The Greenland Ballad of Atli
Many of the chief facts regarding the Atlamol, which follows the Atlakvitha in the Codex Regius, are outlined in the introductory note to the earlier Atli lay. That the superscription in the manuscript is correct, and that the poem was actually composed in Greenland, is generally accepted; the specific reference to polar bears (stanza 17), and the general color of the entire poem make this origin exceedingly likely. Most critics, again, agree in dating the poem nearer 1100 than 1050. As to its state of preservation there is some dispute, but, barring one or two possible gaps of some importance, and the usual number of passages in which the interpolation or omission of one or two lines may be suspected, the Atlamol has clearly come down to us in fairly good shape.
Throughout the poem the epic quality of the story itself is overshadowed by the romantically sentimental tendencies of the poet, and by his desire to adapt the narrative to the understanding of his fellow-Greenlanders. The substance of the poem is the same as that of the Atlakvitha; it tells of Atli’s message to the sons of Gjuki, their journey to Atli’s home, the slaying of Hogni and Gunnar, Guthrun’s bitterness over the death of her brothers, and her bloody revenge on Atli. Thus in its bare out line the Atlamol represents simply the Frankish blending of the legends of the slaughter of the Burgundians and the death of Attila (cf. Gripisspo, introductory note). But here the resemblance ends. The poet has added characters, apparently of his own creation, for the sake of episodes which would appeal to both the men and the women of the Greenland settlement. Sea voyages take the place of journeys by land; Atli is reproached, not for cowardice in battle, but for weakness at the Thing or great council. The additions made by the poet are responsible for the Atlamol’s being the longest of all the heroic poems in the Eddic collection, and they give it a kind of emotional vivid ness, but it has little of the compressed intensity of the older poems. Its greatest interest lies in its demonstration of the manner in which a story brought to the North from the South Germanic lands could be adapted to the understanding and tastes of its eleventh century hearers without any material change of the basic narrative.
In what form or forms the story of the Gjukungs and Atli reached the Greenland poet cannot be determined, but it seems likely that he was familiar with older poems on the subject, and possibly with the Atlakvitha itself. That the details which are peculiar to the Atlamol, such as the figures of Kostbera and Glaumvor, existed in earlier tradition seems doubtful, but the son of Hogni, who aids Guthrun in the slaying of Atli, appears, though under another name, in other late versions of the story, and it is impossible to say just how much the poet relied on his own imagination and how far he found suggestions and hints in the prose or verse stories of Atli with which he was familiar.
The poem is in Malahattr (cf. Introduction) throughout, the verse being far more regular than in the Atlakvitha. The compilers of the Volsungasaga evidently knew it in very much the form in which we now have it, for in the main it is paraphrased with great fidelity.
There are many who know how of old did men1
In counsel gather; little good did they get;
In secret they plotted, it was sore for them later,
And for Gjuki’s sons, whose trust they deceived.
Fate grew for the princes, to death they were given;2
Ill counsel was Atli’s, though keenness he had;
He felled his staunch bulwark, his own sorrow fashioned,
Soon a message he sent that his kinsmen should seek him.
Wise was the woman, she fain would use wisdom,3
She saw well what meant all they said in secret;
From her heart it was hid how help she might render,
The sea they should sail, while herself she should go not.
Runes did she fashion, but false Vingi made them,4
The speeder of hatred, ere to give them he sought;
Then soon fared the warriors whom Atli had sent,
And to Limafjord came, to the home of the kings.
They were kindly with ale, and fires they kindled,5
They thought not of craft from the guests who had come;
The gifts did they take that the noble one gave them,
On the pillars they hung them, no fear did they harbor.
Forth did Kostbera, wife of Hogni, then come,6
Full kindly she was, and she welcomed them both;
And glad too was Glaumvor, the wife of Gunnar,
She knew well to care for the needs of the guests.
Then Hogni they asked if more eager he were,7
Full clear was the guile, if on guard they had been;
Then Gunnar made promise, if Hogni would go,
And Hogni made answer as the other counseled.
Then the famed ones brought mead, and fair was the feast,
Full many were the horns, till the men had drunk deep;
. . . . . . . .
Then the mates made ready their beds for resting.
Wise was Kostbera, and cunning in rune-craft,8
The letters would she read by the light of the fire;
But full quickly her tongue to her palate clave,
So strange did they seem that their meaning she saw not.
