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Gundaharius or Gundahar, better known by his legendary names in Middle High German as Gunther or Gunnarr in Old Norse, was a historical king of Burgundy in the early 5th century. Gundahar is attested as ruling his people shortly after they crossed the Rhine into Roman Gaul. He was involved in the campaigns of the failed Roman usurper Jovinus before the latter's defeat, after which he was settled on the left bank of the Rhine as a Roman ally. In 436, Gundahar launched an attack from his kingdom on the Roman province of Belgica Prima. He was defeated by the Roman general Flavius Aetius, who destroyed Gundahar's kingdom with the help of Hunnish mercenaries the following year, resulting in Gundahar's death.

The historical Gundahar's death became the basis for a tradition in Germanic heroic legend in which the legendary Gunther met his death at the court of Etzel/Atli. The character also became attached to other legends: most notably he is associated with Siegfried/Sigurðr and Brunhild/Brynhildr, and is implicated in Sigurðr's murder. He also appears as an adversary in the legend of Walter of Aquitaine. It is generally assumed that Gunther's involvement in these other legends, in which he plays a secondary or antagonistic role, is a later development.[1] Gunther's importance in the story of the destruction of the Burgundians also waned with time.

Gunther appears as a legendary character in Latin, Middle High German, Old Norse, and Old English texts, as well as in various pictorial depictions from Scandinavia. Most significantly, he plays a role in the German Nibelungenlied, the medieval Latin Waltharius, and the Old Norse Poetic Edda and Vǫlsunga saga. He also plays an important role in Richard Wagner's operatic Ring cycle, which is based on the medieval legends of Sigurðr.


The first element of Gunther's name is Proto-Germanic *gunþ-, meaning war or conflict.[2] The second element is Proto-Germanic *-hari, meaning army.[2]

The name of the historical Gundahar is attested in the primary sources as Latin Gundaharius or Gundicharius and Greek Γυντιάριος (Gyntiarios).[3] Medieval Latin gives the name of the legendary figure as Guntharius, while Anglo-Saxon has Gūðhere, Old Norse has Gunnarr, and Middle High German has Gunther.[4]

Historical records[]

Gundahar is the first king of Burgundy to be historically attested.[3] It is unclear if he ruled alone or if he may have ruled together with brothers, as occurs in the heroic tradition; the title φύλαρχος (phylarchos) given to him by Olympiodorus of Thebes may suggest he was not the sole ruler.[3] In Prosper of Aquitaine he is identified as rex (king).[3]

A majority of the Burgundians crossed the Rhine in 406/407, together with numerous other Germanic tribes.[5] Their king Gundahar is first attested in 411 as cooperating with Goar, king of the Alans, to proclaim Jovinus as a new emperor in the province Germania Inferior on the lower Rhine.[3] He is attested as being involved in Jovinus's campaigns in southern Gaul.[3] Following Jovinus's defeat in 413, the Roman magister militum Constantius settled the Burgundians on the left bank of the Rhine as Roman foederati.[3] Based on the later heroic tradition, many scholars identify their area of settlement as around Worms, though some scholars have argued in favor of other locations.[3][5]

In the 430s, the Burgundians came under increasing pressure from the Huns; likely as a reaction to this Gundahar attacked the Roman province Belgica Prima (based around Trier) in 435.[3] The Burgundians were defeated by the Roman general Flavius Aetius, who nevertheless confirmed Gundahar and his people's rights to their kingdom.[3] However, the next year (436) Aetius, accompanied by Hunnish mercenaries, attacked and destroyed the Burgundian kingdom. According to Prosper of Aquitaine, Gundahar and the majority of his people found their deaths in Aetius's attack.[3][5]

Aetius resettled the survivors of the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom in Savoy on the upper Rhone.[5] The memory of Gundahar and his downfall was likely preserved by these survivors, as well as by observers from neighboring Germanic tribes.[4]

