Monday, May 10, 2010

The Heroes, Part Two

When he reaches adulthood, Volsung marries Hljód (“howling”), the very same Wish Maiden who brought the apple that enabled his birth. They have ten sons and one daughter; the oldest son is Sigmund, and the daughter is Signy. Volsung builds a hall around a huge oak tree that forms that center structure and reaches up through the roof.

A certain King Siggeir arrives to marry Signy, and the wedding banquet is interrupted by Odin, who arrives in the aspect of the cloaked and hooded Wanderer. He produces a sword and sinks it up to the hilt in the tree that forms the center of the hall and declares, “He who draws this sword out of the trunk shall receive it from me as a gift, and he himself shall prove that he has never carried a better sword than this one.” He leaves the hall, and all contend for the sword. None can budge it but young Sigmund, for whom it slides out like nothing. The visiting Siggeir offers to buy it from the youngster, who raises th deadly ire of the king when he refuses to part with the weapon.

Siggeir departs with the unwilling Signy but requests that his new kinsmen visit him in three months. When they arrive for the visit, Signy tries to warn Volsung and his sons of the deadly betrayal that is coming, but they insist they will not run from a fight. Volsung falls in the ensuing battle, and his sons are taken captive. When Siggeir marks them all for death, Signy pleads that, instead of a quick death, they be taken to the forest and put in stocks.

Sigmund and the wolf by Willy Pogany (1920)

Each night at midnight, a large she-wolf arrives and eats one of the sons. Each morning, Signy’s servant checks in and reports back to her what has happened. When only Sigmund is left, Signy gives some honey to her servant and tells him to smear it on her brother’s face and in his mouth. The wolf shows up and begins licking the honey off his face. When she sticks her tongue in his mouth, he bites it and doesn’t let go. In her struggles, she puts her feet against the stock and pulls back, splitting the wood. She dies when her tongue is pulled out, and Sigmund is free.

Signy secretly brings supplies to Sigmund, who lives in a dugout earth house in the forest. When her oldest son is ten years old, she sends him to Sigmund to see if he is strong enough to help avenge the death of Volsung. Sigmund hands the boy a bag of flour and tells him to make bread while he goes to gather firewood. Upon his return, the child tells him that he was scared to touch the sack, since there appeared to be something alive in it. When Sigmund tells his sister that the boy is “not so stouthearted that he would want the lad with him,” she tells him to kill her child. He obliges. A year later, Signy sends her younger son to be tested, with the same bloody result. The idea of the vengeful woman killing her own children as she plots vengeance against her husband recurs and is amplified later in the saga.

Signy then changes shapes with a sorceress and goes to visit Sigmund. He is smitten, and they spend three nights together. She subsequently gives birth to a son named Sinfjotli and, after ten years, sends him to be tested by Sigmund. Undismayed by the thing in the flour sack, he makes a loaf of bread after kneading in the squirming creature. Sigmund laughingly reveals that it was an incredibly poisonous snake and decides to train the boy for vengeance by taking him in the summertime to kill men “for booty” in the forest.

Werewolves by John Charles Dollman (circa 1909)

One day, they find a house in the forest that contains two sleeping men who are sons of kings. The men have been bewitched into werewolves; they wear wolf skins that they can only take off on every tenth day. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put on the skins and discover that they cannot take them off. They go off on a killing spree, end up fighting with each other, and Sigmund gravely wounds Sinfjotli by biting him in the windpipe. He later sees a weasel bite another in the windpipe and run off into the woods. The animal returns with a leaf which, when laid on the wound, heals it instantly. Sigmund goes out in search of the herb, only to see a raven flying overhead with the leaf he is seeking. It brings the leaf to him, and he is able to heal Sinfjotli. The raven, of course, is the mystic messenger of Odin, who has again intervened.

The two werewolves (“man-wolves”) burn the cursed wolfskins and, when Sinfjotli is fully grown, head to Siggeir’s estate to enact their revenge. As they hide behind ale casks in the hall, Signy’s two young children by Siggeir discover them by accident and report back to their father. Signy brings the children to Sigmund and Sinfjotli and advises them to kill them. Sigmund hesitates, but Sinfjotli kills them both and throws their bodies at the feet of their father.

After a long battle, the two Volsungs are captured are buried alive in a cairn with a large stone slab between them, “because [Siggeir] thought it worse for them not to be together, yet be able to hear each other.” As the mound is being covered with dirt, Signy secretly throws down both food and Sigmund’s Odinnic sword. The two men use the sword to slice through the slab and free themselves. They return to the hall in the middle of the night and set it aflame. Signy comes out to them and reveals that Sinfjotli is, in fact, the child of both the son and the daughter of Volsung. She says, “I have worked so hard to bring about vengeance that I am by no means fit to live,” and she goes back in to the hall to die in the flames with Siggeir and his retainers.

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