Legends about Theodoric the Great

Legends about Theodoric the Great
Dietrich catches the dwarf Alfrich (1883), by Johannes Gehrts.

The Gothic King Theodoric the Great was remembered in Germanic legend as Dietrich von Bern (Bern is the Middle High German name for Verona, where Theodoric had one of his residences). Dietrich figures in a number of surviving works, and it must be assumed that these draw on long-standing oral tradition. The majority of poems about Dietrich/Theodoric are composed in Middle High German, and are generally divided by modern scholars into historical (Germ.: historische Dietrichepik) and fantastical (Germ.: either märchenhafte or aventiurehafte Dietrichepik). The historical poems can loosely be connected with the life of the historical Theodoric and concern his expulsion from Verona by his uncle Ermenrich (Ermanaric) and his attempts to regain his kingdom with the help of Etzel (Attila). The fantastical poems concern his battles with dwarves, dragons, giants, and other mythical beings, as well as other heroes such as Siegfried. In addition to these two categories of poems, he appears as a supporting character in some poems such as the Nibelungenlied and Biterolf und Dietleib.


Dietrich von Bern versus Theodoric the Great

Despite the identification of Dietrich von Bern with Theodoric the Great throughout the entire Middle Ages, the two figures are vastly different. As the Encyclopædia Britannica (1911) states: "the legendary history of Dietrich differs so widely from the life of Theodoric that it has been suggested that the two were originally unconnected." The most noticeable differences are:

-Dietrich is portrayed as an exile from an Italian kingdom which is rightfully his. Theodoric, in contrast, was an invader.

– The historical Theodoric's capital was Ravenna, not Verona; Ravenna does, however, feature prominently in the poems.

-Theodoric's historical opponent Odoacer is replaced by Dietrich's uncle Ermenrich in all poems except for the Hildebrandslied. Odoacer is also mentioned in one version of the Eckenlied.

-Dietrich is the contemporary of Etzel (Attila the Hun, died 453) and of Ermenrich (Ermanaric, died 376)). The real Theodoric was born shortly after Attila's death and well after Ermanaric's.

-Theodoric the Great was an Arian Christian and despised by the Catholic Church for a persecution resulting in the deaths of Boethius, Symmachus, and Pope John I. Theodoric'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 Theodoric'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.

– Dietrich has many mythological features: he fights against supernatural beings and can himself breathe fire when angry.

Numerous theories have been proposed to explain these differences. The change from invader to exile is sometimes explained as an attempt to justify Theodoric's taking possession of Italy. Attila and Ermanaric as contemporaries is part of synchronization, a phenomenon frequently encountered in oral traditions. This can also be seen in the way that other heroes such as Wayland and Witige have been drawn onto stories about Dietrich.

An alternative theory was proposed by the late Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg: he reinspected the Old Swedish version of the Thidreks saga, a Norse compendium of German legends about Dietrich, for the historical information it supposedly contained, and firmly believed in its topographical accuracy. He theorized that these sources, which he regarded as being quite old, cannot refer to Theodoric the Great of the Goths, whose movements are moderately well known, mainly because of topographical contradictions. Ritter-Schaumburg proposed that their narration relates instead to a contemporary of the famous Goth, who bore the same name, rendered Didrik in Old Swedish. Moreover, he identified Berne as Bonn to which was ascribed, in the medieval age, an alternative (Latinized) name Verona of unknown origin. According to Ritter-Schaumburg, Dietrich lived as a Frankish petty king in Bonn.[1] This theory has found much opposition by other scholars.[2]

Another modern author, Rolf Badenhausen, starts from Ritter-Schaumburg's approach but ends up with a different result. He claims Berne, where Thidrek/Didrik started his rise, to be identical with Varne, south of Aachen, the Roman Verona cisalpina, in the district of the northern Rhine/Eiffel lands. Thidrek/Didrik could be identified with Theuderich son of Clovis I, a royal Frank mentioned with approval by Gregory of Tours and in Fredegar's royal Frankish chronicle. This theory is rejected by the majority of scholars, who see both theories as based on an overestimation of the exactness of history as preserved in oral traditions.

Earliest Mentions

The Rök stone, one of the earliest mentions of Theodoric in Germanic legend

One of the earliest mentions of Theoderic in legend is the Rök Stone, carved in Sweden in the 9th century. There he is mentioned in a stanza in Eddic meter:

Þjóðríkr the bold,
chief of sea-warriors,
ruled over the shores of the Hreiðsea.
Now he sits armed
on his Goth(ic horse),
his shield strapped,
the prince of the Mærings.

The mention of Theoderic (among other heroes and gods of Norse mythology) may have been inspired by a statue of him sitting on his horse in Ravenna, which was moved in 801 A.D. to Aachen by Charlemagne. This statue was very famous and portrayed Theodoric with his shield hanging across his left shoulder, and his lance extended in his right hand: the German clerical poet Walahfrid wrote a poem (De imagine Tetrici) lampooning the statue, as Theodoric was not favorably regarded by the church. Alternatively, Otto Höfler has proposed that Theodoric on the horse may be connected in some way to traditions of Theodoric as the Wild Huntsman (see the Wunderer below); Heinzle rejects this interpretation.

