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 poetic rendition in Old Norse of the origin and decline of the Völsung clan (including the story of Sigurd and Brynhild and destruction of the Burgundians). It is one of the most famous legendary sagas, and an example of a "heroic saga" that deals with Germanic heroic legend.

The saga covers themes including the quarrel between Sigi and Skadi, a huge family tree that involves great kings and powerful conquerors, the quest led by Sigmund and Sinfjötli to save princess Signy from the evil king Seggier, and most famously, Sigurd killing the serpent/dragon Fafnir; and the influence of the cursed ring Andvaranaut.

Context and overview[edit]

The saga is largely based on epic poetry of the historic Elder Edda. 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 Kingdom of the Burgundians 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 surviving medieval 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.

Characters[edit]

Contents[edit]

The saga can be divided into five phases: the preliminary generations; Sigurd and his foster family; Sigurd and the Gjukingar; Gudrun and the Budlingar; and Gudrun's last marriage.

Volsung's ancestors[edit]

The Story begins with Sigi and Skadi. Sigi was more important since he was richer and more powerful and was said to be a son of Odin. Skadi owned a Thrall called Bredi, and Sigi took him on a hunting trip all day and evening. When they compared their skills, Bredi's was more impressive than Sigi's. Enraged, Sigi murdered Bredi and hid his body in a snowdrift. When Sigi got home, he lied to Skadi by telling him that Bredi was gone because he had ridden away into the forest. Skadi did not believe Sigi, so he went off with his men to find Bredi. Later, he found his body in the snowdrift. Skadi declared that this drift is now called Bredi's drift. Soon, every other large drift was called Bredi's drift. Skadi then outcast Sigi and he was now known as 'a wolf in hallowed places'.

After much adventuring, Odin led Sigi to a land where some longships lay. He and his troops (that his unnamed father had given him) took up raiding. He became a successful raider and warlord, then seized a kingdom called Hunland to rule. His wife's brothers eventually become envious of Sigi's power and wealth and raised an army against him. In the following battle, Sigi is killed and his enemies took over the kingdom. Sigi's son Rerir then avenges his father's death, killing his uncles and taking his father's throne. However, he and his unnamed wife have no heir, so prayed to Odin to see if he had a child he and Frigg could give to him. Odin and Frigg sent one of his wish maidens to place an to take the form of a crow and place a magical apple on Rerir's lap. Rerir shared it with the queen. The Queen becomes pregnant and the pregnancy goes on for a very long time. So, Rerir went on a journey to pacify the land. On this Journey, Rerir becomes sick and dies. Since the Queen knows that she has not long left before the pregnancy kills her, so she orders for her baby to be cut from her. This is done, and the male child is named Volsung.

The life of king Volsung[edit]

Volsung marries Hljod, the daughter of a giant and the person who gave the queen the apple. Volsung and Hljod had ten sons and one daughter, the two eldest and strongest being the boy and girl twins Sigmund and Signy. King Volsung had an exilent palace built for him, and in this palace was a massive tree that would be in the great hall. The tree was known as Barnstokkr (Old Norse for 'Child trunk') and would stand proudly over Volsung's peers and guests. One day, the king of Gautland (His name was Siggir) came to visit Volsung and asked for Signy's hand in marriage. Volsung, along with everyone else, was pleased at the idea of Signy marrying Seiggir. Signy hated Seiggir and wanted to not marry him. However, king Volsung arranged the marriage anyway and a wedding was arranged. Seiggir came on that wedding day. as everyone was celebrating, a hooded man with one eye came into the all. Everyone watched as he drew a sword and thrust it into Barnstokkr. He then said that whoever pulls the sword from Barnstokkr will receive it from him as a gift, and walked off. Although it is not confirmed by the saga that this is Odin, he has one eye, and later in the saga it is made clear that this could be no one but the alfather, when the exact same person pulls more feats and the sword demonstrates it's magical powers. Many people went to attempt the sword from the tree, but nobody could make it budge, until Sigmund Volsungson comes over and pulled the sword out with ease. King Seiggir offered to buy the sword, but Sigmund refused. That night, Seiggir and his new wife went to bed and slept. The next day, Signy went to Volsung to pressure him to allow divorce. Although his daughter was in distress, Volsung reluctantly refused, since if he didn't, they would not maintain an alliance with Gautland, and terrible events may occur.

