The Unfolding in India
THE PARALLEL between the Tale of Kai Khusrau and the final plot of the vast Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, has received attention for over a century. It was noticed by the great Orientalist James Darmesteter. The translators of Firdausi are not unaware of it, and they analyze the last phase of events as follows:
The legend of Kai Khusrau’s melancholy, his expedition into the mountains, and his attainment to heaven without having tasted death has its parallel in the Mahabharata, where Yudhishthira, the eldest of the five Pandavas, becoming weary of the world, resolves to retire from the sovereignty and acquire merit by pilgrimage. On hearing of his intentions his four brothers–Bhima, Arjuna, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva–resolve to follow his example and accompany him. Yudhishthira appoints successors to his various kingdoms. The citizens and the inhabitants of the provinces, hearing. the king’s words, became filled with anxiety and disapproved of them. “This should never be done”–said they unto the king. The monarch, well versed with the changes brought about by time, did not listen to their counsel. Possessed of righteous soul, he persuaded the people to sanction his views. . . Then Dharma’s son, Yudhishthira, the King of Pandavas, casting off his ornaments, wore barks of trees. . . The fire brothers, with Draupadi forming the sixth [she was the joint wife of the brothers], and a dog forming the seventh, set out on their journey. The citizens and the ladies of the royal household followed them for some distance. . . The denizens of the city then returned [exactly as Kai Khusrau’s subjects had done]. The seven pilgrims meanwhile had set out upon their journey. They first wandered eastward, then southward, and then westward. Lastly they faced northward and crossed the Himalaya. Then they beheld before them a vast desert of sand and beyond it Mount Meru. One by one the pilgrims sank exhausted and expired, first Draupadi, then the twins, then Arjuna, then Bhima; but Yudhishthira, who never even looked back at his fallen comrades, still pressed on and, followed by the faithful dog who turns out to be Dharma (the Law), in disguise, entered Heaven in his mortal body, not having tasted death.
Among minor common traits, Warner stresses particularly these:
Both journey into the mountains with a devoted band, the number of them is the same in both cases, and both are accompanied by a divine being, for the part of the dog in the Indian legend is indicated in the Iranian as being taken by Surush, the angel of Urmuzd. In both, the leaders pass deathless into Heaven, and in both their mortal comrades perish. One legend therefore must be derived from the other, or else, and this seems to be the better opinion, they must be referred to a common origin of great antiquity.
[n1 Firdausi, Shahna11la (Warner trans.), vol. 4, pp. 136ff.]
Of great antiquity these legends must be, indeed; otherwise there would not be a very similar end ascribed to Enoch and to Quetzalcouatl. In fact, just as Kai Khusrau’s paladins did not listen to the Shah’s advice not to remain with him until his ascension–the crowd had been left behind, anyhow–so Enoch
urged his retinue to turn back: “Go ye home, lest death overtake you, if you follow me farther.” Most of them–800,000 there were–heeded his words and went back, but a number remained with him for six days. . . On the sixth day of the journey, he said to those still accompanying him, “Go ye home, for on the morrow I shall ascend to heaven, and whoever will then be near me, he will die.” Nevertheless, some of his companions remained with him, saying: “Whithersoever thou goest, we will go. By the living God, death alone shall part us.” On the seventh day Enoch was carried into the heavens in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery chargers. The day thereafter, the kings who had turned back in good time sent messengers to inquire into the fate of the men who had refused to separate themselves from Enoch, for they had noted the number of them. They found snow and great hailstones upon the spot whence Enoch had risen, and, when they searched beneath, they discovered the bodies of all who had remained behind with Enoch. He alone was not among them; he was on high in heaven. [n2. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews (1954), vol. I, pp. 129ff.]
Quetzalcouatl’s paladins, “the slaves, the dwarves, the hunchbacked . . . they died there from the cold. . . , upon all of them fell the snow,” in the mountain pass between Popocatepetl and Iztactepetl [n3 E. Seler, Einige Kapitel aus dem Geschichtswerk des Fray B. de Sahagun (I927), p. 290.]. Quetzalcouatl, lamenting, and utterly lonely, had some more stations to pass, before he took off on his serpent raft, announcing he would come back, someday, “to judge the living and the dead” (appendix #3).
