TEUTONIC MYTH AND LEGEND
by DONALD A. MACKENZIE
An Introduction to the Eddas & Sagas, Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc.
London, Gresham Publications 1912
The Traditional Hamlet
Horwendil slays King Koll--Birth of Amleth--Horwendil slain by Feng--The Prince feigns Madness--His Witty Sayings--Polonius is slain--Amleth scolds his Mother--His Uncle's Treachery--Visit to Britain--His Return--How he won the Crown--Second Visit to Britain--Mission to Scotland--The Lovesick Queen--Amleth's Victory--Over-king claims his Kingdom--His Death--An Unfaithful Queen.
KING RORIK, son of Hother. made joint governors of Jutland two brothers whose names were Horwendil 1 and Feng. Their father, Gerwendil, was governor before them. Horwendil was chief ruler, but he sought for glory as a sea rover. King Koll, of Norway, was also ambitious for ocean renown, and he longed to battle with the ships of Horwendil. The rivals met together at an island in the midst of the sea, which they each desired to possess, and young Horwendil challenged Koll to fight a duel. Thus it came that the two men contended one against the other on a portion of spring-green sward.
Horwendil was the bolder and more daring of the two. He flung aside his shield and grasped his sword with both hands. Furious attack did he make upon the King of Norway, whose shield he split in twain. Then he inflicted wounds, and smote off Koll's foot so that he sank in death before the valorous young hero. But Horwendil honoured the sea king with stately burial, and caused to be erected a great grave mound so that his memory might endure forever.
Click to enlarge
From the painting by H. W. Koekkoek
Many triumphs did Horwendil afterwards achieve, and to his king he gave gifts of the spoils of battle. So became he a hero in the kingdom. Rorik, who exalted Horwendil with honours, and made him King of Jutland, gave his daughter, the princess Gerutha 2, to that renowned sea rover to be his wife. To them was a son born whose name was Amleth.
Now, Feng was stricken with jealousy because of his brother's fortune and renown, and he resolved to accomplish his death. His fell purpose he achieved with treachery, and to the crime of slaying his kin he added another, for he took Horwendil's widow to be his bride. Unto men did Feng declare that he had slain his brother because that he had shown cruelty unto Gerutha, whom he had rescued when in danger. In this he was believed.
But Amleth 3 was not deluded. He perceived the evil purpose of Feng's heart, and, fearing his own safety, he, feigned madness with great cunning so that he might live to slay the usurper. He went about with mire on his face. Often would he sit brooding over the fire, cutting twigs and pointing them with barbs; and when asked why he did so, he said he was preparing to avenge his father's death.
There were those who suspected that his madness was a pretence, and he was cunningly put to test, but his foster-brother 4 went about with him and gave him timely warning.
A horse was brought to Amleth, and he mounted it with his back to its neck, seeking to drive it by the tail. As he rode in this grotesque manner a wolf passed him, and those who were with him called it "a colt", whereupon Amleth said that there were too few colts of that kind in his uncle's stable.
On the shore lay a ship's rudder, and the men called it "a knife", whereupon Amleth said, pointing to the sea, that it was of appropriate size to cut such a huge ham.
To the sand dunes they then pointed, and said: "Behold the meal", and Amleth, speaking of the sand, declared that it was well-ground meal from the Mill of Storms. 5
A maiden was sent forth to waylay Amleth, but with her he had a secret understanding. Thus were those who sought to expose the prince as one who shammed thwarted in their purposes.
A courtier 6, one of Feng's friends, who had more self-assurance than good tact, contrived a plot with purpose to make certain of knowing whether Amleth were weak-minded or a cunning pretender. He counselled Feng to leave Amleth alone with the queen, so that he might speak freely, for a son was never slow to trust his mother. Then the courtier, having convinced Feng that his proposal was a shrewd one, concealed himself under a heap of straw in the room where the queen and her soil would hold converse together.
But Amleth was too cunning to be waylaid thus. When he found, on entering the room, that the king had left on the excuse that he had business to attend to elsewhere, the prince, ere he addressed his mother, behaved with seeming madness; he crowed like a cock, and imitated the bird's wing-clapping with his hands. On the heap of straw he leapt, and then stamped about upon it. Feeling something hard below his feet, he drew his sword and drove it through the man who sought to be an eavesdropper. Then the prince hauled the body forth, cut it to pieces, and scalded it with hot water. He flung the hacked flesh to the swine.
