Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dragon's Blood and Christianity

After reading The Saga of the Volsungs and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, I was struck by the role of dragons' blood in the two tales. Here are excerpts from the two sagas:
The old man [Odin] responded, "That is ill-advised. Dig several ditches for the
blood to run into; then you sit in one of them and thrust at the heart of the
worm [Fafnir the dragon]." [....] And when the serpent crawled over the pit,
Sigurd plunged the sword up over the left shoulder, so that it sank to the hilt.
Then Sigurd lept out of the ditch, and drew the sword out of the serpent.
His arms were all bloody to the shoulder. (Volsungs, trans. Jesse L. Byock)

Sitting in the ditch and letting the dragon's blood flow all over you? That sounds a bit like baptism to me. Then we go to Bodvar and Hott's fight with the dragon in Hrolf Kraki, in which Bodvar makes the cowardly Hott drink the blood and eat the heart of a dragon they have defeated, thus tranforming Hott into a courageous warrior.

In each of these, the dragon is clearly the bad guy: Fafnir is a transformed greedy human, and Bodvar's is a periodic scourge on the land. While both sagas are written (in their current form) during the Christian era, Hrolf Kraki is particularly Christian, with the narrator occasionally called Odin an "evil spirit" and whatnot.

So, what gives? It seems surprising to me that the iconography of a Satanic baptism and Satanic eucharist would be lost on these audiences. Is Sigurd perhaps being perceived as a Christ figure? Perhaps someone out there knows of some contempory reactions to one of these sagas.

5 comments:

  1. Hypatia8:25 AM

    It's also highly reminiscent of the Taurobolium, a rite of the late Roman cult of Mithras, in which worshippers stood beneath a platform or under a grate above which a bull was being sacrificed, and bathed in the blood.
    Have been enjoying your blog for some time, btw, though this is my first time commenting.

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  2. It is likely to be more in line with the Germanic cultural and religious ideals than Christian ones. In Hakon's saga Snorri describes the blood of the sacrifice was caught in a bowl. The blood was sprinkled on the altar, the temple, the idols and assembled people with a bit of evergreen twig dipped in the blood. The Scandinavian conversion to Christianity was mostly superficial until well into the late medieval period. It is likely, I think, that many of the elements that would seem puzzling in Christian context made perfect sense in a Germanic heathen sense.

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  3. Travis, what you've described is also SOP for sacrificial practices in the Bible--particularly rites of atonement--so it doesn't necessarily negate Christian influence.

    Actually rather than seeing Christian or even more general religious symbolism here, it always seemed to me that bathing in the blood/eating the heart of the monstrous would convey those properties to the hero. Thus by bathing in the dragon's life-blood, you gain part of its life-strength, by taking the heart into yourself you gain its power.

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  4. I remember hearing somewhere that the Old English word bletsian originally meant "to sprinkle with blood".

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  5. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Via a colleague, this might have something:
    Elizabeth Ashmann Rowe, "Quid Sigvardus cum Christo? Moral Interpretations of Sigurðr Fáfnisbani in Old Norse Literature" in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 2 (2006)

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