Norse Readalong Week 2: Feeding the She-Wolf
I’m not gonna recap this week, just air my thoughts on major events and themes.
Siggeir’s revenge really requires Volsung to show up - to genuinely assume that the fellow is trying to repair the web of reciprocity and kinship. Volsung probably has suspicions, but this is Volsung, one of the greatest hardasses there is. He’s got his men, his sons, and is the wronged party here.
By all the rules of propriety, the disrespect Siggeir paid him by legging it early from the wedding celebration is huge. Not only that, but he tried to buy the sword
As others have remarked, there is a complex fertility angle regarding swords/hammers and brides. This is not just about having kids, though obviously that’s part of it - the weapon is a symbol, imbued with potency, which benefits the wielder, but also his line. I’ll just stick this quote here:
“Thus it was possible to transfer an ancestor into a sword blade. If we consider the possibility that a famous warrior after his death had his cremated bones transferred into the symbol of power par excellence, the sword, his strength, spirit and luck was passed on to that weapon and it became personified. The meaning of named swords suddenly takes on a new significance.”
- Lotte Hedeager, Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia AD 400-1000 (2011)
Later in the saga, we’ll find out how important this sword is, because it crops up again and again along the male line of the Volsungs, and actually gains, or has originally, a name. As we see above, the personification of such a weapon has multiple layers of meaning.
It’s interesting to me, then, that Signy tells Volsung not to take Siggeir up on the offer, because her/their kinfylgia warns her that disaster will follow. Whether the kinfylgia is an actual spirit which is tied to the family line, or merely that luck-destiny-power which follows and/or emerges from the actions, deeds and circumstances of a kingroup (I’m inclined towards both myself) is immaterial.
Something is trying to warn the Volsungs that this is a bad idea, and it’s manifesting to the female line. This part of the saga, and next week’s, are sort of about emphasising how freaky things get in the Norse magical milieu and in a sense, show that despite its patriarchally structured society, the magical is all about interconnection, intertwining and blurring of the lines - even the supposedly hyper-masculine male Volsung line is constantly and cyclically initiated into Odinic strangeness - just as the saga itself is cyclic, in a sense.
But Volsung, being Volsung, overrules his daughter - he points out that if they dissolve the marriage and don’t show, they break the agreement, and thus can’t bind Siggeir in alliance, he won’t trust them, and would do them as much ill as he could in revenge. The honourable thing, and hence the necessary thing is to follow the thing.
A word about honour: Many people think that for the folks in pre-Modern societies were all about honour, because honour is all about macho chest-beating and silly rules. That’s a pretty shallow take though. Imagine, instead that you live in a world without a central authority - or at least one so distant as to make law enforcement and enforcement of social mores and social contract a local concern. In a society bound (and there’s that word again) by reciprocity, social currency is paramount - there’s no centralised bank saying what money or goods are worth, what a fair day’s pay is etc
(And even when there was, like Rome or other empires, messing with currency can cause major problems. When your currency gets debased, Legions start revolting.)
Imagine then, that one’s honour is kind of a social credit rating and that kin-groups or families are like corporations today. Personal honour is your personal credit rating - it measures how much people trust you, what you can ask for, how much people will come to help you. It also contributes to the credit rating of the entire corporation.
This doesn’t just last one generation, either. The trading power and ability of what becomes the Volsung dynasty derives first from Sigi, the outlaw son of Odin. He’s a rulebreaking mofo like his spiritual father, and yet he still manages to create a kingdom from scratch. What’s more, Odin gains kudos from Sigi - when you’re the god and patron of a king, your cult is going to benefit by gaining more prominence.
Rerir manages to survive murderous kin, is still a king worth note but is infertile. Frigg and Odin fix this by application of handy “wish-maiden” - magical female Odin-related powers infused into the line. So magical in fact, that Volsung has his freaky birth, and then marries the same magical girl, doubling down on the dual streams of godly power in the line.
The line is potently fertile - the nameless siblings, and Signy and Sigmund. Just as they’re about to do another fertility related thing - who shows up but the Cosmic-Shit-Stirrer aka Stabby McOne-Eye, The Murder Hobo, who as @edderkopper noted, may actually be performing a wedding ritual, but in a way that makes Odin the groom.
The fact that in that rite, it’s the groom’s sword and that Sigmund pulls it out, suggests, not only that Siggeir isn’t really the proper groom, but that Sigmund is, to the saga’s audience at least, kind of an Odinic-stand-in, and also receiving an ancestral weapon.
Thus Odin has, (if I read between the lines correctly) in his own particular way, once-again asserted that these people are mine. He has claimed all the Volsungs, even going so far as to symbolically also take Signy as his bride.
