By August Hunt
“Much have I traveled, much have I tried,
much have I tested the powers:
what did Odin himself say into the ear of his son
before he mounted the pyre?”
Vafthrudnismal 54, ELDER OR POETIC EDDA
Is this famous riddle utterly unanswerable?
Let’s find out! Certainly, there is much about Balder’s death and funeral that does not have to remain mysterious. Mythopoeic symbolism abounds, of course, but certain clues found here and there help us decode most of the meanings embedded in this tragic story.
To begin, it is necessary to quote the entire episode. The following is from Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur’s and Anthony Faulkes’s translation of Gylfaginning 49 in Snorri Sturluson’s PROSE EDDA:
Then spake Gangleri: “Have any more matters of note befallen among the Æsir? A very great deed of valor did Thor achieve on that journey.” Hárr [Odin] made answer: “Now shall be told of those tidings which seemed of more consequence to the Æsir. The beginning of the story is this, that Baldr the Good dreamed great and perilous dreams touching his life. When he told these dreams to the Æsir, then they took counsel together: and this was their decision: to ask safety for Baldr from all kinds of dangers. And Frigg took oaths to this purport, that fire and water should spare Baldr, likewise iron and metal of all kinds, stones, earth, trees, sicknesses, beasts, birds, venom, serpents. And when that was done and made known, then it was a diversion of Baldr’s and the Æsir, that he should stand up in the Thing [legislative assembly] and all the others should come shoot at him, some hew at him, some beat him with stones; but whatsoever was done hurt him not at all, and that seemed to them all a very worshipful thing.
“But when Loki Laufeyarson saw this, it pleased him ill that Baldr took no hurt. He went to Fensalir to Frigg, and made himself into the likeness of a woman. Then Frigg asked if that woman knew what the Æsir did at the Thing. She said that all were shooting at Baldr, and moreover, that he took no hurt. Then said Frigg: ‘Neither weapons nor trees may hurt Baldr: I have taken oaths of them all.’ Then the woman asked: ‘Have all things taken oaths to spare Baldr?’ and Frigg answered: ‘There grows a tree-sprout alone westward of Valhall: it is called Mistletoe; I thought it too young to ask the oath of.’ Then straightway the woman turned away; but Loki took Mistletoe and pulled it up and went to the Thing.
“Hödr stood outside the ring of men, because he was blind. Then spake Loki to him: ‘Why dost thou not shoot at Baldr?’ He answered: ‘Because I see not where Baldr is; and for this also, that I am weaponless.’ Then said Loki: ‘Do thou also after the manner of other men, and show Baldr honor as the other men do. I will direct thee where he stands; shoot at him with this wand.’ Hödr took Mistletoe and shot at Baldr, being guided by Loki: the shaft flew through Baldr, and he fell dead to the earth; and that was the greatest mischance that has ever befallen among gods and men.
“Then, when Baldr was fallen, words failed all the, Æsir, and their hands likewise to lay hold of him; each looked at the other, and all were of one mind as to him who had wrought the work, but none might take vengeance, so great a sanctuary was in that place. But when the Æsir tried to speak, then it befell first that weeping broke out, so that none might speak to the others with words concerning his grief. But Odin bore that misfortune by so much the worst, as he had most perception of how great harm and loss for the Æsir were in the death of Baldr.
“Now when the gods had come to themselves, Frigg spake, and asked who there might be among the Æsir who would fain have for his own all her love and favor: let him ride the road to Hel, and seek if he may find Baldr, and offer Hel a ransom if she will let Baldr come home to Ásgard. And he is named Hermódr the Bold, Odin’s son, who undertook that embassy. Then Sleipnir was taken, Odin’s steed, and led forward; and Hermódr mounted on that horse and galloped off.
“The Æsir took the body of Baldr and brought it to the sea. Hringhorni is the name of Baldr’s ship: it was greatest of all ships; the gods would have launched it and made Baldr’s pyre thereon, but the ship stirred not forward. Then word was sent to Jötunheim after that giantess who is called Hyrrokkin. When she had come, riding a wolf and having a viper for bridle, then she leaped off the steed; and Odin called to four berserks to tend the steed; but they were not able to hold it until they had felled it. Then Hyrrokkin went to the prow of the boat and thrust it out at the first push, so that fire burst from the rollers, and all lands trembled. Thor became angry and clutched his hammer, and would straightway have broken her head, had not the gods prayed for peace for her.