Dietrich furthermore is mentioned in the Old English poems Waldere, Deor and Widsith. Deor marks the first mention to Dietrich's "thirty years" (probably his exile) and refers to him, like the Rök stone, as a Mæring. The Waldere makes mention of Dietrich's liberation from the captivity of giants by Witige (Widia), for which Dietrich rewarded Witige with a sword. This liberation forms the plot of the later fantastical poem Virginal and is mentioned in the historical poem Alpharts Tod. Widsith mentions him among a number of other Gothic heroes, including Witige, Heime, the Harlungen and Ermanaric, and in connection with a battle with Attila's Huns. However, the exact relationship between the figures is not explained.

Dietrichs earliest mention in Germany is the Hildebrandslied, recorded around 820. In this, Hadubrand recounts the story of his father Hildebrand's flight eastwards in the company of Dietrich, to escape the enmity of Odoacer (this character would later become his uncle Ermanaric). Hildebrand reveals that he has lived in exile for 30 years. Hildebrand has an arm ring given to him by the (unnamed) King of the Huns, and is taken to be an "old Hun" by Hadubrand. The obliqueness of the references to the Dietrich legend, which is just the background to Hildebrand's story, indicates an audience thoroughly familiar with the material. In this work Dietrich's enemy is the historically correct Odoacer (though in fact Theodoric the Great was never exiled by Odoacer), indicating that the figure of Ermanaric belongs to a later development of the legend.

In Scandinavian poetry, besides the Rök Stone, Dietrich appears in the Eddic poems Guðrúnarkviða II and III, which also mention one of Atli's (Attila's)concubines having the name Herkja, a name corresponding to Etzel's wife's name in the German tradition, Helche/Herche. A parallel to the Hildebrandslied can furthermore be found in a quoted stanza of poetry in Eddic meter in the Ásmundar saga kappabana, which recounts a very different story. It is theorized that the poetry was reinterpreted to fit this new figure, as it contains some exact phrases found in the Hildebrandslied.

Dietrich's exile by Ermanaric is also mentioned (as history) in several medieval chronicles dating from after and around 1000, most prominently in the Annals of Quedlinburg. Dietrich's placement as Attila's and Ermanaric's contemporaries found heavy criticism in some chronicles, however, beginning with Otto von Freising and culminating in the Middle High German Kaiserchronik.

Dietrich's next appearance in epic poetry is in the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200), where he is in exile at Etzel's court. After this point, the legends about Dietrich begin to enter writing.

Historical Dietrich poems

The historical Dietrich poems in Middle High German consist of Dietrichs Flucht, Die Rabenschlacht, and Alpharts Tod, with the fragmentary poem Dietrich und Wenzlan as a possible fourth. All involve Dietrich's stay with Etzel except Alpharts Tod, which takes place before Dietrich's expulsion, and all involve his battles against Ermanaric, except for Dietrich und Wenezlan, in which he fights against the Wenezlan of Poland. All four postdate Dietrich's appearance in the Nibelungenlied. They are called historical because they concern war rather than adventure, and are seen as containing a warped version of Theodoric's life. It is not at all clear that this difference was evident to the poems' contemporaries, however.

Dietrichs Flucht/Das Buch von Bern (Dietrich's Flight/ The Book of Verona)

Dietrichs Flucht begins with a long history of Dietrich's ancestors, who all live exceptionally long and virtuous lives and leave a single heir to the kingdom. They are native to Italy (called Lomparten or Rœmischlant) and spend their lives acquiring brides and fighting dragons. This easy line of inheritance is broken by first by Ortnit, but the succession is restored by Wolfdietrich. Then Amelung, son of Wolfdietrich, has three sons: Ermenrich, Dietmar, and Diether. Emenrich is the father of Friderich, Dietmar of Dietrich and Diether (II), and Diether of the two Harlungen. Upon Dietmar and Diether's deaths, Ermenrich proves himself to be treacherous, murdering the Harlungen and coming to attack Dietrich. Dietrich is warned however, and defeats Ermenrich decisively in battle, capturing Friderich. He is left without any money to reward his soldiers, so he sends a group of vassals to fetch some. This group falls into an ambush, however, resulting in the capture of Dietrich's best warriors, among them Hildebrand and Wolfhart. Ermenrich refuses Dietrich's offer to swap Friderich for the prisoners and says he will only release Dietrich's men if he leaves the country, which, against the advice of his remaining warriors, Dietrich chooses to do.

Dietrich goes into exile, making his way to Etzel's court. There with the help of Rüdiger and Etzel's wife Helche, Dietrich receives Etzel's support to return to Italy, which he does, defeating Ermenrich once again in battle. Ermenrich ransoms his captured men, except for Witige, whom Dietrich refuses to release due to his treachery. On the advice of his vassals, however, Dietrich forgives Witige, makes him governor of Ravenna, and gives him the horse Schemming as a gift. However, as soon as Dietrich has returned once again to Etzel's court, Witige betrays him. Meanwhile, Dietrich marries Helche's niece Herrat. Etzel once again supports Dietrich in a new campaign, and Dietrich once again defeats Ermenrich – but at the loss of his best men. Saddened, he returns to exile.

The poem is unusual in that it is written in rhyming couplets rather than in stanzas, as is the case with most German heroic epics. It may indicate that the author was trying to make his work more similar to either a rhyming chronicle or to a courtly romance. The first assumption is strengthened by parts of the poem being incorporated into the world chronicle of Heinrich von München. The epic is also unusual in that it includes a named author, Heinrich der Vogler: older scholarship assumed Heinrich to be the author of both Dietrichs Flucht and Die Rabenschlacht. However, because Heinrich only refers to himself as having written one portion of the poem, an excursus about princely caprice, newer scholarship has abandoned Heinrich as the author of the text.

