The legends and literature that came out of the Dark Ages are rich and stirring tales of heroism that have inspired both great art and terrible crimes. In this episode, I retell three stories from the many contained in the sagas and epics of Germany and Scandinavia.
Hello and Welcome to the Dark Ages Podcast. Today’s episode: The Germanic Heroes.
Somewhere back in the various taglines and summaries that are attached to this show, I said something about myths and legends. That would strongly suggest that we would be talking at some point about myths and legends that come down to us from the early middle ages. But up to this point, there has been barely a whiff, barely a whimper, indeed, not even a soupcon. This makes me worry, and feel that I have not delivered as I promised. And today I shall resolve those worries and anxieties. Today we’re not looking at the actual history of the Early Middle ages, but at the literature that came to be written about the early middle ages. It’s a big subject, and I’m going to tell some of the stories, so this is a big episode. Light on hard history facts, but hopefully still fun. I hope you’ll indulge me.
Sometime in the 13th and 14th centuries, poets began to write down the tales that circulated around Germany and Scandinavia, sung by minstrels and skalds. Some of these were fanciful tales of mythical heroes, others concerned real historical people, their history passed down and … adjusted over the centuries. All of them were set, at least implicitly, in the years of turmoil that followed the end of Roman rule in the west. The time, the Migration period, late antiquity, whatever you want to call it, functioned as a heroic age for this German literature. As France pulled together stories of Charlemagne, Roland, and Oliver, and England and Wales gathered Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, the poets and singers of Germany pulled together their own cast of characters, like Dietrich von Bern, Etzel, and Gunther. Those may be unfamiliar names, but we’ve met all of them before on this show. Pushed through the centuries-old game of telephone that is oral tradition, these are Theodoric the Great, Attila the Hun, and Gundahar, the first known king of the Burgundians. They’re joined by a cast of legendary or purely mythical characters, like Siegfried and Hildebrandt.
As an oral tradition, this corpus of stories and pseudo-histories made its way through the traditions of central Europe into Scandinavia, where they were further elaborated and given local flavor, and from there to Britain and Iceland.
There’s an ongoing discussion about the relationship between the Germanic epics and Christianity, with some of the opinion that these represent an entirely pagan tradition with a Christian gloss laid over it. Certainly the Scandinavian bards that told these stories and carved them onto rune stones were pagans, and probably contributed a pagan outlook and added some characters to the original tales. But we have to remember that the two clearly historical antecedents, Theodoric and Gundahar, were both Christians, and their people had been for several generations. The story from the period that everyone wants to tell is the story of how Christianity co-opted, sublimated, and subsequently eliminated preexisting pagan myths and traditions. But Christianity and the various flavors of paganism existed side by side for a long time, and the influence ran both ways. In this case we seem to have Christian characters being adopted by a pagan literary tradition, and then being brought back into Christian stories, at least in the case of the Scandinavian corpus.
Works like the Thiedriksaga transmitted the stories of Theodoric; the Nibelungenlied carried a story of the destruction of the Burgundian Kingdom in the fifth century. Norse poets recapitulated the legends in their own idiom, producing the Eddas, and from them, the Volsungs Saga. All together they represent one of the great medieval literary traditions, to set alongside the Song of Roland, Le Roman de la Rose, or the stories of El Cid.
Like those stories, these saw a flowering of interest in the nineteenth century, as Romantic and Nationalist movements sought to define the history and character of English, French, Spaniard, and German. Nothing wrong with that, the impulse created great literature and art and helped fuel the democratization of Europe. But in Germany, by the end of the 19th and into the 20th century, things were, to put it mildly, perhaps taken a bit too far. We’ll talk about that a little more at the end of the episode.
All of these are literature first, not history. The stories of Dietrich von Bern in particular are pretty much totally untethered from reality, and were recognized as hogwash at the time of their composition, and the subject of po-faced disapproval. Thomas Hodgkin, Victorian biographer of Theodoric, put it this way when writing on the subject, “I will not harass the reader by continual repetitions of the phrase ‘It is said’ or ‘it is fabled’, but I will ask him to understand … that the story so told is a mere romance, having hardly any connection with the actual history of Theodoric, or with any other event that has happened on the planet.” Hodgkin could be delightfully bitchy at times, but he is entirely right.
Some of them may carry a trace of their real-life inspirations, or at least provide a glimpse of the worldview of the time from which they spring. Maybe perhaps. I’m not going to spend too much time pointing out the political and cultural mindset of the stories, I think they speak for themselves.
I will start with a story of Dietrich von Bern from the Thiedreksaga, written sometime in the 13th or early 14th century, either in Iceland or Norway.
Legend tells of a powerful king that rules from Verona. He’s a mighty warrior, the enemy of giants and of wild men. By the treachery of his evil uncle, the king is forced out of his kingdom, and must flee into exile at the court of Attila the Hun, where he plots to recover his kingdom and take his revenge. Sound like anyone we know? No, of course it doesn’t, but we have spent the last eight blessed episodes with him. It’s Theodoric the Great as he appears in the Germanic Heroic Legend, under the name Dietrich von Bern. Dietrich appears in both continental German and Scandinavian sources, sometimes as protagonist, sometimes as a supporting character. This is the story of how Dietrich acquired his helmet and sword.
My source for the story, by the way, is the aforementioned Thomas Hodgkin’s 1891 Theodoric the Goth: Barbarian Champion of Civilization. I have abridged and selected for time and interest, obviously, and put my own style on the thing, as I have for all three of the stories I’ve included in this episode.
In Italy there were two brothers, the sons of a strong and warlike king. The elder, named Ermanric, was made by his father the lord of Rome, of all the country round it, and even as far as Greece. The younger, whose name was Dietmar, had been given for his part the Rule of the city of Verona and the lands around it, all the way to Hungary.
