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An Esoteric Commentary on the Volsung Saga, Part X:
The Deaths of Sinfjotli & Sigmund

[1]2,519 words

Part I here [2], Part IX here [3]

Chapter Ten: The Death of Sinfjotli

In our last two installments, we explored the fascinating digression – the “saga within the saga” – that is the story of Helgi. Now, we return to the story of Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli, who is the product of Sigmund’s incestuous union with his sister Signy.

After assisting Helgi in winning Sigrun, Sinfjotli returns to his father’s kingdom. As soon as he does so, however, he yearns for new adventures and goes out raiding again. At a certain point, he becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman (who is not named) and wants to make her his wife. The trouble, however, is that the woman is also desired by the brother of Sinfjotli’s stepmother, Borghild (mother of Helgi and Hamund). Sinfjotli and Borghild’s brother (also never named) fight over the woman, and Sinfjotli kills the man. The saga writer never mentions whether the woman becomes Sinfjotli’s wife. Instead we are told that Sinfjotli immediately goes back to raiding again and has many victories. “He became the greatest and most famous of men, and he came home during the fall with many ships and a great deal of loot.”[1] [4]

Word of her brother’s death has not yet reached Borghild when Sinfjotli arrives back home, and he tells her himself. Enraged, she demands that Sinfjotli leave the kingdom at once. Of course, this is a decision that rests with the King himself, Sigmund, and he is not eager to banish his favorite son. Instead, he offers her weregeld: “gold and great treasures” in compensation for the death of her brother. Sigmund has never before done this, but he makes the offer because he believes that there is “no prestige in arguing with women.”[2] [5] Borghild defers to her husband’s authority in the matter: “You ought to decide, my lord, as is proper,” she says. But we sense that she is simply biding her time.

Borghild requests permission from King Sigmund to host a feast in honor of her dead brother, and the King agrees (no doubt out of a desire to further placate her). The feast is a grand affair, attended by many famous men. Naturally, Sinfjotli is invited as well. Queen Borghild, with seeming modesty, takes on the task of serving drinks to the guests. At a certain point, she approaches Sinfjotli with a large horn full of mead or beer, bidding him to drink. But Sinfjotli hesitates, noticing that the liquid seems cloudy. Sigmund, who is having a jolly time, cries, “Let me have it then,” then snatches the horn from Sinfjotli and drains it.

Of course, we know that Borghild has poisoned the drink. But we also know that Sigmund is invulnerable to poison, so the drink has no effect on him. As was established in Chapter Seven, however, Sinfjotli can only survive poison falling on his skin, but cannot ingest it. Perhaps Borghild is well aware of this. In any case, she persists and brings Sinfjotli another horn filled with a poisoned brew, and this time she accompanies it with a taunt designed to wound the young warrior’s male vanity: “Why should other men drink your beer for you, Sinfjotli?” But he once again detects that something is wrong with the drink, and once again his father drains the horn.

Convinced that her persistence will be rewarded, Borghild brings Sinfjotli a third horn, challenging him to drink it, if he has the courage of a Volsung. This time Sinfjotli looks into the horn and declares his suspicions outright: “There is some poison in the drink.” By now, however, Sigmund is so inebriated from downing the last two hornfuls (and whatever else he has had to drink), he does not seem to grasp the nature of the situation, or to hear his son’s words. “Wet your moustache, son!” Sigmund commands. Sinfjotli obeys his father, and immediately falls to the floor, dead.

Sigmund is now overcome with grief. He lifts up his son’s lifeless body and carries him out of the hall and into the forest. After a while, he comes to a fjord where he sees a man on a small boat. The man offers to ferry Sinfjotli’s body across, but the boat isn’t big enough to carry all three of them at once. Sigmund decides to walk along the shore and watch as the ferryman carries Sinfjotli over the fjord. All of a sudden, however, the ferryman and the boat simply vanish. This is, of course, a magical occurrence, and commentators generally agree that it is yet another of Odin’s several appearances in the saga.

The most famous “ferryman of the dead” in world mythology is, of course, Charon of the Greek tradition, who ferries the dead across the river Styx. The character (with various names) appears in other traditions, but is by no means universal. The Irish tradition tells of a ferryman named Manannan mac Lir, who has a number of Odin-like traits. Ruler of the dead, he possesses several magical objects, including a horse that can travel on water, and a powerful sword, Fragarach (the Answerer), that can compel anyone at whom it is pointed to answer questions truthfully. A manuscript of the fourteenth or fifteenth century describes him as “a pagan, a lawgiver among the Tuatha Dé Danann, and a necromancer possessed of the power to envelope himself and others in a mist, so that they could not be seen by their enemies.” Manannan also possesses a magically regenerating swine that feeds the gods, similar to Odin’s boar that feeds the Einherjar in Valhalla. (Note that I am merely drawing some interesting parallels between Odin and Manannan, not suggesting that there is some connection, or influence of one tradition upon another.)

