Völsunga saga

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

The Völsungasaga (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). Volsunga Saga is made up of 40 distinct chapters. However these 40 chapters can be grouped into 5 phases. These phases include the preliminary generations, Sigurdr and his foster family, Sigurdr and the Gjukingar, Gudrun and the Budlingar, and Gudrun's last marriage. 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.

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.

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.

Odin in the Völsunga saga[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.” [1] He is typically depicted as a mysterious, hooded old man with one eye. [2]

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. [3] 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. [4]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. [5]

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. [6] 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. [7]

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. [8]

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. [9]

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]


  1. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990 p. 111
  2. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990, p. 35-6
  5. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990, p. 38
  6. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990, p. 53
  7. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990, p. 67
  8. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990, p. 60-66
  9. ^ Byock, Jesse L. Saga of the Volsungs. University of California Press, 1990, p. 67

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