Like the legends centering about Tyrfing, the legendary cycle of the Volsungs is made up of a number of separate legends. The action lies in both northern and central Europe, and the legends themselves are found among all the races belonging to the great Germanic family. The Eddic poems begin the cycle with the story of Helgi Hjorvardsson.
In Norway there was a king named Hjorvard who had made the vow that he would possess the most beautiful woman in the world. He already had three wives, each of whom had borne him a son; he and his [148} retinue all held these boys to be the handsomest in all the world. Once on a time, however, Atli, a son of one of Hjorvard's earls named Idmund, happened to be walking abroad in a grove. A bird sitting in a tree heard Atli's men say that no women on earth were fairer than Hjorvard's wives. The bird began to twitter and asked Atli if he had ever laid eyes on Sigrlin, daughter of king Svafnir, who was the fairest of all maidens. Atli asked the bird to reveal to him what it knew about her; it promised that the king should win Sigrlin if he would build for it a temple and many altars and there offer in sacrifice many gold-horned cattle. On Atli's telling all these things to Hjorvard, the king sent him off to ask Svafnir for the hand of Sigrlin. But her foster father, Earl Franmar, persuaded Svafnir to deny the king's suit, and Atli had to return home with his errand unfulfilled. Hjorvard now determined to go in person, and Atli went with him. In the meantime another powerful king, by name Rodmar, had paid court to Sigrlin; he also had met with a refusal and in his wrath had killed Svafnir and harried his realms. Franmar concealed Sigrlin with his own daughter Alof in a lonely house, transformed himself into an eagle, and so kept watch over the maidens by means of magic arts. When Hjorvard and Atli reached the top of the mountains and caught sight of the reaches of Svavaland, they saw nothing but fire and desolation on all sides; nevertheless they descended and lay down to rest for the night beside a river not far from the house where the maidens were hidden. The eagle perched on the [149} roof had fallen asleep; Atli killed it with his spear, entered the house, found the young women, and led them before Hjorvard. The king took Sigrlin to wife, and Atli took Alof. Hjorvard and Sigrlin got a son, who grew to be tall and handsome; but he was dumb, and no name was given to him.
One day, as the king's son was sitting on a mound, he saw nine Valkyries riding toward him, one of whom far surpassed the others in beauty. She said to him: "Helgi, if you persist in your silence, it will be long before you have gold rings to give and before you win renown." Then Helgi found the power of utterance and said: "What will you give me as a gift, fair maiden, now that you dower me with a name of my own? I will not accept the name unless you give me yourself with it." She answered: "In Sigarsholm lie six and forty swords, one of which is better than the others; it is adorned with gold, a ring is fixed in its hilt, courage is in its middle and terror in its point, and along the edge lies a serpent flecked with blood, winding his tail about the handle." The Valkyrie's name was Svava, daughter of king Eylimi; from that day on, she gave great aid to Helgi in the fighting of his battles.
Helgi now went before his father and asked for armed men in order to march against Rodmar to avenge the death of his mother's father, Svafnir. Hjorvard having put the men under his command, Helgi sought out the sword designated by Svava; then he sallied forth together with Atli and took the life of Rodmar. As time passed they performed many a [150} deed of prowess. Helgi killed the mighty Giant Hati, whom he found sitting on a mountain side. Afterward he and Atli sailed into Hatifjord, where Rimgerd, Hati's daughter, sought to harm them by sorcery; but Atli, who was keeping watch during the night, artfully contrived to keep her listening to his speech ' so that she forgot to hide from the rising sun, and so was turned into stone. Thereupon Helgi paid a visit to king Eylimi, where he took Svava to wife; they loved each other beyond measure, but she remained a Valkyrie as before.
Meanwhile Helgi's elder half brother Hedin had remained at home with his father in Norway. One evening at the Yuletide, while he was out in the forest alone, he came on a Troll woman mounted on the back of a wolf which she was guiding by means of serpents instead of reins; she offered to go with him, but he would not consent. Then she said, "You shall pay for that at your drinking." At evening, as the wassail bowl went round and vows were being made by the great boar, Hedin swore that he would possess Svava, his brother Helgi's wife. No sooner had he spoken the oath than he was smitten with remorse and set off on unbeaten paths toward the south to meet his brother Helgi. Helgi received him gladly, asked for tidings from Norway, and wanted to know whether he had been banished, since he was making such a journey alone. Hedin made a clean breast of his trouble, telling how the Troll woman had bewitched him into making the vow concerning Svava. Helgi comforted him and said that the vow might after all [151} be fulfilled. "Rodmar's son Alf," he declared, "has challenged me to meet him in combat when three days have passed, and no one knows whether I shall leave the field alive." Helgi had a premonition that he was marked for death, the Troll woman being none other than his own attendant spirit. Alf and Helgi fought at Sigarsvoll near Frekastein (the Wolf Stone); there was a great battle, in the course of which Helgi received a mortal wound. He dispatched Sigar to summon Svava to hasten to his side before he died. When she came Helgi begged that she would, after his own death, wed Hedin and give him her love; but she answered that when she gave her troth to Helgi she had vowed never to wed another in his stead. Both Helgi and Svava were born anew, as Helgi Hundingsbane and Sigrun. 
