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Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes
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The Death of Sigmund — Sigurd Fafnirsbane — The Niflungs — The Slaying of Sigurd — Atli — Jormunrek — Aslaug

The death of Sigmund

There was a great and powerful king named Eylimi; to his fair daughter Hjordis Sigmund paid court after he had put Borghild away. King Lyngvi, son of Hunding, who had escaped from the field at Frekastein, also sought her hand. King Eylimi permitted his daughter to make her own choice, and she chose Sigmund for his fame, in spite of his years. He wedded Hjordis and took her home with him, king Eylimi bearing them company. King Lyngvi and his brothers marshaled their forces and marched against Sigmund to summon him to battle. Sigmund at once accepted the challenge; but before taking the field he transported Hjordis with her serving maid and a great store of goods into a forest to keep her safe from the enemy. Sigmund bore himself bravely in the battle, [167} and no one was able to stand against him till an old one-eyed man, dressed in a broad-brimmed hat and a blue cloak, and carrying a spear in his hand, entered Lyngvi's ranks. He advanced on Sigmund, whose strokes he warded off with his spear, and Sigmund's splendid sword shortly broke asunder. From that moment the fortunes of war took a turn, the outcome of which was that Sigmund and Eylimi fell, and with them the greater part of their men. Lyngvi hastened to the king's palace, meaning to take Hjordis captive, but found neither her nor any of the goods; so, contenting himself perforce with laying the kingdom under his own sway, he returned home. The night after the battle Hjordis went out onto the field and found Sigmund still among the living. She asked him if he had any hope of being healed of his wounds. But he would not so much as try, since luck had forsaken him. "Yet you shall give birth to a son," he said, "who shall become the greatest of our race. Keep for him the two pieces of my sword; from them a goodly sword can be forged, which shall be called Gram. That sword he shall bear at his side and with it do many a deed of passing prowess." Hjordis remained sitting by Sigmund till he died; then she took up the fragments of the sword, changed her own clothing for that of her handmaiden, and made her way to the seashore. There certain Viking ships were lying, under the command of Alf, the son of king Hjalprek of Denmark. He received them well. The hand maiden told the story of Sigmund's death and showed Alf where the treasure lay hidden; accordingly he [168} sailed with them to Denmark, believing all the while that Hjordis was the handmaiden and that the handmaiden was a princess. But his mother noticed that Hjordis was the more beautiful and had more courtly manners than the other, and so Alf determined to put them to the test. When the occasion came he asked them a question: "By what token can you mark the coming of morning when neither moon nor stars are visible?" The handmaiden answered: "As a child I was accustomed to drinking a great deal toward dawn and therefore I have formed the habit of waking at that time; this is the sign I am governed by." The king laughed and said, "The king's daughter was not brought up as well as might be." Hjordis said: "My father gave me a gold ring that had the property of turning cold on my finger as dawn drew near; that is a sure sign to me." The king replied: "Gold there must have been in plenty since bondwomen were in the habit of wearing it; now I know that you have deceived me, and of that you had no need; nevertheless you shall become my wife as soon as your child is born." She then confessed all that she had done and gladly entered into accord with him.

On the death of Sigmund

Page 168, line 23 — The Poetic Edda relates only that Sigmund fell and that Hjordis was wedded to Alf', son of Hjalprek; the whole story is to be found in the Volsunga Saga, but there are besides certain references in various Eddic lays. In the Prose Edda, Hjalprek is king of Þjóð, that is, Ty in Jutland; Nornagests þáttr, on the other hand, makes him king of Frankland (p. 238). In this source Lyngvi's two brothers are mentioned by name, as Alf and Heming.

The old one-eyed man who caused the death of Sigmund was Odin. It was possible for him to carry Sigmund away with him to be made a Hero in Valhalla, now that a still more remarkable champion was soon to be born of the same race. [339}

Sigurd Fafnirsbane

Hjordis bore a son who got the name Sigurd. He proved to have inherited the sharp eyes of his father; and as he grew to manhood it soon appeared that he excelled all others in height and in bodily prowess. He received his early nurture in the court of king [169} Hjalprek, his foster father being a cunning smith named Regin, who was skilled in all manner of manly exercises, in magic runes, and in speaking with tongues, in all of which arts Sigurd came under his tutelage.

Regin, the son of a wealthy man named Reidmar, had two brothers, Oter and Fafnir. [1] Oter often took the shape of an otter and passed his time in catching salmon in a waterfall not far from Reidmar's house. The waterfall bore the name of the Cascade of Andvari, because the Dwarf Andvari frequented the waters in the guise of a pike. Once on a time Odin, Loki, and Hænir, being on a journey, came to the waterfall and there saw an otter feeding on a salmon; in eating, it closed its eyes, not being able to endure seeing the fish grow smaller and smaller. Loki picked up a stone, threw it at the otter, and killed it. Then he boasted of having bagged an otter and a salmon with one stone. Taking their catch with them they went on to Reidmar's house, where they asked for a night's lodging, at the same time showing him their booty. Reidmar at once recognized the otter's pelt, which they had flayed off; and with the aid of Regin and Fafnir he took the Æsir captive and put them in bonds. The Æsir offered in ransom for their lives anything that he might choose to demand, whereupon he decreed that they were to fill the otter's skin with gold and to cover its surface with gold besides. Having sealed their promise with an oath, they were released from their bondage. Loki hastened to Ran and borrowed her net, with which he then returned to the waterfall [170} and caught the Dwarf Andvari. Loki threatened to put Andvari to death if he did not at once surrender all the gold in his possession. The Dwarf yielded up his hoard under compulsion; but Loki, noticing that he kept back a small gold ring, forced him to give that as well. All of the Dwarf's entreaties availed him not a whit; Loki took the ring. But as the Dwarf darted back into his rock, he stood at the opening long enough to say these words: "The Dwarf's gold shall be the death of two brothers and a sign of division to eight athelings; no one shall find joy in the holding of my hoard." Thus was a curse fastened on the gold, above all on the ring — just as on the sword Tyrfing [2] — and Loki rejoiced that the treasure would bring no good to Reidmar. When Loki returned with the hoard, Reidmar first filled the skin and raised it on end, and then covered it over on the outside; in this way all of the gold was spent with the exception of the ring, which Odin kept for himself. Reidmar, however, discovered that a single hair near the mouth had not been covered up Odin was compelled to surrender the ring of Andvari; Loki, for his part, reiterated the curse spoken over the Dwarf's hoard.

