Winifred Faraday.

The Edda, Volume 2 The Heroic Mythology of the North, Popular Studies in Mythology, Romance, and Folklore, No. 13 online

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Popular Studies in Mythology, Romance, and Folklore, No. 13

The Edda


The Heroic Mythology of the North


Winifred Faraday, M.A.

Published by David Nutt, at the Sign of the Phoenix, Long Acre, London

Author's Note

The present study forms a sequel to No. 12 (_The Edda: Divine Mythology
of the North_), to which the reader is referred for introductory matter
and for the general Bibliography. Additional bibliographical references
are given, as the need occurs, in the notes to the present number.

July 1902.

The Edda: II. The Heroic Mythology of the North

Sigemund the Waelsing and Fitela, Aetla, Eormanric the Goth and Gifica
of Burgundy, Ongendtheow and Theodric, Heorrenda and the Heodenings,
and Weland the Smith: all these heroes of Germanic legend were known
to the writers of our earliest English literature. But in most cases
the only evidence of this knowledge is a word, a name, here and there,
with no hint of the story attached. For circumstances directed the
poetical gifts of the Saxons in England towards legends of the saints
and Biblical paraphrase, away from the native heroes of the race;
while later events completed the exclusion of Germanic legend from our
literature, by substituting French and Celtic romance. Nevertheless,
these few brief references in _Beowulf_ and in the small group of
heathen English relics give us the right to a peculiar interest in the
hero-poems of the Edda. In studying these heroic poems, therefore,
we are confronted by problems entirely different in character from
those which have to be considered in connexion with the mythical
texts. Those are in the main the product of one, the Northern,
branch of the Germanic race, as we have seen (No. 12 of this series),
and the chief question to be determined is whether they represent,
however altered in form, a mythology common to all the Germans, and
as such necessarily early; or whether they are in substance, as well
as in form, a specific creation of the Scandinavians, and therefore
late and secondary. The heroic poems of the Edda, on the contrary,
with the exception of the Helgi cycle, have very close analogues in
the literatures of the other great branches of the Germanic race,
and these we are able to compare with the Northern versions.

The Edda contains poems belonging to the following heroic cycles:

(_a_) _Weland the Smith_. - Anglo-Saxon literature has several
references to this cycle, which must have been a very popular one;
and there is also a late Continental German version preserved in
an Icelandic translation. But the poem in the Edda is the oldest
connected form of the story.

(_b_) _Sigurd and the Nibelungs_. - Again the oldest reference is in
Anglo-Saxon. There are two well-known Continental German versions
in the _Nibelungen Lied_ and the late Icelandic _Thidreks Saga_,
but the Edda, on the whole, has preserved an earlier form of the
legend. With it is loosely connected

(_c_) _The Ermanric Cycle_. - The oldest references to this are in Latin
and Anglo-Saxon. The Continental German version in the _Thidreks Saga_
is late, and, like that in the Edda, contaminated with the Sigurd
story, with which it had originally nothing to do.

(_d_) _Helgi_. - This cycle, at least in its present form, is peculiar
to the Scandinavian North.

All the above-named poems are contained in Codex Regius of the Elder
Edda. From other sources we may add other poems which are Eddic, not
Skaldic, in style, in which other heroic cycles are represented. The
great majority of the poems deal with the favourite story of the
Volsungs, which threatens to swamp all the rest; for one hero after
another, Burgundian, Hun, Goth, was absorbed into it. The poems in this
part of the MS. differ far more widely in date and style than do the
mythological ones; many of the Volsung-lays are comparatively late, and
lack the fine simplicity which characterises the older popular poetry.

_Völund_. - The lay of Völund, the wonderful smith, the Weland of
the Old English poems and the only Germanic hero who survived for
any considerable time in English popular tradition, stands alone in
its cycle, and is the first heroic poem in the MS. It is in a very
fragmentary state, some of the deficiencies being supplied by short
pieces of prose. There are two motives in the story: the Swan-maids,
and the Vengeance of the Captive Smith. Three brothers, Slagfinn,
Egil and Völund, sons of the Finnish King, while out hunting built
themselves a house by the lake in Wolfsdale. There, early one
morning, they saw three Valkyries spinning, their swancoats lying
beside them. The brothers took them home; but after seven years the
swan-maidens, wearied of their life, flew away to battle, and did
not return.

