The Poetic Edda – the heroic poems

The Icelandic poem Helgakviða Hundingsbana starts, in the Codex Regius manuscript, with an unusually large letter A (starting the word ‘Ar’ meaning Early or Once upon a time) which suggests the scribe was well-aware that he was transitioning from the sequence of mythological poems – stories about the unruly Norse gods – to the second part of the Poetic Edda, which records the deeds of heroes and mortal men and women.

The most striking thing about the 19 heroic poems is the way they focus on the same cycle of stories which dominate Snorri’s Prose Edda and are also the subject of the Volsungsaga, namely the legends of King Sigmund, his sons Helgi and Sigurd, the latter’s fight with the dragon Fafnir, his ill-fated love triangle with Brynhild and Gudrún, the latter’s ill-starred marriage to Atli, and then to king Jörmunrekkr. The Greeks have many cycles of legends – the Trojan War, or Theseus, or Perseus, or Jason and the Argonauts. But Norse legend seems fixated on this one, rather fissile tragedy of Sigurd and Gudrún.

The 14 poems about this legend have the added distinction of having a massive hole ripped out of the heart of them. 8 folios which could have contained anything between 200 and 250 stanzas – at an average of 50 stanzas per poem, some 5 entire poems – have at some stage been removed from the Codex, right in the middle of the Sigurd cycle of poems, giving rise to endless speculation about the missing content.

The heroic poems fall easily into three sections:

The story of Helgi Hundingsbani
The story of the Nibelungs
The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths

…respectively, Scandinavian, German and Gothic in origin.


The story of Helgi Hundingsbani

Immediately (and typically of the Poetic Edda) there are textual issues, because poems 1 and 3 are about Helgi Hundingsbana (so-called because he kills king Hunding in battle) but poem 2 is about a completely different Helgi, Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, who lived a generation before Helgi Hundingsbana and who Helgi Hundingsbana was named after. It makes for a much simpler experience just to read poems 1 and 3. When you do this you realise that number 3 covers a lot of the same ground as number 1, and both – after the heroic birth and heroic deeds and comic flyting before the big battle – are about the surprisingly romantic story of Helgi the hero and his true love Sigrun the valkyrie. The poems lead up to the climactic scene of Sigrun’s nightly visits to Helgi’s funeral barrow, hoping to meet and talk with her dead lover, a subject which endeared itself to the sentimental Victorians. The (as usual) rather confusing story of Helgi Hundingsbane is usefully summarised on Wikipedia.

Helgakviða Hundingsbana I – The First Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer
(Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar – The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjörvard)
Helgakviða Hundingsbana II – The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbane or Helgi the Hunding-Slayer

As usual, I quote the Henry Adams Bellows translation because it is both out of copyright and easily available online:

1. 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.

2. ‘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.

3. 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.


The Niflung or Nibelung Cycle (the story of Sigurd, Bryinhild and Gudrún)

Frá dauða Sinfjötla (Sinfjötli’s Death) This is a short prose text which summarises the story found in the saga and elsewhere: Sinfjötli, son of Sigmund, who had been prominent in the Helgi poems for carrying out dialogues of abuse with various enemies, is poisoned in front of his father by his step-mother in revenge for killing her husband/brother (delete as appropriate, depending on which version you’re reading). In all the versions the grieving Sigmund does nothing to the poisoner but carries the body to a fjord and calls a ferryman to take him across but the boat is only big enough for one passenger and the ferryman takes Sinfjötli’s body and then mysteriously disappears. Was he Odin?

Grípisspá (Grípir’s Prophecy) 53 stanzas – Sigurd abruptly appears in the cycle of poems, rides up to his uncle Gripir’s who prophesies his destiny. It’s not a pretty sight.

“Ever remember, ruler of men,
That fortune lies in the hero’s life;
A nobler man shall never live
Beneath the sun than Sigurth shall seem.”

Reginsmál (The Ballad of Regin) The editors point out that the next three poems might very well be one long one; they are in a similar style, with frequent short prose inserts to move the story along. The third one breaks off abruptly where vital pages have been torn from the Codex. In Reginsmál the young Sigurd is apprenticed to Regin at the court of king Hjalprek. The king gives Sigurd ships to sail back to Volsung land and take revenge for his father. A stranger shouts at the ships from the shore. It is Hnikar (?) and they ask him what are the best omens before a battle:

20. “Many the signs, | if men but knew,
That are good for the swinging of swords;
It is well, methinks, | if the warrior meets
A raven black on his road.

