Brunhilde (Brynhildr, Brunhilda, Brunhilde, Brünhild) was a female warrior, one of the Valkyries, and in some versions the daughter of the principal god Odin. She defies Odin and is punished by imprisonment within a ring of fire until a brave hero falls in love and rescues her. Siegfied (Sigurðr, Sigurd) brakes the spell, falls in love with her and gives her the ring, Andvarinaut. Siegfied is tricked and accused of infidelity. Eventually Brunhilde kills herself when she learns that Sigurd had betrayed her with another woman (Gudrun), not knowing he had been bewitched into doing so by Grimhild.
There are several versions of this character and her adventures. They vary slightly but the basic soap operatic theme is constant.
According to the Völsunga saga, Brynhildr (Brunhilde) is a valkyrie and the daughter of Budli. She was ordered to decide a fight between two kings, Hjalmgunnar and Agnar. Knowing that Odin preferred the older king, Hjalmgunnar, she sided with Agnar. For this Odin condemned her to live the life of a mortal woman and imprisoned her in a remote castle behind a wall of shields on top of mount Hindarfjall in the Alps where she must sleep within a ring of fire until a man rescues and marries her.
The hero Sigurðr Sigmundson (Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied), heir to the clan of Völsung and slayer of the dragon Fafnir, entered the castle and awoke Brynhildr by removing her helmet and cutting off her chainmail armour. He immediately fell in love and proposed to her with the magic ring Andvaranaut. Promising to return and make Brynhildr his bride, Sigurðr then left the castle and headed for the court of Gjuki, the King of Burgundy.
Gjuki’s wife, the sorceress Grimhild, wanted Sigurðr to marry her daughter Gudrun instead. She prepared a magic potion that made Sigurðr forget about Brynhildr. Sigurðr soon married Gudrun. Hearing of Sigurðr’s encounter with the valkyrie, Grimhild decided that Brynhildr should be the wife of her son Gunnar. Gunnar went to court Brynhild but was stopped by the ring of fire around the castle. He tried to ride through the flames with his own horse and then with Sigurðr’s horse, Grani, but couldn’t.
Still under Grimhild’s spell, Sigurðr shape-shifts into Gunnar and enters the ring of fire. Sigurðr (disguised as Gunnar) and Brynhildr get married, and they stayed there three nights, but Sigurðr laid his sword between them (meaning that he did not take her virginity before giving her to the real Gunnar). Sigurðr also took the ring Andvaranaut from her finger and later gave it to Gudrun. Gunnar and Sigurðr soon returned to their true forms, with Brynhildr thinking she married Gunnar.
However, Gudrun and Brynhildr later quarreled over whose husband was greater, Brynhildr boasting that even Sigurðr was not brave enough to ride through the flames. Gudrun revealed that it was actually Sigurðr who rode through the ring of fire, and Brynhildr became enraged. Sigurðr, remembering the truth, tried to console her, but to no avail. Brynhildr plotted revenge by urging Gunnar to kill Sigurðr, telling him that he slept with her on Hidarfjall, which he swore not to do. Gunnar and his brother Hogni were afraid to kill him themselves, as they had sworn oaths of brotherhood to Sigurðr. They incited their younger brother, Gutthorm, to kill Sigurðr, by giving him a magic potion that enraged him, and he murdered Sigurðr in his sleep. Dying, Sigurðr threw his sword at Gutthorm, killing him. (some Eddic poems say Gutthorm killed him in the forest south of the Rhine, also while resting).
Brynhildr herself killed Sigurðr’s three-year-old son, and then she willed herself to die. When Sigurðr’s funeral pyre was aflame, she threw herself upon it – thus they passed on together to the realm of Hel.
However, in some Eddic poems such as Sigurðarkviða hin skamma, Gunnar and Sigurðr lay siege to the castle of Atli, Brynhildr’s brother. Atli offers his sister’s hand in exchange for a truce, which Gunnar accepts. However, Brynhildr has sworn to marry only Sigurðr, so she is deceived into believing that Gunnar is actually Sigurðr.
