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Norse Ballads and Their Wisdom
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About Norse Ballads, in short
"People want gold - or what?"

The Poetic Edda is a collection of Old Norse poems. Almost all, if not all, are minstrel poems, passing orally from bard to bard for centuries till they were put down in writing somewhere in medieval times. Dating the poems is a problem. Further, English translators are not consistent on the translations of the names of the Eddic poems or on how the Old Norse forms should be rendered in English.

Since we are on the outlook for wisdom all along on this page, that should be no hindrance. The hindrance is, rather, that the wisdom has to be drawn from between the lines (ie, through interpretations and knowledged of Norse names and culture as a whole). A book by Peter Munch, named Norrøne gude- og heltesagn, [Ng], which is on-line on-site in translation as Norse Legends of Gods and Heroes, could help that quite well. Besides there is the Norse glossary by Rasmus Andersen.

Without such explanations and comparisons to mythologies of other cultures, almost everything included in the visionary (ie, nonsubstantial) parts of Poetic Edda may seem to rather flimsy or of little substance, with the teaching poem Havamal as a notable exception. Also, the lays tend to be mere fragments related to older European tales. As for the many symbols for bards and poetic circumlocutions (Norw.: k(j)enningar) in it, they require study of what they were based on.

The further away from that surface we get through interpolation and interpretation, the more unsure of the suspected meanings we end up. Consequently, I have abstained from getting much involved in this poetry. However, some passages of neat observations and the like, are included below. The translation of Henry A. Bellows is used throughout (book data are at bottom of the page).

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Lays of the Gods

On Voluspo: The Wise-Woman's Prophecy

The Prophecy of the Vølva (Song of the Sybil) is the first poem of the Poetic Edda. It tells the story of the creation of the world and its coming end. It is one of the most important primary sources for the study of Norse mythology.

From Henry A. Bellow's introduction to it:

The evidences of Christian influence are sufficiently striking to outweigh the arguments of Finnur Jonsson, Müllenhoff and others who maintain that the Voluspo is purely a product of heathendom.

How much the poem was altered during the two hundred years between its composition and its first being committed to writing is largely a matter of guesswork.

A Volva, wise-woman, is called upon by Othin, answers him and demands a hearing. Evidently she be longs to the race of the giants.

The World Tree

An ash I know,
Yggdrasil its name,
With water white
is the great tree wet;
From that place come the dews
that fall in the dales,
Green by Urth's well
does it ever grow. (1)

From that place come the maidens
mighty in wisdom,
Three from the dwelling
down beneath the tree;
Urth is one named,
Verthandi the next,–
On the wood they scored, -
and Skuld the third.
Laws they made there, and life allotted
To the sons of men, and set their fates. (20)

The world-ash is kept green by being sprinkled with marvellous healing water.

Asgard rebuilt

Asgard was rebuilt after being destroyed by the Wanes. The gods employed a giant as builder, who demanded as his reward the sun and moon, and the goddess Freyja for his wife. The gods, terrified by the rapid progress of the work, forced Loki, who had advised the bargain, to delay the giant by a trick, so that the work was not finished in the stipulated time. The enraged giant then threatened the gods, whereupon Thor slew him.

By violating their oaths to the giant who rebuilt Asgard, the gods aroused undying hatred of the giants' race, and thus the giants were among their enemies in the final battle [at the end of the world, Ragnarok].

Warrior-maidens

The conception of supernatural warrior-maiden [Valkyries] was presumably brought to Scandinavia in very early times from the South-Germanic races, and later it was interwoven with the likewise South-Germanic tradition of the swan-maiden.

The originally quite human women of the hero-legends were endowed with the qualities of both Valkyries and swan-maidens. COMMENTS. Some of these themes of old Norse mythology appears in folktales in later times. The maidens associated with the tree of life are Norse fates. The "world tree" has counterparts in the ancient cultures of India and Egypt. The Bhagavad Gita says in chapter 15:1-4:

1. They (the wise) speak of the indestructible peepultree [banyan tree], having its root above and branches below, whose leaves are the [Veda] metres or hymns; he who knows it is a knower of the Vedas.

2. Below and above spread its branches, nourished by the Gunas [three quality-categories, also called modes of nature]; sense-objects are its buds; and below in the world of men stretch forth the roots, originating action.

3. Its form is not perceived here as such, neither its end nor its origin, nor its foundation nor resting place; having cut asunder this firmly-rooted peepultree with the strong axe of non-attachment,

4. Then that goal should be sought after, whither having gone none returns again. [Sivananda's translation]

Hovamol

Havamal is an Old Norse teaching poem which is a combination of different poems. It presents advice for living and survival. At least parts, if not the whole poem, stems from an earlier oral tradition.

Havamal translation on-site are here (Olive Bray) and here (Henry A. Bellows).

The Ballad of Vafthruthnir, Vafthruthnismol

In quest of wisdom Othin seeks out the giant Vafthruthnir. The giant at once insists that they shall demonstrate which is the wiser of the two. They ask one another questions that revolve on naming this and that, largely by personifications like "Delling is the father of the sun". It says that what the Norse called wisdom, stems from rote learning of elements of shared fancy; another form of name-dropping. It does not seem wiser than that. You find such words in the Norse dictionary.

Twig

Let your mind be keen. [1]

If a poor man reaches the home of the rich,
let him speak wisely or be still.

