Recent work on materiality has suggested new ways to approach the agency of things and new angles from which to explore the fluidity of objects regarding different types of categories. In the context of Old English literature, for instance, Denis Ferhatović writes about things crossing and complicating the boundaries between layers and between animate and inanimate forces. He mentions the “intimate association of individuals with objects” (Ferhatović, 2019, 8), something that this article explores from its own perspective. James Paz suggests, by broadening the concept of what constitutes an “object” itself (2017, 17–26), that we seek to grasp how things “mesh meaning with matter and with acts of making and breaking” (2017, 2), and that we rethink “conventional divisions between ‘animate’ human subjects and ‘inanimate’ nonhuman objects” (2017, 3).

Things, hoards, loot, gifts, play a significant part both in Beowulf and in the Nibelungenlied. However, to the best of my knowledge, a comparative approach between the two poems as regards the role of exchange (including the intrinsic role of the hoards in the two texts) has not been attempted yet, particularly considering the contrasting behaviour of Beowulf and Siegfried towards gift-giving and the potential relation between these behaviours and the direction in which each narrative unfolds and how each of them ultimately ends.

At the end of the Nibelungenlied, Hagen tells Kriemhild:

Dô sprach der grimme Hagene:   “diu rede ist gar verlorn,

vil edeliu küneginne.   jâ hân ich des gesworn,

daz ich den hort iht zeige,   die wîle daz si leben

deheiner mîner herren,   sô sól ich in níeméne geben.” (Nib. 2368).

[“Your words are wasted, most noble Queen,” answered Hagen grimly. “I have sworn as long as any of my lords remains alive never to reveal the treasure or yield it to anyone!”]Footnote 1

In the third Âventiure of the Nibelungenlied, Hagen tells the Burgundian court about the past adventures of Siegfried and how the (as yet) invincible hero conquered the treasure of the Nibelungs. Shortly afterwards, Siegfried defies the Burgundians. More than one scholar has argued that Siegfried is an outsider who destabilises the order of the Burgundian court (Murdoch, 1998; Samples, 2006, 168). The challenge of Siegfried is accompanied by his treasure, based on loot, and remaining, for almost the whole poem, outside the normal circuit of exchange (cf. Baker, 2013, 72). The presence of the treasure is imposed upon the Burgundian court, and this imposition triggers the whole sequence that will ultimately lead to the doom of the Burgundians and which culminates, many years later, in their being slain inside the Hunnish hall, including scenes of extreme violence, such as Hagen’s beheading of Etzel’s and Kriemhild’s infant son and Hildebrand’s murder of Kriemhild right after she has avenged Siegfried by beheading Hagen. Meanwhile, many years before (Âventiure 19), Hagen had thrown Siegfried’s treasure into the Rhine in order to hamper the power of the revenge-thirsty Kriemhild. In the last (gory) scenes of the epic, just before Kriemhild cuts off Hagen’s head with Balmung (Siegfried’s sword), what she requests from him is the whereabouts of Siegfried’s treasure (Nib. 2367). Very surprisingly, after many years and Âventiures of planning, of slaying, and of spouting hate for Hagen, Kriemhild tells him that she will let him go if he tells her where he put Siegfried’s treasure.

The “Lay of the Last Survivor” in Beowulf tells of a treasure which has been buried for several centuries:

          Þǣr wæs swylcra fela

in ðām eorðsele   ǣrgestrēona

swā hȳ on geārdagum  gumena nāthwylc

eormenlāfe   æþelan cynnes

þanchycgende   þǣr gehȳdde

dēore māðmas.      (Beowulf 2231b–2236a)

[There were many such treasures in the earth-house, as in the old days some one of mankind had prudently hidden there the huge legacy of a noble race, rare treasures.]Footnote 2

There is a deep “melancholy tone”: the “Last Survivor” “speaks to no one, is heard by no one, and answer came there none” (Orchard, 2003, 228). Beowulf dies killing the dragon. Nevertheless, he gains the treasure for his people. This treasure will remain outside the circuit of exchange even after Beowulf has defeated the dragon, because it will be buried with him. However, in the case of this poem, and as opposed to what happens to Siegfried after his death, Beowulf is transformed into an ancestor through the offering, from the part of the “warrior-followers”, of “grave gifts” and wood for his funeral pyre (Bazelmans, 2000, 366–367).