Dietmar married a well loved woman of Verona named Odilia, and together they had a son, who they named Dietrich. When he grew up, Dietrich, though not a giant, was much larger than ordinary men, and very handsome, with dark eyes and long, flowing hair. He never wore a beard, but like the other men of his tribe, a mustache. His shoulders were broad, his arms as thick as the trunks of trees and hard as stone. And his body was equalled by the strength of his mind. He was brave, jovial, good-tempered, magnificent, and generous, and so he had many friends, who he rewarded richly and honored highly.
One of these was a knight named Hildebrand, the son of the Duke of Venice. He was older than Dietrich, but the two became fast companions, and it was Hildebrand who taught the young prince to fight. Though Hildebrand was also strong in mind and body, his student soon surpassed him in skill at arms, and the two went together on many adventures around the kingdom.
One day Dietrich and Hildebrand were hunting in the forest, when they crossed paths with a dwarf, a small, thieving thing, named Alpris. They caught him and were ready to kill the wretch, when Alpris cried out “If you spare me, noble sirs, I can get you the finest sword ever made, and I can show you where to find treasure that will make you even richer than your father the king!”
“Where is this treasure, creature?” demanded Dietrich.
“It belongs to a woman called Hildur and her husband Grimur. Grimur is strong enough to fight twelve men all at the same time, but his wife is even stronger than him. You will need all your strength to overcome them, but I can see that you two knights are equal to the task. Let me go, let me go, and I will show you the way to the cave where they dwell.”
Neither Dietrich nor Hildebrand were the kind of men to turn down such a challenge. They each swore great oaths to defeat these monsters – for monsters they must surely be – and released Alpris the dwarf, telling him to meet them later, so they could finish their hunting.
When he was free, Alpris went straight to work. He ran to Hildur and Grimur’s cave and snuck in, using all the cunning and deception of his dwarvish race. He found Grimur’s sword, called Nagelring, and was waiting with it when Dietrich and Hildebrand met him at the agreed spot. When Alpris presented the sword, both the knights marveled at it, and agreed they had never seen anything to equal it, its edge, its balance, its strength, were all beyond compare. Dietrich took the sword, and he and Hildebrand dismounted and followed Alpris to the cave.
When Grimur saw the strangers entering his cave, he looked around for Nagelring, but it was missing. Cursing the dwarf, he instead took a burning log from the fire and attacked Dietrich with it, and pressed him hard. Blow after fiery blow was aimed at the prince of Verona, and it was only his great skill and the strength of Nagelring that kept him alive. Hildebrand meanwhile was taken by surprise by Hildur, who seized him from behind, and wrestled him to the ground. Hildur was indeed more powerful than her husband, and soon had the knight pinned and helpless. Hildur squeezed Hildebrand, squeezed him so hard the blood came out from under his fingernails. She sat on him and pressed her fist to his throat, so he could barely breathe, barely call out to Dietrich for help. Dietrich did hear his cry, and seeing his friend so endangered, with a mighty blow he struck off the head of Grimur, and rushed to his aid. Swinging Nagelring in a shining arc, he cut Hildur in two. Hildebrand scrambled out from under her. But Hildur had strong magic, and her two halves immediately knit back together. Amazed, Dietrich struck again, and again the two halves were magically healed. Hildebrand called to Dietrich, “Stand between the halves!” Dietrich swung again, and this time stepped into the space opened by his sword, and prevented the two halves from rejoining. The half with Hildur’s head lived on for a moment after this sundering, and was heard to curse her husband and the fates, saying “if the fates had willed Grimur to fight as stoutly against Dietrich as I did against Hildebrand, the victory would have been ours.” At that, Hildur died, and Dietrich and Hildebrand stood in awe of her bravery.
Their opponents vanquished, the knights searched the cave, and found that the dwarf had told the truth, it was full of gold and silver and all kinds of other riches. Most importantly there was a helmet, made by Malpriant the dwarf, and so valued by the monstrous couple they had given it their names combined: Hildegrimur. Armed with Nagelring and Hildegrimur, Dietrich did many great feats of arms, and his fame spread. It spread through Italy, and out across the wide world, and brought young fighting men, thirsting for glory, to join him. He was known as the greatest of all warriors, even equalling those of the court of King Arthur.
I doubt I need to point out the casual violence of the tale, which is a feature of much Medieval literature. There’s not much in the way of courtly love to soften the warriors’ impulses here. The reference to King Arthur’s court at the end is the only sign of that, and is fairly unusual in the Germanic Legends; there’s usually not much crossover with the other great literary cycles of the Middle Ages, those of Arthur and Roland. They do intersect with each other though, with characters shared across multiple stories. Dietrich is a fine example; later in Thiedriksaga he is driven from his kingdom and forced to find refuge in the court of Attila the Hun. He’ll be back later on.
Like comic book characters, Germanic heroes are brought together, sent off on solo adventures, and die, only to be brought back for back for the next reboot … um … poetic epic. One of the most popular across both Scandinavian and Continental stories is Siegfried. Quick note on nomenclature before one of you emails me about this: in the interests of clarity and keeping track of characters that appear in multiple stories, I’m going to be using the Germanic forms of everyone’s names. In the Norse versions, characters often appear with different names, kind of like Greek Gods and Roman Gods, different names, but lots of them are the same. Most notably, in the Norse works our Siegfried is known as Sigurd, but I will be referring to him as Siegfried throughout.