Out of Ymir's flesh the earth was formed.
The mountains were made of his bones;
The sky from the frost-cold giant's skull,
And the ocean out of his blood. [2]

COMMENT: (1) "Mind-keening" should be through meditation, suggestedly. (2) Highly figurate teachings depend on interpretations to make some sense. [Cf. Ng 25-26]

The Ballad of Grimnir, Grimnismol

Hundreds of names are given.

The Ballad of Skirnir. Skirnismol

The Skirnismol has a distinctly ballad quality. But its verse is altogether dialogue. Freyr, the son of Njorth, once looked into Jotunheim, and saw there a fair maiden. He felt a mighty love-sickness.

Njorth bade his servant Skirnir visit Freyr and get news of him. Freyr was love-sick. Consequently, Skirnir rode into Jotunheim to where she lived. The father of the maiden did not want Freyr for her husband. But Skirnir threatened and cooed till the daughter gave in.

Skirnir rode back to Freyr and said she would be his in nine days.

Norse wooers at times drove a very hard bargain.

The Poem of Harbarth. Harbarthsljoth

The chaotic and vulgar Harbarthsljoth is the most nearly formless of all the Eddic poems. The poem consists mainly of boasting and references in a contest of abuse, such as the Norwegians and Icelanders delighted in before, if not nowadays too. The opposing figures in the poem are Thor and Othin. Othin is disguised as the ferryman Harbarth.

Twig

Thor was on his way back from a journey in the East, and came to a sound; on the other side of the sound was a ferryman with a boat. Thor called out, "Ferry me over the sound, and I will feed you in the morning."

The ferryman answered, "You do not know the future fully. Your mother is dead."

The Lay of Hymir. Hymiskvitha

The Hymiskvitha is a distinctly inferior piece of work where fragments are awkwardly pieced together. It seems probable that the author took a lot of odds and ends of material about Thor, whether in prose or in verse, and worked them together in a perfunctory way, without much caring how well they fitted.

Loki's Wrangling. Lokasenna

The poem is one of the most vigorous of the entire collection.

The sea-god Ægir, who was also called Gymir, had prepared ale for the gods after he had got the mighty kettle. To this feast came Othin and Frigg, his wife. Thor came not, as he was on a journey in the East. Sif, Thor's wife, was there, and Brage, with Ithun, his wife. Tyr, who had but one hand, was there; the wolf Fenrir had bitten off his other hand when they had bound him. There were Njorth and Skathi his wife, Freyr and Freyja, and Vithar, the son of Othin. Loki was there, and Freyr's servants Byggvir and Beyla. Many were there of the gods and elves.

Ægir had two serving-men, Fimafeng and Eldir. The guests praised much the ability of Ægir's serving-men. Loki might not endure that, and he slew Fimafeng. Then the gods shook their shields and howled at Loki and drove him away to the forest, and thereafter set to drinking again. Loki turned back, and went into the hall, but when they who were there saw who had entered, they would not welcome him. Loki challenged them by slandering and mocking their various weakness and sins, including incest. Among other things he told Odin,

"You do not justly set the fat of the fight among men. Often you have given the battle's prize to him who did not deserve that gift."

The gods and Loki bickered for a long while.

"Drink beyond measure will lead all men to take [not good enough] thought of what they say," said the god Heimdall.

Then Thor threatened to kill Loki if he did not cease.

After that Loki hid himself in a waterfall in the guise of a salmon.

The high and mighty seldom feel that plenty of criticism of them is fit.

The Lay of Thrym, Thrymskvitha

Next to the Voluspo and Havamal, Thrymskvitha is one of the most famous of the collection. One day the god Thor woke up and missed his hammer. He was soon helped by Loki, who went to the goddess Freya, who had a dress of feathers, which enabled the wearer to fly, and asked if he could borrow it so that he could seek his hammer. He soon flew to the realm of giants. There he came across the frost-giant Thrym, who said he had hidden the hammer eight miles down in the earth. But he could give it back if he god Freya for his wife.

Loki brought the message to Thor, and soon it was found that Freya declined the offer violently. The gods met together and held council, and one of them said, "Bind the bridal veil on Thor himself. Let him wear Freya's necklage. Hang keys around him and let him wear a woman's dress down to his knees, and a pretty cap on his head."

Thor was persuaded to comply with it, and went to the giant's home with Loki. Thrym the giant said, "I own much, but I lacked Freya."

Food was served, and Thor alone ate an ox and eight salmon, and all the dainties, and drank three tuns of mead.

Thrym soon said, "Bring in the hammer."

And as soon as Thor laid hand on it, he killed all the giants involved. [Abridged]

The humorous Norse story is fit for enactment. And the moral is assemedly between the lines, for example:

Watch out for guys of a violent temper and other party crashers.

The wrongly married bride could plan to get rid of her bridegroom after getting to his treasured possessions.

From the Ballad of Alvis, Alvissmol

The poem is found only in Regius, where it follows the Thrymskvitha. Manuscripts of the Prose Edda give the name of the poem as Alvissmol, Alsvinnsmol or Olvismol. Many of the Norse words can be properly rendered in English only by more or less extended phrases.

Twig

Thor to the dwarf Alvis (All-Knowing): You look like a giant. You were not born for the bride . . . Over the bride her father has foremost right. 2, 4

NOTE. The bride in question is Thor's daughter; Thruth ("Might). Her mother was Sif, Thor's wife.

Alvis: What men name 'clouds', gods call 'Rain-Hope'. 18

Thor: What do they call the wind, that widest fares in each and every world? What do they call the calm that lies quiet in each and every world? 19, 21

Thor: What do they call the fire that flames for me in each of all the worlds? 25
Alvis: The gods call it 'Flame'. The Wanes call it 'Wildfire'.

