The Hamlet Myth

  " The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
    That ever I was born to set it right!"
                        William Shakespeare,  Hamlet


"What is eternal is circular and what is circular is eternal."

"..they who in ages past ground Hamlet's meal.  ...  Here the sea
is called Amlodhi's Mill."
        Amlodhi legend.             Snorri Sturluson.

"The stars began to fray, and time and earth
 Washed hands in mischief..."
       Legend of Kai Khusrau.       Firdausi.

What do these quotes have in common? They are part of the elaborate argument constructed by Georgio de Santillana and Bertha von Dechend in Hamlet's Mill to show that the Hamlet myth is cosmological, and describes the precession of the equinoxes. By the time that Shakespeare adapted the story to his purposes, its origin and meaning had lapsed into obscurity.

The story of Hamlet appears in many forms and many cultures, usually as part of a much longer and very complicated legend. The common features are:
Hamlet is to avenge the death of his father,
His mother is engaged in an incestuous relationship with his father's brother.
Hamlet feigns madness.
Ophelia, his love, is drowned.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is taken from a Danish legend, due to Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1216). Hamlet is "Amlethus" (the name means "simpleton") and Saxo's version is rather uncouth compared with Shakepeare's. The following legends all have the common features listed above, as well as other points of contact.

--Amlodhi (10th century) and Ambales (16th or 17th century, a re-import from Denmark).
--Lucius Junius Brutus (Livy, with earlier versions by Zonaras and Accius)
--Kullervo (Ophelia is replaced by Kullervo's sister)
--Kai Khusrau (about AD1010. Here the cosmolgical link is more obvious)
-- Krishna, in The Mahabharata.
--King Arthur (Hamlet seems to be Mordred. This one is a bit harder to decipher, although some of the elements are there.]
And there are more.

By looking at all of these legends as different versions of the same story, it is possible to pick out more of the underlying myth, and to find its cosmological significance. In Saxo's version, many of the cosmological clues appear as apparently bizarre events occurring during Amlethus' feigned madness. Most of them are missing from the Shakespeare adaptation. Further the great mill which appears in the Icelandic version and is central to the cosmology does not appear at all, although it is in the Finnish myth. The mill is explained in the Indian Bhagavata Purana.

"...the exalted seat of Vishnu, round which the starry spheres forever wander, like the upright axle of the corn mill.."

According to Santillana and von Dechend, all these myths aim to explain precession: the mill represents the rotation of the celestial sphere; the mill axle is the polar axis and the theme of the breaking of the mill represents the precession. Time is cyclic, (cf the quote from Aristotle) and is divided into a series of World Ages. During each age the vernal equinox lies in one constellation; at the end of the age the vernal equinox moves into the next constellation. Each age ends with a catastrophic event, frequently involving a flood or water in some way. This is where the Hamlet tragedy fits in.