Saxo Grammaticus Essay - Critical Essays

Saxo Grammaticus

Introduction

Saxo Grammaticus c. 1150-c. 1220

Danish historian.

Saxo is considered the first important Danish historian. In his Gesta Danorum (c. 1185-c. 1220), which is translated variously as Danish History, Danish Chronicles, or Story of the Danes, Saxo dramatized Danish history and incorporated Scandinavian myths and legends that are not preserved in any other source. One of the stories Saxo recorded formed the basis of William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; another, the story of Toke the Archer, was the basis for the Swiss legend of William Tell. Although no complete manuscript of it is extant today, the Gesta Danorum has inspired many Danish and other writers and is admired by scholars as one of the great medieval European histories.

Biographical Information

Little is known of Saxo's life beyond his own statements in the Gesta Danorum. Because Saxo shows some partiality to Zealand, some scholars speculate that he was born there. In the preface he calls himself the least among Absalon's followers, but scholars suggest that he was being modest. It was Absalon, Archbishop of Lund, who first suggested that Saxo write a Danish history that would rank that nation among other European countries and that would counter medieval accounts of Vikings as barbarians. While Saxo's position in relation to Absalon is unknown, historians surmise that it must have been relatively significant in order for Saxo to be entrusted with such an important task. Absalon died in 1201, before Saxo had completed the Gesta Danorum; his successor, Anders Sunesen, served as Archbishop until 1222 and Saxo addresses him in and dedicates the work to him. Saxo's talent and his elegant “Silver Age” style of Latin earned him the title “Grammaticus,” or lettered one, in the fifteenth century.

Major Works

Scholars do not know exactly when Saxo began composing the Gesta Danorum, but the chronicler Swen Aggeson, in his 1185 work entitled Short History of the Danish Kings, mentions that the book is planned. Written in a difficult and ornate Latin, the Gesta Danorum comprises sixteen books of prose interspersed with poetry. The first eight books present a history of pagan Denmark, while the last eight document the introduction of Christianity in the country. The work begins before history proper, with myths and legends, commencing with King Dan and his victory over Emperor Augustus. Saxo relates these tales without commenting on whether or not they describe real occurrences. The books present the exploits of some sixty legendary kings and are based in part on ancient Danish poems, runes, and Viking sagas. Saxo's adaptations of these ancient texts, in many instances, now constitute the only extant renditions of them. The last seven books, believed to have been written first, are historical, with Absalon's oral descriptions serving as their main source of information. Historians consider this part of the history more accurate than the rest since the events described here happened close to 1187, the year in which Saxo ends his history. The Gesta Danorum was first printed in 1514 in Paris.

Critical Reception

Prior to the Paris edition, the influence of Saxo's work was limited to Scandinavia and Northern Germany, but it became more familiar to Europeans in the sixteenth century. Much modern interest in Saxo stems from scholarly investigation of Shakespeare's works and sources. The Gesta Danorum is now considered a primary source for the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet: Saxo presents Amleth, or Hamlet, feigning stupidity while plotting revenge against his uncle (and later stepfather) for the murder of his father. By closely studying parallels and divergences between the two Hamlet texts, Theresa Suriano Ormsby-Lennon examines the issue of whether Shakespeare learned of the tale directly from Saxo's Latin version, from a sixteenth-century anthology edited by Remigio Nannini, from the sixteenth-century French writer François de Belleforest (who reworked and significantly enlarged Saxo's story), or from a combination of these sources. Michael Srigley also examines Saxo and Belleforest in order to better understand Shakespeare's characterization of Hamlet, especially his melancholy humor and powers of divination. While Shakespearean studies dominate scholarly interest in Saxo, there is also interest in examining his work in its own right as history. Ruth Mazo Karras offers a comparative study of three thirteenth-century works, including the Gesta Danorum, and their respective descriptions of paganism and Christianity. K. Friis-Jensen examines the structure of the Gesta Danorum and describes how its tales served as inspiration for numerous authors, notably Danish playwrights Johannes Ewald and Adam Oehlenschäger.

Principal Works

Gesta Danorum (history) c. 1185-c. 1220

Saxo Grammaticus: The History of the Danes: Books I-IX. 2 vols. [translated by Peter Fisher] 1979

*Saxo Grammaticus and the Life of Hamlet: A Translation, History, and Commentary [edited by William F. Hansen] 1983

*This edition contains a translation of the Gesta Danorum from Book 3, Chapter 6 to Book 6, Chapter 4.

Criticism

Frederic Amory (essay date September 1977)

SOURCE: Amory, Frederic. “The Medieval Hamlet: A Lesson in the Use and Abuse of a Myth.” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 51, no. 3 (September 1977): 357-95.

[In the following essay, Amory explains how myths may be transformed by the very act of being studied and searches for the historic Hamlet, in part, in Saxo's Gesta Danorum.]

I.

HAMLET'S MILL: A MYTH OF MYTHOGRAPHY

It is significant that in common critical parlance one cannot really distinguish terminologically between the making of myths and the study and analysis of them in speaking of mythology, or mythography. In English as in other languages they are terms which do not exclude the imaginative, and incautious, habit of myth-making, even when they are applied to the so-called “science of myth.” Perhaps this disconcerting confusion of terms stems from the fact that while the making of myths is as old as Eden, the sober study and understanding of them may not be older than the eighteenth century at the most, beginning with the publication of Giambattista Vico's Princìpi di una Scienza Nuova (1st version, 1725; 2nd, 1744). Some would say that comparative mythology began with Friedrich Creuzer's Symbolik und Mythologie der alten Völker (1810-12) and went out with the school of Max Müller at the end of the nineteenth century, to be refounded again on a firmer philological footing by Georges Dumézil in the entre-deux-guerres period. But “chips from a German workshop”—interpretations of nineteenth century mythologists—still fly about today, as we shall see in the recent book of Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend, Hamlet's Mill,1 under consideration here. In any case, the hardiest of the modern masters of myth, Claude Lévi-Strauss, has not hesitated to seize the dilemma, verbal or real, by the horns and affirm of his first volume of Mythologiques (Le Cru et le Cuit) that “it is not wrong to hold [it] for a myth—the myth of mythology, after a fashion.”2 In his view of the subject every interpretation of a myth or a group of myths is merely at one remove from its immediate object in the communication-code circuit, language—myth—interpretation. Like the original aetiologies which are often tacked on to the myths, the final “scientific” or scholarly interpretation is destined in turn to become part of the total corpus which it has interpreted for a time. Thus the corpus will be constantly enlarged, to the point of infinity, not only by retellings of the myths, but also by re-interpretations of the same, which bring them into ever different relationships with each other, or into new relationships with the myths of other corpuses.3

