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Guðrún (Old Norse: ᚴᚢᚦᚱᚢᚾ; English and Scandinavian languages: Gudrun) is the wife of Sigurðr and a major figure in Germanic heroic legend and literature. She is believed to have her origins in Ildico, last wife of Attila the Hun, and two queens of the Merovingian dynasty, Brunhilda of Austrasia and Fredegund.

In the Norse tradition, Guðrún is the sister of the Burgundian king Gunnarr and marries the hero Sigurðr. A major rivary between Guðrún and Brynhildr, Gunnarr's wife, is also featured there. Once Sigurðr has been murdered, Guðrún is married to Atli, the legendary analogue of Attila the Hun. Atli desires the hoard of the Niflungar, which the Burgundians had taken after murdering Sigurðr, and invites them to his court intending to kill them. Guðrún then avenges her brothers by killing Atli and burning down his hall. The Norse tradition then tells of her further life as mother of Svanhildr and enemy of Jǫrmunrekr.

This is how Guðrún is described at the end of the Eddic poem Atlakviða:


Fullrœtt er um þetta:
ferr engi svá síðan
brúðr í brynio
brœðr at hefna.
Hon hefir þriggia
þióðkonunga
banorð borit,
biǫrt, áðr sylti.[1]


The whole tale is told:
never after her
will any wife go thus in armour
to avenge her brothers.
She caused the death
of three kings
of a nation,
bright lady, before she died.[1]


Etymology[]

The etymology of Guðrún is straightforward: it consists of two elements. The first is Proto-Germanic *gunþ-, Old Norse gunnr, meaning battle; it shows the typical North Sea Germanic loss of a nasal before a dental spirant (*Gunþrūn to Guðrún).[2] The second element is Old Norse rún, meaning secret.[3] On the continent, this name is only attested for an apparently unrelated figure.[4]

Norse attestations[]

Prose Edda[]

Brynhild och Guðrún by Anders Zorn, 1893.

The so-called Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson is the earliest attestation of the full Scandinavian version of Guðrún's life, dating to around 1220.[5] Snorri tells the story of Guðrún in several chapters of the section of the poem called Skáldskaparsmál.[4] His presentation of the story is very similar to that found in the Vǫlsunga saga, but is considerably shorter.[6]

Guðrún is introduced as the daughter of Gjúki and Grímhildr, full sister to Gunnarr and Hǫgni, and half-sister to Gutþormr. Guðrún marries Sigurðr when he comes to Gjúki's kingdom. When Sigurðr returns from aiding Gunnarr in his wooing of Brynhildr, Sigurðr and Guðrún have two children, a son named Sigmund and a daughter named Svanhildr.[7] Some time later, Guðrún and Brynhildr have a quarrel while washing their hair in a river: Brynhildr says that she cannot have the water that touched Guðrún's hair touch hers, for she is married to the braver husband. The fight leads Guðrún to reveal that it was Sigurðr in Gunnarr's shape who rode through the flames to woo Brynhildr, producing a ring that Sigurðr had taken from Brynhildr as proof. This knowledge leads Brynhildr to agitate for Sigurðr's murder, which is performed by Guðrún's half-brother Gutþormr, who also kills the young Sigmund.[7]

Following this, Guðrún is married to king Atli (Attila). When Atli invites Guðrún's brothers and kills them for their gold, Guðrún kills her two sons by Atli. She makes their skulls into drinking goblets and cooks their hearts, giving them to Atli to eat. She then tells Atli what she has done, and later kills Atli together with Hǫgni's son. She then burns down the hall.[7]

Afterwards, Guðrún tries to drown herself in the sea, but she washes ashore in the land of King Jonak. Jonak marries her and has three sons with her, Sǫrli, Hamdir, and Erpr. Svanhildr, Sigurðr's daughter, is also raised there, before being married to king Jǫrmunrekr. When Jǫrmunrekr kills Svanhildr for adultery, Guðrún tells her sons to kill him, giving them special weapons that could not be pierced by iron. The sons die in the attempt, leading to the extinction of Gjúki's line.[7]