NOTE. Wildfire: the word may mean any one of various things, including "Wave," which is not unlikely.

Thor: What do they call the night . . . in each and every world?
Alvis: 'Darkness' gods name it, 'The Hood' the holy ones say. 30

Thor: What do they call the seed that is sown by men in each and every world? 31
Alvis: "Men call it 'Grain,' and the gods 'Corn', 'Growth' in the world the Wanes say. 32

Dreams of Balder - Baldrs Draumar

Baldrs Draumar is found in the Arnamagnæan Codex. The poem seems to have been preserved in excellent condition. The poem is essentially dramatic, summarizing a familiar story, where the god Balder had uncanny dreams. As a result, Odin rode to hell and demanded to know who would kill Balder.

"Hoth," said the woman he asked there, and was right.

There are sides to the old story that make sense, but they are not found in this poem. From Peter A Munch on Balder:

Balder was the god of pieity and innocense, and so bright that he shines. He was wise, eloquent, mild and merciful, while at the same time so just that his judgement ever stood. His home was perfectly clean.

As long as Balder lived, evil and violence could not conquer the world. But as time went by, Balder had bad dreams, which scared the other gods. Odin rode to Nivlheim (Hell) and sought advice from a dead sibyl. She said Hod was going to kill Balder.

When Odin came back to the other gods, the god Frigg made all things swear an oath that they would not hurt Balder - neither fire, water, iron, stones, the earth, the trees, diseases, animals and birds, or snakes, and so on. Now the gods thought they were safe and secure, and humoured themselves by letting Balder stand up to be shot at, cut with axes, and having stones thrown at him. It did not hurt him.

But there was a little tree west of where the gods entertained themselves, the mistle toe. Someone handed it over to the blind Hod, an, and asked him to shoot at Balder with it. He did, and the mistle toe twigh went straight through Balder, so that he fell dead. Nothing could counteract it either. [Ng 40-41; 117-23; abstracts]

This makes sense:

Don't push your luck, no matter how invulnerable you think you are.

The good may be envied in secret.

An envied man should take precautions enough to be safe.

Twig

Odin spoke: "Wise-woman, cease not!" 8

The Song of Rig. Rigsthula

The Rigsthula is a cultural poem in praise of royalty. It promotes the idea of caste, where hyper-aggressive ones, athletic warriors, are on top of along with knowers and wielders of runes and miracles. At the back of the divisions lies concern for earthly wealth.

Twig

They tell in old stories that one of the gods, Heimdall, went on his way along a seashore, and came to a dwelling, where he called himself Rig.

Ai and Edda were sitting there by the hearth. He spent three days with them. After nine months Edda gave birth to a son -

Rig went to another place and stayed there too for three days. Nine months later another child was born.

The pattern of visiting a couple and making the woman pregnant persists throughout.

The Poem of Hyndla. Hyndluljoth

The poem about Hyndla, sister of Freya, is not of any great value. Enumerations of ancestry dominate. Norse people took pride in some kinds of ancestry.

The Ballad of Svipdag. Svipdagsmol

The story of Svipdag and Mengloth became popular throughout the North, and was made the subject of many Scandinavian ballads. Most of the content consists of "Answer me this, answer me that" according to what perhaps was established Norse beliefs with its frequently roundabout, masked ways of referring. Thus, a faith is is kept up by poetry.

COMMENT. A ballad tells a story, and in some ballads are series of questions and answers. Also, myth is commonly rich in imagery, which gives birth to artistic works that keep up the shared belief. It was similar in ancient Greece and Rome, for example. Very much culture takes off from visual imagery through several kinds of arts, like tale-telling, poetry, sculpturing, and painting.

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Lays of the Heroes

The Lay of Vølund. Vølundarkvitha

The story of Volund the smith came to the North from Saxon regions. In stanza 16 the Rhine is mentioned as the home of treasure. The legend cannot have been a native product of Scandinavia. In one form or another, however, the legend of the smith persisted for centuries.

The story of the laming of the smith by King Nithuth (or by some other enemy) and of Weland's revenge, forms the basis of the Vølundarkvitha. To this has been added the story of Vølund and the swan-maiden. The swan-maiden story appears in many places distinct from the Weland tradition. It is of German rather than Scandinavian origin.

There was a king in Sweden named Nithuth [Bitter Hater, perhaps of the Nerike district]. He had two sons and one daughter; her name was Bothvild. There were three brothers, sons of a king of the Finns [dwellers in Lapland]: one was called Slagfith, another Egil, the third Vølund. They went on snowshoes and hunted wild beasts. They came into Ulfdalir and there they built themselves a house; there was a lake there which is called Ulfsjar. Early one morning they found on the shore of the lake three women, who were spinning flax. Near them were their swan garments, for they were Valkyries. Two of them were daughters of King Hlothver, Hlathguth the Swan-White and Hervor the All-Wise, and the third was Olrun, daughter of Kjar from Valland. These did they bring home to their hall with them. Egil took Olrun, and Slagfith Swan-White, and Vølund Hervor All-Wise. There they dwelt seven winters; but then they flew away to find battles, and came back no more.

Then Egil set forth on his snowshoes to follow Olrun, and Slagfith followed Swan White, but Vølund stayed in Ulfdalir, a most skillful man. King Nithuth had him taken by force, and the sinews in his knee-joints were cut, and he was set in an island which was near the mainland, and was called Sævarstath. There he smithied for the king all kinds of precious things.