Siegfried is the quintessential Germanic hero. Unlike Dietrich, he is most likely completely fictional, though some have suggested that he’s derived from Arminius, the Germanic chief who defeated Varus in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, or from a Merovingian king named Sigebert, who we have not gotten to yet. He appears in both Scandinavian and Continental tales, and like St. George and Beowulf, Siegfried is a dragon-slayer.
I’m going to tell the story of his early life as it appears in the Volsunga Saga, up to the slaying of that dragon. The Saga was written in old norse in Iceland. The oldest extant manuscript of the complete work is from around 1400, and appears to have been compiled from parts of the older Poetic Edda and other works, both written and oral. The oldest pictorial depiction of the Volsungs is older, appearing on a runestone in Sweden, dated to around 1030. Along with the Nibelungenlied – coming soon to a podcast near you – the Volsungs Saga formed the core of revived interest in medieval Germanic literature in the Romantic 19th century, and was translated and adapted several times, into English by William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien, among many others. I’m using William Morris’ 1888 translation as my jumping off point. Watch out for the arrival of some of that Scandinavian myth in the first part. There is much much more to the thing, with sprawling genealogies and enough incident and adventure to keep a D&D party busy for two dozen sessions.
There was a mighty warrior named Sigmund, son of Volsung. He loved and married a woman named Hjordis. But another, Lyngi, son of Hunding, had also desired Hjordis, and he and his brothers attacked them, and Sigmund was killed by his rival, though Lyngi did not win the prize of Hjordis. All the house of Volsung were killed, except for Hjordis, who was pregnant, and fled to safety in the house of king Hjalprek, where she gave birth to a son, named Siegfried.
Siegfried grew up tall and fair, strong and generous. Hjalprek honored him with his own generosity, and raised him well in the manners of his country. Among those who shared in the raising of Siegfried was the king’s smith, a man named Regin.
When Siegfried was a young man, he set off into the forest to find himself a horse from among the king’s herd. While in the woods, he crossed paths with Odin himself, disguised as a wanderer. Impressed by the young prince, Odin gave him a horse to replace the one het, named Grani, the greatest horse in the mortal realm. When he saw the animal, Regin knew that this boy would be able to meet any challenge. He had always known Siegfried was exceptional, and now with Grani, he would be unstoppable as long as he remained wise and brave. So, to challenge Siegfried, he told him a story.
Regin had two brothers, Otr, and Fafnir. Otr had the gift of shape-shifting, and often swam in the river in the form of an otter. Fafnir was large, brave, and strong. Regin himself was a skilled iron-worker. One unlucky day, the gods Odin, Loki, and Hoenir were fishing, and they caught Otr in his animal form, skinned and ate him. Otr’s father was outraged, but obviously could not start a blood-feud with the gods. Instead he demanded that in compensation, the otters skin should be filled with gold and given to him. The gods agreed, and Loki went to the dwarf Andvari, stole enough gold to pay the debt, and delivered it to the grieving father. But Loki, being Loki, included in the payment the seed of disaster. He set a curse on one of the rings in the treasure, any who owned the ring would die before his time.
It did not take long for the poison seed to sprout. Fafnir, who had always been bad tempered and prone to take offense, killed his father and hid his body. He stole the gold and fled with it to the wilderness.
Regin was left an orphan, having lost his father, his brother, and now without even his inheritance as compensation. He took his skills to the king, and served him as his smith, and it was there that he was given the task of Siegfried’s upbringing.
Meanwhile, Fafnir brooded over the stolen treasure, he didn’t spend it, as he could not bear to part with it, and his obsession and his guilt twisted his body, until he became a great wingless dragon, a Wyrm, who guarded his hoard and poisoned the very ground around him with his hatred.
When Regin had finished telling Siegfried this story, Siegfried was much moved by the tale, and swore that once he had avenged his own father’s murder, he would help Regin take vengeance for his father and reclaim the gold that was his birthright. To that end, Regin went to his forge and made a sword, putting, he thought, all of his art into the task. When it was done, Siegfried tested the blade, striking it against the anvil. The sword shattered, and Siegfried was left holding nothing but a hilt and guard. Regin made another, and gave it to Siegfried, saying, “You will be content with this one, no matter how hard you test it.” Siegfried swung against the anvil again, and again the sword broke.
Siegfried looked at the smith, scorn now creeping into his voice, “Are you a liar like your brother, Regin?” Without waiting for an answer, Siegfried left and went to find his mother elsewhere in the castle. He asked her whether it was true that she still kept the broken pieces of his father’s sword, called Gram. She said it was, and went to the chest and got the two pieces of Gram’s blade, broken in her husband’s final battle, and wrapped in fine cloth. She presented them to her son, saying, “With these, I do not doubt that you will gain great fame.”
Siegfried took the pieces to Regin, and said, “Take these shards, and make the best sword your art can make.”
Regin, stewing over the earlier insults to his work, put all his indignation along with all of his craft into forging the pieces of Gram into a new sword for Siegfried. When it was done, all the workers in the forge marveled at it, for it seemed as if fire flickered on its edges. Regin took it to the prince. Siegfried again swung the sword at the anvil, but this time the anvil gave way, and was split all the way down to the stump on which it stood, and the sword was neither broken nor bent. Immediately after, Siegfried cast a clump of wool into a stream and let it drift down against the blade, and the wool was cleft in two. Regin, satisfied with his work, said, “I have made you the sword you wanted, now will you keep to your word and go and meet Fafnir?”
And Siegfried said, “I shall indeed, once I have avenged my father.”
Siegfried went to the king, and said “From you I have had great love and gifts and honor, and for those I owe you praise and reward. But the time has come for me to leave and meet my father’s killers in battle, and I would ask that you add your might to mine in that undertaking.”
