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An Esoteric Commentary on the Volsung Saga, Part XII:
Sigurd’s First Initiation into Runelore

Sigurd and the dwarf Regin forge a sword, from the portal of the stave church of Hylestad, Setesdal, Norway c. 1200.

3,469 words

Part I here, Part XI here

In our last installment, we saw how Queen Hjordis, pregnant with Sigurd, is taken in by King Alf, son of King Hjalprek of Denmark. Before his death, Sigmund had prophesied that his son “will become the greatest and most famous of our family.” Sigmund also entrusts to Hjordis the fragments of his sword, broken by Odin. “Take good care also of my sword’s fragments,” Sigmund tells her. “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.”[1]

King Alf and his men happen upon the scene by accident. Hjordis exchanges clothes with her servant. Pretending to be the Queen, she leads Alf to the Volsung treasure. When he returns to Denmark, he carries the treasure with him, along with the two women. For a time, the women keep up their charade, but eventually the clever Alf realizes that the one acting the part of servant is in fact Hjordis. (He draws this inference partly from the fact that Hjordis is the more beautiful of the two – a fact which led to some interesting reflections, in our last installment, on the physiognomy of class in Norse literature.) Once the truth is revealed, Alf promises to marry Hjordis after her child is born.

Chapter 13. Concerning Sigurd and Regin

When Sigurd is born, he is brought to King Hjalprek, who admires the boy’s “fierce eyes,” and foresees that he would be “neither like nor equal to any man.”[2] He is sprinkled with water, as was the custom, and given the name Sigurd. (The text has already given us a glimpse of Norse naming customs, in Chapter Eight.) The saga writer then comments that King Hjalprek was indeed correct, since Sigurd is the most celebrated hero of the North. No man could match him in accomplishments, or even in size.

Sigurd’s size and physical prowess are continually emphasized in the text; indeed, the entirety of Chapter Twenty-Two is devoted to a physical description of Sigurd, one which strains credulity quite a bit. (The placement of this chapter is odd, since it occurs after many of Sigurd’s most famous adventures are related.) The author tells us in the present chapter that though the sagas are filled with accounts of great men, Sigurd is “named before all of them” due to his “boldness, his warrior spirit, his energy, and his drive, which he possessed beyond all other men in the northern half of the world.”[3]

Sigurd is raised with King Hjalprek and “greatly loved.” He matures and we are told a curious detail: “every child loved him.”[4] Oddly enough, this detail is considered so important that it is repeated at the tail end of Chapter Fifteen: “every child loved him completely.”[5] What are we to make of this? Children, like dogs, respond intuitively to a man’s character. It is important that we are told that the adults love him, but adults can be deceived. If even children love Sigurd, this seems to suggest that they are intuiting the genuine purity and goodness of his character. As we will see, one of the chief reasons Sigurd is such a tragic character is that, like Baldr, he is fundamentally innocent, virtuous, and without guile. At the same time, of course, he is a great warrior. This combination of purity and deadliness is curiously appealing and is one of the major reasons for the affection audiences have felt for him, in whatever form the tale of Sigurd is related.

At this point, the text seems to jump ahead a number of years, for we are told that Sigurd himself gave his mother in marriage to King Alf and “stipulated the brideprice to be paid for her.”[6] Needless to say, it is unlikely that this would be possible unless Sigurd is no longer a small child. The text never tells us exactly how old he is when he begins his adventures, but it seems likely that he is a teenager. It is also odd that Alf and Hjordis wait so long to be married. Alf had promised to marry Hjordis after Sigurd was born. Was it necessary to wait many years, until Sigurd was old enough to set the brideprice himself?

In any event, we are told that at a certain point, Sigurd is handed over in fosterage to a smith named Regin. Fosterage seems to have a been a fairly common practice, and we have already seen it occur in the saga, in the case of Sigmund fostering Sinfjotli (unaware, until much later, that Sinfjotli is his own son). In both that case and Sigurd’s fostering by Regin, there are strong overtones of an initiation. (See the fifth and sixth parts of this series for an analysis of the Sigmund-Sinfjotli relationship, and its initiatory character.)

