Poetic Edda

Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I

About this Edition

  • Translated By
    Publishing Date
    • Henry Adams Bellows

The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane

Introductory Note

The general subject of the Helgi lays is considered in the introduction to Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar, and it is needless here to repeat the statements there made. The first lay of Helgi Hundingsbane is unquestionably one of the latest of the Eddic poems, and was composed probably not earlier than the second quarter of the eleventh century. It presents several unusual characteristics. For one thing, it is among the few essentially narrative poems in the whole collection, telling a consecutive story in verse, and, except for the abusive dialogue between Sinfjotli and Gothmund, which clearly was based on another and older poem, it does so with relatively little use of dialogue. It is, in fact, a ballad, and in the main an exceedingly vigorous one. The annotator, who added his prose narrative notes so freely in the other Helgi poems, here found nothing to do. The available evidence indicates that narrative verse was a relatively late development in Old Norse poetry, and it is significant that most of the poems which consist chiefly, not of dialogue, but of narrative stanzas, such as the first Helgi Hundingsbane lay and the two Atli lays, can safely be dated, on the basis of other evidence, after the year 1000.

The first Helgi Hundingsbane lay is again differentiated from most of the Eddic poems by the character of its language. It is full of those verbal intricacies which were the delight of the Norse skalds, and which made Snorri’s dictionary of poetic phrases an absolute necessity. Many of these I have paraphrased in the translation; some I have simplified or wholly avoided. A single line will serve to indicate the character of this form of complex diction (stanza 56, line 4): “And the horse of the giantess raven’s-food had.” This means simply that wolves (giantesses habitually rode on wolves) ate the bodies of the dead.

Except for its intricacies of diction, and the possible loss of a stanza here and there, the poem is comparatively simple. The story belongs in all its essentials to the Helgi tradition, with the Volsung cycle brought in only to the extent of making Helgi the son of Sigmund, and in the introduction of Sinfjotli, son of Sigmund and his sister Signy, in a passage which has little or nothing to do with the course of the narrative, and which looks like an expansion of a passage from some older poem, perhaps from the “old Volsung lay” to which the annotator of the second Helgi Hundingsbane lay refers (prose after stanza 12). There are many proper names, some of which betray the confusion caused by the blending of the two sets of traditions; for example, Helgi appears indiscriminately as an Ylfing (which presumably he was before the Volsung story became involved) and as a Volsung. Granmar and his sons are called Hniflungs (Nibelungen) in stanza 50, though they seem to have had no connection with this race. The place names have aroused much debate as to the localization of the action, but while some of them probably reflect actual places, there is so much geographical confusion, and such a profusion of names which are almost certainly mythical, that it is hard to believe that the poet had any definite locations in mind.

In olden days, when eagles screamed,
And holy streams from heaven’s crags fell,
Was Helgi then, the hero-hearted,
Borghild’s son, in Bralund born.

’Twas night in the dwelling, and Norns there came,
Who shaped the life of the lofty one;
They bade him most famed of fighters all
And best of princes ever to be.

Mightily wove they the web of fate,
While Bralund’s towns were trembling all;
And there the golden threads they wove,
And in the moon’s hall fast they made them.

East and west the ends they hid,
In the middle the hero should have his land;
And Neri’s kinswoman northward cast
A chain, and bade it firm ever to be.

Once sorrow had the Ylfings’ son,
And grief the bride who the loved one had borne.
* * * * * *
Quoth raven to raven, on treetop resting,
Seeking for food, “There is something I know.

“In mail-coat stands the son of Sigmund,
A half-day old; now day is here;
His eyes flash sharp as the heroes’ are,
He is friend of the wolves; full glad are we.”

The warrior throng a ruler thought him,
Good times, they said, mankind should see;
The king himself from battle-press came,
To give the prince a leek full proud.

Helgi he named him, and Hringstathir gave him,
Solfjoll, Snæfjoll, and Sigarsvoll,
Hringstoth, Hotun, and Himinvangar,
And a blood-snake bedecked to Sinfjotli’s brother.

Mighty he grew in the midst of his friends,
The fair-born elm, in fortune’s glow;
To his comrades gold he gladly gave,
The hero spared not the blood-flecked hoard.