My argument works on three interconnected levels, which I present in a successive manner. Firstly, I discuss how both poems underline the fact that the treasures are outside the circuit of exchange. Secondly, and using the concept of commensurability between subject and object of the gift (or loot, in this case), I contend that the notable differences between the two heroes have a bearing on their two respective hoards. Finally, and related to their contrasting characters and “intentions” towards each treasure, I argue that what happens in the funerals of Siegfried and Beowulf is very distinct: Beowulf is transformed into an ancestor (this leads to a successful resolution of the poem, at least on the level of the death of the hero), whereas Siegfried becomes a “ghost”, haunting the second part of the narrative, eventually leading to the downfall of the Burgundians.

Hidden Hoards

In ancient and early medieval societies, giving gifts created important bonds and exchange was an essential component of social interaction. Jos Bazelmans starts his article on ceremonial exchanges in Beowulf by presenting the concept of Gefolgschaft, which concerns the relationship between a lord or a king and warriors in his closest retinue (Bazelmans, 2000, 311). Despite some critiques to Walter Schlesinger’s account of this concept (dating from 1953), Bazelmans bases his broad definition of Gefolgschaft on Schlesinger: it is a “formalised and long-lasting relationship of reciprocity” (Bazelmans, 2000, 311–312). This concept can help to explain the origins of lordship. Gefolgschaft was a revolutionary form of organisation: members could be “recruited from outside ‘natural’ groups based on kinship or ethnicity” (Bazelmans, 2000, 312). According to Bazelmans, this type of organisation was an important step on the road to state formation (2000, 312). Using Charlemagne’s lavish court as an example, Julia Smith wrote about the “conversion of economic capital to symbolic capital”: treasures and agricultural products were transformed into honour and political success (2005, 184). Referring to approximately the same period, it has been stated that many apparently “economic” transactions entered into by members of the social elite should be considered as “oil to grease the cogs of aristocratic networks” and could benefit from an approach which is not strictly “economic-historical”, but anthropological (Blockmans & Hoppenbrouwers, 2014, 97–98). For now, what I would like to emphasise is that gifts entail something more than the material aspect: they create bonds and contribute to forge solid ties within early medieval society (cf. Blockmans & Hoppenbrouwers, 2014, 97–103). That the chiefdoms “north of the Rhine-Danube frontier” and in the “non-Roman parts” of the British Isles relied particularly on “bonds of personal influence and obligation” was noted by Smith (2005, 203). Using no less an example than Beowulf (cf. 2005, 203–205) to illustrate her argument,Footnote 3 Smith states that:

The good epic warlord or king is generous to his followers, rewarding valour in battle with lavish gifts, but thereby investing in the expectation of future service and support. An effective war leader will attract ambitious young warriors into his retinue, entertain them in his hall, feast them, and arm them: in the competition for power, rival lords use treasure, precious weaponry, and their own reputation to swell their own army and compete for victory. (2005, 203)

In short, material gifts, such as treasures, weapons, and food, lead to immaterial (but very real, nonetheless) expectations of future service; immaterial possessions, such as reputation, may conduce to material victories in the future, not least because these victories will entail the gaining of more treasures.

Loot and hoards may or may not become a part of this system. Peter Baker has underlined the fact that looting is not a form of exchange: it is violent seizure (2013, 72). However, I argue that loot, when given to followers, becomes a part of the “fertile” circuit of exchange through its creation of social bonds; until then, it is a “sterile” affair indeed. As Ferhatović puts it, referring to hoards in pre-Conquest England:

They were like a hidden bank account, created to keep silver (useful to “make payments and give as rewards”) away from potential plunderers for later recovery and circulation within “a bullion economy”. A strong connection between hoards and looting therefore exists because they are created to prevent spoliation or to avoid losing one’s plunder to someone else (2019, 144–145).

