Poetic Edda

Guthrunarkvitha I

About this Edition

  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

The First Lay of Guthrun

Introductory Note

The First Lay of Guthrun, entitled in the Codex Regius simply Guthrunarkvitha, immediately follows the remaining fragment of the “long” Sigurth lay in that manuscript. Unlike the poems dealing with the earlier part of the Sigurth cycle, the so-called Reginsmol, Fafnismol, and Sigrdrifumol, it is a clear and distinct unit, apparently complete and with few and minor interpolations. It is also one of the finest poems in the entire collection, with an extraordinary emotional intensity and dramatic force. None of its stanzas are quoted elsewhere, and it is altogether probable that the compilers of the Volsungasaga were unfamiliar with it, for they do not mention the sister and daughter of Gjuki who appear in this poem, or Herborg, “queen of the Huns” (stanza 6).

The lament of Guthrun (Kriemhild) is almost certainly among the oldest parts of the story. The lament was one of the earliest forms of poetry to develop among the Germanic peoples, and I suspect, though the matter is not susceptible of proof, that the lament of Sigurth’s wife had assumed lyric form as early as the seventh century, and reached the North in that shape rather than in prose tradition (cf. Guthrunarkvitha II, introductory note). We find traces of it in the seventeenth Aventiure of the Nibelungenlied, and in the poems of the Edda it dominates every appearance of Guthrun. The two first Guthrun lays (I and II) are both laments, one for Sigurth’s death and the other including both that and the lament over the slaying of her brothers; the lament theme is apparent in the third Guthrun lay and in the Guthrunarhvot.

In their present forms the second Guthrun lay is undoubtedly older than he first; in the prose following the Brot the annotator refers to the “old” Guthrun lay in terms which can apply only to the second one in the collection. The shorter and “first” lay, therefore, can scarcely have been composed much before the year 1000, and may be somewhat later. The poet appears to have known and made use of the older lament; stanza 17, for example, is a close parallel to stanza 2 of the earlier poem; but whatever material he used he fitted into a definite poetic scheme of his own. And while this particular poem is, as critics have generally agreed, one of the latest of the collection, it probably represents one of the earliest parts of the entire Sigurth cycle to take on verse form.

Guthrunarkvitha I, so far as the narrative underlying it is concerned, shows very little northern addition to the basic German tradition. Brynhild appears only as Guthrun’s enemy and the cause of Sigurth’s death; the three women who attempt to comfort Guthrun, though unknown to the southern stories, seem to have been rather distinct creations of the poet’s than traditional additions to the legend. Regarding the relations of the various elements in the Sigurth cycle, cf. introductory note to Gripisspo.

Guthrun sat by the dead Sigurth; she did not weep as other women, but her heart was near to bursting with grief. The men and women came to her to console her, but that was not easy to do. It is told of men that Guthrun had eaten of Fafnir’s heart, and that she under stood the speech of birds. This is a poem about Guthrun.[1]

Then did Guthrun think to die,
When she by Sigurth sorrowing sat;
Tears she had not, nor wrung her hands,
Nor ever wailed, as other women.

To her the warriors wise there came,
Longing her heavy woe to lighten;
Grieving could not Guthrun weep,
So sad her heart, it seemed, would break.

Then the wives of the warriors came,
Gold-adorned, and Guthrun sought;
Each one then of her own grief spoke,
The bitterest pain she had ever borne.

Then spake Gjaflaug, Gjuki’s sister:
“Most joyless of all on earth am I;
Husbands five were from me taken,
(Two daughters then, and sisters three,)
Brothers eight, yet I have lived.”

Grieving could not Guthrun weep,
Such grief she had for her husband dead,
And so grim her heart by the hero’s body.

Then Herborg spake, the queen of the Huns:
“I have a greater grief to tell;
My seven sons in the southern land,
And my husband, fell in fight all eight.
(Father and mother and brothers four
Amid the waves the wind once smote,
And the seas crashed through the sides of the ship.)

“The bodies all with my own hands then
I decked for the grave, and the dead I buried;
A half-year brought me this to bear;
And no one came to comfort me.

“Then bound I was, and taken in war,
A sorrow yet in the same half-year;
They bade me deck and bind the shoes
Of the wife of the monarch every morn.

“In jealous rage her wrath she spake,
And beat me oft with heavy blows;
Never a better lord I knew,
And never a woman worse I found.”

Grieving could not Guthrun weep,
Such grief she had for her husband dead,
And so grim her heart by the hero’s body.

Then spake Gollrond, Gjuki’s daughter:
“Thy wisdom finds not, my foster-mother,
The way to comfort the wife so young.”
She bade them uncover the warrior’s corpse.

The shroud she lifted from Sigurth, laying
His well-loved head on the knees of his wife:
“Look on thy loved one, and lay thy lips
To his as if yet the hero lived.”

Once alone did Guthrun look;
His hair all clotted with blood beheld,
The blinded eyes that once shone bright,
The hero’s breast that the blade had pierced.

Then Guthrun bent, on her pillow bowed,
Her hair was loosened, her cheek was hot,
And the tears like raindrops downward ran.

Then Guthrun, daughter of Gjuki, wept,
And through her tresses flowed the tears;
And from the court came the cry of geese,
The birds so fair of the hero’s bride.

Then Gollrond spake, the daughter of Gjuki:
“Never a greater love I knew
Than yours among all men on earth;
Nowhere wast happy, at home or abroad,
Sister mine, with Sigurth away.”

Guthrun spake:
“So was my Sigurth o’er Gjuki’s sons
As the spear-leek grown above the grass,
Or the jewel bright borne on the band,
The precious stone that princes wear.

“To the leader of men I loftier seemed
And higher than all of Herjan’s maids;
As little now as the leaf I am
On the willow hanging; my hero is dead.

“In his seat, in his bed, I see no more
My heart’s true friend; the fault is theirs,
The sons of Gjuki, for all my grief,
That so their sister sorely weeps.

“So shall your land its people lose
As ye have kept your oaths of yore;
Gunnar, no joy the gold shall give thee,
(The rings shall soon thy slayers be,)
Who swarest oaths with Sigurth once.

“In the court was greater gladness then
The day my Sigurth Grani saddled,
And went forth Brynhild’s hand to win,
That woman ill, in an evil hour.”

Then Brynhild spake, the daughter of Buthli:
“May the witch now husband and children want
Who, Guthrun, loosed thy tears at last,
And with magic today hath made thee speak.”

Then Gollrond, daughter of Gjuki, spake:
“Speak not such words, thou hated woman;
Bane of the noble thou e’er hast been,
(Borne thou art on an evil wave,
Sorrow hast brought to seven kings,)
And many a woman hast loveless made.”

Then Brynhild, daughter of Buthli, spake:
“Atli is guilty of all the sorrow,
(Son of Buthli and brother of mine,)
When we saw in the hall of the Hunnish race
The flame of the snake’s bed flash round the hero;
(For the journey since full sore have I paid,
And ever I seek the sight to forget.)”

By the pillars she stood, and gathered her strength,
From the eyes of Brynhild, Buthli’s daughter,
Fire there burned, and venom she breathed,
When the wounds she saw on Sigurth then.

Guthrun went thence away to a forest in the waste, and journeyed all the way to Denmark, and was there seven half-years with Thora, daughter of Hokon. Brynhild would not live after Sigurth. She had eight of her thralls slain and five serving-women. Then she killed her self with a sword, as is told in the Short Lay of Sigurth.[20]