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Helgi: The Return of the Dead
An Esoteric Commentary on the Volsung Saga, Part IX


Ernest Wallcousins, Helgi Returns to Valhalla

5,344 words

Part I here [2], Part VIII here [3], Part X here [4]

In our last installment, we explored the career of the legendary Norse hero Helgi. Chapter Nine of the Volsung Saga is devoted to Helgi, and it constitutes a rich and entertaining digression from the main story. At one time, Helgi must have been a very important hero. The anonymous author of the Volsung Saga draws on two poems concerning Helgi compiled in the Poetic Edda: Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I (The First Poem of Helgi, Killer of Hunding; henceforth HH I), and Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II (or HH II). In addition to these poems, the Poetic Edda also contains Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar (The Poem of Helgi, Son of Hjorvarth), which concerns itself with a different Helgi (though the two Helgis are intimately linked, as we shall see).

After presenting the story of Helgi as we find it in the saga, I then showed how HH I provides us with more information on Helgi, and how the text of the saga changes certain details of the poem. However, it is HH II that really contains a treasure trove of information on Helgi. And it features some highly imaginative and macabre drama – almost all of which is omitted by the anonymous author of the Volsung Saga. The climax of this drama is Helgi’s return to Midgard from Valhalla, as one of the living dead. I now turn to the details of HH II.

At the very beginning of the poem, we are told Helgi was named for the other Helgi, Helgi Hjorvarthsson. The poem Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar states that Helgi and Svava, the Valkyrie he loved, were “reborn” (i.e., reincarnated; endrborin). HH II picks up this motif, explicitly stating that Sigrun, the Valkyrie loved by Helgi Hundingsbana, is the reincarnation of Svava. It is thus certain that we are meant to consider Helgi Hundingsbana the reincarnation of Helgi Hjorvarthsson. “Rebirth,” in the Norse tradition, often happened when a child was given the name of a dead relative (see my essay “Ancestral Being [5]”). It is thus possible that the two Helgis are relatives.

Another surprise that HHII has for us is that Helgi is said to have been “fostered” by a character named Hagal (or Hagall, in the Old Norse original). We learn almost nothing about him, but the name is certainly interesting, since Hagall is the name of the H-rune in the Younger Futhark. We are also told that “King Sigmund and his kinsmen were called the Volsungs and the Ylfings.”[1] [6] (This fact is also mentioned in stanza 5 of HH I, though Crawford does not include it in his translation.) “Ylfings” (or Wulfings) means “clan of the wolf.” They are mentioned not only in the two Helgi Hundingsbana poems, but also in some of the sagas and in Beowulf.

Slightly more is mentioned about Hunding, Helgi’s enemy, in HH II than in HH I. We are told that “Hundland” was named for him, and that Hunding had feuded with King Sigmund, Helgi’s father. Early in the poem, Helgi journeys in secret to Hunding’s court, disguised as Hagal’s son Hamal. He escapes unharmed, but on the way out the door, he can’t resist taunting one of Hunding’s associates with parting words, suggesting they harbored a “wolf” who was passing as Hamal. King Hunding thus sends men to Hagal in search of Helgi, and, in haste, Helgi is forced to disguise himself as a slavegirl. On encountering the “slavegirl,” one of Hunding’s men says:

“Hagal has a
sharp-eyed slavewoman!
That’s no commoner’s daughter
who’s grinding the grain.
She’s splitting the stones,
she’s making the basket shake.”[2] [7]

This is a common motif in Old Norse literature: the different classes have noticeable physiognomic differences (Rigsthula provides the most detailed illustrations of this). Hagal cleverly explains that the “slavewoman” is actually a Valkyrie captured by Helgi: “that’s why this slavegirl of the Ylfings has fierce eyes.” This incident in which Helgi disguises himself as a woman has to remind us of Thrymskvitha, in which Thor disguises himself as Freyja. In that case also, the eyes are the dead giveaway. Thrym the giant leaps back from “Freyja” in fear, saying, “Why are Frejya’s eyes so fierce and grim?”[3] [8]

