Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer

Book Review: The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer by unknown 13th century Iceland  - translated by Jesse Byock (Penguin 1990)

This was a very famous and well-known saga in the medieval Germanic and Norse worlds and versions of it appear in the Eddas and the German poem Nibelungenlied as well as in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It strongly influenced Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as well. I have heard it also called the Nifelung (sp?). The tale seems to take place in the latter part of the Roman empire after the rise of Atilla the Hun (here Atli) and his army displacing some of the Gothic tribes of the East (Ostrogoths) The Burgundians of which Sigurd marries into their royalty – are thought to have migrated from Northeast Germany and Poland near the Baltic Sea to Western Germany before the Huns – then driven into France by the Huns to where the French land of Burgundy is today. The Volsungs are a royal family that may have come from the original Gotland (Sweden?) to the area of Germany. In any case, this time period is known is the migration period of Germanic tribes. The Huns of Atilla, residing in Hunland – were thought to be nomadic horseman who came from much further east – the steppes or Altaic Mountains of Russia or even Northern China, though there were likely many different peoples of this sort that were called Huns. In another story I read on-line, it was postulated that these Huns were originally a Vanic tribe that was exiled by the ruling Aesir tribes. The Vanic tribes were thought to have stronger female leadership and seeth-type shamanic magic by the on-line author. The figure of Brynhild (sister of Atli) who is a Valkyrie in the Norse version exhibits magical abilities.

These stories existed in an oral tradition for at least 700-800 years before they were written down in the 1200’s. Much of the activity takes place in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. Odin, the lord of , appears at several junctions in the stories seemingly to guide the fate of the heroes. These tales “...became an integral part of the cultural lore of Scandinavian societies.” The Volsungs, being an indigenous Nordic royal family is certainly a factor in their popularity there. Later, in the Viking Age (800-1070) these tales were spread by the skalds traveling on the ships to new lands. The Icelandic skalds became renowned and hired in the courts of Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England. Apparently, the Germanic version, with Seigfried (Sigurd) as the hero was a little different – with much more chivalry elements added – but was written down also in the 1200’s.

Byock notes the proliferation of elements of the Saga of the Volsungs in Medieval Norse Art, much in wood and stone carvings and much also on Medieval Churches.

“The most frequently illustrated scenes are the reforging of the sword Gram, the killing of the dragon Fafnir, the roasting of the dragon’s heart, the birds giving Sigurd advice, and Sigurd’s horse Grani, often loaded with treasure from the hoard. A frequently depicted episode from the second part of the saga show’s Sigurd’s brother-in-law King Gunnar bound in the snake pit, playing a harp with his toes.” 

Byock notes that the dragon/serpent-slaying exploits of Sigurd were easy to adapt to Christianity since the hero slays an animal symbolic of Satan. As well he notes that Sigurd may have been chosen in Sweden over St. Michael as the Christian dragon slayer due to his popularity in enemy kingdoms in Denmark and Germany.

Byocks’s lengthy introduction is most helpful in examining the influences and elements of the story. He notes that the early part of the story involves many supernatural elements that likely have pre-Christian ideas – though much of the precision of the symbolism is probably lost. Odin is associated with some royal families in Sweden and Germanic areas as progenitor/ancestor and as a frequent patron. Early in the story when Sigurd’s father, Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli are driven away by the king of Gautland (Sweden) they live in the wilds like/as wolves under wolf skins  – which is reminiscent of Odin’s wolves. Berserker warriors would take on this form as well – perhaps emulating these two. Perhaps this wolf shamanism peaks into earlier practices in the region.

