Poetic Edda

Atlakvitha En Grönlenzka

About this Edition

  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

The Greenland Lay of Atli

Introductory Note

There are two Atli poems in the Codex Regius, the Atlakvitha (Lay of Atli) and the Atlamol (Ballad of Atli). The poems are not preserved or quoted in any other old manuscript, but they were extensively used by the compilers of the Volsungasaga. In the manuscript superscription to each of these poems appears the word “Greenland,” which has given rise to a large amount of argument. The scribe was by no means infallible, and in this case his statement proves no more than that in the period round 1300 there was a tradition that these two poems originated in the Greenland settlement.

The two Atli poems deal with substantially the same material: the visit of the sons of Gjuki to Atli’s court, their deaths, and the subsequent revenge of their sister, Guthrun, Atli’s wife, on her husband. The shorter of the two, the Atlakvitha, tells the story with little elaboration; the Atlamol, with about the same narrative basis, adds many details, some of them apparently of the poet’s invention, and with a romantic, not to say sentimental, quality quite lacking in the Atlakvitha. Both poems are sharply distinguished from the rest of the collection by their metrical form, which is the Malahattr (used irregularly also in the Harbarthsljoth), employed consistently and smoothly in the Atlamol, and with a considerable mixture of what appear to be Fornyrthislag lines (cf. Introduction) in the Atlakvitha.

It is altogether probable that both poems belong to the eleventh century, the shorter Atlakvitha being generally dated from the first quarter thereof, and the longer Atlamol some fifty years or more later. In each case the poet was apparently a Christian; in the Atlamol (stanza 82) Guthrun expresses her readiness to die and “go into another light,” and in the Atlakvitha there is frequent use of mythological names (e.g., Valhall, Hlithskjolf) with an evident lack of understanding of their relation to the older gods. These facts fit the theory of a Greenland origin exceedingly well, for the Greenland settlement grew rapidly after the first explorations of Eirik the Red, which were in 982–985, and its most flourishing period was in the eleventh century. The internal evidence, particularly in the case of the Atlamol, points likewise to an origin remote from Iceland, Norway, and the “Western Isles”; and the two poems are sufficiently alike so that, despite the efforts of Finnur Jonsson and others to separate them, assigning one to Greenland and the other to Norway or else where, it seems probable that the manuscript statement is correct in both instances, and that the two Atli poems did actually originate in Greenland. An interesting account of this Greenland settlement is given in William Hovgaard’s Voyages of the Norsemen to America, published by the American-Scandinavian Foundation in 1914, and an extraordinarily vivid picture of the sufferings of the early settlers appears in Maurice Hewlett’s Thorgils, taken from the Floamannasaga.

From the standpoint of narrative material there is little that is distinctively Norse in either the Atlakvitha or the Atlamol. The story is the one outlined in the prose Drap Niflunga (largely based on these two poems), representing almost exclusively the southern blending of the Attila and Burgundian legends (cf. introductory note to Gripisspo). In the Atlakvitha, indeed, the word “Burgundians” is actually used. Brynhild is not mentioned in either poem; Sigurth’s name appears but once, in the Atlamol. Thus the material goes directly back to its South-Germanic origins, with little of the Northern making-over which resulted in such extensive changes in most parts of the Sigurth story. The general atmosphere, on the other hand, particularly in the Atlamol, is essentially Norse.

As has been said, the Atlakvitha is metrically in a chaotic state, the normal Malahattr lines being frequently interspersed with lines and even stanzas which apparently are of the older Fornyrthislag type. How much of this confusion is due to faulty transmission is uncertain, but it has been suggested that the composer of the Atlakvitha made over in Malahattr an older Atli poem in Fornyrthislag, and this suggestion has much to recommend it. That he worked on the basis of an older poem is, indeed, almost certain, for in oral prose tradition a far larger number of distinctively Norse traits would unquestionably have crept in than are found in the material of the Atlakvitha. As for the Atlamol, here again the poet seems to have used an older poem as his basis, possibly the Atlakvitha itself, although in that case he must have had other material as well, for there are frequent divergences in such matters as proper names. The translation of the Atlakvitha is rendered peculiarly difficult by the irregularity of the metre, by the evident faultiness of the transmission, and above all by the exceptionally large number of words found nowhere else in Old Norse, involving much guesswork as to their meanings. The notes do not attempt to indicate all the varying suggestions made by editors and commentators as to the reconstruction of defective stanzas and the probable meanings of obscure passages; in cases which are purely or largely guesswork the notes merely point out the uncertainty without cataloguing the proposed solutions.