Poetic Edda[]

The Poetic Edda, a collection of heroic and mythological Nordic poems, assembles mythological and heroic songs of various ages.[5] As elsewhere in the Scandinavian tradition, Guðrún is portrayed as the sister of Gunnarr and Hǫgni. Depending on the poem Gutþormr is either her full brother, step-brother, or half-brother.[2] A sister Gullrǫnd also appears in one poem.[4]

Grípisspá[]

In Gripisspa, a prophecy that Sigurðr receives about his future life and deeds, it is mentioned that Guðrún will be his wife, and that Brynhildr will feel insulted by this. The prophecy ends shortly after describing Guðrún's grief and blaming her mother Grímhildrr for the whole debacle.

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu[]

Brot af Sigurðrarkvidu is only preserved fragmentarily: the surviving part of the poem tells the story of Sigurðr's murder. The poem briefly shows Guðrún's surprise and grief at Sigurðr's death, as well as her hostility to Brynhildr.[8] She is portrayed as a less important character than Brynhildr.[8] The lost part of the poem probably shows Guðrún to reveal Sigurðr and Gunnarr's deception in the wooing.[8]

Guðrúnarkviða I[]

In Guðrúnarkviða I, Guðrún lies besides Sigurðr's corpse but is unable to weep. Two other women attempt to comfort her by telling of their own grief, but it is only when Guðrún's sister Gullrǫnd uncovers Sigurðr's body and tells her to kiss it that she is able to weep. Guðrún now accuses Gunnarr of the murder and denies him any right to Sigurðr's treasure. She warns that she will avenge her husband.[5] It is implied that if Guðrún had been unable to weep, she may have died.[8]

The poem focuses entirely on Guðrún's grief at the death of Sigurðr, omitting almost all details surrounding his death.[8] The three women, including Guðrún's sister Gullrǫnd, are probably inventions of the poet.[8]

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma[]

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma retells the story of Sigurðr's life from his arrival at Gunnarr's court to his murder. Guðrún plays a passive role in the poem.[8] She is shown to wake up in a pool of blood from the dying Sigurðr, who then makes a short speech to her blaming Brynhildr, predicting the murder of their son, assuring her that he has not slept with Brynhildr, and noting that he brothers still live. After this, she disappears from the poem and is only mentioned by Brynhildr.[8]

Dráp Niflunga[]

The Dráp Niflunga is a short prose section connecting the death of Sigurðr to the following poems about the Burgundians (Niflungs) and Atli (Attila). Atli, who is Brynhildr's brother, blames Gunnarr for Brynhildr's death, and in order to placate him Gunnarr marries Guðrún to Atli. Guðrún must be given a magic potion to make her forget about Sigurðr first. Some time later Atli invites Gunnarr and Hǫgni intending to betray them and take their gold. Guðrún attempts to warn her brothers, but they come anyway. After they are taken prisoner by Atli, she asks her sons to intervene with their father on Gunnarr and Hǫgni's behalf, but they refuse.[5]

Guðrúnarkviða II[]

In Guðrúnarkviða II, Guðrún is at Atli's court. She laments of her fate to Þjódrekr and tells the story of her tribulations leading to her marriage to Atli. She recounts how Sigurðr was killed and how she then wandered to Denmark, where she stayed with King Half for three and a half years. Then her family came for her, and her mother Grímhildrr gave her a potion to forget her sorrow. Then she was forced to marry Atli. One night, Atli awoke and told Guðrún that he had had a dream that she would kill him and cause him to eat his sons.[5] Guðrún interprets the dream in a way that makes it seem harmless.[9] The poem is probably one of the most recent in the Poetic Edda.[9] Its account of Sigurðr's death generally follow the account in Brot af Sigurðarkviðu, but ignores Brynhildr and includes the detail that Guðrún went into the woods to mourn over Sigurðr's body.[8] The inclusion of the figure of Thiodrek points to continental influence on the poem.[5] The last stanza is incomplete, and scholars debate whether the poem originally also included Guðrún's killing of Atli and his sons.[9]