The legends dealing definitely with the Volsungs begin with the story of Odin's son Sigi, who was driven into exile because he had killed the thrall of another man of high degree, and who later won for himself a kingdom in Hunaland. In the end he was betrayed and put to death by his own brothers-in-law. His son Rerir became king in his stead, avenged the murder of his father, and won great renown for his own prowess in war. Rerir and his wife, deeply grieved, at their childless state, prayed devoutly to the gods to grant children to them. Frigg and Odin heard their prayers, [152} and Odin sent his Valkyrie Ljod, daughter of the Giant Rimnir, to carry an apple as a gift to the king. The queen ate of it, and their wishes were fulfilled. But for the space of six years she remained unable to give birth to the child; the king meanwhile died and the queen at length, weary of days, caused the child to be cut from her side in order to save its life. It was a large and well-shaped boy. He gave his mother a kiss before she died. He got the name Volsung and became king of Hunaland after his father. With his wife Ljod, who had brought the apple to Rerir, he had a daughter named Signy and ten sons; the eldest and bravest of them all was Sigmund, twin brother to Signy. The Volsungs, as they came to be called, excelled all other men in all manner of prowess and manly sports. King Volsung caused a great and splendid hall to be built, in the midst of which stood a tall tree, stretching its fruitful boughs out over the roof; this tree they called the Stem of the Children.
A mighty king, Siggeir of Gautland, paid court to Signy and secured the promise of her hand from Volsung and his sons, against her own will. The marriage was celebrated with great pomp in king Volsung's hall. While the festival was in progress an old, one-eyed man with a broad hat on his head came into the hall and thrust a sword into the Stem of the Children up to the hilt, with the words that he who proved able to draw it out again should have it as a gift and would find f or a certainty that he had never laid eyes on a better sword. Thereupon he went out of the door; it was Odin in disguise, and no one knew where he [153} came from or where he went away. The guests all tried to draw the sword but to no avail; at last Sigmund came forward and pulled it out at the first trial. Every man praised the sword, all avowing that they had never seen one so good. Siggeir offered Sigmund for it three times its weight in gold, but Sigmund said: "You might have drawn it forth as well as I; I will not sell it for all the gold in the world." At these words Siggeir became incensed and at once began to meditate revenge.
The next day Siggeir made it known that he intended to take his departure while the weather was still fair, at the same time inviting king Volsung and his sons to pay him a visit after an interval of three months, on which occasion, he added, they might make up for what they were now losing of the marriage feast by reason of his early leave-taking. Signy said to her father that she was reluctant to go away with Siggeir and that she could foresee great misfortunes as the aftermath of the wedding; but Volsung brushed aside her misgivings with fair words, consoling her as best he could. Siggeir took his departure, and three months later Volsung and his sons set out on their voyage with three well-manned ships. On their arrival in Gautland late one evening, Signy hastened to meet them with the tidings that Siggeir had mustered against them a great army, meaning to play them false. Volsung nevertheless would entertain no thought of flight but marched up into the land to face Siggeir's hosts, who at once attacked him. Volsung and his sons fought with great courage; eight [154} times they broke Siggeir's lines, but the ninth time they were worsted, Volsung himself was slain, and his ten sons were taken prisoner. Siggeir meant to put them to death, but Signy persuaded him to expose them out in the forest with their feet bound to a stake, so that she might have, at least for a time, the pleasure of beholding their features. Siggeir did as she wished. But during the night Siggeir's old mother, who was skilled in sorcery, transformed herself into a she-wolf, bit one of the brothers to death, and ate his body; she did likewise during each of the following nights till Sigmund alone remained alive. Signy, who had appointed watchmen to bring her news of all that happened, now caused Sigmund's face to be smeared with honey. When the she-wolf came again and smelled the honey, she began to lap it up; when she reached Sigmund's mouth, he seized her tongue in his teeth and thus held her fast. The wolf in attempting to escape thrust her feet against the stake; but the stake sprang asunder, the wolf's tongue was torn from her jaws so that she died forthwith, and Sigmund regained his freedom. Signy, learning what had befallen, herself went out to see him, and conspired with him that he was to build himself an earth house in the forest and that Signy was to carry to him anything that he might need. Siggeir now believed that all of the Volsungs were dead.
