Many legends referred to in medieval Germanic literature, ranging from the Old High German Hildebrandslied to Icelandic sagas, are set in the age of the Germanic Migration Period (4th to 6th centuries). The same goes for several Old English heroic poems, including Beowulf (set in early 6th-century Scandinavia), Waldere (about a legendary 5th-century Visigothic king) and The Finnsburg Fragment (set in Migration Age Frisia). The Old English poem Widsith too refers to this crucial period in the early medieval history of Europe. This blog post focuses on one reference in Widsith in particular: to the Burgundian King Gundahari (d. 437), who also appears in the much later Volsunga Saga (as Gunnar) and the Nibelungenlied (as Gunther).
Widsith, the widely travelled
Ic wæs mid Hunum ond mid Hreðgotum,
mid Sweom ond mid Geatum ond mid Suþdenum.
Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum. (Widsith, ll. 57-59)
[I was with the Huns and with Goths,
with Swedes and with Geats and with the South-Danes.
With the Vandals I was and with Varni and with the Vikings.]
Widsith is the name given to a 143-line poem in Old English that survives in the 10th-century Exeter Book (but was probably composed centuries earlier). In this curious poem, the speaker identifies himself as Widsith [‘broad journey’]; an apt name, since he claims to have travelled among no fewer than fifty different tribes, ranging from Fins, to Huns, through to Saracens, Egyptians, Indians and Frisians. He also claims to have interacted with various historical figures, including Julius Caesar (d. 44 BC), Ermanaric, king of the Goths (d. 376) and Alboin, king of the Lombards (d. 572). Clearly, we are dealing here with a fictional travelogue, unless we assume Widsith truly spanned the known globe and lived to at least 650 years of age.
The Anglo-Saxon poet of Widsith shows a familiarity with stories surrounding pseudo-legendary historical figures from the Germanic Migration Period, who are also mentioned in other Old English poems. These include the Danes Hrothgar and Hrothwulf (mentioned in Beowulf), as well as the Frisian Finn and Half-Dane Hnæf (mentioned in Beowulf and The Finsburg Fragment; see: The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode). In this intriguing catalogue, Widsith also mentions a magnanimous Burgundian king:
ond mid Burgendum, þær ic beag geþah;
me þær Guðhere forgeaf glædlicne maþþum
songes to leane. Næs þæt sæne cyning! (Widsith, ll. 65-67)
and among the Burgundians, there I received a ring;
there Guðhere gave me a shiny treasure,
as a reward for a song. That was not a thrifty king!
This Guðhere is a historical king of the Burgundians who plays an intriguing role in various Germanic literary traditions.
Gundahari: A Burgundian king, defeated by Huns
Even though the names may seem wholly different, etymologists will tell you that the name “Guðhere” in Widsith is the Old English reflex of the Burgundian name Gundahari. Old English gūþ ‘war’ and gunda both derive from Proto-Germanic *gunþī-/*gunþjō– ‘fight’ (just like Present-Day English mouth and German Mund both derive from Proto-Germanic *munþa- ‘mouth’); Old English here ‘war’ and hari come from Proto-Germanic *harja- (the Burgundians spoke an East Germanic language which, like Gothic, did not undergo i-mutation [a change in vowels followed by an i or j in the next syllable]). (For Proto-Germanic etymologies, see Kroonen 2013)
Gundahari was a historical fifth-century king of an East Germanic tribe known as the Burgdundians. He ruled a kingdom at Worms (Germany) which was overrun by Huns in the year 437. Gundahari was killed and, defeated by the Huns, the remaining Burgundians started to migrate and ended up in the area of Savoy (France).
Some of these Burgundians settled on the estate of the Roman diplomat and poet Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430-489). In a letter to his friend Catullinus, Sidonius gives a fabulous description of these Germanic barbarians:
Why — even supposing I had the skill — do you bid me compose a song … , placed as I am among long-haired hordes, having to endure German speech, praising oft with wry face the song of the gluttonous Burgundian who spreads rancid butter on his hair? Do you want me to tell you what wrecks all poetry ? Driven away by barbarian thrumming the Muse has spurned the six-footed exercise ever since she beheld these patrons seven feet high. I am fain to call your eyes and ears happy, happy too your nose, for you don’t have a reek of garlic and foul onions discharged upon you at early morn from ten breakfasts, and you are not invaded even before dawn … by a crowd of giants so many and so big that not even the kitchen of Alcinous could support them. (trans. Anderson 1936)
Sidonius’s gives the Burgundians a harsh review: they eat him out of house and home, they smell of garlic and onions, spread butter in their hair and sing horrible songs. It is most unfortunate that Sidonius did not record any of these Burgundian songs; who knows? They may have been singing of their king Gundahari and the crashing defeat by the Huns.
