Sigurd Slaying the Dragon in Text and Image

The story of Sigurd (or Sigurth, depending on the translation) slaying the dragon, as told in the Völsunga saga (Saga of the Völsungs, a 13th century Old Norse poetic rendition of the rise and fall of the Völsung clan) and Fáfnismál (Fafnir’s Sayings) in the Poetic Edda (a collection of Old Norse anonymous poems), has become a classic tale of bravery and adventure. Its classicization was helped by the fact that the legend has a parallel in a Middle High German epic poem, the Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs), which was most famously adapted by Richard Wagner in his operas. In this blog post, I thought it would be interesting to see how this tale was represented not just textually but also visually around the times when the writings began to circulate, and which were the scenes chosen to be depicted.

The most detailed visual representations of the Sigurd legend can be found on the Ramsund runestone and on the wood carving from the Hylestad stave church. The Ramsund runestone is a part of the eight so-called “Sigurd stones” depicting parts of the story. This one is believed to be carved around 1030 CE. It is not quite a runestone per se, as the images are not carved on a stone, like the others, but on a flat rock, close to the village of Ramsund, in southeast Sweden. The Hylestad stave church was built in the late 12th to early 13th century, in the former Hylestad municipality, Norway. It was demolished in the 17th century, but some of the wood carvings from the church doorway were saved and incorporated into other buildings, now being displayed at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo (Norway).

The Ramsund Runestone (Source)

They focus on the main aspects of the legend, the action sequences – the ones that are visual to begin with in the story:

A. Sigurd’s actual slaying of the dragon – the beginning of Fáfnismál: “… when Fafnir crawled over the trench, then Sigurth thrust his sword into his body to the heart. Fafnir writhed and struck out with his head and tail” and part 18 (p. 31) of the Völsunga saga: “And when the dragon crawled across the pit, Sigurd thrust in the sword under the left shoulder, and it sunk in up to the hilt. Then Sigurd leapt out of the pit, wrenching back the sword, and getting his arms bloody right up to the shoulders”;

B. the roasting of the dragon’s heart and Sigurd tasting the blood: between stanzas 31 and 32 in Fáfnismál, “Sigurth took Fafnir’s heart and cooked it on a spit. When he thought that it was fully cooked, and the blood foamed out of the heart, then he tried it with his finger to see whether it was fully cooked. He burned his finger, and put it in his mouth. But when Fafnir’s heart’s-blood came on his tongue, he understood the speech of birds. He heard nut-hatches chattering in the thickets.” and part 19 (p. 33) of the Völsunga saga – “Sigurd went and roasted it on a spit. And when the juice sputtered out he touched it with his finger to see whether it was done. He jerked his finger to his mouth, and when the blood from the dragon’s heart touched his tongue he could understand the language of birds. He heard some tits twittering near him in the thicket.”;

Sigurd tasting the blood – detail from the the Hylestad stave church doorway (Source)

C. the all-knowing birds: stanzas 32-38 in Fáfnismál, 32. ” A nut hatch said:/ There sits Sigurth, sprinkled with blood,/ And Fafnir’s heart with fire he cooks;/ Wise were the breaker of rings, I ween,/ To eat the life-muscles all so bright.”/ A second spake:/ 33. “There Regin lies, and plans he lays/ The youth to betray who trusts him well;/ Lying words with wiles will he speak,/ Till his brother the maker of mischief avenges.”/ A third spake:/ 34. “Less by a head | let the chatterer hoary/ Go from here to hell;/ Then all of the wealth he alone can wield,/ The gold that Fafnir guarded.”/ A fourth spake:/ 35. “Wise would he seem if so he would heed/ The counsel good we sisters give;/ Thought he would give, and the ravens gladden,/ There is ever a wolf where his ears I spy.”/ A fifth spake:/ 36. “Less wise must be the tree of battle/ Than to me would seem the leader of men,/ If forth he lets one brother fare,/ When he of the other the slayer is.”/ A sixth spake:/ 37. “Most foolish he seems if he shall spare/ His foe, the bane of the folk,/ There Regin lies, who hath wronged him so,/ Yet falsehood knows he not.”/ A seventh spake:/ 38. “Let the head from the frost-cold giant be hewed,/ And let him of rings be robbed;/ Then all the wealth which Fafnir’s was/ Shall belong to thee alone.” This corresponds to part 20 (p. 34) of the Völsunga saga – “ ‘There sits Sigurd, roasting Fafnir’s heart. He should eat it himself, and then he’d be wiser than any man.’