The king promised Siegfried all he could ask for and more, men, arms, and ships. Siegfried himself steered the largest dragon ship, through storm and waves until they reached the lands of Siegfried’s ancestors. Lygni and his brothers, the sons of Hunding, raised their army and came against the forces of Siegfried. A fierce fight followed. Many a spear and many an arrow were cast in the air, axes hard driven, shields cleft and hauberks torn, helmets were shivered, skulls split in twain, and many a man fell onto the cold earth. Siegfried was in the center, and so many of the men of the Hundings fell before him that they were beyond counting. Soon the sons of Hunding came against them, and Siegfried smote Lygni through helm and head, and then his brother Hjorward, and all the men of the Hundings, until there were none left to oppose him. So did Siegfried avenge the death of his father Sigmund, and increase his own fame and glory.
Returning to the castle that had been his home, Regin stopped him to ask whether he now would remember his oath, now that his fathers’ killer was dead, and help Regin take his own vengeance. Siegfried agreed, as he had always intended, and the two set out into the forest, to find the dragon’s hiding place. Soon they found a cliff above a river, thirty feet high, from which Fafnir was accustomed to reach down and drink the flowing water. At the top of the cliff they found the signs of the beast, where he lay at the edge of the cliff. Regin said to Siegfried, “You should dig here a pit, and lying inside it, wait for the wyrm my brother to pass over your head, and when he does, strike upward with the sword I have made you, into the soft part of the monster’s belly.”
“If I am sitting at the bottom of a pit when I let loose the dragon’s blood,” said Siegfried, “I am like to be drowned by the deluge. I shall dig several pits, so that none may overfill, and I shall then not be in danger of drowning in such a way.”
“Do as you see fit,” said Regin, “Though I wonder that one such as you should be so afraid of such a petty thing.” But shortly thereafter Regin left the top of the cliff, and withdrew to safety, for it is the case that he accuses one of cowardice is the more guilty of it.
Siegfried set to work and soon had dug half a dozen pits, and hid himself in the deepest and greatest.
Soon all the forest round went silent, and Siegfried knew that Fafnir approached. The great beast dragged itself toward the cliff-top, his breath was poison and his glance struck men dumb with dread. Siegfried waited, Gram in his hand. As was his habit, Fafnir laid his body down along the cliff, and so covered the pits that Siegfried had dug. Upward thrust Gram, driven by the might of Siegfried’s arm into the soft flesh beneath the dragon’s arm, so hard that sword, wrist, and arm disappeared into the great body, up to the hero’s shoulder, and when he withdrew, great gouts of blood indeed poured forth, as he had predicted. It had a wondrous effect. Every part of Siegfried’s skin that the blood touched was changed, became hard as horn, and no blade thereafter would pierce it.
Fafnir writhed and thrashed, and splintered trees and split stones all around in his death-throes. Knowing the wound was mortal, he demanded to know who it was that had killed him. Siegfried answered, “No one living is my kin, I have neither father nor mother, and have come here all alone.” He answered thus fearing that, knowing his true name, the wyrm might curse him with his dying breath.
“If you have neither father or mother, in what wondrous way were you born? Though I lie here dying, I know truly that you lie to me.”
Siegfried relented, “My name is Siegfried, son of Sigmund.”
“And who has made you do this deed, Siegfried, son of Sigmund?”
“My own heart urged me to the deed, aided by the strength of my arm and the edge of this blade, which you now know well.”
“You lie again, I know that you have grown up among my own kin, a bondsman taken in battle. The real marvel is that you should have the heart to take up arms against me, as few bondsmen have such courage.”
“You throw in my teeth that I have no kin, and bondsman maybe I have been, but never have I been shackled. God knows you have found me free enough today.”
Fafnir sighed. “You hear my words with anger, but take heed, the gold that has been mine shall be your bane as well. Take my counsel, Siegfried son of Sigmund, and never again ride in ships, for if you chance to cross the seas, you will surely be drowned. I know in truth that it was Regin, my brother who has brought about my death, and it gladdens my heart to know that he will bring about your death as well, as is his will. Take heed, ride away from here with all speed. In my lair you will find gold enough for all the days of your life, but I say again that it shall be the bane of your life, and the bane of anyone after who owns it.”
“I would take your advice,” said Siegfried, “If I thought that by doing so I could live forever, but death comes to every man, and it seems to me better to have gold than to not have it. Go now, Fafnir, die, and may hell take thee.”
And so did Fafnir die.
Regin reappeared, and came to Siegfried, and said, “Hail, conqueror! You have done a deed that will stand in renown as long as the world is.” But after gazing upon the corpse for a while, he said quietly and heavily, “My own brother you have slain, and I can hardly be called blameless of the deed.”
Siegfried cleaned Gram, and said to Regin, “I strove with this beast by my own might, while you hid in a bush alone.”
“How would you have fared had I not forged this sharp sword of yours? Without it, neither you or any other man could have prevailed against Fafnir.”
“Stout heart is better than sharp sword when foes are met.”
Regin shook his head and said again, heavily, “My own brother you have killed, and I can hardly be called blameless of the deed.” Regin bent down and brought a bit of Fafnir’s blood to his mouth, then said, “Grant to me a boon, cut out this beast’s heart, and roast it on a fire, and give it to me to eat.”
Siegfried did, built a fire and spitted the dragon’s heart on a rod. When it began to cook, a bit of the blood bubbled out, and Siegfried blotted it with his finger. It burned him, and unthinking he put the finger in his mouth. As soon as the dragon’s blood touched his tongue, the speech of all the birds was made as clear to him as his own mother tongue. He heard the woodpeckers in the brush beside him, chattering, and saying, “There you sit, Siegfried, roasting that heart for another when you should eat it yourself.”
Another answered, “And there sits Regin, planning to betray the one who trusts him.”
