Friday, July 3, 2009

Germanic Myth and the Burgundians

Early in the thirteenth century, circa A.D. 1200, an anonymous scribe somewhere along the Danube wrote down the old stories, based on even older Germanic myths, that became known as the Nibelungenlied. This tale was supposedly based on the events surrounding the collapse of the kingdom of the Burgundians around A.D. 436/7 and, in particular, it told of the spectacular fall of the royal family at the time, the Gibichungs.

The king of the Burgundians at the time of the tale was Gundahar (Gunther). He was the first historical Burgundian king mentioned, though a tribal history outlined in the Lex Burgundionum of a hundred years later said he was but the fourth king of the line of Gibichungs, founded by Gibica. The Nibelungenlied was based on older Germanic tales, which survive in the Eddas and the Volsung saga. In turn, these stories were derived from an even earlier mythical tradition. Though not necessarily “historic,” the tales are still instructive and supply some clues as to how myth intertwined with actual historical fact or accepted historical belief.


Ivalde was the only being, mortal or god, who knew the source from whence the purest form of the drink, called soma, came. Soma gave the gods in Asgard, led by Odin, their power and wisdom. The gods partook of a less pure form, but strove to learn of Ivalde’s secret.

Ivalde had had three sons, Slagfinn, Egil, and Völund, born to him by Greip, a giantess. One night, Ivalde sent his son Slagfinn and a daughter, Bil, to get a flask of soma for him. After collecting the mead, they were kidnapped by the Moon God, who then dispensed the soma to the other gods of Asgard. Angered, Ivalde kidnapped the Moon God’s daughter, apparently a sort of Sun demi-Goddess, and she eventually bore him many daughters, all of whom were associated with growth and rejuvenation.

A feud between Ivalde and the Moon God erupted. However, though their father was at war with the gods, Ivalde's sons, especially Slagfinn, maintained their friendship with the denizens of Asgard. In Slagfinn’s case, he became particularly close to his now foster-father, the moon-god. From this relationship, Slagfinn thereafter also became known as Huki or Gjuki. Ivalde was defeated in his war with the gods and agreed to an oath of peace. However, this did not last for long. Ivalde later broke the treaty and was defeated and killed.

After the death of their father, Slagfinn-Gjuki* and his brothers Volund and Egil, who were excellent smiths, maintained their friendship with the gods in Asgard for a time, making many treasures for them. However, they too eventually sought to topple the gods. Their attempt failed. Defeated, they departed their lands, running on skis, toward the northern reaches of the world and arrived in the Wolf-dales. There, they met the swan maids, demi-goddesses of growth (and probably their half-sisters), who joined them in their plotting against the gods.

Eventually, however, the swan-maids decided to return south and made their escape while the brothers were away hunting. Upon discovering that their companions had left, Slagfinn-Gjuki and Egil, this time wearing snowshoes, went in search of their swan-maids while Volund stayed behind. Slagfinn-Gjuki searched for his swan-maid, Svanhvít, to the south, while Egil sought his to the east.

Slagfinn-Gjuki eventually found his way to his father’s old hall and claimed the hall and the treasure within as his inheritance. Whether this was equal to his one-third share of the total treasure of Ivalde or if it was the entire fortune, he shared it with his two brothers. Slagfinn-Gjuki buried his treasure inside a mountain for safekeeping. It was the quest for this mythical treasure, the Nibelunge Hort, which inspired so many of the Germanic tales. It was from Slagfinn-Gjuki that the Gjukungs were said to have sprung and, as such, the Gjukungs were one line of the Niflung, or Nibelung, race, and thus rightful heirs to the treasure. Eventually, most of the treasure was collected by the Gjukungs, thanks to their own efforts and those of the mythic hero, Sigurd.

The Gjukungs

Seeking adventure, Sigurd had traveled from his home and come upon a princess, Brynhild, daughter of King Budli, in her castle. They fell in love, and Sigurd gave her a ring, but Sigurd then left her for further adventure. He rode to the lands of King Gjuki, who was married to Grimhild the Wise. They had three sons, Gunnar, Hogni, Guony, and a daughter, Gudrun, as well as a stepson, Gotthorm. Sigurd enjoyed his stay with this family and befriended the sons of Gjuki. Sigurd’s friendship with Gunnar and Hogni grew especially deep and the three warriors pledged mutual bonds of brotherhood. Sigurd formed an even stronger bond with their sister, Gudrun, whom he married and by whom he had two childred, Sigmund and Svanhild.

