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Evolution of the legend of Siegfried.

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Данные для цитирования: . Evolution of the legend of Siegfried. // Евразийский Союз Ученых — публикация научных статей в ежемесячном научном журнале. Исторические науки. ; ():-.

The great German epic Nibelungenlied obviously falls into two stories or composite parts. The first one describes the wooing and taming of a female warrior  Brünhild by hero Siegfried on behalf of the Burgundian king Gunter, which subsequently caused Siegfried’s assassination; the second one depicts the revenge of Kriemhild, Siegfried’s widow, and the fall of Burgundy. In accordance with this composition — and the corresponding change of the emotional key – the Nibelungenlied researchers usually say that the plot of the poem originated from the two initially independent heroic songs or folk legends: the Lay of Brünhild and the Lay of the Burgundians [6, 53].

Though such division of the epic seems logical, it contains a paradox, since one of the main characters, Siegfried, remains a hero without his own legend. The exploits and adventures of Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied are either briefly outlined by other personages, or are little more than sidelines, which merely add details to the main story. Apart from this, Siegfried’s function is not so much about acting as about causing — he does not commit meaningful actions himself, he only causes meaningful actions of other people. And it cannot but seem strange, considering that he is the mightiest hero of the epic, endowed with supernatural powers, militant, royal and handsome. Did not he deserve to become the protagonist of his own legend?

The Nibelungenlied researchers have made several attempts to find Siegfried’s historical prototype and to recreate his true story. Thus in 1920 Helen Hanna, following the lead of the romantics of the XIX century, suggested that the legendary Siegfried is the representation in the popular memory of the great Cherusci leader Arminius who defeated the Roman army in 9 AD [5, 441]. We believe this version is exciting but very poorly grounded as it arbitrarily identifies any act or quality of Arminius with the legendary Siegfried’s properties. The author interprets Siegfried’s combat with the dragon as a metaphor of the war with the Romans, his command of the birds’ language as Arminius’ ability to speak Latin after having spent many years in the Roman service, the hero’s horny skin  — as the possession of the Roman type armor. More significant is the author’s claim that many Arminius’ relatives had names that contained the root «Sig» or «Sieg» [5, 443-444]. However, this root has the meaning of «defense» or «protector», a concept that is a part of the basic set of masculine values ​​and qualities, so the names beginning with  “ Sieg” were abundant among  Germanic  nations.

We presume Mario Bauch is much closer to the truth when he calls the great Frankish conqueror King Clovis Siegfried’s historical prototype [1, 61]. Clovis’ story, his wars, and especially his marriage to the Burgundian princess Chrotechildis bear many resemblances to Siegfried’s legendary biography.

The most mysterious of Siegfried’s exploits is the killing of a dragon. Is it a poetic reflection of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest as Hanna says or the battle of the first Frankish leaders with the Romans in the Coal forest as described by Bauch? We believe such historical bindings both ungrounded and unnecessary. In his classic work “Cosmos and History” Mircea Eliade explains: “The historical event in itself, however important, does not remain in the popular memory, nor does its recollection kindle the poetic imagination save insofar as the particular historical event closely approaches a mythical model” [4, 42]. The philosopher illustrates this statement with a whole list of heroes whose real deeds were forgotten and replaced by dragon-slaying: Dieudonne de Gozon, a Grand master of the Knights of St. John, the protagonists of the Yugoslavian epic Marco Kraljevic and Vuk, Dobrynya Nikitich and Michael Potuk of Russian byliny. In the similar mode, Siegfried became a hero not because he killed a dragon — or any other entity that could be turned into a dragon by the story-tellers’ poetic imagination. On the contrary, he became a dragon-killer because he was universally recognized as a hero.