Were it only the dry fact of Yudhishthira’s ascension, and the end of his companions high up in the mountains, we might have avoided the maze of the Mahabharata altogether. But, labyrinthine as this epic of twelve volumes truly is–and the same goes for the Puranas–Indian myth offers keys to secret chambers to be had nowhere else. The Mahabharata tells of the war of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, that is the Pandu brothers and the Kuru brothers, who correspond to the Iranians and Turanians, to the sons of Kaleva and the people of Untamo, etc. Thus far the general situation is not foreign to us. But the epic states unmistakably that this tremendous war was fought during the interval between the Dvapara and the Kali Yuga. 4
[n4 Mbh. 1.2 (Roy trans., vol. 1, p. 18). See H. Jacobi’s Mahabharata (1903), p. 2.]
This “dawn” between two world-ages can be specified further. The real soul and force on the side of the Pandavas is Krishna–in the words of Arjuna: “He, who was our strength, our might, our heroism, our prowess, our prosperity, our brightness, has left us, and departed.” [n5 Vishnu Purana
5.38 (trans. H. H. Wilson [1840; 3d ed. l961, p. 484).]. Now Krishna (“the Black”) is. the most outstanding avatar of Vishnu. And it is only when Krishna has been shot in the heel (or the sole of his foot), the only vulnerable spot of his body, by the hunter Jara (= old age) that the Pandavas, too, resolve to depart–just as Kai Khusrau did after the death of Kai Ka’us. There was Kai Khusrau’s statement: “And now I deem it better to depart. . . Because this Kaian crown and throne will pass.” And this happens at the following crucial point:
When that portion of Vishnu (that had been born by Vasudeva and Devaki) returned to heaven, then the Kali age commenced. As long as the earth was touched by his sacred feet, the Kali age could not affect it. As soon as the incarnation of the eternal Vishnu had departed, the son of Dharma, Yudhishthira, with his brethren, abdicated the sovereignty. . . The day that Krishna shall have departed from the earth will be the first of the Kali age. . . it will continue for 360,000 years of mortals. 6
[n6 Vishnu Purana 4.24 (Wilson trans., p. 390). Cf. 5.38, pp. 48If.: “and on the same day that Krishna departed from the earth the powerful dark-bodied Kali age descended. The ocean rose, and submerged the whole of Dvaraka,” i.e., the town which Krishna himself had built, as told in Vishnu Purana 5.23, p. 449.]
And as Krishna is reunited with Vishnu, as Arjuna returns into Indra, [n7 See Visbnu Purana 5.12 (Wilson trans., p. 422), where Indra tells Krishna, “A portion of me has been born as Arjuna.”] and Balarama into the Shesha-Serpent, so it will happen to the other heroes. Thus, when Yudhishthira is finally rejoined with his whole Pandu-Family in heaven, the poet Sauti explains,
“That the various heroes, after exhausting their Karma, become reunited with that deity of which they were avatars.”8
[n8 Mbh. 18.5 (Swargarohanika Parva) (Roy trans., vol. 12, pp. 287-90). See also Jacobi, p. 191.]
Yudhishthira is reunited with Dharma, disguised as a faithful dog. [n9 Arrived at the last stage of deterioration, we find Dharma, the Dog, in a fairy tale from Albania: The youngest daughter of a king–her two sisters resemble Regan and Goneril–offers to go to war in her father’s place, asking for three suits only, and for the paternal blessing. “Then the king procured three male suits, and gave her his blessing, and this blessing changed into a little dog and went with the princess.” J. G. von Hahn: Griechische und Albaniscbe Marchen , vol. 2, p. 146.).]. Seen from this vantage point, the Finnish epic appears as a last dim and apparently meaningless reflection. Kullervo goes with the black dog Musti, the only living soul left from his home, into the forest where he throws himself upon his sword.
Now what about Krishna, most beloved deity of the Hinduistic Pantheon? Some of his innumerable deeds and victorious adventures before his “departure” will look familiar. Young Krishna is the persecuted nephew of a cruel uncle, Kansa (or Kamsa), both being, as Keith [n10 B. Keith, Indian Mythology
(1917), p. 126. For the deeds of Krishna, see pp. 14ff.] styles it, “protagonists in a ritual contest.” “This is not modestly understating it, but grossly misleading. Kansa is an Asura (appendix #4), and Krishna is a Deva, and that means, again, that the affair concerns the great divine “Parties” (Iranians-Turanians, and the like). The uncle, warned beforehand through prophecies about the danger coming from the eighth son of Devaki and Vasudeva, kills six children of this couple, but the seventh (Balarama) and eighth (Krishna) are saved and live with herdsmen. There young Krishna performs some of the deeds of the “Strong Boy.”
