In the mythology of Germany proper, the name of Odin appears as Wotan; Freya and Frigga are regarded as one and the same divinity, and the gods are in general represented as less warlike in character than those in the Scandinavian myths. As a whole, however, Teutonic mythology runs along almost identical lines with that of the northern nations. The most notable divergence is due to modifications of the legends by reason of the difference in climatic conditions. The more advanced social condition of the Germans is also apparent in their mythology.
One of the oldest myths of the Teutonic race is found in the great national epic of the Nibelungen Lied, which dates back to the prehistoric era when Wotan, Frigga, Thor, Loki, and the other gods and goddesses were worshipped in the German forests. The epic is divided into two parts, the first of which tells how Siegfried, the youngest of the kings of the Netherlands, went to Worms, to ask in marriage the hand of Kriemhild, sister of Gunther, King of Burgundy. While he was staying with Gunther, Siegfried helped the Burgundian king to secure as his wife Brunhild, queen of Issland. The latter had announced publicly that he only should be her husband who could beat her in hurling a spear, throwing a huge stone, and in leaping. Siegfried, who possessed a cloak of invisibility, aided Gunther in these three contests, and Brunhild became his wife. In return for these services, Gunther gave Siegfried his sister Kriemhild in marriage.
After some time had elapsed, Siegfried and Kriemhild went to visit Gunther, when the two women fell into a dispute about the relative merits of their husbands. Kriemhild, to exalt Siegfried, boasted that it was to the latter that Gunther owed his victories and his wife. Brunhild, in great anger, employed Hagan, liegeman of Gunther, to murder Siegfried. In the epic Hagan is described as follows:
“Well-grown and well-compacted was that redoubted guest; Long were his legs and sinewy, and deep and broad his chest; His hair, that once was sable, with gray was dashed of late; Most terrible his visage, and lordly was his gait.”
—Nibelungen Lied, stanza 1789.
This Achilles of German romance stabbed Siegfried between the shoulders, as the unfortunate King of the Netherlands was stooping to drink from a brook during a hunting expedition.
The second part of the epic relates how, thirteen years later, Kriemhild married Etzel, King of the Huns. After a time, she invited the King of Burgundy, with Hagan and many others, to the court of her husband. A fearful quarrel was stirred up in the banquet hall, which ended in the slaughter of all the Burgundians but Gunther and Hagan. These two were taken prisoners and given to Kriemhild, who with her own hand cut off the heads of both. For this bloody act of vengeance Kriemhild was herself slain by Hildebrand, a magician and champion, who in German mythology holds a place to an extent corresponding to that of Nestor in the Greek mythology.