Fáfnir and the earliest record of chemical warfare (probably)

Today we’re looking at one of the biggest, baddest dragons medieval literature has to offer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dragon Fáfnir hails from the forests of Scandinavia, where he is famously defeated by the Viking hero, Sigurðr (Sigurðr is also mentioned the Old English epic Beowulf). This popular story is found in the Old Norse Vǫlsunga saga (early 13th century), but it also mentioned in Snorri Sturluson’s Snorra Edda (c. 1275) and the Poetic Edda (manuscript dated to 1270) and appears in pictorial representations on rune stones and early carvings. Like many Old Norse sagas, the story follows the genealogy of a notable family (the Volsungs), and this particular lineage is shrouded in magic, incest, and Karate-Kid-esque training sequences.

Sigurðr slaying Fáfnir. Carved figures in wooden panels at the sides of the entrance to a medieval stave church in Norway.

We first meet the dragon Fáfnir when Sigurðr’s foster-father, Reginn, convinces the hero to kill the beast with the intent of acquiring the dragon’s cursed, golden hoard. Through Reginn, we learn that Fáfnir is Reginn’s brother, literally transformed into a dragon after the two brothers committed patricide to obtain a massive blood-debt paid to their father, Hreiðmarr. Reginn advises Sigurðr to hide in a shallow ditch and stab the serpent from underneath. Sigurðr obeys, but is further advised by the god Óðinn, who appears after Reginn’s cowardly retreat from the lair. Fáfnir approaches, slithering, spewing poison, and shaking the earth. Heeding the advice of Reginn and Óðinn, sneaky Sigurðr successfully deals a death-blow to the dragon who literally does not see him coming. The slayer and the slain then have a conversation filled with prophecy, arcane knowledge, and threats while the dragon thrashes in the throes of death. After Fáfnir dies, Reginn returns and orders Sigurðr to roast Fáfnir’s heart while he drinks the dragon’s blood. Sigurðr agrees, and after testing the juices from the heart, realizes he suddenly understand the language of birds. The birds advise him to decapitate the treacherous Reginn, and Sigurðr does, before packing up the dragon’s cursed hoard and going on his merry way.

This story contains a number of fascinating and bizarre moments (read: the entire eat-the-dragon-and-talk-to-birds scene), but I am most interested in its intermingling of natural and supernatural elements. In being a man transformed into a dragon, Fáfnir resides in an undefined space between man and beast; he is certainly a snakey sort of dragon—he slithers, coils, and thrashes—but he also maintains the ability to speak. In this way, Fáfnir is very different from other dragons in medieval literature; while folks have argued that the Beowulf dragon has human attributes, it certainly does not speak. Adding another level of complexity, Fáfnir’s body is posthumously consumed by Sigurðr, which gives the hero access to hidden secrets of nature (in this case, bird-speak). How might these points complicate our understanding of Fáfnir?

There is also the matter of Fáfnir’s appearance and behavior; while he may look like a giant snake, he certainly possesses something snakes do not: the ability to wreak havoc by spewing poison. While poison is not unheard of in reptilian beasts, they typically don’t use it for mass wreckage. Paul Ackerman analyzes this bit in his scholarly analysis of “Deaths by Dragons” in Old Norse Literature, highlighting Fáfnir’s unusual method of destruction: “he does not inject into victims with fangs like an ordinary viper, but rather blows, breathes, or snorts (the [Old Norse] verbs are blása or fnýsa) in ‘all directions,’ in a sort of chemical warfare.”   

Full stop: Can you imagine if snakes BLEW out their poison like some sort of devious little slither-skunks? Chemical warfare, indeed.

Where to read it:

The Saga of the Volsungs, translated (into Modern English) by Jesse Byock (Penguin Classics, 1990)

or, if you can get your hands on it, try Völsunga saga ok Ragnars saga loðbrókar, edited (in Old Norse) by Magnus Olsen (1906-1908)

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