Guthrun, Gjuki’s daughter, avenged her brothers, as has become well known. She slew first Atli’s sons, and thereafter she slew Atli, and burned the hall with his whole company. Concerning this was the following poem made:[1]

Atli sent of old to Gunnar
A keen-witted rider, Knefröth did men call him;
To Gjuki’s home came he and to Gunnar’s dwelling,
With benches round the hearth, and to the beer so sweet.

Then the followers, hiding their falseness, all drank
Their wine in the war-hall, of the Huns’ wrath wary;
And Knefröth spake loudly, his words were crafty,
The hero from the south, on the high bench sitting:

“Now Atli has sent me his errand to ride,
On my bit-champing steed through Myrkwood the secret,
To bid You, Gunnar, to his benches to come,
With helms round the hearth, and Atli’s home seek.

“Shields shall ye choose there, and shafts made of ash-wood,
Gold-adorned helmets, and slaves out of Hunland,
Silver-gilt saddle-cloths, shirts of bright scarlet,
With lances and spears too, and bit-champing steeds.

“The field shall be given you of wide Gnitaheith,
With loud-ringing lances, and stems gold-o’er-laid,
Treasures full huge, and the home of Danp,
And the mighty forest that Myrkwood is called.”

His head turned Gunnar, and to Hogni he said:
“What thy counsel, young hero, when such things we hear?
No gold do I know on Gnitaheith lying
So fair that other its equal we have not.

“We have seven halls, each of swords is full,
(And all of gold is the hilt of each;)
My steed is the swiftest, my sword is sharpest,
My bows adorn benches, my byrnies are golden,
My helm is the brightest that came from Kjar’s hall,
(Mine own is better than all the Huns’ treasure.)”

Hogni spake:
“What seeks she to say, that she sends us a ring,
Woven with a wolf’s hair? methinks it gives warning;
In the red ring a hair of the heath-dweller found I,
Wolf-like shall our road be if we ride on this journey.”

Not eager were his comrades, nor the men of his kin,
The wise nor the wary, nor the warriors bold.
But Gunnar spake forth as befitted a king,
Noble in the beer-hall, and bitter his scorn:

“Stand forth now, Fjornir! and hither on the floor
The beakers all golden shalt thou bring to the warriors.
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .

“The wolves then shall rule the wealth of the Niflungs,
Wolves aged and grey-hued, if Gunnar is lost,
And black-coated bears with rending teeth bite,
And make glad the dogs, if Gunnar returns not.”

A following gallant fared forth with the ruler,
Yet they wept as their home with the hero they left;
And the little heir of Hogni called loudly:
“Go safe now, ye wise ones, wherever ye will!”

Then let the bold heroes their bit-champing horses
On the mountains gallop, and through Myrkwood the secret;
All Hunland was shaken where the hard-souled ones rode,
On the whip-fearers fared they through fields that were green.

Then they saw Atli’s halls, and his watch-towers high,
On the walls so lofty stood the warriors of Buthli;
The hall of the southrons with seats was surrounded,
With targets bound and shields full bright.

Mid weapons and lances did Atli his wine
In the war-hall drink, without were his watchmen,
For Gunnar they waited, if forth he should go,
With their ringing spears they would fight with the ruler.

This their sister saw, as soon as her brothers
Had entered the hall,— little ale had she drunk:
“Betrayed art thou, Gunnar! what guard hast thou, hero,
’Gainst the plots of the Huns? from the hall flee swiftly!

“Brother, ’twere far better to have come in byrnie,
With thy household helmed, to see Atli’s home,
And to sit in the saddle all day ’neath the sun,
(That the sword-norns might weep for the death-pale warriors,
And the Hunnish shield-maids might shun not the sword,)
And send Atli himself to the den of the snakes;
(Now the den of the snakes for thee is destined.

Gunnar spake:
. . . . . . . .
“Too late is it, sister, to summon the Niflungs,
Long is it to come to the throng of our comrades,
The heroes gallant, from the hills of the Rhine.”

* * * * * *

Then Gunnar they seized, and they set him in chains,
The Burgundians’ king, and fast they bound him.

Hogni slew seven with sword so keen,
And an eighth he flung in the fire hot;
A hero should fight with his foemen thus,
As Hogni strove in Gunnar’s behalf.

. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
The leader they asked if his life he fain
With gold would buy, the king of the Goths.

Gunnar spake:
“First the heart of Hogni shall ye lay in my hands,
All bloody from the breast of the bold one cut
With ke-en-biting sword, from the son of the king.”