Short time for war the chieftain waited,
When fifteen winters old he was;
Hunding he slew, the hardy wight
Who long had ruled o’er lands and men.

Of Sigmund’s son then next they sought
Hoard and rings, the sons of Hunding;
They bade the prince requital pay
For booty stolen and father slain.

The prince let not their prayers avail,
Nor gold for their dead did the kinsmen get;
Waiting, he said, was a mighty storm
Of lances gray and Othin’s grimness.

The warriors forth to the battle went,
The field they chose at Logafjoll;
Frothi’s peace midst foes they broke,
Through the isle went hungrily Vithrir’s hounds.

The king then sat, when he had slain
Eyjolf and Alf, ’neath the eagle-stone;
Hjorvarth and Hovarth, Hunding’s sons,
The kin of the spear-wielder, all had he killed.

Then glittered light from Logafjoll,
And from the light the flashes leaped;
. . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . .
High under helms on heaven’s field;
Their byrnies all with blood were red,
And from their spears the sparks flew forth.

Early then in wolf-wood asked
The mighty king of the southern maid,
If with the hero home would she
Come that night; the weapons clashed.

Down from her horse sprang Hogni’s daughter,—
The shields were still,— and spake to the hero:
“Other tasks are ours, methinks,
Than drinking beer with the breaker of rings.

“My father has pledged his daughter fair
As bride to Granmar’s son so grim;
But, Helgi, I once Hothbrodd called
As fine a king as the son of a cat.

“Yet the hero will come a few nights hence,
. . . . . . . .
Unless thou dost bid him the battle-ground seek,
Or takest the maid from the warrior mighty.”

Helgi spake:
“Fear him not, though Isung he felled,
First must our courage keen be tried,
Before unwilling thou fare with the knave;
Weapons will clash, if to death I come not.”

Messengers sent the mighty one then,
By land and by sea, a host to seek,
Store of wealth of the water’s gleam,
And men to summon, and sons of men.

“Bid them straightway seek the ships,
And off Brandey ready to be!”
There the chief waited till thither were come
Men by hundreds from Hethinsey.

Soon off Stafnsnes stood the ships,
Fair they glided and gay with gold;
Then Helgi spake to Hjorleif asking:
“Hast thou counted the gallant host?”

The young king answered the other then:
“Long were it to tell from Tronueyr
The long-stemmed ships with warriors laden
That come from without into Orvasund.

. . . . . . . .
“There are hundreds twelve of trusty men,
But in Hotun lies the host of the king,
Greater by half; I have hope of battle.”

The ship’s-tents soon the chieftain struck,
And waked the throng of warriors all;
(The heroes the red of dawn beheld;)
And on the masts the gallant men
Made fast the sails in Varinsfjord.

There was beat of oars and clash of iron,
Shield smote shield as the ships’-folk rowed;
Swiftly went the warrior-laden
Fleet of the ruler forth from the land.

So did it sound, when together the sisters
Of Kolga struck with the keels full long,
As if cliffs were broken with beating surf,
. . . . . . . .

Helgi bade higher hoist the sails,
Nor did the ships’-folk shun the waves,
Though dreadfully did Ægir’s daughters
Seek the steeds of the sea to sink.

But from above did Sigrun brave
Aid the men and all their faring;
Mightily came from the claws of Ron
The leader’s sea-beast off Gnipalund.

At evening there in Unavagar
Floated the fleet bedecked full fair;
But they who saw from Svarin’s hill,
Bitter at heart the host beheld.

Then Gothmund asked, goodly of birth,
. . . . . . . .
“Who is the monarch who guides the host,
And to the land the warriors leads?”

Sinfjotli answered, and up on an oar
Raised a shield all red with golden rim;
A sea-sentry was he, skilled to speak,
And in words with princes well to strive.

“Say tonight when you feed the swine,
And send your bitches to seek their swill,
That out of the East have the Ylfings come,
Greedy for battle, to Gnipalund.

“There will Hothbrodd Helgi find,
In the midst of the fleet, and flight he scorns;
Often has he the eagles gorged,
Whilst thou at the quern wert slave-girls kissing.”

