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Helgi: The Saga Within the Saga
An Esoteric Commentary on the Volsung Saga, Part VIII


Arthur Rackham, The Valkyrie

3,502 words

Part I here [2], Part VII here [3], Part IX here [4]

In our last installment, we saw Sigmund and Sinfjotli (the product of Sigmund’s incestuous union with his sister, Signy) return to the ancestral lands of the Volsungs. Many years have passed since the entire clan left there, and, in the meantime, a pretender has claimed the Volsung kingdom. But Sigmund and Sinfjotli drive him out, and Sigmund becomes a great and powerful king, “both wise and well-advised.”[1] [5] He decides to marry a woman named Borghild, and they have two sons together, Helgi and Hamund.

When Helgi is born, the Norns visit him “to determine his fate.” They declare that he is destined to become “the most famous of all kings.” Sigmund returns from battle, and gives his son a clove of garlic and the name “Helgi” (in Old Norse, “holiness”; from Proto-Norse *hailaga, “dedicated to the gods”). As a “naming gift” he also gives him the lands of Hringstathir and Solfjoll, as well as a sword. Sigmund urges the infant to “do great things and to be a Volsung.”[2] [6]

If anything, Helgi surpasses his father’s expectations. We are told that not only was he “better than other men at every kind of skill,” he rode into battle at the age of fifteen![3] [7] Sigmund makes Helgi king over the army, and together with Sinfjotli they command the troops. The tale of Helgi is told in the ninth chapter of the saga and constitutes a fascinating digression from the main story. It draws upon material in two poems of the Poetic Edda: Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I (The First Poem of Helgi, Killer of Hunding), and Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II. The differences between the text of the Volsung Saga and these older sources are illuminating.

However, in addition to the two poems just mentioned, the Poetic Edda also contains Helgakvitha Hjorvarthsonnar (The Poem of Helgi, Son of Hjorvarth). Ostensibly, this concerns a different Helgi – however, Helgi Hundingsbana is supposed to be the reincarnation of Helgi Hjorvarthsonnar. Thus, weaving together the full story of “Helgi” turns out to be a complicated task. And we are left with the additional problem of why the tale of Helgi appears in the Volsung Saga at all – since, on the surface at least, it does nothing to advance the story, and appears to be a straightforward digression. Appearances, however, may be deceiving.

Chapter 9. Concerning Helgi, Killer of Hunding

Helgi encounters a king named Hunding in battle and kills him. (Little is actually said about Hunding in the saga, and in the Poetic Edda; Wagner will flesh out the character a good deal for Die Walküre.) Naturally, Hunding’s sons want revenge, and they assemble a large army to take on Helgi and his men. A great battle follows, in which Helgi personally slays Hunding’s sons Alf, Eyjolf, Hervarth, and Hagbarth.[4] [8] On leaving the battlefield, Helgi encounters “several noble-looking women near a forest.” One of these is Sigrun, who is “by far the most magnificent.”[5] [9] What is not made clear in the text is that Sigrun and the other women are, in fact, Valkyries. However, this is made explicit in Helgakvitha Hundingsbana I (henceforth HH I), st. 15-17:[6] [10]

Then light shone
from Logafjoll,
and in those lights
he saw lightning.
He saw Valkyries
wearing helmets
in the high heavens;
their armor was bloody,
and banners waved
from their spears.[7] [11]

Note that in HH I, but not in the saga, the women are flying. Sigrun (whose name means “Victory Rune”) is the daughter of King Hogni, who has promised her in marriage to Hothbrodd, son of King Granmar. She does not desire this match, however, saying, “I have answered that I would no sooner marry Hothbrodd than a nestling crow. But it will happen, unless you forbid him and come against him with an army and take me away, because there is no king I would rather share a home with than you.”[8] [12] Apparently it is love at first sight – for both – and Helgi gladly accepts the challenge.

