109 - Norse Myths 09 - The Death of Baldur


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The ninth Norse Myth of ten, brings us to the death of Baldur, one of the most famous laments of Viking legend...

The Death of Baldur.

To Odin and Frigga 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 Baldur, 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. Each life that he touched glowed with goodness, and he was loved by all who knew him. Baldur tended to his twin brother Hodur with every kindness and consideration. Hodur worshipped Baldur, and would do nothing in his power to harm him.

The youthful Baldur 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 “Baldur’s brow,” because its flower was as immaculately pure as his forehead. The only thing hidden from Baldur’s radiant eyes was the perception of his own ultimate fate.

There came a morning when Baldur woke with the dawn, his face tightened with fear and foresight. He had dreamed of his own death and he lay there petrified, aware, somehow, that the strength of this dream forecasted sinister things to come. So Baldur travelled to see Odin, who listened carefully, and knew at once that the fears of his son were justified – for in his shining eyes there was no longer simply innocence; there was knowledge as well. Odin went at once to his throne at the top of Yggdrasill, and he prayed there for a vision to come to him. At once he saw the head of Vala the Seer come to him, and he knew he must travel to Hel’s kingdom, to visit Vala’s grave. Only then would he learn the truth of his favourite son’s fate.

It was many long days before Odin reached the innermost graves on Hel’s estate. He moved quietly so that Hel would not know of his coming, and he was disregarded by most of the workers in her lands, for they were intent on some celebrations, and were preparing the hall for the arrival of an esteemed guest. At last the mound of Vala’s grave appeared, and he sat there on it, keeping his head low so that the prophetess would not catch a glimpse of his face. Vala was a seer of all things future, and all things past; there was nothing that escaped her bright eyes, and she could be called upon only by the magic of the runes to tell of her knowledge.

The grave was wreathed in shadows, and a mist hung uneasily over the tombstone. There was silence as Odin whispered to Vala to come forth, and then, at once, there was a grating and steaming that poured forth an odour that caused even the all-powerful Odin to gag and spit.

‘Who disturbs me from my sleep,’ said Vala with venom. Odin thought carefully before replying. He did not wish her to know that he was Odin, king of gods and men, for she may not wish to tell him of a future that would touch on his own. And so he responded:

‘I am Vegtam, son of Valtam, and I wish to learn of the fate of Baldur.’

‘Baldur’s brother will slay him,’ said Vala, and with that she withdrew into her grave.

Odin leapt up and cried out, ‘With the power of the runes, you must tell me more. Tell me, Vala, which esteemed guest does Hel prepare for?’

‘Baldur,’ she muttered from the depths of her grave, ‘and I will say no more.’

Odin shook his head with concern. He could not see how it could be possible that Baldur’s brother would take his life; Baldur and Hodur were the closest of brothers, and shared the same thoughts and indeed speech for much of the time. He returned to Asgard with his concerns still intact, and he discussed them there with Frigga, who listened carefully.

‘I have a plan,’ she announced, ‘and I am certain you will agree that this is the best course of action for us all. I plan to travel through all nine lands, and I will seek the pledge of every living creature, every plant, every metal and stone, not to harm Baldur.’

And Frigga was as good as her word, for on the morrow she set out and travelled far and wide, everywhere she went extracting with ease the promise of every living creature, and inanimate object, to love Baldur, and to see that he was not injured in any way.

And so it was that Baldur was immune to injury of any kind, and it became a game among the children of Asgard to aim their spears and arrows at him, and laugh as they bounced off, leaving him unharmed. Baldur was adored throughout the worlds, and there was no one who did not smile when he spied him.

No one, that is except Loki, whose jealousy of Baldur had reached an unbearable pitch. Each night he ruminated over the ways in which he could murder Baldur, but he could think of none. Frigga had taken care to involve all possible dangers in her oath, and there was nothing now that would hurt him. But the scheming Loki was not unwise, and he soon came up with a plan. Transforming himself into a beggarwoman, he knocked on Frigga’s door and requested a meal. Frigga was pleased to offer her hospitality, and she sat down to keep the beggar company as she ate.

Loki, in his disguise, chattered on about the handsome Baldur, who he’d seen in the hall, and he mentioned his fears that Baldur would be killed by one of the spears and arrows he had seen hurled at him. Frigga laughed, and explained that Baldur was now invincible.

‘Did everything swear an oath to you then?’ asked Loki slyly.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Frigga, but then she paused, ‘all, that is, except for a funny little plant which was growing at the base of the oak tree at Valhalla. Why I’d never before set eyes on such a little shoot of greenery and it was far too immature to swear to anything so important as my oath.’

‘What’s it called?’ asked Loki again.

‘Hmmm,’ said Frigga, still unaware of the dangers her information might invoke, ‘mistletoe. Yes, mistletoe.’

Loki thanked Frigga hastily for his meal, and left her palace, transforming at once into his mischievous self, and travelled to Valhalla as quickly as his feet would take him. He carefully plucked the budding mistletoe, and returned to Odin’s hall, where Baldur played with the younger gods and goddesses, as they shot him unsuccessfully with arms of every shape and size.

Hodur was standing frowning in the corner, and Loki whispered for him to come over.

‘What is it, Hodur,’ he asked.

‘Nothing, really, just that I cannot join their games,’ said Hodur quietly.

