Chapter 4: What I have learned from reading the Völsunga Saga, Part 2

After the series of sick murders I presented in the first part of my Völsunga Saga post, these last few points will seem tame by comparison; but before we get to them, I found I had forgotten one last idiotic “for the fuck of it” murder to include previously, so here it goes:

Gudrun, that lovely mother who fed her own sons to their father for revenge’s sake, is the one character who constantly avoided death, despite her actively seeking it after getting fed up with all the bullshit in her life. (Probably the gods having some fun at her expense). After the offspring cooking episode she tried to commit suicide by throwing herself to the sea, but all she managed was to be washed away on some shore, being found by some other king, get married for the third time, and suffer her daughter Swanhild’s murder by… because… I don’t even remember. Doesn’t matter anyway, we all know everybody dies in this saga. The important thing is that Gudrun had Swanhild’s brothers (man, this woman had so many children as backup, no wonder she didn’t give a fuck if she killed a couple here and there) avenge her, a task that would also mean certain death to them. So, basically, she also had them killed.

Anyway, here’s what the saga has to say about their quest for vengeance:

And now, as they went on their way, they met Erp, their brother, and asked him in what wise he would help them.

He answered, “Even as hand helps hand, or foot helps foot.”

But that they deemed naught at all, and slew him there and there. Then they went their ways, nor was it long or ever Hamdir stumbled, and thrust down his hand to steady himself, and spake therewith-

“Naught but a true thing spake Erp, for now should I have fallen, had not hand been to steady me.”

A little after Sorli stumbled, but turned about on his feet, and so stood, and spake-

“Yea now had I fallen, but that I steadied myself with both feet.”

And they said they had done evilly with Erp their brother.

Seriously, I’m not making this shit up.

3. All you need is gold, gold! Gold is all you need!

This is somewhat connected to the first point about murder being meh, and the weregilds. It’s just funny how everything can be solved with gold. Like this:

So Grimhild comes to hear where Gudrun has take up her abode, and she calls her sons to talk with her, and asks whether they will make atonement to Gudrun for her son and her husband, and said that it was but meet and right to do so.

Then Gunnar spake, and said that he would atone for her sorrows with gold.

Or this:

Now thought Atli the King that he had gained a mighty victory, and spake to Gudrun even as mocking her greatly, or as making himself great before her. “Gudrun,” saith he, “thus hast thou lost thy brethren, and thy very self hast brought it about.”

She answers, “In good liking livest thou, whereas thou thrustest these slayings before me, but mayhappen thou wilt rue it, when thou hast tried what is to come hereafter; and of all I have, the longest-lived matter shall be the memory of thy cruel heart, nor shall it go well with thee whiles I live.”

He answered and said, “Let there be peace betwixt us; I will atone for thy brethren with gold and dear-bought things, even as thy heart may wish.”

I won’t even bother putting those two examples in context; just bear in mind that while both involve Gudrun, they are different instances of losing family to different kings. All that gold, however, wasn’t enough to salvage her mental stability; I mean, Atli tried, and the thanks he got in return was eating his own sons, and drinking their own blood. The ungrateful bitch!

goldgoldgold

The solution to all problems.

4. Speaking of ungrateful bitches, Brynhild is a BITCH.

The first thing that caught my attention about Brynhild was that she’s the Brunhild of Wagner’s operatic masterpiece The Nibelung Ring, being the title character in The Valkyrie. She is the main inspiration for my own Sigrdrífa – in fact, while there is a valkyrie called Sigrdrífa in Norse Myth, she is sometimes associated with this Brynhild.

The second thing that caught my attention about Brynhild was how much of a fucking bitch she was.

Brynhild was an awesome warrior, and as it usually happens with awesome female warriors, they get to set the rules about who can and cannot marry them. Her father can’t simply marry her off to whomever he pleases; the man who wants her hand must earn it. Sigurd, the greatest of the Volsungs and first husband to Gudrun, meets Brynhild while he was still single and available. He immediately falls for her, but of course Brynhild being a woman (and thus excessively complicated) she says nay to his advances. It’s not that she doesn’t like him back, it’s just that… well, she’s a woman. Things must be complicated. They do pledge love for one another but without the marriage or even the sex to make it worthwhile (yes, Sigurd was badly friendzoned), but eventually he meets Gudrun’s family, and Gudrun’s mother puts some sort of spell in him that makes him forget all about Brynhild and marry her daughter. Eventually Brynhild and her conditions for marriage reach the ears of Gunnar, one of Gudrun’s brothers, and he decides to take her; but unable to pass the test they put a spell on Sigurd that disguised him as Gunnar, and Sigurd beats Brynhild’s test, winning her for Gunnar.

To make a long story short, Brynhild eventually realizes the deception, and gets very angry at both Gudrun and Sigurd. Here’s what Brynhild says to Gudrun when she was about to tell her the truth of what had happened: “Ask such things only as are good for thee to know – matters meet for mighty dames. Good to love good things when all goes according to thy heart’s desire!”