Full soon then his bed came Hogni to seek,9
. . . . . . . .
The clear-souled one dreamed, and her dream she kept not,
To the warrior the wise one spake when she wakened:
“Thou wouldst go hence, Hogni, but heed my counsel,—10
Known to few are the runes,— and put off thy faring;
I have read now the runes that thy sister wrote,
And this time the bright one did not bid thee to come.
“Full much do I wonder, nor well can I see,11
Why the woman wise so wildly hath written;
But to me it seems that the meaning beneath
Is that both shall be slain if soon ye shall go.
But one rune she missed, or else others have marred it.”
“All women are fearful; not so do I feel,12
Ill I seek not to find till I soon must avenge it;
The king now will give us the glow-ruddy gold;
I never shall fear, though of dangers I know.”
“In danger ye fare, if forth ye go thither,13
No welcoming friendly this time shall ye find;
For I dreamed now, Hogni, and nought will I hide,
Full evil thy faring, if rightly I fear.
“Thy bed-covering saw I in the flames burning,14
And the fire burst high through the walls of my home.”
“Yon garment of linen lies little of worth,
It will soon be burned, so thou sawest the bed-cover.”
“A bear saw I enter, the pillars he broke,15
And he brandished his claws so that craven we were;
With his mouth seized he many, and nought was our might,
And loud was the tumult, not little it was.”
“Now a storm is brewing, and wild it grows swiftly,16
A dream of an ice-bear means a gale from the east.”
“An eagle I saw flying from the end through the house,17
Our fate must be bad, for with blood he sprinkled us;
. . . . . . . .
From the evil I fear that ’twas Atli’s spirit.”
“They will slaughter soon, and so blood do we see,18
Oft oxen it means when of eagles one dreams;
True is Atli’s heart, whatever thou dreamest.”
Then silent they were, and nought further they said.
The high-born ones wakened, and like speech they had,19
Then did Glaumvor tell how in terror she dreamed,
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . Gunnar two roads they should go.
“A gallows saw I ready, thou didst go to thy hanging,20
Thy flesh serpents ate, and yet living I found thee;
. . . . . . . .
The gods’ doom descended; now say what it boded.”
* * * * * *
“A sword drawn bloody from thy garments I saw,—
Such a dream is hard o a husband to tell,—
A spear stood, methought, through thy body thrust,
And at head and feet the wolves were howling.”
“The hounds are running, loud their barking is heard,21
Oft hounds’ clamor follows the flying of spears.”
“A river the length of the hall saw I run,22
Full swiftly it roared, o’er the benches it swept;
O’er the feet did it break of ye brothers twain,
The water would yield not; some meaning there was.”
* * * * * *
“I dreamed that by night came dead women hither,23
Sad were their garments, and thee were they seeking;
They bade thee come swiftly forth to their benches,
And nothing, methinks, could the Norns avail thee.”
“Too late is thy speaking, for so is it settled24
From the faring I turn not, the going is fixed,
Though likely it is that our lives shall be short.”
Then bright shone the morning, the men all were ready,25
They said, and yet each would the other hold back;
Five were the warriors, and their followers all
But twice as many,— their minds knew not wisdom.
Snævar and Solar, they were sons of Hogni,26
Orkning was he called who came with the others,
Blithe was the shield-tree, the brother of Kostbera;
The fair-decked ones followed, till the fjord divided them,
Full hard did they plead, but the others would hear not.
Then did Glaumvor speak forth, the wife of Gunnar,
To Vingi she said that which wise to her seemed:
“I know not if well thou requitest our welcome,
Full ill was thy coming if evil shall follow.”
Then did Vingi swear, and full glib was his speech,27
. . . . . . . .
“May giants now take me if lies I have told ye,
And the gallows if hostile thought did I have.”
Then did Bera speak forth, and fair was her thought,28
. . . . . . . .
“May ye sail now happy, and victory have,
To fare as I bid ye, may nought your way bar.”
Then Hogni made answer,— dear held he his kin,-29
“Take courage, ye wise ones, whatsoever may come;
Though many may speak, yet is evil oft mighty,
And words avail little to lead one homeward.”
They tenderly looked till each turned on his way,30
Then with changing fate were their farings divided.
