Introduction and bibliographical details of original publication in Comparative Criticism 18

The Old Hamthir Poem

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

It was not now, nor yesterday,
great is the age that has gone since then,
there is little so old that this was not twice so,
when Gudrun goaded, Giuki's child,
her sons so young to Swanhild's vengeance:

Why do you sit there? why sleep out your lives?
why do you not grieve to speak of gladness?
Down you are crushed, you kings of the folk,
you live on alone of the strands of my line.

A sister you had, Swanhild by name;
Iormunrek had her trampled by horses
of white and of black on the warrior-road,
tame-stepping greys, steeds of the Goths;

You have not grown to be like Gunnar,
nor yet so brave as Hogni was -
Swiftly would she have been avenged,
if you were as brave as my brothers were,
or harsh of heart as the Hunnish kings.

Its then spoke Hamthir, the hard-witted:
You did not, Gudrun, praise Hogni's deeds,
when they came on Sigurd and woke him from sleep,
you sat on the bed, but the slayers laughed;

Your bed-linen, blue-white before,
deftly woven, was drenched in his blood.
There Sigurd was slain; you sat by the corpse,
you cared not for gladness - Gunnar caused that.

You thought to harm Atli with Erpur's murder
and Eitil's passing - it was worse for you;
so should one wield the wound-biting sword
to slay another that it hurts not oneself.

Its then spoke Sorli, sound was his mind:
I will not waste more words with mother;
a word seems wanting to each of you;
what now bid you, Gudrun, that will not bring you grief?

Bring forth the treasures of the Hunnish kings -
you have set us on to the swords' counsel.

Laughing Gudrun has gone to the store-hall,
the sign of kings from the coffer she took,
the broad byrnies she brought to her sons.

They shook their cloaks, they clasped on swords,
god-born they dressed in goodly weavings;
they went from the hall, wild with rage;
madly they piled on the backs of their mounts.

Its then spoke Hamthir the hard-witted:
Thus he comes home to his mother's hall
the spear-Niord, fallen among the Goths -
so you will drink ale for us at the wake,
for Swanhild our sister, and for us your sons.

Weep for your brothers and your boys so sweet,
close-born kindred called into strife;
for us as well will you weep, Gudrun;
here we sit doomed on our horses; we shall die far away.

Youthful, they rode over rainy fells,
on mounts of Hunland, murder to pay;
they met on the highway, the mighty schemer:
How could this halfling be of help to us?

Other-mothered, he answered, said that he'd offer
help to a kinsman as a foot to another.
How can a foot be of help to a foot,
or a flesh-grown hand to another hand?

Then Erpur spoke a single speech
proudly he moved on the back of his mount:
It is wrong to show the road to cowards.
Too bold, they said, the bastard was!

They drew from the sheath the sheath-metal,
the edge of the sword, the ogress' joy;
they broke their strength back by a third,
laid the young lad low to the earth.

The way lay ahead, they found the woe-paths,
and their sister's son speared on the beam,
the wolf-tree wind-cold, west of the halls,
the ever-swinging bird-lure - it was not good to stay.

Joy filled the hall, warriors ale-merry,
they did not hear the sound of horses,
till a warrior heart-strong winded his horn.

They went to tell to Iormunrek
they had sighted outside men under helmets:
Prepare yourselves for powerful they come,
you have trampled the sister of mighty princes.

Then Iormunrek laughed, his hand on his beard,
he worked up fury, war-soaked with wine,
he shook his locks of brown, looked at his shield of white,
he turned in his hand the cup of gold:

I'd hold myself happy, if here I could see
Hamthir and Sorli inside my hall;
those boys I would bind with the strings of bows;
the god-born of Giuki I'd fix to the gallows.

A woman, strength-glad, stood by the door,
small-fingered, she spoke to the sons in the hall:
For that is to do which cannot be done;
can two men alone fight ten-hundred Goths,
bind them or beat them in the stronghold high?

The hall was astir, ale-cups were smashed,
earls lay in blood from the breasts of the Goths.

Its then spoke Hamthir, the hard-witted:
You yearned, Iormunrek, for us to come,
brothers one-mothered, into your hall.
Your feet you see, your hands you see,
Iormunrek, flung in the fire so hot!

Then he growled, that god-sprung king,
bold in his byrnie, as a bear might growl:
Stone the men as spears won't bite them,
edges nor iron, the sons of Ionak.

Sorli :
You did evil, brother, to open that bag;
from bleeding bags often come evil counsels.
Wit you'd had, Hamthir, had you been wise;
a man lacks much when its his mind!

Hamthir :
His head would be off now, if Erpur were living,
our battle-fierce brother, whom we killed on the road,
the strife-fierce swordsman - the Disir spurred me -
the war-hallowed warrior - they urged me to strife.

Sorli :
I don't think to follow the fashion of wolves
and go against one another
like the hounds of the Norns, that hungrily roam,
reared in the wastes.

Well have we fought; we stand on fallen Goths,
over the blade-weary like eagles on a bough.
Great is our fame; should we die now or tomorrow
no one sees out the dusk after the Norns have spoken.

There Sorli fell by the hall's gable
but Hamthir sank at the back of the house.



spear-Niord – a kenning for man; Niord is one of the gods.

byrnie – mail-coat, hauberk.

the mighty schemer – Erpur, who is according to this poem the half-brother of Hamthir and Sorli, ‘other-mothered’.

wolf-tree – a kenning for the gallows.

A woman, strength-glad – Much debate has centred on this woman. Saxo says that the avengers were preceded by a sorceress who turned the Goths against one another, so clearing the way for the brothers to reach Iormunrek, and perhaps that was once the role of the ‘woman, strength-glad’, but a verse or a line has been lost, making her purpose obscure.

Stone the men . . . to open that bag – The brothers are protected against sharp weapons; according to the Prose Edda, this is due to their byrnies. It seems that only now can Iormunrek call his men to stone them. Hamthir has ‘opened the bag’, has allowed Iormunrek to speak by breaking silence himself. This points strongly towards magic, and further suggests that the ‘woman, strength-glad’ is Saxo’s sorceress.

disir – female spirits (sg. dis), perhaps the equivalent of the male elves.

the blade-weary – a kenning for ‘the dead’.

Translated from the Old Norse poems Hamðismál and Guðrúnarhvöt.


Introduction and bibliographical details of original publication in Comparative Criticism 18

'The Atli Lay' translated by Thor Ewing

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