Siegfried wrestles the bear, 1911
Dispute between Brunhilda and Kriemhilda in Worms, 1912
Brunhilda and Hagen breed revenge, 1911
Mourning at Siegfried’s corpse, 1911
Kriemhilda’s death, 1911
Siegfried and Kriemhilda. Fresco in the Royal Palace, Munich, Germany
Emil Lauffer (1837 – 1909). Siegfried’s funeral.
The Nibelungenlied, translated as “The Song of the Nibelungs”, is an epic poem in Middle High German. It is based on pre-Christian Germanic and Norse heroic motifs (the "Nibelungensaga"), which include oral traditions and reports based on historic events and individuals of the 5th and 6th centuries.
Prevailing scholarly theories strongly suggest that the written Nibelungenlied is the work of an anonymous poet from Passau (Bavaria), dating from about 1180 to 1210, possibly at the court of the bishop of Passau, Wolfger von Erla, who probably initiated writing the poem.
The poem in its various written forms was lost by the end of the 16th century, but was re-discovered during the 18th century.
Brief content of the poem
Brunhilda (Brunhild), a queen-warrior of Iceland (In
Norse mythology, Brynhildr was a
Shieldmaiden and a Valkyrie) vowes to marry a man who is stronger her and can beat her in feats of strength. Burgundian king Gunther of Worms wants to marry her but discovers he is physically weaker her. Nederland’s prince Siegfried (Sigurd), an epic hero and dragon slayer, helps Gunther in this matter. Having a magic cloak, which lets him become invisible, Siegfried accomplishes all feats of strength for Gunther and defeats powerful Brunhilda on behalf of Gunther (with great difficulties though). As a result, she accept Gunther’s offer. For his part, Siegfried marries Gunther’s sister Kriemhilda (Kriemhild or Grimhild), so two weddings are celebrated at the time.
At the wedding night mighty Brunhilda happens to be much stronger than her husband. Not willing to give up her virginity to Gunther voluntarily, she overpowers him and hangs him on the ceiling hook. Inasmuch as Gunther is unable to overcome Brunhilda, the powerful Siegfried comes to help Gunther again; in the pall of darkness he gets into the apartment, pretending to be Gunther and curbs her in the marriage bed without attempting to deflower her. Then he unnoticeably leaves the bedroom letting Gunther to perform the conjugal duty. Being physically overwrestled, Brunhilda forever becomes an ordinary woman. During the wrestling with Siegfried, Brunhilda loses her gold finger ring and girdle (symbols of virginity and queen power). Siegfried takes them in order to give to his wife Kriemhilda. It has deadly consequences for everyone…
Brunhilda is under the impression that Gunther married off his sister to a low-ranking vassal, while Gunther and Siegfried are in reality of equal rank. Once, before entering the Worms Cathedral, Kriemhilda and Brunhilda argue who should have precedence, according to their husbands' ranks. To Brunhilda it is obvious that she should go first. Kriemhilda insists that they are of equal rank. The dispute escalates at the heat level, the queens and their retinues are about fighting. Then Kriemhilda calls the rival Siegfried’s “kebse” (mistress or concubine). Brunhilda is outraged but Kriemhilda shows her the ring and the belt which Brunhilda had at her wedding night.
The argument between the queens is both a risk for the marriage of Gunther and Brunhilda and a possible cause for a rivalry between Gunther and Siegfried. Although Siegfried swears publicly that he didn’t say to his blabbing wife that deflowered Brunhilda, it is impossible to stop the infuriated women. Vindictive Brunhilda demands Gunther to whitewash her disgrace. Hagen, the dark, cruel and faithful vassal of Gunther, decides to kill Siegfried to protect the honor and reign of his king. In fact, Siegfried is invulnerable – after he killed the dragon, he bathed in the dragon’s blood which touched all of his body (which conferred invulnerability) except for one of his shoulders where a leaf was stuck (like Achilles’ heel). Although it is Hagen who does the deed, Gunther and his brothers know of the plan and quietly assent. Hagen persuades ingenious Kriemhilda to mark Siegfried's vulnerable spot with a cross so he can protect Siegfried in battle. Hagen then uses the cross as a target, killing Siegfried with a spear as he is drinking from a brook during a hunt. Hagen also steals the hoard from Kriemhilda and throws it into the Rhine (Rheingold), to prevent Kriemhilda from using it to establish an army of her own.
Kriemhilda swears to take revenge for the murder of her husband and the theft of her treasure. In a few years, she marries King Etzel of the Huns (Attila the Hun). Huns and Burgundians fight in blood battles. After several bloody events, all Burgundians have been killed, only Gunther and Hagen remains alive and do not want to surrender.
Celebrated warrior Dietrich, a pupil of aged king Hildebrand, a Hun’s ally, requires Gunther and Hagen to surrender promising to keep them going and to give them freedom. Hagen refuses and Dietrich fights him, wounds him and ties him. Then he defeats and ties Gunther. Dietrich hands over them to Kriemhilda and she orders to transport them to two prisons. Dietrich asks her not to harm the heroes and she promises that. As soon as he left, Kriemhilda visits Hagen and requires returning her treasures in exchange for keeping him alive. Hagen replies that he swore not to tell anyone where the treasures are hidden until any of his sovereign is alive. Kriemhilda orders to cut off Gunther’s head and then demonstrates it to Hagen holding it by hair. Hagen replies: “Now, nobody knows where the treasures are, except me and you will never see them, greedy bitch!“ Then Kriemhilda cut off his head with Siegfried’s sword. Hildebrand learns she broke the word and kills her right away.
The poem silences on Brunhilda's fate. According to the Norse Myths, Brunhilda fails to kill herself at Siegfied's funeral, and presumably survives Kriemhild and her brothers. One of the legends tells that Brunhilda was killed by her father-in-law, King Clotaire. She was tied to the feet of wild horses and torn apart limb from limb…
Though the cycle of four operas is titled
Der Ring des Nibelungen,
Richard Wagner in fact took Brunhilda's role from the Norse sagas (particularly from
Eddas) rather than from the Nibelungenlied. Brunhilda appears in the latter three operas (Die Walkure, Siegfried, and
Gotterdammerung), playing a central role in the overall story of Wotan's downfall (Wotan or Odin is a pagan god of wisdom, war, and death and also a sovereign of Valkyries and owner of Valhalla.) In Wagner's tale, Brunhilda is one of Valkyries (maiden-warriors).
Illustrations by Johann Heinrich Füssli (Henry Fuseli, 1741 - 1825)
Brunhilda watching Gunther suspended from the ceiling at their wedding night, 1807
Kriemhild sees dead Siegfried in the dream, 1805
Kriemhild sticks to dead Siegfried, 1817
Kriemhild shows the Nibelung’s ring to Gunther in the prison, 1807
Kriemhilda shows Hagen Gunther’s head, 1805