Stone-Cold Bad-Ass Bitches of Mythology, Episode 1: Signy

March 21, 2013

The Coming of Brunhilde by Howard David Johnson

I love a good revenge story.  Who doesn't?  There are so many to choose from: Hamlet, The Princess Bride, "The Cask of Amontillado," Kill Bill.  But Norse mythology gives us one of my favorite revenge artists; straight from the medieval Icelandic epic Völsunga Saga comes a special lady named Signy.

Signy is a member of the Volsung family, a family beset with great heroes and great ill-fortune.  Her great-great-grandfather is Odin the sky-father himself, her father is King Volsung, her mother is a giantess, and one of her ten brothers is Sigmund, a hero of Norse mythology who is to be her co-conspirator in a revenge plot of epic proportions.  As this translation relates, the Volsungs are a happy lot until the arrival of a foreign king.
There was a king called Siggeir, who ruled over Gothland, a mighty king and of many folk; he went to meet Volsung, the king, and prayed him for Signy his daughter to wife; and the king took his talk well, and his sons withal, but she was loth thereto, yet she bade her father rule in this as in all other things that concerned her, so the king took such [counsel] that he gave her to him, and she was betrothed to King Siggeir; and for the fulfilling of the feast and the wedding, was King Siggeir to come to the house of King Volsung.
In a story that echoes the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, the epic start of the Trojan War, and the Arthurian legends, Odin comes to the wedding in disguise.  He thrusts a sword into a tree and declares
Whoso draweth this sword from this stock, shall have the same as a gift from me, and shall find in good sooth that never bare he better sword in hand than is this.
Sigmund, by Arthur Rackham
The only one who can take the sword out of the tree is Sigmund, Signy's brother.  Out of jealousy, Signy's husband fumes and plots revenge.  In a great battle, Signy's husband Siggeir kills Volsung and captures Signy's ten brothers.  Each night, Siggeir's shapeshifting wolf-mother goes and eats one of the brothers.  Signy saves the final brother, Sigmund, by pouring honey all over his face.  When the she-wolf comes for him that night,
...[S]he sniffs the breeze from him, whereas he was anointed with the honey, and licks his face all over with her tongue, and then thrusts her tongue into the mouth of him. No fear he had thereof, but caught the she-wolf's tongue betwixt his teeth, and so hard she started back thereat, and pulled herself away so mightily, setting her feet against the stock that all was riven asunder; but he ever held so fast that the tongue came away by the roots, and thereof she had her bane.
 Yes.  Sigmund bites off the wolf's tongue and the wolf bleeds to death.  Yes.  EPIC.  I know.

Odin and Sinfjotli, by Johannes Gehrts
Sigmund escapes and he and his sister take a vow to avenge the deaths of their father and brothers.  Determined that blood vengeance is best, Signy visits her brother in magical disguise and spends three nights with him.  (Because what's a myth without a little creepy incest, right?) She bears their son, Sinfjotli, and gives the boy up to Sigmund to raise as a warrior.  According to Edith Hamilton's Mythology,
All this time Signy was living with her husband, bearing him children, showing him nothing of the one burning desire in her heart, to take vengeance upon him. 
At last, Sinfiotli is a grown man and skilled warrior.  He and his father lay siege to Siggeir's house.  Sigmund and Sinfiotli kill Signy's other children; they lock Siggeir in the house and set it on fire as the king burns to death.  Signy watches in silence.  When the deed is done, she turns to her brother and surviving son and says,
In everything I have worked toward the killing of King Siggeir. I have worked so hard to bring about vengeance that I am by no means fit to live. Willingly I will now die with King Siggeir.
She enters the burning house.  After all the years she spent plotting her husband's death, she joins him.

And that, my friends, is why Signy is one stone-cold bad-ass bitch of mythology.