"Seven years they stayed there, but in the eighth longing seized
them, and in the ninth need parted them." Egil and Slagfinn went to
seek their wives, but Völund stayed where he was and worked at his
forge. There Nithud, King of Sweden, took him captive:

"Men went by night in studded mailcoats; their shields shone by
the waning moon. They dismounted from the saddle at the hall-gable,
and went in along the hall. They saw rings strung on bast which the
hero owned, seven hundred in all; they took them off and put, them on
again, all but one. The keen-eyed archer Völund came in from hunting,
from a far road.... He sat on a bear-skin and counted his rings, and
the prince of the elves missed one; he thought Hlodve's daughter,
the fairy-maid, had come back. He sat so long that he fell asleep,
and awoke powerless: heavy bonds were on his hands, and fetters
clasped on his feet."

They took him away and imprisoned him, ham-strung, on an island to
forge treasures for his captors. Then Völund planned vengeance:

"'I see on Nithud's girdle the sword which I knew keenest and best,
and which I forged with all my skill. The glittering blade is taken
from me for ever; I shall not see it borne to Völund's smithy. Now
Bödvild wears my bride's red ring; I expect no atonement.' He sat
and slept not, but struck with his hammer."

Nithud's children came to see him in his smithy: the two boys he slew,
and made drinking-cups for Nithud from their skulls; and the daughter
Bödvild he beguiled, and having made himself wings he rose into the
air and left her weeping for her lover and Nithud mourning his sons.

In the Old English poems allusion is made only to the second part
of the story; there is no reference to the legend of the enchanted
brides, which is indeed distinct in origin, being identical with
the common tale of the fairy wife who is obliged to return to animal
shape through some breach of agreement by her mortal husband. This
incident of the compact (_i.e._, to hide the swan-coat, to refrain
from asking the wife's name, or whatever it may have been) has been
lost in the Völund tale. The Continental version is told in the late
Icelandic _Thidreks Saga_, where it is brought into connexion with
the Volsung story; in this the story of the second brother, Egil the
archer, is also given, and its antiquity is supported by the pictures
on the Anglo-Saxon carved whale-bone box known as the Franks Casket,
dated by Professor Napier at about 700 A.D. The adventures of the
third brother, Slagfinn, have not survived. The Anglo-Saxon gives
Völund and Bödvild a son, Widia or Wudga, the Wittich who appears as
a follower of Dietrich's in the Continental German sources.

_The Volsungs_. - No story better illustrates the growth of heroic
legend than the Volsung cycle. It is composite, four or five mythical
motives combining to form the nucleus; and as it took possession
more and more strongly of the imagination of the early Germans, and
still more of the Scandinavians, other heroic cycles were brought
into dependence on it. None of the Eddic poems on the subject are
quite equal in poetic value to the Helgi lays; many are fragmentary,
several late, and only one attempts a review of the whole story. The
outline is as follows: Sigurd the Volsung, son of Sigmund and brother
of Sinfjötli, slays the dragon who guards the Nibelungs' hoard on
the Glittering Heath, and thus inherits the curse which accompanies
the treasure; he finds and wakens Brynhild the Valkyrie, lying in
an enchanted sleep guarded by a ring of fire, loves her and plights
troth with her; Grimhild, wife of the Burgundian Giuki, by enchantment
causes him to forget the Valkyrie, to love her own daughter Gudrun,
and, since he alone can cross the fire, to win Brynhild for her son
Gunnar. After the marriage, Brynhild discovers the trick, and incites
her husband and his brothers to kill Sigurd.

The series begins with a prose piece on the Death of Sinfjötli,
which says that after Sinfjötli, son of Sigmund, Volsung's son (which
should be Valsi's son, Volsung being a tribal, not a personal, name),
had been poisoned by his stepmother Borghild, Sigmund married Hjördis,
Eylimi's daughter, had a son Sigurd, and fell in battle against the
race of Hunding. Sigmund, as in all other Norse sources, is said to be
king in Frankland, which, like the Niderlant of the _Nibelungen Lied_,
means the low lands on the Rhine. The scene of the story is always
near that river: Sigurd was slain by the Rhine, and the treasure of
the Rhine is quoted as proverbial in the Völund lay.

