Friday, March 05, 2010

Concerning Brynhild

Disclaimer: This is long. It's also filled with spoilers--though the idea of spoilers being an issue when it comes to a manuscript this old is kind of moot, if you ask me. I find it fascinating, and I hope you will too!

The Saga of the Volsungs is a tragedy. There are no happy endings, no joyful reunions with loved ones left behind. Sigurd does not follow the path of the traditional hero, going out into the world to find his place in it and returning home triumphant with a magical bride to share everything he has learned. But he does meet Brynhild, who if not a Valkyrie, is at least a warrior woman, with an astounding foresight and great wisdom. On their first meeting, Brynhild passes this wisdom on to Sigurd without hesitation. She shares not just her common sense, but also everything she knows about runes and magic.

Specifically, Brynhild tells Sigurd:
Ale runes shall you know
If you desire no other's wife
To deceive you in troth, if you trust.
They shall be cut on the horn
And on the hand's back
And mark the need rune on your nail.

For the cup shall you make a sign
And be wary of misfortune
And throw leek into the liquor,
Then, I know that,
you will never get
A potion blended with poison.

Not much later, Sigurd begs Brynhild to tell him more of her wisdom, and she says this:
Beware of ill dealings, both of a maid's love and a man's wife; ill often arises from these.
And do not swear a false oath, because hard vengeance follows the breaking of truce.
and then:
Beware of the wiles of friends. I see only a little of your future life, yet it would be better if the hate of your in-laws did not descend upon you.
Sigurd professes his admiration of Brynhild's wisdom, and we are left with the impression that he takes her words to heart, treasuring them along with the apparent love he holds for her after this first meeting. Brynhild accepts Sigurd's praise, and admiration, but she warns him that they are not meant to marry or live together. Still, Sigurd insists, and Brynhild is persuaded. They exchange vows with one another, privately, and then part. 

In these three pages, Brynhild has both warned Sigurd of how he will be betrayed and given him the information he needs in order to prevent his downfall. Everything that happens to him after this point might have been avoided, had he used the "magic" Brynhild gave him, and kept her words of warning and wisdom in mind. Had he used the runes, Queen Grimhild could not have used the ale of forgetfulness on Sigurd, which caused him to forget his love for Brynhild. Had he been cautious of other women, and the "wiles of friends" he would not have trusted her to drink from the cup she gave him, and never would have married Gudrun, or helped Gunnar, his brother-in-law, win Brynhild's hand in marriage.

This isn't the only time in the Saga when a woman presents a warning to her loved ones and is ignored. It begins with Volsung's daughter, Signy, when she is made to marry King Siggeir, only much more explicitly. First she warns her father that the union will cause problems, and then she warns her father and brothers when Siggeir plans to betray and kill them. Both times, though they believe her, they choose not to alter the circumstances. Out of honor (pride? Hubris?) the Volsungs refuse to turn their back on a war, so that no one can call them cowardly. Nor will they break the vows exchanged to extract Signy from a marriage which is going to cause them nothing but trouble and bring about their ruin. Though Siggeir would betray them, they will not even consider dishonoring him. As a result, all the Volsungs but Signy and Sigmund, her brother, are killed. (Sigmund is Sigurd's father, but he dies in battle before his son is born.)

Regardless, Brynhild does everything in her power to prevent any other man but Sigurd from winning her hand in marriage. She uses magic to place a flame around her home and swears that she will only marry the man who is able to ride through the fire-- and Sigurd, being so much greater than any other man of the times, is the only man who can accomplish this feat. But by this time, Sigurd is already under the power of the Ale of Forgetfulness, and instead of finding Brynhild for himself, he uses magic to take on his brother-in-law Gunnar's form, and wins Brynhild for him instead. Brynhild, bound by her oath, has no choice but to marry Gunnar, not realizing that it was Sigurd who had ridden through the flames with Gunnar's appearance and using Gunnar's name.

Being sister-in-law to Sigurd, is bad enough, but when his wife, Gudrun tells her that it was Sigurd who rode through the flames, Brynhild is deeply upset. The Saga describes what may as well have been a deep depression, and Brynhild borders on a catatonic state from the shock and emotional upheaval at having been so betrayed by Sigurd, Ale of Forgetfulness or not. What Sigurd had done was not only force Brynhild to break her own oath (to marry the man who rode through the flames, which was in fact Sigurd) but also her vow to Sigurd himself. In essence, she had very really married him twice, only to wake up in bed with another man. An unforgivable bait and switch.

It's at this point that I have a hard time understanding Brynhild's responses and actions. Sigurd, at Gunnar's request, goes to speak with Brynhild. He confesses his part in things, and tells her about the Ale, the influence of which he was only freed from after she married Gunnar. He also tells her that he loves her, but they're both married, and Brynhild seems to have lost her faith in Sigurd after his deceit. Though he offers to forsake Gudrun to be with her, Brynhild refuses, saying she will not have two husbands. But she already does, and the only honorable way for any of it to end is for either Sigurd, Gunnar, or Brynhild to die. To this end, Brynhild repays Sigurd's deceit by provoking Gunnar, telling him if he wants to keep her, Sigurd has to die. Gunnar, though he swore on his own blood to aid and protect Sigurd, persuades his youngest brother who is bound by no such vow, to kill Sigurd for him.

Somehow, all of this has to do with Brynhild's honor, and Sigurd's deceit, but if she loves Sigurd so much that she doesn't even want to live without him one minute, why is she trying to orchestrate his death the next? And refusing to allow Sigurd to divorce Gudrun and marry her instead? All I can think, is that this is one giant tale of the tragedy which accompanies Hubris. Brynhild is so proud, she would rather die herself, and see the love of her life dead too, than be dishonored or find herself deceived into breaking her own vows.