Regin and Fafnir now asked their father for a share of the gold in wergild for their brother; on his denying their request, Fafnir killed him as he lay asleep Fafnir then took all of the gold as his own patrimony. Regin, bereft of his inheritance, removed to the court of king Hjalprek and there took service as the king's smith. Fafnir had in his possession also a forbidding [171} helmet [3] and a costly sword named Rotti. Transforming himself into a venomous serpent, he made a lair for himself on Gnita Heath, and there remained brooding over his hoard.

Regin egged Sigurd on to kill Fafnir and seize the treasure, by which means he would be able to win great renown for himself. From Hjalprek Sigurd got the excellent horse Grani, of the race of Sleipnir, on whose back no man before himself had ever ridden; and Regin wrought a sword for him. But when Sigurd came to try the sword and brought it down on Regin's anvil, it broke in two; the same thing happened with a second sword forged for him by Regin. Then Sigurd's mother gave him the pieces of Sigmund's sword, from which, at his command, Regin forged a marvelous blade to which was given the name Gram. Gram stood the test of the anvil; Sigurd cleft it from top to bottom without so much as turning the edge of the sword. Then, carrying the weapon down to the river Rhine, he let a ball of wool float with the stream against the edge of the sword, and Gram cut it in two.

Regin now bade him set forth without delay against Fafnir; but Sigurd declared his determination of first avenging his father's death. On seeking counsel from a wise man named Gripir, brother of queen Hjordis, he learned the whole course of his destiny. He now besought Hjalprek for men and ships with which to make head against the sons of Hunding. His every wish was fulfilled. It was a gallant sight to see his [172} ship as he set sail. Presently a severe storm came on them, which compelled them to lay by in the shelter of a headland. At the edge of the cliff stood a man who hailed the ships to ask who the voyagers might be. Regin answered that the fleet was under the command of Sigurd and then in turn asked the man to tell his own name. His name was Nikar, came the reply, but they might call him Old Man of the Mountain, or Feng, or Fjolnir, whatsoever they pleased. They took him aboard, and at once the winds began to blow from the right quarter. On Sigurd's asking him what were the most favorable auguries for one who was going forth to battle, he answered: "It is a good sign to be followed by a black raven. It is a good thing to meet, as you set out on your journey, two heroes whose thoughts are fixed on fame. It is good to hear the wolf howling beneath the ash tree. Luck will attend you against your enemies if you see them before they catch sight of you. No man should fight with the setting sun in his eyes, for they who can see to carry on the battle shall enjoy the victory. It is a great mischance if a man stumbles on his way to the field. Every man should take care that he is combed and washed and filled with food in the morning, for no one knows what the evening may bring in its train." They now continued on their course, and before long a battle to the death was fought between Sigurd and the sons of Hunding. Lyngvi was taken captive, and his brothers were killed. As for Lyngvi himself, a blood eagle was carved on his back, which is as much as to say that his ribs were shorn from [173} his back and his lungs were pulled out through the aperture.

When all these things were done, Sigurd and Regin made their way to Gnita Heath bent on the killing of Fafnir. Regin gave the counsel that a trench should be dug straight across the path along which Fafnir was in the habit of creeping in quest of water; Sigurd did so, Regin meanwhile hiding himself away in terror. Just then an old man, with a long beard came to Sigurd and persuaded him to dig a number of trenches. In one of these he was to lie in wait himself, while the others were to provide an outlet for the overflow of venom spewed out by the serpent; if he failed to take such a precaution, he might come to grief. Herewith Sigurd got his first inkling that Regin meant to play him false. After digging a number of trenches, Sigurd hid himself in one of them. When Fafnir came, spitting venom and rolling so violently that the earth shook, Sigurd lost no time in thrusting his sword into the serpent's left side up to the very hilt. Sigurd then sprang to his feet, and the serpent, feeling that the wound was mortal, asked him to reveal his name; for if Fafnir could succeed in learning that secret and in cursing the slayer by name, he would have his revenge. Sigurd at first thought to conceal his true name, but on the serpent's taunting him, he told the truth. Fafnir reiterated the curses once fastened on the gold, which was now to pass into Sigurd's keeping. Sigurd put a number of questions to Fafnir on divers matters pertaining to the gods; after giving answers to these questions, Fafnir died. While [174} Sigurd stood wiping the blood from the sword, Regin came to him and prayed good fortune to attend the mighty deed he had done, but added the hint that since Fafnir was his own, brother, Sigurd owed Regin something by way of wergild for the life he had taken; he would ask no more than the heart of Fafnir, which Sigurd was to roast for him. Regin now cut the serpent's heart out with his sword Ridil, drank of Fafnir's blood, and lay down to sleep Sigurd kindled a fire and set about roasting the heart on a spit; but as he touched it with his finger to see if it was done, he burned himself. He therefore put the finger in his mouth; when Fafnir's heart's blood touched his tongue, he became aware that to had learned to understand the song of birds. He heard the tomtits twittering in the bushes: "Sigurd would do more wisely in eating the heart himself; he would do well to kill Regin, who is plotting to betray him, and to seize Fafnir's hoard and ride away with it." Sigurd accordingly cut off Regin's head, ate Fafnir's heart, and drank his blood. Then he heard the birds singing once again: "It behooves him to ride to the top of Mount Hindarfjall, to a hall standing swathed in flames, there to force an entrance and to awaken a shield-maiden who lies entranced by magic arts." Sigurd now made his way to Fafnir's lair, which he found to be a house of beams and doors, all wrought out of iron. The gold lay buried in the earth; he took the whole hoard and also Fafnir's other treasures, the forbidding helmet, a gold byrnie, and the sword Rotti. Filling two huge chests he bound them to a packsaddle urn Grani's back, one on each [175} side; he meant to drive the horse before him, but Grani would not move a foot before Sigurd himself mounted. From this time forth Sigurd bore the name Fafnirsbane.