Where is Odin the ferryman taking Sinfjotli? Commentators seem to assume that their destination is Valhalla, but the saga does not explicitly say this. The short prose selection Fra dautha Sinfjotla included in the Codex Regius also tells the exact same story of the death of Sinfjotli, but does not mention the ferryman’s destination, either. On one level, it seems reasonable to assume that Sinfjotli is bound for Valhalla. After all, why would Odin come himself if not to personally convey Sinfjotli to the fortress of his army of the dead? And, as we have discussed at length, Odin seems to sire and to continually manipulate the Volsung clan in order to produce a race of super-warriors who will, upon death, join the ranks of that army. Why would he not want to select as great a warrior as Sinfjotli?

On the other hand, there is some reason to think that Odin may be ferrying Sinfjotli to Hel. I base this on the manner in which he died, and on precedent. Though Sinfjotli was unquestionably slain, it cannot be said that he died in combat. And, to make matters worse, he died at the hands of a woman. Further, when Baldr was slain through treachery (again, not involving combat, by any reasonable standard), he winds up in Hel. The grief-stricken Odin seems powerless to affect this outcome. We may also note that Hel is famously associated with a river, Gjöll, which the dead must cross (via a bridge) in order to enter it. Thus, the use of a boat as a conveyance seems appropriate if Sinfjotli’s destination is Hel. This is not a strong argument, however, since many of the dead in Norse culture, including those believed bound for Vahalla, were buried in ships or ship-like graves.

In any case, after Odin ferries Sinfjotli away to wherever, Sigmund returns home and, thankfully, banishes Borghild, who we are told dies shortly thereafter. Sigmund continues to rule his realm into old age, being considered “the greatest champion and king in his time.”[3] [6] But the day is coming when Odin will call him home as well.

In closing the book on the career of Sinfjotli, we may note that the character seems little more than an inadequate, preliminary sketch of Sigurd. Though Sinfjotli is certainly a great warrior, he does not manage to surpass his father in power (he is vulnerable in ways Sigmund is not), and meets an ignominious end. It is Sigurd, Sigmund’s second son, who will prove greater than his father. One cannot help but see Sigurd’s most famous deed, the killing of the dragon Fafnir, foreshadowed in Sinfjotli’s killing of the “huge” (but, of course, much smaller) serpent in the bag of flour (see the fifth part of this series [7]). Because Sinfjotli is a “pure Volsung,” the product of the union of brother and sister, we expect greater things from him. As I noted in an earlier installment, Wagner was certainly wise, in his revision of the story, to make Sigurd the product of the incest, and to drop the character of Sinfjtoli entirely.

Chapter Eleven: The Death of Sigmund, Son of Volsung

Sigmund now decides to remarry, and he sets his sights on Hjordis, “the wisest and most beautiful of women,” daughter of the wealthy and renowned King Eylimi. Sigmund sends a message to Eylimi saying that he would like to visit his Kingdom, and that his intentions are peaceful. As a result, Sigmund is given permission to visit, along with his retinue. Eylimi gives Sigmund a reception worthy of a great king, and an impressive feast is held in his honor.

A third king is present at the feast, however: King Lyngvi, son of Hunding, who was killed by Sigmund’s son Helgi. (See the eighth part of this series [8].) Lyngvi also desires Hjordis. But Eylimi loves and respects his daughter so much, he decides to leave the choice to her: “You are a wise woman, and I have declared that you will choose your own husband. Choose between these two kings, and my decision will support yours.”[4] [9] Despite the fact that Sigmund is now an old man, Hjordis chooses him because of his greater fame. (A sensible, hypergamous decision.) The saga implies that Sigmund and Hjordis are married then and there, at which point the feast is extended for several days, and the guests served finer delicacies each day.

