Background to the Norse Volung-Niflung myth and the German Nibelung epic.
|There are many sources for the saga of Sigurd/Siegfried and the downfall of the Burgundian family. Such was it popularity that it was available in several Germanic languages. Each work varies from other works. However the Nibelungen cycle can be divided broadly between the German and Norse (Icelandic) traditions.
There are five main works or sources that I have relied on.
There are numerous other sources for the legend, though for now I would just like to concentrate on the sources that are available to me. See the Bibliography.
As I said from above, there are two different traditions in which these tales fall into. The three Icelandic works (Volsunga and the two Edda) falls into the category of Norse oral traditions. See Volsunga saga.
The Volsunga Saga (the “Saga of the Volsungs”) was most likely based on the various poems of the Poetic Edda, and probably the Prose Edda as well. (I will discuss more about the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda in the next article, titled the Edda.)
While the Nibelungenlied (the “Song of the Nibelungs”), most likely written by poet in Austria (c. 1210), which belonged to the German oral traditions.
Although, the Thiðrekssaga (the “Deeds of Thiðrek”) was written in Norway in the 13th century, it used mostly the German oral tradition rather than the Norse (though there are a few small trace of Icelandic influence in this saga). A great majority of the storyline centred on Thiðrek. Thiðrek (Thidrek) was better known in German literature as Dietrich of Bern (Verona), who was loosely based on the historical figure, Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogothic king of Italy (reign AD 493-526). A whole lot of legends about Dietrich are found in literature, which is called the Dietrichsage.
The German tradition was different in many ways to the Norse. How Sigurd or Siegfried won the treasure was different in various sources. How Siegfried met Brunhild and the Burgundian family was different to the Volsunga and the Edda. How Sigurd/Siegfried won Brynhild/Brunhild in marriage for Gunnar/Gunther. Who, how and where Sigurd/Siegfried was murder were also different. In the Norse version, it was Atli, who wanted the treasure of Sigurd; while in the German legend, it was Kriemhild who wanted her first husband’s treasure, which Hagen had stolen from her.
The Nibelungenlied was set in the time of knight and chivalry, sort of like that of the Arthurian or Charlemagne legends. While the Volsunga Saga and the two Edda portrayed the theme in a setting more like in the time of the historical Attila the Huns and the Germanic migration (5th century AD) or the barbaric time of the Viking era (8th-10th century). See “Who were the Norse and Germanic people?” in the About Norse Myths.
|Two collections of Icelandic literature, known as the Edda, were written in the 13th century. Both Edda provided valuable knowledge of the Norse mythology, particularly those concerning the Norse deities.
One work was written by the Icelandic politician, historian and poet, named Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), which was titled Prose Edda, the Younger Edda or the Snorrian Edda. The Prose Edda was a mixture of handbook of Norse myths and the language of poetry, known as the skald poetry. The Prose Edda was written in the early of the 13th century, probably 1220.
The Prose Edda was divided into several sections: Gylfaginning (“The Beguiling of Gylfi”), Skáldskaparmál (“The Language of Poetry”), and Háttatal (“A Catalog of Metres”).
The Gylfaginning is particularly interesting because it contained a lot of Norse myths about the creation, a number of tales about the gods, giants and dwarfs, and Ragnarok. This was my main source for these tales.
In the Skáldskaparmál, there is a jumble of myths, including a summary of the hero Sigurd and the Niflungs (or Nibelungs), that is similar to those found in the Volsunga Saga. It briefly begins with Sigurd slaying Fafnir and Regin, how he won Brynhild for Gunnar and married Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister, and his death at Brynhild’s machination. The tale then shifted to Gudrun’s reluctant marriage to Atli, the downfall of the Burgundian family and ended with the death of all of Gudrun’s children by King Jormunrek of the Goths.