‘Come with me,’ said Loki, ‘for I can help.’ And leading Hodur to a position close to Baldur, he placed in his hands a bow and arrow fashioned from the fleetest of fabrics. To the end of the arrow, he tied a small leaf of mistletoe, and topped the razor-sharp tip with a plump white berry. ‘Now, shoot now,’ he cried to Hodur, who pulled back the bow and let the arrow soar towards its target.

There was a sharp gasp, and then there was silence. Hodur shook his head with surprise – where were the happy shouts, where was the laughter telling him that his own arrow had hit its mark and failed to harm the victim? The silence spoke volumes, for Baldur lay dead in a circle of admirers as pale and frightened as if they had seen Hel herself.

The agony spread across Asgard like a great wave. When it was discovered who had shot the fatal blow, Hodur was sent far from his family, and left alone in the wilderness. He had not yet had a moment to utter the name of the god who had encouraged him to perpetrate this grave crime, and his misery kept him silent.

Frigga was disconsolate with grief. She begged Hermod, the swiftest of her sons, to set out at once for Filheim, to beg Hel to release Baldur. And so he climbed upon Odin’s finest steed, Sleipnir, and set out for the nine worlds of Hel, a task so fearsome that he shook uncontrollably.

In Asgard, Frigga and Odin carried their son’s body to the sea, where a funeral pyre was created and lit. Nanna, Baldur’s wife, could bear it no longer, and before the pyre was set out on the tempestuous sea, she threw herself on the flames, and perished there with her only love. As a token of their great affection and esteem, the gods offered, one by one, their most prized possessions and laid them on the pyre as it set out for the wild seas. Odin produced his magic ring Draupnir, and the greatest gods of Asgard gathered to see the passing of Baldur.

And so the blazing ship left the shore, will full sail set. And then darkness swallowed it, and Baldur had gone.

Throughout this time, Hermod had been travelling at great speed towards Hel. He rode for nine days and nine nights, and never took a moment to sleep. He galloped on and on, bribing the watchman of each gate to let him past, and invoking the name of Baldur as the reason for his journey. At last, he reached the hall of Hel, where he found Baldur sitting easily with Nanna, in great comfort and looking quite content. Hel stood by his side, keeping a close watch on her newest visitor. She looked up at Hermod with disdain, for everyone knew that once a spirit had reached Hel it could not be released. But Hermod fell on one knee and begged the icy mistress to reconsider her hold over Baldur.

‘Please, Queen Hel, without Baldur we cannot survive. There can be no future for Asgard without his presence,’ he cried.

But Hel would not be moved. She held out for three days and three nights, while Hermod stayed right by her side, begging and pleading and offering every conceivable reason why Baldur should be released. And finally the Queen of darkness gave in.

‘Return at once to Asgard,’ she said harshly, ‘and if what you say is true, if everything – living and inanimate – in Asgard loves Baldur and cannot live without him, then he will be released. But if there is even one dissenter, if there is even one stone in your land who does not mourn the passing of Baldur, then he shall remain here with me.’

Hermod was gladdened by this news, for he knew that everyone – including Hodur who had sent the fatal arrow flying through the air – loved Baldur. He agreed to these terms at once, and set off for Asgard, relaying himself and his news with speed that astonished all who saw him arrive.

Immediately, Odin sent messengers to all corners of the universe, asking for tears to be shed for Baldur. And as they travelled, everyone and everything began to weep, until a torrent of water rushed across the tree of life. And after everyone had been approached, and each had shed his tears, the messengers made their way back to Odin’s palace with glee. Baldur would be released, there could be no doubt!

But it was not to be, for as the last messenger travelled back to the palace, he noticed the form of an old beggar, hidden in the darkness of a cave. He approached her then, and bid her to cry for Baldur, but she did not. Her eyes remained dry. The uproar was carried across to the palace, and Odin himself came to see ‘dry eyes’, whose inability to shed tears would cost him the life of his son. He stared into those eyes and he saw then what the messenger had failed to see, what Frigga had failed to see, and what had truly caused the death of Baldur. For those eyes belonged to none other than Loki, and it was he who had murdered Baldur as surely as if the arrow had left his own hands.

The sacred code of Asgard had been broken, for blood had been spilled by one of their own, in their own land. The end of the world was nigh – but first, Loki would be punished once and for all.

The next story tells of Ragnarok

The first Norse Myth is Creation

The second Norse Myth is Odin and Frigga

And the third tells of the Valkyrie

The fourth Myth tells how Thor Gained his Hammer.

The fifth tale is about Loki

The Sixth focuses on the God Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost

The Seventh myth covers the story of the Tyr and the Sword of Destiny

The Eighth story tells of The Volsungs

Part of a series on world myths and legends, released through Libsyn, on These Fantastic Worlds SF & Fantasy Fiction Podcast on iTunes, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Vurbl and Stitcher and more. Also on this blog, These Fantastic Worlds. RSS feeds available on request by email.

Text based on Norse Myths, General Editor Jake Jackson. Copyright © 2014 Flame Tree Publishing Ltd. ISBN: 9780857758200. This and other books on African, Indian, Polynesian, Aztec, Greek, Celtic and mythology are available online at flametreepublishing.com and in store worldwide, including Amazon, BookDepository, Barnes and Noble, Indigo, Blackwells and Waterstones.

Online production, images and audio © 2022 Jake Jackson, thesefantasticworlds.com. Thanks to Frances Bodiam and Elise Wells, Logic ProX, Sound Studio, the Twisted Wave Recorder App, and Scrivener.

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