The text is sometimes seen as a stringing together of the same episode (Dietrich's failed returns from exile) as it had been altered in oral transmission to the point that the poet thought of them as separate events.

Die Rabenschlacht (The Battle of Ravenna)

Die Rabenschlacht begins where Dietrichs Flucht ends (both are transmitted in the same manuscripts). Dietrich is still saddened by the loss of his men, so Helche cheers him up with a large feast in honor of his marriage to Herrat. However, she is troubled by a dream that her two sons are abducted by a dragon. Meanwhile, a new army is assembled to invade Italy. Helche and Etzel's sons Orte and Scharpfe as well as Diether, Dietrich's brother, request to go with the army. With some persuading, including an oath by Dietrich that he will keep the sons safe, Helche allows them to go.

The army arrives in Italy and easily conquers Verona. Dietrich then moves to face Ermenrich's enormous army at Ravenna, ordering Etzel's sons and Diether to stay in Verona under the watch of Ilsan (elsewhere identified as Hildebrand's brother). The army marches to Verona in a thick fog, led by Hildebrand. The children, under the pretext of wishing to view the city, convince Ilsan to let them go riding – they then escape their protector with the intention of joining the army, but get lost in the fog. Very soon they came upon Witige riding along the seashore. Despite his protestation, the children attack Witige and are slain. Meanwhile, Dietrich fights a grueling twelve-day battle at Ravenna, defeating Ermenrich, who escapes. Then Ilsan arrives with news that Etzel's sons are missing, and Dietrich finds their bodies on the seashore. He quickly encounters Witige and challenges him to fight. Witige, however, is afraid, and fleas Dietrich by riding his horse Schemming into the sea, where he is rescued by the sea-spirit Wachilt (identified by the Thidrekssaga as his great grandmother). She tells him that Dietrich was so hot with anger that his armor was soft, and Witige could have easily defeated him. Now, however, the armor had hardened, and thirty Witiges could not defeat Dietrich. Dietrich meanwhile mourns on the shore. With the help of Rüdiger, he affects a reconciliation with Helche and Etzel, and all vow revenge.

The general outline of the story told in Die Rabenschlacht, about the death of Etzel and Herche's sons, is often considered to be one of the oldest components of the legends around Theodoric. Alternate versions are found in the Heldenbuchprosa and the Thidrekssaga. Historically, it may be based on the death of Attila's son and successor Ellac at the Battle of Nedao. Theodoric's father Theodemar is thought to have fought in this battle. Witige's character is sometimes thought to have been influenced by Witigis, a Gothic king and usurper who surrendered Ravenna to the Byzantine army. Diether is similarly thought to have a connection to the historical Theodahad, whom Witigis betrayed, usurping the Ostrogothic throne.

Alpharts Tod (The Death of Alphart)

Alphart, a young hero in Dietrich's army fighting the Battle of Ravenna, goes out to fight single-handed with Witege and Heime, who had deserted to Ermenrich, and he falls, not in fair battle, but by the treachery of Witege whose life he had spared.

Alphart is said to have died twice in Dietrichs Flucht (see Homeric nod) and was especially mourned by Dietrich in both that poem and Die Rabenschlacht. Heinzle states that the tale may either be very old, or may have been extrapolated from the character in Dietrichs Flucht, creating a more elaborate version of his death combining the role of Witige in Die Rabenschlacht (the killer of a youth) with Alphart's much lamented death in Dietrichs Flucht. In the Nibelungenlied, Witige is also said to have slain the young Nuodung.

Dietrich und Wenezlan (Dietrich and Wenezlan)

Dietrich und Wenezlan has only survived in a single, incomplete and fragmentary version of about 499 rhyming couplets. Dietrich is at the court of Etzel, when Wolfhart, who, along with Hildebrand, has been captured by Wenezlan von Bôlân (Poland; possibly inspired by Wenceslaus I or II of Bohemia) arrives to tell him that Wenezlan wants to engage Dietrich in single combat – if Dietrich wins, then Wenezlan will release Wolfhart and Hildebrand. Initially, Dietrich seems reluctant, but when Wolfhart grows angry and accuses Dietrich of cowardice, saying that if Dietrich refuses Wenezlan will attack Etzel with an army, Dietrich says he had been joking and of course would fight to free his vassals. There is then a lacuna. The combat between Dietrich and Wenezlan begins in between their two armies and in the company of courtly ladies. When they have dehorsed each other, they fight on foot all day. The fragment ends before a conclusion is reached.

The poem only loosely fits into the category of "historical Dietrich poems," with the single combat being more reminiscent of the fantastical poems. Dietrich's initial refusal to fight and the accusation of cowardice (zagheit) also has more in common with the fantastical poems, where this is a frequent occurrence. His admission that he was merely playing a joke may be a game played by the author.

Fantastical Poems

The majority of preserved narratives about Dietrich are fantastical in nature, involving battles against mythical beings and other heroes. They are generally regarded as containing newer material than the historical poems, though, as the Old English Waldere's references show, Dietrich was already associated with monsters at an early date. Many of the poems show a close connect to the Tyrol, and connections between them and Tyrolean folklore are often speculated upon, even in cases where the text itself clearly originated in a different German speaking area. Most of the poems seem to take place prior to Dietrich's exile, with Witige and Heime still members of Dietrich's entourage, though not all: the Eckenlied prominently features references to the events of Die Rabenschlacht as already having taken place.

