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General Bardic Studies for Liturgists 1: Requirement 4

Compare and contrast two mythological or folkloric tales from two Indo-European cultures. Include a discussion of the use of narrative point-of-view, the element of time, and any relevant issues of religious (or other) bias influencing the narrative. (minimum 600 words)

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 throughout.

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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