The Treasure of the Niflungs

an excerpt from
the Prose Edda
of Snorri Sturluson

edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2010-2012


  1. Otter's Wergild.

  2. Sigurd Slays Fafnir.

  3. Sigurd and Brynhild.

  4. Atli Marries Gudrun.

  5. Links to related sites.

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Otter's Wergild

For what reason is gold called Otter's Wergild?

It is related that when certain of the Æsir, Odin and Loki and Hœnir, went forth to explore the earth, they came to a certain river, and proceeded along the river to a waterfall. And beside the fall was an otter, which had taken a salmon from the fall and was eating, blinking his eyes the while. Then Loki took up a stone and cast it at the otter, and struck its head. And Loki boasted in his catch, that he had got otter and salmon with one blow. Then they took up the salmon and the otter and bore them along with them, and coming to the buildings of a certain farm, they went in. Now the husbandman who dwelt there was named Hreidmar; he was a man of much substance, and very skilled in black magic. The Æsir asked him for a night's lodging, saying that they had sufficient food with them, and showed him their catch. But when Hreidmar saw the otter, straightway he called to him his sons, Fafnir and Regin, and told them that the otter their brother was slain, and who had done that deed.

Now father and sons went up to the Æsir, seized them, bound them, and told them about the otter, how he was Hreidmar's son. The Æsir offered a ransom for their lives, as much wealth as Hreidmar himself desired to appoint; and a covenant was made between them on those terms, and confirmed with oaths.

Then the otter was flayed, and Hreidmar, taking the otter skin, bade them fill the skin with red gold and also cover it altogether; and that should be the condition of the covenant between them.

Thereupon Odin sent Loki into the Land of the Black Elves, and he came to the dwarf who is called Andvari, who was as a fish in the water. Loki caught him in his hands and required of him in ransom of his life all the gold that he had in his rock; and when they came within the rock, the dwarf brought forth all the gold he had, and it was very much wealth.

Then the dwarf quickly swept under his hand one little gold ring, but Loki saw it and commanded him to give over the ring. The dwarf prayed him not to take the ring from him, saying that from this ring he could multiply wealth for himself if he might keep it. Loki answered that he should not have one penny left, and took the ring from him and went out; but the dwarf declared that that ring should be the ruin of every one who should come into possession of it. Loki replied that this seemed well enough to him, and that this condition should hold good provided that he himself brought it to the ears of them that should receive the ring and the curse.

He went his way and came to Hreidmar's dwelling, and showed the gold to Odin; but when Odin saw the ring, it seemed fair to him, and he took it away from the treasure, and paid the gold to Hreidmar. Then Hreidmar filled the otter skin as much as he could, and set it up when it was full. Next Odin went up, having the skin to cover with gold, and he bade Hreidmar look whether the skin were yet altogether hidden. But Hreidmar looked at it searchingly, and saw one of the hairs of the snout, and commanded that this be covered, else their covenant should be at an end.

Then Odin drew out the ring, and covered the hair, saying that they were now delivered from their debt for the slaying of the otter. But when Odin had taken his spear, and Loki his shoes, and they had no longer any need to be afraid, then Loki declared that the curse which Andvari had uttered should be fulfilled: that this ring and this gold should be the destruction of him who received it; and that was fulfilled afterward.

Now it has been told wherefore gold is called Otter's Wergild, or Forced Payment of the Æsir, or Metal of Strife.

Sigurd Slays Fafnir

What more is to be said of the gold?

Hreidmar took the gold for his son's wergild, but Fafnir and Regin claimed some part of their brother's blood-money for themselves. Hreidmar would not grant them one penny of the gold.

