Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

Page: 129

How I ne’er would turn me backward from the sword or fire of bale;

—I have held that word till to-day, and to-day shall I change the tale?

And look on these thy brethren, how goodly and great are they,

Wouldst thou have the maidens mock them, when this pain hath passed away

And they sit at the feast hereafter, that they feared the deadly stroke?

Let us do our day’s work deftly for the praise and glory of folk;

And if the Norns will have it that the Volsung kin shall fail,

Yet I know of the deed that dies not, and the name that shall ever avail.’”

It befell as Signy had said, for on their way to the palace the brave little troop fell into Siggeir’s ambush, and, although they fought with heroic courage, they were so borne down by the superior number of their foes that Volsung was slain and all his sons were made captive. The young men were led bound into the presence of the cowardly Siggeir, who had taken no part in the fight, and Sigmund was forced to relinquish his precious sword, after which he and his brothers were condemned to death.

Signy, hearing the cruel sentence, vainly interceded for her brothers: all she could obtain by her prayers and entreaties was that they should be chained to a fallen oak in the forest, to perish of hunger and thirst if the wild beasts should spare them. Then, lest she [257]should visit and succour her brothers, Siggeir confined his wife in the palace, where she was closely guarded night and day.

Every morning early Siggeir himself sent a messenger into the forest to see whether the Volsungs were still living, and every morning the man returned saying a monster had come during the night and had devoured one of the princes, leaving nothing but his bones. At last, when none but Sigmund remained alive, Signy thought of a plan, and she prevailed on one of her servants to carry some honey into the forest and smear it over her brother’s face and mouth.

When the wild beast came that night, attracted by the smell of the honey, it licked Sigmund’s face, and even thrust its tongue into his mouth. Clinching his teeth upon it, Sigmund, weak and wounded as he was, held on to the animal, and in its frantic struggles his bonds gave way, and he succeeded in slaying the prowling beast who had devoured his brothers. Then he vanished into the forest, where he remained concealed until the king’s messenger had come as usual, and until Signy, released from captivity, came speeding to the forest to weep over her kinsmen’s remains.

Seeing her intense grief, and knowing that she had not participated in Siggeir’s cruelty, Sigmund stole out of his place of concealment and comforted her as best he could. Together they then buried the whitening bones, and Sigmund registered a solemn oath to avenge his family’s wrongs. This vow was fully approved by Signy, who, however, bade her brother bide a favourable time, promising to send him aid. Then the brother and sister sadly parted, she to return to her distasteful palace home, and he to a remote part of the forest, where he built a tiny hut and plied the craft of a smith. [258]

“And men say that Signy wept

When she left that last of her kindred: yet wept she never more

Amid the earls of Siggeir, and as lovely as before

Was her face to all men’s deeming: nor aught it changed for ruth,

Nor for fear nor any longing; and no man said for sooth

That she ever laughed thereafter till the day of her death was come.”

Signy’s Sons

Siggeir now took possession of the Volsung kingdom, and during the next few years he proudly watched the growth of his eldest son, whom Signy secretly sent to her brother when he was ten years of age, that Sigmund might train up the child to help him to obtain vengeance if he should prove worthy. Sigmund reluctantly accepted the charge; but as soon as he had tested the boy he found him deficient in physical courage, so he either sent him back to his mother, or, as some versions relate, slew him.

Some time after this Signy’s second son was sent into the forest for the same purpose, but Sigmund found him equally lacking in courage. Evidently none but a pure-blooded Volsung would avail for the grim work of revenge, and Signy, realising this, resolved to commit a crime.

“And once in the dark she murmured: ‘Where then was the ancient song

That the Gods were but twin-born once, and deemed it nothing wrong

To mingle for the world’s sake, whence had the Æsir birth,

And the Vanir and the Dwarf-kind, and all the folk of earth?”

Her resolution taken, she summoned a beautiful young witch, and exchanging forms with her, she sought the depths of the dark forest and took shelter in Sigmund’s hut. The Volsung did not penetrate his sister’s disguise. He deemed her nought but the [259]gypsy she seemed, and being soon won by her coquetry, he made her his wife. Three days later she disappeared from the hut, and, returning to the palace, she resumed her own form, and when she next gave birth to a son, she rejoiced to see in his bold glance and strong frame the promise of a true Volsung hero.


When Sinfiotli, as the child was called, was ten years of age, she herself made a preliminary test of his courage by sewing his garment to his skin, and then suddenly snatching it off, and as the brave boy did not so much as wince, but laughed aloud, she confidently sent him to the forest hut. Sigmund speedily prepared his usual test, and ere leaving the hut one day he bade Sinfiotli take meal from a certain sack, and knead it and bake some bread. On returning home, Sigmund asked whether his orders had been carried out. The lad replied by showing the bread, and when closely questioned he artlessly confessed that he had been obliged to knead into the loaf a great adder which was hidden in the meal. Pleased to see that the boy, for whom he felt a strange affection, had successfully stood the test which had daunted his brothers, Sigmund bade him refrain from eating of the loaf, for although he was proof against the bite of a reptile, he could not, like his mentor, taste poison unharmed.

“For here, the tale of the elders doth men a marvel to wit,