21. “Another it is | if out thou art come,
And art ready forth to fare,
To behold on the path | before thy house
Two fighters greedy of fame.

22. “Third it is well | if a howling wolf
Thou hearest under the ash;
And fortune comes | if thy foe thou seest
Ere thee the hero beholds.

23. “A man shall fight not | when he must face
The moon’s bright sister setting late;
Win he shall | who well can see,
And wedge-like forms | his men for the fray.

24. “Foul is the sign | if thy foot shall stumble
As thou goest forth to fight;
Goddesses baneful | at both thy sides
Will that wounds thou shalt get.

25. “Combed and washed | shall the wise man go,
And a meal at mom shall take;
For unknown it is | where at eve he may be;
It is ill thy luck to lose.”

Fáfnismál (The Ballad of Fáfnir) 44 stanzas – Like so many of the poems the action happens before it starts. In the prose prologue Sigurd waits in the trench and kills the dragon. This poem is about what interests this culture, a dialogue between the hero and the dragon about wisdom and fate. Eventually leads to the scene where Sigurd cooks the dragon’s heart, tastes the blood, understand the birds warning him against Regin, who he promptly decapitates.

Sigurth spake:
28. “Better is heart | than a mighty blade
For him who shall fiercely fight;
The brave man well | shall fight and win,
Though dull his blade may be.

29. “Brave men better | than cowards be,
When the clash of battle comes;
And better the glad | than the gloomy man
Shall face what before him lies.

Sigrdrífumál (The Lay of Sigrdrífa) In this poem, in this version, the woman asleep on the Hind’s Fell surrounded by a wall of flame is not Brynhild, but a different Valkyrie named Sigrdrífa. Sigurd wakes her and then they do what these people love: have a wisdom dialogue, in fact a monologue, in which she first explains what runes you need to practice various skills, and then gives a numbered set of practical advice for warriors. It is in the middle of this sequence, after stanza 27, that the poem breaks off abruptly because a great hole has been torn in the codex. The fifth folio of eight sheets is missing, maybe 250 verses, a huge chunk of text covering the central story of the betrothal of Sigurd and Brynhild and the treachery of queen Grimhild, are missing. This is referred to as THE GREAT LACUNA.

6. Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.

7. Ale-runes learn, | that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, | and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, | and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know | thou never shalt see
Thy mead with evil mixed.)

8. Birth-runes learn, | if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, | and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.

9. Wave-runes learn, | if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, | and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, | and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.

Apparently this is the most confused and scraped together of all the Codex Regius poems. As Henry Adams Bellows puts it: “the strange conglomeration of stanzas which the compiler of the collection has left for us, and which, in much the same general form, seems to have lain before the authors of the Volsungasaga, in which eighteen of its stanzas are quoted, is not a poem at all… The Sigrdrifumol section as we now have it is an extraordinary piece of patchwork…a collection of fragments, most of them originally having no relation to the main subject. All of the story, the dialogue and the characterization are embodied in stanzas 1-4 and 20-21 and in the prose notes accompanying the first four stanzas; all of the rest might equally well (or better) be transferred to the Hovamol…”

—–THE GREAT LACUNA—–

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (Fragment of a Poem about Sigurd) After the Great Lacuna this poem starts or rather resumes in mid-flow. Its 19 stanzas cover Sigurd’s murder and the recriminations between brother and sister Gunnar and Gudrun. It’s notable that’s Sigurd’s death, in this poem, happens out of doors by a river on some journey. Also that it is treated very casually:

4. They cooked a wolf, | they cut up a snake,
They gave to Gotthorm | the greedy one’s flesh,
Before the men, | to murder minded,
Laid their hands | on the hero bold.

5. Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine;
From a limb a raven | called full loud:
“Your blood shall redden | Atli’s blade,
And your oaths shall bind | you both in chains.”