Immediately, he sends “men with gifts” to gather troops and assemble an army. (This was a common Scandinavian practice: one obtained the loyalty of men by offering them gifts of various kinds.) The result is beyond his wildest expectations. A great army comes to him from Hethinsey, and troops also arrive from Norvasund with “large, beautiful ships.” Helgi’s captain, Leif, states, “My lord, it is impossible to count all the ships that have come from Norvasund. But there are 14,400 men on them, and another half as many elsewhere.”[9] [13] (This gives a total of 21,600 troops; in HH I st. 24, the ships are described as “serpent-headed.”)

With Helgi in command, the ships sail into a fjord, but soon encounter a terrific storm. We are told that the sound of the waves hitting the decks was “like the sound of boulders crashing together.” Helgi tells his men not to fear and “not to reef the sails, but to set them all even higher than before.”[10] [14] Strikingly, this event recurs in the life of Sigurd, much later in the text, in very similar language: “Sigurd did not order his men to reef the sails, even though they were ripping, but instead he ordered them set even higher.”[11] [15] As we shall see, this is one of a number of cases in which the life of Helgi seems to foreshadow that of Sigurd (or, one could say equally well, in which the life of Sigurd repeats elements of the life of Helgi).

At the height of the storm, Sigrun appears, riding on the land overlooking the ships in the water. She directs Helgi and his men to a safe harbor at a place called Gnipaland. In HH I, however, Sigrun actually flies above the ships:

But bold Sigrun
protected them,
she flew above
their danger.
With the strength
of Ran in her hand,
she saved the ships
at Gnipaland.[12] [16]

The absence of this element in the saga, as well as the omission of the fact that Sigrun is a Valkyrie, suggests that the saga writer is deliberately trying to “humanize” the character – though his motives are unclear.

In any case, Hothbrodd and his men see all of these events from the land. Granmar (son of King Granmar and brother of Hothbrodd) comes riding along the coast and calls down to the ships, asking who leads this army. Sinfjotli responds, and his bizarre exchange with Granmar is one of the highlights of the saga, and of HH I. He is described in HH I (st. 33) as carrying “a red battle-shield rimmed with gold.”[13] [17] The Volsung Saga expands on this, describing him as wearing “a helmet on his head that was as reflective as glass, and a coat of chainmail that shone like snow, and a spear in his hand with a noble flag on it, and a gold-bordered shield held before him.”[14] [18] The overall effect is one of purity and nobility. Granmar will seek to undermine this in his exchange with Sinfjotli.

Famously, they exchange a stream of wild insults, and it is Sinfjotli especially who stoops quite low. The saga writer is thus being deliberately ironic when he says that “Sinfjotli knew how to talk to kings.”[15] [19] Sinfjotli advises Granmar to tell his people that Helgi and the Volsungs have arrived: “after you’ve fed your pigs and dogs and found your wife.” The suggestion that Granmar, a king’s son, would feed his own animals is a deliberate insult, as is the reference to his wife, the implication being that she may be unfaithful, or at least not under Granmar’s control.

Granmar responds in kind, making references to Sinfjotli’s personal history – all episodes with which we are already familiar. He refers to Sinfjotli as “living a long time off wolves’ food” (alluding to the time Sinfjotli spent as a werewolf). Granmar also refers to Sinfjotli having killed his own brothers – which, as we know, is true: he killed Signy’s two young sons, his half-brothers. He also mentions that Sinfjotli has “often sucked a cold corpse for its blood,” probably a reference again to Sinfjotli’s time in wolf form. Strangely, Granmar mentions nothing about the fact that Sinfjotli is the product of incest. Perhaps he does not know about this (but then how does he know about Sinfjotli’s lycanthropy?).

The remainder of the insults exchanged by Granmar and Sinfjotli all have to do with impugning each other’s manliness. Sinfjotli “reminds” Granmar of the time he spent as “the witch-woman [völva] on Varinsey,” when he wanted a husband and chose Sinfjotli! Presumably this is a lie, as is everything else that follows. Later, Sinfjotli claims, Granmar was a Valkyrie in Asgard (meaning, probably, he was a serving wench in Valhalla), and men fought over him (presumably, to bed him/her). Then, Sinfjotli makes the outrageous claim that “I fathered nine wolves with you in Laganes; I was the father to each of them.” Again and again, the basic suggestion is that Granmar has willingly played the sexually receptive role.