In any case, Helgi’s trick works and he manages to escape and, later, kills Hunding. Helgi then goes with his army to a place called Brunavagar, raids the beach there, butchers cattle, and eats their meat raw. This last item is a curious detail. It strongly suggests that some kind of battle frenzy has overtaken the men. (As I mentioned in Part VI [9] of this series, Kris Kershaw notes that “[d]rinking blood and eating raw meat were reputed to make warriors fierce and formed a standard part of the education of the adolescent Männerbündler.”[4] [10]) Sigrun then appears, and here too she is identified as a Valkyrie who “rode over wind and sea” (at HH I st. 54, Sigrun is referred to as “Sigrun, the flying Valkyrie”). She is also identified here as “the reincarnation of Svava.” Now, according to Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar (which we will come to a little later), Svava was also a Valkyrie, and was daughter of King Eylimi. This suggests she may be the maternal aunt of Sigurd, since Sigurd’s mother Hjordis was also a daughter of Eylimi. As I discussed in the preceding installment, there are many ways in which the story of Helgi entwines with – and sometimes foreshadows – Sigurd’s career.

Sigrun rides up to the ships and asks the men who they are and why they have come there. Helgi keeps up the pretense that he is Hamal. Sigrun then asks, “Why is your armor blood-soaked? Why are you helmeted warriors eating raw meat?” The answer Helgi gives is not, however, particularly direct:

Helgi said, “The latest news
of what I, an Ylfing,
have done west of the sea,
if you really want to know, is this –
I fought bear-like men
In Bragalund,
I fed the eagles’ nestlings
with the point of my spear.

“Now, lady, I’ve told
the story of how
I came to eat raw meat
on my ship.”[5] [11]

Sigrun suggests that he is clever, “since you speak of your deeds in riddles.” In Old Norse, what she literally says is that he speaks of his deeds “in slaughter-runes” (í valrúnum). Further, she sees through his guise as Hamal, correctly identifying him as Helgi, and introduces herself as “Hogni’s daughter.” This detail is also mentioned in HH I. Hogni is also the name of one of Gudrun’s brothers, who will appear later in the Volsung Saga (though it cannot, of course, be the same Hogni).

In a prose interlude in the poem (these occur in many poems in the Poetic Edda), we are told that Sigrun is promised in marriage to Hothbrodd, son of King Granmar, just as in HH I. This time, however, she rides off “with her Valkyries over air and sea to find Helgi.” Helgi has just concluded a fierce battle, having killed the sons of Hunding and others. He is described as consumed by “extreme battle-rage” and seated “beneath the Eagle-Stone.”[6] [12] (Crawford correctly translates allvígmóðr as “extreme battle-rage”; curiously, other translators render this along the lines of “weary with battle.”) HH II then quotes the “Ancient Poem of the Volsungs,” a text which (except in this fragment) has not survived:

Sigrun sought
the glad king,
she sought
the king’s hand in her own.
She kissed that helmeted king
and greeted him,
and Helgi
took a liking to her.[7] [13]

Just as in HH I, Sigrun professes her preference for Helgi, and Helgi agrees that he will fight Hothbrodd and Sigrun’s family in order to win her. Terrific bloodshed follows, in which Helgi slaughters most of Sigrun’s kin. She weeps for them, but what she says to Helgi is chilling: “Let all my family fall in battle, if that means I can sleep in your arms.”[8] [14] Helgi spares Sigrun’s brother Dag, however, after he swears an oath to the Volsungs. This will turn out to be a serious mistake. Helgi and Sigrun are married and have sons. All the while, the treacherous Dag bides his time, planning revenge. We are told that he “sacrificed to Odin,” and that “Odin loaned Dag his own spear.”[9] [15] We are familiar with Odin’s changeful nature, and his tendency to turn on his favorites at a certain point and engineer their deaths (how else could he recruit his army of the dead?). But lending Dag his own spear is certainly an unusual step. We will shortly see the reason for it.

