Introduction and bibliographical details of original publication in Comparative Criticism 18

The Atli Lay

© copyright Thor Ewing 1994, 2003
Thor Ewing asserts his right to be identified as author of this translation.

Atli has sent a herald to Gunnar's,
cunning he came riding – Knefrod was his name –
to the courts of Giuki, and to Gunnar's hall,
the benches hearth-grouped, and the beer so sweet.

Henchmen drank there – but hidden their thoughts –
wine in the Rome-hall – wary of Hun-wrath.
Then Knefrod called, cold was his voice,
the southern warrior – he sat in the high-seat:

Atli has sent me on errand riding,
on mount bit-clenching, through Mirkwood unknown,
to bid you both, Gunnar, to come to the benches
the helmets hearth-grouped, to see the home of Atli;

Shields you shall choose there, and shaven spears,
helmets all gilded, a Hunnish war-band,
silver-worked saddle-cloths, Rome-red smocks,
banners dancing, and bit-clenching steeds;

And he'll give you the plain of Gnita-heath, he said,
of shrieking spears, and ship-prows gilded,
hoards of treasure, and homesteads on the Dnieper,
the forest that men call Mirkwood the famous.

Then Gunnar turned his head, he glanced at Hogni:
What bid you, brother, about this offer?
Gold I knew none on Gnita-heath,
but we did not own an equal treasure;

We have seven store-halls stacked with longswords,
the grip of each is gold entwined;
my steed I think best, my sword the keenest,
my bows beauteous, and byrnies golden,
helm and shield the brightest brought from the hall of Caesar;
each of mine is better than all those of the Huns!

Hogni :
What can our sister have meant, when she sent us a ring
twined in a tress of the heath-goer; I think she was trying to warn us.
I found the heath-goer's hair hidden in the ring so red;
wolfish our road, if we ride on this errand.

No kinsman urged Gunnar, nor cousin by birth
henchman nor hearthman, nor high-born noble,
then Gunnar spoke, as befits a king,
glorious in the meadhall, mighty in spirit:

Arise now Fiornir, send round the benches
the golden wine-cups in warriors' hands.
lest we never meet in the hall again,
sharing gold, glad by the hearth.

The wolf will rule the right of the Niflungs,
the grizzled packs, if Gunnar is lost,
bears black-coated will bite harsh-toothed,
make game with the bitch-pack if Gunnar should fall.

They brought their lord, the unbroken folk,
weeping, led the war-keen, from the walls of their cubs.
Then young, he spoke, the heir of Hogni:
Go safe now and wise where your spirits take you!

Bold they made hooves to run on the hills,
on mounts bit-clenching, through Mirkwood unknown –
all Hunmark shuddered as the harsh ones passed –
they drove them, whip-shy, through dales all green.

They saw Atli's lands, and lofty watch-towers,
the warriors of Buthli, on the walls so high
the hall of the southerners with seats of wood,
rim-bound shields and shining targes,
banners dancing; there Atli was drinking
wine in the Rome-hall; there were watchmen outside
to wait for Gunnar, lest they wished to visit
with shrieking spear, to stir the prince to strife.

Their sister knew first they'd set foot in the hall
both of her brothers – beer had not dulled her:
You are lost now, Gunnar, what, lord, will you do
now the Huns have betrayed you? from this hall go with speed!

It had been better, brother, had you brought your armour
and helmets hearth-grouped to see the home of Atli;
you'd have sat in the saddle through sun-bright days
at death-pale bodies made the Norns to weep,
the shieldmaids of the Huns to shoulder the harrow,
but Atli himself you'd have led to the snake-pit;
now that same snake-pit is set for you!

It is late now, sister, to summon the Niflungs;
it's a long way to look for the loyal men
from Worms on the Rhine, the valiant fighters.

They seized Gunnar, and set him in fetters –
the lord of Burgundy – and bound him fast.

Hogni slew seven with his sword so keen
but the eighth of his foes he hurled in the fire so hot
thus do the fearless fight their enemies;
Hogni defended; he struck with his hand.

They asked the warrior if he wished for his life,
the prince of Goths, to pay in gold.

Gunnar :
The heart of Hogni must lie in my hand,
bleeding from the breast of the prince-rider cut
with cruel-biting knife from the son of the king.

They cut the heart from Hialli's breast,
bore it in, bleeding, and brought it to Gunnar.

Then Gunnar spoke, the lord of men:
Here is the heart of Hialli the coward;
unlike the heart of Hogni the brave,
it trembles a lot as it lies on the platter;
it trembled yet more when it lay in his breast.

Then Hogni laughed as they cut at his heart –
the scar-smith still living – he was far from screaming.
They bore it in bleeding and brought it to Gunnar.

Then Gunnar spoke, glorious spear-Niflung:
Here is the heart of Hogni the brave;
unlike the heart of Hialli the coward,
it trembles little as it lies on the platter;
it trembled still less when it lay in his breast.

As far, Atli, from the eyes of men
as from my treasure you shall be!
with me alone all is hidden
the hoard of the Niflungs – Hogni is no more;
There always was doubt while each of us lived
now there is none – there is no one but me.

The Rhine shall rule the royal strife-metal,
the god-risen river take the right of the Niflungs;
in gushing waters let the Rome-gold glint,
but not shine on the hands of the children of Huns.

Roll out the cart; now the captive is bound.

Atli the mighty rode a steed jangle-maned,
with battle-thorns about him, their brother-in-law;
Gudrun, sister of those victory-gods,
held back from tears, broken in the din-hall:

It will go with you, Atli, as with Gunnar you pledged,
oaths often sworn, and taken of old,
by the south-rising sun, and by Sigtyr's hill
by the rest-bed's mount, and the ring of Ullur.

