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An Esoteric Commentary on the Volsung Saga, Part XIII

[1]3,988 words

All installments of this series available here [2]

It has been some time since I have published an installment in this series (the last, in fact, was in November 2019). After more than a year of research and reflection, I am ready to return to the story of Sigurd, Fafnir’s Bane. In Part Twelve, I began to discuss the events of the saga’s thirteenth chapter, including how Sigurd is fostered by Regin the Smith (possibly a dwarf, though this is not certain). Fosterage is a motif we have encountered in the saga already, in the tale of Sigmund’s fosterage of Sinfjotli (the very first of the Volsungs, Sigi, may also have been fostered, though this is not clear; see Part One [3] of this series).

In Part Twelve, I raised the question of why Sigurd would be fostered to a smith. First of all, we should see the hand of Odin at work here, rather than the agency of King Alf or King Hjalprek (Sigurd’s stepfather and step-grandfather). Sigurd’s fosterage by Regin clearly has overtones of an initiation. We are told that Regin taught Sigurd, “various accomplishments, checkers, runes, and also how to speak many languages, as was then customary for princes, and much else besides.” [1] [4] I argued in Part Twelve that we should assume that Regin teaches Sigurd some of the magical uses of runes, rather than simply how to write in runic characters. Sigurd’s education in runelore will continue once he encounters Brynhild.

Comparative mythology reveals that smiths have perennially been understood as the bearers of esoteric knowledge. In particular, they were believed to know the secrets of creation itself, and to work with the primal forces which shaped the universe. It is quite likely that such a view was held by the ancient Germanic peoples, especially since the smith’s art involves the application of fire and water, or heat and cold, the very forces which, according to the Germanic cosmogony, gave rise to the world itself. The smith acts as a kind of demiurge, whose work can be seen as continuing the divine act of creation — or as perfecting the created world. (Such a role is assigned to the dwarfs in Germanic myth; for more information on this, and the other matters referenced above, see Part Twelve.)

We will see that several times in the saga, Sigurd is the recipient of wisdom that has the effect of raising him above the level of the merely human. It is with Regin the Smith that this process begins. Sigurd is given a first initiation into runelore and, so I would maintain, initiated into knowledge of the primal forces of creation. We are now in a position to turn to the other events of chapter thirteen of the saga.

While Regin serves as Sigurd’s teacher, imparting to him much that is never bestowed on ordinary mortals, we also soon learn that Regin has ulterior motives for working with his young charge. One day, Regin asks Sigurd if he has any idea how much treasure his father had owned and what had become of it. Sigurd answers that King Alf and King Hjalprek have the treasure. “Do you altogether trust them?” Regin asks. This is the first of several attempts on Regin’s part to manipulate Sigurd, this time by planting the seeds of distrust in the boy’s mind. (Though Regin’s relationship to Sigurd is complex; in Reginsmal it is said that Regin “love[d] him well.” [2] [5]) Sigurd does not seem to take the bait, however, responding that it is entirely appropriate for the two Kings to guard his inheritance until he needs it. (It is worth keeping in mind that Sigurd is also a king, having inherited the title from his father, Sigmund.)

But Regin has more tricks up his sleeve. “It’s odd that you are willing to be a horse-boy for kings and to go around like a vagabond,” he says. [3] [6] Sigurd is outraged by this suggestion and insists that he makes decisions together with the two kings, and that nothing he wants is denied to him. Regin then suggests that he go and ask his guardians for a horse, and Sigurd agrees to do so. The boy goes straight to both King Alf and King Hjalprek and makes the request. One of them answers “Pick out a horse yourself and anything of ours you may want.” [4] [7]

The next day Sigurd ventures alone into the forest and meets a stranger: an old man with a long beard. The man asks Sigurd where he is off to, and Sigurd responds that he is on his way to pick out a horse. He invites the old man to advise him. The latter says, “Let us go and drive them to the river Busiltjorn.” It is not explained in the saga where this group of horses comes from, but in Reginsmal the poet specifies that Sigurd goes to Hjlaprek’s stóð (cf. English “stud”; i.e., a herd of horses that have been saddle-broken). Sigurd and the old man proceed to drive the horses into the deepest part of the river. All swim out, except for one, who was “grey in color, young, large, and a handsome horse. No one had ever mounted him.” [5] [8] Presumably, Sigurd chooses this horse because it is unflappable: all the other horses immediately swam back to shore, but this one seems perfectly content to remain in the river, treading water.

