Historical Events and Characters Remembered in the Poetic Edda


Did Norsemen of the Viking Age remember their Iron Age history? To a certain extent, yes.

That Medieval Norsemen were extremely aware of, and concerned with, their own history is no secret – few other cultures of their time did such a great job recording the clan-, lineage- and tribal histories as Scandinavians did – in their own language – during the 12th- 14th centuries. I have already written an article about historical consciousness among Medieval Scandinavians here.

A lot of their history had already been transmitted orally for centuries, and in some cases we are even able to verify the stories. For example, “Sverris Saga” gives an account of how a warrior was killed and his body thrown into a well. A few years ago, the well – with the body – was found at exactly the location mentioned in the saga, with the exact dating.

Another saga tells the tale of how one Icelandic settler, Geirmund Heljarskinn, was the child of a Rogaland king and a “black” (dark-skinned) Siberian woman, and that he went to find another dark-skinned Siberian woman for himself before they both moved to Iceland. Modern DNA studies have shown that certain Icelanders today, who are able to trace their lineage back to this Geirmund and his Siberian wife, indeed do descend from Siberia through the maternal line.

Snorri Sturlusson´s 13th century Ynglinga Saga was based on a far older Scaldic poem known as Ynglingatál, composed by the Skald Thióðolf the Wise of Kvinir, who lived during the late 9th and early 10th centuries. That poem recounts the lives and deaths of the Ynglinga kings going back 30 generations. That great lineages traced their family histories back to mythical origins in a far past were a common tradition, and whereas the historical accuracies may be questioned, the importance of recording ones history was certainly there.

As stories were transmitted orally, they changed into legends with many mythical and fantastical elements. And yet, from what was left to us, we do keep finding traces of real history even in these ancient legends, some reaching back into the Roman Iron Age, or the so-called Age of Migration.

Attila the Hun

attilaIn the Poetic Edda, there are several heroic poems referring to events which took place and people who lived during the 3rd– 5th centuries A.D. One of the most famous persons who has been granted a position of importance in Edda poetry is Attila the Hun (406-453 A.D). In the Poetic Edda, his name has become Atli, a relatively common Norse name, and he is said to be the son of “Budli”, which is derived from the name of Attila´s father and brother; Bleda. He is said to be the king of the powerful and influential Huns, who lived to the east.

“The Huns were a nomadic people who lived in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia between the 1st century AD and the 7th century AD. As per European tradition, they were first reported living east of the Volga River, in an area that was part of Scythia at the time; the Huns’ arrival is associated with the migration westward of a Scythian people, the Alans. In 91 AD, the Huns were said to be living near the Caspian Sea and by about 150 had migrated southeast into the Caucasus. By 370, the Huns had established a vast, if short-lived, dominion in Europe. (…)

The Huns may have stimulated the Great Migration, a contributing factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. They formed a unified empire under Attila the Hun, who died in 453; their empire broke up the next year. Their descendants, or successors with similar names, are recorded by neighbouring populations to the south, east and west as having occupied parts of Eastern Europe and Central Asia approximately from the 4th century to the 6th century. Variants of the Hun name are recorded in the Caucasus until the early 8th century.” [1]

“Attila, frequently referred to as Attila the Hun, was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in March 453. He was also the leader of a tribal empire consisting of Huns, Ostrogoths, and Alans among others, on the territory of Central and Eastern Europe.

During his reign, he was one of the most feared enemies of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires. He crossed the Danube twice and plundered the Balkans, but was unable to take Constantinople. His unsuccessful campaign in Persia was followed in 441 by an invasion of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the success of which emboldened Attila to invade the West. He also attempted to conquer Roman Gaul (modern France), crossing the Rhine in 451 and marching as far as Aurelianum (Orléans) before being defeated at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains.

