Hélène Adeline Guerber
Myths of the Norsemen|
Chapter XXI: Balder
To Odin and Frigga, we are told, were born twin sons as dissimilar in character and physical appearance as it was possible for two children to be. Hodur, god of darkness, was sombre, taciturn, and blind, like the obscurity of sin, which he was supposed to symbolise, while his brother Balder, the beautiful, was worshipped as the pure and radiant god of innocence and light. From his snowy brow and golden locks seemed to radiate beams of sunshine which gladdened the hearts of gods and men, by whom he was equally beloved.
The youthful Balder attained his full growth with marvellous rapidity, and was early admitted to the council of the gods. 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, and here he lived in perfect unity with his young wife Nanna (blossom), the daughter of Nip (bud), a beautiful and charming goddess.
The god of light was well versed in the science of runes, which were carved on his tongue; he knew the various virtues of simples, one of which, the camomile, was called “Balder’s brow,” because its flower was as immaculately pure as his forehead. The only thing hidden from Balder’s radiant eyes was the perception of his own ultimate fate.
As it was so natural for Balder the beautiful to be smiling and happy, the gods were greatly troubled when on a day they began to notice a change in his bearing. Gradually the light died out of his blue eyes, a careworn look came into his face, and his step grew 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.
When Odin and Frigga heard this, they were very uneasy, but declared that nothing would harm their universally beloved son. Nevertheless, when the anxious parents further talked the matter over, they confessed that they also were oppressed by strange forebodings, and, coming at last to believe that Balder’s life was really threatened, they proceeded to take measures to avert the danger.
Frigga sent her servants in every direction, with strict charge to prevail upon all living creatures, all plants, metals, stones—in fact, every animate and inanimate thing—to register a solemn vow not to harm Balder. All creation readily took the oath, for there was nothing on earth which did not love the radiant god. So the servants returned to Frigga, telling her that all had been duly sworn save the mistletoe, growing upon the oak stem at the gate of Valhalla, and this, they added, was such a puny, inoffensive thing that no harm could be feared from it.
Odin, in the meantime, had resolved to consult one of the dead Vala or prophetesses. Mounted upon his eight-footed steed Sleipnir, he rode over the tremulous bridge Bifröst and over the weary road which leads to Giallar and the entrance of Nifl-heim, where, passing through the Helgate and by the dog Garm, he penetrated into Hel’s dark abode.
Odin saw to his surprise that a feast was being spread in this dark realm, and that the couches had been covered with tapestry and rings of gold, as if some highly honoured guest were expected. But he hurried on without pausing, until he reached the spot where the Vala had rested undisturbed for many a year, when he began solemnly to chant a magic spell and to trace the runes which had the power of raising the dead.
Suddenly the tomb opened, and the prophetess slowly rose, inquiring who had dared thus to trouble her long rest. Odin, not wishing her to know that he was the mighty father of gods and men, replied that he was Vegtam, son of Valtam, 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 confirmed all his fears by telling him that the expected guest was Balder, who was destined to be slain by Hodur, his brother, the blind god of darkness.
Despite the Vala’s evident reluctance to speak further, Odin was not yet satisfied, and he prevailed upon her to tell him who would avenge the murdered god and call his slayer to account. For revenge and retaliation were considered as a sacred duty by the races of the North.
Then the prophetess told him, as Rossthiof had already predicted, that Rinda, the earth-goddess, would bear a son to Odin, and that Vali, as this child would be named, would neither wash his face nor comb his hair until he had avenged upon Hodur the death of Balder.
When the reluctant Vala had thus spoken, Odin next asked: “Who would refuse to weep at Balder’s death?” This incautious question showed a knowledge of the future which no mortal could possess, and immediately revealed to the Vala the identity of her visitor. Therefore, refusing to speak another word, she sank back into the silence of the tomb, declaring that none would be able to lure her out again until the end of the world was come.
Odin having learned the decrees of Orlog (fate), which he knew could not be set aside, now remounted his steed, and sadly wended his way back to Asgard, thinking of the time, not 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 for ever.
On entering Glads-heim, however, Odin was somewhat reassured by the intelligence, promptly conveyed to him by Frigga, that all things under the sun had promised that they would not harm Balder, and feeling convinced that if nothing would slay their beloved son he must surely continue to gladden gods and men with his presence, he cast care aside and resigned himself to the pleasures of the festive board.
The playground of the gods was situated on the green plain of Ida, and was called Idavold. Here the gods would resort when in sportive mood, and their favourite game was to throw their golden disks, which they could cast with great skill. They had returned to this wonted pastime with redoubled zest since the cloud which had oppressed their spirits had been dispersed by the precautions of Frigga. Wearied at last, however, of the accustomed sport, they bethought them of a new game. They had learned that Balder could not be harmed by any missile, and so they amused themselves by casting all manner of weapons, stones, etc., 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 proved to be so fascinating that soon all the gods gathered around Balder, greeting each new failure to hurt him with prolonged shouts of laughter.