Regin the Blacksmith tells Sigurd the story about Odin, Loki, and Hoenir traveling when they come to the waterfall of Andvari, a dwarf who lived beneath it. Here Loki kills an otter who is actually Otr, the brother of Fafnir and Regin, whose father is the powerful and wealthy mage Hreidmar. They skin and eat the otter. When they met up with Hreidmar he captured them and demanded that they must fill the otter skin with gold and red gold as a ransom (thus gold is known in lore as the kenning – Otter’s ransom). Loki then went out and captured Andvari and demanded gold from the dwarf. He gave all he had but kept back a ring which Loki forced from him. Then he laid a curse on the owners of the gold and especially the ring. This is likely the basis of the cursed ring idea in the Lord of the Rings. This curse sets the stage for the virtual river of tragedy that forms the second part of this saga. Just after the ransom was paid, Fafnir killed his father Hreidmar and left for the far wilderness with the treasure and became a great serpent, or dragon. Regin became a blacksmith for the king where he later met Sigurd. He attempted to forge swords for Sigurd but Sigurd through his power would break them on the anvil when testing them. Then he went to his mother and obtained the two pieces of Gram, the sword of his father Sigmund. Regin was somehow able to reforge the sword so that it was powerful and Sigurd could not break it on the anvil. He encouraged Sigurd to take it and slay Fafnir. Odin appears as an old man and instructs Sigurd how to slay the dragon by digging a hole and hiding in it and thrusting his sword from below as the serpent slithers over him.

Byock draws comparisons between this saga and the Nibelungenlied and to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf Saga. A difference in the Volsungs Saga that he notes is that instead of there being order and safety after the monster is slain, there is instead much danger, disaster, and tragedy. He also notes the key themes of family loyalty and family betrayal:

“An overriding theme of tension between marriage and blood bonds runs through the saga. For generation after generation, strife with kin by marriage brings a series of misfortunes upon the Volsungs. Marriage creates new kinship alliances, which are vital for survival in societies like the one pictured in the saga, where there is no effective central order and only a rudimentary judiciary. Many of the saga’s major characters are kings or noble retainers, individuals prepared to fight regularly to maintain their status. Even though pledges were exchanged between lord and retainer, the most trustworthy defense lay in the family. Yet villainy often arose within that social unit, especially in the weak link of the in-law relationship.”

It seems logical that since intermarrying was a way to forge different tribes into allies  - that often these contracts did not make the strongest of bonds. Certainly much of the family and blood feuding was really tribal feuding that had likely gone back to earlier times. Tribes banded together to face off threats such as the Huns but often when the threats were thrown off the old rivalries reappeared.

He also notes that Sigurd breaks the patrilocal tendency of Germanic peoples – where the new wife from outside the group goes to live with the husband and his group – by living with the Burgundians after marrying their Princess Gudrun.

Much of the saga, especially the second part, is historical as well as legendary. Kings Gunnar, Atli, and Jormunrek are likely the historical kings Gundaharius of the Burgundians (d.437), Atilla the Hun (d.453), and the Gothic King Ermenrichus (d.375).

King Ermenrichus appears in other accounts of the time such as Jordanes – History of the Goths – and as Eormanric in the Anglo-Saxon lament – Deor. It is also noted that in Beowulf it is not Sigurd who slays the dragon but his father Sigmund – as Sigemung Waelsing (Volsung). Byock thinks that Sigmund was the original dragon slayer and Sigurd was added to the tale later. Byock makes the interesting idea that Sigurd may be related to Arminius, a Germanic warrior of the Cherusci tribe who trained in Rome and then betrayed the invading Romans in the famous battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 AD. This was a decisive battle in which whole Roman legions were slain and secured freedom for many of the Germanic tribes from Roman rule for centuries to come. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions that heroic songs were sung about him nearly a century after his death. His father was named Sigimerus and his wife had the suffix ‘eld’ similar to the ‘hilde’ of Brynhild – but also of many Germanic women. Apparently the prefix ‘sig’ refers to victory. The link between Sigmund/Sigurd and Arminius is conjectural says Byock. He also explores the possibility of the hero being associated with the Frankish King Sigibert (535-575). Burgundians were among the subjects of this king – whose wife was Brunhilda – and said to have been a Visigoth princess from Spain – where they had been driven to at the time. So, in any case there seems to have been much mixing and similarity in many of the early epics and historical accounts regarding these heroes and their stories. Some dynasties such as the Ynglings – the traditional Kings of Norway trace their ancestry both to Odin and to Sigurd and the Volsungs. Richard Wagner, in his famous – Ring of the Nibelung – makes use of several versions of the story. He has Brynhild as the Valkyrie daughter of Wotan. Apparently, Wagner also added much to the story – often from other Eddic accounts of things – and utilized it to influence the Germans of his own time (19th century).