These observations highlight the fluidity between hoards, gifts, and loot: valuable hoarded material has the potential to become gifts in the circuit of exchange; and the material may be hoarded because it is potential loot.

In the Nibelungenlied, with one small exception, the treasure is always outside the circuit of exchange. This fact is made very present to the reader by being mentioned several times throughout the narrative. In the third Âventiure, Hagen relates to the Burgundian court, in Worms, just when Siegfried is arriving with his entourage, how Siegfried took the treasure from the Nibelungs in the past: the treasure was so enormous that “hundert kanzwägene ez möhten niht getragen” [a hundred baggage-wagons could not have carried them] (Nib. 92). Hagen goes on to describe the details of the battle between Siegfried and the Nibelungs (Nib. 93–99), and how the dwarf Alberich, now an ally of Siegfried, shall be the keeper of the treasure, buried deep inside a mountain (Nib. 98–99). The treasure, the loot, will not become a part of the circuit of exchange: it will remain buried inside a mountain, as it was even before the fight (Nib. 89). Siegfried bullies the court in Worms (Nib. 106–114), and any implicit mention to the treasure is in the lines of “let us fight each other, and the winner takes all” (Nib. 113–114). This attitude is quite different from gift giving, particularly in the sense and in the “mood”, so to speak, noted by Smith above: generosity, reward, investment in the expectation of future support. Hagen (wary of Siegfried from the beginning), however, will keep his mind set on the magnificent treasure from now on, knowing the power that Siegfried could derive from it, if he ever decided to use it in the role of a “generous lord”, collecting even more followers. Nevertheless, Siegfried does not really use it. After Siegfried is slain by Hagen (Nib. 980–981), Kriemhild becomes very generous with the treasure of the Nibelungs, giving away whole handfuls of the hoard very freely to her visitors (Nib. 1127–1128).Footnote 4 However, at this point this is not Siegfried’s treasure anymore, but his widow’s. And, even in this instance, the entering of this “doomed”, “sterile” treasure into the circuit of exchange does not go beyond a possibility, an initial stage: Hagen, ever-cunning and aware of the loyalty and power that Kriemhild is amassing (Nib. 1128–1130) in order to possibly enact a revenge, tosses the treasure into the Rhine (Nib. 1137). I have used the word “doomed” about this treasure: even Hagen’s intention to use it (Nib. 1137) after taking it away from Kriemhild (Nib. 1132) is thwarted, and the whole royal family of Burgundy had previously decided to have it locked away from their sister Kriemhild – and locked away means unused (Nib. 1140). Indeed, from now on, “sît enkúnden sis in selben  noch ander niemén gegeben” [they were unable to bestow any of it, either on themselves or on others] (Nib. 1140). This impossibility of bestowing the treasure, even on themselves, is confirmed more than thirteen years later (Nib. 1142), at the court of Etzel, in Hungary, with a tied Hagen assuring Kriemhild – who holds up her brother Gunther’s severed head by the hair in front of Hagen – that she will never see the treasure again (Nib. 2371). Immediately, Kriemhild herself cuts off Hagen’s head with his own sword (Nib. 2373). Amidst her screams of terror, she is hacked to pieces by the sword of Hildebrand, who is shocked that a woman killed such a “brave knight” (Nib. 2375–2376). By the end of the narrative, the entire Burgundian court is dead (as most of the Huns’). The last stanza of the poem is very significant: more than thirteen years and several thousands of verses after they had disappeared from the narrative, the term “Nibelungs” is used once again. It is actually almost the last word of the poem:

Ine kán iu niht bescheiden,   waz sider dâ geschach:

wan ritter unde vrouwen   weinen man dâ sach,

dar zuo die edeln knehte   ir lieben friunde tôt.

hie hât daz mære ein ende:   daz ist der Nibelunge nôt. (Nib. 2379)

[I cannot tell you what happened after this, except that knights and ladies, yes, and noble squires, too, were seen weeping there for the death of dear friends. This story ends here: such was the Nibelung’s Last Stand.]

