The Hoard of the Nibelungs by Hilda R. Ellis (1942)

Sigurd slaying Fafnir, Old Norse Stories (1900), p. 274
Sigurðr slaying Fáfnir, Old Norse Stories (1900)

The story of young Sigurðr the Völsung, who first won fame by his slaying of a dragon and by this means gained possession of a splendid treasure hoard, was one well known in northern Europe at the close of the Viking Age, and a favourite subject with the artists of that time who worked in wood and stone in the British Isles and Scandinavia. I have elsewhere made a survey of the illustrations of the Sigurðr story which have survived into our time, and have indicated their importance as a source of knowledge for the form and content of that story in the early years of the eleventh century.1 It is generally held that the tale of the young hero’s exploits has been added to the Völsung cycle, and linked up with the story of Sigurðr’s death at the hands of his brother-in law at the Burgundian court. Many diverse theories have been held as to the origin of the tradition of the dragon and the treasure, but nothing conclusive has yet been said. It is the form of this story which I want to discuss here, looking back to the evidence of the Sigurbr carvings as a starting-point. Can anything more be determined about the nature of the original story from an examination of the different versions we possess in German and Old Norse (none of them, in their present form, written down earlier than the thirteenth century), and of significant affinities that can be found elsewhere in Old Norse literature? Undoubtedly there is much in the tale which goes back beyond the date of our written records. The adventures of Sigurðr’s father, Sigmundr, are referred to in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, usually attributed to the eighth century or earlier; and the evidence of the monumental stones alone reminds us that the story of the stabbing of the dragon and the roasting of its heart was known in the British Isles by about the year A.D. 1000. We do not know how long it had been familiar before the sculptors of the Viking Age decided to record it in stone.


It is necessary first to spend some time in summarizing the different accounts of the winning of the hoard, for the sake of the details of the story in the varying versions. Perhaps the strangest story is that given in the Nibelungenlied, of which the earliest manuscripts are of thirteenth-century date, and which cannot be much earlier than that in its present form. Here the account is given in the form of a short narrative which serves as introduction to the hero Sivrit when he arrives at the court of the Burgundian king (III, 87 f.). Hagene tells how Sivrit in his youth came by chance upon the hoard of the Nibelungs, which had been taken out of a hollow hill by ‘many bold men’,  the followers of the princes Schilbunc and Nibelunc,2 who wished to divide it. They knew Sivrit, although we are told that to him they were strangers, and they received him well; they showed him many strange things and finally begged him earnestly to divide the inheritance for them, which consisted of much red gold and so many gems that a hundred wagons could not carry it. In return for his help in this, Sivrit was to receive the sword of Nibelunc, Balmunc. But for some reason never made clear, Sivrit did not finish the task before they grew angry and attacked him. First he was set upon by twelve giants, whom he slew; then he had to overcome seven hundred champions, and finally he slew the two kings also. Then followed a conflict with Albrich, described as a dwarf, who desired to avenge his lords. He and Sivrit ran on to the hill as they fought, like savage lions, and in the end Sivrit won from his opponent a tarnkappe (cloak or hood of invisibility), and became his lord. He ordered the treasure to be replaced in the hill and gave its custody to Albrich. The tarnkappe won in this way plays an important part in the story, since it is by his convenient power of remaining invisible that Sivrit is able to subdue Brünhild for Günther, first in the public contest and later in the bridal chamber. In certain stanzas which Bartsch thought to be later interpolations,3 but which even so are interesting for the information they give, we are told that wild dwarfs commonly live in hollow hills and wear such ‘cloaks of invisibility’ for their protection; these guard the body from blows, and both render the wearer invisible and give him supernatural strength.

At a later point in the poem4 Sivrit leaves Brünhild’s realm to gain reinforcements for Gunther, and sets out alone in his mantle of invisibility in a small boat, which moves miraculously and at great speed until it has borne him to the land of the Nibelungs. When he reaches the hill, however, he finds the entrance barred and defended by a giant. The two have a bitter conflict, while all the stronghold re-echoes; but finally Sivrit overcomes and binds the warden of the gate. Then Albrich, roused by the din, comes out against Sivrit (whom he does not recognize) armed with a golden scourge. Sivrit’s shield is shattered, and he is nearly overcome, but at last he gets Albrich at his mercy and binds him along with the giant. When he learns who his opponent is, Albrich, much relieved, promises to do his bidding in all things, and rouses a thousand Nibelung warriors to follow Sivrit.