  1. Or Faðmir, that is, "the embracing one."
  2. p 130 ff.
  3. Literally, "terror-helmet." —Translator's note.

On Sigurd Fafnirsbane

Page 175, line 3 — The foregoing story is told in Eddic lays (Grípisspá, Reginsmál, and Fáfnismál), in the Prose Edda and in the Volsunga Saga; the fullest account is found in the saga, and the briefest in the Prose Edda. Several unimportant discrepancies appear here and there. Besides, Nornagests þáttr (note to p. 239) gives the narrative in summary.

According to information in the Prose Edda, the skalds were accustomed on the basis of these legends to give to gold the designations "Oter's penalty," "the Æsir's ransom," Fafnir's lair," "the ore of Gnita Heath," "Grani's burden." These kennings and others like them drawn from the same legends occur in great numbers in ancient skaldic poems. — Hrotti has some connection with the Anglo-Saxon sword name Hrunting in Beowulf.

The Niflungs — The slaying of Sigurd

Sigurd now rode south toward Frankland and up to the top of Mount Hindarfjall. On the mountain he saw a great light, as if a fire were burning there; when he drew nearer he caught sight of a stronghold of shields, above which was reared a standard. On going within the stronghold he found a woman fully panoplied lying asleep He attempted to remove the armor; but the byrnie clung tight as if it had grown fast to the flesh itself, and so he had to cut it loose with Gram. Sitting up, the woman asked who it was that had roused her from so profound a sleep. Sigurd told his own name and asked what her name might be. She was called Sigrdrifa and was a Valkyrie; on a certain occasion she had laid low a king to whom Odin had given a pledge of victory, and in punishment Odin had stung her with sleep-thorns, had declared that she should never more win victory in battle, and had foretold that in due time she should wed. She had vowed, for her part, that she would never wed a man capable of feeling fear. Thereupon she had sunk into her deep magic trance, from which Sigurd was the first to waken her. Sigurd now asked her to teach him wisdom, what lore she might have learned from all the worlds that be. Taking a horn filled with mead and turning her face toward the song of Day and the daughters of [176} Night, toward the Æsir and the goddesses, she besought their favor; then she gave the horn into his hand, and said: "I bring you a drink, warrior champion, in which are blended power and glory; it is filled with songs and with tokens of strength, with goodly incantations and with gladdening runes.

"Runes of victory you must carve if you desire to be victorious, some on the blade and some on the haft; and twice you must speak the name of Tyr" (that is, the name of the rune for the letter T).

"Ale-runes you must know if you would not have the wife of another betray your trust; carve them on the horn and on the back of your hand, and mark on your finger nail the word 'need'" (that is, the rune for the letter N). "Bless the beaker, stand on guard against deceit, lay a leek in the liquor; then can mischance never be mingled with your mead.

"Birth-runes you must know if you would lend aid to a woman bearing a child; carve them on the palms of your hands, clasp the woman about her waist, then pray to the Disir to help her.

"Wave-runes you must know if you would save ships at sea; carve them on the prow and rudder and burn them into the oars; then will the waves never be so steep or the seas so black but that you shall safely reach the shore.

"Branch-runes you must know if you would learn healing and the treating of wounds; carve them on the bark and on the trunk of a tree whose branches lean to the east.

"Speech-runes you must know if you would take [177} vengeance for your harms; twist them, twine them, wind them all together, at the judgment seats where all the counselors are assembled in judgment.

"Thought-runes you must know if you would be wiser than all other men; them Odin devised from the sap that ran from Heiddraupnir's head and Hoddrofnir's horn. On the mountain he stood with Brimir's sword and with a helmet on his head. Then spoke the head of Mimir for the first time and gave utterance of trusty tokens: these were carved on the shield that stands before the shining god, on Arvak's ear, and on Alsvin's hoof, on the wheel under Rognir's (Odin's) wagon, on Sleipnir's teeth, on the runners of the sledge, on the paw of the bear and on Bragi's tongue, on the claws of the wolf and the beak of the eagle, on bloody wings and on the bridge's head, on freeing hand and on healing footprints, on glass, on gold, and on amulets, in wine, in simples, and on seats of joy, on Gungnir's point and on Grani's breast, on the Norn's nail and on the owl's beak. All those that were carved were shaven off again, mingled with holy mead, and sent forth on far ways; some are with the Elves, some with the Æsir, some with the wise Vanir, and some with the race of men. There are book-runes, birth-runes, ale-runes, and excellent magic-runes for every one who is able to use them without mischance, without misadventure. Turn them to your happiness if you have understood them, time without end. Now make your choice further, between speech and silence; for all harms have their destined bounds."

"I should not flee even if you knew me to be fated to die," said [178} Sigurd, "for I was born without fear." Then she continued her discourse: "Be free from fault in your dealings with kinsmen, and seek not revenge if they wrong you. Swear no false oaths. At the assembly dispute not with fools, for the unwise man often speaks words of worse meaning than he is aware; yet there is danger in all things if you keep silence, for so you will appear to be afraid, or what is said will have the color of truth: rather kill him the next day, and thus reward men for their lies. Never take lodging with a witch, even if night has come on you unawares. Let not fair women deceive you. Contend not with drunken men. Yet with brave men you must fight, rather than let them burn the roof over your head. Entice no maiden and no man's wife. Give seemly burial to the dead. Put no faith in him who has lost a kinsman at your hand: a wolf lurks in a young son, even though he have accepted gold for wergild. Beware of guile in your friends."