A third, “Let him strike off his head then, and be only lord of the gold.”
And a fourth, “A wise man would do so, that would be the wisest course.”
“Not so wise to leave alive one whose brother he has already killed!”
Siegfried heeded the counsel of the birds, and said to himself, “Never shall Regin be Siegfried’s bane, these two brothers shall travel the same road.” And he turned, drew Gram from its sheath, and struck off Regin’s head.
He then ate some of Fafnir’s heart, and kept the remainder, and rode off to find the treasure. He found the dragon’s lair open, and fashioned with great doors and columns, though looked like no more than a cavern from outside, and inside he found more gold than two or even three horses could carry. He knew that Grani, his horse, was the finest of all horses, and so loaded all the gold into bags and laid them across Grani’s back, then mounted, and the great steed sped him home as if he carried nothing at all. And the tale of the deed was spread far and wide.
Siegfried rides on to further adventures, and that helpfully brings me to the Nibelungenlied.
The Nibelungenlied, broadly, tells the story of the destruction of the first Burgundian kingdom by the Huns. Like all these tales, it takes grand historical forces and movement and compresses them into much more comprehensible, personal factors and motivations. Love, jealousy, pride, ambition. It centers on Kriemhild, sister of king Gunther, and princess of the Burgundians, and Siegfried, who in this version is head of a clan called the Nibelungen, and rules in the low countries.
The Nibelungenlied’s form, middle High German in paired couplets with a caesura in the middle, leads scholars to date the poem around 1200. Its poet is anonymous. It’s tenuously connected to the court of the bishop of Passau, who may have patronized its author, but just about anything specific about its creation is educated guesswork. The warrior ethos remains, now with just a smidge of the Chivalric romance overlaid on it now.
Now often called Germany’s national epic, the poem was largely forgotten between the 16th and 18th centuries. It is of course the core of Richard Wagner’s four opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, but ironically, Wagner drew more on the Scandinavian versions of the characters. If you don’t think you’ve heard of Der Ring des Nibelungen, I promise you, you have.
For this one I used two sources, a translation from 1999 by Margaret Armour, which I think was her dissertation, but I may be wrong about that, and an earlier translation from 1904 by George Henry Needler, who went ahead and rendered it in rhymed couplets in the meter of the original, so that one is necessarily a looser translation. When I break into rhyme, which, fair warning, I will, I’m quoting Needler.
That brings up something you may be wondering about, what did all this stuff sound like? It was probably sung, accompanied by instruments, and most are written with repeating phrases, to aid the memory of the singer. Just for a flavor of the language, here is stanza 184 of the Nibelungenlied in the original middle German. Pray for me.
Nu het ouch in her Liudgast | vientlich erchorn
ir ross si namen beide | cen siten mit den sporn
si neigten uf di scilde | di scefte mit ir chraft
des wart der kvnec riche | mit grozen sorgen behaft
The poem is epic in length as well as in scope, over 2000 stanzas, depending on the manuscript version you’re using. It’s divided into two main sections, the first telling how Siegfried came to the Rhineland and married Kriemhild, only to be murdered; the second section tells how Kriemhild took her revenge. In the first draft of this episode, I told the whole story, but it’s far too long, so I’ll summarize the first part and do the full adaptation thing on the second part.
Kriemhild vowed never to marry, and would not be swayed from the vow. Siegfried, in this version the head of the Nibelung clan and a king in the low countries, heard tales of the beautiful princess who no man could win, and declared that he would win her for himself, and no other wife would do. Had he not slain the great wyrm Fafnir? Surely no challenge was beyond him, so he rode south to King Gunther’s court at Worms. They welcomed him with all the honor and friendship that one of his reputation was due, but would not allow him to meet, or even to see, the princess Kriemhild. Nevertheless, he and his companion knights stayed in Gunther’s court for a full turn of the year, for Siegfried was not easily dissuaded.
He fought with the King and his brothers, and did many great feats of arms, even taking the king of Saxons prisoner. Hearing of his exploits, Kriemhild at last agreed to see the visitor.
So when the army returned in glory, Siegfried saw before him the fair and stately maid. The two loved each other at first sight, and wished to marry, but Gunther would at first not allow it. Finally Gunther agreed that if Siegfried would help him win the queen of Iceland, Brunhilde, as his bride, then Siegfried and Kriemhild could marry.
Brunhilde was a powerful queen, who had vowed not to marry any man whom she could beat in a contest of strength, and many had tried and failed. But with the help of Siegfried and a magic cloak, Gunther was able to beat her. But on their wedding night, suspecting she had been tricked, Brunhild beat Gunther and left him tied up. Again Gunther sought Siegfried’s help. Siegfried overpowered Brunhilde, and took her belt and ring – implying that he had slept with her. Afterwards Brunhilde lost her heroic strength.
Brunhilde and Kriemhild squabbled about precedence as well, because Brunhilde believed Siegfried to be Gunther’s vassal, and that she should therefore take precedence over Kriemhild. But Gunther and Siegfried are equal in rank. The row intensified until Kriemhild insulted Brunhilde, calling her Siegfried’s mistress. Gunther smoothed things over, and years passed, but Hagen kept a grudge on his master’s behalf, and planned to take revenge on Siegfried. Gunther at first wanted no part of it, but eventually gave way to Hagen, and quietly approved his plan.
Hagen rode to Worms, announcing loudly that the Danes planned an attack on the Burgundians. Again Siegfried offered to help his friend and brother-in-law. Kriemhild feared for her husband’s life. His skin was as hard as horn from the dragon’s blood, but she knew that there was one spot where the blood did not touch, where he was vulnerable. Hagen tricked her into marking the spot on the back of Siegfried’s surcoat with a cross, saying that the holy symbol will protect the unprotected spot.
