Balder

Best Loved of the Gods
 

Balder and NannaOdin and Frigga were parents of twin sons as dissimilar in character and physical appearance as it was possible to be; for while Hodur, god of darkness, was somber, taciturn, and blind; Balder, the beautiful, was the pure and radiant god of innocence and light. The snowy brow and golden locks of this Asa seemed to send out beams of sunshine to gladden the hearts of Gods and men, by whom he was equally beloved.

“Of all the twelve round Odin’s throne,
Balder, the Beautiful, alone,
The Sun-god, good, and pure, and bright,
Was loved by all, as all love light.”
              -VALHALLA (J. C. Jones)

Nanna

Balder, attaining his full growth with marvelous rapidity, was admitted to the council of the Gods, and married Nanna (blossom), the daughter of Nip (bud), a beautiful and charming young goddess, with whom he lived in perfect unity and peace. He took up his abode in the palace of Breidablik, whose silver roof rested upon golden pillars, and whose purity was such that nothing common or unclean was ever allowed within its precincts.

The God of light was well versed in the science of runes which were carved on his tongue; he knew the various virtues of the simples, one of which, the camomile, was always called “Balder’s brow,” because its flower was just as immaculately pure as his forehead. The only thing hidden from Balder’s radiant eyes, at first, was the perception of his own ultimate fate.

“His own house
Breidablik, on whose columns Balder graved
The enchantments that recall the dead to life.
For wise he was, and many curious arts,
Postures of runes, and healing herbs he knew;
Unhappy! but that art he did not know,
To keep his own life safe, and see the sun.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

As Balder the beautiful was always smiling and happy, the Gods were greatly troubled when they finally saw the light die out of his blue eyes, a careworn look come into his face, and his step grow heavy and slow. Odin and Frigga, seeing their beloved son’s evident depression, tenderly implored him to reveal the cause of his silent grief. Balder, yielding at last to their anxious entreaties, confessed that his slumbers, instead of being peaceful and restful as of yore, had been strangely troubled of late by dark and oppressive dreams, which, although he could not clearly remember them when he awoke, constantly haunted him with a vague feeling of fear.

“To that god his slumber
Was most afflicting;
His auspicious dreams
Seemed departed.”
             -LAY OF VEGTAM (Thorpe’s tr.)

When Odin and Frigga heard this, they were troubled indeed, but declared they were quite sure nothing would harm their son, who was so universally beloved. Yet, when the anxious Father and Mother had returned home, they talked the matter over, acknowledged that they also were oppressed by strange forebodings, and having learned from the giants that Balder really was in danger, they proceeded to take measures to avert it.

Frigga, therefore, sent out her servants in every direction, bidding them make all living creatures, all plants, metals, stones — in fact, every animate and inanimate thing — register a solemn vow not to do any harm to Balder. All creation readily took the oath, for all things loved the radiant god, and basked in the light of his smile. So the servants soon returned to Frigga, telling her that all had been duly sworn except the mistletoe, growing upon the oak stem at the gate of Valhalla, which, they added, was such a puny, inoffensive thing that no harm could be feared from it.

“On a course they resolved:
That they would send
To every being,
Assurance to solicit,
Balder not to harm.
All species swore
Oaths to spare him;
Frigg received all
Their vows and compacts.”
             -SÆMUND’S EDDA (Thorpe’s tr.)

The Vala’s Prophecy

Frigga now resumed her spinning with her usual content, for she knew no harm could come to the child she loved best of all. Odin, in the mean while, also sorely troubled, and wishing to ascertain whether there was any cause for his unwonted depression, resolved to consult one of the dead Valas or prophetesses. He therefore mounted his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, rode over the tremulous bridges Bifröst and Giallar, came to the entrance of Nifiheim, and passing the Helgate and the dog Garm, penetrated into Hel’s dark abode.

“Uprose the king of men with speed,
And saddled straight his coal-black steed;
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to Hela’s drear abode.”
              -DESCENT OF ODIN (Gray)

To his surprise, he noticed that a feast was being spread in this dark realm, and that the couches had all been covered with tapestry and rings of gold, as if some highly honored guest were expected before long. Hastening on, Odin finally reached the grave where the Vala had rested undisturbed for many a year, and solemnly began to chant the magic spell and trace the runes which had the power of raising the dead.