When Signy came to Gautland with Seiggir, she found out that Seiggir was plotting to overthrow Volsung and add Hunland to his empire. Signy returns to Hunland to visit her father, then gathered Volsung, Sigmund and their most powerful men. She told them that they must raise an army and invade Gautland if they do not want Hunalnd to fall. Volsung then agreed with this and raised an army. Later, Volsung and his army came to the shore of Gautland and attempted to kill Seiggir. After a long, grim and intense battle, the Volsungs were forced to give in. One of Volsung's sons died, along with the Volsung himself.

The war against Seiggir[edit]

Signy went to speak with king Seiggir as his wife. She asked to put her brothers in stocks (Meaning tied up) instead of killed. Seiggir said yes, since he thought a slower death was more suitable. Therefore, the brothers where tired up by their feet and hands, then thrown into the woods to die. Signy did this because she had a plan. Signy sent one of her most trusted men to find her brothers, then he found them tied up in the woods. When he talked to them, one told them that one had been killed and eaten by a she-wolf. The she-wolf came every night until only Sigmund was alive. On the day before he would die, Signy's scout came back to the forest where Sigmund lay and gave him some honey. He instructed Sigmund to put some in his mouth and smear it on his face. Sigmund did so and the she wolf came, and began to lick Sigmund's face. When the she-wolf put her tongue in his mouth to lick the honey out, Sigmund bit down hard on the tongue and as soon as the beast struggled, it was ripped out, killing the she-wolf. It is mentioned in the saga that this wolf may have been Seiggir's mother who took the shape of a she-wolf through 'witchcraft and sorcery'. Sigmund stays where he is so that Signy's scouts can find him again. They do, and informed Signy of what happened. Signy then visited him and helped him dig an underground base. Signy brought him all the supplies he needed to survive in secret, while they both plotted revenge against Seiggir, who believed that the Volsungs where dead. When Signy was sitting in her chamber, a sorceress came and Signy asked for them to exchange shapes. They did, and the sorceress slept with Seiggir that night and the king did not notice. Meanwhile, Signy came to Sigmund's base in the form of the sorceress and told him that he had been lost in the woods. Sigmund accepted and they had sexual intercourse. Signy was then found pregnant after changing back.

She gives birth to Sinfjötli. When Sinfjötli was ten, Signy put him and he various other sons through a painful test to see who is worthy of serving Sigurd. Although the others cried in pain, Sinfjötli did not flinch. So, he began to serve Sigurd. One tale of their friendship was of them discovering a mysterious cabin and putting on some wolf skins they found there. They were under a twisted spell that made them howl, fight and eat like wolves until they were able to take them off with magic spells. Later, Sigmund and Sinfyotli decided to plot revenge against king Seiggir for what he had done to the Volsung family. They snuck into Seiggir's dwelling and tried to assassinate him, but one of Seiggir's children found them and got his father to seize them. They were thrown in a mound, but they got out because Signy had given them Sigmund's sword. They killed Seiggir by making him walk into a bonfire. Signy walked in too, since she wanted to die with her husband. Sigmund then took the throne and he became a great and powerful ruler. Sigmund then marries Borghild and by her has a son Helgi.

As an adult, Helgi meets Sigrun daughter of King Hogni and wishes to marry her. She tells him that her father has promised her to King Hodbrod, so Helgi and Sinfjötli raise an army and invade Hodbrod's realm. In the ensuing battle Helgi kills Hodbrod and subsequently marries Sigrun and usurps Hodbrod's kingship. Sinfjötli then also meets a woman he wishes to marry, and to win her he fights and kills another man, who happens to be Borghild's brother. In revenge Borghild kills Sinfjötli by poison. A grieving Sigmund rejects Borghild and drives her out of his kingdom.