Granmar proceeds to outdo these claims by suggesting that none can be true, because Sinfjotli was actually castrated by some giant women. In HH I (st. 40), Granmar (who is called there Guthmund, and is described as “half-god”) approaches things differently. In addition to the castration claim, he also says that Sinfjotli was not “father to any wolves, you’re older than all of them.”[16] [20] In the saga chapter, Granmar then repeats the claims about Sinfjotli’s lycanthropy, and his murder of his half-brothers, referring to him as “stepson of King Siggeir.” His description of the murder of the half-brothers is more vivid in HH I (st. 41), where Guthmund/Granmar refers to how Sinfjotli “cut open the chests” of his brothers.[17] [21]

Continuing his emasculation of Granmar, Sinfjotli now asks him to recall that he was once the “mare of the stallion Grani, and I rode you at the race in Bravellir.”[18] [22] Now, it is a well-known fact that Grani is also the name of Sigurd’s horse (though, of course, at this point in the saga, Sigurd is not yet born). Jackson Crawford comments as follows: “This is not an unusual name for a stallion; it means ‘whiskery’. . . [T]here is no reason to think that this is the same Grani as Sigurd’s.”[19] [23] Strictly speaking, Crawford is correct, though if we assume that these are legends, and not reports of historical events, it is interesting that the name Grani is employed twice in the account of the Volsungs’ exploits (the saga writer takes the name from HH I, where Sinfjotli also accuses Guthmund/Granmar of having been “mare of the stallion Grani”).

Finally, Sinfjotli accuses Granmar of having been “goatherd of the giant Gaulnir.”[20] [24] HH I includes a bit more detail here:

No one thought you
were any kind of man
when you milked
the goats of Gullnir,
or when you were the daughter of Imd,
wearing a ratty dress.
Should I say any more?[21] [25]

The entire exchange of insults is certainly comical, but it is also far more interesting than it may at first appear. Imagine if a man in today’s world tried to insult another by saying that he had once been a mare, or a she-wolf who’d given birth to the first man’s nine pups. The recipient of such accusations would probably be more amazed, and amused, than insulted. The reason why these comments were insulting in the world of Sinfjotli and Granmar is quite simply that such things were actually considered possible.

Note that Sinfjotli’s first insult has to do with Granmar having been a witch. This establishes the idea that he (or she) is capable of shapeshifting. Sinfjotli suggests that Granmar has shapeshifted to become a Valkyrie, a she-wolf, a mare, and (in HH I only) the daughter of Imd. The thinly-veiled suggestion is that Granmar has used the power of shapeshifting to repeatedly gratify his desire to play the female sexual role. In Norse society, there could be no more dreadful an insult. Further, Sinfjotli’s accusations are offered in response to Granmar mentioning Sinfjotli’s time as a werewolf. In other words, Granmar’s (truthful) accusations concerning Sinfjotli’s shapeshifting and its bloody consequences cause Sinfjotli to retaliate with (probably false) accusations concerning Granmar’s shapeshifting, charging him not with mere bloodthirstiness, but with something far worse: ergi (unmanliness). When we enter the world of the sagas, we encounter a very different human reality in which, due to the presence of magic, there are no fixed boundaries between different human forms, and human and animal forms. As we shall see later on, there are no fixed boundaries even between the living and the dead.

The exchange of insults ends with Granmar saying, “I would rather feed your corpse to the ravens than talk with you any longer.”[22] [26] Helgi then intervenes, saying that it would be better for them to fight than to continue arguing. Helgi also rebukes Sinfjotli for the “shameful” things he has said, reminding him that King Granmar’s sons “are tough men.”[23] [27] Granmar rides away and meets with Hothbrodd to let him know what is happening. Hothbrodd now gathers his army, sending word to “the sons of Hring, and to King Hogni and old Álf.”[24] [28] When the two armies meet, there is a fierce battle, and many lives are lost.