Different exemplars of the fantastical poems often show a huge degree of variation from each other (Germ. Fassungsdivergenz), a trait not found in the historical poems. Most fantastical poems have at least two versions containing substantial differences in the narrative, including inserting or removing entire episodes or altering the motivation of characters, etc. Older scholarship generally attempted to reconstruct the "original" version of the poems. Newer scholarship focuses on why such differences might arise and has generally given up on constructing an authorial version.

These texts remained popular into the 16th century, unlike the historical poems, being included in some of the first printed books in the German language (see Heldenbuch). Among the more famous of these was the Ambraser Heldenbuch, prepared for Emperor Maximilian I, who also features a statue of Theodoric/Dietrich on his grave monument.

Eckenlied/Ecken Ausfahrt (The Song of Ecke/ Ecke's Quest)

The Eckenlied exists in three principal versions, of which two are complete. It is of the first poems about Dietrich to be partially written down: a single stanza is transmitted in the Codex Buranus (c. 1220). The oldest nearly complete version is the Landsberger Eckenlied, which is missing its ending. The two additional complete versions are transmitted from the mid-15th century (but traceable to sources in the 14th century), one in the Dresdner Heldebuch, and one in a printed edition: the two offer radically different endings to the text, but scholars prefer to see the Dresdner version's ending as more original.

The poem begins with a conversion between three giants: Ecke, Fasold, and Ebenrot. Ecke proclaims that Dietrich von Bern is praised by everyone, while Ecke, despite having performed heroic deeds, is completely unknown. Ebenrot counters that Dietrich's reputation is a lie: the hero treacherously slew the giants Hilde and Grim while they were asleep to steal their armor. Fasold intervenes and says that Ebenrot is wrong: Dietrich slew Hilde and Grim because the giants would otherwise have killed him. Ecke decides to agree with Fasold. Meanwhile, three queens are on the mountain of Jochgrimm: one of them, Seburg wishes very much to see Dietrich, and hearing of Ecke's interest, asks him to bring the hero to her. To encourage Ecke not to kill Dietrich, Seburg gives Ecke a sword and armor hardened in dragon blood. It is the same armor that Emperor Ortnit wore when he rode out to fight dragons: Ortnit fell into a magic sleep, however, and was dragged away by a dragoness to her brood, which sucked his flesh out through the invincible armor. It was then recovered by Wolfdietrich, who killed the dragons, but himself had to go to a monastery to repent for his sins, being tortured by demons. From there Seburg got the armor. She tries to convince Ecke to take a horse, but he refuses.

Ecke travels to Verona, but is directed to Tyrol. After coming upon a man mortally wounded by Dietrich, Hilferich von Lunders (possibly Londres, i.e. London; in other versions he is described as von Lune and von Lütringen, i.e. Lotharingia), he finally encounters Dietrich himself, and challenges him to combat. Dietrich refuses, saying Ecke has done him no wrong, and Ecke accuses him of cowardice (zagheit). At this Dietrich agrees to fight. Ecke and Dietrich fight for a long time, and Ecke tries to force Dietrich to surrender, but Dietrich refuses. Finally, Dietrich gains the upper hand, but Ecke also refuses to surrender. Due to Ecke's invincible armor, Dietrich is forced to stab the giant dishonorably through a gap in his armor. He then mourns Ecke at some length. Ecke asks Dietrich to cut off his head and bring it to Seburg, which he does. He then puts on the giant's armor and takes his sword. In the Landsberger version, a nymph named Vrou Babehilt binds his wounds.

After recovering some from his wounds, Dietrich encounters a woman running through the forest. She is being hunted by Fasold, who rides up and demands to know why Dietrich is interfering with his hunt. Fasold is described as having two long braided locks that hang down to his waist and which are woven in with iron. The giant decides not to fight the still gravely wounded Dietrich, apparently not recognizing his brother's armor or seeing Ecke's head. Dietrich falls asleep while the maiden watches. However, Fasold changes his mind and returns in the night – the maiden is barely able to rouse Dietrich before Fasold appears with his hounds. The two fight, and Dietrich overcomes Fasold by cutting off his braided locks, and the giant surrenders. However, he then recognizes his brother's armor and Dietrich admits to having killed Ecke, and the two fight once more. Dietrich accuses Fasold of fighting with the strength of two men, saying Ecke's spirit has entered the giant, at which Fasold counters that Diether's spirit must have entered Dietrich, he is so strong. At the memory of Witige's treachery, Dietrich is enraged and finally overcomes Fasold, sparing him only at the insistence of the maiden.

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. In the printed edition, Seburg reveals that she sent Ecke to his death deliberately, since he and his brothers were going to force them into marriage. It also mentions that, with Ecke's sword Dietrich later slew Odoacer when called upon to do so by Emperor Zeno.

The poem is often interpreted, based on the last line of the printed edition, as an explanation of the name of Dietrich's sword, Eckesachs. This originally meant "sword with a sharp edge", but when ecke took on the meaning it has in modern German (corner), the name was reinterpreted as meaning "the sword of Ecke". The name Eckesachs never appears in the text however, though the sword is referred to as "Hern Ecken sachs" (Sir Ecke's sword). Eckesachs was apparently famous enough to be referenced in Heinrich von Veldeke's Eneis, which predates the Eckenlied.

