Völsunga saga

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Drawing of the Ramsund carving from c. 1030, illustrating the Völsunga saga on a rock in Sweden. At (1), Sigurd sits in front of the fire preparing the dragon's heart

The Völsunga saga (often referred to in English as the Volsunga Saga or Saga of the Völsungs) is a legendary saga, a late 13th century Icelandic prose rendition of the origin and decline of the Völsung clan (including the story of Sigurd and Brynhild and destruction of the Burgundians).

The saga covers themes including the power struggles among Sigurd's ancestors; Sigurd's killing of the dragon Fafnir; and the influence of the ring Andvaranaut.

The saga has given rise to operatic and literary adaptations including Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, Henrik Ibsen's, The Vikings at Helgeland, William Morris's The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

Context and overview[edit]

One of the main themes of the saga is the male responsibilities of rewarding friends and punishing acts of shame, this coupled with the female responsibility of goading for revenge. These different responsibilities together create much of the contention in the saga. It is largely based on epic poetry. The earliest known pictorial representation of this tradition is the Ramsund carving, Sweden, which was created c. 1000 AD.

The origins of the material are considerably older, however, and it in part echoes real events in Central Europe during the Migration Period, chiefly the destruction of the Burgundian kingdom by the Huns in the fifth century. Some of the poems contained in the Elder Edda relate episodes from the Völsung legend. On the other hand, the only manuscript of the saga, Ny kgl. Saml. 1824 b 4to, which is held by the Royal Library of Denmark, dates to about 1400. In this manuscript, the saga leads straight in to Ragnars saga loðbrókar.

Contents[edit]

The book's 40 chapters can be grouped into five phases: the preliminary generations; Sigurdr and his foster family; Sigurdr and the Gjukingar; Gudrun and the Budlingar; and Gudrun's last marriage.

The Preliminary Generations[edit]

The first chapters tell of the generations which came prior to Sigurd, beginning with Sigi, a man banished from his homeland for murdering his neighbor’s thrall. After much adventuring, Sigi settles down to rule over the Huns. His wife’s brothers eventually become envious of Sigi’s power and wealth and raise an army against him. In the ensuing battle, Sigi is killed and his in-laws take over the kingdom. Sigi’s son Rerir then avenges his father’s death, killing his uncles and regaining his father’s throne. After many years, Rerir becomes ill and dies, and shortly thereafter his wife gives birth to their son, Volsung. Volsung grows up and marries Ljod, the daughter of a giant. Volsung and Ljod have eleven children, the two eldest being the twins Sigmund and Signy.

At Signy’s wedding to King Siggeir, Sigmund offends his new brother-in-law. This triggers a series of revenge killings, beginning with Siggeir luring King Volsung and his sons into a trap. Volsung is killed, and his sons put in stocks. Over the course of several nights, all of his sons save Sigmund are killed by a she-wolf. He is saved by his sister Signy, who then helps Sigmund make a hiding place in the woods. As time goes on, Signy has two sons by Siggeir. She sends her boys to Sigmund to help him avenge the death of the Volsungs. However, both boys fail to pass a test of bravery and are killed by their uncle Sigmund at their mother’s insistence, as she deems them unfit for vengeance. Signy then tricks her brother Sigmund into sleeping with her, and their son Sinfljoti (who has nothing but Volsung blood) becomes a powerful man raised with only one purpose: to avenge his uncles and grandfather. Eventually Sigmund and Sinfljoti manage to kill Siggeir, and after this Sigmund returns to his own country, retakes his father’s throne, and rules there for many years.

As an old man, Sigmund marries Hjordis, the daughter of King Eylimi. The suitor she rejected in Sigmund’s favor brings an army against him, and Sigmund is mortally wounded in the battle. In the aftermath, Hjordis finds her husband and he entrusts to her the shards of his sword, prophesying that they will be reforged someday for their yet unborn son. He dies, and Hjordis is taken in by Alf, son of Hjalprek, king of Denmark. Shortly thereafter she gives birth to Sigurd, her son by Sigmund. Sigurd is fostered in Hjalprek’s court by Regin, his tutor, and grows to manhood there.[1]

Sigurdr and his foster family[edit]

Sigurdr and the Gjukingar[edit]

Gudrun and the Budlingar[edit]

Gudrun's last marriage[edit]


Sigurd the Dragon Slayer[edit]

The subtitle of the book, "The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer", implies that the entire book is about Sigurd even though he is seen only through about half of the tale. However, the slaying of Fafnir, the serpent-brother of Regin, is a critical point in this epic. This is the decision that Sigurd makes in his reach for a glorious life full of fame.