This was the wicked purpose of those brethren: they slew their father for the gold. Then Regin demanded that Fafnir share the gold with him, half for half. Fafnir answered that there was little chance of his sharing it with his brother, seeing that he had slain his father for its sake; and he bade Regin go hence, else he should fare even as Hreidmar. Fafnir had taken the helmet which Hreidmar had possessed, and set it upon his head (this helmet was called the Helm of Terror, of which all living creatures that see it are afraid), and the sword called Hrotti. Regin had that sword which was named Refill. So he fled away, and Fafnir went up to Gnita Heath, and made himself a lair, and turned himself into a serpent, and laid him down upon the gold.

Then Regin went to King Hjalprek at Thjod, and there he became his smith; and he took into his fostering Sigurd, son of Sigmund, Volsung's son, and of Hjordis, daughter of Eylimi.

Sigurd was most illustrious of all Host-Kings in race, in prowess, and in mind. Regin declared to him where Fafnir lay on the gold, and incited him to seek the gold. Then Regin fashioned the sword Gram, which was so sharp that Sigurd, bringing it down into running water, cut asunder a flock of wool which drifted downstream onto the sword's edge. Next Sigurd clove Regin's anvil down to the stock with the sword.

After that they went, Sigurd and Regin, to Gnita Heath, and there Sigurd dug a pit in Fafnir's way and laid himself in ambush therein. And when Fafnir glided toward the water and came above the pit, Sigurd straightway thrust his sword through him, and that was his end.

Then Regin came forward, saying that Sigurd had slain his brother, and demanded as a condition of reconciliation that he take Fafnir's heart and roast it with fire; and Regin laid him down and drank the blood of Fafnir, and settled himself to sleep. But when Sigurd was roasting the heart, and thought that it must be quite roasted, he touched it with his finger to see how hard it was; and then the juice ran out from the heart onto his finger, so that he was burned and put his finger to his mouth. As soon as the heart's blood came upon his tongue, straightway he knew the speech of birds, and he understood what the nuthatches were saying which were sitting in the trees. Then one spake:

There sits Sigurd
Fafnir's heart
With flame he roasteth:
Wise seemed to me
The Spoiler of Rings
If the gleaming
Life-fiber he ate.

There lies Regin -- sang another --
Rede he ponders,
Would betray the youth
Who trusteth in him:
In his wrath he plots
Wrong accusation;
The smith of bale
Would avenge his brother.

Then Sigurd went over to Regin and slew him, and thence to his horse, which was named Grani, and rode till he came to Fafnir's lair. He took up the gold, trussed it up in his saddlebags, laid it upon Grani's back, mounted up himself, and then rode his ways.

Now the tale has been told why gold is called Lair or Abode of Fafnir, or Metal of Gnita Heath, or Grani's Burden.

Sigurd and Brynhild

Then Sigurd rode on till he found a house on the mountain, wherein a woman in a helmet and coat of chainmail lay sleeping. He drew his sword and cut the chainmail from her. She awoke then, and gave her name as Hild; she is called Brynhild, and was a Valkyrie.

Sigurd rode away and came to the king who was named Gjuki, whose wife was Grimhild; their children were Gunnar, Hogni, Gudrun, Gudny; Gotthorm was Gjuki's stepson. Sigurd tarried there a long time, and then he obtained the hand of Gudrun, daughter of Gjuki, and Gunnar and Hogni swore oaths of blood brotherhood with Sigurd.

Thereafter Sigurd and the sons of Gjuki went unto Atli [Attila the Hun], Budli's son, to sue for the hand of Brynhild his sister in marriage to Gunnar. Brynhild abode on Hinda-Fell, and about her hall there was a flaring fire; and she had made a solemn vow to take none but that man who should dare to ride through the flaring fire.

Then Sigurd and the sons of Gjuki (who were also called Niflungs) rode up onto the mountain, and Gunnar should have ridden through the flaring fire; but he had the horse named Goti, and that horse dared not leap into the fire. So they exchanged shapes, Sigurd and Gunnar, and names likewise; for Grani would go under no man but Sigurd.