Since he could not walk away, Vølund made himself wings, and soared up, telling the king, "I have made your only daughter pregnant."

When called on, she confirmed it.

Is there a moral of this story?

To be constructive, make pretty things, and tend to new life, may work as revenge under some debasing circumstances.

Babies are the greatest creations of people. Wise ones may be served by analogous reduplications thus.

The Lay of Helgi the Son of Hjorvarth. Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar

There are three Helgi lays. Helgi appears originally to have been a Danish popular hero, the son of King Halfdan. From Denmark the story appears to have spread northward into Norway and westward into the Norse settlements among the islands. Not many of its original features remained, and new ones were added here and there, particularly with regard to Helgi's love affair with a Sigrun.

The first Helgi lay is in bad shape. The last section, stanzas 31-43, tells of the death of Helgi.

Whoever composed them seems to have been consciously trying to bring his chaotic verse material into some semblance of unity, but he did his work pretty clumsily, with manifest blunders and contradictions.

Here we have a story in which a king speak with birds, not just to them. Raiding and hoarding and holding on to gold and silver is thought very highly of, as it ususally is in these "waters". Ships were valuable possessions too.

The lay describes king Helgi as a mighty warrior. He sought the hand of Svava, a Valkyrie. Helgi and Svava exchanged vows, and greatly they loved each other.

Helgi foresaw his death. And during a battle, Helgi got a mortal wound and fell. He said to Svava, "Do not weep, but sleep on with my brother and give your love to him."

There were so many Helgi stories current, and the hero died in so many irreconcilable ways, that tradition had to have him born over again, not once only but several times, to accommodate his many deaths.

Maidens, love kings and warriors, is a recurrent message in Norse works, which also happened to serve kings and warriors.

The First Lay of Helgi Helgi Hundingsbana. Helgakvitha Hundingsbana 1

The first lay of Helgi Hundingsbane is one of the latest of the Eddic poems. Helgi was a fighter prince, a Norse hero. Helgi slayed Hunding in a battle. His added name, Hundingsbana, refers to that.

The Second Lay of Helgi Hundingsbana. Helgakvitha Hundingsbana 2

This lay is nothing but a piece of very clumsy patchwork in the main, informs Bellows.

King Sigmund, the son of Volsung, had as wife Borghild, from Bralund. They named their son Helgi, after Helgi Hjorvarthsson. Hunding was the name of a powerful king, and Hundland is named from him. He was a mighty warrior. There was enmity and strife between these two, King Hunding and King Sigmund, and each slew the other's kinsmen. King Sigmund and his family were called Volsungs and Ylfings. Helgi went as a spy to the home of King Hunding in disguise. Hæming, a son of King Hunding's, was at home. When Helgi went forth, then he met a young herdsman.

Soon King Hunding sent men to Hagal to seek Helgi, and Helgi could not save himself in any other way, so he put on the clothes of a bond-woman and set to work at the mill. They sought Helgi but did not find him.

Helgi escaped and went to a fighting ship. He slew King Hunding, and from then on was called Helgi Hundingsbane.

Once he lay with his host in Brunavagar, and they had there a strand-slaughtering, and ate the flesh raw. Hogni was the name of a king. His daughter was Sigrun; she was a Valkyrie and rode air and water; she was Svava reborn. Sigrun rode to Helgi's ship and declared himself an Ylfing. He did not understand how Sigrun knew him to be Helgi.

Granmar was the name of a mighty king, who dwelt at Svarin's hill. He had many sons; one was named Hothbrodd. Hothbrodd won the promise of having Sigrun, Hogni's daughter, for his wife. But when she heard this, she rode with the Valkyries over air and sea to seek Helgi. Helgi was then at Logafjoll and had fought with Hunding's sons; there he killed Alf and Eyolf, Hjorvarth and Hervarth. He was all weary with battle, and sat under the eagle-stone. There Sigrun found him, and ran to throw her arms about his neck, and kissed him, and told him her tidings, as is set forth in the old Volsung lay.

Helge would fight for her. He assembled a great sea-host and went to Frekastein. On the sea he met a perilous storm; lightning flashed overhead and the bolts struck the ship. They saw in the air that nine Valkyries were riding, and recognized Sigrun among them. Then the storm abated, and they came safe and sound to land. Granmar's sons sat on a certain mountain as the ships sailed toward the land. Gothmund leaped on a horse and rode for news to a promontory near the harbor; the Volsungs were even then lowering their sails.

Then Granmar's sons summoned an army. Many kings came there; including Hogni, Sigrun's father, and his sons Bragi and Dag. There was a great battle, and all Granmar's sons were slain and all their allies; only Dag, Hogni's son, was spared, and he swore loyalty to the Volsungs. Sigrun went among the dead and found Hothbrodd at the coming of death. She said: "Never shall I be held in your arms."

Then she sought out Helgi, and was full of joy. He said: "You have won nothing."

Then Sigrun wept. Helgi told her not to grieve her slain relatives and the other fighters. Helgi took Sigrun to wife, and they had sons. But Helgi did not reach old age. Dag, the son of Hogni, found Helgi, his brother-in-law, at a place which is called Fjoturlund. He thrust the spear through Helgi's body. Then Helgi fell, and Dag rode to Sevafjoll and told Sigrun the tidings.

She reminded her brother that he had sworn loyalty to Helgi, and cursed him.

Dag did not like that, and called her mad.

A hill was made in Helgi's memory. And when he came to Valhall, then Othin bade him rule over every thing with himself.

