The Curse of Andvari’s Ring

The Story That Inspired Tolkien

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The One Ring in Peter Jackson's films.
Elijah Wood in The Lord of the Rings Credit: New Line/Everett Collection
Elijah Wood in The Lord of the Rings Credit: New Line/Everett Collection

Before there was “one ring to rule them all”, made famous by J.R.R Tolkien, or Wagner’s famous epic opera “Der Ring Des Nielbelungen” ( The Ring of the Niebelungs), there was Andvari’s Ring; a scarcely known Norse legend that rivals the Tolkien novels in terms of scale and emotions. In the original legend the eponymous ring, named “Andvaranaut” or “Andvari’s Gift”, had the fabled ability to make gold. Andvari (from the Old Norse “careful one”) was a dwarf that lived under a waterfall; having the power to transform into a fish whenever he wanted. He used his ring to make great wealth for himself. Jealous of the power of the ring, the mischievous god Loki uses a net to capture Andvari while he is transformed into a pike. As a condition of letting him go, Loki demands the ring and his horde of gold, to which Andvari reluctantly agrees. However, Andvari cursed the ring, that misfortune and peril would befall who-so-ever should possess it. Loki passed the cursed ring onto Hreidmar, king fo the dwarves, as a penance for killing his son Otr. Then, Otr’s brother, Fafnir, killed Hreidmar and stole the ring; transforming into a fearsome dragon to guard it. The great Hero Sigurd (or Siegfried in Wagners epic) killed the dragon Fafnir and gave the ring to his beloved Brynhildr , a shieldmaiden, and valkyrie, as a gift. Tradgedies befall both Sigurd and Brynhildr, until Queen Grimhild of the Niebelungs (or dwarves) tricked the pair into marrying into her own family; thereby bringing the curse of the ring into her house.

This part of the Drävle Runestone is held to depict Andvari.
This part of the Drävle Runestone is held to depict Andvari.

The curse of the ring is a central plot point in the Volsunga Saga, revolving around Sigurd and Brynhildr. In the Volsunga, Brynhildr is forced to choose between two kings doing battle; Hjalmgunnar and Agnar. The great and powerful God Odin had his favor in Hjalmgunnar, however, Bryhildr chose to fight for Agnar; enraging Odin. As a consequence, Odin put Bryhildr in a deep sleep on the top of Mount Hindarfjal, and surrounds her with magical fire, until the day when a great hero can come and save her. That hero proves to be Sigurd, who rescues Bryhildr and proposes to her with the ring he has taken from the slain dragon Fafnir. After being tricked into forgetting about each other by Grimhild, the cursed lovers separate; each being married to another. Sigurd actually aids Bryhildr’s betrothed, Gunnar, in courting her; as Gunnar is too frightened to cross a ring of fire that is placed around Brynhildr’s Tower. Disguised as Gunnar, Sigurd stays with Bryhildr for three nights but does not take her virginity. He does, however, take back the Andvaranaut that he gave her and gives it to his own newly betrothed, Gudrun. After much deception, Brynhild discovers that it was Sigurd and not Gunnar who braved the ring of fire to court her. Sigurd is killed in his sleep by Guttorm, the younger brother of Gunnar. Upon hearing of Sigurd’s fate Bryhildr throws herself onto Sigurd’s funeral pyre, to be burned alive and die along with him. The Andvaranaut having once again had caused havoc, and destruction.

"Sigmund's Sword" (1989) by Johannes Gehrts.
“Sigmund’s Sword” (1989) by Johannes Gehrts.

In the Volsunga Saga, Sigurd is aided in his quest to kill the dragon Fafnir by Fafnir’s brother, Regin; greedy to possess the hoard of gold that Fafnir has acquired. Regin builds Sigurd a mighty sword and gives him advise on how to kill Fafnir. Regin requires some of the gold and the heart of Fafnir as compensation. Sigurd drinks the blood of the dragon and is given the ability to understand the language of birds. The birds then tell Sigurd that Regin has been corrupted by the power of the Ring, and that Regin plans to kill Sigurd. in self-defense, Sigurd decapitates Regin and eats a portion of the heart, which grants Sigurd the gift of prophecy.

This version of the legend can be found in the Sigurd Stones, or Ramsund carving, in Sweden. The carving is believed to have been made around 1030 AD and is a highly important piece of Norse artwork. It depicts, in a ring-like fashion, scenes of the legend of Sigurd. In the first scene, Sigurd sits naked in front of a fire preparing Fafnir’s heart for Regin; Fafnir’s brother. The heart is not fully cooked when Sigurd touches it, burning his finger. He then sticks his finger into his mouth, and tasting the dragon blood is given the ability to understand the language of birds. The birds tell Sigurd that Regin will not keep his promise of forgiving Sigurd for the death of his brother, and so Sigurd decapitates Regin.

The curse of the ring reaches as high as the God’s, in Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, or “Twilight of the God’s”. After many of the events described before, Brynhild tells the Rhinemaidens to reclaim the ring for themselves after she has cleansed it of its curse with the fires of Sigurd’s funeral pyre. The Rhine overflows, putting out the fire and swallowing up the ring; to which the Rhinemaidens dive in to retrieve it. The Halls of Valhalla are revealed, and magical flames rise up and consume the Gods. The power of the ring is even enough to cause the destruction of the most mighty beings.

Through these legends, Andvari’s ring is always in the background and is the motivation and catalyst for all of the misfortune in the characters lives. The Andvaranaut symbolizes the perils of greed and the pitfalls of selfishness. From one dwarf’s own greed of possessing wealth himself, spawns the destruction of subsequent lives for all time. Andvari eventually does recover his hoard of gold in a cave, long after the events of the legends have unfolded and the characters have died. his beloved Ring, however, is forever lost to him. The legend speaks to say that power and wealth are like bars of soap: The more tightly they are held onto, the more they will slip away.