Early Icelandic Myth

and Legend as Background for the Ring

Wagner’s Ring and its Icelandic Sources
Stofnun Sigurðar Nordals 1995

The heroic and mythological poetry and tales preserved in Icelandic 13th-century works belong to a tradition which once must have been widely spread among the Germanic peoples. Outside Iceland the heroic tradition is in evidence in narrative poetry such as Beowulf, Hildebrandslied, and Nibelungenlied, but the mythological tradition preserved in Icelandic manuscripts is unique. The author discusses the fact that the worlds of gods and men are generally not fused in the Old Norse-Icelandic tradition. There are, however, exceptions like the tales about Sigmund and Signý, and the poems about the young Sigurd (Siegfried). Wagner has made much use of these texts. When Odin interferes in human affairs in the old sources his actions can be characterized as amoral, whereas the presentation of the mythological world and its fate in the visionary poem Völuspá is deeply moral and has certain parallels with Wagner’s interpretation. Passionate love is indisputably a strong theme in the Old Icelandic heroic poems, but it is here subservient to honour: love without honour is unthinkable. Concomitantly, in spite of some differences of interpretations depending on time and circumstances, the paper concludes that Wagner was most felicitously inspired by the tragic stories of the eddic poetry.


I feel honoured and at the same time somewhat awkward in the company of so many excellent experts on Wagner, being nothing of the sort myself. My intention is to provide you a survey of the body of Icelandic myth and poetry of which Wagner made use in composing the Ring. I do not see it as my role to point out exactly from which particular sources the different elements of the narrative are derived, but rather to give some kind of general impression of the texts in question.

Scholars have written extensively about Germanic heroic legend and Old Norse mythology, and there has been much speculation about the origins of the extant texts.[1] I shall try to limit myself to speaking of existing poems and tales and what they actually tell us. But let us first have a quick look at a simplified picture of the relevant sources in the whole area of Germanic culture:

*Gothic, German, English oral tradition
*Scandinavian oral tradition 800/10th c.
References in Old English Beowulf
c. 1000
Pictures or carvings on rune stones
[Heusler's reconstructions:
*Brünnhildenlied, *Ältere Not]
c. 1200
Icelandic written tradition
c. 1200
c. 1250
Þiðreks saga

*German version of Þiðriks saga
15th c.
Das Lied von hürnen Seyfrid
Hans Sachs. Der hürnen Seufrid
Late 16th c.
Danish Ballads
19th c.
Faroese ballads [3]

The survey demonstrates that the Icelandic tradition can only be a small part of what was once a great ocean of tradition. But by a fortunate accident the Icelanders learned to write before they had forgotten their old traditions, and perhaps more importantly, they had a liberal attitude to pagan lore that allowed them to use their scribal skills to record not only the heroic past, but also lively and unbiassed accounts of the pagan gods and their world. Let us therefore take a closer look at the Icelandic tradition. It preserves elements of Germanic tradition which are not found in any other country. The mythology is not presented coherently anywhere else, although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the gods the pagan Icelanders worshipped were in fact widely known in Northern Europe. The relevant Icelandic material can be presented as follows:

9th to 13th century
c. 1200
c. 1250
c. 1270
c. 1300 
c. 1400

*Oral tradition
References in skaldic verse quoted in later sources.
Eddic poems, written versions, now lost, only copies exist.
Snorra Edda, original version lost, only copies exist.
Þiðreks saga, original text lost, only copies exist.[4]
Völsunga saga, original text lost, only copies exist.
Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda.
Þiðreks saga manuscript.
Hauksbok, with Völuspá.
Sorra Edda manuscripts.
Völsunga saga manuscript.

The really important documents in this survey are three: The Poetic Edda or Sæmundar Edda as preserved in Codex Regius, The Prose Edda or Snorra Edda, and Völsunga saga.

The Poetic Edda is a collection of poems of different kinds and different ages that preserve tales and wisdom from the heroic and mythic past of the Icelanders and other Nordic nations. The main groups

are the mythological poems and the heroic poems. The first poem in the book and the most important is Völuspá (the Sibyl’s Prophecy): the story of the world from Creation to Ragnarök ending with a vision of the beginning of a new world. It is a magnificent poem, certainly with roots in pre-Christian myth, but certainly also influenced by Christianity.

