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Gods Jadar

Swedish bas-relief

National Heritage Board, Stockholm

In the last chapter we brought out the side of Apollon that is not at all "Apollonian," partially by comparing him to the Northern God, Odin. In this chapter we will see that there is nothing extraordinary about such a comparison since Greek and German cultures had other important elements in common as well. We will also look at the concepts "Apollon" and "Odin" more closely and we will find that they are different in some ways and that they had very different origins, but in the form that they took in German and Greek cultures they were in some very important respects exactly the same.

Before we start comparing German and Greek mythology/religion/literature, we must understand that "Greek mythology" is simply all the stories from all over the Eastern Mediterranean that the Greeks happened to be aware of. The "myths" were merely stories that dated from pre-philosophic times, and there was nothing to define them as a separate category, they were just stories that were told for any reason. Although there were foreign Gods/concepts (significant concepts were thought of as living entities) that had no equivalent in Greek thinking, 255 most of the Deities the Greeks thought important were also understood by people speaking other languages. There was never a definite entity called "Greek religion" as opposed to the religion of any other nation. Most of the Olympian Deities were recognized as being important in other countries and known there, obviously by different names since the language would be different, and understood in somewhat or more than somewhat different ways.

For example, Ares was one of the Olympians and has a larger part in the stories than some of the others, but before the Persian invasion the Greeks were not really very warlike and Ares had only a few shrines in Greece. 256 "Ares" is in fact the Greek name for a primarily Thracian Deity. The Muses were important in Greece and were unquestionably part of "Greek Religion," but again the same Muses were just as prominent in Thrace. 257 Aphrodite was considered to have her home in Cyprus rather than Greece, and the story of Zeus and Typhon, to name one of many examples, was held to have taken place in Cilica on the southeast coast of Anatolia. Clearly the story comes from there and involves a Cilican Deity with a Cilican name that the Greeks identified with Zeus. There isn't very much you can say about the "purpose" of Greek mythological stories, they were just stories that meant whatever the teller meant by them. Obviously the stories that were passed down through the generations had to have some kind of fundamental meaning that made them worth remembering and worth telling over and over, these meanings were what kept the story going and were preserved even though the story's details would vary. Most but not necessarily all of the Greek mythological stories we have now were in that category.

Socrates' crime was not to replace one meaning with another, but to replace meaning itself with a "meaning" under his personal control. That is, he wanted to eliminate everything that is the subject of literature, everything that can be perceived and expressed. He wanted to deny that any of this had real meaning and to assert that all significant meaning lay in the cognitive abstractions of one's own mind, which perceive nothing, express nothing and whose entire purpose is to control and manipulate the world outside ourselves. Socrates wanted to eliminate meaning itself. I don't know whether they were right or not, but obviously the Athenians who executed Socrates were doing something completely different than Plato, who wanted to execute all thinkers who had formed theological ideas contrary to his own. 258 It goes without saying that in Plato's ideal society the citizen's thoughts and actions were directly controlled by a dictatorship of elite thinkers similar to himself; people who recoil from significance generally try to insist that everyone else recoil as well, and usually that everyone freeze into the same artificial patterns as themselves.

The stories the Greeks told meant all kinds of things, though they always meant something. The Greeks were a people of cosmopolitan intellect and the stories included in their "mythology" were extremely diverse, but the stories that we are most concerned with here, that were the subjects of the most important tragedies and that are the heart of the classic mentality, are completely European and specifically Germanic.

255 Like the Triballos deity in Aristophanes’ The Birds, 1572. The Triballi lived in what is now Serbia.

256 Listed by Walter Burkart, Greek Religion, pg. 415.

257 The other major center of the Muses that the Greeks were aware of, besides Boiotia, was Pieria in Thrace. Orpheus, the son of Apollon and one of the Muses, and who had much in common with Apollon, was probably more Thracian than Greek. (K. Kerényi, The Heroes of the Greeks, pp. 280-281, and Pindar, Olympian X, 96, and Ismian I, 65, and Hesiod, Works and Days, 1.) Pindar and Hesiod honor both the Muses of Mt. Helikon in Boeotia and the Northern Muses in Pierian Thrace. These are the same Muses at two different centers.

258 Plato, Laws, 907-910 & 967-968.

We are not talking about a similarity between the Germanic literary tradition and this side of Greek literature, we are talking about various examples from the same body of literature that were very old when we find them in eighth century BC Greece and that turn up again in the Germanic countries in the Medieval period. Since the Greeks and Germans share this body of literature, which we will discuss throughout this chapter, it is clear that it dates back to a time when the proto-Greeks and the proto-Germans were part of the same cultural entity. The latest time that is likely to have been the case is before the Bronze Age, during the "Copper Age," when East and Central Europe were dominated by what is called the "Battle Ax" or "Chorded Ware" culture, 3,000 to 2,300 BC.259 Native Europeans turned to cattle herding and temporary fields and away from permanent settlements and farms and in so doing, adopted much of the culture of the steppe herdsmen260 and possibly their language as well. The result was the Chorded Ware culture.

After the breakup of the Chorded Ware culture, their cultural descendants who now spoke an Indo-European language261 presumably entered Greece and there mixed with the local population and interacted with peoples from all over the East Mediterranean. By the classic age the literature they knew was as diverse as their contacts, but as we shall see a core remained that preserved the pre-migration form and the premigration content. The Greeks always had a certain amount of contact with the North,262 but their stories in the old form constitute a body of literature in their own right, and as we shall see these stories had their own worldview that was not necessarily expressed in the other stories known to the Greeks. They could not have been brought to Greece by a few traders or travelers, they had to have been accompanied by a whole population.

The formation of Indo-European culture was located north of the Black and Caspian Seas and is known as the Yamnaya Culture.263 These first Indo-Europeans migrated from the Ukraine south into the Balkans, where they mixed with and hybridized with or superseded the local population. They had less luck in migrating west however, since the Northern Europeans, who were already herdsmen, converted to a nomadic culture like theirs and began their own migrations. The fact that they were so completely converted would imply that these Chorded Ware people had not been miles apart culturally or linguistically from the Yamnaya Culture. It is worth remembering that the history of language is well over a hundred thousand years old, and the language spoken by the first Indo-Europeans north of the Black and Caspian Seas would necessarily have been related to other contemporary languages.

