The Origins of Hamlet, Act One

The Origins of Hamlet

Prince of the Rus’

Brian Howard Seibert

English 309

Dr. T. Bishop


The Origins of Hamlet, Prince of the Rus’

            Shakespeare’s audiences in the Globe Theatre may have had somewhat different understandings of Hamlet’s claim, “I know a hawk from a handsaw”.  

The nobles watching from box seats and balconies must have wondered at the disparity between comparative nouns.   Sanity would dictate “knowing a hawk from a sparrow” or “knowing a hammer from a handsaw” but knowing a “hawk from a handsaw” only perpetuated the Danish Prince’s madness from their perspective.  The truant workers in the commoners’ pit, on the other hand, heard the statement as “I know a brick hawk from a handsaw”, and the comparative nouns were quite similar. The mason and the dauber perhaps exchanged knowing winks as they gazed upward at the baffled nobility and they loved their dear William for his jest.

            When William Shakespeare wrote his play, “The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke”, little did he know the thing would send literary researchers on an odyssey across Europe and history to trace its origins.1  The root of the work has had its founding strokes traced to Ireland, to Sweden and amazingly, yet convincingly, to the early Roman Empire.  And in all cases Hamlet’s social stature has remained quite princely.  But who exactly was this person, this prince, this Hamlet?

            Evidence has unfortunately thinned under the heavy rolls of time, and we may never truly learn just who this princely protagonist really was, but in order to find the origins of our youthful hero we must first turn back the pages of time and expose the history and the theories behind the play, the thing that is “Hamlet”.

“Hamlet” was registered in London on July 26, 1602 and there are three substantially different versions of the play extant.  The First Quarto (Bad Quarto) of 1603 is the earliest known printing.  This crude, possibly pirated form of the play was apparently lost and not rediscovered until 1823.  The Second Quarto, (Good Quarto) of 1604 is a larger and more eloquent version of the play. In 1623 two associates of Shakespeare, John Heminge and Henry Condell compiled a collection of his plays and had them printed in what is now known as the First Folio.3  There were further quartos and folios printed, but the modern play “Hamlet” is extracted from these three works.

            The 1604 version of Hamlet begins with the haunting scene of the ghost of Hamlet’s father telling Hamlet that he was murdered by his brother Claudius.  We then learn that Claudius has married the Queen; Hamlet’s mother and usurped the throne and it becomes apparent that Hamlet has survived in the court of his uncle by pretending to be mad and by playing the fool. The young prince’s insanity is put to the test by beautiful Ophelia, but the young woman’s wiles do not uncover Hamlet’s deceit and lead to his famous harangue “To be, or not to be…”.

            While Claudius tests Hamlet, the prince confirms the guilt of the king with a play he calls ‘The Mousetrap’.  A further test of Hamlet’s wits is taken up by Polonius, a courtier of Claudius, who hides behind an arras in Queen Gertrude’s chambers hoping to overhear Hamlet plotting with his mother.  Hamlet stabs him to death through the tapestry then chastises his mother for her involvement with the usurper.

            Following the death of Polonius, King Claudius sends Hamlet to England with the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They bear a note instructing the English king to execute Hamlet, however, through Hamlet’s cunning, the instructions are changed and, it is the courtiers that are buried in Britain.  Hamlet returns to Denmark to find burial preparations being made for Ophelia and it is in the graveyard during preparation that Hamlet clasps the skull of his former jester and cries “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio…”  Soon after, a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, leads to the tragic death of all.  In themselves alone, the three plays, the First and Second Quartos and the First Folio form sufficiently controversial sources for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, however, they are far from being the original source of the thing.  Literary and critical references of the Elizabethan period indicate that an “Ur-Hamlet” play had been produced well before Shakespeare’s play was performed in 1596.

            The “Ur-Hamlet” is documented, by Phillip Henslowe as having played in 1594.  The play may have been performed as early as 1589, the year when Thomas Nashe criticized both Thomas Kyd and a play called “Hamlet”.  Thomas Kyd is a prime candidate as being the playwright of the “Ur-Hamlet” due to Nashe’s famous critique and a previous play of his, “The Spanish Tragedy”, which also had vengeance and madness themes.  It is also known that Kyd was well versed in the French language, a valuable asset indeed when the next link to the origin of “Hamlet” is Francois DeBelleforest’s “Histoires Tragiques”.4

            In the decade of 1560, Francois DeBelleforest, a minor French author, was commissioned to produce a French translation of Matteo Bandello’s “Latin Romances”.  He apparently deemed it advisable to include translations of other works, including those of Krantz, Johanne Magnus, and Saxo Grammaticus.