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]

Sigurd and his foster family[edit]

Hjordis gives birth to Sigurd, who is strong, brave, and very popular. She then marries the King's son Alf, and Regin, the son of King Hreidmar, educates Sigurd. Sigurd enters the forest looking for a horse and meets Odin, who gives him Grani, who is descended from Sleipnir, and better than any other horse. Regin entices Sigurd to go after the dragon Fafnir so he can become rich.

Then Regin tells Sigurd a story: His father Hreidmar had three sons: himself, Otr, and Fafnir. Otr was an otter-like fisherman, Fafnir large and fierce, and Regin himself was skilled with ironwork. One day Odin, Loki and Hœnir were fishing and killed Otr in his otter shape, skinned and ate him. King Hreidmar found out and demanded that they fill and cover the skin with gold. Loki went out and took the dwarf Andvari’s gold and the ransom was paid. The dwarf cursed the ring Andvaranaut ("Andvari's gift"), saying it will bring death to anyone who owns it. Fafnir later killed his father, hid the body, and took all the treasure (and ring) to his hoard. He turned into an evil dragon, and Regin became a smith for the king.

Regin makes two swords one after another for Sigurd, but they break when he tests them. Sigurd's mother gives him the pieces of his father's broken sword and Regin reforges Gram. Sigurd tests it and splits the iron anvil down to its base, and promises to kill Fafnir after he avenges his father. First he goes to the soothsayer Gripir and asks about his fate. Gripir tells him after some hesitation, and Sigurd returns to Regin, saying he must avenge his father and other kinsmen before he kills Fafnir. Sigurd sails to Hunding's kingdom and kills many and burns settlements. A brutal battle ensues between him and King Lyngvi and Hunding's sons, and Sigurd kills them all with Gram. He returns to Regin to prepare to meet Fafnir.

Sigurd goes to Fafnir’s territory and digs a ditch to hide in and stab Fafnir from. Odin comes and advises him to dig several ditches for the blood to flow into. He does so, and stabs Fafnir through the heart as he crawls over the ditch. As Fafnir is dying, he asks Sigurd about his lineage and says that his gold and Regin will be Sigurd's death. Sigurd returns to Regin, who was hiding in the heather during Fafnir's slaying. Regin drinks Fafnir's blood and asks Sigurd to roast Fafnir's heart and let him eat it. Sigurd tests whether the heart is fully cooked and licks his finger, and suddenly understands the speech of birds. He overhears the nuthatches talking to each other about Regin's plan to kill him, and that he should rather eat the heart himself, kill Regin, take the gold, and go to Brynhild. Sigurd kills Regin, eats some of the heart, takes as much treasure as he can carry, including the Helm of Terror, and Andvaranaut, and rides off on Grani.

Sigurd rides to the land of the Franks and finds a sleeping warrior. He removes the helmet, discovers it is a woman, and cuts her chainmail open. She wakes and tells him Odin stabbed her with a sleeping thorn and mandated that she must marry, but she refuses to marry any man who knows fear. Brynhild gives him beer and recites a poem about how to use different magical runes. Following this, Brynhild gives Sigurd several pieces of sound advice on how to navigate society and survive, and they agree to marry each other.

Sigurd and the Gjukingar[edit]

Sigurd rides to the estate of Heimr. Heimr is married to Bekkhild, Brynhild's sister. Sigurd catches sight of Brynhild weaving a golden tapestry in the castle. Alsvid tells him to not think about women, but after Brynhild saying they are not fated to be together, they renew their vows.

King Gjuki is married to Grimhild, who is skilled in magic, and their sons are Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm. Their sister Gudrun has a dream about a golden hawk, which Brynhild interprets as her future husband. They then talk of Sigurd's excellence and the prophecies about him before his birth. Then Gudrun has a dream about a handsome stag, which Brynhild interprets as Sigurd, and prophesies she will marry, but soon lose Sigurd, marry Atli lose her brothers, and then kill Atli.