From Hindarfjall Sigurd journeyed to the home of Heimir in the Dales of Lym and abode there for a time. Here he chanced to see Brynhild, daughter of king Budli and foster daughter of Heimir, and was taken with an overpowering love for her. She was a shield-maiden, and when Sigurd paid court to her she answered that the fates would not permit them to live together; yet at length she gave her consent, and he placed the ring of Andvari on her finger. Afterward she bore him — according to a late legend [1] — a daughter, who was named Aslaug. [179}

Thereafter Sigurd rode farther on his way till he came to the court of king Gjuki, whose kingdom lay south of the Rhine. The children of Gjuki, the Gjukungs, were fairer and stronger than all others; the sons were named Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm, and the daughter's name was Gudrun. Gjuki's wife, a woman skilled in magic, was called Grimhild. Here Sigurd was received as a welcome guest; it was Grimhild's greatest wish that he should become her son-in-law, but he loved Brynhild too dearly and all his thoughts were bent on her. Grimhild accordingly had recourse to magic; she made a drink capable of stealing memory away, and this he gave to Sigurd. No sooner had he drunk of it than he remembered Brynhild no more; soon he came to love Gudrun instead, wedded her, and entered into a compact of sworn brotherhood with her brothers. Sigurd gave Gudrun to eat from Fafnir's heart, which he had carried with him, whereupon she grew even more grim of mood than before.

Grimhild now counseled her son Gunnar to pay court to Brynhild, daughter of Budli. King Budli making no objection, the Gjukungs [2] journeyed together with Sigurd to the Dales of Lym, where Brynhild still had her abode. Heimir, who received them kindly, declared that Brynhild should choose according to her own desire. Round about her hall there burned a ring of fire, and she had made known her intention to marry none but that man who could ride through the flames. When Gunnar rode his horse Goti toward the fire, the [180} horse recoiled. Sigurd made him a loan of Grani, but Grani would not stir a pace. Sigurd and Gunnar now each took on him the likeness of the other, whereupon Sigurd in the guise of Gunnar mounted Grani, with Gram in his hands and golden spurs on his feet. Grani at once ran forward, while the fire crackled, the earth shook, and flames darted up to the very heavens. Sigurd thus made his way into Brynhild's hall and there wedded her, but during the night he laid the sword Gram between her and himself. They exchanged rings, so that Sigurd once more got possession of the ring of Andvari and gave her another ring in its stead. When three nights had passed, he rode out again and restored Gunnar's likeness in return for his own. Brynhild gave into the charge of Heimir her own and Sigurd's daughter as a foster child; later she went with them to the realm of Gjuki, where her wedding with Gunnar took place. Yet Sigurd's deception brought its revenge; he now remembered the oaths he had sworn to Brynhild, but in no wise betrayed his true feelings.

Once on a time Brynhild and Gudrun went out into the river Rhine to wash their hair. Brynhild waded out the farther of the two, saying that since she had the braver husband she would not wash herself in the rinsings of Gudrun's hair. Gudrun followed her, maintaining that it was her right to stand the farther up stream, inasmuch as no man could compare with Sigurd Fafnirsbane. "A braver deed it was," said Brynhild, "of Gunnar to ride through the fire, a thing which Sigurd dared not do." Gudrun laughed and [181} answered, "Do you think it was Gunnar who rode through the fire? No, it was Sigurd; he slept with you and took the ring of Andvari from your hand — here it is." Brynhild recognized the ring aid how understood all that had happened; she grew pale but spoke no word. During that evening and throughout the following day Brynhild was silent and downcast. Gudrun bade her be of good cheer, but Brynhild replied, "You are passing cruel toward me."

"What is it that troubles you?" Gudrun asked. "You shall pay dearly for the winning of Sigurd in my stead, for I do not yield him to you with good grace." Gudrun answered, "You have made a better marriage than you deserve."

"I might have rested content," said Brynhild, "if your husband had not surpassed my own; Sigurd has no peer, he won the victory over Fafnir, and that deed is worth more than the whole of Gunnar's realm. Sigurd killed the serpent, and that stroke will be known as long as the world shall stand; but Gunnar dared not ride through the flames."

"It was Grani who would not stir with Gunnar on his back," answered Gudrun; "Gunnar himself had courage enough." Brynhild said: "Grimhild alone is to blame; may you find joy in Sigurd just so much as I shall find joy in a life marred by treachery."

Brynhild took to her bed sick at heart; Gunnar went to her side to comfort her and prayed her to confide in him, but she would not. He then asked Sigurd to try what he might do. Sigurd spoke with her, confessed his love for her, and even promised to put Gudrun away and marry her instead. But she [182} was too proud to listen to his entreaties, whereat Sigurd was so stricken with grief that the rings of his byrnie burst at both sides. Rather than wed with him on such terms she would prefer to see him lying dead, so that neither she nor Gudrun should rejoice in him again. She egged Gunnar on to kill Sigurd; he had, as she said, betrayed them both. Gunnar, being readily swayed to her purpose, sought counsel with his brother Hogni, but Hogni was unwilling that they should lay violent hands themselves on Sigurd, since they were bound to him by oaths of brotherhood. He proposed instead that they should persuade the thoughtless Guttorm to undertake the deed, a youth who had no part in their oaths. To heighten his courage, they gave him to eat the flesh of serpents and wolves. Having eaten, he became so fell of mood that he was at once ready to do his dastard's work. Coming on Sigurd asleep at Gudrun's side, he pierced his body with a sword. Sigurd always kept his own sword Gram by his side; when he felt the wound, he threw the sword after Guttorm with such force that it cleft him through the middle. The young son of Sigurd and Gudrun lost his life at the same time.