Dag takes the spear and runs Helgi through with it at a place called Fjoturland (literally “Fetter Grove”). He then rides off to deliver the news to Sigrun. What he says to her is a fascinating expression of the Norse ethos:

“Sister, I regret
to tell you this hard news.
I have been forced
to make my own sister weep.
That king who was
the best in all the world,
who stood on the necks
of many fallen enemies,
fell today in battle
at Fjoturlund.”[10] [16]

Note how Dag describes himself as having been “forced” – his own experience of the deed is that he has been literally compelled by family honor to take Helgi’s life (perhaps this is the significance of the event taking place at “Fetter Grove”). But, as we say, “it was nothing personal”: note also the admiration with which he speaks of Helgi. Of course, in killing Helgi, Dag was forced to violate his own personal honor: he had, after all, sworn an oath to Helgi and the Volsungs. We should also note the parallels to the death of Sigurd, who was also betrayed and killed by one of his wife’s brothers. In the Volsung Saga, Sigurd is murdered with a sword in his bed. In other versions – including the German versions of the Sigurd (Siegfried) story – he is murdered in the forest. In the Nibelungenlied, his murderer uses a spear.[11] [17]

Sigrun curses Dag at length when he brings her news of Helgi’s murder (st. 31-33), reminding him of how he has broken his oath to the Volsungs:

Sigrun said, “All your oaths,
the oaths you swore
to Helgi,
the oaths you swore
by the sea,
and by the cool stone
of Unn,
will come back to bite you.”[12] [18]

She follows this with various specific curses (“a ship will not sail if you are on it”; “No sword you draw will cut”; “You wouldn’t even eat – unless you caught your own raw meat,” etc.). Dag responds by blaming it all on Odin:

“You are mad, sister,
you are out of your wits,
when you speak such curses
against your own brother.
Odin alone
causes all evil,
he’s the one
who causes war between kin.”[13] [19]

He then offers her various forms of “compensation” for her loss, including gold rings and land. But Sigrun responds that nothing will assuage her grief – unless Helgi himself were to come riding home. She will shortly get her wish.

Meanwhile, we are told that a burial mound was built for Helgi. When he arrives at Valhalla to join the Einherjar, HH II tells us, incredibly, that “Odin asked him to help him rule everything.” It would appear that Odin esteems no warrior higher than Helgi, and this must be the reason why Odin leant Dag his own spear. It is fitting that the greatest warrior should be killed with Gungnir, spear of the Einherjar’s leader himself. But the text has still more surprises for us: Odin actually allows Helgi to punish Hunding in Valhalla.

“Hunding [Helgi says], you will be
a foot-washer
and fire-starter,
a dog-walker
and a horse’s groom
for every man in Valhalla.
And don’t forget to feed the pigs
before you go to sleep.”[14] [20]

This is a rare example in Icelandic literature of an individual being punished in the afterlife.

However, Helgi barely settles down in Valhalla before leaving it again – if only temporarily. HH II relates that one of Sigrun’s female servants goes walking in the evening near Helgi’s burial mound (not a wise idea) and sees Helgi himself riding in the direction of the mound, accompanied by a large group of men on horseback. The woman calls out to Helgi:

“Is this an illusion
that I see before me,
or has Ragnarok come?
I see dead men riding,
I see them driving
their horses with spurs.
Have dead kings been given leave
to come home from Valhalla?”[15] [21]

Helgi responds that he is real and no illusion. It’s not Ragnarok, he says – and then he admits that they have not been given permission to return home. This means either that they have left without Odin’s knowledge (which seems unlikely) or that they have been allowed to return only briefly. The servant rushes home and tells Sigrun to go at once to Helgi’s burial mound. She tells Sigrun that Helgi’s wounds are bleeding and that he asks her to come and help close them.

Sigrun hurries to the burial mound and finds her dead husband inside. The exchange that now follows is both erotic and macabre. Sigrun says to Helgi:

“Now I am as happy
to see you, husband,
as Odin’s eager
ravens are
when they see
fresh, warm corpses,
or when, dew-covered,
they greet the morning.

“I want to kiss you,
my unliving king,
before you take your
bloody armor off.
There’s frost frozen
in your hair, Helgi,
there’s blood [valdögg; literally, “slaughter-dew”] all over
your body, my king.
Your hands are wet with
the cold blood of Hogni’s kin.
My lord, how shall I
heal you of these things?”[16] [22]

Helgi explains that the frost in his hair is Sigrun’s own frozen tears of sorrow. He is happy, he says, now that “my wife Sigrun is in my mound, the Valkyrie lies by me, though I am dead.” The text informs us that they climb into Helgi’s bed in the mound. Sigrun says, “I want to sleep in your embrace, as I would in the arms of a living husband.”[17] [23] He promises that they will spend that night together, but in the morning he must return whence he came:

“Yet still I must
ride the warpath,
take my pale horse
back to Valhalla.
I have to be
west of Bifrost
before the rooster
wakes the men in Odin’s hall.”[18] [24]

Note how curious this entire scene is. Helgi is no ghost: he is the animated corpse of the man himself. When he returns home from Valhalla he arrives in fully physical form, utilizing a physical means of transport (on horseback). Further, he has clearly not returned from “another dimension”: he has travelled a physical road from Valhalla to Midgard. This feature of the poem beautifully illustrates Claude Lecouteaux’s observation that there is no strict borderline in the Norse cosmology between the realm of the living and that of the dead.[19] [25]

Our ancestors were certainly aware, however, that the decaying corpses of dead warriors remained in their graves, even while they believed that those warriors had entered Valhalla. Our go-to explanation, of course, would be that the body is in the ground and the “soul” in Vahalla. But Lecouteaux argues at length that there was no Norse notion of a non-physical “soul” or “ghost.” The dead could exist in another physical form, separate from their “body.” This is easier to understand once it is realized that the living could do the same thing – via the projection of the hamr (see Lecouteaux and Part VI of this series [9]). Norse legends about the “living dead” – draugr or aptrgangr – are plentiful, though we should note that Helgi does not, strictly speaking, fit the traditional description of a draugr (nevertheless, he is certainly one of the living dead).

Helgi and his men ride back to Valhalla the next day. Sigrun assigns one of her maids to keep watch on the mound, and then returns there herself at sunset. Sigrun waits a long time, but Helgi never appears. She thus resigns herself to the fact that she will not see her husband again. Boldly, the maid admonishes her, offering a chilling warning about the dangers posed by the undead:

“Do not be so foolish
that you go alone
to his burial mound.
All the dead
are more powerful
at night than they are
during bright day.”[20] [26]

Sigrun does not live much longer after this incident; she dies of her sorrow. But the text promises us (in a prose conclusion) that Sigrun and Helgi lived on:

It was generally believed in ancient times that people were reborn, though this is now called a superstition [N.B. bear in mind that this text was compiled after the conversion of the Icelanders to Christianity]. Helgi and Sigrun are said to have been reborn. He was then called Helgi, the Sorrow of Hadding, and she was called Kara, Daughter of Halfdan, and she was a Valkyrie, as is told in the Song of Kara [a poem that has been lost].[21] [27]

Putting together the information on reincarnation to be found in HH II and in Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar (to which I will turn in a moment), we get the following sequences of “rebirth” (where → = “reincarnated as . . .”):

(1) Helgi Hjorvarthssonar → Helgi Hundingsbana → Helgi Haddingjaskatti
(2) Svava (Valkyrie) → Sigrun (Valkyrie) → Kara (Valkyrie)

Jackson Crawford writes:

It is possible that both Helgi characters [i.e., Helgi Hjorvarthssonar and Helgi Hundingsbana] stem from one common traditional hero, and that we are dealing with different versions of the same original story that have become so divergent from one another that a later editor inserted the reincarnation of the hero to explain why he is said to be the son of two different men in different poems.[22] [28]

Crawford is entirely right that this is possible. Of course, it may also be possible that they were always distinct Helgis and that the reincarnation motif was added as a way to connect them. A third possibility (which I favor) is that there is one Helgi “saga” with multiple Helgis, each a reincarnation of an earlier one. I favor this possibility just because I believe it is a sound hermeneutic principle to assume that the text faithfully conveys a tradition (and means what it says), unless there is evidence that forces us to think otherwise.

I now turn to a few, brief considerations regarding Helgakvitha Hjorvarthssonar (henceforth HHJ). The primary reason I will say comparatively little about the poem is that Helgi Hjorvarthssonar does indeed seem to be a character quite distinct from Helgi Hundingsbana, and our focus is on the latter character (since it is that character who figures in the Volsung Saga). This, in my view, makes it rather unlikely (contra Crawford) that these poems are merely different versions of the same, original story. HHJ is a rather confusing poem, and is likely a patchwork of different, related texts (as Crawford suggests).