He subsequently invaded Italy, devastating the northern provinces, but was unable to take Rome. He planned for further campaigns against the Romans but died in 453. After Attila’s death his close adviser Ardaric of the Gepids led a Germanic revolt against Hunnic rule, after which the Hunnic Empire quickly collapsed.”[2]

The Huns and the Burgunds


The events of the Edda in which Atli and the Huns feature have to do with an event which actually happened before the real Attila became king. In the Poetic Edda, Gunnarr is the king of the Burgunds, a Germanic tribe that may once have originated on the island of Bornholm (then “Burgundarholm”) south of Sweden, but which migrated until it reached the Rhinelands during the early Iron Ages. Gunnarr is described as earnest and passionate but somewhat weak of character. He is married to a Hunnish woman called Brynhild, a sister to Atli the Hun.

When Brynhild comes to live among the Burgunds, she discovers that her husband, Gunnarr, is not the actual ruling king of the Burgunds. That honor has obviously gone to his sister, Gudrún, and her husband, a Danish prince called Sigurd. Traces of matrilinear descent are frequent in the Edda heroic poetry, where princes must always move to other tribes and seek marriages with a female heiress in order to become kings, rather than inheriting the thrones of their fathers.  This could very well be a reflection of ancient practices which had changed by the time of the Viking Age. In fact, the Edda legend almost appears to explain exactly how this tradition changed:

Brynhild, loath to discover that her marriage with Gunnarr does not make her the queen of the Burgunds, because his sister, by matrilinear descent, is already the queen of the Burgunds, threatens to divorce Gunnarr unless he takes the throne himself, thus demanding that he betrays both his king and his own sister.

It appears that Gunnarr and his family are afraid of this divorce, because it could mean enmity with the powerful Huns. They move behind the back of the ruling queen and her ruling husband in order to kill him and usurp the throne. The dethroned queen, Gudrun, curses her brothers for their betrayal, and Brynhild is then so upset about her part in the betrayal and the slaying of a great man that she commits suicide, leaving the Burgunds to deal with her powerful brother alone after all.

The Burgunds find themselves in exactly the same dreadful position as they would have if Brynhild had divorced Gunnarr; they are now enemies to the all-powerful Huns, because Atli feels that they have caused his sister´s death. They seek the forgiveness of Gudrun, who has taken refuge in the wilderness after their betrayal and learned the arts of sorcery. Reluctantly, Gudrun agrees to offer herself up in marriage to Atli the Hun in order to save the peace and her people.

However, Atli the Hun is not content with this. He expected his new Burgund wife to come with a lot of treasure, but this treasure has been hidden. Inviting his brothers-in-law for a banquet, he slays them and all the Burgund warriors with them. Gunnar is the last to die – thrown into a pit of snakes where he plays the harp for them until he is finally killed.

If not necessarily accurate, the Edda story of the massacre of the Burgunds has its historical counterpart:

“In 406 the Alans, Vandals, the Suevi, and possibly the Burgundians crossed the Rhine and invaded Gaul. In 411 AD, the Burgundian king Gundahar or Gundicar [“Gunnarr”] set up a puppet emperor, Jovinus, in cooperation with Goar, king of the Alans. With the authority of the Gallic emperor that he controlled, Gundahar settled on the left or western (i.e., Roman) bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe, seizing Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. Apparently as part of a truce, the Emperor Honorius later officially “granted” them the land. Olympiodorus of Thebes also mentions a Guntiarios who was called “commander of the Burgundians” in the context of the 411 usurping of Germania Secunda by Jovinus.

Despite their new status as foederati, Burgundian raids into Roman upper Gallia Belgica became intolerable and were ruthlessly brought to an end in 436, when the Roman general Flavius Aetius called in Hun mercenaries who overwhelmed the Rhineland kingdom (with its capital at the old Celtic Roman settlement of Borbetomagus, now called Worms) in 437. Gundahar was killed in the fighting, reportedly along with the majority of the Burgundian tribe.”[3]

The Death of Attila

Attila, Ruler of the Hunnic Empire 434 - 453, scene, his death in the wedding night with Ildico, wood engraving, 19th century, h

In the Poetic Edda, Gudrun of the Burgunds extracts a terrible vengeance. Beneath the guise of submission, she arranges for a funeral banquet for her brothers in which she serves the flesh of her her own two small sons with Atli to him and to all his men, and makes him eat their hearts and drink their blood unknowingly. Then she confronts him with his cannibalism. Due to her sorcery, the entire hall of the Huns falls asleep, and Atli, recognizing his defeat, goes to his bed where he lies passively awaiting as she picks up his sword and kills him with it. As he dies, he declares that he knew that Gudrun was a fierce woman, and now he has the proof of that.

