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Friday, February 3, 2023

The Saga of the Völsungs: Epic Story of the Greatest Norse Heroes

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Much of what we know about Norse mythology and history comes from their sagas. These are stories written in the Old Norse language that recount early Viking voyages, battles, and feuds between prominent families, as well as myths and legends. The most famous of these legendary sagas is the Saga of the Völsungs. The first in a series of sagas, the Saga of the Völsungs tells the story of the rise and fall of the Völsung clan.

What is the Saga of the Völsungs About?

The inspiration for the saga comes from the epic poetry found within the Poetic Edda, the source of much of our understanding when it comes to Old Norse culture. While the saga itself is based on the text of the Poetic Edda, the origins of the stories within are much older.

Some of the stories echo real events that occurred in central Europe during the Migration Period , which followed the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the re-settlements that followed. Events such as the destruction of the Kingdom of Burgundians by the Huns in the fifth century AD are covered. Elements of mythology also make their way into the saga, but the focus is always the very human heroes, making the characters relatable even today.

The Early Völsung Ancestors

The story of the Völsungs Saga begins with Sigi, the first in the Völsung line and supposedly one of Odin’s sons. One day, Sigi went hunting with a thrall (slave) named Breði who was the property of a jotunn giant named Skaði. The pair hunted throughout the day and night, and by the end of the trip, it was apparent that Breði was the superior hunter.

Sigi took great offense at being outclassed by a thrall and killed Breði, hiding his body in a snowdrift. Upon returning from the trip, Sigi explained to Skaði that his thrall had fled. Skaði was dubious, however, knowing his thrall was loyal. He set off with some of his men and soon found poor Breði’s body. He declared Sigi a murderer and made him an outlaw, or “a wolf in hallowed places”.

Rather than being punished, Odin took Sigi adventuring. After a while, Odin led Sigi to a land where many warships lay waiting for him. He gifted Sigi those ships, as well as some troops to man them. Sigi quickly became a successful raider and warlord. He seized the kingdom known as Hunaland for himself.

Not all went well for Sigi, however. His wife’s brothers became jealous and rose up against him. In the ensuing war, Sigi was killed and the brothers took over his kingdom. Sometime later, Sigi’s son, Rerir, rose up and avenged his father’s death.

Rerir became an even more powerful king. His only problem was that he and his wife appeared unable to produce offspring. They prayed to the gods to ask for help in conceiving. The gods sent down a wish-maiden in the form of a crow who dropped a magic apple into King Rerir’s lap.

Not long after, the queen discovered she was pregnant. This happy news was dampened by the fact that Rerir died soon afterwards. The queen’s pregnancy turned out to be supernaturally long. Eventually, she realized that the pregnancy was going to kill her, and ordered the baby to be cut from her womb. She died in the process but the baby survived. That baby boy was named Völsung.

King Völsung

This baby boy went on to become the King of Hunland and married Hljod, the daughter of a jotunn and the messenger that had gifted Rerir the apple. The new king and queen went on to have ten sons and one daughter. King Völsung had a majestic palace, including a great hall, built around a legendary tree known as Barnstokker.

Of all Völsung’s children, the strongest were his eldest, the twin boy and girl known as Sigmund and Signy. One day, Siggeir, the king of Gautland (part of Sweden), visited King Völsung and asked for Signy’s hand in marriage. Völsung happily agreed, but Signy was less than pleased; she despised Siggeir.

On Signy’s wedding day, a hooded, one-eyed man (probably Odin) walked into the great hall and thrust his sword into the great tree. He declared that whoever was strong enough to remove the sword would receive a great gift, and then left.

The old man (Odin) places a sword into the tree Barnstokkr after entering the hall of the Völsungs. Painting by Emil Doepler, 1905. (Public Domain)

The old man (Odin) places a sword into the tree Barnstokkr after entering the hall of the Völsungs. Painting by Emil Doepler, 1905. ( Public Domain )

Many of the nobles in attendance attempted the challenge, but all failed miserably. Finally, Sigmund came forward and easily pulled the sword free. Siggeir offered Sigmund a fortune in return for the sword, but the young prince refused. This enraged Siggeir, and he swore revenge against Sigmund.

That night, Siggeir and Signy consummated their marriage. The next day, a disgusted Signy begged her father for a divorce, but Völsung regretfully declined, fearing war with Siggeir. That day Siggeir and Signy set off for Gautland. Siggeir invited the king and his sons to visit him there, and a date was set for a family reunion.

