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Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

Page: 135

Helgi

The long-planned vengeance for the slaughter of the Volsungs having thus been carried out, Sigmund, feeling that nothing now detained him in the land of [263]the Goths, set sail with Sinfiotli and returned to Hunaland, where he was warmly welcomed to the seat of power under the shade of his ancestral tree, the mighty Branstock. When his authority was fully established, Sigmund married Borghild, a beautiful princess, who bore him two sons, Hamond and Helgi. The latter was visited by the Norns as he lay in his cradle, and they promised him sumptuous entertainment in Valhalla when his earthly career should be ended.

“And the woman was fair and lovely and bore him sons of fame;

Men called them Hamond and Helgi, and when Helgi first saw light,

There came the Norns to his cradle and gave him life full bright,

And called him Sunlit Hill, Sharp Sword, and Land of Rings,

And bade him be lovely and great, and a joy in the tale of kings.”

Northern kings generally entrusted their sons’ upbringing to a stranger, for they thought that so they would be treated with less indulgence than at home. Accordingly Helgi was fostered by Hagal, and under his care the young prince became so fearless that at the age of fifteen he ventured alone into the hall of Hunding, with whose race his family was at feud. Passing through the hall unmolested and unrecognised, he left an insolent message, which so angered Hunding that he immediately set out in pursuit of the bold young prince, whom he followed to the dwelling of Hagal. Helgi would then have been secured but that meanwhile he had disguised himself as a servant-maid, and was busy grinding corn as if this were his wonted occupation. The invaders marvelled somewhat at the maid’s tall stature and brawny arms, nevertheless they departed without suspecting that they had been so near the hero whom they sought.

Having thus cleverly escaped, Helgi joined Sinfiotli, [264]and collecting an army, the two young men marched boldly against the Hundings, with whom they fought a great battle, over which the Valkyrs hovered, waiting to convey the slain to Valhalla. Gudrun, one of the battle-maidens, was so struck by the courage which Helgi displayed, that she openly sought him and promised to be his wife. Only one of the Hunding race, Dag, remained alive, and he was allowed to go free after promising not to endeavour to avenge his kinsmen’s death. This promise was not kept, however, and Dag, having obtained possession of Odin’s spear Gungnir, treacherously slew Helgi with it. Gudrun, who in the meantime had fulfilled her promise to become his wife, wept many tears at his death, and laid a solemn curse upon his murderer; then, hearing from one of her maids that her slain husband kept calling for her from the depths of the tomb, she fearlessly entered the mound at night and tenderly inquired why he called and why his wounds continued to bleed after death. Helgi answered that he could not rest happy because of her grief, and declared that for every tear she shed a drop of his blood must flow.

“Thou weepest, gold-adorned!

Cruel tears,

Sun-bright daughter of the south!

Ere to sleep thou goest;

Each one falls bloody

On the prince’s breast,

Wet, cold, and piercing,

With sorrow big.”

Sæmund’s Edda (Thorpe’s tr.).

To appease the spirit of her beloved husband, Gudrun from that time ceased to weep, but they did not long remain separated; for soon after the spirit of Helgi had ridden over Bifröst and entered Valhalla, [265]to become leader of the Einheriar, he was joined by Gudrun who, as a Valkyr once more, resumed her loving tendance of him. When at Odin’s command she left his side for scenes of human strife, it was to seek new recruits for the army which her lord was to lead into battle when Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods, should come.

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A Hero’s Farewell

M. E. Winge

The Death of Sinfiotli

Sinfiotli, Sigmund’s eldest son, also met an early death; for, having slain in a quarrel the brother of Borghild, she determined to poison him. Twice Sinfiotli detected the attempt and told his father that there was poison in his cup. Twice Sigmund, whom no venom could injure, drained the bowl; and when Borghild made a third attempt, he bade Sinfiotli let the wine flow through his beard. Mistaking the meaning of his father’s words, Sinfiotli forthwith drained the cup, and fell lifeless to the ground, for the poison was of the most deadly kind.

“He drank as he spake the word, and forthwith the venom ran

In a chill flood over his heart and down fell the mighty man

With never an uttered death-word and never a death-changed look,

And the floor of the hall of the Volsungs beneath his falling shook.

Then up rose the elder of days with a great and bitter cry,

And lifted the head of the fallen; and none durst come anigh

To hearken the words of his sorrow, if any words he said

But such as the Father of all men might speak over Baldur dead.

And again, as before the death-stroke, waxed the hall of the Volsungs dim,

And once more he seemed in the forest, where he spake with nought but him.”

Speechless with grief, Sigmund tenderly raised his son’s body in his arms, and strode out of the hall and [266]down to the shore, where he deposited his precious burden in a skiff which an old one-eyed boatman brought at his call. He would fain have stepped aboard also, but ere he could do so the boatman pushed off and the frail craft was soon lost to sight. The bereaved father then slowly wended his way home, taking comfort from the thought that Odin himself had come to claim the young hero and had rowed away with him “out into the west.”

Hiordis

Sigmund deposed Borghild as his wife and queen in punishment for this crime, and when he was very old he sued for the hand of Hiordis, a fair young princess, daughter of Eglimi, King of the Islands. This young maiden had many suitors, among others King Lygni of Hunding’s race, but so great was Sigmund’s fame that she gladly accepted him and became his wife. Lygni, the discarded suitor, was so angry at this decision, that he immediately collected a great army and marched against his successful rival, who, though overpowered by superior numbers, fought with the courage of despair.

From the depths of a thicket which commanded the field of battle, Hiordis and her maid anxiously watched the progress of the strife. They saw Sigmund pile the dead around him, for none could stand against him, until at last a tall, one-eyed warrior suddenly appeared, and the press of battle gave way before the terror of his presence.

