The legend and the treasure of the Nibelungen

In this national epic that is the legend of the Nibelungen, Siegfried, the most German of heroes, kill the dragon, seize the Nibelungen treasure, marries the beautiful Kriemhild before being cowardly murdered by the traitor Hagen, his treasure disappearing in the Rhine. What is the historical basis of this saga, which came from the dawn of time, where fidelity and betrayal, love and hatred mingle, and which notably inspired the work of Richard Wagner and, indirectly, that of J.R.R. Tolkien?

The song of the Nibelungen

The story of Siegfried and the Nibelungen treasure is told by a song, taken from a codex dating from the 13th century. Siegfried, son of the king of Xanten, forges a magical sword for himself, triumphs by the cunning of a terrifying dragon, becomes invulnerable by bathing in his blood and seizes the treasure of the dwarf people: the Nibelungen. Crowned with his recent feats of arms, he arrives at the court of the Burgundian king Gunther, and asks for the hand of his sister, the beautiful Kriemhild.

Gunther accepts on condition that Siegfried manages to conquer for him the Valkyrie of the name of Brünhild, task which the hero fulfills. Brünhild, who has meanwhile fallen in love with Siegfried, is forced to marry the king, and the valiant knight can marry Kriemhild. At the head of King Gunther's armies, Siegfried won many victories, and aroused jealousy, including that of Hagen, a vassal of the king.

A curse hangs over the Nibelungen treasure, supposed to bring bad luck to its owner. Thus, with the complicity of King Gunther and his wife Brünhild, Hagen decides to eliminate Siegfried. Through cunning and betrayal, he discovers Siegfried's "Achilles heel" which leaves him vulnerable, a small part of his back not covered by the dragon's blood. During a hunting trip, Hagen fatally wounds the hero and grabs his sword.

After the assassination of her husband, Kriemhild tries to use her husband's treasury to recruit barons who would agree to avenge her. Feeling threatened, Hagen seizes the treasure and throws it into the Rhine. Kriemhild must then resolve to leave the court of Worms, King Gunther protecting the murderers of his husband.

It was then that the King of the Huns then asked for the hand of the beautiful widow. Kriemhild agrees, believing he has found the strong arm of his revenge. She invites King Gunther, his brothers and Hagen to the wedding ceremony, under the pretext of reconciliation. Despite the ban of the King of the Huns, she had the Burgundians massacred as soon as they arrived. Having recovered Siegfried's sword, she kills Gunther and then beheads Hagen who refused to give her the location of the treasure. Enraged by Kriemhild's betrayal, the king of the huns orders the killing of his future wife.

So ends the song of the Nibelungen, the most famous Germanic legend.

The historical foundations of the Nibelungen legend

A story handed down from generation to generation, the legend of the Nibelungen has historical foundations. It was a sword that made Siegfried a hero. The early interest of the Germans in swords stems from their encounter with the Romans, who made weapons of a quality they could not match. Thus the blacksmiths who mastered the art of making these swords, weapons considered magical, aroused the admiration of the Germans.

The confrontation between Germans and Romans on the banks of the Rhine is very probably one of the sources of inspiration for the legend of the Nibelungen. Thus Tacitus relates the story of a sibling, Arminius, the son of a prince of the Cheruscan tribe, sent as a hostage to Rome and becoming an officer in the army of Augustus. In AD 9, Arminius was led to participate in a campaign against the Germans from the walled city of Xanten… the presumed origin city of Siegfried.

Disgusted by the cruel methods of the Roman commander Varus, Arminius deserted. Having become the head of the Cheruscans, he sets a trap for the Roman army in the Teutberg Forest. The legions of Varus were completely wiped out there, and Arminius probably seized the gold and precious possessions of the Romans. Among the spoils, the banners of the Roman legions, adorned ... with a dragon's head! Following this disaster, the Romans never crossed the right bank of the Rhine again. Arminius meanwhile will not benefit long from his status as a hero and liberator. He will be assassinated in the year 21 ... by members of his family. A story and a battle that will be a breeding ground for myths and heroes.

The other source of inspiration refers to the time when Kriemhild had to leave the Burgundian court and when Hagen had the Nibelungen treasure thrown into the Rhine - one hundred and forty-four ox carts filled with gold and precious stones. . In historical reality, this is the turbulent time of the great invasions, during which the Roman Empire was in full decline and when the German peoples were sinking ever further south and west.

Coming from Scandinavia, the Burgundians settled in Poland, as attested by Pliny the Elder, who would have met them on the banks of the Vistula around 57. Driven out by the incessant migrations from the east, the Burgundians settled near the Rhine between Mainz and Worms in the 3rd century, and come up against the fortified border of the Romans, the limes.

A border which is far from being hermetic, the Germans multiplying the incursions into Gaul. Traveling rapidly on the Roman roads, the Germans escaped the Roman legions and crossed the Rhine again, laden with the fruit of their plunder. This is where the Romans tried to intercept them, thanks to their galleys which circulated on the river. So many Burgundians and Alamans were swallowed up in the waters of the Rhine on the way back, giving credence to the legend of the curse that surrounds the treasures.

As in the song of the Nibelungen, the Burgundians had problems with the Huns. Between 435 and 436, after several decades of peaceful cohabitation with the Romans, the Burgundians invaded Belgium. They are crushed there by the army of General Aetius, conveniently allied with the ... Huns. The Burgundian people are decimated, their king killed, and the survivors must go into exile on the banks of the Rhône, the future Burgundy.

Rhine gold

The Burgundians are the tribe on which historians have the fewest documents but of which we know that it was indeed annihilated. But where could the Burgundian treasure disappear? Nowadays, some continue to search for gold from the Rhine. The song of the Nibelungen speaks of a treasure buried at the bottom of the Rhine, the equivalent of 144 chariots filled with gold and precious stones. The Rhine has always been sifted in search of gold by the Celts, the Romans and then the Alamans ... And the legend of the Nibelungen has long fueled the Rhine gold fever. In the last century, the Nazis, very attached to the myth of Siegfried, also sought the famous treasure. In vain…

In 1980, dredgers unearthed an impressive collection of precious objects of Roman origin dating from the end of the Roman Empire. In total, nearly a thousand objects have been brought to the surface, constituting the most important archaeological treasure ever discovered in Europe. Objects deliberately damaged, most likely as a result of sharing loot, according to the custom of German peoples. More recently in 2014, another discovery, consisting mainly of jewelry, was made in Rhineland-Palatinate. The location and dating of the treasure agree with the legend, leaving experts wondering ...


- Les Nibelungen by Joël Schmidt. Zulma, 2001.

- The song of the Nibelungen by Claude Mettra. Albin Michel, 1984.

For further

- Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Nibelung Ring) - 8 DVD box set - incl. Making Of. DVD, 2005.

- Les Nibelungen, by Fritz Lang. Fiction, MK2, 2008.

- The sacred ring - 2 DVD box set. Fiction, 2006.

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