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. Heinzle calls into question both the connection to the wind-demon prayer and the connection to the French text.

Evidence for an oral version of the tale might be provided by the Ekka episode of the Thidrekssaga, which differs in crucial details in both its treatment of Ecke and Fasold. Additionally, a fragmentary text known as "Dietrich und Fasold" exists, which appears to match neither the meter nor the content of the Eckenlied. Despite this, Heinzle doubts the existence of an earlier, oral version.


Only the first nine stanzas of the Goldemar have survived: they are unusual in including a named author, Albrecht von Kemenaten, who is also mentioned in praising tones by the poet Rudolf von Ems in his Alexander and Willehalm von Orlens. 19th century scholars attempted to ascribe the authorship of the Eckenlied, the Virginal, and the Sigenot to Albrecht due to the use of the same stanzaic form (the Bernerton) in all, but this theory has been given up.

The introduction to the poem is a critique of the heroic genre, accusing it of praising brutality. Albrecht instead sets out to tell how Dietrich von Bern's love was awakened for a woman, Hertlin, whom he encounters held prisoner by the dwarf king Goldemar while setting off to fight the giant Trutmunt. The text ends just after Dietrich addresses Goldemar, but from the Heldenbuchprosa we know that Dietrich defeats Goldemar and wins Hertlin as his first wife (the prose explains that Hertlin dies, allowing Dietrich to marry Herrat).

Laurin/ Der kleine Rosengarten (The Small Rose Garden)

A fountain in Bolzano depicting Dietrich fighting Laurin

The Laurin was one of the most popular poems about Dietrich and is attested in numerous manuscripts and printed versions. It probably originates in the 12th century in Tyrol, and has four principle versions. All of them, except the Dresdner Laurin which is written in stanzas, are written in rhyming couplets.

The oldest version of the tale (the so-called elder Vulgate version (ältere Vulgatversion)) 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 experience 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 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 in a dungeon. Dietleib he tries to commit 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.

The younger vulgate version expands the backstory of Dietleib's sister's kidnapping. It also supplies the text with an author, the fictional Heinrich von Ofterdingen, a character in the poem Wartburgkrieg who sings about Laurin and Dietrich in relation to Dietrich's end (see the Wunderer below). In the so-called Walberan-continuation, Laurin converts to Christianity and becomes Dietrich's friend. In the Dresdner Laurin, the poem takes on a burlesque tone.

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.

Der Rosengarten zu Worms/ Der große Rosengarten (The Rose Garden at Worms/ The Large Rose Garden)

Dietrich and Siegfried from a 15th century manuscript of the Rosengarten zu Worms

Der Rosengarten zu Worms is attested in numerous manuscript and printed copies from the early 14th century until the late 16th century, with several principle versions of the story are usually recognized, A, D, P, F, and C. The story probably predates its appearance in manuscripts, with Heinzle assuming an origin in the early 13th century. The story connects characters surrounding the legend of Dietrich von Bern with those of the Nibelungenlied, and is closely connected with the similar epic, Biterolf und Dietleib.

The basic outline of the story is this: Gippich is the lord of the rosegarden in Worms, and as Kriemhild's father, Gippich dares any wooer to defeat the garden's twelve guardians. Dietrich von Bern and Etzel, king of the Huns take up the challenge together. They travel to Worms with their retinue, and face each of the guardians in single combat. Dietrich von Bern fights and defeats Siegfried. Except for one draw (Biterolf refuses to fight his kinsman Walther of Aquitaine), all fights end with Dietrich's side victorious. Dietrich fights against Siegfried, initially doing poorly and complaining of Siegfried's hardened skin. Hildebrand tells Wolfhart to falsely tell Dietrich of the tutors death, after which point Dietrich's rage causing him to breathe fire and Hildebrand must intervene so that Dietrich does not kill Siegfried.

Finally, Gippich has to submit to Dietrich and Etzel, and the victors are honoured with garlands and kisses.

A connection between this poem and Dietrichs encounter with Siegfried in the Thidrekssaga is usually speculated: either the author of the Thidrekssaga knew of the Rosengarten and altered it for his work (meaning that the Rosengarten existed in the 13th century) or there was an even older tale of Dietrich's encounter with Siegfried which diverged into the story found in the Thidrekssaga and that of the Rosengarten. Especially noticeable is the fact that Kriemhilt and Gunther's father has the name Gibich, corresponding to the Norse tradition and the Waltharius, which in the Nibelungenlied has been replaced by another name.


Dietrich fights the wild man before encountering Sigenot.

The Sigenot was composed no later than 1300, and probably developed in the Swabian-Alemanic dialect area. The poem exists in two versions: the so-called elder Sigenot (älterer Sigenot), which is very short and probably represents shortened version of a longer text which is also the basis of the younger Sigenot (jüngerer Sigenot).

In the älterer Sigenot, Dietrich awakens the giant Sigenot in the forest by kicking him. The giant then recognizes Dietrich as the slayer of Hilde and Grim, two giant relatives of his, and forces Dietrich to fight him, despite a sudden reluctance (zagheit) on Dietrich's part. Dietrich is thrown into a dungeon. Sigenot now heads to Verona to defeat Hildebrand, and, encountering him in the forest, takes him prisoner as well. However, once Hildebrand has been dragged to Dietrich's prison, he is able to free himself, slays the giant and frees Dietrich with the help of the dwarf Eggerich. The two heroes then return to Verona.

