Devyn Christopher Gillette
Without the lasting power of the story, especially in the sharing of myths andlegends, a society function ethically or with much hope of retaining itsindividual culture. In addition to being a vehicle for spiritual andpsychological illumination, myths are the means by which a culture identifiesits relationship to the universe, how it defines its processes of ritual, andhow significant events warrant rites of passage.
The Saga of the Volsungs, an oral account written during the latterperiod between 1200 and 1270 in the Codex Regius (Book of Kings) anddiscovered later in a burning barn, accounts for events that likely occurredduring the transformative Indo-European migration era of the third throughfifth centuries. Fortunately, unlike most other European examples ofpre-Christian lore, its translation seems to be free of the "corrective" biasesliberally administered by Benedictine pens. Scholars have suggested that themyth specifically reflects the wars among the Burgundians, Huns, and Goths, andthe saga treats many of the same legends as the Middle High German epic poemNibelungenlied written circa 1200. The legends were later immortalizedfor contemporary audiences through Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungentetralogy composed between 1853 and 1874.
This presentation attempts to isolate and analyze elements within this sagathat are common to most hero myths. These commonalities include(1) unusual birth of the hero, (2) the concept of the mother as symbolicof the Great Goddess, (3) a search for the father, (4) a threat to the younghero, (5) quest, (6) the notion of the dragon slayer, (7) guides on thehero's path, and (8) the final confrontation with death.
This analysis is mutually fashioned in the cultural anthropological characterof Levi-Strauss and the interpretive manner of Jung and Campbell. It isimportant then for the reader to understand that references to the text neednot occur in any particular order, at all, or to a particular personage for theanalysis to convey its visceral points. This approach is in league with theidea that linear interpretation functions well in logical deduction, but playslittle role in mythological thinking. This is not to suggest that I amattempting to reduce the myth into impotent component parts, but the analyticprocess itself has much to offer.
Depending on whom one asks, "archetype" is a mutually celebrated and tabooedword within Pagandom. I should strongly point out that while this analysis isbased on Jungian/Campbellesque interpretations, this should not lead the readerto infer that this approach alone is valued by the writer. Archetype analysis,I suggest, offers a rich understanding to the concept of deity-within, thekinship of which is central to polytheistic thinking. I offer archetypalunderstanding here as a tool for one means of interpretive insight, not as anend in itself encompassing all Pagan spiritual essence.
I have also raised a few points to offer explanations of the more crypticelements of the myth. These points, if accurate, may have been obvious to theoriginal tale-tellers, but easily evade those of us who live in this tragicallynon-mythic culture.
While Volsung's genealogy spans six generations, immediate unusual births areto be found for only three of the main personages: Sigmund, Sigurd, and inparticular, Volsung.
Odin's direct descendant (great grandson), Volsung is born by being violentlycut from the womb after his mother's six-year pregnancy. At birth, he emergesas an adult, and upon kissing his mother, she dies. This may imply that Volsungwas then born "a man" in the fullest sense, requiring no maternal ties or riteof passage into manhood, as well as being an introduction (a warning?) of thecharacter of life he is destined to lead. However, evidence suggests(particularly in Greek myth, which in many ways is strikingly similar to theNorse) that children who had not passed through the womb had never been fully"born." If this perspective existed among the Germanic peoples, this would alsosuggest that Volsung was perpetually in a liminal state, further suggesting amystic shamanic nature about him. This would strongly tie in with his lineageto He who hung Himself upon the World Tree.
Strengthening this interpretation would be that his very conception was clearlyinfluenced by the Gods: while barren, Volsung's mother is impregnated shortlyafter her husband, King Rerir, pleads to the Gods for aid in fathering an heir.Frigg, patron of marriages, hears the plea and consults Odin, who instructs thevalkyrie Hljod to settle the matter. In the guise of a crow, Hljod visits Reriras he sits atop a mound, and gives him an apple.
