Wednesday, May 13, 2015

“Dread Customs”: Inversion and Enforcement of Gender Roles in the Nibelungenlied, Part Three

Click here to read Part One and here to read Part Two of the series.

Uwe Beyer as Siegfried (Sivrit) and Rolf Henniger as Gunther
Die Nibelungen (1966/1967)

Before Sivrit steps in, Gunther’s agency is completely subsumed to that of his wife. His fear (angest[lichen]) and passive role on his wedding night inverts the expected gender roles of experienced husband and virgin wife. As he did in Iceland, Sivrit offers to set things to rights: “I’ll bring it about that she lies so close to you tonight that she’ll never again be slow to give you her love.” Gunther’s worry about his status and Sivrit’s willingness to step in as “fixer” can be read through Cooper’s framework: An attempt to understand the conventions by which gender-specific characteristics were assigned to women and to men, and the rhetorical ends that such conventions could serve, will tell us something about the relations between men and women, and at least as much again about the competition for power between men and other men. Again, the focus is on representation.

How do we read the gendering of Prünhilt, Gunther and Sivrit? By this point in the poem, we have enough information to create this rubric:

The disjunction between the sex and gender of Prünhilt and Gunther is reminiscent of Augustine’s explanation for the ability of Perpetua and Felicitas to resist violent onslaught as they approached martyrdom: “But they were able to hold out against attacks on them, and to break these assaults by a hidden and very great strength because inside themselves they were like men.” Prünhilt is indeed “like a man,” and her overt masculinity forces Gunther into the position of being “like a woman.” It is this very disjunction that only Sivrit is able to correct. He is the only character whose sex and gender are in alignment. His physical strength is magical; while wearing his cloak of invisibility, he has “strength in abundance – a good dozen’s men might in addition to his own.” He comes from outside Worms, but a parallel outside; Xanten, like Worms, is a place of order with named parents and regular social structures – not a place of “dread customs” and unnamed progenitors like Prünhilt’s Iceland. He is a guest, with all the reciprocal responsibilities that that status entails. In all categories, he is a liminal figure between Prünhilt and Gunther. She is the Other who must be brought to the Inside, Gunther is the Insider whose right to power must be legitimated, and Sivrit is the magical Liminal who mediates between Inside and Outside. It is in this context that we should read his willingness to “play Gunther’s part.”

Paul Richter as Siegfried (Sivrit) in Die Nibelungen (1924)

Cooper provides two character analytics that can help explain the actors in portions of the Nibelungenlied covered by this article. In the course of her discussion of Plutarch’s Lives, she writes, “We will encounter these four figures – the public man and his rival for power, the legitimate wife and the adulterous temptress – over and over again in the literature of the Roman empire.” A mapping of the character types onto the Nibelungenlied would look like this:

This doesn’t quite work. Gunther is indeed a public man, but – although Gunther later views him as rival, on the incitement of Prünhilt – Sivrit is here an ally. At this point, Kriemhilt plays the part of the legitimate wife – a role reversed in the second half of the poem – yet Prünhilt is anything but an adulterous temptress. In addition, Kriemhilt is married to the rival, not to the public man. A more useful model is provided in Cooper’s discussion of the “love triangles” of the Apocryphal Acts, which can be presented like this:

With an inversion of each term, this can be mapped onto the Nibelungenlied:

This helps us to further understand the mediating role Sivrit plays in the relationship of Gunther and Prünhilt. As the outsider who comes inside and aligns himself with the status interests of the husband, Sivrit plays the same role as the intruding apostle, but with reversed allegiance. In the Acts, the apostle is an outsider whose loyalty is to the Outside, to Christ. In the Nibelungenlied, Sivrit is an outsider bound by Germanic codes of hospitality; his loyalty, for the time being, is to his host on the Inside. In both cases, the liminal character (apostle/guest) uses his mystical power (sanctity/magic) to change the wife’s status in favor of his allied side (Christianity/king).

As in the Icelandic contest, Sivrit offers to use his wiles (liste) and his cloak of invisibility to hide the fact that he is taking Gunther’s place. Sivrit makes his object plain:
“Thus I will compel your wife to let you make love to her tonight, or else I will lose my life.” 
“Provided that you do not make love at all to my dear lady,” the king replied, “I am happy with this. Do to her otherwise all that you will. Even if you were to take her life, I would leave it unavenged. She is a terror of a woman!”
Kristanna Loken as Brünnhilde (Prünhilt) in Die Nibelungen (2004)