Full stoutly they rowed, and the keel clove asunder,31
Their backs strained at the oars, and their strength was fierce;
The oar-loops were burst, the thole-pins, were broken,
Nor the ship made they fast ere from her they fared.
Not long was it after— the end must I tell—32
That the home they beheld that Buthli once had;
Loud the gates resounded when Hogni smote them;
Vingi spake then a word that were better unsaid:
“Go ye far from the house, for false is its entrance,33
Soon shall I burn you, ye are swiftly smitten;
I bade ye come fairly, but falseness was under,
Now bide ye afar while your gallows I fashion.”
Then Hogni made answer, his heart yielded little,34
And nought did he fear that his fate held in store:
“Seek not to affright us, thou shalt seldom succeed;
If thy words are more, then the worse grows thy fate.”
Then Vingi did they smite, and they sent him to hell,35
With their axes they clove him while the death rattle came.
Atli summoned his men, in mail-coats they hastened,36
All ready they came, and between was the courtyard.
* * * * * *
Then came they to words, and full wrathful they were:37
“Long since did we plan how soon we might slay you.”
“Little it matters if long ye have planned it;38
For unarmed do ye wait, and one have we felled,
We smote him to hell, of your host was he once.”
Then wild was their anger when all heard his words;39
Their fingers were swift on their bowstrings to seize,
Full sharply they shot, by their shields were they guarded.
In the house came the word how the heroes with out40
Fought in front of the hall; they heard a thrall tell it;
Grim then was Guthrun, the grief when she heard,
With necklaces fair, and she flung them all from her,
(The silver she hurled so the rings burst asunder.)
Then out did she go, she flung open the doors,41
All fearless she went, and the guests did she welcome;
To the Niflungs she went— her last greeting it was,—
In her speech truth was clear, and much would she speak.
“For your safety I sought that at home ye should stay;
None escapes his fate, so ye hither must fare.”
Full wisely she spake, if yet peace they might win,
But to nought would they hearken, and “No” said they all.
Then the high-born one saw that hard was their battle,42
In fierceness of heart she flung off her mantle;
Her naked sword grasped she her kin’s lives to guard,
Not gentle her hands in the hewing of battle.
Then the daughter of Gjuki two warriors smote down,43
Atli’s brother she slew, and forth then they bore him;
(So fiercely she fought that his feet she clove off;)
Another she smote so that never he stood,
To hell did she send him,— her hands trembled never.
Full wide was the fame of the battle they fought,44
’Twas the greatest of deeds of the sons of Gjuki;
Men say that the Niflungs, while themselves they were living,
With their swords fought mightily, mail-coats they sundered,
And helms did they hew, as their hearts were fearless.
All the morning they fought until midday shone,45
(All the dusk as well and the dawning of day,)
When the battle was ended, the field flowed with blood;
Ere they fell, eighteen of their foemen were slain,
By the two sons of Bera and her brother as well.
Then the warrior spake, and wild was his anger:46
“This is evil to see, and thy doing is all;
Once we were thirty, we thanes, keen for battle,
Now eleven are left, and great is our lack.
“There were five of us brothers when Buthli we lost,47
Now Hel has the half, and two smitten lie here;
A great kinship had I,— the truth may I hide not,—
From a wife bringing slaughter small joy could I win.
We lay seldom together since to me thou wast given,48
Now my kin all are gone, of my gold am I robbed;
Nay, and worst, thou didst send my sister to hell.”
“Hear me now, Atli! the first evil was thine;49
My mother didst thou take, and for gold didst murder her,
My sister’s daughter thou didst starve in a prison.
A jest does it seem that thy sorrow thou tellest,
And good do I find it that grief to thee comes.”
“Go now, ye warriors, and make greater the grief50
Of the woman so fair, for fain would I see it;
So fierce be thy warring that Guthrun shall weep,
I would gladly behold her happiness lost.
“Seize ye now Hogni, and with knives shall ye hew him,
His heart shall ye cut out, this haste ye to do;
And grim-hearted Gunnar shall ye bind on the gallows,
Swift shall ye do it, to serpents now cast him.”
“Do now as thou wilt, for glad I await it,51
Brave shalt thou find me, I have faced worse before;
We held thee at bay while whole we were fighting,
Now with wounds are we spent, so thy will canst thou work.”