This scene is rife with significant symbolism. The apple is obviouslyrepresentative of fertility, and according to European folklore, theconsumption of its fruit and seeds could cause pregnancy. Also, to the Celts(neighbors of the Teutonic peoples with whom extensive culturalinterpenetration took place in the Rhineland), the apple was a sacred fruit tothe Summer's End (Samhain) season, when the world takes a dramatic turntoward winter. Heroes are frequently born when "they are needed," and the"need" is often symbolized by the winter solstice. Finally, the Idunna mythfeatures apples as a means of preserving youth (life).
Hljod, as a shield-maiden who frequents battlefields, appears as a crow, anomnivorous scavenger bird which can be totemically identified with thevalkyries. Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) are related to and resemblesmall ravens (Corvus corax) in character and appearance. Ravens, ofcourse, are totemic to the Disir's liege, Odin.
Rerir's sitting atop a mound at the time of Hljod's visit also connects withother-worldliness. In northern Europe, mounds were known burial sites as wellas places of worship. In Holland, for example, such hills were used for placesof magical workings and sacred objects, such as staves, runes, and talismanshave been found buried in such locations. Such hills typically featured aplatform (or sitting-place) at its peak, which was accessible throughsubterranean passageways, further demonstrating connection with the underworld.Additionally, linguists have suggested that there is a connection between thewords "king" and "hill," and in Welsh myth, the shamanic hero Pwyll is told tosit atop a mound to either see a marvel or become wounded (initiation?).
So Volsung is semi-born of a barren mother after six years of gestation withdirect intervention from the Gods, and whose conception is marked from thestart as possessing a foothold in the underworld. Tough act to follow.
Additionally, Volsung could be viewed as Odin's "third son," in a sense.Considering the strong magio-spiritual sympathy among the Celts and theirneighbors for the number three and tri-fold events, it could be observed thatVolsung is the product of nobility and order (personified by his father,Rerir), wildness and berserk mayhem (personified by his grandfather,Sigi Wolf-In-Hallowed-Places [who had also been counseled by Odin aftercommitting murder and being banished to the woods]), and divinity itself(personified by Odin, Sigi's father).
As to unusual birth natures for Sigmund and Sigurd, the connections are lessacute. Sigmund is born of Volsung and Hljod, the valkyrie, who is the daughterof the giant, Hrimnir. Thus, Sigmund carries Volsung's mystic bloodline as wellas that of valkyrie and giant, even further tying the clan to the underworld aswell as the primal sphere.
Sigurd, Volsung's grandson, is being born just as his mighty father, Sigmund,lay dying after his battle with King Lyngvi's host. Day is breaking as eachenter their respective worlds, thus symbolic of Sigurd's birth as the "dawningof a new era." To further illustrate this, we learn later in the saga thatSigurd's mother, Hjordis, possess a gold ring (as golden as the dawning sun?)that turns cold (as cold as Sigmund's corpse?) with each breaking day.
The Mother As Symbolic Of The Great Goddess
The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that the ancient Germans (who are related,mytho-culturally at least to the Norse) believed that "there resides in womenan element of holiness and gift of prophesy...and so they do not scorn to asktheir advice, or lightly disregard their replies."
Women then held a greater foothold in the intuitive psychic state than the men.Among the Norse, this is evidenced in the Norns, who decide the wyrd ofmen and who are not dissimilar to the Danish witches in Shakespeare's "Hamlet."Knowing this, it is easy to understand why the Norse would see the valkyries aswomen, that human princesses could become valkyries, or that they werepriestesses in their worship. In the saga, Hljod, Sigrun, and Brynhild eachshare a place among the Disir. Further, it is known that the volva , orwise women (also fjolkunning kona in Iceland) were believed to beshapeshifters (hamrammr) and diviners of runes. Norse myth indicatesthat while Odin is the primary magician, He was introduced to the art by Freya,and the art of seidhr (oracular divination similar to that of thePythoness at Delphi) was largely the province of women.
Brynhild possesses many characteristics of the volva in that she isfrequently interpreting dreams and making prophesy. Gudrun, after she emergesfrom the forest (the underworld?), is found carving runes which are later readby Queen Kostbera.