“Thrice pronounc’d, in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the dead:
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breath’d a sullen sound.”
              -DESCENT OF ODIN (Gray)

Suddenly the grave opened, and the prophetess slowly rose, inquiring who he was and why he thus came to trouble her long rest. Odin, not wishing her to know that he was King of the Gods, replied that he was Vegtam, Valtam’s son, and that he had awakened her to inquire for whom Hel was spreading her couches and preparing a festive meal. In hollow tones, the prophetess now confirmed all his fears by telling him that the expected guest was Balder, who would shortly be slain by Hodur, his brother, the blind God of darkness.

“Hodur will hither
His glorious brother send;
He of Balder will
The slayer be,
And Odin’s son
Of life bereave.
By compulsion I have spoken;
Now I will be silent.”
             -SÆMUND’S EDDA (Thorpe’s tr.)

But in spite of these sad tidings, and of the Vala’s evident reluctance to answer any other questions, Odin was not yet satisfied, and forced her to tell him who would avenge the murdered man by calling his assassin to account — a spirit of revenge and retaliation being considered a sacred duty among the races of the North.

Then the prophetess told him, as Rossthiof had predicted before, that Rinda, the earth-goddess, would bear a son to Odin, and that this divine emissary, Vali, would neither wash his face nor comb his hair until he had avenged Balder and slain Hodur.

“In the caverns of the west,
By Odin’s fierce embrace comprest,
A wondrous boy shall Rinda bear,
Who ne’er shall comb his raven hair,
Nor wash his visage in the stream,
Nor see the sun’s departing beam,
Till he on Hoder’s corse shall smile
Flaming on the fun’ral pile.”
              -DESCENT OF ODIN (Gray)

Having discovered this from the reluctant Vala, Odin, who, thanks to his visit to the Urdar fountain, already knew much of the future, now incautiously revealed some of his knowledge by inquiring who would refuse to weep at Balder's death. When the prophetess heard this question, she immediately knew that it was Odin who had called her out of her grave, and, refusing to speak another word, she sank back into the silence of the tomb, declaring that none would ever be able to lure her out again until the end of the world had come.

“Hie thee hence, and boast at home,
That never shall inquirer come
To break my iron sleep again,
Till Lok has burst his tenfold chain;
Never, till substantial Night
Has reassum’d her ancient right
Till wrapt in flames, in ruin hurl’d,
Sinks the fabric of the world.”
             -DESCENT OF ODIN (Gray)

Odin had questioned the greatest prophetess the world had ever known, and had learned Orlog’s (fate’s) decrees, which he knew could not be set aside. He therefore remounted his steed, and sadly wended his way back to Asgard, thinking of the time, no longer far distant, when his beloved son would no more be seen in the heavenly abodes, and when the light of his presence would have vanished forever.

On entering Glads-heim, however, Odin was somewhat cheered when he heard of the precautions taken by Frigga to insure their darling’s safety, and soon, feeling convinced that if nothing would slay Balder he would surely continue to gladden the world with his presence, he cast aside all care and ordered games and a festive meal.

The Gods at Play

The Gods resumed their wonted occupations, and were soon casting their golden disks on the green plain of Ida, which was called Idavold, the playground of the Gods. At last, wearying of this pastime, and knowing that no harm could come to their beloved Balder, they invented a new game and began to use him as a target, throwing all manner of weapons and missiles at him, certain that no matter how cleverly they tried, and how accurately they aimed, the objects, having sworn not to injure him, would either glance aside or fall short. This new amusement was so fascinating that soon all the Gods were assembled around Balder, at whom they threw every available thing, greeting each new failure with prolonged shouts of laughter. These bursts of merriment soon excited the curiosity of Frigga, who sat spinning in Fensalir; and seeing an old woman pass by her dwelling, she bade her pause and tell what the Gods were doing to provoke such great hilarity. The old woman, who was Loki in disguise, immediately stopped at this appeal, and told Frigga that all the gods were throwing stones and blunt and sharp instruments at Balder, who stood smiling and unharmed in their midst, daring them to touch him.

