Greek and Germanic Mythology in the Light of Esotericism
III. The Sigfried Saga
21 October 1922, Berlin
In order to acquire a right understanding of the Siegfried saga we must first find its place in the great cosmic happenings in the world. Before our present root-race there were four others; we are in the fifth. The first sub-race of the present race consists of the Indian folk; we call this the Spirit-race, because the import of the fifth race was first given by the Manu in its spiritual form to this sub-race. The second sub-race we call the Flame-race, the race to which Zarathustra gave a religion. The third sub-race was the star-race, the race of the Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians, from which later sprang the Israelite tradition. The race of the Greek and Roman peoples, whose first representatives are mainly to be found in Greece and Rome, became the fourth sub-race. It is the one in which Christianity first took root, in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. But it is our fifth sub-race which was to be the most strongly influenced by Christianity and was to carry it over into the sixth. Christianity came to our fifth sub-race as a tradition, after the beginning of the Christian era. But before this, for some centuries before Christianity was introduced into these regions, and even earlier, ancient Druid initiations were in existence. These were maintained until it became quite obvious that the evening of these preparatory Celtic races had come.
You must understand that all the streams I have named do not reach the northern world. None of the currents which passed over the Flame-race, the Star-race, the Greco-Roman race, got as far as the northern regions. In the north there still remained something from the culture of Atlantis which had been brought over by Atlantean initiates. Wotan was an initiate of the northern peoples. He is none other than the bearer of the elements of Atlantean culture into these parts. Everywhere in these northern regions the Druid initiation was still practised. I have already said that one of its founders, one can say its chief founder, was named Sieg. And in these northern parts something happened rather like what happened later in Palestine at the Foundation of Christianity. Sieg renounced his body and placed it at the disposal of a higher individuality. Hence later the transformed Sieg was named Odin. Odin is the highest initiate of the northern Mysteries. He is the bearer of the spiritual culture of that time. Sieg therefore was the Chela of the north who placed his body at the disposal of the higher, more spiritual Odin. He himself lived later as an initiate Master. Sieg is a quite special case. He is not able to introduce a movement as the Master Jesus 1The Master Jesus is described by Rudolf Steiner as a being who sees through history as the guide of the Christian spiritual stream, with relatively short intervals between each death and rebirth. He is not to be confused with Jesus of Nazareth. See also Lecture 7 of Rudolf Steiner's Course on the Luke Gospel. did after the foundation of Christianity. Sieg had to lead this northern culture to its downfall. He is called upon to guide the northern peoples until the fifth sub-race of the fifth root-race reached them from the south. The ancient Chela Sieg is the one who had to lead the northern peoples into tragedy. Hence he is also called Sieg-urt, which means, “he who leads into the past.” ‘Fried’ is the same word; it means, “that which leads to death, to destruction.” It is still found in the word ‘Friedhof,’ (graveyard). The very same Chela who had paved the way for the great initiate who is to lead the northern culture to its downfall. Its spiritual content declines and is replaced by the rising Christianity. What I am now saying is a prophetic augury which found expression everywhere in the later northern Mysteries. “We have to be a race that is led to its death”. That is the note which sounds forth in the various Mysteries of these northern peoples. The whole of the future event, which had been indicated in the scriptures since primeval times, and which was to take place in the future, was predicted in the northern Mysteries, and through this prediction arose what later became the content of the Nibelungenlied. The second part of the Nibelungenlied gives us the fulfilment of the Nibelungs' karma.
I must draw attention to one feature which we always find in such a situation in human evolution. Before a new phase takes root the earlier phases of evolution have to undergo a brief repetition. This repetition is plainly to be seen in the north. We are shown how all that has been experienced here in the north since the time of Lemuria and Atlantis has to be overcome before these northern nations will become mature, will really develop up to the level of the Christianised fifth sub-race. He in whom all that lives is the initiate Siegfried. Let us briefly run through the salient points of the Siegfried saga.
To begin with, life at the Court in Worms revolves round three heroes: Gunther, Magen and Giselher. We are further told that the hero Siegfried is wooing Brunhild. At the same time we are told that Siegfried is acknowledged to be a personality out of the ordinary. This he certainly is, for he has slain the possessor of the Nibelung treasure; in the fight with the dragon he has made his body hard as horn; he has won the cloak of invisibility. Thus he has two qualities that are always shown by the initiates of pre-Christian times; they are invulnerable and they are unrecognisable. They are made invulnerable by something that has preceded Christianity, has preceded the spirit. In the Gospel it says: “And there are three that bear witness ... the Spirit, and the water, and the blood.” 2I John, V. 8.
