On every side, swamps and fetid marshes sent poisonous fumes into the air. There was a stagnant pall oppressively weighing upon the place, joining itself to the mournful rocks whose darkly leaning shapes suggested fathomless ages of dread. When twilight fell, Sigurd could see eerie lights floating about their ominous outlines, tracing tiny moaning cries that seemed to escape from the blighted earth itself. Night's blanket enfolded him with persistent exaggerations of these horrors and the grey dawn offered little relief. For the path loomed treacherously now, threading upward along precipitous cliffs, so that he and Regin were forced to lead their horses slowly until they came to a high ground of further cliffs surrounding a black tarn. Regin knew the way well and, pointing to the small lake, said, "This pool is Fafnir's water-hole. On that cliff over there you will find a track worn by his body as he crawls from his cavern in the middle of the morning to slake his thirst at the pool. His huge, snake-like trunk hangs in coils over the rocks while his jaws skim the water, his burning eyes ever watchful, his head swaying backwards and forwards. And fire shoots from his nostrils. Look, you can see that the rushes and reeds at the edge of the water are scorched and charred. Be careful. Watch that his blood does not get on you; it will burn you up. I dare come no further."
For three days Sigurd had followed Regin into the poisonous land while Odin had watched over him and assisted him twice in disguise. Now the Alfader appeared for the third time, dressed in his long traveller's cape and broad-brimmed hat, an old man bearing a warning. He instructed Sigurd not to meet the dragon head-on, but to dig a series of trenches in order to strike at his heart and collect the overflow of his blood as he crawled over them. In contradiction to Regin's deceptive advice, he told him to bathe in Fafnir's blood so that he might become invulnerable, taking care that no part of his body was omitted. When the time came, a linden leaf became stuck between the hero's shoulders, leaving the single vulnerable spot through which he, like Achilles and other near immortals, could be struck with mortality. Ignorant of this, Sigurd boldly waited, feeling the ground churn and tremble with Fafnir's approach. He waited with nerves of steel as the gigantic reptile heaved across the pit where he crouched, obliterating the sky with a vast expanse of scaly flesh. He held his breath, and at the precise moment he judged himself to be directly beneath the monster's heart, he plunged his magic sword into its core and took the dragon's life.
Fafnir did not immediately die, but learnt the hero's name by taunting him. He then put a curse upon him, an extension of an earlier curse pronounced by the dwarf Andvari. He also imparted varied arcane teachings in answer to the dauntless seeker's questioning, as though to join his curse with hard-won wisdom. A mysterious being, as all such dragons are, Fafnir or Fathmir, 'the embracing one', was the son of Hreidmar and brother to the shape-shifter Otter and the crafty master smith Regin. In his dragon shape he revealed aspects of his character not at all apparent in his human form. Whilst deadly and terrifying, he also bore the marks of initiated Adepts of antiquity who taught primeval men the Mysteries. He shared in common with other mythical serpents and dragons enormous wisdom, the ability to make men immortal as well as to kill them, great longevity and the possession of enormous wealth.
Fafnir's hoarded treasure, for which Regin risked and lost his life, had a history linked with the legendary exploits of the gods. So great was Regin's greed for it that when Sigurd had destroyed its terrible guardian, the cunning smith lusted to be its sole possessor and plotted to kill the hero whilst he cut out and roasted Fafnir's heart. Regin knew that by eating the great dragon's heart he himself could gain a wealth of wisdom, something he desired almost as much as the treasure. So he requested Sigurd to roast it for him and to be very careful not to imbibe any of its blood, as it would kill him immediately. But Sigurd accidentally burnt his finger and stuck it into his mouth without thinking. As he tasted the blood, he suddenly became cognizant of the language of nearby birds, who revealed in excited warbles and twitters Regin's murderous plan. Just in time, he turned to look behind him and saw the crafty smith attacking, dagger in hand. Sigurd slew him with his mighty sword, cutting him lifeless, to lie beside the remains of his brother. He then withdrew to the fire, where he consumed the whole of the dragon's heart.
