The Northern Way

Grimm Centenary: Sigfred-Arminivs and Other Papers

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The striking sense in which the brothers Arminius and Flauus are brought face to face on the banks of Weser, talking across the stream, reads to us as if Tacitus had got hold of some Teutonic lay, taken down, one might fancy, from the lips of some veteran who had served east of Rhine, so closely does it coincide in spirit and incident with the 'flytings' of the Eddic Lays. The beginning of their parley recalls the Waldhere poem. 'Where did you lose your eye? What did you get for it?' The increasing scorn on one side, and wrath on the other, as the bitter reproaches and taunts of Arminius stung the Romanized Flauus till paullatim inde ad iurgia prolapsi, quominus pugnam consererent ne flumine quidem interiecto cohibebantur, ni Stertinius adcurrens plenum irae armaque et equum poscentem Flauum attinuisset; cernebatur contra minitabundus Arminius proeliumque denuntians, nam pleraque Latino sermone interiaciebat ut qui Romanis in castris ductor popularium meruisset. (Ann. ii. 9, 10). One can hardly help remembering as one reads the words, the Lay (late, it is true, but vivid and powerful in its way) where Gudrun and Brunhild quarrel as they wade in the Rhine, waist-deep, bandying words that bring death to Sigfred and many heroes more. (10) One remembers, too, that Flauus, like Hagena, is one-eyed; and here again tradition has preserved a fact mixed up with other and mythic matters.

That Sigfred won a bride by force of arms and bravery one is told in the Lays with much mythic adornment; and Tacitus says that Arminius carried off his wife from her unwilling kinsmen. The feuds thence arising, it is even probable from stray hints, were eventually the cause of his death. So in the Lays it is through his wife that the doom, long averted, at length comes upon the hero.

Minor details which coincide, though severally little worth, by their cumulative testimony, help one to a conclusion. When one reads in the Lays of Sigfred's beauty, noble bearing and piercing glance, which the late Flatey-book still repeats in the Norma-Gest episode, though of course one knows that a hero should be handsome, it is still interesting to find Velleius (who most likely had seen the man) noticing expressly Arminius' speaking eyes and animated face. (11)

Again, Sigemund was a famous exile, as Beowulf's Lay tells us, and there is a Sigimund, Segestes' son, a real live person mentioned by Tacitus (Ann. i. 57) and Strabo, who seems to have been an hostage while young in Roman hands.

Even the Wolsung gift of immunity from poison recalls the story of Tacitus (Ann. ii., last chapter) says he found in the writings and record of the time --- that Angand ...... (the textual Adgandestrii is surely corrupt) chief of the Chatti, sent to the Senate offering to poison Arminius, an offer scornfully rejected by Tiberius.

The wars with Sigi-geir and Sigi-here, mentioned in the Lays of the Codex-Regius-Lacuna, (12) paraphrased and so preserved in the prose of Wolsung Saga, are surely the last echoes of the historic fact that Arminius had troubles with his kinsmen, some of whom were in the Roman interest. Why else should the Sigelings be made to fall out among themselves? (13)

The Roman says that Arminius died young at the height of his fame, cut off, 'dolo propinquorum,' by his kinsmen's craft. The young Sigfred, as everyone knows, was murdered by his brother-in-law and sworn allies. (Corp. Poet. i. 397-98.)

Sigfred in the Lays leaves a son behind him, a posthumous child, born to a heritage of woe only, and to an untimely death. And here again the Roman historian confirms tradition with just such difference of incident as we should expect, when in words, strangely sympathetic for an enemy, he speaks of Arminius' son. Educatus Ravennae puer, Tacitus says, quo mox ludibrio conflictatus sit in tempore memorabo; but the promised details are lost with the books that contained the Reign of Caius. (14) On the day of the Triumph the boy, Strabo tells us, was triethj. With this compare Edda I. 364 (paraphrased from one of the lost Lacuna Lays we suppose), 'There fell Sigfred and his three-year-old son, named Sig-mund, whom they slew.' (15) In the old Lay of Gudrun the dying Sigfred says:---

                á ec til ungan erfi-nytja,
                cannat hann firrasc suic or frænd-garði.

As we mend the corrupt original:----

                I have a son and heir: but over-young he is,
                He cannot escape treason from his kinsmen's house.

True it is that in some later versions of the Sigfred tradition, he is made to leave a posthumous daughter, not a son. But we see in this merely an attempt to link the Sigfred cycle with the Ermanaric cycle, and luckily Jordanes, the Gothic-Roman historian, has preserved the mention of the historic Swanhild the Rosmon; while even Saxo has not mixed up Gudruna uenefica, who urges her sons to revenge, with Sigfred's wife, though this is at last done in the Eddic Hamtheow Lay. Later still there is an attempt made to link the Sigfred and Ragnar cycles by means of an Aslaug, who is made to be Sigfred's daughter. But the Aslaug tale is an old story, told in many forms, and has obviously nothing to do with the Wolsung cycle. It is a poet's desire to connect all his heroes together, to bring all his figures 'into one plane,' as Mr. Carlyle says, and make of all past and present history an impressive group with the latest hero as centre thereof.

