Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg

One of my favorite pieces of Old English literature is the eponymous poem by the scop Deor:

The poem Deor is a lament by its namesake about his exile from his life of luxury, respect, and popularity. He compares his current predicament to the predicaments of figures from Anglo-Saxon folklore. Among the miseries and dismal fates that Deor runs through are those of Theodoric the Great, Ermanaric of the Goths, the mythological smith Wayland, and Wayland’s victim Beadohilde (the daughter of Wayland’s captor; he raped her and she finds herself with child). Geat and Maethild are more obscure figures, but it has been proposed that their story is the same as that told in the relatively recent medieval Scandinavian ballad known as the Power of the Harp; variants of this folk ballad from all the Scandinavian nations are known, and in some of these variants the names of the protagonists are Gauti and Magnhild.

Each suffered an undeserved fate, and in each case “that passed away with respect to it, and so may this.” But this refrain can point at two very different statements: first, that remedy came about, one way or another, in each situation, or, alternatively, that the continuous flow of time (a favourite Anglo-Saxon topic) erases all pain (though not necessarily healing all wounds).

Only in the last stanza do we learn what “this” references: the poet’s own sorrow at having lost his position of privilege. At the poem’s conclusion, Deor reveals that he was once a great poet among the Heodenings, until he was displaced and sent wandering by Heorrenda, a more skillful poet. According to Norse mythology, the Heodenings (Hjaðningar) were involved in the never-ending “battle of the Heodenings”, the Hjaðningavíg. Heorrenda (Hjarrandi) was one of the names of the god Odin.

Which lead to this collection of legends about Þiðreks or Dietrich von Bern, containing gems such as:

Theoderic the Great was an Arian and despised by the Church for a persecution resulting in the deaths of Boethius, Symmachus, and Pope John I. Theoderic’s death shortly after these killings was seen as divine retribution and in a church tradition dating at least from Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, Pope John and Symmachus’s souls were said to have dropped Theoderic’s soul into Mount Etna, to suffer there until the end of days. Heroic traditions make no mention of these events, and generally present Dietrich as an upstanding Christian, though hints of influence from church tradition can be found in allusions to Dietrich’s father possibly being the devil, his fiery breath, and allusions to Dietrich’s ride to hell at the end of his life.


At this point the three texts diverge – in all, Fasold treacherously leads Dietrich to members of his family in hopes that they will kill him, taking him to the giant Eckenot (whose name Gillespie suggests may be a corruption of Ebenrot or vice versa) and then to two or three giantesses, variously Ecke’s mother, aunt, or sisters. Dietrich finally kills Fasold. In the Dresdner version, he then rides into Jochgrimm and throws the head of Ecke at the feet of Seburg, saying that she is the cause of Ecke’s pointless death.

Based on folkloric evidence, 19th-century scholarship believed that the three queens on Jochgrimm represented three witches who caused storms from that mountain in Tyrolian folklore, as evidenced by a 17th-century prayer to the witches to cause “ffasolt” to send storms far away. Fasold would thus be a wind-demon. This interpretation is complicated by apparent similarities between the poem and the French late Arthurian romance Le Chevalier du Papagau, where Arthur fights a giant whose lack of horse is similarly emphasized to that of Ecke.


The jüngerer Sigenot adds a beginning in which Hildebrand tells Dietrich about Sigenot and warns him not to go into the forest to fight the giant. Then, before encountering the giant, Dietrich fights a wild man who is keeping the dwarf Baldung captive. As a reward, the dwarf gives Dietrich a protective jewel and directs him to Sigenot. Dietrich fights Sigenot and is taken prisoner. Sigenot throws Dietrich into a snake pit, but the jewel protects him. Hildebrand, now worried by Dietrich’s long absence, sets out to find him: on the way he encounters Sigenot and is taken prisoner. Left alone, Hildebrand frees himself and dresses in Dietrich’s armor. He then slays Sigenot and frees Dietrich with Eggerich’s help.


At a feast being held by Etzel, who is described as a greater king than Arthur, a beautiful maiden appears asking for help from the Wunderer, who has been hunting her for three days and wants to eat her. This is because she has sworn chastity, and has thus spurned the Wunderer’s love. The lady has special gifts however: at first glance she can see the true character of a person, her blessing makes one invincible in battle, and she can transport herself to any place automatically. She sees that Etzel is a coward, and he points her to his heroes. First she asks Rüdiger, but he refuses as well, so Etzel shows her to another room where Dietrich is sitting. Dietrich is ready to fight for the girl if Etzel agrees, but Etzel is worried that Dietrich’s relatives would seek revenge should anything happen to Dietrich. At this point, however, the Wunderer appears in the feast hall. Dietrich then agrees to fight without Etzel’s blessing, and the maiden blesses him. First he kills the Wunderer’s hounds, then knocks the Wunderer down after he strikes the lady. The two fight, and Dietrich wins. The lady reveals herself to be Frau Saelde, good-luck personified, and the feast ends.

