The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers


Qui inuicti fuere uiri, pater optime Olumpi,
hos egomet uici.

In looking at the long bede-roll of the heroes of Teutonic Song and Legend, Sigfred, Ermanaric, Theodric of Verona, Hygelac the Goth, Gundahari the Burgundian, Ælfwine the Lombard, Charles the Great and his marquis Hruodland, Lodbrok, Ælfræd of Wessex, Harold fairhair, down to Olaf Tryggwason, one cannot but be struck by the fact that in every case but one we have contemporary accounts, which not only give the means of clearing the legendary deposit crystallized by imagination about these great men, but also help to discover by what facts of character and achievement the hero was able to impress his greatness upon the mind of his own age. Of one single name, however, most famous of all, most widely known, most deeply stamped upon the Teuton imagination, we seem to have no historical record --- Sigfred. Of all the others, as the annexed table will show, we have a double record, one popular, fanciful, imaginative, the other plain, often bald, but historical. For instance, a few lines of Ammianus, the contemporary of Ermanaric, give the facts which Jordanes, Saxo and the Eddic Lays preserve in poetical dress concerning that mighty King of the Goths. A dozen words of Eginhard proves that the Roland who died at Roncesvaux is no poetic myth. The brief sentence of Bishop Gregory of Tours confirms the legendary tale of the old English Epic of Beowulf, and reveals Chochilaicus in the flesh, a real king fighting and dying in a raid against the Frisones ----

Hero                           History                          Legend
Ermanaric                   Ammianus                       Jordanes, Saxo, Eddic Lay.
Attila                            Jordanes, Priscus.          Eddic Lays.
Hygelac.                      Gregory.                           Beowulf.
Theodric.                     Excerpt. Vales.                Eddic Lays.
Ælfwine [Alboin].       Paul the Deacon, etc.      Widsith.
Charles the Great.     Eginhard, etc.                   Chansons de geste.

Throughout one finds that epic poetry is built up upon a firm rock-foundation of fact, unshakeable and steadfast. May we not legitimately extend the inference to Sigfred's case?

 Again, if we turn to the four chief classic historians that tell of early Teutonic History --- Velleius Paterculus, Tacitus, Dio, Strabo, we are confronted by a singular and startling fact, that Arminius the Cheruscan--- the man, but for whose heroism and skill Germany would not now be Germany, nor England England; the general who stemmed once and for ever the full tide of Roman conquest in the hey-day of the early empire --- that this hero of heroes seems to be the one man passed over, forgotten, unknown to the lips and hearts of his own people. Is this credible? Tacitus witnesses that in his day at least it was not so: caniturque adhuc barbaras apud gentes.

Is there not, after all, a simple solution to this double difficulty? Are not Sigfred and Arminius one and the same? With the train of reasoning that has led us to this somewhat startling conclusion we will now deal.

In a late number of Germania (1) Mr. L. Smith, in a closely argued and carefully wrought out paper, proved that the numerous attempts, from J. Grimm upward and downward, to identify the name of the Liberator with any Teutonic name has failed, and had gone upon a wholly wrong track --- that Arminius is, in fact, a Roman gentile name that has been recognized in Roman Inscriptions.

Velleius Paterculus, whose vivid, if brief, delineation of the defeat of Varus, was written within nine years of the Conqueror's death, strongly confirms this view. Says he, --- Tum iuvenis genere nobilis, manu fortis, sensu celer, ultra barbarum promptus ingenio, nomine Arminius, Sigimeri principis gentis eius [Cheruscorum] filius, ardorem animi uultu oculisque preferens, adsiduus militiae nostrae prioris comes, [cum] iure etiam ciuitatis Romanae ius equestris consecutus gradus, segnitia ducis in occasionem sceleris usus est. Lib. II. c. 118; cf. Tac. Ann. ii. 10. ut qui Romanis in castris ductor popularium meruisset.

Here are the facts of Arminius' youth spent under a training of Roman military discipline, his rank, birth, patronymic, and tribe. Tacitus supplies his exact age at the end of his victorious career; Septum et triginta annos uitae, duodecim potentiae expleuit. Arminius, therefore, was born B.C. 16, crushed Varus A.D. 9, and died A.D. 21, the same age within a year as that at which the second Deliverer of Germany, Gustavus Adolphus, closed his course.

Arminius' intimate association with the Roman army in early life, which may have covered as much as ten years, will amply account for his being mentioned by the Roman historians only under the name he had borne while in their service. On the other hand, the songs of his people would celebrate him only under his own Teutonic name. If, like Segestes his father-in-law, a diuo Augusto ciuitate donatus, he had attained Equestrian rank only as a full-grown man, he would, like him, probably have come down to us only under his native name.