Upon her arrival in Gautland, Signy discovered her husband was planning to ambush her family and invade Hunaland. She returned home and warned her family, imploring them to raise an army and march on Gautland. King Völsung agreed and sent his army to the shores of Gautland.

The ensuing battle went poorly for Völsung and his men. King Völsung, one of his sons, and the majority of his men were killed.

War with Siggeir

King Siggeir planned on executing Völsung’s remaining men, but Signy begged her husband to spare them. She suggested they be imprisoned instead, so that she might save as many as possible. The cruel Siggeir agreed, happy to make the young men suffer as much as possible before eventually killing them.

The ten brothers were imprisoned in a nearby forest, tied by their feet. Every night, a she-wolf came to kill and then eat one of them. Signy sent one of her men to rescue her brothers, but he could undo their chains. Soon only Sigmund remained.

Signy sent her servant back to the woods with a jar of honey. Sigmund was instructed to smear the honey on his face. When the she-wolf returned, she tried to lick the honey from his face and Sigmund bit her tongue off. The injured wolf recoiled so forcefully that she splintered the tree Sigmund was tied to and he escaped.

In the ancient Norse Völsungs saga, Sigmund used his cleverness to escape the she-wolf holding his hostage for King Siggeir, 1917 illustration (Public Domain)

In the ancient Norse Völsungs saga, Sigmund used his cleverness to escape the she-wolf holding his hostage for King Siggeir, 1917 illustration ( Public Domain )

Sigmund spent the next ten years hiding in the woods as a free man. During this time, Signy had several sons whom she hoped would help her exact revenge on Siggeir. As they came of age, she tested them to see if they were courageous enough to help her in her plot. All but one, Sinfjǫtli, failed the test.

Sinfjǫtli grew up to be large and strong like the other Völsung men. This was unsurprising as he was actually the incestuous result of an affair between Sigmund and Signy. Sinfjǫtli was sent to his father’s dwelling to plot against Siggeir.

Sinfjǫtli and Sigmund attempted to assassinate Siggeir in his sleep, but were caught by some of Siggeir’s other sons. They fought bravely, but were soon overwhelmed and buried alive in a large stone mound.

Signy smuggled Sigmund the sword he once pulled from the tree, and the two managed to escape, setting Siggeir’s great hall on fire in the process. The enraged king stood in the flames demanding to know who had attacked him. Sigmund answered, “I, Sigmund, and my sister’s son Sinfjǫtli have done this deed! Know this, that not all the Völsungs are dead!”

Sigmund holds up his newfound sword Nothung, illustration from a 1910 version of the Völsungs sagas. (Public Domain)

Sigmund holds up his newfound sword Nothung, illustration from a 1910 version of the Völsungs sagas. ( Public Domain )

As Siggeir was engulfed in the flames, Signy joined him, happy to die with him after her thirst for vengeance was satiated. Sigmund and his son then returned to the Völsung homeland, and Sigmund took back the throne. Sigmund then married a woman called Borghild and had two sons, Helgi and Hamund.

As a young man, Helgi fell in love with a maiden named Sigrun. The only problem was she’d been promised to a nearby king named Hodbrodd. Helgi did the only reasonable thing and assembled a large army which he used to attack his love’s betrothed.

A savage battle ensued, with Helgi emerging as the victor. With Hodbrodd dead, Helgi took his lands for himself and married Sigrun. With this, he left the Völsung saga – a rare happy ending.

Sinfjǫtli, meanwhile, continued raiding and plundering. On one of his raids, he too met a beautiful woman. She, too, was already betrothed, this time to the brother of Borghild. The two men duelled and Sinfjǫtli won, killing Borghild’s brother in the process. This displeased Borghild somewhat and she poisoned Sinfjǫtli in retaliation.

Odin with Sinfjötli's corpse. An illustration from the Völsungs Sage in Fredrik Sander's 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda. (Public Domain)

Odin with Sinfjötli’s corpse. An illustration from the Völsungs Sage in Fredrik Sander’s 1893 Swedish edition of the Poetic Edda. ( Public Domain )

Sigmund was not particularly happy to hear of his wife killing his son and exiled her. Borghild died soon after. A lonely Sigmund then went on to rule alone for many years, becoming the greatest king of ancient times.

Many years later, an elderly Sigmund met and fell in love with a princess named Hjordis who was the daughter of another king, Eylimi. Like father, like son, it turned out Hjordis had another suitor, Lyngvi.

