Myths, legends of ancient world - Sigmund’s Sorrow

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Retold by Jenny Bennett* 

King Sigmund, the son of Volsung walked slowly out of the mead-hall that his father had built as the guests who filled it stared in shocked silence. Only moments earlier, the hall had been filled with music and laughter as the people of Hunland celebrated the victorious return of their prince Sinfjotli. Now, nobody spoke or smiled as the king stumbled out with the lifeless body of his firstborn son in his arms. 

Prince Sinfjotli had been a brave warrior and an unbeatable general, but during his travels he had made one fateful mistake: he had taken the life of his stepmother’s brother. The Queen, hearing about her brother’s death had resolved to avenge him and on the night of the prince’s return, she poured poison into the young man’s drinking horn. The prince, however, familiar with the smell of viper venom, had instantly known that something was not right.

“There is venom in this drink, Father,” he had said, looking at his stepmother who stood beside him no longer smiling. 

“Venom, you say?” the king had asked, and reaching out he had taken the horn from his son’s hand.

“In that case,” he had said, lifting the horn to his lips. “I will drink it.”

Seeing that her plan had not worked the Queen had taken out her vial of poison again and poured more of the deadly liquid into the prince’s drinking horn.

“Surely you are not such a coward as to have your old father drink your mead for you,” she had taunted as she placed the horn in Sinfjotli’s hand.  “Prove you are a man and drink your own mead.”

The prince had lifted the horn and had once more detected the smell of poison.

“This is charmed drink!” he had declared pushing it away. “It has been poisoned.”

“Poisoned!?” the king had exclaimed. “Then give it to me, my son. Let me drink it!”

But the Queen, furious to have her plan foiled twice, redoubled her efforts. She had waited until King Sigmund was so drunk that his words were slurred and the slave had to steady his arm to hold his drinking horn.

“Now he can’t protect his son,” the queen had said to herself, and calling for Prince Sinfjotli’s drinking horn, she had poured into it all the contents of the vial of venom. 

 “Come on now, Stepson,” Queen Borghild had said handing the vial of poisoned mead to Prince Sinfjotli “Your father and I have been bragging abot your bravery to the entire court. You must show them that you are a true Volsung. What kind of Volsung are you if you cannot hold drink?”

The smell of poison was overwhelming and Sinfjotli had to turn away for a moment to swallow the gall that had risen to his throat. 

“Drink!” the Queen had hissed. “Drink or you shame us!”                                                                      

“Father!” the prince called to Sigmund. “This mead has been poisoned. It smells of venom.”                                                                   

Drunk and with a mind muddled and unclear, Sigmund had laughed.

“What did you say boy?” he had roared.

“This drink is charmed, Father,” Prince Sinfjotli had said again. “There is deadly poison in it.”

“Then let your lip strain out the poison!” the king laughed, calling the slave to refill his own horn.

Sinfjotli had sighed and lowered his head.

“So be it,” he had said to himself. “My father has told me to drink. So I will drink.”

And with a final glance at his father, the young man had lifted the horn to his lips. As soon as the lethal mead touched Sinfjotli’s lips, the venom entered his blood and the prince fell back: dead.

The king who had been singing in drunken merriment had instantly become sober when the servants who had hurried to Prince Sinfjotli’s side began to weep aloud.

“He is dead!” they howled. “The Prince is dead!”

King Sigmund, hearing this, fell to his knees beside the motionless form of his child, clasping it in his arms.

“Wake up, Sinfjotli!” he cried. “Sit up, son!”

But the spirit of Sigmund’s son was already on its way to Valhalla and the prince could not hear his father’s cries or feel the wetness of the tears that fell upon his lifeless body. 

Out in the garden, Sigmund let out a sob and lowered his head into his son’s neck. 

“My boy!” he wept. “My dear, dear boy!”

And an image of the prince, as a little child, flashed across the king’s mind. He was looking up at him with a proud smile upon his small freckled face as he held up the carcass of his first catch; a large hare.

Sinfjotli had lived to make him proud. Sigmund saw it in the child’s face; in the way he would glance up quickly as though to judge his reaction after performing a task; how he would stare with bated breath as he examined his work for fault and would only start breathing again once he had seen his father nod his approval.

Even as a man he had driven himself hard to make the king proud, becoming the best at all he attempted; enduring pain without a flinch and pushing his body to the limit just to earn that approving nod. And here he was, lifeless in his father’s arms, obedient and loyal right to the very end.

“I have failed you Sinfjotli!” Sigmund sobbed. “I have failed you my son.” And weeping aloud, the king walked onward with the body of his son in his arms. For so long the king walked, not knowing where he was going or when he would stop; his grief wrapping his mind in a thick, dark mist. Then suddenly, he heard the sound of rushing water and looked up in surprise. He had reached the great river, many miles from the castle and in the east, the sky was streaked orange and pink as dawn broke over the land.

King Sigmund stopped, and lifted his head to the heavens.

“Odin!” he shouted. “Alfather!”

And upon the river before him, Sigmund saw something emerging from the mist. It was a boat. In the boat was a hooded figure, one that seemed very familiar to the king: an old man with one eye and a long flowing beard.

In silence, the boat approached the river bank and the old man stood up, holding out his hands.

Sigmund, as though in a trance, held out the body of his firstborn to the stranger who took it as easily as if it had been that of a new-born baby. Placing the body gently in the boat and with a nod at the king, the old man began to row away. Not a single word had been spoken.

All at once, Sigmund remembered where he had seen the stranger. It was the same man who had come to Hunland on the night of his sister’s wedding and entered the mead hall uninvited. The old man in the boat was the one who had given him his magic sword so many years ago.

“Odin!” the king whispered. “Odin Alfather!”

And before his eyes, the boat, the god and the body of his son disappeared into the air. Sigmund fell to his knees.

Now his son was dead and his body taken by the god Odin. What would become of King Sigmund of Hunland? And what of his queen who had taken the life of Sinfjotli?

We will find out next time...


*Based on the Volsunga Saga

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