The Northern Way

Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer



IT is impossible to approach the Faroëse Sigurd-ballads without attempting some brief indication of the history of the great legend, heritage of the Gothic races, which, crystallizing in two slightly different forms, inspired alike the Eddic Lays, and the Lay of the Nibelungs-traditions chiefly represented in modern days, on the one hand by William Morris's Story of Sigurd, and on the other by the music-dramas of Richard Wagner. Much has been written on the subject; much doubtless remains to be written. As the story itself, with its eternal human appeal, may well inspire the poets of generations to come, so many of the problems concerned with its 'birth and its wanderings, have, in all probability, not yet reached their final solution.  

The story, as we know it, of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer, of his death and the vengeance wreaked on his slayers, contains two distinct elements, the mythical and the quasi-historical (1). The Dragon-slaying, that is to say, belongs to the primeval story-stuff of the world, sprung from the esoteric element common to all religions, and the mysteries of their initiations; but the principal personages, in process of time, and by a perfectly natural imaginative process, were identified,

1. H. Lichtenberger, 'Le Poète et la Légende des Nibelungen' (Paris, 1891), pp. 72 ff.


or fused, with various characters who left a deep impress on their age, and had, in some cases a shadowy, in others a definite, historical existence. 'The historical names are apparently unessential, yet they remain. . . . It is the historical names, and the vague associations about them, that give to the Nibelung story, not, indeed, the whole of its plot, but its temper, its pride and glory, its heroic and epic character.' (1)

This historical element has its source in the Hunnish invasions of the fifth century, which burst out from the regions round the Black Sea, and redistributed the wandering Gothic tribes over the whole face of Europe. One such tribe was that of the West Germanic Burgundians, which, migrating from the Oder-Vistula regions, settled during the fourth century on the Upper Main, invaded Roman territory under its King Gundicarius (406), and established itself on the left bank of the Rhine (Germania Prima), round about Worms, Speyer, and Mainz. In 435 Gundicarius attacked Gallia Belgica, and was defeated by Ætius, who made peace, and left him undisturbed, in hopes, possibly, that his tribe might serve as a barrier against the common enemy. Shortly afterwards, however (circa 437), the warlike king, together with most of his people, perished in conflict with the Huns-probably not under the leadership of Attila in person (2) though the name of the Hunnish conqueror came to be associated with the event.

The Worms district passed eventually to the Franks;

1. W. P. Ker, 'Epic and Romance' (London, 2nd ed. 1908), p. 25. Axel Olrik, 'Nordisk Aandsliv' (Copenhagen, 1927), p. 46; also pp. 56 ff.

2. B. Lichtenberger, op. cit., pp. 73 ff. J. Patursson, 'Kvoeðabók,' Bind III (Tórshavn, 1923), pp. 115 ff.


while the surviving Burgundians settled in Savoy (circa 443). Early in the sixth century, their King Gondebaud, son of Gondioc, drew up the code known as Lex Burgundiorum, in which Gundahar (Gundicarius), his father Gibica, and his brothers Gondomar and Gislahar find mention. There is nothing to indicate whether these three brothers reigned successively, or simultaneously, under the overlordship of Gundahar, who always takes, in legend, the leading position.

Gundahar is the historical namesake of the German Gunther, and Old Norse Gunnar; Gibika that of the O.N. Gjuki, Guír (Regin, v. 56) being a later dialectic form of the name. Gondomar is the Gernôt of the Nibelungen Lied, and possibly the O.N. Gutthorm. In Gislar's (Gislahar's) early death, the Faroëse cycle follows the general body of legend (v. 27-101 ff.). Hjarnar (ibid.) may possibly be the Hagen of the Nibelungenlied (O.N. Högni) who in some versions of the story, appears as Gunnar's brother.

Sigurd himself may have been confused with Segeric, son of the South-Burgundian king, Sigismund, (1) slain in 523 by Hlodvig the Frank, son of Hunding. Another theory (2) points to the Frankish Sigebert, who married the Visigoth princess Brunhild, of the Baldung family, daughter of the Spanish king Attnagild, and was later assassinated, circa 575.

