Category Archives: Fame
Etymology: Sigr- (Old Norse), Sig- “Victory” (Sieg- Germanic, Zege- Dutch) and vörðr- (-ward Proto-Germanic)“guardian” or “protection” (Old Norse), -fried – “peace”
Also known as: Siegfried, Sigfred, Sifrit, Sîvrît (High German), Sivard (Danish), Sigevrit, Zegevrijt (Middle Dutch), Seyfrid, Seufrid (early modern German)
Alternate Spellings: Sigurðr (Old Norse)
Sigurd is a legendary hero from old Germanic, Norse and Scandinavian mythologies, where he is best known for slaying the dragon Fafnir, rescuing the Valkyrie maiden Brynhildr and the disastrous events that come after with his death.
As I discovered when first doing my article for Brynhildr, there are a number of different stories and various spellings or names for the main character, all of whom and which seem to be the same story and characters. With the differences, we’re likely just seeing different regional and cultural versions. Plus, the addition of Wagner’s famous Opera cycle goes and confuses that matter a bit as he takes from a the Völsunga and Nibelungenlied, mixing them together.
All I can say, is I’ve done my best to keep all of this straight. Also, it’s not like the ancients had access to e-mail and the internet to keep their sources straight, one tribe tells the story one way, another tribe tells it slightly different. The stories also alter and change when you start looking at when one is written and recorded compared to another.
Parentage and Family
Father – Sigmund, regardless of variant spellings, nearly all sources list him as Sigurd’s father.
It is in the Völsunga that Odin is mentioned as being Sigurd’s real father, making the hero a demigod of sorts and would explain why in some versions of the story, Odin goes out of his way to offer advice and aid him. It’s more accurate that Sigurd is a descendant of Odin’s though.
Mother – Hiordis, Sigmund’s second wife in the Völsunga. In the Þiðrekssaga, it is Sisibe who is Sigurd’s mother. The Nibelungenlied lists Sigelinde as Siegfried’s mother.
Brunhildr – The Valkyrie maiden whom Sigurd falls in love with and would have married had outside sources not interfered.
Gudrun – She is who Sigurd marries in the Völsunga. In the Nibelung, her name is Kriemhild.
Aslaug – Sigurd’s daughter by way of Brynhildr in the Völsunga. Aslaug goes on to marry Ragnar Lodbrok.
Sigmund & Svanhild – Twin sons by way of Gudrun in the Völsunga. Sigmund is named after Sigurd’s father.
What’s In A Name?
At first glance, due to the similarity of their stories, both Sigurd and Siegmund appear to be the same character. Perhaps they are, at the same time, I think it helps to remember regional variations from very similar cultures. Thanks in part to Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” Opera cycle, there gets to be further confusion to the matter.
It should be noted that what the names of Sigurd and Siegfried mean are different, however they do share the first part of the names do have the same etymology. The second part of the names have very different meanings.
In all cases, the different names all share the commonality of the first part or prefix name of “Sig-“ which means “victory.” The second part of the names have different meanings. “-fried” meaning peace in the name Siegfried and “-vörðr” meaning protection.
Sigurðr – Or Sigurd, is not the same character as the Germanic Siegfried no matter how much the sources seem to want to confuse them. This name translates to Victory-Protection or Protector of Victory.
Siegfried – With this spelling, he is the hero of both the Germanic Nibelungenlied and Richard Wagner’s operas of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. The Old Norse name for Siegfried would have been Sigfroðr. This name translates to Victory-Peace or Peaceful Victory. The name Siegfried doesn’t appear until towards the end of the seventh century. So it’s possible that Sigurd is the original form of the name.
Sivard Snarensven – This is the name of the hero from several medieval Scandinavian ballads. He’s noted here as his name is known for being a variant spelling to Sigurðr.
The oldest source for Sigurd’s legend are found in Sweden on seven runestones. The most notable of these are the Ramsund carving dating from about 1,000 C.E. and the Gok Runestone dating to the 11th century C.E.
Ramsund Carvings – These runes show Sigurd sitting naked before a fire as he prepares to cook the heart taken from the dragon Fafnir. As the heart isn’t fully cooked yet, Sigurd burns himself when he touches it, promptly sticking the burnt finger in his mouth. One he tastes the dragon’s blood, Sigurd is able to understand the birds’ song.
The birds inform Sigurd not to trust his foster-father Regin as he won’t keep his promise. To which, Sigurd chops off Regin’s head. Smithing tools laying around Regin’s head that were used to reforge the sword Gram.
Other carvings show Regin’s horse loaded down with the dragon’s gold, Sigurd slaying Fafnir and Otr, Regin’s brother from the start of the saga.
Hylestad Stave Church – Other carvings and runes can be found on doorways and stones at this church, showing more of Sigurd’s legend.
This is the main source for Sigurd’s story. It is a 13th century Icelandic saga from the Völsung clan that tells the story of Sigurðr and Brynhildr and the subsequent destruction of the Burgundians.
Within this saga, Sigurd is the son of Sigmund and Hiordis, his second wife. So, this is where the story begins, with Sigmund attacking a disguised Odin. Attacking a deity is never a good idea and Odin kills Sigmund while also shattering his sword. As he lays dying, Sigmund hangs on long enough to tell Hiordis about her pregnancy and to bequeath the shattered fragments of his sword to his unborn son.
With Sigmund dead and pregnant, Hiordis then marries King Alf. When Sigurd is old enough, Alf sends the boy to Regin to be fostered. When Sigurd gets older, nearing being an adult, Regin begins to try putting into Sigurd’s head that his station and position isn’t very much.
In a seemingly benign series of questions, Regin asks Sigurd if has any control or say over how Sigmund’s gold, Sigurd’s inheritance by right. Sigurd responds that Alf and his family take care of all of the gold and that he has everything he needs or desires. Regin continues his questioning by asking Sigurd why he accepts such a low position in Alf’s court. Again, Sigurd says he’s treated as an equal and that he has everything he needs or desires.
Not letting up, Regin again asks Sigurd why he settles for being a stable boy to the Kings or have any horse of his own for that matter. That last bit does get to Sigurd who decides he’s going to have his own horse. On the way to the castle to get one, Sigurd is met by an old man (Odin in disguise) who gives some advice to the young man on which horse to choose. This advice does lead Sigurd to getting the horse Grani, a decedent of Odin’s own horse, Sleipnir.
Regin’s Story – Otr’s Gold
When Sigurd returns with a horse of his own, Regin then tells the young man the story of Otter’s Gold. How Regin’s father is Hreidmar, a powerful magician and about his two brothers Otr and Fafnir. How he is a master smith and that Otr himself also held many magical talents. That Otr would go out swimming near a waterfall in one of his favorite forms, that of an otter. That another, a dwarf by the name of Andvari would take the form of a pike and swim too.
Then one day, the Aesir gods came across Otr in his otter form. Not realizing him to be a person and instead, believing the otter to be the real animal, Loki killed Otr and took his pelt. The Aesir then took the pelt to Hreidmar to show off what they caught. Knowing the pelt to belong to their brother, both Fafnir and Regin detain the Aesir; demanding a weregild or restitution be paid for Otr’s death.
