1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kriemhild

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21939211911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 15 — KriemhildWalter Alison Phillips

KRIEMHILD (Grîmhild), the heroine of the Nibelungenlied and wife of the hero Siegfried. The name (from O. H. Ger. grîma, a mask or helm, and hiltja or hilta, war) means “the masked warrior woman,” and has been taken to prove her to have been originally a mythical, daemonic figure, an impersonation of the powers of darkness and of death. In the north, indeed, the name Grimhildr continued to have a purely mythical character and to be applied only to daemonic beings; but in Germany, the original home of the Nibelungen myth, it certainly lost all trace of this significance, and in the Nibelungenlied Kriemhild is no more than a beautiful princess, the daughter of King Dancrât and Queen Uote, and sister of the Burgundian kings Gunther, Giselhêr and Gêrnôt, the masters of the Nibelungen hoard. As she appears in the Nibelungen legend, however, Kriemhild would seem to have an historical origin, as the wife of Attila, king of the Huns, as well as sister of the Nibelung kings. According to Jordanes (c. 49), who takes his information from the contemporary and trustworthy account of Priscus, Attila died of a violent hemorrhage at night, as he lay beside a girl named Ildico (i.e. O. H. Ger. Hildikô). The story got abroad that he had perished by the hand of a woman in revenge for her relations slain by him; according to some (e.g. Saxo Poeta and the Quedlinburg chronicle) it was her father whom she revenged; but when the treacherous overthrow of the Burgundians by Attila had become a theme for epic poets, she figured as a Burgundian princess, and her act as done in revenge for her brothers. Now the name Hildikô is the diminutive of Hilda or Hild, which again—in accordance with a custom common enough—may have been used as an abbreviation of Grîmhild (cf. Hildr for Brynhildr). It has been suggested (Symons, Heldensage, p. 55) that when the legend of the overthrow of the Burgundians, which took place in 437, became attached to that of the death of Attila (453), Hild, the supposed sister of the Burgundian kings, was identified with the daemonic Grîmhild, the sister of the mythical Nibelung brothers, and thus helped the process by which the Nibelung myth became fused with the historical story of the fall of the Burgundian kingdom. The older story, according to which Grîmhild slays her husband Attila in revenge for her brothers, is preserved in the Norse tradition, though Grîmhild’s part is played by Gudrun, a change probably due to the fact, mentioned above, that the name Grîmhild still retained in the north its sinister significance. The name of Grîmhild is transferred to Gudrun’s mother, the “wise wife,” a semi-daemonic figure, who brews the potion that makes Sigurd forget his love for Brunhild and his plighted troth. In the Nibelungenlied, however, the primitive supremacy of the blood-tie has given place to the more modern idea of the supremacy of the passion of love, and Kriemhild marries Attila (Etzel) in order to compass the death of her brothers, in revenge for the murder of Siegfried. Theodor Abeling, who is disposed to reject or minimize the mythical origins, further suggests a confusion of the story of Attila’s wife Ildico with that of the murder of Sigimund the Burgundian by the sons of Chrothildis, wife of Clovis. (See Nibelungenlied.)

See B. Symons, Germanische Heldensage (Strassburg, 1905); F. Zarnke, Das Nibelungenlied, p. ii. (Leipzig, 1875); T. Abeling, Einleitung in das Nibelungenlied (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, 1909).  (W. A. P.)