Amleth afterwards returned to the queen, who wept and lamented her son's Madness. The prince heard what his mother said, and her he addressed with great seriousness, saying:
"O, shameless woman! seek not by dissembling sorrow to conceal thy terrible guilt--thou wanton embracer of thy husband's murderer, thou harlot who took in vile wedlock the slayer of thy son's father! Thou hast mated like the brute, and with brute nature forgotten thy first husband. . . . Ask not of me why I feign madness and speak foolishly; fear I not that he who slew his brother may also do further evil unto his kindred? Although I seem to be bereft of sense, and guard myself with pretended craziness, yet am I resolute ill my consuming desire to avenge my father's death, waiting patiently fit opportunity and the favourable moment. Against so foul a schemer I must needs exercise great cunning. . . . Now, canst thou--oh! thou who shouldst be wailing over thy dark shame--realize that it is needless for thee to lament my seeming madness. Better were it for thy soul if thou didst shed tears for the frailty of thine own heart, and not for the weak ness of another's. . . . Thou hast heard me. . . . I counsel thee to speak not of this."
So did Amleth upbraid his mother, and reawaken in her heart, with bitterness, the memory of her murdered husband.
Soon after was the courtier, whom Amleth had slain, sought for by Feng, but of his whereabouts no man had knowledge, and the prince was laughed at when he said that he beheld him falling through a sewer to be devoured by swine. But it was ere long discovered that the courtier had indeed perished as the prince had said.
Feng would fain have put Amleth to death, but he feared the wrath of King Rorik and of his wife, so he sent the prince forth to pay visit to the King of Britain that he might be put to death by him. Ere the prince took his departure, he counselled his mother in secret to sorrow for him in a year's time as if he were dead, and to drape the walls with knitted curtains of mourning.
Two courtiers did Feng send with Amleth on his pretended mission, and he gave them a missive inscribed upon wood, beseeching the King of Britain to slay the prince. One night, while the men slept, Amleth read the missive and shaved it off the wood, inscribing in its stead a request that the courtiers should be hanged, and that he who accompanied them should be given a princess for his bride.
When they reached Britain the king read the letter, nor revealed its contents, but entertained the two messengers and the prince at a feast. Amleth made all who sat round the board wonder greatly because that he ate not of the food nor drank the wine. So, being curious to know what his guests thought of his fare, the king sent a servant to listen to their conversation after they had gone to their sleeping chamber.
Amleth's companions reproached him because of his conduct at the feast, but the prince said that the flesh smelt like human carcass, and that there was blood in the bread, and iron rust in the liquor. The king he also reviled, saying that he had the eyes of a slave, while the queen had acted like one who was low born.
It seemed to his companions that he spoke crazily, but when the king was told what Amleth had said, he sent for his chief servant and asked where the corn of which the bread was made had been grown. The servant answered him that a plenteous crop had been grown upon an old battlefield.
The monarch then asked regarding the swine, and was told that they had strayed and fed upon the body of a robber who had been slain. The liquor, he learned, was made from meal and from water taken from a certain well. The king had this well dug out, and rusted swords were found which contaminated the water.
So the king did thus prove that Amleth had spoken with knowledge. But he was not yet satisfied, and he spoke in secret to his mother, who confessed that she had been a slave.
Next day the king spoke to Amleth, whom he admired greatly because of his wisdom, and he besought of him why he had said that the queen had acted like one who was low born.
The prince gave three reasons for what he had said--she had drawn her mantle over her head like a bond servant; she had lifted her gown to walk; and she had with a small splint picked her teeth, and then chewed the shreds of food from between them.
The monarch was so enamoured of Amleth that he gave him his daughter for wife. He also had Feng's two messengers hanged, and the prince pretended to be angry thereat, so the king gave him their price in gold. Amleth had the gold melted and poured into two sticks, hollowed out for that purpose.
A year passed ere Amleth returned home, leaving his wife, the princess, in her sire's castle. When he came to Jutland he smudged his face and dressed grotesquely and went towards Feng's hall, carrying nothing save the two sticks filled with gold. There he found that the people sorrowed for him as one who was dead, and when he entered the feasting chamber he saw it was hung with mourning drapery. At first the guests were stricken with terror, because they believed him to be a ghost; but soon they made merry and cast gibes one at another because that they had been fooled.
When Amleth was asked where the king's messengers were, he lifted up the sticks saying: "This is one and that is another;" nor did they realize that he spoke truly.
The prince was in gay mood, and he poured forth plenitude of wine to the guests. They all drank freely. Once or twice Amleth drew his sword, and cut his fingers with it, so they took the weapon from him and nailed it across the scabbard upon the wall.
