The Volsung Saga: The Birth of the Greatest Hero of All


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

After getting vengeance for his father Volsung, Sigmund returned to his ancestral kingdom along with his son, Sinfjotli, and reigned as the rightful king. Many years down the road, Sinfjotli kills Sigmund’s wife’s brother when the two fight over a woman. Sigmund’s wife demands that he exile Sinfjotli. But Sigmund will not outlaw his own son-nephew.

Three drinking horns on a barrel
Sigmund’s wife had to approach Sinfjotli with a drinking horn filled with posion three times until he finally accepted to drink. (Image: Mariakray/Shutterstock)

Be a Coward or Die

Sigmund offers to put on a grand funeral feast for the brother-in-law killed. At that feast, it is Sigmund’s wife who serves the drinks, and she approaches Sinfjotli with a drinking horn.

But Sinfjotli looks into the horn and sees a strange, cloudy drink. He hands it to Sigmund to drink since he knows his father is impervious to poison. Sigmund’s wife brings another horn full of the same strange brew. But again he hands it to Sigmund to drink in his stead.

A third time, Sigmund’s wife comes around with a horn full of the cloudy beverage that looks oddly unlike mead—and this time, she challenges Sinfjotli’s courage. Is he too much of a coward to drink it? Now, this puts Sinfjotli in a much more difficult position. To be accused of showing fear, and then to do nothing to disprove it, would endanger a man’s reputation as a drengr.

Sinfjotli again looks to his uncle-father Sigmund for assistance, but this time Sigmund simply tells him (quite literally translated) “Wet your mustache, son!” And Sinfjotli does so and falls dead.

The Strange Ferryman

Now Sigmund carries the body of his son-nephew a long ways, wandering in his grief, and comes to a fjord that he’d like to cross. At this fjord is a ferryman who offers to take them across, but only one passenger at a time can fit in this ferry. So Sigmund sets down Sinfjotli’s body in the boat, and the ferryman shoves off and disappears forever.

Illustration of Odin with Sinfjotli's corpse
We can guess confidently that the ferryman is Odin since he appears as a ferryman in another Norse myth. (Image: Jenny Nyström/Public domain)

In a Norse context, it takes little imagination to see that this ferryman is Odin himself, who appears as a disguised ferryman also in the myth in which he and Thor exchange insults.

Another sign that it was Odin comes from the fact that Sinfjotli is the only man who doesn’t die in battle, but who is “canonically” understood to be in Valhalla after death.

In a memorial poem in honor of Norwegian king Eirik Bloodaxe, Sigmund and Sinfjotli are together in Valhalla after death and speak with Odin there as this Norwegian king is welcomed into the ranks of Odin’s army of the dead. So Sinfjotli is in Valhalla after death, even if he didn’t die in battle.

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Sigmund’s Fight for Hjordis

Could it be that Sinfjotli is able to join Odin in his hall because he is descended from Volsung on both sides—and thus from Odin on both sides? Whatever the case, Sigmund returns home alone after his encounter with the ferryman and banishes his first wife. He now seeks to marry a new wife, Hjordis, but a certain King Lyngvi wants the girl, too, and leads an attack on Sigmund’s kingdom.

In the ensuing battle, Sigmund, standing at the front of his troops, comes face to face with an old man, dressed in gray astride a gray horse, a man with one eye and a wide-brimmed hat, who brings a spear down to bear on Sigmund. Sigmund swings for the spear, but his sword shatters on it.

So Odin harvests his long-cultivated hero. The battle turns against Sigmund’s forces. They are finally routed. Sigmund’s rival, King Lyngvi, and his men descend on Sigmund’s capital to search for his new bride. But she has been hidden in the woods while the battle raged, and Lyngvi and his troops leave without ever finding her.

Sigmund’ Son

Now, in the dark after the battle, Hjordis, the bride turned widow, and a female servant of hers go picking among the bodies looking for Sigmund. They find him at last, and beyond all expectation, he still has a little breath left in him, and as a major protagonist, of course, he has last words.

He tells his wife that she is pregnant—and she’s pregnant with a boy. Name the boy Sigurth, he tells her, and he’ll be the most famous man to ever live. And give the boy the sword broken by Odin, for Odin has decided Sigmund shall fight no longer. And then Sigmund dies.

The Most Famous Man to Live

A new army of Vikings land on shore. The new arrivals are King Alf of Denmark and his men, and they take Hjordis and her servant aboard and then home with them. The son of dead Sigmund and Hjordis is born and grows up, then, amid the royal family in Denmark. 

Sigurth is tutored there by the dwarven smith Regin. Regin teaches Sigurth all the skills that an up-and-coming Viking prince ought to know, from sword-fighting to languages to board games to archery. It is to the man regarded as the single greatest hero of all, Sigurth—groomed by Odin like his father but eventually lost to him thanks to the actions of an unfaithful Valkyrie.

Common Questions about Sigurth

Q: Why did Sinfjotli drink from the horn he suspected to be poison?

Sinfjotli’s father’s wife accused him of being a coward. Also, his father, Sigmund, told him to drink.

Q: Who was the strange ferryman who takes Sinfjotli’s body?

The ferryman is Odin since he also disguises himself as a ferryman in another story where he and Thor exchange insults.

Q: Where did Sigurth grow up?

Sigurth is born and raised amid a royal family in Denmark. After his father dies in battle, King Alf of Denmark and his men take his mother and her servant to Denmark where she gives birth.

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