Realizing what had happened, the Aesir agreed to pay compensation and fill Otr’s body with gold and cover him with an assortment of treasure. Before Otr’s body is returned to his family, Loki took a net from the sea goddess Ran and used it to catch Andvari in his pike form. In exchange for his freedom, Loki commanded Andvari to give him all of his gold. Grudgingly, Andvari gave up his gold to Loki; except for one ring, that one, Loki had to take by force. Loki took this ring more by force. Unknown to Loki, Andvari cursed this ring with a death curse on it that for whoever wielded the one ring.
Gold in hand now, the Aesir proceed with stuffing Otr’s pelt with it and covering it with treasure, the one ring placed over a whisker and present it to Hreidmar. Greed over coming him, Fafnir killed Hreidmar and took all of the gold, refusing to give Regin his rightful share or inheritance. For this, Regin is looking for someone who can help him seek revenge.
Reforging His Father’s Sword
Caught up by the injustice of it all, Sigurd readily agrees to the plan of killing Fafnir, thereby avenging Hreidmar. As Regin is a master smith, Sigurd requests that a sword be made for him. The first sword made is tested against an anvil, breaking. So, another sword is crafted by Regin, only be broken too.
Third times the charm, Sigurd went to his mother to request the broken pieces of his father’s sword. Sigurd then has Regin take the shattered remains of his father’s sword and reforge those into a sword. This new sword would be known as Gram and it was able to split the anvil in twain. The blade is so sharp, Sigurd can even cut wool with his sword in the river.
First, I Must Avenge My Father
Seeing that Sigurd finally has a sword, Regin tries to get Sigurd to promise to slay the dragon Fafnir to which Sigurd agrees, but not until he has gone to avenge the death of his father.
First, Sigurd set off for his uncle Griper on his mother’s side. It seems dear old uncle Griper can foretell the future and Sigurd wanted to know the Norns had in store for him. Griper refused at first to admit anything to young Sigurd. After much persistence, Griper told Sigurd what would befall him.
Armed with this knowledge, Sigurd went now to King Alf, requesting a fleet of ships and enough men that he could wage war against the Hunding tribe and there by take revenge upon King Lynge for the death of his father Sigmund.
While sailing towards Lynge’s kingdom, a storm broke. A sailor that Sigurd had taken on, by the name of Fjorner sang a runic song that calmed the storm, allowing Sigurd’s fleet to arrive safely. Now Sigurd could lay waste to King Lynge’s kingdom and kill Lynge, thus avenging his father.
Sigurd returned home, having claimed the lands and treasures held by Lynge and earning a lot of prestige and renown as a warrior.
Now I Will Do The Thing!
With Sigurd back, Regin asked him again about slaying the dragon Fafnir. Sigurd was ready now and set off for the task.
Ready, Regin advised Sigurd on a plan to kill Fafnir. He was to dig a pit and wait for Fafnir to come, walking over it. Once the dragon, Fafnir fell in, Sigurd was to stab him.
Sounds like a solid enough plan if you ask me.
Odin added to Regin’s plan, appearing as an old man before Sigurd and told him to dig some trenches to drain Fafnir’s spilled blood. The idea being that Sigurd would bathe in the dragon’s blood after killing Fafnir. It seems the dragon’s blood would bestow invulnerability. When Sigurd does bathe, a leaf is stuck to his back, making a part of him still vulnerable. This point of note is important later on.
Heeding the instructions of both, Sigurd does just that with digging the pit and trenches. He succeeds in killing Fafnir.
Now, Regin had told Sigurd to cut out Fafnir’s heart. Before doing so, Sigurd also ended up drinking some of Fafnir’s blood. This too had the effect of granting Sigurd to understand the language of birds. From them, Sigurd learned that Regin had been corrupted by Andvari’s ring with greed and planned to kill Sigurd as soon as he handed over the heart and gold.
Sigurd instead roasts Fafnir’s heart and eats part of it, gaining yet another benefit, that of wisdom or that of prophecy. If he truly had that, he would know what happens in the next part that comes.
Meeting The Beautiful Brunhildr
After his adventures with slaying the dragon Fafnir, Sigurd meets the Valkyrie and shieldmaiden, Brynhildr. Sigurd pledges himself to her and promises to return. Before leaving, Brynhildr gave Sigurd a prophecy that he would die and marry another, not her.
Eventually, Sigurd travels to Heimar’s court. Heimar it should be noted, is married to Bekkhild, the sister to Brynhildr. From there, Sigurd makes his way to Gjuki’s court. Gjuki’s wife is Grimhild who conspires to have Sigurd marry her daughter, Gudrun. Grimhild wants the magical ring and gold that Sigurd for her own family. Grimhild creates a magical potion, an “Ale of Forgetfulness” that she manages to get the hero to drink. Doing so, Sigurd forgets all about Brynhildr and the promise he’s made to her to be wed. Sigurd now marries Gudrun.
A while later, Gjuki dies and the oldest son, Gunnar becomes king. Gunnar while seeking for a suitable wife, learns about Brynhildr and decides he will court her. The only difficulty is that where Brynhildr is at, she’s surrounded by flames.
Of course, Brynhildr has promised that she will only marry the man brave enough to ride through the flames to her. As Gunnar is not brave enough to ride through the flames and even with trying to use Sigurd’s horse, Grani, still can’t ride through.
Gunnar’s brother, Hogni eventually speaks up and proposes the idea that Sigurd could use magic to shapeshift (by use of his magic helmet) and take Gunnar’s shape. Now now, Sigurd, disguised as Gunnar, ride through on his own horse, Grani to claim the fair Brynhildr.
When Brynhildr sees another man besides her Sigurd enter the flames, she despairs and demands to know who this stranger is.
The disguised Sigurd responds that he is Gunnar, the son of Gjuki of the Nibelungs. Angry at the response, Brynhildr as this isn’t Sigurd, fights him. During the fight, Sigurd manages to pull the ring Andvaranaut of her finger, rendering the Valkyrie powerless. Sigurd would later give the ring Andvaranaut to Gudrun.
Before leaving, both Brynhildr and Sigurd stay in the castle for three nights. Despite this, Sigurd in a symbolic gesture, lays his sword between them to signify that he won’t take Brynhildr’s virginity.
Maybe they meant chastity if you remember Sigurd’s earlier visit. He may not remember, but I know I do.
Eventually, Sigurd and Gunnar switch back places so that Gunnar can marry Brynhildr. Poor Brynhildr believes that Sigurd has forgotten her and keeps the promise she made of marrying the man whom she believes rode through the flames for her.
A Woman Scorned….
We’re not to any sort of happy ending yet, much of this is found under my article for Brynhildr. Later, Brynhildr and Gudrun are out bathing in a nearby river when they get into a heated argument over whose husband is better and braver.
