Das Nibelungenlied: Epic German Classic (or a classic German epic)

Love and Betrayal, Heroes and Villains

Siegfried Forging His Sword
A medieval German hero. GraphicaArtis-HultonArchive@gettyimages.de

From Superman to James Bond, humans have always been fascinated and enchanted by stories. Modern heroes may fight with guns or superpowers, but in medieval German times, the biggest hero of any legend was a guy with a sword and a cloak.

The German term for an ancient legend is Sage, accounting for the fact that these stories were passed on in spoken form ( gesagt means "said"). One of the greatest German Sagen was the Nibelungenlied (song of the Nibelungs).

This epic is a story of heroes, lovers and dragon slayers that can be traced back to the times of Attila the Hun. It was first conceived as songs telling the stories of different heroes and brought together to form a large canon now known as Nibelungenlied around 1200. As such, the author is never named and it is one of the world's greatest anonymous epics.

Love and Betrayal, Heroes and Villains

The story of the Nibelungs revolves around young hero Siegfried, a nobleman full of testosterone and courage. Siegfried's adventures lead him to defeat the Alberich, a powerful Zwerg (gnome). Siegfried steals his Tarnkappe (invisibility cloak) and gains access to the Nibelungenhort, a treasure like no other. In another adventure, Siegfried slays a powerful dragon and becomes unverwundbar (invincible) after a bath in dragon's blood.

He wants to win the heart of beautiful Kriemhild, so he uses his Tarnkappe to help her brother Gunther in a fight with the powerful Brünhild, Queen of Iceland.

As with all good stories, his invincibility would serve him for the rest of his life...had it not been for one little thing. Siegfried's weak spot is located between his shoulders, where a leaf fell during the bath in dragon's blood. He trusts no one with this information except his beloved wife. Years after the weddings of Siegfried and Kriemhild and Gunther and Brünhild, the two queens fall into a quarrel with each other, leading Kriemhild to reveal the secrets of Tarnkappe, invincibility and Brünhild's stolen honor.

From here on out, there's no holding back. Brünhild tells her sorrows to the noble Hagen von Tronje, who swears to take revenge. He lures Siegfried into a trap and stabs him with a spear right between the shoulders. Siegfried is defeated, and his treasure disappears into the Rhine. The story leads to a tragic ending, fuelled by Kriemhild's wrath and pain.

Locating the Treasure

Of course your most important question might be: Where is that Nibelung treasure now? Well, you're in with a chance if you want to lead an exhibition, since the legendary Nibelungenhort was never found.

What we do know is that the gold was sunk in the Rhine by Hagen, but the exact location is still unknown. These days, the most likely geographic area is protected by the Worms golf club whose green courses are located above it.

Impact on German Art and Cinema

The myth of Rhine, dragons and betrayal has inspired many artists through the ages. The most famous musical adaptation of the Nibelungenlied is Richard Wagner's famous opera cycle Ring of the Nibelungs. Fritz Lang (of "Metropolis" fame) adapted the myth for cinema in two silent movies in 1924. It was no mean feat to produce such a film before CGI, with a team of 17 people operating the enormous dragon puppet.

Experience Nibelungen Today

If you're interested in experiencing the Nibelungen story for yourself today, the place to go is Worms. Every year, its Nibelungenfestspiele attract over 200,000 visitors and bring the legends, passions and heroes of the Rhine to life during summer. In fact, the city is your best Nibelung destination at any time of the year, where you can visit the Siegfried fountain, the Hagen memorial or the many depictions of dragons all around town.

For a simplified retelling of the story in German, try the young readers' guide at Was ist Was.