According to the Völsunga saga, Brynhildr bore Sigurðr a daughter, Aslaug, who later married Ragnar Lodbrok.
In the Eddic poem Helreið Brynhildar (Bryndhildr’s ride to Hel), Brynhildr on her journey to Hel encounters the giantess a gýgr who blames her for an immoral livelihood. Brynhildr responds to her accusations:
“Munu við ofstríð alls til lengi
konur ok karlar kvikvir fæðask;
við skulum okkrum aldri slíta
Sigurðr saman. Sökkstu, gýgjar kyn.”“Ever with grief and all too long
Are men and women born in the world;
But yet we shall live our lives together,
Sigurth and I. Sink down, Giantess!”
In the Nibelungenlied, Brünnhilde is instead the queen of Isenland (Iceland). Gunther here overpowers her in three warlike games with the help of Siegfried – equipped with an invisibility cloak. Firstly, Brünnhilde throws a spear towards Gunther that three men only barely can lift, but the invisible Siegfried diverts it. Secondly, she throws twelve fathoms a boulder that requires the strength of twelve men to lift. Lastly, she leaps over the same boulder. Gunther, however, defeats her with Siegfried’s help also in these games, and takes her as his wife.
The Nibelungenlied also differs from Scandinavian sources in its silence on Brünnhilde’s fate; she fails to kill herself at Siegfried’s funeral, and presumably survives Kriemhild and her brothers.
Wagner’s “Ring” cycle
Though the cycle of four operas is titled Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner in fact took Brünnhilde’s role from the Norse sagas rather than from the Nibelungenlied. Brünnhilde appears in the latter three operas (Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung), playing a central role in the overall story of Wotan’s downfall.
In Wagner’s tale, Brünnhilde is one of the valkyries, who are born out of a union between Wotan and Erda, the personification of the earth. In Die Walküre Wotan initially commissions her to protect Siegmund, his son by a mortal mother. When Fricka protests and forces Wotan to have Siegmund die, Brünnhilde disobeys her father’s change of orders and takes away Siegmund’s wife (and sister) Sieglinde and the shards of Siegmund’s sword, Nothung. She manages to hide them, but must then face the wrath of her father who is determined to make her mortal and seal her in a ring of fire to be claimed by any man who happens across her. Brünnhilde argues that what she did was in obeyance of the god’s true will and does not deserve such a fate. He is eventually persuaded to sentence her to await awakening by a hero who does not know fear.
Brünnhilde does not appear again until near the end of the third act of Siegfried. The title character is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, born after Siegmund’s death and raised by the dwarf Mime, the brother of Alberich who stole the gold and fashioned the ring around which the operas are centered. Having killed the giant-turned-dragon Fafner, Siegfried takes the ring and is guided to Brünnhilde’s rock, where he awakens her.
Siegfried and Brünnhilde appear again at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, at which point he gives her the ring and they are separated. Here again Wagner chooses to follow the Norse story, though with substantial modifications. Siegfried does go to Gunther’s hall, where he is given a potion to cause him to forget Brünnhilde so that Gunther may marry her. All this occurs at the instigation of Hagen, Alberich’s son and Gunther’s half-brother. The plan is successful, and Siegfried leads Gunther to Brünnhilde’s rock. In the meantime she has been visited by her sister valkyrie Waltraute, who warns her of Wotan’s plans for self-immolation and urges her to give up the ring. Brünnhilde refuses, only to be overpowered by Siegfried who, disguised as Gunther, takes the ring from her by force.
As Siegfried goes to marry Gutrune, Gunther’s sister, Brünnhilde sees that he has the ring and denounces him for his treachery. Still rejected, she joins Gunther and Hagen in a plot to murder Siegfried, telling Hagen that Siegfried can only be attacked from the back. So Gunther and Hagen take Siegfried on a hunting trip, in the course of which Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back with a spear. Upon their return, Brünnhilde takes charge, and has a pyre built in which she is to perish, cleansing the ring of its curse and returning it to the Rhinemaidens. Her pyre becomes the signal by which Valhalla and all the gods also perish in flames.