How Siegfried got the invisibility cloak from the dwarf Alberich
Siegfried got the invisibility cloak from the dwarf Alberich.

Hagene also tells his hearers that Sivrit has slain a dragon, but unfortunately he shows little interest in the exploit. He merely states baldly: ‘There is still more information about him that is known to me. The arm of the hero slew a dragon; he bathed in the blood; his skin became horny, and no weapon can pierce him. This has often been put to the proof’  more about the dragon, however, from Rosengarten A, which probably belongs to the fourteenth century. Here we are told that Sivrit slew a fierce dragon upon a rock (ûf eine steine), and found on the rock a good sword, called Balmunc. He also obtained a mailcoat, made by Eckerich, the famous smith, who had brought him up as a boy, and his skin, as we are told in the Nibelungenlied, became horny.5

Two stories about a dragon have survived in the other German source, the Hürnen Seyfrid or Seyfridslied, which belongs to the sixteenth century, although the material of which it is composed is likely to be much older. Here Seyfrid, the hero, is introduced as an unmanageable boy who runs away from home and joins a smith in a wood, but proves so troublesome that the smith in desperation sends him to burn charcoal in the neighbourhood of a dragon, hoping that this will prove a simple way to be rid of him. However Seyfrid is quite unmoved by the dragon, and slays him with a firebrand; not content with this, he sets fire to a collection of little dragons, snakes and toads which he finds nearby. As they melt, he dips his finger in the stream of liquid horn, and finds it becomes hard like a dragon’s skin; so he bathes in the stream that his whole body may become horny. The poem then makes a fresh beginning with the tale of the winning of the Nybling hoard. Nybling is a dwarf who dies and leaves his treasure to his three young sons, who guard it within a mountain. The same mountain serves as dwelling-place for a dragon, who spends most of his time on a ‘dragon-rock’ at the top, but occasionally comes down into the interior by a narrow passage. This dragon carries off the princess Kriemhild, and Seyfrid, who comes that way by chance, learns of this from the dwarf Eugel (one of the sons of Nybling), and forces the little man to help him to rescue her. First he has to overcome the giant Kuperan, who holds the key of the door leading to the dragon-rock. After the first defeat, the giant makes two treacherous attacks on Seyfrid, and on one occasion he is only saved because Eugel slips a nebelkappe (cap of darkness) over his head and carries him away. Finally, after the last fight upon the rock itself, Kuperan is flung over the edge. Then the dragon returns, and Seyfrid has to meet him. The whole mountain shakes with the clamour of their battle, causing the sons of Nybling to take out the treasure in fear, and to hide it, somewhat illogically, beneath the rock itself. After he has slain the dragon Seyfrid comes upon it here, and loads it upon his horse, assuming that it had belonged to the dragon. By the time he has reached the Rhine he is heartily tired of it, and remembering that Eugel has prophesied that he has little time left to live, he throws it into the river. He did not know, the poet tells us, ‘that the heirs were the kings in the mountain, and that they had destroyed the old dwarf Nybling’. So with this rash act on the hero’s part, the adventure ends.

Clearly the composers of the Nibelungenlied and the Seyfridslied are grappling with a story which they do not understand. The poet in the first case evades the difficulty by giving us the minimum of information and leaving all too much to our imagination; the poet of the Seyfridslied, on the other hand, tries to turn the whole into a circumstantial story, without overwhelming success.6 Behind the two stories there are glimpses of a certain framework. The young hero has dealings with two brothers, kings, who live in a hollow hill. They are called Nibelungs; they are served by many followers, and they have in their possession a mighty treasure. This previously belonged to their father, and the Seyfridslied tells us that they have slain him in order to obtain it. Before the hero wins the treasure, he has to do battle with a giant or giants, and has also to use force against a dwarf, who nevertheless is on the whole friendly inclined towards him. In the Seyfridslied this dwarf is Eugel, one of the Nybling brothers, and Seyfrid extorts a promise of help from him by somewhat violent treatment. We are not told of the relationship of Albrich to the two Nibelung brothers, except that he regards them as his lords. In the course of the adventure the hero obtains a sword and also a cap or mantle of invisibility. The owners of the treasure, for reasons not altogether clear in either story, move it out of its original position within the hill, and thus it comes to be discovered by the hero, who at the end is left with both sword and treasure. It seems likely that Sivrit’s second fight with Albrich in the Nibelungenlied, when he arrives to collect reinforcements, is only a repetition of the original one. The two incidents form a close parallel, for in each case Sivrit first overcomes a giant warden, and then Albrich, the true guardian of the hoard; similarly in the Seyfridslied he has two separate encounters, one with Eugel, who has to be compelled to help him, and one with the giant Kuperan. The poet of the Seyfridslied may well have done some duplicating in his turn, for Seyfrid has no less than three fights with Kuperan before he finally disposes of him.