6. Without stood Guthrun, | Gjuki’s daughter,
Hear now the speech | that first she spake:
“Where is Sigurth now, | the noble king,
That my kinsmen riding | before him come?”

7. Only this | did Hogni answer:
“Sigurth we | with our swords have slain;
The gray horse mourns | by his master dead.”

“Slain was Sigurth | south of the Rhine” that’s how the central moment of the entire legend is casually described, preparing the way for stanzas recounting Gunnar’s conversations with Gudrun. Dialogue always trumps action in these poems.

Fra Dauda Sigurdar This is a short piece of prose which admits there are at least three versions of where Sigurd was killed: by a river, in a forest, or in bed.

Guðrúnarkviða I (The First Lay of Gudrún) In 27 stanzas Gudrun is unable to weep for her dead husband despite various ladies of the court coming to her and telling their life stories and the woes they have suffered; until suddenly she breaks down and bitterly laments..

17. “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.

18. “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.

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma (The Short Lay of Sigurd) at 71 stanzas the longest poem in this section, it recaps much of the plot, including the murder of Sigurd which, here, takes place in his bed next to Gudrun. In fact the poem isn’t about Sigurd at all, but in the first part describes Gudrun mourning – and in the second half details Brynhild’s elaborate plans to kill herself and arrange a big funeral pyre for herself and Sigurd. It is striking that, in this poem, Sigurd is killed in his bed and that, again, there appears to be lines or maybe whole stanzas missing, so that the fatal event is strangely mangled and elided.

20. “Gotthorm to wrath | we needs must rouse,
Our younger brother, | in rashness blind;
He entered not | in the oaths we swore,
The oaths we swore | and all our vows.”

21. It was easy to rouse | the reckless one.
. . . . . . . . . .
The sword in the heart | of Sigurth stood.

Helreið Brynhildar (Brynhild’s Hell-Ride) a short poem of 14 stanzas in which Brynhild, riding down to hell is questioned by an ogress in a cave and justifies her life and actions. “It shows the confusion of traditions manifest in all the later poems; for example, Brynhild is here not only a Valkyrie but also a swan-maiden.”

13. “Yet Guthrun reproached me, | Gjuki’s daughter,
That I in Sigurth’s | arms had slept;
Then did I hear | what I would were hid,
That they had betrayed me | in taking a mate.

14. “Ever with grief | and all too long
Are men and women | born in the world;
But yet we shall live | our lives together,
Sigurth and I. | Sink down, Giantess!”

Dráp Niflunga (The Slaying of The Niflungs) A short prose piece recounting the gruesome events after Sigurd’s funeral, where Gudrun is married off to Atli who invites her brothers to Hunland, hoping to steal their gold, tortures them, cuts out Hogni’s heart, then throws Gunnar in the snakepit where he plays the harp until bitten by an enormous adder which may or may not be Atli’s witch mother.

Guðrúnarkviða II (The Second Lay of Gudrún) In these 44 stanzas Gudrun is seen telling her story to captive king Theoderic, from the murder of Sigurd through her drugging and betrothal to Atli, to the visit of her brothers to Atli and their murder, and up until Atli’s fearful bad dreams – which presage Gudrun’s bloodthirsty murder and cooking of her own sons! This is thought to be the oldest poem in the book, dating form the 900s, an estimate reinforced by the use of Germanic details eg the fact Sigurd is murdered in a forest. It seems that the version of him being murdered in bed next to Gudrún is a later, Scandinavian, version.

This poem has real power.

3. Till my brothers let me | no longer have
The best of heroes | my husband to be;
Sleep they could not, | or quarrels settle,
Till Sigurth they | at last had slain.

4. From the Thing ran Grani | with thundering feet,
But thence did Sigurth | himself come never;
Covered with sweat | was the saddle-bearer,
Wont the warrior’s | weight to bear.

5. Weeping I sought | with Grani to speak,
With tear-wet cheeks | for the tale I asked;
The head of Grani | was bowed to the grass,
The steed knew well | his master was slain.

