The Saga of the Volsungs

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Sagas are stories mostly about ancient Nordic history, about early Viking voyages, the battles that took place during the voyages, about migration to Iceland and feuds between families. They were written in Old Norse language. They are sometimes romanticized, but always dealing with human beings one can understand. The Saga of the Volsungs is the first story in a series of Norse Sagas.

The saga of the Volsungs is the first story in a series of Norse Sagas.
The saga of the Volsungs is the first story in a series of Norse Sagas.

Sigi is a man who, it is said, was the son of Odin. He went hunting with a thrall named Bredi. Siri killed him when Bredi returned with a greater kill and buried the body in a snowdrift.  Was decreed murder, and he was declared an outlaw.

Odin then guided Sigi to a place where many warships lay and provided him with troops, and he became a powerful king, ruling over Frakkland (France).

The Saga of the Volsungs
Volsungs map

Sigis son, Rerir, became an even more powerful king. But for a long time he and his wife had no offspring, and they prayed fervently to the gods, asking for help.  A wish-maiden assumed the shape of a crow and dropped an apple onto King Reri’s lap.

Soon afterwards the queen discovered that she was with child, and a short time later King Rerir died. The queens pregnancy continued for six years and she recognized that she could not live much longer. The child was cut from her body, and the child, already well grown, kissed his mother, and she died.

The Saga of the Volsungs
Sigurd Siegfried was the greatest hero in Germanic legend and central character of the Saga of the Volsungs

The son was named Volsung, and became King of Hunland. He married Hljod, and together they had ten sons and one daughter. It I said that King Volsung had an excellent palace built, with a large tree growing from the main hall which was named “Barnstock” (child-trunk).

A king named Siggeir ruled in Gautland (part of Sweden), and he came to King Volsung to ask for the hand of Princess Signy, who was the twin sister of King Volfung’s eldest son.

The Saga of the Volsungs
Odin Odin kidnaps Sinfj¨tis Leiche. Drawing by Johannes Gehrts 1883

One evening a stranger, probably Odin, came into the hall, wearing a hooded cape, drew a sword and thrust it up and into the trunk, saying, “I give this sword to whoever can pull it from the tree.” No one knew who he was or where he went.

One noble man after another tried to out the sword from the tree without success until Sigmund came forward and easdily pulled the sword from the trunk. Siggeir then offered to give Sigmund three times the sword’s weight in gold for the weapon.

 

The Saga of the Volsungs
Sigmund refused, saying, “You could have pulled the sword from the tree as easily as I did, if it were meant to be yours, but you were not able to do so.” Siggeir was angry and resolved to gain revenge against his future brother-in-law.

The next day Siggeir wanted to return to his own country, but Signy did not want to go with him. However, her father insisted, claiming that there was no sufficient cause to break the marriage contract. Before leaving, Siggeir invited King Volsung and all his sons to visit him in Gautland. A date for the reunion was set. them and warned them that King Siggeir had planned to ambush them. “Return at once and come back with a large army,” she implored her father.

The Saga of the Volsungs
Volsungs’ family tree

King Volsung and his sons visited Gautland in three ships. Signi met
King Volsung replied that he did not lack courage and that he would face whatever danger came in his way. King Volsung and all his men were killed in the attack that followed the next morning. Only his ten sons survived and were taken prisoner.

Signy asked her father to let them suffer before they should die, hoping to rescue one or more of them. The ten brothers were imprisoned by their feet somewhere in the woods.

The Saga of the Volsungs
Sigurd and Fafnir by Hermann Hendrich 1906

Each night a she-wolf attacked one of them, killing him and eating him, until only Sigmund remained alive.

Through a trusted servant Signy learned the fate of her brothers. She gave the servant some honey, instructing him to smear it on Sigmund’s face. When the wolf approached Sigmund she started to lick the honey from his face and Sigmund bit her tongue down hard. The wolf pulled so hard back in pain that she split the tree trunk apart, and Sigmund escaped.

The Saga of the Volsungs
Norse mythology, The Dice by Hardy

With the help of Signy and a few trusted servants, Sigmund built an underground dwelling in the woods, where he now lived as a free man.

King Siggeir thought that his revenge was complete, that all the Volsungs, save his wife Signy, were dead.

The Saga of the Volsungs
The Saga of the Volsungs

King Siggeir had two sons by his wife Signy, and Signy thought that they might help her avenge the death of her father and brothers. When the elder one was ten years old she sent him to visit Sigmund in his underground dwelling. Before sending him out, she tested his courage.  He failed and was killed.

A year later much the same events transpired with Signy’s younger son. He too was found lacking in courage, and he too was killed at his mother’s bidding.

Signy knew a sorceress, and wanted the two of them to exchange shapes, and one night the sorceress, in Signy’s shape, slept with King Siggeir. She was very beautiful, and they shared the same bed. After three nights she returned home and exchanged shapes again with the sorceress.

