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An Esoteric Commentary on the Volsung Saga, Part XI:
Concerning Queen Hjordis and King Alf

Johannes Gehrts, Sigmund’s Sword (1889)

2,334 words

Part I here, Part X here, Part XII here

After many twists and turns in the story of the Volsungs, Sigurd, the greatest of them all, is about to burst onto the scene.

In our last installment, we saw Sigmund taking a second wife, the beautiful Hjordis, daughter of King Eylimi. But another man desires her, and is enraged when her marriage to Sigmund takes place. He is King Lyngvi, son of Hunding, who was killed by Sigmund’s son Helgi (see the ninth part of this series). After the wedding, Sigmund returns to his kingdom, “Hunland,” along with his new bride and father-in-law. Meanwhile, King Lyngvi and his brothers build an army to attack Hunland. A great battle takes place, and things look bad for Sigmund, as his army is much smaller than Lyngvi’s. 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.

In the middle of the battle, 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.”[1] 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. As soon as this occurs, Sigmund and his men begin to lose the battle. The reason, we are told, is that Sigmund’s “luck” has left him. Many of Sigmund’s troops now die, and Sigmund – realizing exactly what has happened, that Odin has withdrawn his favor – even ceases to defend himself.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.

Chapter 12. Concerning Queen Hjordis and King Alf

Having won the battle, King Lyngvi searches for Hjordis and the Volsung treasure, finding neither. He settles for dividing the land among his men and concludes that all the Volsungs must be dead. At night, Hjordis steals onto the battlefield, searching through the dead for Sigmund. At last, she finds him, still alive – but just barely. With the kind of realism typical of the women of the sagas, she asks Sigmund if there is any hope that he will survive. “Many live with little hope, but my luck [heill] has left me,” he replies. “So I will not let myself be healed. Odin no longer wishes for me to draw my sword, since he has now broken it.”[2]

Hjordis pleads with Sigmund to allow himself to be healed so that he can avenge her father, King Eylimi, but Sigmund tells her that that task is fated for others. Then he informs Hjordis that she is pregnant with a boy. “Raise him well and carefully,” Sigmund says, “and that boy will become the greatest and most famous of our family. Take good care also of my sword’s fragments. A good sword can be made from them, which will be called Gram, and our son will carry that sword and do many great things with it which will never be forgotten. And his name will be spoken as long as the world lasts.”[3] Hjordis sits with Sigmund until he dies.

What is interesting about Sigmund’s statements is that he seems to have foreknowledge of his son’s life. How, for example, does he know that Hjordis is pregnant with a male child? How does he know what the sword will be called? (His words carry the quality of a prediction, as opposed to a command that the sword be named Gram.) The explanation for this is simple: It was a common Norse belief that those close to death were capable of supernatural insights of various kinds. The role of prophecy in the saga (as well as the sagas in general) is quite interesting, and soon we will see that Sigurd embarks on his adventures, exactly as foreseen by his father, with full knowledge of his fate, provided him by his maternal uncle. This is the entire subject of Chapter Sixteen, and it will occasion some important philosophical reflections. We may note also that Hjordis’s role in preparing Sigurd for his great career is “prophesied” by the very name given her by her parents, for Hjordis means “woman of the sword.”[4]

At dawn, Hjordis, carrying the unborn Sigurd and the fragments of the sword, cautiously approaches the shoreline, accompanied by her servant (who goes unnamed). There, they see that a number of ships have come to land. Hjordis instructs her servant to exchange clothes with her: “You take my name,” she says, “and say you are the daughter of King Eylimi.”[5] Then they run into the woods. Now, these men who have arrived in their ships (who are referred to in the text as “Vikings”) are not party to the battle that has just taken place. It is simply a coincidence that they suddenly arrive, and find evidence of the terrible carnage that has taken place. Their leader is King Alf, son of King Hjalprek of Denmark. (Not to be confused with Alf, the son of Hunding slain by Helgi.)

When Alf sees the two women running for the woods, he sends his men after them. Hjordis and her servant are soon captured and brought into the presence of the King. He asks them who they are, and the servant, playing her role, answers for them and explains how Sigmund and the others fell in battle against Lyngvi. Alf asks if they know where Sigmund’s treasure is. “We probably do,” answers the servant (in another translation: “It would seem rather likely we’d know that”). And she shows Alf and his men to where the treasure is hidden. Why does the servant give such an odd answer, and why does she immediately reveal the treasure’s location? Her answer suggests hesitancy, which would be natural in that situation. As to her willingness to give up the treasure, she probably recognizes that she and Hjordis may need to buy their way out of their predicament. And, besides, they could not carry off the treasure on their own. If Hjordis resents the servant for revealing the treasure, no indication is given in the story.