More wine did Amleth pour forth to the guests, because he had laid a deep plot, and soon they were all made so drunken that they could not walk. They lay down to sleep on the benches and on the floor. Then the prince tore down the mourning drapery which his mother had knitted and threw it over the slumbering lords. Each of these, by aid of the sticks, he entangled in the network, so that none of them could rise up. Thereafterwards he set fire to the building, which was consumed. All who slumbered there perished in the flames.
Amleth, meantime, made haste to Feng's sleeping chamber, and first he snatched the sword that was hanging from the king's bed and put his own in its place. He shook his uncle from sleep and said that his courtiers were being burned alive.
"Withal I am here now, carrying my sticks," the prince cried, "with purpose to avenge my father's death."
Feng leapt from his bed and seized the mutilated sword; but while he tried vainly to draw it, Amleth slew him.
Thus did the prince put to death the man who had murdered and supplanted his sire, and all the nobles who had supported him.
Amleth then fled and concealed himself, so that he might know how the people regarded his deed. Soon he came to know that they were not greatly grieved, while a portion rejoiced that the tyrant had been overthrown. Whereupon he left his place of concealment, and gathered together his father's friends, whom he addressed.
"Ye who sorrowed for Horvendil," he said, "need sorrow not now any longer. Behold the corpse of a murderer of his kin I The hand that slew my sire made you all bondsmen.
Then Amleth revealed to the people that he had feigned madness, so that he might accomplish the ruin of Feng and his supporters. He told them how he had suffered in secret, hounded to death by his wicked uncle, disdained by his own mother, and spat upon by the nobles. "Who among ye", he cried, "is so hard of heart, that he is not moved towards me with sympathy and compassion?"
Thus he pleaded with them, and beseeched that they should honour him as their prince, and reward him with smiles of kindness.
"I have blotted out my country's shame," he said; I have ended my mother's shame; I have stamped out tyranny. I have avenged myself on the murderer of my sire, and overcome the evil designs of my wicked uncle. I have restored what you lost; your glory have I revived. The tyrant is thrown down and the butcher is slain. . . . What I have done is done, and for your sakes was it accomplished. My reward I now beg from you.
Thus did Amleth win the hearts of the people, and they declared him their king. His reward was his father's crown.
When the country was settled and well organized King Amleth crossed the seas to Britain, taking with him his choicest warriors. He had had a great shield made on which all his exploits were depicted, and it was of rare craftsmanship. The shields of his followers were covered over with gold.
When the King of Britain received him, he asked regarding Feng's welfare, and Amleth related unto him all that had happened. The king heard him with sorrow, because he had sworn a secret compact with Feng that one of them should avenge the death of the other. Nor could he consider the blood ties of his house above the sacredness of his oath. He cared not to accomplish the death of his daughter's husband with his own hands, so he contrived a plot whereby Amleth would fall by the hands of another. His queen had died, and he made request of his son-in-law to become his envoy to a queen in Scotland whom he desired to wed.
Now the King of Britain knew full well that this Scottish ruler was a lady of great chastity, who scorned to be loved, and put to death those who sought to woo her. But Amleth, although he knew the mission was begirt with peril, disdained to refuse the king's request, and, taking with him his armed followers and a few of the British war men, he went north to execute his mission.
When he drew nigh to the dwelling of the Scottish queen he went into a green dell to rest his horses, and by the side of a stream he fell asleep. Over his head he put his shield to shade him from the sun's rays.
The queen heard of his coming. She sent forth spies, who found Amleth lying fast asleep. They took away his shield and the missive which he bore from the King of Britain. Thus did the Scottish queen come to know of Amleth's great deed, because on the shield which he had made she saw depicted how he had slain his father's murderer. She read the missive and rubbed out the writing, and substituted a message from the King of Britain, expressing his desire that she should wed the bearer of it.
Amleth woke up ere the spies returned, but pretended still to sleep. When one of them was about to place the king's missive from where he had taken it, Amleth sprang up, seized him, and had him bound. Then went he to the queen's dwelling. Her name was Hermutrude. She read the altered missive, and she praised the bearer, because that he had avenged his father's death and possessed himself of the crown. She also expressed her surprise that he should have wed a slave's daughter. So noble a prince, she said, should wed one of high birth, for rank was of more account than beauty. But there was one nobly born, who was worthy of him. She herself was worthy of him, because that his kingdom and his ancestors were not greater than hers. She offered him her love and her possessions with it, and pleaded with him to set aside his marriage and have her for wife. 7
Then the queen rose and embraced Amleth, kissing him, and he with joy embraced and kissed her in turn. A great feast was held, and they were married with ceremony and in great pomp.