_Gripisspa_ (the Prophecy of Gripi), which follows, is appropriately
placed first of the Volsung poems, since it gives a summary of the
whole story. Sigurd rides to see his mother's brother, Gripi, the
wisest of men, to ask about his destiny, and the soothsayer prophesies
his adventures and early death. This poem makes clear some original
features of the legend which are obscured elsewhere, especially in the
Gudrun set; Grimhild's treachery, and Sigurd's unintentional breach
of faith to Brynhild. In the speeches of both Gripi and Sigurd, the
poet shows clearly that Brynhild had the first right to Sigurd's faith,
while the seer repeatedly protests his innocence in breaking it: "Thou
shalt never be blamed though thou didst betray the royal maid.... No
better man shall come on earth beneath the sun than thou, Sigurd." On
the other hand, the poet gives no indication that Brynhild and the
sleeping Valkyrie are the same, which is a sign of confusion. Like
all poems in this form, _Gripisspa_ is a late composition embodying
earlier tradition.

The other poems are mostly episodical, though arranged so as to form
a continued narrative. _Gripisspa_ is followed by a compilation from
two or more poems in different metres, generally divided into three
parts in the editions: _Reginsmal_ gives the early history of the
treasure and the dragon, and Sigurd's battle with Hunding's sons;
_Fafnismal_, the slaying of the dragon and the advice of the talking
birds; _Sigrdrifumal_, the awakening of the Valkyrie. Then follows
a fragment on the death of Sigurd. All the rest, except the poem
generally called the _Third_, or _Short, Sigurd Lay_ (which tells of
the marriage with Gudrun and Sigurd's wooing of Brynhild for Gunnar)
continue the story after Sigurd's death, taking up the death of
Brynhild, Gudrun's mourning, and the fates of the other heroes who
became connected with the legend of the treasure.

In addition to the poems in the Elder Edda, an account of the story
is given by Snorri in _Skaldskaparmal_, but it is founded almost
entirely on the surviving lays. _Völsunga Saga_ is also a paraphrase,
but more valuable, since parts of it are founded on lost poems, and
it therefore, to some extent, represents independent tradition. It
was, unfortunately from a literary point of view, compiled after the
great saga-time was over, in the decadent fourteenth century, when
material of all kinds, classical, biblical, romantic, mythological,
was hastily cast into saga-form. It is not, like the _Nibelungen
Lied_, a work of art, but it has what in this case is perhaps of
greater importance, the one great virtue of fidelity. The compiler
did not, like the author of the German masterpiece, boldly recast
his material in the spirit of his own time; he clung closely to his
originals, only trying with hesitating hand to copy the favourite
literary form of the Icelander. As a saga, therefore, _Völsunga_
is far behind not only such great works as _Njala_, but also many of
the smaller sagas. It lacks form, and is marred by inconsistencies;
it is often careless in grammar and diction; it is full of traces
of the decadent romantic age. Sigurd, in the true spirit of romance,
is endowed with magic weapons and supernatural powers, which are no
improvement on the heroic tradition, "Courage is better than a good
sword." At every turn, Odin is at hand to help him, which tends to
efface the older and truer picture of the hero with all the fates
against him; such heroes, found again and again in the historic
sagas, more truly represent the heathen heroic age and that belief
in the selfishness and caprice of the Gods on which the whole idea
of sacrifice rests. There is also the inevitable deterioration in the
character of Brynhild, without the compensating elevation in that of
her rival by which the _Nibelungen Lied_ places Chriemhild on a height
as lofty and unapproachable as that occupied by the Norse Valkyrie;
the Brynhild of _Völsunga Saga_ is something of a virago, the Gudrun
is jealous and shrewish. But for actual material, the compiler is
absolutely to be trusted; and _Völsunga Saga_ is therefore, in spite
of artistic faults, a priceless treasure-house for the real features
of the legend.

There are two main elements in the Volsung story: the slaying of the
dragon, and the awakening and desertion of Brynhild. The latter is
brought into close connexion with the former, which becomes the real
centre of the action. In the Anglo-Saxon reference, the fragment in
_Beowulf_, the second episode does not appear.

In this, the oldest version of the story, which, except for a vague
reference to early feats by Sigmund and Sinfjötli, consists solely
of the dragon adventure, the hero is not Sigurd, but Sigemund the
Waelsing. All that it tells is that Sigemund, Fitela (Sinfjötli)
not being with him, killed the dragon, the guardian of the hoard, and
loaded a ship with the treasure. The few preceding lines only mention
the war which Sigmund and Sinfjötli waged on their foes. They are there
uncle and nephew, and there is no suggestion of the closer relationship
assigned to them by _Völsunga Saga_, which tells their story in full.

