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The Wælsing and the worm – living tradition and the tale of Sigurð Fáfnir's bane

Updated: Sep 5, 2023


A  wooden carving from the Hylestad stave church showing Sigurð stabbing Fáfnir from below
The death of Fáfnir, depicted in the Hylestad Stave church. Source: Wikimedia commons

An often overlooked assumption is that once something is written down, that account becomes the pure, correct form and that if anything differs from this, it must be a problematic contradiction. This is even more of an issue than normal in heathenry in which we have been ruptured from the majority of our traditional knowledge and are undergoing a process of healing and reconnection, often dialoguing with fragmentary sources that were compiled hundreds of years ago. It’s very easy to treat this record as the absolute truth on the matter, forgetting that this was just one of many accounts going around at the time of recording that by chance was the one that was written down, preserved and immortalised. Did Höðr kill Baldr through Loki’s trickery or in a fight over Nanna?[4:49-50][2:3] Was Loki bound because of this manipulation of Höðr or for his behaviour at a feast?[4:49-50][5:Epilogue] There is no single answer to these questions and we should resist the search for an “original” form, just as there is no one “original” form of heathenry. That doesn’t mean that we cannot say that some ideas and practices are older than others but that we need to keep in mind that all these aspects developed and evolved over time in changing cultural contexts, with new ideas being brought in and others being lost. Heathenry did not appear at a single point in its entirety as an unchanging, internally consistent system that was later corrupted through inadequacies in preservation and harmful innovation.


To explore this concept of living tradition while giving the heroic body of work the attention it deserves, we can turn our eyes to the slaying of the worm or dragon Fáfnir by Sigurð of the Wælsing family. Given the popularity of Sigurð in the early medieval period, it seems strange that his tale goes mostly unknown in modern popular culture, while the gods are reinterpreted again and again in numerous translations, games and movies. References to him and his great feats crop up all over the place in sources as seemingly disparate as Skaldic poetry, a version of the Icelandic rune poem and accounts of a pilgrimage route to the Holy Land. You would truly be hard-pressed to find anyone as enduring in Germanic lore. As he went on, Sigurð and his tradition seem to have been linked with other famous figures, such as Helgi Hundingsbane and the famous sons of Ragnar Loðbrok, who are said to be his grandsons through his daughter Áslaug. Many early medieval kings and earls (including Harald Fairhair and Sweyn Forkbeard) justified and explained their greatness by claiming descent from Ragnar's sons, and so in turn, from Sigurð. As an entertaining turn of events, we can take this a step further and if you know the right places to look and are so inclined, it isn't too hard to trace back directly from the current king of the United Kingdom, Charles III, to the worm-killing Wælsing himself.[Note A] It is precisely this truly astonishing historical popularity that makes his tradition perfect for looking at to help to understand some ways in which our lore can shift and change over centuries of fame.



Outlining the general story

The Ramsund carving, showing the story of Sigurð and Fáfnir
The Ramsund carving from Södermanland in Sweden. Source: Edited from Wikimedia commons

As there are too many versions of this story to cover all of them in detail, many are found below in the “Medieval accounts of the story” section below with links where possible for those who are interested. A good place to start in understanding the general plot of the tradition is the version in Skáldskaparmál in the Prose Edda, written by Snorri sometime in the 13th century CE, but drawing on earlier traditions. In keeping with the purpose of this section, Snorri teaches us why we can refer to gold with kennings such as “Otter’s weregild”, “the dwelling of Fáfnir” or “the burden of Grani” by telling us this story:


Once it was that Woden, Loki and Hœnir were travelling along a river when they came to a waterfall, where an otter was lying down eating a lax it had fished from the waters. Loki threw a stone at the otter, killing it and he took it with him, along with the lax it had caught. Towards the end of the day, the gods came to a farm and hoping to stay the night there, asked the man who lived there, Hreiðmar, for lodgings saying that they had enough food with them and showing him what Loki had caught.


