Category Archives: Shield-maiden
Etymology: Bright Battle
Also known as: Sigrdrífa (“driver to victory”)
Alternate Spellings: Brunhild, Brünhild, Brunhilde, Brünnhilde, Brunhilda, Brynhild, Brunhilt, Prunhilt
Brynhildr is a famous shieldmaiden and Valkyrie from Germanic and Scandinavian mythology. She is a main character in the Völsunga saga and Poetic Eddic poems. She also appears in the Nibelungenlied and in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen operas.
There are a few different versions of Brynhildr’s story that can be found along with alternative spellings. It’s likely that these could be about a different Brynhildr and these different versions just reflect different regional differences based on which clan is telling the story.
Parentage and Family
Budli – Her father as made mention in the Völsunga.
Erda – Her mother in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen operas.
Wotan – Her father in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen operas.
Valkyrie – An unnamed Valkyrie is her mother in the Völsunga.
Alti – Her brother in the Eddic poem “Sigurðarkviða Hin Skamma.” Interestingly, Alti could be Attila the Hun.
Heimer – Her brother-inlaw in the Völsunga for the versions of the story that have her up in a tower. He’s married to her sister Bekkhild.
Sisters – According to the Eddic poem “Helreid Brynhildar” with Brynhildr being a Valkyrie, she has eight sisters.
Other siblings are Bekkhild and maybe Oddrun.
Gunnar – Whom she is tricked into marrying in one fashion or another in different versions of the story.
Aslaug – Brynhildr’s daughter by way of Sigurðr in the Völsunga. Aslaug goes on to marry Ragnar Lodbrok.
This is the main source for Brynhildr’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.
Brynhildr is the daughter to Budli, who grows up to become a shield-maiden and Valkyrie. As a Valkyrie, she was tasked by Odin to determine the outcome of a fight between two kings, Hjalmgunnar and Agnar. Odin favored the older king Hjalmgunnar and in an act of defiance, Brynhildr throws the fight and to favor Agnar as the winner.
Angry, Odin condemns Brynhildr to live out the rest of her life as a mortal woman and has her imprisoned in a remote castle with a wall of shields on top of Mount Hindarfjall. There, Brynhildr slept within a ring of fire until a man without fear could ride through the fires to rescue and marry her.
The hero, Sigurðr Sigmundson, the heir to the clan Volsung and the slayer of the dragon Fafnir, is the one who enters the castle and awakens Brynhildr when he removes her helmet and chain mail armor.
Sigurðr still had some other tasks he needed to go perform and he promised Brynhildr that he would return. As both Brynhildr and Sigurðr have fallen in love with each other, Sigurðr proposes to her with the magic ring known as Andyaranaut. Brynhildr makes an oath that she will marry the man who rides through the flames for her. It’s also here, during their stay in the castle that Aslaug is conceived.
Unknown to Sigurðr, the ring Andyaranaut is cursed and would cause him and Brynhildr a lot of problems later. The ring was part of the cursed treasure that Sigurðr claimed after slaying Fafnir.
Meeting In Hlymdale
This seems to be a slight variation to the story where Sigurðr has taken Brynhildr with him or she was up in a tower this time.
Later, when Brynhildr and Sigurðr are at Hlymdale, the home of Heimer, Brynhildr’s brother-in-law, Sigurðr spots her up in a tower and declares his love. Sigurðr promises that he will return for Brynhildr to wed her.
Sigurðr then heads for Burgundy, to King Gjuki’s court. While Sigurðr is gone, Brynhildr receives a visit from Gudrun, Gjuki’s daughter. Gudrun has come seeking help with interpreting a dream, a dream that seems to foretell Sigurðr’s betrayal to Brynhildr when he marries Gudrun.
Over in Burgundy, Grimhild, a sorceress and wife to Gjuki conspires to have Sigurðr marry her daughter Gudrun. Grimhild creates a magic potion that she manages to get Sigurðr to drink so that he will forget all about Brynhildr.
Naturally enough, Sigurðr does marry Gudrun.
As a consolation prize for Brynhildr, if you can call it that, Grimhild, upon learning about Brynhildr being a Valkyrie, decides to have her marry her son, Gunnar.
