Brunehilde der Wisigothen

Or better known as Brunnhilda of the Visigoths. I am stepping out from my usual story telling to include this tale of the wife of my 40th great uncle, not grandfather, Sigebert I, King of Austrasia.

For some of us the name Brunnhilda brings up the cartoon of Broomhilda, certainly a clever use of the name. The green skinned witch dressed in black is a far cry from the tall, blonde, pigtailed, armor bearing shield maiden. The operatic Brunnhilda of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a cycle of four German language epic music dramas. Wagner appears to have used an old German fable that may have been based on an older Norse fable called, the Völsunga saga and some Eddic poems.

There are many versions of the tale, in most of them Sigebert, or Sigurd/Siegfried, is a “go between” for a suitor that wants to marry Brunnhilda. Unfortunately, the suitor does not have the strength to penetrate the shield wall (or the wall of flames) around Brunnhilda’s tower. So Sigurd/Siegbert/Siegfried changes shape into the suitor, gains entry into the tower and takes away Brunnhilda’s virginity. As a reward she gives him her belt and a ring.

Later in the tale, Brunnhilda marries the suitor thinking that he had gotten through the flames, and Sigurd had married another Queen. So the two Queens were arguing one day about whose husband was stronger or braver. Brunnhilda claims her husband crashed through the wall of flames to take her virginity. The other Queen says that it was actually her husband that did that, and produces the belt, and the ring to prove it. Brunnhilda gets angry and plots to have Sigebert/Sigurd/Siegfried murdered. Once that is done she laughs, then commits suicide. At least that is how it ends in several versions.

The interesting part is that it seems to be based upon real real characters in history. Sigebert I was King of Austrasia about the time of Attila the Hun’s invasion of Europe. In fact some sagas have Brunnhilda the daughter of Attila. Brunnhilda did have a sister, Queen Galswintha, but Fredegund, mistress of Chilperic I of Neustria, had her murdered so that she could become Queen. It almost sounds like another opera. Fredegund goes on to have Sigebert killed and Brunnhilda imprisoned. Eventually Brunnhilda escapes for a time.

She continued to rule the kingdom, but it was no longer the handsome couple in charge, with everybody happy. Her subjects began to resent her harsh rule, and they were happy that Fredegurd’s son, Clotaire II, captured Brunnhilda, who was now 70 years old. He tortured her for days, then had four horses rip her apart, and dragged her body parts throughout the city. Clotaire II ruined the Merovingian Dynasty and paved the way for the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace to take over.

So ends the wife of my 40th great uncle, and legendary shield maiden of the opera.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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