Have we any data in the Roman writers, which may help us to identify Arminius' native name?

The following pedigree of the royal house of the Cheruscans the ancients have preserved for us.


        According to the early custom of Teutonic nomenclature (such as we find it for example in the houses of Theodric the Goth, Oswald the Northumbrian, Gundahari the Burgundian) Arminius' name would therefore be a compound of Segi ---- and why not Segi-fredus? (3)

And is there not found in Teutonic poetry the very name of the royal clan or gens of the Cherusci? In the Thulor (a 13th century Gradus ad Parnassum) (4) is a list of synonyms for 'King' gleaned from old Pindaric odes or encomia upon various Scandinavian princes. Among them are these ---

                öðlingr [Ethel-ing], West Saxon royal gens.
                audlingr [Ead-ling], English royal gens.
                bragningr [Brag-ning].
                budlungr [Beadu-ling].
                döglingr [Day-ling], Danish royal gens.
                hildingr [Hild-ingr], Frankish royal gens.
                lofðungr [Leof-ding}.
                hniflungr [Hnef-ling].
                maeringr [Maer-ing], Frankish royal gens.
                sciöldungr [Shield-ing], Danish royal gens.
                mildingr [Mild-ing], English royal gens.
                scilfingr [Shelf-ing], Swedish royal gens.
                ynglingr [Yngwi-ling], Swedish royal gens.
                ylfingr [Wolf-ing].

        Beowulf's Lay supplies other names of the same type, openly treating them as patronymic or clan-names:---

                bronding [Brand-ing], Gothic gens.
                helming [Helm-ing], cf. O.N. hilmir.
                wiccing [Wicg-ing], Heath-bard clan.

        And last, not least, Jordanes yields ---

                Amalungs [Amal-ungs], Gothic royal gens.

        May we not rightly add to the list a well-known northern synonym for king and explain its origins as?---

                siclingr [Sige-ling], Cheruscan royal gens. (5)

        Hence by gens Arminius would be Sigeling, as Ethelward the Patrician was Etheling.

In fragmentary Hyndlu-liod, a genealogical poem composed for a member of the Horda-Kari family of Hordaland and afterwards of Orkney (set side by side with the early paraphrase of its pure text preserved in Flatey-book, and reconstructed by the author in the Corpus Poeticum) (6), such royal titles as those cited in the Thulor are openly and clearly used as patronymic clan-names. So that in the Old English chronicles with their Æscings and Ethelings, in the Norwegian Kings' Lives with their Skioldungs and Ynglings, and in this curious Lay of Hyndla, (7) the title-deed of Ohthere heimske, we seem to hear the last echoes of a clan or gens nomenclature which no doubt dates back to an early 'totem-stage' of Teutonic development.

Leaving personal and clan-names, let us look to his tribal title, Arminius the Cheruscan. This is in consonance with true Teutonic use, which survived in such denominations as der Friedlaender, der Pappenheimer, down to der Dessauer (known from Carlyle's Frederic). No doubt in the lost lays Tacitus tells of, Arminius was the Cheruscan par excellence.

In the Eddic Lamentation Lays (Corp. Poet. Bk. V), the unnamed author of which had access (as we have shown elsewhere) to High and Low German poems and traditions, Sigfred is marked out by a curious and unique epithet --- Hunsci, e.g.:---

        Long Brunhild Lay, line    16        Hunscr conungr.
                        "                           33        conunger enn hunsci.
                        "                           75        enn hunsci herbaldr.
                        "                           264      enn hunsca.
                        "                           265      enom hunsca.

        Greenland Atlamal, line 362. dauðr varð enn hunsci.
In all of which it is an epithet to Sigfred. As an epithet to others besides we find it in the ---

        Old Gudrun Lay, line                84.        hunscar meyiar.
More doubtful uses are ---
        Old Gudrun Lay, line                50.        recca huna. (read, hunsca?).
        Gudrunar kuiða, line                102.       hunscrar theoðar.

In all these instances the –sc inflexive form is to be noted.

Now to call Sigfred a Hun is absurd; the word, therefore, upon any hypothesis, stands for some lost tribal name --- is it not Cheruscus, Heorsci? All but two letters are identical. The word we want must begin with H, for this letter is needed to complete the alliteration in many of the instances given above. A Northern German singer would get some kind of sense out of Hunsci; for the great Hun hero, Attila, was a famous figure in the Epic Lays he knew, but the tribe of Cherusci had already in Tacitus' time been melting away into swift decay, having produced its great man, and done its duty and fulfilled its service to Teuton history. Therefore, save as a traditional epithet or synonym to Sigfred, its very name would long ago have perished, and be utterly foreign to a Scandinavian or even a German ear.