It may now be instructive to examine the Norse version of the story, to see how far the same framework is recognizable there also. The fullest of the Old Norse sources for the story of Sigurðr’s youth are the two Edda poems, Reginsmál and Fáfnismál, to which explanatory prose notes have been added, preserved in the Codex Regius, the manuscript collection of poems of thirteenth century date. In the same century Snorri Sturlason produced his brilliant summary of the tragedy of Sigurðr in the Prose Edda; while the Völsunga Saga, a collection of tales about the ill-fated family written down in the form of one continuous prose narrative, is also attributed to that time, although in its present form it was recorded about two centuries later.

In the account given by Snorri in Skáldskaparmál and by the compiler  the book of poems, the young hero has dealings with two brothers; but they are now called Reginn and Fáfnir, and they are the sons of Hreiðmarr. There was a third brother, Ótr; but he was killed by Loki before Sigurðr encountered the family, and it was his death which brought the great treasure-paid over as ransom by the Æsir-into their possession. The two sons slay their father Hreiðmarr in order to possess the gold. Then they quarrel as to how the gold shall be shared, and Reginn, who is a smith, calls in the help of young Sigurðr to get it back from his more powerful brother. Meanwhile Fáfnir, secure in his enjoyment of the gold, has turned himself into a dragon and mounts guard over it in his lair; this lair is not far from the sea, since every day he goes down to the edge of a high cliff to drink, and in Völsunga Saga (xix) it is described as ‘dug down below the earth’. The treasure hid there includes a vast amount of gold, a sword called Hrotta, and a mysterious object called the ‘helm of terror (‘ægishjálmr‘) which could apparently give mighty strength to the wearer and make him invulnerable. In Fáfnismál Sigurðr taunts the dying dragon with having trusted in it too blindly, but it plays no part of importance in the story as we have it. Nor do we hear much of the sword Hrotta, for it is the sword Gram which comes to the forefront, forged by Reginn for the hero, since with it he stabs Fáfnir from a pit dug in the dragon’s track when the great monster crawls above him. When Fáfnir is dead, Reginn commands Sigurðr to roast the heart of the dragon, and falls asleep while Sigurðr sets about his cooking. Sigurðr burns his thumb, thrusts it into his mouth, and finds that as the juice from it touches his tongue it gives him power to understand the speech of the birds in the tree above him. Two nuthatches perched there give him counsel, bidding him eat the heart himself and slay Reginn, who is plotting his death. So Sigurðr cuts off Reginn’s head, eats part of the heart and keeps the rest. Then he rides to Fáfnir’s lair, loads the treasure on to the back of Grani, his horse, and rides away.

Helm of Awe book, AM 434a
The Helm of Awe in the Norse Medical Manuscripts known as the AM 434a, c. 15th century.

Although there are marked differences between the German and Norse accounts, the main framework can still be discerned: three brothers, an old father slain by his sons for the treasure, the riches under the earth which include a sword, a head-covering of supernatural power, and much gold. In each case one of the three figures connected with the treasure gives help to the hero (Albrich, Eugel, Reginn), though in each case there are some traces of hostility, and at least one conflict takes place. In each case the sword used by the hero has been obtained from one of the owners of the treasure (the Nibelung brothers, Kuperan, Reginn). In each case also the hero slays two mysterious figures connected with the hoard (Schilbunc and Nibelunc, Kuperan and the dragon, Fáfnir and Reginn). The stories do not dovetail neatly together, it is true, but that is hardly to be expected in view of their history of separate development in different parts of Europe. It is the more surprising, bearing this in mind, that so definite a plot is shared by them both.