Thus, Odin, the rest of the magical milieu and the Volsungs become even more tightly entwined through a series of ritualised interactions that would be hard to miss, to the saga’s audience.
The Volsung Dynasty stock has gone through the bloody roof, but it means next to nothing if they gain a reputation as dealbreakers. The positive bits of their strange history become liabilities if people think they can’t be trusted. The name would become associated with negative social capital, and that in turn, would reflect badly on the names of their ancestors by whose deeds they ended up with large amounts of kudos in the first place.
The honour of the family as a whole, reaches back and forward through time - a descendant can redeem an ancestor, just as an ancestral name may redeem a descendant despite harsh circumstances. We see this isn a sense, in Rerir’s earlier utiseta. The mound-wisdom enables the fertilising apple - the dead connect to the living.
So, is Volsung being an arrogant shit? Or is it that plus the fact he’s actually stuck between a rock and hard place here? If they don’t go, they gain reputations as deal-breakers, don’t get the alliance which would bind Siggeir to them, and thus lose something which will probably benefit the kingdom and family as a whole?
Perhaps Volsung, with his experience, has started to regret the match, but he’s confident - he has enough numbers, social propriety on his side, and a good alliance to make.
So the whole party ups and heads over to Gautand. Siggeir is planning to straight-out butcher the whole lot of them with an unbeatable army. Signy warns her kin, begs them to go home, but as Volsung says, he made a vow never to flee, and if he flees, the damage to his reputation, to the entire family’s would be nigh irreparable. Whatever happens to them, he says, she should go back to Siggeir. I suspect Volsung’s thinking here is close to what happens eventually.
Any children Signy bears will be of the line of Volsung, and even if they lose, that name will be untarnished because it is the Volsungs who are being betrayed. Those children can theoretically take revenge and rightfully unite both kingdoms.
The Volsung name is enhanced either way, and as to paraphrase the Havamal, the only thing that lasts are a man’s deeds and reputation, and hence the glory and social capital his kin gain via the family name.
This is such an odd way of thinking to many modern folk; that it it is not only the individual that matters, but how their deeds affect those around them - almost transpersonal in a way.
But back to the saga:
Siggeir wants to slaughter the whole bunch, but Signy convinces him to save her brothers for humiliation purposes, and so they’re put in stocks out in the woods, to die of exposure (a death which even Siggeir admits is harsh).
Here’s where it gets odder, and in many respects, the action switches over to the ladies for a bit, and if you suggest that Signy might have been kind of spaewife, or seer, given the kinfylgia appearing to her, what you might call a sort of indirect magical war occurs.
Each night, a she-wolf appears and devours one of the imprisoned Volsungs, while Signy works out what to do. This is interesting, because in Norse lore she-wolves are often associated with witches and giants (See Fenrir). When Sigmund, after nine of his brothers have been eaten, and with help from his sister, manages to rip the she-wolf’s tongue out with his teeth (thus, in a sense, being more of a Wolf than she, eating her) Siggeir’s mother drops dead as the wolf dies, indicating that she was a shape-shifter.
Sigmund flees deeper into the woods, becoming an outlaw. In this, he returns to the family’s “area of origin”, echoing Sigi. He lives in an earth-house - a prince living like a common poor person, but also with the potential implied meaning that he is “like the Old Men of the Forest” by which Odin refers to burial mounds in another lay.
In a sense, Sigmund has “gone back to his roots” freed after nine nights bound by the stocks which Bycock’s translation notes, are made from one “great trunk”. While not literal, it’s fairly obvious that the skald was playing on Odinic motifs here - and perhaps the themes might reflect some echo of an Odinic cult.
Sigi sends her boys to Sigmund, each in the hope that they can be used as weapons to kill her husband, and both are not “stouthearted” enough - twitching at a wyrm, or living thing in the meal. They do not have the guts to do as ordered, so Sigi tells Sigmund to kill them both.
Of the two twins, as we shall see, in chapter 7, Signy seems the more horrific trainer of children, but it’s she who levels up in the vengeance stakes, breaking a taboo, or performing a supremely magical act, given the way IE cultures seemed to feel about twins - regarding them as somewhat divine or supernatural.
It’s interesting that in their own way, none of the female figures in this saga are shrinking violets. They’re all pragmatic, hardcore people - even Volsung’s mother is hardcore enough to survive pregnancy for six years for goodness sake!
While there are obvious gender differences in the way things are done, Signy is no princess-in-a-tower. It is she who masterminds the vengeance of the Volsungs on Siggeir. She who takes Siggeir’s heirs and attempts to fashion them into weapons.
She’s a terrible mother.
But a damn good Volsung.