It is the blood which must be conquered, and it is the blood which made the heroes invulnerable in the times preceding Christianity. But these invulnerable initiates are always vulnerable in one spot. Achilles is an example of an initiate of these early times. He was plunged into the Styx and was vulnerable in his heel. Siegfried is bathed in the blood of the dragon and is vulnerable in the shoulder. The initiate can make himself unrecognisable to his own people. He can do that through the possession of the cloak of invisibility. It is this that makes the possessor of these higher occult faculties invisible to the outer world. The possessors of the Nibelung treasure had these faculties. They originated in Atlantis, Atlantean initiates in particular had them. But they were also retained by the initiates of the fifth race and hence by Siegfried. He came into possession of the Nibelung treasure. What is this treasure?
It expresses the fact that the northern peoples supplied the basis upon which the fifth sub-race could arise. We also call the race the race of the great discoveries and inventions, the race that has conquered the entire physical plane and that waxes great amid the harsh difficulties of the external world. It has both to possess things, and to develop its possessions. We shall see that ‘Nibelungenhort’ (the treasure of the Nibelungs) is merely a modification of the old word ‘Nifelheim, Nebelheim’ (land of mist). This it is what in the north is recognized as the physical earth, the earth in the moment of becoming physical. It is a firmer hold on the physical that this race of forerunners propagated and opposed to Christianity. Nibelung treasure represents earthly property. It is something that the forerunner possesses, which it is permissible for him to possess, because he can guard it in a suitable way.
Now you all know how the Siegfried saga goes on in this old form. It is not the oldest form, but it is the one that concerns us. You know that Gunther woos Brunhild of Iceland. Twice Siegfried overcomes Brunhild, who believes that it is her suitor Gunther who has conquered her. Gunther woos her, but Siegfried in the cloak of invisibility fights at his side, and is glad that she becomes Gunther's wife. Now Kriemhild later in a weak moment betrays to Brunhild that in reality it was not Gunther who had vanquished her, but that Siegfried was there invisibly. Brunhild is incensed by this and plots to kill Siegfried. But she has yet to learn how she can do it. She wins to her side Hagen of Trony, who dwells at the court. We can recognise the figure of Hagen as deriving from the ancient Druid Mysteries. Hagen is a significant name among the ancient Druid initiates. Not only is he an initiate who represents the highest streams of spiritual life, but, what is more important here, he illustrates the fact that the predecessor always comes into conflict with his successor. Siegfried is the immediate predecessor of Christianity. Hagen belongs to an earlier Druid stream. Hagen therefore is sent for to bring about Siegfried's ruin. To this end Kriemhild must betray that he is vulnerable in one place. Here the significance of this place is revealed. Kriemhild betrays that he is vulnerable between the shoulders, in the very place where the Cross will have to be borne. He has not yet got the Cross. These early peoples have not yet got Christianity. To this spot the Christian initiate will have to come — so says the Siegfried saga — because it still lacks Christianity, because the place where the Cross has to rest is still vacant. Hence Siegfried is still vulnerable in this spot. Siegfried, who brings the Sieg-initiate to ‘Fried’, to rest, is vulnerable in the spot which Christianity will later render invulnerable. There Siegfried too is overcome by the powers which have remained over from earlier stages of northern culture. Hagen kills him and thus illustrates the supercession of the preceding northern races by the fifth sub-race. The import of this transition finds expression in the Siegfried saga.
What are these northern races, the forerunners of Christianity, fighting against? They are fighting against all the old that has remained behind from Atlantis. They have continually to be on their guard against it. Thus in the northern races there still lives something against which the soul of the northern peoples has to protect itself, something that still forces its way in from the remnants of Atlantean culture. An earlier stage of culture has been preserved into the fifth sub-race. But those who have remained behind in the Atlantean culture are a hindrance to further development, they have to be overcome. Hence the struggles that followed are represented by Gudrun. This Gudrun is the soul of the northern peoples. In an older version she wages war against the great initiates who continually come over from Asia from the remnants of old Atlantis. The initiates, the remnants of the Turanians, come over from Asia in a series of incarnations. This is why we also meet there the famous Attila, identical with Etzel, who was initiated in the Atlantean culture. In. fact the historic Attila, who was called ‘the scourge of God’ by his own people as well as by the Europeans, was an initiate who fought at the head of his people with quite outstanding occult forces. Hence a battle with the Huns was quite rightly described as a fight in the air. To anyone who knows these things it is quite clear what is meant. Attila shrank from nothing that he encountered in Europe; from the Pope alone, of his own free-will, he drew back. The races of northern Europe knew that they had to beware of the influence from the East. Christianity knew that this influence could do it no harm.
