Nibelungenlied, The

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Nibelungenlied, The





Alternate Names

The Song of the Nibelungs

Appears In


Myth Overview

The Nibelungenlied is a thirteenth-century German epic poem that combines tales of chivalry with more ancient Germanic folktales. Based on old Norse legends, the Nibelungenlied tells the story of Siegfried, a German prince. The Nibelungs of the poem's title were originally evil dwarves who had a magical but cursed treasure of gold. The dwarfs known as the Nibelungs lived in Nibelheim, an underground land of darkness or mist. Many stories about their treasure appear in Norse and Germanic mythology. The Nibelungenlied combines a number of these myths with tales of legendary rulers, princes, princesses, and heroes. Some of these stories may have been based on events of an earlier age. In time, people who possessed the gold were also identified as Nibelungs. The story begins in the city of Worms on the Rhine River, where Princess Kriemhild (pronounced KREEM-hilt) of Burgundy has a vision in which two eagles attack and kill a falcon. Her mother, a skilled interpreter of dreams, explains that this means that Kriemhild's future husband will be attacked. Meanwhile, in the town of Xanten farther west on the Rhine, Prince Siegfried (pronounced SIG-freed) hears of Kriemhild's great beauty and decides to woo her. When Siegfried arrives in Worms, he is recognized in the court as a great hero, famous for slaying a dragon and defeating two brothers, Nibelung and Schilbung, for their treasure—the Nibelungen treasure. Kriemhild notices the prince while gazing from her window and falls in love with him.

Siegfried wins the favor of Kriemhild's brother, King Gunther (pronounced GOON-tur) of Burgundy, when he helps the Burgundians defeat their enemies in Saxony and Denmark. After meeting Kriemhild at a victory tournament, Siegfried asks for her hand in marriage. Gunther agrees, on one condition. He asks Siegfried to help him win the hand of Brunhilde (pronounced BROON-hilt) of Iceland, a queen of outstanding strength and beauty who has vowed to marry only a man who can match her athletic skills.

Disguised as Gunther's servant, Siegfried accompanies the king on his quest. When they arrive in Iceland, Brunhilde warns Gunther that he and his men will all die if he does not match her skills. Gunther becomes fearful when he sees the spear he must hurl, a spear that can barely be lifted by twelve men. But Siegfried reassures the king, telling him to pretend to lift and throw the spear. Meanwhile, Siegfried puts on a magic cloak that makes him invisible and hurls the great spear farther than Brunhilde can. He also throws an enormous stone and bests the queen as well. Defeated, Brunhilde agrees to marry Gunther.

The adventurers return to the Rhine, where in a double wedding ceremony Gunther marries Brunhilde and Siegfried marries Kriemhild. However, Brunhilde wonders why the king's sister is marrying Siegfried, a mere vassal. Later that night, she questions Gunther about the apparent mismatch and refuses to sleep with him until he explains. When Gunther refuses to answer, she angrily picks her husband up and hangs him from a peg on the wall.

When Siegfried hears what has happened, he again uses his magic cloak to make himself invisible. The next evening, he follows Gunther and Brunhilde to their room and wresdes with Brunhilde in the dark. Believing that it is her husband who is overpowering her, Brunhilde submits to Gunther, and in doing so she loses her miraculous strength. Before leaving their room, Siegfried takes Brunhilde's belt and gold ring. These he gives to his wife after explaining what happened. Siegfried then returns to his own country with Kriemhild.

After many years, Siegfried and Kriemhild visit Gunther and Brunhilde. During a ceremonial feast, the two women quarrel. Brunhilde ridicules Kriemhild for marrying a mere vassal, and in retaliation, Kriemhild suggests Brunhilde has been unfaithful to her husband and allowed Siegfried to sleep with her. She produces Brunhilde's belt and ring as proof. Siegfried denies the charge, but the matter is not setded. Brunhilde persuades Gunther's friend Hagen that Siegfried has wronged her, and Hagen promises to avenge her.

Siegfried had become invulnerable—unable to be harmed—after he bathed in the blood of a dragon during a previous adventure. However, Hagen discovers that one spot between the hero's shoulders is vulnerable. While out hunting one day, Hagen thrusts a spear through that spot, killing Siegfried. At her husband's funeral, Kriemhild discovers the identity of Siegfried's murderer and curses Hagen.