The Goddess smiled, and resumed her work, saying that it was quite natural that nothing should harm Balder, as all things loved the light, of which he was the emblem, and had solemnly sworn not to injure him. Loki, the personification of fire, was greatly disappointed upon hearing this, for he was jealous of Balder, the sun, who so entirely eclipsed him and was generally beloved, while he was feared and avoided as much as possible; but he cleverly concealed his chagrin, and inquired of Frigga whether she were quite sure that all objects had joined the league.

Frigga proudly answered that she had received the solemn oath of all things, except of a harmless little parasite, the mistletoe, which grew on the oak near Valhalla’s gate, and was too small and weak to be feared. Having obtained the desired information, Loki toddled off; but as soon as he was safely out of sight, he resumed his wonted form, hastened to Valhalla, found the oak and mistletoe indicated by Frigga, and by magic arts compelled the parasite to assume a growth and hardness hitherto unknown.

The Death of Balder

From the wooden stem thus produced he deftly fashioned a shaft ere he hastened back to Idavold, where the Gods were still hurling missiles at Balder, Hodur alone leaning mournfully against a tree, and taking no part in the new game. Carelessly Loki approached him, inquired the cause of his melancholy, and twitted him with pride and indifference, since he would not condescend to take part in the new game. In answer to these remarks, Hodur pleaded his blindness; but when Loki put the mistletoe in his hand, led him into the midst of the circle, and indicated in what direction the novel target stood, Hodur threw his shaft boldly. Instead of the loud shout of laughter which he expected to hear, a shuddering cry of terror fell upon his ear, for Balder the beautiful had fallen to the ground, slain by the fatal blow.

“So on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts, and spears,
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierced or clove;
But in his breast stood fixed the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok, the Accuser, gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw —
’Gainst that alone had Balder’s life no charm.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

Anxiously the Gods all crowded around him, but alas! life was quite extinct, and all their efforts to revive the fallen Sun-God were vain. Inconsolable at their loss, they turned angrily upon Hodur, whom they would have slain had they not been restrained by the feeling that no willful deed of violence should ever desecrate their peace steads. At the loud sound of lamentation the Goddesses came in hot haste, and when Frigga saw that her darling was dead, she passionately implored the Gods to go to Niflheim and entreat Hel to release her victim, for the earth could not live happy without him.

Hermod’s Errand

As the road was rough and painful in the extreme, none of the Gods at first volunteered to go; but when Frigga added that she and Odin would reward the messenger by loving him most of all the Æsir, Hermod signified his readiness to execute the commission. To help him on his way, Odin lent him Sleipnir, and bade him good speed, while he motioned to the other Gods to carry the corpse to Breidablik, and directed them to go to the forest and cut down huge pines to make a worthy pyre for his son.

“But when the Gods were to the forest gone,
Hermod led Sleipnir from Valhalla forth
And saddled him; before that, Sleipnir brook’d
No meaner hand than Odin’s on his mane,
On his broad back no lesser rider bore;
Yet docile now he stood at Hermod’s side,
Arching his neck, and glad to be bestrode,
Knowing the God they went to seek, how dear.
But Hermod mounted him, and sadly fared
In silence up the dark untravel’d road
Which branches from the north of Heaven, and went
All day; and daylight waned, and night came on.
And all that night he rode, and journey’d so,
Nine days, nine nights, toward the northern ice,
Through valleys deep-engulph’d by roaring streams.
And on the tenth morn he beheld the bridge
Which spans with golden arches Giall’s stream,
And on the bridge a damsel watching, arm’d,
In the straight passage, at the further end,
Where the road issues between walling rocks.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

While Hermod was traveling along the cheerless road to Niflheim, the Gods hewed and carried down to the shore a vast amount of fuel, which they placed upon the deck of Balder’s favorite vessel, Ringhorn, constructing an elaborate funeral pyre, which, according to custom, was decorated with tapestry hangings, garlands of flowers, vessels and weapons of all kinds, golden rings, and countless objects of value, ere the immaculate corpse was brought and laid upon it in full attire.