One day, Sigurd and the sons of Gjuki went to King Atli, son of Budli and brother to Brynhild, on behalf of Gunnar to ask for Brynhild’s hand in marriage. Brynhild lived in a hall called Hinafjall, surrounded by a wall of flame and had sworn that she would only marry the man who could ride through the flames. She had demanded this because she believed that only Sigurd, her true love, would be able to accomplish such a task. Gunnar was not swayed and strove to make the attempt, but his horse did not dare to jump through the flames. Sigurd’s horse was the only one that would brave the flames, but the horse only allowed Sigurd to seat him. Thus, Sigurd and Gunnar switched places and in the guise of Sigurd, Gunnar won the hand of Brynhild and all returned to the lands of Gjuki.

Eventually, the ruse played upon Brynhild was revealed to her by Gudrun. Full of vengeance, she urged her husband Gunnar and brother-in-law Hogni to kill Sigurd. However, they had sworn an oath as brothers to Sigurd and contrived to have their step-brother Gotthorm commit the act. Gotthorm succeeded in killing both Sigurd and his three year old son Sigmund, but was himself killed in the act. Gunnar and Hogni took Sigurd’s treasure for themselves and ruled the land. Brynhild committed suicide.

Atli married Sigurd’s widow Gudrun and invited his new brother-in-laws Gunnar and Hogni to his home. Before their journey, they buried their treasure in the Rhine and then went to Atli’s home where they were attacked and taken prisoner. Atli cut out Hogni’s heart and threw Gunnar in a snake pit.

A harp was procured for him in secret and, because his hands were tied, he played it with his toes in such a way that all the snakes went to sleep, but for one adder, which made for him and gnawing its way through the cartilage of his breast-bone thrust its head through the hole and buried its fangs in his liver until he was dead.

The sons of Gjuki, the Gjukungs or Nibelungs, were no more, and their treasure, the inheritance of the Nibelungs, was lost.

Gudrun, with the help of Hogni’s son had her revenge on Atli, drugging his mead and killing him while he was in a stupor. Then she burned his hall with all of his people within. After that, she tried to drown herself in the sea but drifted and came to the land of King Jonak, whom she married and by whom had three sons. Her daughter Svanhild eventually joined her in this new land. Svanhild grew up to be a beautiful woman and was the object of jealousy between King Jormunrekk and his son Randver. The result of the jealous conflict was the death of both Randver and Svanhild at the hands of the old king. Gudrun urged her sons to avenge the death of their half-sister, which they did. However, the three sons also perished, thus ending the line of the Gjukungs.

Based on these earlier tales, according to Rydberg, the Burgundians believed that Slagfinn-Gjuki was “their emigration hero and royal progenitor.” There were other parallels to other Germanic tribes: Jormunrekk, husband of Svanhild, daughter of Sigurd is the historical king of the Goths in southern Russia, Ermanarich, and events surrounding many of these found their way into Jordane’s history of the Goths. The preface to the Lex Burgundionum, which lists Burgundian kings who have Gjukung names and the Nibelungenlied, which makes the Gjukungs, or Gibichungs, the family of the Burgundian kings, supports this. Slagfinn-Gjuki was not only a hunter, he was also an archer and a fine musician. His musicianship he passed along to his “son,” Gunnar, “the greatest player on stringed instruments in the heroic literature. In the den of serpents he still plays his harp, so that the crawling venomous creatures are enchanted by the tones.” This defiant act was associated with Gunther, king of the Burgundians, who died at the hands of Etzel in the later compilation, the Nibelungenlied.

The Nibelungenlied

Indisputably the Burgundians of Gundahar inspired the later German epic of the Nibelungs. As an anonymous chronicler stated, the historical events of the Burgundian encounter with the Huns must have been memorable to have been used as the basis for the Nibelungenlied. Much scholarly work has been done in an attempt to ascertain the degree of historical accuracy in the work. “The Nibelungenlied remains, with respect to virtually all aspects of its being hitherto examined by scholars, an enigma, but that is a good, if not the major, part of its attraction for both the academic world as well as that of the educated layman.”

The Nibelungenlied was composed of the two stories previously outlined: one story was about a hero, Sigurd (Sigfrid) and the other story was about a villain, Etzel (Atli), supposedly the historical Attila. The Burgundian kings played the role of antagonist and protagonist, respectively, in each. The story of Sigfrid was often believed to hold little or no historical significance, while the story involving Etzel (Atli) was believed to be at least partially based on the true events surrounding the fall of the Burgundians as it was told in the sixth and seventh centuries. Because of this interpretation of the differing levels of historical accuracy, many believed that the stories were two separate tales combined into one epic. That view has changed in recent years.

To recount the second, and probably more “historic,” part of the Nibelungenlied
briefly, Etzel (Atli) married Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun), sister of the Burgundian kings and plotted to steal their treasure, symbol of their wealth and power.