The differences between the two versions are interesting. The Norse story has a theme of revenge linked up with that of the winning of the hoard, and the sword Gram is important for this because according to Snorri (though not to Reginsmál) this is formed from the broken fragments of the sword of his father Sigmundr who was slain in battle. But there seems no reason to reject Heusler’s masterly analysis of Reginsmál and Fáfnismál.7 He believed that their joint source consisted of two earlier poems, a ‘Revenge Lay’ and a ‘Hoard Lay’. According to this, the incident of the sword formed from the pieces of Sigmundr’s shattered weapon would come from the Revenge Lay, but the feature which might be expected in the Hoard Lay is that of the sword given to the hero by Reginn, one of the owners of the treasure; this would be in agreement with the other versions of the story. The multiplicity of swords in the Norse story is suspicious. We have the sword Hrotta inside the dragon’s lair, Reginn’s sword Refill, taken out of the hoard as his share, and the sword Gram, which he forges for Sigurðr. It seems more probable that there was originally one sword, either taken from the hoard by Reginn or else forged by him, which alone possessed the power to slay Fáfnir, and which was afterwards used to kill Reginn also.8 It seems likely that the forging of a sword was an early feature in the tale, because of the presence of an anvil and smiths’ tools in close connexion with the dragon-slaying in the eleventh-century carvings from the British Isles. These carvings, incidentally, strengthen the case for the Hoard Lay considerably, since the scenes from the Sigurðr story on the Halton Cross and the Manx Stones, which go back as early as the year 1000, are based on incidents from it alone, and no hint of the revenge motif can be found here or in the Scandinavian carvings of rather later date.

The presence of the smith and dragon brothers, which is lacking in the German, is regarded by Neckel and Schneider9 as suspect. The monuments, however, prove them to be associated by the year 1000 at least. The smith certainly appears in the story preserved in Þiðrekssaga, the prose work which is attributed to Germans in Norway in the thirteenth century, although the manuscripts of it which have survived are a great deal later than this. The  story here is the same in outline as that of the smith and the troublesome boy in the Seyfridslied, but the idea of the magical properties of the dead dragon, as in the Norse version, persists. The boy tries to cook the dragon, scalds his finger, and is warned by the birds to go home and kill the smith; he also bathes in the blood (not the melted horn) before he goes back to the smithy. Here, as in the other Norse sources, the smith and dragon are brothers, but they are called Mimir and Reginn respectively. There is no mention of treasure here, but Mimir gives the boy a sword, armour and the promise of a horse in an unsuccessful attempt to buy his life. However Rosengarten A seems to indicate that there may have been a connexion between smith and dragon closer than that suggested by the Nibelungenlied, since here the sword Balmunc is gained as the result of the conflict with the dragon, and so also is the mail coat, which is said to have been wrought by the hero’s foster-father, a smith, although the latter is now transformed into Eckerich.

The assumption that the German story of the smith and the troublesome boy who slew a dragon in a wood has retained the features of the original story rather than the tale of Fáfnir and Reginn, made by Schneider, hardly seems convincing. He believes that the story belonged in the first place to Sigemund, and was afterwards transferred to his son; and that this was then linked up with another story of a smith’s foster-child who met two strangers quarrelling over treasure in a wood, with a result that these strangers were transformed into a smith and a dragon. The evidence for Sigemund as the first dragon slayer comes from the much-discussed passage from Beowulf, a close translation of which runs as follows:

Sigemund achieved no little glory after the day of his death, for the valiant in battle10 slew a dragon, guardian of the hoard. The son of the atheling ventured alone on the perilous deed, beneath the grey rock, and Fitela was not with him. Yet it was granted to him that his sword pierced the wondrous dragon, so that the splendid blade penetrated the rock; the dragon died a violent death. The champion had brought it about by his prowess that he might enjoy the hoard of rings as he himself chose; the Son of Waels loaded his vessel and bore the bright gems into the heart of the ship. The worm melted in its own heat (II. 884 f.).


There is no direct connexion here with what we know of the German lay of which part has been preserved in Seyfridslied and Þiðrekssaga. There the hero does not use a sword; he has no boat, and there is not even mention of any hoard won by his slaying of the dragon. When these features have been subtracted the amount that remains is scarcely impressive. Schneider suggests that the horse replaced the boat in Germany because of the different background there from that of the Viking Age in the north, but in that case  it is difficult to see why the horse never appears in German sources at all, while it is very prominent in all the literary sources as well as in the art of the north. When we find Sigemund in the Anglo-Saxon poem equipped with a boat and dealing with a dragon beside a rocky cliff, it seems more reasonable, unless faced with evidence to the contrary (stronger than that of his name occurring in Germany in the ninth and tenth centuries), to look for his antecedents in the direction from which most of the Beowulf material has come, namely, from Scandinavia. The shores of the Baltic seem a more likely home for his dragon than Germany. And though the remark that the dragon melts in its own heat may recall Seyfridslied, we have no right to assume from it that Sigemund bathed in the melted horn. The possession of fiery blood was not restricted to one particular dragon, or even to dragons as a class, for we may compare the incident later in Beowulf where the blade of the marvellous sword melts in the hot blood of Grendel’s monstrous mother (1615 ff.).

