Brunhild (M.H. Ger. Brünhilt or Prünhilt, Nor. Brynhildr), the name of a mythical heroine of various versions of the legend of the Nibelungs. The name means "the warrior woman in armour" (from O.H. Ger. brunjô, brunja, M.H. Ger. brunige, brünje, brünne, a cuirass or coat of mail, O. Eng. byrnie, and O.H. Ger. hiltja, hilta, war), and in the Norse versions of the Nibelung myth, which preserves more of the primitive traditions than the Nibelungenlied, Brunhild is a valkyrie, the daughter of Odin, by whom, as a punishment for having against his orders helped a warrior to victory, she has been cast under a spell of sleep on Hindarfjell, a lonely rock summit, until the destined hero shall penetrate the wall of fire by which she is surrounded, and wake her. This is a variant of the widespread myth which survives in the popular fairy-story of "the sleeping beauty." The ingenuity of some German scholars has made of Brunhild a personification of the day, held prisoner upon the hill-tops till in the morning the sun-god comes to her rescue, then triumphing with him awhile, only to pass once more under the spell of the powers of mist and darkness.
She is thus by some commentators contrasted with "the masked warrior woman" Kriemhild (q.v.), a personification of the power of night and death. But whatever be the dim original of the character of Brunhild - as to which authorities are by no means agreed - even in the northern versions its mythical interest is quite subordinate to its purely human interest. In the Volsungasaga she is the heroine of a tragedy of passion and wounded pride; it is she who compasses the death of Sigurd, who has broken his troth plighted to her, and then immolates herself on his funeral pyre in order that in the world of the dead he may be wholly hers. In the Nibelungenlied, on the other hand, she plays a comparatively colourless rôle. She still possesses superhuman attributes: like Atalanta, she can only be won by the man who is able to overcome her in trials of speed and strength; but, instead of a valkyrie sleeping on a lonely rock, she is, when Sigfrid goes to woo her on behalf of Gunther, queen of îslant (îsenlant), living in a castle called the Isenstein. In the tragedy of the death of Sigfrid her part is completely overshadowed by that of "the grim Hagen," and from the moment that the murder is decided on she drops almost completely out of the story.
The poet of the Nibelungenlied evidently knew nothing of the tale of her self-immolation; for, though he has nothing definite to say about her after Sigfrid's death, he keeps her alive in a sort of dignified retirement. In the last 5000 lines or so of the poem Brunhild is only mentioned four times and takes no active part in the story. (See further under Nibelungenlied.)
(W. A. P.)