It is certain that the name Gundahari was well remembered among the Burgundians. One of Gundahari’s successors, King Gundobad (c. 452 – 516 AD) issued a law code known as the Lex Burgundionum [The Law of the Burgundians], which includes Gundahari in a list of memorable kings, along with Gibica, Godomar and Gislahari:
That songs were indeed sung about Gundahari is further suggested by his appearance in other Germanic literary traditions.
Sneaky Huns and sleepy snakes in the Völsunga Saga
The thirteenth-century, Icelandic Völsunga Saga synthesizes various older (oral) stories about the history of Sigurd the dragon slayer and the destruction of the Burgundians. In the Völsunga Saga, Gundahari appears as Gunnar, son of Gjuki (that is: Gibica!), King of the Burgundians. After a series of tragic events, Gunnar acquires the great treasure of Sigurd. This treasure rouses the interest of King Atli (that is: Atilla the Hun!). Through trickery, Atli lures Gunnar to his court and demands the treasure be handed over. Gunnar refuses and says that he has deposited the gold into the river Rhine. A battle between the Burgundians and Huns ensues and Gunnar is bound and thrown into a snake pit. Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister and Atli’s wife, helpfully hands Gunnar a harp and, in a desperate attempt to save his own life, the bound Gunnar begins to play the instrument with his toes. Almost all of the snakes fall asleep, but one stays awake and bites Gunnar to death.
Gunnar’s marvellous death scene was rather popular in medieval art and perhaps the most famous depiction of Gunnar in the snake pit is on the doorway of a 12th/13th-century stave church in Hylestad, Norway:
Variations of the story of Gundahari/Gunnar appear, among others, in the Old Norse Edda and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied (in this version, Gundahari is named Gunther and is beheaded by his sister – no sleepy snakes involved). The Burgundian king that was struck down by Huns in 437, it seems, had truly become a legend.
The reference to Gundahari in Widsith attests to the fact that this fifth-century Burgundian king was also known in early medieval England. In this Old English poem, Gundahari is not linked to Atilla the Hun, there are no snakes, nor helpful (or vindictive) sisters; but the poem does associate the Burgundian king, explicitly, with treasure and song: this was not a thrifty king and he rewarded his poets well! These rewards, judging by Gundahari’s place in various literary traditions, certainly paid off!
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also like the following blog posts:
- Boars of battle: The wild boar in the early Middle Ages
- The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
- A medieval giant on display: Last resting place of Beowulf’s Hygelac discovered?
Works referred to:
- Anderson, W.B., trans. (1936). Sidonius: Poems and Letters (Cambridge, MA)
- Kroonen, G. (2013). Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (Leiden & Boston)
N.B. Gundahari also gets a reference in the Old English Waldere, but that is something for another blog post!
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The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
One of the most intriguing stories referred to in Old English heroic poetry is whatever happend at Finnsburg, between Hnæf , Finn and Hengest. The story is referred to in Beowulf, the so-called Finnsburg Fragment, and Widsith, but the events are rather difficult to piece together. For all who have ever struggled making sense of Finnsburg, here is an attempt at a comic strip reconstruction.
“gid oft wrecen” (Beowulf, l. 1065b): A Tale Often Recited
After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, there is much rejoicing in the hall of the Danish king Hrothgar. During the festivities, a minstrel performs a well-known tale, a “gid oft wrecen” (l. 1065b): a tale often recited. The Beowulf poet certainly assumed his audience to be familiar with the contents of this tale, since what follows is a rather enigmatic summary of events of something that took place in Frisia, concerning Finn, Hnæf and Hengest (ll. 1063-1159). The basic premise of the story is somewhat clear: a feud between Danes and Frisians had been solved by a political marriage between the Frisian prince Finn and the Danish princess Hildeburh; a visit by Hildeburh’s brother Hnæf to Finnsburg renewed the hostilities and resulted in the death of Hnæf and Hildeburh’s son among others; although a new truce was made, Finn is killed the following year and Hildeburh is brought back to Denmark. The exact particulars of the story, however, are only alluded to and many scholars have tried to figure out what exactly happened (chief among them, a man named J.R.R. Tolkien in the posthumous work Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, ed. A. Bliss (1982)).
That the story of Finnsburg was indeed well known and often recited, becomes clear from the Finnsburg Fragment. The Finnsburg Fragment was found on a loose manuscript folio, once kept at Lambeth Palace and edited by the George Hickes in 1705 (the manuscript folio has since been lost). The Fragment consists of 48 lines of Old English poetry, which outline how a band of warriors led by Hnæf are attacked by Frisians, near Finnsburg. the text breaks off when a certain “folces hyrde” [leader of people, possibly Hnæf] is mortally wounded. As such, the Finnsburg Fragment fills in some of the details that are lacking in the summary of the minstrel’s tale in Beowulf, which in turn provides information about the cause and outcome of the fight which are not mentioned in the extant text of the Finnsburg Fragment.