One by one, the Gods now drew near to take a last farewell of their beloved companion, and as Nanna bent over him, her loving heart broke, and she fell lifeless by his side. Seeing this, the Gods reverently laid her beside her husband, that she might accompany him even in death; and after they had slain his horse and hounds and twined the pyre with thorns, the emblems of sleep, Odin, the last of the Gods, drew near.

The Funeral Pyre

In token of affection for the dead and of sorrow for his loss, all laid their most precious possessions upon his pyre, and Odin, bending down, now added to the offerings his magic ring Draupnir. The assembled gods then perceived that he was whispering in his dead son’s ear, but none were near enough to hear what word he said.

These preliminaries ended, the Gods now prepared to launch the ship, but found it so heavily laden with fuel and treasures that their combined efforts could not make it stir an inch. The mountain giants, witnessing the sad scene from afar, and noticing their quandary, said that they knew of a giantess called Hyrrokin, who dwelt in Jötunheim, and was strong enough to launch the vessel without any other aid. The Gods therefore bade one of the storm giants hasten off to summon Hyrrokin, who soon appeared, riding a gigantic wolf, which she guided by a bridle made of writhing live snakes. Riding down to the shore, the giantess dismounted and haughtily signified her readiness to give them the required aid, if in the mean while they would but hold her steed. Odin immediately dispatched four of his maddest Berserkers to fulfill this task; but, in spite of their phenomenal strength, they could not hold the monstrous wolf until the giantess had thrown and bound it fast.

Hyrrokin, seeing them now able to manage her refractory steed, marched down the beach, set her shoulder against the stern of Balder’s ship Ringhorn, and with one mighty shove sent it out into the water. Such was the weight of the burden she moved, however, and the rapidity with which it shot down into the sea, that all the earth shook as if from an earthquake, and the rollers on which it glided caught fire from the friction. The unexpected shock almost made the Gods lose their balance, and so angered Thor that he raised his hammer and would have slain the giantess had he not been restrained by his fellow Gods. Easily appeased, as usual — for Thor’s violence, although quick, was evanescent — he now stepped up on the vessel once more to consecrate the funeral pyre with his sacred hammer. But, as he was performing this ceremony, the dwarf Lit managed to get into his way so provokingly that Thor, still slightly angry, kicked him into the fire, which he had just kindled with a thorn, where the dwarf was burned to ashes with the corpses of the faithful pair.

As the vessel drifted out to sea, the flames rose higher and higher, and when it neared the western horizon it seemed as if sea and sky were all on fire. Sadly the Gods watched the glowing ship and its precious freight, until it suddenly plunged into the waves and disappeared; nor did they turn aside and go back to their own homes until the last spark of light had vanished, and all the world was enveloped in darkness, in token of mourning for Balder the good.

“Soon with a roaring rose the mighty fire,
And the pile crackled; and between the logs
Sharp quivering tongues of flame shot out, and leapt
Curling and darting, higher, until they lick’d
The summit of the pile, the dead, the mast,
And ate the shriveling sails; but still the ship
Drove on, ablaze above her hull with fire.
And the gods stood upon the beach, and gazed;
And while they gazed, the sun went lurid down
Into the smoke-wrapt sea, and night came on.
Then the wind fell with night, and there was calm;
But through the dark they watch’d the burning ship
Still carried o’er the distant waters, on
Farther and farther, like an eye of fire.
So show’d in the far darkness, Balder’s pile;
But fainter, as the stars rose high, it flared;
The bodies were consumed, ash choked the pile.
And as, in a decaying winter fire,
A charr’d log, falling, makes a shower of sparks —
So, with a shower of sparks, the pile fell in,
Reddening the sea around; and all was dark.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

Sadly the Gods entered Asgard, where no sounds of merriment or feasting were heard, but all hearts were filled with despair, for they knew the end was near, and shuddered at the thought of the terrible Fimbul-winter, which was to herald their death.

Frigga alone cherished some hope, and anxiously watched for the return of her messenger, Hermod the swift, who in the mean while had ridden over the tremulous bridge, along the dark Helway, and on the tenth night had crossed the rushing tide of the river Gioll. Here he was challenged by Mödgud, who inquired why the Giallar-bridge trembled more beneath his horse’s tread than when a whole army passed, and asked why he, a live man, was attempting to penetrate into the dreaded realm of Hel.

