Tuned in: Enigma, In the Shadow in the Light
Although my primary historical interests favor the Romans and barbarian tribes, the Vikings, also known to history as ‘Berserkers’, fascinate me as well. In the book, Norse Gods and Heroes by Morgan J. Roberts, I came across this picture called ‘Sigurd’s Helmet.’ An artifact found in a pre-Viking gravesite in Sweden, it represents the mortal hero Sigurd (from the Volsunga saga from Iceland, but also known as Siegfried), a favorite of Odin and a great warrior. In fact, Sigurd was so great that he wielded a mighty sword left to him by his father, Sigmund, the only warrior able to free the sword planted by Odin into a massive tree trunk. He wears the ‘Helmet of Dread’ (I must say, a striking resemblance to the artifact pictured) and a hauberk of gold, and a magical ring.
Sigurd is a hero drawn into many perilous adventures. One that is most interesting is the story of ‘The Sleeping Warrior Maiden.’ (H.A. Guerber) Sigurd hears of a maiden who is asleep on a mountain surrounded by a shimmering wall of flames that can only be penetrated by the bravest of warriors in order to awaken her. This challenge beckons Sigurd and he journeys at length through unbeaten and dismal territory until he comes to a mountain reaching into the clouds and whose summit is ‘circled by fiery flames.’
Sigurd rides up the mountain, the light and heat of the flames growing stronger, until he reaches the roaring barrier. Sigurd, believing in his destiny, plunges bravely into the flames. Once through, the flames subside and he travels over a road of ashes until he comes to a castle, with ‘shield hung walls.’ The great gates stand wide open and Sigurd rides cautiously through, fearing trouble. He comes to a courtyard where he sees a body dressed in armor lying on the ground. Sigurd dismounts and removes the helmet. To his surprise, instead of beholding the face of a warrior, he meets the face of a beautiful woman. His attempts to awaken the sleeping maiden fail, until he removes her armor and she ‘lay before him in pure-white linen garments, her long hair falling in golden waves around her.’ The last of her armor removed, she opens her beautiful eyes as dawn’s rays meet her rapturous gaze and …
‘Then she turned and gazed on Sigurd, and her eyes met the Volsung’s eyes. And mighty and measureless now did the tide of his love arise, For their longing had met and mingled, and he knew of her heart that she loved, And she spake unto nothing but him and her lips with the speech-flood moved.’
The maiden tells Sigurd that she is Brunhild, (aka Kriemhilde and the woman depicted in my blog header by courtesy of artist Howard David Johnson) an earthly daughter raised to a Valkyr by Odin. When she set her will above Odin’s by giving a younger opponent a victory Odin deemed for another, he became angry and banished her to earth where she must now marry like any woman. Brunhild became terrified that she might have to marry a coward and weakling who she could only despise. To quiet her fears, Odin took her the mountain and touched her with the ‘Thorn of Sleep.’ He surrounded her with fire, her beauty and youth untouched, where she would wait until her destined husband, a hero who could brave the flames ventured through. Brunhild tells Sigurd that she will go to her home and wait for him until he comes and claim her as his wife. Sigurd places the mystical ring on her finger as a token of betrothal, and promises to love her alone as long as life endures.
For me, this story bears a similarity to the modern-day tale of Sleeping Beauty. Sigurd’s father, Sigmund, pulls a sword from a tree when no one else can. Arthur’s rise to king comes when he pulls the sword, Excalibur, from the stone. Our world and cultures are filled with the many poems, songs and stories of love, bravery, hate and revenge. In them, we recognize flawed characters that often reflect our actions, attitudes and feelings. We also yearn for heroes to act as beacons of hope in a world difficult to understand. These Eddas and sagas, myths and folklore were first shared orally and I imagine on cold winter nights by a fire or on warm lush evenings when tribes, clans and families were in celebration together. They built a core of beliefs, natural and social explanations, and even humor in an ever changing environment.