Why is Regin selected to be Sigurd’s foster-father? In the present chapter, we are told only that he is “the son of Hreidmar.” We will learn much more about Regin’s family history in the following chapter. It is clear that he is no ordinary man; indeed, he may be no man at all. In Voluspa 12, the name Regin appears in a list of dwarfs. Reginsmal also describes him as follows: “He was more skillful with his hands than any other man, and a dwarf in height. He was wise, grim, and skilled in magic.”[7] It should be noted that there is some disagreement among scholars not only about whether Regin is a dwarf, but even about what dwarfs are, and whether dwarfs were small. As we will soon learn, one of Regin’s brothers possessed the power to turn into an otter, and the other later changes into a dragon. The text of the Volsung Saga mentions these details, but does not specify that Regin and his family were all dwarfs. In what follows I will assume that Regin is, in fact, a dwarf, as the evidence from the Poetic Edda (mentioned above) suggests this.[8] It is undoubtedly Regin’s skill in magic that is one of the reasons he is chosen as Sigurd’s foster-father.

The saga tells us that Regin taught Sigurd “sports, games, and runes, and how to speak many languages, as was fitting for a king’s son, as well as many other things.”[9] Presumably, Regin also teaches Sigurd the art of metalwork. Regin tells us later that “I knew how to work with iron and silver and gold, and I made something new out of everything,”[10] and, of course, he must be extremely accomplished in order to be smith to King Hjalprek. However, the text does not specify that Regin teaches Sigurd this, and – contra Wagner – it is Regin who will forge the fragments of Sigmund’s sword, not Sigurd.

Later, I will discuss how Regin educates Sigurd, and especially how runes play a role in that education. First, however, let us raise some basic questions about this situation. How is it that Regin comes to play the role of foster-father to Sigurd? And why is a smith chosen? What significance does this have?

First of all, it is difficult not to see the hand of Odin at work in Regin’s selection, though the text does not explicitly indicate this (Odin will, however, very soon make his first appearance in Sigurd’s life). In the following chapter, Regin will relate how he and his family encountered Odin long ago. This is the famous story of the “payment for Otter,” which we will cover in detail in a later installment. Odin is thus already acquainted with Regin, and, lo and behold, Regin finds himself with the plum job of smith to King Hjalprek, and foster-father to Sigurd, who (as I have argued in previous installments) Odin is grooming to become the greatest warrior who ever lived. It is through Regin, in fact, that Sigurd will be launched on his glorious career, and embark on his most famous adventure – the slaying of the dragon Fafnir.

But is there some special significance to Regin being a smith? There are other smiths in Norse myth and legend, of course, and some of the them are supernatural beings. For example, Snorri’s Edda recounts how dwarf smiths made a number of magic objects for the gods (including Odin’s spear and ring). The famous Volund the Smith (whose story is told in the Poetic Edda’s Volundarkvitha) is an elf. (In fact, he is the only elf of any real significance in Old Norse literature.)

Let us see what light comparative mythology can shed on our own tradition. There are numerous stories about smiths in world mythology, some of them crediting smiths (who are often divine) with a role in the creation of the world, and the education of mankind. Indeed, the special status accorded to smiths in traditional societies and the beliefs about the sacred nature of their art are near universal. In both Siberian and African legend, there is a “first smith” who came to earth to teach mankind various arts. The Dogon hold that the First Smith invented fire and taught man agriculture.[11] The smith plays a sort of Hermes-Mercury-Thoth role, and thus possesses some of the properties of Odin. As many of my readers are aware, the Romans saw Odin as equivalent to Mercury (e.g. Tacitus: “Mercury is [the German’s] principal divinity”). It is only a coincidence that the Japanese call their smith god “the one-eyed god of the sky”; nevertheless, it is an interesting coincidence.[12]

Among Siberian peoples, the smith traditionally enjoyed high social standing and was the keeper of initiatory secrets. As I have already said, what we find in the Volsung Saga is Regin playing an initiatory role in the life of the young Sigurd, a point to which I will return shortly. According to Mircea Eliade, in the region of the Pamir mountains “the smithy is venerated as a place of worship, and where there is no special house for prayers or assemblies, people foregather at the smithy.”[13] Why is this the case? It is because the “rites” performed at the smithy (for the smith’s art is sacred) are a reiteration of the cosmogony itself; the act of world creation. Certain African tribes also hold that metals derive from the body of a god.