Then did Beiti speak, he was Atli’s steward:52
“Let us seize now Hjalli, and Hogni spare we!
Let us fell the sluggard, he is fit for death,
He has lived too long, and lazy men call him.”
Afraid was the pot-watcher, he fled here and yon,53
And crazed with his terror he climbed in the corners:
“Ill for me is this fighting, if I pay for your fierceness,
And sad is the day to die leaving my swine
And all the fair victuals that of old did I have.”
They seized Buthli’s cook, and they came with the knife,54
The frightened thrall howled ere the edge did he feel;
He was willing, he cried, to dung well the court yard,
Do the basest of work, if spare him they would;
Full happy were Hjalli if his life he might have.
Then fain was Hogni— there are few would do thus—
To beg for the slave that safe hence he should go;
“I would find it far better this knife-play to feel,
Why must we all hark to this howling longer?”
Then the brave one they seized; to the warriors bold55
No chance was there left to delay his fate longer;
Loud did Hogni laugh, all the sons of day heard him,
So valiant he was that well he could suffer.
* * * * * *
A harp Gunnar seized, with his toes he smote it56
So well did he strike that the women all wept,
And the men, when clear they heard it, lamented;
Full noble was his song, the rafters burst asunder.
Then the heroes died ere the day was yet come;57
Their fame did they leave ever lofty to live.
. . . . . . . .57
Full mighty seemed Atli as o’er them he stood,58
The wise one he blamed, and his words reproached her:
“It is morning, Guthrun; now thy dear ones dost miss,
But the blame is part thine that thus it has chanced.”
“Thou art joyous, Atli, for of evil thou tellest,59
But sorrow is thine if thou mightest all see;
Thy heritage heavy here can I tell thee,
Sorrow never thou losest unless I shall die.”
“Not free of guilt am I; a way shall I find60
That is better by far,— oft the fairest we shunned;—
With slaves I console thee, with gems fair to see,
And with silver snow-white, as thyself thou shalt choose.”
“No hope shall this give thee, thy gifts I shall take not,61
Requital I spurned when my sorrows were smaller;
Once grim did I seem, but now greater my grimness,
There was nought seemed too hard while Hogni was living.
“Our childhood did we have in a single house,62
We played many a game, in the grove did we grow;
Then did Grimhild give us gold and necklaces,
Thou shalt ne’er make amends for my brother’s murder,
Nor ever shalt win me to think it was well.
“But the fierceness of men rules the fate of women,63
The tree-top bows low if bereft of its leaves,
The tree bends over if the roots are cleft under it;
Now mayest thou, Atli, o’er all things here rule.”
Full heedless the warrior was that he trusted her,64
So clear was her guile if on guard he had been;
But crafty was Guthrun, with cunning she spake,
Her glance she made pleasant, with two shields she played.
The beer then she brought for her brothers’ death feast,65
And a feast Atli made for his followers dead
No more did they speak, the mead was made ready,
Soon the men were gathered with mighty uproar.
Thus bitterly planned she, and Buthli’s race threatened,66
And terrible vengeance on her husband would take;
The little ones called she, on a block she laid them;
Afraid were the proud ones, but their tears did not fall;
To their mother’s arms went they, and asked what she would.
“Nay, ask me no more! You both shall I murder,67
For long have I wished your lives to steal from you.
The boys spake:
“Slay thy boys as thou wilt, for no one may bar it,
Short the angry one’s peace if all thou shalt do.”
Then the grim one slew both of the brothers young,68
Full hard was her deed when their heads she smote off;
Fain was Atli to know whither now they were gone,
The boys from their sport, for nowhere he spied them.
“My fate shall I seek, all to Atli saying,69
The daughter of Grimhild the deed from thee hides not;
No joy thou hast, Atli, if all thou shalt hear,
Great sorrow didst wake when my brothers thou slewest.
“I have seldom slept since the hour they were slain,70
Baleful were my threats, now I bid thee recall them;
Thou didst say it was morning,— too well I remember,—
Now is evening come, and this question thou askest.
“Now both of thy sons thou hast lost . . . . . . . .71
. . . . . . . . as thou never shouldst do;
The skulls of thy boys thou as beer-cups didst have,
And the draught that I made thee was mixed with their blood.