Well, Brynhild, if you had followed thy own heart’s desires when you had the chance, you wouldn’t be in this pickle now, would you?

That’s not the bad part, though. It’s perfectly understandable that she would be pissed at realizing just how stupid she was for rejecting Sigurd, it happens to all of us at some point in our romantic endeavors. What doesn’t happen to most of us is how she went batshit crazy and eventually caused the deaths of Sigurd, Guttorm (one of Gudrun’s brothers), and started the chain reaction that would end with the destruction of all of Gudrun’s kin, the end of the Volsungs, and Gudrun’s own batshit craziness.

All of this because she played hard to get.

Bitch!

Bitch!

And there you have it, the things that I learned from reading the Völsunga saga, which was – basically – that Norsemen, despite their apparent overall craziness, are not really that different from us. They just took it to the extreme. Will I take it to the extreme with Sigrdrífa?

Stay tuned!

NEXT TIME: A look into the character of Sigrdrífa

Chapter 3: What I have learned from reading the Völsunga Saga, Part 1

Oh God. Or gods. Either way, there’s something to be said about the customs of people around the world and history. The spartans, for example, are known for being really hardcore in their customs, gaining such a reputation that now “spartan” literally defines a very harsh way of life. On a slightly lesser degree the same can be applied to the samurai. Even today we have some pretty messed up customs and yet, reading the Völsunga Saga for research purposes I couldn’t help but be amazed at the… insanity displayed in its pages. Here’s a rundown of some of the tings I learned while reading the saga of the Völsung family:

1. Murder is like… meh. 

There is a separate category for this that involves children, so for now we will focus on wanton killing of adults. We get the first one right off the bat, on the first page (second paragraph) of Chapter 1:

Now it is to be told that, on a time, Sigi fared to the hunting of the deer, and the thrall with him; and they hunted deer day-long till the evening; and when they gathered together their prey in the evening, lo, greater and more by far was that which Bredi had slain than Sigi’s prey; and this thing he much disliked, and he said that great wonder it was that a very thrall should out-do him in the hunting of deer: so he fell on him and slew him, and buried the body of him thereafter in a snow-drift.

A “thrall” is a slave, or servant. Now, of course we all know that, historically, slaves are the lowest of the low, but killing one for out-doing you at hunting – especially when it doesn’t seem anyone else actually saw it happen – is pretty messed up. I was still quite innocent at this point and attributed it to Sigi being a very sick person and a very big asshole. Boy oh boy, was I wrong! Some of the characters that show up later will make Sigi’s murder seem almost justifiable by comparison.

At this point let me note that the Norsemen in general – at least a millennia ago – didn’t have much moral regard for human life. They had what they called “weregilds”, which were monetary values appointed to a person in case of injury or murder, according to their place in society’s hierarchy. I’ll give you examples in modern terms: let’s assume I kill a janitor, a profession which would probably land him/her in the (upperish) poor class. If the weregild system was enforced in my country, and the janitor’s weregild was $500, that means I would have to pay his or her family $500 as compensation. If I couldn’t pay that amount then I would be banished. If, instead, I managed to kill the Governor, the weregild would probably be something like $100,000. (I’m not taking inflation into account here).

That'll be $400 for Mr. Smith's uncle.

“That’ll be $400 for Mr. Smith’s uncle.”

This is important to explain, to a degree, the way they behaved with regards to killing others. They just didn’t give much of a fuck.

2. Killing your own children for revenge’s sake is like… meh.

Point 1 established how human life wasn’t worth much more than a few coins (well, kings were worth a lot of coins). Point 2 will show that even motherly love isn’t strong enough when vengeance is required.

There are, at least, three instances in the Völsunga Saga in which a mother killed or had someone else kill their own children for the sake of revenge. Let’s see Murder Mom #1: Signy.

Signy was King Volsung’s (the Volsung) daughter. She had nine brothers, eight of which were killed by her husband, King Siggeir, along with Volsung himself. The why of this isn’t important to this story; what’s important is that one of the brothers – Sigmund – survived with the help of his sister, and hid in the forest. Signy, of course, wanted revenge on her husband for slaying most of her kin, and she’s counting on her brother Sigmund to achieve it. When one of her sons with Siggeir turns ten years old she sends him to Sigmund to help him out (in secret), but the boy turned out to be kind of a wuss, and Sigmund informs her of this. Now let’s quote from the book:

Then said Signy, “Take him and kill him then; for why should such an one live longer?” and even so he did.

So this winter wears, and the next winter Signy sent her next son to Sigmund; and there is no need to make a long tale thereof, for in like wise went all things, and he slew the child by the counsel of Signy.

Got it? You better, or you die.

“Got it? You better, or you die.”

This wasn’t even actual revenge, just a complete lack of morals and love. She was killing her two sons because they were useless to her designs. Since they were Siggeir’s also I guess she hated them, but it is never stated that way. She just doesn’t care at all. Siggeir’s reaction to his sons’ disappearance is never followed up. Those poor kids apparently had no one who cared for them.

