Chapter 3: What I have learned from reading the Völsunga Saga, Part 1

Oh God. Or gods. Either way, there’s something to be said about the customs of people around the world and history. The spartans, for example, are known for being really hardcore in their customs, gaining such a reputation that now “spartan” literally defines a very harsh way of life. On a slightly lesser degree the same can be applied to the samurai. Even today we have some pretty messed up customs and yet, reading the Völsunga Saga for research purposes I couldn’t help but be amazed at the… insanity displayed in its pages. Here’s a rundown of some of the tings I learned while reading the saga of the Völsung family:

1. Murder is like… meh. 

There is a separate category for this that involves children, so for now we will focus on wanton killing of adults. We get the first one right off the bat, on the first page (second paragraph) of Chapter 1:

Now it is to be told that, on a time, Sigi fared to the hunting of the deer, and the thrall with him; and they hunted deer day-long till the evening; and when they gathered together their prey in the evening, lo, greater and more by far was that which Bredi had slain than Sigi’s prey; and this thing he much disliked, and he said that great wonder it was that a very thrall should out-do him in the hunting of deer: so he fell on him and slew him, and buried the body of him thereafter in a snow-drift.

A “thrall” is a slave, or servant. Now, of course we all know that, historically, slaves are the lowest of the low, but killing one for out-doing you at hunting – especially when it doesn’t seem anyone else actually saw it happen – is pretty messed up. I was still quite innocent at this point and attributed it to Sigi being a very sick person and a very big asshole. Boy oh boy, was I wrong! Some of the characters that show up later will make Sigi’s murder seem almost justifiable by comparison.

At this point let me note that the Norsemen in general – at least a millennia ago – didn’t have much moral regard for human life. They had what they called “weregilds”, which were monetary values appointed to a person in case of injury or murder, according to their place in society’s hierarchy. I’ll give you examples in modern terms: let’s assume I kill a janitor, a profession which would probably land him/her in the (upperish) poor class. If the weregild system was enforced in my country, and the janitor’s weregild was $500, that means I would have to pay his or her family $500 as compensation. If I couldn’t pay that amount then I would be banished. If, instead, I managed to kill the Governor, the weregild would probably be something like $100,000. (I’m not taking inflation into account here).

That'll be $400 for Mr. Smith's uncle.

“That’ll be $400 for Mr. Smith’s uncle.”

This is important to explain, to a degree, the way they behaved with regards to killing others. They just didn’t give much of a fuck.

2. Killing your own children for revenge’s sake is like… meh.

Point 1 established how human life wasn’t worth much more than a few coins (well, kings were worth a lot of coins). Point 2 will show that even motherly love isn’t strong enough when vengeance is required.

There are, at least, three instances in the Völsunga Saga in which a mother killed or had someone else kill their own children for the sake of revenge. Let’s see Murder Mom #1: Signy.

Signy was King Volsung’s (the Volsung) daughter. She had nine brothers, eight of which were killed by her husband, King Siggeir, along with Volsung himself. The why of this isn’t important to this story; what’s important is that one of the brothers – Sigmund – survived with the help of his sister, and hid in the forest. Signy, of course, wanted revenge on her husband for slaying most of her kin, and she’s counting on her brother Sigmund to achieve it. When one of her sons with Siggeir turns ten years old she sends him to Sigmund to help him out (in secret), but the boy turned out to be kind of a wuss, and Sigmund informs her of this. Now let’s quote from the book:

Then said Signy, “Take him and kill him then; for why should such an one live longer?” and even so he did.

So this winter wears, and the next winter Signy sent her next son to Sigmund; and there is no need to make a long tale thereof, for in like wise went all things, and he slew the child by the counsel of Signy.

Got it? You better, or you die.

“Got it? You better, or you die.”

This wasn’t even actual revenge, just a complete lack of morals and love. She was killing her two sons because they were useless to her designs. Since they were Siggeir’s also I guess she hated them, but it is never stated that way. She just doesn’t care at all. Siggeir’s reaction to his sons’ disappearance is never followed up. Those poor kids apparently had no one who cared for them.

Anyway, Signy solved the useless sidekick problem by having a witch transform her into someone else, then go to Sigmund, seduce him, have him fuck her brains out for three nights (seriously), then go back, have a bastard incestuous son, name him Sinfjotli, and when he turns ten send him to Sigmund to pass the test of usefulness. He, being of pure Volsung blood, of course passes the test, but since things are never easy the kid had to endure torture along the way:

… and he was hardly yet ten winters old when she sent him to Sigmund’s earth-house; but this trial she had made of her other sons or ever she had sent them to Sigmund, that she had sewed gloves on to their hands through flesh and skin, and they had borne it ill and cried out thereat…

(Oh, I guess that explains their uselessness; they were busy feeling excruciating pain)

… and this she now did to Sinfjotli, and he changed countenance in nowise thereat. Then she flayed off the kirtle so that the skin came off with the sleeves, and said that this would be torment enough for him; but he said-

“Full little would Volsung have felt such a smart this.”

Sinfjotli on his way to Sigmund's earth-house

Sinfjotli on his way to Sigmund’s earth-house

Yep.

So now that she has her brother equipped with their scary son, revenge is eventually achieved, but not before… wait for it… more sons are killed!

Two other sons of Signy and the king discover Sigmund and Sinfjotli as they enter the palace to slay Siggeir, and they tell their father. So of course Signy goes to Sigmund and says:

“Lo ye! These younglins have bewrayed you; come now therefore and slay them!”

Sigmund says, “Never will I slay thy children for telling of where I lay hid.”

But Sinfjotli made little enow of it, but drew his sword and slew them both, and cast them into the hall at King Siggeir’s feet.

At least Sigmund tried to be decent this time.

The cake, however, is taken by Murder Mom #2, Gudrun. In fact, when I read the creative way in which she did it I laughed, not because by then I had become a monster like these guys, but because I had recently seen an episode of South Park in which Cartman does something very similar (so similar I wondered if Parker and Stone were deliberately parodying Gudrun, but more possibly it was the Shakespearean clusterfuck Titus Andronicus).

Here’s a very short summary of what happened: Gudrun’s family had been almost completely annihilated, the last of her kin falling in battle (or killed as prisoners) to King Atli. Obviously revenge was imperative. I’ll let the book take over and tell the rest:

But Gudrun forgat not her woe, but brooded over it, how she might work some mighty shame against the king; and at nightfall she took to her the sons of King Atli and her as they played about the floor; the younglins waxed heavy of cheer, and asked what she would with them.

“Ask me not,” she said; “ye shall die, the twain of you!”

Then they answered, “Thou mayest do with thy children even as thou wilt, nor shall any hinder thee, but shame there is to thee in the doing of this deed.”

(Very mature way of accepting your own murder)

Yet for all that she cut the throats of them.

How you like my cooking, honey?

How you like my cooking, honey?

Then the king asked where his sons were, and Gudrun answered, “I will tell thee, and gladden thine heart by the telling; lo now, thou didst make a great woe spring up for me in the slaying of my brethren; now hearken and hear my rede and my deed; thou hast lost thy sons, and their heads are become beakers on the board here, and thou thyself hast drunken the blood of them blended with wine; and their hearts I took and roasted them on a spit, and thou hast eaten thereof.”

It just occurred to me that this is the emotional equivalent of the Japanese kamikaze; it’s ok to die so long as you take the enemy down with you.

There’s still some other things I learned reading their crazy story, which I will address in the next chapter.

NEXT TIME: some sketch progressions by José Vega!

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