Signy and Sigmund kept pondering on some suitable form of revenge. Signy had borne two sons to Siggeir. When the eldest of these was ten years of age, she sent him out to the forest to give Sigmund any [155} assistance that he might require. One day Sigmund asked the boy to knead dough for bread and for this purpose gave him a sack of meal. On returning Sigmund found that the boy had done nothing; he had been afraid to touch the sack because some living thing stirred within it. Now Sigmund knew that the boy lacked the required courage, and he said as much to his sister. "Kill him then," answered Signy; "he does not deserve to live." Sigmund did so. The next year Signy sent her second son, and he fared likewise. She then got a witch to exchange shapes with her and in this guise she herself went out to her brother, who failed to recognize her. After remaining with him three nights she returned home and assumed her former likeness once more. Some time later she gave birth to a large, strong, and handsome son, who was given the name of Sinfjotli and who in all respects resembled the Volsungs. When he reached the age of ten, she sent him out to Sigmund. Meanwhile she had put him to the same tests she had used in the case of the other sons: she had sewed their kirtles fast to their arms through skin and flesh; the two elder sons had complained, but Sinfjotli when his turn came gave no sign. She tore his kirtle off so that his skin came away with the sleeves, but he paid no heed. "That is a small matter to one of the Volsungs," were his only words. When he arrived at Sigmund's house he was set to kneading the dough, the same task that had been given to his older brothers. When Sigmund returned home, Sinfjotli had already baked the bread. Sigmund asked if he had not found something [156} in the meal. "Yes, it seemed to me at first that there was some living thing in it, but I kneaded the whole into one mass," answered Sinfjotli. "You have kneaded into the meal a most venomous serpent," said Sigmund; "and you will have to eat that very bread this evening." As it happened, there was this difference between father and son, that while Sigmund was able to swallow poison without suffering the least harm, Sinfjotli on the other hand was able to endure poison only on the surface of his body but could not eat or drink it unhurt.
Sigmund deeming Sinfjotli still too young to assist in carrying out his revenge, determined first to accustom him to dangers and difficulties, and to this end took the boy with him on robber forays during several summers. Still having no inkling that the boy was not the son of Siggeir, he was amazed at Sinfjotli's often putting him in mind of his purposed vengeance on Siggeir. On one occasion they came across a house in the forest where two men lay sleeping with great gold rings on their fingers, two princes who had been turned into wolves and who were able to cast off their wolfish likeness once in ten days, and no oftener. This happened to be one of the days, and their wolf pelts hung above them as they slept. Sigmund and Sinfjotli sprang into the pelts and thereafter roved about a long time in the guise of wolves, doing what harm they could do throughout Siggeir's domains. Each tenth day they became men again. Once Sigmund chanced to bite Sinfjotli's throat so hard that he lay a long while seemingly dead; Sigmund fell to [157} cursing the wolf's clothing, but as he did so he caught sight of an ermine biting another to death and waking the dead to life again by means of a leaf. Sigmund did likewise to Sinfjotli, who immediately came to life; they went up to the earth house, waited till the time once more came for the shifting of shapes, and then burned the wolf's pelts, for which they had no further use.
When Sinfjotli had no more than reached man's estate, Sigmund led him to Siggeir's house for the purpose of carrying out his revenge. Having agreed with Signy that the hour of vengeance was to strike during the night, they hid themselves in the anteroom. Meanwhile the two small children of Signy and Siggeir were running about the floor of the hall, playing with gold rings. One of the golden bands rolled out into the anteroom where Sigmund and Sinfjotli were sitting, and the boy who ran to pick up the ring caught sight of two tall, hard-favored men in broad helmets and gleaming byrnies. The boy hurried away to tell his father what he had seen. Siggeir at once had his misgivings; but Signy led the two little children out into the anteroom and asked Sigmund to kill them so that they should tell no more tales. Sigmund would not do her bidding, but Sinfjotli killed them both and threw their bodies out into the hall. The king started up and gave commands to seize the men sitting in the anteroom; after a long and brave struggle, Sigmund and Sinfjotli were taken captive, bound fast, and placed in the midst of a huge pile of stones and turf in such a manner that a large stone slab set on end in [158} the middle of the heap separated them. Just as the last pieces of turf were being laid over the mound, Signy came forward and tossed an armful of straw down to Sinfjotli. In the bundle of straw was hidden a piece of meat, within which lay Sinfjotli's sword, a blade capable of cutting stone as easily as wood. Sinfjotli told Sigmund what had happened, and Sigmund was very glad. Sinfjotli now thrust the point of the sword over the upper edge of the slab so that Sigmund could seize hold of it; in this manner they were able to shear the slab in two from top to bottom, and so they found themselves side by side in the mound. Then they severed their own fetters and cut their way out of the mound itself. They now went straight to the king's hall, heaped up wood round about it, and set it on fire; the hall immediately burst into flames, before any who were within knew what was going on. At length Siggeir woke out of sleep and at once understood it all. Sigmund bade Signy make her escape from the hall, but she answered: "Now I have taken full vengeance against Siggeir for the death of my father Volsung; I caused our children to lose their lives, I went to Sigmund in the shape of a witch, and Sinfjotli is his son and mine. I have done all in my power to end the days of Siggeir; now I will die with him as gladly as I once lived with him unwillingly." She kissed Sigmund and Sinfjotli, and then entered the hall and allowed herself to perish in the flames together with Siggeir and his whole retinue. Sigmund and Sinfjotli mustered a band of men, took ship and set sail to the kingdom which Volsung once [159} ruled over. There Sigmund took the government into his own hands and came to be a mighty and a famous king.