There is no doubt that the stories told in the eddic poems are basically traditional and old. The metre and the poetic diction is also traditional, of course, but the exact form of each poem and tale in the sources is a product of Icelandic culture in the age of writing. Similar poems and similar tales, sometimes with approximately the same content, may have been composed in Norway or Germany, or perhaps Greenland, but not these poems. They are created or recreated out of traditional material; some of them bear the stamp of an earlier age and even an origin far away from Iceland, while others may have been quite recent compositions when they were written down. All this is basically irrelevant here, but I mention it because the use 19th-century poets, such as Wagner, made of these old stories, is not altogether different in nature from how they were used in 13th-century Icelandic works like Snorra Edda and Völsunga saga.

It is very important to bear in mind that the Edda speaks to us with a number of different voices, as it were. There is no inner consistency among the texts; on the contrary there are great contradictions and inconsistences. Exactly because of this polyphony it invites artists to produce new stories on the basis of these old stories and gives them great freedom.

Snorra Edda is primarily important for its unique rendering of pre-Christian mythology and as a highly original treatise on poetics. Snorri was a genial story teller with an astonishing command of traditional tales and poetry. His Edda is a child of its age and circumstances, combining European learning and scholarly attitudes with a genuine affection for traditional lore. Although it contains some important information about the Germanic heroes, its contribution to that field is mainly of a secondary nature compared to the Poetic Edda. The mixture of prose and poetry which we find here may well give a good impression of how this material was transmitted orally, now as a tale, now as a poem. As a matter of fact we find the same kind of mixture, in different proportions, in the Poetic Edda, where individual poems are linked and sometimes interrupted with brief but important prose passages, and in Völsunga saga, where the prose narrative is interspersed with quotations from the poems it is based on.

Völsunga saga seems basically to be a prose retelling of stories that the author knew in poetic form, most of which we have in the Poetic Edda. The sources of the first part of the saga, however, which tells the tale about Sigmund and Signý, (Sieglinde), are lost and impossible to reconstruct. The immediate sources might partly have been prose tales, and we should not rule out some influence from European literature like Geoffrey of Monmouth. Nevertheless, the basic story is undoubtedly very old as witnessed by the mention of Sigmund and (Sin)fjotli (Fitela) in Beowulf.


Old Icelandic literature is by far the richest source preserved concerning the pre-Christian mythology of the Germanic peoples. Obviously, the information the eddic poems yield bears most directly upon the mythology and religion of the Icelanders and other Scandinavians, but comparative studies show that their religion was basically the same, or of the same roots, as the pre-Christian mythology of other Germanic peoples and even in some ways similar to the mythology of more remotely related cultures of Indo-European descent.

Another field to which Icelandic sources make a rich contribution is the heroic poetry and legends of the Germanic peoples. Comparison with works such as the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf and the Finnsburg fragment, the Old High German Hildebrandslied, the Middle High German Nibelungenlied, as well as a number of other sources, shows a relatively homogeneous tradition of heroic themes and poetics. Among the heroes prominent in Icelandic heroic poetry are historical figures from the Migration Period, such as Ermanaric, king of the East Goths (d. AD 375), Attila, king of the Huns (d. 453) and Theoderic, king of the East Goths (d. 526) — all three presented as contemporaries. Along with several other figures, no less impressive, these legendary kings appeared in the poetry of Germanic peoples from east to west where they were seen to suffer terrible fates with their femmes fatales. Other heroes seem to be of Scandinavian origin and not all from such a distant past. The Viking Age provided an abundance of new material for epic singers and story tellers.

In terms of form, the eddic poems are very different from the better known epic poetry attributed to Homer, and different even from the thematically related Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied. As far as metre is concerned I refer to Þorsteinn Gylfason’s analysis in this volume, but attention must also be paid to the style and composition of the poems.