Paul Waggener [29]

The first part of the poem concerns Hjorvarth, Helgi’s father, and his sidekick Atli. “Atli” is the name used for Attila the Hun in the Volsung Saga, but it occurs in numerous other places as well. It is also one of Thor’s names (meaning “the terrible”; attested in Snorri’s Edda and elsewhere). Hjorvarth has taken an oath to marry the most beautiful woman he finds. This has resulted in his marrying three women, each more beautiful than the last. One day, in a grove, Atli is engaged in conversation by a wise bird. Once again, we encounter the motif of characters understanding “the language of birds” (see Part VIII of this series [3]); I will deal with this theme more fully when we come to the episode of Sigurd acquiring the ability, in a future installment of this series). The bird informs Atli that Sigerlinn, daughter of King Svafnir, is in fact the most beautiful woman alive. Atli asks the bird for more information, but it demands a sacrifice in payment:

“I will choose a temple,
many altars,
and golden-horned cows
from the king’s [Hjorvarth’s] household,
if what I say brings Sigerlinn
to sleep in his arms,
if that woman
marries him of her free will.”[23] [30]

Atli conveys what he has learned to King Hjorvarth, who, true to his oath, sends Atli to ask Sigerlinn for her hand in marriage. Atli spends an entire winter at the court of Svafnir, but is then told that Sigerlinn will not marry Hjorvarth. Atli returns home to Hjorvarth, who then decides he will go in person, accompanied by Atli, to ask Sigerlinn to be his (fourth) wife. However, when Hjorvarth and Atli arrive in Savaland, they find it in flames. King Svafnir has been murdered and his kingdom seized by his enemy, King Hrothmar.

Hjorvarth and Atli spend the night by a river. In the morning, they find a mysterious house in the woods, with an eagle sitting on top of it. The eagle is asleep, and Atli throws a spear at the bird and kills it. Inside the house, they find Sigerlinn. The eagle had actually been Jarl Franmar, a follower of Svafnir. The text says that Hranmar “changed himself” into an eagle, but keep in mind that HHJ was written down after the Christian conversion, when some aspects of the Norse understanding of the “soul” were being deliberately distorted (see Part VI of this series [9]). What is more likely is that the eagle is the fylgja of Franmar (noble individuals were thought to possess animal fylgjur, such as bears, wolves, or eagles – see my essay “Ancestral Being [5]”). Franmar had been guarding Sigerlinn “with his magic.”[24] [31]

Hjorvarth and Sigerlinn are married soon after. They have a son together, but are unable to name him. The text says only that “no name suited him for long.”[25] [32] This has to remind us of Parzival, in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s poem of the thirteenth century (roughly contemporaneous with the compilation of the Codex Regius). Like the son of Hjorvarth and Sigerlinn, Parzival reaches boyhood having no idea what his name is. And in both stories, the turning point in the boys’ lives occurs when they encounter a group of “otherworldly” riders on horseback. Parzival encounters a group of knights in shining armor, who he takes to be angels (he calls one of them “God”). In HHJ, the boy encounters a group of nine Valkyries on horseback. One of them calls him “Helgi,” and predicts a glorious future for him.

Helgi responds, playfully, that he will not accept this name unless it is accompanied by a naming gift. The Valkyrie responds as follows:

“I know where there lie
in Sigarsholm.
But one of those
shield-breaking blades
is better than the others;
it’s decked with gold.

“There’s a ring in the hilt,
And courage in its middle,
and there’s fear in its point –
fear of the man who wields it.
A blood-colored serpent
decorates the blade;
another serpent bites its tail
on the hilt’s hand-guard.”

This is unquestionably a magical sword, and the most interesting element is the two snakes, one of which is an ouroboros. The ouroboros motif occurs in other Icelandic myths and legends. Famously, the Midgard Serpent encircles the world, biting its own tail. In The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, Jarl Herruth gives his daughter Thora a small snake as a gift. Thora puts it in a box and places a piece of gold underneath the snake. Over time, both the snake and the gold begin to grow. Eventually, the snake grows into a mighty dragon and the gold into a great hoard. Finally, the dragon becomes so big that it “encircled the cabin so that its head touched its tail.”[26] [33] Slaying this dragon is Ragnar’s initial heroic act in the saga. Later, he has a child with a woman named Aslaug, and the child is born with an image of a brown snake (or dragon) in one eye (hence, the boy is named Sigurd Snake-Eye). The saga does not specify that the snake is an ouroboros, but it is hard to imagine the snake in any other position than coiled around (or within) the iris. So, the motif strongly suggests an ouroboros. (I will discuss these and other elements of The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok much later in this series.)

