This image, created by Arthur Rackham (c. 1867–1939), was produced for a 1911 translation of Richard Wager’s Siegfried & the Twilight of the Gods. Rackham’s illustration featured here, like Wagner’s work that it accompanied, was inspired by Norse and Germanic legends about a mighty hero named Siegfried (in Germanic sources) or Sigurd (in Norse sagas and poems). In particular, this scene involves Siegfried/Sigurd’s defeat of a poisonous dragon named Fafnir. The Germanic epic, Nibelungenlied, and the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs both label the hero as a dragon-slayer, but the saga gave the most vivid account of the hero’s ambush of the dragon. As told by the saga, the Norse god, Odin, advised Siegfried/Sigurd to dig pits in front of the giant serpent’s paths and to strike at its heart from underneath. The hero followed the god’s advice and the following scene unfolded:
“When the worm crawled to the water the earth quaked mightily, so that all the ground nearby shook. He blew poison over all the path before him, but Sigurd was neither afraid of nor concerned by the din. And when the serpent crawled over the pit, Sigurd plunged the sword up under the left shoulder, so that it sank to the hilt. Then Sigurd leapt up out of the ditch, and drew the sword out of the serpent. His arms were all bloody to the shoulder” (Saga of the Volsungs, chapter 18).
Such is the scene that Arthur Rackham re-creates—the act of Siegfried/Sigurd plunging his sword home after he successfully ambushed the mythical creature. In the saga, the hero then ate the dragon’s heart, a meal that granted him great wisdom and the ability to talk to birds. The Nibelungenlied, alternatively, told that Siegfried/Sigurd bathed in the dragon’s blood, which made his skin as hard as horn.
Written by C. Keith Hansley