Apart from the episode of killing the dragon, the poem mentions some military exploits of Siegfried, both preceding the events of the Nibelungenlied (victory over the Nibelungs and seizing their treasures), and described in the epic in detail (the war with the Saxons and Danes). Heusler considers these to be mere sidelines, added to the original story to entertain the audience, not for the sake of the fabula development [6, 174]. However, we believe that the description or at least references to numerous wars were present in the Lay of Siegfried from the start. These could be Clovis’ wars against the Allemans, the Thurings, and the Goths, or his sons’ wars, among whose opponents chronicles mention the Saxons and the Danes [7, 39-40, 45, 52, 56]. However, these wars, important for the history of Europe as they might be, could not by themselves form the plot of the Lay of Siegfried. An epic is characterized by the reduction of historical events to interpersonal conflicts, and collective actions — to individual feats. Simply put, the wars of the Frankish kings could not be turned into a legend as they lacked a personal touch — a collision of individual human wills, some familiar and easily recognizable plot.  Such plot was only provided by the story of Clovis’ marriage to Chrodechildis.

In the chronicle by Gregory of Tours (the end of VI century) this story is presented without much detail. At this time, the second Burgundian kingdom was divided between brothers Gundobad, Godigisel, Chilperic and Godomar. Gundobad murdered his brother Chilperic and his wife. Chilperic’s younger daughter Chrodechildis was beautiful and intelligent, and having heard about her from his ambassadors, Clovis wished to marry her. Gundobad did not welcome this marriage, but did not dare to deny the mighty neighbor, and the wedding took place. When Gundobad and Godigisel started a war, the later asked Clovis for help, and together they nearly destroyed Gundobad. But then Gundobad managed to make peace with Clovis by promising to pay him tribute, did away with Godigisel and began to rule Burgundy alone in peace and alliance with the Franks. Subsequently, however, Chrodechildis not only failed to restrain her sons from attacks on Burgundy, but encouraged them in this endeavor [7, 38, 41-44, 49].

The situation we see in the chronicle is quite ordinary for early Middle Ages: the mutual hatred of kinsmen, unstable political alliances and dynastic marriages that are meant to but not always able to strengthen international relations. And yet, the poetic imagination — or archaic consciousness – sensed in this historic episode those very archetypes, those mythological formulae of which sagas are made of.  It had everything necessary for the development of the plot into a heroic legend: mighty kings connected with each other by kinship and hatred, a vendetta, and most importantly – a female avenger. And so the story began to develop rapidly. It is characteristic that in another important source – “Fredegar Chronicles” written in the middle of the VII century the story of Clovis’ courtship already abounds in dramatic detail and even dialogue.

Fredegar reports that after her parents’ death Chrodechildis lived in Geneva with her elder sister, a nun. Clovis heard of her and sent his retainer «a Roman named Aurelianus» to learn more about her. But since Gundobad allowed no one to pay visits to his late brother’s daughters Aurelianus pretended to be a beggar and asked the sisters for the night. There he seized the opportunity to secretly meet the girl and woo her for his master, and he gave her Clovis’ ring as a pledge. Chrodechildis advised him to hurriedly send an official proposal to Gundobad because quite soon Gundobad’s advisor Aridius would return from Constantinople and prevent the engagement. The Franks followed her advice, and Gundobad had to agree. The bride was put into a palanquin with a rich dowry and sent to Clovis to Soissons. Meanwhile, hearing of this engagement Aridius immediately returned to Burgundy and reminded Gundobad of the fact that he had murdered Chrodechildis’ parents and her two young brothers, and now she had both a motive and a possibility to revenge.  He insisted on capturing the bride and breaking the betrothal, for it was better to confront the Franks once than to always be the victims of their attacks provoked by Chrodechildis’ animosity. Gundabad followed his advice. But it turned out that the smart girl, who had heard of Aridius’ return, had already mounted a horse and run to her groom. So the Burgundians got only the basterne with her treasure. And she ordered the Franks to plunder the Burgundian lands and afterwards never forgot about her revenge, inducing her husband and sons to conquer her native country [10, 155-157].