But it is with the most striking of the pageants described by Strabo and Tacitus that the Northern Lays are most intimately connected, namely the Triumph of Germanicus. Tacitus has his eyes so fixed upon his own hero, in Ann. ii. 41 --- where he shows him passing in his car of glory with his five children --- that he does not turn to look at the captives in his train; but he has not forgotten them entirely, for elsewhere he sets before us, in his noble way, the captive wife of Arminius as she looked when first taken by the Romans, betrayed by her treacherous kinsmen, out of hatred to her hero husband. Inerant feminae nobiles, inter quas uxor Arminii, eademque filia Segestis, mariti magis quam parentis animo, neque euicta in lacrimas, neque uoce supplex, compressis intra sinum manibus, grauidum uterum intuens.' (Tac. Ann. i. 58). But it was not, as we know, the fruit of her womb, but the kinsman Goth that was to avenge her wrongs on the proud city.

Strabo it is that describes the captives' car (vii. 4), in words written before the news of Arminius' death, A.D. 21, had reached him, and therefore within, at most, a few years of the 26th May, A.D. 17, the date of the triumph, as Tacitus records it, no doubt from the official Acta. Strabo may well indeed have witnessed the triumph with his own eyes, for he knows the captives' names and records them, and one would like to think that he took them from the tablets, which, according to Roman wont, were raised above each group of captives that was borne along in the conqueror's train.

There were, says he, Segimond, son of Segestes leader of the Kheruskoi, and his sister the wife of Armenius...... named (Thousn)elda (corrupt as noted), and their three years old son Thoumelikos (a non-Teutonic name; born in captivity, he would get some such nickname). Moreover there were Segi-thakos, (16) son of Segi-meros, the captain of the Kheruskoi, and his wife .... daughter of ..... the captian of the Khatti, and Deudorix the Sugamber sister's son of Melon, and Segestes the father-in-law of Armenios ..... (the traitor whose treason crippled Armenios' power), and Libes (one would read Gribes or Gripes, the Northern Gripir) (17) priest of the Khatti......., and people from the vanquished tribes --- Khaulkoi, Kampsanoi, Brukteroi, Usipes, Kheruskoi, Khattoi, Khatt-uarioi, Landes, Tubattioi (the muster-roll of the tribes that the Romans had come across or who fought with Armenios in his league against Rome).

The day that saw this procession of prisoners pass through the streets ofRome was, we take it, the birthday of the poems that have handed down Sigfred in tradition. And we may even get some confirmation of this from the poems of far later day that have reached us.

Old Northern poetry is by no means of a sentimental cast, and it is an extraordinary phenomenon that there is, among the Eddic Lays, a whole group of poems of so marked a diction and character, that we long ago separated them from the rest and dubbed them (for they are anonymous) the Lamentation Lays. (18)

The framework in which these Lamentations are set is peculiar. Either Gudrun, Sigfred's mourning widow, is made to recount the sad tale of her woes, their recital forming the body of the poem (19) --- in a second type, a company of mourning ladies, who have known captivity and widowhood, are vying with each in unfolding their sad histories, all giving way, however, to the surpassing sorrows of Gudrun (20) --- or, in a third type of Lay, we have Gudrun and Theodric in exile, telling each other how they had been buffeted by fate's hardest blows. (21) There is yet another type, in which the lamenting lady is Brunhild (Bk. V, §2). Now there is absolutely no framework at all like these in any poems but those of this single group; though there are many Lays that deal with tragedies and the Fall of Princes, 'sad stories of the deaths of Kings' being the subject of the bulk of them. And does not the true explanation of this peculiarity appear in Strabo's words? He tells of captive ladies sitting together in the car of humiliation. He speaks of Arminios' wife and Deudorix (Theodric) as together in the conqueror's train. Many a Teuton mercenary must have seen them pass; we have only to fancy one poetic mind among the prisoners or their sympathetic beholders, and the fire would flash from the flint of fact into the flame of poetry. It is not hard to believe that Lays such as Tacitus speaks to as sung in his time, must have been provoked by the sight which moved Strabo in the midst of his carefully compressed scientific work to digress into full description.


10. Corp. Poet. i. 394, ii. 536-37. [Back]

11. Ibid. i. 398, ii. 540. [Back]

12. Corp. Poet. i. 398, ii. 534. [Back]

13. The two names occur together in the Old English heroic pedigrees. [Back]

14. Arminii uxor (in her captivity) uirilis sexus stirpem edidit. --- Tac. [Back]

15. Corp. Poet. i. 392, ii. 534. [Back]

16. Sesiqakoj in Strabo's corrupt text; we prefer Segisdag (like Svipdag) to Segithank; for thank (Norman Tancred) is seldom used as second element. [Back]

17. Gripi of the Eddic Lay (C. P. i. 285) seems to be a priest, for Sigfred comes to him to inquire about his future fate. [Back]

18. See Corp. Poet. i. lxv. [Back]

19. Ib. i. 329. [Back]

20. Ib. i. 324, ii. 531. [Back]

21. Ib. ii. 531, i. 315. [Back]

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