Mythic Monday: Brunhild the Valkyrie

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Top image: Brunhild was a bold warrior goddess of Teutonic and Norse mythology. Credit: Harold B. Lee Library/Brigham Young University

Brunhild, the beautiful, proud, and headstrong heroine of Teutonic mythology, had a complicated romantic life to say the least. Teutonic mythology, also called Norse mythology, consists of the myths and legends of Germany and Scandinavia that date from about the A.D. 400’s. In these stories, Brunhild was the fairest of the Valkyries, the warlike goddess-maidens sent to battlefields by Odin, chief of the gods. The Valkyries were armed with spears, shields, and helmets as they rode swift horses above the battlefield to choose who lived and died. Warriors who died a heroic and fearless death in combat were escorted to the great hall of Valhalla in Asgard, the home of the gods.

In one fateful battle, Brunhild strikes down Hjalmgunnar, a king who had been promised victory by Odin. Angered by Brunhild’s rash action, Odin orders her to take a husband as punishment. Yet Brunhild had sworn that she would only marry a man who could overcome her in combat—a nearly impossible man to find. Frustrated, Odin casts Brunhild into a magic sleep and surrounds her with a ring of fire. In time, the hero Sigurd (called Siegfried in German legends) fearlessly rides through the flames to awaken and rescue her.

Brunhild and Sigurd fall in love, but their story ends in tragedy. Sigurd spurns Brunhhild and marries the Teutonic princess Gudrun. He then helps Gudrun’s brother Gunnar win Brunhild as his bride. Disguising himself as Gunnar, Sigurd surprises Brunhild by defeating her in combat. Deceived, Brunhild submits and marries Gunnar. Years later, however, Brunhild is enraged when she learns of Sigurd’s treachery. She orders one of her servants to murder Sigurd in revenge. Overcome with remorse, Brunhild throws herself on his funeral pyre to join the hero in death.

The myths of Brunhild the Valkyrie were not written down until the 1100's, when they appeared in Iceland and southern Germany. The oldest variations on her stories are told in the verse of the Poetic Edda and the prose of the Icelandic Volsunga Saga. A somewhat different version of Brunhild’s story comes from the Nibelungenlied, a German epic poem written about 1200. Here, her name is sometimes spelled Brynhild or Brünhild. Brunhild and the Valkyries also figure prominently in the famous opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung (1876) by the German composer Richard Wagner, who was inspired by the myths.

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