This painting, by the German artist Ferdinand Leeke (c. 1859 – 1923), was inspired by Norse and Germanic legends about a mighty hero named Siegfried (in Germanic sources) or Sigurd (in Norse sagas and poems). As the painted scene with the anvil is directly described in the Norse Saga of the Volsungs (written in 13th-century Iceland), that will be the source we use here. As the story goes, Sigurd grew up as a fatherless exile, for his father, King Sigmund, had been slain in battle in the months before Sigurd’s birth. Although the young exile never knew his father, one important keepsake that belonged to King Sigmund was preserved for Sigurd. His mother, Hjordis, had managed to gather all of the broken pieces of slain King Sigmund’s sword before she fled the country. These shards of metal, however, were more than mere memorabilia, for King Sigmund claimed that the blade was a gift from the god, Odin. When Sigurd finally came of age, he obtained the pieces of the broken sword from his mother and brought them to a smith named Regin to repair the godly weapon. Regin agreed to repair it, setting in motion the scene that Ferdinand Leeke recreated in his painting. On this memorable incident, the Saga of the Volsungs states, “Now Regin made the sword. And when he brought it out of the forge, it seemed to the apprentices as if flames were leaping from its edges. He told Sigurd to take the sword and said he was no swordsmith if this one broke. Sigurd hewed at the anvil and split it to its base. The blade did not shatter or break” (chapter 15). It is this scene of Sigurd inspecting his blade after having split the anvil in two that Ferdinand Leeke painted. After the sword passed the anvil test, Sigurd was still not convinced. Next, he brought the sword to a river, where he tossed a tuft of wool into the stream. Sigurd stood downstream from the wool, holding the edge of the blade in the path of the floating tuft. When the current brought the wool into contact with the blade, the woolen fibers immediately and cleanly split in two. With this, assured that the blade was incredibly durable and sharp, Sigurd finally brought the sword home.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.