Brynhildr boasts that her husband, Gunnar was brave enough to ride through flames for her. Knowing the truth, Gudrun smugly reveals that it was actually Sigurd who rode through the ring of fire. At this revelation, Brynhildr becomes enraged, making her marriage to Gunnar a sham as she is still in love with Sigurd.
Just remember, Hel hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Due to the trickery and deceits involved, Brynhildr just assumes that Sigurd went back on his word to marry her. It is still unknown to Brynhildr that Sigurd had been given a potion to forget all about her.
In the articles that focus on Sigurd, the notes state Brynhildr is so angry with Grimhild, not Sigurd himself directly. At this time, Brynhildr withdraws and refuses to speak to anyone, to the point that Sigurd is sent by Gunnar to try and talk to her. An angry Brynhildr uses the opportunity to claim that Sigurd has taken advantage of her and was inappropriate with her.
This of course gets Gunnar angry and wanting to kill Sigurd for sleeping with his wife.
It is that ring I tell you. That and Grimhild’s mettling in people’s love lives.
Gunnar and his brother, Hogni were reluctant to kill Sigurd as they had sworn oaths of brotherhood with him. Instead, the two got their younger brother Gutthorm to kill Sigurd after giving him a potion of enragement.
Under the influence of the potion, Gutthorm killed Sigurd in his sleep. As his final act before dying, Sigurd manages to pull his sword and kill Gutthorm in return.
A still enraged Brynhildr mocks Gudrun’s grief for the death of Sigurd and confesses to Gunnar that she had lied about Sigurd sleeping with her. She then tells Gunnar and Hogni, that her brother Atli will come avenge her death. Poor Brynhildr had always loved Sigurd, even when he betrayed her.
As Gunnar’s wife, Brynhildr then orders that Sigurd‘s three-year old son, Sigmund be killed. In a final act of desperation, Brynhildr kills herself by throwing herself onto Sigurd’s funeral pyre.
If that’s not a Shakespearean Tragedy, the two were then reunited together in Hel’s realm, the realm of the dead.
Also called the Thidrekssaga, this is another Nordic saga that relates the story of Sigurd, specifically chapters 152-168. It’s mostly similar to the Völsunga with parts very similar to events in the Nibelungenlied.
Mainly that it has Regin who is the dragon, not Fafnir and that the dwarf Mimir is Regin’s brother and who is the foster father to Sigurd.
Starting the story with Sigmund, whom on returning from some extended traveling, hears of some rumor that his wife, Sisibe has been engaged in an affair with a thrall (that’s a fancy term for a slave during Viking era Scandinavia).
Sadly, believing the rumor and lie told to him by his noblemen, Sigmund orders the same nobles to take Sisibe out to the forest and kill her. The nobles had intended to get back at Sisibe for refusing their advances while her husband was away. One of the nobles changed his mind about this turn of events and was just going to let her live while the other noble intended to take on his full petty revenge.
Yes, how dare a woman say no to a man. Really? No means no.
Anyways, the two nobles duke it out in a fight. While that’s happening, (did I forget to mention that Sisibe is pregnant?) she goes into labor and gives birth to a healthy boy. Whose baby, it should be noted is Sigmund’s.
Sisibe places the infant into a crystal vessel, I’m not sure where she got that from. It’s part of the narrative, just go with it… Sisibi kicks this vessel into a river where it floats down the stream. After which, Sisibi dies, whether by blood loss from birthing or the one nobleman out to kill her wins the fight and comes over to finish the job.
As in all stories of lost babies lost and abandoned in the wilderness, the baby is found by a doe, ya’ know, a female deer who nurses and raises the infant as her own. The infant is later found by a smith by the name of Mimir who names the boy, Sigurd (though in some places in the Þiðrekssaga, he is called Sigfred), raising them as his own.
When Sigurd is older and like any adolescent, becomes willful, Mimir asks his brother Regin, who happens to be a dragon to kill the kid. Not quite so, Sigurd turns the table on the two, first killing the dragon and then his traitorous foster-father.
Sigurd’s story from here, picks up again in chapters 225-230 where he marries Gudrun, Gunnar’s sister. Like the Völsunga, Sigurd had promised Brynhild first that he would marry her. Gunnar also marries Brynhild but is unable to consummate the marriage. Why? Because Brynhild is still in love with Sigurd. So, thinking to appease her, it is arranged to have Sigurd sleep with Brynhild and then after, she is compliant and gives into Gunnar. Mainly because Brynhild’s strength came from her being a virgin. So without it, she’s helpless before Gunnar.
That sounds so messed up.
The saga ends commenting how there would be no man now living or after who could equal Sigurd’s strength, courage or character. That Sigurd’s name would live on forever in the German tongue.
The Nibelungenlied is a Germanic epic poem dating to the 1200’s. The events within the poem can be traced to oral traditions from the 5th and 6th century. Siegfried is a prince hailing from a kingdom of Niederland with the seat of power being in the city of Xanten. While some would want to say this is the Netherlands, it’s not the same locality.
In this poem, Brynhildr is known as Brunhild or Prunhilt. With this version of the story, she is a queen or princess of Iceland. Gudrun is known as Kriemhild, Gunnar is known as Gunther and Hogni and known as Hagen.
Siegfried (or Sifrit) is a prince from Xanten who succeeds at killing a dragon and claiming a massive fortune and land from a couple of brothers.
Now Siegfried was very willful and head strong, so much so, that his father, King Siegmund sent the lad to the wonder smith, Mimer for fostering. It was hoped by Siegmund that Mimer would manage to teach discipline and humbleness to the lad.
While under Mimer’s tutelage, Siegfried comes to blows with Wieland, another of the smiths in Mimer’s service. However angry Mimer was with the incident, Siegfried demanded that the master smith forge him a sword worthy of a prince of his strength. Which is what Mimer then proceeded to forge for the young man.
The first sword that Mimer forged didn’t hold up to Siegfried’s might strength as it broke when the prince struck it with a great hammer. Siegfried proceeded to punch Mimer and his assistant before demanding another sword be made for him.
Mimer swore to forge another. Though he was also very angry and went out to the forest where his brother Regin resided, who due to other evil acts, was changed into a dragon. Mimer enlisted his draconic brother to get revenge. Regin agreed and Mimer went back tot his smithy, where he sent Siegfried off to a local charcoal-burner to get fuel hot enough to forge a sword.
Taking up a club, Siegfried sets off on his task. He passed through a forest swamp crawling with numerous venomous snakes, large toads and giant lind-worms. When the lad reached the charcoal-burner’s place, the man informed him that if Siegfried returned the way he came, that the dragon Regin would be awaiting him.
Scoffing at the news, Siegfried picked up a burning brand that he had been sent for and went back into the forest, setting fire to all the trees and underbrush so he could destroy all the loathsome reptiles.
Little fire bug there aren’t we?
Sure enough, the dragon Regin comes and spits out his venom at Siegfried. Undaunted, even as the earth is shaking with the dragon’s approach, Siegfried takes his club and knocks the fearsome dragon upside the head, killing it.
