In this essay, we will compare the story of Sigurð the dragon-slayer
from the Volsungasaga and Indra the Vrtra-slayer from Rgveda
I.32. Each story is told in a way that the person listening to the story knows
what will happen: Indra will release the waters, and Sigurð will be
victorious over Fafnir. The stories are told from that all-knowing third
person point of view that so many myths are told in.
While Sigurð's tale appears to occur over a very short time (despite
being a more verbose story: three pages, compared to Indra's 15 lines of
poetry), Indra's tale seems to take a lot of time, even though from the first
line we know the outcome. It may be that the poetic form of the Vedas tends to
lend itself to a more drawn-out view of the myth than the saga-like form of
the Volsungasaga, or it may actually be the intention of the authors.
In any case, both the story of Sigurð's slaying of Fafnir and Indra's
slaying of Vrtra feel very different, time-wise.
Both Sigurð and Indra are considered great heroes of their people. Each
are kings, and for each, it is the killing of a dragon that they are known
best. Sigurð has Fafnir, the brother of Regin and Otr (who figures in
strongly with the rest of Icelandic myth), and Indra has Vrtra. Interestingly,
both Fafnir and Vrtra are considered "horders": Vrtra's name means
"to cover or encompass"¹, and he covers the waters and refuses
to allow them out. Fafnir sits atop a horde of gold, the ransom his brother,
Otr, was paid by the gods. It is the refusal to distribute the riches that the
serpents sit upon that make them evil and worthy of slaying.
Sigurð carries a sword, considered the greatest sword ever forged,
called Gram (meaning "troll"). This sword is forged by Regin, who
later tries to betray Sigurð, but Sigurð kills him after tasting the
roasted heart of Fafnir and gaining knowledge of the language of the birds.
Indra is known for his thunderbolt (called vajra, "bolt"),
fashioned for him by Tvastr, from whom Indra steals the soma. Soma and the
heart-juice have similar properties of providing inspiration, and in both
cases this inspiration is stolen.
Interestingly, Vrtra has no shoulders (he is described in RV I.32.5 as
"shoulderless"), but Sigurð strikes Fafnir "under the left
shoulder". Vrtra seems to be more snake-like than Fafnir, who is
definitely more human-like in the descriptions (Fafnir is even related to a
smith). For both Sigurð and Indra, though, it takes only one strike to
slay the serpent and release the wealth. Also, while Sigurð is not seeking
to release "waters" like Indra does, much is made of the outpouring
of blood from Fafnir's shoulders, and the importance of the blood is stressed
Of more interest, though, is what each does with the riches he wins. Sigurð
is warned by Fafnir that the gold he has won will be the death of him, and
indeed, it becomes his death: Sigurð is too stingy with it, and (in what
may be a worse sin than being stingy) gives the gold to the wrong person!
Indra, on the other hand, releases the waters and distributes them to the
people, as any just king would and should. Between these two mythological
figures, we learn what is both the proper way to distribute your spoils, and
the improper way.
It is fortunate that, unlike Irish sources and the sources of mainland
Germanic tribes, no Christian tampering is evident in either story: both seem
completely devoid of the problematic and constant second-guessing that one
must do with sources from other cultures. This is a refreshing departure from
the normal state of IE mythic sources.
¹ - MacDonnell, p. 159
Anonymous. The Saga of the Volsungs. Trans. Byock, Jessie L. 1990
Maurer, Walter H. Pinnacles of India's Past: Selections from the Rgveda.
Trans. Maurer, Walter H. 1986
MacDonnell, A. A. Vedic Mythology. Gordon Press: New York. 1974
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