The Norse Hero Sagas: The Volsungs
What is the story of Sigurd?
Sigurd was the greatest of the Norse heroes. In the Volsunga Saga, he is the last of the Volsungs, the son of Sigmund. He was brought up in the court of a foster father, Regin (Mimir the smith in some sources). Regin had a brother, Fafnir, who had killed their father and stolen his gold. The gold was cursed, and after the theft, Fafnir had transformed himself into a venomous dragon. From then on he had, as did so many mythic dragons, jealously guarded his treasure in his lair and caused havoc in the surrounding countryside. Meanwhile, Sigurd’s foster father Regin taught his charge the lessons of nobility and the mystery of runes. When he thought the boy was ready and strong enough, Regin urged him to confront and kill Fafnir. Sigurd agreed to do so, only if Regin would forge a magnificent sword for him. After two blades were proven to be unsatisfactory, Sigurd instructed the smith to make a blade out of the broken parts of his father’s sword, Gram. When Regin refashioned it, it cut easily through the anvil itself. Sigurd now agreed to face Fafnir, once he had avenged his own father’s death. This he did and then returned to Regin and prepared to fulfill his promise. On the heath where Fafnir lived, Sigurd and Regin found a track leading from a watering hole to the dragon’s lair. Regin instructed Sigurd to dig a trench across this track, and to wait in it until the beast passed over it, allowing Sigurd to thrust his sword into its belly and heart. When Sigurd asked what would happen to him if he became submerged in the dragon’s blood, Regin accused him of cowardice and left. Trusting Regin, Sigurd was digging the trench when an old hooded gray-beard appeared and warned him that he would need to dig more than one trench so that the blood could be diverted from him in the main trench. The old man then vanished. Once again the young hero had been helped by his divine ancestor, Odin, much as in the Greek monster-slaying myth of Perseus, the hero had received divine advice. Now Sigurd hid in the main trench and waited. Soon the dragon approached, causing the earth to shake. As the beast passed over him in his hiding place, Sigurd thrust the sword with all his might into his prey. By so doing, Sigurd fulfilled the monster-slaying requirement of so many heroes, from Perseus, to Beowulf, to King George, to mention only a few. When the dying Fafnir asked who had slain him and why, Sigurd foolishly revealed his identity, thus allowing the dragon to pass the curse of the gold on to him. Sigurd did not fear death, however, and so determined to take the gold anyway.
With his evil brother safely put to rest, Regin reappeared and made demands. Sigurd could keep the treasure, but he wanted the dragon’s heart. Sigurd agreed to this, and Regin drank some of the serpent’s blood and fell into a deep sleep. Meanwhile, Sigurd began roasting the dragon’s heart for his foster father. He burned his finger in the process and put his finger into his mouth to ease the pain. When he tasted the dragon’s blood he suddenly found himself able to understand the speech of birds, who told him that Regin planned to kill him. So Sigurd drew Gram once more and decapitated Regin.
The rest of the saga describes tragic events surrounding a ring given to the shield-maiden Brynhild by Sigurd and the confused demands of love and treasure that eventually lead to Sigurd’s death as well as to the death of Brynhild.