persian poem written in the thirteenth century by Jallaludin Rumi the founder of the ‘whirling dervishes’, deals entirely with meanings woven into writing. It seems that the cycles of the heavens became incorporated into the composition of historical texts.

The pioneer in this field was the English anthropologist Mary Douglas, also renowned for her work on the symbolism of the body in social terms. In her studies of apparently rambling and incoherent texts such as the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament, she discovered a pattern that revealed them as far from incoherent, highly elaborate and crafted to contain and convey subtle information. This pattern she called ring composition. What Douglas discovered in books of the Old Testament and also in Homer, Weightman came to see in Sufi literature of the thirteenth century. It seems that this literature became the carrier and guardian of an ancient wisdom conveyed through the form of the writings.

The principles of ring composition are deceptively simple. First, when we read a text like that of the Iliad we follow it along step by step, episode by episode, carried by the momentum that makes for a compelling story. But, reflection leadsus to step outside the linear order of one thing after another and to have what is called a synoptic vision of the whole, where sequence is no longer primary, but correspondences and relationships of meaning prevail. The text is no longer a ‘line’ of episodes but a ‘circle’; a circle because it is the simplest form in which we can contemplate wholeness. Once we see the circle, a great deal follows. First, there must be a conjunction of beginning and end, alpha and omega, which are ‘latched’ together. Then there must also be a middle section, opposite both beginning and end, where the movement of the first half ‘turns’ into the movement of the second; in the case of the Iliad this is the third night of the story, which goes over four days and five nights. The episodes on the one side of the circle are mirrored by those on the other and present complementary views.

We are used to alternations and patterns in verse form, as in the rhymes ABA’B’. In a chiasmus or cross-form the elements can take the form ABCB’A’. The basic idea can be extended from the rhyming of words to the correspondence of passages, involving their meaning. To illustrate, we can make this chiasmus of statements (our invention for the sake of illustration):

You lead me forward into the light

You take my hand

The way is long

I am held firmly

I am led away from darkness

The first and last, second and penultimate statements mirror or echo each other, while the middle one marks the divide. In a proper ring composition with more complexity, the structure reveals three modes of ordering: sequential, around the circle; parallel across the circle, and vertically uniting beginning/end and middle.  In the Mathnawi, the first order concerns the shariator religious law, the external teaching; the second that of tariqat, the path of the seeker, while the third is that of the haqiqat, or of divine truth and reality.

Studies have been of the Gathas or Hymns attributed to Zoroaster himself (and maybe then even as much as three thousand years old – the Hymns were not written down until after the coming of Islam) that claim to show that the inner connections directly express the deeper and more radical aspects of the prophet’s theology than appears on the surface (of the circle). ‘Those who have ears, let them hear’ – the Gospels acknowledge this tradition and, incidentally, in many places insert ‘strange information’ (such as the 153 fishes drawn up by the disciples, an astronomical reference) to tell the knowledgeable people of the time that the writers knew the old stuff!

The structural capacity of myth and poetry was recognised by Gurdjieff and his Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson is a prime example of the craft. It is interesting that, whereas while teaching in Russia he presented the structural format called the Enneagram in skeletal form, in his book he does not mention it all but just illustrates it by the writing itself. One important term he does describe is harnel-aoot – the point poised equally far from both beginning and end.  This is no doubt the same as Mary Douglas’s turn.

It must be emphasised that all this has nothing to do with present day fantastical ‘decodings’ of the Bible and the Qur’an, which are at best a distraction; but, as Rumi put it, the counterfeit is indication of the real.