Mythology

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Summary
Analysis
Hamilton feels that these stories best encapsulate the Norse character and worldview, and Sigurd is the most famous Norse hero. Hamilton takes the stories from the Elder Edda and the Volsungasaga. Signy is the daughter of Volsung and the brother of Sigmund. She marries a man who kills her father, kidnaps her brothers, and feeds them to wolves one by one. She is only able to save her brother Sigmund, and together they vow to kill Signy’s husband.
Hamilton will later compare the story of Signy to that of Clytemnestra, but she finds Signy’s story even more powerful, if it only had been told well enough originally. This becomes another complex situation of vengeance and dooming one’s self to enact the justice of the gods.
Themes
Heroism Theme Icon
Justice and Vengeance Theme Icon
Signy decides that Sigmund should have a helper in his vengeance, so she disguises herself and spends three nights with him, later giving birth to a son named Sinfiotli. Sinfiotli lives with Sigmund until he is grown, and all the while Signy lives with her evil husband, still bearing him children and keeping her hatred secret.
Signy basically sacrifices her own soul – willingly bearing her brother a son, and bearing sons to the man she hates – in order to enact her vengeance. These myths are never frivolous, but always bleak, violent, and powerful.
Themes
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Justice and Vengeance Theme Icon
When Sinfiotli grows up, he and Sigmund surprise Signy’s husband, kill his children, lock him in his house and set it on fire. Signy thanks her brother and son and then walks into the burning house, killing herself along with her husband and children. Hamilton laments how Signy’s story is more powerful than Clytemnestra’s, but there was no “Norse Aeschylus” to write about her.
Like Clytemnestra, Signy feels no guilt for the murder of her husband, but unlike Clytemnestra she also accepts that she herself is damned, and willingly punishes herself like the great heroes of the Greek epics. Her devotion to vengeance and heroism cares nothing for her own death.
Themes
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Justice and Vengeance Theme Icon
Brynhild is a Valkyrie, a warrior woman. She disobeys Odin (ruler of the gods) so he punishes her by putting her to sleep until a man wakes her. Brynhild only wants to be wakened by a brave man, so Odin surrounds her couch with flames. Sigurd, the son of Sigmund, braves the flames for her and they fall in love. Sigurd then leaves her in the flames to visit his friend King Gunnar, though he vows to return.
Even though Brynhild is being punished, she still only wants to be saved by a hero – no other man is worth waking up for. Sigurd is the most famous Norse hero, and became “Sigfried” in the mythology of ancient Germany, as well as the operas of Wagner. Sigurd is the ultimate hero – doomed to tragedy, but fearing nothing.
Themes
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Heroism Theme Icon
Beauty Theme Icon
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Griemhild, Gunnar’s mother, wants Sigurd to marry her daughter Gudrun, so she gives Sigurd a magic potion to make him forget Brynhild. Gunnar then decides that he wants to marry Brynhild, but he is not brave enough to pass through the flames and get her. Instead Sigurd disguises himself as Gunnar, rides through the flames again, and wins Brynhild for his friend. Sigurd spends three nights with Brynhild sleeping with a sword between them.
Sigurd shows what the Norsemen valued in their heroes (other than dying tragic deaths) – he is willing sacrifice everything for his less-courageous friend, he can be defeated only by trickery and magic, and he is totally honest even in the face of temptation.
Themes
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Justice and Vengeance Theme Icon
Beauty Theme Icon
Brynhild then marries Gunnar, as she thinks Sigurd has abandoned her. When she learns that it was not really Gunnar who rode through the flames, she plots vengeance against both men. She convinces Gunnar that Sigurd lied when he said he slept chastely with her. Gunnar, enraged but unable to kill Sigurd because of their bond of brotherhood, convinces his younger brother to kill Sigurd in his sleep.
Like the many Greek kings afraid to kill their guests because of the law of hospitality, Gunnar must avoid breaking the law of brotherhood. As Signy did, Brynhild feels obligated to avenge the wrongs done against her, but in the process she knows she too is doomed.
Themes
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Brynhild then confesses that she lied about Sigurd, and she kills herself, asking to burned on the same funeral pyre as Sigurd. Gudrun sits silently beside Sigurd’s body, unable to speak. Hamilton says that most of the Norse stories are like this – no one can escape suffering and grief, so the only solution is to suffer with courage.
Brynhild kills herself just as Signy did, having accomplished her vengeance. Hamilton uses this story as a prime example of Norse myth, and draws her conclusions without giving other examples. Most of the myths end tragically like this, with no hope for redemption.
Themes
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Heroism Theme Icon
Justice and Vengeance Theme Icon