We can easily see that the Germanic tribes must have held similar beliefs, even though they are not explicitly recorded in the sources available to us. First, earth and all it contains is derived from the corpse of Ymir. Snorri records the following:

They [the Aesir] took Ymir and transported him to the middle of Ginnungagap, and out of him made the earth, out of his blood the sea and the lakes. The earth was made of the flesh and the rock of the bones, stone and scree they made out of the teeth and molars and of the bones that had broken.[14]

Nothing is explicitly said about metals, but presumably these have their source in Ymir as well. Thus, it would have been hard for the ancient Germans to have escaped the conclusion that the smith works with materials derived from the body of a god (or Titan). And how does the smith do his work? By harnessing the primal forces of creation that preceded even the arrival of the Aesir on the scene; that existed long before the slaying of Ymir. I am referring to fire and water (or ice). The original cosmic creation is accidental, or seems that way: The rivers of Niflheim flow into Ginningugap. Snorri’s version references the terminology of the smith: “These rivers . . . when they had got so far from their source that the poisonous flow that accompanied them began to go hard like the clinker that comes from a furnace, turned to ice.” This ice interacts with “sparks” and “molten particles” (i.e., the force of fire) thrown off from Muspellheim.

In the work of the smith, the forces of fire and water are harnessed and consciously directed, so that the smith becomes a kind of Demiurge. Fire and water are used, for example, in the process of making swords. The blacksmith heats the steel, then plunges it into cold water. This process, known as “quenching,” is extremely old and is referred to in Homer’s Odyssey. We will see that fire and water continue to play an important role in the saga. We should bear in mind, however, that these should be understood primarily in terms of their symbolic meaning. I will discuss this in a later installment, but for now it is worth noting that in the Indo-European tradition, magical power is frequently understood as a kind of “heat” (e.g., the concept of tapas in the Indian tradition). Eliade argues that wut, from which the name Wuotan (Odin) is derived, is an instance of this.

The theme of smith as Demiurge, acting as cosmic “re-creator,” is found in several mythological traditions. According to Eliade, the smith of African mythology is understood to have been “enjoined by God to complete creation.”[15] We can find a parallel to this in the Northern tradition, and it points directly to dwarfs like Regin. Snorri tells us that after the gods built Asgard and their various halls, “The next thing they did was lay forges and for them they made hammer and tongs and anvil, and with these they made all other tools.” Snorri then tells us that they worked metals, especially gold, making all of their furniture and utensils from gold. This age is thus known as “the golden age” and was “spoiled by the arrival of the women. They came from Jotunheim.”[16] (This is apparently a reference to the Norns.)

Now, immediately after relating this information, Snorri states that the gods next discussed the dwarfs and what to do with them. The dwarfs had been generated like maggots in the rotting flesh of Ymir (i.e., the earth). The gods decided to make these creatures “conscious with the intelligence of men,” and also with humanoid shape.[17] Why do the gods decide to do this? To answer this question, we simply have to consider what it is that the dwarfs are known for doing with their intelligence. As we have already seen, they are primarily known as craftsmen, especially metalsmiths. It can thus easily be seen that the gods have charged the dwarfs with the task of completing or furthering the creation they themselves began with the slaying and dismembering of Ymir; the mission of the dwarfs is the further working over of the materials derived from Ymir’s body.

That the dwarfs are assigned such a role is apparent from an anonymous fifteenth-century German text that presents a Christianized retelling of the traditional heathen origin story of the dwarfs:

It should also be known why God first created the miniscule dwarfs, then the enormous giants, and finally the heroes. He started by creating the miniscule dwarfs because the land and mountains were wild and lay fallow, because there was a large quantity of silver, gold, precious stones, and pearls hidden in the mountains. For this reason, God gave the dwarfs great science and wisdom, so that they could discern between good and evil, and knew why all these things were good. They also knew what gems could be good for. . . . God gave science and wisdom to the dwarfs so that they might be kings and lords just as good as the valiant knights. He gave them great wealth.[18]

Of course, it can also be said that human beings are charged with the same task of completing or developing creation – and indeed, as noted above, we are told that humans and dwarfs are endowed with a similar consciousness. However, the knowledge of how to perfect creation is initially the property of the dwarfs, and other supernatural creatures, and human beings are their students. This is, of course, an extremely common mythological motif: cf. Prometheus, Hermes, Thoth, the aforementioned First Smith, and the Norse god Rig, who will be discussed shortly.

