A certain tale from Norse mythology, which has come to be known as “The Otter’s Ransom,” has had a great deal of influence on writers of the fantasy genre. One such visionary who drew inspiration from the tale was J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. “The Otter’s Ransom” was featured in the 13th-century Saga of the Volsungs, a book about the Volsung family, with the most notable sections of the text being about Sigurd the dragon-slayer. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), the greatest of the medieval Icelandic scholars, also recorded the tale in his own work, The Prose Edda.
“The Otter’s Ransom” centers around the family of a mysterious magician named Hreidmar. He was skilled in the use of magic and also possessed a powerful helmet, called the Helm of Dread or the Helm of Terror. Anyone whose eyes viewed that magical helm found themselves stunned with uncontrollable fear. Hreidmar had three sons, all of whom were extremely gifted in their own way. One son was named Regin. He was a master craftsman who could make useful items out of any material available and he was also an excellent jeweler with gold and silver. The second son was Otr, a shape shifter of great talent. In keeping with his name, he enjoyed transforming into an otter, a shape in which he excelled at fishing. A dutiful son, Otr would often eat alone while in the shape of an otter, but would always bring fish back for his father. The last son was Fafnir, a man of great stature and even greater strength. This was made even more deadly by his incredibly fierce nature. Hreidmar and his three talented sons lived together in a farmhouse, not far from a waterfall.
The nearby waterfall was called Andvari’s Fall, named after a dwarf that lived in that area. Like Otr, the dwarf, Andvari, was also a shape shifter, and he liked to spend his time transformed into the shape of a pike fish. Andvari’s Fall was Otr’s favorite fishing spot, and although he and the dwarf were competing for the same game, they seemed to coexist well.
One day, while the otter-shaped Otr was eating a freshly caught salmon on the bank of the river, the Norse deities, Odin, Loki and Hoenir wandered up to Andvari’s Fall. Loki was, himself, a masterful shape shifter, so he may have known that all was not as it seemed, yet he could not pass up the chance to obtain a luxurious otter pelt. Therefore, Loki picked up a hefty rock and, with a vicious throw, struck a killing blow across Otr’s head. In The Saga of the Volsungs, Loki immediately skinned the otter. Snorri Sturluson, however, wrote that the gods merely took the dead otter and salmon with them, whole, and continued on their journey.
The gods then wandered to the nearest house, which unfortunately happened to be the home of Hreidmar. The magician and his two remaining sons welcomed the deities into their home, but once they saw the remains of the otter, they flew into a rage. Using Hreidmar’s powerful magic and the skills of his living sons, the family impressively managed to detain the gods. The otter, if it had not been skinned earlier, was now skinned and the pelt was fashioned into a bag. As payment for the wrongful death, Hreidmar demanded that the gods fill the inside of the bag with gold, and, once that was done, to also heap enough gold around the outside of the bag so that no part of the pelt was left visible. The trapped Norse deities agreed to the payment and Odin sent Loki out to acquire the treasure.
Luckily for Loki, he knew where he could find a dwarf, a mythical creature that was known for hoarding treasures. With a net in hand, Loki traveled back to Andvari’s Fall, where he fished out the shape shifting dwarf. The god then offered to release Andvari for all of the dwarf’s wealth. Andvari, understandably, accepted the proposal and handed over an enormous quantity of treasure. Most notably, the dwarf gave Loki Andvaranaut (“Andvari’s Gift”), a remarkable gold ring. Before the god left, Andvari warned Loki that all of the gold was cursed, but the ring, especially, would bring about the death of whoever possessed it.
Not caring about the warning, Loki took the treasure and the ring back to Hreidmar’s farmhouse. Odin immediately took a liking to the gold ring and held onto it as the rest of the gold was placed in and around the otter skin. When the gods were done, the otter pelt was thoroughly covered in gold. Yet, when Hreidmar inspected the pile, he protested that a single whisker was still visible, sticking up through the treasure. Unfortunately for Hriedmar’s family, Odin admitted that the agreement had not been met, so he placed the cursed ring, Andvaranaut, over the whisker, covering the pelt completely. That done, Hreidmar recognized that the deal was fulfilled and let the gods go free. From that point on, gold received that nickname, “the otter’s ransom.” As the deities left, Loki mischievously repeated the dwarf’s warning, claiming that the possessor of the gold would meet with a violent end.
It did not take long for the ring’s dark power to take hold. Regin and Fafnir soon demanded that Hriedmar share the treasure. When the father refused his sons’ request, he was quickly murdered. The ring also drove a wedge between the brothers. Fafnir decided to keep all of the wealth for himself. After grabbing his father’s magical Helm of Dread, Fafnir stole the treasure and hid himself in a wilderness lair called Gnita-Heath. There, the cursed treasure transformed Fafnir into a monstrous serpent or dragon.
With no family or wealth, Regin went on to serve as an honored blacksmith to a king in Denmark. One day, the son of the Danish king brought back a widowed, pregnant, woman from the lands of the Volsungs. Not long after she arrived in Denmark, she gave birth to the legendary Sigurd, and Regin took him in as his foster son. After Sigurd had grown into a great warrior, Regin told him about the dragon, Fafnir, and the great hoard of treasure that he was guarding at Gnita-Heath. Using his incredible talents in craftsmanship, Regin forged a blade for Sigurd, called Gram. The sword was made from the shattered pieces of a blade given to the Volsung family long ago by Odin, himself. Regin put the broken pieces back together, and in Sigurd’s hands, the blade was sturdy and sharp enough to cut through an anvil without denting, bending or breaking the weapon.
Armed with his sword, Gram, Sigurd surprised Fafnir and stabbed the serpent through the belly. After the creature died, Sigurd cut out Fafnir’s heart and ate a piece of it, which gave him supernatural wisdom and the ability to understand the chattering of birds. After tasting the blood of Fafnir, Sigurd became suspicious of his foster-father, Regin, who had followed him to Gnita-Heath. Listening to the warnings of the birds, Sigurd slew Regin, killing the last remaining son of Hreidmar.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Sigurd and Fafnir, c. 1906, painted by Hermann Hendrich (–1931), [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.
- The Prose Edda, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.