The princess was allowed to choose who she married and she chose Sigmund. King Lyngvi turned out to be a sore loser and attacked Sigmund and his army. This time, fate turned against Sigmund. In the following battle, many of Sigmund’s men were killed, Sigmund was mortally wounded and his magical sword was shattered. 

That night, Sigmund passed away. With his dying words, he bequeathed his shattered sword to his unborn son, Sigurd. Hordis then fled into the woods, where she was found by the men of yet another king, King Alf. Upon hearing the young queen’s story, Alf took pity, vowing to marry her and raise Sigmund’s son as his own.

Sigurd and His Foster Family

As was Norse tradition, Sigurd was raised by a tutor named Reginn. Under Reginn’s watchful gaze, Sigurd grew into a hero of legend. One day, Reginn told Sigurd the story of his brothers Otr and Fafnir. It turned out that when they were younger, Fafnir killed Reginn’s father, stole his treasure, and turned into a dragon.

Reginn convinced Sigurd the best way to prove himself was to go out and hunt Fafnir and take the stolen treasure as his own. Sigurd agreed, but declared before doing so he must go out and carry out his revenge on Sigmund’s killers. He set sail for Hunding’s kingdom and went on a rampage. In a brutal battle, he killed King Lyngvi and his men with his father’s re-forged sword, Gram.

Siegfried going to Regin's forge to get the sword that will be used to subdue Fafnir the dragon, 1880 (Public Domain)

Siegfried going to Regin’s forge to get the sword that will be used to subdue Fafnir the dragon, 1880 ( Public Domain )

Sigurd then set out for Fafnir’s territory.  With Odin’s help, he killed the fierce dragon and took its treasures. It turned out, however, that Reginn was using Sigurd, and Sigurd was forced to kill Reginn before his tutor had a chance to betray him.

Hero of the Völsungs Saga Sigurd (Siegfried) tasting Fafnir’s blood, from the door panels of the Hylestad stave church, now at the Historisk Museum, Oslo, Norway. (Marieke Kuijjer / CC BY SA 2.5)

Hero of the Völsungs Saga Sigurd (Siegfried) tasting Fafnir’s blood, from the door panels of the Hylestad stave church, now at the Historisk Museum, Oslo, Norway. (Marieke Kuijjer / CC BY SA 2.5 )

While traveling home with his newfound fortune, Sigurd came across a warrior woman called Brynhild. The two quickly fell in love and vowed to marry each other. What followed was a tragic love story.

Both Brynhild and Sigurd were tricked into marrying other people through the use of magic potions that caused selective amnesia and various instances of shape-shifting. Sigurd was tricked into marrying a woman named Gudrun, while Brynhild was tricked into marrying a man named Gunnar, and various children were born.

Eventually, Brynhild discovered she was tricked into marrying Gunnar, and set off a chain of events that ended with Sigurd being murdered in his sleep. A grieving Brynhild then stabbed herself. Sigurd and Brynhild were finally reunited on the funerary pyre.

The Völsung saga ends with the various children of Sigurd and Brynhild fighting over Fafnir’s treasure. They were divided into two families, the Völsungs (Sigurd’s family) and the Gjukungs (Gudrun’s family), said to be the greatest people of ancient times. The families duked it out for several generations, with Odin throwing various tests at them until pretty much no one was left standing.

The tragic love story of the Völsungs saga: Sigurd and Brynhild (Siegfried and Brunhilda), 1909 painting (Public Domain)

The tragic love story of the Völsungs saga: Sigurd and Brynhild (Siegfried and Brunhilda), 1909 painting ( Public Domain )

Conclusion

It is easy to see why the Völsungs saga was so popular, and why today it is the best remembered of all the Old Norse sagas. It has everything one could want from a story: magical creatures, blood, guts revenge, and a tragic ending.

The Völsungs saga went on to influence storytelling for centuries. The great author J.R.R Tolkien even listed it as one of his inspirations. But the saga wasn’t just a fun story, it carried an important message.

Sigurd may have been the greatest of the Nordic legendary heroes but his greatest victory turned out to be his undoing. The saga acts as a warning against greed. Fafnir’s treasures and the wars it sparked are just about everyone’s undoing in the end.

Top Image: The Saga of the Völsungs features Norse hero Sigurd hunting the dragon Fafnir. Source: Wachirawit / Adobe Stock

By Robbie Mitchell

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