Attila invited them to his court while Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun) unsuccessfully attempted to warn her brothers of her husband’s plot. A battle ensued upon the Burgundian refusal to surrender their treasure and all of them, except Gunther (Gundahar), were killed. Gunther (Gundahar), the last to have knowledge of the whereabouts of the Burgundian treasure, remained defiant in the face of Etzel’s (Atli’s) threats, though he was finally killed. Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun) avenged her kin by killing Etzel (Atli’s). Finally, in a probable reflection of contemporary rumors that a German bride had killed the historical Attila, Kriemhild (Grimhild/Gudrun) was said to have then burned his hall with his retainers inside. She then threw herself into the flames, ending her own life.

The historical linkages between characters in the poem and those from history have been well documented. Less noticed was an apparent link between the historical Roman general Aetius and the hero Sigfrid. Both were heroic external forces that brought doom upon the Burgundian state, both were eventually perceived to be threats to the political system, and both of their deaths involved sexual intrigue and vengeful murder.

The obvious historical error of the saga was the premature placement of Attila as leader of the Huns roughly a generation too soon. However, historical proof of some aspects of the events are extant, i.e. the Burgundians were indeed destroyed by the Huns around A.D. 436, they were led by their king Gundahar, who was killed during these events, and Attila died suddenly in A.D. 453 of a seizure or hemorrhage, possibly brought on by excessive alcoholic consumption. Finally, that the Burgundians had come in contact with, and were influenced by, the Huns has also been shown by their artwork in filigree and by such practices as cranial deformation.

The foundation of the Nibelungenlied was built upon the older Germanic myths surrounding Slagfinn-Gjuki. These tales were fused with historical events to produce a heroic tale of epic proportions. For instance, Hugo Bekker's analysis demonstrates the parallelism between the two sections and other internal consistencies as exhibited by the descriptions of both courtly and military activities throughout the work. Thus, while certain facts about the Burgundians and Attila may have the ring of truth, the historical value of the Nibelungenlied lay more in the way it reflects the later chivalric society of the time at which it was written or compiled.

*Victor Rydberg, in his Teutonic Mythology, explains that his research led to his conclusion that “[t]he names by which Slagfinn is found in our records are accordingly Iði, Gjúki, Dankrat (Þakkráður), Irung, Aldrian, Cheldricus, Gelderus, Hjúki…[and] Hengest (Hengist)….The most important Slagfinn epithets, from a mythological standpoint, are Idi, Gjuki, Hjuki, and Irung.” Another name was Gibich (ie; Gibichungs). Rydberg also determined that Slagfinn and his brothers are Niflungs and that he was also adopted by the moon-god, “whose name he bore. Gjuki and Hjuki are therefore names borne by one and the same person - by Slagfinn, the Niflung.”

UP NEXT: Burgundians and Tolkien's Sigurd and Gudrun


Wolfram, Germanic Peoples.
“Nibelungenlied,” in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Joseph Strayer, ed., (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1987).
Viktor Rydberg, Teutonic Mythology: Gods And Goddesses Of The Northland, trans. Rasmus B. Anderson, Memorial Edition, 3 vols., Norrœna Anglo-Saxon classics, vols. 3-5, (London: Norrœna Society, 1907).
The Elder Edda of Saemund Sigfusson, trans. Benjamin Thorpe and The Younger Edda of Snorre Sturleson, trans. I.A. Blackwell, ed. Rasmus B. Anderson, (London: Norrœna Society, 1907).
The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson: Tales from Norse Mythology, with an introduction by Sigurdur Nordal, trans. Jean I. Young (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966).
The Saga of the Volsungs: The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok together with The Lay of Kraka, trans. Margaret Schlauch, (New York: The AMS Press and W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978; reprint, New York: American-Scandanavian Foundation, vol. 35, Scandinavian Classics, 1930).
Chronicle of 452, in Murray, Merovingian Gaul.
Latouche, Caesar to Charlemagne.

A Companion to the Nibelungenlied, ed. Winder McConnell (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1998).
Francis G. Gentry, Winder McConnell, Ulrich Muller, and Werner Wunderlich, eds., The Nibelungen Tradition: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2002).
Hugo Bekker, The Nibelungenlied: a Literary Analysis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971).
Frank G. Ryder, The Song of the Nibelungs: A Verse Translation from the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1962).
Brian Murdoch, “Politics in the Niebelungenlied,” in
in McConnell, ed., A Companion to the Nibelungenlied.
Werner Wunderlich, “The Authorship of the Nibelungenlied,” in McConnell, ed., A Companion to the Nibelungenlied.

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