‘There lies Regin meaning to play false the man who trusts him,’ said a second. Then said a third:

‘Let him then strike off his head. Then he can have the great treasure all to himself.’

‘He would be wiser to do as they advised,’ said then a fourth, 1 and afterwards ride to Fafnir’s lair, taking the great treasure that lies there, and then ride up to Hind Fell where Brynhild1 is sleeping, and there he will learn much wisdom. And he would be wise if he followed your advice and thought of his own needs. I’d expect to find a wolf where I spied his ears.’ Then said a fifth:

‘If he spares him, having previously killed his brother, he’s not as wise as I imagine.’ Then said the sixth:

‘It would be a sound plan if he killed him and had the treasure all to himself.’”;

D. Regin decapitated – between stanzas 39 and 40 in Fáfnismál, “Sigurth hewed off Regin’s head, and then he ate Fafnir’s heart, and drank the blood of both Regin and Fafnir”, and part 20 (p. 34) of the Völsunga saga – “Then he drew the sword Gram and struck off Regin’s head. And after that he ate some of the dragon’s heart, and some he put by.”;

E. Sigurd’s horse, Grani, with the dragon’s treasure on its back: the end of Fáfnismál, after the 44th stanza, “…he took the fear-helm and a golden mail-coat and the sword Hrotti, and many other precious things, and loaded Grani with them, but the horse would not go forward until Sigurth mounted on his back”, and part 20 (p. 34) of the Völsunga saga – “He took all the gold and put it into two large chests, then2 took his horse Grani by the bridle. But the horse wouldn’t move and whipping did no good. Then Sigurd saw what the horse wanted. He leapt on his back, clapped spurs to him, and the horse galloped away as if unladen.”

The Hylestad stave church doorway (left) (Source)
The Hylestad stave church doorway (right) (Source)

The Hylestad stave church wood carving shows us even more details, presenting also actions preceding the dragon slaying: Regin the blacksmith making the dragon-slaying sword, and Sigurd testing it (not present in Fáfnismál, only in part 15 of the Völsunga saga – “Then Regin made a sword. And when he drew it from the furnace, it seemed to the lads working in the smithy as if the edges were all aflame. He next told Sigurd to take the sword, saying that if this one failed, then he didn’t know how to make a sword. He struck at the anvil and cleft it right down to its base, and the sword neither shattered nor snapped.”).

Tracing of the Ramsund runestone carving: 1) Sigurd is sitting naked in front of the fire preparing the dragon heart, from Fafnir, for his foster-father Regin, who is Fafnir’s brother. The heart is not finished yet, and when Sigurd touches it, he burns himself and sticks his finger into his mouth. As he has tasted dragon blood, he starts to understand the birds’ song; 2) The birds say that Regin will not keep his promise of reconciliation and will try to kill Sigurd, which causes Sigurd to cut off Regin’s head; 3) Regin is dead beside his own head, his smithing tools with which he reforged Sigurd’s sword Gram are scattered around him; 4) Sigurd’s horse Grani is laden with the dragon’s treasure; 5) the previous event when Sigurd killed Fafnir, and 6) Ótr from the saga’s beginning. (Source)

However, in regards to the composition of the images, the Ramsund stone is the most audacious version of the visual representations of the legend. Sigurd is placed here outside the frame, the artist thus enlarging the “canvas” and making the rock background part of the image. The Hylestad stave church wood carving presents similarities with the illuminated manuscripts from that time. Here the innovative spatial codes of the manuscript book seem to have influenced developments in the visual arts. It is interesting to note how the use of space differs from one medium to another: the stone allows the artist to expand his vision of the story on a larger scale, while the wooden pillar forces the craftsman to concentrate his point of view on small details, just like in an illuminated book.

The imaginary space of the text is brought to life through images, the artists creating a visual space of their own, depending on the medium and on their own imagination and talent. The images created can be a portal into the mind of the people of that time, a way to see how they understood the legend that we also read. The analysis of their choices, what they took out of the story and what they left in, can provide us with a unique perspective on this immortal tale.

Works cited:

Fáfnismál: (Eng. transl. Henry Adams Bellows, 1936)

Völsunga saga: (pp. 22-34, Chapters 13-20. Left page: Old Norse, right page: English). Eng. transl. R.G. Finch. Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1965

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