After a time, Sigmund decides to return to his Kingdom, “Hunland” (not referred to as such since Chapter One), along with his new bride and father-in-law, Eylimi. Meanwhile, King Lyngvi and his brothers build an army to attack Hunland. They have several grudges against the Volsungs, including Helgi’s murder of their father, Hunding, and now this marriage, in which Lyngvi has lost the beautiful Hjordis to Sigmund. Further, the text tells us that “they wanted to test themselves against the heroism of the Volsungs.”[5] [10] When Lyngvi and his men reach Hunland, they send Sigmund a message announcing their arrival, considering it unchivalrous to ambush him. Naturally, Sigmund agrees to meet Lyngvi and his brothers with his own force. Sigmund’s army is much smaller than Lyngvi’s, however. Fearing the worst, he sends Hjordis, who is pregnant, to hide in the forest. She is accompanied by a loyal serving-woman and a large quantity of treasure.

The ensuing battle is described in colorful detail. Sigmund gives orders that his father’s (Volsung’s) horn should be blown, to inspire his men. Though Sigmund is old, he fights with great ferocity. His prowess is described with the exaggeration typical of the sagas: “Neither shield nor armor could protect a man from him”; “No one could count how many men fell by his hand. Both of his arms were covered in blood up to the shoulders.”[6] [11] The saga writer also tells us that Sigmund was protected in battle by his spádísir. This word consists of two components: spá, which means “prophecy” (or “to prophesy”), and dísir, the plural of dís. The dísir, as many of my readers already know, are semi-divine female spirits. Their function and properties are complex and mysterious, but they often seem hard to distinguish from the fylgjur and norns. (Indeed, one translator of the saga simply translates spádísir as “norns.”[7] [12])

The fylgjur (sing. fylgja) were guardian spirits, sometimes guardian spirits of an entire clan, referred to as kynfylgjur. For a detailed discussion of this topic, see the fourth part of this series [13], as well as my essay “Ancestral Being [14].” The context in which the spádísir appear in the saga, as protecting spirits belonging to Sigmund, strongly suggests that we are dealing with kynfylgjur. Thus, Crawford translates spádísir as “Sigmund’s family spirits.” (Jesse L. Byock translates it as “spaewomen,” “prophecy women.”[8] [15]) Of course, Sigmund has also been protected (or, at least, favored) throughout his career by an even more powerful being: Odin. However, he is about to lose that protection.

In the middle of the fighting, there suddenly appears a man “dressed in a long hat and a blue cloak. He had only one eye, and a spear in his hand.”[9] [16] In accordance with the practice of our saga writer, Odin again remains unnamed. He rushes at Sigmund, spear upraised, and when the latter defends himself by striking the spear with his sword, Sigmund’s sword shatters into two pieces. Presumably, this is the same sword Sigmund received from Odin in Chapter Three (the sword Sigmund pulled from the tree Barnstokk). As such, it is a magical sword, and Sigmund is probably very surprised when it breaks. Of course, only Odin himself can break it – and it can only be reforged for the greatest of Odin’s “sons,” Sigurd.

As soon as Sigmund’s sword breaks, he and his men begin to lose the battle. The reason, we are told, is that Sigmund’s “luck” has left him. We might expect this word to be hamingja (see again “Ancestral Being”), but in fact the term used here (and again in the following chapter) is heill, “success” or “luck.” Obviously, however, it means much the same thing. “Luck” was not a figurative term for the Norse, but a real force that imbued individuals and had the capacity to be transferred from one individual to another. (Something which, I will argue, takes place in the following chapter.)

Many of Sigmund’s troops now die, and Sigmund – realizing exactly what has happened, that Odin has withdrawn his favor – even ceases to defend himself. His father-in-law, King Eylimi, is killed, and Sigmund is mortally wounded. He will linger awhile, however – into the next chapter, where we will see him reunited briefly with Hjordis, who carries his son, the greatest Volsung of them all. And we will see that Sigmund entrusts the pieces of his broken sword to her – she whose name means “Woman of the Sword.”[10] [17]

Notes

[1] [18] The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2017), 18.

[2] [19] Crawford, 18.

[3] [20] Crawford, 19.

[4] [21] Crawford, 19.

[5] [22] Crawford, 20.

[6] [23] Crawford, 20.

[7] [24] The Saga of the Volsungs, trans. R. G. Finch (London: Thomas Nelson, 1965), 20.

[8] [25] See Byock, The Saga of the Volsungs (London: Penguin Classics, 1999), 53.

[9] [26] Crawford, 20.

[10] [27] Sometimes this is rendered “Sword Goddess,” because the dís is a semi-divine female being. However, as Rudolf Simek notes, dís was also used simply as a term meaning “woman.” Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall (Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2000), 61.