|Sigurd comic book cover (1958, Germany)|
A long series of poems in the Codex Regius, the manuscript source of the Poetic Edda, deals with a succession of heroes, heroines, valkyries, and villains. In the 1270s, the anonymous Icelandic writer who compiled the poems and wrote them down attempted to connect originally independent heroic cycles into a single narrative structure, much in the same way that Snorri sought to connect divergent god-myths into a single mythological timeline. He included prose interpolations, at times lengthy, to bridge the individual poems and to provide a sense that they all hung together into a single, extended cycle. Snorri was evidently familiar with the source poems of the Codex Regius, and his Edda of 1220 contains a prose summary of the events of the legend.
|Theodoric on coin (circa 493-526 CE)|
The best-known version of the epic is the Saga of the Volsungs, written down in Iceland at some point between 1200 and 1270. It contains the most detailed account of the legend and brings together all the threads into a continuous (if not altogether convincing) narrative. Written in prose, but containing several excerpts that directly quote Eddic poetry, this version retains elements of greater age than are present in other renderings. Odin is very present in the tale, turning up at key moments to encourage, admonish, or punish the human protagonists of various generations; there is still a sense that gods walk among us – a sense that is completely lacking in the German Nibelungenlied. Valkyries and werewolves interact with human characters in a work that is somewhere between the age of myth and the age of history.
As the Sigurd legend is embedded in the Thidrek saga, it is included in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, composed centuries earlier, in approximately 800 AD. It is also represented pictorially in the Ramsund carvings in Sweden, dated to 1000 AD. All told, the legend is found in various forms in what we now call England, Germany, Iceland, Sweden and Norway. It seems to have been already an old story in the year 800, as it is cited in Beowulf as a tale that had already long ago passed into legend.
The Saga of the Volsungs begins with Sigi, a son of the god Odin. Many of the male descendents of Sigi that populate the saga have names containing the prefix Sig (“victory”), tying them to Odin in his aspect of Sigtýr (“victory-god”). In a fit of jealousy over hunting prowess, Sigi kills a slave belonging to another man and hides the body in a snowdrift. Killing, in the Norse conception, could be atoned for by the paying of wergild (“man-money”). Murder, defined as a killing done in stealth or secrecy, made the perpetrator a morđvargr (“killer wolf”) – the origin of the modern word “murderer.” The criminal was considered an outlaw, meaning that he was outside of the world of legal relationships, and was banished from society.
Odin, in his first of many interventions in the saga, guides Sigi out of his homeland and introduces him to some vikings. With these new companions, Sigi amasses wealth and, eventually, a kingdom. His wife’s brothers conspire against him, attacking and killing Sigi and all his men – a betrayal by in-laws that is a theme throughout the epic. His son Rerir grows up and avenges his father by slaying all of his uncles, but is unable to produce an heir with his wife.
|Frigg & her servants by Carl Emil Doepler (1880)|