Thursday 7 September 2023

Enchanted Sleep and Sleepers #2


My last post concerned a number of enchanted sleepers, all male, whose lengthy slumbers – however inconvenient – were almost entirely benign, awarded by the gods or God in order to save, enlighten or confer spiritual blessings upon them; and sometimes all three, for even when the sleeper awakes only to die shortly afterwards, he does so in a state of holiness or grace. This time I’m looking at enchanted sleep narratives involving women, in which the motivation of the instigator is consistently malign and the dénoument is often far from satisfactory. 

Sigurd kills Fafnir...


The poems known as the Poetic Edda are preserved in manuscripts dating back to the 13th century CE but derive from much older oral tradition. One of them, the ‘Lay of Fafnir’, tells how the hero Sigurd slays the dragon Fafnir, cuts out and cooks the heart for the dragon’s treacherous human brother Regin, and tests it with his finger to see if it’s done. 

...and licks the blood from his thumb

After licking the blood he understands the speech of birds – nuthatches – which warn him to kill Regin, and direct him to the sleeping valkyrie Sigrdrifa. In the wonderful translation by Carolyne Larrington:   

            There is a hall on high Hindarfell

            outside it is all surrounded with flame;

            wise men have made it


            I know on the mountain the battle-wise one sleeps

            and the terror of the linden [fire] plays above her;

            Odin stabbed her with a thorn


            Young man, you shall see the girl under the helmet,

            who rode away from battle on Vingskornir.

            Sigdrifa’s sleep may not be broken,

            by a princely youth, except by the norns’ decree.

                        The Poetic Edda, tr. Carolyne Larrington, OUP 


Sigurd kills Regin, loads his horse Grani with Fafnir’s treasure and rides off. The story continues in ‘The Lay of Sigrdrifa:’ Sigurd climbs ‘high Hindarfell’ and finds the valkyrie lying asleep surrounded by flames and a rampart of shields. Crossing this barrier, Sigurd lifts off her helmet and with his sword Gram cuts away the mail corselet which is biting into her flesh. Waking, she explains that in revenge for the killing of a king to whom he had promised victory, Odin ‘pricked her with a sleep-thorn’ and told her that she would never again be victorious in battle, but should marry instead. At Sigurd’s request, Sigrdrifa confers wisdom on him by teaching him many runes. The manuscript then breaks off, but the exact same story is told in Volsunga Saga about the valkyrie Brynhild, who explains on waking: 

In the battle I struck down Hjalmgunnar, and in retaliation Odin pricked me with the sleep thorn, said I should never again win a victory, and that I was to marry. And in return I made a solemn vow to marry no one who knew the meaning of fear.

            The Saga of the Volsungs, tr. Jesse L. Byock, Penguin Classics 

She and Sigurd exchange vows. ‘Sigrdrifa’ appears in no other context, and Carolyne Larrington suggests the two valkyries are identical. The tale goes on to utter catastrophe. Unwittingly drinking a potion that makes him forget Brynhild, Sigurd marries Gudrun and tricks Brynhild into marrying Gudrun’s brother Gunnar – impersonating him in the test Brynhild sets her suitors, and leaping his horse through the ring of flames surrounding her hall. When she finds out, a bloodbath ensues and doubtless Odin is satisfied. 

Sigurd and Gunnar at the ring of flames


But what is a ‘sleep-thorn’? Though ‘stabbed’ and ‘pricked’ by it, Sigrdrifa also refers to ‘sleep-runes’. 

            Long I slept, long was I sleeping,

            long are the woes of men;

            Odin brought it about that I could not break

            the sleep-runes.

                        The Poetic Edda, tr. Carolyne Larrington, OUP

I don’t know whether it’s coincidental that ‘thorn’ is the name of the rune Þ (pronounced as a soft ‘th’), or that Odin, in Hávamal, seizes the runes or runelore after hanging nine nights on a mystical tree. 

I know that I hung on a windswept tree

nine long nights,

wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,

myself to myself,

on that tree of which no man knows

from where its roots run.