Sigurd's journey to Fafnir's lair began when his father Sigmund, long before Sigurd was born, pulled the magic sword Gram out of the great oak where Odin had driven it in. During Sigmund's reign it served him through many battles until Odin came to take him to Valhalla to join others of his esteemed Volsung lineage. When this happened and Sigmund lay dying amongst the shards of his broken sword, he ordered Hjordis, his queen, to collect the pieces for the son she was then carrying and to have the sword forged again when the lad was grown. Hjordis escaped from the battle-field and journeyed in a small boat to Denmark, where she wed the noble Prince Alf before giving birth to Sigurd. Under the protection of the kindly prince, Sigurd was trained in various crafts, thus coming under the influence of the famous Regin, who carefully watched and groomed the boy for carrying out the fearful killing of Fafnir. When Sigurd came of age, Regin forged him two fine swords, both of which were easily shattered in the hero's hand. A misgiving about Regin's eagerness to pit him against the dragon entered Sigurd's mind, causing him to speak to his mother about it. She told him of the magic sword and, giving him its pieces, assured him that he could let Regin reforge it and that, with Gram in his hand, he need have no fear of any of his schemes.
Thus did Sigurd take his place in the heroic dynasty so poetically celebrated in the Volsungasaga, the inspiration for stories of Sigmund and Beowulf in the English and Sigfrid in the German tradition, where the historical Frankish King Sigebert II wed the Visigoth Brunhilde in a striking incarnation of the saga. With Gram now reforged, Sigurd was in a position to fulfil the dharma implied by his name, sig, which means 'victory'. He was also ready to carry forth the inner purpose of the great and numerous battles fought by his Volsung ancestry.
As with just about everything else, the gods alone could have initiated the cycle of circumstances involving Sigurd's daring deeds. During their journeys through the worlds, Odin, Hoenir and Loki stopped to rest at the cascade of Andvari the dwarf. There they idly watched a svelte otter frisking in the pool beneath the falls until Loki got it into his head to kill and skin it. Visiting the rustic Hreidmar's hut later in the day, Loki presented him with the skin as payment for lodging. But the angry father recognized the hide of his shape-changing son and held the disguised gods prisoners for the murder, agreeing to release them only if they brought to him the fabulous treasure of Andvari. After much adventure, they managed to steal the dwarf's hoard from its hiding-place in the pool under the falls, but not without his curse, which rested on the gold itself and upon those who strove to possess it. Especially cursed was a ring which Andvari assured them would bring nothing but loss and evil in its wake. Hreidmar greedily took the treasure and refused to share it with his remaining sons, Regin and Fafnir, causing the latter to take matters into his own hands by killing the old man in his sleep and secreting the hoard in a lofty cave before assuming his dragon form.
Whilst the details of such tales are entertaining, one wonders what might be their inherent symbolism. Quite apart from the results of the endless mischief caused by Loki's compulsive activity, why did the gods permit themselves to be forced to steal the dwarf's gold, and what is the significance of it originating with a dwarf? Is it important that it was hidden under a cascade? What particular power lay in the dwarfs curse? Why was it given? And most problematic, why did Fafnir commit parricide in order to hoard the treasure where it could be of no use to anyone? This does not seem to be action in any way characteristic of a dragon of wisdom, or is it? What of the presence of Odin in this story? Why is the Alfader, who favoured and watched over Sigurd, involved in the events resulting in the creation of the curse Sigurd was to inherit as well as the dragon who was to place it upon him? Why is Sigurd thus supported and lifted up, only to be knocked down?
As an infant, Sigurd was fed by a hind, a tall male deer which was to the Norsemen the symbol of a messenger of the gods and the sign of a warrior. The fact that the stag is a solar symbol pitted eternally in combat with the chthonic and lunar serpent would suggest a deeper theme coursing through the complexities of the Volsung sagas. Add to this the powerful solar identity of the sword, and a picture presents itself of a godly representative of the sun confronting the consolidated astral powers of darkness, chaos and death, a picture which, in its various guises, is familiar throughout the world. One sees its elements combined in the great mythic adventures of Apollo, Perseus, Jason, Theseus, Oedipus, Quetzalcoatl, Moses, Elijah and Arthur. These and many other such divine heroes shared certain attributes: being of noble origin, being unusually conceived, being threatened by infanticide followed by escape (often in a boat over water), experiencing youthful exile and then the return to claim their dues, which brought triumph, marriage and successful reign, followed by downfall and death. Thus Sigurd is one of a type, a great mirroring of an archetype which appears to be as old as thinking man. After eating of Fafnir's heart and being further instructed by the birds, he proceeded to fulfil, in Nordic fashion, the unfolding design of this heroic ideal.
