This lively epic inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It is really two separate legends, linked by a supernatural ring that brings brutal tragedy to all who wear it. Its colourful cast includes heroic warriors and callous villains: three gods, a dwarf, a valkyrie, a dragon, a witch-queen, the infamous tyrant Atli (Attila) the Hun, and another queen who single-handedly destroys him.
With multiple gruesome murders (most notably by being suspended over a pit full of poisonous snakes), dramatic suicides, deceits and broken hearts, the plot more than purges the emotions, and it’s richly embroidered with enchanted fire, treasure hoards and birds that possess the power of human speech.
Undoubtedly one of the Vikings’ favourite stories, the legend is recounted in many ancient written sources, and scenes from it are depicted on a number of surviving Viking Age carvings in England, the Isle of Man, Norway and Sweden.
The mischievous god Loki stole Andvari’s treasure and the ring. In revenge, Andvari cursed the ring to bring misfortune and destruction to whoever possessed it. Loki quickly gave the cursed Andvaranaut to Hreidmar, King of the Dwarves, as reparation for having inadvertently killed Hreidmar’s son, Ótr.
In Norse mythology, there was a wealthy dwarf named Andvari (Alberich). The source of his wealth was a gold ring called Andvaranaut, which allowed him to find additional sources of gold. Loki needed Andvari’s treasure in order to pay a blood debt, so he captured the dwarf and stole both his treasure hoard and the ring. In revenge, Andvari cursed the ring to bestow misfortune upon its owner. Loki gave the treasure including the ring to Hreidmar in payment of the blood debt.
Hreidmar’s two sons, Fafnir and Regin, wanted a share of the treasure but Hreidmar refused. Fafnir then killed his father and banished Regin. His greed transformed him into a mighty dragon. His brother Regin still desired the treasure, so he forged a sword for his foster-son, the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), so that he might slay Fafnir. However, the sword broke on the anvil during forging. Regin reforged the sword with a shard from the Balmung, the magical sword that belonged to Sigurd’s father, Sigmund. Balmung was shattered by Odin, but the shards were passed down to his son.
The new blade was named Gram and with it Sigurd was able to kill Fafnir after which he and Regin cooked his heart on a spit. Sigurd tasted the blood of the dragon’s heart, which granted him the ability to understand the birds. They warned him that Regin meant to betray him and take the treasure for himself, so Sigurd killed Regin. He took Regin’s sword Ridill and then plundered Fafnir’s treasure taking two chests of gold, the sword Hrotti, a golden coat of mail, and the helmet Aegishjalmarr. The story of Fafnir’s death is told in the Fafnismol (The Ballad of Fafnir) and the Saga of the Volsungs.
In some versions of the story, Sigurd later encounters the shieldmaiden Brynhild and marries her, using the Andvaranaut as a promise ring. The ring’s curse may be the reason that Sigurd drinks an “ale of forgetfulness” and marries another, and then unknowingly helps his brother in law win the hand of Brynhild in marriage. Sigurd’s new wife tells Brynhild all that has transpired and she orchestrates Sigurd’s death and then wastes away herself.