Signy, twin sister and wife of Sigmund, daughter of Volsung, plays the GreatMother nurturer role to her husband when she provides food for him while he isin hiding ("underground") in the forest. She also protects him by plottingrevenge upon Siggeir, who brought Sigmund's ruination. (Here, "underground" hasthe two-fold meaning of being in seclusion and of rest, returning to the wombbefore rebirth. In this case, this rest is after his original defeat bySiggeir, and rebirth will come during the next attempt to vindicate himself.)Signy comes through as provider and protector again later, when she rescuesSigmund and Sigurd from certain death by giving them food and a sword withwhich the heroes free themselves from bondage. This may also be interpreted asthe Great Goddess role as arbiter of life and death.
The Search For The Father
In the heroic cycle, the hero completes his own sense of identification by thediscovery of his relationship to the universe, through a "search for thefather" and by undertaking a "quest." In many small-scale societies, this isritually enacted as a rite of passage, frequently where boys are removed fromthe mother and community, placed in an isolated and stressful setting withelders of their own gender, and must emerge from the experience as peers totheir initiators.
This male initiatory pattern is very present in the saga, where Sinfjotli, sonof Sigmund and his sister Signy unwittingly undergoes a preparatory test fortolerance by his mother, who wounds him with needle and thread. Satisfied withhis reaction (or lack thereof), she sends 10-year old Sinfjotli into the woodsto live with his father. There the father tests him for courage and stoutnessof heart when he is instructed to bake bread with serpent-infested flour.Previous attempts by other youths, sons of Signy and the hated Siggeir,resulted in their failure and deaths as Sigmund slays them for their cowardice.Sinfjotli however completes the task, almost blithely kneading the serpent intohis bread dough.
Sinfjotli's next initiatory test lasts for several years, when father and sonshapeshift into wolves and raze the countryside, strikingly reminiscent of theberserkr, if not werewolf lore. Shortly before Sigmund would havedecided the boy was fully grown, the two have a brief spat over obeying anorder to howl at a given time in battle. Thus, having met the father'schallenges, the hero attempts to surpass them and thereby enters recognizedpeer status. His initiation into manhood is complete.
Remember also that wolves are sacred to the family's progenitor, and that Sigiresided in the forest in wolflike demeanor.
The Threat To The Young Hero
Viewed collectively, the young hero has thus been born amid supernaturaloccurrences, has been identified as connected with the Great Mother, and hasundergone trials of discovery and initiation under the mentorship of thefather. Properly prepared for the world ahead, but still untested, the younghero begins to challenge his own limitations.
Sigmund and Sinfjotli's lives are threatened after they emerge from the forest,attempt to exact revenge upon King Siggeir, and are captured (twice now forSigmund). To stall their execution, Signy convinces Siggeir to slay themslowly, binding them to a slab of stone in the center of a cairn, i.e., aconical heap of stones. (It is here where Signy will provide the sword).
This image may easily resemble the biblical crucifixion to some, but a moreelusive symbolism here would be that such a structure (slab of rock in thecenter of a cairn) would resemble the rune elhaz (Z), inverted. Oneinterpretation of this rune, according to author Michael Howard, includes a"warning of danger from subtle sources, possibly from within oneself, andincluding spiritual temptation and the risk of becoming involved withunreliable persons who should be treated with suspicion."
Howard's runic analysis has received some critique, but it is neverthelesssignificant to note Howard's findings here because these perspectives reflectexactly what happens to Sigurd, later in the saga, when he encountersRegin and wastes precious time amid the petty turmoil of Gjuki's court.Further, while Sinfjotli had risked death or injury during his rites of passage(outward threat), the greater danger seems to be Sigurd's, who is threatened byhis own reluctance as well as those dangers from Regin and Grimhild's banefulnatures (inward and outward threat).
Having been informed on two occasions of his fate, once by his uncle Gripir andonce (in great detail) by Brynhild, Sigurd refuses to believe in or accept hisown prophesied doom, a fact he dearly laments later when nearing death.Additionally, when he first meets Brynhild, he ignores her warning about theAle of Forgetfulness (..."Ale runes you shall know/If you desire no other'swife/To deceive you in troth/If you trust..."), and when he does partake ofit later, he tragically forgets about his beloved, spends two and a half yearsof blissful egotism and laziness in Gjuki's court, and marries Gudrun (thusstaining his honor with shame and wreaking his heart with havoc when herealizes this after Brynhild breaks Grimhild's spell). Thus, the intrigue oflife at court is a direct threat to the young hero's character. The similaritybetween this saga and that of Arthurian Camelot in this respect, though vague,cannot be ignored.