The late fifth-/early-sixth century Lex Burgundionum, produced by the Burgundian king Gundobad at the Burgundians' new kingdom, mentions four older Burgundian kings: Gibica, Gundomar, Gislaharius, and Gundahar. It makes no mention of any familial relationship between the kings, however.[4] In the heroic tradition, Gibica (Gibeche/Gjúki) appears as Gundahar's father, while Gundomar (Guthorm/Gernot) and Gislaharius (Giselher) appear as his brothers and co-kings.[4]

Norse attestations[]

Poetic Edda[]

The Poetic Edda assembles mythological and heroic songs of various ages.[1] As elsewhere in the Scandinavian tradition, Gunnarr is the son of Gjúki and the brother of Guðrún and Hǫgni. Depending on the poem Guþormr is either his full brother, step-brother, or half-brother.[2] A sister Gullrǫnd also appears in one poem.[6]


In Grípisspá, a prophecy that Sigurðr receives about his future life and deeds, Sigurðr learns of his future marriage to Guðrún and his role taking Gunnarr's place in his wooing of Brynhildr, followed by his murder.[1]

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu[]

Brot af Sigurðarkviðu is only preserved fragmentarily: the surviving part of the poem tells the story of Sigurðr's murder. The fragment opens with Hǫgni questioning Gunnarr's decision to have Sigurðr murdered, believing that Brynhildr's claim that Sigurðr slept with her might be false. Soon after the murder occurs, Gunnarr shows himself to be deeply concerned about the future, while Brynhildr admits that she lied to have Sigurðr killed.[1] Gunnarr plays only a supporting role in the surviving portion of the poem, with Brynhildr and Guðrún being the more important characters.[7]

Sigurðarkviða hin skamma[]

Sigurðr and Gunnarr become friends when Sigurðr comes to Gunnarr's court, and Sigurðr aids Gunnarr in his wooing of Brynhildr. Sigurðr marries Guðrún, but Brynhildr desires him for herself. In her jealousy, she threatens to leave Gunnarr if he does not have Sigurðr murdered. Gunnarr and Hǫgni decide that the death of Sigurðr is not as bad as losing the queen, so they have their brother Guþormr murder him in his bed. Brynhildr laughs loudly when she hears Guðrún's wailing, and Gunnarr insults her and makes accusations against her when he hears her laugh. Brynhildr tells him that she never wanted to marry him, but was forced to by her brother Atli. She then kills herself in spite of Gunnarr's attempts to change her mind.[1]

Dráp Niflunga[]

The Dráp Niflunga is a short prose section connecting the death of Sigurðr to the following poems about the Niflungar (Burgundians) and Atli. Atli, who is Brynhildr's brother, blames Gunnar for Brynhildr's death, and in order to placate him Gunnarr marries Guðrún to Atli. Gunnarr desires to marry Brynhildr and Atli's sister Oddrún, but Atli refuses, so Gunnarr and Oddrún become lovers. Some time later, Atli invites Gunnarr and Hǫgni to visit him, and they go despite a warning from Guðrún. Gunnarr and Hǫgni are taken prisoner, and Gunnarr is thrown into a snake pit: he puts the snakes to sleep with his harp, but in the end one bites him in the liver, and he dies.[1]


In Oddrúnargrátr, Atli's sister Oddrún narrates the story of her love for Gunnarr. She tells how Atli refused to marry her to Gunnarr after her sister Brynhildr's death. She and Gunnarr nevertheless begin an affair, sleeping together until one day they are discovered. In anger, Atli then murders Gunnarr and Hǫgni, throwing Gunnarr into a snake pit. Oddrún says that she tries to help Gunnarr escape the snake pit, but by the time she got there he was already dead, as her mother had turned into a snake and bitten him.[1]

Oddrún appears to be a late addition to the legend, perhaps created so that the poet could "tell the story of the fall of the Nibelungs from a different point of view."[8] She also provides an additional reason for enmity between Gunnarr and Atli besides Atli's lust for treasure in Gunnarr's role as Oddrún's lover.[1]