The dragon now dead, Siegfried cuts it up and discovers when the blood pours out, that where it has touched his skin, he’s become hard as horn. In a flash of insight, Siegfried goes and bathes himself in the dragon’s blood, so he can become invulnerable. The only part of him that is still vulnerable is a spot on his back where a leaf had stuck to him.
That done, Siegfried dressed himself again and set about to eat the pieces of dragon meat, looking to take in the dragon’s strength to himself. As the meat cooked, Siegfried took a piece and ate it. Instantly, Siegfried could hear voices and realized it was the birdsong that he was hearing and that he could understand it.
Listening to the birdsong, Siegfried learned from the birds that Mimer had sent him out to his doom with the intention of being killed by the dragon. Angry at what he heard, Siegfried cut off the dragon’s head and took it back with him to the smithy to fling at Mimer’s feet. The assistants took off and fled while Mimer tried to appeal to Siegfried and offered up the horse Grane, a descendant of Odin’s steed Sleipner.
Remembering what the birds said, Siegfried accepted the gift horse and then killed Mimer anyways. The young prince then returned to his father, King Siegmund. When Siegmund hear of what happened, he admonished his son over slaying Mimer, but he was proud of his son for having slain a dragon. Armor was then presented to Siegfried and he was now seen as a warrior and acknowledged as the heir to the Netherlands.
A warrior now, Siegfried set out to further prove himself by traveling to a distant land of Isenland. Despite a storm that threatened to delay Siegfried’s voyage, the young warrior pressed on towards his destination.
There, at Queen Brunhild’s castle, Siegfried found the gates to be locked. Undaunted, Siegfried broke them down and attacked Queen Brunhild’s knights. Finally, Queen Brunhild entered and stopped the melee. She gave the young prince welcome to her castle.
Seeing that Brunhild was very fair to behold, her being a battle maiden of great strength and prowess, was not whom Siegfried wanted to marry. Even though many knights had come to try and prove their skill in combat to court Brunhild, all had been slain.
Even though Siegfried says that Brunhild is not whom he would seek for a wife and that he preferred someone gentler; he does stop to lift up a boulder to fling it as far as he can. Just to show he wasn’t intimidated by Brunhild’s strength or weak.
Siegfried went his way until he came to the land of the Nibelungs. Here, Siegfried found that the king had recently died and that his two sons were fighting over their inheritance. The brothers offered Sigurd payment the sword Balmung, forged by dwarves if he would help divide their father’s wealth and lands.
The brothers then accused Siegfried of withholding part of the treasure for himself. An argument ensued, and the brothers called upon some twelve giants to seize Siegfried and imprison him within a mountain’s treasure cave.
Undaunted yet again, Siegfried fought the giants. Spells were cast, and a thick mist formed around the combatants. Wielding the sword Balmung, Siegfried held his own against the giants while a thunderstorm coursed, and the earth shook.
Eventually all of the giants were slain. The dwarf Alberich now fought Siegfried. This was not an easy match for Siegfried as Alberich wore a cloak of invisibility to aid him. At long last, Siegfried had Alberich at his mercy. Sparing the dwarf’s life, Siegfried claimed the cloak of invisibility for his own.
Siegfried killed the two brothers and placed Alberich in charge of watching the treasure horde. The Nibelung clan proclaimed Siegfried to be their rightful ruler. Though Siegfried didn’t stay long, he still had other places to go and took with him twelve men back to the Netherlands.
Siegfried’s fame began to spread before him as bards and skalds began to spread word of his deeds and accomplishments.
One day, these same bards and skalds would bring word to Siegfried about a beautiful and fair maiden by the name of Kriemhild. Deciding that this is whom he wanted to marry, Siegfried set out for the country of Burgundy to seek her hand in marriage.
Siegfried’s parents, the King and Queen tried to warn him not to go to Burgundy. The Burgundians held a reputation for being very war-like. As if warnings never stopped Siegfried before, he insisted on going, saying if he couldn’t get Kriemhild’s hand by request, he would win her by force of arms.
Siegfried went with a retinue of eleven other knights. Queen Sigelinde made sure the retinue left with rich and lavish apparel to make sure they were taken for being nobles.
How exactly Siegfried did it, I don’t know. Siegfried marries Kriemhild and aids her brother, Gunther who is the king of the Burgundians, to court and marry Brunhild, a queen or princess of Iceland.
As a queen (or princess) and a powerful woman in her own right, Brunhild declared that the man she would marry must be someone able to best her in three contests meant to show strength and courage.
Gunther wanted to marry Brunhild and with the help of his liege man, Siegfried (who has a cloak of invisibility), he is able to overpower Brunhild in her three contests. In the first game, Brunhild manages to lift and throw a spear at Gunther that three men together could barely lift. Siegfried with his cloak of invisibility on, blocks and keeps the spear from hitting Gunther. In the second game, Brunhild throws a boulder that requires the strength of twelve men to heave some twelves fathoms. In the last game, Brunhild leaps over the same boulder.
In an act of cheating and with Siegfried’s aid using the invisibility cloak, Gunther is able to defeat Brunhild and claim her for his wife.
That sounds like dirty pool to me.
Rightfully so, on their wedding night, Brunhild refuses to give up her virginity to Gunther. Instead, she ties up Gunther and leaves him dangling from the ceiling of their chamber. Coming to Gunther’s aid, Siegfried wearing his invisibility cloak, attacks Brunhild, breaking her bones and then taking both her girdle and ring.
It seems both girdle and ring are the source of Brunhild’s supernatural strength and without them, she was forced to be docile and submit to be Gunther’s wife.
At the Worms Cathedral, Brunhild and Kriemhild, Siegfried’s wife gets in a rather heated argument about their husbands. Brunhild takes the stance that Siegfried is nothing more than a lowly vassal beholden to Gunther. Kriemhild reveals the dirty pool and trickery used by Gunther and Siegfried, by showing off the girdle and ring that were stolen from Brunhild.
Unlike the Völsunga, Brunhild’s fate is never mentioned and it’s assumed she out lives Kriemhild and her brothers.
As for Siegfried and Gunther, they make peace with each other despite their wives quarreling. Unfortunately, Gunther’s courtier, Hagen von Tronje had other ideas and plotted to kill the two. Hagen managed to convince Kriemhild to place a cross on Siegfried’s back, covering the vulnerable spot on him. While Hagen and Siegfried are out hunting, Hagen spears him in the back when Siegfried stops to take a drink from a stream.
Supposedly this had been part of a prophecy that whomever Kriemhild ended up marrying would suffer a violent death. Out of spite, Hagen then threw all of Siegfried’s wealth into the Rhine so that his widow, Kriemhild would be unable to raise an army and avenge her husband.
Das Lied Vom Hürnen Seyfrid
“The song of horn-skinned Siegfried” is a late medieval & modern heroic ballad that first appears around 1500 C.E.
This version of the story tells of Siegfried’s youthful adventures. For the most part, it follows the events found in the Nibelungenlied.
