The Saga of the Volsungs

a summary in English by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2010-2012

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

1. Sigi and Rerir

The saga begins with a man named Sigi, who, it is said, was a son of Odin. Sigi went hunting with a thrall named Bredi. When Bredi returned with a greater kill, Sigi grew angry and killed him, then buried the body in a snowdrift. Because he had attempted to hide the body, Bredi's act was decreed murder, and he was declared an outlaw [a person living outside the protection of the law].

Since that time every large snowdrift has been called a "Bredi's drift."

Following Sigi's condemnation as an outlaw, Odin guided him to a place where many warships lay and provided him with troops. Through his successful raids, Sigi became a powerful king, ruling over Hunland. [According to Snorri Sturluson, Sigi ruled over Frakkland (France).]

Sigi's wife bore him a son named Rerir, who with time became an even more powerful king.

Rerir took for himself a wife, but for a long time she bore him no children. They prayed fervently to the gods, asking for offspring. It is said that Frigg [Odin's wife] heard their prayers and conveyed the wish to Odin, who in turn gave one of his wish-maidens an apple, telling her to give it to Rerir.

The wish maiden assumed the shape of a crow, then dropped the apple onto King Rerir's lap. Sensing its purpose, he visited the queen and ate some of the apple.

2. The Birth of Volsung

Soon afterward the queen discovered that she was with child. King Rerir died a short time later. The queen's pregnancy continued for six years. Recognizing that she herself could not live much longer, she asked that the child be cut from her body. This was done. The child, already well grown kissed his mother, and she died.

The son was named Volsung, and he became King of Hunland.

Volsung married Hljod, and together they had ten sons and one daughter. The eldest son was named Sigmund, and he had a twin sister named Signy.

It is said that King Volsung had an excellent palace built with a large tree growing from the main hall, its branches stretching through the roof. The tree was named "Barnstock" [child-trunk].

3. The Sword in the Tree

A king named Siggeir ruled in Gautland [in Sweden], and he came to King Volsung to ask for the hand of Princess Signy. Although Signy opposed this match, her father promised her to King Siggeir.

It is told that one evening a stranger [probably Odin] came into the hall. He wore a hooded cape. He was very tall and had only one eye. He approached the tree Barnstock, then drew a sword and thrust it up to the hilt into the trunk, saying, "I give this sword to whoever can pull it from the tree."

With this he turned and walked away. No one knew who he was or where he went.

Many noble men were present there, and one after another they tried to pull the sword from the tree, all without success, until Sigmund came forward. He easily pulled the sword from the trunk.

Everyone marveled at the sword's excellent quality, and Siggeir offered to give Sigmund three times the sword's weight in gold for the weapon.

Sigmund refused, saying, "You could have pulled the sword from the tree as easily as I did, if it were meant to be yours, but you were not able to do so."

These words greatly angered Siggeir, and he resolved to gain revenge against his future brother-in-law.

4. Siggeir's Departure

The next day Siggeir announced his intention to return forthwith to his own country. Signy did not want to go with him, but her father insisted, claiming that there was insufficient cause to break the marriage contract already agreed to. Before leaving, Siggeir invited King Volsung, with all his sons, to visit him in Gautland, and a date for the reunion was set.

5. Volsung's Death

King Volsung and his sons journeyed to Gautland in three ships. Signy met them upon their arrival, and warned them that King Siggeir planned to ambush them. "Return at once to your own kingdom and come back with a large army," she implored her father.

He replied, "It will not be said of me that I lack courage. You must return to your husband, and I will face whatever danger comes my way."

Signy returned home. The next morning, just as Signy had warned, King Siggeir attacked King Volsung. In the battle that followed King Volsung and all his men were killed. Only his ten sons survived, and they were taken prisoner.

Learning the fate of her father and her brothers, Signy proposed to her husband that her brothers be put into stocks rather than being killed immediately. "Let them suffer before they die," she said, hoping to thus rescue one or more of them.

King Siggeir had a large tree trunk fashioned into stocks, and the ten brothers were imprisoned by their feet somewhere in the woods.