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 in 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.

The poem may connect to Dietrich's captivity among giants, as referenced in the Waldere: Heinzle suggests that it was created in the 13th century under the influence of this traditional story. The text also makes reference to Dietrich's battle with Hilde and Grim, which is told in the Thidrekssaga and referenced in the Eckenlied, but about which no poem survives.

Virginal/ Dietrichs erste Ausfahrt/ Dietrich und seine Gesellen (Dietrich's first Quest/ Dietrich and his Companions)

Coat of Arms of the Visconti of Milan depicting the biscione, a serpent who appears to be swallowing a human.

There are three versions of the Virginal, the Heidelberger, the Wiener, and the Dresdner. The poem is extremely long in the first two versions, but has been truncated to the point where the story no longer makes sense in the Dresdner version.

The Virginal contains an account of the young Dietrich's first adventure – he does not even know the meaning of the world âventiure (roughly: adventure, but more precisely exciting event or tale) at the poem's beginning, and must be taught by Hildebrand. Dietrich shows great resistance to the hardships Hildebrand puts him through to learn this meaning, and frequently accuses Hildebrand of trying to have him killed to steal his inheritance.

The backdrop to this is the invasion by the heathen Orkise of the dwarf queen Virginal's realm in Tyrol. Orkise demands a maiden be fed to him in tribute, and Hildebrand and Dietrich set off from Verona to defeat the heathen. Hildebrand kills Orkise in hard combat after being separated from Dietrich, who himself then defeats a group of eighty heathens. On their way to tell Virginal of Orkise's defeat, the heroes save Rentwin, the son of Hilferich von Arone, from being swallowed by a dragon. Hilferich then entertains them as thanks, but Dietrich becomes impatient and sets off to Virginal's capital of Jeraspunt by himself. The Dresdner Virginal inserts here an episode where the heroes fight against Orkise's son. In the Heidelberger text, Dietrich becomes lost and arrives at Muter, where he is taken prisoner by Duke Nitger's giants. Hildebrand is forced to rescue the hero with the help of Witige, Heime, Wolfhart, Dietleib, and many other heroes. When Dietrich is finally freed, the heroes go to Jeraspunt where they are well received and Dietrich has learned the meaning of âventiure. In the Heidelberger text, Dietrich is suddenly called back to Verona by the threat of an invasion from an unnamed enemy. In the Wiener and Dresdner text, he marries Virginal and there is no further danger.

The text is thought to have originated no later than 1300, probably in Swabian-Alemanic territory. However, elements seem to be much older. Dietrich's captivity among giants is referenced in Waldere, for instance. The saga of the man half-swallowed by a dragon is also thought to be older, and is probably connected with the coat of arms of the Visconti, a family which owned the castle of Arona (Arone) at the time of the tale's composition, and whose coat of arms depict a man being swallowed by a serpent. The same story is also told in the Thidrekssaga, where the knight rescued is named Sintram. This difference of names means that the two texts are not directly related, but are probably both descended from a lost oral story. Interestingly, Sintram also appears as the name of the man being swallowed by the dragon also in a 15th century Swiss chronicle, the Berner Chronicle of Konrad Justinger, which relocates the action to Bern, Switzerland, and does not include Dietrich's name. It is thus not clear if the motif was transferred onto Dietrich from an independent legend or whether the Swiss version had lost the original connection with Dietrich.

19th century scholarship attempted to connect Orkise with Ork, a demon of Tyrolian and North Italian folklore. Although queen Virginal's name strongly resembles the romance word "virgin", it may in fact be connected with Gothic firgs, meaning mountain.

Der Wunderer (The Monster)

The Wunderer may date from as early as the 13th century, but is first attested in the fifteenth.

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 Theodoric'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.

The poem is also interesting in its extreme closeness to the paradigm of Arthurian Romance: a lady comes to court asking for help, as in many romances. Etzel is completely inactive, like Arthur, with whom he is expressly compared.

The Thidrekssaga

The Scandinavian Þiðrekssaga (also Thidreksaga, Thidrekssaga, Niflungasaga or Vilkina saga) is a 13th century Old Norse chivalric saga about Dietrich von Bern.[3] The earliest manuscript dates from the late 13th century.[4] It contains many narratives found in the known poems about Dietrich, but also supplements them with other narratives and provides many additional details. The text is either a translation of a lost Low German prose narrative of Dietrich's life, or a compilation by a Norwegian author of German material: modern scholarship favors the latter explanation[citation needed]. It is not clear how much of the source material might have been orally transmitted and how much the author may have had access to written poems. The preface of the text itself says that it was written according to "tales of German men" and "old German poetry", possibly transmitted by Hanseatic merchants in Bergen.[3]

At the center of the Thidrekssaga is a complete life of Dietrich. It begins by telling of Dietrich's grandfather and father, and then tells of Dietrich's youth at his father's court, where Hildebrand tutors him and he accomplishes his first heroic deeds. After his father's death, Dietrich leads several military campaigns: then he is exiled from his kingdom by his uncle Ermenrik, fleeing to Attila's court. There is an unsuccessful attempt to return to his kingdom, during which Attila's sons and Dietrich's brother die. This is followed by Dietrich's entanglement in the downfall of the Niflings, after which Dietrich successfully returns to Verona and recovers his kingdom. Much later, after the death of both Hildebrand and his wife Herrad, Dietrich kills a dragon who had killed King Hernit of Bergara, marrying the widow and becoming king of Bergara. After Attila's death, Dietrich becomes king of the Huns as well. The final time he fights an opponent is to avenge to death of Heime (who had become a monk and then sworn loyalty to Dietrich once again). After this, he spends all his time hunting. One day, upon seeing a particularly magnificent deer, he jumped out of the bathtub and mounts a gigantic black horse – this is the devil. It rides away with him, and no one knows what happened to him after that, but the Germans believe that he received God and Mary's grace and was saved.

