Medieval Icelandic Sagas

The Saga of the Volsungs

13th century, Old Norse, from much older oral tradition.

Odin sends a wish-maiden in the form of a crow who carries an apple down to Earth.

'King Rerir and his wife rule the kingdom of the Huns, and the couple are barren. King Rerir prays to Odin for an heir and Odin sends a wish-maiden in the form of a crow who carries an apple down to Earth. The crow finds King Rerir sitting on a mound. She drops the apple into his lap and he eats it. His wife becomes pregnant. King Rerir dies. His wife carries the child in her womb for six years before giving birth to Volsung.'

'Six years!' exclaimed Quintin.

'Six years,' affirmed Miranda. 'And there is obviously something strange going on besides this because why give the apple to King Rerir and not his wife? And why is he sitting on a mound? And what could be the reason for needing to claim a pregnancy that lasts for six years? Well, let’s chop the events up a bit and rearrange just one of them, to see if it might have been garbled. See if it makes any better sense, 'cos it certainly doesn't at the moment. Look at the name first. Volsung. Son of Vol.'

'Not son of Rerir,' said Quintin.

'Exactly. Volsung, not Rerirsson. And if the apple was a magic apple it might be expected to confer immortality, like the apples of the Norse goddess Idunn. In mortal terms, rebirth after death. He was sitting on a mound after all. Maybe it was his burial mound. Perhaps the apple was from an orchard in the afterlife – from 'hell-orchard'. Was King Rerir sitting on his burial mound, then, when he ate the apple? If so, we can move the sentence 'King Rerir dies’ to the beginning of the story and the whole passage now makes a little sense, if you use your imagination.

'King Rerir dies. From his burial mound he prays to Odin for an heir and Odin sends a wish maiden in the form of a crow who carries an apple to King Rerir, who is depicted sitting on his mound. Rerir eats the apple, just as Percephone had to eat a pomegranate seed before she could return from the world of the dead. Immediately afterwards his former wife becomes pregnant, by the new king, whose name, presumably, is Vol. And she gives birth to Volsung six years after King Rerir died. If we persist in assuming that King Rerir must be the father of Volsung, we need to embrace this ridiculously long pregnancy. But perhaps heir carries a wider sense of continuing the family's rule. So if we accept instead that Odin will allow King Rerir's dynasty to continue by causing him to be reborn as Volsung, then we have it that King Rerir sits on his burial mound, eats an apple of immortality and is born six years after his own death, as the son of the queen's new husband and heir to the kingdom once more.

‘Quite a leap of faith, I admit,' said Miranda. 'But Rerir does marry the wish-maiden who had been a crow when she brought the apple to him on his mound, so she has obviously been born again. She was the daughter of a giant, but now she is Hljod, a human woman.'

Story fragment recounted from: Byock, Jesse L, 1990, reprinted 1999. The Saga of the Volsungs: The Norse Epic of Sugurd the Dragon Slayer. Translated from Old Norse with an introduction. Penguin Books Limited. 1. Odin Guides Sigi From the Otherworld and 2. The Birth of Volsung, pp 35–7.

Apples and pomegranates

East London Line

halved pomegranates
apple blossom

Navigate the tunnel

See for yourself

Icelandic saga – Wikipedia

Legendary sagas – Wikipedia

Völsunga Saga – Wikipedia

Huns – Wikipedia

Völsung – Wikipedia

Völsunga Saga – Text obtained from the Online Medieval and Classical Library. Code and format by Northvegr.