The old man indicates that Sigurd has made a very wise choice indeed. “This horse is sired by Sleipnir,” he says. “He must be carefully reared for he’ll turn out better than any other horse.” Sleipnir is, of course, Odin’s eight-legged steed. Sigurd names the horse Grani, whereupon the old man simply disappears. In case there had been any doubt, the saga writer tells us “The man who had met him was Odin.” [6] [9] Sigurd returns to Regin, and the dwarf now redoubles his efforts to get under the boy’s skin.

“You’ve too little wealth,” Regin says to Sigurd. “It annoys me to see you running around like a peasant lad. But I can tell you where great wealth is likely to be found, and in all probability there’s honor to be had, and fame, too, should you win it.” This news excites young Sigurd, and he asks to know where the treasure is and who guards it. Regin responds that the treasure is not far, and is located at a place called Gnita Heath, and that it is guarded by a dragon called Fafnir. Regin promises Sigurd that “when you get there you will say that you have never seen a greater hoard of gold in any one place. And you’ll not need more, even if you become the most senior and most renowned of all kings.” [7] [10]

Sigurd responds that he has heard of Fafnir, and that supposedly the dragon is huge and ferocious. Amusingly, Regin answers that this is an exaggeration, and that “his size is the usual for serpents, and it’s been made out to be far greater than it actually is.” Then Regin dares to question Sigurd’s courage, thus virtually guaranteeing that Sigurd will accept the challenge. “Anyhow,” he says, “that’s what your ancestors would have thought. Although you are of the Volsung line, you don’t appear to have their spirit, which is reckoned second to none.” [8] [11] Sigurd defends himself quite sensibly, pointing out that he is still practically a child. And Sigurd has also grown suspicious of the dwarf’s motives. “Why are you so keen on this business?” he asks. Regin responds that there’s a story behind it, and he promises to tell it to Sigurd.


You can buy Collin Cleary’s What is a Rune? here [13]

Chapter Fourteen, The Otter’s Ransom

We are now entering into the central events of the saga. The present chapter lays the groundwork for Sigurd’s most celebrated feat, his slaying of the dragon Fafnir. In fact, this episode is only one in a series of events in the life of Sigurd which involve the acquisition of wisdom. These chapters — which cover the tale of the otter’s ransom through Sigurd’s meeting with Brynhild — feature material that is heavily symbolic and could correctly be described as “esoteric.” The material in Chapter Fourteen echoes Reginsmal, and we will draw upon that text, as well as others, to elucidate its meaning.

Regin begins his story by telling us that he was the son of Hreidmar who was “important and wealthy.” Just who, or what, is Hreidmar? Well, if Regin is a dwarf then it is reasonable to assume that Hreidmar is as well, and that his other children are dwarfs also. (Though we need to be careful about assuming that we know what dwarfs actually are — see part twelve of this series.) Regin mentions two brothers, Fafnir and Otter. Reginsmal also tells us that Hreidmar had two daughters, but these are not mentioned in the saga at all. I will discuss them later. Regin characterizes himself as the least of the siblings in terms of gifts and reputation. But, he says, “I could fashion things in iron, in silver and gold, too, and I could make something useful out of anything.” [9] [14]

Of Fafnir, Regin tells us that he was the biggest of the brothers and also the fiercest. Further, we are informed that he “wanted everything to be called his.” Otter (Otr) is called such because he chooses to take the form of an otter. This is yet another example of shapeshifting in the saga, and it will not be the last. Regin’s other brother, Fafnir, will also change his form later on. Surely the magical powers of this family are reason enough to assume that they are not human beings. Regin describes Otter as “a great fisherman,” who, in otter form, spent his days catching fish with his mouth, and bringing some of his catch home to their father. Otter caught most of his fish at a spot called Andvari’s Falls, named for a dwarf called Andvari, who had shifted his shape as well, and lived in the water in the form of a pike. Regin tells us, amusingly, that Otter “had many of the characteristics of an otter, he came home late, eating alone and with his eyes shut, for he couldn’t bear to watch [his meal] growing less.” [10] [15] This rather endearing trait will prove to be Otter’s downfall.