These bursts of merriment 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 was none other than Loki in disguise, and he answered Frigga that the gods were throwing stones and other missiles, blunt and sharp, at Balder, who stood smiling and unharmed in their midst, challenging 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 chagrined upon hearing this, for he was jealous of Balder, the sun, who so entirely eclipsed him and who was generally beloved, while he was feared and avoided as much as possible; but he cleverly concealed his vexation, 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, a harmless little parasite, the mistletoe, which grew on the oak near Valhalla’s gate, only excepted, and this was too small and weak to be feared. This information was all that Loki wanted, and bidding adieu to Frigga he hobbled off. As soon as he was safely out of sight, however, he resumed his wonted form and hastened to Valhalla, where, at the gate, he found the oak and mistletoe as indicated by Frigga. Then by the exercise of magic arts he imparted to the parasite a size and hardness quite unnatural to it.
From the wooden stem thus produced he deftly fashioned a shaft with which he hastened back to Idavold, where the gods were still hurling missiles at Balder, Hodur alone leaning mournfully against a tree the while, and taking no part in the game. Carelessly Loki approached the blind god, and assuming an appearance of interest, he inquired the cause of his melancholy, at the same time artfully insinuating that pride and indifference prevented him from participating in the sport. In answer to these remarks, Hodur pleaded that only his blindness deterred him from taking part in the new game, and when Loki put the mistletoe-shaft in his hand, and led him into the midst of the circle, indicating the direction of the novel target, Hodur threw his shaft boldly. But to his dismay, instead of the loud laughter which he expected, a shuddering cry of horror fell upon his ear, for Balder the beautiful had fallen to the ground, pierced by the fatal mistletoe.
In dire anxiety the gods crowded around their beloved companion, but alas! life was quite extinct, and all their efforts to revive the fallen sun-god were unavailing. Inconsolable at their loss, they now turned angrily upon Hodur, whom they would there and then have slain had they not been restrained by the law of the gods that no wilful deed of violence should desecrate their peace-steads. The sound of their loud lamentation brought the goddesses in hot haste to the dreadful scene, and when Frigga saw that her darling was dead, she passionately implored the gods to go to Nifl-heim and entreat Hel to release her victim, for the earth could not exist happily without him.
As the road was rough and painful in the extreme, none of the gods would volunteer at first to go; but when Frigga promised that she and Odin would reward the messenger by loving him above all the Æsir, Hermod signified his readiness to execute the commission. To enable him to do so, Odin lent him Sleipnir, and the noble steed, who was not wont to allow any but Odin upon his back, set off without demur upon the dark road which his hoofs had beaten twice before.
While Hermod was speeding along the cheerless road which led to Nifl-heim, the gods hewed and carried down to the shore a vast amount of fuel, which they piled upon the deck of Balder’s dragon-ship, Ringhorn, constructing an elaborate funeral pyre. According to custom, this 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, richly attired, was brought and laid upon it.
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, last of the gods, drew near.
In token of affection for the dead and of sorrow for his loss, all had lain their most precious possessions upon his pyre, and Odin, bending down, now added to the offerings his magic ring Draupnir. It was noted by the assembled gods that he was whispering in his dead son’s ear, but none were near enough to hear what word he said.
These sad preliminaries ended, the gods now prepared to launch the ship, but found that the heavy load of fuel and treasures resisted their combined efforts and they could not make the vessel stir an inch. The mountain giants, witnessing the scene from afar, and noticing their quandary, now drew near and said that they knew of a giantess called Hyrrokin, who dwelt in Jötun-heim, 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, and she soon appeared, mounted upon a gigantic wolf, which she guided by a bridle made of writhing snakes. Riding down to the shore, the giantess dismounted and haughtily signified her readiness to give the required aid, if in the meantime the gods would take charge of her steed. Odin immediately despatched four of his maddest Berserkers to hold the wolf; but, in spite of their phenomenal strength, they could not restrain the monstrous creature until the giantess had thrown it down and bound it fast.
Setting her shoulder against its stern, with a supreme effort she sent it with a rush into the water. Such was the weight of the mass, however, and the rapidity with which it shot down into the sea, that the earth shook as if from an earthquake, and the rollers on which the ship glided caught fire from the friction. The unexpected shock almost caused the gods to lose their balance, and this so angered Thor that he raised his hammer and would have slain the giantess had he not been restrained by his companions. Easily appeased, as usual—for Thor’s temper, although quickly roused, was evanescent—he now boarded the vessel once more to consecrate the funeral pyre with his sacred hammer. As he was performing this ceremony, the dwarf Lit provokingly stumbled into his way, whereupon Thor, who had not entirely recovered his equanimity, kicked him into the fire, which he had just kindled with a thorn, and the dwarf was burned to ashes with the bodies of the divine pair.