Each night a she-wolf attacked one of them, killing him and eating him, until only Sigmund remained alive.

Through a trusted servant Signy learned the fate of her brothers. She gave the servant some honey, instructing him to smear it on Sigmund's face, and to put some of it in his mouth. That night, the wolf approached Sigmund, then started to lick the honey from his face and mouth. The wolf reached her tongue into Sigmund's mouth, and Sigmund bit down hard. The wolf jerked back in pain, pulling so hard that she split the tree trunk apart, and Sigmund escaped.

6. Tests of Courage

With the help of Signy and a few trusted servants, Sigmund built an underground dwelling in the woods, where he now lived as a free man.

King Siggeir thought that his revenge was complete, that all the Volsungs, save his wife Signy, were dead.

King Siggeir had two sons by his wife Signy, and Signy thought that they might help her avenge the death of her father and brothers. When the elder one was ten years old she sent him to visit Sigmund in his underground dwelling. Before sending him out, she tested his courage by sewing shut the cuffs of his shirt, with the stitches going through his flesh and skin. He withstood this ordeal poorly, and cried out in pain.

As a further test, Sigmund handed him a sack of flour containing snakes, and asked him to make some bread. The boy refused, stating, "There is something alive in the flour."

Sigmund reported this incident to his sister the next time that they met.

"The boy lacks courage," said Signy. "Take him out and kill him."

Sigmund did as his sister requested.

A year later much the same events transpired with Signy's younger son. He too was found lacking in courage, and he too was killed at his mother's bidding.

7. Sinfjotli

Signy knew a sorceress, skilled in all magic arts. She said to the sorceress, "I want the two of us to exchange shapes."

The sorceress was able to do this, and that night she, in Signy's shape, slept with King Siggeir, who was not aware of the exchange.

Signy, in the sorceress's shape, went into the woods to Sigmund's dwelling. "I have lost my way," she told him.

Sigmund gave her shelter. She was very beautiful, and they shared the same bed. After three nights she returned home and exchanged shapes again with the sorceress.

Some time later Signy gave birth to a son who was named Sinfjotli. He grew large and strong, very much like the Volsung stock. When he was not quite ten years old she sent him to his father Sigmund in the underground shelter. As she had done previously, she tested his ability to withstand pain by stitching his shirt cuffs to his skin. He did not flinch.

After arriving at the underground shelter, Sinfjotli was given snake-infested flour to make bread with. "There was something in the flour," he later reported to Sigmund, "but I kneaded it into the bread, whatever it was."

8. Magic Wolf Skins

Sigmund thought that Sinfjotli was still too young to exact revenge against King Siggeir. Further, Sigmund thought that Sinfjotli was the son of Siggeir, and might be unwilling to kill his own father. To harden the boy, Sigmund roamed with him through the woods, killing men for booty.

One time Sigmund and Sinfjotli came to a house where two men were asleep under a spell. A wolf skin hung over each man which could be shed only every tenth day. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put on the skins, and they could not get them off. Now they howled like wolves and ran off into the forest, killing many men. One time they quarreled with each other, and Sigmund bit Sinfjotli in the windpipe, nearly killing him. A raven [from Odin?] flew by with a leaf, which Sigmund applied to Sinfjotli's wound, bringing him back to full health.

When they were next able to remover the wolf skins, they burned them in a fire.

Sinfjotli was now fully grown and tested. With his help Sigmund would now avenge the death of his father and his brothers. The two of them went to King Siggeir's estate and hid themselves in an outer room. Queen Signy saw them there, and together they planned the act of revenge.

Signy and Siggeir had two young children. That evening one of the children saw Sigmund and Sinfjotli hiding in the outer room, and he told his father about the strangers. Signy overheard this, and took the two children to Sigmund and Sinfjotli, saying, "These children have betrayed you. I advise you to kill them."

Sigmund replied, "I will not kill your children," but Sinfjotli had no such qualms. Without hesitating he drew his sword and killed the two children, then threw down their bodies before King Siggeir.

A great battle ensued. Sigmund and Sinfjotli fought valiantly, but the king's soldiers finally overpowered them.

