Gods and Heroes of The Valkyrie
‘I know that I hung on a wind battered tree nine long nights, pierced by a spear and given to Odin, myself to myself, on that tree whose roots grow in a place no one has ever seen’ Havamal, Stanza 138
The husband of Fricka, and the father of Brünnhilde and the other Valkyries by way of the earth goddess Erda, Wotan is our primary deity being represented in The Valkyrie – for better or worse. Wotan is a god with an agenda, and in the Ring Cycle this coalesces as his hunt to regain the titular Ring of the Nibelungs, which he stole from Alberich the dwarf in Rheingold only to have to give it to giants as payment.
In order to do achieve his goal, Wotan seeks to raise a hero that can reclaim the ring from the giant-turned-dragon Fafner, leading to the union of Siegmund and Sieglinde – his own children – in The Valkyrie. Swayed by Fricka, Siegmund dies, but the deed is done, with the twins’ union giving rise to Siegfried, the hero he needs – and the titular protagonist of the next opera in the Ring Cycle. Despite these plans and his deity status, Wotan is not omnipotent, and is subject to failure and personal bias, which doesn’t help him in his quest…
Wotan is another name for the god Odin, formed from the Old High Germanic ‘Wuotan’. A god with many associations, the Norse mythos almost revolves around Odin, and the repercussions of his actions. The head of the Norse pantheon of gods, he is the head of the Aesir gods, whose home is Asgard. He is associated with war, knowledge, magic, wisdom and many more aspects – a complicated god with a complicated agenda, which ties into our tale.
Many of the same aspects we see in classic Norse canon have transferred into Wagner’s Wotan – we see that he has only one eye, mirroring Odin’s sacrifice of an eye into the Well of Mimir the giant, to obtain knowledge, as well as his most well known visual depictions as a cloaked older man (which was a major inspiration for Gandalf in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings).
‘I would advise you, Odin, father of battles, to stay here, in the homes of the gods.’ Vafthruthnismal, Stanza 2
Fricka very much acts as Wotan’s voice of reason in The Valkyrie, appearing during Act 2 to play devil’s advocate and point out that Hunding has a right to seek vengeance from Siegmund. Fricka reminds Wotan that despite the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, their relationship is an affront to nature and cannot continue, leading to Wotan’s sacrifice of his son later in the opera.
More commonly known in myth as Frigg, the Allmother, this goddess is the wife of Odin and queen of the Aesir gods – one of two types of gods, a more war-like tribe who hail from Asgard, compared with the more fertility-based Vanir gods of Vanaheim. Frigg held power over many areas of life, and was associated with fertility, marriage and the household, love and sexuality, and wisdom and prophecy. Despite being the queen of Asgard (or Valhalla in the Ring Cycle), she is rarely mentioned in the stories that have survived the ages, often playing second fiddle to the Vanir goddess Freyja – although some scholars believe these two figures are one and the same.
‘Now you must choose from the options you are offered, you lord of sharp weapons. Choose to speak, or choose to remain silent. Your fate is already decided.’ Saga of the Völsungs, Chapter 20
By all accounts Wotan’s favourite Valkyrie and his favourite daughter is Brünnhilde, the titular character of The Valkyrie, which intertwines her story with the Wälsung siblings.
She first appears in The Valkyrie when Wotan orders her to protect Siegmund in his forthcoming fight with Hunding, but when Wotan’s mind is changed, Brünnhilde refuses to change hers: stubbornly trying to aid Siegmund in his fight, before Wotan intervenes to cause Siegmund’s downfall.
Furious at his wayward daughter, she flees and seeks protection from her sister Valkyries, making them promise to protect the baby that Sieglinde will bear from her union with Siegmund. Wotan arrives, and Brünnhilde must face her fate at the hands of her father – whatever that may be…
Depending on the source, Brünnhilde is sometimes a Valkyrie, sometimes a shieldmaiden, and sometimes a powerful queen. As with many sagas and tales, there may be a historical figure hidden under all the mythical hyperbole, with some scholars citing Brunhilda of Austrasia as that figure, a princess of a region of Francia (modern day France).