In any case, the treasure is described as being incredibly vast, “so much so that none of the men thought he had seen so much in one place nor more jewels.”[6] Alf’s men carry it away to their King’s ships. When they depart the shores of Hunland, they also carry with them Hjordis and her servant. Alf positions the two women at a place of honor on the deck of his own ship. “He spoke with them, and he placed great value on what they said,” the saga writer tells us. When Alf reaches Denmark, the treasure he brings causes him to be regarded as “the most accomplished of men.”[7] However, the Danish Queen, mother of Alf, suspects that all is not as it appears with his two female captives. She asks him, “Why does the more beautiful woman have fewer rings and worse clothing? It seems to me that the higher woman is the one you have treated lower.”[8]

As I noted in the ninth part of this series, it is a common motif in Old Norse literature that the different classes have noticeable physiognomic differences. Rigsthula provides the most detailed illustrations of this. There, the race of thralls is described as incredibly ugly: swarthy, scabby, covered in scars, sunburnt, hook-nosed, and so on. The second generation of thralls bear names like Lumpy, Stinker, Midget, Fatboy, Hunchback, Shorty, Fatty, Beak-nose, and Shriek.[9] By contrast, the female progenitor of the nobles is described as follows:

Her face was more beautiful,
her breast was more beautiful,
her neck was more beautiful
than pure snow.[10]

Her child with Rig is named “Lord” and is described thus:

His hair was blonde,
his cheeks were bright,
his eyes were as cruel
and clear as vipers’.[11]

We should not be too quick to dismiss the idea that the “noble born” and the “low born” had recognizable physiognomic differences. This is asserted so often in Old Norse literature there undoubtedly has to have been some truth to it. (For a lengthy discussion of Rigsthula, which is a profoundly interesting text, see my essay “What Does It Mean to be True to the Aesir?”)

Alf responds to his mother, “I have suspected that she [i.e., Hjordis] did not act like a servant, and when we first met, she showed that she knew how to greet well-born men. I will test this.”[12] One evening, when Alf has apparently invited both women to his hall to drink with him, he asks them, “How do you know that it is dawn, when the night draws to a close, if you cannot see the sun and the stars?” The text is then ambiguous: One of the women speaks, as we are told – “She answered . . .” (Hon svarar), but we are not told which one speaks. The context, however, makes it clear that it is the slave woman. She says, “This is our way of knowing. It was our custom in my youth that we drank a great deal in the hour before dawn, and even after I stopped this, I still wake at the same time, and that is my way of knowing.”[13]

Drinking till dawn is not exactly the behavior we would expect from a princess, and Alf observes this, his tone full of irony. He then puts the same question to Hjordis and receives a very different answer. She informs him that her father gave her a small golden ring that possessed a magic power: When she wore it, it would become cold in the hour just before dawn. Thus, she could always tell when the Sun was rising. Now, there are two ways in which this answer reveals her to be a woman of royal blood. First, and most obviously, the giving of valuable rings was the prerogative of kings and chieftains. It is unlikely that a mere slave woman would possess a gold ring. (“There was plenty of gold around, if even the servants had some!” says Alf.) Second, and more interestingly, magic was also, in large measure, a prerogative of the “well born,” as well as secret knowledge of all kinds (a fact which I will discuss in connection with what Chapter Thirteen has to tell us about the education of young Sigurd).

It is now obvious to Alf that the women have reversed roles, and what he then says to Hjordis is extraordinarily generous. He tells her that he would have treated her as if they were both “born of the same king,” had she told him the truth from the beginning. In other words, he is saying that there was no reason for Hjordis to have hidden herself from him, out of fear. He promises to give her even better honors, for she will be his wife. Note that he does not ask for her hand in marriage. But he doubtless recognizes that, in her present position, she would not be so foolish as to refuse him. She has no place else to go and, as Alf’s wife, she and her child will enjoy his status and his protection. Alf promises to pay the “brideprice” (or “marriage settlement”) once Hjordis has given birth to her son.

It is interesting that Alf decides to delay the marriage until Sigurd is born, but perhaps it was the custom, in such situations, to wait until the bride-to-be had given birth to the other man’s child. In any event, the chapter concludes with Hjordis admitting to Alf that he has seen the truth of the matter, and she accepts his proposal. Thereupon she is accorded great honors “and was considered the most noble of women.”[14]

With the conclusion of Chapter Twelve, we have reached a major milestone in the saga, for in the following chapter, Sigurd, the greatest Volsung of them all, is introduced. Readers coming to the saga for the first time expect it to be the story of Sigurd, and are surprised when the text tells the tale of several generations before Sigurd comes onto the scene. And though the story of those generations is compressed into twenty or twenty-five pages of terse prose, as we have seen the tales therein are rich with meaning, and full of imaginative and often macabre detail. The Volsung Saga is, after all, the story of an entire clan, not the story of an individual – though undeniably, the career of Sigurd is the high point of the story, and of the clan itself. In order to understand Sigurd, we must understand how the past prepares for his arrival – how, indeed, his own nature and possibilities are rooted in his ancestral heritage, and even how the lives of his ancestors prefigure his own life and adventures. (See my essay “Ancestral Being” for a discussion of how the being of an individual must be understood as constituted, in part, by his clan, and his clan’s past.)

There were Volsungs before Sigurd and, as we shall see, there will be Volsungs after he is gone. (The saga continues beyond Sigurd’s death.) But there never was and never will be another Volsung like Sigurd. And so, in our next installment, we shall finally meet him. We shall see how he is fostered by Regin, who teaches him runes and much else, and how Regin and Odin prepare him for his greatest adventure.

Notes

[1] The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2017), 20. (Henceforth, “Crawford.”)

[2] Crawford, 21.

[3] Crawford, 21.

[4] As noted in the last installment, Hjordis is sometimes 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.

[5] Crawford, 21.

[6] Crawford, 22.

[7] Crawford, 22.

[8] Crawford, 22.

[9] The Poetic Edda, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015), 148. (Henceforth “PE.”)

[10] PE, 151.

[11] PE, 152.

[12] Crawford, 22.

[13] Crawford, 22.

[14] Crawford, 23.

One Comment

  1. Zingiber Officinale
    Posted October 25, 2019 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Ah, finally! Got so excited when I saw this. CC needs more C.C

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