As soon as Hreiðmar saw their spoils, he called for his sons Fáfnir and Reginn for he recognised the otter the gods had killed as Otter - his third son. The gods were quickly seized and Otter skinned, with Hreiðmar and his children demanding reparations for the death of their kinsman. The weregild (the man-price) for the killing was to be as much gold as was needed to fill and cover the entirety of Otter’s skin and only after that was paid would the gods be set free.


To collect the treasure, Woden sent Loki to Svartálfaheim – the home of the swart, or black, elves. There he found the dwarf, Andvari, who lived as a fish in the waters there and caught him with his hands, forcing him to tell the god where his hoard was kept. Andvari conceded, bringing forth all the gold he owned from the rock in which he lived except a single ring which he did in his hand. He pleaded to be left just the ring as it would bring wealth to whoever owned it but Loki took it anyway and so the dwarf cursed it to also bring ruin to its bearer.


Loki gave all the hoard over to Hreiðmar, who released the other two gods and the three of them left. Fáfnir and Regin were not happy though with their father keeping all the gold for himself, claiming that they were entitled to some of it as well. So it was that the brothers killed their father and Fáfnir took hold of his wealth, but when Regin asked his sibling to share it with him, Fáfnir refused and left to Gnita Heath where he became a worm and laid upon his hoard.


After this, Regin became King Hjálprekr’s smith where he fostered Sigurð, son of Sigmund of the Wælsing family. Over time, he convinced Sigurð to seek Andvari’s gold and wrought for him a sword named Gram that was so sharp it could cut wool drifting downstream by the force of the currents alone. Taking it, Sigurð left to go to Gnita Heath, digging a pit between Fáfnir’s dwelling and the water where he drank, waiting for the worm to slither over the top and thrusting upwards into Fáfnir’s belly whereupon he died.


Seeing his brother die, Regin came forth and asked that since Sigurð killed his brother, so that they would be even, he wanted the worm’s heart to eat. Sigurð agreed and took to roasting the heart but when he thought it was done, he touched it to check, and burnt himself. Sucking his thumb to cool it down, he accidentally drank some of the juices from the heart and at that moment he became able to understand the speech of birds that were sitting in the tree above him. They told him that Regin was planning to kill him and seize the hoard for himself and that he needed to strike first to ensure his survival. Sigurð believed them and killed Regin before riding his horse Grani to the hoard and loading it up onto its back, before continuing on his journey.[6:46-47]


So ends the episode about Fáfnir, though the story of Sigurð continues, ending up entwined with jealousy, magic and none other than the famed hun Attila. I'd really recommend you read it.



Branching and changing


Sigurð accidentally drinking Fáfnir’s heartblood when sucking his thumb, depicted in the Hylestad stave church
Sigurð accidentally drinking Fáfnir’s heartblood when sucking his thumb, depicted in the Hylestad stave church. Source: Wikimedia commons

Now as you may have noticed, so far I’ve been referring to Fáfnir principally as a worm – not a dragon and it’s worth explaining that as it brings up several important points. I prefer to use the term worm over dragon firstly as is it the linguistic descendent of Old English: wyrm, cognate with Old Norse: ormr, two terms that were used historically to refer to Fáfnir's snake-like form after taking ownership of the hoard in our earliest accounts, and have their roots in the Proto-Germanic language. On top of this, worm is still used with this exact same meaning to some extent in the British Isles, such as when speaking of the Stoor Worm of the Orkneys and the Lambton Worm from County Durham. This can seem a little confusing at first given that when we hear the word we typically think of animals such as earthworms but what is important to keep in mind is that this modern blurring was there to an even greater extent in the Early Medieval Period, with both wyrm and ormr encompassing what we think of now as dragons, snakes and small grubs. A good example of this is Jörmungandr, who is also known as Miðgarðsormr – Midgard’s worm or serpent. By trying to apply rigid Linnaean categories to these beasts, we can sometimes make our jobs harder of trying to understand the people behind these medieval stories, forgetting that they likely did not share our obsession with hard boundaries and strict groupings.