From its first fragmentary appearance in a verse of the tenth century Icelander, Snaebjörn galti Hólmsteinsson, down to the latest interpretation of it, in Hamlet's Mill, the Hamlet story comprises a mythology in the Lévi-Straussean sense—a mingled yarn of myth and mythography, literature and criticism, invention and interpretation. Indeed, the involuted verse of Snaebjörn was preserved for us in an interpretative work of thirteenth century mythography, the prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson, who recorded it as a choice example of “skáldskaparmál,” poetic diction. He it was who interpreted the obscure allusion in it to the “líðmeldr … Amlóða,” the “ale-mash of Hamlet,” ground between the sea and the rocks by the northern nereids, as being the peculiar product of Hamlet's quern or mill, thus providing Santillana and Dechend with the title of their book, though it remains unclear from the verse in what way the mill or its grist was peculiarly Hamlet's.4 This can only be inferred from the better-known account of Hamlet in Saxo Grammaticus' Gesta Danorum (III, vi to IV, ii), which was written in the last decades of the twelfth century, not long before the Snorra Edda in the first decades of the thirteenth. There, in book III, vi, 10, we have an amusing scene, set on the seashore of Jutland, where Amlethus in his feigned madness is being observed by the henchmen of his father's slayer, who are cavalcading with him. “Past the sand dunes,” the passage relates, “his attention being directed to the sand, and how it was like meal [farra], he rejoined that that meal was ground up by the white storm-tossings of the sea. When his companions commended his rejoinder, he agreed that it was sensibly spoken by him …”5 And so, acting madly but joking sanely, he outwits them with one jest after another.

In the Danish History as in Snaebjörn's verse the mill in question, whether it ground prosaically flour for bread or malt for ale, figures indirectly as a poetic metaphor or kenning for the sea breaking against rocky islands or a sandy shore and turning the rocks and stones into sand and more sand. Snorri accordingly quoted the verse in the second, literary section of his treatise—the Skáldskaparmál—to illustrate the poetic practice of the skalds in the classic age of the tenth century. The parallel passage of the Danish History suggests that Hamlet's ale-mash (Snaebjörn's kenning) was once a witticism of Hamlet's. Hence the mill may be said to be his only with the same propriety that a figure of speech comparing sea-sand to flour or malt was attributed to him by Snaebjörn from some lost Amlóðasaga or -kvaeði which was already current in the tenth century. In fact, as Snorri knew better than most mythographers, the mill of Norse mythology, Grótti, was not Hamlet's at all, but an adjunct of the nereids, or of the giants and the two giantesses who were forced by King Fróði in the Gróttasöngr to grind peace and abundance for him.6 But that, to be sure, is another story. Far from it being the case that this mill “must also be central to the original Hamlet story,”7 it is much more likely that it was peripheral to his story, as in Saxo's version of it.

In response to the anxious question, “How is it possible to support Amlodhi's claim to be the legitimate owner of the Mill?,”8 which would seem to be impossible, Santillana and Dechend come up with a cosmological interpretation of the Gróttasöngr for an answer, which draws upon Hellenistic and Near Eastern astronomical and astrological speculations constituting ex hypothesi the germs of the idea of “Hamlet's mill” and the mill of the Scandinavian gods or giants. They have tremendous hopes that if Hamlet and Grótti had any comparable place in the universal scheme of things, say, like Chronos and a salt mill mentioned in a magical papyrus of the mid-fourth century a.d., then they should somehow belong to each other! However, the argument, which rambles from text to text, is not as matter of logic, really but of mytho-logic, more precisely—the logic which invests the study of myth. We shall examine the argument primarily for its correctness in a Scandinavian context and inquire into its logic afterwards.

Whatever the instructions in the magical papyrus were meant to perform with the grinding of salt and an invocation of Chronos, which the myth-exegetes do not elucidate,9 the “mill song” of King Fróði's giant maids-of-all-work served aetiologically to satisfy curiosity about the to us rather idle question of why the sea is salt, or the more technical poetic puzzler, “Why is gold called Fróði's meal?,” which Snorri posed on behalf of the poets. Behind the song there was doubtless a folk belief of some kind in a magic wishing mill which could grind out almost anything on request, including the salt in the sea and the Norwegian Maelstrom, if not the “swelchies” or whirlpools of the North Sea which mythographers delight to chart.10 The marine marvels were not particularly requested in the song. Further in the background stood the legendary king of the Skjöldings, Fróði, from whom the Danish royal house was reputedly descended and whose peaceful rule in the good old days virtually rivalled the pax augusta, in the idealization of his historical posterity. The breaking of Fróði's peace by his rebellious giant servants is the tragicomic high note of the song, which subor dinate the folk belief and the historical legend to a variation on an Indo-European theme—the victory of physical force in the strength of two over the plenty of a whole kingdom—that was set forth by Georges Dumézil just a year before the publication of Hamlet's Mill, in the first volume of his Mythe et Épopée.11 In other words, Gróttasöngr is only superficially a song of a mill which lies at the bottom of the sea salting the water and churning the waves to whirl-pools. The fable presents us with a social drama beyond the natural phenomena, and Snorri, again, interprets it more for its poetic than its mythological and pseudoscientific value, since he was instructing would-be poets in their art.