By this account, Siegfried had to leave his father Siegmund’s court for his unseemly behavior to live with a smith in the nearby forest. Siegfried is so uncontrollable that the smith deems it fit to try and have the youth killed by a dragon.
Turning the tables, Siegfried is the one who kills the dragon and not just one, but several dragons by trapping them with log traps and setting them on fire! Wow.
Seeing that the dragon skin is hard as horn though it melts in the fire. Siegfried discovers after sticking his fingers in it that his own skin becomes hard as horn too. At which point, Siegfried covers himself in the melted skin of dragon except for one spot on his back.
Not stopping there, Siegfried discovers the tracks of another dragon and discovers it has the princess Kriemhild of Worms held captive. With a little help from the dwarf Eugel, Siegfried defeats a giant by the name of Kuperan who holds the key to the mountain where Kriemhild is held prisoner.
In true heroic fashion, Siegfried slays the dragon and in the process finds the Nibelungen treasure within the mountain cavern. Eugel than prophesies that Siegfried will only have eight years to live. As he won’t be able to make use of the treasure, Siegfried dumps it into the Rhine as he returns to Worms. There, Siegfried rules with Kriemhild’s brother who eventually plot to have him killed.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner’s famous four opera cycle. Wagner took of the mythology for Siegfried from the Nordic sagas rather than the Nibelungenlied. Siegfried mainly appears in the last three operas of this cycle, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung where he plays a major role. The legends of Sigurd from the Völsunga form the basis for which the opera Siegfried is based on and thus influences both Die Walküre and Gotterdammerung.
For those who don’t know or may have guessed already, this is the opera cycle that inspires a popular saying of “It isn’t over until fat lady sings.” Especially with Brünnhilde’s famous immolation in the finale of Gotterdammerung. Adding to this, thanks to the costume designer, the idea of Viking helmets having two horns was firmly ingrained in people’s minds after a visit to the museum for ideas and saw the ceremonial two horned helmet on display.
In this opera cycle, Brünnhilde is one of many Valkyries born from the union between Wotan and Erda, the personification of the earth. In the Die Walkurie, Wotan tasks Brünnhilde with protecting the hero Siegmund, his son by a mortal woman. When the goddess Fricka contests this, she forces Wotan to have Siegmund die for his infidelity and incest. Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan’s order and carries away Siegmund’s wife and sister Sieglinde along with the broken pieces of Siegmund’s sword Nothung.
After hiding them away, Brünnhilde then faces the wrath of her father, Wotan who makes her a mortal woman and then places her in an enchanted sleep who can be claimed by any man who comes across her. Brünnhilde argues against this punishment, saying she had obeyed Wotan’s true will and doesn’t deserve this harsh of a punishment. Wotan is persuaded to lessen the punishment to protect her enchanted sleep with a magical circle of fire and that she can only be awakened by a hero who knows no fear.
Brünnhilde doesn’t appear again in the operas until the third act of Siegfried. Here, the title character is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde. He was born after Siegmund’s death and raised by the dwarf Mime, the brother of Alberich.
It should be noted that Alberich is the one who stole the gold and made the ring from which the entire Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle is based on. If you’re thinking “my precious” and the “one ring” as in Tolkien’s Middle Earth series, you’d be more or less correct as this is where J.R.R. Tolkien got inspired and took his ideas from with Norse mythology.
Back to the main story, Siegfried kills the dragon Fafnir that was once a giant. Siegfried takes the ring and finds himself guided to the rock hiding Brünnhilde by a bird. It seems Fafnir’s blood allowed Siegfried to understand the language of birds. Wotan tries to stop Siegfried who instead breaks the god’s spear. Wotan defeated, Siegfried than awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde.
The two appear again in the last opera, Gotterdammerung. Siegfried gives Brünnhilde the ring, the very ring that Alberich made. The two separate and Wagner goes back to following the Norse story though with notable changes.
Siegfried does go to Gunther’s hall where he is given the magical potion that causes him to forget all about Brünnhilde. That way, Gunther can now marry her. This is all possible thanks to Hagen, Alberich’s son and Gunther’s half-brother. Hagen’s plans are successful as Siegfried leads Gunther to where Brünnhilde is at.
During that time, Brünnhilde had been visited by a sister Valkyrie, Waltraute who warns her of Wotan’s plan for self-immolation and urges her to give up the ring. Brünnhilde refuses to give up the ring.
However, Brünnhilde is overpowered by Siegfried, who, disguised as Gunther using the Tarnhelm (a helm of invisibility instead of a cloak of invisibility) and takes the ring by force.
The enchanted Siegfried goes on to marry Gutrune, Gunther’s sister. When Brünnhilde sees that Siegfried has the ring taken from her, she denounces and calls him out on his treachery. Brünnhilde then joins with Gunther and Hagen in a plot to murder Siegfried. She informs Hagen that Siegfried can only be attacked from behind.
So, when Gunther and Hagen take Siegfried out on a hunting trip, Hagen takes the opportunity to go ahead and stab Siegfried in the back with his spear.
After the two brothers return, Hagen ends up killing Gunther in a fight over the ring. Brünnhilde ceases the moment to take charge and has a pyre built on which she will sacrifice herself, thereby cleansing the ring of its curse and sending it back to the Rhinemaidens.
Brünnhilde’s pyre becomes the signal by which Valhalla and all the Norse gods perish as Ragnarok is brought about with everyone dying in a fire.
There a couple of other sources for the story of Sigurd. Seeming minor sources, they do contribute to the overall story of Sigurd and can confuse people if they try to make the numerous sources for Sigurd and Siegfried all match up and be consistent. The story of Sigurd slaying the dragon is combined with another story of two brothers fighting over their inheritance as an example.
Atlakviða – The lay of Atli, this poem is found in the Poetic Edda and has a story similar to the Völsunga. Here, Atli (as in Attila the Hun) sending a message to Gunnar of the Burgundians and his brothers, inviting them to a feast. Suspicious of the message, their sister Gudrun sends a warning not to come. The brothers go anyways and are killed. Later in an act of revenge, Gudrun tricks Atli into eating the flesh of their two sons. After which Gudrun kills Atli and burns down his hall.
One thing this story is noted for is that it lacks any of Sigurd’s involvement with the destruction of the Burgundians that other sources try to connect. It’s the Nibelungenlied that tends to make this connection. As stories grow and change, it does show where Sigurd’s widow Gudrun seeks out revenge for her brothers.
Poetic Edda – One poem tells the story of Sigurd awakening the Valkyrie from an enchanted sleep.
This is the name of the magical ring that Brynhildr already possesses or is given to her by Siegfried. In Wagnar’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it was forged by the dwarf Alberich and has a curse placed on it.
In the Völsunga, the ring is part of the cursed treasure that Siegfried takes after slaying the dragon Fafnir. Either way, it explains all of Brynhildr and Siegfried’s bad luck and subsequent deaths.
The ring had been cursed by its creator, Andvari when Loki tried to force him to give it up. Andvari cursed it that all his treasure and the ring would be the death of those who owns it. Aside from being cursed, Andyaranaut could also make gold.