With no bread did they refresh me, nor a drink from a horn,

downward I peered;

I took up the runes, screaming I took them,

Then I fell back from there.

                        The Poetic Edda, tr. Carolyne Larrington, OUP 

Whatever the runic implications, a ‘sleep-thorn’ clearly also had physical form and appears in two of the legendary sagas dated at least to the 15th century. In Hrólfs Saga Kraka, Danish king Helgi arrogantly imposes himself upon the warrior-queen Olof, announcing his intention to marry her at once. ‘That evening there was hard drinking’, and when the king collapses into bed with her, ‘The queen took advantage of this and pierced him with a sleep-thorn; and the minute they [his retinue] were all gone, up she got, shaved off all his hair, and daubed him with tar.’ I’m cheering the queen on through this, and feel she was completely justified, but sad to say the saga takes a different view: later on Helgi gets his revenge, and the queen retaliates... In Gongu-Hrolf’s Saga, treacherous Vilhjálm pierces the sleeping Hrólf with a sleep-thorn, cuts off his legs and kidnaps his bride-to-be. But the sleep-thorn falls out when Hrólf’s faithful horse Dulcifal rolls him over, the dwarf Mondul heals Hrólf’s legs, and the hero pursues his enemy, who confesses and is hanged. 

Whatever a sleep-thorn meant to medieval Icelanders, the Sigrdrifa/Brynhild story is remarkably close to that of the best-known sleeper of all time, The Sleeping Beauty: after having incurred the anger of a powerful supernatural figure, a young woman is pricked by something sharp and falls into a lengthy enchanted sleep, protected or imprisoned by a barrier no one can cross except the hero appointed finally to wake her. Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology notes that the German version of the tale, Dorn-röschen, means literally Thorn Rose, and adds: The thorn-rose has a meaning here, for we still call a moss-like excrescence on the wild rosebush schlaf-apfel [sleep-apple]; so that the very name of our sleeping beauty contains a reference to the myth. [...] When placed under the sleeper's pillow, he cannot wake till it be removed.’ Maybe this throws some light on the mystery?

The Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger on a spindle, and when I was a child I assumed spindles must be sharp. They aren’t, but the princess’s century-long sleep is guarded by an impenetrable hedge of brambles or briars – which of course possess thorns. 


In earlier versions a splinter of flax causes the enchanted sleep. In the 14th century French prose romance Perceforest (set in a pagan, pre-Arthurian world) a feast is given for the goddesses Venus, Lucina and Thetis to celebrate the birth of the lady Zellandine. Offended because she has not been presented with a knife to cut her food, Thetis ordains that ‘from the first thread of linen that Zellandine spins from her distaff’, a piece of flax will pierce the girl’s finger and she will fall into a long sleep. How is flax sharp? Well, making linen thread involved soaking and drying the flax stalks; the dried strands were then pulled through a toothed comb which snapped the stiff outer sheaths into small shards which might easily become embedded under a fingernail. This happens to Zellandine, and also to Talia, the sleeping heroine of Giambattista Basile’s ‘The Sun, the Moon and Talia’ published in the Pentamerone (1636). Yet another instance of a flax-caused sleep comes in ‘The Ninth Captain’s Tale’ which has been attributed to the One Thousand and One Nights but does not belong there. Heidi Anne Heiner of the wonderful website Sur La Lune researched it, and found it was a Egyptian folktale collected by the translator J.C. Marcius from an Egyptian cook ‘sometime prior’ to 1883. It tells of a girl whose mother begged Allah for a child, even if she were to be so delicate that the scent of flax would choke her. The girl is born ‘fair as the rising moon’, eventually learns to spin (to show off her lovely fingers): a piece of flax gets stuck under her fingernail and she falls swooning to the ground. (Midori Snyder’s excellent take on the story can be read here.) 