In Dumézil's broad classification of Indo-European society, King Fróði, as the Danish double of the Vanr deity, Freyr, under a name synonymous with abundance, represented the third social function of wealth, fertility, peace, while the two giantesses, Fenja and Menja, who boast bitterly of their former warlike exploits, toiling at the “peacemaker,” Fróði's mill, exercise the second function of brute force in a humiliating situation which a Vanr ruler, and not an Áss, controls at the start. For two warriors like these ladies “it's dreary at Fróði's,” but strong as they are, they are in a minority in his kingdom, and must have allies from their warrior class to overthrow their taskmaster. They sing ominously at their work of the imminent arrival of an army led by the avenging Danish king Hrólfr Kraki, who is to slay Fróði, and in their mounting rage and impatience they grind so fuiosuly that the mill breaks in pieces. “The hand-shafts shivered, the ‘bed’ of the mill [= lúðr] slipped underwards, the heavy [nether] stone cracked in two” (st. 23). Gróttasöngr ends abruptly with their exultant shout to Fróði that his meal is ground.

To this abrupt ending Snorri furnishes a longer conclusion with an aetiology of why the sea is salt. The magical mill seems to have labored mightily and brought forth a somewhat ridiculous mouse in his epilogue. Having ground peace and prosperity, it then, as they wanted, ground out an army under the leadership not of Hrólfr Kraki, but a legendary sea-king with the curious name of Mýsingr, which, Dumézil points out, parodies such exalted names as Ynglingr, Skjöldungr, etc., with the meaning “of the race of mouse.” Yet another derogatory implication in the name is brought out by a passage in Hrólfs saga Kraka where a warrior of the Danish king vows vaingloriously to wring Óðinn's neck as he would the neck of “the vilest, littlest mousling” (“myslingr”), if he should meet him on the field of battle.12 Nothing further is to be learned about this figure, Mýsingr, from the list of bynames of sea-kings in the Third Grammatical Treatise of Snorris' nephew, Ólafr Þórðarson,13 and one can only suspect that Snorri has substituted for Hrólfr Kraki's appellative, “son of Yrsa,” in the original Gróttasöngr (st. 22) a whimsical pseudonym which happens to pun on either suffix of mús, -ingr or -lingr.

Chasing after mythical mice and rats in the fables of mankind for a creature like Mýsingr,14 Santillana and Dechend have missed the humorous onomastic connotations of his name, which are perfectly appropriate to Snorri's general handling of the old myths of pagan Scandinavia—at once the objects of his Christian satire and his keen esthetic appreciation. Let us, however, not miss ourselves the importance, stressed by Dumézil, of Mouse and his army to the tale of the giantesses' bondage to Fróði's mill. If a mouse is small and ridiculous in itself, it makes up for its size in numbers, i.e., packs, and therefore the mouse-like creature, Mýsingr, can be of aid in a horde to the two giantesses, who are big and strong in themselves but critically weak in numbers. In Snorri's epilogue it turns out that Mýsingr was strong enough not only to kill Fróði and carry off the mill in his ship, but also to force the unlucky giantesses to grind salt for him, so that they merely exchanged one taskmaster for another, and were not to be released from their labors until the ship foundered under their weight, causing a whirlpool in the ocean when the water rushed into the pivot hole of the millstones.

In this dramatization of the social life of Indo-Germanic society, whose categories have been juggled in the myth to solve a problem of class-conflict in an entertaining manner, the “lower” function of peaceful productivity among the North Germanic peoples temporarily supersedes the function of superior force, which does not regain the upper hand except by increasing its power through numbers. The tactic forthwith demonstrates that even in the warrior class the physically smaller and weaker member (Mouse) is actually stronger than the biggest and strongest giants, but that, weak or strong, brute force has no real power over the means of production which slip from its grasp at last into the sea. Thus stated, the moral of the myth is rather more edifying than the ineloquent and creaking celestial machinery which Santillana and Dechend have reconstructed about the mill song, on the superannuated nineteenth century premise that “myth is essentially cosmological.”15 And the bearer of the moral, Mýsingr, has been cast by Snorri in a role for which there are better confirmatory analogues than mouse and rat fables in the mythologies of the Caucasian Narts and the Vedic Indians, which the wonderful learning of Dumézil, as discriminating as it is extensive, has put at our disposal in his discussion of the Scandinavian myth. The milch cow of the Brahman Vasistha, for instance, has similar multiplicatory powers which she triumphantly displays by sweating forth an army against a tormentor who tries to abduct her by force and overwhelming the stronger adversary with masses of warriors from every pore of her body.

Now, in line with my thesis that mythography such as Hamlet's Mill partakes indefinably of the mythologizing process itself, it may be objected that one interpretation, of Dumézil's, is being arbitrarily preferred here to another, of Santillana and Dechend's, insofar as their interpretations are of equal validity within the endless modifications of the process. It is not my intention, however, that any Lévi-Straussean equation of mythography with mythology, or myth-exegesis with myth-making, should rob us of a choice of interpretations when we have to choose between a misinterpretation of texts, on the one hand, by those who cannot read them untranslated for themselves,16 and a true interpretation of words and things on the other, which fits as many facts as possible, and thus conforms itself textually to the steady drift of the story-telling and mythologizing. “The task,” as Conrad proposed for the study of fiction in Under Western Eyes, “is not in truth the writing in the narrative form a précis of a strange human document, but the rendering … of the moral conditions ruling over a large portion of the earth's surface.” If we compare Hamlet's Mill with the three volumes of Mythe et Épopée in the light of this remark, I think we would say charitably that the one work has attempted the task and the other has performed it, fully.

So much, then, we discern in Hamlet's Mill at a good distance from the Grótti myth: the elaborate reconstruction, piece by piece, of a huge edifice over the northern world, a cosmological mill, allegedly Hamlet's, whose foundations are sunk in the Norwegian Maelstrom, the Scottish “swelchies,” and the very salt of the sea. It all looks as promising as North Sea gas and oil, but none of these mythologized details, be it noted, occur in the prime texts of Snaebjörn, Saxo, or even the Gróttasöngr. They are the accretions of the medieval mythography of Snorri Sturluson, who, if he did not invent them, or read them into the prime texts, adapted them from other sources now unknown to us. His mythologizing touches, I fear, have been painted over repeatedly by the heavier brush strokes of nineteenth and twentieth century mythologists, who have dimmed our picture of the mill myth considerably—by calling for ever more “restorations.”