One of Sigrun's maidens went one evening to Helgi's hill, and saw that Helgi rode to the hill with many men, The maiden said: "Is this a dream?"

Helgi said, "No."

The maiden went home and told Sigrun to go to the hill. Sigrun went in the hill to Helgi, and said:

""Now am I glad."

Helgi said, "You alone caused it all."

Sigrun made ready a bed in the hill. But Helgi and his followers rode on their way, and the women went home to the dwelling.

Another evening Sigrun bade the maiden keep watch at the hill. And at sunset when Sigrun came to the hill she said: "Hope grows dim."

Sigrun died early of sorrow and grief. Of Helgi and Sigrun it is said that they were born again; he became Helgi Haddingjaskati, and she Kara the daughter of Halfdan, as is told in the Lay of Kara, and she was a Valkyrie.

Some intrigues among Norse families were due to love, others revenge, and all was explained (away) as fate.

Many stories from a culture reflect its basic attitudes and socialising plans fairly consistently.

Of Sinfjotli's Death. Fra Dautha Sinfjotla

The words "confusing mishmash" seem fit to describe Dautha Sinfjotla. However, there are episodes and incidents in them worth retelling.

Twig

The twin sister of Sigmund Volsungsson, Signy, had married Siggeir, who hated his brother-in-law because he wanted a sword that had been won by Sigmund., Siggeir slew Volsung and captured his sons, who were set in the stocks. Each night a wolf (some men say that she was Siggeir's mother) came out of the woods and ate up one of the brothers, till on the tenth night Sigmund alone was left.

Then, however, Signy aided him to escape, and incidentally to kill the wolf. He vowed vengeance on Siggeir, and Signy, who hated her husband, was determined to help him. Signy changed forms with a witch and sought out Sigmund, who spent three nights with her without knowing who she was. Afterwards she gave birth to a boy, whom she named Sinfjotli, and sent him to Sigmund.

For a time father and son lived in the woods, occasionally turning into wolves. When Sinfjotli was full grown, he and his father came to Siggeir's house, but were seen and betrayed by the two young sons of Signy and Siggeir. As a result, Sinfjotli slew them. Siggeir promptly had Sigmund and Sinfjotli buried alive, but Signy managed to smuggle Sigmund's famous sword into the grave, and with this the father and son dug themselves out. The next night they burned Siggeir's house. Siggeir died in the flames, and Signy, who at last did not want to leave her husband from a sense of somewhat belated loyalty, perished with him.

They fought and killed one another over good swords and other warrior outfit in those days. When they all were wiped out by grave customs, it was too late to change the patterns of living the famous "nobles" were set it.

COMMENT. The basis of the story is supposedly an old poem which has been lost.

The Helgi tradition, originally from Denmark, was early associated with that of the Volsungs, which was of Frankish origin. Helgi was a son of Sigmund Volsungsson, and another son was Sinfjotli, who has a wordy dispute with a Gothmund Granmarsson.

The Sigurth story, a Frankish Tale

Sigmund, the son of Volsung, was a king in the land of the Franks; Sinfjotli was his eldest son. Borghild, Sigmund's wife, had a brother. Sinfjotli, her stepson, and someone Borghild was related to, both wooed the same woman, so Sinfjotli slew him.

When he came home, Borghild bade him depart, but Sigmund offered her atonement-money, and this she had to accept. At the funeral feast Borghild brought in ale; she took poison, a great horn full, and brought it to Sinfjotli. But when he looked into the horn, he saw that it was poison, and said to Sigmund:

"Muddy is the drink, Father!"

Sigmund took the horn and drank from it. It is said that Sigmund was so hardy that poison might not harm him, either outside or in, but all his sons could withstand poison only without on their skin.

Borghild bore another horn to Sinfjotli and bade him drink, and all happened as before. And yet a third time she brought him a horn, and spoke scornfully of him if he should not drink from it. He spoke as before with Sigmund. He said:

"Let it trickle through your beard, son!"

Sinfjotli drank, and straightway was dead.

King Sigmund dwelt long in Denmark in Borghild's kingdom after he had married her. Thereafter Sigmund went south into the land of the Franks, to the kingdom which he had there. There he married Hjordis, the daughter of King Eylimi; their son was Sigurth. Sigurth was the foremost of all, and all men call him in the old tales the noblest of mankind and the mightiest leader.

COMMENT. Borghild belongs to the Danish Helgi part of the story. Sigmund's two kingdoms are an echo of the blended traditions.

In the German story Siegfried's mother is Sigelint. Eylimi and Hjordis were introduced into the Sigmund-Sigurth story, the latter replacing Sigelint, from some version of the Helgi tradition.

The German legend permits the elderly Sigmund to outlive his son.

Repeating an incident or scene three times with or without variations or alterations, enhances the entertainment value of what is told. It is a feature of many folk tales still. See for yourself: [LINK].]

Gripir's Prophecy. Gripisspo

The poem is a dialogue between the youthful Sigurth and his uncle, Gripir. The story of Sigurth reached the North from Germany, having previously developed among the Franks of the Rhine country.

Fortune lies in the hero's life [they say].

The Ballad of Regin, Reginsmol

An otter had caught a salmon, and sat on the high bank eating it with his eyes shut. At that moment Loki threw a stone at him and killed him.

Gifts you gave, but you gave not kindly, gave not with hearts that were whole.

Combed and washed shall the wise man go, and a meal at morn shall take;
For unknown it is where at eve he may be.