Gunther gives Sivrit free dominion over the body of his wife, with the exception of actually having sex with her – a stipulation that Sivrit may actually ignore, as discussed below. That Sivrit’s physical violence against this “terror of a woman” (vreislîchez wîp) is still considered commendable by men of stature is evident in the fact that one eminent scholar of relatively recent vintage has written that “[t]his dialogue and all the following scenes have a kind of straight-faced realistic explicitness scarcely hiding the underlying wild comicality,” referred to Prünhilt as “the superhuman shrew whom [Sivrit] tries to tame,” and described her resistance to rape as “outrageous behavior” and “the termagant’s defense of her maidenhood.” As for the idea that the following scene is one of “wild comicality,” I would counter that the broad sexual humor of the Icelandic contest and Gunther’s binding are based in the inversion of gendered power roles. As in Ibn Fadlān’s report of the slave-girl of the Rūssiyah treated like a queen at the death of her master and given the joyous privileges of high rank until she is raped and killed at his funeral, the social inversion of the earlier Prünhilt scenes is here righted with sexual violence. The humor of the previous scenes in the Nibelungenlied now gives way to a deadly seriousness.

While Gunther listens in, Sivrit goes to bed with the unsuspecting Prünhilt. As in the Icelandic contest, he performs the actions that Gunther cannot: “Sivrit acted as if he were Gunther, that powerful king. He embraced the admirable maiden.” The poet highlights the uniqueness of the moment, stating his doubt that “such defiance will ever be made by a lady again.” After Sivrit makes multiple attacks on her person, Prünhilt tells him:
“You are not to tear apart my shift, so white as it is! You are most uncouth – this will cost you dear! I’ll make the consequences clear to you!” said the comely maiden.
As in the contest scene, emphasis is placed on Prünhilt’s undergarment as representation of her unviolated virginity. Strangely, we are now explicitly told that the virgin is physically stronger than the greatest Germanic hero, even with the powers of his mystic cloak:
What use was his great strength and massive might to Sivrit? She showed her superior strength to the warrior. She carried him by sheer force – he had no choice! – and squeezed him roughly between the wall and a chest.
This humbling moment leads Sivrit to declare a more cosmic form of the fear and anxiety that has been expressed by the male characters since they had first arrived in Iceland:
“Alas!” thought the warrior. “If I am now to lose my life at the hands of a maiden, then all women will forever be high and mighty in their dealings with their husbands after this, little though they act like that now!”
Gunther, the local king, had been worried about his personal status among his men; Sivrit, the legendary dragonslayer and ruler of the Nibelung hoard, is concerned with the establishment of proper gender relations for all time. As the poet uses “the topos of womanly influence to amplify the tension between a man’s private interests and his loyalty to those who might place their trust in him,” the groups that each man feels responsible to are of different magnitude; Gunther is concerned with his relationship to the men of his kingdom, Sivrit with mankind. What had been a comedy of inverted status now becomes an origin myth of gender hierarchy. The wild imbalance of power between the supernaturally strong Prünhilt and the impotent Gunther becomes righted when she is finally faced with an opponent of mythic stature, and we retroactively understand that Prünhilt and Gunther have been presented as negative models of proper social behavior that only the liminal Sivrit can bring into proper alignment.

Siegfried (Sivrit) slays the dragon
by Wilhelm Ernst Ferdinand Franz Hauschild

Any remaining idea that the poet is still in the comedic mode is banished by the bloodily violent tone of the struggle, one more suited to mythic battles with the forces of darkness than to bedroom scenes of any sort:
Sivrit was greatly ashamed and began to wax wrath. Exerting his monstrous strength, he sat upright. Perilously he made another attempt on Lady Prünhilt. It seemed a long time to the king before he overcame her. She gripped his hands so tightly that the blood spurted from his nails – that hurt the hero hard! Yet he was to make the haughty maiden take back the monstrous desire she had spoken of before.
The battle of grips with blood spurting from fingernails (ûz den nageln spranc daz bluot) is reminiscent of the hand-to-hand combat and breaking fingers (fingras burston) of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel; the Nibelungenlied poet is using the language of the darkest mythic violence to describe a rape scene. Prünhilt’s “monstrous desire” (ungefüeges willen), on a par with her “dread customs” in Iceland, is “to leave the marriage unconsummated.” As mentioned above, Prünhilt’s only real agency is to say no to male characters. The terribly brutal end of the struggle takes even that ability away:
Sivrit thrust her onto the bed, causing her to scream out loud. His strength caused her anguish in abundance. Then she reached down to her side to the braid, intent on tying him up. His hand then prevented it with such strength that her limbs and all her body creaked. It was that which ended the battle – then she became Gunther’s wife. 
She said: “Noble king, you must let me live! I will make full amends for all that I have done to you. Never again shall I defy your noble love. I have found out for certain that you can be a lady’s master.”
Brünnhilde (Prünhilt) by Arthur Rackham (1911)