And on from there the treasure-keeper
the bridle-deck drew, the battle-prince, to death.

The prince still living they laid in a pit,
that crawling was, that crowd of men,
with snakes inside. But alone then Gunnar
struck the harp, with strife-bent hand;
the strings were sounded. Thus does the strong one
withhold his riches, the ring-giver, from men!

Atli left for his lands again
on sharp-eared horse, home from the murder.
There was clamour in the courtyard, clattering of horses,
the weapon-song of warriors come back from the heath.

Out came Gudrun, to greet Atli,
with gilded goblet to give him his due:
You may eat, my lord, glad in your hall
served by Gudrun with shadow-gone sucklings.

Atli's ale-cups clinked wine-heavy,
when together in the hall, the Huns were numbered;
long-whiskered lords and keen walked in.

Bright-faced then she dashed to fetch them drink,
wild among the warriors, and found them beer-snacks,
driven among the drunken and spoke shame of Atli:

Your own two sons, giver of swords,
their hearts corpse-dripping you have chewed with honey.
Proud, you can stomach, the slain flesh of men,
eaten as beer-snacks, called to the benches.

You'll never call them to your knee again
Erpur nor Eitil, the ale-merry pair;
you'll never see them on the settle again,
the sharers of gold, shafting spears,
trimming manes, nor goading horses.

A wail rose from the benches, a wild song of men,
a howl beneath goodly weavings; the Huns were weeping
but for Gudrun alone, for she never wept
for her bear-harsh brothers nor her boys so sweet,
young, untried, whom she got with Atli.

She scattered gold, the goose-bright woman,
with rings all red she enriched the servants
she let fate grow and bright gold flow
she never heeded the hoards of the temple.

Unwary Atli – he had drunk himself weary;
weapons he had none; he didn't shrink from Gudrun;
yet the sport had been better, when they both would often
and fondly embrace before the nobles.

The bedding, by blade, she gave blood to drink
with death-bent hand – and loosed the dogs –
she hurled at the hall-door – and woke the house-thralls –
a fire-brand, that woman, in flame; she felt that paid for her brothers.

She gave all to the fire who were then within
and from the murder of Gunnar in Mirkland had come.
Old timbers fell, the temples were smoking,
the hall of the Buthlungs – and shieldmaids were burnt;
inside, life-choked, they sank in the fire so hot.



Rome-hallvál-höll normally refers to Odin’s hall, and is sometimes translated ‘Hall of the Slain’. Here, however, the alternative meaning of ‘foreign, Celtic, Roman’ seems more appropriate, though ther may also be a play on the former sense (see note on Sigtyr, below).

high-seat – the seat of honour. Knefrod is probably sitting opposite Gunnar and Hogni, across the hall.

Mirkwood – the vast uncharted forests that once covered much of Europe.

Rome-red – see note on Rome-hall above. ‘Blood-red’ is a possible translation, but I take ‘Rome-red’ to refer to imported cloth, like the ‘Rome-cloth’ of The Brynhild Lay.

Gnita-heath – the heath where Sigurd killed the serpent Fafnir, and took the gold which Atli wants from Gunnar.

heath-goer – a kenning for ‘wolf’, symbol of treachery.

lest we never . . . glad by the hearth – supplied from the prose paraphrase in Völsunga saga.

The wolf will rule . . . if Gunnar should fall – Gunnar is speaking metaphorically: ‘The wolf’ is perhaps Atli himself; the ‘bears black-coated’ are the black-haired Niflungs, Gunnar and Hogni; ‘the bitch-pack’ refers to the Huns (to refer to a manas a female animal was counted among the worst insults in Norse law, and was accepted as provocation for killing, but Gunnar’s insults are veiled since Knefrod is present; the Huns and Atli are never named and a literal reading remains possible). ‘The right of the Niflungs’ is of course the gold, theirs by right since they murdered Sigurd.

Buthli – Buthli is Atli’s father. The manuscript reads ‘Bikki’, but this must be a slip; Bikki is Iormunrek’s wicked henchman.

Norns – the Norse ‘Fates’.

shieldmaids – warrior maidens.

Worms on the Rhinerosmofiall rinar ; this phrase seems to preserve a memory of the ancient Burgundian capital at Worms, lost after the death of Gundaharius (Gunnar).

Goths – here meaning simply ‘men’, perhaps as distinct from the Huns.

As far, Atli, from the eyes of men . . . – Gunnar mocks Atli for having failed to win the treasure and predicts that Atli will die and be ‘far from the eyes of men’.

battle-thorns – a kenning for ‘swords’, and thus by extension, swordsmen.

Sigtyr – literally ‘Victory God’, that is Odin. In the verse before, Gunnar and Hogni are called sig-tivar, ‘victory gods’.

Ullur – the bowman god. An oath sworn on a holy ring seems to have been particularly powerful.

the treasure-keeper – Gunnar; an unusual kenning for prince, playing on the more common ‘ring-giver’. Generosity is usually admired, but Gunnar has rightly cheated the Huns of his gold.

bridle-deck – a kenning for ‘cart’.

ring-giver – a conventional kenning for prince, here juxtaposed with Gunnar ‘withholding his riches’.

she never wept – Gudrun’s inability to weep is famous, and is made play of in ‘The Hamthir Poem’.

Buthlungs – the people of Buthli; Atli and the Huns.

Translated from the Old Norse poem Atlakviða.


Introduction and bibliographical details of original publication in Comparative Criticism 18

'The Hamthir Poem' translated by Thor Ewing

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