The great ship now drifted out to sea, and the flames from the pyre presented a magnificent spectacle, which assumed a greater glory with every passing moment, until, when the vessel neared the western horizon, it seemed as if sea and sky were on fire. Sadly the gods watched the glowing ship and its precious freight, until suddenly it plunged into the waves and disappeared; nor did they turn aside and return to Asgard until the last spark of light had vanished, and the world, in token of mourning for Balder the good, was enveloped in a mantle of darkness.
Sadly the gods entered Asgard, where no sounds of merriment or feasting greeted the ear, for all hearts were filled with anxious concern for the end of all things which was felt to be imminent. And truly the thought of the terrible Fimbul-winter, which was to herald their death, was one well calculated to disquiet the gods.
Frigga alone cherished hope, and she watched anxiously for the return of her messenger, Hermod the swift, who, meanwhile, had ridden over the tremulous bridge, and along the dark Hel-way, until, on the tenth night, he had crossed the rushing tide of the river Giöll. 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 living rider, was attempting to penetrate into the dreaded realm of Hel.
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, which rose forbiddingly before him.
Nothing daunted by this barrier, Hermod dismounted on the smooth ice, and tightening the girths of his saddle, remounted, and burying his spurs deep into Sleipnir’s sleek sides, he put him to a prodigious leap, which landed them safely on the other side of Hel-gate.
Riding onward, Hermod came at last to Hel’s banqueting-hall, where he found Balder, pale and dejected, lying upon a couch, his wife Nanna beside him, gazing fixedly at a beaker of mead, which apparently he had no heart to quaff.
In vain Hermod informed his brother that he had come to redeem him; Balder shook his head sadly, saying that he knew he must remain in his cheerless abode until the last day should come, but he implored Hermod to take Nanna back with him, as the home of the shades was no place for such a bright and beautiful creature. But when Nanna heard this request she clung more closely to her husband’s side, vowing that nothing would ever induce her to part from him, and that she would stay with him for ever, even in Nifl-heim.
The long night was spent in close conversation, ere Hermod sought Hel and implored her to release Balder. The churlish goddess listened in silence to his request, and declared finally that she would allow her victim to depart provided that all things animate and inanimate would show their sorrow for his loss by shedding tears.
This answer was full of encouragement, for all Nature mourned the loss of Balder, and surely there was nothing in all creation which would withhold the tribute of a tear. So Hermod cheerfully made his way out of Hel’s dark realm, carrying with him the ring Draupnir, which Balder sent back to Odin, an embroidered carpet from Nanna for Frigga, and a ring for Fulla.
The assembled gods crowded anxiously round Hermod as soon as he returned, and when he had delivered his messages and gifts, the Æsir sent heralds to every part of the world to bid all things animate and inanimate weep for Balder.
North, South, East and West rode the heralds, and as they passed tears fell from every plant and tree, so that the ground was saturated with moisture, and metals and stones, despite their hard hearts, wept too.
The way at last led back to Asgard, and by the road-side was a dark cave, in which the messengers saw, crouching, the form of a giantess named Thok, whom some mythologists suppose to have been Loki in disguise. When she was called upon to shed a tear, she mocked the heralds, and fleeing into the dark recesses of her cave, she declared that no tear should fall from her eyes, and that, for all she cared, Hel might retain her prey for ever.
As soon as the returning messengers arrived in Asgard, the gods crowded round them to learn the result of their mission; but their faces, all aglow with the joy of anticipation, grew dark with despair when they heard that one creature had refused the tribute of tears, wherefore they would behold Balder in Asgard no more.
We have already seen how Odin succeeded after many rebuffs in securing the consent of Rinda to their union, and that the son born of this marriage was destined to avenge the death of Balder. The advent of this wondrous infant now took place, and Vali the Avenger, as he was called, entered Asgard on the day of his birth, and on that very same day he slew Hodur with an arrow from a bundle which he seems to have carried for the purpose. Thus the murderer of Balder, unwitting instrument though he was, atoned for the crime with his blood, according to the code of the true Norseman.
The physical explanation of this myth is to be found either in the daily setting of the sun (Balder), which sinks beneath the western waves, driven away by darkness (Hodur), or in the ending of the short Northern summer and the long reign of the 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.”
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.
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.
One of the most important festivals was held at the summer solstice, or midsummer’s eve, in honour 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, the people congregated out of doors, made great bonfires, and watched the sun, which in extreme Northern latitudes barely dips beneath 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 night in the year. Midsummer’s eve, once celebrated in honour of Balder, is now called St. John’s day, that saint having entirely supplanted Balder the good.
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