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An Esoteric Commentary on the Volsung Saga, Part IV

Willy Pogany, Sigmund & the Wolf (1920)

3,220 words

Part I here, Part II here, Part III here

In our last installment, we saw how King Volsung marries his daughter Signy off to the loathsome King Siggeir of Götaland, a man she “was not eager to marry.” Into the wedding feast marches a man who can be none other than the god Odin in his guise as the Wanderer. From his cloak he draws a sword and plunges it into Barnstokk, the tree growing in the middle of the hall (which symbolizes the Volsung clan itself). Whoever can pull the sword from the tree wins it as a gift. Only Sigmund, Signy’s twin, is able to perform this feat. He thus earns the everlasting enmity of Siggeir, who believes the sword should be his. I argued previously that this is because the sword offered at a wedding traditionally represented the “luck” of the family, and was intended for the bridegroom. Thus, when only Signy’s brother can free the sword, it seems that Odin is signaling that he is Signy’s rightful husband. Most readers will already be aware that, sure enough, it is through the incest of Signy and Sigmund that the Volsung line continues – and that this is all part of Odin’s plan.

Chapter 4. Siggeir Invites Volsung to Join Him

After Sigmund refuses to sell the sword to Siggeir, the latter begins plotting his revenge that very night – and the text tells us that he also consummates his marriage to Signy. The following morning the weather is good and Siggeir announces that he is returning home immediately. Volsung perceives that Siggeir desperately wishes to depart the feast. But Signy goes to her father, and makes one last, desperate attempt to free herself from Siggeir. Jackson Crawford translates her words to Volsung as follows:

I don’t want to go away with King Siggeir. There is nothing in my heart that smiles for him. And I know, thanks to my gift of second sight which is common in our family, that this decision will cause a disaster for us if you won’t change your mind immediately.

The words concerning “second sight” deserve a closer look. In Old Norse, the line reads veit ek af framvísi minni ok af kynfylgju várri. This might be more literally translated as “I know from my foreknowledge and from the fetch of our kin [kynfylgja].” The fylgja is one of the more complex and mysterious aspects of the Germanic pagan worldview. (See my essay “Ancestral Being.”) It is often referred to as a “guardian spirit,” which is something of an oversimplification, but helpful up to a point. The lore seems to suggest that there are fylgjur of individual men, and ones associated with entire clans are families – this is the concept of the kynfylgja (“fetch” of the kin).

This kynfylgja can sometimes become attached to a single individual who, as it were, carries the guardian spirit of the entire family. The strong suggestion here in Chapter Four is that the kynfylgja of the Volsungs has attached itself to Signy, with whom it communicates. This makes perfect sense, for we know that it is through Signy – specifically through her incest with Sigmund – that the clan will continue. Later we will see, as Stephen Flowers has discussed in detail, how the kynfylgja (or hamingjakynfylgja, for the two concepts are hard to disentangle) is passed to later generations of the Volsungs by means of the sword won by Sigmund.[1]

In any case, Volsung ignores Signy’s words of warning. This is entirely predictable. It is virtually axiomatic in the Icelandic sagas that women’s prophecies always turn out to be true, and that they are always ignored or misinterpreted by men. It is also predictable that Volsung’s answer to her appeals entirely to social convention. Throughout the parts of this commentary I have repeatedly claimed that one of the key features of the saga is that in order for the Volsung clan to flourish and multiply, Odin and its members must continually transgress conventional standards of morality and social order. (The incest of Sigmund and Signy is only the most notorious example of this.)

It was Volsung’s concern with establishing conventional social ties – an “advisable” alliance with Siggeir – and his lack of concern for his daughter’s own feelings that has gotten his entire family into this mess. This may seem at first glance like a projection, on my part, of modern values onto our pre-modern ancestors. Yes, it is quite true that arranged marriages were common. Yet it is also true that one of the things that makes Western culture unique – and this is especially true of the culture of Northern Europe, dating to pre-modern times – is that the wishes of the parties to marriage, including those of women, were taken into consideration.[2] Thus, during the time in which the saga was written, the reaction of readers to Signy’s forced and unwanted marriage would have been very much like our own.

Appealing, once again, to social convention, Volsung tells his daughter that if she were to break her marriage vows to Siggeir it would bring shame upon the family, especially since Siggeir is innocent of wrongdoing. All trust would be lost between the parties, and Siggeir would pay the Volsungs back with hostility. Thus, “the only proper thing for us to do is to honor our end of the agreement.”[3] This is not by any means a simple conflict, and I do not mean to suggest anything as facile as an outright rejection of social convention in favor of “the heart.” The points that Volsung makes are entirely valid. There is thus a genuine and, it seems, irreconcilable conflict here. And this is a theme we find in many of the sagas and traditional stories: characters who are bound by oaths or ties to do things that cause harm or unhappiness to the undeserving. We will see this problem reappear later in the saga. In the present case, Odin has already, in effect, cut this Gordian knot with his sword: Sigmund’s winning of that sword will ultimately result in the breaking of Signy and Siggeir’s marriage, the destruction of Siggeir’s clan, and the continuation of the Volsungs.