“Who art thou on thy black and fiery horse
Under whose hoofs the bridge o’er Giall’s stream
Rumbles and shakes? Tell me thy race and home.
But yestermorn five troops of dead pass’d by,
Bound on their way below to Hela’s realm,
Nor shook the bridge so much as thou alone.
And thou hast flesh and color on thy cheeks,
Like men who live, and draw the vital air;
Nor look’st thou pale and wan, like man deceased,
Souls bound below, my daily passers here.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

Hermod explained to Mödgud the reason of his coming, and, having ascertained that Balder and Nanna had ridden over the bridge before him, he hastened on, until he came to the gate of hell, which rose forbiddingly before him.
Nothing daunted by this barrier, Hermod dismounted on the smooth ice, tightened the girths of his saddle, remounted, and burying his spurs deep into Sleipnir’s sleek sides, he made him take a prodigious leap, which landed him safely on the other side of Hel-gate.

“Thence on he journey’d o’er the fields of ice
Still north, until he met a stretching wall
Barring his way, and in the wall a gate.
Then he dismounted, and drew tight the girths,
On the smooth ice, of Sleipnir, Odin’s horse,
And made him leap the gate, and came within.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

Riding onward, Hermod came at last to Hel’s banquet hall, where he found Balder, pale and dejected, lying upon a couch, his wife Nanna beside him, gazing fixedly at the mead before him, which he had no heart to drink.

Hermod’s Quest

In vain Hermod informed his brother that he had come to redeem him; Balder sadly shook his head, saying that he knew he must remain in this cheerless abode until the last day should come, but imploring him to take Nanna back with him, as the home of the shades was no place for such a bright and beautiful young creature. But when Nanna heard this request she clung more closely still to her husband’s side, vowing that nothing would ever induce her to part from him, and that she would stay with him, even in Niflheim, forever.

The whole night was spent in close conversation, ere Hermod sought Hel and implored Balder’s release. The churlish Goddess listened silently to his request, and finally declared that she would let her victim go providing all things animate and inanimate should prove their sorrow for his loss by shedding a tear.

“Come then I if Balder was so dear beloved,
And this is true, and such a loss is Heaven’s —
Hear, how to Heaven may Balder be restored.
Show me through all the world the signs of grief!
Fails but one thing to grieve, here Balder stops!
Let all that lives and moves upon the earth
Weep him, and all that is without life weep;
Let Gods, men, brutes, beweep him; plants and stones!
So shall I know the lost was dear indeed,
And bend my heart, and give him back to Heaven.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

Having received this answer, the ring Draupnir, which Balder sent back to Odin, an embroidered carpet from Nanna for Frigga, and a ring for Fulla, Hermod cheerfully made his way out of Hel’s dark realm, whence he hoped soon to rescue Balder the good, for well he knew all Nature sincerely mourned his departure and would shed unlimited tears to win him back.

The assembled Gods crowded anxiously around him as soon as he returned, and when he had delivered his messages and gifts, the Æsir sent out heralds to every part of the world to bid all things animate and inanimate weep for Balder.

“Go quickly forth through all the world, and pray
All living and unliving things to weep
Balder, if haply he may thus be won!”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

These orders were rapidly carried out, and soon tears hung from every plant and tree, the ground was saturated with moisture, and metals and stones, in spite of their hard hearts, wept too.

On their way home the messengers passed a dark cave, in which they saw the crouching form of a giantess named Thok, whom some suppose to have been Loki in disguise; when they asked her also to shed a tear, she mocked them and fled into the dark recesses of her cave, declaring that she would never weep and that Hel might retain her prey forever.

“Thok she weepeth
With dry tears
For Balder’s death —
Neither in life, nor yet in death,
Gave he me gladness.
Let Hel keep her prey.”
              -ELDER EDDA (Howitt’s version)

As soon as the returning messengers arrived in Asgard, all the Gods crowded around them to know the result of their mission; but their faces, all alight with the joy of anticipation, soon grew dark with despair when they heard that, as one creature refused the tribute of tears, they should behold Balder on earth no more.

