Volsung Mythos: Guthrun Takes Revenge, Again  


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

In The Saga of the Volsungs, Guthrun’s great brothers, Gunnar and Hogni, are killed by Attila, her husband. Guthrun hopelessly tries to intervene but has little success. Attila honored the Hunnish warriors, killed in the process, with a great feast which brought along Guthrun’s opportunity for revenge. Does she succeed? Read on to find out.

An illustration of a beautiful sunset in sea.
Guthrun, with her daughter Svanhild, leap into the sea, wishing to die but, instead, are borne by the waves to yet another kingdom. (Image: Mars0hod/Shutterstock)

The Revenge

Guthrun has two young children with Attila. She calls them to her in private, and chops their heads off. Mixing their blood with honey, Guthrun makes a drink, and cooks their meat to serve as an appetizer. She then goes to Attila’s hall and offers him some of these new delicacies.

Once Attila has drunk his own children’s blood and eaten their flesh, Guthrun confronts her hated husband with the reality of what he’s consumed. The entire hall of feasting Huns is horrified, but no immediate consequences befall Guthrun.

In fact, the husband and wife go to bed together that night. Guthrun, still intent on exacting her revenge, stabs Attila to death and burns his hall down with all the Hunnish army inside it.

Guthrun and Svanhild

While the story might have ended there—and there are reasons to think it once did—the Volsung mythos was in an ongoing process of adding material, which even after centuries can sometimes leave visible seams.

For example, at this point, in the surviving versions of The Saga of the Volsungs, we are told that Guthrun survived the burning of the hall together with Svanhild, her daughter with Sigurth. This is a daughter that we previously had no indication existed—but for plot convenience, she is dropped here to allow this piece of the story to connect with the next.

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King Jonaker

Thus, according to the saga, Guthrun with her daughter Svanhild leap into the sea, wishing to die. Unfortunately, the two of them are instead borne by the waves to yet another kingdom, ruled by a certain King Jonaker.

King Jonaker marries Guthrun, becoming her third husband, and according to our saga written in the 1200s, they have three sons—Hamthir, Sorli, and Erp. The three boys all grow up together with their half-sister Svanhild in Jonaker’s kingdom.

Svanhild’s Marriage

A marriage proposal arrives for Svanhild, from an emissary representing the distant, elderly King Jormunrekk. Svanhild’s marriage is agreed to, but the elderly king is unable to make the long journey himself. Instead he sends his young son, Randver, to retrieve the girl.

On the long voyage back to Jormunrekk’s kingdom, the king’s counselor, Bikki, too was traveling with the son. He begins to make improper suggestions, implying that Svanhild seems better suited for a strapping young fellow like Randver and not his old father.

The Betrayal

Randver and Svanhild both take these suggestions well and have an affair during the long voyage. Shrewdly enough, upon returning home Biki tells the king that his son has betrayed his trust and slept with his intended bride.

King Jormunrekk’s vengeance turns on his now tainted wife, and he has Svanhild trampled to death by horses. As to his son Randver, King Jormunrekk orders his men to hang him.

An image of a horse herd running in a desert sand storm.
King Jormunrekk has Svanhild trampled to death by horses. (Image: Callipso88/Shutterstock)

As a last attempt, before going to the gallows, Randver plucks the feathers out of his hawk and has that bird sent to the king. We are told that this strange gesture evokes remorse from the king, though too late to save his hanged son.

Hamthir and Sorli

Meanwhile, Guthrun hears the news of her daughter’s awful death, and is distraught. She approaches her two sons Hamthir and Sorli and exhorts them to avenge their half-sister.

Initially her sons Hamthir and Sorli are unwilling to go alone, without an army. But Guthrun insults them until they agree, and then she promises to use her magic to protect them somehow on this errand.

Thus, they ride off toward Jormunrekk’s kingdom, and on the way out, they happen to cross paths with their other brother, Erp, who offers to help them on their mission. When asked how, he offers to help them like hand helps hand, or like foot helps foot. Unable to understand what he means, they kill him.

Having Second Thoughts

Riding along later, one of the brothers has second thoughts. Hamthir falls off his horse and catches himself first with one hand and then with the other. Now that he’s seen how his hand can help his hand, he tells his brother that he wonders if perhaps they killed their other brother too hastily. Perhaps they ought to have asked him what he meant before murdering him.

After a while, Sorli too stumbles off his horse, and catches himself with one foot and then the next. He too now admits that he’s concerned that their murder of their brother might have been too hasty.

Guthrun’s Magic

At length, the brothers arrive at Jormunrekk’s hall. They break in during the night and attack the king in his bedchambers. Hamthir hacks away the king’s hands, and Sorli cuts off the king’s feet. But Erp is not there to cut off his head—the real reason they ought not to have killed their brother.

The king hollers out, since his head is still in place, and summons his men to attack his murderers. But the king’s men find that their weapons are no good against them, evidently owing to the effect of Guthrun’s magic.

A tall, one-eyed old man approaches the crowd of warriors and tells them not to use their weapons, but to throw stones at Hamthir and Sorli instead. And sure enough, Odin knows how to end a family as well as he knows how to start one. Hamthir and Sorli fall, and so Guthrun is left to die alone as the last person connected to the Volsungs.

Common Questions about Guthrun’s Revenge

Q: Who does Guthrun survive the burning hall with?

Guthrun survived the burning of the hall together with Svanhild, her daughter with Sigurth.

Q: How does King Jormunrekk get his vengeance?

King Jormunrekk has Svanhild trampled to death by horses. As to his son Randver, King Jormunrekk orders his men to hang him.

Q: Who do Hamthir and Sorli cross path with?

Guthrun’s two sons, Hamthir and Sorli, crossed paths with their other brother, Erp.

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