DeBelleforest’s work was printed in Paris in 1582 and Volume V contained Saxo Grammaticus’ “Tale of Amleth”, a minor Prince of Denmark.5

Cleric Saxo Grammaticus (c.1150-c.1220) entered the service of Absalon, Archbishop of Lund, in 1180 and, upon the latter’s request, began compiling and writing his “Gesta Danorum” or “Historica Danica”, chronicling the early Danish heroic legends.  Originally, he had intended to write on Danish history from the time of Svend Estridson (d.1076), but later he added the histories of earlier times. His history is written in a polished Latin, similar in style to Valerius Maximus and Martianus Capella, upon whom he may have modeled his works, and consists of sixteen books, the first nine of which tell tales of the early kings and warriors of Denmark.  His story of Amleth is about the life and times of a legendary warrior-prince so named and falls at the end of Book Three and the beginning of Book Four of “Historica Danica”.  It is most certainly the direct source of the play “Hamlet”.6

            The story of Saxo Grammaticus’ Amleth runs thus: Horwendil and Feng are brothers appointed by King Rorik of Denmark to govern Jutland.  Horwendil holds the monarchy for three years but decides to seek adventure in piracy. While out a viking, Horwendil acquires a fierce and profitable reputation culminating in his slaying of King Koll of Norway in personal combat.  In three successful years of roving Horwendil accumulates great wealth, much of which he turns over to King Rorik, who, in return, proffers the hand of his daughter, Gerutha.  Horwendil and Gerutha are married and blessed with a son, Amleth.

            Horwendil’s brother, Feng, is possessed with jealousy over Horwendil’s good fortune and plots a treacherous usurpation.  He has coerced and corrupted the king’s royal court while Horwendil was off roving and employs their assistance when he murders their king.  Feng then gains favour with King Rorik when he claims he slew Horwendil in defence of Gerutha’s life and Horwendil’s royal court bears false witness against their former king.  Feng then forces Queen Gerutha into an incestuous marriage that gives him both the kingship and control over the former wife of Horwendil and her son.

            Amleth, knowing the full scope of Feng’s treachery, feigns madness to conceal his intelligence, thereby ensuring his own safety while preparing for his revenge.  But Feng and his corrupt court are not convinced that Amleth is totally lacking of wits and they devise tests whereby to judge his sanity.  Amleth is forewarned of this plot by his foster brother and plays the part of the fool most perfectly.  A young woman was to tempt him into throwing off the cover of buffoonery in exchange for pleasures, but Amleth rides his horse backwards, pretending not to see her standing alone on the path, and uses various ruses to divest the girl of her pleasures while yet, himself, remaining unexposed.

            ‘Again, as he passed along the beach, his companions found the

            rudder of a ship which had been wrecked, and said they discovered

            a huge knife. “This”, said he, “was the right thing to carve such a

            huge ham” by which he really meant the sea, to whose infinitude,

            he thought, this enormous rudder matched. Also, as they passed

            the sandhiIls, and bade him look at the meal, meaning the sand, he

            replied that it had been ground small by the hoary tempest of the


Thus, the court’s plan was thwarted, and Feng became convinced of Amleth’s ineptitude.

            A courtier of Feng’s was not yet fully convinced and so devises and has approved a further check of Amleth’s wit.  While Feng is journeying, his courtier hides in Gerutha’s bedchamber hoping to uncover Amleth’s ruse if he should converse sensibly with his mother.  Amleth discovers the eavesdropper while searching his mother’s bedchamber, for he trusted no one, and dispatches the spy.  Then, sword in hand, he apportions the corpse to the swine.  Upon his return to Gerutha’s bedchamber, he begins to admonish his mother for disloyalty to his dead father.  He then learns that his mother, also, is a prisoner in her own kingdom.

            When Feng returns and learns that his man has died, he realizes that Amleth is dangerous and plots to have him slain without offending Gerutha or her father, the fearsome King Rorik.  Feng sends Amleth and two escorts to England with a sealed message for its king.  The message instructs the English king to slay Amleth, but our young prince, discovering the intent of the message, alters the contents, instructing the king to slay the escorts instead and to offer Amleth his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Thus, once more he attempts to thwart Feng.