1st – Sigurd bathes in it, gaining invulnerability. Except for one spot on his back where a leaf is to have stuck to him. This is important as some versions of Sigurd’s story, once Brynhildr is seeking revenge against him, tells Gunnar that Sigurd’s vulnerable spot is on his back.
Where have we heard this before? Ah yes, Achilles being dipped into the river Styx so he would become invulnerable because his mother feared for her child’s wellbeing. Of course, Achilles has a vulnerable spot of his heel, where his mother held onto him so he wouldn’t fall in.
And if Odin is really Sigurd’s father, not Sigmund… same thing. So Achilles’ Heel for the vulnerable spot… Sigurd’s Back for the vulnerable spot. Achille’s Heel has the better ring to it.
2nd – Sigurd drinks some of the blood, gaining the ability to speak the language of birds.
3rd – Sigurd eats part of Fafnir’s heart, gaining wisdom and prophesy. I’m not so sure how effect that one was as it didn’t stop his demise with Brynhildr’s revenge plan and getting killed.
A Sword For A Hero!
In the Volsunga, the sword that Sigurd wields is called Gram.
In the Nibelungd, the sword that Siegfried wields is called Balmung.
Both are correct, it’s just a matter of which saga and source you’re using or prefer.
Possible Reality Behind The Legends
The legends surrounding Sigurd/Siegfried are considered by scholars and mythographers as coming from a mythic age before any confirmed written history can be verified. There’s a dispute and disagreement about if the figure of Sigurd/Siegfried even existed. If they did, the legends certainly grew around them to make them larger than life.
As far as an actual historical figure goes, it’s been suggested that any one or more of the figures or kings in the Merovingian dynasty among the Franks could have inspired the legend of Sigurd. One notable king is Sigebert I who had been married to Brunhilda of Austrasia. The names are close when you consider the possibility of Brunhildr as a likely historical person. There’s just too much uncertainty for some scholars. Though if it has any truth, the connection comes with Sigebert’s murder at the hands of Brunhilda and Fredegund and not that of Gudrun/Kriemhild and Brunhildr/Brynhild.
Another idea put forth seen in the elements of Sigurd slaying the dragon, is that this could be a mythological retelling of Arminius’ defeat of Publius Quinctilius Varas during the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 C.E. This idea often seen as not very likely or tenuous.
Paderborn – An Icelandic Abbot, Nicholaus of Thvera recorded in his travels through Westphalia how he was shown where Sigurd is to have slain the dragon, Gnita-Heath near two villages in Paderborn.
City of Worms – When Emperor Frederick III visited the city in 1488 C.E., he learned of the legend how the “giant Siegfried” was buried in the cemetery at St. Meinhard and St. Cecilia. One account ordered the graveyard dug up and found nothing. A German chronicle says that a skull and some large bones were found.
Dragons & Dinosaurs
Both the legends of Sigurd and Siegfried feature prominently the titular hero slaying a dragon. Anyone doing a cursory glance at history and paleontology, it’s not hard to imagine our ancestors taking one look at fossilized skeletons of giant creatures and believing them to still be around. A lack of understanding about fossils and just how long ago something lived would have been beyond them.
In 1941 Germany, the German paleontologist H. Kirchner speculated on the idea that two sets of prominent, yet massive dinosaur tracks in Siegfriedsburg, in the Rhine Valley could very well have contributed to the legend of dragons and Siegfried slaying one.
Other dinosaur tracks have been found in northern Europe. Some like the ones found in a quarry at Rehburg-Loccum, close to Hannover, Germany or another set in Muenchehagen, Germany.
Another place, Drachenfels (“Dragon Rock”), Konigswinter on the Rhine has a large statue of a dragon near the ruins of a castle. Below this castle, there is a cave that is attributed to having been Fafnir’s lair.
A 2005 production of Wagner’s “Ring of the Neibelung” showed Siegfried battling Fafnir as fossilized dinosaur monster.
Sigurd & Beowulf – Comparison
For those who have read Beowulf’s story, towards the end of Beowulf, the titular hero battles a dragon, thus spelling his doom and the end of all of his adventures. It’s been pointed too that Beowulf and even Thor’s encounters with dragons were more about defending their homelands to keep them safe.
For Sigurd (or Siegfried), slaying the dragon merely marks the beginning of all of the hero’s adventures for more is to come. Where Beowulf and Thor are defending their homelands, Sigurd is all about going out to make a name for himself and gaining wealth. By slaying the dragon, then bathing in and drinking its blood along with eating it’s heart, Sigurd gains super human powers.
When Christianity became more prominent throughout Europe, many of the dragon symbols came to be associated with the devil or Satan. As a side note to this, dragons too in Western myths tend to represent greed.
Images of Sigurd slaying the dragon Fafnir were often depicted in Scandinavian churches.
Tolkien And The Lord of the Rings!
As I previously mentioned above, J.R.R. Tolkien took his inspiration for his Middle Earth series from Norse mythology and the inspiration for the One Ring from that of Andyaranaut. The inspirations for Aragorn’s sword are clearly seen too in the broken and reforged swords of Gram and Balmung.
A fun note to add is that Tolkien did not like Wagner’s take on the German myths. I can see it too, Taking and combining the Völsunga and Nibelungenlied together can make it a bit harder to figure out which myth and legend is which.
Now, J.R.R. Tolkien did write a version of the Völsunga saga in “The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun” circa 1930. It was published later by his son, Christopher Tolkien in 2009. The book comprises of two narrative poems: “The new lay of the Volsungs” and “The new lay of Gudrun” done in the meter of ancient Scandinavian poetry while using Modern English.
Alternate Spelling: Ὀρφεύς, Greek
Etymology: There are more than a few different etymologies that have been given for the name of Orpheus. One suggestion has been orbhao, meaning “to be deprived” and another is orbh, “to put asunder or separate.” This later is in reference to Orpheus having been torn apart by the Maenads. The last word is “goao,” meaning “to lament, sing wildly or cast a spell,” this word appears to combine all the traits that Orpheus is known for as a forlorn lover, musician, and priest.
Golden Age Hero
Among the Greeks, Orpheus is the name of the greatest and legendary musician and poet of mythology and religion. His music was so great that he could charm all living things and even the stones of the earth. The story that Orpheus is the most well-known for, is that of going to the Underworld to bring his wife, Eurydice back to the lands of the living. Orpheus’ other claim to fame in stories is being a member of the Argonauts.
Parentage and Family
There are typically a couple slight variations as to who Orpheus’ parents are.
Apollo & Calliope – In this version of parentage, Orpheus is very much so a god, even if a minor god.
Oeagrus & Calliope – With this version of parentage, with his father a mortal king and his mother the muse Calliope, Orpheus is certainly considered a demigod.
The Muses (though I’d think them more like Aunts), the Graces, Linus (who goes on to Thebes, thus becoming a Theban).