Sigmund took to wife Borghild of Bralund and with her had two sons, Helgi and Hamund. Of Helgi we read in the Eddic poem:
In the morning of time,
The ravens perched in the trees were already yearning for the time when Helgi should become a man and give them their fill of carrion corpses. Once Sigmund had been away from home fighting the battles of the realm; on his return he went in to his son, gave him a leek, and dubbed him Helgi, at the same time giving him as naming gifts Ringstad, Solfjall, Snjofjall, Sigarsvoll, Ringstead, Hatun, and Himinvang, and a goodly sword besides. Helgi was then given over as a foster child to a man named Hagal. Sigmund presently became involved in warfare with king Hunding. When Helgi reached the age of fifteen, Sigmund sent him out in disguise to spy on Hunding's retinue. At first all went well with Helgi, but as he was about to leave Hunding's court he could not refrain from revealing his true name. He asked a certain goatherd to say to Heming, Hunding's son, that he whom they had treated as a guest and whom they supposed to be Hamal, Hagal's son, was none other than Helgi himself. Hunding sent men to Hagal's estate to search for Helgi, and he had no other recourse than to don the garb of a bondwoman and to busy himself in turning the mill. One of Hunding's men, to be sure, found that the bondwoman had rather sharp eyes and that she put a good deal of force into her grinding; but Hagal said that this was no wonder, since she was a shield-maiden before Helgi made her a captive. Some [161} time later Helgi set sail in his ships of war; engaging in battle with Hunding, Helgi laid his enemy low, and thereby gained the surname of Hundingsbane. After the victory he lay with his fleet in the bay of Brunavag. Presently the Valkyrie Sigrun, daughter to king Hogni, came riding through the air to his ship and entered into speech with him. She asked him his name, and then told him that she already knew of the mighty deeds he had done. "I saw you beforetime," she said, "on the long ships, as you stood in the blood-red prow and the cold waves played about you." Sigrun then left him; but the four sons of Hunding challenged Helgi to battle in order to avenge the death of their father, and Helgi slew them all at the mountains of Loga. Wearied from the struggle, he sat down to rest at the foot of Arastein (Eagle Rock). There Sigrun came riding toward him a second time, threw her arms about his neck, kissed him, and told him that she was hard bestead. Her father Hogni had promised her in marriage to the hateful Hodbrod, king Granmar's son, of Svarinshaug. Helgi undertook to free her from the compact and for that purpose gathered a great force of ships against Hodbrod; Sinfjotli was one of the company. At sea they encountered a perilous storm. Lightning played about them and shafts of fire shot down on the ships. Then they saw Sigrun come riding through the air with eight other Valkyries, and she stilled the tempest so that they made land in safety. The sons of king Granmar were sitting on a mountain side near Svarinshaug as the ships sailed in toward the shore. One of them, named [162} Gudmund, leaped on a horse and rode to spy on the strangers from a hill overlooking the haven; he arrived just as the Volsungs were furling their sails. Gudmund asked who they might be, and for answer Sinfjotli raised a red shield aloft at the yardarm. They berated each other till at length Helgi came forward and said that battle would be more becoming to them than bandying words. Gudmund thereupon rode home with a summons to war, and the sons of Granmar mustered a large army. Many kings made common cause with the brothers, among them Hogni, Sigrun's father, with his sons Bragi and Dag; and Alf the Elder besides. The battle was joined at Frekastein (Wolf Stone). All of the sons of Granmar fell and all of their captains but Dag, who made his peace by swearing fealty to the Volsungs. After the battle Sigrun went out among the slain and there found Hodbrod at the point of death. She gave thanks to Helgi for the deed he had done. Helgi was grieved to think that he had caused the death of her father and her brother, and she herself wept; but he consoled her with the assurance that no man could escape his destiny. Helgi took Sigrun to wife and made Granmar's kingdom subject to his own rule. But he did not reach old age. Dag, the brother of Sigrun, offered sacrifice to Odin to obtain vengeance for his father's death, and Odin lent his own spear to him. With it he thrust Helgi through the body at Fjoturlund and then rode home to tell Sigrun what he had done. Sigrun put him in mind of the sacred vows he had [163} sworn to Helgi and which he had now broken; then she spoke these words:
