Atlakvitha – The Lay of Atli

aka Atlakviða hin groenlenzku – The Greenland Lay of Atli

Atlakviða (The Lay of Atli) is one of the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda. One of the main characters is Atli who originates from Attila the Hun. It is one of the most archaic Eddic poems, possibly dating to as early as the 9th century. It is preserved in the Codex Regius and the same story is related in the Völsunga saga. In the manuscript the poem is identified as Greenlandic but most scholars believe that this results from a confusion with Atlamál. The metre of the poem alternates irregularly between málaháttr and fornyrðislag. This may be an indication that two or more original poems have been merged or that the short and long lines were not felt as constituting two different metres at the time the poem was composed.

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Introductory Note:

There are two Atli poems in the Codex Regius, the Atlakvitha (Lay of Atli) and the Atlamol (Ballad of Atli). The poems are not preserved or quoted in any other old manuscript, but they were extensively used by the compilers of the Volsungasaga. In the manuscript superscription to each of these poems appears the word “Greenland,” which has given rise to a large amount of argument. The scribe was by no means infallible, and in this case his statement proves no more than that in the period round 1300 there was a tradition that these two poems originated in the Greenland settlement.

The two Atli poems deal with substantially the same material: 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. The shorter of the two, the Atlakvitha, tells the story with little elaboration; the Atlamol, with about the same narrative basis, adds many details, some of them apparently of the poet’s invention, and with a romantic, not to say sentimental, quality quite lacking in the Atlakvitha. Both poems are sharply distinguished from the rest of the collection by their metrical form, which is the Malahattr (used irregularly also in the Harbarthsljoth), employed consistently and smoothly in the Atlamol, and with a considerable mixture of what appear to be Fornyrthislag lines (cf. Introduction) in the Atlakvitha.

It is altogether probable that both poems belong to the eleventh century, the shorter Atlakvitha being generally dated from the first quarter thereof, and the longer Atlamol some fifty years or more later. In each case the poet was apparently a Christian; in the Atlamol (stanza 82) Guthrun expresses her readiness to die and “go into another light,” and in the Atlakvitha there is frequent use of mythological names (e.g., Valhall, Hlithskjolf) with an evident lack of understanding of their relation to the older gods. These facts fit the theory of a Greenland origin exceedingly well, for the Greenland settlement grew rapidly after the first explorations of Eirik the Red, which were in 982-985, and its most flourishing period was in the eleventh century. The internal evidence, particularly in the case of the Atlamol, points likewise to an origin remote from Iceland, Norway, and the “Western Isles”; and the two poems are sufficiently alike so that, despite the efforts of Finnur Jonsson and others to separate them, assigning one to Greenland and the other to Norway or else where, it seems probable that the manuscript statement is correct in both instances, and that the two Atli poems did actually originate in Greenland. An interesting account of this Greenland settlement is given in William Hovgaard’s Voyages of the Norsemen to America, published by the American-Scandinavian Foundation in 1914, and an extraordinarily vivid picture of the sufferings of the early settlers appears in Maurice Hewlett’s Thorgils, taken from the Floamannasaga.

From the standpoint of narrative material there is little that is distinctively Norse in either the Atlakvitha or the Atlamol. The story is the one outlined in the prose Drap Niflunga (largely based on these two poems), representing almost exclusively the southern blending of the Attila and Burgundian legends (cf. introductory note to Gripisspo). In the Atlakvitha, indeed, the word “Burgundians” is actually used. Brynhild is not mentioned in either poem; Sigurth’s name appears but once, in the Atlamol. Thus the material goes directly back to its South-Germanic origins, with little of the Northern making-over which resulted in such extensive changes in most parts of the Sigurth story. The general atmosphere, on the other hand, particularly in the Atlamol, is essentially Norse.

As has been said, the Atlakvitha is metrically in a chaotic state, the normal Malahattr lines being frequently interspersed with lines and even stanzas which apparently are of the older Fornyrthislag type. How much of this confusion is due to faulty transmission is uncertain, but it has been suggested that the composer of the Atlakvitha made over in Malahattr an older Atli poem in Fornyrthislag, and this suggestion has much to recommend it. That he worked on the basis of an older poem is, indeed, almost certain, for in oral prose tradition a far larger number of distinctively Norse traits would unquestionably have crept in than are found in the material of the Atlakvitha. As for the Atlamol, here again the poet seems to have used an older poem as his basis, possibly the Atlakvitha itself, although in that case he must have had other material as well, for there are frequent divergences in such matters as proper names. The translation of the Atlakvitha is rendered peculiarly difficult by the irregularity of the metre, by the evident faultiness of the transmission, and above all by the exceptionally large number of words found nowhere else in Old Norse, involving much guesswork as to their meanings. The notes do not attempt to indicate all the varying suggestions made by editors and commentators as to the reconstruction of defective stanzas and the probable meanings of obscure passages; in cases which are purely or largely guesswork the notes merely point out the uncertainty without cataloguing the proposed solutions.

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Guthrun, Gjuki’s daughter, avenged her brothers, as has become well known. She slew first Atli’s sons, and thereafter she slew Atli, and burned the hall with his whole company. Concerning this was the following poem made:

1. Atli sent | of old to Gunnar
A keen-witted rider, | Knefröth did men call him;
To Gjuki’s home came he | and to Gunnar’s dwelling,
With benches round the hearth, | and to the beer so sweet.