So in the centuries before Greek-speaking people first entered the Greek peninsula, there were people immediately north of the Balkans who were physically distinct from the original Indo-Europeans264 but who were not far from them linguistically and who were closer to the Yamnaya people culturally than to any other group.265 These certainly included the proto-Germans. In the Balkans themselves were the descendants of migrating Yamnaya people who had mixed and hybridized with the older population to a degree, but who definitely had not been assimilated.266 These two groups, especially the Northerners, were far from immobile and were similar culturally, and there would have been plenty of time to learn one another's literature.267 Bronze-making technology was adopted in Germany, and so the Chorded Ware culture became something else. Probably a century after that, Greek-speaking people first moved into Greece.

If we found the literary forms we will be discussing in Vedic and Iranian literature, then we could trace them back to the Yamnaya culture. But as far as I know we don't, so we can only say that they go back to the Chorded Ware period, very likely to the Chorded Ware culture itself. The Chorded Ware culture was the most important new non- Yamnaya factor to have arisen in Eastern Europe during the Copper Age and it is hard to imagine the old farming cultures producing anything like this, therefore the Chorded Ware culture would seem the most likely source of non-Yamnaya literary forms. These forms are not found in Keltic literature, which was heavily influenced by steppe literature at some point. The forms could have existed in the East and been lost, but without evidence and without a reason why they should have remained so strong in Germania and Greece and disappear in the East, that is very hypothetical. The forms could have been Northern European and older than Chorded Ware, but again there is no evidence and this seems to me less likely. The first Greek-speakers who entered the Greek peninsula could have been descended from Chorded Ware people who drifted south, or they could have been Balkan Indo-Europeans who shared a common literature with the Northerners. What is absolutely certain is that at some point both the proto-Greeks and the proto-Germans were somehow part of the same cultural entity, and the most likely cultural link between the two would seem to be the Chorded Ware culture.

259 J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pp. 244-246; and AndrewSherratt, "The Transformation of Early Agrarian Europe," pp. 180-181, 191-193.

260 Alexander Kosko,"The Migration of Steppe and Forest-Steppe Communities into Central Europe," pp. 309-327.

261 J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pg. 257.

262 Baltic amber was common in Mycenaean graves. (Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age, pp. 89, 128, 131, 231.) Daggers have been found in the same graves that are identical to the distinctive dagger carved on Stonehenge. (Atkinson, Stonehenge, pp. 92-93, 164.)

263 J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pp. 210-215.

264 Roland Merk, "A Synopsis of the Physical Anthropology of the Chorded Ware Complex," pp. 363, 374-377, 383-389.

265 J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pg. 249.

266 J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pp. 238-239.

267 As we shall see in "A Baltic Pattern," the Finnic and Germanic peoples who share the Baltic Sea have very similar literatures, though they are racially and linguistically unrelated. Finns not living near the Baltic have a very different sort of literature. Place can be more important than race or language.


Since the common literary forms in question also have a common content and since we can look at that content in both the relevant German and the relevant Greek literature, we know a few things about that cultural entity. For one thing it was characterized by individualism.268 Generally its world was the world one immediately sees through one's own eyes, not a world that one is told about—so literature was necessarily more important than abstract thought. At the same time Egypt and Mesopotamia were developing their abstract senses of the world, these people were developing their concrete sense of it. In most ways hierarchy and social organization were loose and rudimentary, individuals traveled through a nomadic moving world, nothing was absolute but the individuals themselves, everything else changed and even the individual passed into death; personal loyalty was far more important than nationalism, and was in fact more important than anything else whatever. Our existential, individual, artistic, humanistic and liberal traditions are the oldest that we have, our conservative, hierarchical, ordered and authoritarian traditions are a relatively modern, shallow and consumeristic thing that became popular at a certain point. Both traditions exist within each of us, but they do not merge and have nothing to do with one another.269

The Indo-Europeans lived in a world of individuals and what individuals do rather than a world of structure and place, that is because they were nomads. The same is true of the Semitic peoples who were also nomads. But where the Semites had laws to shape individuals and their actions the Indo-Europeans had literature—literature being the formal verbal expression of existential reality. Again, both traditions exist within each of us, but they do not merge and have nothing to do with one another. There is another characteristic that we find in this Greek-German literature that we do not find in Keltic literature270 or in Eastern Indo-European literature. That characteristic is a certain clarity of mind, a directness, a lack of fantasy, of elaboration, of exaggeration, a realism, a naturalism, a literalness, a relatively sparing concern with the supernatural, a concentration on local things actually experienced. "What is real is what I see with my own eyes and experience with my own mind, the rest is talk, that and nothing else." The famous Greek clear-mindedness is part of this, as is the realistic thinking of the Vikings that so stimulated Europe in the early Middle Ages, as is modern empiricism. This sort of straightforward realism is typical of the cultures that appeared in the North of Eurasia and North America when the last glaciers melted. Hypothetically we could trace this strain of thought as far back as the fifth millennium BC, when what may have been the western wing of the earliest proto-Indo-Europeans merged with a Cro Magnon population.271 But again, if this mentality was incorporated that far back and that close to the eastern proto-Indo-Europeans, we would expect it to be more general. The Chorded Ware culture was formed by native North Europeans, contained elements of Northcentral European culture and affected only certain of the Indo- European-speaking peoples; it is a much more obvious choice as a source of this realism.

In the Mideast Indo-Europeans invaded in the second millennium BC, formed a ruling elite for a while, were absorbed by the local population, and civilization pressed on. Something somewhat similar happened when the Macedonians invaded the same areas in the fourth century BC, and to a lesser extent when the Germans invaded the Roman Empire. But Northern Europe was converted not invaded, and its new culture spread into the northern steppes and Scandinavia, and a derived culture, the Bell-Beaker, spread amidst the incipient civilization of Western Europemdprobably again more by conversion than by invasion.272 These highly-mobile native herdsmen became the reason that Europe fortunately never developed a civilization equivalent to that of Egypt and Mesopotamia.