Gudrun sat by the body of Sigurd, unable to weep, though her heart was ready to burst. Men and women coming to comfort her could do nothing. Not till Gullrond, daughter of Gjuki, drew aside the cloth that had been spread over Sigurd, so that Gudrun once more beheld his glazed eyes and his bloody head, did she sink back weeping; as the tears ran down her cheeks, she found words to utter her grief. Brynhild [183} on her part laughed when men told her of Sigurd's death, till the whole house rang with her mirth:

Long may you revel
In lands and men,
You who laid low
The boldest of princes.
Then she said further: "Once I lived honored and glad with Atli, my brother. No man did I desire till the Gjukungs rode into the courtyard. Then gave I my troth to the hero who sat on the back of Grani; he was a man, Gunnar, unlike you. This you shall know, that Sigurd was never false to you; the sword Gram, its edge tempered in venom, he laid down between me and himself; but you have broken your oath. Now I will live no longer, for Sigurd alone did I love, and desperation drove me on all my ways. My brother Atli will know what vengeance to take for me and my sorrows; and he shall remain a mightier man than you." Gunnar earnestly prayed her not to seek death; but Hogni said that nothing could hold back one born, like her, to misfortune. Brynhild then took a sword, turned the point against her side, and sank down among the pillows. Before she died she be sought Gunnar to lay her and Sigurd on one and the same funeral pyre, and to deck it with draperies and shields, to cover it over with splendid garments and with thralls. "Burn," she said, "at Sigurd's other side my retainers, adorned with amulets, two at the head and two at the feet, and my two falcons with them; once more lay Gram between us, even as on the wedding night. In such wise shall Sigurd go forth [184} proudly; since there follow him so many, five bondwomen and eight henchmen, the portals of the hall shall never clang shut at his heels." The pyre was made ready as she had given command, and on it she and Sigurd were burned. As Brynhild passed along the Hell-Ways in a magnificent chariot, a certain Giantess meeting her on the road made as if to deny her passage, and derided her for the life she had lived. But Brynhild charged Gudrun with all the blame; Gudrun had egged her to evil, speaking falsehoods of her and of Sigurd.
All too long
Life endures
For man, for woman,
Burdened with sorrows;
Yet shall we live
Our lives together,
Sigurd and I.
Sink, witch, from sight.
  1. p 246.
  2. Also called Niflungs.

On the Niflungs — The slaying of Sigurd

Page 184, line 15 — This narrative is related rather briefly in the Prose Edda, but completely in a series of Eddic poems (Sigrdrifumál, Sigurðarkviða in Skamma, the fragmentary Sigurðarkviða, Helreið Brynhildar, and Guðrúnarkviða I), and in the Volsunga Saga, which is based on these lays. On the inward connection between the saga and its sources reference may be made to an article by Andreas Heusler (Die Lieder der Lücke im Codex Regius) in Germanistische Abhandlungen Hermann Paul dargebracht, 1902. Here also is to be found an excellent characterization of the various Sigurd lays; these are not contemporaneous, but represent the literary taste and the varying views of the legendary material in different ages.

In the section of Sigrdrifumál dealing with the runes we find traces both of the runic magic of real life and of legendary notions as to the origin of the runes; see on this point, M. Olsen, Norges Indskrifter med de œldre Runer III, p. 128 ff. — Arvak and Alsvin are the horses of the sun.

Sigurd Fafnirsbane is sometimes called in Northern legends Sigurd Svein. In the Danish popular ballads his name has become Sivard Snarensvend, and we read of him there that he won proud Brynhild of the Glass Mountain. Brynhild's bower with its ring of fire (vafrlogi) has thus been changed into one of the numerous glass mountains, known from folk tales, in which are lodged men and women who have been entranced but who by some [340} means or other regain their liberty. To Fafnir correspond the fabled serpents (lindormer) of the tales, fearful, gigantic, magical reptiles.

The story of Sigurd's meeting with Sigrdrifa is taken from the Sigrdrifumál, and what follows, up to the quarrel of the queens, from the Volsunga Saga. This saga also contains the story of his meeting with the Valkyrie on Mount Hindarfjall; but here the Valkyrie is Brynhild herself, and Sigurd plights his troth with her on the mountain itself. But in this way the saga comes to have two meetings and two betrothals between them, and in so far must be in error. How the Poetic Edda, according to which Sigrdrifa and Brynhild are not one and the same person, originally recounted the first meeting between Sigurd and Brynhild we cannot learn directly, since several leaves which followed the Sigrdrifumál are missing from the manuscript. In all probability, however, the Volsunga Saga is based on an Eddic poem which must have told the story of the meeting at Heimir's dwelling; and for that matter, extant Eddic lays contain allusions to such a meeting. Snorri's Edda has no account whatever of Sigurd's visiting of Heimir; here the Valkyrie is called Hild and is identified with Brynhild. No mention is made of Sigurd's plighting his troth with her, and hence it is not necessary for Grimhild to give him a drink of forgetfulness. When in the semblance of Gunnar he rides through the circle of fire to Brynhild, he gives her the ring of Andvari as a morning gift and gets another ring from her instead. When the queens later quarrel at the river, it is Brynhild's own ring that Gudrun exhibits. In the Volsunga Saga and in Snorri's Edda we thus appear to have two different forms of the legend, of which the first represents Sigurd and Brynhild, as betrothed before the arrival of the hero at the court of Gjuki, a situation which the second fails to record. Which of the two is the original it is not easy to determine. If the saga recounts the earlier form of the legend, it is certain that, besides the error in the account of the two meetings and of the repeated betrothal, it has still another error, namely the representation of Aslaug as the fruit of Sigurd's and Brynhild's union, inasmuch as this state of affairs would be directly opposed to the situation as presented in the Eddic lays. The version of the saga has been followed in our rendering of the legend, since Snorri's Edda, as regards this story, is very brief, passing most cursorily over these phases of Sigurd's life; the Edda does, however, mention Aslaug as a daughter of Sigurd. [341}