2. Then the followers, hiding | their falseness, all drank
Their wine in the war-hall, | of the Huns’ wrath wary;
And Knefröth spake loudly, | his words were crafty,
The hero from the south, | on the high bench sitting:

3. “Now Atli has sent me | his errand to ride,
On my bit-champing steed | through Myrkwood the secret,
To bid You, Gunnar, | to his benches to come,
With helms round the hearth, | and Atli’s home seek.

4. “Shields shall ye choose there, | and shafts made of ash-wood,
Gold-adorned helmets, | and slaves out of Hunland,
Silver-gilt saddle-cloths, | shirts of bright scarlet,
With lances and spears too, | and bit-champing steeds.

5. “The field shall be given you | of wide Gnitaheith,
With loud-ringing lances, | and stems gold-o’er-laid,
Treasures full huge, | and the home of Danp,
And the mighty forest | that Myrkwood is called.”

6. His head turned Gunnar, | and to Hogni he said:
“What thy counsel, young hero, | when such things we hear?
No gold do I know | on Gnitaheith lying
So fair that other | its equal we have not.

7. “We have seven halls, | each of swords is full,
(And all of gold | is the hilt of each;)
My steed is the swiftest, | my sword is sharpest,
My bows adorn benches, | my byrnies are golden,
My helm is the brightest | that came from Kjar’s hall,
(Mine own is better | than all the Huns’ treasure.)”

Hogni spake:

8. “What seeks she to say, | that she sends us a ring,
Woven with a wolf’s hair? | methinks it gives warning;
In the red ring a hair | of the heath-dweller found I,
Wolf-like shall our road be | if we ride on this journey.”

9. Not eager were his comrades, | nor the men of his kin,
The wise nor the wary, | nor the warriors bold.
But Gunnar spake forth | as befitted a king,
Noble in the beer-hall, | and bitter his scorn:

10. “Stand forth now, Fjornir! | and hither on the floor
The beakers all golden | shalt thou bring to the warriors.
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . .


Prose. On the marriage of Guthrun to Atli at the instigation of her brothers, Gunnar and Hogni, and on the slaying of Atli and his two sons, Erp and Eitil, cf. Drap Niflunga and note.

1. Line 1 apparently is in Fornyrthislag. Knefröth (the name is spelt in various ways, and its meaning is uncertain): in the Atlamol (stanza 4) there are two messengers, one named Vingi and the other unnamed; the annotator combines the two versions in the Drap Niflunga. Benches, etc.: the adjective rendered “round the hearth,” which etymologically it ought to mean, is made obscure by its application to “helmets” in stanzas 3 and 17.

2. Falseness: i.e., Gunnar’s followers concealed their fear and hatred of the Huns at the feast; but the word may mean “fear of treachery.” War-hall: the word used is “Valhall,” the name of Othin’s hall of slain warriors.

3. Myrkwood the secret (the adjective is literally “unknown”) the which divided Atli’s realm from that of the Gjukungs; cf. Oddrunargratr, 23 and note. Around the hearth: the adjective is the same one which is applied to “benches” in stanza 1 (cf. note); it may be an error here, or it may possibly have the force of “of your followers,” i.e., Gunnar is to arm the men of his household (those who are round his hearth) for the journey.

4. Slaves, etc.: some editions have “swords in plenty.” Scarlet: the word apparently means “slaughter-red,” “blood-red,” but it may mean something entirely different.

5. Gnitaheith: here the dragon Fafnir had his lair (cf. Gripisspo, 11). Sigurth doubtless owned it after Fafnir’s death, and the Gjukungs after they had killed Sigurth. Possibly they had given it to Atli in recompense for the death of his sister, Brynhild, and he now offered to restore it to them, or–as seems more likely–the poet was not very clear about its ownership himself. Stems: i.e., the gilded stems of ships, carved like dragons,–an evident northern touch, if the word is correct, which is by no means certain . Danp: this name was early applied to a mythical Danish king (cf. Rigsthula, 49 and note) but it may have been fabricated by error out of the word “Danparstaþir” (the phrase here used is “staþi Danpar”), used in the Hervararsaga of a field of battle between the Goths and the Huns, and quite possibly referring to the region of the Dnieper. The name seems to have clung to the Atli tradition long after it had lost all definite significance. Myrkwood: cf. note on stanza 3.

7. The stanza is clearly in bad shape; the manuscript indicates line 5 as beginning a new stanza. In line 5 the manuscript has “and shield” after “helm.” Kjar: Gering ingeniously identifies this Kjar with Kjar the father of Olrun, mentioned in the Völundarkvitha, introductory prose and stanza 2, on the basis of a genealogy in the Flateyjarbok, in which Authi, the grand father of Kjar (by no means certainly the same man) and Buthli, father of Atli, are mentioned as making a raiding voyage together. This identification, however, rests on slight evidence.

8. The manuscript does not name the speaker. One editor gives the first sentence to Gunnar. She, etc.: Guthrun, seeking to warn her brothers of Atli’s treachery, sends them a ring with a wolf’s hair as a sign of danger; in the Atlamol (stanza 4) she sends a message written in runes; cf. Drap Niflunga. Heath-dweller: wolf.

9. In line 1 the manuscript has “His comrades did not urge Gunnar,” but the name, involving a metrical error, seems to have been inserted through a scribal blunder.

10. The manuscript indicates no lacuna, but probably two lines have dropped out, for the Volsungasaga paraphrase runs: “Give us to drink in great cups, for it may well be that this shall be our last feast.” Fjornir: Gunnar’s cup-bearer.

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