If Kullervo, three days old, destroyed his cradle, we might expect something spectacular from Krishna, and we are not disappointed:
On one occasion, whilst Madhusudana was asleep underneath the wagon, he cried for the breast, and kicking up his feet he overturned the vehicle, and all the pots and pans were upset and broken. The cowherds and their wives, hearing the noise, came exclaiming: “Ah! ah!” and they found the child sleeping on his back. “Who could have upset the wagon?” said the cowherds. “This child,” replied some boys, who witnessed the circumstance; “we saw him,'” said they, “crying, and kicking the wagon with his feet, and so it was overturned: no one else had any thing to do with it.” The cowherds were exceedingly astonished at this account. [n11 Vishnu Purana 5.6 (Wilson trans., p. 406f.).]
One day the child repeatedly disobeyed his mother and she became angry.
Fastening a cord round his waist, she tied him to the wooden mortar Ulukhala, and being in a great passion, she said to him, “Now, you naughty boy, get away from hence if you can.” She then went to her domestic affairs. As soon as she had departed, the lotus-eyed Krishna, endeavouring to extricate himself, pulled the mortar after him to the space between the two ariuna trees that grew near together. Having dragged the mortar between these trees, it became wedged awry there, and as Krishna pulled it through, it pulled down the trunks of the trees. Hearing the crackling noise, the people of Vraja came to see what was the matter, and there they beheld the two large trees, with shattered stems and broken branches, prostrate on the ground, with the child fixed between them, with a rope round his belly, laughing, and showing his little white teeth, just budded. . . The elders of the cowherds. . . looked upon these circumstances with alarm, considering them of evil omen. “We cannot remain in this place,” said they, “let us go to some other part of the forest.”
Thus, they go to Vrindavana, exactly where the child had wished. The Harivamsha explains the move to Vrindavana in this way:
Krishna converts the hairs of his body into hundreds of wolves, who so harass and alarm the inhabitants of Vraja–the said cowherds–, that they determine to abandon their homes.
[n12 Vishnu Purana 5.6 (Wilson trans., pp. 406f.).]
In the Indian myth, for once, the episode of Krishna’s hairs turning into hundreds of wolves seems a mere trifle, compared with Kullervo’s wolves which “he sang to cattle, and he changed the bears to oxen,” the more so, as Krishna’s only “harass and alarm” the cowherds. These wild beasts, however, indispensable to the “Urkind,” whether Kullervo or Dionysos–see above, p. 30–are present in Krishna’s story, and this is remarkable enough.
Kansa [n13 That “uncle”-really “the great Asura Kalanemi who was killed by the powerful Vishnu . . revived in Kansa, the son of Ugrasena” (Vishnu Pm’ana 5.1 [Wilson trans., p. 396]).], hearing of the deeds of Krishna and Rama, determines to have the boys brought to his capital Mathura and there to procure their death, if he cannot slay them before. Needless to say, all is in vain: Krishna kills Kansa and all his soldiers, and places Kansa’s father on the throne.
Krishna does not pretend to be a fool, the smiling one. He merely insists again and again on being a simple mortal when everybody wishes to adore him as the highest god, which he is. Nor is he known particularly as an “avenger.” He was delegated from higher quarters to free the earth–“overburdened” as it was with Asura–as he had done time and again in his former avatars. Krishna belongs here, however, because Indian tradition has preserved the consciousness of the cosmic frame, and it is this alone that gives meaning to the incidence of war and the notion of crime and punishment as they appear in myth.
It is useful to keep philosophy and mythology carefully separate, and yet the many gods and heroes who avenge their fathers–beginning with “Horus-the-avenger-of-his-father” and “Ninurta who has avenged his father”–have their function destined to them, as has the long line of wicked uncles. These figures pay reparation and atonement to each other for their mutual injustice in the order of time, as Anaximander said. Anaximander was a philosopher. Despite its fantastic language the Indian epic has an affinity with his thought. Vishnu returns regularly in his capacity of “avenger,” collecting the “reparations” of the bad uncle “according to the order of time.” In the Mahabharata he does so under the name of Krishna, but he will come again in the shape of another avatar to clear the earth of the Asura who overburden it. The Asura, too, grow into “overbearing characters” strictly according to the order of time. If under the name of Kalki the Vishnu figure is expected to introduce a new Krita Yuga (Golden Age), when our present Kali Yuga has come to its miserable end.