The Saga of the Volsungs
The Saga of the Volsungs

Some time later Signy gave birth to a son who was named Sinfjotli. He grew large and strong, very much like the Volsung stock. When he was not quite ten years old she sent him to his father Sigmund in the underground shelter to be tested for courage.

When Sinfjotli was fully grown and properly tested, he would now, with the help of Sigmund, avenge the death of his father and his brothers. The two of them went to King Siggeir’s estate and hid themselves in an outer room. Queen Signy saw them there, and together they planned the act of revenge.

The Saga of the Volsungs
She-wolf attacking

A great battle ensued. Sigmund and Sinfjotli fought valiantly, but the king’s soldiers finally overpowered them. King Siggeir had Sigmund and Sinfjotli buried alive inside a large stone mound.

Signy managed to smuggle a sword into the stone mound, Sigmund and Sinfjotli escaped and set the king’s hall at fire. The king, surrounded by flames, asked who had done this deed, amd Sigmund answered, “I, Sigmund, and my sister’s son Sinfjotli have done this deed! Know this, that not all the Volsungs are dead!”

The Saga of the Volsungs
Sigurd and Fafnir

Signy wished Sigmund and Sinfjotli farewell, walking into the flames she said, “I married King Siggeir against my will, but now that my father’s and my brothers’ deaths have been avenged, I die with him willingly.”

Sigmund now returned with Sinfjotli to his homeland, and he regained the kingship that had once belonged to Volsung.

The Saga of the Volsungs
Sigurd, the Volsung

Sigmund married a woman named Borghild, and they had two sons, one named Helgi and one named Hamund. It was said of Helgi that he was destined to become the most famous of all kings.

While out raiding, Helgi came upon a woman named Sigrun, who had been promised in marriage to a man named Hodbrodd. However Sigrun said,  “There is no king anywhere, whom I would prefer to you.”

The Saga of the Volsungs
Mythology, The Saga of the Volsungs

Helgi assembled a large convoy of men and ships just off King Hodbrodd’s coast. King Hodbrodd assembled his own troops, and a savage battle ensued. Helgi’s troops were victorious, and Hodbrodd was killed. Helgi took possession of his kingdom and married Sigrun. He is now out of the saga.

Sinfjotli continued with his raiding, and was always victorious in battle. During one of his raids he saw a beautiful woman whom he desired to have. The brother of King Sigmund’s wife Borghild was also seeking the hand of this woman, and it came to pass that he and Sinfjotli fought a duel over her. Sinfjotli prevailed, killing Borghild’s brother.

The Saga of the Volsungs
The Viking world

Sigmund returned home and drove out Borghild. She died a short time afterward. Sigmund continued to rule, and it is said that he was the greatest king in ancient times.

Some time later King Sigmund sought the hand in marriage of Hjordis, a wise and beautiful princess, the daughter of King Eylimi. Lyngvi, another king, also wanted to marry Hjordis, so her father let her choose between the two suitors.

The Saga of the Volsungs
The Volsung saga

“King Sigmund is very old,” she said, “but he is the most famous of all kings. I choose him.”

King Lyngvi did not accept this loss easily, and he attacked Sigmund’s forces with a large army. The tide turned against Sigmund and his men, and Sigmund was wounded.

The Saga of the Volsungs
The Volsungs/Tumblr

That night Hjordis came to the wounded Sigmund. “Odin no longer wants me to wield this sword,” said Sigmund to her, looking at the broken pieces. “You are carrying our son,” he continued, “and this sword is meant for him. It will be called Gram, and will serve him well.

Hjordis sat with Sigmund until he died, then she ran into the woods with a faithful bondwoman.

A large troop of Vikings had observed the carnage from their ships, and they also saw the women fleeing into the woods. They pursued the women and brought them to their leader, a king named Alf, who recognized the royalty of Hjordis.

Upon hearing her story, Alf agreed to marry Hjordis forthwith and to care for her unborn son.

Hjordis gave birth to a son who was named Sigurd. When the most famous heroes of the ancient sagas are named, Sigurd must be counted first in valor, strength, and accomplishments.

In keeping with tradition, Sigurd was placed under the care of a foster father, Regin, the son of Hreidmar. Regin taught him runes, sports, chess, and languages.

One day Sigurd went into the woods, where he came upon an old man with a long beard. The man, who was none other than Odin, offered Sigurd a horse, saying, “Raise this horse carefully, for it is descended from Sleipnir.”

Sigurd named this horse Grani.

One day Regin said to Sigurd, “You have too little wealth. Let me tell you where a great treasure lies. If you could take possession of it, it would bring you great glory. It lies but a short distance from here at a placed called Gnitaheath, and is guarded by a serpent named Fafnir.”

Then Regin related to Sigurd the story of how Fafnir came to control the great treasure.

The saga continues with the Regin’s story.

It is said that the Volsungs (Sigurd’s family) and the Gjukungs [Gudrun’s family] were the greatest people of ancient times. This ends their saga.

Source: Jesse B. Byock: The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer (Penguin Classics)

The Saga of the Volsungs, edited by Tor Kjolberg

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