Poetic Edda


About this Edition

  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

The Ballad of Hamther

Introductory Note

The Hamthesmol, the concluding poem in the Codex Regius, is on the whole the worst preserved of all the poems in the collection. The origin of the story, the relation of the Hamthesmol to the Guthrunarhvot, and of both poems to the hypothetical “old” Hamthesmol, are outlined in the introductory note to the Guthrunarhvot. The Hamthesmol as we have it is certainly not the “old” poem of that name; indeed it is so pronounced a patch work that it can hardly be regarded as a coherent poem at all. Some of the stanzas are in Fornyrthislag, some are in Malahattr, one (stanza 29) appears to be in Ljothahattr, and in many cases the words can be adapted to any known metrical form only by liberal emendation. That any one should have deliberately com posed such a poem seems quite incredible, and it is far more likely that some eleventh century narrator constructed a poem about the death of Hamther and Sorli by piecing together various fragments, and possibly adding a number of Malahattr stanzas of his own.

It has been argued, and with apparently sound logic, that our extant Hamthesmol originated in Greenland, along with the Atlamol. In any case, it can hardly have been put together before the latter part of the eleventh century, although the “old” Hamthesmol undoubtedly long antedates this period. Many editors have attempted to pick out the parts of the extant poem which were borrowed from this older lay, but the condition of the text is such that it is by no means clear even what stanzas are in Fornyrthislag and what in Malahattr. Many editors, likewise, indicate gaps and omissions, but it seems doubtful whether the extant Hamthesmol ever had a really consecutive quality, its component fragments having apparently been strung together with little regard for continuity. The notes indicate some of the more important editorial suggestions, but make no attempt to cover all of them, and the metrical form of the translation is often based on mere guesswork as to the character of the original lines and stanzas. Despite the chaotic state of the text, however, the underlying narrative is reasonably clear, and the story can be followed with no great difficulty.

Great the evils once that grew,
With the dawning sad of the sorrow of elves;
In early mom awake for men
The evils that grief to each shall bring.

Not now, nor yet of yesterday was it,
Long the time that since hath lapsed,
So that little there is that is half as old,
Since Guthrun, daughter of Gjuki, whetted
Her sons so young to Svanhild’s vengeance.

“The sister ye had was Svanhild called,
And her did Jormunrek trample with horses,
White and black on the battle-way,
Gray, road-wonted, the steeds of the Goths.

“Little the kings of the folk are ye like,
For now ye are living alone of my race.

“Lonely am I as the forest aspen,
Of kindred bare as the fir of its boughs,
My joys are all lost as the leaves of the tree
When the scather of twigs from the warm day turns.”

Then Hamther spake forth, the high of heart:
“Small praise didst thou, Guthrun, to Hogni’s deed give
When they wakened thy Sigurth from out of his sleep,
Thou didst sit on the bed while his slayers laughed.

“Thy bed-covers white with blood were red
From his wounds, and with gore of thy husband were wet;
So Sigurth was slain, by his corpse didst thou sit,
And of gladness didst think not: ’twas Gunnar’s doing.

“Thou wouldst strike at Atli by the slaying of Erp
And the killing of Eitil; thine own grief was worse;
So should each one wield the wound-biting sword
That another it slays but smites not himself.”

Then did Sorli speak out, for wise was he ever:
“With my mother I never a quarrel will make;
Full little in speaking methinks ye both lack;
What askest thou, Guthrun, that will give thee no tears?

“For thy brothers dost weep, and thy boys so sweet,
Thy kinsmen in birth on the battlefield slain;
Now, Guthrun, as; well for us both shalt thou weep,
We sit doomed on our steeds, and far hence shall we die.”

Then the fame-glad one— on the steps she was—
The slender-fingered, spake with her son:
“Ye shall danger have if counsel ye heed not;
By two heroes alone shall two hundred of Goths
Be bound or be slain in the lofty-walled burg.”

From the courtyard they fared, and fury they breathed;
The youths swiftly went o’er the mountain wet,
On their Hunnish steeds, death’s vengeance to have.

On the way they found the man so wise;
. . . . . . . .
“What help from the weakling brown may we have?”

So answered them their half-brother then:
“So well may I my kinsmen aid
As help one foot from the other has.”

“How may afoot its fellow aid,
Or a flesh-grown hand another help?”

Then Erp spake forth, his words were few,
As haughty he sat on his horse’s back:
“To the timid ’tis ill the way to tell.”
A bastard they the bold one called.

From their sheaths they drew their shining swords,
Their blades, to the giantess joy to give;
By a third they lessened the might that was theirs,
The fighter young to earth they felled.

Their cloaks they shook, their swords they sheathed,
The high-born men wrapped their mantles close.

On their road they fared and an ill way found,
And their sister’s son on a tree they saw,
On the wind-cold wolf-tree west of the hall,
And cranes’-bait crawled; none would care to linger.

In the hall was din, the men drank deep,
And the horses’ hoofs could no one hear,
Till the warrior hardy sounded his horn.

Men came and the tale to Jormunrek told
How warriors helmed without they beheld:
“Take counsel wise, for brave ones are come,
Of mighty men thou the sister didst murder.”

Then Jormunrek laughed, his hand laid on his beard,
His arms, for with wine he was warlike, he called for;
He shook his brown locks, on his white shield he looked,
And raised high the cup of gold in his hand.

“Happy, methinks, were I to behold
Hamther and Sorli here in my hall;
The men would I bind with strings of bows,
And Gjuki’s heirs on the gallows hang.”

In the hall was clamor, the cups were shattered,
Men stood in blood from the breasts of the Goths,

Then did Hamther speak forth, the haughty of heart:
“Thou soughtest, Jormunrek, us to see,
Sons of one mother seeking thy dwelling;
Thou seest thy hands, thy feet thou beholdest,
Jormunrek, flung in the fire so hot.”

Then roared the king, of the race of the gods,
Bold in his armor, as roars a bear:
“Stone ye the men that steel will bite not,
Sword nor spear, the sons of Jonak.”

Sorli spake:
“Ill didst win, brother, when the bag thou didst open,
Oft from that bag came baleful counsel;
Heart hast thou, Hamther, if knowledge thou hadst!
A man without wisdom is lacking in much.”

Hamther spake:
“His head were now off if Erp were living,
The brother so keen whom we killed on our road,
The warrior noble,— ’twas the Norns that drove me
The hero to slay who in fight should be holy.

“In fashion of wolves it befits us not
Amongst ourselves to strive,
Like the hounds of the Norns, that nourished were
In greed mid wastes so grim.

“We have greatly fought, o’er the Goths do we stand
By our blades laid low, like eagles on branches;
Great our fame though we die today or tomorrow;
None outlives the night when the Norris have spoken.”

Then Sorli beside the gable sank,
And Hamther fell at the back of the house.

This is called the old ballad of Hamther.[30]