The text is interesting in its relation to Dietrich’s death: according to some traditions, Dietrich become the leader of the Wild Hunt and chased nymphs through the forests. Church tradition, coming from the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, also made the claim that Theoderic’s soul had been seen dropped into Mount Etna for his sins. Instead of Dietrich as the Wild Huntsman, the Wunderer is placed in this role, and Dietrich defends the lady he is attacking. Additionally, the narrator mentions that Dietrich is still alive today: because of fault he is carried off by the devil in the form of a horse to Rumeney (Romagna?) to fight dragons until the end of days. The poem could thus be understood as a refutation of the idea of Dietrich as either damned or a hunter of women.

19th century scholarship attempted to connect Frau Saelde of the poem with “Saligen”, female figures of Tyrolean folk stories who are chased by the Wild Huntsman. Modern scholarship views this as unprovable, and would rather see Frau Saelde as a reflex of the personification Fortuna, i.e. a literary rather than a folk element of the poem. This does not make it any less likely that the hunting of women was connected to Dietrich at an early date, given the attested folk stories of him as the Wild Huntsman and the appearance of Wild-Huntsman like figures in two other poems, however.


[…] begins with a conversation between Witige and Hildebrand. Witige says that Dietrich is the greatest hero of all time; Hildebrand objects that Dietrich has never experienced a twergenâventiure (dwarf-adventure). At that point Dietrich walks in and is very angered by Hildebrand’s private criticism. Hildebrand tells Dietrich where he can find such an adventure: the dwarf king Laurin has a rose-garden in the Tyrolian forest. He will fight any challenger who breaks the thread surrounding his rose garden. Dietrich and Witige immediately set off to challenge Laurin; Hildebrand and Dietleib follow secretly behind. Upon seeing the beautiful rose-garden, Dietrich relents and decides that he does not want to harm anything so lovely. Witige, however, says that Laurin’s pride must be punished, and not only breaks the thread, but tramples the entire rose garden. Almost immediately the dwarf Laurin, armed so wonderfully that Witige mistakes him for Michael the Archangel, appears, and demands the left foot and right hand of Witige as punishment for the destruction of the garden. He fights and defeats Witige, but Dietrich then decides that he cannot allow his vassal to lose his limbs, and fights Laurin himself. Initially, Dietrich is losing, but Hildebrand arrives and tells Dietrich to steal the dwarf’s cloak of invisibility and strength-granting belt, then fight him on foot (the dwarf had been riding a deer-sized horse) wrestling him to the ground. Laurin, now defeated, pleads for mercy, but Dietrich has become enraged and vows to kill the dwarf. Finally, Laurin turns to Dietleib, informing him he had kidnapped and married the hero’s sister, so that he was now Dietleib’s brother-in-law. Dietleib hides the dwarf and prepares to fight Dietrich, but Hildebrand makes peace between them.

Dietrich and Laurin are reconciled, and Laurin invites the heroes to his kingdom under the mountain. All are enthusiastic except Witige, who senses treachery. In the mountain they are well received, and Dietleib meets his sister. She tells him she is being well treated and that Laurin has only one fault: he is not Christian. She wants to leave. Meanwhile, Laurin, after a feast, confides to Dietleib’s sister that he wishes to avenge himself on the heroes. She advises him to do so. He drugs Witige, Hildebrand, and Dietrich and throws them into a dungeon. He tries to commit Dietleib to join his side, but locks him in a chamber when the hero refuses. Dietleib’s sister steals the stones that light the mountain and releases Dietleib. They then deliver weapons to the other heroes, and they begin a slaughter of all the dwarves in the mountain. In the end Laurin is taken as a jester back to Verona.

A connection exists between this story and a Tyrolian folk-story in which the rose garden is the source of the morning-glow on the Alps. Heinzle, however, believes that, since this story is only attested from the 17th century onward, it is more likely to have been influenced by the text than the other way around. Others have attempted to connect the rose garden to a cult of the dead. Similarities with Celtic inspired Arthurian romance (the rose garden as otherworld) have also been proposed.

Lots of interesting parallels with the Herlaþing, wouldn’t you say?