Wanting to subject them to the slowest death possible, King Siggeir had Sigmund and Sinfjotli buried alive inside a large stone mound. As the mound was being closed, Signy approached, carrying a bundle of straw, which she threw into the mound. Inside the straw was Sigmund's sword, and that night he used the sword to saw an opening in the rock mound.

Sigmund and Sinfjotli were now free. They carried wood into the king's hall, where the men were all asleep. Then they set it afire. The king, surrounded by flames, asked who had done this deed, and Sigmund answered, "I, Sigmund, and my sister's son Sinfjotli have done this deed! Know this, that not all the Volsungs are dead!"

Signy could have saved herself from the flames, but chose otherwise. "I married King Siggeir against my will," she said, "but now that my father's and my brothers' deaths have been avenged, I die with him willingly." So saying, she wished Sigmund and Sinfjotli farewell and walked into the flames.

Sigmund now returned with Sinfjotli to his homeland, and he regained the kingship that had once belonged to Volsung.

Sigmund married a woman named Borghild, and they had two sons, one named Helgi and one named Hamund.

At Helgi's birth the Norns [supernatural beings who control fate] said of him that he was destined to become the most famous of all kings.

9. Helgi and Sigrun

While out raiding, Helgi came upon a woman named Sigrun, who had been promised in marriage to a man named Hodbrodd. "I would sooner marry a young crow than Hodbrodd," said Sigrun to Helgi. "Fight him with your army, then take me home with you," she continued. "There is no king anywhere, whom I would prefer to you."

Acting on Sigrun's wish, Helgi assembled a large convoy of men and ships just off King Hodbrodd's coast. Many of Hodbrodd's men, including his brother and his father, approached the strangers to asses their strength and their intentions.

Sinfjotli, who was with Helgi, was a man who knew how to speak to kings, and he shouted to the men on shore, "After you have fed your pigs and kissed your bondwomen, inform Hodbrodd that Helgi is here to do battle with him."

Hodbrodd's father answered, "You lie about noble men. It is obvious that you know nothing of ancient lore! You are one who sucks the blood from cold corpses killed by wolves."

Sinfjotli replied, "You should know something of wolves. I am the one who sired nine wolves by you. I was the father of your wolf-children.

Hodbrodd's father answered, "You lie again. You could not father anything, because the giant's daughters gelded you at Thrasness."

Sinfjotli responded, "Have you forgotten that you were a mare to the stallion Grani? Then afterward you served as the giant Golnir's goatherd."

Hodbrodd's father answered, "I'll not stand here quarrelling with you any longer. Instead, I'll feed your corpse to the birds," and with that he rode back to King Hodbrodd, reporting that King Helgi was preparing to attack their land with thousands of men.

King Hodbrodd assembled his own troops, and a savage battle ensued. In the midst of the furor a large band of shield-maidens [Valkyries?] appeared. Helgi's troops were victorious, and Hodbrodd was killed. Helgi took possession of his kingdom and married Sigrun. He is now out of the saga.

10. The Volsungs

Sinfjotli continued with his raiding, and was always victorious in battle. During one of his raids he saw a beautiful woman whom he desired to have. The brother of King Sigmund's wife Borghild was also seeking the hand of this woman, and it came to pass that he and Sinfjotli fought a duel over her. Sinfjotli prevailed, killing Borghild's brother.

Borghild asked her husband Sigmund to exile Sinfjotli from the kingdom, but Sigmund refused to do this. To avenge her brother's death, Borghild prepared a poisonous drink for Sinfjotli, her stepson. Upon drinking it, Sinfjotli fell dead to the ground. Sigmund, overcome with sorrow, picked up the body and carried it toward a fjord, where he saw a man [Odin?] in a small boat.

The man asked if he wanted to be ferried across the fjord, to which Sigmund answered, "Yes."

The boat was too small for all three, so the stranger took Sinfjotli's body, leaving Sigmund alone on the shore. Sigmund walked alongside the boat for some distance, and then the boat disappeared before his eyes.