It is this regular returning of avatars of Vishnu which helps clarify matters. Because it is Vishnu’s function to return as avenger at fixed intervals of time, there is no need in the epic to emphasize the revenge taken by Krishna on Uncle Kansa. But in the West, where the continuity of cosmic processes as told by myth has been forgotten–along with the knowledge that gods are stars–the very same revenge is given great importance because it is an unrepeated event accomplished by one figure, whether hero or god, and this hero or god is, moreover, understood to be the creation of some imaginative poet. The introduction of Indian tradition makes it possible to rediscover the context in which such characters as Saxo’s Amlethus, such typically unlucky fellows as Kullervo, have significance. Once it is fully realized that “the day Krishna shall have departed from the earth will be the first of the Kali Yuga,” the proper perspective is established. Our hero stands precisely on the threshold between a closed age and a new Time Zero. In fact, he closes the old one.
The most inconspicuous details become significant when observed from this point of view. For instance Saxo, without giving it much thought, divided the biography of Amlethus in two parts (incidentally involving the hero in bigamy), in the same way as Firdausi told us nine-tenths of Kai Khusrau’s adventures in the book on Kai Ka’us. This is actually the more puzzling of the two as Firdausi states: “For from today new feasts and customs date / Because tonight is born Shah Kai Khusrau.” Firdausi, who was well versed in astrology, insisted on the Shah’s birthday because, in the astrological sense, birth is the decisive moment. But here, and in related cases where chronology is at issue, it is the moment of death, of leaving the stage, that counts. Krishna’s departure gives the scheme away. Al-Biruni, in his chapter on “The Festivals of the Months of the Persians,” describing the festival NaurÃ³z (“New Day”) in the first month of spring, writes:
On the 6th day of Farwardln, the day Khurdadh, is the Great NaurÃ³z, for the Persians a feast of great importance. On this day they say God finished the creation, for it is the last of the six days. . . On this day God created Saturn, therefore its most lucky hours are those of Saturn. On the same day–they say–the Sors Zarathustrae came to hold communion with God, and Kaikhusrau ascended into the air. On the same day the happy lots are distributed among the people of the earth. Therefore the Persians call it “the day of hope.”
[14 Al-Biruni, The Chronology of Ancient Nations (trans. C. E. Sachau , p. 201).]
The so-called Kaianian Dynasty–the “Heroes” according to Al-Biruni’s Chronology [n15 p.112.]–succeeding the first Pishdadian Dynasty (“the Just”), is supposed to have started with Kai Kubad, his son Kai Ka’us, and the latter’s grandson Kai Khusrau, and to have ended with Sikander, Alexander the Great, with whose death a new era actually began. But it is obvious that something new begins with Kai Khusrau’s assumption into heaven. Thus, the Warners state that with our Shah “the old epic cycle of the poem comes to an end, and up to this point the Kaianian may be regarded as the complement of the Pishdadian dynasty.” [n16 Firdausi, Shahnama (Warner trans.), vol. 2, pp. 8f.].
In his introduction to the Firdausi translation, however, the Warners claim that the poem is divided into two periods, one mythic, the other historic: [n17 The time structure is a very complicated one, and we cannot manage with a subdivision of two “periods” at all, the less so, as the reigns of the Shahs overlap with the rather miraculous lifetimes of the “heroes” or Paladins (Rustam, Zal, etc.). The same goes for the “primordial” emperors of China and their “vassals.” But God protect us from meddling with lists of alleged “kings” from whichever area, but particularly from the Iranian tables!]
This distinction is based not so much on the nature of the subject matter as on the names of the chief characters. At a certain point in the poem the names cease to be mythic and become historic. The mythic period extends from the beginning of the narrative down to the reigns of the last two Shahs of the Kaianian dynasty. . . The Shahs in question are Dara, son of Darab, better known as Darius Codomanus, and Sikander (Alexander).
[n18 Firdausi, vol. 1, pp. 49f.]
Firdausi makes it clear that the mythic period ends only with the death of Alexander, the two last Shahs being Darius Codomanus and Alexander who overcame him. After him begins the “historic” period of the poem. In other words, “history” begins only when the Iranian empire vanishes from the scene, to be replaced by the successors of Alexander. To remove from history the great and solidly historical feats of Darius I, Xerxes, Cambyses, etc., is paradoxical for a poem which is meant to celebrate the Iranian empire. Presumably Firdausi meant that so long as the Zoroastrian religion reigned, time was holy and thus belonged to myth rather than ordinary history. This is confirmed by a strange statement of the Warners: “Rightly or wrongly, Zoroastrian tradition couples Alexander with Zahhak and Afrasiyab as one of the three arch-enemies of the faith.” [n19 Firdausi, vol. 1, p. 59f.]