Early in the story, A hooded man (equated with Odin) thrust a sword into a tree trunk and stated that he who could draw it out would have it as a gift. Of course, this is similar to the King Arthur legend. Other magical events in the saga include an Ale of Forgetfulness, Odin’s sending of ‘wishmaidens’ to influence events and the fate of his ‘chosen’ royalty, and Sigurd getting knowledge of his precise fate from divinations by an uncle. After Sigurd kills Fafnir, the dialogue that takes place is interesting. Regin returns and drinks Fafnirs blood and sends Sigurd to roast the heart so that Regin may eat it. Sigurd tastes it on his finger to see if it is done (slight similarity to the Gwion/Taliesin myths). After this he is able to understand the speech of birds and hears from them that Regin is preparing to betray him. Sigurd then cut off Regin’s head and took the treasures, including the Helm of Awe, or Helm of Terror, which causes fear in men. He eats part of the dragon’s heart. After this he finds Brynhild, sleeping in her armour – after a battle where she defied Odin by striking down (in her Valkyrie mode) a king that Odin wanted to be victorious. For this indiscretion he sentenced her to mortality and to marry a mortal. She vowed that she would not marry a man who knew fear – so only Sigurd would she wed. Brynhild then shares with him beer charmed with runes of many kinds: victory runes, wave runes, speech runes, ale runes, aid runes, branch runes, mind runes, and cure runes – all curved on various surfaces of material and flesh and scraped away and mixed with holy mead defore charming the beer. There is much magic in the saga – such as dream interpretation – mostly among the women, and shape-shifting. Gudrun’s mother Grimhild is a powerful mage and both binds Sigurd with the Ale of Forgetfulness but also teaches him magic.

A whole series of tragedies attends this story from middle to end. Misunderstandings, heedlessness of good advice, various levels of deception, greed, and plotting through jealousy and vengeance. Perhaps this refers to the curse of the gold. Byock does note that Atilla collected quite a bit of gold as tribute, even from the Romans – so much so that many of his conquered Germanic and Scandinavian mercenaries became rich as well. King Atli seeks the treasure hoard through guile but the Burgundians do not betray its whereabouts. So the legend of the long hidden, but accursed Rhine Gold lives on, as it is said to be somewhere along the Rhine River. After Sigurd’s death Gudrun wanders off alone and ends up in Denmark at the Hall of King Half – weaving tapestries of family deeds and scenes. But then her brothers come in a great entourage to compensate her for their ill deeds with treasure (tainted treasure) and she is charmed by Grimhild to forget their enmity and so she meets again with tragic fate – although she does manage to kill King Atli. At the end of the story Gudrun loses all of her offspring – even Odin appears one more time to seal their fate – as if to wipe out the Volsung bloodline itself, as if -  perhaps – to end the tragedy and the cursed fates of those associated with the gold, the Otter’s Ransom.

This is a fascinating story on several levels and hidden meanings of things may yet be deciphered. It is history, myth, tragedy, romance, legend, and magic. Why it was such a popular epic is not especially known but there is much to consider. Wealth from the Underworld may not spend well here. The interactions between supernatural realms and our earthly plane are often wrought with strange imbalances. Early in the story Sigmund and his nephew-son are revealed as Odinic shamans. The connection of Odin to the family remains till the end. The interaction of humans with the cursed gold as ever tragic. Brynhild is cursed to dwell earthbound, cast out of Valhalla for spiting Odin. This ends up tragically. Perhaps the story belies the danger in the Northern mythic imagination of interactions with supernatural realms. As in many cultures, the gods and spirits (and dwarves, witches, and fairies) are as petty and vengeful as humans and morality is as difficult for them as us. Sigurd, (and Gudrun at times, and Hoenir too) does seem to be the most morally and honorably inclined of the characters. In any case – those are my momentary speculations. More sagas to come.

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