Snorri was also the author of Heimskringla, which is the history of the Norwegian kings. What it is of interest to those who are interested in Norse myths is the Ynglinga Saga, the first part of the Heimskringla. The Ynglinga Saga provided some further details of the Norse gods, but he portrayed them as the earliest mortal rulers of Norway.
It should be noted that Snorri was writing at the time, when all of Scandinavia (including Iceland) had converted to Christianity by 11th century, so he was well aware of the Bible and classical Greek and Roman mythology. Snorri mentioned God and the Creation, Adam and Eve, as well as Noah and the flood. He also compared a few of the Norse gods to the heroes at the Trojan War. Example of this are: Thor was Hector, Vidar with Aeneas, Ali (Vali, son of Odin) with Helenus and finally their enemy Loki was Ulysses (Odysseus). In fact he compared Ragnarok with the Fall of Troy, and that the gods, known as the Aesir, had originally come from Asia.
The Poetic Edda contained collection of early Icelandic poems that was preserved in the manuscript called the Codex Regius, compiled in the second half of the 13th century. It was sometimes called the Elder Edda, because of the sources is older.
Altogether, there are 31 poems in the Poetic Edda. Though, Snorri’s Prose Edda was early than the Poetic Edda, the poems in the Poetic Edda were a lot older. Snorri had often referred to the poems from Poetic Edda. Dating the individual poem in the Poetic Edda is very difficult. It is believed that these poems were composed between 800 and 1100 (during the time of the Vikings). The Atlakvida was believed to be the earliest of the poem, and was composed around the 9th century.
Modern scholars have the Poetic Edda divided the collection of poems into two groups, the mythological section and the heroic section.
In the mythological section, there are 10 poems, which were mainly about the Aesir gods and their dealing with giants, human and dwarfs.
(Note that in the Carolyne Larrington’s translation (1996), there are four extra poems that are not found in the Codex Regius, which included: Baldrs Draumar (“Dream of Balder”); Rigsthula (“List of Rig”); Hyndluljod (“Song of Hyndla”); and Grottasongr (“Song of Grotti”). These extra poems would fall under the mythological category.)
Below is the list of poems from the mythological group (but not including those extra poems I have already mentioned).
While in the heroic section related to the Nibelungen legend of Sigurd and the destruction of the Burgundian family by Atli (Attila), there are 20 poems.
One poem that also belonged to the heroic section, but which is independent of the Nibelungen cycle is the Volundarkvida – the “Lay of Volund”. Volund is the divine master-smith, popularly known to English legend as Wayland.
The poems in the Poetic Edda were a great influence to the Volsunga Saga, though some of the poems were slightly different to the saga. The poems had probably also influenced the Nibelungenlied and the Thiðrekssaga.
Below I have listed the titles of the poems from the Poetic Edda that are related to the Nibelungen tale.
|There is some confusion over who the Nibelungs were. When Siegfried first arrived at Worms, in Burgundy, Hagen told Gunther about Siegfried’s adventure in Nibelungland.
Nibelungland was ruled by the first king named Nibelung (Nibelung I). Nibelung I had two sons, Schilbung and Nibelung II, who would rule together after their father’s death (Nibelung I’s). It was these people who were called the Nibelungs in the first part of the Nibelungenlied. They were the keepers of the Nibelung treasure, which was guarded by the dwarf named Alberich.
Siegfried arrived with a small force of followers, defeated the Nibelungs in battle, killing Schilbung and Nibelung II. Siegfried became the lord of Nibelungland. He overcame Alberich and won the ring to the Nibelung treasure.
At Siegfried’s death, Alberich delivered the treasure to Kriemhild in Worms, but Gunther’s henchman, Hagen stole the treasure from the grieving widow. Hagen sank the treasure in the Rhine. At first, the poet says that Hagen stolen the treasure without the kings’ consent. In the second half of the poem, Hagen told Kriemhild that he and her brothers had sworn never to disclose the treasure whereabouts.
