Gunnar Gjukason in the snake pit playing the harp with his feet. Detail from the left portal plank from Hylestad stave church, Setesdal, Norway. Picture: Fabullus. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gunnar_in_snakepit_Hylestad.jpg. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Gunnars slagr

(Gunnar’s [harp]-striking)

interpreted as

Gunnar’s Melody

 

Side by side Old Norse and the translation
English translation by Benjamin Thorpe, 1865

With few small alterations by Haukur Thorgeirsson
Both the poem and the translation are in the public domain.

This Edda-like poem was composed in the 18th Century by Gunnar Pálsson (1714-1791), an in Sweden born Icelandic priest, teacher, scholar and poet. Among other things Palsson researched in Icelandic history and was knowledgeable in old Icelandic poetry. For his personal pleasure he wrote several poems in the style of the Skalds from the Poetic Edda. His poem ‘Gunnar slagr’ was made so well, that for some time many thought it was a real, rediscovered Edda-poem and it was even added to some Edda editions.

Pálsson himself never claimed his poem to be old nor did he ever try to conceal his authorship.

It is very well possible, that the author called his poem after an assumed other lost poem from the 14th Century with the same name. That assumption is based on a passage in the ‘Norna-Gestr þáttur’, a 14th Century Saga in which it reads at the end of chapter 2:

Tekr Gestr hörpu sína ok slær vel ok lengi um kveldit, svá at öllum þykkir unað í á at heyra, ok slær þó Gunnarsslag bezt.

Translated:

Gest took his harp and played it well, and long into the evening, so that everyone was delighted to hear it, and he played the Gunnarsslag best.

George L. Hardman translation

The poem deals with a topic from the Norse Nibelungen Saga which can be recognized in several poems of the Poetic Edda. In this poem, Attila, King of the Huns, orders to bring King Gunnar in a garden full of snakes with the intention that he should be killed by poisonous snakebites. But except for one snake, Gunnar succeeded in bringing all snakes to sleep by playing the harp with his toes. But the snake that remained awake bit him in his heart – that snake was Atli’s mother who had turned herself into a snake.

 

Ár var þat GVNNARR
Gördiz at deyia
GIÚKA sonr
At GRÁBAKS sölvm
Fætur voro lavsir
Á fylkis niþ
En hendvr heptar
Havrþom fiötri.

Fengin var harpa
Fólk-diörfvm gram.
Íþrótt sýndi
Yl-qvisto om hrærþi.
Steig haglega
Havrpv-strengi.
Vara sú list leikin
Nema lofþúngs kvndi.

Saúng þá GVNNARR
Sva mælandi.
Feck mál harpa
Sem maþr væri.
En eigi sætara
Þó svanr væri.
Glvmdi orma salr
Viþ gvllnom strengiom.

Mína veit ek systor
Manni verst gefna
Ok NIFLÚNGA
Níþíngi festa.
Heim bauþ ATLI
HAVGNA OK GVNNARI
Mágvm sínum
En myrþi báþa.

Víg lét þá
Fyri veizlo taka
Ok orrosto
Fyri öl-teiti.
Þat man æ vppi
Meþan avld lifir.
Léka sva viþ mága
Mangi forþom.

Hví þú sva ATLI
Heiptir rækir.
Siálf olli BRYNHILDVR
Sinom dauþa
Ok SIGVRÞAR
Sárom bana.
Hví vildir GVDRÚNO
Grætta láta.

Sagdi hvginn forþom
Af hám meiþi
Ossar ófarir
At mavg dauþan.
Sagði mér BRYNHILDVR
Bvþla dóttir
Hve ATLI mvndi
Oss vm væla.

Gat þess ok GLAUMVÖR
Er viþ gistom bæþi
Hinnsta sinni
Í hvílv einni.
Minni varo málo
Megnir dravmar.
Farattv GVNNARR
Flár er þer nú ATLI.

Davr sá ek þínom
Dreyra roþinn
Gálga gavrvan
GIÚKA syni.
Hvgda ek þér dísir
Heimboþ gavra.
Mano yckr bræþrvm
Búin vélræþi.