268 Archeological evidence supports this. (Mats P. Malmer, "The Battle-Axe People: Europe’s First Individualists," pp. 106-107.)

269 It should be noted that early Indo-European society had its authoritarian and hierarchical aspects, especially if we compare its members with, say, the Bushmen of Botswana. But if we compare it to the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations as we are doing here, they clearly live in the natural world and are clearly the source of our liberal and existential traditions.

270 At least in surviving Welsh and Irish literature, obviously nothing can be said of Central European Keltic literature.

271 J.P. Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pp. 189-191, 201, 210, plates 23-26. Many elements of the classic Paleolithic culture of Southern France/ Northern Spain seem to have followed the ice north and spread all over the sub- Arctic. Furthermore, elements of it found their way as far south as Australia, South Africa and Mexico. Joseph Campbell discussed the spread of shamanism and the xray art style and the spear-thrower in The Way of the Animal Powers, pp. 131-133. He also identifies the bird-headed man and the disemboweled bison in the "Shaft" at Lascaux with Australian "bone pointing" techniques (Primitive Mythology, pp. 302- 303), and I should point out that the Australian bone pointing techniques are duplicated in every detail in Northern Finland in the fourteenth and fifteenth poems of the Finnish epic, Kalevala. Furthermore N.K. Sandars sees late Paleolithic art technique in Mesolithic Sweden. (Prehistoric Art in Europe, pg. 143.) It of course cannot be proven that Shamanic technique originated in the cave-painting cultures north and south of the Pyrenees and indeed it may be older, but note that those cultures were not what we usually think of as typical huntergatherer cultures but something on a larger scale and therefore with a larger potential for technological innovations. Further, Clottes and Lewis-Williams have interpreted the cave paintings as a whole in Shamanic terms, and theirs is the only sensible interpretation anyone has yet produced. (Jean Clottes & David Lewish-Williams, The Shamans of Prehistory.)

272 Andrew Sherratt, "The Emergence of Elites," pp. 250-256.


The literary tradition in question here didn't change much between 500 BC when we see it as the most important component of Greek classical literature, and 1250 AD when we see it still alive in Scandinavia. And as we have seen, it was already very ancient in 500 BC. Wherever it is not exposed too much to civilization from the South, Old European culture changes surprisingly little over the centuries, Odysseus' manor hall and its inhabitants could just as easily be from dark-age Scandinavia, the political hierarchy of High King Agamemnon and the lesser Akhaian kings could be from Old Ireland, and the lyre did not fall out of use until the twelfth century AD.273 But in any culture fundamental values and those things that express them most deeply change less than anything else, and in Old Europe that which expressed fundamental values most deeply was what we now call literature.

This literary tradition tended to express the same values regardless of what century we find it in, and it also tended to preserve the same forms. There was a genre in Scandinavian literature called the "Shield Poem." Shields with many painted figures depicting a narrative or an elaborate scene were sometimes made, and poems were customarily made describing them. In Viking times if someone received one of these shields as a gift, he was expected to give a poem describing that shield in return.274 There are numerous examples of such shield poems in Scandinavian literature from as late as the tenth century,275 and the Greeks furnish us with further examples from the Iliad276 and from Hesoid's The Shield of Herakles,277 two thousand years earlier.

273 Nearly all of the literary tradition we have been talking about, whether in Greece or the Germanic countries, was metered and sung and accompanied by the lyre. The later German lyres that have been preserved had six strings to the Greek lyre's seven and were held on the knee rather than strapped to the wrist, but other than that the Greek and German lyres were virtually the same. (Bruce-Mitford, "The Sutten Hoo Lyre, Beowulf, and the Origins of the Frame Harp," plates 8 and 9.) When the poetry of this tradition finally died out, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD, the lyre died as well and was replaced by the frame harp. (Bruce- Mitford, pp. 11-12.) The last flashes of the old tradition were the Volsungasaga and the Prose Edda, and they were in prose.

274 Egil's Saga, 78.

275 The poem mentioned in Egil's Saga is from the tenth century AD. Also Lee Hollander has some earlier shield poems in The Skalds, pp. 32-37, 39,
& 42-48.

276 Iliad, XVIII, 478-608.

277 Hesiod, The Shield of Herakles, 139-318. The Shield of Herakles dates from the eighth century BC, the shield section of the Iliad is impossible to date but is at least as early.

That is one literary form common to ancient Greece and early Medieval Germania, and it has been recognized as such for a long time. But there is another literary form common to Greece and Germany, and it is infinitely more important than the shield poem. The following story is found in the form of the Volsungasaga; that version of it was made in Iceland in the thirteenth century AD but the story itself goes back to the fifth century AD. It goes like this:

Sigi was the son of Odin. Sigi murdered someone and he was driven from his homeland, embarking with his followers on an immense journey and guided by Odin. After many adventures he came to a seacoast and managed to take possession of some ships, with these he took to pirating and became so successful that he eventually became king of a territory rather than simply of a band of armed men. From this base and through a judicious marriage he became king of the country of the Huns, and now he was a very powerful king. His success kept growing, finally he became so admired that his wife's brothers killed him out of envy.

His son Rerir was faced with a tragic choice. He could kill his uncles or he could let his father remain unavenged, either choice was appalling, as the text notes. Rerir chose revenge, he killed his uncles and he became an even more powerful king than his father had been.

But he had no children and seemed unlikely to produce any. Odin sent one of his Wish Maidens (Oskmoer) in the shape of a crow, and the crow flew above Rerir and dropped an apple in his lap. Rerir guessed who had sent the apple and what it was for, and he ate part of it. The result was the birth of Rerir's son Volsung, and in his time Volsung became king of Hunland.278 Part of Odin's apple had been saved, and with its help Volsung produced ten sons and one daughter. The daughter, Signy, was to be married to a king of Gautland in present-day Sweden, the king's name was Siggeir.