Victor Millet notes that the detail of the potion of forgetting helps explain why Guðrún does not seek to avenge Sigurðr; he connects this to a possible attempt to discount the continental version of the story, which the poet appears to have known.[5] The use of the name Grímhildrr for her mother, the cognate name for Kriemhild, and that character's manifest wickedness may also derive from the continental tradition.[5]

Guðrúnarkviða III[]

In Guðrúnarkviða III, Atli's concubine Herkja accuses Guðrún of sleeping with Thiodrekr. Guðrún denies the charges and engages in an ordeal of hot water to prove her innocence. To perform the ordeal, she puts her hand into the kettle of boiling water, and because she is innocent, she is unscathed. Herkja is then forced to performed the same ordeal and burns herself. As a punishment, she is killed by being drowned in a bog.[5][9]

Like Guðrúnarkviða II, Guðrúnarkviða III shows knowledge of continental traditions with the figure of Thjodrekr.[5] In addition, Herkja corresponds to the German Helche (in the Þiðrekssaga, Erka), the first wife of Etzel (Atli) in the continental tradition. She only appears here in the Poetic Edda.[6] Michael Curschmann argues that the poem is a transformation of a continental Germanic legend in which Dietrich (Thjodrekr) is accused of sleeping with Etzel's wife Helche (Herkja), with whom he had a close relationship; an Old Norse poet then made Herkja into a concubine and accuser and made Guðrún into the accused.[10]

Although the poem is placed before the poems about Atli's death in the codex, references to Guðrún being without kin seem to indicate that it takes place after the death of the Burgundians.[4][11]

Atlakviða hin Grǿnlenzka[]

In Atlakviða hin Grǿnlenzka, Atli invites Guðrún's brothers Hǫgni and Gunnarr to his hall with the intent of killing them. The brothers come, although Guðrún has sent them a warning. Once Gunnarr and Hǫgni are dead, Guðrún offers Atli a drink and invites him and the Huns to a feast. After all are drunk, she reveals that Atli has eaten his sons, kills him, then sets the hall on fire, killing everyone within, including herself.[5][12]

Atlamál hin grǿnlenzku[]

Atlamál hin grǿnlenzku tells the same story as Atlakviða with several important differences. Guðrún tries to warn her brothers of Atli's betrayal, but they decide to come anyway. Guðrún greets her brothers when they arrive and tries to negotiate between them and Atli, but when she sees that this is not possible she fights together with them until she is captured. Guðrún and Atli then accuse each other of causing the slaughter. Atli kills Gunnarr and Hǫgni and then tells Guðrún. She curses him, and he offers her some form of compensation, which she refuses. Guðrún pretends to have reconciled herself with the situation, but secretly kills her sons and feeds them to Atli. She tells Atli what he has eaten then kills Atli with the help of Hǫgni's son Hniflung. While he dies, Atli claims to have treated Guðrún well and accuses her of being cruel. Guðrún defends herself and promises to bury Atli appropriately, and tries to kill herself.[5]

This version of the poem makes the destruction of the Burgundians look like the result of a feud between Atli and Guðrún; Atli is even said to execute Gunnarr and Hǫgni to hurt his wife.[5]

Guðrúnarhvǫt[]

Guðrún agitating her sons.