. . . . . . . .
They cut out the heart from the breast of Hjalli,
On a platter they bore it, and brought it to Gunnar.

Then Gunnar spake forth, the lord of the folk:
“Here have I the heart of Hjalli the craven,
Unlike to the heart of Hogni the valiant,
For it trembles still as it stands on the platter;
Twice more did it tremble in the breast of the man.

Then Hogni laughed when they cut out the heart
Of the living helm-hammerer; tears he had not.
. . . . . . . .
On a platter they bore it, and brought it to Gunnar.

Then Gunnar spake forth, the spear of the Niflungs:
“Here have I the heart of Hogni the valiant,
Unlike to the heart of Hjalli the craven,
Little it trembles as it lies on the platter,
Still less did it tremble when it lay in his breast.

“So distant, Atli, from all men’s eyes,
Shalt thou be as thou . . . . . . . .from the gold.
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .

“To no one save me is the secret known
Of the Niflungs’ hoard, now Hogni is dead;
Of old there were two, while we twain were alive,
Now is none but I, for I only am living.

“The swift Rhine shall hold the strife-gold of heroes,
That once was the gods’, the wealth of the Niflungs,
In the depths of the waters the death-rings shall glitter,
And not shine on the hands of the Hunnish men.”

Atli spake:
“Ye shall bring the wagon, for now is he bound.”[28]

* * * * * *

On the long-maned Glaum rode Atli the great,
About him were warriors . . . . . . . .
But Guthrun, akin to the gods of slaughter,
Yielded not to her tears in the hall of tumult.

Guthrun spake:
“It shall go with thee, Atli, as with Gunnar thou heldest
The oaths ofttimes sworn, and of old made firm,
By the sun in the south, by Sigtyr’s mountain,
By the horse of the rest-bed, and the ring of Ull.”

Then the champer of bits drew the chieftain great,
The gold-guarder, down to the place of death.
. . . . . . . .

By the warriors’ host was the living hero
Cast in the den where crawling about
Within were serpents, but soon did Gunnar
With his hand in wrath on the harp-strings smite;
The strings resounded,— so shall a hero,
A ring-breaker, gold from his enemies guard.

Then Atli rode on his earth-treading steed,
Seeking his home, from the slaughter-place;
There was clatter of hoofs of the steeds in the court,
And the clashing of arms as they came from the field.

Out then came Guthrun to meeting with Atli,
With a golden beaker as gift to the monarch:
“Thou mayst eat now, chieftain, within thy dwelling,
Blithely with Guthrun young beasts fresh slaughtered.”

The wine-heavy ale-cups of Atli resounded,
When there in the hall the Hunnish youths clamored,
And the warriors bearded, the brave ones, entered.

Then in came the shining one, . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . and drink she bore them;
Unwilling and bitter brought she food to the warrior,
Till in scorn to the white-faced Atli did she speak:

“Thou giver of swords, of thy sons the hearts
All heavy with blood in honey thou hast eaten;
Thou shalt stomach, thou hero, the flesh of the slain,
To eat at thy feast, and to send to thy followers.

“Thou shalt never call to thy knees again
Erp or Eitil, when merry with ale;
Thou shalt never see in their seats again
The sharers of gold their lances shaping,
(Clipping the manes or minding their steeds.)”

There was clamor on the benches, and the cry of men,
The clashing of weapons, and weeping of the Huns,
Save for Guthrun only, she wept not ever
For her bear-fierce brothers, or the boys so dear,
So young and so unhappy, whom with Atli she had.

Gold did she scatter, the swan-white one,
And rings of red gold to the followers gave she;
The fate she let grow, and the shining wealth go,
Nor spared she the treasure of the temple itself.

Unwise then was Atli, he had drunk to wildness,
No weapon did he have, and of Guthrun bewared not;
Oft their play was better when both in gladness
Each other embraced among princes all.

With her sword she gave blood for the bed to drink,
With her death-dealing hand, and the hounds she loosed,
The thralls she awakened, and a firebrand threw
In the door of the hall; so vengeance she had.

To the flames she gave all who yet were within,
And from Myrkheim had come from the murder of Gunnar;
The timbers old fell, the temple was in flames,
The dwelling of the Buthlungs, and the shield-maids burned,
They were slain in the house, in the hot flames they sank.

Now the tale is all told, nor in later time
Will a woman in byrnie avenge so her brothers;
The fair one to three of the kings of the folk
Brought the doom of death ere herself she died.

Still more is told in the Greenland ballad of Atli.