Consider for a moment the imperious attitude of the present mythologists towards the technological model for the Grótti mill: “Whether or not … Fenja and Menja waited on an oscillating quern or on a true rotary mill is a cosmological question, and will hardly be decided by historians of technology.”17 Will it not? Do mythologists, or historians of science turned mythologists, believe that mills, like marriages, are made only in heaven? The description of the magical mill in Gróttasöngr, of which I have quoted above [in “The Medieval Hamlet”] (p. 361) the lines on its break down, is purely factual. Certain details are blurred, but with these Snorri's epilogue and the traditional design of hand-mills (manumolae) in Iceland may help us out.

The anonymous skald who composed the song is slightly inconsistent in alternating between singular and plural references to the principal components of the mill—namely, to its upper or nether stone, the “bed(s)” of the nether stone, and the operating handles (“möndull,” sing., st. 20; “skaptré,” plu., st. 23)—and he does not allude anywhere to the one central component of the pivot post, without which the reconstruction of Santillana and Dechend would collapse. But since Snorri's quern consists of two millstones with a pivot hole through them, which is the “eye of the quern,” one can perhaps assume that Grótti had the familiar shape, and the central component, of a pivoted medieval handmill. If we would like to know more particularly how the handles might have been stuck into the movable upper stone—upright or sideways—and how the nether stone was immovably embedded in a “lúðr,” the wooden emplacement of the mill, secured with iron fastenings (st. 21), we shall not go far wrong in consulting the fascinating folkways encyclopaedia of Jónas Jónasson frá Hrafnagili on the much later eighteenth and nineteenth century lavastone querns of Iceland.18 Medieval handmills, which from the tenth century on had to compete with water mills in Europe, were kept in use the longest by the peasantry of Norway and the western islands, where “winter frosts were not very favorable to the use of running water-power …, and there was no seignorial authority comparable to that prevailing in France.”19 The elementary design of Icelandic querns cannot have altered greatly over the centuries, other than in the positions of the handles. We perceive, accordingly, that when two women worked the traditional quern they would have found it easiest (unless they chose to tail each other round the mill) to grind in an oscillating sawing motion by the handles,20 whereas one person would be able to grind more freely in rotary fashion. Upright handles must have facilitated the rotary movement, but the giantesses (for no cosmic reason) probably “heaved the rapid stone” which was on top (“slungu snúðgasteini,” st. 4), in oscillation, from either side of it.

Misled, as so often, by a mistranslation of verses in st. 23 (cf. again my translation above, p. 361), the erring reconstructers of cosmic myth have taken the plural “skaptré”—the “hand-shafts” in the upper stone of Grótti—for a single pivot post which should go through Snorri's “eye of the quern,” and they have elevated that to the skies as a symbol of the polar axis of the world. When it was disloged from the pivot pole at the break-down of the mill, they mythologize, not only was a whirlpool stirred up at one end, but at the other, the Pole Star had also shifted, by precession of the equinoxes. In their mythology this “trepidation of the spheres” is likewise registered in the Kalevala and the Old Icelandic vision-poem, Völuspá—the next texts to be filed in the Hamlet dossier. It is quite a sight, I must say, the eminent historian of science and his collaborator, the former anthropology student of Frobenius, each with a handle of the Grótti mill proclaiming that they have the pivot post of a mythical world-mill and the lever which moved the mental universe of primitive or archaic man. Suddenly there is a convenient handle to every cosmological text in literature and science.21 With a good deal of textual manipulation and some tendentious, and erroneous, etymologizing of names, they soon manage to establish the pivot post and/or handles of the Scandinavian mill up in the northern skies as well as down under the North Sea, despite the lack of support in Norse mythology for such a fantastic erection of its machinery.

Folklore may well have reported a mill at the bottom of the sea, grinding salt or sand, but a mill of the gods of these cosmic dimensions, which ground the allotted fates of men in heaven about the polar axis, and periodically once in a very great while seemed to unseat itself from its wonted course and plunge into the sea, mythology proper described nowhere in the north.22 And it never would anyhow, if, as has been fairly asserted, the North Germanic religion had no heavenly sky-gods, which is to say, no celestial being to run the cosmic mill.23 The magical mill of Scandinavian folklore was the work-tool of chthonic deities—sea-nymphs or giantesses—and Grótti's original owner, according to Snorri, was the giant Henigkjöftr (Hand-Jaw).24 Nor, in actuality, could naked-eye observations of the heavens have occasioned or else lent credence to an astral myth of an erratic mill during the first two centuries of Scandinavian astronomy in Iceland, from the tenth to the twelfth century, when the Pole Star shifted but one degree in position, an insignificant amount. A cosmic mill of the gods in medieval Scandinavia is a myth neither of Old Norse mythology, nor Icelandic astronomy and computational science, but rather of modern Germanic mythography as developed in the nineteenth century under the partial inspiration of Snorri Sturluson.25

In the constellation of the pivot post and/or handles of Grótti mill before its fall into the sea, Santillana and Dechend have put up the “many-colored cover” of the Sampo mill in the Kalevala, as a fitting cosmic symbol of the vault of heaven. What was lacking to the “rough” (!) conceptions of the mill of the gods in Eddic and skaldic poetry is to be eked out from the fairy tale of the Finnish mill, Sampo, which since it was shipped somewhere in a boat and finally destroyed by a river queen in the guise of an eagle, and its “cover” and the rest scattered in a lake, appears vaguely to be a non-Indo-European facsimile of the Scandinavian mill. One might, even without a knowledge of Finnish, accept this harmless comparison, but when one is told that the name, Sampo, itself, “derives from” Sanskrit skambha, meaning “pillar,” or “pole,” one knows one is being offered the wrong end of the stick, and dismisses the whole comparison.26 For what this really implies is that the wanting pivot post of Grótti has been surreptitiously imported from India via Finland to the Scandinavian scene, and therewith the purpose of the skambha in the Atharva Veda, to uphold the universe,27 is transferred to the Sampo and by implication to the pivotal component of Grótti. But this, as just indicated, would be unacceptable for Old Norse mythology, to say nothing of the questionability of the cosmological mythologization of the Sampo's gaudy “cover,” or the impossibility of the etymology, “sampo” < “skambha.”28 We are back where we were in the Scandinavian scene.