“I cut out their hearts, on a spit I cooked them,72
I came to thee with them, and calf’s flesh I called them;
Alone didst thou eat them, nor any didst leave,
Thou didst greedily bite, and thy teeth were busy.
“Of thy sons now thou knowest; few suffer more sorrow;73
My guilt have I told, fame it never shall give me.”
“Grim wast thou, Guthrun, in so grievous a deed,74
My draught with the blood of thy boys to mingle;
Thou hast slain thine own kin, most ill it be seemed thee,
And little for me twixt my sorrows thou leavest.”
“Still more would I seek to slay thee thyself,75
Enough ill comes seldom to such as thou art;
Thou didst folly of old, such that no one shall find
In the whole world of men a match for such madness.
Now this that of late we learned hast thou added,
Great evil hast grasped, and thine own death feast made.”
“With fire shall they burn thee, and first shall they stone thee,76
So then hast thou earned what thou ever hast sought for.”
“Such woes for thyself shalt thou say in the morning,
From a finer death I to another light fare.”
Together they sat and full grim were their thoughts,77
Unfriendly their words, and no joy either found;
In Hniflung grew hatred, great plans did he have,
To Guthrun his anger against Atli was told.
To her heart came ever the fate of Hogni,78
She told him ’twere well if he vengeance should win;
So was Atli slain,— ’twas not slow to await,—
Hogni’s son slew him, and Guthrun herself.
Then the warrior spake, as from slumber he wakened,79
Soon he knew for his wounds would the bandage do nought:
“Now the truth shalt thou say: who has slain Buthli’s son?
Full sore am I smitten, nor hope can I see.”
“Ne’er her deed from thee hides the daughter of Grimhild,80
I own to the guilt that is ending thy life,
And the son of Hogni; ’tis so thy wounds bleed.”
“To murder hast thou fared, though foul it must seem;
Ill thy friend to betray who trusted thee well.
“Not glad went I hence thy hand to seek, Guthrun,81
In thy widowhood famed, but haughty men found thee;
My belief did not lie, as now we have learned;
I brought thee home hither, and a host of men with us.
“Most noble was all when of old we journeyed,82
Great honor did we have of heroes full worthy;
Of cattle had we plenty, and greatly we prospered,
Mighty was our wealth, and many received it.
“To the famed one as bride-gift I gave jewels fair,
I gave thirty slaves, and handmaidens seven;
There was honor in such gifts, yet the silver was greater.
“But all to thee was as if nought it were worth,83
While the land lay before thee that Buthli had left me;
Thou in secret didst work so the treasure I won not;
My mother full oft to sit weeping didst make,
No wedded joy found I in fullness of heart.”
“Thou liest now, Atli, though little I heed it;84
If I seldom was kindly, full cruel wast thou;
Ye brothers fought young, quarrels brought you to battle,
And half went to hell of the sons of thy house,
And all was destroyed that should e’er have done good.
“My two brothers and I were bold in our thoughts,85
From the land we went forth, with Sigurth we fared;
Full swiftly we sailed, each one steering his ship,
So our fate sought we e’er till we came to the East.
“First the king did we slay, and the land we seized,86
The princes did us service, for such was their fear;
From the forest we called them we fain would have guiltless,
And rich made we many who of all were bereft.
“Slain was the Hun-king, soon happiness vanished,87
In her grief the widow so young sat weeping;
Yet worse seemed the sorrow to seek Atli’s house,
A hero was my husband, and hard was his loss.
“From the Thing thou camst never, for thus have we heard,88
Having won in thy quarrels, or warriors smitten;
Full yielding thou wast, never firm was thy will,
In silence didst suffer, . . . . . . . .”
“Thou liest now, Guthrun, but little of good
Will it bring to either, for all have we lost;
But, Guthrun, yet once be thou kindly of will,
For the honor of both, when forth I am home.”
“A ship will I buy, and a bright-hued coffin,89
I will wax well the shroud to wind round thy body,
For all will I care as if dear were we ever.”
Then did Atli die, and his heirs’ grief doubled;90
The high-born one did as to him she had promised;
Then sought Guthrun the wise to go to her death,
But for days did she wait, and ’twas long ere she died.
Full happy shall he be who such offspring has,
Or children so gallant, as Gjuki begot;
Forever shall live, and in lands far and wide,
Their valor heroic wherever men hear it.