Guðrúnarhvǫt is proceeded by a brief prose interlude that explains that tried to drown herself in the sea after killing Atli, but was instead taken to the land of King Jonakr, who married her and with whom she had three sons, Hamdir, Sǫrli, and Erpr, and where she also raises Svanhildr, her daughter with Sigurðr. Svanhildr is married to Jǫrmunrekr, who later kills her on suspicion of jealousy.[5]

The poem proper starts after Guðrún has learned of Svanhildr's death: she stirs up her three sons to kill Jǫrmunrekr and avenge their sister. The brothers agree, warning her, however, they will surely die. This leads Guðrún to tells them of her own woes in life.[5] Once she is left alone, Guðrún calls for death and hopes that Sigurðr will ride back from Hel to see her. They will then burn together on the same funeral pyre.[13]

Hamðismál[]

Guðrún appears briefly at the beginning of Hamðismál: she encourages her sons to avenge Svanhildr, which they reluctantly agree to do.[5]

Vǫlsunga saga[]

The Vọlsunga saga follows the plot given in the Poetic Edda fairly closely, although there is no indication that the author knew the other text.[5] The author appears to have been working in Norway and to have known the Þiðrekssaga, and therefore the Völsunga Saga is dated to sometime in the second half of the thirteenth century.[5]

In the saga, Guðrún is the daughter of Gjúki, sister to Gunnarr and Hǫgni, and Gutþormr. Guðrún is introduced to the saga having a bad dream; she chooses to go to Brynhildr to have this dream interpreted. Brynhildr explains that Guðrún will marry Sigurðr, even though he is betrothed to Brynhildr, and that Guðrún will afterwards lose him due to conflict. When Sigurðr comes to the court, Guðrún's mother Grímhildr gives Sigurðr a potion to forget his betrothal to Brynhildr, and he marries Guðrún. Sigurðr then helps Gunnarr woo Guðrún, using a spell taught them by Grímhildr, and for a time Brynhildr and Guðrún share Gjúki's court.[5]

One day Guðrún and Brynhildr quarrel while washing their hair; Brynhildr insists that her husband Gunnarr is a higher-ranking man than Sigurðr. This causes Guðrún to reveal that it was Sigurðr in Gunnarr's shape who won Brynhildr, and she shows Brynhildr a ring that Brynhildr had given Sigurðr as proof. The queens continue their quarrel in the king's hall the next day. Brynhildr then persuades Gunnarr and Hǫgni to have Sigurðr killed, claiming that Sigurðr slept with her. The murder is carried out by their younger brother Gutþormr. Gutþormr attacks Sigurðr while he is asleep in bed with Guðrún; Sigurðr is mortally wounded, but kills Gutþormr. He then assures Guðrún that he never deceived Gunnarr and dies. Guðrún then cries out loudly, which Brynhildr answers with a loud laugh.[5]

Guðrún afterwards flees to the Danish king Half, but is later retrieved by her family. Grímhildr gives her daughter a potion to make her forget her anger against her brothers, then convinces a reluctant Guðrún to marry Atli. Atli and Guðrún are not happily married, and Atli soon desires the gold of Guðrún's brothers. He invites them to his hall intending to kill them for the gold. Guðrún warns them, but the warning is ignored. When the brothers arrive, Guðrún first attempts to mediate between the two sides, but afterwards fights with her brothers until they are captured and then killed. During the preparations for the funeral feast for her brothers, Guðrún kills Atli's sons. She feeds their flesh to Atli. Then she kills Atli in his bed with the help of Hǫgni's son Niflung. Finally, they set the palace on fire and kill everyone inside.[5]

Guðrún now attempts to drown herself, but she is instead washed up in the land of king Jonak, who marries her. They have three sons, Hamdir, Sǫrli, and Erpr. Guðrún's daughter with Sigurðr, Svanhildr, is also raised at Jonak's court. Svanhildr marries King Jǫrmunrekr, but kills her on suspicion of adultery. Guðrún then rallies her sons to avenge their half-sister, giving them armor that cannot be cut through by iron.[5]

Gesta Danorum[]