The Ballad of Fafnir. Fafnismol

Fafnismol shows many of the same characteristics as the Reginsmol. The Reginsmol is little more than a clumsy mosaic, but in the Fafnismol it is possible to distinguish between the main substance of the poem and the interpolations. Here, as in the Reginsmol, there is very little that bespeaks the German origin of the Sigurth story. Sigurth's winning of the treasure is in itself undoubtedly a part of the earlier southern legend, but the manner in which he does it is Norse. The Fafnismol has become one of the best known of the Eddic poems, because Richard Wagner used it as the basis for his "Siegfried."

Twig

Sigurth and Regin went up to the Gnitaheith, and found there the track that Fafnir made when he crawled to water. Then Sigurth made a great trench across the path, and took his place therein. When Fafnir crawled from his gold and over the trench, Sigurth thrust his sword into his body, to the heart, and dragon's blood poured down on Sigurth's head. But it was led away from him because an old man had appeared beforehand and advised Sigurth to dig other trenches to carry off the blood, which he did. So Sigurth escaped being drowned in dragon's blood.

Fafnir writhed and struck out with his head and tail. Sigurth leaped from the trench, and each looked at the other and had a round of questions and answers.

Sigurth hid his name because it was believed in olden times that the word of a dying man might have great power if he cursed his foe by his name. He said: "Noble Hart is my name, and lonely I live. So am I myself. The wealth belonged to my father."

But Fafnir cursed it anyway, "for it often happens that he who gets a deadly wound yet avenges himself," and counselled him not to take the treasure away, for in that case it would kill him.

Sigurth spoke: "Glittering worm, your hiss greatly, but I shall go to the gold."

Fafnir spoke: "Regin will betray you and bring death to you.

Sigurd returned to Regin and said, "Better is heart than a mighty blade for him who shall fiercely fight. The brave man shall fight well and win, even though his sword blade may be dull. The glad man is better than the gloomy one."

When this was said, Regin went up to Fafnir and cut out his heart with his sword, and then he drank blood from the wounds. Regin said: "Sit now, Sigurth, for I will sleep. Hold Fafnir's heart to the fire. For all his heart shall be eaten."

Sigurth took Fafnir's heart and cooked it on a spit. When he thought that it was fully cooked, and the blood foamed out of the heart, he tried it with his finger to see whether it was fully cooked. He burned his finger, and put it in his mouth. But when Fafnir's heart's-blood came on his tongue, he understood the speech of birds. He heard nut-hatches chattering in the thickets. A nut hatch said:

"There sits Sigurth, sprinkled with blood, and Fafnir's heart he cooks. But if Sigurth is wise, he will eat the heart himself, and not trust his brother Regin at all.

"Most foolish he seems if he shall spare that foe of his. Regin has wronged him, but Sigurth does not know.

Sigurth hewed off Regin's head, and then he ate Fafnir's heart, and drank the blood of both Regin and Fafnir. Then Sigurth heard what the nut-hatch said:

" Sigurd, I know the fairest, maid. Ride up on the Mountain of the Hind, where the Valkyrie Brynhild sleeps, and you may buy her as a bride, now that you have Fafnir's hoard."

Sigurth rode along Fafnir's trail to his lair, and found it open. The gate-posts were of iron, and so were the gates and all the beams in the house too. Inside Sigurth found a mighty store of gold, and he filled two chests full; took the fear-helm and a golden mail-coat and a treasured sword and many other precious things, and loaded his horse with them, but the horse would not go forward until Sigurth mounted on his back.

[This retelling is tailored from several versions Bellows refer to, to make more sense.]

Betrayals and going for gold and treasures went into Viking lifestyle too.

Being able to converse with birds or understand what they sing, is treasured in many folk tales too. [COMPARE]

The Ballad of The Victory-Bringer. Sigrdrifumol

The so-called Sigrdrifumol the most chaotic of all the poems in the Eddic collection, an extraordinary piece of patchwork. The end of it has been entirely lost, so the conclusion of the poem is in obscurity.

The Sigrdrifumol has little claim to be regarded as a distinct poem. The Sigrdrifumol must be regarded simply as 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. Yet stanzas 2-4 are as fine as anything in Old Norse poetry, and it is out of these three stanzas that Wagner constructed much of the third act of "Siegfried."

Twig

Sigurth rode up on the Hind mountain and turned southward toward the land of the Franks. On the mountain he saw a great light, as if fire were burning, and the glow reached up to heaven. And when he came there, there stood a tower of shields, and above it was a banner. Sigurth went into the shield-tower, and saw that a man lay there sleeping with all his war-weapons. First he took the helm from his head, and then he saw that it was a woman. The mail-coat was as fast as if it had grown to the flesh. Then he cut the mail-coat from the head-opening downward, and out to both the arm-holes. Then he took the mail-coat from her, and she awoke, and sat up and saw Sigurth.

Sigurth sat down beside her and asked her name. She took a horn full of mead and gave him a memory-draught.

Her name was Sigrdrifa, and she was a Valkyrie. She said that two kings had fought in battle; one was called Hjalmgunnar, an old man but a mighty warrior, and the other was Agnar. Sigrdrifa had slewn Hjalmgunnar in the battle, and Othin pricked her with the sleep-thorn in punishment for this, and said that she should never thereafter win victory in battle, but that she should be wedded.

"And I said to him that I had made a vow that I would

never marry a man who knew the meaning of fear."

Now Sigrdrifa said to Sigurth: "Learn winning-runes learn if you long to win."