Kriemhild stays on in Burgundy. Three years after Siegfried's death, Hagen suggests to Gunther that Kriemhild should be persuaded to bring Siegfried's Nibelungen treasure to Burgundy. When the treasure arrives, Hagen sinks it in the Rhine, hoping to recover it for himself and Gunther one day.

In time, Kriemhild marries King Etzel of Hungary, who agrees to help her avenge Siegfried's death. After several years, Etzel invites the Burgundians to Hungary. Guided by Hagen, they reach the banks of the Danube River but find no ships to carry them across. Hagen meets three swan maidens and forces them to help him. After telling Hagen about a ferryman, they warn him that only one person from his group, a priest, will return home.

Hagen tricks the ferryman into bringing his boat ashore and then kills him. Then while ferrying the Burgundians across the river, Hagen throws the priest overboard, hoping to prove the swan maidens wrong. But when the priest swims safely to shore, Hagen knows that their prediction will come true.

When the Burgundians arrive in Hungary, Kriemhild demands her treasure, but Hagen tells her it will remain at the bottom of the Rhine. Vicious fighting later breaks out between the Hungarians and Burgundians. Hagen kills the child of Etzel and Kriemhild, and Kriemhild promises a reward to anyone who captures and brings Hagen to her.

After more fighting, Hagen and Gunther are captured and taken to Kriemhild. Once again she asks Hagen to reveal the location of the treasure. Again Hagen refuses, explaining that he promised never to reveal the secret while his lord was alive. Insane with fury, Kriemhild orders the execution of Gunther, her own brother, and then carries Gunther's head to Hagen as proof that his lord is dead. When Hagen still refuses to reveal the hiding place, she cuts off his head with a sword that belonged to Siegfried. In the end, a hero named Hildebrand (pronounced HIL-duh-brand), outraged at Kriemhild's actions, kills the queen.

The Nibelungenlied in Context

The actual text of the Nibelungenlied probably dates to the turn of the thirteenth century, but the stories were likely recounted orally since the fifth or sixth century. Many of the elements of the Nibelungenlied also appear in other Northern European folklore. Because the epic poem deals with values and events that pre-date the arrival of Christianity in Western Europe, it has attracted many readers seeking to pinpoint a “true” German collective identity. Though many scholars rate the Nibelungenlied as a less important work of literature than the Greek poems the Iliad and the Odyssey , it nonetheless has come to be seen as a defining national epic. Though popular throughout German history, the characters and images of the Nibelungenlied were infamously put to use for propaganda purposes by the Nazi Party before and during World War II, with the heroic Siegfried (symbolizing Germany) often shown stabbed in the back by his treacherous enemies.

Key Themes and Symbols

Though based on legendary characters, the Nibelungenlied expresses ideals of heroism and chivalry that were very important in the period in which the work was written. Moreover, while the roots of the Nibelungen legends are found in pre-Christian Scandinavia, the Nibelungenlied presents a Christian view of European courtly life and traditions. The work also strongly illustrates the Germanic ideas of fate and loyalty to the chief or king.

One of the main themes of the Nibelungenlied is revenge. Brunhilde seeks revenge on Siegfried after she discovers he was the one to whom she submitted on the night after her wedding. After Siegfried is killed, Kriemhild seeks revenge against Hagen, the man who killed him. In the myth, treasure—specifically, the Nibelungen gold that Siegfried has acquired—represents power. Gunther and Hagen fear it, knowing that Kriemhild could use the wealth to mount an army against them; they hide it in the Rhine, hoping to claim it someday when it can no longer be used to harm them.

The Nibelungenlied in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The Nibelungenlied had a tremendous impact on later Germanic art and literature. Most notably, it provided the characters for a series of operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen {The Ring of the Nibelung), written by German composer Richard Wagner between 1853 and 1873. Many adaptations have been made of this work and of the original poem, including two films by Fritz Lang in 1924 and a 2004 miniseries titled Sword of Xanten.

The story of the Nibelung was even parodied in one of the most famous animated cartoon short films of all time, “What's Opera, Doc?” (1957) starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The Nibelungenlied was clearly one inspiration for J. R. R. Tolkien's classic Middle-earth books, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. In these books, the ultimate treasure is a gold ring that possesses great powers. Also similar to the myth, the character of Bilbo—like Siegfried— aids in battling a dragon and takes some of its treasure. Tolkien's world of Middle-earth features many other elements common to German and Norse myth, including elves and dwarves.

SEE ALSO Brunhilde; Dwarfs and Elves; Heroes; Norse Mythology; Sigurd