By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
While less well-known than the gods are today, Old Norse stories of great human heroes comprise fully half the Poetic Edda. The great human heroes account for most of the mythical saga material outside of the Eddas. The most important of the mythical heroes are those of the Volsungs. A family of celebrated warriors, their fortunes are shaped by strange magic and the meddling of the god Odin.
Human Heroes Descended from Odin
The ‘Saga of the Volsungs’, in its canonical form, spans at least six generations. The story of the Volsungs begins with Sigi, the family patriarch, who is a son of Odin. Sigi was banished from his homeland for killing another man’s slave. But Sigi, kicked out of his home kingdom, is still favored by his father Odin, who gives Sigi ships and Viking troops to go conquer his own kingdom.
Sigi does so successfully and enjoys a long reign as king. When he dies, Sigi leaves this kingdom to his son, Rerir, who proves as strong and aggressive a ruler as his father had been. But, Rerir dies before his child is born.
His unnamed wife remains pregnant for a total of six years. But six years is finally all she can take, and she orders her men to cut this kid out of her. They do so, and as she lies dying on her bed, her son, born as a six-year-old, emerges. He kisses his dying mother and promises that he will never flee from iron nor from fire.
This individual, named Volsung, also bequeaths his name as a designation for his entire extended family. You see, the medieval Norse do not have inherited family names. So, instead, the descendants of this individual man Volsung are known collectively as ‘the Volsungs’. So there is an individual named Volsung, but each of the men descended from him in later generations may also be called ‘a Volsung’.
Volsung and His Children
Now, this individual man Volsung marries a Valkyrie and they have numerous children. The oldest are twins, a son Sigmund and a daughter Signy, and then nine other sons, whose names are not given.
The children grow up, and the king of a nearby land, Siggeir, shows up to bid for the hand of Volsung’s daughter Signy.
Now with three different Sig- names here, we must know that Sig is a very common element in Norse names, and it means ‘victory’. While our stories today often try to keep the names of characters very distinct from one another for the reader’s benefit, in contrast, the early Norse storytellers preferred similar names for people in the same ‘family’, partly because of the possibilities for alliteration.
Back to the story. For her part, Signy tells her father, in what may be one of the most heartbreaking lines in Norse literature, that nothing in her heart smiles for her suitor Siggeir. But Volsung has made up his mind, and he pledges his daughter to the other king regardless.
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Odin Meddles in Affairs
The wedding feast is held at the father of the bride’s home. Volsung’s home has a huge tree growing at its center. And in the midst of the feasting, an unknown stranger enters the hall. This man is barefoot, dressed in a spotted cloak and a wide-brimmed hat. He has only one eye.
As the stranger—clearly Odin—enters the hall, he draws a sword and stabs it through the tree in the middle of the hall. He declares that the sword is a gift to whoever can draw it out of the tree. Then he departs, without any further word to, or from, anyone there.
All the men present try to draw the sword from the tree to no avail, until Sigmund, the oldest son of King Volsung, manages to draw it out. Immediately, the bridegroom, Siggeir, approaches Sigmund and asks his new brother-in-law whether he’d be willing to sell him this magnificent sword—it is his wedding day, after all.
But Sigmund responds that if the sword had been meant for Siggeir, he would have been the one to pull it out. Siggeir is furious to be turned down, and cannot stand to remain at the feast any longer in his irate state. He makes his excuses to his father-in-law, Volsung, and asks him to come to his own kingdom in the near future—with only his ten sons, and no army, of course—to continue the feast.
This may all seem transparently evil to us, but apparently, Volsung can’t see the mustache twirling. So at the appointed time, Volsung and his ten sons sail to Siggeir’s kingdom and, since they arrive at night when it wouldn’t be appropriate to knock at Siggeir’s door, they anchor just offshore and wait for morning.
But now in the night, Volsung’s daughter Signy sneaks aboard. She tells her father to turn back because her husband Siggeir is planning to ambush them in the morning.
Volsung responds as any father might—he tells his daughter that this is her husband’s secret plan, and she has no business telling it to anyone else. He reminds her that he swore to his dying mother that he would never flee from fire or from iron, and he has no intention of starting now.
So he sends Signy home, and he and his sons sleep through the night. Then in the morning they wake up, step off their ship, and are promptly ambushed. The ensuing fight is hard, but because their attackers’ numbers are so overwhelming, Volsung is killed and his ten sons are all captured.
Common Questions about the Volsungs
Sigi was kicked out of his home kingdom because he had killed another man’s slave. Odin gave Sigi ships and Viking troops to conquer his own kingdom.
Rerir, Volsung’s father, died before his child was born. His wife was pregnant for a period of six years. She finally ordered her men to cut the baby out. Thus, Volsung emerges as a six-year-old boy.
Siggeir was furious with Sigmund, Volsung’s son, for not selling a sword to him at his wedding. Siggeir invites Volsung along with his sons to his own kingdom without their army. Volsung comes knowing he will be ambushed and dies in battle.