The great myths of the Avestan religion have overcome chronology and reshaped it to their purpose. The true kings of Persia have disappeared notwithstanding their glory, and are replaced by mythical rulers and mythical struggles. Kai Khusrau rehearses a “Jamshyd” role in his beginnings, and with his ascent to heaven–the date of which marks New Year from now on–the Holy Empire really comes to a close. The struggle has been between gods and demons throughout.
We have been following the story of powers coming to an end, embodied first in the Iranian then in the Indian “kings,” a story which is differently emphasized by two different legends. Each legend has a disturbing similarity to the other, and each removes the narration from any known classic pattern, forcing the events to a catastrophic conclusion which is clearly commanded by Time itself, and by a very different chain of causes than that indicated by the actual sequence of events in the texts.
To avoid misunderstanding it should be emphasized that it is not possible yet to know precisely who is who, or to make positive identifications such as saying that Brjam is Yudhishthira or Krishna. But the hints provided by Iranians and Indians may lead to a better understanding of Kullervo (“Kaleva is reborn in him”), and may indicate that the feat of the doggish fool Brutus in driving out the Kings was significant on a higher level than the political. This is not to deny that the Kings were expelled, but rather to point to a special set of firmly coined “figures of speech” derived from “large” changes or shifts (such as the onset of Kali Yuga) that could be, and were, applied to minor historical events.
WITH SUGGESTIVE INSIGHTS from other continents, it is time to take a fresh look at Shakespeare’s Gentle Prince, a cultivated, searching intellectual, the glass of fashion and the mold of form in the Danish Court, who was known once upon a time as a personage of no ordinary power, of universal position, and, in the North, as the owner of a formidable mill.
Well trained by the Church, Saxo could write excellent and ornate Latin, a rare achievement in his time. Though inspired by his patriotism to write the great chronicles of his own country, he was in Denmark an isolated if respectable fish in a small provincial pond. He remained oriented to the cultural pole of his times, which was Iceland. From there he had to draw most of his materials even if he helped to Danicize them, as we see in the story of Hamlet where all the features point toward a local dynastic story. But what he drew from Iceland were pieces of already “historical” lore. He could not draw, as did Snorri Sturluson, on the resources of a high position at the very center of Iceland’s rich bilingual culture, and on the experience of a wide ranging and adventurous life. He could never have formed, like Snorri, the great project of reorganizing the corpus of pagan and skaldic tradition inside an already Christian frame. Saxo seems to have known Icelandic fairly well, but not enough to understand the precious and convoluted language of ancient poetry. He was unsure of his bearings and simply arranged his story as best he could even though the name of Hamlet’s father, Orvendel (see appendix #2), should have been sufficient to warn him of its derivation from high myth. It is Snorri who provides a piece of decisive information: and it appears, as earlier noted, in chapter 16 of his Skaldskaparmal (“Poetical Diction”), a collection of kenningar, or turns of speech from ancient bards. It is couched in a language that even modern scholars can translate only tentatively. Appendix #5 contains a discussion of the many versions. The one quoted again here is that of Gollancz (p. xi), which appears to be the most carefully translated:
‘Tis said, sang Snaebjorn, that far out, off yonder ness, the Nine Maids of the Island Mill stir amain the host-cruel skerry-quern–they who in ages past ground Hamlet’s meal. The good chieftain furrows the hull’s lair with his ship’s beaked prow. Here the sea is called Amlodhi’s Mill.
The Mill is thus not only very great and ancient, but it must also be central to the original Hamlet story. It reappears in the Skaldskaparmal, where Snorri explains why a kenning for gold is “Frodhi’s meal” [n1 Skaldskap. 42, according to Brodeur (1929), pp. 163-69, and Neckel and Niedner (Thule 20 ), pp. 195f. The other translators of Snorri’s Edda cannot agree on the manner of dividing the work into chapters, if they do not desist from doing so at all, as R. B. Anderson (1880), pp. 206-13, parts of whose translation we quote here. (Simrock [n.d.], pp. 89-93, makes it chapter 63.)]. Frodhi appears in the chronicles, but his name is really an alias of Freyr, one of the great Vanir or Titans of Norse myth. But Snorri, who likes to give things a historical ring as befits his Christian upbringing, fixed his Frodhi to “the same time when Emperor Augustus established peace in the whole world, and when Christ was born.” Under King Frodhi the general state of things was similar to that of the Golden Age, and it was called “Frodhi’s peace.” Saxo follows suit and attributes unsuspectingly a duration of thirty years to this peace. [n2 P. Herrmann, Die Heldensagen des Saxo Grammaticus (1922), pp. 376ff.]