Let not the ship sail on
Dag declared that his sister was mad thus to curse her own brother. He laid the blame for all that had passed on Odin and offered to give her red gold rings and one half of his kingdom; but she answered that nothing could atone for Helgi's death. A cairn was thrown over the body of Helgi, and when he entered into Valhalla Odin invited him to sit in counsel with himself; but on Hunding, Helgi laid commands to carry out the meanest tasks. One evening Sigrun's handmaiden, chancing to pass Helgi's mound, saw him riding toward the cairn followed by many men; she asked whether she was only seeing visions, whether the Twilight of the Gods had come inasmuch as the  dead were riding, or whether the Heroes had got leave to revisit the earth. Helgi answered that the Heroes had been granted leave for their homecoming, and these tidings the handmaiden brought back to Sigrun. Sigrun went out to the cairn, glad of heart to see Helgi once more. "Yet," she asked him, "why is your hair covered with rime, why are you flecked with blood, and why are your hands cold as ice?"
"You alone are the cause," he replied, "since you weep such bitter tears each night before you go to rest; each tear falls on my breast, icy cold, burning, freighted with woe. But though we lack lands and joys, we shall yet drink with one another costly drinks, and no man shall sing dirges for the wounds he sees in my breast." Sigrun now prepared a couch in the mound so that she might lie down to rest in his arms. Then Helgi said: "Now nothing is beyond the bounds of belief since you, fair, living daughter of a king, rest in my arms, the arms of one who lives no more; but the time has come for me to ride forth on the reddening roadway; westward I must journey across the bridge of Heaven before Salgofnir (the cock of Valhalla) wakens the victorious men (the Heroes)." Helgi then rode away, but the next evening Sigrun awaited his return in vain. Sigrun lived no long time thereafter, so great was her sorrow and affliction.
Helgi Hundingsbane and Sigrun were none other than Helgi Hjorvardsson and Svava, Eylimi's daughter, born again in other bodies. It is said that Helgi Hundingsbane and Sigrun were likewise born anew. In this reincarnation he bore the name of Helgi Haddingjaskati, [165} and she bore the name of Kara, daughter of Halfdan.
Sinfjotli, son of Sigmund, passed his time in continual warfare. Once on a time, happening to see a woman of uncommon beauty, he paid court to her; but his stepmother Borghild's brother had the same design; enmity sprang up between the two, the end of which was that Sinfjotli killed his rival. When he returned home, Borghild wanted to drive him away; but Sigmund offered her wergild for her brother, and so she could do nothing else than come to terms. She then made a great banquet for her brother, to which she invited many mighty men as guests. In the course of the banquet she brought to Sinfjotli a large drinking horn, in which she had mingled poison with the intent to take his life. On looking into the horn he said to Sigmund, "The drink is muddied." Sigmund, being immune to all poisons, took up the horn and drained it. Borghild brought Sinfjotli a second horn; once more he suspected evil, and Sigmund again drank in his stead. A third time she brought a horn to him and bade him drink if he had the courage of a Volsung. Sigmund, being by this time well drunken, said, "Drain the drink through your beard." Sinfjotli drank, and at once fell down dead. Sigmund, lifting up his son's body, bore it away with him; when he had carried his burden a long distance he came at length to a narrow fjord, where he found a boat and a [166} man sitting in it. The man offered to ferry Sigmund across the water; but when the body had been taken on board, the boat was incapable of supporting an added weight, and so Sigmund was compelled to walk on foot around to the other side. But no sooner had the man launched his boat out from the shore than he was lost to sight, and the boat with him. Sigmund on returning home drove Borghild away. Hitherto, during the whole time he was wedded to her, he had lived in her own kingdom of Denmark; now he took his departure, directed his course southward to a kingdom of his own in the land of the Franks, and made his home there.