Gunther

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According to the Nibelungenlied (1859) by Peter von Cornelius, Gunther orders Hagen to drop the hoard into the Rhine.

Gunther (Gundahar, Gundahari, Latin Gundaharius, Gundicharius, or Guntharius, Old English Gūðhere, Old Norse Gunnarr, anglicised as Gunnar, d. 437) was a historical King of Burgundy in the early 5th century. Legendary tales about him appear in Latin, medieval Middle High German, Old Norse, and Old English texts, especially concerning his relations with Siegfried (Sigurd in Old Norse) and his death by treachery in the hall of Attila the Hun.

History[edit]

In 406 the Alans, Vandals, the Suevi, and possibly the Burgundians crossed the Rhine and invaded Gaul. In 411 AD, the Burgundian king Gundahar or Gundicar set up a puppet emperor, Jovinus, in cooperation with Goar, king of the Alans. With the authority of the Gallic emperor that he controlled, Gundahar settled on the left or western (i.e., Roman) bank of the Rhine, between the river Lauter and the Nahe, seizing Worms, Speyer, and Strasbourg. Apparently as part of a truce, the Emperor Honorius later officially "granted" them the land. Olympiodorus of Thebes also mentions a Guntiarios who was called "commander of the Burgundians" in the context of the 411 usurping of Germania Secunda by Jovinus. (Prosper, a. 386)

Despite their new status as foederati, Burgundian raids into Roman upper Gallia Belgica became intolerable and were ruthlessly brought to an end in 436, when the Roman general Flavius Aetius called in Hun mercenaries who overwhelmed the Rhineland kingdom (with its capital at the old Celtic Roman settlement of Borbetomagus, now called Worms) in 437. Gundahar was killed in the fighting, reportedly along with the majority of the Burgundian tribe.[1]

In legend[edit]

The destruction of Worms and the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns became the subject of heroic legends that were afterwards incorporated into many works of medieval literature such as the Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied, where King Gunther and Queen Brünhild hold their court at Worms, and Siegfried comes to woo Gunther's sister Kriemhild. In Old Norse sources, the names are Gunnar, Brynhild, Sigurd, and Gudrun as normally rendered in English.

An image stone on Gotland, Sweden, with imagery from the tradition of the Völsunga saga and Nibelungenlied. Note the slain Sigurd with Andvarinaut on the top of the stone, and a lady who puts snakes into a snake pit. This particular execution is described in Atlakviða and Oddrúnargrátr, and the murdered man is Gunnarr, the King of Burgundy.

In the Waltharius, Gibicho and his son Guntharius are kings of the Franks, whereas the king of the Burgundians is named Heriricus who is father to Hiltgunt, the heroine of the story. Hagano appears here as a kinsman of Gibicho and Guntharius, but the relationship is not made explicit. In their combats with Waltharius, Guntharius loses a leg, Hagano loses half his face and one eye, and Waltharius loses a hand. But there is no hint in later tales that Gunther is in any way maimed. Another version of the story of Waltharius and Hiltgunt appears in the Norse Thidreks saga, but in this account Gunther plays no part at all.

In the Nibelungenlied, Gunther is a Burgundian king once more and seeks to make Brünhild, queen of Iceland, his wife. He is only able to pass her marriage test with the aid of the hero Siegfried and his magic cloak that grants invisibility and strength. Gunther marries Brünhild but the queen refuses to consummate the marriage until she learns the truth about Siegfried whom she has become suspicious of. Again with Siegfried's help, Gunther is able to overpower his queen and her great strength is lost with consummation. Siegfried marries Gunther's sister Kriemhild. An impassioned debate between Brünhild and Kriemhild about who has a more noble husband leads to Kriemhild telling the lie that Siegfried slept with Brünhild himself, instead of Gunther, making Brünhild no better than a concubine. Brünhild is so offended that she seeks the death of Siegfried and enlists the help of Hagen/ Hagano. Gunther eventually agrees to assist in Siegfried's murder as well, though he knows Siegfried has done no wrong. After Siegfried is murdered Kriemhild plots her revenge on his killers and eventually marries Etzel (i.e., Attila the Hun). She hatches her plot and invites her brothers to a festival in Etzel's court. Hagen warns of treachery but is ultimately ignored and Gunther and his brothers travel to the court of Etzel, leaving Brünhild behind in Burgundy. There fighting breaks out between the Burgundians and the people in Etzel's court, among whom is found the Gothic king Dietrich (or Theoderic the Great) and his loyal companion Hildebrand. All of Kriemhild's brothers die until only Gunther and Hagen remain of the Burgundians. Kriemhild orders Gunther to be killed and then beheads Hagen herself before being struck down herself by Hildebrand.

In the Völsunga saga, Gunnar/Gunther is the son of Gjuki. Sigurd/ Siegfried arrives in the court of Gjuki and befriends his sons. Gjuki's wife Grimhild tricks Sigurd into marrying her daughter Gudrun/Kriemhild and afterwards Sigurd sets out with Gunnar and his brother Högni/Hagen to win the valkyrie Brynhild/Brunhild as a wife for Gunnar. Gunnar is unable to pass through the barrier of fire that protects Brynhild's castle, so Sigurd takes Gunnar's form and passes through for him and woos Brynhild bringing her back to Gjuki's court with them. Gudrun and Brynhild get into an argument over whose husband is more noble and Gudrun reveals to Brynhild that she had been deceived and it was really Sigurd who rode through the flames to win her. Brynhild despairs and will speak to no one. She says that Sigurd should have been her husband but when Sigurd offers to marry her she refuses. Brynhild tells Gunnar that she will return to the court of her father and stay there if he does not kill Sigurd and his son. Gunnar enlists the help of Hogni who advises against killing Sigurd, but suggests they get their younger brother Guttorm, who has sworn no oaths of brotherhood with Sigurd, to commit the murder. Sigurd is slain in his bed but kills Guttorm before dying. Brynhild throws herself onto Sigurd's funeral pyre committing suicide. Gudrun leaves her brothers court but is later manipulated into marrying Atli (Old Norse name for Attila) Atli hatches a plot to kill Gunnar and Hogni and take possession of the treasure they took from the murdered Sigurd and as retribution for the death of his sister Brynhild. Despite warnings of treachery from both Gudrun and their wives, Gunnar and Hogni travel to Atli's court where they are attacked and many are killed on both sides. Gunnar and Hogni are the last of their men standing and are eventually captured. Hogni has his heart cut out and shown to Gunnar which solidifies Gunnar's resolve not to give the treasure to Atli. Gunnar is thrown, bound, into a snake pit where he lulls the serpents by playing a harp with his toes. One large snake is not affected and burrows into his heart killing him.

According to the Norse poem "Atlamal", Gunnar remarried after Brynhild's death to a woman named Glaumvor.

These stories were later adapted by Richard Wagner into Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Gunther appears in the last part Gotterdammerung. From there events happen in a similar manner to the Völsunga saga. After Hagen kills Siegfried he and Gunther argue over the Ring, leading to Hagen murdering Gunther.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Prosper; Chronica Gallica 452; Hydatius; and Sidonius Apollinaris.

See also[edit]

Preceded by
Giselher
King of Burgundy
?–437
Succeeded by
Gunderic