Sigmund returned home and drove out Borghild. She died a short time afterward.

Sigmund continued to rule, and it is said that he was the greatest king in ancient times.

11. Sigmund and Hjordis

Some time later King Sigmund sought the hand in marriage of Hjordis, a wise and beautiful princess, the daughter of King Eylimi. Lyngvi, another king, also wanted to marry Hjordis, so her father let her choose between the two suitors.

"King Sigmund is very old," she said, "but he is the most famous of all kings. I choose him."

King Lyngvi did not accept this loss easily, and he attacked Sigmund's forces with a large army. At the peak of the battle a strange man [Odin] entered the fray. He had but one eye, wore a hooded cloak, and was armed with a spear. Raising his spear, he came up against Sigmund, who struck hard at the spear with his sword. The sword, which he had pulled from the tree Barnstock, and which had served him so excellently in countless earlier skirmishes, now broke in two.

The tide turned against Sigmund and his men, and he no longer sought to protect himself.

12. Hjordis and Alf

That night Hjordis came to the wounded Sigmund. "Odin no longer wants me to wield this sword," said Sigmund to her, looking at the broken pieces. "You are carrying our son," he continued, "and this sword is meant for him. It will be called Gram, and will serve him well.

Hjordis sat with Sigmund until he died, then she ran into the woods with a faithful bondwoman.

A large troop of Vikings had observed the carnage from their ships, and they also saw the women fleeing into the woods. They pursued the women and brought them to their leader, a king named Alf, who recognized the royalty of Hjordis.

Upon hearing her story, Alf agreed to marry Hjordis forthwith and to care for her unborn son.

13. Sigurd

Hjordis gave birth to a son who was named Sigurd. When the most famous heroes of the ancient sagas are named, Sigurd must be counted first in valor, strength, and accomplishments.

In keeping with tradition, Sigurd was placed under the care of a foster father, Regin, the son of Hreidmar. Regin taught him runes, sports, chess, and languages.

One day Sigurd went into the woods, where he came upon an old man with a long beard. The man, who was none other than Odin, offered Sigurd a horse, saying, "Raise this horse carefully, for it is descended from Sleipnir."

Sigurd named this horse Grani.

One day Regin said to Sigurd, "You have too little wealth. Let me tell you where a great treasure lies. If you could take possession of it, it would bring you great glory. It lies but a short distance from here at a placed called Gnitaheath, and is guarded by a serpent named Fafnir."

Then Regin related to Sigurd the story of how Fafnir came to control the great treasure.

14. Regin's Story: The Otter's Ransom

My father Hreidmar was a wealthy man. He had three sons: Fafnir, Otr, and myself. Fafnir was the largest and fiercest of us. Otr was a fisherman by trade, and was very successful, for by day he assumed the shape of an otter and was able to catch many fish. And I, I became a smith, working in iron, silver, and gold.

One day Odin, Loki, and Hoenir approached a waterfall where my brother Otr (in the shape of an otter) had just caught a salmon. Loki killed the otter with a stone, and together the Aesir skinned him. Fafnir and I seized them and forced them to agree to pay compensation for the death of our brother. The amount agreed upon was the otter's skin filled with gold. Loki coerced a dwarf named Andvari into providing the gold. At first Andvari tried to hold back one golden ring, but finally he gave this up as well, saying, "This ring [known henceforth as Andvaranaut], and indeed the entire treasure, will be the death of whoever owns it."

This treasure should have been shared by Otr's surviving brothers and father, but Fafnir killed his father, then absconded with the treasure.

15. Regin the Smith

"I will kill this dragon," said Sigurd to Regin, "if you will make me a sword."

Regin agreed, and made a sword for Sigurd.

"Let me test your ability as a smith," said Sigurd, then struck the anvil with the sword, breaking the blade.

"Forge me another one," demanded Sigurd. Regin did so, but it too broke when struck against the anvil.

Sigurd then went to his mother, and said, "Is it true that you have the pieces of the broken sword Gram, once owned by my father King Sigmund?"