The birds urged Sigurd to leave the treasure behind and rush to win a maiden on the mountain of Hindarfjall (from hind). His horse Grani, descended from Odin's Sleipnir, knew the way, and when they approached a magic circle of fire surrounding the castle at the summit, Grani cleared the flames in one unhesitating bound, landing firmly in the cobbled courtyard. There, upon a bed of state, a golden-masked warrior lay, as if in a swoon. Dazzling was his presence, his golden helmet encrusted with rare designs and his figure cloaked with an aura of suspended destiny. Sigurd was amazed, and dismounted to stand in silent contemplation of this strange and wonderful sight. Gently leaning forward to remove the golden mask, he gasped with surprise when long waves of flaxen hair tumbled loose and the face of a beautiful maid was revealed. It was Sigdrifa ('Victory-giver'), one of Odin's Valkyries, whom the great god had put into a deep sleep as punishment for a minor transgression. Only Sigurd could awaken her, and his expression as he looked upon her was strange and wondering, "as if he were looking inward to another world".
Slowly he aroused her from her deep trance and asked her to teach him the wisdom that she must possess. Looking intently into his eyes, she took a horn filled with heavenly mead and sought the favour of the gods. She then gave it to Sigurd, saying, "I bring you a drink, warrior champion, in which are blended power and glory; it is filled with songs and with tokens of strength, with goodly incantations and with gladdening runes." Sigdrifa then taught him about the many kinds of runes, saying that they had great magical power and could bring benefit and joy to those who understood them, but woe to those who did not. Sigurd listened well to her soft yet authoritative pronouncements and fell deeply in love with her beauty, as well as with her mind and soul. He plighted his troth to her, using the fatal ring (which he had unfortunately pocketed, despite the warnings of Fafnir and the birds) to seal the vow.
Now the curse initiated by Andvari and extended through Fafnir to Sigurd began to produce tragic consequences. After he had promised his troth to Sigdrifa, Sigurd took temporary leave of her in order to avenge his father. While travelling, he visited the Niebelungs, whose queen, Grimhild, seeing in him a desirable match for her daughter Gudrun, gave him a love potion which caused him to forget Sigdrifa utterly and pledge his troth to Gudrun. Sigurd then proceeded to become involved in a series of complex exchanges of identity with Gunnar, the brother of Gudrun, who had heard of the beautiful maiden lying asleep on Hindarfjall and wished to make her his bride. In the innocence of his amnesia, Sigurd impersonated Gunnar and, mounted upon Grani, who alone could leap the flames surrounding the castle where Sigdrifa waited asleep, Sigurd actually betrothed her on behalf of Gunnar. Sigdrifa was confused, but the manner and mien of her suitor suggested those of the hero who had come to her as if in a dream, and she became in this way the bride of Gunnar. With Gudrun as wife to Sigurd and Sigdrifa as wife to Gunnar, life among the Niebelungs proceeded uneasily.
Inevitably, it was the ring that exposed the truth of what had happened. For it had been taken by Sigurd from Sigdrifa as she slept during his visit to her as Gunnar, and he had later given it to Gudrun, who took pleasure in showing it to Sigdrifa and telling her the story of the impersonation. An outraged and grieving Sigdrifa now remembered that during his first visit to her, Sigurd had told her of the one vulnerable spot between his shoulder blades. She felt utterly betrayed and appealed to Gunnar and his brothers until one of them finally agreed to take advantage of this knowledge and kill Sigurd while he slept. With the terrible death of Sigurd, Sigdrifa went mad with remorse and, according to one romantic version of the myth, threw herself from the castle ramparts onto his funeral pyre, crying, "Sigurd, my beloved, wait for me! I too will brave the fire. Together we will rise to Odin in Valhalla." Thus were Sigurd and Sigdrifa betrayed by one another in a tragic confusion of transpositions and obscurations of memory, in the course of which the curse of the ring was fulfilled.