Qvaþ oc KOSTBERA.
Qven var hon HÖGNA.
Rúnar villt ristnar
Ok rádna dravma.
Snotvrt var hiarta
Í siklínga briósti.
Hvargi knátti hræþaz
Harþan dauþa.

Oss hafa nornir
Aldr vm lagit,
Örfvm GIÚKA
At ÓÞINS vild.
Má viþ avrlögum
Engi siá
Né heillvm horfinn
Hvgom treysta.

Hlær mik þat ATLI
At þú hefir eigi
Hrínga rauþa
Sem HREIÞMARR átti
Einn veit ek hvar fé þat
Fólgit liggr
Síþan þér HÖGNA
Til hiarta skáro.

Hlær mik þat ATLI
At þér HÚNA kindir
Hlægianda HAVGNA
Til hiarta scárvþ.
Hnipnaþit HNIFLÚNGI.
Viþ holvndo
Ne sér vid brá
Sáran davþa.

Hlær mik þat ATLI
at þú hefir látna
Menn þína marga
Er mætstir váro
For ossom sverþom
Áþr svellta fengir.
Hefir oc mær systir
Meiddan þinn bróþvr.

Skal-at enn GVNNARR
Æþrv mæla
GIÚKA sonr
At GRAFVITNIS bóli.
Ne hryggr koma til
Heria-favþvr
Hefir fyrr Bvþlúngr
Bavþvi vaniz.

Fyrr skal mér Góinn
Grafa til hiatta [sic]
Ok Níþ-havggr
Nýro siúga.
Linur ok Láng-bakr
Lifror slíta.
Enn ek minni hafni
Hvgar-prýþi.

Þess man GVDRÚN
Grálega reka
Er ockr lét
ATLI svikna.
Hon man þer konúngi
Hiörtv géfa
Húna þinna
Heit at qveld-verþi.

Ok blandinn miöþ
Blóþi þeirra
Dreckr þú or skálom
Skarar-fialla
Sú mvn þik hvgraun
Harþast bíta
Er þér GVDRÚN bregdr
Glæpvm slíkvm.

Skömm man þín æfi
At skiòldúnga liþna.
Fær þú illan enda
Af orvm sif-spellvm.
Er þér slík maklig
Af vmsýslan vorrar
Systvr sár-neyddrar
Svik þér at gialda.

Man þik GVDRÚN
Geiri leggia
Ok NIFLÚNGR
Nærri standa
Leika man þin havll
Í loga rauþom
Síþan mantv á Náströndvm
Níþ-havggvi gefinn.

Sofinn er nú Grábakr
Ok Grafvitnir
Góinn ok Móinn
Ok Graf-völlvþr
Ofnir ok Svafnir
Eitvr-fánir
Naþr ok Niþ-havggr
Ok nöþror allar.
Hríngr, Höggvarþr
Fyri Havrpv-slætti.

Ein vakir vppi
ATLA móþir
Hefir sú mik hol-grafit
At hiarta-rótvm.
Lifvr vm sýgr
Ok lúngv slítr.
Erat lengvr líft
Lofþúngs kvndi.

Hættv nú harpa
Héþan mvn ek líþa
Ok Val-havllo
Víþa byggia
Drecka meþ Ásom
Dýrar veigar
Seþiaz Særimni
At svmblvm ÓÞINS.

Nú er Gvnnars slagr
Gavrva qveþinn.
Hef ek havldvm skémt
Hinnsta sinni.
Fárr man enn síþan
Fylkir il-qvistvm.
Hlióþ-fagra svegia
Havrpo-strengi
1. It of old befell that Gunnar,
Giuki's son,
was doomed to die
In Grábak's halls.
The feet were free
of the king's son,
but his hands were bound
with hard bonds.

2. A harp he seized,
the warrior king
his skill displayed,
his foot_branches moved,
the harp_strings
sweetly touched:
that art had not been practised
save by the king's son.