I contend that to ask what an epic poem “is about” is very often a futile exercise – particularly when the “answer” consists of one or two neat themes. However, I would like to suggest that the “sterile”, “doomed” treasure of the Nibelungs – a treasure whose fate is conflated with that of its owners – would be a very strong candidate for the list of major themes in the Nibelungenlied.

The dragon-hoard in Beowulf is also outside the circuit of exchange. The hoard only appears in the end, but the “Lay of the Last Survivor” places it “behind” in time, causing a strong impression of continuity. Towards the end of the narrative, after fifty years have passed, someone accidentally disturbs a dragon who has been guarding an ancient treasure inside a mountain (Beowulf 2208b–2226a). The hoard had been there for a very long time: it was placed there “on geārdagum” [in the old days] (Beowulf 2233a). Perhaps most importantly for the sense of distance towards the past in which the treasure was placed there, it was placed by the last survivor of a whole people, a wandering mourner (Beowulf 2236b–2241a). I argue that, even within the context of a poem which includes many references to the “geārdagum” [old days] and to what “we” have “heard” about those distant stories (Beowulf 1–3), a reference to a “forgotten race” (which remains unnamed, a fact that stands out in a Germanic epic) immediately creates a sense of extreme temporal distance. I contend that this sense of temporal distance causes the treasure to be perceived as having been present since the beginning of the narrative – since even before, as a matter of fact. When the “Lay of the Last Survivor” (Beowulf 2247–2266) is introduced, the context is created to make it effective.Footnote 5 The “sterility” of the treasure (from the moment it is buried) is underlined by words and phrases such as “gūðdēað” [war-death] (Beowulf 2249b) (death which took the people associated with the treasure), “feorhbealo frēcne” [evil dreadful and deadly] (Beowulf 2250a), “brosnað æfter beorne” [decays like its warrior] (Beowulf 2260a) and “[b]ealocwealm” [baleful death] (Beowulf 2265b). The “Last Survivor” mourns the fact that there is no one to use the swords, no one to use or put sheen on the drinking cups, no one to polish the helm and the coat of mail, no one to play the harp, no one to put to use the gear of noble falcons and horses (Beowulf 2252–2265). More eloquent (and sad) statements about a “sterile” hoard, outside the circuit of exchange, could not be uttered.Footnote 6

Dooming Deeds

Gift-giving entails commensurability between subject and object and should imply that the recipient never hangs on to the gift. Bazelmans presents the work of some anthropologists which are relevant for his argument (and mine). He starts with Marcel Mauss and his classic book L’essai sur le don, originally published in 1925 and translated as The Gift. In this book, Mauss analysed “archaic” societies, such as tribes from North America and the Maori people from New Zealand. He wanted to build a “general theory about the collective, symbolic representations of the relationships between the gift, the giver and the recipient” (Bazelmans, 2000, 314). In the “gift system”, there is the obligation to give, to receive and to reciprocate (Bazelmans, 2000, 314). Not to give and not to receive amount to the rejection of a social bond (Bazelmans, 2000, 314). The main argument of Mauss’s book is that the gift carries in it something of the giver (Bazelmans, 2000, 314). The gift is “animated”, in that it seeks a “return” to the place of origin: the “magical and religious influence” of the gift on the recipient “can be dangerous or lethal if the recipient hangs on to the gift” (Bazelmans, 2000, 314; my emphasis). In this model, boundaries between persons and things are fluid.Footnote 7 This article is not the place to present some of the critiques and re-readings made to Mauss’s model during the last decades (cf. Bazelmans, 2000, 314–317). It must suffice to state that Mauss’s theories regarding gift exchange are still generally accepted by anthropologists working in different sub-fields and using different approaches.Footnote 8 The two main points, at least for the purposes of this article, are: something of the giver remains in the gift (there is commensurability of subject and object); and there is a strong danger to the recipient if he or she hangs on to the gift (or, as I argue, to the owner of a loot, if he or she does not make it productive by launching it, even partly, into the circuit of exchange).