There is no way to demonstrate lines of descent, but the Sigurd/Brynhild story was much recycled in northern Europe, with additions and deletions according to taste. An example is a Faroese ballad, Brynhild’s Ballad, collected in 1851 but tentatively dated to the 14th century (read it at this link), and it cleaves closely to Volsunga Saga. Informed by ‘wild birds’ that ‘fair is Brynhild Buđledaughter,/She yearns for your encounter,’ Sigurd rides to find her: 

No one but brave Sigurd

entered Hildar-hill,

he jumped through smoke and fiery-fire,

he and his horse Grani.


            There he saw that pretty maid

            sleeping in her mail,

            raised his good and sharpened sword,

and cut the mail wide open. 

Brynhild welcomes Sigurd, but suggests he should first ask her father’s permission to sleep with her. Sigurd replies that he doesn’t want to meet her father, and why should he in any case, since, ‘You are not exactly known/to take your father’s advice.’ The ballad ends with Sigurd and the ‘mighty maid’ making love and conceiving their daughter Ásla. 

A later version is a 16th century Danish ballad Sivard og Brynild in which Sivard rescues Brynild from a glass mountain (reminiscent of the fairytale ‘The Princess on the Glass Mountain’ widespread across Norway, Sweden, Poland and northern Germany). The ballad was translated by George Borrow and it was printed in 1913 for private circulation as The Tale of Brynild, and King Valdemar and His Sister: Two Ballads (read it here). It begins: 

            Sivard he a colt has got,

            The swiftest ’neath the sun;

            Proud Brynild from the Hill of Glass

            In open day he won.


            Unto her did of knights and swains

            The very flower ride;

            Not one of them the maid to win

            Could climb the mountain’s side.           

From the fairytale opening things go downhill fast: Sivard succeeds, but instead of marrying Brynild, ‘To bold Sir Nielus her he gave/To show him his regard’. Discovering that Sivard has given a gold betrothal ring to the maiden Signelil, the angry Brynild demands that Sir Nielus bring her Sivard’s head: naturally it all ends in another blood bath. 

The lapse of time is implicit in these tales but not made much of. Sigrdrifa says, ‘Long I slept, long was I sleeping’ but we’re not told for how long. The ‘valkyrie’ narratives focus on the tangled relationships, treachery and bloody tragedies that develop after the enchanted sleep has ended. There is not that sense of confusion, loneliness, loss, and the discovery of a changed world experienced by many of the sleepers in my first post. Neither do any of the various Sleeping Beauties experience such emotions. In both Perceforest and the Pentamerone, the unconscious princess is raped by the prince and nine months later gives birth, still sleeping – Zellandine to a baby boy, Talia to twins. Sucking at their mother’s finger or breast, the babies suck out the splinter of flax, thus waking her. 



These busy, crowded stories pay little or no attention to the lapse of time. Perrault’s ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ (1697) sanitised and gentrified the tale to suit his sophisticated saloniste audience: his prince kneels ‘with trembling admiration’ at the bedside of the princess and dares not even kiss her. And the princess feels no shock at missing a century: her entire household shares her sleep, from her ladies-in-waiting down to the kitchen boy, dogs, horses and even the flies on the wall: her society wakes with her. She doesn’t even miss her parents (not included in the slumber spell and now long dead), and Perrault’s single gesture towards the length of time she’s slept is an arch reference to the out-moded fashion of her dress. In the 1729 English translation by Robert Samber:  

She was intirely dress’d, and very magnificently, but they took care not to tell her, that she was drest like my great-grandmother, and had a point band peeping over a high collar; she looked not a bit the less beautiful and charming for all that.

                        The Classic Fairy Tales, Iona & Peter Opie.  