Sigmund, one of the ten sons of Volsung (who is himself of
miraculous birth) and the Wishmaiden Hlod, is one of the chosen
heroes of Odin. His twin-sister Signy is married against her will to
Siggeir, an hereditary enemy, and at the wedding-feast Odin enters
and thrusts a sword up to the hilt into the tree growing in the
middle of the hall. All try to draw it, but only the chosen Sigmund
succeeds. Siggeir, on returning to his own home with his unwilling
bride, invites her father and brothers to a feast. Though suspecting
treachery, they come, and are killed one after another, except Sigmund
who is secretly saved by his sister and hidden in the wood. She
meditates revenge, and as her two sons grow up to the age of ten,
she tests their courage, and finding it wanting makes Sigmund kill
both: the expected hero must be a Volsung through both parents. She
therefore visits Sigmund in disguise, and her third son, Sinfjötli,
is the child of the Volsung pair. At ten years old, she sends him to
live in the wood with Sigmund, who only knows him as Signy's son. For
years they live as wer-wolves in the wood, till the time comes for
vengeance. They set fire to Siggeir's hall; and Signy, after revealing
Sinfjötli's real parentage, goes back into the fire and dies there,
her vengeance achieved:

"I killed my children, because I thought them too weak to avenge our
father; Sinfjötli has a warrior's might because he is both son's son
and daughter's son to King Volsung. I have laboured to this end,
that King Siggeir should meet his death; I have so toiled for the
achieving of revenge that I am now on no condition fit for life. As
I lived by force with King Siggeir, of free will shall I die with him."

Though no poem survives on this subject, the story is certainly
primitive; its savage character vouches for its antiquity. _Völsunga_
then reproduces the substance of the prose _Death of Sinfjötli_
mentioned above, the object of which, as a part of the cycle, seems
to be to remove Sinfjötli and leave the field clear for Sigurd. It
preserves a touch which may be original in Sinfjötli's burial, which
resembles that of Scyld in _Beowulf_: his father lays him in a boat
steered by an old man, which immediately disappears.

Sigmund and Sinfjötli are always close comrades, "need-companions"
as the Anglo-Saxon calls them. They are indivisible and form one
story. Sigurd, on the other hand, is only born after his father
Sigmund's death. _Völsunga_ says that Sigmund fell in battle against
Hunding, through the interference of Odin, who, justifying Loki's taunt
that he "knew not how to give the victory fairly," shattered with his
spear the sword he had given to the Volsung. For this again we have
to depend entirely on the prose, except for one line in _Hyndluljod_:
"The Father of Hosts gives gold to his followers;... he gave Sigmund
a sword." And from the poems too, Sigurd's fatherless childhood is
only to be inferred from an isolated reference, where giving himself
a false name he says to Fafni: "I came a motherless child; I have no
father like the sons of men." Sigmund, dying, left the fragments of
the sword to be given to his unborn son, and Sigurd's fosterfather
Regin forged them anew for the future dragon-slayer. But Sigurd's
first deed was to avenge on Hunding's race the death of his father
and his mother's father. _Völsunga_ tells this story first of Helgi
and Sinfjötli, then of Sigurd, to whom the poems also attribute the
deed. It is followed by the dragon-slaying.

Up to this point, the story of Sigurd consists roughly of the same
features which mark that of Sigmund and Sinfjötli. Both are probably,
like Helgi, versions of a race-hero myth. In each case there is
the usual irregular birth, in different forms, both familiar; a
third type, the miraculous or supernatural birth, is attributed by
_Völsunga_ to Sigmund's father Volsung. Each story again includes
a deed of vengeance, and a dragon and treasure. The sword which the
hero alone could draw, and the wer-wolf, appear only in the Sigmund
and Sinfjötli version. Among those Germanic races which brought the
legend to full perfection, Sigurd's version soon became the sole one,
and Sigmund and Sinfjötli practically drop out.

The Dragon legend of the Edda is much fuller and more elaborate than
that of any other mythology. As a rule tradition is satisfied with
the existence of the monster "old and proud of his treasure," but
here we are told its full previous history, certain features of which
(such as the shape-shifting) are signs of antiquity, whether it was
originally connected with the Volsungs or not.