When he first looked upon Sigdrifa's lovely face, Sigurd appeared to be "looking inward to another world". This remarkable observation could only refer to the disciple approaching the threshold of initiation. To reach this threshold he had first to kill and eat the dragon's heart. In ancient times, aspirants of India and Arabia who wished to approach the wisdom of Adepts ate the hearts of serpents in order to learn the languages of all animals. By eating the heart, Sigurd became the wisest of men, learned in the runes and magic charms. He received the Word from an Initiate who then died after passing it to him. This is an age-old pattern observed even by minor practitioners of magic today. The forces aroused during a lifetime of practice do not disappear in a puff of smoke at death. The dead cannot rest connected to such volatile potentialities and must deliver their power and knowledge to a fit recipient before they pass on. In the case of Fafnir and Sigurd, the curse borne by the former was transmitted along with the wisdom, illustrating how the good and evil of manifest existence is passed through generations of beings possessing real powers, a process we observe even at the level of ignorant non-magicians possessing only prejudices and opinions. But the dragon's heart yielded only wisdom, evidenced by Sigurd's initial ability to understand the language of the birds.
This power was blithely alluded to by Kipling in the Mowgli stories, and finds its most vulgarized if comic expression in Hollywood caricatures of talking animals who demonstrate vastly more intelligence than the human 'heroes' associated with them. That this theme has captured man's imagination for millennia is apparent, but it may not immediately occur to the casual student of psychological and cultural history that it has its roots in spiritual and magical initiation, and that it is really an expression of a stage of development moving towards omniscience. Even the stones speak to the initiated, and the air to them bears whole soliloquies upon its breezes.
During the Christian era, eating the dragon's heart was echoed in the practice of symbolically eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood. But Christ is basically a solar figure, a specialized incarnation of the Logoic Ray in the world, whereas the dragon represents the vast spectrum of potencies, stretching from the highest reaches of akashic wisdom to the lowest realms of lunar astral forces. Dragons are thus similar to the giants of Nordic lore, some being founts of wisdom, as Mimir was to Odin, whilst others merely toil ceaselessly to promote dissolution and chaos. They do not love the order of the world. They are not enamoured of its myriad evolving forms but have always been the foes of the gods, an opposition expressed in various traditions as Bel and Dragon, Apollo and Python, Osiris and Typhon, Sigurd and Fafnir, and St. George and the most famous dragon of Christendom. The dragon is thus the constant companion of the sun, with whom it is locked in eternal conflict. The disciple of the solar deity must inevitably meet and do combat with this 'monster' if he or she would reach and become one with the object of devotion. Such seekers must fight and kill the dragon's manifest form but assimilate its heart and bathe in its blood if they would achieve immortality. This is tricky, because the dragon spurns the world of sensual enjoyment, guarding tantalizing treasures from exploitation, hoarding the jewels of manifest life in darkened caves, where neither sun nor eye of man can light upon them.
He is thus the guardian of the non-manifest to be conquered if conscious (manifest) wisdom is to be won. But his heart's blood contains the germ of eternal light, which emanates from a higher Invisible Sun existing beyond the lunar cycles of life and death, and of time. It is this with which Sigurd attempts to cover himself but fails. A leaf of the tree of manifest life sticking to his back rendered him vulnerable to mortality, whilst the remnants of hubris in his character caused him to react to Fafnir's taunting long enough to receive his curse. In this way, Sigurd is placed in the position of the truly tragic hero, who expresses the essential immortality of godhood while being caught in the coils of the world. The dragon caught him. He killed the dragon but it caught him nonetheless. Even had he not reacted to Fafnir's taunts and provided his name as a target for the curse, his refusal to heed the dragon's warning to leave the treasure alone ensured that the curse would work.
