By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
In the Saga of the Volsungs, the great warrior, Volsung, is killed and his ten sons are captured by his son-in-law, Siggeir. He initially plans to simply behead his resented brothers-in-law and be rid of them. But his wife, Signy, their sister, reminds him that the eye loves what it lingers on, and she wants to be able to look on her beloved brothers longer than just beheading them would allow.
Siggeir has all ten brothers tied out in the forest to a large felled tree trunk, with their hands behind their backs in chains. Then, every night at midnight, Siggeir will have one of them eaten by a wolf. So, each night, for nine nights, Signy must look on, helplessly, until naturally, only one of her brothers, Sigmund, remains. But by now Signy has come up with a plan that will rescue at least him.
Signy sends a servant out to Sigmund in the woods with instructions to coat her brother in honey and also fills his mouth with it. That night, when the wolf shows up, it sniffs Sigmund and smells the honey. The wolf licks it up, and finally is preparing to eat Sigmund himself when the hero opens up his mouth to reveal the sweet honey within. She sticks her tongue in to lap it all up.
Sigmund bites down on the wolf’s tongue. As the wolf struggles against him, the wolf’s supernatural strength breaks Sigmund free of his chains. Then Sigmund wrestles the wolf to death and flees into the dark woods.
Plotting for Vengence for Volsung
Sigmund builds a turf house for himself in the forest, visited on occasion only by his sister Signy. As time passes, Signy has two sons with her husband, Siggeir.
As Signy’s sons grow up, she tests their courage and hardiness by various means. For example, she sews the boys’ clothes to their skin and then rips them out. She notes, with dismay, that the children only cry and complain when she does this—not a good sign that they’ll be warriors of Volsung caliber.
Nevertheless, when her oldest son turns 10, Signy sends him out to the woods to his uncle Sigmund, who has a test for him. Sigmund tells the boy that he is going out to gather firewood and that he should stay and bake some bread with the flour in a bag that he has left for him. When Sigmund returns, he finds all the flour still in the bag and no bread on the table. The child says that he started to take the flour out but there was a poisonous snake in there.
So, Signy tells Sigmund to kill the boy since he won’t be any use in their mission of vengeance. Next, Signy sends her second son to Sigmund when he turns 10, and things go exactly the same way.
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Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures
Signy wants to have a son who will be courageous enough to assist Sigmund in his mission of vengeance—but clearly, her husband isn’t the right father for such a boy. Yet there is no questioning her ability to mother such a boy, given that her own father was Volsung.
So in order to produce a boy with the stature of a proper Volsung hero, she needs a father who is himself of just such stature. It is almost as if she needs another Volsung. This is in fact exactly what Signy concludes. She takes her opportunity when a shape-changing witch visits her kingdom. She orders the witch to trade appearances with her.
Outside Sigmund’s turf-house, Signy pretends to be a lost wanderer and asks for shelter for the night. They sleep together for three nights before she returns home and exchanges appearances with the witch again. Nine months later, Signy gives birth to a son. Being the son of both a son and a daughter of Volsung, this son, named Sinfjotli, promises to be another great hero in the tradition of the Volsungs.
A Tale of Revenge and Ruin
Already as a young boy, Sinfjotli shows more promise than did Signy’s sons with her husband King Siggeir. When Sinfjotli turns 10, Signy sends him to Sigmund for training. Sigmund does the same thing as he’d done to his other nephews. When Sigmund comes back, he finds a piping hot fresh loaf of bread on the table. “Was there nothing else in there with the bread?” he asks the boy, who responds, “Oh, I think there was something alive in there, but I just kneaded it in with the dough.”
So with Sinfjotli’s bravery assured, Sigmund, embarks on training him to be a warrior worthy of the Volsung name, not knowing that Sinfjotli is his son as well. Finally, the two put on their armor and steal away to Siggeir’s hall.
Sigmund and Sinfjotli barricade the walls of Siggeir’s hall so as to prevent anyone from getting out. Then they set fire to it. Amid the flames and smoke, Sigmund calls out to his sister Signy. He says they’ll let her alone out alive. Signy tells them that she was married to Siggeir unwillingly, but, having brought about his ruin, will die with him willingly.
Common Questions about the Death of Volsung and a Plot for Vengeance
Signy sent out a servant to cover Sigmund in honey. The servant also filled Sigmund’s mouth with honey. When the wolf came, ready to eat him, it first licked all the honey, and as the wolf went in for the honey inside his mouth, Sigmund bit on the wolf’s tongue. He was freed from his chains and killed the wolf.
Sigmund would put a bag of flour on the table and then go out for an errand. He would tell the boy to make bread from the bag of flour while he was gone. In the bag would be a poisonous snake. If the child was scared, then he wasn’t going to become a great warrior.
Signy understood that to produce a warrior, it would be best to have him descend from Volsung on both sides of his lineage. So she decided to sleep with Sigmund, her brother, and it worked. She managed to do this by changing her appearance.