A slight variation to this story has, that when King Gjuki dies, his son Gunnar becomes King and is a sworn oath brother to Sigurðr. Grimhild desired to see Gunnar wed, but Gunnar had told his mother that he had seen no maiden whom he would want to take as a wife.
Fair enough it seems.
News is brought to Gunnar by his sister Gudrun about a warrior maiden behind a wall of flames. Gunnar decides this maid is the perfect one for him and goes to find out if she is the one.
So off Gunnar, his brother Hogni and Sigurðr ride, towards Hindfell in search of a maid worthy to be Gunnar’s bride. The three come across the high tower with black walls with shields and encircled with flames. Thanks to the potion, Sigurðr has no memory of this place or Brynhildr within, faithfully awaiting his return.
A slight variation to this has Gunnar getting Heimir’s consent to go court Brynhildr, provided he can be the one to show no fear and ride through the flames.
Gunnar decides he’s going to ride through the flames, but his horse, Goti refuses to go near the flames. Then Gunnar gets the idea that he can ride Sigurðr’s horse, Grani through the flames. But Grani being a smart horse, knows that Gunnar is afraid of fire and refuses to ride through.
At a loss, the three sworn brothers brainstormed and considered the matter. Hogni eventually spoke up and proposed the idea that Sigurðr could use magic to shape-shift (by use of his magic helmet) and take Gunnar’s shape.
Sigurðr now disguised, rides through the flames, claiming to be Gunnar and take Brynhildr’s hand in marriage. Of course, Grani, knowing this to be his true rider, gives Sigurðr no problems with riding through the flames.
When Brynhildr saw another man besides her Sigurðr enter the flames, she despaired and demanded to know who this stranger was.
The disguised Sigurðr responded that he was Gunnar, the son of Gjuki of the Nibelungs. Angry at the response, Brynhildr, as this isn’t Sigurðr, fights him. During the fight, Sigurðr manages to pull the ring Andvaranaut off her finger, rendering the Valkyrie powerless. Sigurðr would later give the ring Andvaranaut to Gudrun.
Before leaving, both Brynhildr and Sigurðr stay in the castle for three nights. Despite this, Sigurðr 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 Sigurðr’s earlier visit. He may not remember, but I know I do.
Eventually, Sigurðr and Gunnar switch back places so that Gunnar can marry Brynhildr. Poor Brynhildr believes that Sigurðr has forgotten her and keeps the promise she made of marrying the man whom she believes rode through the flames for her.
We’re not to any sort of a happy ending yet. 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 Sigurðr 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 Sigurðr.
Due to the trickery and deceits involved, Brynhildr just assumes that Sigurðr went back on his word to marry her. It is still unknown to Brynhildr that Sigurðr had been given a potion to forget all about her.
Just remember, Hel hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Mysteriously at this time (or the potion wearing off), Sigurðr starts to remember what happened. Despite his efforts, Sigurðr is unable to console an enraged Brynhildr. Instead, Brynhildr plotted revenge by persuading Gunnar to kill Sigurðr in a false claim that he had taken her virginity in Hidarfiall. Something that Sigurðr had sworn not to do when he placed his sword between the two.
This of course gets Gunnar angry and wanting to kill Sigurðr 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 Sigurðr as they had sworn oaths of brotherhood with him. Instead, the two got their younger brother Gutthorm to kill Sigurðr after giving him a potion of enragement.
Under the influence of the potion, Gutthorm killed Sigurðr in his sleep. As his final act before dying, Sigurðr manages to pull his sword and kill Gutthorm in return.
A still enraged Brynhildr mocks Gudrun’s grief for the death of Sigurðr and confesses to Gunnar that she had lied about Sigurðr sleeping with her. She then tells Gunnar and Hogni, that her brother Atli will come avenge her death. Poor Brynhildr had always loved Sigurðr, even when he betrayed her.
As Gunnar’s wife, Brynhildr then orders that Sigurðr ‘s three-year old son, Sigmund be killed. In a final act of desperation, Brynhildr kills herself by throwing herself onto Sigurðr’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.
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. In this poem, Brynhildr is known as Brunhild or Prunhilt. With this version of the story, she a queen or princess of Iceland. Gudrun is known as Kriemhild, Gunnar is known as Gunther and Hogni and known as Hagen.
