The Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) is a German epic poem of the Middle Ages. Based on old Norse* legends, it tells the story of Siegfried (Sigurd), a German prince. The Nibelungs of the poem's title were originally evil dwarfs who had a magical but cursed treasure of gold. In time, people who possessed the gold were also identified as Nibelungs.
Tales of the Nibelungs. 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, written in about a.d. 1200 by an unknown Austrian, 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. The work 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.
The Nibelungenlied Story. The story begins in the city of Worms on the Rhine River, where Princess Kriemhild (Gudrun) 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, farther west on the Rhine, Prince Siegfried 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 who possesses some of the famed Nibelungen gold. 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 (Gunnar) 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 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 vassal, 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 12 men. But Siegfried reassures the king, telling him to pretend to lift and throw the spear. Meanwhile, Siegfried puts on a magic cloak, which makes him invisible, and hurls the great spear farther than Brunhilde can. He also throws an enormous stone and beats the queen as well. Defeated, Brunhilde agrees to marry Gunther.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
vassal individual who swears loyalty and obedience to a superior lord
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 wrestles 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 settled. Brunhilde persuades Gunther's friend Hagen that Siegfried has wronged her, and Hagen promises to avenge her.
Siegfried had become invulnerable after he bathed in the blood of a dragon. 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.
invulnerable incapable of being hurt
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 a priest overboard, hoping to prove the swan maidens wrong. But when the priest swims safely to shore, Hagen knows that their prophecy will come true.
When the Burgundians arrive in Hungary, Kriemhild demands her gold. 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.
An Age of Heroism and Honor
Though based on legendary characters, the Nibelungenlied expresses ideals of heroism and chivalry that were very important in the period when 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.
prophecy foretelling of what is to come; also something that is predicted
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, outraged at Kriemhild's actions, kills the queen.
See also Brunhilde; Dwarfs and Elves; Heroes; Norse Mythology; Sigurd.
Siegfried kills the dragon Fafner to seize the treasure of the Nibelungs; he then marries the Burgundian princess Kriemhild and uses trickery to help her brother Gunther win Brunhild, but is killed by Gunther's retainer Hagen. His wife Kriemhild agrees to marry Etzel (Attila the Hun) in order to be revenged, and beheads Hagen herself.