Poetic Edda


About this Edition

  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

Guthrun’s Inciting

Introductory Note

The two concluding poems in the Codex Regius, the Guthrunarhvot (Guthrun’s Inciting) and the Hamthesmol (The Ballad of Hamther), belong to a narrative cycle connected with those of Sigurth, the Burgundians, and Atli (cf. Gripisspo, introductory note) by only the slenderest of threads. Of the three early historical kings who gradually assumed a dominant place in Germanic legend, Ermanarich, king of the East Goths in the middle of the fourth century, was actually the least important, even though Jordanes, the sixth century author of De Rebus Getecis, compared him to Alexander the Great. Memories of his cruelty and of his tragic death, however, persisted along with the real glories of Theoderich, a century and a half later, and of the conquests of Attila, whose lifetime approximately bridged the gap between Ermanarich’s death and Theoderich’s birth.

Chief among the popular tales of Ermanarich’s cruelty was one concerning the death of a certain Sunilda or Sanielh, whom, according to Jordanes, he caused to be torn asunder by wild horses because of her husband’s treachery. Her brothers, Sarus and Ammius, seeking to avenge her, wounded but failed to kill Ermanarich. In this story is the root of the two Norse poems included in the Codex Regius. Sunilda easily became the wife as well as the victim of the tyrant, and, by the process of legend-blending so frequently observed, the story was connected with the more famous one of the Nibelungs by making her the daughter of Sigurth and Guthrun. To account for her brothers, a third husband had to be found for Guthrun; the Sarus and Ammius of Jordanes are obviously the Sorli and Hamther, sons of Guthrun and Jonak, of the Norse poems. The blending of the Sigurth and Ermanarich legends probably, though not certainly, took place before the story reached the North, in other words before the end of the eighth century.

Regarding the exact status of the Guthrunarhvot and the Hamthesmol there has been a great deal of discussion. That they are closely related is obvious; indeed the first parts of the two poems are nearly identical in content and occasionally so in actual diction. The annotator, in his concluding prose note, refers to the second poem as the “old” ballad of Hamther, wherefore it has been assumed by some critics that the composer of the Guthrunarhvot used the Hamthesmol, approximately as it now stands, as the source of part of his material. The extant Hamthesmol, however, is almost certainly a patchwork; part of it is in Fornyrthislag (cf. Introduction), including most of the stanzas paralleled in the Guthrunarhvot, and likewise the stanza followed directly by the reference to the “old” ballad, while the rest is in Malahattr. The most reasonable theory, therefore, is that there existed an old ballad of Hamther, all in Fornyrthislag, from which the composer of the Guthrunarhvot borrowed a few stanzas as the introduction for his poem, and which the composer of the extant, or “new,” Hamthesmol likewise used, though far more clumsily.

The title “Guthrunarhvot,” which appears in the Codex Regius, really applies only to stanzas 1–8, all presumably borrowed from the “old” ballad of Hamther. The rest of the poem is simply another Guthrun lament, following the tradition exemplified by the first and second Guthrun lays; it is possible, indeed, that it is made up of fragments of two separate laments, one (stanzas 9–18) involving the story of Svanhild’s death, and the other (stanzas 19–21) coming from an otherwise lost version of the story in which Guthrun closely follows Sigurth and Brynhild in death. In any event the present title is really a misnomer; the poet, who presumably was an eleventh century Icelander, used the episode of Guthrun’s inciting her sons to vengeance for the slaying of Svanhild simply as an introduction to his main subject, the last lament of the unhappy queen.

The text of the poem in Regius is by no means in good shape, and editorial emendations have been many and varied, particularly in interchanging lines between the Guthrunarhvot and the Hamthesmol. The Volsungasaga paraphrases the poem with such fidelity as to prove that it lay before the compilers of the saga approximately in its present form.