In the Edda, Gudrun´s vengeance is celebrated. She is called “the last bride in armor”, as in, the last warrior woman to ever avenge her brothers with such ferocity. She is able to escape the Hunnish encampment and finds marriage again elsewhere. In real history, the death of Attila actually meant the end of the Hunnish empire and the liberation of the Germanic tribes after more than a century of subservience to the Huns, so this celebration of the woman who, according to legend actually slayed him and liberated her people, is understandable.

In the historical records, Attila´s death is described somewhat differently, but with clear parallels:

“The conventional account from Priscus says that Attila was at a feast celebrating his latest marriage, this time to the beautiful young Ildico [Hildigunde](the name suggests Gothic or Ostrogoth origins ). In the midst of the revels, however, he suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death in a stupor. An alternative theory is that he succumbed to internal bleeding after heavy drinking, possibly a condition called esophageal varices, where dilated veins in the lower part of the esophagus rupture leading to death by hemorrhage.

Another account of his death was first recorded 80 years after the events by Roman chronicler Marcellinus Comes. It reports that “Attila, King of the Huns and ravager of the provinces of Europe, was pierced by the hand and blade of his wife”. The Volsunga saga and the Poetic Edda claim that King Atli (Attila) died at the hands of his wife Gudrun. Most scholars reject these accounts as no more than hearsay, preferring instead the account given by Attila’s contemporary Priscus. Priscus’ version, however, has recently come under renewed scrutiny by Michael A. Babcock.Based on detailed philological analysis, Babcock concludes that the account of natural death given by Priscus was an ecclesiastical “cover story”, and that Emperor Marcian (who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 450 to 457) was the political force behind Attila’s death.”[4]

The Death of Svanhild

In the Poetic Edda, Svanhild is the beautiful daughter of Sigurd and Gudrun, whose grisly death at the hands of her jealous royal husband Iörmunrekkr (Ermanaric) was told in many northern European stories, including the Poetic Edda (Hamðismál and Guðrúnarhvöt), Prose Edda and the Volsunga Saga; the Norwegian Ragnarsdrápa; the Danish Gesta Danorum; and the German Nibelungenlied and Annals of Quedlinburg.

She was “the most beautiful of all women,” and was married to Ermanaric (Jörmunrekkr) the king of the Goths. She was accused of infidelity with the king’s son, Randver. Because of this Ermanaric had her trampled to death under horses. Her mother made her half-brothers Hamdir and Sörli exact revenge on her death, a story which is retold in Hamðismál and Guðrúnarhvöt, Bragi Boddason’s Ragnarsdrápa, in the Völsunga saga and in Gesta Danorum.

This legend also had its historical counterparts:

“Jordanes wrote in 551 AD that Ermanaric, king of the Gothic Greuthungi, was upset with the attack of a subordinate king and had his young wife Sunilda (i.e. Svanhild) torn apart by four horses. As revenge Ermanaric was pierced with spears by her brothers Ammius (Hamdir) and Sarus (Sörli) and died from the wounds. The Annals of Quedlinburg (end of the 10th century) relates that the brothers Hemidus (Hamdir), Serila (Sörli) and Adaccar (Erp/Odoacer) had cut off the hands of Ermanaric.”[5]

attila svanhild.jpg

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huns

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attila

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunther#History

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attila#Death

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Svanhildr


One thought on “Historical Events and Characters Remembered in the Poetic Edda

  1. Pingback: Origen histórico de los personajes que actúan en la Völsunga saga. – Enciclopedia Medieval

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s