Now we meet one in the flesh for the first time.
Brünnhilde is probably the most famous of the Valkyries, and not just because of the poem I’ve shared below. Her tale is told in different ways in a few sources, including the Nibelungenlied, the tale converted by Richard Wagner into his famous Ring Cycle operas. Brünnhilde is one of the major roles in that opera, and in fact that phrase “it ain’t over ’till the fat lady sings” is a reference to Brünnhilde’s major aria in Götterdämmerung, which leads into Ragnarok and, thus, the end of the entire story told by the operas.
Brynhildr (it’s spelled a few different ways) was in fact one of Odin’s Valkyries, tasked with choosing which side should prove victorious in battle. She acted against Odin’s wishes, and was punished with expulsion from the Valkyryar, to lead a life as a mortal woman. She goes on to lead a life of intrigue and adventure, including deception, romance, marriage, murder, and more.
In the poem Sigrdrífumál, shared below, which refers to Brunhilda as “Sigrdrifa” or “bringer of victory,” an obvious reference to her origin as a Valkyrie, we begin with Sigurd just after he has departed from slaying the dragon Fafnir. He comes upon Brunhilda in a seemingly magical sleep, left there by Odin following her disobedience.
And one note on the poem itself – if you’ve been reading any of the poems of the Poetic Edda before, of which this is a member, then you’re familiar with the fact that these poems often include various bits of lore, instructions, aphorisms, trivia, and so on. This poem deals predominantly with the magic of the runes, an appropriate subject for a former servant of Odin.
Sigurth rode up on Hindarfjoll and turned southward toward the land of the Franks. On the mountain he saw a great light, as if fire were burning, and the glow reached up to heaven. And when he came thither, there stood a tower of shields, and above it was a banner. Sigurth went into the shield-tower, and saw that a man lay there sleeping with all his war-weapons. First he took the helm from his head, and then he saw that it was a woman. The mail-coat was as fast as if it had grown to the flesh. Then he cut the mail-coat from the head-opening downward, and out to both the arm-holes. Then he took the mail-coat from her, and she awoke, and sat up and saw Sigurth, and said:
1. “What bit through the byrnie? | how was broken my sleep?
Who made me free | of the fetters pale?”
“Sigmund’s son, | with Sigurth’s sword,
That late with flesh | hath fed the ravens.”
Sigurth sat beside her and asked her name. She took a horn full of mead and gave him a memory-draught.
2. “Hail, day! | Hail, sons of day!
And night and her daughter now!
Look on us here | with loving eyes,
That waiting we victory win.
3. “Hail to the gods! | Ye goddesses, hail,
And all the generous earth!
Give to us wisdom | and goodly speech,
And healing hands, life-long.
4. “Long did I sleep, | my slumber was long,
And long are the griefs of life;
Othin decreed | that I could not break
The heavy spells of sleep.”
Her name was Sigrdrifa, and she was a Valkyrie. She said that two kings fought in battle; one was called Hjalmgunnar, an old man but a mighty warrior, and Othin had promised him the victory, and
The other was Agnar, | brother of Autha,
None he found | who fain would shield him.
Sigrdrifa, slew Hjalmgunnar in the battle, and Othin pricked her with the sleep-thorn in punishment for this, and said that she should never thereafter win victory in battle, but that she should be wedded. “And I said to him that I had made a vow in my turn, that I would never marry a man who knew the meaning of fear.” Sigurth answered and asked her to teach him wisdom, if she knew of what took place in all the worlds. Sigrdrifa said:
5. “Beer I bring thee, | tree of battle,
Mingled of strength | and mighty fame;
Charms it holds | and healing signs,
Spells full good, | and gladness-runes.”
* * * * * *
6. Winning-runes learn, | if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow, | and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.
7. Ale-runes learn, | that with lies the wife
Of another betray not thy trust;
On the horn thou shalt write, | and the backs of thy hands,
And Need shalt mark on thy nails.
Thou shalt bless the draught, | and danger escape,
And cast a leek in the cup;
(For so I know | thou never shalt see
Thy mead with evil mixed.)
8. Birth-runes learn, | if help thou wilt lend,
The babe from the mother to bring;
On thy palms shalt write them, | and round thy joints,
And ask the fates to aid.
9. Wave-runes learn, | if well thou wouldst shelter
The sail-steeds out on the sea;
On the stem shalt thou write, | and the steering blade,
And burn them into the oars;
Though high be the breakers, | and black the waves,
Thou shalt safe the harbor seek.
10. Branch-runes learn, | if a healer wouldst be,
And cure for wounds wouldst work;
On the bark shalt thou write, | and on trees that be
With boughs to the eastward bent.