In their approach to the Völuspá, a cosmological text which is highly resistant to their preconceived interpretation, the engineers of the mill myth are literally driven from pillar to post, trying to reassemble their unworkable celestical machinery from a blueprint of what the text ought to mean, which was sketched out for them by the late nineteenth century Swedish mythologist Viktor Rydberg.29 They proceed, however, on their own hunch that this splendid poem of dissolution and regeneration—a poem not about the end of the world, they would say,30 because of its happy ending—registers an apparent shift of the Pole Star in the “doom of the gods,”31 and in their haunting return to the cosmos, its replacement by another observed star. Only the first half of this Velikovskian hypothesis is seriously tested against the poem, and as for the second, it is disqualified out of hand by Mircea Eliade's mythologem of “the myth of the eternal return”—a necessary sequel in apocalyptic thought to every tale of death and loss, notably of the highest, holiest gods.32

On the Scandinavian Olympus of Iðavöllr (Ever-flowing Field),33 where the gods gather to take counsel and deliver judgement, it is Heimdallr, one of the more mysterious gods, whom Santillana and Dechend have focussed upon, in order to unfold the mill-like structure of the medieval northern cosmos. But why Heimdallr? Firstly, because in venerable early nineteenth cenury scholarly tradition he was regarded as the offspring of those nine nereids who in Snaebjörn galti's verse were figuratively said to have ground the “ale-mash” of Hamlet. For once the adherents to nineteenth century scholarship have the authority of Dumézil on their side in this filiation of Heimdallr,34 but, alas!, all three scholars are wrong genealogically.35 True, in the Heimdallargaldr, quoted by Snorri in Gylfaginning 27,36 the god boasts of nine mothers who have birth to him, but their names, which are given in the shorter version of the Völuspá,37 are those of giantesses, and not personifications of the waves. Both giantesses and sea-nymphs may grind at the magical mill, but one set of nine mothers is quite enough for Heimdallr, especially if they were giantesses.38

Secondly, Heimdallr is the king-pin of the mill machinery of the universe because certain epitheta ornata naming him can be read (by Santillana and Dechend) as so many labels for the milling operations that theoretically used to go on between the heavenly bodies in the cosmology of the ancient Scandinavians. The fallacious etymologies of Rydberg and others enter into the English translations of these epithets, and decisively affect at this point the reading of the Völuspá text. The epithet “Hallinskíði,” for example,39 which means something like “bent sticks” (plu., not sing.), was bestowed equally on Heimdallr and on rams, since there was an obscure connection between this god and those animals, which does not bear much speculation now.40 Its concrete reference may have been to the curved horns of the ram.41 But Santillana and Dechend, who are always thinking in the singular of the one post which should go through Snorri's “eye of the quern,” and which must be imported from India for their reconstruction, have decided that “to be bent or inclined befits the world axis,” and hence “Heimadal stands for the world axis, the skambha,42 while his bestial counterpart, the ram, is a zodiacal sign astrologically “ruling” his head. This fanciful characterization of Heimdallr as the Scandinavian god of the world axis is bracketed by two of Rydberg's falsest etymologies.43

Thus, another epithet for Heimdallr, “Vind[h]lér,”44 which can only mean “windlistener,” inasmuch as the god had preternaturally sharp hearing, was falsely etymologized by Rydberg as a verbal noun, from “vindla,” “to wind,” plus the short-vowelled agentive suffix -ir, yielding “the turner …, borer.” A twisted meaning, indeed, but for that very reason the more serviceable to Santillana and Dechend, who are looking for the ultimate motive force that twists and turns the world axis of the Scandinavian cosmos in the Völuspá. Moreover, the god of the pivot post, in Rydberg's arbitrary opinion, had a god of the hand-shaft for a father, Mundilfari, a most mysterious being, named in the Vafþrúðnismál (st. 23),45 of whom we know absolutely nothing except that he was the father of the sun and the moon. But in the minds of these scholars a deified hand-shaft would readily beget a worshipful post for the operation of the celestial machine, be it a firedrill, or a flour mill. Understandably so, by an illicit etymology. As a proper name separately of a legendary sea-king of the type of Mýsingr, and a historical Gothic name, too, “Mundill” must have derived originally from a common Germanic form *mundo for “hand” in the sense of “guard.” However, when “Mundill” was compounded with “fari,” “traveller,” it no longer, in the majority opinion of the lexicographers,46 was correlated with “mund,” “hand” in the protective sense, but rather with “mund,” “period of time,” e.g., a day, from “muna,” “to move,” “to differ.” A closer correlation with “möndull,” “handle,” would make no sense for a man's, or a god's name. Hence “Mundilfari” might be translated as “the one who travels at set times,” or as “Mundill the Traveller” for short, but hardly as “the mover of the handle,” Santillana and Dechend's translation, after Rydberg.47 The astronomical or mythological mission of the periodic sky-traveller still remains pretty mysterious from every viewpoint.