Gunnar and Hogni fell heir to all Sigurd's treasures after his death. Atli, Brynhild's brother, maintaining that the two men had caused the death of Brynhild, threatened them with war. Peace was nevertheless established between them on such terms that Atli was to have Gudrun as his wife. Shortly after the death of Sigurd, Gudrun had given birth to a daughter, whom she had named Svanhild and with whom she had fled to Denmark, where for seven half years she took refuge with Thora, daughter of Hakon. Gudrun's mother Grimhild and her brothers now journeyed to Denmark for the purpose of persuading her to marry Atli, but she curtly refused; Grimhild then gave her a drink of forgetfulness and so gained her consent. [185} With Atli, Gudrun had two sons, named Erp and Eitil. Atli, moved by a desire to secure the rich possessions of his brothers-in-law, sent his crafty servant Vingi, also called Knefræd, to invite them to a festival. Gudrun, however, knowing that some treachery lay at the bottom, charged the messenger to carry with him warning runes which she had cut for her brothers and at the same time to deliver to them a ring to which she had bound a wolf's hair. On the way Vingi read the runes and altered them so that they bore a contrary message and gave them over thus changed to Gunnar and Hogni. The two brothers made a great banquet and promised to proceed without delay to take part in Atli's festival. But during the night, when all men had gone to bed, Kostbera, the cunning wife of Hogni, looked at the runes and saw that at first something else had been written there than was now to be read. She told Hogni what she had found, but he put no faith in her words. Glaumvor, Gunnar's wife, the same night, dreamed foreboding dreams, and she likewise warned her husband against undertaking the journey; notwithstanding he held to his purpose as stoutly as his brother, and so they set forth on their visit to Atli's court. Yet before leaving home they hid Fafnir's gold in the river Rhine. As they neared Atli's court, he came out to meet them in hostile array; a stubborn battle took place, in which the Niflungs defended themselves bravely, but at last they were overpowered and both brothers were taken prisoner. Atli came to Gunnar, who was sitting apart from his brother, and tried to get him to say where the hoard [186} was hidden. Gunnar answered: "Not till Hogni's heart shall lie in my hand, bleeding, cut from the hero's breast." Atli went away and caused a thrall's heart to be cut from his body; but when Gunnar saw it he said: "This is the heart of Hjalli, the weakling, quite unlike the heart of the hero Hogni; as much as it trembles lying there on the platter, it trembled twice as much in the breast of the thrall." Atli now caused Hogni's heart to be cut out in earnest, but he only laughed as the knife drew near his heart. When they brought this heart to Gunnar, he knew it to be his brother's; "but," he said, "I alone now know where the gold lies hidden, and the river Rhine shall rule over the hoard." No one ever afterward uncovered Fafnir's gold, and so Atli's treachery was bootless. In his wrath he threw Gunnar, whose hands were bound, into a den of serpents. Gudrun sent her brother a harp, on which he played so wondrous well with his toes that no man had ever before heard the like. All of the serpents fell into a doze but one; this one gnawed its way into his breast and struck its fangs into his heart.

When Gudrun heard of the death of her brothers, she gave no sign; she let it appear as if she accepted Atli's offer of renewed amity and the wergild he paid for the lives of the slain. She held a funeral feast for her brothers, but in her heart she meditated grim revenge. First of all she killed the two small sons she had by Atli, made drinking vessels from their skulls, and gave the king wine to drink from them, in which was blended the blood of the children; she gave him [187} also their hearts to eat. Afterward she told him all that she had done, and he was filled with sorrow for the death of his sons and with fear for her surpassing cruelty. But she went still farther in exacting vengeance. Together with a young son and heir of Hogni she went by night to Atli's bedside and thrust a sword into the king's breast, her brother's son helping her. Atli waked from his sleep at the stroke; and before he died, man and wife held discourse together. Gudrun declared that she had never been able to love him, that she had lived happier days with Sigurd, the greater hero, and yet that she would give him befitting funeral obsequies. And she kept her promise. But she set fire to Atli's hall; and so his men too went to their death.

On Atli

Page 187, line 15 — The story of Atli is narrated at length in Snorri's Edda and in the Volsunga Saga, which here draws on Eddic poems that are still known; and these lays — Guðrúnarkviða II, Atlakviða, and Atlamál in Grœnlenzku — are thus the real sources. Smaller be found in episodes, not included in our summary, are to be found in Guðrúnarkviða III and in Oddrúnargrátr.

In Guðrúnarkviða II, Gudrun bemoans her fate to king Thjodrek (Theodoric), who after the loss of all his men was staying at the court of Atli. She tells him the story of Sigurd's death, of her sojourn with Thora, daughter of Hakon, and of their weaving there a tapestry on which were depicted the deeds of Sigurd and the Gjukungs; she tells how Grimhild brought her the drink of forgetfulness and induced her to wed Atli; the drink was cold and bitter; within the horn were dim, blood-red runes, and in the drink were mingled many simples, burned acorns, soot from the hearth, the entrails of sacrificial beasts, the sodden liver of a swine; this drink deadened her griefs.

In Guðrúnarkviða III, Atli's serving woman Herkja accuses Gudrun of being too intimate with Thjodrek; but Gudrun proves the accusation false by picking up unhurt an amulet from the bottom of a kettle filled with boiling water, while Herkja, in trying to do the same thing, scalds herself, and suffers drowning in a morass. This is a relatively late legend, lacking all marks of antiquity.

Oddrúnargrátr, the Lament of Oddrun, contains the lament of Oddrun, Atli's sister, because she was not the wedded bride of Gunnar, whom she loved.

Atlakviða, one of the very oldest of the Eddic lays, deals with Atli's treachery and Gudrun's revenge. The same story is told much more circumstantially in a much later poem, Atlamál, the Greenland Ballad of Atli. The second title indicates the place of origin of the lay; there are besides various features in the poem itself which point to Greenland (for instance, Kostbera's dreaming of a polar bear, hvítabjorn).