            ‘But the king was suspicious of the message and, sparing the envoys,

            invites all to a banquet in their honour.  Amleth declines to attend the

            banquet and later, when the envoys question him as to why he had

            abstained, he answered that the bread was flecked with blood and tainted;

            that there was a tang of iron in the liquor; while the meats of the feast

            reeked of the stench of a human carcase, and were infected by a kind

            of smack of the odour of the charnel.  He further said that the king had

            the eyes of a slave, and that the queen had in three ways shown the

            behaviour of a bondmaid.’7b

            The king learned of this through a spy he had stationed outside the guests’ chamber and decided to investigate the weight of the words of Amleth before reacting to them.  He discovers that the bread was made from grain grown on an old battlefield and of lard from hogs that had eaten of the corpse of a robber, thereby gaining the hint of blood and taint; the liquor had been brewed with water from a spring in which sat several rusty swords, thereby gaining the tang of iron (although Saxo states that others relate that Amleth knew the liquor to be sweetened with honey from bees that had fed in the paunch of a dead man); and the king, himself, learns he was the son of a slave, for his mother, when pressed, admits to infidelity towards his father.

            The king was so impressed with Amleth’s intuitive powers that, suspicious or not, he gives Amleth his daughter’s hand and has the envoys executed.

            Amleth feigned grief at the death of his comrades, so the king gave him gold as a form of compensation.  This gold Amleth melts and pours into two sticks of wood hollowed out for this purpose.  He passes a year in England with his wife then expresses a desire to visit his home.

            He returns to Jutland alone, bearing only the gold filled sticks, and arrives just in time to interrupt his own funeral banquet.  Dishevelled and dirty and once more doltish, he stands amongst his enemies, the corrupt court and their usurping king, who are only temporarily shocked.  They ask him where his two comrades are, and he raises his hand and replies that the sticks are they.  The court was once more convinced of Amleth’s foolishness and resumes banqueting while our young prince makes busy plying them with liquor and, when they are drunk and sleeping, he binds them in netting fastened tight by crooks and sets the palace aflame with the courtiers in it.  He then slays his uncle, Feng, with the usurper’s own sword.  (End of Book Three, “Gesta Danorum”.)

            Following the slaughter of the nobles, Amleth aroused the support of the Danes through a lengthy harangue, bringing some to compassion and yet others to tears and through general acclaim was pronounced their new king.  Amleth had three ships and choice warriors and a magnificent shield all prepared for a triumphant return to England, and the shield he had decorated with a mural telling the full story of his victory, through courage and cunning, over the usurper.

            The English king received them with much pomp and ceremony but was greatly perplexed when he learned that Amleth had slain Feng, for he had long ago made a mutual revenge pact with the old usurper, and now realized that his son-in-law must suffer the consequences of a contract which had now matured. The king, however, did not want Amleth’s blood upon his hands, so he concocted a scheme by which to fulfil his contractual obligation.  He knew of a fierce Scottish Queen, Hermutrude, who protected her chastity by slaying all who attempted to woo her and requested that Amleth take her a message proposing a marriage bond between the English and Scottish monarchs.

            Amleth set off with the message and while travelling through the Scottish wilds chanced upon a restful spot by a brook and slept.  A spy, sent out from Hermutrude’s castle, crept up on him, relieved him of his message and shield, and returned to his queen.  The Scottish monarch read the story upon the shield and became infatuated with Amleth’s courage and cleverness.  She altered the message, placing Amleth as the suitor, in place of the English king, and had both shield and message returned to Amleth while he slept.

            When Amleth arrived at the Scottish queen’s castle, not only was he well received, but he was wed. He returned to England with his new wife and a strong Scottish retinue, but was warned of treachery, on the part of the English king, by his first wife. A battle shortly ensued and through the course of the day Amleth lost a goodly number of his troops.  In preparing for the next day’s battle, Amleth had his dead propped upon rocks and stakes and horses and the English troops, approaching with the sunrise, were filled with dread that this host should number as many as before a full day’s slaughter.  They withdrew in confusion and the Scottish and Danish troops attacked and slew the English king in the ensuing panic.  Amleth then plundered England and returned to Jutland with his wives.

            Meanwhile in Jutland, King Rorik had died and his successor, Wiglek, had stripped Amleth’s mother of her wealth, wishing to claim the fiefdom for himself. Amleth, upon his return, did battle with Wiglek and lost, losing both his life and his Scottish wife to the young Danish king.

