The Fall of Sigurth, the Great Volsung Hero


By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder

Sigurth is engaged to Brynhild. However, he ends up marrying Guthrun after her mother Grimhild serves him a magical potion that makes him forget about Brynhild, who, on the other hand, is further manipulated to marry Guthrun’s brother, Gunnar. The two couples live together peacefully for years, until a tiff between the two women.

Two model vikings in a forest background
Sigurth was the greatest of the Volsung heroes who slayed a dragon and entered the ring of fire that no other man could. (Image: Drumdredd777/Shutterstock)

Brynhild and Guthrun Quarrel

One day, Brynhild and Guthrun, went out to a river to bleach their hair. While in the river, however, Brynhild continues to move so as to position herself upstream of Guthrun, letting the dreck from her hair wash off on Guthrun to which Guthrun protests.

Guthrun says she is a woman of no lower rank than Brynhild, and her dragon-slaying husband Sigurth is certainly of no lower rank than Brynhild’s husband, Gunnar. But Brynhild responds that, in fact, Guthrun’s husband Sigurth was the lower man—because it was Gunnar who rode through the burning ring of fire.

Some potential confusion in the sources of the myths is evident here—did the potion of forgetfulness affect Brynhild, too? Or, is this portion of the story simply from what modern readers might call a “timeline” where Sigurth had never ridden through the burning ring of fire before he did so in the disguise of Gunnar?

Brynhild’s Moment of Realization

Brynhild does not know Sigurth had ever ridden through her burning ring of fire. So, Guthrun’s declaration comes as a shock to Brynhild when she tells her that it was Sigurth who did this.

Quoting from the translation of The Saga of the Volsungs: “Everyone says that no better man, in any respect, has ever come into the world, and it’s not proper for you to mock him when he was your first lover, and it was he who killed Fafnir and who rode through your fire when you thought it was King Gunnar. And he lay in bed next to you and took the ring Andvaranaut from your finger, and here it is for you to see.”

Brynhild’s Vengeance and Gunnar’s Dilemma

Brynhild knows this ring when she sees it, and she becomes furious, obsessing now over the need to cause the death of Sigurth.

Her drive to kill Sigurth, rather than, say, Guthrun (who enraged her), Gunnar (who married her under false pretenses), or Grimhild (who facilitated the treachery with her magic), can be mystifying to some present-day readers.

Many people in the village try to talk Brynhild out of her murderous intent—her husband Gunnar, his brother Hogni, and finally even Sigurth himself, who explains the magic that made him forget Brynhild and offers to leave Guthrun for her.

But, finally, Brynhild prevails on Gunnar that Sigurth needs to get killed. This leaves Gunnar with his own problem. Gunnar, and his brother Hogni, have both sworn blood brotherhood with Sigurth, making it impossible for them to shed his blood without becoming the worst kind of traitors and criminals.

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Sigurth’ Murder

But Gunnar and Hogni also have a brother, Guttorm, who was too young to swear an oath of blood brotherhood with Sigurth. He can, therefore, draw Sigurth’s blood without the same guilt.

With the help of a magic potion made by his mother, Grimhild, to boost his ferocity, young Guttorm bursts into Sigurth’s bedroom while the great hero is still sleeping one morning.

But Sigurth, we are told, slept with his eyes open, and those eyes are so fearsome that Guttorm retreats back outside, without attacking him.

Gathering himself again, Guttorm rushes the room a second time, but again he retreats before the sight of Sigurth’s viper-like eyes. And then on the third try, he stabs Sigurth through the heart.

Sigurth wakes up and throws his own sword, Gram, after the fleeing Guttorm, and cuts him in half at the hips at his own bedroom doorway.

Guthrun wakes up in a pool of her own husband’s blood. She screams loud enough for her voice to echo all throughout the town. In response, Brynhild’s laugh echoes even louder and sets a flock of geese flying off in fear.

Last Rites and More Bloodshed

The funeral arrangements are placed, bewilderingly enough, in Brynhild’s hands. She orders a bed made for Sigurth’s funeral pyre out of a portion of the treasure of Fafnir. All this treasure is to be piled on a wagon, and sacrifices are to be made.

Brynhild demands that they sacrifice her own human servants, too—five slave girls and eight slave men—presumably to do work for Sigurth in the afterlife.

Not content with the killing of Sigurth and some of her own servants, Brynhild also ends Sigurth’s family line here, ordering his three-year-old son Sigmund to be killed and burnt with him as well.

She also pierces herself with Sigurth’s own sword, before lying down next to him atop the pyre, to die with the sword separating them just as it did when he visited her in her burning ring of fire.

The Afterlife and Sigurth’s Omission from Valhalla

A concept image of the battlefield Valhalla
Unlike his father, Sigurth could not enter the battlefield of Valhalla. (Image: Drumdredd777/Shutterstock)

When Brynhild next awakes, she is in the afterworld, sitting atop the wagon in which she burnt and riding toward the gates of Hel.

Inside those deathly gates, she will find Sigurth.

But because this greatest of heroes died in bed and not in battle, Sigurth is denied to Odin and his hall of dead heroes, Valhalla. Odin groomed Sigmund and got him for his army. But he groomed his son Sigurth and lost him.

Common Questions about the Death of Sigurth, the Great Volsung Hero

Q: Why did Gunnar not kill Sigurth?

Gunnar had both sworn blood brotherhood with Sigurth, making it impossible for him to shed his blood without becoming the worst kind of traitor and criminal.

Q: Who killed Sigurth?

Guttorm, the younger brother of Gunnar, who was too young to swear an oath of blood brotherhood with Sigurth, could draw Sigurth’s blood without any guilt. So, with the help of his mother’s magic potion, he killed Sigurth while he was asleep.

Q: Why was Sigurth denied in Valhalla?

Because Sigurth died in bed and not in battle, he is denied to Odin and his hall of dead heroes, Valhalla.

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