In Nornagests þáttr (note to p. 239) the story is told of Gest's playing on the harp in Olaf Tryggvason's hall, on which occasion he finally played a piece of music called Gunnarsslagr, the name indicating a dance tune (Gunnar's harping in the den of serpents), and not a poem. As the title of a poem Gunnarsslagr belongs to a [342} very late period: there is a poem of that title which demonstrably was written by the Icelandic clergyman Gunnar Pálsson (died 1793), but which in the early part of the nineteenth century was erroneously included in various editions of the Eddic poems (cf. S. Bugge's edition of the Edda, p. xlix).

Atli, who is called king of the Huns, is the transformation in heroic legend of Attila, king of the Huns. The historian of the Goths, Jordanes, repeats a story borrowed from an earlier writer to the effect that Attila died of a hemorrhage the night after his wedding with Ildico (453). In all likelihood this was the name of a Germanic woman, originally Hildico, which may be presumed to be a Gothic diminutive of the name "Hild." On the basis of the compounding element "hild" the historic name of Attila's wife has been identified with the Kriemhild of heroic poetry (see p. 193), a name which again according to its form corresponds to the Grimhild of the Northern legends; in the North the wife of Sigurd and Atli has been endowed with a new name, Gudrun, and the name Grimhild has been transferred to Gudrun's mother. We are enabled to follow the development of the Atli-legend some steps farther through testimony of later writers to the effect that Atli was killed during the night by Ildico. No historical source, however, has anything to say of Attila's being wedded to a Germanic princess. — In the Eddic poems Gunnar is commonly called the king of the Goths, yet in one single passage (Atlakviða 18) the king of the Burgundians; the latter represents the original tradition, and it is as king of the Burgundians that he appears in German poetry. His name is also a matter of historical record. In the year 437, a Burgundian king named Gundicarius with his men was slaughtered by the Huns, who on this occasion, however, were not under the command of Attila. This event, occurring on the banks of the Rhine, the makers of the legend have seized upon and transferred to another time and another place, — king Attila's court in Hungary. In a Burgundian legal code dating from the 6th century the names Gibica, Godomar, Gislaharius, and Gundaharius (i.e., Gundicarius) are recorded as the names of earlier Burgundian kings. In these forms we recognize the names of Gjuki, Guttorm, and Gunnar, and besides, Giselher, who according to German story is one of the brothers. No trace, on the other hand, is to be found of Hogni's name; for that matter he is not among the Germans the brother of Gunnar, but his vassal, and this probably represents [343} the original situation. The legends thus appear to have drawn their subjects from historical events but to have treated these events in accordance with the laws governing legendary composition.


When Gudrun had thus compassed her revenge, she had no desire to live longer and so threw herself into the sea. Yet she was not drowned; the waves bore her across the water to the land of king Jonaker, where she became the wife of the king. They had three sons, Sorli, Hamdir, and Erp Jonaker also caused Svanhild, Gudrun's daughter, to be brought before him, and her he adopted as his foster daughter. She was like her father in beauty and had the same sharp eyes, the gaze of which no man could meet.

The fame of her loveliness, spreading abroad, reached the ears of a mighty king named Jormunrek. He accordingly sent his son Randver and his counselor Bikki [188} to pay court to her on his behalf. Gudrun, to be sure, gave utterance to the fear that the marriage would not prove happy; but Jonaker held that a man like Jormunrek was not to be lightly dismissed, and so Svanhild was sent away in the care of Randver. In the course of the journey the malicious Bikki broached the suggestion that a man so old as Jormunrek was no fitting match for a woman so young and fair as Svanhild, that in short it was more meet that Randver, being young like herself, should have her to wife. Randver found some reason in Bikki's words. But as soon as they arrived at home, Bikki told all that had happened to Jormunrek, who became so wroth that he bade Bikki cause Randver to be hanged. As Randver was being led away to the gallows, he plucked the feathers from his falcon and sent them to his father. Jormunrek understood the token: old as he was, and soon to be without an heir, he would be like a plucked bird, lacking in all that might aid and sustain him. He at once commanded that Randver's life should be spared, but it was too late: Bikki had made all possible haste in carrying out the king's behest. Jormunrek's wrath now turned in full measure against Svanhild, whom he held to be the cause of his misfortunes. As he came riding home from the hunt and found Svanhild sitting at the gate drying her hair in the sun, he trampled her to death under the hoofs of his horses. At first they dared not move on her, but started back before her piercing glances; then Bikki caused a sack to be drawn down over her eyes, and so she lost her life.

When Gudrun learned of all these things, she egged [189} her sons into wreaking vengeance on Jormunrek for his cruelty. They made ready for the journey, and she gave them byrnies and helmets that no iron could pierce. Then she gave them this counsel, that when they came into the presence of Jormunrek, Sorli and Hamdir were to sever his hands and feet and Erp was to cut off his head. As they rode on their way, the two brothers asked Erp what aid he meant to give them. "Such help," he replied, "as the hand may give to the hand or the foot to the foot." Thinking such a promise a thing of nothing, they put him to death. A moment later, Hamdir stumbled and thrust out his hand to support himself; the like happened to Sorli, who succeeded in checking his fall with his foot; in this manner they learned that one hand may well help another, and the one foot the other, and that therefore they had done evil toward Erp Coming to the hall of Jormunrek by night as he lay asleep, they cut off both his hands and both his feet. Jormunrek started out of sleep and called to his men; then Hamdir said: "His head would now have fallen had Erp been here." The men of the king's bodyguard sprang up and rushed on the intruders, but found their weapons useless in their hands; an old one-eyed man now came and told them to stone the brothers to death, and they did as he bade them. The two brothers lost their lives, and with them the whole race of the Gjukungs came to an end. [190}