But at the wedding feast Odin appeared, an old man, tall and gray-haired and with one blind eye. He walked into the middle of the astounded company, thrust a sword into a tree and said that he who was worthy of the Sword would draw it out and possess it. We are reminded of Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Of all those present, only Volsung's eldest son Sigmund was able to draw out the Sword, and he did so wit ease. Siggeir wanted to buy the Sword, but Sigmund replied, with no particular tact, that obviously it was meant for himself and he would not even consider selling it. So after the wedding, Siggeir lured Volsung and all his sons to Gautland and ambushed them. Volsung was warned of the attack, but he did not avoid it because he did not want it said that he had ever run from anything. No one had occasion to say that, but Volsung was killed and his sons were taken captive. Nine of the brothers were killed by a werewolf while they were bound, but Sigmund managed to kill the werewolf and escape. He disappeared into the forests of Gautland and lived there for many years, no one knew where he was except Signy.

Signy had two sons by Siggeir. She sent both to Sigmund in the forest, since she knew he would eventually try to kill her husband and that he would need help. Sigmund found neither of them adequately brave, and so Signy told him to kill her sons which he then did. She changed shapes with another woman who was a sorceress, and in that shape she went to him in the forest and got a son from him. She reasoned that a son who was descended from Volsung on both sides would be vital enough to help him, and she proved to be right.

278 The idea of a German being the king of the Huns was not absurd. The Huns that came west from East Asia were a racially mixed people, some of whom seem to have been fair-skinned. (Otto Mainchen-Helfner, The World of the Huns, pp. 369-375.) Further, until nationalism in Europe became so strong in the nineteenth century, there was nothing unusual about a king of one language or nation ruling people of another. George I of England was a German and spoke no English, the Plantagenets came from Anjou in what is now France, the Stewarts were Scottish, and the Tudors were Welsh. And of course William III was Dutch and married into the throne just as Sigi did, and William I, the Norman, invaded England because he had had a decent chance of being elected king of England and felt that he had been snookered.
And as far as that goes, we are told that Sigi came from a faraway country and we have no reason to assume that he was German. Germanic people didn't seem to think in racial terms; we have already seen that the Tantaloids were descendants of an Anatolian king, and though Kadmos had a Greek in his ancestry, he had actually come to Greece from Canaan. Whatever their ancestry, the descendants of Sigi had lived in the multi-racial society of the Huns for five generations by the time of the saga's main character, Sigurd. The saga sees Sigurd as a Hun and constantly refers to him as such; Brynhild was Attila's sister and clearly a Hun. The only ties recognized here are those of family and of personal loyalty.

The son was called Sinfjotli. When he began to grow up he and his father roamed the forests murdering people and robbing them of their goods; they eventually became werewolves. At one point Odin, in the form of a Raven, intervened to save Sinfjotli's life When Sigmund thought Sinfjotli was ready, the two of them entered Siggeir's hall and killed the two children that had since been born to him and Signy. They got no further however; in spite of their ferocity they were only two and Siggeir and his warriors overpowered them. Siggeir had them buried alive in a great mound of earth, but Signy smuggled the Sword to them before they were covered. That was Odin's Sword that had sparked all this in the beginning; and with it they cut through a stone slab and out of the mound and set Siggeir's hall afire with him and all his followers in it.

They wished to honor Signy for her part in the victory. But she said, "Now you know whether I remember the murder of Volsung. For his sake I have born a son to my brother, and I have killed my children, and I am no longer fit to live."279 And she calmly walked into the flames to join her husband.

Sigmund and Sinfjotli returned to Hunland and recovered the kingship with their swords. Sigmund married a woman named Borghild, and they had two sons named Helgi and Hamund. We no longer have any information on Hamund, but Helgi had a great many adventures, mostly told outside the Volsungsaga, and eventually married a valkyrie.280 At one point he is sailing in a violent storm, and rather than lowering his sail he hoists it higher still.281 This is the only concise description of the way the Volsungs respond to things that the saga has. Sinfjotli also had a great many adventures, among other things he got into a fight over a woman with Borghild's brother and killed him. Borghild poisoned Sinfjotli, and Sigmund sent her away. Sigmund remarried a princess named Hjordis, but Hjordis had another suitor who didn't appreciate this and invaded Hunland with a large army.

Sigmund met them with the Hunnish army. The battle went on for a long time, and for a long time Sigmund's spadisir stayed with him. A spadisir was a spirit woman, in this case a guardianspirit or luck spirit. The luck spirit stayed until Sigmund saw a one-eyed man in a black-hooded cloak and a broad-brimmed hat that partly covered his face advancing towards him with a spear, that was Odin. Sigmund swung at Odin with the Sword, Odin parried with his spear and the Sword shattered. Sigmund knew that this would be his life's last day, and he urged his men on more fiercely and fought harder than before.

Until he was cut down and the Huns were defeated. But Hjordis escaped and found shelter with the king of Denmark, and she carried with her Sigmund's unborn son. The son was named Sigurd, elsewhere called Sigfried.

Sigurd grew up as an honored guest in Denmark. When he came of age, the king gave him the pick of any horse the king owned. Odin appeared as an old man with a long beard and instructed him to choose the horse he would call Grani; Grani was a descendant of Odin's own horse, Sleipnir. Grani turned out to be best and bravest horse in the world and completely devoted to Sigurd, and Sigurd's life would have been quite different without this best of all horses that Odin had guided him to, as Sigmund's life would have been much different without the Sword. Meanwhile, Odin had begun an entirely different chain of events without meaning to.

There was a man named Hreidmar who had three sons: one, Regin,282 was a dwarf and a supremely skilled metalworker, another, Fafnir, was huge and strong and violent, the third, Otr, was a shapechanger and could change himself into an otter to catch fish for the others. Otr was asleep on a riverbank in his animal form, when the Gods Odin, Loki and Hoenir happened along. Loki could never leave anything alone, and he threw a stone at the sleeping otter and killed him. Hreidmar found out who had killed his son and demanded gold from the Gods in compensation, this was the customary practice in those days. Hreidmar was extremely formidable, he had captured Odin and the others and had them bound. The Gods had to take this matter completely seriously, and they sent Loki to find gold.