The campaign against the Danes was called off, and instead the court went hunting. During the hunt, Hagen killed Siegfried with a javelin, aimed at the cross on his back. To add insult to injury, Hagen stole the treasure of the Niebelungs, which was Kriemhild’s rightful inheritance. Kriemhild came to be reconciled with Gunther, her royal brother, but never with Hagen. She swore revenge, and many years passed.
Meanwhile, Etzel, the king of the Huns, sought a new wife, and sent his emissaries to the Rhineland, to court Kriemhild. A deal was struck, and Kriemhild rode with a great company eastward to meet her new husband.
He met her at the Danube, accompanied by twenty four great lords that swore him homage, both his own people and lords of Wallachia, Denmark, and Thuringia. All together they celebrated with a tournament and joust, before moving on to Vienna. In that city they met another of Etzel’s liegemen, a knight called Dietrich von Bern. (Told you he’d come back) In Vienna they were married, Etzel and Kriemhild, and distributed generous gifts to all around, rich beyond the telling.
Seven years passed, and Kriemhild lived at Etzel’s court, and the knights and people of the land grew to love her, for she was generous and good, and they gave her their loyalty freely. To the joy of them all, Kriemhild bore a son, a prince of the Huns, and she insisted he be baptized, and named him Ortlieb. But she never forgot the wrong that had been done, and every day pondered how she might take her revenge.
When she was assured that Etzel’s knights were as true to her as they were to him, Kriemhild beseeched the king to send messengers to her brother’s court, and invite them to visit them in Hunland. Etzel loved his wife without reservation, and had no inkling of her secret desires. He agreed readily and sent messengers to Worms. When they arrived and gave their invitation, Gunther was ready to make the journey, but Hagen was suspicious, and said to the king,
“The deed we two committed, you are full aware,
We shall from her forever have reasons for to fear.
For that her sometime husband I slew by my own hand
How dare we ever journey then into Etzel’s land?”
Gunther suspected nothing, believing he and Kriemhild were reconciled. But Hagen persisted in his warning.
“Now be thou not deceived,” he said, “say what may
The messengers from Hunland. If thither be thy way,
At Kriemhild’s hands you lose honor and life
For full long-avenging, is royal Etzel’s wife.”
But Gunther was unmoved, and so he, Hagen, his brothers and other knights, traveled east to Etzel’s lands.
When they drew near, Dietrich, together with his liege man Hildebrandt, rode to greet them. Dietrich warned the Burgundians that Kriemhild still mourned Siegfried, and that they had put themselves in grave danger by coming to the lands of the Huns. But Gunther and Hagen would not be turned back after such a long journey, and so rode on to Etzel’s halls. Along the way many gathered to see the arrival of these knights, especially Hagen, whose fame as Siegfried’s killer had spread even to those far lands.
When they came to the Huns’ stronghold, Kriemhild came out to greet them, she kissed her younger brother, Giselher, and took him by the hand, but made no sign to Hagen of Tronje. He felt the threat in her indifference, plain as a bare blade. Kriemhild scolded Hagen, that he should have the whole of the treasure of the Nibelungs, yet brought no gift for his hostess. Hagen replied that his arms and armor were too heavy, he could not carry anything more. She tried to convince the knights to give up their weapons before they entered the hall, but they refused, and Dietrich rebuked her for her lack of hospitality. Burning with shame, Kriemhild withdrew, and the Burgundians entered Etzel’s stronghold.
Kriemhild gathered twenty knights, all loyal to her, and bade them be ready, for she planned to accuse Hagen of Siegfried’s murder. They all swore to help her in her vengeance. But a minstral who heard this plan snuck away and warned Hagen. The knight of Burgundy was contemptuous, and ostentatiously laid his sword upon his knees where he sat in the courtyard. Kriemhild saw that it was Siegfried’s sword, and rage fired her still further, though she would not have believed it possible to hate one as much as she hated Hagen.
The time came, and she made her accusation,
“Tell me Hagen, whatsoever did you do that
Earned my everlasting hate?
‘Twas you who slew Siegfried, spouse so dear to me
Which, til my life is ended, must ever cause for weeping be.”
Hagen held his head high and made his answer,
“Why parley further, since words will be in vain?
I am that same Hagen, by whom Siegfried was slain.”
Kriemhild cried out to the knights who had sworn to help her, “See, he denies it not!” But the nerve of each and every one failed them as they beheld Hagen in person, whose deeds were well known. So Kriemhild was compelled again to withdraw, weeping.
Hagen returned to Gunther and his brothers. Together they entered and were greeted by Etzel, who assured them of his friendship, for he did not share his wife’s quarrel with them. The king bade them sleep safely, for they were under his protection, but nonetheless, Gunther and Hagen posted guards around their lodgings. The air was full of foreboding. Etzel brought in his son, young Ortlieb, Kriemhild’s only child, and proposed that he return to Worms, to be fostered in honor at Gunther’s court. But Hagen muttered a dark prophecy, that Ortlieb would never grow to manhood, and he, Hagen, would never serve him.
In the meanwhile, Kriemhild’s knights gathered outside the hall, and started a fight with the Burgundian men, seeking to wipe out the shame of their earlier hesitance. Word of the brawl came to the nobles in the great hall, and no sooner did word arrive, so did deed, and Hun and Burgundian fought each other within the walls and without. Hagen saw the great number of his friends and servants cut down by the Huns and his thoughts flew to Kriemhild, and how her malice toward him had led to this.
“Long since of Lady Kriemhild (he said) / the story I did hear,
How unavenged her sorrow / she might no longer bear.
A memory-cup now quaff we / and pay for royal cheer!