            ‘So ended Amleth. Had fortune been as kind to him as nature,

            he would have equalled the Gods in glory, and surpassed the

            labours of Hercules by his deeds of prowess.  A plain in Jutland

            is to be found, famous for his name and burial place.’8

            As can be seen from the tale just related, Saxo Grammaticus’ Amleth is the prototype of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but once again it is not the original source of the basic uncle/nephew revenge theme common to both.  Many literary researchers have attempted to trace the earlier origins of ‘Hamlet’; with varying results.  There are numerous views as to the origin of this princely protagonist, some tracing the story back to an actual historical figure of that period and locale, others tracing it back to earlier times and often distant lands.  While we briefly review the most plausible of these theories, we must keep in mind that Saxo must have had much verbal non-clerical information available to him and that very few details of his historical sources remain.

            We know that Saxo had read Valerius Maximus, for the style of the ‘Historica Danica’ is almost identical, as explained by Giovanni Bach in his “The History of Scandinavian Literature”.9  We know that Saxo had relied heavily upon Icelandic and English Sagas and Eddas, for he acknowledges such in his work’s preface.10  We know also that Saxo had relied upon Danish folklore, travelling as far as Norway to hear old folktales and memories.11  The first nine books covering early Danish history, although no longer considered authentic history, provide intriguing reading from a legendary point of view.

            Credible theories as to the origin of Amleth may be classified into several schools of thought.  Sir Israel Gollancz was a devout believer in Irish origins stemming from their legendary King Amhlaide, as covered in his essay “Hamlet in Iceland” of 1898.12  In “The Literary History of Hamlet” of 1923, Kemp Malone attempts to trace the tale back to the legendary King Onela of Geatland.13  Marion Taylor expands on Dr. Detter’s theories of 1892 in “A New Look at the Old Sources of Hamlet” of 1968, wherein the tale is traced to the story of Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic.14

            Gollancz investigates several theories in his “The Sources of Hamlet” of 1926 but remains faithful to his own theory of Irish origin, in which the tale is traced back to Anlaf Curan, king of Ireland and son of Sitric Gale.  There are very few details existing on the career of Anlaf Curan, with Gollancz’s hypothesis resting upon one reference from the “Annals of Ireland by the Four Masters” of 917 (=919), in which Amhlaide, a possible nickname for Anlaf, is credited with the slaying of Niall Glundubh.15  Gollancz then switches the actual killing to the hands of Anlaf’s father, Sitric, in order to parallel the slaying of Koll by Horwendil in the Amleth saga.16  This appears to be the extent of the possible similarities between Amhlaide and Amleth, and although we may accept the hypothesis that Amhlaide is the Irish form of Amlodi which is in turn the Icelandic form of Amleth, we have only Gollancz’s speculations that Amhlaide and Anlaf are indeed the same person.  Based upon existing evidence and probability, the Irish theory should be classified as questionable.

            Kemp Malone attempts to prove that the Hamlet tale, although of Jutish superstructure, had foundations in the Geatish kingdom of southern Sweden.  He expands the tale of King Onela, the usurper, in the epic saga of Beowulf thusly:

            Following King Ongepeow’s demise, his son, and Onela’s brother,   Ohthere, took the throne of Sweden.  When Ohthere died Onela usurped the crown, displacing Ohthere’s two sons, Eanmund and Eadgils, who fled to Geatland for safety.  Onela pursued his nephews and defeated the Geats in battle, slaying their King Heardred, and his nephew Eanmund, while Eadgils escaped, possibly to Denmark. Onela placed Beowulf on the Geatish throne but Beowulf then sided with Eadgils and the two overthrew Onela.  Beowulf was succeeded by Wiglaf, whom Eadgils treated with animosity.17

In this tale Eadgils would correspond to Amleth, Onela to Feng, and Wiglaf, of course, to Wiglek of Saxo’s tale.18

            Once again this evidence is deduced etymologically, for Malone proposes that Amleth, of Amlodi, is derived from ‘mad Ole’, a possible shortened version of Onela.19  He cannot explain how the theme of madness, if the mad Ole conjecture is to be believed at all, was transferred to the Amleth figure, and he also makes many suppositions involving partially destroyed sagas in the writing of this historical sequence.  His evidence is no more concrete than that of Gollancz, yet he manages to discount the Irish theory with arguments that could just as well be used to discount his own.  Once more we have a theory which may be classified as improbable.

