Monday, May 3, 2010

The Heroes, Part One

The legend of the hero Sigurd is recorded in many different forms, across great distances of time and space. Many writers have tried to make sense of the convoluted tale, including Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, Richard Wagner in the 19th, and J.R.R. Tolkien in the 20th. There are fundamental discrepancies and contradictions in every version, back to the earliest surviving fragments, and no writer has fully succeeded in creating a coherent whole out of the disparate parts.

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.

Roughly contemporaneous is the Saga of Thidrek, a mid-13th century Norwegian compilation of legends from northern and western Germany surrounding Thidrek and his various heroic companions, including Sigurd. Thidrek was a historical figure known as King Theodoric the Ostrogoth, and later called Dietrich of Berne (454 -526 AD). The lengthy saga includes the Sigurd legend, but it differs from the Icelandic sources in fundamental ways. It is much closer to the German epic of the Nibelungenlied, written around 1200.

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 weregild (“man-money”). Murder, defined as a killing done in stealth or secrecy, made the perpetrator a morðvargr (“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 and her servants by Carl Emil Doepler (1880)

Rerir prays to the goddess Frigg, who asks Odin for help. He gives an apple to one of his Wish Maidens, who takes the form of a crow and flies it to Rerir. He eats the apple, evidently one of the mystic fruit associated with the fertility goddess Idunn, and his wife becomes quickly pregnant. He dies while out on a fighting campaign, and his wife remains unable to push the baby out for six years. Recognizing that she is nearing death, she asks for the child to be cut out of her. He is, naturally, already a youth when he enters the world, and is called Volsung. In the Beowulf version of the story, Rerir appears as Waels. His son is therefore Waelsing, an Anglo-Saxon name meaning “son of Waels,” and the character appears in the Icelandic version as Volsung.

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