Loki found a dwarf, named Andvar. Andvar lived in a cave behind a waterfall,283 or else in a lake somewhere in the region of the dark elves.284 Wherever he lived, he had a hoard of gold. Loki forced him to hand it over which he did, all except a single ring which he was very reluctant to give up. Loki was not noted for generosity, and he forced Andvar to give over the Ring as well. Then, after the Hoard was Loki's and not Andvar's, Andvar seemed to realize that something had begun. He told Loki that the Hoard was Fated to destroy whoever owned it, and by far the most dangerous part of the Hoard was the Ring. The Ring had had no effect on Andvar in his solitary life in the water—apart from possessing him with greed for it. He had no friends and therefore no one to kill him. But now the Ring was out in the world, and indeed something had begun.285

279 Volsungasaga, 8. The actual speech in the text is longer.

280 A woman associated with Odin, valkyries will be explained later.

281 Volsungasaga, 9.

282 The following story of the "Otter’s Ransom" is also told, and in more detail than in the Volsungasaga, in the Lay of Regin in the Poetic Edda and in the Poetic Diction section of the Prose Edda. In Volsungasaga it is in section 14.

283 Volsungasaga, 14.

284 Prose Edda, (Young trans.), pg. 111, Skáldskaparál, XLVI.

285 This is sometimes interpreted as a curse, but there is really no positive reason for doing so and in fact in all three sources Andvar’s declaration sounds more like a prophesy than a curse. There is no suggestion of anger, he simply "says," "pronounces” that this will happen and in the Lay of Regin (stanza 5) he specifies that "two brothers" and "eight aethlings (madmen? possessed men?)” shall die because of this. The Ring will do more killing than that, but the point is that this is a prophesy and a long way from something like "May all who possess this treasure and Ring, die," that is not said. In the Prose Edda, (Young trans., pg. 111, Skáldskaparmál, XLVI.) Loki adds that this will only happen if he repeats the prophesy to whoever receives the Ring, as he fully intends to do. Again, this does not sound like a curse, he is simply stating that he sees what will seal the Ring's Fate. Like the Greeks, the Scandinavians believed that one’s Fate was not necessarily sealed before a certain point when a certain thing happened. For example, in Njal's Saga (sections 55 & 75), Gunnar is told that if he kills two people from the same family and in addition breaks an honorable settlement that he has agreed to, he will die shortly thereafter. He can choose to do or not to do these things, but once he does them his power to control his Fate has ended.


According to the compensation agreement, the Gods were to fill the dead otter's skin with gold and then completely cover it with gold. They did that using all of the Hoard, only one whisker still stuck out from the pile. Hreidmar demanded that they produce more gold to cover that last whiskertip, and it turned out that they had more gold, Odin had been reluctant to part with the Ring and had held it back. The Ring just covered that last whiskertip and the debt was paid.

From now on the Ring will determine what happens, Odin will not. Odin's Sword and Odin's Horse will be under the power of the Ring just as Odin was. The Ring did not come from Odin, it is completely different, whatever it is it is stronger than God. Once Sigurd has the Ring, Odin will not appear again and will not guide him again; Odin will not re-appear until the Ring has vanished.

Hreidmar now had the Hoard and the Ring, and he refused to share it with his sons. Fafnir murdered him in his sleep, took the treasure and refused to share it with Regin. Regin the dwarf didn't dare do anything against Fafnir, and he left home. Fafnir kept the Hoard and the Ring and became completely dominated by them, eventually he became a grotesque dragon brooding over his Hoard, afraid to leave it, poisoning all the country near it. He would never again leave that place, and his eyes would never again see anything but the Hoard and poisoned withered desolation.

Regin came to the Danish court and eventually became Sigurd's foster father. He talked Sigurd into taking revenge on Fafnir for him, and he re-forged Sigmund's broken Sword so that Sigurd would have a weapon capable of doing it. But first Sigurd had vengeance of his own to take, and with a Danish fleet he sailed to the kingdom of the man who had killed Sigmund. A terrible storm arose, and Sigurd ordered the sails raised higher than they had been before. Then he saw an old man standing on a rock that jutted out into the sea. The old man asked Sigurd to guide his ship alongside the rock in spite of the storm and take him aboard. That was insanely dangerous, but Sigurd did it and the storm subsided. And soon after the old man disappeared, of course the old man had been Odin.

Sigurd won a glorious battle and took his revenge, and he cut the blood eagle on the man who had killed his father.286 And now he was to take on Fafnir. Fafnir was a typical Scandinavian dragon—no wings or fire, simply an enormous serpent with a head the size of a tyrannosaur's. Such dragons were nasty things to fight at close quarters, but you couldn't get to close quarters because they breathed poison and you died before you could get close enough to use your sword. Sigurd hid in a trench dug across one of Fafnir's paths and stabbed him in the heart as he crawled over. Odin had appeared to advise him in this matter also. Now that Fafnir was dead, Regin emerged from hiding and kept saying that Sigurd had killed his brother and that he himself had a part in the killing. That was all perfectly true, in fact Sigurd had primarily killed out of loyalty to his foster father, but Regin kept saying it and it didn't sound grateful or friendly and clearly something was not quite right.

Regin asked Sigurd to roast the dragon's heart for him. Sigurd obeyed, but when he tested the meat with his finger to see whether it was done, he burnt his finger and stuck it in his mouth. And as soon as he had thus tasted the dragon's heart he found he could understand the language of the birds. The birds said that he had killed Regin's brother and that he was a fool if he thought Regin wasn't going to take revenge, and that furthermore there was great wisdom to be gained from eating the heart and that Sigurd should kill Regin and eat the heart and take the treasure for himself. The birds were right, Regin wanted the dragon's heart to give him sufficient ferocity to kill Sigurd,287 but Sigurd had eaten first. Sigurd drew the Sword and followed the birds' advice. The dragon heart had wisdom which was different from intelligence and different from Odin, and it led him to take the Hoard and the Ring.288 From this point on, Odin would never advise Sigurd again.

286 The Blood Eagle was traditionally performed on someone you were extremely upset with. Basically you cut his ribs away from his spine and spread his lungs through the two slits and across his back, all of this while he was still alive.