Eventually Kriemhild married to a king of Hungary, named Etzel, hoping to gain revenge against Hagen and recover her treasure. When Kriemhild lured her brothers to Hungary, her brothers and the Burgundian people became known as the Nibelungs. So the Burgundians and Nibelungs became interchangeable.
Hagen and Gunther were the last of the Nibelungs to die at Kriemhild’s machination and vengeance.
In the Norse Volsunga Saga, the Burgundian family was known as the Giukings or the Niflungs. Gudrun (Kriemhild) and her brothers Gunnar (Gunther), Hogni (Hagen), Guttorm were the children of Giuki and Grimhild, which was why they were called the Giukings.
It was Atli (Etzel) who wanted the treasure. Atli captured and killed Gunnar and Hogni, when they refused to disclose the hidden treasure. When Gudrun avenged her brothers by murdering Atli, she was aided by her nephew Niflung, the son of Hogni. So, the Burgundians were also called the Niflungs.
One notable difference between the Volsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied was how Sigurd (Siegfried) won the treasure from the dragon named Fafnir, not from a mythical kingdom. Also Gudrun’s brothers didn’t steal Sigurd’s treasure from her, Gudrun didn’t seemed to be interested in the treasure, but she did have the cursed ring, the Andvaranaut.
For those who are curious, Sigurd belonged to a family called the Volsungs. The Volsungs were children or descendants of Volsung. In the German legend (Nibelungenlied), Siegfried belonged to the family known as the Waelsings, and the hero Dietrich belonged to the Amelungs.
Before you compare the plot of the sagas, I have listed all the important names of the characters that are found in the five sources.
|Edda (Poetic/Prose)||Volsunga Saga||Nibelungenlied||Thiðrekssaga||Historical|
|Sigurd||Sigurd||Siegfried||Sigurd||Sigbert I (Frankish, d. 575)|
|Svanhild||Swanhild||–||–||Sunilda (Ostrogoth, d. c. AD 370)|
|Giukings, Niflungs, Hniflungs||Giukings||Nibelungs||Niflungs||–|
|Gudrun||Gudrun||Kriemhild||Grimhild||Hildico or Ildico (Visigoth, c. AD 453)|
|Gunnar||Gunnar||Gunther||Gunnar||Guntharius (Burgundian, d. AD 437)|
|Hunnish House||Hunnish House||Hunnish House||Hunnish House||–|
|Atli||Atli||Etzel, Attila||Attila||Attila (Hun, d. AD 453)|
|Brynhild||Brynhild||Brunhild||Brynhild||Brunhild (Visgoth, c. AD 567)|
|–||–||Bloedelin||Blodlin||Bleda (Hun, d. AD 445)|
|Thiodrek||–||Dietrich||Thiðrek||Theodoric the Great (Ostrogoth, reign AD 493-526)|
|Iormunrekk||Jormunrek||Ermanrik, Ermanaric||Erminrek||Ermanaric (Ostrogoth, d. AD 375)|
|–||–||Walter (Waltharius or Walther)||Valtari||–|
|Regin (smith)||Regin (smith)||–||Mimir (smith)||–|
|Fafnir (dragon)||Fafnir (dragon)||–||Regin (dragon)||–|
|I have mentioned several times, the similarities and differences in the plots and themes between the Volsunga Saga and the Nibelungenlied. A third major tale, the Thidrekssaga, followed more closely to the German tradition, like the Nibelungenlied, than the Icelandic ones.
The themes are the death of the hero, Sigurd/Siegfried and the destruction of the Burgundian royal family. As I said before the two works were tales of love, revenge and a curse surrounding the fable treasure.
The two tales followed two different traditions – the Norse (Icelandic) tradition and the German tradition. Both tales were old and come from oral tradition before it was ever preserved in writing. The traditions had markedly different outcomes or endings.
In the German tradition, Hagen (Hogni) killed Siegfried, but in the Icelandic legend, Sigurd’s slayer was Guttorm, Hogni’s younger brother.