She affirmed his query, then gave him the pieces. Sigurd took the fragments to Regin, demanding that he forge a new sword from them. When the sword was finished Sigurd tested its strength by striking the anvil with it. The anvil split in two, but the blade remained undamaged. He then tested the sword's sharpness by throwing a tuft of wool into the river, then holding the blade against it as the current carried it downstream . The blade cut the wool asunder, and Sigurd was satisfied.

"I have done my part," said Regin, "now you must help me avenge the death of my father by killing the dragon Fafnir."

16. Gripir the Fortuneteller

Sigurd had an uncle (his mother's brother) who could foretell the future. Sigurd asked him if he should attempt to kill the dragon Fafnir.

"Do as you have promised," advised Gripir, the uncle, "but first you must avenge the death of your own father."

17. Sigurd Kills Lyngvi

Following his uncle's advice, Sigurd prepared a large force of dragon ships and attacked Lyngvi. The battle was long and fierce, but Sigurd prevailed, returning home with great wealth and glory.

Regin greeted him, saying, "You have avenged your father's death. Now you must keep your vow and help me avenge the death of my father."

Sigurd replied, "I shall do as I have promised."

18. Sigurd and Fafnir

Sigurd and Regin rode together to the heath where Fafnir was known to dwell. There they found a well-worn track where the dragon crawled to get water.

"Dig a trench within the track and hide in it," advised Regin. "Then you can stab the serpent from beneath when he crawls for water." So saying, Regin ran off in fear.

Sigurd began to dig the trench when he was approached by an old man with a long beard [Odin], who asked what he was doing. On hearing Sigurd's plan, the man said, "You must dig more than one trench, one to hide in, and others to carry away the serpent's blood." Then the man disappeared.

Sigurd did as the old man had advised.

Some time later serpent crawled along his track for water, causing the earth to shake. When he passed above Sigurd, the hero plunged his sword upward through the serpent's heart. Then he leaped from the trench to safety.

The dying creature thrashed about fiercely, thundering, "Who are you who dares to attack me?"

"I am Sigurd, the son of Sigmund," answered the hero.

"Upon my death you may well take my treasure," replied Fafnir, "but you shall receive little benefit from it. It will be your death. I advise you to ride away from here while you still can."

Then Fafnir died.

19. Fafnir's Blood

Soon afterward Regin returned. While congratulating himself and Sigurd for their victory, Regin drank Fafnir's blood.

Then he made one additional request of Sigurd, "Roast Fafnir's heart and let me eat it."

Sigurd cut out the serpent's heart and began to roast it over a fire. When the juice foamed out of it, he tested it with his finger to see if it was done, then put his finger into his mouth. As soon as the serpent's blood touched his tongue he could understand the language of birds.

20. What the Birds Said

Some nuthatches were chirping in a nearby bush.

"If Sigurd would eat Fafnir's heart, he would become the wisest of men," said the one.

"He should beware of Regin," said a second, "who intends to betray him."

"Yes," said a third, "Sigurd should strike off Regin's head immediately, then take possession of the gold."

"Then he should ride to Hindarfell, where the fair Brynhild lies asleep," said a fourth.

Sigurd understood all this, and acted accordingly. He cut off Regin's head with the sword Gram, then ate part of Fafnir's heart, saving the rest for later. Following the serpent's track, he came to the lair where a great hoard of gold was hidden. This he loaded into two large chests.

21. Sigurd and Brynhild

With his newly acquired riches he rode off in the direction of Hindarfell, then turned south toward Frakkland, finally arriving at a mountain that appeared to be ablaze with fire. Before him was a rampart made of shields, with a warrior dressed in full armor lying on the rampart.

Taking off the warrior's helmet, he discovered that this was a sleeping woman, not a man. She was dressed in chainmail that was so tight it seemed to have grown into her skin. With the sword Gram he cut though the armor, awakening the woman.

"Is this Sigurd, son of Sigmund who awakens me?" she asked, "And is this sword that cuts so easily through my armor the sword Gram, Fafnir's bane?"