Bear in mind that the reason for all this is simply one man’s desire for a beautiful Valkyrie. The Trojan War comes to mind as a parallel – though it lasted a lot longer. There is no Thersites here to object that the kings already have enough women and loot. Indeed, the men who have come to fight for Helgi and Hothbrodd probably care very little about the “justice” of the cause, and whether one beautiful Valkyrie is worth such slaughter. They seek their king’s favor, and they seek glory. In fact, the men who fight for Helgi may admire the fact that one man could be so daring and so grand in his quest to possess Sigrun.

During the course of the battle, “they saw a huge group of shieldmaidens [skjaldmær], and to look upon them was like gazing into a flame.”[25] [29] The term “shieldmaidens” was sometimes used to refer to Valkyries, and, indeed, the description of their appearance strongly suggests we are dealing with superhuman females. Moreover, we are told that “Princess Sigrun was there.” In single combat, Helgi kills Hothbrodd. Sigrun congratulates him, saying, “Have my thanks for this valiant deed. His lands are now yours. This is a very joyful day for me, and you will receive great fame and praise for having killed such a great king.”[26] [30]

Helgi marries Sigrun and becomes (needless to say) “a great and famous king.” However, at this point the story of Helgi ends with a whimper, as the saga writer flatly informs us “but he does not feature further in the saga.”[27] [31] I now turn to further details about Helgi to be found in the Poetic Edda. I have already mentioned some of these, but there is a great deal more and it is intrinsically interesting, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, the prose introduction to HH I states, “Here begins the poem of the Volsungs.”[28] [32] This is because it is the first of the poems in the Codex Regius to deal with the Volsungs. There may have been (and, indeed, really must have been) poems dealing with the events of the saga discussed in earlier installments of this series, but these were not preserved in the Codex Regius. Nevertheless, it is interesting that this poem and two others concerning a hero named “Helgi” have survived, and that they contain so much detail (more than one would think, judging from the rather cursory treatment of Helgi in the Volsung Saga). It seems clear that originally, Helgi was a much more important figure. It is also interesting to note that in the Codex Regius, the poem concerning Helgi Hjorvarthssonar is sandwiched between the two poems concerning Helgi Hundingsbana, even though, as Jackson Crawford notes, these seem to be two different Helgi’s (thus, in his edition of the Poetic Edda, Crawford puts HH I together with Helgakvitha Hundingsbana II, henceforth HH II).

At the beginning of HH I, the Norns visit the newborn Helgi, just as they do in the Volsung Saga. Here they are referred to specifically as the Norns who “make fate for the noble-born.”[29] [33] This is because there are apparently different Norns for different categories of people, and for the different creatures in Midgard. Snorri writes, “There are other Norns [aside from Urth, Verthandi, and Skuld] who visit everyone when they are born to shape their lives, and these are of divine origin, though others are of the race of elves, and a third group are of the race of dwarfs.”[30] [34] Snorri also tells us that “good Norns” (of “noble parentage”) shape good lives and “evil Norns” make bad lives.

And there is more about the Norns in HH I. In stanza 3: “They decided his fate with their power” (“fate” here is örlögþáttu, literally “strand/thread of fate.”). And:

They had bands
made of gold;
they laid them down
under the night-time sky.[31] [35]

Jackson Crawford is unusual among translators in rendering the passage this way. Carolyne Larrington gives it as “they prepared the golden thread and fastened it in the middle of the moon’s hall.”[32] [36] (She notes, however, that “moon’s hall” means “sky.”) The troublesome words here are greiddu gullin. Greiddu is the plural past indicative of greiða, which can mean “to unravel” or to “comb,” which suggests something being done with thread. But it can also mean “to get ready” and “to make.” Gullin is the accusative plural of gull, which means “gold” in the sense of a gold object or prize. Larrington is assuming that here gullin refers to “golden thread” (though gullin is plural). Crawford rejects this, and theorizes (oddly) that gullin may refer to gold “bands” (in the sense of rings?).