Sigurd's ignoring of his doom may coincide with the poetic Viking warriormystique of "facing the odds whatever they may be," although in Sigurd's casethis seems to be an effort in macho futility. On the other hand, if Sigurd hadnot ignored the prophesy, he never would have dared to confront the dragon atall. Perhaps, while unplanned and certainly wasteful, Sigurd's later lazinessand betrayal could be construed as a personal sacrifice, a martyr-like pricepaid for the greater good of slaying the dragon. Or this may simply be romanticbunk.
The Quest and The Notion of the Dragon Slayer
As noted, quest elements within the saga include the rites of passage throughpaternal search, and here this is also coupled with desire to revenge losthonor as a goal marker on that path. On the surface, this element can be foundin Sigmund's vengeance upon Siggeir, and Sigurd's vengeance upon Lyngvi. Thedragon slayer notion is found in Sigurd's confrontation with Fafnir.
After Sigmund's death, Sigurd is raised by Regin, a smith of moderate skill andthe saga's trickster. Regin seems perpetually dissatisfied with things, and hisfavored course of action to remedy this seems to be having others fulfill hisown responsibilities. He insists that Sigurd slay Fafnir for him no less thanfive times in the saga, not only revealing to us exactly what Regin is made of,but also revealing to the saga's audience where the pinnacle of the legendlies.
Regin fashions the sword Gram (after three attempts) for Sigurd, butbefore the fateful (!) battle, the hero vows to avenge his father by slayingKing Lyngvi. This suggests a need for ritual purification, or at least tocomplete old business before proceeding to new business. While this delays hismeeting with the serpent, this should not be interpreted as another incident ofreluctance on Sigurd's part. This rather is an act of preparation, ofsanctifying his honor (thus his identity) before meeting the saga's ultimatearchetype of evil.
On this level, the quest includes preliminary moral and ethical battles:Sigurd's reluctance, Regin's vile craftiness and cowardice, Fafnir'stemptation, Grimhild's intrigue. The slaying of the dragon is the final battlewithin the ongoing conflict of the hero's ethical development.
Beyond the surface, beyond the hero and dragon motif itself, a deeperpsychological interpretation of the Volsunga Saga can be identified as thedefeat of the subtle, destructive inner evils of the soul, which the runiccorrelation with the slab and cairn illustrate. This then indicates that therunic cairn symbolism is unlike its biblical crucifixion counterpart in oneimportant distinction: the crucifixion of Jesus supposedly represented the"cleansing of man's sins," whereas the cairn symbolism only suggests a warning,pointing the way to identify those "sins." The message here is clear:responsibility for purification of the self is ours alone, not asavior's. (It is helpful, however if one's mate brings you a sword and asandwich!)
Specifically, I'll offer that this saga is a warning against cowardice andhypocrisy (personified by Regin), arrogance (personified by Otr,Regin's brother), egotism and laurel-resting (Sigurd was warned ashaving fame-hunger [..."the harness was radiant/Which Regin hadowned..."] and was idle in court), but most of all, against greed(personified by Fafnir). Sigurd was right on target when he told Regin that he"had lost much, and (his) kinsmen have been vile."
Guides On The Path
During the battle with Fafnir, an interesting interplay occurs as Sigurd findscover in a ditch ("underground"). As he prepares to engage the serpent, Reginoffers Sigurd terrible combat advice, only to be unwittingly countered by Odin,who now returns to the scene after extensive foreshadowing. With this opposingcounsel, the tense interplay toward the hero is humorously like the classicdual image of Conscience and Temptation upon either shoulder, only here thecharacterizations are better described as Bravery and Cowardice, Right andWrong, or Success and Failure.