            An early legendary figure closely resembling Saxo’s Amleth is to be found in the tale of Lucius Junius Brutus, as related by Titus Livius, Valerius Maximus, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, three great historical authors of the Roman Empire.  They tell a tale of Brutus, who feared for his very life, after his uncle Tarquinius had slain his father (and/or elder brother, depending upon the individual author) and usurped the throne of Rome.  Brutus survived by making pretence of being stupid and foolish, thereby gaining his surname, which means just that, and was kept among the royal court as amusement for Tarquinius’ sons.

            Tarquinius sent his sons to consult the Delphic oracle concerning a plague (or a vision according to some) and sent Brutus along, at their request, as entertainment.  They crossed the sea to Greece, consulted with the oracle and made their offerings to Apollo.  They mocked Brutus for offering the god a cornel stick, which had been hollowed out and filled with gold, the purpose being to make the outer offering worthy of a fool and the inner offering worthy of a god.  The brothers then asked the oracle who was to succeed to the monarchy and received the reply “the one who should first kiss his mother”.  Tarquinius’ sons made a pact to kiss their mother at the same time but Brutus saw an underlying meaning to the statement.  Upon their return to Rome he pretended to stumble, and he fell, face first, into the dirt, kissing the earth as he landed, for he had surmised that the oracle had meant Rome as being the mother of all Romans.

            Later in life, Brutus seized upon an opportunity that arose and cast Tarquinius and his sons out of Rome and its territories.  He founded the Roman Republic and gave freedom from monarchy to all Romans and following a public harangue was appointed as one of their consuls.  He died on the battlefield defending his young republic, at the hands of one of Tarquinius’ sons.20

            There are many parallels between the tales of Amleth and Brutus, such as feigned madness for survival, an uncle/nephew vengeance theme, gold filled sticks, trips across seas, skill in the use of double meanings in both words and deeds and finally death in battle.  The stories are so similar, in fact, that one wonders if Saxo did not rely upon his access to the works of Valerius Maximus and Livius Titus in recreating a legendary figure which he had found in their works.  This dubbing of histories is quite common in ancient works; Geoffrey of Monmouth, for instance, used biblical tales for his “History of the Kings of Britain”,22 but in the case of Amleth it is somewhat unlikely, as Saxo is noted for being a very diligent researcher and undoubtedly had much folklore at hand with which to weave his tales.  As Sir Oliver Elton states, in his translation of Saxo’s work, “He will possibly on occasion mutilate a story by omissions of what he considers too heathen or too trivial; but though this be a failing in him, he never commits the greater, the unforgiven fault of adding to or doctoring the stories before him.”23

            There is much evidence indicating that the tale of Amleth, as laid out by Saxo, was present in the form of edda or song in Danish folklore long before Saxo took up pen to write his history.  Amleth’s father is murdered in Saxo’s tale, while it is an elder brother who is dispatched in both Maximus and Livy’s tales. Dionysius is the only writer who includes both a father and an elder brother, and Saxo is less familiar with his work.24

            There is also evidence that the name Amlodi (Amleth) was famous centuries prior to Saxo as indicated by a reference to it in a verse by tenth century poet-adventurer Snaebiorn, that runs: “yea, they have for ages past been grinding at Amlodi’s meal-bin.”  But although this example is the only literary reference to Amlodi prior to Saxo, it is known from runes that Amlodi was a term for dull or foolish at the time of Snaebiorn, and that, by early in the thirteenth century, the English had the word Amlaze, which corresponded to it in meaning, and the Irish Amhlaid may also, as Gollancz argued, have had a similar meaning.25  The existence of a folk tale could help explain the existence of the word Amlodi in the middle Scandinavian language when it had not existed in the old language form; only a very popular folk tale could have spread the term Amlodi to other countries in various native forms while retaining the same meaning; only a folk tale could explain Snaebiorn’s use of the word as a character instead of its usual form as a description.  And one must not overlook the similarities between Snaebiorn’s meal-bin and Amleth’s meal, meaning the sand.26

            Further evidence of a folklore source of Amleth may be found in Saxo’s writing itself.  When Amleth’s sagacity is tested by the English king, he finds that the liquor has been brewed of water from a spring containing rusty swords, but Saxo states that others claim the taint was from bees that had eaten from the paunch of a dead man, indicating that Saxo may have had two or more versions of the tale in front of him.27  Another passage, “FiaIIer, the governor of Skane, he drove into exile; and the tale is, that Fialler retired to a spot caIIed Undensakre, which is unknown to our peoples,” seems to imply that the folklore tale stated places with which Saxo was unfamiliar.  Undensakre may be loosely translated as Odin’s acre,28 which is very likely Byzantium, the fabled house of Odin, an integral part of our next theory.

