The Death of Balder

Amid confusion and struggle of various kinds life thus ran its course
among the Æsir. Yet Balder still remained to them, the god of innocence
and purity; while he survived, evil and violence could not gain supremacy in
the universe. There came a time, however, when he began to be visited by
disquieting dreams, which filled all the gods with foreboding. The Æsir and
the goddesses held a general assembly to inquire into the meaning of


these portents. Odin himself rode forth on Sleipnir into the very depths of
Niflheim to take counsel with a departed sibyl or
prophetess. He arrived at the high hall of Hell; and to the east of the door,
where lay the grave of the sibyl, he took his station and chanted his
incantations to waken the dead. The sibyl, compelled to rise from her
grave, asked who had come to disturb her rest. “The snow covered me,”
she said, “the rain beat upon me, and the moist dews fell over me; I had
long been dead.” Odin answered, “I am named Vegtam, the son of Valtam;
tell me now for whom Hel has adorned her hall.” “For Balder the mead is
brewed, and the Æsir are sore afflicted.” “Who then shall bring death upon
Balder?” “Hod shall bring death to Balder,” washer response. “Who shall
avenge his death upon Hod?” asked Odin. “Rind shall bear a son (Vali) in
the West-Halls,” she replied; “he shall neither wash his hands nor comb his
hair until he has brought Balder’s slayer to the funeral pyre; one night old,
he shall kill him.” “Speak, be not yet silent,” said Odin; “still more would I
fain learn: who are the maidens that are weeping sorely and throwing their
neckerchiefs into the air?” “Now I know that you are not Vegtam, as you
have said, but Odin,” answered the prophetess. “And you are neither sibyl
nor wise woman; you are the mother of three Thursar.” “Ride home again,
Odin,” said the prophetess, “and return to me when Loki has regained his
freedom and the Twilight of the Gods is near at hand.”

Frigg now bound all things by an oath that they would do Balder no
harm-fire and water, iron and all manner of metals, rocks, earth, trees,
maladies, beasts and birds, poisons and serpents. Now the Æsir,
deeming themselves, secure, even found amusement at their assemblies in
having Balder stand forward while the others shot missiles at him, aimed
blows at him, or threw stones at him; whatever they might do, he suffered
no wound. Loki, meanwhile, was not pleased. Assuming the shape of a
woman, he paid a visit to Frigg at Fensalir. Frigg asked the woman what
the Æsir were occupied with at their assembly. “They are all shooting at
Balder without working him the least injury,” she said. “Neither weapons nor
trees will do him any harm, for I have bound all things by an oath.” “Is it
really true that all things have sworn to spare Balder?” the woman asked.
“All things, except only a tiny sprig growing west of Valhalla, called
Mistletoe (mistilteinn); I deemed it too young a thing to be bound by an
oath.” Now Loki went away, tore up the mistletoe, and carried it off to the
assembly. Hod, because of his blindness, was standing at the outer edge
of the circle. Loki asked him why he too was not shooting at Balder. “I
cannot see where he is standing; and besides, I have no weapon,”
answered Hod. “Nevertheless, you ought to follow the example of the
others,” said Loki, “and thus pay equal honor to Balder. Take this wand and
shoot at him; I will show you where he is standing.” Hod grasped the
mistletoe, took his position according to Loki’s bidding, and let fly at Balder;
the bolt sped directly through his body, and he sank down dead. Thus
came about the greatest mischance that ever befell gods and men. When
the Æsir saw Balder fall to the ground, they were speechless with fear, and
none moved a finger to lift him up; they looked at one another, and all alike were
filled with wrath at the man who had brought that deed to pass; yet they
were powerless to avenge the murder, since the spot on which they stood
had been solemnly set aside as a sanctuary. For a time they were unable
to utter a word for weeping; Odin above all felt the full force of the blow, for
he saw most clearly what a loss had befallen the Æsir through Balder’s
death. When the gods had in part regained their composure, Frigg asked
who among the Æsir would undertake to gain her favor by riding the Hell-
Ways to seek speech with Balder and to learn from Hel what recompense
she would demand for permitting Balder’s release and his return to Asgard.
Hermod the Bold, Odin’s son, declared himself willing; having got the loan
of Sleipnir for the journey, he mounted and took the road with the utmost
speed.