One fine day Odin, Loki, and Hoenir came upon Andvari’s Falls. Now, we must pause to ask why the saga mentions these three gods, rather than some other grouping of gods. In doing so, it agrees with Reginsmal and with Snorri’s account in Skaldskaparmal. This same trio of gods also appears in Haustlöng, a tenth-century skaldic poem, and in Loka Táttur, a Faroese ballad composed sometime in the late Middle Ages. [11] [16] Since Loki is along, we know that there is going to be trouble. Just as the Aesir arrived at the falls, Otter had caught a salmon and was eating it, as usual, with his eyes shut. Loki threw a stone at Otter, killing him instantly. At first, the gods thought this a very lucky occurrence, and they skinned Otter and turned the skin into a bag. No mention is made (in either the saga or Reginsmal) of what becomes of the rest of the salmon.

The salmon is a very interesting mythological fish. It figures prominently in The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn (Irish: Macgnímartha Finn), a twelfth-century Irish text recounting the youthful adventures of the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill. The legendary poet Finn Eces (or Finnegas) spends seven years searching for a salmon that has acquired total knowledge by eating nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the Well of Wisdom. Anyone who eats the salmon will acquire all its knowledge. Finn eventually catches the salmon (described as “one eyed” in more than one source) and entrusts it to Fionn mac Cumhaill, his servant. He orders Fionn to cook the salmon, but not to taste it. Now, so far this may seem to have little relation to our subject matter, the Volsung Saga. What happens next, though, is fascinating. Fionn does as ordered and cooks the salmon. At a certain point, however, he checks to see if the fish is thoroughly cooked by pressing his thumb against it. When he does so, his thumb is burned by a hot jet of fish fat. Instinctively, Fionn sticks his thumb in his mouth and, in so doing, acquires total knowledge of all things in heaven and on earth.

Those already familiar with our saga will immediately recognize this motif. Sigurd, as we shall see, slays the dragon Fafnir and cuts his heart out, intending to cook it: “Sigurd went and roasted it on a spit. And when the juice sputtered out, he touched it with his finger to see whether it was done. He jerked his finger to his mouth, and when the blood from the dragon’s heart touched his tongue he could understand the language of birds.” [12] [17] In other words, he attains a kind of wisdom (not the first, nor the last time in the saga that Sigurd will attain a special sort of wisdom). Further, just as in the tale of Fionn, Sigurd cooks the heart at the behest of another (Regin), who is intent on eating it himself.

But does the salmon in the Volsung Saga also have something to do with wisdom? There is no explicit suggestion of this, but it is perhaps worth noting that there are other episodes in the lore where wisdom, or those bearing wisdom, are treated as brutally as Loki treats Otter. For example, the dwarfs kill Kvasir, an all-wise man created by the Aesir out of the spittle of the Aesir and Vanir (a token of their truce; the two sides spit into a cauldron). The dwarfs then brew the poetic mead from Kvasir’s body — but, true to form, the dwarfs only hoard the mead, they do not sample it.

Another example concerns the fate of Mimir. The Aesir give Mimir and Hoenir (presumably the same Hoenir mentioned in our saga) as hostages to the Vanir. The latter make Hoenir a chieftain, but he proves unable to make any decisions without consulting the wise Mimir. Remarkably, the Vanir respond to this situation by decapitating Mimir. Mimir also, of course, lends his name to Mimisbrunnr, Mimir’s Well, the Norse Well of Wisdom. We will return to some of these parallels later.