Now Frodhi happened to be the owner of a huge mill, or quern, that no human strength could budge. Its name was Grotte, “the crusher.” We are not told how he got it, it just happened, as in a fairy tale. He traveled around looking for someone who could work it, and in Sweden he recruited two giant maidens, Fenja and Menja, who were able to work the Grotte. It was a magic mill, and Frodhi told them to grind out gold, peace and happiness. So they did. But Frodhi in his greed drove them night and day. He allowed them rest only for so long as it took to recite a certain verse. One night, when everybody else was sleeping, the giantess Menja in her anger stopped work, and sang a dire song.
This obscure prophetic imprecation, as Muellenhoff has shown, is the oldest extant document of skaldic literature, antedating Snorri’s tale by far. It contains the biography of the grim sisters:
Frode! you were not / Wary enough,
you friend of men,– / When maids you bought!
At their strength you looked, / And at their fair faces,
But you asked no questions / About their descent.
Hard was Hrungner / And his father;
Yet was Thjasse / Stronger than they,
And Ide and Orner / Our friends, and
The mountain-giants’ brothers, / Who fostered us two.
Not would Grotte have come / From the mountains gray,
Nor this hard stone / Out from the earth;
The maids of the mountain-giants / Would not thus be grinding
If we two knew / Nothing of the mill.
Such were our deeds / In former days,
That we heroes brave / Were thought to be.
With spears sharp / Heroes we pierced,
So the gore did run / And our swords grew red.
Now we are come / To the house of the king,
No one us pities. / Bond-women are we.
Dirt eats our feet / Our limbs are cold,
The peace-giver we turn. / Hard it is at Frode’s.
Now hold shall the hands / The lances hard,
The weapons bloody,– / Wake now, Frode! Wake now, Frode!
If you would listen / To our songs,
To sayings old.
Fire I see burn / East of the burg,
The war news are awake. / That is called warning.
A host hither / Hastily approaches
To burn the king’s / Lofty dwelling.
No longer you will sit / On the throne of Hleidra
And rule o’er red / Rings and the mill.
Now must we grind / With all our might,
No warmth will we get / From the blood of the slain.
Now my father’s daughter / Bravely turns the mill.
The death of many / Men she sees.
Now broke the large / Braces ‘neath the mill,
The iron-bound braces. / Let us yet grind!
Let us yet grind! / Yrsa’s son
Shall on Frode revenge / Halfdan’s death.
He shall Yrsa’s / Offspring be named,
And yet Yrsa’s brother. / Both of us know it.
However obscure the prophecy, it brought its own fulfillment. The maidens ground out for Frodhi’s “a sudden host,” and that very day Mysingr, the Sea-King, landed and killed Frodhi. Mysingr (“son of the Mouse”—see appendix #6) loaded Grotte on his ship, and with him he also took the giantesses. He ordered them to grind again. But this time they ground out salt.
“And at midnight they asked whether Mysingr were not weary of salt. He bade them grind longer. They had ground but a little while, when down sank the ship,”
“the huge props flew off the bin,
the iron rivets burst,
the shaft tree shivered,
the bin shot down,
the massy mill-stone rent in twain.”
[n3 These five verses are taken from Gollancz (p. xiii), the three previous and the two last lines from Brodeur (pp. 162f.); otherwise, we followed the Anderson translation.]
“And from that time there has been a whirlpool in the sea where the water falls through the hole in the mill-stone. It was then that the sea became salt.”
Here ends Snorri’s tale (appendix #7).
Three fundamental and far-reaching themes have been set: the broken mill, the whirlpool, the salt. As for the curse of the miller women, it stands out alone like a megalith abandoned in the landscape. But surprisingly it can also be found, already looking strange, in the world of Homer, two thousand years before. [n4 It was J. G. von Hahn (Sagwissenschaftliche Studien , pp. 401f.) who first pointed to the similarity of the episodes in Snorri’s Edda and in the Odyssey.]
It is the last night, in the Odyssey (20.103-19, Rouse trans.), which precedes the decisive confrontation. Odysseus has landed in Ithaca and is hiding under Athena’s magic spell which protects him from recognition. Just as in Snorri, everybody sleeps. Odysseus prays to Zeus to send him an encouraging sign before the great ordeal.