Crawford translates the next stanza as follows:

They hid their ends
in the east and west,
to show the borders
of the lands this king should rule.
One of the Norns[33] [37]
hid the third end
in the north; she said
it would hold forever.

Clearly, Crawford cannot think that the “bands” in question are rings or loops, for this would make the passage nonsense (rings do not have “ends”). It is thus easy to see why other translators have thought that the reference is to threads. In any case, what is referred to here is quite mysterious, including the Norns’ act of placing the “ends” of these objects (whatever they are) in the east, west, and north.

We are then told that Helgi’s parents were “grieved” by a further determination of Helgi’s fate, this time coming from ravens. Note that in order to be aware of this, they would have to understand the language of birds. In the poem Rigsthula, we are told that the child King, as part of his royal tutelage, learned the language of birds (see my essay “What Does it Mean to be True to the Aesir? [38]”. This will turn out to be (in a manner of speaking) a Volsung family trait. (It must derive originally from Odin, who, of course, could understand the language spoken by his two ravens, Huginn and Muninn.) In any case, the ravens’ prophesy concerning Helgi is as follows:

“Sigmund’s young son
will wear armor!
He’s just a day old;
His first day has just dawned.
But he has sharp eyes
like a war-king;
that boy’s a friend of wolves –
we’ll be happy and well-fed!”[34] [39]

(In other words, Helgi will be responsible for the deaths of many men, on whose corpses the ravens will feed.)

It is HH II, however, that really contains a treasure trove of information on Helgi, as well as some great, highly macabre drama – most of which is omitted by the anonymous author of the Volsung Saga. We will explore that hoard in our next installment.


[1] [40] The Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok (henceforth VS), trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2017), 14.

[2] [41] Crawford, VS, 14.

[3] [42] Crawford, VS, 14.

[4] [43] Note that I am Anglicizing all names and thus omitting accent marks, and changing ð to th.

[5] [44] Crawford, VS, 15.

[6] [45] St = stanza/s.

[7] [46] The Poetic Edda, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015), 192-193. Henceforth PE.

[8] [47] Crawford, VS, 15.

[9] [48] Crawford, VS, 15.

[10] [49] Crawford, VS, 15-16.

[11] [50] Crawford, VS, 29. This occurs in Chapter Seventeen.

[12] [51] Crawford, PE, 196. Ran is a Norse sea goddess. At HH I st. 54, Sigrun is referred to as “Sigrun, the flying Valkyrie.”

[13] [52] Crawford, PE, 196.

[14] [53] Crawford, VS, 16.

[15] [54] Crawford, VS, 16.

[16] [55] Crawford, PE, 198.

[17] [56] Crawford, PE, 198

[18] [57] Crawford, VS, 16.

[19 [58] Crawford, VS, 138.

[20] [59] Crawford, VS, 16.

[21] [60] Crawford, PE, 198-199.

[22] [61] Crawford, VS, 16.

[23] [62] Crawford, VS, 17.

[24] [63] Crawford, VS, 17.

[25] [64] Crawford, VS, 17.

[26] [65] Crawford, VS, 17.

[27] [66] Crawford, VS, 17.

[28] [67] Crawford, PE, 189.

[29] [68] St. 2; Crawford, PE, 190.

[30] [69] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman’s Library, 1995), 18.

[31] [70] Crawford, PE, 190.

[32] [71] The Poetic Edda, trans. Carolyne Larrington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 115.

[33] [72] The passage actually refers, as Larrington makes clear, to “the kinswoman of Neri.” We have no idea who Neri is, but Larrington assumes that Neri (and her kinswoman) are Norns, as does Crawford. See Larrington, p. 115 and 278.

[34] [73] Crawford, PE, 190-191.