In the Norse tradition, the legend usually have Gudrun (Kriemhild) avenging her brothers by slaying her second husband Atli (Attila). Where as in the German oral tradition, it was Kriemhild (Gudrun) who died, not her husband Etzel (Attila). In the Icelandic saga, Gudrun was very reluctant to marry Atli, while the German tradition have Kriemhild marrying Etzel because she saw him as the instrument to Hagen and her brothers’ downfall.
Below, is a table where you can view the similarities and differences in the two tales.
(Norse – Iceland)
(Norse – Iceland)
(German – Austria)
|The story began with Sigurd’s great, great-grandfather – Sigi, the son of Odin.||The story began in Worms, Burgundy, with the introduction to Kriemhild, her family and her vision.|
|Several poems about Helgi, and Sigmund appeared in the death of Sinfjotli.||Story of Sigmund and Signy, and of Helgi, the son of Sigmund. Sigmund is killed in battle against his wife’s former suitor.||No story of Siegmund, Siegfried’s father, though he does appear in the Nibelungenlied, apparently still alive when Siegfried was murdered.|
|The story of how Sigurd won the treasure and the cursed ring of Andvari by killing a dragon (Fafnir). Sigurd could understand the speech of animals when he tasted the dragon’s blood.||The story of how Sigurd won the treasure and the cursed ring of Andvari by killing a dragon (Fafnir). Sigurd could understand the speech of animals when he tasted the dragon’s blood.||Hagen told brief story of how Siegfried won the treasure, his magic cloak and sword (Balmung) from the kings of Nibelungland. Siegfried’s skin became invulnerable to weapons, when he was bathed in dragon’s blood.|
|Gudrun’s brothers were Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm. Gunther was king.||Gudrun’s brothers were Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm. Gunther was king.||Hagen was a uncle of Gunther and Kriemhild, as well as Gunther’s loyal vassal. Kriemhild brothers were Gunther, Gernot and Giselher. The brothers were co-rulers of Burgundy.|
|In the Sigrdrifumal (Poetic Edda), Sigurd found Sigrdrifa (Brynhild) asleep with armour on, in the middle of wall of shields. Sigurd woke Sigrdrifa when took off her armour.
In the Prose Edda, Sigurd first met Brynhild in the building at the top of the mountain, and woke her up like in the Sigrdrifumal.
|Sigurd first met Brynhild by riding through a ring of fire, fell in love her, gave the ring of Andvari to Brynhild and pledge to marry the Valkyrie when he return. Sigurd also had a son by Brynhild.
Gudrun’s mother made Sigurd forget Brynhild with magic potion, and married Gudrun instead. Sigurd won Brynhild for Gunnar, by riding through the ring of fire.
|Sigfried won the Brunhild for Gunther, by defeating Brunhild in a contest of strength (using invisible cloak), in return for marrying Gunther’s sister, Kriemhild. Brunhild was a virgin when Gunther married her.|
|Gudrun and Brynhild quarrel over their husband’s superioity over the other. Gudrun revealed the truth of who actually won Brynhild by riding through a wall of flame, and then Gudrun revealed the ring that Brynhild had once worn. Shamed that Gudrun revealed the truth, she demanded from Gunnar and Hogni to kill Sigurd for breaking his oath (which is a lie).||Sigurd told Brynhild the truth about the deception only when his memory return (drug wore off). Brynhild was jealous of Gudrun, asking for Sigurd’s death from her husband, but Gunnar and Hogni could not harm because they were Sigurd’s blood-brothers. So they got their younger brother (Gothorm or Guthorm) to assassinate Sigurd.||Kriemhild upset Brunhild over precedence and told Brunhild that it was Siegfried who overcame in the contest and their wedding night, revealing the ring and girdle as proof. Brunhild wanted Siegfried’s death. Gunther and Hagen took part in the plot for Siegfried’s murder.|
|In the Prose Edda, Gunar and Hogni got their young brother Gothorm to kill Sigurd. Gothorm only managed to mortally wounded Sigurd while the hero was sleeping with his wife. Sigurd killed Guthorm by throwing his sword at his assassin.
