Set a Fire and Burn

When I was younger, I remember my grandmother saying, “If everyone just listened to me, the world would be a better place.”

She said it out of frustration, and with a twinge of irony since pretty much everyone thinks this, but it’s one of those logical fallacy things–everyone may believe it, but only one person, if any, can actually be right in saying it.

“Fear not death, for the hour of your doom is set and none may escape it.” Well…those Norse were a cheerful lot.

Which brings me to the myth I’ve chosen to cover this month: Signy and Sigurd. Because, for Signy, if everyone had just listened to her, this myth would have turned out differently. But even though they didn’t, she wasn’t the sort to sit back and say, “I told you so.” No, this Norse woman rolled her eyes and said, “all right, I’ll fix the mess you made anyway.” And she sets about constructing the most elaborate revenge plot of just about any story I’ve ever read.

If you don’t know the myth, Signy and Sigurd were twins, the eldest children of King Volsung. One day, another king visits the castle and asks for Signy’s hand in marriage. To put this in 21st century terms, Signy gets bad vibes from the guy and tells her father she’d rather not marry him. Her father ignores her, and Signy reluctantly marries King Siggeir.

Her father and brother decide to visit Signy and her new husband, and Signy warns them that her husband will betray them. Of course, they don’t listen, and her father is killed, while her brother Sigmund is captured. Signy rescues her brother from captivity, then sends her son to Sigmund to be trained, so that her son might grow up and return to avenge his grandfather’s death. However, Sigmund tells her that her son is too weak, and Signy has him killed. They repeat this process, to the same results (I guess any son of this Siggeir guy is just not brute warrior material?). Fast forward a bit, and Signy decides the only way she can have a son who’s fit for her revenge purposes is to have a son with her father’s son–also known as her twin brother (why do mythologies always resort to incest? That’s an article for another day, I suppose). With the help of a sorceress, she tricks Sigmund into sleeping with her (a reverse King Arthur conception story), and has a son, who grows up and helps Sigmund set a fire to kill Signy’s husband.

Whew. See what I mean about the elaborate revenge plot? Still, for the culture at the time, it was incumbent on the offspring to avenge their parents’ murder. A lot of these stories we know–Orestes and Hamlet probably being the most famous. So, while a female revenge plot might be unusual, it certainly isn’t unheard of.

That looks hot.

Of course, perhaps the most intriguing part of this story is how it ends–as the fire that kills her husband rages, Signy turns to her son and tells him of his true incestuous parentage, then she walks into the fire to die with her husband.

Why? If she’s gotten her revenge, the thing she’d spent the last several decades trying for, why would she throw herself into the fire? Because she was also a woman bound by custom, and it was her duty to die with her husband, even though she never wanted to marry him in the first place, and even though he betrayed her father. The goal wasn’t living without him. The goal was revenge. Once she got that, she had nothing else left.

It might be easy to critique this and say that Signy was trapped by her duty as a woman. However, I think it’s also interesting to note that Signy shares a lot in common with Hamlet, who also dies once his revenge is completed. The major different between Signy and Hamlet, of course, is that Signy is much more active, taking measured, calculated steps toward her revenge; while Hamlet just mopes around wondering if life is even worth bothering about.

Hamlet, being moody. Again.

I’m not saying revenge should be a great motivator or anything like that. But in the ancient medieval world, revenge meant justice, and justice could only be taken by those who were wronged. I suppose that’s why revenge stories fascinate me so (admittedly, Oresteia is my favorite Greek cycle, and Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play); the quest for justice, for “rightness,” for balance, is an ancient quest, and so often, we feel we are denied justice. That’s the meaning behind the phrase “if everyone listened to me, the world would be a better place”–in other words, if I were in control, everything would be right with the world. The world would be just.

That’s fantasy, not reality. But it does make for a powerful story. An empowering one, really. Though it’s also worth noting that the revenge for Orestes, Hamlet, and Signy all come at a very high cost. For Orestes, the cost is his sanity. For Hamlet and Signy, it costs them their lives. Yet, all three of them knew the cost and accepted it willingly. They set the fires that consumed them.

I’m curious–if you know of any other female revenge stories a la Hamlet or The Oresteia, please share in the comments!


Works Consulted:

  1. Volsunga Saga
  2. Hamlet
  3. The Oresteia
  4. Hamlet picture By Peter Church, CC BY-SA 2.0,