To cap it all, and then we shall have done with this mill myth, Heimdallr's head, which the two astromythologists have subjected to the astrological rule of the Ram, is in their cosmic scheme to “measure” the measurements of the “measure-tree,” Yggdrasil, in Völuspá, st. 2. Yet they do not, and cannot, say what these extra measurements could tell us of any use. A couple of mistranslations are responsible for this other pseudoscientific indignity on Heimdallr's head. Because the god was killed, oddly, with a man's head, as recorded in the Heimdallargaldr, Snorri commented, “thenceforth a head has been called mjötuðr Heimdallar,48 an epithet which Santillana and Dechend English as “measurer of Heimdallr” without sense, when it means merely the “bane” or “evil fate of Heimdallr.” Confusion is worse confounded by their nonunderstanding of the corresponding epithet in Völ., st. 2, “mjötviðr,” for Yggdrasil, the tree which is the measurer of nothing more or less than the age of the world, coeval with its existence.49 It is itself unmeasured by Heimdallr's head, of course, or anything else. As the skalds also periphrased a head by “Heimdallr's sword” (Heimdalls hjörr), it seems just possible—but only just50—that a god who typically had no weapon to fight with but his head was in this respect most like a ram, which must fight with its horned head. The animal imagery, at any rate, should turn attention away from the zodical sign or astronomic measurements to the cult animal, which, however, I am not going to consider further in this refutation.

Having dredged up the magical Grótti mill, encrusted over with the centuries-old growth of mythography, now heaviest in the last one hundred years, surely we may confidently declare that this mythopoetic object, unwieldy as it has become, did not fall from heaven, out of the eternal order of the cosmos. Without more ado, I consign it again, together with Hamlet's Mill, to the bottom of the North Sea, below the “blue land” of the Scandinavian seafarers, from which legends and learned interpretations of them may both arise, but which, not being terra firma, will never hold up the airy constructions of Rydberg, Santillana, and Dechend, who have been seeing things in the clouds that not even the older mythographers and the primary myth-makers and poets themselves imagined. Their constructions, the myths of mythography, do fall from the heights, dragging with them the wreckage of authentic myths from other cultures, which the mythographers with their vast but misguided erudition have collected from all over the world, and thus they contribute at once to the richness and the obscurity of the treasures they have buried, the native myths, just as they seemed to be bringing those to light. A Lévi-Straussean might console himself for the sea-wreck of his theories, at the erudite importation of myths by him from a far corner of the world, by reflecting that mythology and mythography, myth and myth-exegesis, archaic or primitive lore and his erudition, are, after all, practically indistinguishable, and that in due course his faulty theories will undergo the usual seachange into the precious stuff of myth—something rich and strange for subsequent scholars to untangle from the bulk of genuine myths and legends to which his theories attach. And who knows?, his theoretical refinements may seem even more valuable to somebody someday than the real myths, which are so trying to recover, and so hard to understand anyway, in the wrappings of his theories. From these undesirable consequences perhaps the mythographers Santillana and Dechend as well as we would gladly take refuge in sounder critical principles. I don't know where they would hide in the pages of their book, but I for one have adopted in criticism of current mythography the oft-quoted maxim of Árni Magnússon, the great seventeenth century collector, not of myths, but Icelandic manuscripts, who remarked philosophically, “It is the way of the world that some help to put errors into circulation, while others attempt consequently to root out those same errors. So both parties have something to keep them busy.”51 Mythography rightly is not our business, but the eradication of error from mythography, in the wake of Walter Baetke, the Leipzig Scandinavianist who has done most of the spade work in this untended field.52

The methodology of Hamlet's Mill is uninfluenced by the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss, or the comparative methods of Dumézil,53 but the authors, nevertheless, should not have entrenched themselves in nineteenth century German scholarship against the newer French schools of linguistics, mythography, and anthropology (Griaule's group of Africanists excepted), for they have perpetuated through their dependence on that scholarship many ancient and ridiculous errors of fact and interpretations, and they have never faced up to the crucial dilemma before the “science of myth”—how to reconcile the mythmaking propensity with the sympathetic investigation of myths—which Lévi-Strauss seized so boldly by the horns in the preface to the first volume of his Mythologiques (1964). By his reasoning, as I said at the outset, every insight into a corpus of myths, whether right or wrong, relevant or irrelevant, is liable to be incorporated with them as a myth of the corpus along with those in it. The sole justification for this extremely dubious procedure is his compelling conviction that the same spirit animates the myth-makers or native informants and the mythographers or anthropological collectors of myths, and that through their cooperation myth reveals synthetically and analytically “an image of the world already inscribed in the architecture of the human mind.”54 There is truth in this formulation, which recalls the Cartesian mentalistic mythography of Vico,55 but it affords no fixed criteria which adequately meet the desiderata in Lévi-Strauss's programmatic essay, “The Structural Study of Myth,”56 for the collection, organization, and evaluation of a corpus of myths by the mythographer-anthropologist. “Qu'importe?,” shrugs the irrepressible Frenchman to such objections57—every myth, every insight into myth is grist for the mill of mythography.

Never having realized that they might be making a myth in the process of studying one, nor properly sized up the corpus Hamleticum, the American and German collaborators in Hamlet's Mill cannot shrug off the methodological difficulty so lightly. The core of this corpus, exhaustively collected by Josef Schick, is not a legend of a magical northern mill, but a ubiquitous folktale motif, “the child of fortune with the letter of death sentence,” which rightfully unites the Hamlet story with the fabling of half the world.58 The misapprehension which the pair of them labor under, as to the true subject of the story, is given logical plausibility by the Romantic notion “that myth itself, as a whole, is a lost world,”59 and by a platitude of the history of science, to the effect that astronomy in prescientific eras was subservient to astrological schemes which, binding man to the stars, allowed him to feel more at home in the universe. Hence, when man began to feel less at home on his planet after the Copernican Revolution, astrological mythology grew more and more unintelligible, until all mythologizing ceased in modern times. To this argument one must reply briefly that the scholarly myth of mythography which is Hamlet's Mill is proof to the contrary that mythology is not dead today—if proof were needed of the obvious. The author's Romantic notion of myth has set a gulf between them and the poetic detail of the mill in Hamlet's story, which the history of science has widened. Mistaking the small detail for the principal motif, they have magnified and mystified it out of all proportion, and mixed it up with Near Eastern and Oriental cosmic schematizations of the equinoxes which are utterly foreign to the computational science and Eddic mythology of the medieval Scandinavians. In sum, what is entirely absent from their book is the rational restraint which has guided, not always successfully, the quasi-science of mythography from Vico to Dumézil and Lévi-Strauss through the literary fantasies and secondary myths of Romanticism. I leave to the indignant shade of the austere Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga, the final judgement on the failings of this ongoing intellectual enterprise in the study of myth: “Contemporary man is a traitor to the spirit of his own culture if he creates myths in the knowledge that they are, or rather pretend to be, myths. Our culture's form of intellectual cognition is that of critical scholarship.”60

II.