Ironically, her name is derived from the Old High Germanic words for armour (brunia) and conflict (hiltia) – however, in the events of The Valkyrie, her attempt to shield those she seeks to protect are, for the most part, unsuccessful.
‘Now the Valkyries are counted, ready to ride to the earth, the Valkyries.’ Völuspá, Stanza 30
Nine valkyries appear in The Valkyrie, all portrayed as the daughters of Wotan through the earth goddess Erda, who appears in Rheingold and Siegfried. Aside from the titular role of Brünnhilde, the eight other characters (Gerhilde, Helmwige, Ortlinde, Waltraute, Rossweise, Siegrune, Grimgerde and Schwertleite) primarily appear and sing as an ensemble.
One of Wagner’s most famous works, as well as a piece of music instantly recognisable worldwide, is the ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, which appears at the beginning of Act 3 of The Valkyrie. Denoting the moment when the nine valkyries descend upon the stage,
Similarly to in Wagner’s works, valkyries act as psychopomps in myths – moving the souls of the heroes who died in battle to the afterlife. Half of those who ‘honourably died’ are brought to Odin’s (or Wotan’s) Hall of Valhalla (with the other half being claimed by the goddess Freyja to join her in her hall of Fólkvangr), becoming ‘einherjar’, warriors that will fight on the side of the gods at the great battle of Ragnarök.
‘And when as folk tell of all the mightiest champions, and the noblest chiefs, then ever is [Sigurd] named the foremost, and his name goes wide about on all tongues north of the sea of the Greek-lands, and even so shall it be while the world endures.’ Saga of the Völsungs
The prophesied hero, Siegmund is one of the ill fated Völsung family, and the son of Wotan himself, making his fate even more tragic – falling at the hand of Hunding due to the god’s intervention. Curiously, his entire life seems to have been carefully managed by Wotan, with the events leading to Siegmund stumbling into Hunding and Sieglinde’s hut at the beginning of The Valkyrie, wounded and fleeing enemies, seeming to have been orchestrated by his godly father, for him to conceive Siegfried through incestuous means and draw the sword Nothung from the oak tree in Hunding’s home.
Siegmund’s mythological counterpart is Sigmund, who features in the Saga of the Völsungs, albeit in a less popular feature than that of his son, Sigurð. Many differences exist from the Siegmund of the Ring Cycle. Whilst a child is born of Sigurd and Signý (Sieglinde’s counterpart), it isn’t Sigurð (Siegfried) – it’s Sinfjötli – an altogether different character who helps Sigmund achieve vengeance for his father’s death.
‘Signy, in the sorceress’s shape, went into the woods to Sigmund’s dwelling. “I have lost my way,” she told him.’ Saga of the Völsungs, Chapter 7
When we start our story, Sieglinde is married to the Neiding, Hunding, in what is evidently an unhappy marriage, so when a handsome man enters, calling himself Wehwalt (‘woeful’), Sieglinde starts to find herself drawn to him. Unfortunately, this man happens to be her long lost twin brother, whom she names Siegmund. During her wedding feast to Hunding, a cloaked old man had appeared and thrust a sword into the grand oak tree that stands in Hunding’s home, and Sieglinde knows whoever is able to draw it from it’s woody sheath will be her true beloved… and Siegmund needs a sword.
The twin sister of Sigurd and the sole daughter of King Völsung and the Jötunn (giant) Hljod, the Signy of myth is a lot more devious and scheming than the Sieglinde of our tales. After being forced to marry a King of Gautland (southern Sweden), who later kills her father and humiliates her brothers, Signy approaches a sorceress to change her appearance. She uses this to sleep with her brother, in order to conceive a son, Sinfjötli, that might bring the King to justice for Völsung’s death. A bit different to the romance of the Ring Cycle!
Huginn and Muginn
‘Thought and Memory, my ravens, fly every day the whole world over. Each day I fear that Thought might not return, but I fear more for Memory.’ Grimnismal, Stanza 20
The twin ravens of Wotan, Huginn and Muginn’s names translate to ‘thought and memory’, and act as the Allfather’s eyes in the nine realms. In our production of The Valkyrie, you might spot two raven headed people skulking around the stage, reminding you that even if Wotan isn’t present, he’s always watching…