Before Siggeir sails home with his bride, he invites Volsung and his sons to visit him in three months’ time in Götaland. He suggests that Volsung bring with him as many warriors as he wishes “who would do him credit with their company.”[4] Siggeir explains that he issues this invitation to make up for leaving the wedding feast so abruptly, which was considered bad form. Volsung accepts his invitation – oblivious, it seems, to the inevitable trap the reader knows is coming.

Chapter 5. Concerning the Treachery of King Siggeir

Three months later, travelling in three ships, Volsung, his sons, and their men arrive at Götaland late at night. They are met by Signy, who asks to speak with her father and brothers in private. She tells them that they are walking into an ambush, and that Siggeir has assembled a mighty army. She begs them to sail back, gather a larger force, and then return and wreak vengeance on Siggeir. Unsurprisingly, Volsung refuses to do this, since to flee would be dishonorable. This is certainly a questionable decision, however. Volsung and his men have not yet been engaged in battle. Instead, they have been forewarned that battle is forthcoming. What would be the shame, at this point, in withdrawing temporarily in order to assemble a larger force, if they fully intend to return and fight? Volsung’s decision is not particularly sensible, and will result in his destruction, and the destruction of almost his entire family. The words he uses to justify his decision are, nevertheless, eloquent and also somewhat surprising.

To begin with, Volsung says, “Everyone will say that I swore, while still in my mother’s womb, that I would never flee in fear from iron nor from fire, and I have kept that oath all of my days until now – and why would I not keep it in my old age?”[5] Recall that Volsung was “already very big” when he was born. Indeed, the birth killed his mother, and he kissed her before she died. As I noted in my commentary on Chapter Two, this indicates that Volsung is born with a degree of mature awareness. Thus, the saga’s writer may mean it literally when he tells us that Volsung swore this oath in his mother’s womb. Again and again, we will see that members of this clan are more than merely human (no surprise, given that Odin is the clan’s progenitor). Of course, the idea that he swore this oath in the womb could also be taken as a poetic way of underscoring the fact that such an ethos, and the instincts it gives rise to, are part of Volsung’s heritage: so deeply engrained in him that they existed in his character prior to any conscious choice.

“Everyone will die someday,” Volsung goes on to say, “and no one can escape death when his time has come. I say that we will not flee but will do everything we can in the boldest way. . . . It will never be said that I fled, nor that I begged for peace.”[6] He also reminds Signy that he has never lost a battle. She weeps and begs not to be sent back to King Siggeir, but Volsung commands her to go, and to stay with her husband regardless of what happens to them.

The following morning, Volsung and his men rise and prepare for battle. It is not long before Siggeir’s army arrives and the fighting begins. With the exaggeration typical of the sagas, we are told that “it is said that on this day, King Volsung and his sons went all the way through the ranks of King Siggeir’s army eight times, cutting with weapons in both hands.” But what we are told next is genuinely strange: “when they were preparing one more such assault, King Volsung fell dead in the middle of his own troops.”[7] The saga contains not one word about the manner of the death. Was it by sword, or axe, or spear? Nothing is said.

Furthermore, the text makes clear that he is “in the middle of his own troops,” while they were preparing another assault – in other words, during a lull in the fighting. Did Volsung receive a wound earlier from which he now succumbs? Nothing like this is mentioned. All we are are told is that, suddenly, he “fell dead.” Could this sudden death be at the hands, in fact, of Odin? Does Volsung abruptly fall dead once Odin’s favor is withdrawn from him? Certainly it is true that the death of Volsung will be necessary to advance the subsequent events of the story – events leading to the next phase in Odin’s plans to breed the perfect warrior. In the battle that follows Volsung’s death, all his men are killed, except for his ten sons. It is at this point that the events of the saga become genuinely dark and macabre, and a gloom hangs over the story. This mood will last until the birth of Sigurd in Chapter Thirteen.

Signy receives word of her father’s death and the defeat of his army. Privately, she speaks with Siggeir and makes a strange request. She asks that he not kill her brothers immediately, but instead hold them prisoner, in chains. “I recall that it is said that ‘An eye loves what it lingers on,’” she says, apparently trying to appeal to Siggeir’s sadistic nature. He responds that she is foolish to ask that her brothers suffer more than if they were simply executed. But he happily grants her request, admitting that he will enjoy prolonging their torment. Just what, we wonder, does Siggeir have in store for them?