AMLETHUS DANICUS: SAXO'S HAMLET

In the first installment of this essay we disposed of the mythical mill which was said by Snorri Sturluson to be “Amlóði's quern.”61 With the distracting mill out of the way, one can now ask, who was the Scandinavian Hamlet, Amlóði or Amlethus, as he was named to the story in Iceland and Denmark? The etymologists, predictably, have been very busy with his Icelandic name from the end of the nineteenth century to the eve of the Second World War.62 Because in early modern Icelandic and Swedish usage the name became a synonym for a fool or a weakling,63 it has been the etymological practice among them to segment Amlóði into two morphemes which will spell out this acquired meaning of his name in at least one morpheme—e.g., Mod. Ice. aml, “a dither,” plus Old Ice. óðr, “mad.” Such a segmentation, however, is but a cut above a folk etymology,64 and leaves us with a morpheme, aml, which is unattested as a word or a name in the Old Icelandic language. The genesis of the putative meaning of Amlóði was in all likelihood the reverse of what the etymologists have thought. As the nineteenth century English translator of Saxo Grammaticus' Danish History put it, “The prince was not called Amleth because he feigned stupidity; but because Amleth did so, his name came to mean ‘stupid’.”65 We cannot say what the name might have meant in the old language, outside the story, but we can say, the name did not give rise to the story—the story, rather, gave meaning to the name. And if a historical Viking bore this name in the Irish annals of the beginning tenth century, as some Dane or Norseman indubitably did, in the transliterated Old Irish form of Amlaide,66 one must not therefore imagine that it hinted, of itself, anything to the Irish about Hamlet's legendary character of a “coal-biter” and a trickster, or that any historical person of that name had that character too. The Irish source is precious testimony for us that in the early Middle Ages history and legend had not yet converged in one uniform tradition of story-telling wherein the name of Hamlet would be proverbial for the (feigned) fool.67

A word in passing on this Irish source will not be amiss, in view of the much disputed cultural relations between medieval Ireland and Iceland, and the uncertain provenience of the Hamlet story. The verse-quatrain in which the historical Amlaide and another Viking are coupled together as hateful foreigners and evil-doers voices a reproachful lament by Queen Gormflaith, of the Brega royal family, over Amlaide's egregious slaying of her husband, King Niall Glúndubh, in a pitched battle between the Irish and the Vikings at Áth Cliath, 919. The wretched queen may have been the composer of the lament, since she came from a poetic family, but whoever its author, it is John Kelleher's guess that “it belongs to a saga written [in the tenth century] within living memory of the persons and events narrated.”68 This Irish “saga” will have been a truer tale, then, of the queen and her three husbands (of whom Niall Glúndubh was only one) than the subsequent romance which misrepresented her marriage to Niall as a love match with a youngish man, and misconstrued her obituary, “Gormflaith, daughter of Flann Sinna mac Máel Sechnaill, in penitentia extensa obiit,” to mean that she ended her life in prolonged poverty and neglect, cast off by her royal kin.69 Nial was already middle-aged when he was killed in battle, and read aright, the Latin phrase from Gormflaith's obituary commemorates the long years of religious penance, or claustration, which she spent in a nunnery before her death. How the Viking slayer of the lamented Nial would have emerged in the truer tale of her life is not to be guessed, if only because the Irish story-teller or the queen herself might have minimized his deed, and because, by literay convention, the chroniclers of the British Isles give the credit for it not to him, but to the leader of the Viking host, Sitriuc caech (the blind), alias Gáile (the foreigner).70

Nevertheless, the fact that Amlaide, a foreigner, was even named in a local Irish source was a distinction of which Gormflaith might well complain, as she does of the “fine feat” of the other, Viking Ulbh (ON Úlfr), for having slain the king of Leinster, Cerbhall mac Muirecáin, in 909. Kelleher would identify this one of the two foreigners who are odious to her in the quatrain with the plunderer of Inishowen, in Loch Foyle, 921,71 who was repulsed by the suzerain of the northern Uí Néill, Fergal mac Domnaill. If Ulbh was twice in the public eye as the killer of the king of Leinster and the plunderer of Inishowen, he must have been a rather important personage in the harrying hosts of the Danes and the Norse. Amlaide, the slayer of Niall, seems similarly to have been a person of bad eminence, and if he was named but once in Irish sources, with Ulbh, it may have been merely because, as my informant conceives, he had returned to Denmark after the great battle of Áth Cliath was over, a slaughter in which no less than sixteen Irish kings died. Either of these two Vikings could have been Danish was well as Norse or Icelandic, since, despite the victory of the Norseman Ólafr the Whìte over the Dublin Danes in 851 and the Irish recapture of Dublin in 901, neither the Norsemen (the Finngaill) nor the Danes (the Dubhgaill) were ever entirely expelled from the country. Sitriuc, in his reign, up to 927, was styled “rí Dubhgall 7 Finngall”—i.e., “king of Danes and Norsemen.”72 Kelleher summarizes the evidence in our source thus: “(a) the poem on Ulbh and Amlaide is old and most likely factual; (b) Amlaide was a well-known Viking noble and could well have been a Dane; and (c) the fact that he is not mentioned again in the Irish annals, which for some years around that time contain pretty full accounts of the activities of even fairly minor Viking leaders, may simply indicate that he went back to Denmark not long after the battle.”73

