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Siegfried's Death

Song of the Nibelungs: The Epic Germanic Tale of Love, Death, and Revenge – Part 2

Like many ancient poems and epic tales, the 13 th century saga of The Nibelungenlied, or "The Song of the Nibelungs", is based on both myth and history. Written by an unknown author, the tale remains one of the premiere ancient Middle High Germanic texts, highlighting complicated politics, love, and war.

Read Part I of The Song of the Nibelungs

The second part of "The Song of the Nibelungs" picks up with the introduction of new characters, most significantly King Atilla of the Huns, known in this text as Etzel of Hungary.  He decides to wed the beautiful widow Kriemhild, as his own wife has recently passed, and Kriemhild accepts this proposition, recognizing in this new king the power to get revenge for her first husband.  It took seven years before Kriemhild was able to act on her desires, first having to appear the happy and content bride of the Hungarian king, providing him an heir for his throne. Kriemhild invites her brothers and Hagen to her new home and, though Hagen is weary, they all deign to go.

Upon learning from Hagen that the Nibelung treasure has been sunk, Kriemhild is given the perfect opportunity to begin her vengeance anew. When Hagen wears Siegfried's sword in public, the widowed queen reaches her limit.  She brings forth her son by Etzel, Ortlieb, raised by his mother to enact her revenge. She knows that Hagen would fear the young lad as a future enemy king. 

Hagen, for all his cleverness, is easily instigated. A battle ensues, in which Hagen slays Ortlieb where he stands.  With the young prince dead, the Hungarians attack the Nibelungs, and the former greatly outnumber the latter. Gunther and Hagen are captured by Kriemhild's men, and Kriemhild orders Gunther's death and she herself slaughters Hagen with Siegfried's sword, Balmung.  Kriemhild is, quite anticlimactically, slain by one of Eztel's warriors, a man named Hildebrand, a soldier horrified by the actions of his second queen.

Kriemhild showing Gunther's head to Hagen (Johann Heinrich Füssli, ca. 1805)

Kriemhild showing Gunther's head to Hagen (Johann Heinrich Füssli, ca. 1805) Public Domain

There are numerous elements of The Nibelungenlied that suggest a much richer backstory to the writing of this epic poem.  First, "The Song of the Nibelungs" has numerous contrasting elements, an unfortunate consequence of the span and tradition of its retellings. One of the most pertinent is that of the term "Nibelungs."  According to modern research, "The Song of the Nibelungs" opens with Siegfried discussing his triumph over the Nibelungs, signifying that they were either an enemy to him and the people of Xanthen or simply a foe he came across.  Later in the text, however, the term "Nibelungs" is used to describe the Burgundians, that is: Gunther, Brunhild, and the people Kriemhild invites into her new Hungarian home. This makes little sense even to current scholars of the poem, and has been generally accepted as an unknown obstruction of the text.  (Some sources suggest the Nibelungs are a race of dwarves, or Nybling, and are the original owners of the treasure hoard.)

A second intriguing element is that there are numerous historical details of the poem that raises the question as to whether or not the text was factually inspired. The defeat of the Burgundians by the Huns in 436 AD has an unmistakable similarity, however the Merovingian dynasty's queen named Brunhilda also appears incredibly similar to the Icelandic queen. Brunhilda was the sister of the second queen of the Merovingians, who was later slain at the hands of the king's mistress, Fredegund. A feud arose between Brunhilda and Fredgund following this, not unlike that of Brunhild and Kriemhild. Brunhilda persuaded her own husband Sigebert to go to war with Fredegund's husband Chilperic for the vengeance of her sister— just as Hagen took revenge against Siegfried purportedly on Brunhild's behalf.

First page from the manuscript of The Nibelungenlied, or "The Song of the Nibelungs" (ca. 1230)

First page from the manuscript of The Nibelungenlied, or "The Song of the Nibelungs" (ca. 1230) Public Domain

The final, most pertinent component of The Nibelungenlied 's conception are the many characteristics which also harken back to medieval Norse texts. Brunhild, Siegfried, Kriemhild, and Gunther are all evident variations of characters from the Prose Edda and The Völsunga Saga , two tales that tell of Sigurd the Dragon Slayer and his love for the Valkyrie Brunhild. In these versions, Kriemhild is known as Gudrun and has less of a pertinent role in the beginning. It is in fact her mother Grimhild who enchants Sigurd into forgetting about the Valkyrie and wedding her daughter instead. Brunhild then is tricked into marrying Gunther (Gunnar in these texts), and when the secrets come out at last, Sigurd is slain by Brunhild herself. 

Illustration of Sigurd and Brunhild. 1920.

Illustration of Sigurd and Brunhild. 1920. Public Domain

Though The Völsunga Saga and the Prose Edda were both written in medieval Iceland during a period when Christian monks were recording former Pagan legends, the elements borrowed for The Nibelungenlied are painfully obvious. However, this borrowing was a tradition in the 13 th century, as it was undoubtedly intended as a reminder of past beliefs thus altered to take place in the human sphere.  These beliefs were revived once again in the 19 th century by Richard Wagner, the famous opera writer who brought Brunhild, Kriemhild, and Siegfried's story into the modern age.

Featured image: "Siegfried's Death" (Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1847). Public Domain

By Ryan Stone

Bibliography

Anderson, George K., trans. The Saga of the Völsungs: Together with Excerpts from the "Nornageststháttr" and Three Chapters from the "Prose Edda" (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1982, 171-191.)

Ashliman, D.L. "The Nibelungenlied" A Summary in English Prose. 2012. Accessed May 10, 2015. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/nibelungenlied.html

Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade (W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2010.)

Bury, John Bagnell. A History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene (395 A.D. to 800 A.D.): Volume 2 (Adamant Media Corporation: Boston, 2000.)

Encyclopædia Britannica Online , s. v. "Nibelungenlied", accessed May 10, 2015, Available here.

Unknown. The Nibelungenlied . trans. A. T. Hatto (Penguin Books: London, 1969.)

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