The characters in the Ring Cycle are primarily inspired from Medieval transcriptions of Norse and Germanic mythology, and more particularly from the 13th century German saga The Nibelungenlied (The Song of the Nibelungs). As he developed the librettos of the four operas which make up The Ring of the Nibelung, Richard Wagner brought those legends and their variations closer to his other sources of inspiration—namely Greek tragedy and Shakespearian drama—and added his own interpretations.
In Norse mythology, the Valkyries are virgin warriors charged with the mission of selecting the most courageous warriors fallen on the battlefield and leading them into Valhalla. In the Ring cycle, there are nine of them: Brünnhilde, Grimgerde, Gerhilde, Helmwige, Ortlinde, Rossweisse, Schwertleite, Siegrune, and Waltraute. Presented as the daughters of Wotan and of different conquests, they appear together for the first time in Act III of Die Walküre. Only two of them have major roles: Waltraute and Brünnhilde, both of whom were the love children of Wotan and Erda.
In Germanic literature, Brynhildr is portrayed as a Valkyrie who an adept of magic and the art of healing. In the Ring cycle, Brünnhilde appears as Wotan’s favourite even though she has rebelled against her father. Wagner made Brünnhilde the only character who connects the three days of the Ring. Her psychological and spiritual development progresses in three stages: her realisation of the greatness of love in Die Walküre, her emotional growth from experiencing love in Siegfried, and her rise to tragic greatness through renunciation in Götterdämmerung.
Waltraute is arguably the closest to Brünnhilde. She flouts Wotan’s interdictions to go and find her sister on her rock. In Götterdämmerung, concerned by Valhalla’s decline, she tries to convince Brünnhilde to part with the accursed ring and return it to the Rhinemaidens. In her mind, it is the only way to re-establish the course of things and save the gods.
Children of the "wolf" in Norse and Germanic mythology—one of Wotan’s reincarnations originally known as Wälse—they are the descendants of a mortal woman and Wotan. These creatures have an instinctive sense of freedom and for Wotan they represent a means to win back the ring.
Siegmund is the earthly son of Wotan and the twin brother of Sieglinde. His incestuous relationship with Sieglinde gives rise to the line of the Wälsung. He is the father of Siegfried and he possesses the sword Nothung. He was sired by Wotan to fulfil the task of retrieving the ring. Courageous and of rare nobility, he has inherited the positive qualities of his father without any of his faults, and places love before self-interest. The intrinsic heroism of the character is revealed when he refuses to abandon Sieglinde and to enter Valhalla, preferring to die with her.
Sieglinde is Siegmund’s twin sister. Abandoned as a child, she was forced to marry Hunding. In Die Walküre, Sieglinde possesses the valour of the heroes of mythical times. Despite her distress following the death of Siegmund, she gives birth to Siegfried with the assistance of Brünnhilde. Through the Valkyrie, Sieglinde realises that the salvation of the world depends on her maternity.
The son of Siegmund and Sieglinde, and the grandson of Wotan, Siegfried is one of the most significant characters in the Ring cycle. The embodiment of the quintessential hero, he symbolises hope. Wotan counts on him to retrieve the ring. More unsophisticated than cerebral, he acts on instinct. He has no conception of fear which enables him to confront Fafner and pass through the circle of fire on the rock on which Brünnhilde is imprisoned. Siegfried is also the archetypal Wagnerian character in search of his roots.