"It is so," answered Sigurd. "I am a descendent of Volsung. I understand that you are Brynhild, the daughter of a famous king, and yourself famous for your beauty and wisdom."

Brynhild replied that two kings had fought. Odin favored the one, but she had granted victory to the other. Angered, Odin had stabbed her with a sleeping thorn.

22. Brynhild's Wisdom

Brynhild taught Sigurd many runes: wave-runes, battle-runes, healing-runes, speech-runes, and mind-runes. Impressed by her beauty, wisdom, and strength, he promised to marry her, and they sealed this agreement with mutual vows.

23. Sigurd's Departure

Sigurd now rode away.

He was a man of great height. His sword Gram was seven spans long, and when he girded it about him, then walked through a field of full-grown rye, its tip grazed the top of the standing grain.

He excelled in eloquence and courtesy. He understood the language of birds. He was a master of all combat skills: swordsmanship, archery, spear throwing, and horsemanship.

24. Sigurd's Arrival at Heimir's Estate

Sigurd rode until he came to large estate owned by Heimir, who was married to Brynhild's sister Bekkhild. By now the news that Sigurd had killed the dragon had spread throughout all lands. He was received with great honor, and he stayed there a long time.

25. Brynhild's Arrival at Heimir's Estate

Brynhild had now returned to Heimir's estate, and she stayed in a tower embroidering a tapestry that celebrated Sigurd's noble deeds.

One day one of Sigurd's falcon's flew to a tower. When Sigurd pursued it he saw a beautiful woman inside the window, embroidering a tapestry. One of his companions said, "That is Brynhild, the daughter of Budli. She arrived here a short time ago." He then added the warning that Sigurd should not attempt to gain her favor. "She does not allow any man near her," he said. "Her only interest is to go warring."

Nonetheless, Sigurd did visit her in her chamber, and she invited him to drink with her. He put his arms around her and kissed her, saying, "You are the fairest of all women."

She replied, "We are not destined to live together. I am a shield-maiden, and I must ride with warrior kings. You are destined to marry Gudrun, the daughter of Gjuki."

"I shall marry you, or no other woman," replied Sigurd. He then gave her a gold ring, and they swore their oaths anew.

26. Gjuki and His Sons

There was a powerful king named Gjuki whose kingdom was south of the Rhine. His three sons were named Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm; his daughter was named Gudrun. Gjuki's wife was named Grimhild, and she was skilled at magic.

There was an even more powerful king named Budli. His daughter was Brynhild, and his son was Atli [Attila the Hun].

One night Gudrun dreamed that she had a handsome hawk on her hand, a hawk with feathers of gold."

A woman told Gudrun, "Your dream means that you will marry a noble king."

"But I do not know who this king is," said Gudrun. "I shall visit Brynhild. She will know."

27. Brynhild Interprets Gudrun's Dreams

Gudrun went to Brynhild and told about her dreams. "I dreamed," she related "that a group of us came upon a beautiful stag with golden hair. Everyone wanted to catch it, and I succeeded in doing so. But just as I took hold of it, you killed it. Then you gave me a wolf's cub, and it spattered me with the blood of my brothers."

Brynhild explained: "Sigurd, the man whom I have chosen for a husband, will come to you. Your mother Grimhild will give him a magic potion which will bring grief to all of us. You will marry him, but quickly lose him. Then you will marry King Atli. Afterward you will lose all your brothers, and in the end you will kill King Atli."

Gudrun replied, "I am overcome with grief because of the knowledge of these things to come."

28. The Ale of Forgetfulness

Sigurd rode away with Fafnir's treasure, arriving finally at King Gjuki's hall.

"He must be one of the gods," said one of the king's men, noting Sigurd's height, bearing, and wealth. He was received with respect and honor.

Grimhild knew that Sigurd loved Brynhild, but she thought it would be better if he were to marry her daughter Gudrun. She prepared a magic drink for him, which caused him to forget his love for Brynhild. Sigurd stayed at this court for five seasons. He married Gudrun, and swore an oath of brotherhood with her brothers.

He and Gudrun had a son, whom they named Sigmund [after Sigurd's grandfather].