True to his nature, Regin runs off when events go against him (justseeing Fafnir is enough) and packs it in under a heather bush. This initself would likely have evoked peals of laughter from the horn-quaffingaudiences who heard the saga being told, who may have known the herb lore ofheather: it reputedly grants immortality.
Since Odin is directly responsible for the Volsung line, it isn't surprisingthat he steers the clan's direction from time to time, or simply takes aninterested peek at their activities. He does this not only in the fatefulbattle with Fafnir, but earlier. It is Odin who, as a wanderer, gives Sigurdthe magical horse Grani. It is Odin who, as old man Fjolnir, hitches a ride onSigurd's longship while they are en route to Lyngvi's kingdom and vanishes justprior to the battle. It is Odin who gives Sigmund his sword, thrust into a treedeeply enough that only Sigmund may withdraw it, marking him as divinelyprotected (at least until the first battle with Lyngvi). This same sword wasreforged (reborn?) as Gram, with which Fafnir is slain. (More commonalitieswith the Arthurian cycle?)
Confrontation With Death
Physical death doesn't seem to be as important a confrontation in this saga:the killing of king's sons makes for afternoon pastimes; life is cheap. Thereis, however, an essence that is highly prized, and the loss of which a greatdetriment: personal honor, troth, without which life is of little value.
Sigurd's honor is tarnished when, still under the influence of Grimhild's Aleof Forgetfulness and sorcery, he "breaks the rules" connected with hisotherworldliness--leaping the fire wall protecting Brynhild. He does this,however, not to woo her for himself, but to do so for Gunnar, into whoselikeness he has been shifted into. Brynhild, sworn to wed whomever exacted sucha feat (knowing full well that only Sigurd could accomplish it), is thus forcedto marry outside of love: Gunnar.
In the end, for honor, Sigmund refuses healing after he reasoned that Odin hadceased to protect him. Signy immolates herself with her despised husband,Siggeir, because she feels that to be away from his side (divorce) would be afate worse than death, and that her treachery toward him (while deserved)warranted her life forfeited in atonement. In attempting to save face (andBrynhild's false love), Gunnar actually damages his reputation by betrayingSigurd and (as Regin would have done) delegating the murder. He is rewardedwhen a suicidal, prophetic Brynhild portends the eradication of his line.
The strong underlying message here seems to be that suicide is an acceptablesolution to crisis. It is important to bear in mind, of course, the context ofthe age behind the culture and society that produced this lore, and how verydifferent ours is to it in the twentieth century. Suicide may have been anacceptable end to fifth century Vikings, samurai, and the like, but itcertainly isn't in our culture, regardless of our devotion to the sagas.However, this does clearly suggest to us that the Gods aren't very lenient whenit comes to oathbreaking.
In his death, Sigurd faces the betrayal that had been prophesied. Because hisown web of crossed vows and broken promises (after trusting the strangers ofGjuki's court) would never permit him to have Brynhild again (a fact whichstruck him dumb upon the realization of it) the only means for him to savehonor was, he reasoned, to end his life. In death, however, hero and belovedescape intrigue and betrayal and rejoin in the Halls.
After their deaths, as they lay upon the smoldering embers of their pyre,Gudrun vanishes into the forest, like Sigi and Sigmund and Sinfjotli beforeher. How beautifully fitting it is that the cry of wolves greet her there.
Byock, Jesse L., The Saga of the Volsungs transl. (Berkeley: Universityof California Press, 1990)
Leeming, David Adams, The World of Myth (New York: Oxford UniversityPress, 1990)
Tacitus, The Agricola and the Germania revised transl. (London: PenguinPress, 1970)
Howard, Michael, Understanding Runes (Northhamptonshire: Aquarian Press,1990)
Pennick, Nigel, Practical Magic In The Northern Tradition(Northhamptonshire: Aquarian Press, 1989)
Squire, Charles, Celtic Myth and Legend (Newcastle Publishing, 1975)
Copyright (c) 1994 D. Christopher Gillette, all rights reserved. A version ofthis article was presented to the Department of Foreign Languages, German, atthe University of Massachusetts/Boston in September 1992.