In Atlakviða, Atli invites Hǫgni and Gunnarr to his hall, claiming to wish to offer them great riches, but actually intending to kill them. Gunnarr decides to come although Guðrún has sent them a warning. They cross through Myrkviðr on their way to Atli's court. Once they arrive, Atli captures Gunnarr and Hǫgni. He demands Gunnarr's hoard of gold, but Gunnarr says he will not tell Atli until Hǫgni is dead. Atli then kills Hǫgni and brings his heart to Gunnarr, who laughs and says now only he knows the secret of the hoard's location. He refuses to tell Atli, so Atli has him thrown into a snake pit. Gunnarr plays his harp there until he is bitten by a snake and dies.[1]

Atlamál in grǿnlenzku[]

Atlamál in grǿnlenzku tells the same story as Atlakviða with several important differences. When Gunnarr receives Atli's invitation, he and Hǫgni shrug off the warning sent by Guðrún. They then ignore the runes read by Hǫgni's wife Kostbera telling them not to go, and an ominous dream by Gunnarr's wife Glaumvǫr. When they arrive at Atli's court, Atli's messenger, who has accompanied them, announces that they must die. Gunnarr and Hǫgni kill him. Guðrún attempts to negotiate between the two sides but is unsuccessful; she fights with her brothers until they are captured. Atli then has Gunnarr and Hǫgni killed in order to spite Guðrún. Gunnarr is thrown into a snake pit, where he plays the harp with his toes as his hands are bound. He is bitten and dies.[1]

Vǫlsunga saga[]

The Vǫlsunga saga tells a longer prose version of Gunnarr's life and deeds. It follows the plot given in the Poetic Edda fairly closely, although there is no indication that the author knew the other text.[1]

Gunnarr is portrayed as the son of Gjúki and Grímhildr and brother of Hǫgni, Guðrún, and Gutþormr. After Sigurðr's arrival at the Burgundian court, Gunnarr is encouraged by Grimhild to marry Brynhildr. Brynhildr, however, refuses to marry any man but the one who can ride through a wall of flame. Gunnarr is unable to do this, and so Sigurðr takes his shape and performs the action for him. Brynhildr is thus forced to marry Gunnarr. Some time later, Guðrún and Brynhildr quarrel about whether Sigurðr or Gunnarr has the highest rank at the court. Guðrún then reveals the deception to Brynhildr, who demands vengeance from Gunnarr. He is unable to change her mind, and she demands that he kill Sigurðr. Gunnarr and Hǫgni decide that their younger brother Gutþormr, who has not sworn any oaths to Sigurðr, should perform the murder. They feed him with wolf meat to make him more ferocious, then send him to kill Sigurðr in his bed. After the murder, Brynhildr commits suicide and prophesies Gunnarr's fate.[1]

In order to be reconciled to Brynhildr's brother Atli for her death, Gunnarr arranges for Sigurðr's widow, his sister Guðrún, to marry Atli. He also seeks to marry Atli's other sister Oddrún, but Atli refuses and the two begin an affair.[6] Gunnarr instead marries the woman Glaumvǫr.[6] After some time, desiring to avenge his sister and to gain Gunnarr's treasure, Atli invites Gunnarr and Hǫgni to his court, intending to kill them. Gunnarr is suspicious and Guðrún has tried to warn them not to come, but once he and Hǫgni are drunk, Atli's messenger convinces them to accept the invitation. In spite of the warnings of their wives, Gunnarr and Hǫgni set out for Atli's court. Once they arrive the messenger reveals that it is a trap, and they kill him. Atli demands the treasure that Gunnarr took for Sigurðr, and when Gunnarr refuses, they begin to fight. Eventually, Gunnarr and Hǫgni are captured. Gunnarr says he will not tell Atli where the hoard is unless he sees Hǫgni's heart. When he is finally shown the heart, Gunnarr laughs and says that now only he knows where the hoard is and he will never tell. Atli then orders Gunnarr thrown into a snake pit, where he plays the harp with his toes as his hands are bound. In the end, the snakes kill him.[1]

Pictorial depictions[]

Gunnarr in snake pit at Hylestad stave church, c. 1200.

