The best books on the origins of humanity's earliest beliefs and their spread into modern times

John M. Saul Author Of What the Stork Brought: African click-speakers and the spread of humanity's oldest beliefs
By John M. Saul

Who am I?

As a geologist, I met and shared meals – occasionally under the stars – with individuals with strikingly different backgrounds. In time I realized that, whatever their DNA, they all shared certain beliefs, that the happy dead eventually go upward, for example, even if they start by going down or out to the horizon. Eventually, I concluded that the entire human adventure began in a single moment the day one of our forebears asked another "What shall we do about death?" and was understood. Humans have a single genetic heritage; we also have a single cultural heritage.


I wrote...

What the Stork Brought: African click-speakers and the spread of humanity's oldest beliefs

By John M. Saul,

Book cover of What the Stork Brought: African click-speakers and the spread of humanity's oldest beliefs

What is my book about?

The Bushman of southern Africa and the Hadza people far to the north in Tanzania have a greater difference in their DNA than any other pair of peoples. They represent the oldest split among surviving peoples. Yet Bushman and Hadza traditions both have a special place for "Eland" who long ago mounted the Milky Way to the heavenly Hereafter. 

The heavens, however, are not constant and Eland's path is no longer available, nor is the starry route of the migrating birds who return each spring seemingly reborn or renewed. Following Eland or the birds, "As Above, So Below," does not lead to rebirth. Later religions encountered related problems, which they countered by inventing new "World Ages" and great re-settings, as did the Bushman and the Hadza themselves.

The books I picked & why

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Hamlet's Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time

By Giorgio de Santillana, Hertha von Dechend,

Book cover of Hamlet's Mill: An Essay on Myth and the Frame of Time

Why this book?

De Santillana and von Dechend show how ancient mythology "tells the skies," and how people everywhere attempted to come to terms with the inconstancy to the heavens. How could people, or their properly prepared souIs, mount the Milky Way if the configuration of the heavens was no longer as described by the founders of religion and tradition? The stakes were high, the pursuit of immortality. It is difficult to improve on the review in the Scientific American in which Philip Morrison, a senior professor of physics at MIT, judged that although Hamlet's Mill was "only a bent key to the first of many gates," it had "the ring of noble metal."


Astronomy of the Ancients

By Kenneth Brecher, Michael Feirtag,

Book cover of Astronomy of the Ancients

Why this book?

Among the several fine essays here, Harald Reiche's "The Language of Archaic Astronomy: a Clue to the Atlantis Myth?" is a bonus treat. Reiche introduces the technological language of ancient mythology – the "tech talk of our ancestors" – and explains how "stories," recounted in the language of myth, track the "damage" to the heavens caused by the Precession of the Equinoxes. This easy-reading collection is a great aid for those with little inclination to study the heavens through light-polluted skies, or to plunge into the troublesome field of comparative mythology. 


The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy, and the War Against Time

By William Sullivan,

Book cover of The Secret of the Incas: Myth, Astronomy, and the War Against Time

Why this book?

My personal background and fieldwork have been in North America, Africa, and Europe. Sullivan's book opened the world of ancient South America for me. The Incas lived in a Sacred Kingship, an institution in which Church and State were one, invented in ancient Mesopotamia and diffused as far as the Andes, carrying with it a promise of eternity. In Sacred Kingships, the King was to funnel the essence of the undying Heavens into the ways of Earthbound mortals. Sullivan shows how this all went dreadfully wrong for the Incas when they began to treat mythological notions as literally true, applying the technical language of myth to the real world.


Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning

By Richard H. Allen,

Book cover of Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning

Why this book?

Allen (1838-1906) was described as a "walking encyclopedia" by people who knew him. It was only after acquiring a reprint of his great book, a decade before the internet, that my own research into ancient cosmology took off. Star Names was first published in 1899 and as Wikipedia notes "there is no direct modern equivalent." As is the case with the internet, large sections can also be plucked out and read for pleasure.


Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks: Astrological Symbolism in Art, Architecture, and Landscape

By Jean Richer, Christine Rhone (translator),

Book cover of Sacred Geography of the Ancient Greeks: Astrological Symbolism in Art, Architecture, and Landscape

Why this book?

Professor Richer, author of a half-dozen books, commonly commented on intellectual matters for French radio. My recommendation of his only book translated into English requires an explanation because the book contains multiple errors and is seriously flawed. In places, Richer neglects the effects of the Precession and elsewhere uses maps on which unrelated points are forced to fall along straight lines. But I once spoke with Richer and have read his other books knowing that the man had a secret. Indeed, more than one. Richer had access to papyrus texts indicating that the Ancient Greeks had set out temples, cities, and colonies across the Mediterranean in ways that reflected the zodiac. Another reason for his secrecy, which I discuss in my own book, is that the papyruses, discovered during Bonaparte's Egyptian Campaign (1798-1801), also included materials that ultimately gave rise to The Da Vinci Code.


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