But the glorious Volsung hero's quest for wisdom was sincere, and he asked Fafnir many questions as the dragon lay dying. He wanted to know who the mysterious Norns were and where the Ragnarok would take place, questions simple-seeming on the surface but having a deeper significance for the spiritual seeker desiring to understand the origin of time and the relevance of place in relation to the end of the world. It was knowledge of such mysteries that the dragon could impart, a knowledge which comes from beyond time and which is not limited by the sequences of classificatory consciousness. It is important here to remember that the gods, egged on by Loki, unleashed Andvari's curse. Without their action, the treasure would have remained hidden beneath the waters of the cascade, and the curse would have lain unspoken. In its watery resting-place, the gold which belonged to the earth and its denizens could have done no harm. Sheltered there in the astral depths, its power and beauty remained in potentia, to be tapped and marshalled only by those who aligned themselves consubstantially with its essence. It is significant that the gods did not keep any of the treasure. It passed through the hapless Hreidmar, who coveted it, to Fafnir, who hid it. Regin lusted after it, but it is said that Fafnir's 'greed' for it was so great that he desired to remove it from the world. This is a very different sort of greed from that of most men. It is, rather, a compelling intention to withdraw from the endless scenarios produced by worldly desires. Fafnir committed parricide, and in doing so, he killed the parent of that in himself which still clung to a life of the senses. He stole away the gold from his avaricious brother, whose unduly clever worldly wisdom eventually resulted in his own demise. He secreted the gold, placing it, not in the astral pool of the earth, but in a dark mountain cave, far from the world and reached only by the very few.
Thus the gods initiated this cycle of bravery, beauty and woe, whereas the dragon sought to circumvent it. Sigurd as the favoured hero of Odin was bound to oppose the dragon and, as representative of the sun manifesting in the world, was bound to carry forth the curse and demonstrate to all who would listen the tale of the dramatically double-edged nature of man. Unable to resist the fateful ring (and some sources say the rest of the treasure as well), Sigurd rode to Hindarfjall, leapt the circling flames there and stood before the beauteous Sigdrifa, his own higher, buddhic soul. He listened to her teachings and gave himself to her with all his heart. But he put upon her finger the cursed ring and rode off to stay amongst people who would rob him of his buddhic memory and throw a terrible veil of obscuration over all the wisdom he had so valiantly won. In her turn, the poor soul was abandoned and left in a daze wherein she was easily duped into accepting the hand of the wrong husband. Living amongst the Niebelung (who represent spiritual failures and black magicians), Sigdrifa walked as one asleep. It was when she received intimations of her betrayal that she fell into madness and destroyed the manasic hero (principle) who could have given her joyful life.
As one contemplates the details of this sweeping saga, one becomes ever more deeply imbued with a profound sense of sadness on behalf of all mankind. For this tale has been writ time and time again in the breast of every human being, and its tragic conclusion seems to find no liberating ending. Rather, the cycle of effort, error, winning and obscuration repeats itself again and again and again.
Why is Sigurd supported and lifted up by Odin, the solar deity, only to fail? Is it inevitable that he should fail? Is it possible to transcend this failure while in human form? All the ingredients of possible success seem to be given in the saga. The gods are bound to release the curse because the nature of manifestation involves the opposition of good and evil, white and black. But Sigurd is not bound to embrace the curse. He learnt of the dragon and his treasure from the crafty Regin, who represents the lower mind, but it was his sword, inherited from a nobler ancestry, that enabled him to slay that lower mind and get on with the higher task at hand. Odin helped him at critical junctures but Sigurd blundered. In the face of the Dragon Initiate, he identified himself with his personal name and lost his possible immunity to the curse. This was the first big blunder. He then blundered again, desiring the treasure of gold as well as that of wisdom and supposing that the two could be mixed. His newly-won powers enabled him to meet his inner soul face to face and to unite himself with it through a vow. But his memory of this sacred betrothal was short-lived, shining like a meteor in mid-heaven, only to fade away as he descended from the mountain top where Sigdrifa lay. Not only did Sigurd progressively slip into delusion, but he entangled that aspect of the soul which attempts to follow and inform the lower man and which, in certain circumstances, is in danger of sinking into despair and running amok.