“Balder, the Beautiful, shall ne’er
From Hel return to upper air!
Betrayed by Loki, twice betrayed,
The prisoner of Death is made;
Ne’r shall he ’scape the place of doom
Till fatal Ragnarok be come!”
              -VALHALLA (J. C. Jones)

The sole consolation left Odin was to fulfill the decree of fate. He therefore departed and achieved the difficult courtship of Rinda, which we have already described. She bore Vali, the Avenger, who, coming into Asgard on the very day of his birth, slew Hodur with his sharp arrow. Thus he punished the murderer of Balder according to the true Northern creed.

The physical explanation of this tale is either the daily setting of the sun (Balder), which sinks beneath the western waves, driven away by darkness (Hodur), or the end of the short Northern summer and reign of the long winter season. “Balder represents the bright and clear summer, when twilight and daylight kiss each other and go hand in hand in these Northern latitudes.”

“Balder’s pyre, of the sun a mark,
Holy hearth red staineth;
Yet, soon dies its last faint spark,
Darkly then Hoder reigneth.”
              -VIKING TALES OF THE NORTH (R. B. Anderson)

“His death by Hodur is the victory of darkness over light, the darkness of winter over the light of summer; and the revenge by Vali is the breaking forth of new light after the wintry darkness.”

Loki, the fire, is jealous of the pure light of heaven, Balder, who alone among the Northern Gods never fought, but was always ready with words of conciliation and peace.

“But from thy lips, O Balder, night or day,
Heard no one ever an injurious word
To God or Hero, but thou keptest back
The others, laboring to compose their brawls.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

The tears shed by all things for the beloved God are symbolical of the spring thaw, setting in after the hardness and cold of winter, when every tree and twig, and even the stones drip with moisture; Thok (coal) alone shows no sign of tenderness, as she is buried deep within the dark earth and needs not the light of the sun.

“And as in winter, when the frost breaks up,
At winter’s end, before the spring begins,
And a warm west wind blows, and thaw sets in —
After an hour a dripping sound is heard
In all the forests, and the soft-strewn snow
Under the trees is dibbled thick with holes,
And from the boughs the snow loads shuffle down;
And, in fields sloping to the south, dark plots
Of grass peep out amid surrounding snow,
And widen, and the peasant’s heart is glad —
So through the world was heard a dripping noise
Of all things weeping to bring Balder back;
And there fell joy upon the Gods to hear.”
              -BALDER DEAD (Matthew Arnold)

From the depths of their underground prison, the sun (Balder) and vegetation (Nanna) try to cheer heaven (Odin) and earth (Frigga) by sending them the ring Draupnir, the emblem of fertility, and the flowery tapestry, symbolical of the carpet of verdure which will again deck the earth and enhance her charms with its beauty.

The ethical signification of the tale is no less beautiful, for Balder and Hodur are symbols of the conflicting forces of good and evil, while Loki impersonates the tempter.

“But in each human soul we find
That night’s dark Hoder, Balder’s brother blind,
Is born and waxeth strong as he;
For blind is ev’ry evil born, as bear cubs be,
Night is the cloak of evil; but all good
Hath ever clad in shining garments stood.
The busy Loke, tempter from of old,
Still forward treads incessant, and doth hold
The blind one’s murder hand, whose quick-launch’d spear
Pierceth young Balder’s breast, that sun of Valhal’s sphere!”
              -VIKING TALES OF THE NORTH (R. B. Anderson)

The Worship of Balder

One of the most important festivals was held at the summer solstice, or midsummer’s eve, in honor of Balder the good, for it was considered the anniversary of his death and of his descent into the lower world. On that day, the longest in the year, all the people congregated out of doors, made great bonfires, and watched the sun, which in extreme Northern latitudes merely touches the horizon ere it rises upon a new day. From midsummer, the days gradually grow shorter, and the sun’s rays less warm, until the winter solstice, which was called the “Mother night,” as it was the longest in the year. Midsummer’s eve, once celebrated in honor of Balder, was usurped by the alien Christian subjugators and was from then on called St. John’s day, that saint used to entirely supplant Balder the Good.