As usual, _Völsunga_ gives the fullest account, in the form of a
story told by Regin to his foster-son Sigurd, to incite him to slay
the dragon. Regin was one of three brothers, the sons of Hreidmar;
one of the three, Otr, while in the water in otter's shape, was seen by
three of the Aesir, Odin, Loki and Hoeni, and killed by Loki. Hreidmar
demanded as wergild enough gold to fill the otter's skin, and Loki
obtained it by catching the dwarf Andvari, who lived in a waterfall
in the form of a fish, and allowing him to ransom his head by giving
up his wealth. One ring the dwarf tried to keep back, but in vain;
and thereupon he laid a curse upon it: that the ring with the rest
of the gold should be the death of whoever should get possession of
it. In giving the gold to Hreidmar, Odin also tried to keep back the
ring, but had to give it up to cover the last hair. Then Fafni, one of
the two remaining sons, killed his father, first victim of the curse,
for the sake of the gold. He carried it away and lay guarding it in
the shape of a snake. But Regin the smith did not give up his hopes of
possessing the hoard: he adopted as his foster-son Sigurd the Volsung,
thus getting into his power the hero fated to slay the dragon.

The curse thus becomes the centre of the action, and the link between
the two parts of the story, since it directly accounts for Sigurd's
unconscious treachery and his separation from Brynhild, and absolves
the hero from blame by making him a victim of fate. It destroys in turn
Hreidmar, the Dragon, his brother Regin, the dragon-slayer himself,
Brynhild (to whom he gave the ring), and the Giukings, who claimed
inheritance after Sigurd's death. Later writers carried its effects
still further.

This narrative is also told in the pieces of prose interspersed through
_Reginsmal_. The verse consists only of scraps of dialogue. The first
of these comprises question and answer between Loki and the dwarf
Andvari in the form of the old riddle-poems, and seems to result
from the confusion of two ideas: the question-and-answer wager, and
the captive's ransom by treasure. Then follows the curse, in less
general terms than in the prose: "My gold shall be the death of two
brothers, and cause strife among eight kings; no one shall rejoice in
the possession of my treasure." Next comes a short dialogue between
Loki and Hreidmar, in which the former warns his host of the risk he
runs in taking the hoard. In the next fragment Hreidmar calls on his
daughters to avenge him; Lyngheid replies that they cannot do so on
their own brother, and her father bids her bear a daughter whose son
may avenge him. This has given rise to a suggestion that Hjördis,
Sigurd's mother, was daughter to Lyngheid, but if that is intended,
it may only be due to the Norse passion for genealogy. The next
fragment brings Regin and Sigurd together, and the smith takes the
young Volsung for his foster-son. A speech of Sigurd's follows, in
which he refuses to seek the treasure till he has avenged his father
on Hunding's sons. The rest of the poem is concerned with the battle
with Hunding's race, and Sigurd's meeting with Odin by the way.

The fight with Fafni is not described in verse, very little of this
poetry being in narrative form; but _Fafnismal_ gives a dialogue
between the wounded dragon and his slayer. Fafni warns the Volsung
against the hoard: "The ringing gold and the glowing treasure, the
rings shall be thy death." Sigurd disregards the warning with the maxim
"Every man must die some time," and asks questions of the dragon in the
manner of _Vafthrudnismal_. Fafni, after repeating his warning, speaks
of his brother's intended treachery: "Regin betrayed me, he will betray
thee; he will be the death of both of us," and dies. Regin returning
bids Sigurd roast Fafni's heart, while he sleeps. A prose-piece tells
that Sigurd burnt his fingers by touching the heart, put them in
his mouth, and understood the speech of birds. The advice given him
by the birds is taken from two different poems, and partly repeats
itself; the substance is a warning to Sigurd against the treachery
plotted by Regin, and a counsel to prevent it by killing him, and so
become sole owner of the hoard. Sigurd takes advantage of the warning:
"Fate shall not be so strong that Regin shall give my death-sentence:
both brothers shall go quickly hence to Hel." Regin's enjoyment of
the hoard is therefore short. The second half of the story begins
when one of the birds, after a reference to Gudrun, guides Sigurd to
the sleeping Valkyrie:

"Bind up the red rings, Sigurd; it is not kingly to fear. I know a
maid, fairest of all, decked with gold, if thou couldst get her. Green
roads lead to Giuki's, fate guides the wanderer forward. There a
mighty king has a daughter; Sigurd will buy her with a dowry. There
is a hall high on Hindarfell; all without it is swept with fire.... I
know a battle-maid who sleeps on the fell, and the flame plays over
her; Odin touched the maid with a thorn, because she laid low others
than those he wished to fall. Thou shalt see, boy, the helmed maid who
rode Vingskorni from the fight; Sigrdrifa's sleep cannot be broken,
son of heroes, by the Norns' decrees."

Sigrdrifa (dispenser of victory) is, of course, Brynhild; the name may
have been originally an epithet of the Valkyrie, and it was probably
such passages as this that misled the author of _Gripisspa_ into

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