Aristaeus – the son of Apollo and a potential half-brother to Orpheus if we use the parentage of Apollo and Calliope for Orpheus.
Eurydice – Sometimes known as Argiope. Some versions of the story mention her to be a Nymph. Orpheus travels to the underworld to bring her back to life after her untimely death.
Musaeus of Athens is thought to be Orpheus’ son.
Orpheus’ Lineage – Divine Heritage
There are a couple of different lines of parentage for Orpheus that are given.
In one, he is the son of the god Apollo and the muse Calliope.
In the second, he is the son of a mortal king, Oeagrus, and again, the muse Calliope.
Depending on the lineage one goes with, Orpheus is either a minor god or a demigod.
The ancient writer, Strabo wrote of Orpheus as a mere mortal who lived in a village near Mount Olympus. According to Strabo, Orpheus would have made his living as a wizard, likely the charlatan, street performer kind and musician.
For those interested, this city in ancient Greek and likely located where the modern village of Agia Paraskevi close to Litochoron, is reputed to be the birthplace of Orpheus. Dion and Mount Olympus are also nearby to Pimpleia. There are several springs and memorials dedicated to Orpheus and the Orphic Cults. Even the Cults of the Muses were honored and known by the epithet of Pimpleids.
Early Literature & History
The ancient Greeks, except for Aristotle, seem to have accepted Orpheus as a historical personage. Neither Homer nor Hesiod mentions him in any of their writings. Pindar makes note of Orpheus, calling him “the father of songs” and that he is the son of the Thracian king Oeagrus and the Muse Calliope. The earliest reference to Orpheus is found in the fragments of a poem by the 6th century B.C.E. poet Ibycus. In this fragment, Orpheus is called onomaklyton Orphēn or “Orpheus famous-of-name.”
Orphism – The Orphic Mysteries
Orpheus is considered by the Greeks to be the founder of the Orphic Mysteries. He is often credited as being the composer for the Orphic Hymns, of which, only two have survived to the present day of this body of literature and hymns. Some 87 hymns have been attributed to Orpheus for the god Dionysus and sung for the Orphic and Bacchus Mystery cults. The composer, Onomacritus is likely to have written many of the early Orphic hymns.
Orphism was at its height during the 6th century B.C.E. in ancient Greece. Shrines dedicated to Orpheus reportedly containing relics of his have been regarded as Oracles. In the sanctuary of the Eleusinian Demeter in Taygetus, there was a wooden statue of Orpheus.
Orphic – The word orphic derives from Orpheus’ name and has come to have the definition of mystic, fascinating and entrancing. With the connection to the Oracle of Orpheus, the word orphic can also refer to or mean oracular. As a seer and auger, Orpheus also practiced astrology and founded cults for Apollo and Dionysus.
Orphikos – Or the “Orphic Way of Life.” Plato makes mention of a class of vagrant beggar-priests who would offer purification rites for the wealthy and have a collection of books attributed to Orpheus and Musaeus. The most devoted to the Orphic rites would frequently practice vegetarianism, refusing to eat eggs and beans as well as practicing celibacy.
Orphic Ritual & Eschatology – It’s thought that this ritual involved a symbolic or actual dismemberment of an individual who represented the god Dionysus reborn. There was a lot of Orphic eschatology doctrine centered around the rewards and punishment for the soul once the body died and being free to pursue its true purpose or life.
Wine – Wine was an important element of the Orphic religion, used in their sacrament for a sacred intoxication they believed would bring them closer to God and as a means of gaining mystic knowledge. This concept was introduced to the Greeks by Pythagoras, who was viewed as a reformer to the Orphic Mysteries that succeeded the Dionysus Mysteries. It’s easy to see or assume this concept of wine in religious sacraments makes its way into other religious practices.
Gifts Of Orpheus
Another gift that Orpheus is thought to have given to his fellow humans is that of medicine, though that is credited as more having been Aesculapius or Apollo. Writing, is often more the purview and invention of Cadmus. Lastly, agriculture, though with this role, Orpheus takes on the Eleusinian role of Triptolemus who gives Demeter’s knowledge of agriculture to humans. The ancient writers Aristophanes and Horace go so far as to state that Orpheus even taught cannibals to live on eating fruit. According to Horace, Orpheus is the one who brings order and civilization to otherwise lawless and savage people.
Other Cults And Religious Worship
Orpheus is credited with establishing the worship of different deities in other places throughout ancient Greece.
Hecate – in Aegina.
Demeter Chthonia – in Laconia
Kores Sōteiras – also in Laconia as a savior maid
Orpheus & His Lyre
While Orpheus was living with his mother Calliope and her other sisters, the muses in Parnassus, the youth met the god Apollo who was courting the muse Thalia at the time. In his role as the god of music, Apollo gave Orpheus a golden lyre and taught him how to play it. Calliope, Orpheus’ mother, taught him how to compose songs and lyrics.
A minor note though is that while Hermes is the one who invented the lyre, Orpheus is who perfected the art of music with it.
Jason and the Argonauts
In the stories of Jason and the Argonauts, Orpheus is but one of many companions who journeyed with Jason.
In his quest for the Golden Fleece, Jason had been advised by Chiron in a prophecy that he would need the famed musician Orpheus.
Feeding The Crew – Armed only with his golden lyre, Orpheus aided and helped feed the crew of the Argos by charming fish from the sea with his music.
Calming The Storm – In one episode, a storm rolled in and Orpheus played his lyre, thereby, immediately calming the seas and ending the storm.
Siren Call – This is the most famous episode in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts that Orpheus is known for. When the Argonauts encountered the Sirens, Orpheus pulled out his lyre and played his music much louder than the Sirens, drowning out their voices so that the crew could bypass the danger. One account has the Sirens changing into rocks.
However, one Argonaut, Boutes is mentioned as still being affected by the Sirens’ call and leaps overboard when the Argo started sailing further away. Lucky for Boutes, the goddess Aphrodite saved him and took him to Cape Lilybaeum.
These are the same Sirens that Odysseus encounters in Homer’s epic of the Odyssey. The Sirens lived on a series of three small, rocky islands known as the Sirenum scopuli. The voices of the Sirens, when they sang or called out would cause sailors to leap to their deaths into the sea and crashing their boats on the rocks to sink beneath the waves.
Unrequited Love – The 3rd century B.C.E. poet Phanocles, wrote of Orpheus being in love with Calais, the son of Boreas, the god of the North Wind. The affection doesn’t seem to have been returned as Phanocles writes of how Orpheus would go to shady groves and sing of his unfulfilled desire and longing for Calais.
Pederasty – Since we’re on this subject of love, Ovid writes of how Orpheus eventually came to spurn the love of women due to his loss of Eurydice. Due to Orpheus’ fame and skill with music, many people still wanted his companionship and not just as friends either. Continuing with Ovid’s line of thought, Orpheus is to be counted as the first Thracian to engage in pederasty. Pederasty being the relationship between an older man and a younger man, often in his teens. Ancient Greek social customs say this relationship was consensual.