The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus records a version of the story of Jǫrmunrekr (Ermanaric)'s death that includes Guðrún (Guthruna) in Latin in his Gesta Danorum.[14] In this version, in which "Jarmericus" is a Danish king, Guðrún appears as a powerful sorceress who casts spells on the weapons of the brothers coming to avenge Svanhildr's death that make them invincible.[15]

Wild Hunt[]

In the legend of the Wild Hunt, Guðrún Gjúkadóttir is referred to as Guro Rysserova ("Guðrún Horse-tail").[16]

Gallery[]

References[]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Dronke, Ursula (ed. and trans.) (1969). The Poetic Edda, Volume I: The Heroic Poems. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Gillespie, George T. (1973). Catalogue of Persons Named in German Heroic Literature, 700-1600: Including Named Animals and Objects and Ethnic Names. Oxford: Oxford University. ISBN: 9780198157182 .
  3. Uecker, Heiko (1972). Germanische Heldensage. Stuttgart: Metzler. ISBN: 3476101061 .
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Gentry, Francis G.; McConnell, Winder; Müller, Ulrich; Wunderlich, Werner, eds. (2011) [2002]. The Nibelungen Tradition. An Encyclopedia. New York, Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0-8153-1785-2 .
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 5.20 5.21 Millet, Victor (2008). Germanische Heldendichtung im Mittelalter. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter. ISBN: 978-3-11-020102-4 .
  6. 6.0 6.1 Haymes, Edward R.; Samples, Susan T. (1996). Heroic legends of the North: an introduction to the Nibelung and Dietrich cycles. New York: Garland. ISBN: 0815300336 .
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Sturluson, Snorri (2005). The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology. Translated by Byock, Jesse L. New York, London: Penguin Books.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 8.6 8.7 8.8 McKinnell, John (2014). "Female Reactions to the Death of Sigurðr". In McKinnell, John; Kick, Donata; Shafer, John D. (eds.). Essays on Eddic Poetry. Toronto: University of Toronto. pp. 249–267. ISBN: 9781442615885 .
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Sprenger, Ulrike (1999). "Guðrúnlieder". In Beck, Heinrich; Geuenich, Dieter; Steuer, Heiko (eds.). Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. 16. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter. pp. 149–153.
  10. Curschmann, Michael (1988). "Eddic poetry and continental heroic legend: the case of the third lay of Guðrún (Guðrúnarqviða)". In Calder, Daniel G; Christy, T. Craig (eds.). Germania : comparative studies in the old Germanic languages and literatures. Wolfeboro, N.H.: D. S. Brewer. pp. 143–160. ISBN: 0859912442 .
  11. The Poetic Edda: Revised Edition. Translated by Larrington, Carolyne. Oxford: Oxford University. 2014. ISBN: 978-0-19-967534-0 .
  12. Beck, Heinrich (1973). "Atlilieder". In Beck, Heinrich; Geuenich, Dieter; Steuer, Heiko (eds.). Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. 1. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter. pp. 465–467.
  13. Gentry, Francis G.; McConnell, Winder; Müller, Ulrich; Wunderlich, Werner, eds. (2011) [2002]. The Nibelungen Tradition. An Encyclopedia. New York, Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN: 978-0-8153-1785-2 .
  14. Glauser, Jürg (1999). "Hamðismál". In Beck, Heinrich; Geuenich, Dieter; Steuer, Heiko (eds.). Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. 13. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter. pp. 473–476.
  15. Sprenger, Ulrike (1992). "Guðrúnarhvǫt". Die altnordische heroische Elegie. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter. pp. 121–127.
  16. Kveldulf Hagen Gundarsson, "The Folklore of the Wild Hunt and the Furious Host", from Mountain Thunder, Issue 7, Winter 1992. "In Norway, the oskorei [The Wild Hunt] is led by Sigurðr Svein and Guro Rysserova ("Guðrún Horse-tail")—the Sigurdhr Fáfnisbani and Gudhrun Gjúkadottir of the Eddic lays."
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