Yet a third text to testify to the circulation of this story in Anglo-Saxon England is the poem Widsith. This poem which is something of a catalogue of people, kings and heroes that the traveling poet Widsith [wide-jouney] had supposedly met over the years. Among the heroes mentioned in Widsith are the Frisian “Finn Folcwalding” [Finn, son of Folcwald] (l. 27), “Hnæf” who ruled the Hocings (l. 29) and “Sæferð” (l. 31) who ruled the Sycgs. These heroes can all be identified with people mentioned in the Finnsburg Fragment and/or the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. The story of Finnsburg, then, was well known indeed, even if the particulars still elude scholars today (matters are made worse by apparent errors in the extant texts of the Finnsburg Fragment and the lines in Beowulf, which cause even more confusion and uncertainty).
The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswael: A Comic Strip Reconstruction of the Finnsburg Fragment and Episode
The comic strip below, extending over 28 panels, represents one way of reading the Finnsburg Fragment and the Finnsburg episode in Beowulf. In places, I have simplified things (glossing over, for instance, the matter of the Jutes who appear to be fighting on both sides of the conflict or may actually not be Jutes, but giants – the words “eotan” [Jutes] and “eoten” [giant] are easily confused!), elsewhere I have opted for one interpretation and ignored others. Some ‘scholarly’ justification follows after the comic strip…
Here is how the panels relate to the texts of Beowulf and the Finnsburg Fragment – I recommend you read the comic strip along with the actual texts!
- “The Freoðuwebbe and the Freswæl”. The term “freoðuwebbe” (Beowulf, l. 1942) is used to refer to women who were married off to solve a political feud. The Beowulf poet seems to be rather opposed to this idea, given the dramatic outcome of Hildeburh’s marriage. For the term “Freswæl” [Frisian massacre], see Beowulf, l. 1070. “Or: How Hildeburh became a sad woman”. See Beowulf, l. 1075 “þæt wæs geomuru ides”[that was a sad woman].
- I assumed that the feud dated back to the parents of Hildeburh and Finn; this is not neccessarily the case.
- For clarity, I gave all the Danes (and Jutes, and Sycgs) mustaches; the Frisians have beards.
- The marriage between Hildeburh and Finn must have lasted long enough to produce a son that could die during the fighting at Finnsburg.
- Hnæf visits and this leads to hostilities. It is still unknown why these hostilities took place; here, I blame Finn, since it would appear as if the Frisians were the ones to start the fight.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 3-4.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 5-12. What Hnæf and his men see is the sudden approach of the Frisians, carrying torches.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 13-15. Sigeferth can be identified as “Sæferð” in Widsith, l. 31.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 16-17. The fact that the Fragment says “Hengest sylf” (l. 17) suggests that Hengest is a figure of importance; this also becomes clear from his role in the episode in Beowulf.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 18-21. It is not entirely clear whether Garulf tells Guthere to stay back or the other way around. Nor is it clear whether the warning is heeded and so it is unclear who approaches the door first. Since we are told Garulf is the first to die (Finnsburg Fragment, l. 31), I suggest Garulf was the first to approach the door and that Guthere indeed listened to his warning. In this way, Garulf is the senior warrior who leads the charge.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 22-27.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 31-34a.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 34b-35a.
- See Finnsburg Fragment, ll. 37-45. It is unclear whether the mortally wounded “hæleð” [hero] (l. 43) is indeed Hnæf. The Finnsburg Fragment breaks off with this wounded hero asking how the young warriors are doing.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1067-1069.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1071-1081
- See Beowulf, ll. 1080-1085.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1086-1100.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1101-1106.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1107-1112.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1113-1116. It is uncertain on whose side Hildeburh’s son had been fighting. If he had been fighting on the Frisian side (which seems likely), his body being burned with Hnæf’s is highly symbolic.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1117-1124.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1125-1136a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1136b-1150a. The “Guthlaf and Oslaf” mentioned in Beowulf (l. 1148) can probably be identified with the “Ordlaf and Guthlaf” of the Finnsburg Fragment (l. 16).
- See Beowulf, ll. 1143-1144. It is unclear whether it is the son of Hunlaf (who may be Guthlaf) who gave Hengest a sword or whether “Hunlafing” (Beowulf, l. 1143) is the name of the sword. Whatever the case, Hengest gets a sword which reminds him of the things that happened the year before – in my reconstruction this is the sword of Hnæf.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1150b-1152a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1146-1152a.
- See Beowulf, ll. 1152a-1159a.