Atlamál hin groenlenzku – The Greenland Ballad of Atli

Atlamál in grœnlenzku (The Greenlandic Lay of Atli) is one of the heroic poems of the Poetic Edda. It relates the same basic story as Atlakviða at greater length and in a different style. The poem is believed to have been composed in Greenland, most likely in the 12th century. It has 103 stanzas and is the only Eddic poem written entirely in the metre málaháttr.


Introductory Note:

Many of the chief facts regarding the Atlamol, which follows the Atlakvitha in the Codex Regius, are outlined in the introductory note to the earlier Atli lay. That the superscription in the manuscript is correct, and that the poem was actually composed in Greenland, is generally accepted; the specific reference to polar bears (stanza 17), and the general color of the entire poem make this origin exceedingly likely. Most critics, again, agree in dating the poem nearer 1100 than 1050. As to its state of preservation there is some dispute, but, barring one or two possible gaps of some importance, and the usual number of passages in which the interpolation or omission of one or two lines may be suspected, the Atlamol has clearly come down to us in fairly good shape.

Throughout the poem the epic quality of the story itself is overshadowed by the romantically sentimental tendencies of the poet, and by his desire to adapt the narrative to the understanding of his fellow-Greenlanders. The substance of the poem is the same as that of the Atlakvitha; it tells of Atli’s message to the sons of Gjuki, their journey to Atli’s home, the slaying of Hogni and Gunnar, Guthrun’s bitterness over the death of her brothers, and her bloody revenge on Atli. Thus in its bare out line the Atlamol represents simply the Frankish blending of the legends of the slaughter of the Burgundians and the death of Attila (cf. Gripisspo, introductory note). But here the resemblance ends. The poet has added characters, apparently of his own creation, for the sake of episodes which would appeal to both the men and the women of the Greenland settlement. Sea voyages take the place of journeys by land; Atli is reproached, not for cowardice in battle, but for weakness at the Thing or great council. The additions made by the poet are responsible for the Atlamol’s being the longest of all the heroic poems in the Eddic collection, and they give it a kind of emotional vivid ness, but it has little of the compressed intensity of the older poems. Its greatest interest lies in its demonstration of the manner in which a story brought to the North from the South Germanic lands could be adapted to the understanding and tastes of its eleventh century hearers without any material change of the basic narrative.

In what form or forms the story of the Gjukungs and Atli reached the Greenland poet cannot be determined, but it seems likely that he was familiar with older poems on the subject, and possibly with the Atlakvitha itself. That the details which are peculiar to the Atlamol, such as the figures of Kostbera and Glaumvor, existed in earlier tradition seems doubtful, but the son of Hogni, who aids Guthrun in the slaying of Atli, appears, though under another name, in other late versions of the story, and it is impossible to say just how much the poet relied on his own imagination and how far he found suggestions and hints in the prose or verse stories of Atli with which he was familiar.

The poem is in Malahattr (cf. Introduction) throughout, the verse being far more regular than in the Atlakvitha. The compilers of the Volsungasaga evidently knew it in very much the form in which we now have it, for in the main it is paraphrased with great fidelity.

1. There are many who know | how of old did men
In counsel gather; | little good did they get;
In secret they plotted, | it was sore for them later,
And for Gjuki’s sons, | whose trust they deceived.

2. Fate grew for the princes, | to death they were given;
Ill counsel was Atli’s, | though keenness he had;
He felled his staunch bulwark, | his own sorrow fashioned,
Soon a message he sent | that his kinsmen should seek him.

3. Wise was the woman, | she fain would use wisdom,
She saw well what meant | all they said in secret;
From her heart it was hid | how help she might render,
The sea they should sail, | while herself she should go not.

4. Runes did she fashion, | but false Vingi made them,
The speeder of hatred, | ere to give them he sought;
Then soon fared the warriors | whom Atli had sent,
And to Limafjord came, | to the home of the kings.

5. They were kindly with ale, | and fires they kindled,
They thought not of craft | from the guests who had come;
The gifts did they take | that the noble one gave them,
On the pillars they hung them, | no fear did they harbor.

6. Forth did Kostbera, | wife of Hogni, then come,
Full kindly she was, | and she welcomed them both;
And glad too was Glaumvor, | the wife of Gunnar,
She knew well to care | for the needs of the guests.

7. Then Hogni they asked | if more eager he were,
Full clear was the guile, | if on guard they had been;
Then Gunnar made promise, | if Hogni would go,
And Hogni made answer | as the other counseled.

8. Then the famed ones brought mead, | and fair was the feast,
Full many were the horns, | till the men had drunk deep;
. . . . . . . . . .
Then the mates made ready | their beds for resting.

9. Wise was Kostbera, | and cunning in rune-craft,
The letters would she read | by the light of the fire;
But full quickly her tongue | to her palate clave,
So strange did they seem | that their meaning she saw not.

10. Full soon then his bed | came Hogni to seek,
. . . . . . . . . .
The clear-souled one dreamed, | and her dream she kept not,
To the warrior the wise one | spake when she wakened:

1. Men: Atli and his advisers, with whom he planned the death of the sons of Gjuki, Gunnar and Hogni. The poet’s reference to the story as well known explains the abruptness of his introduction, without the mention of Atli’s name, and his reference to Guthrun in stanza 3 simply as “the woman” (“husfreyja,” goddess of the house).

2. Princes: Atli, Gunnar, and Hogni. Bulwark: Atli’s slaying [fp. 501] of his wife’s brothers, who were ready to support and defend him in his greatness, was the cause of his own death.

3. The woman: Guthrun, concerning whose marriage to Atli cf. Guthrunarkvitha II. The sea: a late and essentially Greenland variation of the geography of the Atli story. Even the Atlakvitha, perhaps half a century earlier, separates Atli’s land from that of the Gjukungs only by a forest.

4. Runes: on the two versions of Guthrun’s warning, and also on the name of the messenger (here Vingi), cf. Drap Niflunga and note. Limafjord: probably the Limfjord of northern Jutland, an important point in the wars of the eleventh century. The name was derived from “Eylimafjorþ,” i.e., Eylimi’s fjord. The poet may really have thought that the kingdom of the Burgundians was in Jutland, or he may simply have taken a well-known name for the sake of vividness.

5. Some editors assume a gap after this stanza.

6. Some editions place this stanza between stanzas 7 and 8. Kostbera (“The Giver of Food”) and Glaumvor (“The Merry”): presumably creations of the poet. Both: Atli’s two emissaries, Vingi and the one here unnamed (Knefröth?).

7. It is altogether probable that a stanza has been lost between stanzas 6 and 7, in which Gunnar is first invited, and replies doubtfully. Made promise: many editions emend the text to read “promised the journey.” The text of line 4 is obscure; the manuscript reads “nitti” (“refused”), which many editors have changed to “hlitti,” which means exactly the opposite. 8. No gap is indicated in the manuscript; Bugge adds (line [fp. 503] 3): “Then the warriors rose, | and to slumber made ready.” The manuscript indicates line 4 as beginning a new stanza, and some editions make a separate stanza out of lines 1-2. Others suggest the loss of a line after line 4

9. The manuscript does not indicate line 1 as the beginning of a stanza; cf. note on stanza 8.

10. Some editions combine this stanza with lines 1-2 of stanza 11. The manuscript indicates no gap. Grundtvig adds (line 2) “But sleep to the woman | so wise came little.”