            There can be little doubt that Amleth is a derivative of the older legendary figure of Brutus, but evidence shows us that this Amleth was not suddenly torn from the pages of the past by a chronicler looking for exciting tales.  How then did the tale of Brutus travel from Rome to Scandinavia and how did it become ‘Nordicized’? How did it traverse a continent and span two millenia?29

            Marion A. Taylor’s “A New Look at the Old Sources of Hamlet”, published in the Netherlands in 1968, covers in detail the theory of Varangian (Viking) transmission of Greco-Roman legends in the ninth and tenth centuries.  Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that Viking rovers and traders had penetrated the waterways of Russia (the Dvina, Dnieper, and Volga Rivers) to the Black and Caspian Seas as early as 825. The Vikings are even recorded as having attacked Constantinople in 860, and they later formed the backbone of the famed Varangian Guard of Byzantium.30

            It would seem reasonable to assume that Byzantium, the last vestige of the Roman Empire, would become a compendium of Greco-Roman legend. This would explain, as Taylor points out, the Grecian and Arabic tales which are woven into the basic Brutus framework of Saxo’s Amleth tale.

            The sagacity of Amleth in revealing the low birth of the king of England may be traced to the Byzantine tale of Ptochleon, who also intuitively determined a king’s low birth.  The tale of Ptochleon may then be further traced to a tale of the Greek King Heraklios, and yet further to an Arabian source.31  The altering of letters to gain a reprieve from a death sentence is also very oriental and the shield and message theft and replacement is very close in theme to the story of King Florian of Constantinople.32

            If the Byzantine tales were transmitted to Scandinavia by the Varangians, they were no doubt passed on by word of mouth, in song and saga, thereby gaining their respective Scandinavian superstructures.  It is quite probable that the Byzantine tales were so ‘Nordicized’ by the time of Saxo Grammaticus that he may have considered them to be true Danish folklore.  But how would Roman tales become localized in Danish history in the first place?  The localization of legend would be greatly facilitated if a person, or focal point, existed around whom the tales could be spun.  Marion Taylor claims that just such a person existed in Rorik the Dane, king of Jutland.  King Rorik, Taylor states, was such a powerful figure that “He collected legends about him the way Mt. Fuji and Mt. Everest collect clouds about them.”33  Taylor maintains that although Gerutha, Horwendil, and Amleth were most likely mythical, Rorik the Dane was real and was also the infamous Rurik, the founder of Russia.34

            Vernadsky, in his “History of Russia” tells us that the “identification of Riurrik of Novgorod as Roric of Jutland was first suggested by Friedrich Kruse in 1836, ….”35  He believes that the arguments put forth by N.T. Beliaev in 1926 prove this supposition to be valid.  However, this connection has been refuted by many historians.  This is a somewhat moot point though as far as we are concerned, for if Saxo believed that the Varangian/Byzantine legends surrounding Rurik of Novgorod were, in actuality, folklore about Rorik the Dane, he would have considered the two to be the same man.  He had, as we have pointed out, much folklore collected, most of it undated, and if a tale surrounding Rurik could be dated through an existing King Rorik, he would have undoubtedly accommodated any inconsistencies in Rorik’s own history.  But if the two men were truly separate individuals, would this not diminish Taylor’s claim that Rorik collected legends about him?  Not necessarily.  The fact is that Rorik and Rurik may have each collected their own legends about them and Saxo may have unwittingly combined the two kings into one person himself.  But who were these two kings?

            Rorik the Dane (c.800 – 870) was a king of Jutland and Friesland who roved in a true Viking sense, attacking Europe and England and earning a spot in real history through references to him in undisputable Frankish annals.36  Rurik of Novgorod was a Norseman called in to rule over Novgorod in c.856 as recorded in The Chronicle of Nestor, written by a Russian monk in the eleventh century.37  Rurik put his new kingdom into order and, according to the chronicle, died in c.879.  He left a young son Igor (Ingvar), but a kinsman, Oleg (Ole), ruled in Novgorod after Rurik’s death.  Oleg ruled until his legendary death by snakebite and Igor then regained his father’s crown in 912. In 945 he was killed in battle while fighting the Drevelians.38

            The hotly debated Chronicle of Nestor tells us a tale of a young prince who had his rightful throne usurped by a kinsman, a prince who regained his throne after the mythical death of the usurper, a prince who died in battle fighting for his country.  Was this prince, Igor, the focal point for the collecting of the legendary tales of Amleth?  Or, like William Shakespeare years later, did a young Varangian skald help himself to legends and stories he was exposed to, perhaps in Byzantium, and create fantastic tales that propelled him to the forefront of his contemporaries….the poets and skalds of Scandinavia.  Was this prince Bragi the Old?