Finally, «Liber historiae francorum», a work of an anonymous chronicler of VIII century, adds a few interesting details to Fredegar’s story. According to this narrative, Chrodechildis first refused to marry Clovis because he was a pagan, but then agreed and took his ring from the retainer. Gundobad did not want to agree to this marriage either. But having learnt that his niece was already wearing Clovis’ ring, he knew that the Franks had legitimate reasons to demand her hand, and so he gave up.  The night of their wedding Chrodechildis asked her husband to get baptized and to demand her dowry from her uncle. When Clovis’ envoy faced Gundobad, the later not only gave them a huge dowry of gold, but also was scared enough to promise Clovis a half of his kingdom.  But Aurelianus graciously refused this last offer saying: «My liege Clovis is your son, and all you have is yours» [8, 61-62].

The events described in the three Frankish chronicles are very similar to some episodes from the biography of the legendary Siegfried and Kriemhild, in particular her two marriages. The first similarity lies in the very nature of Siegfried’s initial contact with the Burgundians. The country ruled together by three brothers-kings is visited by a powerful and militant foreign sovereign who picks a quarrel with them. They, however, find an opportunity to appease the aggressor and turn him into an ally. The friendship is sealed with a dynastic marriage. After the wedding Kriemhild asks her brothers to give her a part of their father’s inheritance as her dowry. They immediately agree, but her husband Siegfried proudly rejects their offer: he is rich enough to provide for his wife himself.

However, Siegfried and Kriemhild’s was not a marriage for the sake of revenge, thus, it did not threaten any interests of the Burgundian kings. Therefore, the Nibelungenlied attributed some picturesque parts of the Frankish tradition to the heroine’s second marriage – with the Hun king Etzel. Just like Chrodechildis, Kriemhild at first refused to re-marry under the pretext of religious differences between her and the new suitor. Like in Fredegar’s chronicle, in order to persuade the lady the suitor’s envoy insisted on a personal meeting with her and told her about his lord’s wealth and power. And finally, the most striking similarity: the chief adviser to the Burgundian kings, Hagen of Tronje, like Aridius, tried in vain to block the marriage reminding his lords of the evil that they had done to Kriemhild for which she could avenge them with the help of her new spouse. When he failed in this endeavor, he at least took away the bride’s treasure. And, indeed, like the wise vassal had predicted, the heroine used the new husband’s power and wealth to revenge upon her family and destroy her homeland.

However, historical Chrodechildis struggled with Burgundy with the help of her sons, and not her husband, while in the Nibelungenlied Kriemhild sends to death her only son born of Etzel, little Ortlieb, as a part of her vengeful plans. But the memory of a mother inciting her sons to revenge her grievances, is preserved in the Eddic song «Gudrun’s Incitement». It says that Gudrun (the Scandinavian analogue of the German Kriemhild), survived her husbands Sigurd and Atly, and married king Yonakr, of whom she had three sons, and in whose house she raised her daughter by Sigurd, beautiful Svanhildr. When Gudrun heard that Svanhildr’s husband king Ërmunrekk accused her of adultery and executed her, she turned to her sons with insults and mockery, calling them cowards unable to avenge their sister. Then the young men went to the Gothic country, killed the enemy and perished in the deed [3, 327-328]. This episode also has its origin in the true history of the Frankish Queen Clotilde. Under her influence her sons several times attacked Burgundy, where they killed Gundobad’s sons. They also undertook a punitive expedition to Gothic Spain, to punish King Amalarich for abusing his wife, their sister Chlodehildis. Later, they likewise stood up for their cousin, who was executed in Gothic Italy on charges of debauchery and matricide. The Goths were forced to pay the vergeld to prevent the attack of Clovis’ sons [7, 52].

