Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Poetic Edda; The Saga of the Volsungs and The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok


Opening Passages: From the Voluspa in the Poetic Edda:

Heed my words,
all classes of men,
you greater and lesser
children of Heimdall.
You summoned me, Odin,
to tell what I recall
of the oldest deeds
of gods and men.

From The Saga of the Volsungs:

Here begins the story of Sigi, who was said to be a son of Óðin. Another man named Skaði was also involved in this story. He was powerful and considered a great men, though between the two Sigi was more powerful and considered to be from a better family, according to the opinion of the time.

From The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok:

Now the news came to Heimir in Hlymdalir that Sigurð and Brynhild were dead. Their daughter Áslaug, who was Heimir's foster-daughter, was three years old at the time, and Heimir knew that someone would search for her and try to kill her and wipe out her family line. And he mourned so much for the loss of Brynhild, his foster-daughter, that he could not hold on to his kingdom or his wealth, and he knew that he could not hide the girl there. So he had a huge harp made, and he hid Áslaug inside of it together with many treasures of gold and silver, and then he wandered north through many lands until he came here to Scandinavia.

Summary: Norse myth always has a distinctive atmosphere, and it can be summed up in the notion that Odin the Allfather rules under a doom: he knows that Ragnarok comes, when the armies of Death and Fire will invade, and the Wolf and the Serpent will destroy the gods. Because of this, Odin is somewhat obsessed about learning all he can about the end of the gods, so that he will not be caught by surprise. Many of the more memorable aspects of his depiction stem from this. Odin sends his Valkyries to collect the greatest warriors in the world at the height of their prowess in preparation for that dark day. He sends out his ravens, Huginn and Muninn (Thought and Memory), to gather all the knowledge that he can. He has only one eye, because he traded the other for a drink from Mimir's knowledge-giving well. We see this unfold in the poems of The Poetic Edda. In the Voluspa, Odin summons a volva, a shamaness, to foretell the fates of men and gods. In the 'Runatal' section of the Havamal, Odin speaks of having sacrificed himself to himself by hanging, spear-pierced, from the tree for nine nights in order to discover the runes. In Vafthruthnismal, he engages incognito in a riddle contest with a wise giant, which includes sounding him out about Ragnarok and its aftermath.

But there is a deep undercurrent of humor through it all, sometimes subtle, sometimes earthy. In Harbarthsljoth, Thor trades taunting insults with a ferryman who turns out to be Odin; they are the kinds of joke-taunts men still make today: Odin keeps pretending that Thor looks like a good-for-nothing criminal, they argue over who has slept with the best women and who has fought the best battles, call each other cowards in various creative ways, Thor says he'll give a good beating with his hammer, Odin says he should probably save the hammer for the man who is sleeping with Thor's wife, and so forth. In Lokasenna, Loki gets thrown out of the feast of the gods for killing a slave, and returns to taunt the gods, rather more acidically and maliciously, with a mix of lies and truths. In Thrymskvitha, Thor has to dress up as a bride in order to recover Mjollnir from a thief. In Alvissmal, Thor has to come up with a clever way to prevent a dwarf from marrying Thor's daughter.

The same, both doom and humor, can be found through the heroic poems, and, of course, most of all with the larger-than-life soap opera that is the history of the Volsungs. Odin has a son, Sigi, who has a son, Rerir, who has son, Volsung. Volsung was in his mother's womb for six years, until she began to die and he had to be surgically removed. Volsung is murdered by the king of the Geats (roughly, Swedes), and his children, Signy and Sigmund, as well as their incestuously conceived son Sinfjotli, plot to avenge their father. Sigmund and Sinfjotli, preparing for their task, have adventures as violent outlaws and werewolves until they are finally able to complete the task. By another wife, Borghild, Sigmund has another son, Helgi Hundginsbane, who in some poems will eventually avenge Sigmund's death. Sinfjotli has a quarrel with Borghild's brother about a woman that escalates until Sinfjotli kills him; and then Borghild poisons Sinfjotli. Sigmund will be slain by Odin himself in battle (it is a sign of his prowess that Odin collects Sigmund himself), but not before he has given his second wife, Hjordis, a son, who is Sigurd.

Sigurd will also eventually avenge Sigmund's death, and when he has done so will, of course, slay Fafnir the dragon for Regin, and then Regin himself, becoming wise from eating the dragon's heart and wealthy from the dragon's gold -- but he has thereby meshed himself in a curse that will destroy him. He will meet Brynhild, a Valkyrie, and pledge union with her, but he will be given a potion of oblivion and tricked into winning Brynhild for another man, Gunnar, while Sigurd weds Gudrun, Gunnar's sister. As a wedding gift, Sigurd gives Gudrun some of the dragon's heart, which makes more wise -- but also more cruel. She taunts Brynhild, who thereby discovers that she was tricked, and Brynhild plots her revenge, urging Gunnar to violate his own vows and kill Sigurd. He cannot break his vows directly, but he uses an enchanted brew to get his younger brother Guttorm to do it; Guttorm, of course, will be killed by Sigurd in killing him. Brynhild will also kill Sigurd's son, and immolate herself on a funeral pyre.

Gudrun will go on to marry Atli, that is, Attila, king of the Huns. It will be a very unhappy marriage, and since Gudrun, like the Volsung family she had previously married into, cannot do unhappy like a normal person, the inevitable end result will be Gudrun cooking her sons with Atli and feeding the dish to him, and killing Atli by locking him in his hall and setting it on fire. Some families are dysfunctional; the Volsungs are epically dysfunctional.

