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Balder (Baldr) The beloved son of the great god Odin and his wife, Frigg.
The story of the god Balder is one of the most famous and one of the most complete in Norse mythology. It has been retold many times over the centuries, from Snorri Sturluson’s account in the Prose Edda to the story by the Danish scholar Saxo Grammaticus and the poem by the English poet Matthew Arnold (“Balder Dead”).
When Balder became a young man, he began to have fearful dreams that seemed to foretell his death. None of the gods could understand the meaning of these dreams. His unhappiness cast sadness over all who lived in Asgard, the home of the Aesir gods.
Odin, determined to solve the mystery of his son’s dreams, mounted his horse, Sleipnir, and made the long journey to the underworld, Niflheim. There he called up a seeress, one of the Volva. When she arose from her tomb, Odin introduced himself as Vegtam, the Wanderer, son of Valtam.
Odin asked the Volva why the halls of Hel were decked with gold and the tables set for a grisly feast. The seeress replied that it was for Balder.
Odin asked who would slay Balder. The seeress answered that the blind Hodur would cast a fatal branch at his brother.
Odin then asked who would avenge Balder’s death. The seeress answered that Odin would take Rinda as a wife, and their son would be Vali, who would take vengeance when he was only one night old.
Odin asked who would refuse to weep for Balder. At this question, which revealed that Vegtam knew or guessed more of the future than an ordinary mortal could, the Volva realized that Vegtam was in fact Odin, or Alfodr.
She refused to answer any more questions and sank into her tomb, vowing to speak no more until Loki’s chains were unbound—that is, until the end of the world. This story is found in Baldrs Draumar (Balder’s Dreams) in the Poetic Edda.
Frigg and the Mistletoe
When Frigg realized that her son Balder’s life was in danger, she sent her messengers to every corner of the world to extract promises not to harm her beloved son. Stones and metals, water and wind, fish and birds, reptiles and mammals, trees and flowers, insects, spiders, and scorpions, all creatures alive and all objects large and small swore that they would not harm Balder. Only one small green plant, the mistletoe, which grew on the mighty oak tree, was not asked to make the promise, for it was so frail that no one paid attention to it.
The Gods at Play
Word soon spread through Asgard that Balder was absolutely invulnerable: Nothing could harm him. The young gods, always ready for fun, made a game of throwing things at Balder: stones, knives, sticks. Whatever they threw glanced off Balder’s body, leaving him totally unharmed, to the merriment of all.
Only Loki did not join in the fun. Instead he disguised himself as a woman and paid a visit to Frigg. Pretending to be astonished and disgusted at the sport the gods were making of Balder, Loki tricked Frigg into revealing the information he sought: that there was indeed one object in the world that had not taken the vow to be harmless to Balder. That object was the mistletoe that grew on the branches of the oak tree outside Valhalla.
Loki hurried away, plucked a sprig of mistletoe, and hastened to the field of Idavoll, where the merry young gods were still at play. Only the blind god, Hodur, hung back, for he could not see. Loki approached Hodur, put the mistletoe branch into his hands, and offered to guide his aim. Hodur gladly accepted.
The Death of Balder
Hodur threw the fatal weapon and killed Balder. When Balder fell dead, a terrible silence fell upon the gods, and then they cried out in a fearful wail. Balder, the good, the beautiful, the god of light, had been snuffed out like a bright candle. The gods would willingly have killed Hodur there and then, but ancient laws forbade that blood should be shed in Idavoll.
Balder’s Funeral Pyre
The gods built a huge funeral pyre on Hringhorni, Balder’s dragon ship. On it they laid the body, surrounding it with rich tapestries, heaps of flowers, vessels of food, clothes, weapons, and precious jewels, as was the custom of the Norse.
Nanna, Balder’s loving wife, fell grief-stricken over the body and died, so the gods placed her tenderly on the pyre beside her husband. Then they killed Balder’s horse and hounds and placed them beside their master so he should lack for nothing.
One by one all the gods drew near to say farewell to their beloved companion. Last of all came Odin, who took off his magic arm ring, Draupnir, and placed it on his son’s body. Then he stooped and put his mouth to Balder’s ear, but nobody knew what he had whispered.
When the gods tried to launch the ship, it was so heavy that not even Thor’s phenomenal strength could move it. The gods accepted the help of Hyrokkin, a giantess who galloped onto the scene riding a huge wolf and holding reins of writhing snakes. Hyrokkin gave the vessel a mighty shove and launched it into the sea.
The funeral pyre burst into flames, and Thor went on board to consecrate the fire with his magic hammer, Mjollnir. As he was performing the rite, the dwarf Lit got under his feet, and Thor kicked him into the flames, where he burned to ashes along with Balder and Nanna.
The ship drifted out to sea, burning brightly, and the gods watched it in mourning until it disappeared and the world became dark.
When she had recovered sufficiently to speak, Frigg asked that one of the gods visit Hel in Niflheim and beg her to send Balder back from the land of the dead. Gallant Hermod, another of Odin’s sons, immediately volunteered to make the dreaded journey. Odin lent him Sleipnir, and for the second time the brave horse made the journey to the underworld. After traveling for nine days and nine nights and crossing many rivers, Hermod came to a stream, Gjoll. Sleipnir’s hooves made the bridge over Gjoll shudder, and the sentry, Modgud, challenged the rider. Upon learning that Balder was indeed in Niflheim, Hermod and Sleipnir made a great leap over the gate, Helgrind, and landed safely on the other side. Balder could not leave the land of the dead without Hel’s permission, and Hel refused to let him go unless all the world should shed tears for him. Hermod spent many hours with Balder and his wife, Nanna. They gave him gifts, including Odin’s magic arm ring, Draupnir, to take back to Asgard. Then Hermod left to tell the gods his news. Surely the whole world would willingly weep to set Balder free.
When Hermod returned from the underworld with the news about Hel’s condition for the return of Balder, messengers at once set out for every corner of the Earth. Soon every god and goddess, every man and woman, every plant and every animal on land and sea and air, and every stone and metal was shedding tears for Balder.
In a dark cave sat an old woman, the giantess Thokk. She alone remained dry-eyed and hard of heart. “Balder never did anything for me,” she said grimly. “Let Hel keep what is her due, for I have no tears for Balder.” She was, many think, the trickster Loki in disguise. The messengers returned to Odin and Frigg with heavy hearts, and the gods mourned once more, for they knew now that Balder would never return to them.
Vali Kills Hodur
Vali, Odin’s youngest son, appeared in Asgard on the day of his birth, miraculously grown to full stature and carrying a quiver of arrows. He shot one of these at Hodur, who died. Thus the Norseman’s code of a death for a death was satisfied, and the Volva’s prophecy was fulfilled.
At Ragnarok, the time of the Regeneration, Balder came back from the dead, leading his blind brother, Hodur. All the survivors returned to Idavoll, where they created a new world. Pieces of the stories of Balder are found in many poems in the Poetic Edda and retold by Snorri Sturluson in Gylfaginning.