Or was Rurik of Novgorod also Bragi the Old? The Russian monk Nestor asserts that Rus’ was founded by three brothers, Rurik, Sineus and Truvor, but the Danish names in Book 5 of Saxo’s work are Erik, Sigfrodi (King Frodi) and Roller, three brothers from Denmark and Norway.  If we place Book 5 circa 800 AD: King Frodi marries Princess Hanund of the Huns to establish a southern trade route to compete with Ragnar Lothbrok’s Nor’Way trade route to Baghdad.  Frodi sends Hanund back to Khazaria in disgrace when she fools around on him but he doesn’t know that she is pregnant.  Her father King Hunn, Kagan Bek of the Khazars, is understandably angry.  He heads north with a great army and the Danes go east to meet him, but Hunn’s army is so large it perishes of the plague (not Covid).  Prince Erik remains in Novgorod while Kings Frodi and Roller go back to their realms and return with fresh Rus’ troops.  Then they wrest Kiev from the rule of King Olmar of the Slavs and they defeat the Khazars in the famous Battle of the Goths and Huns for control of the Nor’Way and Dan’way trade routes to Baghdad and Constantinople.  The Khazars of course correspond to the Huns, as one of their seven tribes are, indeed, the Huns, with the Goths of course being the Scandinavians, Gotland being located between Denmark, Norway and Sweden.  King Frodi is a king by birth and becomes a kagan by marriage, so he could be called either when it suited him. His foremost man and brother-in-law, Erik ‘Desertis’ Ragnarson, had the byname ‘Desertis’ or ‘Shrewd Spoken’, as Saxo calls him, which corresponds to ‘Bragi’, all three terms meaning eloquent in speech, so, perhaps this Erik was Rurik in Rus’ and the Amleth tale gravitated about him like clouds about Kilimanjaro.

In 839 AD, a delegation arrived in Constantinople and they were Varangians representing the Kagan of the Rus’, who was again under attack by the Khazars. Was their leader Prince Erik of Novgorod representing King/Kagan Frodi of Kiev? They could not return to Rus’ because the Khazars had sent a Magyar horde to block their way so, the Roman Emperor Theophilus gave Erik a letter to show the German Emperor in Ingleheim allowing them safe passage north. The letter was sealed, but Erik prized it open and learned that Theophilus had instead instructed Emperor Otto to execute them. Erik changed the letter to allow them safe passage and then resealed it but Otto wasn’t fooled and he recognized the Varangians as Swedes and locked them up. The Bishop of Bertiniani who recorded this event at the time doesn’t say what happened to the delegation, but they escaped and made their way north to Denmark and then Skane and then Sweden, where Prince Erik slew King Alrek of Sweden in battle. He became king of Sweden and Alrek’s son, Prince Bjorn, survived the Dano-Norse occupation by playing a mad fool and he would sit on his father’s barrow and fly kites and stone birds that flew about. King Erik thought the young man quite harmless, but when the king was injured in a duel, Prince Bjorn of the Barrows took back control of the country.

When Erik came out of his coma, King Bjorn ordered him to be beheaded for having slain his father. Prince Erik wrote a fine drapa or poem to his wife in Gardariki and called it Princess Gunwar’s Song, and when he recited it to the Swedish court, King Bjorn was so impressed by it that he told Erik if he wrote as fine a drapa for him as he had for his wife, he would spare him and even support him in his war against the Khazars. In chapter 59 of Egil’s Saga, Prince Arinbjorn tells Egil “That’s what my kinsman Bragi the Old did when he had to face the anger of King Bjorn of Sweden. He made a drapa of twenty stanzas overnight and that’s what saved his head.” So, apparently Prince Erik took King Bjorn up on his offer and wrote ‘The Head Ransom Song’ as well and saved his head and led an army south and defeated the Khazars in The Battle of the Goths and Huns as told in Book 5 of Saxo’s Danish History.