Perrault adapts Basile’s continuation of the story as follows: princess and prince marry.  They have two children named Morning and Day. The prince becomes king and goes away to war; his mother, an ogress, orders the two children and their mother to be killed, and cooked for her to eat. The ‘clerk of the kitchen’ hides the victims, substituting a lamb, a kid and a hind: the ogress discovers the trick and orders the three to be flung into a tub full of poisonous snakes. At this moment the king returns, and the ogress jumps into the tub herself, saving him the trouble of executing her. When I was a child I rather enjoyed this gruesome ending; nowadays I’m amused by the complacent civility of the tale’s last sentence – ‘[The King] could not but be sorry, for she was his mother, but he soon comforted himself with his beautiful wife, and his pretty children.’ God forbid that any character of Perrault’s should suffer violent emotion. 

From Sigrdrifa in the Poetic Edda to Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty in the Wood, these tales are far less interested in the enchanted sleep itself, or how that lost time might affect the sleeper, than they are in the various dramatic events that take place once she wakes into a world which to all intents and purposes is no different from the one she fell asleep in.

With one exception: ‘Dorn-röschen’ the Grimms’ version of the Sleeping Beauty in the Wood. It's usually translated into English as ‘Little Briar Rose’: Iona and Peter Opie have unflatteringly compared this very short tale with that of Perrault's lengthy one, stating that it ‘possesses little of the quality of the French tale’. Well, I beg to differ. Perrault’s good Fairy engages in a relentless bustle of activity: she touches her wand individually to every inhabitant of the castle to send them to sleep, she conjures up the hedge of briars ‘in a quarter of an hour’ – and the reader has barely time to draw breath before the hundred years are done: in the very next paragraph ‘At the expiration of a hundred years, the son of a King’ arrives, spots the towers from a distance and comes to investigate. 

In contrast,  this is how the Grimms’ tale introduces the century of sleep: 

But round about the castle there began to grow a hedge of thorns, which every year became higher, and at last grew up close around the castle and all over it, so that there was nothing of it to be seen, not even the flag upon the roof. But the story of the beautiful sleeping ‘Briar-rose’, for so the princess was named, went about the country, so that from time to time Kings’ sons came and tried to get through the thorny hedge into the castle.

            But they found it impossible, for the thorns held fast together, as if they had hands, and the youths were caught in them, could not get loose again, and died a miserable death.

            After long, long years a King’s son came again into that country, and heard an old man talking about the thorn-hedge, and that a castle was said to stand behind it in which a wonderfully beautiful princess, names Briar-rose, had been asleep for a hundred years, and that the king and queen and the whole court were asleep likewise. 

There is room to breathe. I love the slow, natural pace by which the hedge of thorns grows up and around the castle until it’s completely hidden; I love the way the story, now almost a legend, spreads around the countryside so that ‘from time to time’ young princes come to try their luck, only to perish and be in turn forgotten; how at last ‘after long, long years’ the century of sleep is over and the time comes for the spell to be broken. To compare ‘Little Briar Rose’ with ‘La Belle au Bois Dormant’ is pointless: all the two stories have in common is the bare bones of the plot. The Grimms’ tale is not witty or fashionable, it does not strive either to amuse or to horrify, it’s not interested in characterisation. Rather, it places the hundred years’ sleep at the heart and centre of the tale and in its deceptive simplicity it is a meditation upon time. 

In my next post I’ll be looking at folktales of kings sleeping under hills, sleeping armies, and, because the experience of lost time is so similar to that of enchanted sleepers, at some of the many tales in which a seemingly short visit to fairyland or the otherworld turns out to have lasted years or centuries.


Picture credits:

The Sleeping Beauty by Edward Burne Jones - Manchester Art Gallery

Brunnhilde Asleep by Margaret Fernie Eaton, 1902

Sigurd Kills Fafnir and Sigurd Roasts Fafnir's Heart - from the Sigurd Portal 

Sigurd and Gunnar at the ring of flames by J.C. Dolman, 1909 

The Hedge of Thorns by Errol le Cain, 'Thorn Rose' 1975

The Princess on the Glass Mountain by Theodor Kittelsen, 1857 - 1914

The Sleeping Beauty by Daniel Maclise - Hartlepool Museums & Heritage Service

The Prince and the Old Man by Errol le Cain, 'Thorn Rose', 1975

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