This painting, by the Swedish artist August Malmström (c. 1829-1901), was inspired by famous Germanic and Norse legends and myths. The older man seen playing the harp in the painting is Heimer (or Heimir), the foster father and brother-in-law of Brynhild—a shield-maiden and alleged Valkyrie who encountered the Norse hero, Sigurd (equivalent to the Germanic hero, Siegfried). Sigurd and Brynhild briefly were lovers, but their relationship tragically fell apart. Yet, before they spiraled into their mutually-destructive split, Sigurd and Brynhild had a daughter named Aslög (or Aslaug). Unfortunately for the young girl, both Sigurd and Brynhild married different people and neither parent wanted to bring Aslaug along into their new households. Instead, Brynhild returned to her foster father and brother-in-law, Heimir, and told him, “My daughter by Sigurd, Aslaug, shall be raised here by you” (Saga of the Volsungs, chapter 29). Heimir agreed to the proposal, and he cared for young Aslaug as Brynhild and Sigurd self-destructed.
Due to the presence of the harp in the painting, the scene in August Malmström’s artwork is likely set after Heimir received news that Sigurd and Brynhild were both dead. Heimir assumed that Aslaug might be in danger because of the deaths of her prominent parents, so Heimir decided to hide the girl. He was said to have assumed the guise of a traveling musician, and in the wooden body of his musical instrument—a harp—there was a compartment in which little Aslaug could fit herself, along with some extra supplies. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok recorded this outlandish endeavor:
“In Hlymdal, Heimir heard the news that Sigurd and Brynhild were dead. Aslaug, their daughter and Heimir’s foster-daughter, was three years old then…He realized that he could not keep the girl there in secret. He had a harp made that was so large that he put the girl Aslaug inside it, along with many precious objects of gold and silver. Then he went away and traveled widely throughout the land, and at last came to the Northlands…And when the girl cried, he would strike up his harp and she would quiet down, for Heimir was accomplished at those skills which were practiced at the time. He also had many costly clothes in the harp with her, and much gold” (Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, chapter 1).
Such, then, is the inspiration behind the painting by August Malmström. It features Heimir and Aslaug during a stop on their journey, presumably a music break to soothe Aslaug out of a crying spell. Unfortunately, the wanderings of Heimir and Aslaug ended tragically. Heimir was ultimately murdered by thieves, and Aslaug ended up living with the murderers, who gave the girl a new name—Kraka. She would remain with the family of criminals for years, until fate finally brought her into contact with the legendary Ragnar Lodbrok.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, translated by Ben Waggoner. Troth Publications, 2009.
- The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.