Anyway, Signy solved the useless sidekick problem by having a witch transform her into someone else, then go to Sigmund, seduce him, have him fuck her brains out for three nights (seriously), then go back, have a bastard incestuous son, name him Sinfjotli, and when he turns ten send him to Sigmund to pass the test of usefulness. He, being of pure Volsung blood, of course passes the test, but since things are never easy the kid had to endure torture along the way:

… and he was hardly yet ten winters old when she sent him to Sigmund’s earth-house; but this trial she had made of her other sons or ever she had sent them to Sigmund, that she had sewed gloves on to their hands through flesh and skin, and they had borne it ill and cried out thereat…

(Oh, I guess that explains their uselessness; they were busy feeling excruciating pain)

… and this she now did to Sinfjotli, and he changed countenance in nowise thereat. Then she flayed off the kirtle so that the skin came off with the sleeves, and said that this would be torment enough for him; but he said-

“Full little would Volsung have felt such a smart this.”

Sinfjotli on his way to Sigmund's earth-house

Sinfjotli on his way to Sigmund’s earth-house

Yep.

So now that she has her brother equipped with their scary son, revenge is eventually achieved, but not before… wait for it… more sons are killed!

Two other sons of Signy and the king discover Sigmund and Sinfjotli as they enter the palace to slay Siggeir, and they tell their father. So of course Signy goes to Sigmund and says:

“Lo ye! These younglins have bewrayed you; come now therefore and slay them!”

Sigmund says, “Never will I slay thy children for telling of where I lay hid.”

But Sinfjotli made little enow of it, but drew his sword and slew them both, and cast them into the hall at King Siggeir’s feet.

At least Sigmund tried to be decent this time.

The cake, however, is taken by Murder Mom #2, Gudrun. In fact, when I read the creative way in which she did it I laughed, not because by then I had become a monster like these guys, but because I had recently seen an episode of South Park in which Cartman does something very similar (so similar I wondered if Parker and Stone were deliberately parodying Gudrun, but more possibly it was the Shakespearean clusterfuck Titus Andronicus).

Here’s a very short summary of what happened: Gudrun’s family had been almost completely annihilated, the last of her kin falling in battle (or killed as prisoners) to King Atli. Obviously revenge was imperative. I’ll let the book take over and tell the rest:

But Gudrun forgat not her woe, but brooded over it, how she might work some mighty shame against the king; and at nightfall she took to her the sons of King Atli and her as they played about the floor; the younglins waxed heavy of cheer, and asked what she would with them.

“Ask me not,” she said; “ye shall die, the twain of you!”

Then they answered, “Thou mayest do with thy children even as thou wilt, nor shall any hinder thee, but shame there is to thee in the doing of this deed.”

(Very mature way of accepting your own murder)

Yet for all that she cut the throats of them.

How you like my cooking, honey?

How you like my cooking, honey?

Then the king asked where his sons were, and Gudrun answered, “I will tell thee, and gladden thine heart by the telling; lo now, thou didst make a great woe spring up for me in the slaying of my brethren; now hearken and hear my rede and my deed; thou hast lost thy sons, and their heads are become beakers on the board here, and thou thyself hast drunken the blood of them blended with wine; and their hearts I took and roasted them on a spit, and thou hast eaten thereof.”

It just occurred to me that this is the emotional equivalent of the Japanese kamikaze; it’s ok to die so long as you take the enemy down with you.

There’s still some other things I learned reading their crazy story, which I will address in the next chapter.

NEXT TIME: some sketch progressions by José Vega!

Chapter 2: Entering Valhalla

Norse mythology has always held a certain fascination to me. Now, while technically that’s true of most mythologies from around the world, Valhalla and friends have a special place thanks to their intrinsic coolness and inevitable tragic endings. It’s no coincidence that Stan Lee and Marvel Comics added Thor to their superheroes roster (Thor being, incidentally, my favorite of the Norse gods). Not only did they have consumate warriors, giants, dragons, elves, dwarves, trolls, and tricksters, but those gods were destined to die in a grand final battle, and they knew it. These are gods devised after a manner of people who not only did not fear death, but actually welcomed it. Their Ragnarök was a sort of beautiful tragedy, where death and oblivion meant the most glorious ending to one’s life.

Thor battles the serpent Jörmungandr. At the Ragnarök, they kill each other. Thor also had considerably more clothes than as depicted.

Thor battles the serpent Jörmungandr. At the Ragnarök, they kill each other. Thor also had considerably more clothes than as depicted.

It is this world that I have chosen to tell the story of Sigrdrífa. All the elements of modern fantasy are encapsulated in Norse mythology, and masters like Wagner and Tolkien drew from its legendary sagas to build their own epic stories. While I am not contemplating having Thor, or many of the gods, make an appearance in this novel, there will be plenty of fantasy to go around. And violence. And murder. And sacrifice.

Remember, this isn’t a happy place. Beware the faint hearted.

NEXT TIME: What I have learned from reading the Völsunga Saga