3. Then sang Gunnar,
in these strains:
the harp got voice,
as it had been a man;
yet not a sweeter sound,
had it been a swan;
the hall of serpents echoed
to the golden strings:

4. "I my sister know
wedded to the worst of men,
and to the Niflungs'
base foe espoused.
To his home bade Atli
Högni and Gunnar,
his relations,
but murdered both.

5. Slaughter he made them
take for festivity,
and conflict for
convivial potations.
Ever will that survive
while men shall live:
so did relations never
any one delude.

6. Why, Atli! dost thou
so wreak thy anger?
Herself did Brynhild
cause to die,
and Sigurd's
cruel death.
Why wouldst thou Gudrún
cause to weep?

7. Long since the raven told,
from the high tree,
our calamities,
at our relation's death;
Brynhild told me,
Budli's daughter,
how Atli would
deceive us both.

8. This also Glaumvör said,
when we both reposed,
for the last time,
in the same bed,
_ my consort had
portentous dreams _
'Go not Gunnar!
Atli is now false to thee.

9. A lance I saw
red with thy blood,
a gallows ready
for Giuki's son:
I thought for thee the Dísir
prepared a feast;
I ween that for you brothers
treachery is at work.'

10. Said also Kostbera _
she was Högni's wife _
the runes were falsely graved,
and the dreams interpreted.
But the heart beat high
In the princes' breast,
neither knew fear
of a cruel death.

11. The Norns have for us,
Giuki's heirs,
a life_time appointed,
at Odin's will;
no one may
against fate provide,
nor, of luck bereft,
in his valour trust.

12. Atli! I laugh
that thou hast not
the red_gold rings
that Hreidmar owned;
I alone know where that treasure
hidden lies,
since that Högni
to the heart ye cut.

13. Atli! I laugh,
that ye Huns
the laughing Högni
to the heart cut.
The Hniflung shrank not
from the scooping wound,
nor flinched he from
a painful death.

14. Atli! I laugh,
that thou hast lost
many of thy men
that choicest were,
beneath our swords,
before thy own death.
Our noble sister has
thy brother maimed.

15. Yet shall not Gunnar,
Giuki's son,
fear express
in Grafvitnir's dwelling;
nor dejected go
to the sire of hosts:
Already is the prince
inured to suffering.

16. Sooner shall Góin
pierce me to the heart,
and Nidhögg
such my reins,
Linn and Lángbak
my liver tear,
than I will abandon
my steadfastness of heart.

17. Gudrún it will
grimly avenge,
that Atli us
has both deceived;
she to thee, king! will
give the hearts
of thy cubs,
hot at the evening meal;

- - -
18. And their blood
thou from cups shalt drink
formed of their skulls.
That mental anguish shall
bite thee most cruelly,
when Gudrún sets
such crimes before thee.

19. Short will be thy life
after the princes' death;
an ill end thou wilt have,
for breach of our affinity:
such is befitting thee,
through the deed
of our sister sorely impelled
thy treachery to requite.

20. Gudrún will thee
with a lance lay low,
and the Niflung
stand hard by;
in thy palace
will the red flame play;
then in Náströnd thou shalt
be to Nidhögg given.

21. Now is Grábak lulled,
and Grafvitnir,
Góin and Móin,
and Grafvöllud,
Ofnir and Svafnir,
with venom glistening,
Nad and Nidhögg,
and the serpents all,
Hring, Höggvard,
by the harp's sound.

22. Alone wakeful remains
Atli's mother,
she has pierced me
to the heart's roots,
my liver sucks,
and my lungs tears.
- - -
- - -

23. Cease now, my harp!
hence I will depart,
and in the vast
Valhall abide,
with the Æsir drink
of costly cups,
be with Sæhrimnir sated
at Odin's feast.

24. Now is Gunnar's melody
all sung out;
I have men delighted
for the last time.
Henceforth few princes will
with their foot_branches
the sweetly sounding
harp_strings strike."

 

Source: https://notendur.hi.is//~haukurth/utgafa/gg_slagr_raw_ms_text.html

Haukur Thorgeirsson also published an informational text about this poem in Icelandic at
https://notendur.hi.is//~haukurth/utgafa/Gunnarsslagur_og_Valagaldur.pdf

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