The earliest runes were not letters, but simply signs supposed to possess magic power; out of them developed the "runic alphabet." "Tyr" in it is the name of a rune which became "T." The word "nauth," meaning "need," is also the name of the rune which became "N."

Charms: the wearing of amulets was very common.

Sigurth said: "Nowhere is to be found any one wiser than you, and this I swear, that I shall have you, and that you are after my heart's desire."

She answered: "I would rather have you though I might choose among all men."

This they bound between them with oaths.

Counsel

If men shall wrangle and ale-talk rise to wrath, have no words with a drunken warrior, for wine steals many men's wits.

Shun evil and beware of lying words;

It may be better to go forth to battle than to stay at home and be burned to death. Many a Norse warrior met his death in this latter way.

Never trust the word of the race of wolves [family of a slain foe].

Wits and weapons the warrior needs.

Shun wrath and false treachery with your friends.

Formidable are the foes a [Viking] leader faces.

Fragment of a Sigurth Lay - Brot af Sigurtharkvithu

The extant fragment shows signs of being part of a poem of not less than eighty or a hundred stanzas, possibly more.

The hero Sigurth comes to the dwelling of Brynhild's brother-in-law, where he meets Brynhild and they swear oaths of fidelity anew. Then the scene shifts: Guthrun, Gjuki's daughter, has a terrifying dream, and visits Brynhild to have it explained, which the latter does by foretelling pretty much everything that is going to happen. Guthrun returns home, and Sigurth soon arrives. Grimhild, mother of Gunnar and Guthrun, gives him a magic draught which makes him forget Brynhild, and shortly thereafter he marries Guthrun.

Then Sigurth wins Brynhild for Gunnar.

After Sigurth has spent three nights with Brynhild, laying his sword between them, he and Gunnar return home, while Brynhild goes to the dwelling of her brother-in-law, Heimir, and makes ready for her marriage with Gunnar. The wedding takes place, but is soon followed by a quarrel between Guthrun and Brynhild. Gudrun betrays the fact that it was Sigurth, and not Gunnar, who did the feats that won Brynhild for Gunnar. Brynhild then tells Gunnar that she had given herself wholly to Sigurth before she had become Gunnar's wife.

Soon afterward Gunnar and his brother Hogni deceived Sigurd in his trust of them and fell upon him when he was lying down and unprepared south of the Rhine somewhere.

Animals and barbarians show us how to be alert to possible danger most of the time.

Twig

The grey horse mourns by his dead master. 7

The First Lay of Guthrun. Guthrunarkvitha 1

The First Lay of Guthrun, Guthrunarkvitha, is a distinct unit. of Guthrun (Kriemhild) is almost certainly among the oldest parts of the story. 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.

In their present forms the second Guthrun lay is older than he first, which scarcely was composed before the year 1000, and may be somewhat later.

Twig

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 that Guthrun had eaten of Fafnir's heart, and that thereafter she was much grimmer than before, and wiser.

But when Guthrun was along with the corpse, her tears ran like raindrops, and she lamented. Soon she left the place, though.

The Short Lay of Sigurth. Sigurtharkvitha en Skamma

The poem as we now have it leaves a good deal to be desired, for the reason that the poet's object was by no means to tell a story, tells Bellows. The poet has taken whatever material he wanted without much discrimination.

The original home of the poem was most probably Greenland or Iceland.

Sigurth's Frankish origin is seldom wholly lost sight of in the Norse versions of the story.

Twig

Brynhild discovers she had been tricked into marrying a Gunnar, while the man she loved was Sigurth. She kept brooding over this, and later said, "It would be good to have the gold of the Rhine."

The sands of the Rhine traditionally contained gold. This was apparently the original home of the treasure of the Nibelungs.

Later Sigurth was killed by deception.

Greed for Sigurth's wealth was one of the motives for slaying him.

The laments is propped up by talks of wealth, gold, jewels, hoards, and treasures, and wrongs done according to manly standards that demanded blood revenge and brought on feuds - and tyranny later.

Without Sigurth Brynhild determined to die. Five female slaves and eight serfs were killed to be burned on the funeral pyre, and thus to follow Sigurth in death. The burning or burying of slaves or beasts to accompany their masters in death was a general custom in the North.

On all her wealth her eyes were gazing,
On the bond-women slain and the slaughtered slaves.
Her byrnie of gold she donned, and grim was her heart
Before the point of her sword had pierced it.

Wounded she laid and said,

I want my women to come here,
Those who want gold from me.
My life I now have lost.

Necklaces fashioned to each
Shall I give, and cloth, and garments bright.

She meant that those of her women who wished to win rewards must be ready to follow her in death.

Besides the hero burn me.
Besides the hero there
Slaves shall burn
Two at his head and two at his feet,
A brace of hounds and a pair of hawks,
For so shall all be seemly done.

My voice grows weak, my wounds are swelling;
And so I die.

COMMENT. Many today would say that having and killing slaves is not seemly done, regardless of the local or regional customs. Many standards of the Norse are largely unfit for civilised fellows, really.

Brynhild's Hell-Ride. Helreith Brynhildar

The poem is vivid. Three stanzas have reference to the Guthrun-Gunnar part of the story; otherwise the poem is concerned solely with the episode of Sigurth's finding the sleeping Valkyrie. This late, Norse poem involves very few of the details of the German cycle. One may say the Icelanders "borrowed and stole" and added to that, as frequently was done in olden times.