In fact to find the essential features of the story it is necessary to turn away from the tale preserved in the early part of Seyfridslied; we can only find them in the versions where the dragon is connected with a hoard, and with the brothers who have inherited it. The tale of the naughty boy and his efficient but crude struggle with a dragon has the appearance of a popular tale; it has nothing of the heroic stamp, nor has it anything of the atmosphere of the mysterious which is so implicit in the tale of Sigurðr and Fáfnir. The idea of the hero bathing in the melted horn does not seem sufficiently impressive in itself to merit the selection of the story as a direct descendant of the original heroic lay. It is a crude and macabre conception, and is likely to have been a survival of the more imaginative idea of the power of the dragon-particularly his abnormal strength and courage-being transferred to the slayer who eats the heart and drinks, or possibly bathes in, the blood. This is the essential feature of the Norse story; there seems little reason from the evidence as it stands to claim it as German in origin although it is an idea to be found deep-rooted in the thoughts of peoples at an early stage of civilization, and one that has world-wide distribution.


A close scrutiny of the evidence, then, only strengthens the arguments for acceptance of the ‘hoard lay’ which Heusler deduced as the original of Reginsmál and Fáfnismál as a genuine Old Norse source of the story of young Sigurðr, without attempting to derive part of its content, as Schneider wishes to do, from a dragon story of German origin. How long this tale has had Sigurðr the Völsung for its hero is a separate question, and one not easy to answer. Here the carved stones which show scenes from the story give us no help; they simply indicate that certain incidents from the story were joined as far back as A.D. 1000, but can tell us nothing as to the name of the hero. Nor does the Norse poem by a poet at the court of Olaf the Holy at the opening of the eleventh century, which I have quoted in the article on the carved stones, do more than describe the scene of the killing of the dragon and the roasting of the heart; it gives no name to the chief actor in the drama.

The early story, as indicated by the literary sources which have been analysed, was apparently that of two brothers who slew their father for a treasure, and then quarrelled among themselves over it. The young hero came upon them by chance; he was persuaded to take a hand in the affair, and slew one brother in the form of a dragon; then, through special inspiration, gained through the eating of the dragon’s heart, he realized that the other was his enemy, and slew him also. Because of differences in the form of the story preserved in the book of poems and in the German sources, it is not easy at the outset to determine which details in the story are likely to be the earliest ones. But an examination of one or two points in the tale may be of help.

Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hylestad stave
Sigurd killing the dragon Fafnir, wood carving from Hyllestad stave.

First, the problem of the treasure. It is surely of significance that the Nibelungenlied tells us that the hoard owned by the kings was kept in a ‘hollow hill’ (holen berge). Now the particular kind of hollow hill which figures in countless stories in Old Norse literature is the burial mound, inside which the draugr (the animated dead), the inhabitant of the grave, is pictured as gloating over the wealth of gold, jewels and armour buried with him. There are many stories in which the hero descends into the barrow, and after a terrific fight with the draugr, who possesses superhuman strength and proves a merciless opponent, may, if he is lucky enough to overcome him and cut off his head, make off with the treasure. A good example of this is the incident from Grettis Saga (xvIII), where the hero breaks into the mound of Kárr the Old, and there finds the gruesome figure of the dead man seated inside the barrow, with the bones of a horse at his feet and a chest containing treasure beside him. He meets with no resistance until he turns to leave the mound with the treasure; then he is tackled from behind by the draugr, who suddenly becomes active, and with whom he has a fierce struggle within the howe until he overthrows him and cuts off his head. Sometimes there is more than one occupant of the howe. In the story of Þorsteinn Uxafotr, preserved in Flateyjarbók (i, 206, pp. 253 f.), the hero is actually invited into a great mound by one of the inhabitants. Inside it are two companies, one in red and one in black, sitting on benches as in a hall (Þorsteinn’s first acquaintance belonging to the former company). The leader of the black men demands tribute from the stranger, and when Þorsteinn refuses, a terrible battle breaks out between the men in red and those in black. The howe-dwellers are unable to deal blows which have any real effect upon one another, so that their efforts are rather futile until Þorsteinn gets busy; but when the black men have been laid low by him they are unable to rise again, and so with his help they are finally  defeated. He leaves with the good wishes of the red howe-dwellers, and for reward they give him a gold ring which has the power to restore his mother’s speech. Interesting parallels to this story can be found elsewhere in Norse literature.