287 The man who finally killed Sigurd ate snake’s flesh and wolf’s flesh to become grim enough to do it.
(Volsungasaga, 32.)

288 Volsungasaga, 20.


Sigurd ate the heart and he took the Hoard and the Ring and he went journeying. He traveled until he came to the country of the Franks. There he found a valkyrie who had been in a deep sleep for many days, and he woke her. A valkyrie was a fully human woman who sometimes became something that rode the sky in the service of Odin and who chose those who would be slain in battle. They were somewhat similar to the Greek Ker. They were one of the many types of shape-changer that were so common in the North, and as usual what they changed into had an effect on their more normal mentality. The valkyrie Sigurd woke was named Brynhild. She had nothing to do with the Ring, she was very emphatically part of Odin. And we shall see what the Ring will do with her.

The dragon-heart wisdom basically had to do with acting like a dragon. Now Brynhild offers Sigurd Odin's wisdom in the form of a cup of beer289 filled with spells. The Scandinavians of the Viking age were clearly not afraid of direct knowledge, as most of us are, they would have had no reason to avoid various kinds of grasathr mjöthr, mead with herbal substances in it,290 and later we will find Odin drinking a special mead to find a "opening" or a "Pathway,"291 If Brynhild’s beer is only a symbol, then we would have to conclude that nothing really happens here and that the most crucial part of the Volsungasaga is simply lame. But this is a real drink, and it opens the door to real knowledge, and there is nothing lame about it. Brynhild gives him instructions on various ways to apply that knowledge towards practical ends, and that too is part of Odin. But this cognitive information is meaningless without the direct knowledge that the special beer helps him accept and even more importantly, without the moral decision she tells him he must make. It will be the same moral choice that Oidipous makes. And as he chooses this knowledge he chooses her, and she is inseparable from Odin. If he chooses her he will live a life full of power, but it will be short and painful. His life will be short and painful regardless of what he chooses; he knows this. He has already been warned about his life by a seer who has told him accurately and in great detail all the horrible things that will happen to him.292 He has been further warned by the dying Fafnir that the Hoard will be his doom. Brynhild now tells him:

Now you must choose,
since to you is offered choice,
Maple Shaft of Sharp Weapons.294
A tale or silence,
you take for you,
your own mind,
all the tale is determined.295

She tells him that what will happen has already been determined, as he already knows full well. She tells him that within his own mind he must choose whether to "take" or "have" (hafa) what has been determined. This is exactly the same decision that Oidipous makes. Once again: this is exactly the same decision that Oidipous makes. And for that matter, it is basically the same decision that Orestes and Achilles/Hanuman make. In the East one obtains knowledge by following a long regimen of exercises, in the West one obtained knowledge by making a moral choice. more on Odin

We have seen this choice four times now, and we are beginning to learn what it is. It is not to be saved from our lives, not to escape, not to "get off the wheel," and certainly not to pretend that the evil and pain in our lives is unreal, the result of our own ignorance. It is exactly the opposite decision, it is exactly the opposite of all that, and each one of us makes it in the same way each time we choose to know anything whatever. Again: we make this choice whenever we choose to know anything, and knowledge of any kind is impossible without it. And Sigurd makes this choice now. He will affirm his Fate, or he will deny it. He will look at it with open eyes, he will know, or he will turn away. He will try to escape, or he will set his sails higher still. He says that there is no point in being a coward, Fate will destroy him and everything he loves in any case. He will accept his song just as it is, full of poetry, pain and heartbreak—beautiful, powerful and short.

289 Volsungasaga, 21, stanza 6.

290 Evidence of special herbal drinks, obviously of great significance, is as old as the Bell-Beaker culture around 2000 BC. The Bell-Beaker culture is a spin-off of the Chorded Ware culture. (Andrew Sherratt, "The Emergency of Elites," pg. 253.)

291 Poetic Edda, Sayings of Har, 140.

292 Volsungasaga, 16.

293 Volsungasaga, 18.

294 She is referring to him.

295 Volsungasaga, 21, stanza 20.


From now on the Ring will rule everything, it will be stronger than he and Brynhild together, it will be stronger than love, it will be stronger than God, it will be stronger than human will, human heart and human intelligence. Odin's power is only relative and temporary, at least in a way, and it is his Fate to be defeated in the end.296 Sigurd will remain a child of Odin and his life will remain one of power and spirit and faith. But from now on his spirit will always work against him and will destroy everything he would protect. From now on he will always be defeated. He knows all this, and he chooses it.

And he chooses her, Odin's valkyrie. They pledged to one another that they would marry, then he rode off. He rode on till he reached the hall of Heimir, and he found her there living her ordinary life. Brynhild was a Hunnish princess and the sister of Atli, elsewhere called Atilla, but she was being fostered with Heimir. In those days people would often have their children grow up in the house of a friend, as another way of binding families together. In Heimir's hall they again pledged themselves to each other, and he gave her the Ring.297

Then Sigurd rode to Burgundy, to the hall of King Gjuki. Gjuki had a wife, Grimhild, a daughter Gudrun, and three sons, Gunnar, Hogni and Guttorm. Grimhild was a sorceress who thought it would be a great advantage to her family if a potent man like Sigurd were incorporated into it. Without Sigurd knowing, she gave him a drink of ale of forgetfulness and he forgot Brynhild. And in time he swore a pact of brotherhood with the sons of Gjuki and married Gudrun, just as Grimhild had planned.298 Grimhild was Odin's opposite. Odin had no reluctance to use sorcery, but he always used it to obtain knowledge, never to obtain ignorance on this level. Knowledge, under the control of the Ring will ultimately destroy Sigurd and Brynhild, but first ignorance must play its part.

