This was a mythical mass of gold and precious stones which Siegfried obtained from the Nibelungs, the people of the north whom he had conquered and whose country he had made tributary to his own kingdom of the Netherlands. Upon his marriage, Siegfried gave the treasure to Kriemhild as her wedding portion. After the murder of Siegfried, Hagan seized it and buried it secretly beneath the Rhine at Lochham, intending to recover it at a future period. The hoard was lost forever when Hagan was killed by Kriemhild. Its wonders are thus set forth in the poem:
“’Twas as much
as twelve huge wagons in four whole nights and days
Could carry from the mountain down to the salt sea bay;
Though to and fro each wagon thrice journeyed every day.
“It was made up of nothing
but precious stones and gold;
Were all the world bought from it, and down the value told,
Not a mark the less would there be left than erst there was, I ween.”
—Nibelungen Lied, XIX.
Whoever possessed the Nibelungen hoard were termed Nibelungers. Thus at one time certain people of Norway were so called. When Siegfried held the treasure he received the title “King of the Nibelungers.”
Though Richard Wagner’s music-drama of the Nibelungen Ring bears some resemblance to the ancient German epic, it is a wholly independent composition and was derived from various old songs and sagas, which the dramatist wove into one great harmonious story. The principal source was the Volsunga Saga, while lesser parts were taken from the Elder Edda and the Younger Edda, and others from the Nibelungen Lied, the Ecklenlied, and other Teutonic folklore.
In the drama there are at first only four distinct races,—the gods, the giants, the dwarfs, and the nymphs. Later, by a special creation, there come the valkyrie and the heroes. The gods are the noblest and highest race, and dwell first in the mountain meadows, later in the palace of Valhalla on the heights. The giants are a great and strong race, but lack wisdom; they hate what is noble, and are enemies of the gods; they dwell in caves near the earth’s surface. The dwarfs, or nibelungs, are black uncouth pigmies, hating the good, hating the gods; they are crafty and cunning, and dwell in the bowels of the earth. The nymphs are pure, innocent creatures of the water. The valkyrie are daughters of the gods, but mingled with a mortal strain; they gather dead heroes from the battle-fields and carry them to Valhalla. The heroes are children of the gods, but also mingled with a mortal strain; they are destined to become at last the highest race of all, and to succeed the gods in the government of the world.
The principal gods are Wotan, Loki, Donner, and Froh. The chief giants are Fafner and Fasolt, brothers. The chief dwarfs are Alberich and Mime, brothers, and later Hagan, son of Alberich. The chief nymphs are the Rhine-daughters, Flosshilda, Woglinda, and Wellgunda. There are nine Valkyrie, of whom Brunhild is the leading one.