But let us return to Siegfried. The most notorious part of his biography is his death at the hands of Hagen in revenge for the wrongs done to the Burgundian queen Brünhild. The different Eddic songs localize the murder in different places: the hero dies either in the bedroom, in his wife’s bed, or somewhere out, «across the river» [3, 295, 303]. Oddly enough, the murder scene is so important to the legend that even the Nibelungenlied, which unlike the Edda is a single coherent narrative, also tries to retain both locations — the forest and the conjugal bedroom. Therefore, in the epic Hagen kills Siegfried during the hunting expedition, and then delivers the body to the castle and throws it under the door of Krimhild’s bedroom [2, 470, 473]. This murder does not find a direct correspondence in the life of Clovis and his sons.  However, the history knows of several Merovingian kings who died under very similar circumstances. For example, the Frankish prince Chloderich at the instigation of Clovis killed his father Sigibert the Lame when the later was walking in the woods. He stopped for the night and slept in a tent, where an assassin found him [7, 48]. In another case, Chilperich, a grandson of Clovis, learned of his wife Fredegund’s infidelity, and to avoid punishment she organized the murder of the king. Returning from hunting and entering his bedroom he was attacked by assassins. Fredegund accused another Frankish ruler, the Austrasian king Childebert and his wife Brünhild who was her lifelong enemy, of this crime [8, 79]. All these colourful and bloody scenes were bound to make a considerable impression on the contemporaries, and in the descendants’ memory could turn into Siegfried’s murder for the sake of vengeful Brünhild. So over time the basic content of the Lay of Siegfried was constructed as follows: killing the dragon — conquests — an attack on Burgundy and the establishment of protectorate over this country — marrying Chrodechildis — the death during the hunt and/or in the bedroom – Chrodechildis’ sons’ revenge for her parents and their own father and sister.

But how could the Frankish legends of their kings generalized in the image of Siegfried get connected to the Burgundian legend of the fall of the first Burgundian kingdom and the ancient Germanic myth of the warrior maiden’s taming? We believe that the identification of these stories was due to some plot similarities. First, all three of these are the stories of women’s revenge, of the ruthless and valiant female avengers. Secondly, in all the three legends the conflict is brought about by the betrayal and murder of close relatives. This, of course, made the stories close to each other and encouraged writers and listeners of the heroic songs to look for correspondences.  The two narratives, closest to each other chronologically and typologically, namely the Lay of Siegfried and the Lay of the Burgundians, were easy to blend into one as they had quite a lot of points of intersection:

  1. The actionin the twolegends takes place mostlyinBurgundy. In fact, these were two differentgeographical areas- the firstBurgundian kingdom is on the Rhine, the second is on the Rhone. But this difference matters little for the legend, what matters is the toponym;
  2. The names ofthe kingsof Burgundysound alike: Gundahari and Gundobad;
  3. The avengingheroineis a princessof Burgundy;
  4. The heroinerevenges her brother (brothers)on her husband or she revenges her husbandandparents on her brothers(uncles, cousins);
  5. Treasure plays a prominentrole inthe conflict. It originallybelonged tothe Burgundians, and later the greedyHunkingdestroys them in order to grab thistreasure, or theybestow it on their princess, thenrobher of it, thenreturn itout of fear ofher husband.
  6. The Burgundian king has a wise and resolute vassal.

All these similarities resulted into merging of historical figures into a few legendary characters, the same being true about the time and place of the events: a young Frankish hero comes to Burgundy, marries the rulers’ sister and dies there. The Burgundians in their turn get killed by the Hun overlord, and their sister, Siegfried’s widow, carries out a cruel revenge – for them or upon them. But why did the protagonist have to die? As long as there remained the version of the legend based on the Frankish history, describing Burgundian princess as an enemy of her own kinsmen, there also remained a source of tension between Burgundy and Siegfried. But even this was not enough to justify his murder. Meanwhile, the logic of the legend demanded that the hero should be killed not by some random villains and not for some random reasons: his death should be tightly woven into the narrative, so that the actors, the causes and the consequences of his death might be the semantic centre of the story. This problem was solved by absolving yet another independent legend into the plot. This legend was the Lay of of Brünhild which also contained a number of features that allowed it to blend into the historical traditions of the Franks and the Burgundians [9]. Here is a brief list of the common points of the Lays of  Brünhild and Siegfried:

  1. The protagonist is a wonderful warrior who arrives in a foreign country, forms a friendly alliance with its king and marries the king’s sister;
  2. In spite of this marriage a conflict erupts between the hero and his wife’s relatives;
  3. The hero is betrayed and murdered;
  4. An important role in the story belongs a woman parading another person’s ring on her finger. In the Lay of Brünhild the hero’s wife shows Brünhild her ring to reveal to her who had actually conquered and deflowered her. In the Lay of Siegfried a bride demonstrates the ring of her betrothed groom to her relatives to let them know that a deal has already been made, and thus forcing them to give her away into the marriage. In both cases, therefore, the demonstration of the ring manifests the loss of virginity.

So, should it be suggested that a wonderful hero of the myth about taming the awful virgin was none other than Siegfried and the unfortunate husband of the heroine was Gunter, then all the necessary motivations are present, and the formation of relationships and conflicts in the legend is almost finished. Gunter’s appearance in the narrative requires the presence of his dark alter ego, Hagen of Tronje. The audience who were already familiar with this character from the Lay of the Burgundians, could not but ask: what did he do when his king was tested while wooing the maiden-warrior? Logically, he should have been there, by the king’s side. And what did he do when he became aware of the shame brought upon his king and queen by Siegfried? That is how the legend gets its last dramatic collision: Hagen kills Siegfried and becomes the main target of Kriemhild’s brutal vengeance. Thus, we have traced the sources of the formation of the Lay of Siegfried and outlined the ways it intersected with the pre-existing legends of the ancient Germanic peoples. These legends, connected within a single story, have formed one of the greatest tales of the world culture.


  1. Bauch Mario. Wer waren die Nibelungen wirklich? Die historischen Hintergründe der germanischen Heldensagen. Rhombos-Verlag, 2006
  2. Das Nibelungenlied. Ed. Helmut de Boor // Deutsche Klassikerd es Mittelalters, 17th ed. Wiesbaden, 1963
  3. Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore. London: Penguin Classics, 2011
  4. Eliade Mircea. Cosmos and History. The Myth of the Eternal return. NY: Harper Torchbooks, 1959.
  5. Hanna Helen. Siegfried – Arminius // The Journal of English and Germanic Philology vol. 19, No 4 (Oct. 1920), pp. 439-485.
  6. Heusler Andreas. Nibelungensage und Nibelungenlied: Die Stoffgeschichte des deutschen Heldenepos. Dortmund: Ruhfus, 1920
  7. History of the Franks by Saint Gregory. London: Forgotten Books, 2013.
  8. Liber Historiae Francorum. Lawrence: Coronado Press, 1973
  9. Sarakaeva Asia, Lebedeva Irena, Frolova Yulia. The Ritual and Mythological Origins of the Lay of Brünhild // The Seventh International Conference on Eurasian scientific development. Proceedings of the Conference (November 30, 2015). — Vienna: “East West” Association for Advanced Studies and Higher Education GMBh, 2015, Pp. 25-29.
  10. Wallace-Hadrill J. M. The Fourth Book of the chronicle of Fredegar with Its Continuation. – London: Cambridge University Press, 1982[schema type=»book» name=»Evolution of the legend of Siegfried. » description=»The authors of the article analyze events of the history of Franks described in historical chronicles, compare them to the Germanic “nibelungen” legends, especially the corpus of stories about Siegfried. The authors make a hypothesis about the stages of evolution of Lay of Siegfried until it reached its culmination in the medieval epic poem “The Nibelungenlied”» author=»Sarakaeva Asia, Lebedeva Irena» publisher=»БАСАРАНОВИЧ ЕКАТЕРИНА» pubdate=»2017-01-09″ edition=»euroasia-science.ru_29-30.12.2015_12(21)» ebook=»yes» ]
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