With great humility and faultless preparation, leaving no stone unturned in the arduous task of self-study and self-correction, one may avoid the traps into which Sigurd fell. It is possible through persistence to discover the path that leads eventually to the dragon's lair. It is also possible to learn from one's buddhic intuition (represented by Sigurd's mother in his youth) of the existence of the magical sword of mind, and to discover how its fragments can be forged once again in a life newly begun. To see clearly and to understand, one must learn from those who see clearly, like the dragon whose very name means just that. This implies that one must ultimately approach the dragon where he resides if one wishes to overcome the delusive fumes that cloud the world of the senses. The intuitive seeker learns that the dragon is not to be found in some external mountain lair, along some exotic path leading back into history or into foreign lands. He realizes that the path and the dragon are both to be found within himself and that, as he approaches closer along the former to the latter, the path becomes much steeper and more dangerous, and poisonous air assails his senses. He is filled with doubt. How could the path to enlightenment lead to such a dark and unpleasant place? What does he, the earnest disciple, have to do with this ghastly environment? But he is forewarned. The dragon within him hugs the wisdom which cannot mingle with the likes and dislikes of the lower nature. He has taken back the treasure dissipated in the astral world and heaped it up in the cave of the heart. He will not permit aspirants to approach it until they have struggled through the quagmires and poisonous crevices of their own personalities and recognized that the ugliness and horror of these characteristics are entirely of their own making as part of the product of the collective karma of mankind.
The form of the dragon represents the veil of maya which man imagines to be outside him but which is, in reality, the clothing of his mind. Thus the dragon's shell, as it were, surrounds the mind, enthralling it, terrifying it and preventing it from receiving the light of the Spiritual Sun. This mayavic shell must be pierced with the sword whose steel represents a manasic refining process of many lives. It may be reforged with the help of the lower mind, but it must be consubstantial with the noetic temper of the higher mind. What is required is the piercing of the shell enthralling the mind by the sword of the mind itself, clearly what is known as an 'inside job'. It is impossible to attempt to do this from the outside, for the tools of entry do not exist there. The needed sword stands in opposition to the proliferating tree of life. It is the masculine, solar implement which seeks to penetrate back to the essential heart of things, to the hidden treasure that lies within the maya of existence. It alone can pierce the shell of the dragon from within so that its master can release the "light of Oeaohoo" symbolized by the dragon's blood, and bathe the entirety of his sevenfold nature in it.
Always proceeding from within without, one can avoid the trap of confusing the outer treasure with the inner treasure or of attempting to mix them. It is not that they are unrelated; they are related as actual analogues of one another. But it is critical to see that the inner treasure exists on a causal plane and possesses limitless possibilities of growth along the lines of true spiritual enlightenment, whereas the outer treasure is bound by the severe limits of its manifest nature and is likely to promote intense selfish fixations and a long string of subsequent evils which lead one further and further away from enlightenment. By insisting on taking the ring from Andvari, the gods brought to light the zodiacal circle of time, the curse of conditioned existence. By concealing the ring along with the other treasure, Fafnir did not put an end to time as much as he suspended it – at least temporarily (if one will forgive the contradiction) – when approached by the hero capable of slaying his lunar form and receiving his wisdom. That Sigurd was such a hero cannot be doubted. Everything in his nature should have enabled him to succeed. His partial success and tragic failure reflect not only the shared human condition but the severity of the laws that pertain to the awesome mountain climbing of the spiritual Path. At those heights there are no also-rans or near misses. One either hits the mark with every step or one does not hit the mark at all.
The saga of Sigurd inspires us and fills the heart with a sense of the grandeur of the human promise and tragedy, but it also warns us of the difficulties that lie on the path of one who strives to live a truly heroic life. In the end, the greatest story ever told will finish not in failure but in unspoken mysteries communicated to the inner ear of the Initiate as he stands in the presence of the great Dragon-Adept. Bathed in the light of wisdom which he himself has released, such a hero leaps the flames of desire encircling the castle of the soul and merges as one with its luminous nature. Not for him is the avenging of ancestors or the desire for gold. He is not deflected from his path, not by a flicker or a passing thought. Now he walks, a triumphant Sigurd, securely wrapped in the bliss of union with the divine, trailing the light of inspiration everywhere he goes.