So what is a worm in this context? It is not always clear how Fáfnir was conceived of as appearing, with descriptions being scarce and fleeting, however in the earliest sources he seems to appear much like the worms of later folklore – as a large and dangerous snake. In the older identifiable depictions such as on the Ramsund carving and the Jurby cross (figures 2 and 4), we are completely consistent with the early account of Fáfnismál - a large snake is shown being stabbed from below by a human-like figure. Interestingly though, likely through cultural influence from the south as the power of the church increased and translations of continental works (like the Chivalric Sagas) became available in Northern Europe, worms start shifting into winged dragons. We see this in the most extensive account of the story of Fáfnir - the Völsunga saga, in which after a subtle change it is in his shoulder that the killing blow lands, suggesting legs or wings.[13:53-57] This is again what we see in a depiction we’ll come back to later – the carving in the Hylestad stave church in Norway (figure 1). Here we see legs, wings and being stabbed in the belly from below. It is also interesting to note that as the conception of his appearance changes, so does the terminology used to describe him. As briefly mentioned before, in his earliest Old Norse accounts, he is referred to solely as an ormr yet in later accounts like Völsunga Saga he is both an ormr and a dreki - a term cognate with Modern English dragon, that entered the Germanic languages early from Latin and ultimately is Greek in origin. It is also worth noting that in Beowulf, both Fáfnir and the worm the one that eventually kills the hero are each similarly referred to as a wyrm and draca (cognate with ormr and dreki). Just like the development of legs and wings, it seems that the increased use of this terminology arises through growing influence from southern traditions, using words that were loaned long before that now had an important use in linking those snake-like beings that featured in the stories told the Mediterranean with their North Sea kinsmen.[13:53-57][Note B]


In spite of the change in portrayal for Fáfnir’s appearance, Völsunga saga does, however, include seemingly older traditional material that Skáldskaparmál lacks. Likely drawing on the Eddic poem Fáfnismál, as Fáfnir is dying, he has a conversation with Sigurð in which he teaches him lore about the Norns and the fiery Surt. This narrative feature may seem a little strange at first but the idea of using a story as a framework in which to teach traditional knowledge is something we actually see often in Eddic poetry such as Vafþrúðnismál, and wider afield in contexts such as the Finnish Kalevala.[7][11] Through these means, we learn alongside the figures of the tale in a manner that seems of great significance. This is something I personally love about the poems that we completely lose when we read most modern retellings, which often look inwards from far away, seeking to be objective and removed. In the medieval accounts, we are placed beside Woden when he teaches us in Grímnismál of the hart Oakthorny from whose horns drip the source of all rivers and of the shield Svalinn, which protects the world from Sun’s heat.[3:26,38]


English and Continental Germanic versions



Sigurð stabbing Fáfnir, depicted on the Jurby cross in the Isle of Man
Sigurð stabbing Fáfnir, depicted on the Jurby cross in Mann. Source: Wikimedia commons

So far we’ve been looking over some of the most complete versions of the tale but the oldest known reference is a fleeting allusion in the Old English poem Beowulf. Here, after the hero of the poem returns from the mere of Grendel’s mother, a þegn recites a poem about the slaying of a worm by a Waelsing, in this case named Sigemund rather than Sigweard, the Old English cognate to Sigurð. In Völsunga saga, Sigmund is Sigurð’s father and the attribution of the killing to him in Beowulf has been suggested to have been a mistake by the poem’s author but it has been equally argued that it represents an older, or at least parallel tradition to that we see in the Old Norse record. Supporting the idea that older features exist in Beowulf, the forefather of the family is referred to here as Wæls – the expected name if one were to work backwards from the name of the family Wælsing. In the Old Norse record however, this forefather is named Völsung, just like the family, though one would expect the name Völsi. Interestingly, we find this name in its eponymous þattr describing a heathen ritual practice involving a preserved horse penis bearing the name Völsi.[1:290-291][10:xxi] We also see these names cropping up in perhaps unexpected places, like the English town of Walsingham, the name of which means the ham (or settlement) of the Wælsings.[18]