The historical evidence in Ireland for a real Hamlet from Denmark could be collocated with the place-name Ammelhede—Hamlet's Heath—in Jutland74, but all told it must be obvious that the historical Amlaide has no visible relationship to the almost mythical Amlóði of Snaebjörn, or the legendary Amlethus of Saxo.75 Even in Denmark medieval tradition was unsettled as to the final resting-place of Hamlet: Saxo localizes his death in battle at Ammelhede, on land, but a notice in the late thirteenth century Rye Annals speaks of a naval engagement with the Norwegians and a watery grave in Øresund.76 This geographical divergence in Danish tradition about his grave marks a divide in the source materials for the Hamlet story, not only between what little we can call historical and what legendary, but also between what may be Danish and what Icelandic-Norse in its composition. Saxo seems to have purposely oriented the story to the more indigenous restingplace of Hamlet, in Jutland, but further details in his version of the story will corroborate its prior Icelandic-Norse provenience—e.g., the Icelandic name of Amlethus' stepfather, Fengo (from Old Ice. Fengi, an Óðinn byname), and the moot reference to a strange place “whose name is Undensakre, unknown to our people.”77 Whether the allusion in that reference is to the Old Norse Elysium of Ódáinsakr, or not, it plainly signals the transmission of an unDanish place-name from Saxo's Scandinavian sources in Norway and Iceland.78 In the preface to his history he has generously acknowledged his indebtedness to those sources: “no small part of the present work,” i.e., in the first nine books of the Gesta Danorum, was composed of stories which he had heard directly or indirectly from Icelanders who were conversant with West Norse history and legend in Norway, or out in Iceland.79 In brief, the Hamlet story itself probably took form in Iceland, whatever the nationality of Hamlet happened to be. Although the Irish quatrain, of about the same date as Snaebjörn's lines on Amlóði, can certify that a person with the name of Hamlet—Amlaide—from Denmark or elsewhere did once exist in the tenth century, the Scandinavian story does not concern him, but the increasingly famous hero of Snaebjörn, Saxo, and Shakespeare. If he too ever existed, he died a hero's death on Ammelhede or in Øresund, and was perhaps buried on his heath; but this was all enchanted ground when Saxo received...

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Theresa Suriano Ormsby-Lennon (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: Ormsby-Lennon, Theresa Suriano. “Piccolo, Ma Con Gran Vagghezza: A New Source for Hamlet?” Library Chronicle 41 (1977): 119-48.

[In the following essay, Ormsby-Lennon explores the question of whether Shakespeare read Saxo's account of Hamlet directly or in an edited and translated version made by Remigio Nannini, a sixteenth-century Dominican.]

Tutta volta … si debbe ricordare, che talhora un piccolo adornamento, dà gran vagghezza a una pittura, per se stessa bellissima; & oltre á ciò deve havere á memoria, che la lancia d'Achille, non harebbe sparso molto sangue, se la penna d'Omero non havesse versato molto inchiostro....

(The entire section is 11154 words.)

Michael Srigley (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Srigley, Michael. “Hamlet's Prophetic Soul.” Studia Neophilologica 58, no. 2 (1986): 205-14.

[In the following essay, Srigley analyzes Hamlet's melancholy in light of Saxo's description of his powers of divination.]

For over two hundred years the nature and extent of Hamlet's madness has been discussed. It has been suggested that he was mad but pretending to be sane or, at the other extreme, that he was sane but feigning madness. In between there are various permutations on T. S. Eliot's statement that Hamlet was “less than mad, and more than feigning”. It now seems to be generally agreed that Hamlet's state lies somewhere in this no-man's-land between...

(The entire section is 6091 words.)

Lalita Pandit (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Pandit, Lalita. “Language in the Textual Unconscious: Shakespeare, Ovid, and Saxo Grammaticus.” In Criticism and Lacan: Essays and Dialogue on Language, Structure, and the Unconscious, edited by Patrick Colm Hogan and Lalita Pandit, pp. 248-67. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Pandit explores how Shakespeare's characterization of Hamlet builds upon his memory of various sources, including Saxo's, as well as upon his audience's familiarity with the playwright's life and other works.]

It is, however, precisely with that private mythology that any examination of the stranger in Shakespeare must begin,...

(The entire section is 8087 words.)

Hans Kuhn (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Kuhn, Hans. “Saxo Grammaticus.” Scandinavian Studies, 68, no. 2 (spring 1996): 242-50.

[In the following essay, Kuhn reviews the wide range of papers submitted to the international Saxo conference held in Bologna, Italy, in September 1990 and collected in Saxo Grammaticus: Tra storiografia e litteratura.]

Saxo Grammaticus: Tra storiografia e letteratura. Bevagna, 27-29 settembre 1990. A cura di Carlo Santini. Roma: Il Calamo, 1992 (I Convegni di Classiconorroena, 1). Pp. 441. 100,000 lire.

Saxo, the late twelfth-century cleric who, at the behest of bishop Absalon, provided the expanding Danish...

(The entire section is 3735 words.)

Ruth Mazo Karras (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Karras, Ruth Mazo. “God and Man in Medieval Scandinavia: Writing—and Gendering—the Conversion.” In Varieties of Religious Conversion in the Middle Ages, edited by James Muldoon, pp. 100-14. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

[In the following essay, Karras examines how three thirteenth-century works—the Gesta Danorum, the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson, and Njal's Saga—differ in their accounts of the history of paganism and the advent of Christianity.]

Stories of individual conversions are usually written by the subjects themselves. Such accounts tell us what they experienced and how they interpreted that...

(The entire section is 6858 words.)

K. Friis-Jensen (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Friis-Jensen, K. “Saxo Grammaticus (1140-1206).” In History of European Literature, edited by Annick Benoit-Dusausoy and Guy Fontaine, translated by Michael Woolf, pp. 80-83. New York: Routledge, 2000.

[In the following essay, Friis-Jensen offers background information on the Gesta Danorum, summarizes its books, and discusses the development of Saxo's popularity in Europe.]

I prefer to go to Denmark which has given us Saxo Grammaticus, the man who was able to bring to life the history of his people in all its splendour and magnificence.

Erasmus, Colloquies

An idealised...

(The entire section is 1958 words.)