Another marriage will follow with a king who is apparently not quite familiar with Gudrun's backstory; she will marry Jonak, a king of the Geats. The daughter of Sigurd and Gudrun, Svanhild, the most beautiful woman in the world, will then be married to Jormunrekk, the king of the Goths, but she will be maliciously accused of adultery with the king's son, and will be executed by being trampled to death by horses. Gudrun will convince her sons by Jonak to avenge Svanhild's death, which they will by cutting off Jonak's hands and feet; but they will be stoned to death in retaliation.

As it turns out, Sigurd and Brynhild had an illegitimate daughter, Áslaug, who will eventually marry a Danish prince, Ragnar, called Lothbrok, "Shaggy Pants", because he had worn shaggy pants to protect him when slaying a dragon. Eirik and Agnar, Ragnar's sons by a previous marriage, die in battle against King Eystein of Sweden, who has a demonic cow whose mooing drives men mad. With some difficulty, Áslaug convinces her own sons to avenge their half-brothers, which they do. Then the sons of Ragnar go a-raiding and keep conquering everything. They are called back when King Ragnar is killed by King Ella while foolishly trying to invade England with two ships. Ívar, the cautious and cunning elder brother, infuriates his brothers when he refuses to aid them in an assault on King Ella. Their assault fails, and Ívar goes to Ella, saying that he will let it all go in return for being well compensated, and Ella does it. Ívar then uses his wealth to become powerful and influential in Ella's kingdom, siphoning off Ella's support, then sends a message to his brothers, who return to avenge their father on the much-weakened Ella. Ívar, of course, stays out of it, thus by one plan becoming even more wealthy and powerful, avenging his father, and fulfilling his oath of peace with his father's killer. The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok has a wonderfully striking ending: many, many years later some Danish sailors end up on an island where they find an ancient wooden idol, forty feet high, and while they are wondering about its history it speaks to them and says that it was set there by the sons of Ragnar.

Except for the tale of Ragnar, I had read much of this before. A few things particularly jumped out at me during this reading. The occasional similarities between the hero Volund and Daedelus, or between Brynhild and Medea, for instance. Another was the artistry of the Volsunga Saga; the author was pulling together from many sources and it is noticeable to emphasize the seams where he doesn't seem to quite pull it together smoothly. The most commonly noted case is the baffling chiasm of events in which Sigurd rides through the fire to meet Brynhild, then later meets Brynhild, apparently for the first time, then later rides through the fire, explicitly for the first time. But this is somewhat misleading, because the craft of it is extraordinary -- little details end up mattering all through the story. The quiet statement about Gudrun becoming not only more clever but more cruel when she tastes the dragon's heart ends up putting all of her later actions into different perspective, and part of the effectiveness is precisely the quietness with which it is done. The saga is filled with examples of this. Even the meeting of Sigurd and Brynhild is carefully structured in such a way that I think there's room to suggest that perhaps the author's problem was not failing to stitch the material together adequately but doing so in a more subtle way than we the readers have been able to follow. As for the tale of Ragnar, it is great fun.

It's interesting, too, the world it depicts: a world of very casual violence in which one's word is held sacred. People would rather murder or be murdered than break their vows,and much of the tragedy of Sigurd lies in the wickedness by which Sigurd is made to break his vows without knowing it. Indeed, it is framed in such a way that it is clear that it is the most tragic part. One thinks of how much of the doom of Asgard is due to the deceptions by which Odin and the gods have maintained it. Such a world in which the greatest horror is to be false, not to die, is foreign to us; we live in the world of Loki, a world of people who will gladly lie and break promises to get not only out of death but out of pain or inconvenience. It is not the most important aspect of reading great literature, but one of the things of value one gets from it is seeing oneself more clearly, for better or for worse, both one's advantages and one's disadvantages, by the contrast with something else entirely. One gets a considerable amount of that here.

Favorite Passages: From Guthrunarkvitha I, in The Poetic Edda:

Then Guthrun,
daughter of Gjuki, wept.
She wept, the tears
poured from her eyes,
and the flock of geese
which she kept outside
screamed loudly
in response. (p. 269)

From The Saga of the Volsungs, a passage that captures the dry, matter-of-fact humor of the sagas at their best:

Sigurð said, "What will happen to me if I get the dragon's blood on me?"

Regin said, "There's just no getting you to do anything, since you're afraid of everything. You are nothing like your departed kinsmen when it comes to courage." Then Regin fled in terror, and Sigurð rode up on Gnitaheið and dug a pit. (p. 31)

From The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok:

The Swedes had a superstition about a cow they called Síbilja. So many sacrifices had been made to this cow that no one could withstand the terrible sounds it made. And it was the king's custom, when he expected war, to let this cow lead his troops, and so much demonic power was in this cow that Eystein's enemies, when they heard it, were driven so crazy that they fought among themselves and did not heed their own friends. And for this reason the Swedes were left in peace, because no man dared to fight against such overwhelming power. (p. 101)

Recommendation: Highly Recommended, all three.


The Poetic Edda, Jackson Crawford, ed. & tr., Hackett (Indianapolis, IN: 2015).

The Saga of the Volsungs, with The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, Jackson Crawford, tr., Hackett (Indianapolis, IN: 2017).

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