Hamðismál – The Lay of Hamdir

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.


1. 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.

2. 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.

3. “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.

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

5. “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.”

6. 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.

7. “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.

8. “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.”

9. 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?

10. “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.”

1. This stanza looks like a later interpolation from a totally unrelated source. Sorrow of elves: the sun; cf. Alvissmol, 16 and note.

2. Some editors regard lines 1-2 as interpolated, while others question line 3. Guthrun, etc.: regarding the marriage of Jonak and Guthrun (daughter of Gjuki, sister of Gunnar and Hogni, and widow first of Sigurth and then of Atli), and the sons of this marriage, Hamther and Sorli (but not Erp), cf. Guthrunarhvot, introductory prose and note.

3. Svanhild and Jormunrek: regarding the manner in which Jormunrek (Ermanarich) married Svanhild, daughter of Sigurth and Guthrun, and afterwards had her trodden to death by horses, cf. Guthrunarhvot, introductory note. Lines 3-4 are identical with lines 5-6 of Guthrunarhvot, 2.

4. These two lines may be all that is left of a four-line stanza. [fp. 567] The manuscript and many editions combine them with stanza 5, while a few place them after stanza 5 as a separate stanza, reversing the order of the two lines. Kings of the folk: Guthrun’s brothers, Gunnar and Hogni, slain by Atli.

5. Cf. note on stanza 4; the manuscript does not indicate line i as beginning a stanza. Scather of twigs: poetic circumlocution for the wind (cf. Skaldskaparmal, chapter 27), though some editors think the phrase here means the sun. Some editors assume a more or less extensive gap between stanzas 5 and 6.

6. Lines 1-3 are nearly identical with lines 1-3 of Guthrunarhvot, 4. On the death of Sigurth cf. Sigurtharkvitha en skamma, 21-24, and Brot, concluding prose. The word thy in line 3 is omitted in the original.

7. Lines 1-2 are nearly identical with lines 4-5 of Guthrunarhvot, 4. The manuscript, followed by many editions, indicates line 3 and not line 1 as beginning a stanza.

8. Some editors regard this stanza as interpolated. Erp and Eitil: regarding Guthrun’s slaying of her sons by Atli, cf. Atlamol, 72-75. The Erp here referred to is not to be confused with the Erp, son of Jonak, who appears in stanza 13. The whole of stanza 8 is in doubtful shape, and many emendations have been suggested.

10. Some editors assign this speech to Hamther. Brothers: Gunnar and Hogni. Boys: Erp and Eitil.