The Vengeance-motive, which forms the latter part of the story, was doubtless coloured and strengthened if not actually originated, by the mystery surround-

1. T. Abeling, 'Das Nibelungenlied und seine Litteratur' (Leipzig, 1907-09), pp. 202 ff.

2. G. Holz, 'Der Sagenkreis del Nibelungen' (Leipzig, 1907), pp. 74 ff.


ing the death of Attila (453), found bathed in blood on the morning after his wedding-night, with his bride, Ildico, weeping at his side. This ignominious end of the Scourge of God was ascribed by some to natural causes, by others to the hand of his newly-wed wife, thus avenging her forced bridal, and (hypothetically) the slaughter of her Germanic kinsfolk. The fact that Hild (battle), of which Hildico is a diminutive, appears also in the name of Khriemhild, gives some support to this theory. (1)

There is a general consensus of modem opinion that the legend, as we know it, the blend, that is to say, of myth and confused historical memories, assumed its outline among the Franks (2) soon after the death of Attila. From the Rhine, by unknown ways, it travelled through Germany, Scandinavia, and England. England touched it lightly - in the A.-S. poem of Wiðsið (sixth century), which mentions Aetla (Attila), Gifica, and King Gûðhere of Burgundy; the fragment of Waldere brings in Gûðhere and Hagena; and Beowulf (seventh-eighth centuries) attributes monster-slaying feats much like Sigurd's to his father Sigmund the Wælsing (Volsung). In Scandinavia, however, at some unknown period the story assumed a powerful and original form, differing in important particulars from the Southern or

1. For a full discussion of the difficulties connected with the name Niblung (O.N. Niflung) see H. Lichtenberger (op. cit., pp. 87 ff.), who considers that, whether or no it originally signified 'spirit of mist and darkness,' it had by the eighth century lost all significance. A different view is taken by W. Müller, 'Mythologie der deutschen Heldensage' (Heilbronn, 1886).

2. For the hypothesis of Burgundian origin see W. Müller, op. cit., pp. 35ff., and P. Piper, 'Die Nibelungen' (Berlin and Stuttgart, 1889), pp. 51 ff.


German version. Not only is the primitive supernatural element much more prominent, (1) but, on the human side, the Vengeance completely changes its character. So far from avenging Sigurd's death on her brothers, Guðrun (Khriemhild) warns them against the treacherous invitation of Atli (Attila), her second husband, who desires to obtain the Niflung treasure; (2) and, finding her efforts vain, wreaks a grisly revenge on Atli, her children by him, and his entire household.

" This shifting of the centre of a story is not easy to explain. . . . The tragical complications are so many in the story of the Niblungs, that there could not fail to be variations in the traditional interpretation of motives, even without the assistance of the poets and their new readings of character." (3)

This seems a more reasonable hypothesis than the far-fetched, if ingenious, theory that, when the story became known in Bavaria (circa eighth century), the killing of the brothers was transferred from Etzel (Attila) to Khriemhild, because local legend recalled the magnanimous-and imaginary-protection extended by Attila to Theodoric of Verona, or, rather, his father Theodomir. (4) The Scandinavian version seems most in accord with the primitive feeling for the all-sacred character of the blood-tie. It is possible

1. W. Golther, 'Studien zur Germanischen Sagengeschichte' (Munich, 1888), and 'Über die Nibelungensage' (Vienna, 1885).

2. Atlamal: Vigfússon and Powell, 'Corpus Poeticum Boreale' (Oxford, 1883), Vol. I, p. 331. Atlakviða, ibid., p. 44.

3. W. P. Ker, op. cit., p. 149. See also J. G. Robertson, 'History of German Literature' (London and Edinburgh, 1902), p. 8.

4. A. Heusler, 'Lied und Epos in Germanischen Sagendichtung' (Dortmund, 1905); and the same author's 'Nibelungensaga and Nibelungenlied' (Dortmund, 1921).


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