Though he must have had at his disposal stocks, a jail, and possibly even a dungeon, Siggeir invents a novel way to bond the brothers and hold them captive. They are taken out into the forest, ordered to lie down next to each other, and a huge tree trunk is laid over their legs, so that they are pinned to the ground. At midnight on the first evening of their captivity, “an old she-wolf, huge and ugly” arrives and eats one of the brothers, devouring him completely. Now, I will go ahead and reveal that in the last line of this chapter, we are told, “Some say that this wolf was the mother of King Siggeir, and that she had taken a wolf’s form by the use of magic and sorcery.”[8]

The saga’s writer frequently uses a construction like “some say” when introducing particularly fantastic elements in the story. But the likelihood is that Siggeir does have some connection to this she-wolf. It seems probable that he holds the brothers prisoner out in the forest precisely because he knows that the she-wolf will visit them. In any case, this is the first instance of shape-shifting in the saga – several more will follow. We are told nothing else about the mother of Siggeir, and we are suspicious that, here again, we somehow find the hand of Odin at work. Consider: Why a wolf, rather than, say, a brown bear (which are plentiful in Sweden, the setting of the story)? The wolf, of course, is associated with Odin. I will return to this point later.

Signy learns, through a trusted servant, that one of her brothers has been devoured. However, she is powerless to come to their aid. On each of the following nights, the she-wolf returns and devours another brother. Soon, nine are dead and only Sigmund remains. Signy is frantic, but she devises a clever plan. Before the tenth night falls, she sends her servant to Sigmund with a pot of honey. The servant is told to spread the honey over Sigmund’s face and to leave some in his mouth.

That night, the she-wolf comes for Sigmund. She sniffs him, notices the honey, then begins licking it off his face. When she sticks her tongue into his mouth, Sigmund summons up his courage and bites down hard on the wolf’s tongue, holding onto it with all his strength. The wolf tries desperately to get loose. She tries bracing her paws against the trunk and pushes so hard on it that it breaks into pieces – thus freeing Sigmund, but still he does not let go. Finally, the wolf pulls against Sigmund with such force that her tongue is torn out at the root, and she dies on the spot.

This passage has always reminded me of an episode in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, where Zarathustra comes upon a shepherd who is choking to death on a snake. As the shepherd slept by the roadside, a large, black snake had crawled down his throat and bit into his flesh. Zarathustra commands him, “Bite! Bite its head off! Bite” The shepherd does so, and there follows a famous passage:

Far away he spewed the head of the snake – and he jumped up. No longer shepherd, no longer human – one changed, radiant, laughing! Never yet on earth has a human being laughed as he laughed! O my brothers, I heard a laughter that was no human laughter; and now a thirst gnaws at me, a longing that never grows still. My longing for this laughter gnaws at me; oh, how do I bear to go on living! And how could I bear to die now![9]

The shepherd is choking, it seems, on evil – an evil that would consume him, unless he consumes it first. (Nietzsche does not offer an explicit interpretation of the meaning of the snake, though clearly it is malevolent.)[10] The shepherd is transformed by the experience. Does something similar happen with Sigmund? It seems highly likely that this ordeal represents a rite of passage. In a famous episode we will cover in a future installment, Sigurd kills the dragon Fafnir and eats part of his heart, thereby acquiring some of the dragon’s power. Does Sigmund acquire some of the wolf’s power by biting off its tongue? Perhaps. What is clear is that this daring feat is part of his development into the sort of hero Odin would have for his Einherjar.

In fact, before we leave Chapter Four, let us consider the subterranean way Odin has operated throughout this whole grisly episode. Why did nine brothers have to be eliminated? The answer is that it is Odin’s plan to force Sigmund and Signy together so that, I have argued, they can breed a pure Volsung, the perfect warrior. As we will see, what brings brother and sister to incest is not simply the desire to continue their clan. Instead, they want to produce a child strong enough to aid them in their plan to seek revenge against Siggeir. If some of the other brothers had been left alive, they could have banded together to go after Siggeir, and there would have been no necessity to produce a new Volsung. (Indeed, as we will see, still others must be eliminated before Signy is finally forced to consider the option of incest!)

All of this – the sword intended for Sigmund, the envy of Siggeir, the death of Volsung (who mysteriously “falls dead”), the deaths of the nine brothers – is part of the plan orchestrated by Odin. The killing of the nine brothers exhibits the same sort of cunning we find in the story of Odin’s winning the poetic mead (recounted in Snorri’s Edda). Specifically, I mean the episode in which Odin causes the death of Baugi’s nine thralls so that the giant will hire him to mow his hay, in return for one sip of the mead. We must also consider that the death of the brothers is not only by means of a wolf, an animal associated with Odin, but a werewolf. (Werewolves will appear again later, in a famous episode involving Sigmund and his son Sinfiotli.) We are told that Siggeir’s old mother is a sorceress who shape-shifts into wolfen form – undoubtedly using the same techniques of seidhr known to Odin.[11] Does she act at Odin’s behest, wittingly or unwittingly? Here we can only speculate, as the text says nothing other than what has already been mentioned. What is very clear in the story, however, is that little happens that is not somehow directly or indirectly contrived by the god.