The youthful lord of Hunland / shall make the first installment here.”
Thereat the child Ortlieb / doughty Hagen slew,
That from the sword downward / the blood to hand-grip flew,
And into the lap of Kriemhild / the severed head down rolled.
Then might ye see ‘mid warriors / a slaughter great and grim unfold.
Hagen’s sword struck all around, and many more were killed under his hand. Kriemhild, in fear and anguish, called out to Dietrich von Bern, and pleaded with him to protect her and lead her away from this place of slaughter. Dietrich did so, though he too feared for his life, and called out to king Gunther to let him and those he guided pass out of the hall without harm. Gunther consented, and Dietrich von Bern led Kriemhild under his arm and shield to safety. Etzel too, followed them, bemoaning the loss of all the loyal knights that fell around him. Once their group had left the hall, the Burgundians would let no others follow them, and the slaughter continued within the walls, until all the Huns lay dead.
Gunther, Hagen, and the others, then bolted the door and made the hall a fortress. The sorry corpses of the slain Huns, they cast out the windows, in plain view of all who stood around. Kriemhild was nearly mad with grief and rage, and swore that she would fill Etzel’s shield with gold and give all of it to the man who brought her Hagen’s head. The Huns assaulted the hall, to no avail, and many of the great nobles who served Etzel were slain, but they could not get in, and neither could the Burgundians get out. At last the Burgundians called to the king of the Huns, to attempt some parley, but Etzel would not be reconciled to those who had killed his only son in front of him. “Let us at least come and meet thee in open battle!” begged the Burgundians. Etzel agreed, and gave orders that the way be made clear for them.
Hearing this, Kriemhild raged again, and cried out to the warriors around her that to open the doors would be folly, that even if the only remaining Burgundians were her three brothers, they would kill all the Huns they faced, until none remained.
The youngest brother, Gesilher, who was only a lad when Siegfried was killed, called out to his sister, and begged for her mercy. But she had none to give.
“No mercy may I show you, / —unmerciful I’ll be.
By Hagen, knight of Tronje, / was wrought such woe to me,
That ne’er is reconcilement / the while that I have life.
That must ye all atone for,” / —quoth the royal Etzel’s wife.
The queen ordered that none be allowed to leave the hall, and that burning brands be brought, and fire set to the roof and beams, so that all inside would perish, either by the flame or the sword. But Hagen commanded his men to crouch along the walls, so the burning timber would not strike them, and stamp out the flames in the blood that laid thickly on the floor. So did the Burgundians survive the night of the burning of Etzel’s hall.
When dawn came and showed them still alive, at first Etzel and Kriemhild would not believe it. Then the attack began again, each of the Huns eager to claim the promised gold for themselves. When he heard what was happening, Dietrich returned to add his and his men’s weight to the fight, for he was enraged at the death of so many Hunnish nobles that he named his friends. But alas, he was to see his own liege-men struck down. Grim battle continued, until none of the Burgundians remained except Gunther and Hagen, but those two alone were a match for all the enemies that came against them. Hagen himself fought with Hildebrandt, Dietrich’s companion, and dealt him grievous wounds. Bleeding, Hidebrandt returned to Dietrich, bloody and battered, and told him of the deaths of all his men. Sorrow turned to wrath, and Dietrich and Hildebrandt went to meet Gunther and Hagen.
Dietrich was a noble knight, and called to Gunther, and gave his pledge that if he and Hagen would deliver themselves to him, he would assure that no harm would come to them, and he would defend them against any of the men of the Huns that came against them. Hagen gave them defiance in return, and raising his sword, rushed down upon Dietrich. Sword rang against armor, and every blow that Hagen dealt, Dietrich returned, until he cut a wide wound. Throwing down his sword and shield, Dietrich grappled Hagen, and bore him to the ground. Gunther wept to see his loyal servant so defeated.
Dietrich bound his prisoner and brought him before Kriemhild, and begged her not to take his life, for it would be dishonorable to kill a prisoner, and he had pledged his protection. For the moment, the queen agreed, and Hagen was sent to the dungeon.
Gunther called out to Dietrich, who had cast down his friend, and when the knight of Bern reappeared, Gunther attacked without another word. It was a wonder that any man could stand beneath such blows, but Dietrich was implacable, and soon blood oozed from beneath Gunther’s armor. He too was bound, and brought before Kriemhild. The sight of him, her brother, beaten so, brought a smile to the queen’s lips, and she bid him cold welcome. Dietrich asked again that his prisoner not be harmed, and when she had again agreed, Dietrich took his leave.
Kriemhild went to Hagen, and offered him his life, if he would reveal the place where he had hidden the treasure of the Nibelungs, that he had stolen from her. “Best to save thy breath,” the knight replied, “For I’ve sworn an oath never to reveal the hoard to anyone as long as I am living.”
“Then let us end the story,” cried Kriemhild, and ordered that King Gunther, her brother, the king of Burgundy, be relieved of his head forthwith. And when it was done, she brought the head to Hagen, who wept to see it, and shouted his defiance.
“Is thy vengeance complete, Kriemhild? Thy brothers, all three, are dead, and the treasure place only I and God know. And you, she-devil, will never know that place.”
“Then I will take what I can, and have back the blade of Siegfried, who thou hast slain.” And so saying, she drew the sword from its scabbard, raised it high, and struck off Hagen’s head.
Those around that saw it were shocked at the sight, neither Etzel nor Hildebrandt had ever seen the like. Hildebrandt roared in rage, for he had sworn with Dietrich that no harm would come to the two prisoners. He drew his own sword, heavy and sharp, and swung it at Kriemhild. She screamed in fear, but it did her no good, and she too came to death. And with her passed the last of the Burgundians.