There is considerable variation of style in the eddic poems, but word order and sentence structure are relatively plain. The style is heightened by the use of poetic diction, characterized mainly of substantives only used in poetry, and also of poetic names. There is limited but effective use of metaphoric language, and the poetry is usually quite concrete. The most striking characteristic is the economy of language. In this poetry a long journey or a battle with much sound and fury may be treated effectively in one stanza, while one also finds a dwelling on details through appositive variations which halt the narrative and sharpen the focus. The possibilities the metre gives for emphasizing important words is used with such effect that the eddic verse, sometimes astonishingly simple and sometimes condensed to the utmost, always has an unmistakable dignity about it. Many of the poems consist exclusively of dialogue, sometimes linked with short prose passages. Some of these poems seem to be ideal for a dramatic performance, and in some cases it is difficult to present them without some differentiation of roles.[1]

What is left of the heroic poetry and legends of the old Germanic peopies is dramatic and tragic. The gloomy character of Germanic heroic legends arises from the inhuman demands made on the heroes by their code of conduct. The only objective of a hero is honour, and the heroic quality of a man, or a woman, can only be measured in the face of death. Consequently, the Germanic heroes, as we meet them in the Edda and elsewhere, are losers, in spite of prowess in battle, glorious losers. Strength of will and integrity of character are the essential qualities of a hero, minimal attention is paid to physical feats, which are taken for granted, and strong female characters arouse no less admiration and awe than the male heroes. This can be seen in German poetry, especially in the Nibelungenlied, but above all in the Edda.

The Old Icelandic texts I have been describing introduce us on the one hand to a mythological world populated by gods and giants, elves and dwarfs, where human beings play only occasional and very minor roles. On the other hand there is a distant world of heroes and heroines, kings and queens, princes and princesses where dramatic events take place.

To introduce you briefly to these worlds I should like to discuss a few important themes, and although my talk is not about Wagner’s Ring, it is obvious that the choice of these themes is influenced by the occasion.


The themes I want to discuss are: 1) Gods and Men in the Eddas, 2) Good and Evil in Old Norse Mythology, and 3) Honour and Love in the heroic lays.

The worlds of gods and men are generally not fused in the Eddas in the same way as they are in Wagner’s work, and yet there are important points of contact. In the most strikingly poetic myths — the one of the beginning and end of the world, the myth of the war between the Æsir and Vanir, the myth of Baldr’s death, which describes the fascinating figures of Loki and Baldr and their exclusion from the world of the gods — there is no human participation in the action. On the other hand, the gods play no part in the most forceful and archaic heroic songs, the ones about the conflict between Burgundians and Huns, Atlakviða and Atlamál, or the songs of the fatal quadrangle, Sigurd, Brynhild, Gunnar and Gudrun. They deal with human passion and the fate of human beings in this world. There are, however, exceptions in heroic poems and legend, and here the story of the origins of the Volsungs and the tales of Young Sigurd and the valkyrie, are most important. If we go to Icelandic heroic sagas, they also present a number of examples of divine interference into the lives of men, and here it is especially Odin, Alfaðir (Allfather), Sigfaðir (siegvater, father of victory), who appears again and again.

Where Odin interferes in human affairs, he is constantly creating strife among men. The emphasis is always on his deceitfulness, and the instability of his favours, as we witness in the case of Sigmund. But all the action is firmly based in the human world. Odin, or the occasional monster, such as the dragon Fáfnir, may put in an appearance — as a kind of gueststar — but the heroic poems of the Edda are basically anthropocentric, focusing on human life and human fate. Although the terrible end of the world in Ragnarök may be lurking at the back of our minds when the worst catastrophes befall our heroes, Ragnarök is a disaster of an entirely different kind taking place in mythological time. Reading Wagner’s text one is inclined to feel that he has humanized Odin, turned him into a bad-tempered but basically benevolent patriarch who has problems controlling his wife and daughters. The divine element enters through the music, of course, and in an inspired interpretation.

Now a few words about good and evil. When we meet Odin among human beings in Old Icelandic sources, he is, as we have seen, definitely not a good or just god. He is amoral, personifying war and strife and the changing luck of war. To his favourites he grants endless courage and luck in battle, but his favour can suddenly be removed, by a whim or because he has been angered by some thoughtless act on the part of his favourite. This Odin is not likely, however, to remove his patronage because of a breach of marital vows.