Now in the later saga we are told that Kriemhild plotted to take revenge on those who had killed Siegfried. She achieves this by throwing in her lot with these Atlantean elements and succeeds in wooing Attila's following to her cause. She becomes Attila's wife. Before that she had lived for a while at the Burgundian court. She came into possession of the Nibelung treasure and had been a great benefactress in her use of it. But the inevitable enemies, who belonged to an earlier culture, and who were represented by Hagen, had sunk the treasure in the Rhine. Now how wonderfully the events which followed are described; Kriemhild clung to her plan to destroy her enemies, her old northern enemies, with the help of Attila. They were enticed to Attila's court and on their way there they met the very spiritual power by which they were to be superseded. On the Danube, in Rudeger of Bechlaren and his wife Gotelind, they encounter Christianity. It is Christianity that is to supplant the northern European culture. Here we have an indication of the dawn of Christianity. Those who have paved the way for it go to meet their downfall. They are murdered at the court of the Huns. Kriemhild had her revenge but she herself must perish. How is this brought about? Kriemhild is really a metamorphosis of Gudrun, with the difference that in the earlier time the tragic outcome had not taken hold of men's hearts. It is Gudrun herself, the folk-soul who slays Attila. In the later version she unites herself with Attila. The soul of the earlier culture avenges itself on the culture which has brought about its downfall. Kriemhild herself perishes.
If you are studying the matter from the literary point of view, you will naturally ask how it comes about that, right at the end, at the court of the Huns, Dietrich of Bern, Hildebrand and all the Germanic heroes are introduced, for they belong to a period that has already gone over to Christianity. They are Christian heroes. Christianity brings death to the ancient folk-soul. First we have the dawn of Christianity in Rudeger of Bechlaren, and then Christianity reaches the essential element of the ancient folk-soul. This is not something told after the event, but something experienced as prophecy within the Mysteries long before the emergence of Christianity. These events were the subject of Mystery-initiation. Initiation into the Mysteries includes not only initiation into truths of the present, but also into truths of the past and of the future. Apocalypse always forms part of it. The Siegfried saga had long been the apocalypse of the northern peoples.
It is not a saga that has arisen somehow or other out of separate fragments, as philology supposes. ‘The folk’ does not make literature in this way. Only someone who has no clue to what goes on in a folk-soul could say this. The sagas are nothing but an account, a rendering of what had taken place in the crypts of the Mysteries. Just as in the south we have the word Mystery, so in the north a similar mystery event is called a ‘Mahr’, from which we get the word ‘Marchen’ (fairy tale). “Viele Wunderdinge melden die Mahren alter Beiten”. 3This is the first line of the Nibelungenlied. Rudolf Steiner has spoken of the Nibelungen on various occasions, in lecture 8 of the Course entitled “The Spiritual Beings in the Heavenly Bodies and in the Kingdoms of Nature”, given at Helsingfors in April, 1912, and in “Das innere Verhältnis der Sprache zu den Cedanken. Das Nibelungenlied and Wilhelm Jordan” given in Dornach, 28th March, 1915, and not yet translated.) The ‘Wunder’ (wonder or miracle) is just a sign. There are things that must be regarded as events on a higher plane. The northern saga-world is so interesting because it expresses something that is not to be found in the entire range of southern saga. The sagas of the southern peoples express a step up; in them the people have always received something which leads them upwards. Of course, the Indian, Persian, Babylonian, Chaldean peoples and those who succeeded them at later stages also had their tragic figures. We need only remind you of the Chronos saga. But here in the north we have the thing in its most developed form, for these people had so long to wait, so long to live in a state of expectancy. Theirs was a culture of preparation, which lasted until a higher initiation evolved. And that is the important point. It was a culture that descended so low, that its initiate is human, is man. The Indian initiate is the Bodhisattva, then come the Rishis, later in Greece we get ‘the sons of the sun’, such as Hercules and Achilles, Only when the initiate had descended to the lowest rung of the ladder do we get, here in the north the initiated man who lacks only one thing, what is comprehended in the Christ. The Christ he has not got. Thus this culture has come so far that it has human initiates and the man-become-god. In the north we encounter the divine man — the divine Man who for us is the Christ — in an attitude of expectation, with the vulnerable spot which Christianity will have to cover.
Thus you have four levels which come one after another. First you have Wotan, who comes over from Atlantean times; then Odin. Wotan corresponds with what develops during the second sub-race of the fifth root-race. The last before Siegfried is Balder, the sun-hero. He corresponds with what develops in the Chaldean-Babylonian-Assyrian epoch. But whereas what developed in the south is an ascending, a progressive culture, here in the north we find a mood of suspense, of expectancy, of waiting for something to happen Then we come down from god to man; and while the southern sub-race developed further, Siegfried became the initiator of this culture of suspense. It is steeped in tragedy. Because this northern culture is coming to an end you have the tragic deaths of Baldur, of Siegfried.