Moving to the continental Germanic sources and the Nibelunglied, we see some significant story variants. While the hero, in this case named Sigfried, kills a dragon to win a hoard just as in the Old Norse and Old English sources we’ve looked at so far, its blood has a very different function. In the Völsunga saga, the blood gives Sigurð knowledge when he drinks it by accident in a suspiciously similar manner to the Irish Finn McCumhaill. In the Nibelunglied, Sigfried bathes in it, hardening his skin to be like horn so he could not be hurt, except between his shoulders where a linden leaf had fallen, stopping the blood reaching it.[8:15] This is also what we see in Þiðrek’s saga – a saga that is notable for being written in Old Norse in Scandinavia but also being heavily based on continental Germanic tradition, incorporating material from both regions. Here, Sigurð kills a dragon and bathes in its blood to harden his skin but the creature is named Regin (Fáfnir’s brother in the other Old Norse material) rather than Fáfnir, and the smith who convinces the hero to go is called Mimer.[9:vii,116-119]

Into the Christian period and beyond


The Drävle runestone, showing Sigurð stabbing       Fáfnir and featuring a Christian cross with branches
The Drävle runestone, showing Sigurð (top) stabbing Fáfnir (outside) and featuring a Christian cross with branches Source: Wikimedia commons

For a hero who rose to prominence in a heathen culture and became deeply interwoven with the poetic devices and mythology of the Germanic peoples, he really didn’t seem to slow down as the church was being established and his importance became threatened from a number of angles. Instead of his stories falling into obscurity under the increasing influence from Christian institutions, it seems like the Church in many places embraced the traditions, as attested in the numerous depictions we find of him slaying the worm throughout Northern Europe. In the case of any doubt that the new religious authorities were aware of his fame, many of these depictions of the Wælsing tradition are found, carved into churches themselves, or on fonts such as that found in Bohuslän. Perhaps the most famous depictions of Sigurð and Fáfnir are from the Hylestad stave church in Norway, shown above, though many more are found in Christian contexts such as those believed to be shown on stone crosses in the Mann and England. A perfect example of how the tale of Sigurð always seems to crop up where you least expect it is found in Leiðarvísir og borgarskipan – an Old Norse travel account of a pilgrimage from Iceland to the Holy Land that casually drops in that the route passes past Gnita-Heath where Sigurð killed Fáfnir, locating it somewhere between Paderborn and Mainz in modern day Germany.[15:4,10-11]


Some scholars have proposed that Sigurð’s story continued but in a Christianised form, drawing parallels between the Wælsing and the great warriors of Christ like Archangel Michael and St. George, triumphing over evil in the form of the worm. During this proposed process, the earlier narrative components that teach of the dangers of greed and revenge lose prominence and the flawed brother of an otter and teacher of lore comes to embody the enemy of the Abrahamic god that must be overcome. Simultaneously, the Wælsing was separated from his heathen origins and seen more as a historical figure from long ago. It is important to keep in mind though that all written forms of the tradition come from the Christian period and were written down by Christians and all of this will have played into how they were recorded and received by their intended audience.[14:144][17:77-79] An alternative, but not mutually exclusive, proposal made has been that depictions of Sigurð were used to help legitimise the rule of elites such as Earl Tostig of Northumbria who claimed descent from him. Here, the hero’s glory would pass down to his descendants, intertwining the leaders with their deep-rooted culture without harming relations with the Church.[17:77-79] So deeply ingrained in parts of Northern Europe that we even see Sigurð in the ballad tradition in places like Sweden and the Faroes.[16:28]


The Wælsing and the worm were ever restless while they remained popular, shifting and evolving amid the cultural changes in which they were told. Their names have gone quiet in our current day but can still be heard if you know where to look. It is up to us as to how we tell these stories. To me, in our current times of crisis, their warnings could not have greater relevance. The dangers we all face of giving in to the lust for material gain, even at the cost of killing our kinsmen. Of losing the other-than-human who would teach us our traditional knowledge. Of choosing to rupture the bonds that join us rather than strengthening them through sharing.