Then Sigurd leapt onto Grani and rode through the flaring fire. That eve he was wedded with Brynhild. But when they came to bed, he drew the Sword Gram from its sheath and laid it between them. In the morning when he arose and clothed himself, he gave Brynhild as linen-fee the same gold ring which Loki had taken from Andvari, and took another ring from her hand for remembrance.

Then Sigurd mounted his horse and rode to his fellows, and he and Gunnar changed shapes again and went home to Gjuki with Brynhild. Sigurd and Gudrun had two children, Sigmund and Svanhild.

It befell on a time that Brynhild and Gudrun went to the water to wash their hair. And when they came to the river, Brynhild waded out from the bank well into the river, saying that she would not touch to her head the water which ran out of the hair of Gudrun, since herself had the more valorous husband.

Then Gudrun went into the river after her and said that it was her right to wash her hair higher upstream, for the reason that she had to husband such a man as neither Gunnar nor any other in the world matched in valor, seeing that he had slain Fafnir and Regin and succeeded to the heritage of both.

And Brynhild made answer: "It was a matter of greater worth that Gunnar rode through the flaring fire and Sigurd durst not."

Then Gudrun laughed, and said: "Dost thou think that Gunnar rode through the flaring fire? Now I think that he who went into the bride-bed with thee was the same that gave me this gold ring; and the gold ring which thou bearest on thine hand and didst receive for linen-fee is called Andvari's Yield, and I believe that it was not Gunnar who got that ring on Gnita Heath."

Then Brynhild was silent, and went home.

After that she egged on Gunnar and Hogni to slay Sigurd; but because they were Sigurd's sworn blood-brothers, they stirred up Gotthorm their brother to slay him. He thrust his sword through Sigurd as he slept; but when Sigurd felt the wound, he hurled his sword Gram after Gotthorm, so that it cut the man asunder at the middle. There fell Sigurd and Sigmund, his son of three winters, whom they slew.

Then Brynhild stabbed herself with a sword, and she was burned with Sigurd; but Gunnar and Hogni took Fafnir's heritage and Andvari's Yield, and ruled the lands thereafter.

Atli Marries Gudrun

King Atli, Budli's son, and brother of Brynhild, then wedded Gudrun, whom Sigurd had had to wife; and they had children. King Atli invited to him Gunnar and Hogni, and they came at his invitation. Yet before they departed from their land, they hid the gold, Fafnir's heritage, in the Rhine, and that gold has never since been found.

Now King Atli had a host in readiness, and fought with Gunnar and Hogni; and they were made captive. King Atli bade the heart be cut out of Hogni alive, and that was his end. Gunnar he caused to be cast into a den of serpents. But a harp was brought secretly to Gunnar, and he struck it with his toes, his hands being bound; he played the harp so that all the serpents fell asleep, saving only one adder, which glided over to him and gnawed into the cartilage of his breastbone so far that her head sank within the wound, and she clove to his liver till he died.

Gunnar and Hogni were called Niflungs and Gjukungs, for which reason gold is called Treasure, or Heritage, of the Niflungs.

A little while after, Gudrun slew her two sons, and caused flagons to be made of their skulls, set with gold and silver. Then the funeral feast was held for the Niflungs; and at this feast Gudrun had mead poured into the flagons for King Atli, and the mead was mixed with the blood of the boys. Moreover, she caused their hearts to be roasted and set before the king, that he might eat of them. And when he had eaten, then she herself told him what she had done, with many scathing words.

There was no lack of strong drink there, so that most of the company had fallen asleep where they sat. That night she went to the king while he slept, and Hogni's son with her; they smote the king, and that was the death of him. Then they set fire to the hall, and burned the folk that were within.

After that she went to the shore and leaped into the sea, desiring to make an end of herself; but she was tossed by the billows over the firth, and was borne to King Jonak's land. And when he saw her, he took her to him and wedded her, and they had three sons, called Sorli, Hamdir, and Erp; they were all raven-black of hair, like Gunnar and Hogni and the other Niflungs.

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Revised December 15, 2012.