To continue our story, Odin, Hoenir, and Loki, carrying their bag of otter skin, go on their way and presently come upon the house of Hredimar. The gods proudly show Hredimar their catch, unaware that he is Otter’s father. Hreidmar and his sons seize the Aesir and threaten to kill them if they will not fill the otter skin with gold and cover it on the outside with “red gold” (rauðu gull). (This is one of many instances in the lore indicating that Odin and the Aesir are vulnerable and not all-powerful.) The family of Otter is demanding wergeld, financial compensation for the death of their kinsman (wer = man, geld = payment). Having no choice but to agree, the gods send Loki to acquire the gold — presumably because he is the one who got them into this mess.

Curiously, Loki immediately sets about trying to capture the dwarf Andvari (who, it may be recalled, lives in Andvari’s Falls in the form of a pike). Loki is aware that Andvari is in possession of a vast hoard of gold, though how he is aware of this is never explained. Snorri tells us that “Odin sent Loki into the world of black-elves [Svartálfaheim] and he came across a dwarf called Andvari.” [13] [18] (Clearly the inspiration for the episode in Wagner’s Das Rheingold where the gods descend into “Nibelheim” to obtain the treasure of Alberich.) The Volsung Saga, however, agrees with Reginsmal in that no mention is made of Svartálfaheim at all. Instead, Loki goes to Ran, the goddess of the sea, to borrow her net so that he can catch Andvari in his pike form.

There is little information in the lore on Ran. She is married to Aegir, a giant (jötunn) who is also understood to be the personification of the sea (since he is a giant, he should not be referred to as “god” of the sea, yet some modern accounts use this language). Rudolf Simek notes that “While Ægir personifies the sea as friendly power, Rán embodies the sinister side of the sea, at least in the eyes of the late Viking Age Icelandic seafarers.” [14] [19] Thus, those lost at sea were said to have “fallen into the hands of Ran.” As Simek also states, this effectively means that Ran was understood as ruler of a realm of the dead at the bottom of the ocean. In both Snorri’s version of the story, and the one to be found in Reginsmal and the saga, Loki must go down to the depths, at least initially, in order to pursue Andvari: he must journey to Svartálfaheim (which was understood as “below”) or to the undersea realm of Ran (“He went to Ran,” says the saga).

Simek notes that there is no firm agreement on the etymology of Ran’s name, although the word rán in Old Norse means “theft” or “robbery.” This makes sense, in that the sea has perennially been understood as “claiming” those it kills, and it is a short step from this to the portrayal of the sea as thief. In addition, Ran has an interesting relation to gold. A large part of Snorri’s Skaldskaparmal is devoted to kennings for gold, and the first one discussed is “Aegir’s fire.” He relates the tale of how Aegir, after being guest of the Aesir, invited the gods to feast at his hall in three months’ time. Making the journey are most of the major gods and goddesses, as well as a few relatively obscure figures (such as Vidar, the son of Odin, who will figure prominently at Ragnarok, and Gefjun, a goddess associated with agriculture and prophecy, about whom we know little).

Snorri tells us that “Aegir had glowing gold brought into the middle of the hall which illuminated and lit up the hall like fire, and this was used as lights at his feast just as in Valhalla there had been [luminous] swords instead of fire.” [15] [20] Those who have read Lokasenna in the Poetic Edda know what comes next: Loki kills one of Aegir’s servants, flees the hall, then returns to insult each of the gods and goddesses in turn. Curiously, Snorri mentions these events only very briefly. Then, after informing us about the gold, he tells us that

The Aesir became aware that Ran had a net in which she caught everyone that went to sea. So this is the story of the origin of gold being called fire or light or brightness of Aegir, Ran, or Aegir’s daughters, and from such kennings the practice has now developed of calling gold fire of the sea and of all terms for it, since Aegir and Ran’s names are also terms for sea, and hence gold is now called fire of lakes or rivers and of all river-names. [16] [21]

No explanation is given for why Snorri thinks it important to mention that “the Aesir became aware” (Þá urðu æsir þessir varir) that Ran possesses a net (as if this was a noteworthy discovery). However, this would seem to be the background to Loki’s knowing, in the Volsung Saga, that Ran possesses a net he might borrow to try and catch Andvari. Furthermore, we should note that the same strategy was used against Loki himself by the Aesir. In the prose conclusion to Lokasenna, we are told that “After this, Loki hid in the Falls of Frananger in the shape of a salmon, but the gods caught him.” [17] [22] Snorri (earlier in Skaldskaparmal) transposes this tale into his account of Loki’s punishment for a different offence: the death of Balder.

