Brynhildr (also spelled Brunhild, Brünnhilde, Brynhild) is a shieldmaiden and a valkyrie in Germanic mythology, where she appears as a main character in the Völsunga saga and some Eddic poems treating the same events. Under the name Brünnhild she appears in the Nibelungenlied and therefore also in Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. She may be inspired by the Visigothic princess Brunhilda of Austrasia. The history of Brynhildr includes fratricide, a long battle between brothers, and dealings with the Huns. She is also known as Sigrdrífa, as written in the poem Sigrdrífumál.
According to the Völsunga saga, Brynhildr is a shieldmaiden and seemingly valkyrie who is the daughter of Budli. She was ordered to decide a fight between two kings, Hjalmgunnar and Agnar, and knew that Odin preferred the older king, Hjalmgunnar, yet she decided the battle for Agnar. For this Odin condemned her to live the life of a mortal woman, and imprisoned her in a remote castle behind a wall of shields on top of mount Hindarfjall, where she sleeps in a ring of flames until any man rescues and marries her. The hero Sigurðr Sigmundson (Siegfried in the Nibelungenlied), heir to the clan of Völsung and slayer of the dragon Fafnir, entered the castle and awoke Brynhildr by removing her helmet and cutting off her chainmail armour. The two fell in love and Sigurðr proposed to her with the magic ring Andvaranaut. The Völsunga saga also describes a subsequent encounter between Sigurðr and Brynhildr at Hlymdale, the home of Brynhildr's brother-in-law, Heimir. There Sigurðr declared his love for the shieldmaiden after spotting her in her tower. Promising to return and make Brynhildr his bride, Sigurðr then headed for the court of Gjuki, the King of Burgundy. Following Sigurðr's departure, Brynhildr was visited by Gudrun, the daughter of Gjuki, who sought her aid in interpreting a dream. This dream presaged Sigurðr's betrayal of Brynhildr and marriage to Gudrun.
In the kingdom of the Burgundians, Gjuki's wife, the sorceress Grimhild, wanting Sigurðr married to her daughter Gudrun (Kriemhild in Nibelungenlied), prepared a magic potion that made Sigurðr forget about Brynhildr. Sigurðr soon married Gudrun. Hearing of Sigurðr's encounter with the valkyrie, Grimhild decided to make Brynhildr the wife of her son Gunnar (Gunther in the Nibelungenlied). Gunnar, having gained the consent of Heimir, then sought to court Brynhild, but was stopped by a ring of fire around the castle. He tried to ride through the flames with his own horse and then with Sigurðr's horse, Grani, but still failed. Sigurðr then exchanged shapes with him and entered the ring of fire. Sigurðr (disguised as Gunnar) claimed Brynhildr's hand, and they stayed there three nights. However, Sigurðr laid his sword between them (meaning that he did not take her virginity before giving her to the real Gunnar). Sigurðr also took the ring Andvaranaut from her finger and later gave it to Gudrun. Gunnar and Sigurðr soon returned to their true forms, and Brynhildr married Gunnar.
However, Gudrun and Brynhild later quarreled over whose husband was greater, Brynhildr boasting that Gunnar had been brave enough to ride through the flames. Gudrun revealed that it was actually Sigurðr who rode through the ring of fire, and Brynhildr became enraged. Sigurðr, remembering the truth, tried to console her, but to no avail. Brynhildr plotted revenge by urging Gunnar to kill Sigurðr, accusing that he took her virginity on Hidarfjall, which he swore not to do. Gunnar and his brother Hogni (Hagen in the Nibelungenlied) were afraid to kill him themselves, as they had sworn oaths of brotherhood to Sigurðr. They incited their younger brother, Gutthorm, to kill Sigurðr, by giving him a magic potion of enragement, and Gutthorm murdered Sigurðr in his sleep. As he was dying, Sigurðr threw his sword at Gutthorm, killing him. (some Eddic poems say Gutthorm killed him in the forest south of the Rhine, also while resting).
Brynhildr herself killed Sigurðr's three-year-old son, and then she willed herself to die. When Sigurðr's funeral pyre was aflame, she threw herself upon it - thus they passed on together to the realm of Hel.
However, in some Eddic poems such as Sigurðarkviða hin skamma, Gunnar and Sigurðr lay siege to the castle of Atli, Brynhildr's brother. Atli offers his sister's hand in exchange for a truce, which Gunnar accepts. However, Brynhildr has sworn to marry only Sigurðr, so she is deceived into believing that Gunnar is actually Sigurðr.