A thorough analysis of gift-giving must, in some contexts, blur the border between the living and the dead, exchange still playing an essential role. From the outset, Bazelmans makes it clear that his discussion of Gefolgschaft is the starting point of his article, but that he will take it “beyond the politico-economic perspective” and “argue for an interpretation of Gefolgschaft in ritual-cosmological terms” (2000, 313). Bazelmans, following Louis Dumont and his pupils, introduces the concept of the “supernatural” (2000, 319). The “spirit of the gift”, the value of an object of exchange, resides not only in the “unique history of the relations between human participants in exchange”, but also originates in “different categories of supernatural partners” (although these are “identified by the human participants”) (Bazelmans, 2000, 319). In modern society, there is a strict distinction between the living and the dead (Bazelmans, 2000, 321). In non-modern societies, the barrier between the living and the dead is not unbridgeable: it is a place of exchange (Bazelmans, 2000, 321). From now on, the commensurability of subject and object refers not only to social persons but to supernatural entities and people as well (Bazelmans, 2000, 322). Every person, after death, is supposed to become an ancestor in the supernatural world; this transformation is achieved by the exchange of gifts (Bazelmans, 2000, 322). This fact is very relevant, because in “ancient”, “archaic” societies, veneration of the ancestors was common (cf. penates in Rome). Dumont analysed the funeral rites of the ‘Are’are, a tribe from the Solomon Islands (presented in Bazelmans 2000, 323–328). According to the ‘Are’are, a person is a merging of three main constituents: “body”, “breath”, and ancestral “image”. Cultivated plants are only “body”, for example; domesticated pigs are “body” and “breath”; ancestors are only “image”. When a person dies, a funeral ritual is enacted which allows the deceased to be transformed into an ancestor – to go from “body” and “breath” to “image”. At this funeral feast, the deceased’s former partners of exchange give shell money to the “grave-digger”, who supplies pigs and taro tubers to be distributed among the participants. The shell money represents the image of the deceased, and is counted and announced publicly. It is through this giving of shell money that the deceased is transformed into an ancestor. The shell money, in turn, is given by the “grave-digger” to the people who helped him assemble the pigs and taro tubers to be distributed among the participants. Two years later, the family of the deceased gives a “return funeral feast”, where all the participants who gave shell money are refunded an equal quantity. There are three main points to make here. The first one is that there is an equating of a person’s identity with these three material constituents (body, breath, image), each symbolised by one type of goods (tubers, pigs, shell money). The second is that the most important part of a person is the “image” and that this only comes into being through transactions and exchanges: through these exchanges a “discrete”, individual person becomes a part of the anonymous, collective community of the ancestors through the undifferentiated shell money. The third one is that it is only through the giving of the shell money that the deceased is transformed into an ancestor.

Not only have Beowulf and Siegfried very different characters, but their dealings with their hoards are also presented quite distinctly from each other as well. Siegfried is a deceiver from early on in the narrative. Apart from rendering him invisible, his Tarnkappe gives him the strength of twelve men. He uses this cloak in order to conquer Brunhild for Gunther in Iceland, in the three athletic contests (throwing a spear; tossing a boulder; leaping) (Âventiure 7), deceiving the queen and everyone else. Later, in Gunther and Brunhild’s wedding night, the suspicious queen refuses to “give in” to Gunther’s advances: the strong queen ties him and leaves him hanging from a nail on the wall (Âventiure 10). On the next day, he asks for Siegfried’s help. On that night, Siegfried, under cover of the Tarnkappe, takes Gunther’s place and – probably – effectively rapes Brunhild, who, with the loss of her virginity, loses her “super-human” force. Siegfried had agreed to Gunther that he would simply make Brunhild “submit” and that he would not have sex with her (Nib. 655–656). However, there is ambiguity as to what really went on concerning the “submission” (Nib. 677–678), particularly when the narrator tells us that he has “no idea” why Siegfried took a “golden ring” from off her finger and a belt as he left the room (Nib. 679–680).Footnote 9 The point of note is twofold: Siegfried deceives queen Brunhild, once again; the agreement, the “point of honour” with his brother-in-law Gunther, is almost certainly broken by Siegfried. Apart from this use of “magic” in at least two important instances on the part of Siegfried (Beowulf has a “special” sword, Hrunting – freely given to him –, but there is no mention of “magic”), it should be kept in mind that he bathed in the blood of a dragon in the past, something which renders him invincible, except for the one spot in his back where Hagen will pierce him to the heart and kill him. As for the treasure, and as mentioned above, the deceptive Siegfried lets it lie “sterile” inside the mountain: he clings to the loot, something which is “dangerous or lethal”, according to Mauss.Footnote 10 Beowulf could not be more different, in all these respects. He is presented as an honoured leader and has been described as a “grave, thoughtful, dignified hero” (Shippey, 1969, 11). There are no traces of deceit from his part throughout the poem. Regarding the treasure, his intention concerning the dragon-hoard is to conquer it for his people – to remove it from the mountain and make it “fertile”, by launching it into the circuit of exchange. Scott Gwara’s (2008) reading of the contentious Beowulf (3074–3075) has – in my view – convincingly exonerated Beowulf of the charges of cupidity. The translation that Gwara proposes is: “not at all had he ever before looked more intently at his own gold-luck, an owner’s generosity” (2008, 336). His “generosity” is about “the exchange he made for his life” (Gwara, 2008, 337). The exchange consists of the treasure – his treasure – which he considers “destined to belong to his people” (Staver, 2005, 103).Footnote 11 His epitaph is that he was “gentle and kind” (Staver, 2005, 105).

