Brunhilde, the most Famous of all Valkyries


There are several versions of the story of Brunhilde (Brynhildr) and her adventures. From the classic Edda to Wagner’s horned-helmet-wearing-viking-opera, Brunhilde’s tale may vary, but all its versions still keep in their core the heroic characteristics of the great Valkyrie: her heroism, strength and loyalty to her own heart.

The Valkyrie, by Hans Makart, 1877.

The Völsunga saga

According to the Völsunga saga, Brunhilde is a Valkyrie and the daughter of Budli, with a sibling named Atli.

When she was twelve years old, King Agnar stole Brunhild's magical swan shirt, and she was forced to swear an oath of loyalty to him. Some time later, she was ordered by Odin to decide a fight between the kings Hjalmgunnar and Agnar. Even though Brunhilde knew that the Allfather preferred the older king Hjalmgunnar, she had no choice but to side with Agnar due to her oath, against Odin’s orders.

For this Odin condemned her to live the life of a mortal woman, imprisoning her in a remote castle behind a wall of shields on top of mount Hindarfjall in the Alps, where she would sleep within a ring of fire until a fearless hero would rescue and marry her. If this reminds you of the old animation from the mouse company, with a sleeping princess and a dragon slaying hero who wakes her with a kiss, you would be absolutely right.

The hero Sigurðr Sigmundson (Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied), heir to the clan of Völsung and slayer of the dragon Fafnir, entered the castle and awoke Brunhilde by removing her helmet and cutting off her chainmail armor. He immediately fell in love and proposed to her with the magic ring Andvaranaut. Promising to return and make Brunhilde his bride, Sigurðr then left the castle and headed for the court of Gjuki, the King of Burgundy.

However, Gjuki’s wife, the sorceress Grimhild, had other plans and wanted Sigurðr to marry her daughter Gudrun instead. She prepared a magic potion that made Sigurðr forget about Brunhilde, and Sigurðr soon married Gudrun.

Upon hearing of Sigurðr’s encounter with the Valkyrie, the sorceress Grimhild decided that Brynhildr should be the wife of her son Gunnar. Gunnar went to court Brynhild but was stopped by the ring of fire around the castle (or her, it is a little confusing). He tried to ride through the flames with his own horse and failed. He tried with Sigurðr’s horse, Grani, but still failed. Then he decides to enlist the help of Sigurðr.

Still under Grimhild’s spell, Sigurðr shape-shifts into Gunnar and rides into the ring of fire. Sigurðr (disguised as Gunnar) and Brunhilde get married, and they stayed there three nights. Sigurðr laid his sword between them (meaning that he did not sleep with Brunhilde before changing places with the real Gunnar). Sigurðr also took the ring Andvaranaut from her finger and later gave it to his wife Gudrun. Gunnar and Sigurðr soon returned to their true forms, with Brunhilde thinking she married Gunnar.

Sigurðr and Brynhildr by Harry George Theaker

Some time later, while bathing in a river Gudrun and Brunhilde quarreled over whose husband was greater, with Brynhildr boasting that even Sigurðr was not brave enough to ride through the flames. To her surprise, Gudrun revealed that it was actually Sigurðr who rode through the ring of fire, making Brunhilde rightfully enraged. Sigurðr, remembering the truth, tried to console her, but to no avail.

As a famous skald would say, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”, and Brunhilde began to plot her revenge by urging Gunnar to kill Sigurðr. To achieve her goal, she told Gunnar that Sigurðr slept with her on Hidarfjall, which he swore not to do.

Brynhild och Gudrun by Anders Zorn

Gunnar and his brother Hogni were afraid to kill Sigurðr themselves, as they had sworn oaths of brotherhood to him. Thus they incited their younger brother, Gutthorm, to kill Sigurðr, by giving him a magic potion that enraged him. Blinded by fury, the young brother stroke at Sigurðr in his sleep, mortally wounding him, but while dying, Sigurðr threw his sword at Gutthorm, killing him (some Eddic poems say Gutthorm killed him in the forest south of the Rhine, also while resting).

Brunhilde then proceed to kill Sigurðr’s three-year-old son. When Sigurðr’s funeral pyre was aflame, she threw herself upon it – thus they passed on together to the realms of Hel.

Sigurðr and Brynhildr, C. Butler 1909

Another version of the tale can be found in other Eddic poems, such as the Sigurðarkviða hin skamma, in which Gunnar and Sigurðr lay siege to the castle of Atli, Brunhilde’s brother. Atli offers his sister’s hand in exchange for a truce, which Gunnar accepts. However, Brunhilde has sworn to marry only Sigurðr, so she is deceived into believing that Gunnar is actually Sigurðr.

According to the Völsunga saga, Brunhilde bore Sigurðr a daughter, Aslaug, who later married Ragnar Lodbrok. This comes with a surprise, as some versions of the poem claim that Sigurðr and Brunhilde did not slept together.

Another classic passage attributed to Brunhilde is found in the Eddic poem Helreið Brynhildar (Bryndhildr’s ride to Hel). In the poem Brynhildr on her journey to Hel encounters the giantess Gýgr who blames her for an immoral livelihood. Brynhildr responds to her accusations telling the story of her life, defending herself and justifying her actions. She accuses the Burgundians of having deceived her. Brynhildr hopes to spend the afterlife together with Sigurðr:

Munu við ofstríð alls til lengi
konur ok karlar kvikvir fæðask;
við skulum okkrum aldri slíta
Sigurðr saman. Sökkstu, gýgjar kyn.”

 

Ever with grief and all too long
Are men and women born in the world;
But yet we shall live our lives together,
Sigurth and I. Sink down, Giantess!”

 

In the Nibelungenlied, Brünnhilde (Brunhilde or Brynhildr) is instead the queen of Isenland (Iceland). Gunther (Gunnar) here overpowers her in three warlike games with the help of Siegfried (Sigurðr) – who is wearing an invisibility cloak. Firstly, Brünnhilde throws a spear towards Gunther. Such spear was so heavy that three men could barely can lift, yet the invisible Siegfried diverts it. Then she throws twelve fathoms away (21.94m) a boulder that requires the strength of twelve men to lift. Lastly, she leaps over the same boulder. Gunther, with Siegfried’s invisible help, defeats her in these games, and proceed to marry Brünnhilde.

 Brunhilde, Illustration from 'The Rhinegold and the Valkyrie' by Richard Wagner, 1910, Unframed Giclee Print Wall Art by Arthur Rackham

The Nibelungenlied also differs from Scandinavian sources in its silence on Brünnhilde’s fate; she fails to kill herself at Siegfried’s funeral, and presumably survives Kriemhild (Gudrum, Siegfried wife) and her brothers.

This is an epic tale and, as every epic tale, it has several slightly different versions, from the Skáldskaparsmál, to the Völsunga; from Fáfnismál to Sigrdrífumál. It is such an iconic tale that inspired stories as diverse as the Sleeping Beauty and The Lord of The Rings. You can read more about the ring Sigurðr gave Brunhilde after slaying the dragon Fafnir here. This is a saga we will definitely revisit in the future.

 

 

Sources

Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. ISBN-10 0859915131

Andersson, Theodore M. (1980). The Legend of Brynhild. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University. ISBN 0801413028

Haymes, Edward R. (2009). "Ring of the Nibelung and Nibelungenlied: Wagner's Ambiguous Relationship to a Source". In Fugelso, Karl (ed.). Defining medievalism(s). Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. pp. 218–246. ISBN 9781843841845.

Jesse Byock (2005) Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. 1st. edition. London, England: Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN-13 978-0-140-44755-2

 

 


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