The Æsir took Balder’s body and bore it down to the sea. There lay
his great ship, Ringhorni, drawn up on land; with the intention of using it for
Balder’s funeral pyre, they strove to launch it but were unable to move it
from the spot. They were therefore compelled to send a messenger to
Jotunheim to summon the Giantess Hyrrokkin, and she came riding to them
mounted on a wolf, which she guided by vipers in lieu of reins. She
dismounted, and Odin assigned four Berserks to the task of holding her
steed; they could not restrain the wolf, however, before they had thrown it
to the ground. The Giantess stepped to the prow of the boat, and at the first
effort shoved it off so fast that the rollers burst
into flame and the whole earth trembled. Thor, his wrath getting the better
of him, wanted to crush her head, but all the other gods interceded on her
behalf. Now the body of Balder was carried out onto the ship, and when his
wife Nanna saw what was happening, her heart broke for sorrow; so her
body also was laid on the pyre. The fire was then kindled and Thor came
forward and consecrated the pyre with Mjollnir; just at that moment a Dwarf
named Lit ran in front of him, and Thor spurned the Dwarf into the fire,
where he too was burned. Beings of many kinds came to see the burning.
First of all was Odin, and with him Frigg, the Valkyries, and Odin’s ravens.
Frey drove a cart drawn by the boar Gullinbusti, otherwise called
Slidrugtanni. Heimdal rode his horse Goldtop, and Freyja drove her cats.
Throngs of Rime-Thursar and Cliff-Ettins presented themselves likewise.
Odin laid on the pile the ring Draupnir. Balder’s horse also was led fully
caparisoned onto the blazing ship.

In the meantime Hermod was on his way to Hell. Nine nights he rode
through dark and deep valleys and saw nothing until he came to the river
Gjoll and rode out onto the Bridge of Gjoll, which is paved with gleaming
gold. A maiden named Modgud, who keeps watch over the bridge, asked
his name and kindred. Then she told him that not many days before, five
companies of dead men had ridden across the bridge; “and yet,” she said,
“it thunders as loudly beneath your paces alone as beneath the feet of all of
them together. Nor have you the visage of a dead man; why are you riding
alone on the way to Hell?” “I am riding
to Hell,” answered Hermod, “in search of Balder. Have you seen him pass
along the Way of Hell?” She told him that Balder had already traversed the
Bridge of Gjoll: “The Way of Hell lies downward and northward.” Hermod
rode on until he arrived at Hell-Gate. There he dismounted, tightened his
saddle-girths, mounted once more, and struck spurs to his horse; the horse
jumped so high above the gate that he did not so much as touch it with his
hoof. Hermod rode straight to the hall, dismounted, and stepped inside;
there he saw his brother Balder sitting in the high seat. He remained in the
hall during the night; in the morning he asked Hel to permit Balder to ride
away with him, telling her at the same time how great was the grief of the
Æsir. Hel answered that she meant to assure herself beforehand whether
Balder was really so much beloved as he was reputed to be. “If all things
on earth,” she said, “be they quick or dead, will weep for him, then he shall
return to the Æsir; but if there is one thing that will not weep, he shall
remain with me.” Then Hermod arose, and Balder followed him out through
the door and bade him give Odin the ring Draupnir in memory of him.
Nanna gave into his charge a kerchief for Frigg and other gifts besides, and
for Fulla a finger ring. Thereupon Hermod rode forth on his journey until he
came back to Asgard, where he imparted to the gods all that he had seen
and heard.

The Æsir now sent messengers throughout the whole world to ask all
things to weep for Balder’s release from Hell; all things did weep, men,
beasts, earth, trees, and all manner of metals, and they can still be seen weeping whenever
they pass from frost to heat. But when the messengers, their errand done,
were returning home again, they discovered among the rocks a Giantess
named Thokk; her too they asked to weep Balder out of the bounds of Hell
but she replied:

Thokk shall weep
Dry tears
On Balder’s pyre.
Nor in life nor in death
Did Karl’s son bring me joy;
Hel hold what she hath!

Balder’s homecoming thus came to naught. The Giantess was none
other than Loki, who by such means finished his evil deed. Retribution,
however, soon fell upon him. Upon Hod as well Balder’s death was to be
avenged; and according to the sibyl’s decree to Odin, vengeance was to
come at the hands of Vali, the son of Odin and Rind. The particulars of his
doom are not recorded in the Eddas.


Sources:

Peter Andreas Munch: Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. The American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York. 1926, pp. 80-86.
Rasmus B. Anderson (Ed.): The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson and the Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson. Norræna Society, London-New York. 1906.


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