Original post written for the North West Heathens blog and shared by AUK with permission


Notes

A. Given the extensive intermarriage of European kings and queens, you can likely trace back from any current monarch to Sigurð. Similarly, you can trace back from Charles III to the Wælsing by a number of different routes. Two of the most obvious are through the marriage of James the 1st (or 6th) to Anne of Denmark in the 16th century or the marriage of Edward the 7th to Alexandra of Denmark in the 19th century. By linking with the Danish royal family again, this restores the line of descent to Sweyn Forkbeard that was broken in the 11th century when the kingship passed upon the death of Sweyn's grandson Harthacnut, who had no heirs, to Harthacnut's half-brother Edward the Confessor. Sweyn Forkbeard can ultimately be linked to Sigurð as he is the son of Harald Bluetooth, son of Gorm the Old, son of Harthacnut, who in the þáttr of Ragnar's sons is said to be the son of Sigurð's grandson, Sigurð ormr í auga ("worm" or "snake in the eye").


B. Both Old Norse: dreki and Modern English: drake both descend from Proto-West Germanic: *drakō from Latin: dracō from Greek: δράκων. Drake is from Middle English: drake from Old English: draca from the Proto-West Germanic root mentioned above. Old Norse: dreki was borrowed from Middle Low German: drake. Interestingly, dreki is the term that was chosen to refer to the famed type of longship often translated as a dragon ship.


Medieval accounts of the story

Old English

Beowulf (Open source version at heorot.dk)

Old Norse

Norna-Gest’s þáttr (Open source version at gutenberg.org)

Poetic Edda (Reginsmál & Fáfnismál) (Open source version at voluspa.org)

Skáldskaparmál, 46 and 47 (Open source version at voluspa.org)

Þiðreks saga

Leiðarvísir og borgarskipan (Open source version at skemman.is)

Völsunga saga (Open source version at voluspa.org)

Middle High German

Nibelunglied (Open source version at standardbooks.org)



References

Primary

1. Tolkien, J.R.R. (2014). Beowulf : a translation and commentary, together with Sellic spell. London: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 9780007590070.

2. Gesta Danorum. wikisource.org

3. Grímnismál. voluspa.org

4. Gylfaginning. voluspa.org

5. Lokasenna. volsupa.org

6. Skáldskaparmál. volsupa.org

8. The Nibelungenlied. standardebooks.org

9. The Saga of Didrik of Bern with The Dwarf King Laurin. Translated by Cumpstey, Ian. Skadi Press. ISBN 9798755963664.

10. Crawford, Jackson (2017). The Saga of the Volsungs : with the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. ISBN 9781624666339.

11.Vafþrúðnismál. voluspa.org

12. Völsunga Saga. Translated by Morris, William; Magnusson, Eirikr. 1870.


Secondary

13. Acker, Paul (2013). "Dragons in the Eddas and in Early Nordic Art". In Acker, Paul; Larrington, Carolyne (eds.). Revisiting the Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Heroic Legend. Routledge. pp. 53–57. ISBN978-0-415-88861-5

14. Düwel, Klaus (1988). "On the Sigurd Representations in Great Britain and Scandinavia". In Jazayery, Mohammad Ali; Winter, Werner (eds.). Languages and Cultures: Studies in Honor of Edgar C. Polomé. De Gruyter. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 133–156. doi:10.1515/9783110864359.133. ISBN 3-11-010204-8.

16. Holzapfel, Otto (Otto Holzapfel), ed. (1974). Die dänischen Nibelungenballaden: Texte und Kommentare. Göppingen: Kümmerle. ISBN 3-87452-237-7.

18. Walsingham, "Key to English Place-names". kepn.nottingham.ac.uk.

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