Grimhild had shrewdness but perhaps little sense, and she decided that Brynhild would make a noble match for her son Gunnar. She convinced Gunnar to try to fetch Brynhild and to take Sigurd with him. Brynhild the valkyrie responded to Gunnar by surrounding herself with a wall of flames and vowing that she would marry only the man who rode through it to reach her, knowing quite well that no one could do this but Sigurd.299 Gunnar was willing to dare the flames, but his horse was not. He changed horses with Sigurd, but Grani was not willing to bear him. Grani was a gift from Odin, like the Sword, and was intended for one worthy person only, and this was to have terrible consequences. Sigurd and Gunnar then changed shapes, and Sigurd in Gunnar's shape rode through the flames. Brynhild did not know what to make of this stranger who was where Sigurd should have been, but she could not break her vow.300 She and Sigurd-in-Gunnar's-shape spent three nights inside the firewall, but Sigurd laid the Sword between them, unsheathed. He explained that Fate required that he do this on his first marriage night or die; the Sword that should have defended their home sundered it. He had drunk the ale and he had no idea who she was and the Ring was as irresistible as ever and while she slept he took the Ring from her finger and replaced it with another. He is no longer as noble and innocent as he had been before he ate the dragon's heart. The daughter they had conceived when he knew who she was, the night he had given her the Ring, remained with Heimir.301

Brynhild and Gudrin both lived in Gjuki's court now, in Burgundy. One day they were bathing in the Rhine, and Brynhild pointedly moved farther out in the river than Gudrun, indicating that she was of higher rank than Gudrun, as her husband Gunnar was king. Gudrun questioned this, and Brynhild said that furthermore her husband Gunnar had ridden through the firewall whereas Gudrun's Sigurd had been a dependent of the Danish king.

Gudrun replied that it was Sigurd who had ridden through the fire, not Gunnar, and Sigurd who had been with Brynhild on her wedding night, not Gunnar. And Gudrun said further that Sigurd had given her something he had taken from Brynhild on that night. And ignorance was dispelled and knowledge shone forth, and there was no room for doubt. She held up the Ring.302

Brynhild was the opposite of Grimhild. Grimhild was a sorceress, she manipulated events, she was concerned with whatever was advantageous to her and to those connected with her. Brynhild was a valkyrie, she was exactly who she was regardless of advantage to herself or to anyone connected to her. She was poetry, she was madness, she was nature. She was completely of Odin, and like the Sword and the Horse, Brynhild was intended for one worthy man only. She couldn't think about what was best for her or anyone else, she was Sigurd's wife, that was the truth and if the truth was impossible then so was she. Sigurd had eventually recovered from Grimhild's potion and remembered who Brynhild was, but by then it was far too late. He accepted such happiness as was possible and hoped that the horrible things that had been foretold would somehow not happen, he only agreed to leave Gudrun and marry Brynhild again when Brynhild had become so unstable that it was clear she might die. But such a marriage would mean dishonor, and dishonor was impossible for Brynhild. She was clear minded in one way but not in another. She was not sanity, she was Truth, and Truth was no longer possible.

296 Poetic Edda, Prophecy of the Seeress, 52.

297 Volsungasaga, 25.

298 Volsungasaga, 28.

299 Volsungasaga, 29.

300 Signy too got into terrible trouble by keeping a formal agreement in violation of her natural feelings, by marrying a man "my mind does not laugh with," also on the advice of her father. (Volsungasaga, 4.)

301 Volsungasaga, 25 & 29. This is Aslaung, whom we mentioned in "The Creation of the Iliad."

302 Volsungasaga, 30.


She knew Gunnar's weaknesses and played on them until he and his brothers agreed to kill Sigurd; after they murdered Sigurd she killed herself with the Sword. She and Sigurd were burned on the same pyre, lying side by side with the Sword between them as in life.303

The son that had been born to Sigurd and Gudrun was also murdered, at Brynhild's request;304 Sigurd's and Gudrun's daughter was spared. Gudrun was inconsolable, so Grimhild gave her some Ale of Forgetfulness and married her off to Atli, king of the Huns.

That was another bad move, since Atli wanted revenge for his sister Brynhild. Alti also wanted to get his hands on the Hoard that Gudrun's brothers had now taken possession of; the Hoard had been a factor in their decision to murder Sigurd. The brothers knew quite well that there was something wrong with Atli's invitation to visit, but just as the Trojans could never quite decide to give up Helen, the Brothers could never quite decide not to go, though that was the obvious thing to do at every point. They knew they might not come back and they guessed that Atli had more than a casual interest in the Hoard, so they sunk the Hoard and the Ring in the Rhine in a place known only to themselves.305 Atli did indeed kill them as soon as they arrived at his court, but he never got the Hoard. The Hoard and the Ring disappeared back into the waters and never killed anyone again, though their aftermath would last a while and remained fatal.

Sigurd had saved some of the dragon's heart he had cut out of Fafnir, and when he had married Gudrun he had given her some of it to eat.306 After Atli killed her brothers, she murdered her two sons that she had born him and served their flesh to him at table, and then she told him what he had eaten. Atli berated her but did nothing. Then she waited until he went to bed drunk one night, murdered him in his sleep and set fire to his hall, killing everyone in his household.

We don't fully understand this story unless we understand that the people involved were just as appalled by these things as we are. And indeed Gudrun no longer wanted to live, she filled her arms with stones and walked into the sea.307 But her pain was not yet over; great waves picked her up and carried her over the water to the land of a king named Jonakr. Jonakr married her and had three sons by her, and Svanhild, Sigurd's daughter, joined her there. Svanhild was to be married to an old king named Jormunrek, but on her way to Jormunrek's country she fell in love with his son instead. Jormunrek killed both of them.

After she learned of Svanhild's death Gudrun would give her sons, by Jonakr, no peace until they had agreed to avenge their sister, finally they agreed and they set out toward Jormunrek's country. On the way there, two of the brothers killed the third simply out of nervous irritation. When they found Jormunrek they cut off his hands and feet, but they did not succeed in killing him before his warriors stepped in. They fought for a while, but Jormunrek's men could not overcome them and they were kept too busy to finish off Jormunrek. Then Odin appeared and gave Jormunrek's men good advice on how to kill the brothers, and the brothers were killed. Odin was not punishing the brothers, Odin never punished anyone unless they insulted him.308 Whatever his motives, and if indeed he had any, they had nothing to do with the brothers. It was just that, unlike Sigmund, Sigurd and the others, the brothers had nothing to do with him and were none of his business.