For the present purpose, the point to be emphasized is that in these stories of entry into burial mounds the inhabitant is generally represented as a kind of giant; he guards a heap of treasure, and the hero commonly goes unmolested until he interferes with this; and the only way to vanquish this giant is to cut off his head. Similarly, in the Nibelungenlied the hoard is inside a hollow hill; the hero does not meet with any hostility from the inhabitants until in some way never fully specified he interferes with it so as to cause them displeasure, and then he has to fight with the owners. Beside the two brothers, we are told that he also slays a company of twelve giants; and there are two separate and puzzling accounts of battles with Albrich, who is called a dwarf, but behaves, particularly on his second appearance, more like a giant. On the second entry into the hill of the Nibelungs, there is again a giant warden with whom to contend. As has been suggested earlier, it seems reasonable to suppose that there has been duplication here, and that the proper place for these combats is before the hero makes himself the owner of the Nibelung hoard.

If we turn to the account of the winning of the treasure in the Edda poems, we notice that the description of Reginn there is a strange one. In the verse spoken by the birds in Fáfnismál 34 he is called enn hári þulr, “the grey sage’, þulr being a term used for someone with outstanding powers of wisdom. This gives Reginn a dignity which otherwise, from the story as told by Snorri, we should have hardly expected him to possess. In verse 38 of the same poem, moreover, he receives a still more startling title, that of enn hrimkaldi jötunn, ‘the rime-cold giant’. Such a title recalls figures like that of the giant guardian of the supernatural realm which is visited by Skírnir in Skírnismál, or the similar figure encountered by Svipdagr in Fjölsvinnsmál. Each is described as a jötunn (enn ámálki jötunn and enn naddgöfgi jötunn respectively). One at least sits upon a mound, and there are good reasons (into which I have gone fully elsewhere) for believing that both are connected with the world of the dead. This shows Reginn in a new light, and seems to hint at an earlier Norse tradition representing him as giant rather than dwarf.

But before following this up further, it is as well to remember the other member of the strange family encountered by Sigurðr. The Nibelungenlied story, we have seen, points towards a burial mound, and Reginn in his new role as  jötunn and possessor of supernatural wisdom (þulr) would not be out of place in association with a howe. But besides the monstrous draugr, the grave mound might contain another inhabitant, a dragon. A strange tradition connected with a Norwegian family11 tells how after death they became  dragons, and lay guarding the treasure they had amassed in life in a lair behind a waterfall. However, a more familiar setting for the dragon was the burial mound itself. The Anglo-Saxon Cottonian Gnomic Verses tell us that ‘the dragon lies upon the mound, ancient, exulting in treasure’,12 while the dragon encountered by the hero in Beowulf, whose lair is described in great detail,13 clearly inhabits a stone burial chamber inside a barrow, and there keeps guard over his wealth. The description of Fáfnir’s lair given in the prose note at the end of Fáfnismál seems based on the same conception:

Sigurðr rode along Fáfnir’s trail to his lair, and found it open; the doors and the gates were of iron, and all the walls of the dwelling, but dug down into the earth.

Strangely enough, both Fáfnir and the dragon in Beowulf dwell near to a high cliff. This is described in the Anglo-Saxon poem, and after the fight the body of the dead dragon is pushed over the edge.14 In the Norse story we are told that Fáfnir was killed as he crept back from the water, to which he went every day to drink, and Völsunga Saga (xviii) records: ‘it is said that the cliff was thirty fathoms high on which he lay by the water when he drank.’ In the Icelandic sagas it is common for burial mounds to be set on a high headland looking out to sea, and this is a favourite spot in particular for the graves of those who are thought likely to be restless after death, or who have been moved from another grave because of the trouble they have caused by their activities.15 There is undoubtedly a link between the menacing dragon in his lair and the dead man transformed into a dangerous draugr, implied if not actually stated in Beowulf when the last survivor of the owners of the treasure apparently becomes a dragon after death and dwells in the burial mound. It is interesting also to notice that one approach to the hollow hill of the Nibelungs was by sea.