Straightaway he thundered from shining Olympus, from on high from the place of the clouds; and goodly Odysseus was glad. Moreover, a woman, a grinder at the mill, uttered a voice of omen from within the house hard by, where stood the mills of the shepherd of the people. At these handmills twelve women in all plied their task, making meal of barley and of wheat, the marrow of men. Now all the others were asleep, for they had ground out their task of grain, but one alone rested not yet, being the weakest of all. She now stayed her quern and spake a word, a sign to her Lord [epos pharo sema anakti]. “Father Zeus, who rulest over gods and man, loudly hast thou thundered from the starry sky, yet nowhere is there a cloud to be seen: this is surely a portent thou art showing to some mortal. Fulfil now, I pray thee, even to miserable me, the word that I shall speak. May the )wooers, on this day, for the last and latest time make, their sweet feasting in the halls of Odysseus! They that have loosened my knees with cruel toil to grind their barley meal, may they now sup their last! “
‘The weakest of all,” yet a giant figure in her own right. In the tight and shapely structure of the narrative, the episode is fitted with art, yet it stands out like a cyclopean stone embedded in a house. There are many such things in Homer.
Going back to Grotte, the name has an interesting story. It is still used today in Norwegian for the “axle-block,” the round block of wood which fills the hole in the millstone, and in which the end of the mill axle is fixed. In the Faroer as well as in the Shetland dialect, it stands for “the nave in the millstone.” The original Sanskrit nabhi covers both “nave” and “navel,” and this point should be kept in mind. In the story, it is obviously the nave that counts, for it created a hole when the mill tree sprang out of it, and the whirlpool formed in the hole. But “navel of the sea” was an ancient name for great whirlpools. Gollancz, with sound instinct, saw the connection right away:
Indeed, one cannot help thinking of a possible reference to the marvellous Maelstroem, the greatest of all whirlpools, one of the wonders of the world; Umbilicus maris according to the old geographers, “gurges mirabilis omnium totius orbis terrarum celeberrimus et maximus” as Fr. Athanasius Kircher describes it in his fascinating folio “Mundus Subterraneus.” According to Kircher, it was supposed that every whirlpool formed around a central rock: a great cavern opened beneath; down this cavern the water rushed; the whirling was produced as in a basin emptying through a central hole. Kircher gives a curious picture of this theory, with special reference to the Maelstroem.
[n5 I. Gollancz, Hamlet in Iceland (1898), p. xiv.]
Clearly, the Mill is not a “chose transitory,” as lawyers say in their jargon. It must belong to the permanent equipment of the ancient universe. It recurs all the time, even if its connotations are rarely pleasant. From another corner of memory, there come the lines of Burns’ “John Barleycorn”:
They wasted o’er a scorching flame
The marrow of his bones
But a miller used him worst of all
For he crushed him between two stones.
The mock tragedy of the yearly rural feast is part of the immense lore on fertility rites that Frazer has unfolded, with the ritual lamentations over the death of Tammuz, Adonis, the “Grain Osiris” of Egypt; and no one would deny that the Tammuz festival was a seasonal ritual celebrating the death and rebirth of vegetation. It has entered the commonplaces of our knowledge. But was this the original meaning? An irresistible preconception leads to the thought that when peasant rites are found tied to vegetation, there is the most elementary and primitive level of myth from which all others derive. It carries, too, its own moral tidings: “if the grain die not. . . ,” which led on to higher religious thought.
In truly archaic cults, however, such as that of the Ssabians of Harran, reflected also in Ibn Wa’shijja’s “Book of Nabataean Agriculture,” the death and grinding up of Tammuz is celebrated and lamented by the images of all the planetary gods gathered in the temple of the Sun suspended “between earth and heaven,” in the same way as they once cried and lamented over the passing of Jamshyd (or Jambushad as they then called him). This is a strange and unusual note, very un-agrarian, which deserves more careful study.
But this leads back to the Norse myth of the Mill, and in fact to Snorri himself, who in his “Fooling of Gylfi” commented on a verse from the Vafthrudnismal which has been much discussed since. In this ancient poem, the end of Ymer is recounted. Ymer is the “initial” world giant from whose scattered body the world was made. Snorri states that Ymer’s blood caused a flood which drowned all giants except Bergelmer, who, with his wife, “betook himself upon his ludr and remained there, and from there the race of giants are descended.” The word ludr, as Snaebjorn said, stands for Mill. But in Vafthrudnismal (ch. 35), Odin asks the wise giant Vafthrudner of the oldest event he can think of, and gets this answer: “Countless ages ere the earth was shapen, Bergelmer was born. The first thing I remember is when he a var ludr um lagidr” (appendix #8).