Like I said, The Saga of the Volsungs is a tragedy. There are no happy endings. Sigurd doesn't follow Brynhild's advice, and Brynhild is too proud to forgive him for what happened because of it. But trust is a delicate thing, and once lost, sometimes it's impossible to reclaim. I'm not sure I blame Brynhild for mistrusting Sigurd after he tricked her into marrying Gunnar, but I definitely don't understand the tragedy that follows. After all that, Brynhild still chooses to die with Sigurd, and has her own body burned in Sigurd's funeral pyre, so that she can guide him into the afterlife--undefined as their destination is.

Then again, if the point of living is for fame and reputation, Brynhild and Sigurd certainly managed quite a bit of that. The Saga itself makes the claim that it will be known far and wide for all time, and as true as it was when it was written, it is just as true now. I suppose their needless deaths served at least that much purpose--giving them each a taste of immortality.


  1. I love these posts- I learn things I'm pretty sure I wouldn't discover elsewhere.

    So is this a common trend in Norse mythology/literature? I know most Greek stories end in tragedy and Shakespeare excelled at the sob stories as well. I almost wrote that most older cultures had plenty of tragedies, but then I realized that ancient Egypt really doesn't. Granted, if you're Osiris, life pretty much sucked, but otherwise most of the gods were sitting pretty.

    Hmmm... This is a time when I really wish I knew more about the Norse gods.

    BTW- You're going to be SO excited about my upcoming contest. Hehehe!

  2. I'm not sure I'm in a position to make a sweeping statement about whether or not this is a common theme-- Sigurd and Brynhild, after all, are not gods. Their story is kind of unique, in that they're not exactly real historical people either. (Most of the Sagas are family histories, outside of the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda.) And while all the gods have their fates assigned to them, and the majority of them are looking at death, Death itself was not perceived as tragedy. Death without leaving behind reputation, songs to be sung, stories to be told that keep your name alive, THAT would be the real tragedy. Dying a tragic death is just one more way to ensure your fame. Does that make sense? Vikings were all about the leaving a mark on the world and living life to the fullest. Sigurd, as awful as his story is, would probably be perfectly content just knowing it was still out there, and his name was known 1500+ years later. (that dating is a guesstimate!)

    Don't worry, as I keep reading (and I got a huge book of sagas for Christmas, so I will be reading!) I will keep the blog posted about the common themes!

    Ohh! You're teasing me with the contest comment. I can't wait to hear what it is!

    By the way-- the Prose Edda is available online for free if you ever want to do some light/heavy reading about the Norse gods :) I'll post a link in the sidebar for folks!

  3. Note about the Greek tragedy versus the Greek comedy: The only real difference between either was that no one died at the end of a comedy.

    Other than that, I got nothing to add.

  4. Fascinating, Amalia. Thank you.

    To me this boils down to a lover betrayed. Actions are not always rational in such situations. Even outside of Norse legend, love is forever. But forgiving and forgetting are difficult things, especially in the face of duplicity. Had Brynhild decided to forsake Gudrun, it's unlikely she'd have ever been able to forget Sigurd's breach of trust, even if she could forgive the man. Thus, she could never be content with or without Sigurd. He'd stolen her one chance at happiness and stomped all over it.

    Brynhild wouldn't be the first woman to want her lover dead under such circumstances. I'm not sure it was hubris so much as its opposite: a fundamentally insecure woman seeking to regain control.

    There, how's that for playing devil's advocate?

  5. Matt: Yes. But when I said tragedy, I wasn't think classical definition, so much as just tragic.

    VR: I'm glad you liked it!
    I'm not sure I'd call Brynhild at all insecure, though. However, she is rarely persuaded to do anything she doesn't want to do, and so the fact that her own oath was twisted to force her into a circumstance she didn't want to be in, by Sigurd, the man she loved and the man she had made the oath FOR, would be definitely upsetting. I can agree with you on that!

    But Brynhild also knew all of this would happen. She foretold it, so I'm not sure why she's so upset when it actually happens, when she saw it all coming, and knew she couldn't stop fate.

  6. When I read the first bit that you sent me the other day (and this post, and subsequent research) I have to say that I was rather confused altogether. The only good explanation is that Brynhild was running off of emotions. It otherwise didn't make sense.

    And this is more proof that being a hero is a curse.

  7. Yes-- That was my response too. Utter confusion. I'm still kind of puzzling over it, to be honest with you. I need to have like, a character pow-wow or something.

  8. One thing you might want to keep in mind, as you read love stories from the "old days", and try to understand them, is that we meet more people in a year than most people met in their entire lifetime. So it was much easier for them to believe that there was only one love meant for them, whereas we have the "luxury" or opportunity, to meet and fall in love several or many times in our lives. How much more tragic was it to loose your first love back then, than it is now?

  9. Anon: I have no trouble believing that it was absolutely shattering to Brynhild to lose Sigurd-- what I have trouble understanding is her refusal to allow him to make amends, after he admits he still loves her and is willing to give up his wife and marry her. He would never have married Gudrun if it hadn't been for the ale, and they both know it. So why does Brynhild hold it against him, if he wasn't really in control, when he still wants to be with her?

    Brynhild knew she could not be happy with anyone else, and I don't doubt that. She was a very particular woman with no interest in marrying at all--except to Sigurd. Whether she met a ton of people or not, I don't think she'd ever have been convinced there was anyone more suitable for her than him. I also don't doubt that Sigurd tried to make the best of a bad situation.


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