In the Eddic poem Helreið Brynhildar (Bryndhildr's ride to Hel), Brynhildr on her journey to Hel encounters a gýgr (giantess) who blames her for an immoral livelihood. Brynhildr responds to her accusations:
Munu við ofstríð
Ever with grief
In the Nibelungenlied, Brunhild (or Prunhilt) is instead the queen of Iceland. Gunther overpowers her in three warlike games with the help of Siegfried - equipped with an invisibility cloak. First, Brunhild throws a spear, that three men can only barely lift, towards Gunther, but the invisible Siegfried diverts it. Second, she throws a boulder, that requires the strength of twelve men to lift, twelve fathoms. Finally, she leaps over the same boulder. However, Gunther, with Siegfried's help, defeats Brunhild in these games, and takes her as his wife.
On their wedding night, Brunhild refuses to yield her virginity to Gunther, and instead ties him up and suspends him from the ceiling of their chamber. Siegfried (again invisible) violently subdues Brunhild, by cracking her bones and taking her girdle and ring. Following this episode, Brunhild loses her supernatural strength and becomes a devoted wife to Gunther.
Later, in front of the Worms Cathedral, Brunhild enters into an argument with Siegfried's wife Kriemhild regarding their husbands' relative prestige. Brunhild believes Siegfried to be nothing more than a lowly vassal of Gunther's, but Kriemhild reveals the deception and humiliates Brunhild by showing her the ring and girdle.
The Nibelungenlied also differs from Scandinavian sources in its silence on Brunhild's fate; she fails to kill herself at Siegfried's funeral, and presumably survives Kriemhild and her brothers.
Though the cycle of four operas is titled Der Ring des Nibelungen, Richard Wagner in fact took Brünnhilde's role from the Norse sagas rather than from the Nibelungenlied. Brünnhilde appears in the latter three operas (Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung), playing a central role in the overall story of Wotan's downfall.
In Wagner's tale, Brünnhilde is one of the valkyries, who are born out of a union between Wotan and Erda, the personification of the earth. In Die Walküre Wotan initially commissions her to protect Siegmund, his son by a mortal mother. When Fricka protests and forces Wotan to have Siegmund die for his adultery and incest, Brünnhilde disobeys her father's change of orders and takes away Siegmund's wife (and sister) Sieglinde and the shards of Siegmund's sword, Nothung. She manages to hide them, but must then face the wrath of her father who is determined to make her mortal and put her into an enchanted sleep to be claimed by any man who happens across her. Brünnhilde argues that what she did was in obeyance of the god's true will and does not deserve such a fate. He is eventually persuaded to protect her sleep with magical fire, sentencing her to await awakening by a hero who does not know fear.
Brünnhilde does not appear again until near the end of the third act of Siegfried. The title character is the son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, born after Siegmund's death and raised by the dwarf Mime, the brother of Alberich who stole the gold and fashioned the ring around which the operas are centered. Having killed the giant-turned-dragon Fafnir, Siegfried takes the ring and is guided to Brünnhilde's rock by a bird, the blood of Fafnir having enabled him to understand birdsong. Wotan tries to stop him but he breaks the God's spear. He then awakens Brünnhilde.
Siegfried and Brünnhilde appear again at the beginning of Götterdämmerung, at which point he gives her the ring and they are separated. Here again Wagner chooses to follow the Norse story, though with substantial modifications. Siegfried does go to Gunther's hall, where he is given a potion to cause him to forget Brünnhilde so that Gunther may marry her. All this occurs at the instigation of Hagen, Alberich's son and Gunther's half-brother. The plan is successful, and Siegfried leads Gunther to Brünnhilde's rock. In the meantime she has been visited by her sister valkyrie Waltraute, who warns her of Wotan's plans for self-immolation and urges her to give up the ring. Brünnhilde refuses, only to be overpowered by Siegfried who, disguised as Gunther using the Tarnhelm, takes the ring from her by force.
As potion-enchanted Siegfried goes to marry Gutrune, Gunther's sister, Brünnhilde sees that he has the ring and denounces him for his treachery. Still rejected, she joins Gunther and Hagen in a plot to murder Siegfried, telling Hagen that Siegfried can only be attacked from the back. So Gunther and Hagen take Siegfried on a hunting trip, in the course of which Hagen stabs Siegfried in the back with a spear. Upon their return, where Hagen kills Gunther in a dispute over the ring, Brünnhilde takes charge, and has a pyre built in which she is to perish, cleansing the ring of its curse and returning it to the Rhinemaidens. Her pyre becomes the signal by which Valhalla and all the gods also perish in flames.