The image of the ouroboros dates back to an Egyptian funerary text from the fourteenth century BC. For the Egyptians, it seems to have represented the eternal cycle of time, of death and renewal. The symbol continued to be represented among the Egyptians into the period when Egypt was a Roman province. The ouroboros frequently appeared on talismans, and it is entirely possible that some of these came into the hands of the Germanic tribes via Roman, or other contacts. However, the symbol is found in a variety of cultural sources and may simply be a universal archetype. It is now very closely associated with alchemy, where it represents the concept of hen to pan or hen kai pan: literally “all is one” or “one and all,” a formula which conveys the idea of the world as a whole or unity, pervaded by a single, ultimate divinity. (See, for example, the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, a third-century alchemical text.) As a device on the sword promised to Helgi, it may represent the participation of the warrior in the cycle of death and renewal, or the terrifying might of the Midgard Serpent.[27] [34]

It turns out that the Valkyrie who gave Helgi his name was Svava, daughter of King Eylimi. The text relates that she “defended him in many battles afterwards.”[28] [35] What follows in the poem is confusing, but it seems that Helgi returns to his father, Hjorvarth, and, shockingly, tells him that he is neither a wise king nor a good leader of men. He contrasts his father to Hrothmar, killer of King Svafnir (his mother’s father), implying that he is a more ruthless and determined king. Hjorvarth promises Helgi that he will give him an army if he will avenge his grandfather, King Svafnir. Helgi agrees and sets off to do so after finding the magic sword that was promised him. The poem gives no details about how he finds it, and only matter-of-factly tells us that Helgi, accompanied by Atli, slays Hrothmar and many other men.

Then, Helgi and Atli happen to kill a giant named Hati, whereupon the giant’s daughter, Hrimgerth, presents herself, seeking revenge. An exchange of insults follows, which calls to mind HH I, and its use in the Volsung Saga. Atli calls her a “corpse-hungry sorceress.” Hrimgerth says that he has a “coward’s heart.” Inevitably, Atli’s manhood is impugned: Hrimgerth calls him a “gelding.” “A gelding?” he responds. “You’ll think me a stallion if you try me.”[29] [36] Then, bizarrely, the exchange culminates in Hrimgerth’s demanding that Helgi sleep with her:

“Wake, Helgi!”
said Hrimgerth. “Pay me back
for when you killed my father –
sleep at my side
for one night,
and I’ll consider the debt paid.”[30] [37]

(The sexual appetites of giant women must be prodigious: recall that the giantess Gunnloth demands that Odin sleep with her – for three nights – in exchange for three sips of the Mead of Poetry.) Helgi refuses, on the grounds that she is too ugly. Meanwhile, we are told (again, without much attention to detail) that Svava and her Valkyries are protecting Helgi’s ships from attack by Hrimgerth. Helgi and Atli keep up the exchange with Hrimgerth until dawn, whereupon the ugly giantess turns to stone. (As Crawford notes, this motif is also to be found in the poem Alvissmal, in which Thor keeps the dwarf Alviss talking until sunup, with the same result.)

Helgi and Svava are betrothed. However, for the time being, Svava stays with her father while Helgi goes off on raids. One winter evening, Helgi’s half-brother Hethin (who has not been mentioned before) meets a troll woman on the road. She is described as riding a wolf, using snakes as reins. She offers to ride along with him, but Hethin refuses. As a result, the giantess either prophesies or curses him when she says, “You’ll repay this at the feast, when you make your oaths.”[31] [38] This seems to be an occurrence of the “loathly damsel” archetype [39]: an ugly female who appears at a certain juncture in a story, sometimes as a messenger (e.g., Cundrie in Wolfram’s Parzival), sometimes requesting sexual favors from a young man.

