Siegfried and Brunnhilde by Charles Ernest Butler, 1908

Brynhild’s Ride to Hel

A few weeks ago, I introduced you to Brünnhild, a famous Valkyrie who defied the instructions of Odin/Woden/Wotan and helped an army to victory against her master’s wishes. She was punished with exile and a cursed sleep, and resuscitated by the famous dragon slayer Sigurd/Sigmund/Siegfried. Brynhild teaches Sigurd what she knows of rune-lore and that first story ends, an introduction to just how awesome this Valkyrie is.

Their story is complicated, and gets told at least three different ways. As I mentioned in that earlier post, we’re going to keep coming back to this story. But the poem I want to share today comes at the end of the story, so here’s what you need to know for now: after the events of Sigrdrifumal, Brynhild and Sigurd are smitten with one another, possibly even engaged, but Sigurd must go off on his quest. However, he is unable to return to Brynhild, and in time, the two end up married to other people, a brother and sister, in fact. However, Brynhild never stops loving Sigurd. Sigurd dies a young death, and Brynhild is so overtaken with grief that she throws himself on his funeral pyre (or falls on a sword) and goes along with him to the afterlife.

Those of you who’ve been following along may remember that there’s an extra bit to this story: how Sigurd’s wife Gudrun coped with his death. She was heartbroken, could neither speak nor weep, and eventually exiled herself from the kingdom to try to forget all her woe. Brynhild is a character in Guthrunarkvitha, the hated woman responsible for Sigurd’s death (it’s complicated, but in this version, Brynhild incites a war between clans). But still, Gudrun survives in deepest grief, and Brynhild commits suicide.

The poem below is about what happens next, along the journey to Hel.

Sigurd and Brynhild, Charles Butler, 1909
Sigurd and Brynhild, Charles Butler, 1909

Helreid Brynhildr

Translated by Henry Adams Bellows

After the death of Brynhild there were made two bale-fires, the one for Sigurth, and that burned first, and on the other was Brynhild burned, and she was on a wagon which was covered with a rich cloth. Thus it is told, that Brynhild went in the wagon on Hel-way, and passed by a house where dwelt a certain giantess. The giantess spake:

1. “Thou shalt not further | forward fare,
My dwelling ribbed | with rocks across;
More seemly it were | at thy weaving to stay,
Than another’s husband | here to follow.

2. “What wouldst thou have | from Valland here,
Fickle of heart, | in this my house?
Gold-goddess, now, | if thou wouldst know,
Heroes’ blood | from thy hands hast washed.”

Brynhild spake:
3. “Chide me not, woman | from rocky walls,
Though to battle once | I was wont to go;
Better than thou | I shall seem to be,
When men us two | shall truly know.”

The giantess spake:
4. “Thou wast, Brynhild, | Buthli’s daughter,
For the worst of evils | born in the world;
To death thou hast given | Gjuki’s children,
And laid their lofty | house full low.”

Brynhild spake:
5. “Truth from the wagon | here I tell thee,
Witless one, | if know thou wilt
How the heirs of Gjuki | gave me to be
joyless ever, | a breaker of oaths.

6. “Hild the helmed | in Hlymdalir
They named me of old, | all they who knew me.
.    .    .    .    .        .    .    .    .    .
.    .    .    .    .        .    .    .    .    .

7. “The monarch bold | the swan-robes bore
Of the sisters eight | beneath an oak;
Twelve winters I was, | if know thou wilt,
When oaths I yielded | the king so young.

8. “Next I let | the leader of Goths,
Hjalmgunnar the old, | go down to hell,
And victory brought | to Autha’s brother;
For this was Othin’s | anger mighty.

9. “He beset me with shields | in Skatalund,
Red and white, | their rims o’erlapped;
He bade that my sleep | should broken be
By him who fear | had nowhere found.

10. “He let round my hall, | that southward looked,
The branches’ foe | high-leaping burn;
Across it he bade | the hero come
Who brought me the gold | that Fafnir guarded

11. On Grani rode | the giver of gold,
Where my foster-father | ruled his folk;
Best of all | he seemed to be,
The prince of the Danes, | when the people met.

12. “Happy we slept, | one bed we had,
As he my brother | born had been;
Eight were the nights | when neither there
Loving hand | on the other laid.

13. “Yet Guthrun reproached me, | Gjuki’s daughter,
That I in Sigurth’s | arms had slept;
Then did I hear | what I would were hid,
That they had betrayed me | in taking a mate.

14. “Ever with grief | and all too long
Are men and women | born in the world;
But yet we shall live | our lives together,
Sigurth and I. | Sink down, Giantess!”

The character Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok, is based in part on Brynhildr (JASIN BOLAND/MARVEL STUDIOS)
The character Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson in Thor: Ragnarok, is based in part on Brynhildr (JASIN BOLAND/MARVEL STUDIOS)
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