Without a moment’s pause the new champion aimed a fierce blow at Sigmund, which the old hero parried with his sword. The shock shattered the matchless blade, and although the strange assailant vanished as he had come, Sigmund was left defenceless and was soon wounded unto death by his foes. [267]

“But lo, through the hedge of the war-shafts, a mighty man there came,

One-eyed and seeming ancient, but his visage shone like flame:

Gleaming grey was his kirtle, and his hood was cloudy blue;

And he bore a mighty twi-bill, as he waded the fight-sheaves through,

And stood face to face with Sigmund, and upheaved the bill to smite.

Once more round the head of the Volsung fierce glittered the Branstock’s light,

The sword that came from Odin; and Sigmund’s cry once more

Rang out to the very heavens above the din of war.

Then clashed the meeting edges with Sigmund’s latest stroke,

And in shivering shards fell earthward that fear of worldly folk.

But changed were the eyes of Sigmund, and the war-wrath left his face;

For that grey-clad, mighty helper was gone, and in his place

Drave on the unbroken spear-wood ’gainst the Volsung’s empty hands:

And there they smote down Sigmund, the wonder of all lands,

On the foemen, on the death-heap his deeds had piled that day.”

As the battle was now won, and the Volsung family all slain, Lygni hastened from the battlefield to take possession of the kingdom and force the fair Hiordis to become his wife. As soon as he had gone, however, the beautiful young queen crept from her hiding-place in the thicket, and sought the spot where Sigmund lay all but dead. She caught the stricken hero to her breast in a last passionate embrace, and then listened tearfully while he bade her gather the fragments of his sword and carefully treasure them for their son whom he foretold was soon to be born, and who was destined to avenge his father’s death and to be far greater than he.

“‘I have wrought for the Volsungs truly, and yet have I known full well

That a better one than I am shall bear the tale to tell:

And for him shall these shards be smithied: and he shall be my son,

To remember what I have forgotten and to do what I left undone.’”

[268]

Elf, the Viking

While Hiordis was mourning over Sigmund’s lifeless body, her handmaiden suddenly warned her of the approach of a band of vikings. Retreating into the thicket once more, the two women exchanged garments, after which Hiordis bade the maid walk first and personate the queen, and they went thus to meet the viking Elf (Helfrat or Helferich). Elf received the women graciously, and their story of the battle so excited his admiration for Sigmund that he caused the remains of the slain hero to be reverentially removed to a suitable spot, where they were interred with all due ceremony. He then offered the queen and her maid a safe asylum in his hall, and they gladly accompanied him over the seas.

The Funeral Procession

The Funeral Procession

H. Hendrich

By Permission of the “Illustrirte Zeitung” (J. J. Weber, Leipzig)

As he had doubted their relative positions from the first, Elf took the first opportunity after arriving in his kingdom to ask a seemingly idle question in order to ascertain the truth. He asked the pretended queen how she knew the hour had come for rising when the winter days were short and there was no light to announce the coming of morn, and she replied that, as she was in the habit of drinking milk ere she fed the cows, she always awoke thirsty. When the same question was put to the real Hiordis, she answered, with as little reflection, that she knew it was morning because at that hour the golden ring which her father had given her grew cold on her hand.

The Birth of Sigurd

The suspicions of Elf having thus been confirmed, he offered marriage to the pretended handmaiden, Hiordis, promising to cherish her infant son, a promise which he nobly kept. When the child was born Elf [269]himself sprinkled him with water—a ceremony which our pagan ancestors scrupulously observed—and bestowed upon him the name of Sigurd. As he grew up he was treated as the king’s own son, and his education was entrusted to Regin, the wisest of men, who knew all things, his own fate not even excepted, for it had been revealed to him that he would fall by the hand of a youth.

“Again in the house of the Helper there dwelt a certain man,

Beardless and low of stature, of visage pinched and wan:

So exceeding old was Regin, that no son of man could tell

In what year of the days passed over he came to that land to dwell:

But the youth of king Elf had he fostered, and the Helper’s youth thereto,

Yea and his father’s father’s: the lore of all men he knew,

And was deft in every cunning, save the dealings of the sword:

So sweet was his tongue-speech fashioned, that men trowed his every word;

His hand with the harp-strings blended was the mingler of delight

With the latter days of sorrow; all tales he told aright;

The Master of the Masters in the smithying craft was he;

And he dealt with the wind and the weather and the stilling of the sea;

Nor might any learn him leech-craft, for before that race was made,

And that man-folk’s generation, all their life-days had he weighed.”

Under this tutor Sigurd grew daily in wisdom until few could surpass him. He mastered the smith’s craft, and the art of carving all manner of runes; he learned languages, music, and eloquence; and, last but not least, he became a doughty warrior whom none could subdue. When he had reached manhood Regin prompted him to ask the king for a war-horse, a request which was immediately granted, and Gripir, the stud-keeper, was bidden to allow him to choose [270]from the royal stables the steed which he most fancied.

On his way to the meadow where the horses were at pasture, Sigurd met a one-eyed stranger, clad in grey and blue, who accosted the young man and bade him drive the horses into the river and select the one which could breast the tide with least difficulty.

Sigurd received the advice gladly, and upon reaching the meadow he drove the horses into the stream which flowed on one side. One of the number, after crossing, raced round the opposite meadow; and, plunging again into the river, returned to his former pasture without showing any signs of fatigue. Sigurd therefore did not hesitate to select this horse, and he gave him the name of Grane or Greyfell. The steed was a descendant of Odin’s eight-footed horse Sleipnir, and besides being unusually strong and indefatigable, was as fearless as his master.


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