Sigurd comes to Gjuki with Grani and all his treasure. Grimhild gives him a drink and he forgets about Brynhild. Gunnar and the others swear brotherhood with Sigurd, and he marries Gudrun. Gudrun eats some of the dragon's heart, and bears Sigurd a son, Sigmund. Meanwhile, Grimhild encourages Gunnar to marry Brynhild. Sigurd and the three brothers ride to King Budli for Gunnar to ask for Brynhild's hand. She is inside a hall surrounded by fire. Sigurd and Gunnar exchange shapes, and Sigurd goes and asks Brynhild to marry him as Gunnar. Brynhild reluctantly agrees because of her oath, and leaves her daughter Aslaug by Sigurd to be raised with Heimr.

Brynhild and Gudrun are arguing about whose husband is better, and Gudrun shows her the ring which Brynhild had given Sigurd. Brynhild recognizes the ring and realizes she has been tricked. She tells Gunnar she knows he deceived her and that she will kill him and seek revenge on Grimhild. Brynhild takes to her room and Sigurd comes to try to make amends by asking her to marry him, but she doesn't accept his offer, and instead wants to die and bring doom upon everyone involved.

Gunnar consults with his brothers whether they should kill Sigurd to keep Brynhild or not. They decide to give snake and wolf's meat to Guttorm to turn him violent and kill Sigurd. He goes into Sigurd's bed chamber and stabs him while asleep. Sigurd wakes up and before dying, throws Gram after him as he leaves, cutting him in two. Brynhild laughs when she hears Gudrun sobbing, and Gudrun tells Gunnar he made a big mistake by killing Sigurd. Brynhild also tells Gunnar he has made a mistake and stabs herself and before she dies, foretells the rest of Gunnar's and Gudrun's future. Gunnar fulfills Brynhild's last request, that he put her on a bonfire with Sigurd, Guttorm, and Sigurd's 3-year-old son.

Gudrun and the Budlingar[edit]

Everyone mourns Sigurd's death and Gudrun runs away, ending up with King Half in Denmark. Grimhild finds Gudrun and orders her to marry King Atli against her will, which she does, unhappily. Atli has a dream that he is fed his children, and Gudrun interprets it that his sons will die and many other bad things. Gudrun sends her brothers a runic message warning them about Atli, but the messenger Vingi alters it, inviting her brothers to come. Hogni's wife Kostbera sees the message is false and tells him. Kostbera tells her dream to Hogni, in which she predicts the treachery of Atli, and Hogni's death, but he doesn't believe her. Gunnar's wife Glaumvor also has symbolic dreams predicting Gunnar's betrayal by Atli and his death, and he eventually gives up trying to interpret them differently, and says he will probably have a short life. Gunnar and Hogni go with Vingi to Atli. Vingi reveals he betrayed them, and Gunnar and Hogni kill him with their axe handles.

Atli says he wants Sigurd's gold and will avenge Sigurd by killing his brothers-in-law. Gudrun tries to stop the fighting, but then puts on armor, picks up a sword and fights with her brothers. Many of Atli's champions are killed. Of their army, only Gunnar and Hogni survive and are captured. Hogni's heart is cut out and shown to Gunnar. Gunnar is placed in a snake pit and Gudrun brings him a harp which he plays with his toes. All the snakes fall asleep except one, which bites his heart and kills him.

Gudrun and Atli hold a funeral feast. Gudrun kills Atli's two sons, and gives their blood and hearts to Atli to eat and drink. Atli says she deserves to be killed. Hogni's son Niflung wants to avenge his father, so he and Gudrun stab Atli while he is asleep. After he dies, Gudrun sets the hall on fire and all Atli's retainers die while fighting each other in panic.

