Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Brunhilde - the awakened princess

Brunhilde, or Brynhildr, is a warrior woman that appears in Germanic mythology and operas. Her name is pronounced Brun - hil - da. She's a "shield maiden" (a term for an historical woman in battle) and a Valkyrie.

First of all Brunhilde is probably widely known today as the Queen of Iceland in the 2004 film "Sword of Xanten" (retitled "Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King"), directed by Uli Dedel. Queen Brunhilde is played by Kristanna Loken and comes across as cool, strong but quite vulnerable too. She encounters Siegfried from eye contact passing the smithy, then another meeting one to one after a meteorite falls. Here is where the hero, Siegfried finds the meteor to create his sword, and loves the queen. Only a dream about finding her sleeping in a circle of fire makes reference to the myth about Brunhilde's sleep. That particular film is based on Richard Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

Her being an Icelandic queen in that film is an idea taken from the medieval poem "Nibelungenlied" (The Song of the Nibelungs). In that Brunhilde was far more treated severely. Siegfried loved her once but a sorceress princess Kreimhild gave him a love potion so that he would love her and forget anyone else, including Brunhilde. She challenged Siegfried in a duel of strength, and if he wins, she'll accept him as her husband but if he loses, he'll be executed. However, Siegfried is not as he appears but is in a disguise of King Gunther using magic. Siegfried's strength comes from bathing in a dragon's blood that he'd killed. Only a fallen leaf on his back made that small area on his back vulnerable to attack. The rest of him was invinsible. He used and manipulated dwarf magic to trick queen Brunhilde. So in disguise as King Gunther, Siegfried wins the contest and Brunhilde is married to King Gunther. Brunhilde later discovers the trick made on her.    

In the famous Wagnerian opera there is the tragic fairytale concerning Brunhilde and Siegfried. This is found  in the operas "Die Walküre", "Siegfried" and "Götterdämmerung". Brunhilde is a goddess who became mortalised as punishment by the All Father Odin. Brunhilde is the daughter of the god Odin and goddess Erda. She disobeyed her father's orders and turned mortal but given ever lasting sleep surrounded by a ring of blazing fire. Only a man could waken her. Siegfried is the man who enters the fire and wakes Brunhilde with a kiss.

Anyway apart from this literature, the character of Brunhilde is possibly based on both the mythical Valkyries and swan maidens, as well as true historical woman, princess Brunhilda of Austrasia. She lived in around the years 543 - 613 C.E. and part of the Visigoth tribes. This princess could've been the reason poets and writers used ancient myth of Valkyries to interweave with this woman's life.

Going back to the myths, what is a Valkyrie? "Chooser of the slain", a band or army of supernatural women who select warriors to venture into Valhalla. According to earlier texts, these Valkyrie women were often garbed in white swan feathers. They were associated with swans, and called swan maidens. They didn't fly with those feathered cloaks but rode on winged horses. Sometimes the swan maidens have worn metallic armour (chain mail) with helmets.  Their style of dress is white swan feathers, armour, helmets, and waist length golden hair. They were often seen in the sky or descending to the ground if a battle took place.

They sound, so far, quite angelic. These are warlike woman with the ability to travel in the sky and across the seas. They guard the war dead into the afterlife. They are also said to eat corpses though! Dressed in black raven wings, the valkyries have been said to behave like ghosts. It's very likely that the darker valkyries were more so a demonised version of something pure. This is not coincidental that the influence of Christianity and other enemy forces tainted old myths. 

Ancient amulets show valkyries wearing long gowns, with their flowing hair pulled back in ringletted tails, holding out drinking horns. The pretty objects were treated by ancient tribes of people as good luck tokens. These little metallic figurines of valkyries were ancient lucky charms. Placing them in the home would be blessing the space. To serve magical mead and offer a sacred potion, the icon valkyries closer to the origin of meaning. These were not demonic furies as some academics point out, but girl angels and celestial nymphs. The maidens of Odin were seen as sources of love and light.

Of Brunhilde, she as a Valkyrie appears in much later development of the whole myths, sagas and pantheon. She incarnated into the fairytale "Sleeping Princess" (the Sleeping Beauty and Briar Rose). Woken by the prince and rescued from eternal sleep. The story of Sleeping Beauty is traced back to the earlier story of Brunhilde. The ring of fire becomes the overgrown thorns covering the castle where she slept. Once she fell into a deep sleep, the entire kingdom froze in time also. It's as though she herself is more than a woman but a goddess that stops time when she enters sleep. This is like nature itself when maiden goddesses bring light and warmth back to the world after emerging from the underworld. The Grimm Brothers chose to base the Sleeping Beauty story on Brunhilde's tale, and not be too much like the tragic princess in Perrault's version. 

One of the children's favourite Disney princesses is Aurora, the sleeping beauty herself. This is a very gentle mordernised Brunhilde (the name Aurora reflects Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, another name to describe the Valkyries).



  1. Thank you for these words. I saw the name Brunhilde today and wondered who she was.