G. Storm's ingenious note on Susat (Soest) and the Hunaland (Westphalia) of the Wilkina Saga, will yield no slight confirmatory evidence to this strange confusion. For, how could Huns come to dwell in the old Cheruscan land, save by such error as this? It is in fact the same misnomer, Heorsc- for Hunsc-, over again.

While on this subject one cannot pass over Tacitus' words, boni aequique Cherusci, nunc inertes ac stulti uocantur--- a snatch, one may well believe, from an old Teutonic camp-song, to which we can even restore its original German words: 'horscr' (8) is exactly bonus aequusque, while 'heimscr' is iners stultusque. Horscr, too, would alliterate most happily with Heorscr (Cheruscus), to which it must have been of old the standing epithet (like the gallant Græme, light Lindsay, gray Gordon of the Border ballads). The apt opposition of 'horscr' and 'heimscr' in satire is attested by the early Norwegian poem, Guest's Wisdom, where we find ----

Heimsca or horscom goerir haolda sono sa-enn mátci munr


Opt fá á horscan, es á heimscan ne fá, lost-fagrir litir.

This word-play has, we believe, kept 'horscr' alive in the war of words, and saved its noble meaning unsullied; for it is the word which rightly describes perfect hero or heroine, the true Teuton term for which the English have borrowed the word 'gentle' from their Romance neighbours.

And thus, both personal and tribal name seem to come home to Arminius. As to Arminius' wife, Tacitus has not preserved her name, but Strabo once names her. But, unfortunately, Strabo never reached us in a form derived from a single uncial MS. --- omni genere errorum inquinatissimus, as the much-troubled editor, Dr. Kramer, stigmatizes it--- hence his proper names are in terribly corrupt state. He calls her QOUSNELDA; but this word is evidently incorrect, indeed impossible; the last part, '-elda,' being the only bit we can trust, for this shows that the final element was '-hilda.' Here is a curious coincidence. Both the women tradition has mixed up with Sigfred's life, have names in '-hild,' Brun-hild and Grim-hild. We can scarcely doubt that Strabo's mutilated word was originally one of these, most probably 'Grimhilda'. Thousn- is impossible, and sn is not a likely combination, nor could there (for Strabo is copying Latin) have been any 'Th' in the Latin inscriptions that were inscribed above the captives in their car. GIRMELDA or GERMILDA are likely original forms. At all events, the scribe's mistakes have not obliterated the traces of the important –hild ending; and we have a further coincidence here between the Arminius of history and the Sigfred of tradition.

From these questions of expression, it will be well now to look to the Eddic Lays (which, it is to be remembered, are the oldest bits left us of traditional Teuton history), and see how far their view of Sigfred agrees with the plain matter of fact statements of Velleius, Strabo, and Tacitus, contemporary Roman authorities respecting Arminius.

To begin at the beginning, the name of 'Unborn' is given by some of the older Lays to Sigfred, and it is explained by what may be a mythical story, that, like young Macduff the avenger, he was from his mother's womb untimely ript. Yet, doubt as we may this tale, the surname must surely witness to an historical fact. Arminius' father was certainly not alive during his son's career; he is only spoken of as a step in his pedigree. It is his mother, not his father, that Arminius speaks of when he reproaches his brother. (9) How else can we account for the boy's reception into a Roman gens, and the long years of education passed in full Roman training in a Roman camp? Sigfred was probably posthumous, and this would be the sense of unborn here. That his father perished by violence tradition declares; and history, though silent on this head, is by no means contradictory.


1. The first draught of this was written in Sept. 1883. [Back]

2. There were two Segimers, (1) Arminius' father, mentioned by Velleius only; (2) Segestes' brother, Segisday's father, Arminius' lieutenant on the Varus day (Armenioj kai Segimhroj, Dio, Bk. lvi. ch. 19). Though the historians are particular in noticing in each case the relation, if a close one, to Arminius, there is no hint of Segestes being his uncle; nor is it likely that Arminius and his wife were first cousins; nor can Dio's Segimer be Arminius' father, for he is a subordinate person (A kai S ). [Back]

3. Of the twin-forms, Segis- and Segi-, the former seems to be used before t, d, Seges-te-s (qs. Seges-theow) but Segimund. [Back]

4. Corp. Poet. ii. 424, ll. 21-32. [Back]

5. sicling (Thulor, l. 29) stands for Sigling = Sigeling. Cf. Corp. Poet. ii. 519 V. Cf. wig- wicg- wiccing. [Back]

6. Excurs. IV to second volume, p. 515. [Back]

7. Better Hynla = Hunila; no relation with Hund (hound) we now think. [Back]

8. See Dict. p. 279-80. [Back]

9. Tac. Ann. ii. 10, matrem precum sociam. [Back]

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