Brunhild, Brunhilda, Brynhildr
The Poetic Edda, the Nibelungenlied
Daughter of Budli
In Icelandic and German mythology, Brunhilde was a strong and beautiful princess who was cruelly deceived by her lover. Her story is told in the Edda poems of Iceland and the Nibelungenlied , a German poem of the thirteenth century CE. Her name appears with many slight variations, including Brunhild, Brunhilda, or Brynhildr.
In the Icelandic version of the legend, Brunhilde was a Valkyrie—a warrior maiden of the supreme god Odin (pronounced OH-din). She was asked to settle an argument between two kings, and she did not support the king that Odin favored. For this, Odin punished Brunhilde by causing her to fall into an everlasting sleep surrounded by a wall of fire. The hero Sigurd (pronounced SIG-erd) crossed through the flames and woke the maiden with a kiss. They became engaged, but Sigurd left to continue his travels. Later, after receiving a magic potion that made him forget his love for Brunhilde, Sigurd married Gudrun.
Gudrun's brother Gunnar wanted Brunhilde for himself and persuaded Sigurd to help him. Gunnar was unable to reach Brunhilde because of the ring of fire that encircled the castle where she stayed. Disguising himself as Gunnar, Sigurd was able to pass through the fire and reach Brunhilde, and they married. Later Brunhilde realized she had been tricked, and arranged to have Sigurd murdered. When she learned of his death, however, she was overcome with grief and committed suicide by throwing herself on his funeral pyre, a large pile of burning wood used to cremate a dead body. In that way, she could join him in death.
In the Nibelungenlied, the story was slightly different. Brunhilde declared that the man she would marry must be able to outperform her in feats of strength and courage. Siegfried (Sigurd), disguised as Gunther (Gunnar), passed the test and won Brunhilde for Gunther. When she discovered the deception, she arranged for Siegfried to be killed.
Brunhilde in Context
Many scholars believe that Brunhilde is based on Queen Brunhilda of Austrasia, who ruled regions of what is now France and Germany during the sixth and seventh centuries ce. She married a king named Sigebert. Queen Brunhilda also had an ongoing feud with her brother-in-law's wife, Fredegund, who eventually hired assassins to murder Sigebert in order to gain the upper hand in a war between the brothers. Queen Brunhilda went on to control the kingdoms of Austrasia and Burgundy through her son and later her grandson, but was accused of using murder and treachery to maintain power. She was eventually condemned to death, the manner of which required her to be tied to several horses and torn apart as they each pulled in different directions.
Key Themes and Symbols
Two of the main themes found in Brunhilde's tale are betrayal and revenge. Odin seeks revenge on Brunhilde when she does not support the argument of the king he favored. Later, Brunhilde seeks revenge against Sigurd when she discovers that he deceived her into marrying him instead of his brother. Gunnar wants revenge against Sigurd because he believes Sigurd betrayed him by sleeping with Brunhilde, even though he did not.
Brunhilde in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Brunhilde has proven to be an especially popular character in European art and literature. The German composer Richard Wagner based part of his opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung on the legend of Brunhilde. Brunhilde is a main character in the 2006 film Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King (released in the UK in 2004 as Sword ofXanten), a partial adaptation of the story of the rings of the Nibelung.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
The legend of Brunhilde shares some similarities with the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty, written in 1697 by Charles Perrault and later adapted into a Disney animated film. Find and read a version of the Sleeping Beauty tale, and compare it to the legend of Brunhilde. How are the stories similar? How are they different?