The text does not openly state that Sivrit raped Prünhilt. However, the sex act is explicit in the version of the story related in Þiðreks saga, “a Norwegian translation of a north German amalgam of heroic tales,” and “the Nibelungenlied shows signs of having suppressed the deflowering, a change readily understandable in light of the poem’s status as polite literature.” I suggest that the poet allows for both readings, and that the text does contain phrases that suggest the coital nature of Sivrit’s struggle with Prünhilt, such as at the beginning of the scene:
Then strong Sivrit set about playing his game – there was nothing else for it! – with the fair maiden. That caused King Gunther both joy and sorrow.
The “joy” (lieb, “love”) is understandable – Gunther achieves satisfaction of his desire to subjugate Prünhilt – but why sorrow (leit), unless he aurally witnesses the hero taking his wife’s virginity? The sorrow is tied to this specific act; it is not a general foreshadowing of tragedy, as in the poem’s opening lines about Kriemhilt (“For her sake, many knights were to lose their lives”). Of Sivrit’s taking of Prünhilt’s ring and girdle as trophies, Edwards writes that
the symbolism of the girdle is obvious. Hatto describes the narrator’s comment [“I don’t know if he did that out of his high spirits”] as “diplomatic ignorance.” This is the weakest point in the plotting of the Nibelungenlied, a relic of an older, more robust version of the epic.
The bloody violence of Sivrit’s final actions in the struggle can also be illuminated by Shaw’s remark on the stripping of Perpetua and her exposure to the bull: “These two aspects, sexual shaming and physical punishment, were integrally interrelated.” These are also the two aspects of Prünhilt’s humiliation of Gunther, and they are the two aspects of Sivrit’s acts upon her that reinstate the proper male-female hierarchy. Whatever the poet’s equivocation on the act of rape, the dual nature of the scene – sexual and violent – is clear.

The poet provides an idyllic coda to the violence of the Sivrit-Prünhilt scene:
Then Gunther and the beautiful maiden lay with one another. He caressed her lovingly, as well became him. She was then obliged to renounce her anger and her shame. His intimacies caused her to become a little pale. Oh, how much of her great strength abandoned her because of that love-making! After that she was no stronger, indeed, than any other woman. He made ardent love to the beautiful lady. If she were to try to resist again, how would that have helped her? Gunther and his love-making had done away with all that.
Hannah Ralph as Brunhild (Prünhilt) & Theodor Loos as Gunther
Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

That it was the love-making (minne) of the insipid Gunther that took away Prünhilt’s supernatural strength seems somewhat absurd, given the epic nature of her battle with Sivrit, his declaration of the cosmic meaning of their struggle, and her formal surrender to him at the end. Prünhilt’s loss of strength is explained matter-of-factly in Þiðreks saga, as Sigurðr (Sivrit) tells Gunnarr (Gunther): “Her nature is such that as long as she keeps her maidenhood, she is almost as strong as any man who wants to try his strength against her; but as soon as it is broken, she is no stronger than other women.” In the epilogue to The Virgin and the Bride, Cooper writes, “What is clear is that, as a rhetorical figure, the virgin was more volatile than the bride, both because of her ambiguity and because her arrival disrupted the old moral language of Concordia.” Prünhilt’s ambiguity of gender and refusal to play the bridal role had disrupted the hierarchy of Gunther’s court. With her defeat and subjugation, the concord that Gunther desired has been established, and Prünhilt’s volatility has been transmuted into obedience – or so Gunther thinks, at this point.

In any case, from this point on, Prünhilt no longer evinces masculine qualities or attributes. Instead, she disappears into the standard female trope of the inciter, of the woman who “respond[s] to personal grievances according to the old Germanic method of inciting men to take revenge on [her] behalf.” Her body is no longer a vehicle to impose her will; now it is only through her voice in her husband’s ear that she can attempt to steer the course of her own life. In On the Veiling of Virgins, Tertullian writes:
Therefore if she is a virgin so long as she is unripe, she ceases to be a virgin when she is perceived to be ripe; and, as not-virgin, is now subject to the law, just as she is to marriage.
Via her subjugation by Sivrit, Prünhilt now becomes subject to the law and to the rules of marriage. She has been incorporated into the power structures of the Rhine lords and forced into the reduced role of a wife subject to her husband. She later refers to her own moment of violent subjugation as “when the king had his will of me and won my love in such a knightly way.” The poem contains no further mention of her striding abroad as a shield-maiden; she has become a creature of the castle who identifies with her husband’s interests. The traditional gender hierarchy of the Rhineland has replaced the “dread customs” of Iceland. With its sexual violence and its brutal enforcement of gender roles, it is no improvement.


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