On the other hand the great myths dealing with the fate of the gods themselves are deeply concerned with morality or ethics. In Völuspá, as well as in Snorra Edda, the gods seem to be doomed because of their own moral weaknesses. Although infinitely more powerful and noble than human beings, they are not perfect and do not have full control over the world or their own destiny. The Odin of these myths is the personification of the search for wisdom of all sorts. In his wit-contests with giants he gathers knowledge about the world and its fate, and through selftorture and journeys to the reign of death — and by turning to the sibyl, the völva — he attempts to probe the deepest mysteries of life. Unlike his mighty son Thor, the thunder god, who is constantly fighting the evil giants to keep them in check, Odin seeks the company of the giants, trying to outwit them and even enters bloodbrotherhood with the evil Loki. The two seem to be able to keep things in some kind of balance until the advent of Odin’s totally good son Baldr the White disturbs the balance. His appearance sets in motion a chain of events which leads to Baldr’s death and Loki’s capture. Good and evil have been crystallized and Ragnarök draws near. Ragnarök is a cosmological disaster, the result of some original fault or imbalance in the world. It is therefore in fact a radical innovation to combine the strife about the Rhinegold and the killing of Sigurd with Ragnarök. It would probably have surprised and shocked the old Icelanders, because for them these were stories of altogether different kinds, belonging to different worlds. But the wisest of them, people like Snorri, might, I assume, have realized that there is some deeper, metaphorical truth in this conjunction.

Honour is to the heroic poems what love is to the Ring. Namely, the central value of human life, without which life is not worth living. I suppose that we modern people do not generally think of honour and love together. To judge from much of today’s art, be it film, novel or pictorial art, one might even be tempted to conclude that passionate love is shameless and consequently without regard to honour. In heroic poetry the themes of love and honour are intertwined to a degree that sometimes makes love invisible. Some scholars have maintained that in the oldest Icelandic or Norse version of the legend about Sigurd and Brynhild there was no love between them. Brynhild was only driven forward by hurt pride because she had been deceived into breaking her oath and marrying the second best, while younger and softer versions are supposed to have introduced the theme of betrayal of love.[1] I find it unlikely that this could be the case, even in a version where Sigurd and Brynhild may not have met before he rode the fire and went to bed with her in the shape of Gunnar. As a matter of fact, however, a previous meeting is mentioned or taken for granted in German versions and in most Icelandic versions.

Let us take a brief look at the Poetic Edda. It contains a number of poems about young heroes, who all meet an early and tragic death, usually as a consequence of conflicts with in-laws. They all centre on a story about a relationship with a young king’s daughter, a valkyrie. The stories told about the young Sigurd are by far the most detailed, and they are presented in the Poetic Edda as a mixture of prose and poetry with the dialogue in verse, but most of the action briefly related in prose. Sigurd is brought up as an orphan, as many heroes are, shows early and remarkable strength, and proves his heroic status with the killing of the dragon. Then he meets the valkyrie on the mountain. This is described in Sigrdrífumál, and Wagner has used several verse lines from this poem almost verbatim. It is a strange feature of these poems that the teaching of wisdom to the hero is given more space than his education in the martial arts. This wisdom is passed on to Sigurd by the fatally wounded dragon, and by the young woman. The theme is the maturing of the hero, and although there is no talk of love as such in Sigrdrífumál, its wonderfully expressive stanzas, before the teaching begins, are saturated with the fresh and youthful happiness of two outstanding young people strongly attracted to each other. There is certainly love in the air. The author of Völsunga saga is much more explicit, and in this version love has become a main theme as it is in Sigurðarkviða in skamma, which is considered to be rather young. It is by no means obvious, however, that Sigrdrífa is the same person as Brynhild, although this is taken for granted in some sources.