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.
In this poem, Brynhildr is known as Sigrdrifa. The Sigrdrífumál does have the story of Sigurd and Brynhildr meeting. The poem is mostly about runic magic and has Brynhildr teaching Sigurd about their use.
For the most part, the Poetic Eddas collaborate the story told in the Volsunga, though with some changes.
In some of the Eddic poems, Gutthorm kills Sigurðr in a forest in Southern Rhine while resting.
In the Edda poems from Iceland, Brunhildr or Brunhilde is a strong, capable princess who is deceived by her lover.
I feel it’s worth noting that in the Eddic poems, Brunhildr is a prominent protagonist, whereas in other sources like the Nibelungenlied, her role and importance are diminished.
Helreið Brynhildar – “Bryndhildr’s Ride To Hel,” on her way down to Hel, the underworld of the dead, Brynhildr meets a giantess who blames her for leading an immoral life. Brynhildr refuted the giantess, saying that all men and women live lives of grief and that she and Sigurðr would live together.
Sigurðarkviða Hin Skamma – In this Eddic poem, Gunnar and Sigurðr laid siege to the castle of Atli, Brynhildr’s brother. Atli had offered Brynhildr’s hand in marriage to Gunnar for a truce. The problem in this poem being, that Brynhildr had sworn she would only marry Sigurðr. She is then tricked into believing that Gunnar is Sigurðr.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner’s famous four opera cycle. Wagner took of the mythology for Brynhilde or Brünnhilde’s role from the Nordic sagas rather than the Nibelungenlied. Brünnhilde only appears in the last three operas of this cycle, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung where she plays a major role in the downfall of Wotan.
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.
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.
By the account of the Völsunga, Brynhildr was a prophetess or seeress and able to foretell the future and interpret dreams.
In the Völsunga, Brynhildr tells Gudrun that Sigurðr would love her, Brynhildr but would marry Gudrun. She also told Gudrun that Sigurðr would die at the hands of her brothers. That she would marry Atli and kill him and her children. Brynhildr is also saw someone else, Svanhild get trampled to death. At the funeral for Sigurðr, Brynhildr tells Gunnar and Hogni, that her brother Atli would kill them.
The Valkyries are found in both Scandinavian and Germanic religions.
Some of the stories and sources for Brynhildr’s story have her as a Valkyrie, a chooser of the slain, the warrior maids who determined who died in battle and would to Valhalla, Odin’s abode where the fallen warriors would await Ragnarok. More properly, half the warriors go to Valhalla and the other half go hang out with Freya in her hall of Folkvangr.
Many scholars have questioned Brynhildr’s authenticity as a Valkyrie as there is a real person of the same name. In addition, the name Brynhildr or Brunhilda has been found as a place name for many places and regions throughout Belgium, France and the Rhine.
It’s possible that Brynhildr’s story is the same inspiration for the Visigothic princess Brunhilda of Austria. She married the Merovingian king Sigebert I in 567 C.E.
This Brunhilda did have a rival with a Fredegunde who was married to King Chilperic I of Neustria. This is a feud that would last several generations resulting in a lot of deaths on both sides among husband and numerous family members.
Plus, many of the Valkyries that appear in the Poetic Edda are often mortal woman who often come of royal blood.
Given that there are multiple sources for Brynhildr’s story along with Wagner’s opera series that combines a couple of them together. It can get a little confusing as to which clan or tribe Brynhildr would belong to.
Budling – In the Volsunga, being a daughter of Budli, would make Brynhildr a Budling.
Skioldung – In the poem fragment of Sigurd from the Poetic Edda, Brynhildr is called a “lady of the Skioldungs.” The Skioldungs were of course, the descendants of Skiod. Brynhildr’s connection to these people comes about as her father would have been one of 18 sons of Halfdan the Old, or Ali in Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda.
Nine of these sons would have gone on to found their own kingdoms and dynasties in the northern, Scandinavian countries. This would have made Brynhildr related to Sigurðr or Sigurd on his mother’s side as well as related to the children of Guiki. Those being Gunnar, Hogni and Gudrun.
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.
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.