Twig

After the death of Brynhild there were made two* bale-fires, the one for Sigurth, and that burned first, and on the other was Brynhild burned, and she was on a wagon which was covered with a rich cloth.

Two bale-fires and not one: There is no evidence that the annotator here had anything but his own mistaken imagination to go on.

Brynhild went in the wagon on toward hell, and passed by a house where there lived a certain giantess. The giantess was intent to stop her from going further. Brynhild retorted effect, "I was great, and my relatives were high-rank great. Oh, how great we were [Modern paraphrase]."

The Slaying of The Niflungs. Drap Niflunga

Drap Niflunga is a short prose passage. With Sigurth and Brynhild both dead, the story turns to the slaying of the sons of Gjuki by Atli, Guthrun's second husband, and to a few subsequent incidents.

The Second, or Old, Lay of Guthrun. Guthrunarkvitha 2, en Forna

The poem of Guthrun's lament has been preserved in rather bad shape, with a number of serious omissions and some interpolations. Still, this is the only Norse poem of the Sigurth cycle antedating the year 1000 which has come down to us in anything approaching complete form.

Guthrunarkvitha 2 traces its origin back to a lament which reached the North from Germany in verse form.

King Thjothrek [Theoderich] was with Atli, and had lost most of his men. Thjothrek and Guthrun lamented their griefs together.

Three kings appear here: Thjothrek is Theoderich, king of the Ostrogoths. Attila (Etzel, Atli), died in 453, and Theoderich was born about 455,. Ermanarich (Jormunrek), king of the Goths, died about 376. The kings referred to did not live at the same time. The poem says they did.

Atli had ominous dreams of Guthrun killing him, and his wife Guthrun interpreted the dreams very differently, and to her own favour.

The Third Lay of Guthrun. Guthrunarkvitha 3

The material for the short poem Guthrunarkvitha 3 evidently came from North Germany. A wife is accused of faithlessness, and proves her innocence by the test of boiling water. Guthrunarkvitha 3 is little more than a dramatic German story made into a narrative lay by a Norse poet, with the names of Guthrun, Atli, Thjothrek, and Herkja incorporated to impress well.

Twig

Herkja was the name of a serving-woman of Atli's; she had been his concubine. She told Atli that she had seen Thjothrek and Guthrun both together. Atli (dead 453) was greatly angered by it, and told her: "It troubles me, what Herkja told me here in the hall, that you go to bed with Thjothrek (born ca. 455). "But I haven't," said she. Still she had to go through the ordeal of boiling water. The queen thrust her hand in a kettle of boiling water, but it did not hurt her.

The ordeal by boiling water followed closely the introduction of Christianity, which took place around the year 1000.

Oddrunargratr, The Lament of Oddrun

It is generally assumed that Oddrun was a creation of the North with its brutish hero admiration and lamenting women.

From the Greenland Lay of Atli - Atlakvitha en Grønlenzka

Attila, the king of the Huns from 434 to 453, appears under the name Atli or Atle in Icelandic sagas. There are two Atli poems in the Codex Regius: the Lay of Atli (this one) and the Ballad of Atli. The two Atli poems deal with the visit of the sons of Gjuki to Atli's court, their deaths, and the subsequent revenge of their sister, Guthrun, Atli's wife, on her husband. It is probable that both poems belong to the 1000s, the shorter Atlakvitha being generally dated from the first quarter of the 1000s, and the longer Atlamol some fifty years or more later. The general atmosphere is essentially Norse - one of violence and revenge.

The translation of the Atlakvitha is rendered peculiarly difficult by irregularity of metre, by faultiness of the transmission, and by the exceptionally large number of words found nowhere else in Old Norse. The result is much guesswork as to meanings in parts of the poem. And there is not much wisdom to glean from it either.

Twig

What is your counsel, young hero, when we hear such things? 6

Mine own is better than all the Huns' treasure. 7

From the Greenland Ballad of Atli - Atlamol en Grønlenzku

A story brought to the North from the South Germanic lands could be adapted to the understanding and tastes of its hearers in the late 1000s without any material change of the basic narrative.

Twig

Bright shone the morning, the men all were ready . . . their minds knew not wisdom . . . All the morning they fought. 27, 49

From a wife bringing slaughter small joy could I win. 51

A harp Gunnar seized [his hands were tied], with his toes he struck it so well that the women all wept. And the men, when clear they heard it, lamented. The rafters burst. 62

COMMENT: Stories tend to get much altered, fragmented, and more fanciful as they are told and retold from generation to generation. So there is really no need to believe them stupidly, or be seriously influenced by all the smarting values they bring, or what?

Guthrun's Inciting, Guthrunarhvot

The main subject is laments of an unhappy queen who suffers from downsides of Norse ethics of blood revenge, haughty pride in being high-born, and so on. Such sides to living do not seem good for one's heart all along.

The Ballad of Hamther. Hamthesmol

The Hamthesmol is on the whole the worst preserved of all the poems in the collection. It is such a pronounced patchwork that it can hardly be regarded as a coherent poem at all. Despite the chaotic state of the text and obscure lines, the underlying narrative is reasonably clear. It has been argued that the extant Hamthesmol originated in Greenland.

Twig

Heart you have, if you have knowledge!
A man without wisdom is lacking in much.


Norse ballads, Literature  

Bellows, Henry Adams, tr. The Poetic Edda. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1936. --- [Its Havamal]

Bray, Olive, tr. The Elder or Poetic Edda (Sæmund's Edda), Part I: The Mythological Poems. London: The Viking Club, 1908: 61-111. --- [Its Havamal]

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