Orpheus & Eurydice
This is perhaps the most well-known of the stories surrounding Orpheus, the death of his wife Eurydice and Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to try and bring her back.
There are a few different variations of how Eurydice died. Most versions agree that in one way or another, she had been bitten by a venomous snake.
When Orpheus met and fell in love Eurydice, like many couples, they decided to tie the knot and get married. Hymen, the god of marriage presided over the marriage to bless it. However, Hymen prophesied that this marriage would not last.
Sooner than anyone thought, the trouble would come. Shortly after their marriage, Eurydice went out walking in some tall grass. In one version of the story has Eurydice bitten while dancing to Orpheus’ music. In another version, a satyr jumped out and did as all satyrs do when confronted by a female, they chased after Eurydice. In her flight from the satyr, Eurydice fell into a viper’s nest where she was bitten on the heel.
Yet another version of the story, told by Virgil in his Georgics, has a man by the name of Aristaeus, a shepard chasing after Eurydice before she is bit by a viper. In Ovid’s retelling of the story, Eurydice’s death comes about by dancing with the Naiads on her wedding day. Aristaeus is also, incidentally Apollo’s son. So, potential half-brother that might have been invited to the wedding and lusting after his brother’s wife.
When her body was later discovered by Orpheus; in his overwhelming grief, he played a rather sorrowful tune. This music caused all of the nymphs and gods to grieve for Orpheus’ loss. Virgil describes Dryads as weeping from Epirus and Hebrus and as far as the land of Getae. Orpheus is further described as having wandered to Hypberborea and Tanais in his grief for Eurydice’s loss.
Moved by Orpheus’ laments, the gods and nymphs advised the great musician to go into the Underworld to bring back Eurydice. Sometimes it is just the god Apollo who advises Orpheus to make the descent. Eventually, Orpheus descends into the Underworld to bring his wife back to life. Using his famous lyre, Orpheus succeeded in charming Charon, the ferryman for the river Styx, the three-headed dog Cerberus, and both Hades and Persephone. They agreed to a bargain, that Orpheus could lead Eurydice back up to the lands of the living. However, there was one condition for this and that was that Orpheus could not look back at Eurydice until they had reached the surface.
Tragically, just before they reached the surface, Orpheus’ anxiety and love for Eurydice overwhelmed him, and he looks back at his wife. This caused Eurydice to be pulled back down to the lands of the dead, this time for good.
Ancient Views –
Interestingly, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is sometimes viewed in a negative light. Some, like Plato, speaking through the voice of Phaedrus in his Symposium, say that Hades never intended for Eurydice to return to the lands of the living and had presented Orpheus with an illusion or apparition of his deceased wife. Plato saw Orpheus as a coward, who instead of choosing to die and be with the one he loved, decided to defy the gods and the natural order by going to Hades and bringing his dead wife back. By Plato’s argument, Orpheus’ love wasn’t true as he did not want to die for love, so the gods’ punishment is that Orpheus would have only the illusion of getting his wife back and would then later be killed by women, the Maenads.
It has been suggested that the story of Orpheus and Eurydice might be a later addition to the Orpheus myths. One example put forward is that of the name Eurudike, meaning “she whose justice extends widely” is very probably one of Persephone’s titles.
Don’t Look Back!
This mythical theme of not looking back is a stable of many stories. It is famously known in the biblical story of Lot’s wife looking when his family fled the destruction of Sodom. Other stories are those of the hero Jason’s raising up the chthonic Brimo Hekate with Medea, Adonis’ time in the Underworld, and Persephone’s capture by the god Hades. Even in general folklore, there is the one simple task the hero is to do to win the prize, and yet, they still manage to fail, thus upsetting the gods, fay, or other supernatural beings.
Distraught with the loss of his wife a second time, Orpheus fell into solitude, spurning the companionship of others and even disdaining the worship of the Greek Gods. In Ovid’s telling of Orpheus and Eurydice, Orpheus went mad in his failure to bring back his wife.
An Affront To Bacchus/Dionysus
In the version of this account by Aeschylus, in his play the Bassarids, Orpheus worshiped only the sun, Apollo. One morning, when Orpheus went to the Oracle of Dionysus located near Mount Pangaion to do his morning respects to the sun, he ended up getting torn to pieces by the Maenads for failing to give proper respect to Dionysus whom he had previously been devoted to. Eventually, Orpheus was buried in Pieria. The Greek writer Pausanias says that Orpheus was killed and buried in Dion. Per Pausanias, the river Helicon is to have sunk underground when the Maenads who killed Orpheus went to wash the blood off their hands.
Where it’s the god Bacchus who is mentioned, Orpheus had once been a devotee to the Bacchus’ Mysteries. So this version of the story has Bacchus punishing the Maenads for Orpheus’ death by turning them all into trees. This version of the story is disputed as to why would Bacchus punish his own followers even if Orpheus had once been a follower himself. Though an argument comes that Bacchus allows the death of Orpheus when the musician abandoned Bacchus’ Mystery Cult.
A slight variation to all of this as recounted by Dürer in his Death of Orpheus, the Ciconian women, when they set about to kill Orpheus, first did so by throwing sticks and stones at him. Due to Orpheus’ skill with music, the very stones of the earth and sticks wouldn’t hit him. It is then, that these enraged women tore Orpheus apart with their bare hands in a fit of Bacchae madness.
Orpheus’ head and lyre would eventually find their way to the shores of Lesbos where the local people buried his head and built a shrine near Antissa to honor him. Orpheus’ head would offer up prophecies. When this oracle began to become more famous than Apollo’s Delphi Oracle, the god silenced the Antissa oracle.
Sometimes the Muses are credited with having taken Orpheus’ body for burial, first in Leibethra before the river Sys flooded and eventually to Dion. It’s expected that Orpheus’ shade does return to the Underworld to be reunited with his love. In Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Orpheus’ limbs are entombed at the base of Mount Olympus where nightingales to this day, “sing more sweetly than anywhere else.”
As to the lyre, the Muses would come claim it and place it up into the heavens to become the constellation Lyra.
Instead of being killed by a group of women, Orpheus is said to have committed suicide in his inability to bring back Eurydice or after a failed trip to the oracle found in Thesprotia. This suicide is seen as Orpheus playing his lyre, calling for the wild animals to come and tear him apart. Another story says that Zeus struck Orpheus with lightning as punishment for revealing the secrets of the gods to mortal men.
Analogies To Other Greek Figures Of Myth
The story of Orpheus’ death at the hands of the Maenads has similarities with other figures in Greek myths and legends.
Dionysus – In terms of the Orphic Mystery Cult, the death of Orpheus seems to parallel the story of Dionysus’ death and their descent into the Underworld of Hades.
Pentheus – A former king of Thebes who was also torn apart by the Maenads. His story is mainly found and best retold by Euripides in his The Bacchae.
After Orpheus was murdered by either the Ciconian group or Thracian Maenads, he was turned into a swan and placed up into the heavens to become the constellation Cygnus next to his lyre, the constellation Lyra.