Rydberg renders the words as “laid on a mill,” and understands them as “laid under a millstone.” Accordingly, he explains Snaebjorn’s lidmeldr, which the great mill grinds, as “limb grist.” [n6 V. Rydberg, Teutonic Mythology (1907), p. 575.]. As will appear later, there is a different interpretation to propose. The problem, however, keeps turning up. In the Lokasenna(43ff.), Freyr, the original master of Grotte, is brought directly into action. The occasion is a banquet to which Aegir invited the gods. Loke uninvited made his appearance there to mix harm into the ale of the gods and to embitter their pleasure. But when Loke taunts Freyr, Byggver, the faithful retainer, becomes angry on his master’s behalf:
“Had I the ancestry
of Ingunar Freyr
and so honoured a seat
know I would grind you
finer than marrow you evil crow,
and crush you limb by limb.”
To which Loke replies:
“What little boy is that
whom I see wag his tail
and eat like a parasite?
Near Freyr’s ears
always you are
and clatter ‘neath the millstone.”
There are several more clues which hint that this mill upon which Bergelmer was “heaved” was a very distinct if unattractive mythological feature, and they cannot be dealt with here. But if it should be remarked that Bergelmer was not in a state to produce offspring for the giants, if he really was laid under the millstone, there is also an example from Mexico, the “jewel-bone” or “sacrificial bone” which Xolotl or Quetzalcouatl procures from the “underworld,” bringing it to Tamoanchan (the so-called “House of descending”). There, the goddess Ciua couatl or Quilaztli grinds the precious bone on the grindstone, and the ground substance is put into the jewel bowl (chalchiuhapaztli). Several gods maltreat themselves, making blood flow from their penises on the “meal” Out of this mixture mankind is fashioned.
These stories may not be in exquisite taste, but at least they are grotesque and contorted enough to rid us of reliance on the natural or intuitive understanding of artless tales sung by rustics dancing on the green. Real cosmological similes are anything but intuitive.
One question remains from this discussion. Who was Snaebjorn, that dim figure, a few of whose lines have revealed so much? The scholars have gone searching, and have unearthed a veritable treasure in the ancient “Book of Iceland Settlements.” It links the poet with the first discovery of America. In that book, writes Gollancz:
There is a vivid picture of a tenth-century Arctic adventurer, Snaebjorn by name, who went on a perilous expedition to find the unknown land, “Gunnbjorn’s Reef,” after having wrought vengeance, as became a chivalrous gentleman of the period, on the murderer of a fair kinswoman. It is generally accepted, and there can be little doubt, that this Snaebjorn is identical with the poet Snaebjorn.
His family history is not without interest. His great-grandfather, Eywind the Easterling, so called because he had come to the Hebrides from Sweden, married the daughter of Cearbhall, Lord of Ossory, who ruled as King of Dublin from 882 to 888, “one of the principal sovereigns of Europe at the time when Iceland was peopled by the noblemen and others who fled from the tyranny of Harold Harfagr.” Cearbhall was descended from Connla, the grandson of Crimhthann Cosgach, the victorious King of Ireland, who is said to have flourished about a century before the Christian era. Lann or Flann, the half sister of Cearbhall, was married to Malachy I, King of Ireland, whose daughter Cearbhall had married. Flann was the mother of King Sionna and of the Lady Gormflaith, whom a cruel fate pursued; a king’s daughter, the wife of three kings, [she was] forced at last to beg for bread from door to door]. About the date of Snaebjorn’s arctic expedition (circa 980), his cousin, Ari Marson, is said to have landed on “White Man’s Land,” or “Great Iceland,”–that part of the coast of North America which extends from Chesapeake Bay, including North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, and became famous as one of the earliest discoverers of the New World.
[n7 Gollancz, pp. xviii.]
Thus Snaebjorn, as a member of an Irish royal family, typifies the mutual influence of Celtic and Scandinavian culture, between A.D. 800 and 1000, that influence which has been traced into the Eddic songs by Vigfusson in his Corpus Poeticum Boreale.
The Hamlet story itself typifies that exchange. For an earlier and simpler form of it may have been brought to Iceland from Ireland, whither the Vikings had originally taken the story of the great Orvendel’s son.
This places Hamlet within the circle not only of Norse tradition, but of that prodigious treasury of archaic myth which is Celtic Ireland, from which many lines have been traced to the Near East. The universality of the Hamlet figure becomes more understandable.