It turns out that King Bjorn made himself a very good deal with Prince Erik, for that is all we know about the Swedish king, but, by playing the part of fool to survive until he could defeat Prince Erik’s usurpation of his throne, was King Bjorn of the Barrows the original Amleth? Was the Emperor’s letter to become an integral part of the Amleth tale, perhaps as a suspicious letter to the king of England? Such is the way that the Amleth tale may have gravitated about a Prince of Denmark. And Saxo’s original Amleth tale just happens to be in Books 3 and 4 of his Danish History, immediately before the story of Erik ‘Desertis’ Ragnarson, the possible son of Ragnar Lothbrok, for his mother in Book 5 is Kraka, the byname of Princess Aslaug, Ragnar Lothbrok’s wife. I think this theory warrants further investigation…



1  Cay Dollerup,  Denmark, Hamlet and Shakespeare, (Salzburg: Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 1975), chronological and bibliographical reference acknowledged.

2  Frank Hubbard,  The First Quarto Edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet,  (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1920) pp.19-36.

3  Hubbard, pp.4-5.

4  Kenneth Muir,  Shakespeare’s Sources, (n.p.: Methuen, 1957), pp.110-122.

5  Frank Hook,  The French Bandello,  (Columbia, University of Missouri, 1948), pp.9-20.

6  Giovanni Bach,  The History of Scandinavian Literature, trans. Fredrika Blankner (n.p.: Dial Press, 1938), pp.161-163.

7a  Oliver Elton,  The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, (n.p.: The Folklore Society, 1893), p.109.

7b  Elton, pp.113-14.

7c  Elton, pp.104-30, freely adapted.

8  Elton, p.130.

9  Bach, p.163.

10  Elton, p.8.

11  Elton, p.c.

12  Israel Gollancz,  The Sources of Hamlet, (London: Oxford University Press, 1926), p.51.

13  Kemp Malone,  The Literary History of Hamlet, (New York: Haskell House, 1964), pp.59-76.

14  Marion Taylor,  A New Look at the Old Sources of Hamlet, (The Hague: Mouton, 1968), pp.25-32.

15  Gollancz, p.49.

16  Gollancz, p.52.

17  Malone, pp.59-76.

18  Malone, general reference.

19  Malone, p.59.

20  Dyonisius,  Roman Antiquities, trans. Earnest Cary, (Harvard: Harvard University Press, n.d.), pp.406-09, freely adapted.

See also Livius Titus, The History of Rome, for same story.

21  Elton, p.406.

22  Communication w/ Prof. N. Parker-Jervis, 1982.

23  Elton, p.cxvi.

24  Elton, p.407.

25  Malone, pp.52-58.

26  Elton, p.402.

27  Elton, p.401.

28  Elton, p.129n.  While Elton translates Undensakre as being the land of the undead, I believe it means Odin’s Acre because defeated warriors often left for service in Varangia or Byzantium, the fabled house of Odin.  I am sure that other researchers may have drawn this same conclusion.

20  A close analysis of the possibility of British transmission of Roman legend is beyond the scope of this essay, but one must keep in mind that the Romans occupied Britain from circa 100 AD to circa 400 AD.

30  Taylor, pp.25-32.

31  Taylor, p.28.

32  Taylor, p.29.

33  Taylor, p.45.

34  Taylor, pp.33-46.

35  George Vernadsky,  A History of Russia Volume I, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943), p.337.

36  Vernadsky, p.365.

37  Taylor, p.38.

38  Vernadsky, p.366.


Bach, Giovanni.  The History of Scandinavian Literature.  Trans. Fredrika Blankner.  n.p.: Dial Press, 1938.

Dionysius of Halicarnasis.  Roman Antiquities.  Trans. Earnest Cary.  Harvard: Harvard University Press, n.d.

Dollerup, Cay.  Denmark, Hamlet and Shakespeare.  Salzburg: Salzburg Studies in English Literature, 1975.

Elton, Sir Oliver.  The First Nine Books of the Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus.  n.p.: The Folklore Society, 1893.

Gollancz, Sir Israel.  The Sources of Hamlet.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926.

Hook, Frank.  The French Bandello.  Columbia: University of Missouri, 1948.

Hubbard, Frank.  The First Quarto Edition of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1920.

Malone, Kemp.  The Literary History of Hamlet.  New York: Haskell House, 1964.

Muir, Kenneth.  Shakespeare’s Sources.  n.p.: Methuen, 1957.

Taylor, Marion.  A New Look at the Old Sources of Hamlet.  The Hague: Mouton, 1968.

Vernadsky, George.  A History of Russia Volume I.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1943.