Word of the Week: Nibelungentreue

Feb 28, 2014

Worms Enlarge image The Song of the Nibelungs is based in Worms, Germany's oldest city. (© picture-alliance/akg-images)

Whether in politics or in your personal life, you've probably witnessed a situation where someone makes a decision purely out of blind and unreasonable loyalty, even if the decision is not necessarily a good one.

In German, the word Nibelungentreue describes such instances. But to fully understand its meaning we need to first take a look at its backstory.

Treue simply means "loyalty", but Nibelungen refers to a royal family mentioned in Norse and Germanic myths from the Middle Ages. Their tale is told in the German Nibelungenlied ("Song of the Nibelungs"), which was first written down in Middle High German at the beginning of the 13th century. Scholar A.T. Hatoo once called it "the world's best heroic epic, bar one," and author J.R.R. Tolkien was supposedly influenced by it when he wrote The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Song of the Nibelungs takes place in the town of Worms, which is Germany's oldest town.

Nibelungenlied Enlarge image A copy of the first two pages of a preserved handwritten copy of the Nibelungenlied, the 'Prunner Codex', is on display at Prunn Castle. (© dpa) The Nibelungenlied, which consists of more than 2,000 verses, tells the story of dragon-slayer Siegfried, who marries Kriemhild, the sister of King Gunter of Burgundy (Nibelungen). Because of the marriage, Siegfried helps the king in a war and also helps him win a bride named Brunhild through trickery.

Over the course of the poem, trickery and lies play a major part of the events and relationships begin to deteriorate. Eventually, Siegfried is murdered, which causes his wife to launch a quest for revenge, as well as her eventual marriage to Attila the Hun. At the end of the poem, an entire nation of Nibelungs is murdered at the court of the Huns.

painting Enlarge image A painting by Johann Heinrich Fuessli depicts Kriemhild throwing herself over the dead body of Siegfried in mourning. (© picture-alliance / akg-images) A major underlying theme is one of blind loyalty: Hagen von Tronje is an advisor to the king, but he nevertheless takes orders without question and murders his companion Siegfried.

Over time, the word Niebelungentreue originated from this story to describe a kind of unbreakable but unreasonable loyalty, no matter the situation. The word was heavily used in Germany throughout the 19th century and the begining of the 20th. It was also used in a number of political instances: in the years before World War I, Nibelungentreue was used to describe the loyalty the German Reich had to Austro-Hungary. And during World War II, Nazi leader Hermann Göring used the Song of the Nibelungs to motivate soldiers after the Battle of Stalingrad.

Additionally, the story of the Nibelungs had a major influence in art: German composer Richard Wagner created a famous opera he called Der Ring des Nibelungen ("The Ring Cycle of the Nibelungs"), which is divided into four series and took him 26 years to complete. Scenes from the Song of the Nibelungs also appeared in paintings throughout the centuries, as well as on the big screen: in 1924, filmmaker Fritz Lang produced a five-hour movie of the Nibelung story, and in 2004 Director Uli Edel produced a movie based on Wagner's opera.

Prunn Castle Enlarge image Prunn Castle, located in Riedenburg, displays a handwritten version of the Nibelungenlied, which was found in the castle in 1566. This particular copy is called the "Prunner Codex." (© dpa) In the city of Worms, which is Germany's oldest city and also the location where the Nibelung story is based, tourism revolves around the epic poem. Attractions include the Nibelung tower and the Nibelung bridge, and the annual Nibelung festival is one of the city's highlights. Naturally, Worms is also home to the Nibelung Museum, which has a plethora of information about the Norse myth. There are many versions of the Nibelungenlied throughout Germany, but the three main manuscripts are inscribed in UNESCO's Memory of the World Register.

But let's return to the Word of the Week: today, Nibelungentreue is often used in more casual instances, such as unreasonable team loyalty sometimes found in sports.

If you're looking to add to your vocabulary, the word Nibelungentreue says a lot more than just Treue, and you can use it in those rare situations where someone closes their eyes to reason to maintain their loyalty to someone else.

Click here to read an English version of the Song of the Nibelungs.

By Nicole Glass, Editor of The Week in Germany

© Germany.info

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