When Regin makes a sword for Sigurd that lives up to his standards, he requests that Sigurd fulfill a vow and kill Fafnir, who is hiding treasure. After avenging his father and other kinsmen, Sigurd agrees to attempt to kill the dragon. They arrive at the spot where Fafnir guards the treasure and Sigurd delivers a fatal blow to the dragon. Before Fafnir dies, they have an important conversation that reveals the truth to Sigurd about the treasure. With this enlightenment, Sigurd takes a taste of the blood of the dragon and can hear the birds speaking of the two men. "There sits, Sigurd, roasting Fafnir's heart. Better he should eat it himself."..."There lies Regin, who wants to betray the one who trusts him."..."He should strike Regin's head off; then he alone would control the huge store of gold." With this advice and the other words from the birds, Sigurd drew his sword and cut off Regin's head and took all the gold from the treasure that Fafnir had previously guarded.[2]

Sigurd's First Meeting with Brynhild[edit]

After slaying the dragon, Sigurd rode on to Frakkland where he saw a light on a mountain, “as if a fire were burning and the brightness reached up to the heavens”. He approached the light and found, “a rampart of shields with a banner above it”. Sigurd saw a man lying in the rampart asleep. When he removed the helmet he saw that the man was actually a woman. She was fully dressed in armor, which was, “so tight that it seemed to have grown into her flesh”.

Using his sword Gram, Sigurd sliced through the woman’s coat of mail as easily as if it was made of cloth. She awoke and asked what could be strong enough to cut her armor or if it was Sigurd who had come, “the one with the helmet of Fafnir and carries Fafnir’s bane in his hand”. She knew whom he was who had come and Sigurd also knew that this warrior woman was none other than Brynhild, the daughter of a king, and a woman of great beauty and wisdom.

Brynhild then told the story of how she had fallen into that deep sleep. There was a fight between two kings, Hjalmgunnar and Agnar (also known as Audabrodir). Odin promised Hjalmgunnar victory in the battle but Brynhild struck him down in battle. This angered Odin so he stabbed Brynhild with a sleeping thorn and told her that she must marry someday. She made a vow that she would only marry a man who knew no fear; this later proves to be Sigurd. Brynhild was a very wise woman. Sigurd then wanted to learn “the ways of mighty things” from Brynhild and she said she would teach him anything that she knew about, “runes or other matters that concern all things”. Brynhild gave Sigurd a full goblet and they drank together.[3]

Themes[edit]

Odin and the supernatural[edit]

Throughout the saga, elements of the supernatural are interwoven into the narrative. One recurring theme is the periodic appearance of Odin, the foremost among Norse deities, associated with “war, wisdom, ecstasy, and poetry.”[4] He is typically depicted as a mysterious, hooded old man with one eye.[5]

Odin appears a number of times to assist characters with his magic and powers. At the start of the saga, he guides his son Sigi out of the underworld.[6] He also sends a wish maiden to Sigi’s son Rerir with an enchanted apple that finally allowed Rerir and his wife to have a child.[7]Later, he appears as an old, one-eyed stranger and sticks his sword into the tree Barnstokkr during a feast at the palace of King Völsung, declaring that “he who draws this sword out of the trunk shall receive it from me as a gift, and he himself shall prove that he has never carried a better sword than this one,” which King Volsung’s son Sigmund does.[8]

Odin also directly intervenes during key points in the narrative. During a battle, Odin, again in the guise of an old, one-eyed man, breaks Sigmund’s sword, turning the tide of the battle and ultimately leading to his death.[9] He also stabs Brynhild with a sleeping thorn and curses her never to win another battle as an act of revenge for killing Hjalmgunnar, a rival king to whom Odin had promised victory. [10]

The Ring Andvaranaut[edit]

In the latter half of the saga the ring Andvaranaut serves as a connection and explanation for the characters' troubles. Loki killed Otr, the son of Hreidmar. As compensation for Otr's death, Loki coerced a dwarf named Andvari into repaying the debt with gold. Andvari tried to hold onto one gold ring and when Loki forced him to give it up Andvari cursed the ring saying, "This ring...and indeed the entire treasure, will be the death of whoever owns it." This plays out as one character after another is killed soon after they receive the ring. Otr's brother Fafnir killed his father in order to get the ring and then turned into a dragon to protect it. Sigurd then kills Fafnir taking the ring and giving it to Brynhildr. The ring is then brought into Queen Grimhild's family after her children marry Sigurd and Bryhildr. The story of Andvaranaut is thought to have inspired J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.[citation needed]

Legacy[edit]

The Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied is based largely on the old stories, which were commonly known in all of the Germanic lands from the early Middle Ages on, but reworks the material into a courtly medieval setting.[citation needed]

Among the more notable adaptations of this text are Richard Wagner's tetralogy of music dramas Der Ring des Nibelungen, Ernest Reyer's opera Sigurd, Henrik Ibsen's, The Vikings at Helgeland, William Morris's epic poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, and J. R. R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Byock, 1990, ch. 1-13
  2. ^ Byock, 1990, pp. 60-66
  3. ^ Byock, 1990, p. 67
  4. ^ Byock, 1990 p. 111
  5. ^ Byock, 1990[page needed]
  6. ^ The Story of the Volsungs (chapter 1) - (trans) Morris, William & Magnusson, Eirikr, retrieved from: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/vlsng/vlsng03.htm, 29 August 2012
  7. ^ Byock, 1990, pp. 35-6
  8. ^ Byock, 1990, p. 38
  9. ^ Byock, 1990, p. 53
  10. ^ Byock, 1990, p. 67

Sources[edit]

  • Byock, Jesse L. (1990) Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press.

External links[edit]