In addition to the life of Dietrich, various other heroes' lives are recounted as well in various parts of the story, including Attila, Wayland the Smith, Sigurd, the Nibelungen, and Walter of Aquitaine. The section recounting Dietrich's avenging of Hertnit seems to have resulted from a confusion between Dietrich and the similarly named Wolfdietrich.

Most of the action of the saga has been relocated to Northern Germany, with Attila's capital at Susat (Soest in Westphalia) and the battle described in Die Rabenschlacht taking place at the mouth of the Rhine. This is part of a process operative in oral traditions called "localization", connecting events transmitted orally to familiar places, and is one of the reasons that the poems collected by the saga-writer are believed to be Low German in origin.

The Norwegian Thridrekssaga constituted the basis of the Swedish Didrikssagan from the mid-15th century.[3] The Swedish reworking of the story is rather independent, many repetitions were avoided and the material is structured in a more accessible manner.[3] The Swedish version is believed to have been composed on the orders of king Karl Knutsson who was interested in literature.[3][3][5]

The name Vilkinasaga was first used in Johan Peringskiöld's Swedish translation of 1715.[5] Peringskiöld named it after Vilkinaland, which the saga says was an old name for Sweden and Götaland.[6]

The Þiðrekssaga had considerable influence on Swedish historiography as the saga identified the country of Vilkinaland with Sweden and so its line of kings was added to the Swedish line of kings.[5] In spite of the fact that the early scholar Olaus Petri was critical, these kings were considered to have been historic Swedish kings until fairly recent times.[5] The historicity of the kings of Vilkinaland was further boosted in 1634 when Johannes Bureus discovered the Norwegian parchment that had arrived in Sweden in the 15th century.[5]

Richard Wagner used it as a source for his operatic tetralogy Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Heldenbücher (Books of Heroes) and Later Texts

Heldenbuch-Prosa (Prose of the Book of Heroes)

Title page of the 1590 edition of the Heldenbuch. The text describes the Rosengarten zu Worms

See also: Heldenbuch

The earliest attestation of the so-called "Heldenbuch-Prosa" is in a manuscript from c. 1480 that was in the possession of the Strassburger goldsmith Diebolt von Hanowe: it was a preface written in prose to the poems collected in that work. It also appears in a number of editions of the Heldenbuch printed in Strasbourg in the middle to late 16th century.

The text offers an all-encompassing depiction of the entire heroic age, partially in the form of a narrative, partially in the form of a catalog of names. It is structured both genealogically and geographically, dividing the heroes into those from around Aachen and Cologne, those from Hunland, and those from Worms. It begins with the first hero, King Orendel of Trier, and ends with the disappearance of the last hero, Dietrich von Bern. It also explains the God first created the dwarves to mine out the mountains, then the giants to protect them. When the giants turned tyrannical, God created heroes to protect the dwarves, and from the heroes are descended all the nobles of the present world.

According to the text, Dietrich is the grandson of Wolfdietrich and son of Dietmar. During her pregnancy, Dietrich's mother was visited by the demon Machmet (i.e. Mohammed imagined as a Muslim god), who prophecies that Dietrich will be the strongest spirit who ever lived and will breathe fire when angry. The devil (Machmet?) then builds Verona/Bern in three days. Ermenrich, here imagined as Dietrich's brother, rapes his marshal Sibiche's wife, whereupon Sibiche decides to advise Ermenrich to his own destruction. Thus he advises Ermenrich to hang his own nephews. Their ward, Eckehart of Breisach, informs Dietrich, and Dietrich declares war on Ermenrich. Ermenrich, however, captures Dietrich's best men, and to ransom them, Dietrich goes into exile. He ends up at Etzel's court, who gives Dietrich a large army that reconquers Verona. However, once Dietrich had fought at the rose garden against Siegfried, slaying him. This causes Kriemhild, who after Etzel's wife Herche's death, marries the Hun, to invite all the heroes of the world to a feast where she causes them to kill each other. Dietrich kills Kriemhild in revenge. Later there is a massive battle at Verona, in which all the remaining heroes except Dietrich are killed. At this a dwarf appears to Dietrich and, telling him that "his kingdom is no longer of this world," causes him to disappear. And no one knows what has happened to him.

The text seems to have been assembled in a rather haphazard fashion in order to explain the world of the heroic poems. Despite this, the text shows a number of correspondences with the Thidrekssaga, especially in its version of the Nibelungenlied. Since it is unlikely that the author had access to the Thidrekssaga, these correspondences are probably from an oral tradition. This also seems to be the case with Dietrich's successful return to Verona with Hunnic help.