The nature of the two opponents encountered by Sigurðr, the dragon who guards his treasure in a stronghold under the earth, and the mysterious ‘rime cold jötunn ‘ who has finally to be vanquished by the striking off of his head, points, as does the tradition of the treasure hidden in a hollow hill, to some kind of encounter with the forces of the world of the dead, and to the rifling of a howe. And the gains of the hero by his exploit are somewhat peculiar ones. By the eating of the heart, he gains strength and courage, and in addition the inspiration which enables him to understand the speech of birds, and so to be delivered from the hostility of Reginn. From certain questions put to Fáfnir in the Edda poems, he also learns something of the future. In addition, he wins the ægishjálmr, about which little is told us, except that it will protect the owner and render him feared by others; in the Nibelungenlied this becomes the tarnkappe, which gives invisibility to him who wears it, superhuman  strength and invulnerability. There seems little doubt that there is some connexion between this and the Norse huliðshjálmr. This is used in accounts of Norse witchcraft to describe the power of the witch or wizard to deceive their enemies by blinding their eyes, so that certain persons or things are invisible to them. For example, when a Norwegian wizard, Eyvindr kelda, led a troop of his followers in an attack against King Olaf Tryggvason, we are told that when the crew disembarked ‘he put “helmets of invisibility” (huliðshjálmr) over them, and so thick a black fog that the king and his company were unable to see them’.16 The power of the Christian king, however, was such that he made the magic recoil upon the heads of those who worked it; they were overcome by a dark mist, and unable to see their path, and groped round in circles until they were captured. It is clear that in such stories as this the phrase is not to be taken literally, but is used in a metaphorical sense. No actual covering is used; the power of sjónhverfing (deceiving of the eyes), of which this is an instance, is part of the mantic knowledge of men and women skilled in ‘old lore’, and is a spiritual rather than a tangible weapon. It would seem probable then that the tradition of a cap of darkness preserved in the German poems is a clumsy echo of something faintly remembered, the idea of supernatural powers gained by the hero Sivrit. The strange journey which he makes in a boat moved by magic force, his superhuman power which enables him to overthrow Brünhild (perhaps even his inexplicable knowledge of the way to her realm, which has been the subject of much discussion)-all this he does by the power of the tarnkappe, and this gives us an inkling of its true significance. The treasure won from the mysterious denizens of a hollow hill gives the hero the powers of a seer and a wizard, so that he can help his friends and succeed in all he undertakes. In Norse we have no further account of the results of the possession of the ægishjálmr, although the riding of the wall of fire and the power to change shapes with Gunnarr (attributed to Grimhild’s spells) may be echoes of what must originally have been the significance of the conquest of the brothers-the acquisition of certain special powers by the hero.

It has been suggested by Heusler and others that there are certain traces of Celtic influence in the story of young Sigurðr. It is particularly significant that the inspiration that comes from the touching of the tongue with the thumb that has been moistened with the juice of Fáfnir’s heart is closely paralleled by certain incidents recorded of the hero Finn in Irish tales. It is told of him17 that the poet who fostered him ordered him one day to cook the salmon of Lee’s pool; but when he learned that in cooking it the youth had burned his fingers and put them into his mouth, he insisted that he should eat the whole  salmon, since it was fated so, and that he should receive his name, Finn. We are told that after that Finn received special knowledge and inspiration every time he set his thumb in his mouth. In another story18 he had his thumb squeezed in the door of an elf mound, and on it there dropped some of the liquid which a woman of the fairy mound was carrying in a vessel (so at least is the implication of the story, which is not very clear). When he thrust it into his mouth he gained inspiration and began to chant.

Similarly it is possible to find parallels for Sivrit’s lightning journey in a small boat moved by supernatural means to the hill of the Nibelungs in a number of the Irish stories which are concerned with the Land of Promise, for this is often reached by a boat, and yet at the same time is said to be within a fairy mound.19 The question of the direction in which the influence may have moved is one that it is not possible to answer in cases like this; we do not yet know enough about the conditions of early literature in northern Europe, and the same problem faces us in the case of the relationship between the Norse and German versions of the story of the hoard. But if, as I have claimed, the story of young Sigurðr is likely to be a Norse and not a German tradition, concerned with the dealings of a young hero with supernatural brothers, giant and dragon, who by their nature and their connexion with a mound are clearly associated with the dead, and with his acquisition of special knowledge and power through his conquest of them, then the story would fall into line with certain other Norse stories which have been preserved in the Edda poems. One of the most striking is Svipdagsmál, where the hero makes a mysterious journey in spite of many obstacles, encounters a hostile giant, and finally penetrates a strange realm where he wins possession of the maiden Menglöð. I have elsewhere examined some of these poems in detail, and given reasons for believing that this realm is that of the dead; and certainly the land of the dead plays a most significant and important part in Old Norse literature.20

The story of young Sigurðr has undergone many vicissitudes, and has strange material mixed with it; there are many aspects of the problem, such as the puzzling family of Hreiðmarr, and the part played by Othin in the dragon slaying, which I have not attempted to include here. But quite apart from the additions which have been made to it, the story, as far as we can isolate a bare outline of it from the different versions we possess, is strange in itself; the world in which the hero finds himself is neither the heroic world nor the world of fairy tale. The explanation, I believe, can only be found in the ideas about the supernatural to be discerned in the literature of the north that goes back to pre-Christian times, and which were not unfamiliar in the Celtic  world also. The evidence from the art of the Viking Age shows us that it was a story which had been familiar in the north for some centuries at least, and it is to the North that we must look for further light on the mysterious prelude to one of the finest stories known to the Vikings, the tragedy of Sigurðr the Völsung.  