One day Grimhild approached Gunnar, saying, "All is well with you, except for one thing: you are still unmarried. You should ask for Brynhild's hand in marriage."

29. Sigurd Courts Brynhild for Gunnar

Sigurd accompanied Gunnar on his journey to King Budli to ask for Brynhild's hand in marriage.

"She is very proud," answered King Budli. "She will marry only a man of her own choosing."

Furthermore, Sigurd and Gunnar learned that Brynhild had sequestered herself in a castle behind a wall of flames, and that she would marry only the man who could ride to her through the flames.

They found the castle, but Gunnar's horse would not carry him through the fiery wall. "Take my horse Grani," offered Sigurd, and the two men exchanged horses. However, Grani also would not pass through the flames with Gunnar on his back.

Finally Sigurd and Gunnar exchanged shapes, as Grimhild had taught them. Grani, with Sigurd on his back, passed through the flames unhindered. Sigurd, disguised as Gunnar, entered the hall and found Brynhild. She received him well, and they spent three nights together, sharing the same bed. However, each night Sigurd lay the unsheathed sword Gram between himself and Brynhild. One night he took from her the ring Andvaranaut, which he had previously given her, giving her another ring in its place.

After three nights Sigurd returned to Gunnar, and they once again assumed their own shapes.

Some time later Brynhild returned to her father King Budli, and told him how a brave king named Gunnar had ridden through the wall of flames to court her. Soon afterward Gunnar and Brynhild were married.

30. Two Queens Quarrel

Now two queens lived in one household: Brynhild the wife of King Gunnar and Gudrun, the wife of King Sigurd.

One day while bathing in the Rhine, the two women began quarreling as to the valor of their husbands. Brynhild praised Gunnar and found fault with Sigurd, but Gudrun had the last word: "It was my husband Sigurd who killed Fafnir, and furthermore, it was Sigurd -- not Gunnar, as you had been led to believe -- who rode through the wall of flames to court you." To clinch her argument, she showed Brynhild the ring Andvaranaut that Sigurd had taken from here at that time.

Brynhild recognized the ring, and was overcome with grief and anger.

31. Brynhild's Grief Increases

Brynhild was beside herself with rage, feeling herself betrayed not only by her husband Gunnar, but also by her former lover Sigurd. "This betrayal," she said to her husband, "shall lead to Sigurd's death, or to yours, or to mine."

32. The Betrayal of Sigurd

Brynhild said to Gunnar, "If you do not kill Sigurd you shall lose everything: your power, your wealth, your family, and me."

This grieved Gunnar greatly, for he was bound to Sigurd by an oath of brotherhood. Brynhild was most dear to him, but he did not dare to violate his oath. He took his brother Hogni into his confidence, but he too was bound by the oath and would not harm Sigurd. Together they decided to convince their youngest brother Guttorm to kill Sigurd. Guttorm was young and was not bound by the oath of brotherhood. They prepared a stew of snake and wolf flesh and fed it to Guttorm, which made him violent and fierce.

They sent Guttorm to the room where Sigurd was asleep, and Guttorm drove his sword through the sleeping man's body, then turned to run away. Sigurd, mortally wounded, threw his sword Gram at the fleeing assassin. The sword struck him in the back and cut him into two.

Gudrun, who had been asleep with Sigurd, awoke, drenched in her dying husband's blood. She let out a tormented scream. Brynhild, hearing Gudrun's scream, laughed aloud. However, her laughter soon turned to tears, and -- now overcome with grief and guilt -- she stabbed herself with a sword.

33. Brynhild's Final Request.

The dying Brynhild requested that she and Sigurd be burned together on the same funeral pyre. This request was honored.

34. Gudrun Disappears

Gudrun made her way to Denmark where she sojourned seven seasons at the hall of King Half. There she wove a great tapestry depicting the deeds of Sigurd.

Grimhild discovered where Gudrun had settled, and she and her sons traveled there, offering Gudrun great wealth in compensation for her grievous loss. However, she did not trust them.