Accompanied by a band of Scottish war men, Amleth then set out to return to the King of Britain; but his first wife met him and warned him against her sire. She made bitter complaint that he had slighted her, but said that her love for him was stronger than her hate of his adultery. A son was born to her, she told Amleth, who might grow up to hate the Scottish queen, but she herself. would love her rival.
Then came nigh the King of Britain, and he embraced Amleth, but afterwards sought to slay him. Amleth would have fallen by the sword, which was thrust treacherously at him from behind, had he not been protected by a shirt of mail.
So it came that war broke out between them. The British king and his war men fell upon Amleth's forces and put them to flight, killing many. On the next day. the young warrior found himself closely pressed, but he had resort to a cunning stratagem. He collected together all the slain war men, and set them up tied to stakes as if they were alive; on horseback even were many made fast. Thus he seemed to command an imposing array of battle warriors.
When the King of Britain's army came against Amleth, and beheld the apparent strength of his force, the soldiers were terrified, and they broke and fled in confusion. The Danes charged, and they slew the king ere he could escape. Then Amleth ravaged the land and possessed himself of much treasure. Soon afterwards he returned to Denmark with his two wives.
It chanced that King Rorik died. His son, Wiglek, regarded Amleth as a usurper, and claimed the throne of Jutland. A war was thereupon declared, and Amleth was slain. Ere he entered the fateful battle he had foreknowledge of his fate, and he sought to choose a second husband for Hermutrude; but she vowed that she would share his fate on the field, saying that a woman who feared to die with her husband was an abomination. But when Amleth fell, the queen kept not her promise; she made offer of herself to Wiglek and became his bride.
Amleth was buried on a plain in Jutland which still bears his name. 8
Hamlet and his Mother
Queen. What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?
Ham. Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty;
Calls virtue hypocrite; takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love,
And sets a blister there; makes marriage vows
As false as dicers' oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words!--heaven's face doth glow;
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act.
Queen. Ah me, what act,
That roars so loud, and thunders in the index?
Ham. Look here, upon this picture, and on this
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form, indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:
This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The heydey in the blood is tame, it's humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion: but, sure, that sense
Is apoplex'd: for madness would not err;
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne'er so thrall'd
But it reserv'd some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't,
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind,
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax,
And melt in her own fire: proclaim no shame,
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn,
And reason panders will.
Queen. O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots,
As will not leave their tinct.
Ham. Nay, but to live
Stew'd in corruption
Queen. O, speak to me no more;
These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears;
No more, sweet Hamlet!
Ham. A murderer and a villain;
A slave, that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord;-a vice of kings:
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket!
Queen. No more!
Ham. A king of shreds and patches
. . . . . .
My Pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,
And makes as healthful music: it is not madness
That I have utter'd: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness, speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker. Forgive me this, my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times,
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg;
Yea, curb and woo, for leave to do him good.
Queen. O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.
Ham. O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
1 Rydberg identifies Horwendil with Orvandil, Svipdag's father, and holds that there are memories of the Svipdag myth in the Hamlet story as related by Saxo, Halfdan being the original of Feng, and Groa of Gerutha (Gertrude).
3 Amleth means "insane".
4 Shakespeare's Horatio.
5 The World-mill. In an old saga, reference is made to the Island-mill beyond the world's edge, which is worked by nine maidens. It is called "Amlode's mealbin". Thus, in the tenth century, we have an Icelandic reference to a mythical "Hamlet" who is connected with the mill. When Orvandil and the other sons of Ivalde declare war against the gods (see chapter "The Winter War") two giant maids who are relatives of Orvandil jerk the mill handle violently, and put it out of order. Here then is another link between Svipdag, the avenger, son of Orvandil, and Amleth, the avenger, son of Horvendil. Before Svipdag journeys to Hela, he is protected by Groa's incantations against the storms caused by the World-mill. In vague traditions we do not expect exact references, but rather suggestive associations. The chief actor in a popular tale absorbs all else as he develops independently through the ages.
6 Shakespeare's Polonius.
7 Evidently a memory of Pictish marriage customs. The Irish Cuchullin has a similar experience in Scotland.
8 Muller says there are two localities named "Amelhede"