Despite being one of the most prolific composers of the 19th century, Richard Wagner's legacy will forever be more controversial than that of his hallowed contemporaries. 

Wagner, who died in 1888, was responsible for some of the most memorable and still most performed German-language operas. His operas mixed Norse and Germanic mythology, lore, and legend, bringing them into the modern period. 

His magnum opus is the Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen), which has been criticized as a romanticized and oversimplified version of Germanic and Norse narratives. 

In fact, Wagner borrowed heavily from the early medieval period, drawing inspiration from sagas first told in the late Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE–700 CE) and into the Viking Age (c. 750–1100). 

Wagner was very much a man of his time, and his dramatic works were imbued with his ideology and a burgeoning sense of German nationalism that prevailed throughout the German-speaking lands during the 19th century. 

He crafted his works based on his romanticized perception of a heroic Germanic identity. 

It was this ideology that was later picked up, appreciated, and distorted by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1920s. 

Though Wagner died decades before Hitler's rise to power, his sister was eager to intertwine his musical legacy with that of the nascent Nazi Party. 

Wagner's works will never be able to rid the sordid stench of Nazi association, but they have remained popular long after the destruction caused by Hitler and the Nazis in 1945. 

Some of his most memorable operatic characters, stolen directly from early medieval Germanic and Norse sagas, were Siegfried the Dragonslayer and the shieldmaiden Brunhild. 

However, according to the Norse sagas, these two famous characters had a child that perhaps Wagner should have included in one of his operas. Aslaug Sigurdsdottir's life story is worthy of a dramatic opera. 

Aslaug's parents, Siegfried and Brunhild, are shown in a 1917 illustration by an unknown artist, reflecting a scene from Wagner's opera, where Siegfried finds and awakens the sleeping Brunhild. Source: Harold B. Lee Library (Public domain)

Famous parents 

We owe much of our knowledge of Norse mythology to the anonymous monks, scholars, and scribes who recorded the early Norse sagas, myths, and legends. These efforts have preserved many famous characters, including Aslaug Sigurdsdottir. 

Most of what we know about Aslaug comes from a late 13th-century Icelandic saga, the Tale of Ragnarr loðbrók

In his 2018 article in the Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Jonathan Bellairs describes the tragic death of Aslaug's parents, who were both entangled in a web of deceit and manipulation that led to their deaths. 

They were both entangled in a web of deceit and manipulation that led to their deaths. Afterward, Aslaug was brought up by her foster father, Heimir. 

Concerned about the poor girl's security, Heimir constructed a huge harp to hide her in and then traveled to safety in Norway under the guise of a humble wandering minstrel. 

However, tragedy and death seem to follow Aslaug. One night, weary from the journey, Heimir stopped at the house of a rural couple, Ake and Grima. Grima noticed the richly crafted harp and assumed it contained hidden riches. 

She convinced her husband, Ake, to kill Heimir and steal the harp to uncover the hidden treasure. After murdering Heimir, they discovered Aslaug hidden inside the harp. 

Instead of killing her, they kept her and used her as a slave for the next few years. To make matters worse, they rubbed tar all over her body and dressed her in long, baggy clothes. 

Why they would do this is beyond understanding, but we are discussing mythical events from centuries ago. One must remember that the past, after all, is a foreign country! 

After the tragic deaths of Aslaug's parents, she was brought up by Heimir, who took great lengths to ensure her safety, including hiding her inside a giant harp. Illustration: August Malmström (1829–1901), Public domain

Kraka and Ragnar 

Despite her Cinderella-esque upbringing, Aslaug appears to have survived into young adulthood physically, if not psychologically, unscathed. 

One day, she was said to have been bathing in a lake when a group of Viking warriors – very creepily – came across her. Clearly not gentlemen, they continued to watch as she disrobed and washed. 

These creepy peeping Toms (or should that be peeping Thors) rushed back to their liege, who was none other than the famous Viking warrior Ragnar Lothbrok, passing through Norway on a campaign. 

It was here that Ragnar summoned Aslaug – known as Kraka (crow) by her adopted parents. 

Whilst Aslaug knew nothing of her noble birth – both her father and mother had been royalty – it appears that Ragnar was impressed by her royal stature as well as her beauty. 

Some sagas portray the couple getting married and thus having a brood of children – including Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye and Ivar the Boneless – whilst others say that Aslaug rejected Ragnar's marriage proposal. 

If the latter was true, then it would just go to show that regardless of your worth on a battlefield, even legendary Viking heroes can feel the stinging blows of rejection. 

Ragnar Lothbrok called for Aslaug, enchanted by her beauty and regal demeanor, after his warriors found her bathing, as depicted by Louis Moe (1857–1945). Source: AU Library, Campus Emdrup (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Folklore and artistic inspiration 

Following her encounter and marriage to Ragnar, Aslaug falls out of the mythological record. 

We know little about her later life, whether she traveled with Ragnar on his adventures or what kind of influence she had on her children. 

What is interesting is that centuries after the Viking Age, when the Brothers Grimm were collecting European fairy tales and folklore, they knew of the character and story of Aslaug. 

Yseult De Blecourt's 2018 book Tales of Magic, Tales in Print (available to buy on Amazon here) states that Aslaug is a prototype for a Cinderella-type figure or a clever peasant, another common trope in medieval tales. 

Like Wagner would decades later, the Brothers Grimm dipped their quill in the inspirational font of Norse legends, myths, and sagas, and characters like Aslaug may have inspired their retelling of Cinderella. 

Whilst we know only fragments of this legendary character's life, Aslaug Sigurdsdottir is yet another piece in the rich tapestry of Norse mythology that has continued to be a source of artistic inspiration centuries after the last Viking ship ever sailed. 

For more information on a newly published book that examines examples of Viking leadership and the lessons to be drawn from them, visit The Local Denmark here.

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