Spoken tales of the dragon-slayer, Sigurd, were around long before anyone took the time to write the legend down into a textual format. Even though the oldest surviving written accounts of Sigurd (or Siegfried in Germanic legend) date to the 13th century, carvings that depicted scenes from Sigurd’s adventures were produced as early as the 10th century. The age in which the mythical Sigurd was supposed to have lived was called the Migration Period, an era which has been given an approximate date of being between the years 300 and 700 by modern historians. In particular, the character of Sigurd was set in the late 4th and 5th century, because a character named Atli, inspired by Attila the Hun (d. 453), was said to have been a contemporary of Sigurd.
According to The Saga of the Volsungs (written in 13th-century Iceland), Sigurd was born in Denmark, but descended from the Volsung tribe, which was said to have controlled some land in France. Like the similarly legendary Yngling family, the Volsungs were supposedly able to trace their ancestry back to the high-god of the Norse religion, Odin. As such, Sigurd and other members of his family were often portrayed as having superhuman abilities. Sigurd, himself, was described as being a brown-haired man of unequaled strength and height. Along with his physical prowess, Sigurd also had the gift of foresight, as well as an extensive knowledge of magic, and he even acquired a power that let him understand birds.
In addition to all of these mighty attributes, Sigurd was also equipped with the great sword, Gram, which he had forged from the broken pieces of an ancestral sword handed over to the Volsungs by Odin. When Gram was completed, it was said to have been seven “spans” long and was sturdy enough that Sigurd could chop through an anvil without cracking or denting the blade. The hero’s own natural might, combined with the durability of Gram, turned Sigurd the Volsung into an unstoppable force on the battlefield.
With such power, Sigurd enjoyed dispatching his opponents with a flair of showmanship. In particular, Sigurd had a fondness for cutting people in half. At least three named characters in The Saga of the Volsungs experienced this unpleasant fate. Sigurd’s peculiar habit played a prominent role in his battle against the sons of Hunding, of which, only two sons were named—Hjorvard and his brother, King Lyngvi. During the bloody battle, Sigurd sliced Hjorvard in two and dramatically cut Lyngvi straight down the middle, slicing through the king’s helmet and mail coat. Even in his final death scene, Sigurd had to chop just one more person in half. According to the tale, Sigurd’s brother-in-law, Guttorm, stabbed the hero while he was sleeping. After waking up to find that he was mortally wounded, Sigurd picked up Gram and threw it at his assassin. The sword spun through the air and happened to slice Guttorm across the waist, cutting him in two. Having halved another man, Sigurd died peacefully in his bed, his wife in his arms.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Sigurd with the sword, Gram, by Johannes Gehrts (1855–1921), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.