Gudrun's last marriage[edit]

Gudrun and Sigurd's daughter is Svanhild, radiantly beautiful. Gudrun goes to the sea to drown herself, but gets swept away and to the court of King Jonakr, who marries her. They have three sons: Hamdir, Sorli, and Erp, and Svanhild is raised with them.

King Jormunrek wants to marry Svanhild, but Bikki convinces Jormunrek's son Randver that he would be a better match for her than his father, so he and Svanhild get together. Upon Bikki's advice, Jormunrek hangs Randver and has horses trample Svanhild to death.

Gudrun encourages her sons to kill Jormunrek and avenge Svanhild. Gudrun's sons ask Erp if he will help them kill Jormunrek, but he gives an ambivalent answer they misunderstand as arrogance, so they kill him, coming to regret it afterwards. They meet Jormunrek and cut off his hands and feet, but Erp would have cut off Jormunrek's head, which would have kept Jormunrek from calling for his housecarls. The housecarls are unable to kill Gudrun's sons with sharp weapons. Odin then appears as an old one-eyed man and advises Jormunrek's housecarls to have the avengers killed with stones, which they do.

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.”[2] He is typically depicted as a mysterious, hooded old man with one eye.[3][page needed]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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 Brynhildr. The story of Andvaranaut is thought to have been one of the texts that inspired J.R.R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.[9]

Adaptations and related works[edit]

The Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied is related in content. The relative historical accuracy and origin of both works are a subject of academic research—however, whilst traditionally the stories from the Poetic Edda and Völsunga saga were assumed to contain an earlier or "more original" version, the actual development of the different texts is more complex—for more details see Nibelungenlied § Origins.

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, and William Morris's epic poem The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún is derived instead from the Volsung poems in the Elder Edda; Tolkien himself thought the author of the Saga had made a jumble of things.

The saga is also one inspiration for Þráinn Bertelsson's satirical crime novel Valkyrjur (Reykjavík: JPV, 2005).

Editions and translations[edit]

English translations[edit]

  • Morris, William; Magnússon, Eirikr, eds. (1870), Völsunga Saga : The Story of the Volsungs & Niblings with certain songs from the Elder Edda , literal translation, e-text
  • Schlauch, Margaret, ed. (1930), The Saga of the Volsungs: The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, Together with The Lay of Kraka
  • Finch, R. G., ed. (1965), The Saga of the Volsungs (PDF), London: Nelson , with Icelandic text
  • Anderson, George K., ed. (1982), The Saga of the Volsungs - together with Excerpts from the Nornageststháttr and Three Chapters from the Prose Edda
  • Byock, Jesse L., ed. (1990), Saga of the Volsungs, University of California Press
  • Grimstad, Kaaren, ed. (2005) [2000], Vǫlsunga saga. The saga of the Volsungs. The Icelandic Text According to MS Nks 1824 b, 4 (2nd ed.), AQ-Verlag, Saarbrücken , English translation with Norse transcription from manuscript Nks 1824 b, 4°
  • Crawford, Jackson, ed. (2017), The Saga of the Volsungs with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok

Other translations[edit]

  • Jonsson, Gudni; Vilhjalmsson, Bjarni (eds.), "Völsunga saga", Kulturformidlingen norrøne tekster og kvad (e-text) (in Old Norse, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish), Norse text with translations by: A. Bugge (Norwegian, 1910); Winkel Horn (Danish, 1876), Nils Fredrik Sander (Swedish, 1893)

Literary retellings[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Byock 1990, ch. 1–13.
  2. ^ Byock 1990, p. 111.
  3. ^ Byock 1990.
  4. ^ Morris & Magnússon, Ch.1.
  5. ^ Byock 1990, pp. 35–36.
  6. ^ Byock 1990, p. 38.
  7. ^ Byock 1990, p. 53.
  8. ^ Byock 1990, p. 67.
  9. ^ "Clash Of The Gods-Tolkien's Monsters - video dailymotion". Dailymotion. 26 October 2016. Retrieved 2 December 2019.

Additional literature[edit]

External links[edit]