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Worms, Nibelungenmuseum

According to the Gallic writer Prosper Tiro, the Burgundian leader Gundihar was overthrown in 435:

At about this time, Aetius defeated Gundihar, the king of those Burgundians who live in the Gallic provinces, and when he sued for peace, it was granted to him. However, Gundihar did not enjoy this peace for a long time, because the Huns exterminated him and his nation.

This incident is the historical nucleus of the second half of the Nibelungenlied, the national poem of Germany: a text about doom and loyalty, set in Worms, which may indeed have been the residence of the Burgundian dynasty, and the palace of king Etzel (Attila), who as a young man can have taken part in the expedition that resulted in the death of king Gunther (Gundihar).

Last week, I visited the little museum in Worms for the second time, and I was again impressed by it. The museum, situated in two towers of the medieval city wall, has to solve at least two problems: how to reach out to people who have not read the poem? and how to exhibit what is first and foremost a text?

The answer is simple, elegant, adequate, and convincing. You enter the museum with a headset, and climb into a tower, passing along twelve TV screens. When you are standing in front of them, you can see scenes from Fritz Lang’s famous Nibelungen movie (1924) -being primitive cinema, the imagery still “feels real”- and you hear the anonymous poet explain about his work, its relation to the Icelandic version of the same story, and the way Wagner has reshaped the subject matter. It is good that the poet does never claim that he knows the story best; after all, poetry belongs to those who read it and the author must not interfere with the interpretation.

The inconsistency of the use of the Nibelungenlied by the Nazis is explained adequately: on the one hand, Siegfried was presented as the perfect German hero, and at the same time his assassin Hagen was praised as an example of loyalty. Personally, I would say that the twelfth-century poet is ambiguous in his ideas about heroism, but if the museum’s designer believes that the Nazis’ inconsistency proves that they were abusing the poem, I will not object.

During my first visit, you could buy linden tree leaves (which play a role in the poem’s first part); this time, the souvenirs had changed a bit and there was Nibelungen tea. That’s about as unfelicitous a choice as the Mussolini shampoo I once spotted in an Italian village. But that’s a minor quibble: Worms’ Nibelungen Museum is one of the nicest museums I know and worth a detour.

Do not forget to visit the Cathedral, the Raschi House, and the Andreasstift Museum too. This museum of Roman art is situated in the building in which Luther faced Charles V. Granted, Luther never said the famous words “Hier steh’ ich, ich kann nicht anders”, but it’s an interesting place.

This museum was visited in a/o 2009.

This page was last modified on 27 March 2014.