Away with the Gods, the Magic Suffices: An Analysis of Die Nibelungen and the Nibelungenlied
The purpose of a myth is to promote an ideology and to set standards for society. In this way, according to Bidney, the myth is the source of morality and religion (Myth, Symbolism, and Truth 22). This would explain the various connections between Christianity and the Germanic and Norse mythology. For example, the story of creation runs parallel: the universe begins dark and empty, a single entity is responsible for the first creation, and smaller beings complete the design of the world(s). In addition, one could argue the similarity between the Nordic apple of life and the Biblical forbidden fruit, which is typically translated as an apple, in the Garden of Eden. The Germanic epic poem Das Nibelungenlied, based on 5th and 6th century historic leaders and occurrences, also portrays parallels with Christian elements.
Perhaps these comparisons exist because all myths were written down as a result of Christianization, and the Nibelungenlied in particular was not written down until the 13th century. Due to the strong Christian sentiment of the 18th century, when the text was rediscovered, there was an inner conflict with the depicted pagan way of life and as such, the focus of appreciation for the text centered on the epic’s magical elements (Krause 195). This focus remained until the beginning of the 20th century, when Fritz Lang produced his two-part silent film Die Nibelungen. In the film Lang avoided mention of the Germanic and Nordic gods and instead preserved magical elements such as the dragon, the cloak of invisibility and the heroes’ superpowers; invincibility and strength. From the context of the Nibelungenlied and Die Nibelungen not only is an underlying message of Christianity conveyed, but also a deviation from the Nordic-Germanic gods and towards magic is noticeably present.
The Nibelungenlied is a heroic epos in Middle High German. The epic deals with the dragon slayer Siegfried and the Burgundian people, the ultimate murder of Siegfried, and the revenge of his wife Kriemhild on his death. The poem was written by an anonymous poet with references to Germanic mythology as well as interspersed Christian elements. The Nibelungenlied also contains historical events and peoples, such as the Hunnish king Attila, but the poem alone is a creation of history. For this reason, the Nibelungenlied stirred a feeling of national identity after its rediscovery in the 18th century, although some features of Germanic heroism were abused and combined with racism (Krause, “In Romanticism”). Whether the unnamed poet deliberately integrated Christian elements remains a question for mythologists, but certain aspects between the epic and the Bible are too similar to be overlooked. Siegfried, the hero of the story, serves as a “middleman” between the human world and the magical world, as Jesus was the mediator between humanity and God. The blood of the dragon, in which Siegfried bathes, gives him invincibility and immortalizes him to a certain degree, with the exception of the Achilles spot on his back. Over this point, Kriemhild naively sews a cross, a prominent Christian symbol, on the back of Siegfried’s tunic. Some might consider it sacrilege to directly compare Siegfried with Jesus, however distinct parallels exist regarding the subject of sacrifice and the meaning of blood.
The film Die Nibelungen by Fritz Lang shows the deviation from the religious aspects within Germanic mythology to the purely magical elements. Such magical attributes in Die Nibelungen include the dragon, Brunhild’s strength, the cloak of invisibility, Siegfried’s invincibility, and even Kriemhild’s foreshadowing dream. In his essay, Gunning writes that “[Fritz Lang’s] Die Nibelungen chronicles the disenchantment of the magical world, its betrayal and the apocalyptic consequences of that betrayal” (The Films of Fritz Lang 35). There is a noticeable absence of Germanic gods in this plot, and both figures with supernatural abilities, Siegfried and Brunhild, are undermined; reflecting the collapse of the myth world. Although all of Lang’s characters come from Middle Earth, evident in the fact that they are human beings, there is an incorporation of Nordic mythology into his cinematography. For example, the rainbow shown in the opening scene of Die Nibelungen is an allusion to Bifrost, the bridge connecting Asgard to Middle Earth (Gunning 37).
Lang wanted to bring about a national renewal of appreciation for Germanic myths, and did so by bringing the myths to life on the screen. Lang manipulated the narrative to fit his vision; his motivation for Die Nibelungen was actually a criticism of Hollywood films (Levin). By focusing on the magical elements in Nordic-Germanic mythology, Lang promoted its complex of stories without emphasizing gods or religion. His inspiration, the Nibelungenlied, also reflects no dependency on the gods. The noticeable elements in the epic include the supernatural, heroes, and the villains, and there is a perceptible theme of Christianity. Given the anonymous author’s familiarity with history, as he refers to events and individuals from the 5th and 6th centuries, it is possible that these allusions to Christianity were intentional.
Bidney, David. Myth, Symbolism, and Truth. 1955. PDF.
Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang: Allegories of Vision and Modernity. “Chapter 2: The Decay of Myth.” BFI Publishing. 2000. PDF.
Krause, Arnulf. Von Göttern und Helden. “Die Mythen des Nordens.” Stuttgart. 2004. PDF.
Krause, Arnulf. Von Göttern und Helden. “Die Mythen des Nordens in der Romantik.” Stuttgart. 2004. PDF.
Levin, David J. Richard Wagner, Fritz Lang, and the Nibelungen. Princeton University Press. 1998. PDF.
The Nibelungenlied: The Lay of the Nibelungs. Translated by Edwards, Cyril. Oxford University Press. 2010.
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