Guthrun went forth to the sea after she had slain Atli. She went out into the sea and fain would drown herself, but she could not sink. The waves bore her across the fjord to the land of King Jonak; he took her as wife; their sons were Sorli and Erp and Hamther. There was brought up Svanhild, Sigurth’s daughter; she was married to the mighty Jormunrek. With him was Bikki, who counselled that Randver, the king’s son, should have her. This Bikki told to the king. The king had Randver hanged, and Svanhild trodden to death under horses’ feet. And when Guthrun learned this, she spake with her sons.[1]

A word-strife I learned, most woeful of all,
A speech from the fullness of sorrow spoken,
When fierce of heart her sons to the fight
Did Guthrun whet with words full grim.

“Why sit ye idle, why sleep out your lives,
Why grieve ye not in gladness to speak?
Since Jormunrek your sister young
Beneath the hoofs of horses hath trodden,
(White and black on the battle-way,
Gray, road-wonted, the steeds of the Goths.)

“Not like are ye to Gunnar of yore,
Nor have ye hearts such as Hogni’s was;
Vengeance for her ye soon would have
If brave ye were as my brothers of old,
Or hard your hearts as the Hunnish kings’.”

Then Hamther spake, the high of heart:
“Little the deed of Hogni didst love,
When Sigurth they wakened from his sleep;
Thy bed-covers white were red with blood
Of thy husband, drenched with gore from his heart.

“Bloody revenge didst have for thy brothers,
Evil and sore, when thy sons didst slay;
Else yet might we all on Jormunrek
Together our sister’s slaying avenge.

. . . . . . . .
The gear of the Hunnish kings now give us!
Thou hast whetted us so to the battle of swords.”

Laughing did Guthrun go to her chamber,
The helms of the kings from the cupboards she took,
And mail-coats broad, to her sons she bore them;
On their horses’ backs the heroes leaped.

Then Hamther spake, the high of heart:
“Homeward no more his mother to see
Comes the spear-god, fallen mid Gothic folk;
One death-draught thou for us all shalt drink,
For Svanhild then and thy sons as well.”

Weeping Guthrun, Gjuki’s daughter,
Went sadly before the gate to sit,
And with tear-stained cheeks to tell the tale
Of her mighty griefs, so many in kind.

“Three home-fires knew I, three hearths I knew,
Home was I brought by husbands three;
But Sigurth only of all was dear,
He whom my brothers brought to his death.

“A greater sorrow I saw not nor knew,
Yet more it seemed I must suffer yet
When the princes great to Atli gave me.

“The brave boys I summoned to secret speech;
For my woes requital I might not win
Till off the heads of the Hniflungs I hewed.

“To the sea I went, my heart full sore
For the Norns, whose wrath I would now escape;
But the lofty billows bore me undrowned,
Till to land I came, so I longer must live.

“Then to the bed— of old was it better!—
Of a king of the folk a third time I came;
Boys I bore his heirs to be,
Heirs so young, the sons of Jonak.

“But round Svanhild handmaidens sat,
She was dearest ever of all my children;
So did Svanhild seem in my hall
As the ray of the sun is fair to see.

“Gold I gave her and garments bright,
Ere I let her go to the Gothic folk;
Of my heavy woes the hardest it was
When Svanhild’s tresses fair were trodden
In the mire by hoofs of horses wild.

“The sorest it was when Sigurth mine
On his couch, of victory robbed, they killed;
And grimmest of all when to Gunnar’s heart
There crept the bright-hued crawling snakes.

“And keenest of all when they cut the heart
From the living breast of the king so brave;
Many woes I remember, . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .

“Bridle, Sigurth, thy steed so black,
Hither let run thy swift-faring horse;
Here there sits not son or daughter
Who yet to Guthrun gifts shall give.

“Remember, Sigurth, what once we said,
When together both on the bed we sat,
That mightily thou to me wouldst come
From hell and I from earth to thee.

“Pile ye up, jarls, the pyre of oak,
Make it the highest a hero e’er had;
Let the fire burn my grief-filled breast,
My sore-pressed heart, till my sorrows melt.”

May nobles all less sorrow know,
And less the woes of women become,
Since the tale of this lament is told.