Who late stood high in honor / now in death lay low,
And the fate of all the people / was weeping and was woe.
To mourning now the monarch’s / festal tide had passed,
As falls that joy to sorrow / turneth ever at the last.
Nor can I tell you further / what later did befall,
But that good knights and ladies / saw ye mourning all,
And many a noble squire, / for friends in death laid low.
Here hath the story ending, / —that is the Nibelungen woe.
The historical destruction of the Burgundian kingdom, you might remember from last season, happened in 436. Attila, who appears in the poem as Etzel, was not involved, as he would have been too young at the time, and we don’t really know the reasons behind the Hun’s attack. But here it is all explained in the clear and understandable framework of greed, blood feud, and grief. It’s a satisfying story, if not a happy or historically accurate one.
There are so many other stories, guys, even in just the three works I’ve mentioned. Characters like Wayland the Smith, various other dwarves, gods, and giants. I didn’t tell you the story of how Siegfried and Dietrich fought in a rose garden and Dietrich was so enraged he began to breathe fire. I didn’t even mention Beowulf. Alas, tempus fugit, and all those will have to wait until another day. If you’re going to take one of these on, I recommend the Volsunga Saga, the Icelandic poets had a real way with narrative. There’s an audio version on Librivox, but a word of warning, the reader puts no effort at all into learning how to pronounce anything, so it can be kind of jarring, especially when he keeps saying “Goaths” instead of Goths. If you think you can handle that, check it out.
All of these stories have a place in the more modern history of Germany, beginning in the 18th century, as the so-called German Question began to be raised. Was there a single German people, and how would one define them? Early versions pointed to shared culture and language as the unifying heritage, and the idea of a united Germany began to be mooted about. Napoleon’s invasions really kicked into high gear a pan-European drive for nation states to define themselves and consolidate identities. The Germanic legends were rediscovered and popularized at the same time that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were collecting German fairy stories, Elias Lonrot was compiling and regularizing the Kalevala in Finland, and Peter Asbjornson published Per Gynt in Norway. The English rediscovered the Anglo-Saxons, and the Scots developed Tartan into a formalized system. The Romantic Nationalist impulse was strong everywhere, but events conspired to push the German version maybe a little over the top.
Continuing conflict with the French led Germanic culture to be defined to a large degree in opposition to French culture. Ancient history was taken as a starting place; the Gauls had been conquered by the Romans, while the Germans never had, this is where the idea of the Germanic tribes as heroic lovers of freedom arises, along with the tendency to see them as a single cultural entity, rather than the hodge-podge of more or less related tribes that they were. Unification of Prussia finally gave the crazy-quilt of German statelets a center of gravity, until it all came together with the declaration of the German empire in 1871. I’ve heard it suggested that because unification came relatively late to Germany, the nationalistic fervor had to be one notch louder and more intense than other countries’. It’s not a provable theory, how do you measure that? But I think it fits the events on the ground. Great art result, Wagner’s operas the most obvious, and the castle Neuschwanstein, which everyone is familiar with, built as a romantic realization of the imagined history Wagner presented.
Right-wing ideologies began to mine the Heroic legends for material, looking to bolster an anti-democratic, authoritarian ideal, with rule by the greatest of the tribes the obvious natural order of things. They saw Siegfried or Dietrich, always the strongest warrior, and therefore most fit to rule, as intrinsic to German nature, and so used them in propaganda. A racial element crept into the stories too, the treacherous and greedy Hagen began to be presented as swarthy and dark haired, and contrasted to the always fair Siegfried. It all reached its ultimate expression, obviously, in the Nazi party. Hitler was a big fan of Wagner’s operas, though ironically his favorite was Parzifal, which is part of the Germanic strain of Arthurian romance. Meanwhile it appears that Heinrich Himmler, founder and chief of the SS, believed the legends to be real history, but then Himmler was bug-f*** loony.
The specter of Nazism put everyone in an awkward position after world war two, and the Germanic Heroes were to many tainted by their association with the regime. In Germany the Nibelungenlied and the others were dropped from school curriculum. To be honest with you all, I ran out of time to find out if it has made its way back in Germany. German listeners, any word on that? I would love to hear.
Outside Germany, the influence of the literature remains strong, with the most obvious being the influence on our dear friend, Professor Tolkein, who I haven’t mentioned for quite a while. Do I need to point out the influences? Magic ring? Dragon hoard? Dwarves? I think it goes deeper than that, actually. If you’re familiar with the poetry and songs that appear in the Tolkien legendarium, their meter often, in my mind, matches that of the Nibelungenlied. I don’t know if that was a conscious choice by Tolkien or if he was just so steeped in the lore that he naturally wrote that way, but either way, it’s an influence.
I think it’s perfectly possible to appreciate this body of literature, in spite of its associations, and emulate professor Tolkien who wrote of his resentment of “that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler … Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I have ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.” The stories to me are satisfying, different from the Greek Epics or Arthurian Romances in their nature and content but no less profound in their presentation of human beings and their drives and foibles.
I hope you have enjoyed this episode, sorry it ended up being so long.
Next time we’ll be back to the history, getting started with Clovis and the beginnings of the Merovingians.
Before I go, many heartfelt and obsequious (though still dignified) thank you to the folks that have donated at ko-fi.com/darkagespod; to AG, to Dusty, dry humor is the best humor and much easier to store than the wet kind, to Scott, whose generosity is truly humbling, as is Jorge’s. Jorge, all I did was answer a question, man, but thank you. There have also been a flurry of lovely comments on Apple Podcasts, thank you all for those and a special shout out to Sask Gym Rat from Canada, I’m speechless, really.
Thank you all for listening, until next time, take care.