According to Snorri, Loki builds a house on (or inside of) a mountain, where he hides from the gods, but “in the daytime he often turned himself into the form of a salmon and hid in a place called Frananger waterfall. Then he pondered what sort of device the Aesir would be likely to think up to catch him in the waterfall.” [18] [23] He predicts that they will use a net to catch him, which they do — though Snorri says the Aesir “made” a net, rather than borrowed one. Interestingly, the Aesir get the idea of making a net when they find the remains of a prototype Loki had created and then burned in his hearth. (It is Kvasir, “the wisest of all,” who has the idea.) For this reason, Loki is credited as inventor of the fishnet (which hardly squares with Ran possessing a net and Loki’s having to borrow it from her, unless she got the idea from Loki).

One feels that all these stories are somehow connected. Andvari hiding out in Andvari’s Falls in the form of a pike mirrors the story of Loki hiding out in Frananger Falls in the form of a salmon. In both stories, they are caught by a net. One also feels that there is some deep connection between these stories and the Celtic tale of the salmon of wisdom, since it so closely mirrors the episode of Sigurd acquiring the ability to understand the language of birds (a form of wisdom I will discuss at length in a later essay). However, the connection is elusive (and, admittedly, may be pure coincidence). Further, in the case of Andvari, he is caught with a net that belongs to a goddess who is closely associated with gold. Recall Snorri telling us that kennings for gold include “fire or light or brightness of Aegir, Ran, or Aegir’s daughters.”

Thus, some major questions now confront us: why is gold associated with water, and, indeed, with fire? What symbolic or esoteric significance does this have, and what significance does it have for the overall meaning of the saga, in which Sigurd’s acquisition of “Aegir’s fire” is the pivotal event? Let us note right away a very important fact: in the Volsung SagaReginsmal, and other versions of the Sigurd story, the gold has its origin in water. Further, in most versions of the story the gold is also returned to water in the end — most famously in the Nibelungenlied, in which Hagen dumps the treasure into the Rhine.

In our next installment, we will explore this perplexing question of the relation between gold and water — and also the curious connection between dwarfs, water, and the “vital breath,” as illuminated by the research of Claude Lecouteux. Needless to say, we will also return to the story of “Otter’s Ransom”: the curse upon the gold and upon Andvari’s mysterious ring, Andvaranaut, Fafnir’s patricide, and Sigurd’s pledge to win the gold for Regin, as recounted both in the saga and in the Poetic Edda.


[1] [24] Vǫlsunga Saga — The Saga of the Volsungs, trans. R.G. Finch (London: Thomas Nelson, 1965), 23. Henceforth “Finch.”

[2] [25] The Poetic Edda, trans. Jackson Crawford (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2015), 234. Henceforth “PE.”

[3] [26] Finch, 23. Finch renders hlauparar as “runagate,” a word that has fallen into complete disuse. Crawford renders it as “vagabond,” and I have amended Finch’s translation thusly.

[4] [27] Finch, 23.

[5] [28] Finch, 24.

[6] [29] Finch, 24. 

[7] [30] Finch, 24.

[8] [31] Finch, 24.

[9] [32] Finch, 25.

[10] [33] Finch, 25. 

[11] [34] This is one of the reasons, incidentally, why some scholars have wanted to argue for the equivalence of Loki and Lodur. Odin, Hoenir, and Lodur are the trio of gods who create human beings out of trees, as attested in the Voluspa and in Snorri’s Edda. Scholars are by no means unanimous on this point, however. See, for example, Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda: Volume II: Mythological Poems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), p. 18; pp. 124–5.

[12] [35] Finch, 33.

[13] [36] Snorri Sturluson, Edda, trans. Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman’s Library, 1995), 100. Henceforth “Faulkes.”

[14] [37] Rudolf Simek, Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall (Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 260.

[15] [38] Faulkes, 95. 

[16] [39] Faulkes, 95.

[17] [40] PE, 114.

[18] [41] Faulkes, 51.