In the end Grimhild announced to Gudrun: "It is arranged that soon you shall marry the powerful King Atli [Attila the Hun]. This marriage will bring you great wealth, but you must never abandon your kinsmen."

Gudrun replied, "I shall marry King Atli only against my will. This union will bring only grief to all concerned!"

Nonetheless, Gudrun proceeded with the wedding arrangements. She and her party traveled seven days on horseback, then seven days by ship, then finally another seven days overland before reaching Atli's kingdom [Hungary?]. The wedding was celebrated with a great festival, but there was little affection between the king and his new queen.

35. Gudrun Carves Runes

Atli pondered about the great treasure that Sigurd had acquired by killing Fafnir. Gudrun's brothers Gunnar and Hogni must now have possession of it, he concluded. He resolved to invite the brothers to a great feast, hoping thus to gain control of the treasure himself.

Gudrun, sensing her husband's treachery, carved a message in runes to her brothers, warning them of the danger. The messenger read the warning, and changed the runes, turning them into a friendly invitation for her brothers to visit her in her new kingdom.

When Hogni's wife Kostbera saw the message, she recognized at once that the runes had been altered, and she warned Hogni of the deception.

36. Kostbera's Dreams

Furthermore, Kostbera related to Hogni a series of dreams she had had in which dangers seemed to threaten their family: a flood damaged their hall; their bedclothes caught fire; a bear attacked them; and an eagle flew through their hall, splashing them with blood. To Kostbera, these were all warnings of imminent dangers, but Hogni found an innocent interpretation for each dream.

37. The Brothers Depart

In spite of Kosbera's dreams and other premonitions of disaster, Gunnar, Hogni, and a few brave knights set forth for Atli's kingdom. Arriving at his dwelling, they heard inside the clash of arms and the clamor of warriors.

"Let it not be said of us that we shrink from battle," said Hogni, and they entered the stronghold.

38. The Battle

Atli met the brothers with a greeting and with a threat: "You are welcome here," he said. "Now give to me the treasure that is rightfully mine by way of my wife Gudrun: the gold that Sigurd acquired from the dragon, and that he by law and tradition bequeathed to his widow Gudrun."

When the brothers refused to turn over the treasure, or to reveal its location, a fierce battle broke out. Seeing that the fight was going against her brothers, Gudrun put on a coat of armor and fought beside them.

39. Hogni and Gunnar Are Captured

In the end Hogni and Gunnar were the only two members of their army left standing, and they too were captured. Atli had Hogni killed by cutting out his heart.

This done, Gunnar said to Atli, "Now you shall never know the location of the treasure, for I am the only person still alive who knows, and I shall never tell. The Rhine shall retain control over the gold; it shall never decorate the arms of Huns like you."

Then Atli had Gunnar placed in a snake-pit, with his hands and arms securely bound. Gudrun sent him a harp, which Gunnar played with his feet, thus charming the snakes and keeping them from biting him. However, with time one large adder did bite him, causing the death of a valiant man.

40. Atli and Gudrun

King Atli reveled in the defeat of his enemies, and Gudrun gave him further cause to rejoice. "I accept my lot," she said. "You have killed my brothers, and you now have control over me."

Placated, Atli made preparations for a feast celebrating his victories. His joy, however, was short lived. At the first opportunity, Gudrun killed the two sons that she and Atli had had together. She mixed their blood with the wine that was served to Atli, and roasted their hearts for Atli's feast.

When Atli asked where their sons were, she answered, "You have drunk their blood and eaten their hearts."

Then they exchanged many harsh words.

One son of Hogni had survived the great battle, a man named Niflung [Low German for Nibelung]. Together Niflung and Gudrun planned their final act of revenge. In the evening when Atli was asleep with drunkenness, Gudrun, with Niflung's help, thrust a sword into Atli's chest.

The dying Atli asked that a splendid burial site be prepared for him. This Gudrun promised to do, then she set fire to Atli's great hall. This was the end of Atli and all his retainers.

It is said that the Volsungs [Sigurd's family] and the Gjukungs [Gudrun's family] were the greatest people of ancient times. This ends their saga.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised December 15, 2012.