Fafnir: the Dragon in Norse Mythology
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Although we are most familiar with the stories of the gods of Asgard in Norse mythology, the Vikings had many stories about other beasts and heroes that they used to understand the world and teach important lessons.
One of the most interesting characters in Norse mythology, and probably the inspiration for Tolkien's Smaug in The Hobbit, is the dragon Fafnir.
But what was the story of Fafnir according to Norse mythology, and what lessons did the Vikings learn from it?
Although Fafnir (pronounced faff-near) is known as a dragon or great serpent, he actually began life as a dwarf.
According to Norse history, he was the son of the dwarf king Hreidmar, and had two brothers, Otr and Regin.
The four dwarves were also wizards and could transform into other creatures. It was because of this ability that Fafnir chose to take the form of a dragon.
Origin story of the Viking Dragon
According to the surviving Norse sagas, Hreidmar was an extremely wealthy dwarf king who lived in a house made of glittering gold and sparkling gems.
It was made for him by his son Regin, who was a master blacksmith and craftsman, and kept for him by his other son Fafnir, who was considered stronger and more aggressive than his other brothers, and therefore best suited to the task.
Fafnir's other brother, Otr, was a master fisherman and often took the form of an otter to catch his fish.
One day, the Norse gods Odin, Loki and Hoenir were on a journey and encountered Otr in the form of a beautiful otter. Loki killed the otter with a stone and skinned it for its beautiful fur.
Later that day, they arrived at the dwarf king's house and Loki could not resist showing off his prize. Hreimdar, Regin and Fafnir immediately knew what had happened, and seized Loki, demanding that he pay compensation for the life he had taken.
As Nordic dwarves, they valued gold and asked Loki to give them Otr's weight in gold.
Loki remembered seeing a great treasure in the same lake as Otr. To obtain his ransom, he returned to the lake and looked into its depths.
There he saw a mighty treasure guarded by a giant pike, another dwarf shifter named Andvari.
In order to save his life from Loki, Andvari agreed to surrender all of his treasure, but he begged to be allowed to hold on to a single, beautiful gold ring called the Andvaranaut, one of the many important rings in Nose mythology.
Considering the ring to be the most beautiful item in the inventory, Loki refused. As a result, Andvari cursed the ring to bring misfortune and destruction to whoever possessed it.
Loki took the treasure to Hreimdar and used it to pay his debt. He also gave the ring to the dwarf king, and warned him of the curse, but the ring had already begun to work its magic on Hreidmar, who decided that he would keep the ring for himself.
The curse quickly took hold of Heidmar and his family, and Regin and Fafnir killed their father to possess it for themselves. Fafnir, in turn, decided he did not want to share the treasure with his brother, so he transformed into a powerful dragon and drove Regin from their father's home. He then decided to keep his dragon form in order to guard his treasure day and night.
Fafnir The Dragon
Dragons were considered beings and symbols of great strength by the Norsemen. Jormungandr, also known as the Midgard Serpent, and Niddhogg, the dragon that gnaws at the roots of Yggdrasil, are the other two famous dragons in Norse mythology.
Just as it was natural for Otr, a fisherman, to take the form of an otter, it was natural for Fafnir, a man of immense strength and aggression, to take the form of a dragon.
Fafnir the Dragon in Norse Mythology
The strength of Fafnir the dragon is reiterated by his association with the Helm of Awe, which seems in Norse stories to have been a physical helmet worn by Fafnir the man. However, the Helm of Awe was also a Norse runic symbol used by Viking warriors to give themselves strength.
In addition to being a symbol of strength, dragons also represented greed in Norse culture, and it was clearly Fafnir's greed and desire to possess his father's treasure for himself that motivated his transformation.
As a dragon, he breathed poison on the land surrounding his father's home, which kept people from getting close to his treasure.
He also struck terror into the hearts of all who came near him. This clearly represents the toxic effects that greed can have on the individual and the community.
Death of Fafnir
Fafnir was eventually killed by Siegfried (also known as Sigurd), the great hero of the Volsunga saga. Siegfried is described as an adopted son or ward of Regin, who went to live in another kingdom and work as a blacksmith after being driven out of his father's house by Fafnir.
Regin, a great blacksmith, reforges the broken sword of Siegfried's father, allowing him to avenge his father's death. The sword is so strong that Siegfried is able to split an anvil to its base.
It is in payment for this gift that Siegfried agrees to kill Fafnir for Regin, so that Regin himself can claim the cursed ring that still calls to his heart.
Siegfried seems to have benefited from Odin's patronage. According to some stories, Siegfried met Odin in the forest, where the king of the Norse gods gave him the horse Grani, who was the child of Odin's own steed, Sleipner.
Later, Odin also seems to give advice to Siegfried in his quest to kill Fafnir.
In order to kill the dragon, Siegfried sneaks into Fafnir's territory and digs a hole near the lake where the dragon drinks. Siegfried plans to hide in this hole and stab the dragon in the stomach.
As Siegfried prepares, Odin appears and advises him to dig several holes to give Fafnir's blood a place to flow.
When Fafnir arrives, breathing poison into the air, Siegfried manages to mortally wound the dragon. As Fafnir bleeds to death, he warns Siegfried that Regin, their father's treasure, and especially the ring, will be Siegfried's own undoing.
Regin, who is waiting nearby for Siegfried to finish his task, arrives and drinks some of Fafnir's blood to regain his strength.
He also asks Siegfried to cook Fafnir's heart for him to eat. Siegfried touches the heart to see if it is ready, then licks his finger, which seems to give him the ability to understand the birds' speech.
This allows Siegfried to converse with Odin's two ravens, who warn him of Regin's plans to kill Siegfried and keep all the treasure for himself.
According to the Norse story, Siegfried then kills Regin, eats some of his heart and takes as much treasure as he can, including the ring, and leaves, bringing the curse on his own family.
The lesson of Fafnir
The story of Fafnir was a warning to the Norse against the chaotic and destructive powers of greed, and the dangerous way it can spread from father to son and across communities.
It reminds us that wealth is not to be hoarded, but rather used to form strong alliances and build communities in which everyone can thrive and support each other. This is the basis of Scandinavian culture.