With the use of prose, the author is making a claim for the veracity of his work. The attempts to connect the heroic age with divine order and to remove Dietrich's demonic qualities are probably meant to deflect ecclesiastical criticism of heroic poetry. For instance, the author clearly attempts to hide negative characteristics of Dietrich, as with the Machmet-prophesy, which probably rests on the idea of Dietrich as the son of the devil (as claimed by some in the church) and changing Dietrich's ride to hell into a positive event – the dwarf quotes John 18,36 when he takes Dietrich away.

Jüngeres Hildebrandslied (The Younger Lay of Hildebrand)

The Younger Lay of Hildebrand first appears in the 15th century, being printed into the middle of the 18th century and even ending up in the collection of German folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Dietrich appears only once, and, although Hildebrand is said not to have seen his wife Ute for thirty years, it is not clear that he is returning from exile. The text is a variant of the events of the Hildebrandslied, but whereas that poem is assumed to end in Hildebrand killing Hadubrand, here Hildebrand spares his son "Alebrand." Although the ballad itself is thought to have been first created in the 15th century, a happy ending for the battle between Hildebrand and his son is also contained in the much earlier Thidrekssaga, which shares the name of the son (there Alibrand) and a corresponding phrase (after the son delivers either a treacherous or weak blow, Hildebrand insults him by saying that such a blow could not have been taught by his father, but by a woman). This seems to show that the assumed tragic end of the Hildebrandslied (supported by the stanzas in Ásmundar saga kappabana) had already been altered at an earlier date, and was not the work of the author of the Younger Lay.

Ermenrichs Tod (The Death of Ermenrich)

Ermenrichs Tod (dubbed by some scholars Koninc Ermenrîkes Dôt: the original title is simplyVan Dirick van dem Berne, "Of Dietrich von Bern") is a ballad transmitted in a garbled version on Low German broadside from either 1535 or 1545 and in a book of Low German songs from c. 1590, printed in Lübeck. The text may have been printed by Johannes Balhorn, a printer so famous for his mistakes that a German word for garbled printed text is a Verballhornung.

According to the song, Dietrich wants to exile the King of the Franks, van Armentriken, because the latter wants to hang Dietrich. As one of his companions Dietrich receives the gigantic King Blödelinck, who is only twelve years old and is the son of a Frankish widow. Dietrich then sets off to Freysack who the enemy king lives, passing by a set of gallows. He and his companions disguise themselves as dancers and receive an audience with the king before revealing themselves and demanding to know why the king wants to hang Dietrich. When the king is silent, Dietrich cuts off his head and then the twelve proceed to kill everyone in the castle except for Reinholt von Meilan, who is spared due to his loyalty to the king. Blödelinck has disappeared in the fighting and Dietrich assumes he is dead, but the giant reappears.

Van Armentriken is clearly Ermenrich, with his name misunderstood as the name of his country. His misidentification as King of the Franks/France may be connected to a note by Johannes Agricola in which Ermenrich as king of the Franks supposedly conquered Lombardy and there killed the Harlungen. Blödelinck is Blödel, i.e. Bleda, Attila's brother, who also appears in the Nibelungenlied the historical poems. Freysack is probably Breisach, which was connected with the Harlungen from an early date. Lastly, Ermenrich's death is reminiscent of the Svanhild episode recorded in the Edda and other sources, as the sons of Jónakr also pass by a set of gallows on their way to confront Jörmunrekkr. Dietrich's involvement may be a variant of his return from exile – in a variant of the text, it is even said that Ermenrich wanted to drive Dietrich away, not the other way around.

Scandinavian Ballads

Numerous ballads about Dietrich are attested in Scandinavia, primarily in Denmark, but also in Sweden and the Faroes. These texts seem to derive primarily from the Thidrekssaga, but there are signs of the use of German texts, such as the Laurin, which was translated into Danish in 1599 in the Hanseatic city of Lübeck. The two most notable of the Danish ballads are Kong Diderik og hans Kæmper (King Dietrich and his Warriors) and Kong Diderik i Birtingsland (King Dietrich in Birtingsland), which are attested from the 16th century onwards.

General References

  • Haymes, Edward R. transl. The Saga of Thidrek of Bern (New York: Garland, 1988) ISBN 0-8240-8489-6
  • Heinzle, Joachim (1999). Einführung in die mittelhochdeutsche Dietrichepik. Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter. (German)
  • Gillespie, George T. (1973). A Catalogue of Persons Named in German Heroic Literature (700–1600); Including Named Animals and Objects and Ethnic Names. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • von der Hagen, Friedrich transl., Die Thidrekssaga (Otto Reichl Verlag, St.-Goar, 1989) (German)


  1. ^ Heinz Ritter-Schaumburg: Dietrich von Bern. König zu Bonn. Herbig: Munich / Berlin 1982
  2. ^ See, for example, the critical review by Henry Kratz, in The German Quarterly 56/4 (November 1983), p. 636-638.
  3. ^ a b c d e f The article Didrik av Bern in Nationalencyklopedin (1990).
  4. ^ Helgi Þorláksson, 'The Fantastic Fourteenth Century', in The Fantastic in Old Norse/Icelandic Literature; Sagas and the British Isles: Preprint Papers of the Thirteenth International Saga Conference, Durham and York, 6th–12th August, 2006, ed. by John McKinnell, David Ashurst and Donata Kick (Durham: Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Durham University, 2006), http://www.dur.ac.uk/medieval.www/sagaconf/sagapps.htm.
  5. ^ a b c d e The article Didrikssagan in Nordisk familjebok (1907).
  6. ^ wilcina land som nw är kalladh swerige oc götaland.

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