Guðrúnarkviða III (The Third Lay of Gudrún) a very short 11 stanza poem on a side event, one of Atli’s slave girls Herkja, claims to have seen Gudrun being unfaithful with the captive king Thjodrek. they both undergo ordeal by boiling water: Gudrún plunges her hands into the boiling water to get the stones from the bottom of the kettle and her hands are fine; Herkja does the same and her hands are badly scalded so she is thrown into a bog and drowned as punishment.

Oddrúnargrátr (The Lament of Oddrún) In these 34 stanzas Oddrún laments the tragic events which have overcome them all. She is sister to Atli who became Gunnar’s lover (presumably after Brynhild’s death). She doesn’t feature in any of the other versions or stories. It seems she has been invented in order to author this lament.

19. “Love to Gunnar | then I gave,
To the breaker of rings, | as Brynhild might…

21. “Yet could we not | our love o’ercome,
And my head I laid | on the hero’s shoulder…

Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli) These 44 stanzas cover Atli’s invitation to Gunnar and Hogni to come visit; Gudrun’s inclusion of a ring carved with runes warning them not to; their deliberation and fateful decision to go; their capture immediately on arrival; Hogni’s heart is torn out but Gunnar refuses to confess where the gold is and so he is thrown into the snakepit; in revenge Gudrun serves up the corpses of their sons to her husband Atli, before stabbing him in bed and then setting fire to the entire stronghold, killing all the staff and servants. This is reckoned to be one of the oldest poems in the collection and is without doubt one of hte grimmest and most intense.

Atlamál hin groenlenzku (The Greenland Ballad of Atli) A much longer version of the above, with 101 stanzas – ie Gunnar and Hogni’s fateful visit to Atli, this time bringing in their wives for extensive conversation before the boys set off.


The story of Jörmunrekkr, king of the Goths Though put in a separate category by scholars these stories are just a continuation of the story of Gudrún: having woken up beside the bloodsoaked body of her husband, mortally wounded by her brothers, she grieves and laments then is drugged and married off to Atli, only to witness her two brothers have their hearts torn out or be bitten to death in a snake pit, before she murders her two sons by Atli and serves him up their cooked corpses, before setting fire to the entire stronghold and burning everyone inside to death. She walks into the sea to drown herself but can’t, instead floating across the sea (strongly indicating, as the scholars point out, that she has become part-witch). Here, in a new land, she is found by and marries her third husband, Jonak, and bears him three sons Sorli and Erp and Hamther. Here she brings up Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd. The mighty and violent Goth king Jormunrek wants to marry Svanhild and sends his son Randver to woo her. Inevitably, Randver and Svanhild fall  in love but are betrayed to the king who promptly has his son hanged, and the beautiful Svanhild trampled to death under horses’ feet.

A handy summary of this story is told on the Kids Britannica website.

To quote Henry Adams Bellows:

“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.”

Guðrúnarhvöt (Gudrún’s Inciting) 22 stanzas. “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 story is told much more fully in the prose Voldungsaga; what this emphasises is the way the Codex Regius poems are about, emphasise and foreground the experiences of women, especially the figure of the grieving Gudrún. Much more than Sigurd or Gunnar, she is the enduring memory of the heroic poems.

Hamðismál (The Ballad of Hamdir) 31 stanzas. Gudrun’s sons take revenge for the trampling to death by horses of their sister Svanhild. They chop off the four limbs of the king responsible, Jörmunrekkr, before themselves being stoned to death by his men. This is a strange afterthought of a poem, starting with the sons’ foreboding, skipping very elliptically over their murder of their half-brother Erpi on the way, and then in just a few stanzas dealing with what must have been an epic fight in which king  Jormunrek and both sons die, and their last words are a fitting epitaph to the whole sorry story…

“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.”

Or, in the Penguin Andy Orchard translation:

“Great glory we have gained
though we die now or tomorrow;
no man survives a single dusk
beyond the norns’ decree.”

This is Svanhild, daughter of Sigurd and Gudrún. Pretty, eh? Her father is murdered in his bed, her mother drowns herself, and Svanhild is either tied to horses and torn to pieces or trampled to death by horses, depending on which version you read.

Black and white illustration of Svanhild

Svanhild (from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda/Public Domain)

Everybody dies and the Völsung line is wiped out. A fitting end to these strange, damaged, elliptic and addictive poems from the depths of Europe’s long Dark Age.

Sagas

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