Hilda R. Ellis


Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 1942), pp. 466-479
Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association


  1. ‘Sigurd in the art of the Viking Age’, Antiquity, September 1
  2. The name is used both for the king and as a general name for the holders of the treasure.
  3. K. Bartsch, Das Nibelungenlied, in note following ii, 335.
  4. Avent. vIn.
  5. Die Geschichte v. Rosengarten zu Worms, hrsg. v. O. Holz (Halle, 1893), p. 58, 11. 329 f.
  6. There are certainly traces of folk-tale influences. H. Schneider gives convincing arguments for viewing the story of the maiden rescued from the dragon, in particular, as a later addition to the story (Germanische Hedensage, Berlin, 1928, p. 173f.)
  7. A. Heusler, ‘Altnordische Dichtung und Prosa von Jungsigurd’ (Sitz. d. Pretussichen Akademie 1919, pp. 162 f.).
  8. The variety of sword-names is an interesting feature of the problem. Hrotta makes a much earlier appearance as the sword Hrunting in Beowulf, lent to the hero for his battle with Grendel’s mother. (This was pointed out to me by Mrs Chadwick.) The sword Balmunc is mentioned in Rosengarten A, where it is connected with the dragon and his rock. The fact that in Þiðrekssaga the smith is called Mimir (the dragon being Reginn) has led to the suggestion that Miming, the sword of Weland in German tradition (mentioned in Waldhere), is the original sword-name of the story. The position is further complicated by the fact that the story of the Satyr Miming in Saxo Grammaticus (iI, 70-1) from whom Hotherus obtains a sword with which to kill Balder and a magic ring, has clearly some connexion with that of the robbing of Andvari by Loki, which forms the prelude to the slaying of Fafnir in Snorri.
  9. G. Neckel, ‘Sigmunds Drachenkampf’, Edda, XIII, 1920. H. Schneider, op. cit. pp. 164.
  10. Various attempts have been made to make the passage from ‘the valiant in battle’ onwards apply to Sigurðr, the son of Sigemund, but these are quite unwarrantable from the passage as it stands, and we have no right to assume that the exploit of Sigurðr was known to the poet of Beowulf when his name is never mentioned. Neckel (op. cit) believes this account to be the direct source of all the famous dragon-battles in Old Norse as well as Anglo-Saxon literature, but the Beowulf passage gives too little detail for us to be sure of this, and most of his elaborate arguments depend on surmise only, unsupported by evidence.
  11. Þorskfird̄inga Saga, III and XX
  12. Draca sceal on hlæwe, frod, frætwum wlanc.
  13. E.g. 11. 2212 f., 2241 f., 2409 f. 2542 f., 2715 f.
  14. Beowulf, 3131 f.
  15. Eyrbyggja Saga, XXXIV, Egil’s Saga, LIII.
  16. Heimskringla, Oláfs S. Tryggvasonar, LXIII. Other examples are: Fóstbrœðra Saga, x and xxIII; Þorskfirðinga Saga, xvII; Bósa Saga (F.A.S.), Ix.
  17. ‘The boyhood deeds of Finn’, translated from Eriu by T. P. Cross and C. H. Slover, Ancient Irish Tales, Chicago, 19.
  18. This and the previous story are referred to by Mrs Chadwick, ‘Imbas Forosnai’ (Scottish Gaelic Studies, rv, 1935), esp. pp. 112 and 119 f.
  19. E.g. Connla, departing with a woman for the Land of Promise, leaves with her in a crystal boat which travels so fast that the eye cannot follow it (Ancient Irish Tales, op. cit. pp. 488 f.); cf. ‘The Adventures of Art’, (ibid. p. 492).
  20. The Road to Hel (now awaiting publication, Cambridge University Press).
Nibelungenlied - First page from Manuscript C (ca. 1230)
Nibelungenlied – First page from Manuscript C (ca. 1230)

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