303 Presumably it is the Sword that is lying between them and presumably the Sword was Brynhild's suicide weapon as well, but the text says a sword both times. (Volsungasaga, 32 & 33.) On the other hand we are told that he gave her a ring at Heimir's hall (Volsungasaga, 25), but when he takes it back it turns out to have been the Ring. (Volsungasaga, 29.) So I would say that the Sword is meant, since the saga's author can’t be trusted to be specific and since that is what makes sense.

304 Volsungasaga, 33.

305 Volsungasaga, 39.

306 Volsungasaga, 28.

307 Volsungasaga, 41.

308 See the Lay of Grimnir in the Poetic Edda.

* * *

Notice that each generation is killed by either their in-laws or by unsuccessful suitors. Marriages were arranged in those days to bind families together for mutual support, and again and again people are killed by those they would most expect to count on.The story is further unified in that each incident in each generation either carries the same truth or meaning or concept or contributes to it. This concept is thought of as a living being, we see it in operation throughout the story and in interaction with other contrasting concepts. The story is unquestionably a unified whole, not a string of separate sketches, though normally only a small part from it was told at any one time. Briefly, the story can be characterized by five things: (1) the consistent narrative thread that runs through several generations, (2) the various patterns that tend to be repeated over more than one generation, (3) the specific concept that the story as a whole expresses and which is also expressed at least to some extent in each separate incident, (4) the single character who dominates the story and who makes a decision about the concept the story expresses, this decision is the central event of the story and it comes in the second-to-last generation, (5) the tragic tone and content of the story as a whole and of each incident within it. Sound familiar?

The cycle of the House of Tantalos spends two generations committing unnatural acts (or one if you begin with Pelops instead of Tantalos), two more generations acting out the consequences of those acts in a pattern of: queen takes lover, queen and lover conspire against king, get throne—against the will of their subjects, are expelled from the throne and become the objects of vengeance, and a fifth generation brings the natural forces back into balance by making a decision. The repeated king, queen, lover pattern is not found in any other Greek story. The concepts involved were the multiple deity called the Furies, interacting with the balance of Apollon.

The cycle of the House of Kadmos involved Apollon and nothing else except Apollon's opposite, unconsciousness. Kadmos is not rewarded or punished by Apollon, he is chosen. He is worthy of this choice, but apart from that we are not told of any particular reason why Apollon should choose Kadmos and there may not be one. This choice was carried down through the generations as well, and all the chosen people were destroyed in one way or another. But some of the chosen became Holy, and the most important of them were specifically manipulated into repeating Apollon's own pattern of killing a monster, merging with it, and having to do penance for that killing, others were torn apart according to Dionysos' pattern.

There are gaps in our knowledge of this cycle, but it is clear that the story is concerned with Apollon throughout, along with the related concept Dionysos, just as the Volsung Cycle is concerned with Odin. It is clear that the story contains a pattern of Sacred power touching an individual, either blessing or destroying him, and depending on his response to it, maybe making him Holy. Sanctification is characteristic of this cycle and is not found much in other Greek stories. Further, you have the pattern of: hero kills monster, merges with it, is polluted by the killing, does penance and is sanctified. And further, it is clear that Oidipous and the decision he made is the center of the story, just as Sigurd and his decision is the center of the Volsung Cycle. And further still, it is clear that though the nuances are different, Oidipous' decision is the same as Sigurd's. The story as a whole was told in the Oidipodeia, the Thebaid and the Epironoi, from the Epic Cycle309 that Sophokles drew from so heavily.310 The Tantaloid Cycle is found in the Nostoi.

Notice the difference between the Tantaloid and Kadmian Cycles and most of the other Greek stories. (1) Supernatural elements are kept to a minimum, as in the German stories. Contrast the Tantaloid and Kadmian Cycles with the stories of Bellerophontes, Perseus, Jason, Odysseus or Herakles. (2) Nearly all the important events happen at home in Greece. In the stories of Bellerophontes, Perseus, Jason and Odysseus most of the action takes place overseas, and that is probably where much of the material comes from. (3) The Tantaloid and Kadmian Cycles are more thoroughly and consistently tragic than most of the other stories known to the Greeks. A great many of the other stories feature cleverness or adventure more than tragedy. (4) The Tantaloid and Kadmian Cycles have one or more deities present throughout, wher in most of the other Greek "hero stories" Gods step in here and there and a given deity affects a limited part of the story only.

Hera is found throughout the story of Herakles and is a partial exception to that, but as far as I can see she does nothing towards explaining who Herakles is and why he does what he does, in the way that Apollon explains Oidipous and Odin explains Sigurd and the Volsungs. Herakles is the God in this story, and he is very similar in character to the Northern God, Thor. In any case he has no human father and little real connection with his sons, and his stories are clearly not part of a unified Family Cycle. The story of Meleagros is tragic enough, but his story has little apparent connection with that of his ancestors, he left no children, and he doesn't seem connected to any one particular God. All that is true of Achilleus as well, except that Achilleus' line continued. The Muses themselves seem to define the Iliad as it is poetry in its purest form.311 The story of the daughters of Danaos has a genealogical plot repetition, but again there is no single principle to define the story as a whole. I am not saying that the Tantaloid and Kadmian Cycles are necessarily the only examples of this form in Greek mythology, closer study might reveal others. I am saying that they are examples of a distinct type of story within the larger body of Greek mythology/literature.

ESSAY CONTINUES >go to part 2

309 The Epic Cycle is a series of long epic poems, of which only the Iliad and Odyssey survive, which tell a single immense story of the prelude and aftermath of the two Theban wars and of the Trojan War.

310 Athenaeus, VII, 277, E.

311 There is a German school of Homeric scholarship called neoanalysis that concerns itself with the many plot repetitions in the story of the Trojan War, the Iliad being only part of that story. The neoanalysists point out that the poets seem to go out of their way to be repetitious and that repetition seems to have been valued for its own sake. (See Wolfgang Kullmann, "Oral Poetry and Neoanalysis," pp. 307-324.)