Gunnarr's death in the snake pit is well attested in pictorial depictions. Not all images of a man in a snake pit can be identified as Gunnarr: the image appears to predate the story of Gunnarr's death.[9] Although only images that also depict a harp can be securely identified as depicting Gunnarr, Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir argues that the presence of a harp appears to have originally been a variant of the story of Gunnarr's death, and that images that do not depict a harp can therefore also depict Gunnarr.[9]

Only one potential depiction is located outside of Scandinavia, on the Isle of Man: the Kirk Andreas cross (c. 1000) shows a bound figure surrounded by snakes who has been identified as Gunnarr. An alternative interpretation is that the figure is meant to represent Loki.[9]

The earliest depiction that has been relatively securely identified as Gunnarr is the picture stone Södermanland 40, from Västerljung, Sweden. Guðmundsdóttir argues that the presence of several Sigurðr stones nearby make an identification of the bound figure on the stone with Gunnarr very likely.[9]

Gunnarr can be securely identified on a number of church portals and baptismal fonts in Norway or areas formerly under Norwegian control in Sweden, with the earliest dating to the twelfth-century and most dating to around 1200 or later. In all of these images, Gunnarr is shown with a harp.[9] The presence of Gunnarr's death in Christian religious contexts shows that a Christian interpretation was common: his death was seen as typologically related to the story of Daniel in the lions' den.[1]

Seven additional images from Norway, Sweden, and the island of Gotland have been proposed to depict Gunnarr in the snake pit, but without a harp: these images date from between the ninth and the eleventh centuries, and thus predate the secure attestations considerably.[9] The earliest of these proposed identifications are the carvings on the cart found with the ninth-century Oseberg Ship burial.[9] Guðmundsdóttir suggests that the picture stone Klinte Hunninge I from Gotland (ninth/tenth century) may depict a version of the story of Oddrún's aid to Gunnarr, as it shows an unidentified female figure by the snake pit.[9] She argues in favor of identifying the figure in the snake pit in all of these images with Gunnarr, noting their apparent shared iconography.[9] Guðmundsdóttir nevertheless dismisses a number of other proposed images of Gunnarr, on the grounds that they are not clear.[9]


See also[]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 Millet, Victor (2008). Germanische Heldendichtung im Mittelalter. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter. ISBN: 978-3-11-020102-4 .
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 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: 978-0-19-815718-2 .
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 Anton, Hans H. (1999). "Gundahar". In Beck, Heinrich; Geuenich, Dieter; Steuer, Heiko (eds.). Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. 13. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter. pp. 193–194.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Nedoma, Robert; Anton, Hans H. (1998). "Gibichungen". In Beck, Heinrich; Geuenich, Dieter; Steuer, Heiko (eds.). Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Anton, Hans H. (1981). "Burgunden 4: Historisches". In Beck, Heinrich; Geuenich, Dieter; Steuer, Heiko (eds.). Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 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 .
  7. Würth, Stephanie (2005). "Sigurdlieder". In Beck, Heinrich; Geuenich, Dieter; Steuer, Heiko (eds.). Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde. 28. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter. pp. 424–426.
  8. Haymes, Edward R.; Samples, Susan T. (1996). Heroic legends of the North: an introduction to the Nibelung and Dietrich cycles. New York: Garland. ISBN: 978-0-8153-0033-5 .
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 9.9 Guðmundsdóttir, Aðalheiður (2015). "Gunnarr Gjúkason and images of snake-pits". In Heizmann, Wilhelm; Oehrl, Sigmund (eds.). Bilddenkmäler zur germanischen Götter- und Heldensage. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter. pp. 351–371. ISBN: 978-3-11-040733-4 .

External links[]

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