The words spoken by the troll woman come to pass. Hethin arrives home (actually, his destination is not made clear) and, at a feast, makes a drunken oath that he will take Svava for himself. Hethin is so ashamed of this that he wanders “wild roads to the south alone.”[32] [40] Eventually, he runs into his brother Helgi and confesses everything. Helgi tries to console him: “Don’t concern yourself, Hethin; the oaths men make while drinking will always prove true.”[33] [41] This is an odd consolation, to be sure, but the reason for it is that Helgi has had a premonition of his own death. He has been challenged to a duel by a rival king and does not expect to survive the encounter. Helgi suspects that the troll woman Hethin encountered on the road was his (Helgi’s) fylgja. (It was widely believed that the appearance of a man’s fylgja might portend his death.) Should he die, Helgi tells Hethin it would be good if he took Svava as his wife. Hethin is genuinely moved by his brother’s forgiveness.

Helgi’s fears are realized three nights later, and he is mortally wounded in the duel. As he lays dying, Helgi asks Svava to take Hethin as her husband. She refuses, however, saying that she has taken an oath that she will never willingly embrace another man, should Helgi die. Hethin responds:

“I won’t ever return
to Rogheim or Rothulsfjoll,
before I’ve avenged
Helgi, Hjorvarth’s son.
That man was the best
beneath the sun.”[34] [42]

The poem ends by mentioning (as we have discussed before) that Helgi and Svava were reincarnated.

I hope the discussion in this installment, and in the previous, has served to make clear how rich and fascinating these texts are. The story of Helgi presents itself as merely a brief digression in the Volsung Saga. However, if we consider the poetic sources for Helgi, as we have done here, we discover the remains of a rich tradition concerning this hero – who rivals even Sigurd in his accomplishments. (After all, we know of no other warrior invited by Odin to help him rule Valhalla!) In going beyond the text of the Volsung Saga and considering its poetic sources, we discover quite a few priceless clues to its meaning. In our next installment, we will set Helgi aside and return to the story of Sinfjotli.


[1] [43] The Poetic Edda, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015), 204. Henceforth PE.

[2] [44] Crawford, PE, 204.

[3] [45] Crawford, PE, 121.

[4] [46] Kris Kershaw, The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-) Germanic Männerbünde (Washington, DC: Journal of Indo-European Studies monograph No. 36), 143.

[5] [47] Crawford, PE, 206.

[6] [48] Crawford, PE, 207.

[7] [49] Crawford, PE, 207-208. Four other stanzas from “The Ancient Poem of the Volsungs” follow.

[8] [50] Crawford, PE, 211.

[9] [51] Crawford, PE, 211.

[10] [52] Crawford, PE, 211-212.

[11] [53] The authors of the Old Norse texts were aware of the German traditions. The prose conclusion to Brot af Sigurtharkvithu (Fragment of a Poem About Sigurd) mentions them.

[12] [54] Crawford, PE, 212.

[13] [55] Crawford, PE, 212-213.

[14] [56] Crawford, PE, 214.

[15] [57] Crawford, PE, 214.

[16] [58] Crawford, PE, 215.

[17] [59] Crawford, PE, 216.

[18] [60] Crawford, PE, 216-217. The Old Norse text actually names the rooster: Salgofnir, who is attested in other sources.

[19] [61] See Claude Lecouteaux, The Return of the Dead, trans. Jon Graham (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2009).

[20] [62] Crawford, PE, 217.

[21] [63] Crawford, PE, 217. Though the “Song of Kara” (Káruljóð) has been lost, some of its content was preserved in Hrómundar saga Gripssonar (The Saga of Hromund Gripsson). This saga has also been lost (in its original version), but some of the story was preserved in the rímur (rhymes) of Hrómundr Gripsson, or Griplur. So, we know some of the story of Helgi Haddingjaskatti and Kara.

[22] [64] Crawford, PE, 175.

[23] [65] Crawford, PE, 178.

[24] [66] Crawford, PE, 179.

[25] [67] Crawford, PE, 179.

[26] [68] Crawford, VS, 89.

[27] [69] There is obviously more that could be said here about the Ouroboros, but I will defer discussion of it until we come to Fafnir, the dragon slayed by Sigurd.

[28] [70] Crawford, PE, 180.

[29] [71] Crawford, PE, 182.

[30] [72] Crawford, PE, 183.

[31] [73] Crawford, PE, 185.

[32] [74] Crawford, PE, 185.

[33] [75] Crawford, PE, 185.

[34] [76] Crawford, PE, 188.