Thus, when Sigurd is placed in the charge of the dwarf Regin, he is entrusted to a being who possesses sacred, esoteric knowledge of the secrets of creation. Regin’s role is to initiate the young Sigurd into these secrets – at least some of them (Regin may also hold back much of what he knows). Here again, this is a perennial motif: The African smith played a role in the initiation rites at puberty, and in the men’s secret societies. We have already noted that the saga describes what Regin teaches Sigurd, and that runes are mentioned. But we should be careful about assuming what it means for Regin to teach Sigurd “runes.” Could it mean simply that Regin teaches Sigurd how to write in runes? Some light may be shed on this question, and on Regin’s tutelage in general, by comparing what the saga has to say with Rigsthula in the Poetic Edda.

Rigsthula tells the story of how the god Rig (aka Heimdall) sired the various social classes of mankind. The child of Rig who is the first of the nobility is named “Lord,” and we are told that Rig taught the boy runes (Rigsthula, 34). Again, this could mean simply that he taught the boy how to write in runes, but later passages imply there is much more to it than this. The youngest son of Lord is called “King” (the first of the royals). King “learned runes, runes of fate and runes of destiny, he learned spells to save lives and dull blades, to calm storms.”[19] Obviously, King is learning more than simply how to write or carve rune staves: He is learning rune magic. King, we are told, learned further spells “to put out fires, to calm sorrows and induce sleep.” Incidentally, amongst the spells known by Odin, and enumerated in Havamal, are those used to dull blades, calm storms, and put out fires. And so King is receiving some of the esoteric knowledge of the Allfather.

It is quite reasonable to think that Sigurd receives an initiation similar to that bestowed on Lord and King, given that he is also a king (heir to Sigmund’s throne), and given what Reginsmal has to say about the dwarf’s knowledge of magic. Perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence for this is that Rigsthula specifically mentions that King learns “the language of birds” – a trait most famously associated with Sigurd. (Sigurd will acquire this ability in Chapter 19, only indirectly as a result of Regin.) In Rigsthula we are also told that though Rig “shared runes” with King, “King tricked him, and learned them better than he, and then he earned the right to call himself by the name of Rig for his rune-lore.”[20] Again, this can refer only to the magical uses of the runes, or at least esoteric knowledge of them.

Sigurd, too, will surpass his teacher. Readers who come to the saga from Wagner’s Ring will be disappointed to find that only in Wagner’s version does Sigurd/Siegfried forge the sword Gram (called Nothung in the Ring). This was a stroke of genius on the composer’s part. However, the saga provides plenty of reasons to think that Sigurd’s runic initiation continues past his fosterage by Regin. In Chapter 20, Sigurd meets Brynhild, who initiates him into the darkest secrets of rune magic – and the text is quite explicit about this (most of this material is derived by the saga writer from Sigrdrifumal in the Poetic Edda; we will discuss this in detail in a later installment).

Next, we will continue our discussion with Chapter Thirteen, in which Sigurd, off on his first adventure, encounters Odin . . .

Notes

[1] The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2017), 21. Henceforth “Crawford.”

[2] Crawford, 23.

[3] Crawford, 23.

[4] Crawford, 23.

[5] Crawford, 28

[6] Crawford, 23.

[7] The Poetic Edda, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015), 234. Henceforth “PE.”

[8] Rudolf Simek accepts that Regin is a dwarf; whereas Claude Lecouteux calls him a jotunn. See Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 262; and Claude Lecouteaux, The Hidden History of Elves and Dwarfs, trans. Jon Graham (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2018), 81. It should be noted that the borders between Norse supernatural beings (dwarfs, elves, giants, etc.) are often fuzzy at best. Lecouteaux’s book argues that dwarfs are not necessarily small in stature, and that the word means “twisted being” (78-79).

[9] Crawford, 23.

[10] Crawford, 25.

[11] Mircea Eliade, The Forge and the Crucible, trans. Stephen Corrin (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), 93.

[12] Eliade, 104-105.

[13] Eliade, 82.

[14] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman’s Library, 1995), 12.

[15] Eliade, 102.

[16] Snorri, 16.

[17] Snorri, 16.

[18] Adelbert Keller, ed., Das deutsche Heldenbuch nach dem muthmasslich ältesten Drucke (Stuttgart: Bibliothek des Literarischen Vereins in Stuttgart, 1867), 1-2. Quoted in Lecouteaux, 85.

[19] PE, 154.

[20] Crawford, 154-155.

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