In our next installment we will see Sigmund and Signy’s plan for revenge unfold – and we will see that, of the two, it is Signy who is the coldest and most ruthless of the surviving Volsungs.

Notes

[1] See Stephen E. Flowers, Sigurðr: Rebirth and the Rites of Transformation (Smithfield, Tx.: Rûna-Raven, 2011).

[2] See Chapter Nine of Kevin Macdonald, Cultural Insurrections (Atlanta: The Occidental Press, 2007).

[3] The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2017), 5.

[4] Crawford, 6.

[5] Crawford, 6. Emphasis added.

[6] Crawford, 6.

[7] Crawford, 7.

[8] Crawford, 8. See note 10 for a more literal translation of part of this line.

[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 160.

[10] Possibly it represents “slave morality.”

[11] The text does not mention seidhr. Instead, it states that Siggeir changes her shape by means of tröllskapar (trolls’ lore) fjölkynngi (sorcery; literally “much magic”). However, in Chapter Seven, Signy enlists the aid of a shape-shifting witch who is literally referred to as a seiðkona (seidhr-woman).

 

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7 Comments

  1. Wanred
    Posted October 11, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Great series, always eagerly awaiting the next installment.

    Could you elaborate upon the etymology of the word “fetch”? I have never seen it used in this context before.

    • Collin Cleary
      Posted October 13, 2018 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      It’s actually a term most closely associated with Irish folklore, where it’s a kind of spectral double. It’s commonly used as a translation or gloss for fylgja, though the terms are probably unrelated. The etymology of fetch is unclear.

  2. Trollking
    Posted October 9, 2018 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    so Collin in your infinite scholarship, weigh in on our debate in the above thread, do you think the volsung saga is inegalitarian or egalitarian in its ethos?

    I wrote before, but they deleted it for some reason, that I thought there was sort of a nietchean contrast of slave versus aristocrat morality in the volsung saga. Brynhild will accept only the best, and she’ll pull everything around her down unless she gets it. The thrall who is sentenced to die whines and refuses to give up his soft life of pig herding, probably meant to be comic. I see him as sort of a last man figure. But nietsche formed his philosophy from an intimate knowledge of Greek literature, and these people have common indoeuropean origins, so perhaps it’s not coincidental.

    • matin
      Posted October 13, 2018 at 1:37 am | Permalink

      Right off the bat, you have thrall being presented as superior to his supposed “better”, outdoing him in the manly art of hunting, with the man of higher caste acting disgracefully afterwards… Then the episodes with the princess and her maidservant exchanging roles, and king recognizing their true identities not on their supposed outward rank but on their actual qualities.

      Nietzsche, by the way, came to hate Wagner and his work, something that people rarely mention, focusing always on their early friendship…

      • Trollking
        Posted October 13, 2018 at 6:21 am | Permalink

        That’s true, but it leads to a violent reaction when the hierarchy is upseated. A similar thing happens when brynhild goes out farther in the river and the other princess rebukes her. I thought that scene strange and sort of funny. Also, there was the fact that brynhild failed to understand that Sigurd was the better husband and was really the one who rode through the fire. There seems to be a theme of not recognizing true worth through the mirage of social structures. Still I think it would be a stretch to call this an egalitarian message, only a reminder that the social structure can be wrong or conned. A thrall is only a man who has been captured for some reason, this would not make him inherently weak.

        The question was that Norse society was egalitarian, and Volsung saga was offered in evidence of this. Your argument is that Volsung saga somehow satirizes the notion of hierarchy, is a protest work, and even if you are correct, it would be a reaction to the hierarchy, not evidence that no hierarchy existed.

      • Trollking
        Posted October 13, 2018 at 6:32 am | Permalink

        That leads me to understand that scene in the river better. By going out farther, brynhild was hinting that she was the better woman. The other princess was stung by it and rebuked her. Brynhild says, “why should I not surpass you more in this than in other things..” and claims to have the better husband. Then the other princess lays the truth on her.

        It was a dispute over a tiny distinction in status that, again, led to a homicidal rage. To me this suggests an acutely hierarchical society.

        This has been a productive series of articles! I think we should have a monthly counter currents book discussion like this. That would be something no other site has!

      • Paul
        Posted October 14, 2018 at 2:26 am | Permalink

        No offense mate, but that makes about as much sense as saying that, because in the final book of The Odyssey Odysseus refuses to spare the priest, Homer was necessarily making a comment against religion.

        Frankly, this is unworthy of discussion.

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