In Brot af Sigurdarkvida, Guthorm murdered Sigurd in the forest. At Brynhild’s order, Gunnar and Hogni threw Sigurd’s body in their sister’s bed. Brynhild laughed when she heard Gudrun grieved over Sigurd’s death.
|Guttorm (Gudrun’s younger brother) mortally wounded Sigurd as slept with his wife. Sigurd managed to kill Guttorm by throwing a sword at his assassin.||Siegfried was murdered by Hagen in a hunting trip, when he was drinking from a spring in the woods.|
|Brynhild had the son of Sigurd and Gudrun killed at Sigurd’s funeral. Brynhild also committed suicide and was buried with Sigurd.||Brynhild had the son of Sigurd and Gudrun killed at Sigurd’s funeral. Brynhild also committed suicide and was buried with Sigurd.||After the funeral, Brunhild does not reappear in the scene.|
|Atli wanted to marry Gudrun because of the treasure and ring. Gudrun’s mother gave her magic potion to forget Sigurd, so that she would marry Atli.||Atli wanted to marry Gudrun because of the treasure and ring. Gudrun’s mother gave her magic potion to forget Sigurd, so that she would marry Atli.||Kriemhild married Etzel only because she thought it was able to get revenge upon Hagen and Gunther.|
|Gunther and Hogni sank the treasure in the Rhine, and swore never to reveal the location of the treasure, before they went to visit their sister.||Gunther and Hogni sank the treasure in the Rhine, and swore never to reveal the location of the treasure, before they went to visit their sister.||Hagen stole the Nibelung treasure from Kriemhild and sank the treasure in the Rhine. (This happen before Kriemhild marry Etzel).|
|Atli’s warriors captured Gunnar and Hogni in an ambush.||Gunnar and Hogni were captured by Atli’s warriors in an ambush.||Fighting between the Burgundians and the Huns at the palace. Dietrich captured Gunther and Hagen, and made them prisoners.|
|Gunnar would not reveal the location of the treasure to Atli, unless his brother’s was dead (so Hogni would not know of his betrayal). Atli had Hogni murdered, but Gunnar defiantly refused to disclose the treasure location. Atli had thrown Gunnar into a snake pit.||Gunnar would not reveal the location of the treasure to Atli, unless his brother’s was dead (so Hogni would not know of his betrayal). Atli had Hogni murdered, but Gunnar defiantly refused to disclose the treasure location. Atli had thrown Gunnar into a snake pit.||Kriemhild murdered her brother Gunnar, while he was bound helplessly. Hagen refused to reveal the location of the treasure to Kriemhild. Kriemhild executed Hagen with his own sword.|
|Gudrun avenge her brothers’ death (Gunnar and Hogni), by getting her husband Atli drunk, before serving her sons’ flesh to Atli. Then she plunge the sword into Atli, before setting the hall on fire.||Gudrun decided to avenge her brothers upon her husband. Gudrun killed her own two sons to Atli. Atli and his guest were intoxicated with wine. Gudrun served her sons’ hearts to Atli, revealing her deeds before murdering her husband. Atli’s guests were killed in the fire.||Hildebrand executed Kriemhild for killing the prisoner Hagen. End of story.|
|Gudrun urged her sons to avenge their half-sister Svanhild, who had been murdered by Iormunrekk. Hamdir and Sorli died in the assassination attempt upon Iormunrekk.||Gudrun remarried and had three sons by her new husband. Gudrun’s three sons died trying to avenge their half-sister (Svanhild), who was murdered by King Jormunrek. Hamdir and Sorli died in the assassination attempt upon Jormunrek. End of story.||–|