It seems a strange idea that Brynhild’s demand that Sigurd be killed, when they are married to Gudrun and Gunnar respectively, does not arise from a feeling of betrayed love. Regardless of a prior meeting, it is obvious that Brynhild and Sigurd were meant for each other, because he was the only one who could cross the flames. In their predestined meeting destiny, love and honour are united. The deception is the betrayal of all three, and the only solution is death. What has misled some excellent scholars to disregard the erotic element in the story is the fact that in the most archaic eddic poems the love stories of heroes and heroines are an integral part of a tragedy interpreted in terms of honour. Love is not spoken of, any more than sex was in Victorian literature. For the eddic hero love without honour is as meaningless as life without honour, but when the most outstanding of young men meets the most outstanding of young women, and their destinies become intertwined with fatal consequences for both of them, this is called a love story in our days.

The poems of the Poetic Edda are among the jewels of world literature. In their own striking way they tell beautiful tragic stories that can move and inspire to this day. This inspiration can take many forms, more or less recognizably eddic. The question of the details from eddic poetry and Völsunga saga, or other Germanic sources, that Wagner made use of in the Ring, is less important than the fact that no other poet has been so deeply and felicitously inspired.


[1] It is out of the question to give here an adequate bibliography. I must refer my readers to the bibliographies in the series Islandica, vols. XIII (Ithaca, 1920), XXXVII (Ithaca, 1955), and XLV (Ithaca and London, 1985). Editions: G. Neckel & H. Kuhn. Die Edda. Lieder des Codex regius nebst verwandten Denkmeilern, 4th ed. (Heidelberg, 1962); Edda Snorra Sturlusonar. Ed. Finnur Jónsson (Copenhagen, 1931); Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Transl. A. Faulkes (London, 1987); The Saga of the Volsungs [bilingual]. Ed. and transl. R.G. Finch (London, 1965). Surveys: Vésteinn Olason, ed. Íslensk bokmenntasaga. vol. I (Reykjavik, 1992), pp. 45–186, 575–580; and vol. II (Reykjavik, 1993), pp. 188–194, 212–214, 535–536. See further: Jónas Kristjánsson. Eddas and Sagas. Iceland’s Medieval Literature (Reykjavik, 1988); E.O.G. Turville-Petre. Myth and Religion of the North. The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia (London, 1964); Jan de Vries. Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte I—II, 3rd ed. (Grundriss der germanischen Philologie 12, Berlin, 1970); Andreas Heusler. Die altgermanische Dichtung, 2nd ed. (Potsdam, 1941).
[2] Sources marked with an asterix are not extant but can be reconstructed from other sources.
[3] The sources from the 15th, 16th and 19th centuries probably have no relevance for the study of Wagner, but they are included here to emphasize the long life of this tradition. The Faroese ballads are recorded from oral tradition but seem ultimately to go back to written sources.
[4] Þiðriks saga is generally considered to be a Norwegian work, but it is included here because parts of the oldest vellum ms. as well as younger paper mss. are written by Icelanders, and it was well-known in Iceland.
[5] This characteristic feature is discussed in Terry Gunnell, The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. (Woodbridge, 1994) pp. 182–350.
[6] The most recent presentation of this theory I know of is found in Theodore Andersson’s The Legend of Brynhild. lslandica, vol. XLIII. (Ithaca and London, 1980). He reconstructs — with a Heuslerian method — a Norse proto-version of the legend where there is no betrothal nor a meeting between Sigurd and Brynhild before his crossing of the flames in Gunnar’s shape. Unfortunately for this theory, this form of the story is nowhere preserved in pure form, and the poem supposed to come closest to it is the Brot af Sigurðarkviðu (the Fragmentary Lay of Sigurd), where this part is lost. Andersson says about this poem, which he calls Forna (the Old One): „Perhaps Forna was a transition piece between a form of the story in which Brynhild resented Gudrun’s title to the better man and a form in which this resentment became erotic jealousy …“ (28–29). Later in his monograph Anderson says: „we must bear in mind that Forna may not be a particularly old poem: it already shows signs of the eroticization that is characteristic of the German version“ (238). Thus, the only foundation for the theory that the original Norse version was free from any „eroticization“ seems to be the preconceived idea that a pure Germanic heroic legend only deals with heroism and is not contaminated by eroticism. See also Einar Ól. Sveinsson. Íslenzkar bókmenntir í fornöld. Vol. I (Reykjavik, 1962), p. 414.