Gothmund spake:
“Hero, the ancient sayings heed,
And bring not lies to the nobly born.
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .

“Thou hast eaten the entrails of wolves,
And of thy brothers the slayer been;
Oft wounds to suck thy cold mouth sought,
And loathed in rocky dens didst lurk.”

Sinfjotli spake:
“A witch in Varin’s isle thou wast,
A woman false, and lies didst fashion;
Of the mail-clad heroes thou wouldst have
No other, thou saidst, save Sinfjotli only.

“A Valkyrie wast thou, loathly Witch,
Evil and base, in Allfather’s home;
The warriors all must ever fight,
Woman subtle, for sake of thee.

“. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . .
Nine did we in Sogunes
Of wolf-cubs have; I their father was.”

Gothmund spake:
“Thou didst not father Fenrir’s-wolves,
Though older thou art than all I know;
For they gelded thee in Gnipalund,
The giant-women at Thorsnes once.

“Under houses the stepson of Siggeir lay,
Fain of the wolf’s cry out in the woods;
Evil came then all to thy hands,
When thy brothers’ breasts thou didst redden,
Fame didst thou win for foulest deeds.

“In Bravoll wast thou Grani’s bride,
Golden-bitted and ready to gallop;
I rode thee many a mile, and down
Didst sink, thou giantess, under the saddle.”

Sinfjotli spake:
“A brainless fellow didst seem to be,
When once for Gollnir goats didst milk,
And another time when as Imth’s daughter
In rags thou wentest; wilt longer wrangle?”

Gothmund spake:
“Sooner would I at Frekastein
Feed the ravens with flesh of thine
Than send your bitches to seek their swill,
Or feed the swine; may the fiends take you!”

Helgi spake:
“Better, Sinfjotli, thee ’twould beseem
Battle to give and eagles to gladden,
Than vain and empty words to utter,
Though ring-breakers oft in speech do wrangle.

“Good I find not the sons of Granmar,
But for heroes ’tis seemly the truth to speak;
At Moinsheimar proved the men
That hearts for the wielding of swords they had.”

Mightily then they made to run
Sviputh and Sveggjuth to Solheimar;
(By dewy dales and chasms dark,
Mist’s horse shook where the men went by;)
The king they found at his courtyard gate,
And told him the foeman fierce was come.

Forth stood Hothbrodd, helmed for battle,
Watched the riding of his warriors;
. . . . . . . .
“Why are the Hniflungs white with fear?”

Gothmund spake:
“Swift keels lie hard by the land,
(Mast-ring harts and mighty yards,
Wealth of shields and well-planed oars;)
The king’s fair host, the Ylfings haughty;
Fifteen bands to land have fared,
But out in Sogn are seven thousand.

“At anchor lying off Gnipalund
Are fire-beasts black, all fitted with gold;
There wait most of the foeman’s men,
Nor will Helgi long the battle delay.”

Hothbrodd spake:
“Bid the horses run to the Reginthing,
Melnir and Mylnir to Myrkwood now,
(And Sporvitnir to Sparinsheith;)
Let no man seek henceforth to sit
Who the flame of wounds knows well to wield.

“Summon Hogni, the sons of Hring,
Atli and Yngvi and Alf the Old;
Glad they are of battle ever;
Against the Volsungs let us go.”

Swift as a storm there smote together
The flashing blades at Frekastein;
Ever was Helgi, Hunding’s slayer,
First in the throng where warriors fought;
(Fierce in battle, slow to fly,
Hard the heart of the hero was.)

From heaven there came the maidens helmed,—
The weapon-clang grew,— who watched o’er the king;
Spake Sigrun fair,— the wound-givers flew,
And the horse of the giantess raven’s-food had:—

“Hail to thee, hero! full happy with men,
Offspring of Yngvi, shalt ever live,
For thou the fearless foe hast slain
Who to many the dread of death had brought.

“Warrior, well for thyself hast won
Red rings bright and the noble bride;
Both now, warrior, thine shall be,
Hogni’s daughter and Hringstathir,
Wealth and triumph; the battle wanes.”