11. Speech-runes learn, | that none may seek
To answer harm with hate;
Well he winds | and weaves them all,
And sets them side by side,
At the judgment-place, | when justice there
The folk shall fairly win.
12. Thought-runes learn, | if all shall think
Thou art keenest minded of men.
* * * * * *
13. Them Hropt arranged, | and them he wrote,
And them in thought he made,
Out of the draught | that down had dropped
From the head of Heithdraupnir,
And the horn of Hoddrofnir.
14. On the mountain he stood | with Brimir’s sword,
On his head the helm he bore;
Then first the head | of Mim spoke forth,
And words of truth it told.
* * * * * *
15. He bade write on the shield | before the shining goddess,
On Arvak’s ear, | and on Alsvith’s hoof,
On the wheel of the car | of Hrungnir’s killer,
On Sleipnir’s teeth, | and the straps of the sledge.
16. On the paws of the bear, | and on Bragi’s tongue,
On the wolf’s claws bared, | and the eagle’s beak,
On bloody wings, | and bridge’s end,
On freeing hands | and helping foot-prints.
17. On glass and on gold, | and on goodly charms,
In wine and in beer, | and on well-loved seats,
On Gungnir’s point, | and on Grani’s breast,
On the nails of Norns, | and the night-owl’s beak.
* * * * * *
18. Shaved off were the runes | that of old were written,
And mixed with the holy mead,
And sent on ways so wide;
So the gods had them, | so the elves got them,
And some for the Wanes so wise,
And some for mortal men.
19. Beech-runes are there, | birth-runes are there,
And all the runes of ale,
And the magic runes of might;
Who knows them rightly | and reads them true,
Has them himself to help;
Ever they aid,
Till the gods are gone.
* * * * * *
20. “Now shalt thou choose, | for the choice is given,
Thou tree of the biting blade;
Speech or silence, | ’tis thine to say,
Our evil is destined all.”
21. “I shall not flee, | though my fate be near,
I was born not a coward to be;
Thy loving word | for mine will I win,
As long as I shall live.”
22. Then first I rede thee, | that free of guilt
Toward kinsmen ever thou art;
No vengeance have, | though they work thee harm,
Reward after death thou shalt win.
23. Then second I rede thee, | to swear no oath
If true thou knowest it not;
Bitter the fate | of the breaker of troth,
And poor is the wolf of his word.
24. Then third I rede thee, | that thou at the Thing
Shalt fight not in words with fools;
For the man unwise | a worser word
Than he thinks doth utter oft.
25. Ill it is | if silent thou art,
A coward born men call thee,
And truth mayhap they tell;
Seldom safe is fame,
Unless wide renown be won;
On the day thereafter | send him to death,
Let him pay the price of his lies.
26. Then fourth I rede thee, | if thou shalt find
A wily witch on thy road,
It is better to go | than her guest to be,
Though night enfold thee fast.
27. Eyes that see | need the sons of men
Who fight in battle fierce;
Oft witches evil | sit by the way,
Who blade and courage blunt.
28. Then fifth I rede thee, | though maidens fair
Thou seest on benches sitting,
Let the silver of kinship | not rob thee of sleep,
And the kissing of women beware.
29. Then sixth I rede thee, | if men shall wrangle,
And ale-talk rise to wrath,
No words with a drunken | warrior have,
For wine steals many men’s wits.
30. Brawls and ale | full oft have been
An ill to many a man,
Death for some, | and sorrow for some;
Full many the woes of men.
31. Then seventh I rede thee, | if battle thou seekest
With a foe that is full of might;
It is better to fight | than to burn alive
In the hall of the hero rich.
32. Then eighth I rede thee, | that evil thou shun,
And beware of lying words;
Take not a maid, | nor the wife of a man,
Nor lure them on to lust.
33. Then ninth I rede thee: | burial render
If thou findest a fallen corpse,
Of sickness dead, | or dead in the sea,
Or dead of weapons’ wounds.
34. A bath shalt thou give them | who corpses be,
And hands and head shalt wash;
Wipe them and comb, | ere they go in the coffin,
And pray that they sleep in peace.
35. Then tenth I rede thee, | that never thou trust
The word of the race of wolves,
(If his brother thou broughtest to death,
Or his father thou didst fell;)
Often a wolf | in a son there is,
Though gold he gladly takes.
36. Battle and hate | and harm, methinks,
Full seldom fall asleep;
Wits and weapons | the warrior needs
If boldest of men he would be.
37. Then eleventh I rede thee, | that wrath thou shun,
And treachery false with thy friends;
Not long the leader’s | life shall be,
For great are the foes he faces.
Brynhildr and Sigurd are exceptionally important characters in Germanic mythology. We’ll revisit them in the future.