The distinctive funerals of Beowulf and Siegfried are direct consequences of their distinctive characters and attitudes towards their treasures. In the funeral ceremonies of the ‘Are’are, as discussed above, the partners of exchange (something I have deliberately emphasised) of the deceased give shell money to the “grave-digger”. However, regarding his massive hoard, Siegfried cannot be said to have had any “partners of exchange”, even in the form of gift-receivers (something that can amount to “partners of exchange” of a sort, as discussed in the section “Hidden Hoards”). If it is through the giving of shell-money (or its equivalent) that the deceased is transformed into an ancestor, perhaps the lack of partners of exchange amounted to Siegfried not being properly transformed into an ancestor.Footnote 12 On the other hand, men who “owned a hall” through Beowulf (i.e. through his “fertile” gifts) bring wood for his funeral pyre, thus successfully transforming him into an ancestor (Beowulf 3111b–3114a).Footnote 13 Siegfried clung to his “sterile” treasure, in line with his personality, a treasure which even happens, almost symbolically, to be tossed into the Rhine (thus rendering it permanently “sterile”) by his murderer not long after his death. I contend that in Beowulf there is a “successful resolution” of the story, in that the hero is successfully transformed into an ancestor after his death.Footnote 14 Siegfried, on the other hand, with his “unresolved death” and his “sterile” treasure buried deep inside the Rhine, haunts the many thousands of verses still to come in the second part of the Nibelungenlied. “Ghosts” have been defined as entities that disturb “our sense of the separation of the living from the dead” (Bennett & Royle, 2004, 133). They are what is “unfinished” and “unhealed” (Bennett & Royle, 2004, 135). I would like to suggest that Siegfried becomes a “ghost”, in the sense that he – and his treasure, commensurate with him – haunts, directly or indirectly, all the characters of the poem until the end. With lots of chopped heads and gory scenes, the Nibelungenlied only finishes when nobody will ever be able to speak – or think, or scheme – about that “doomed” treasure anymore.


In this article I have demonstrated that the “lifeless”, “sterile” treasure of the Nibelungenlied, present throughout the narrative, has a parallel in several grave flaws of its owner Siegfried. In keeping with this “sterility”, Siegfried is not properly transformed into an ancestor after his death and his presence “haunts” the second part of the narrative, which ends, in a late resolution, with the death of all the main and secondary characters but two, as regards the Burgundians. Beowulf, on the other hand, is a “giver” throughout the poem, and does not have any of the grave flaws found in Siegfried. This fact, following Mauss’s “commensurability” (here between the hero and “treasures”), carries a sense of generosity about Beowulf to the readers of the poem. When he dies trying to achieve what would become another “fertile” treasure, a treasure appearing towards the end of the narrative but made very much present through the device of the “Last Survivor”, Beowulf is successfully transformed into an ancestor.