On Jormunrek

Page 189, line 28 — This legend is narrated in the old Eddic poems Guðrúnarhvot (Gudrun's Inciting) and Hamðismál; from a Low German poem on the death of Jormunrek, appearing in a pamphlet dating from the 16th century (see B. Sijmons, Zeitschrift für deutsche Philologie 38, p. 145 ff.), inferences lead to a very ancient German heroic poem which must have been identical in its main features with the Hamðismál. Many poetic paraphrases have been derived from the legends dealing with the sons of Jonaker; the byrnie is called "Hamdir's sark" and "Sorli's garment," and stones are called "the grief of Jonaker's sons." The Ragnarsdrápa, attributed to the Skald Bragi the Old, also contains the story of Hamdir's and Sorli's attack on Jormunrek. Saxo too (who here rehearses a Norse legend) knows this king but calls him Jarmerik and makes him ruler of Denmark and Sweden. He mentions the evil counselor Bikki and tells how the king in jealousy causes his son Broder (not Randver) to be hanged and his fair wife Svanhilda to be trampled to death by horses. He was later attacked by her "Hellespontine" brothers, who had secured the aid of a witch named Gudrun; but Odin was the real cause of the downfall of the brothers through his teaching Jarmerik's men to make use of stones when they found that their weapons would not bite.

In Jormunrek we recognize an historical personage, the famous Gothic king Ermanaric (Anglo-Saxon Eormenric), who in the middle of the 4th century ruled over Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Gepidæ, Slavs, Antes, and Wends, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. The contemporary Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus narrates that he killed himself (in the year 375) from fear of the Huns, against whom for a time he had striven to defend himself. According to the .account of the later Gothic writer Jordanes, on the other hand, we read that he was grievously wounded by two brothers of the tribe of the "Rosomones," Sarus and Ammius, whose sister Sunilda he had caused to be torn by wild horses; he afterward died at an advanced age from his wounds and from grieving over the attack of the Huns. The names of [344} these brothers and the sister clearly correspond to Sorli, Hamdir, and Svanhild. Jordanes, however, makes no mention of Ermanaric's being wedded to Sunilda, nor does he associate these events with any other legendary cycle.


With the death of Jonaker and Jormunrek this legendary cycle in the Poetic Edda comes to an end. The Prose Edda makes a brief reference to Sigurd's and Brynhild's daughter Aslaug; in the Volsunga Saga and in the related saga of Ragnar Lodbrok there is a circumstantial account of her fate. [1]

After the death of Sigurd and Brynhild, Heimir suspected that men would be sent out to search for Aslaug for the purpose of putting her to death. He therefore caused a harp to be made, large enough to hide both the little girl and her treasures; carrying the harp and Aslaug within it, he then traveled about in the guise of a poor minstrel. When he came to the banks of lonely streams, he took her from her hiding place and bathed her, but he kept her concealed while he passed through populated places. For food he gave her a kind of leek, so nourishing that she required nothing else to eat; and when she wept, he played for her on the harp At length he arrived at Spangereid in Norway, where he halted from his journey at a little farm kept by two old people named Aki and Grima. The man happened just at the time to be out in the forest, but Grima was at home. Heimir prayed her for a night's lodging. She did not deny his request but kindled a fire so that he might warm himself; as she did so, she caught sight of some bits of fine raiment protruding from a crack in the harp and also discovered a costly gold ring beneath the tatters that swathed his arm. She now [191} understood that he was not what he seemed to be, and so she determined to kill him and rob him of his treasures. She gave him lodging in a rye granary outside the house; for, as she said, she and her husband were accustomed to talk together late into the night after he came home. There Heimir lay down to sleep, keeping his harp by his side. When Aki returned, his wife had not nearly done her work, and he upbraided her for her sloth. She answered: "Do not be angry; at one stroke we can secure more than is needed to keep us the rest of our lives." Then she told him of Heimir and of the plans she had hatched. Aki was unwilling to betray his guest; but since it was the woman who ruled in that house, he was compelled to yield, and so it fell to him to give Heimir the killing blow as he slept. Heimir was so big and strong that the whole house clattered down and the earth shook at his death struggle. The woman now tried to pick up the harp; but she could not lift it, and so they had to break it to pieces. When their eyes fell on Aslaug, they were rather abashed; but they found riches enough besides. Aslaug would not tell her name or even speak a word; for a long time therefore they thought that she lacked the power of speech. They determined to pretend that she was their own daughter, and they laid all the hard work on her. Being loth to have any one see how beautiful she was and thus suspect that the kinship was not all that they pretended it to be, they cut off her hair, smeared her head with tar, and gave her a broad hat and wretched garments to wear. They named her Kraka, after the mother of Grima. The story of [192} her marriage with Ragnar Lodbrok will be told below. [2]

  1. Cf. p 245 ff. and p 178.
  2. See p 245 ff.

On Aslaug

Page 192, line 2 — This legend, not found in the Eddic poems, provides the connecting link between the Volsungs and Ragnar Lodbrok. Various great families traced their descent from Ragnar Lodbrok, and through Aslaug these families became descendants of the hero of heroes, Sigurd Fafnirsbane. — At Spangereid there was recorded in the 17th century a legend about a little girl named "Oddlau" (also written, in Latin, "Otlougam vel Aatlougam") or Kraka, who had drifted ashore there in "Guldvig," and after whom the brook Kråkebekken is supposed to have its name; see Moltke Moe, in Norges Land og Folk, X, 1, p. 489. The legend forms the basis of a (lost) Norwegian ballad, from which one or two Danish ballads have been derived. The supposition has been put forward that "Oddlau" is the same as Oddlaug. There seems to be no reasonable doubt that "Oddlau" is an inexact rendering of a spoken form Atlau or Atlu; the name Aslaug has the form Atlu at the present time in the locality to which the legend has long been ascribed (cf. K. Liestøl, Maal og Minne 1917, p. 105 f.).


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