Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas
“Down then and whirling outward the ruddy Gold fell forth,
As a flame in the dim grey morning, flashed out a kingdom’s worth;
Then the waters roared above it, the wan water and the foam
Flew up o’er the face of the rock-wall as the tinkling Gold fell home,
Unheard, unseen for ever, a wonder and a tale,
Till the last of earthly singers from the sons of men shall fail.”
The Treachery of Atli
In martial array the royal band then rode out of the city of the Niblungs, which they were never again to see, and after many adventures they entered the land of the Huns, and arrived at Atli’s hall, where, finding that they had been foully entrapped, they slew the traitor Knefrud, and prepared to sell their lives as dearly as possible.
Gudrun hastened to meet them with tender embraces, and, seeing that they must fight, she grasped a weapon and loyally aided them in the terrible massacre which ensued. After the first onslaught, Gunnar kept up the spirits of his followers by playing on his harp, which he laid aside only when the assaults were renewed. Thrice the brave Niblungs resisted the assault of the Huns, until all save Gunnar and Högni had perished, and the king and his brother, wounded, faint, and weary, fell into the hands of their foes, who cast them, securely bound, into a dungeon to await death.
Atli had prudently abstained from taking any active part in the fight, and he now had his brothers-in-law brought in turn before him, promising them freedom if they would reveal the hiding-place of the golden hoard; but they proudly kept silence, and it was only after much torture that Gunnar spake, saying that he had sworn a solemn oath never to reveal the secret as long as Högni lived. At the same time he declared that he would believe his brother dead only when his heart was brought to him on a platter.
“With a dreadful voice cried Gunnar: ‘O fool, hast thou heard it told
Who won the Treasure aforetime and the ruddy rings of the Gold?
It was Sigurd, child of the Volsungs, the best sprung forth from the best:
He rode from the North and the mountains, and became my summer guest,
My friend and my brother sworn: he rode the Wavering Fire,
And won me the Queen of Glory and accomplished my desire;
The praise of the world he was, the hope of the biders in wrong,
The help of the lowly people, the hammer of the strong:
Ah, oft in the world, henceforward, shall the tale be told of the deed,
And I, e’en I, will tell it in the day of the Niblungs’ Need:
For I sat night-long in my armour, and when light was wide o’er the land
I slaughtered Sigurd my brother, and looked on the work of mine hand.
And now, O mighty Atli, I have seen the Niblung’s wreck,
And the feet of the faint-heart dastard have trodden Gunnar’s neck;
And if all be little enough, and the Gods begrudge me rest,
Let me see the heart of Högni cut quick from his living breast,
And laid on the dish before me: and then shall I tell of the Gold,
And become thy servant, Atli, and my life at thy pleasure hold.’”
Urged by greed, Atli gave immediate orders that Högni’s heart should be brought; but his servants, fearing to lay hands on such a grim warrior, slew the cowardly scullion Hialli. The trembling heart of this poor wretch called forth contemptuous words from Gunnar, who declared that such a timorous organ could never have belonged to his fearless brother. Atli again issued angry commands, and this time the unquivering heart of Högni was produced, whereupon Gunnar, turning to the monarch, solemnly swore that since the secret now rested with him alone it would never be revealed.
The Last of the Niblungs
Livid with anger, the king bade his servants throw Gunnar, with hands bound, into a den of venomous snakes; but this did not daunt the reckless Niblung, and, his harp having been flung after him in derision, he calmly sat in the pit, harping with his toes, and lulling to sleep all the reptiles save one only. It was said that Atli’s mother had taken the form of this snake, and that she it was who now bit him in the side, and silenced his triumphant song for ever.
To celebrate his triumph, Atli now ordered a great feast, commanding Gudrun to be present to wait upon him. At this banquet he ate and drank heartily, little suspecting that his wife had slain both his sons, and had served up their roasted hearts and their blood mixed with wine in cups made of their skulls. After a time the king and his guests became intoxicated, when Gudrun, according to one version of the story, set fire to the palace, and as the drunken men were aroused, too late to escape, she revealed what she had done, and first stabbing her husband, she calmly perished in the flames with the Huns. Another version relates, however, that she murdered Atli with Sigurd’s sword, and having placed his body on a ship, which she sent adrift, she cast herself into the sea and was drowned.
“She spread out her arms as she spake it, and away from the earth she leapt