“Then was the body of Baldr borne out on shipboard; and when his wife, Nanna the daughter of Nep, saw that, straightway her heart burst with grief, and she died; she was borne to the pyre, and fire was kindled. Then Thor stood by and hallowed the pyre with Mjöllnir; and before his feet ran a certain dwarf which was named Litr; Thor kicked at him with his foot and thrust him into the fire, and he burned. People of many races visited this burning: First is to be told of Odin, how Frigg and the Valkyrs went with him, and his ravens; but Freyr drove in his chariot with the boar called Gold-Mane, or Fearful-Tusk, and Heimdallr rode the horse called Gold-Top, and Freyja drove her cats. Thither came also much people of the Rime-Giants and the Hill-Giants. Odin laid on the pyre that gold ring which is called Draupnir; this quality attended it, that every ninth night there dropped from it eight gold rings of equal weight. Baldr’s horse was led to the bale-fire with all his trappings.
“Now this is to be told concerning Hermódr, that he rode nine nights through dark dales and deep, so that he saw not before he was come to the river Gjöll and rode onto the Gjöll-Bridge; which bridge is thatched with glittering gold. Módgudr is the maiden called who guards the bridge; she asked him his name and race, saying that the day before there had ridden over the bridge five companies of dead men; but the bridge thunders no less under thee alone, and thou hast not the color of dead men. Why ridest thou hither on Hel-way?’ He answered: ‘I am appointed to ride to Hel to seek out Baldr. Hast thou perchance seen Baldr on Hel-way?’ She said that Baldr had ridden there over Gjöll’s Bridge,—‘but down and north lieth Hel-way.’
‘Then Hermódr rode on till he came to Hel-gate; he dismounted from his steed and made his girths fast, mounted and pricked him with his spurs; and the steed leaped so hard over the gate that he came nowise near to it. Then Hermódr rode home to the hall and dismounted from his steed, went into the hall, and saw sitting there in the high-seat Baldr, his brother; and Hermódr tarried there overnight. At morn Hermódr prayed Hel that Baldr might ride home with him, and told her how great weeping was among the Æsir. But Hel said that in this wise it should be put to the test, whether Baldr were so all-beloved as had been said: ‘If all things in the world, quick and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Æsir; but he shall remain with Hel if any gainsay it or will not weep.’ Then Hermódr arose; but Baldr led him out of the hall, and took the ring Draupnir and sent it to Odin for a remembrance. And Nanna sent Frigg a linen smock, and yet more gifts, and to Fulla a golden finger-ring.
“Then Hermódr rode his way back, and came into Ásgard, and told all those tidings which he had seen and heard. Thereupon the Æsir sent over all the world messengers to pray that Baldr be wept out of Hel; and all men did this, and quick things, and the earth, and stones, and trees, and all metals,—even as thou must have seen that these things weep when they come out of frost and into the heat. Then, when the messengers went home, having well wrought their errand, they found, in a certain cave, where a giantess sat: she called herself Thökk. They prayed her to weep Baldr out of Hel; she answered:
Thökk will weep | waterless tears
For Baldr’s bale-fare;
Living or dead, | I loved not the churl’s son;
[better yet, the old man’s son gave me no joy, as in Orchard, or no good got I from the old one’s son, as in Faulkes]
Let Hel hold to that she hath!
And men deem that she who was there was Loki Laufeyarson, who hath wrought most ill among the Æsir.”
First, although Balder has been referred to as a sort of pagan Christ by notable scholars (compare, for example, his being pierced by the blind Hod and Christ’s being subjected to the same form of death by the blind Longinus), there is little doubt that he was, in fact, a sun god. The best proof of this comes from the the motif of the weeping of the earth “when they come out of frost and into the heat.” This heat is, of course, produced by the sun.
Draupnir, Odin’s self-replicating golden ring, is itself a sun symbol, and it is noteworthy that while we are told Balder does not return from the underworld, Draupnir does. The imprisonment of Balder, then, is yet another instance of the death of the sun god of the summer half-year who will not be reborn until winter has passed. The sun that returns in the guise of Draupnir is his twin, rising into the winter sky to begin his half-year reign.
Hod is the Blind God, and this is a metaphorical way of saying he is an aspect of Odin, who is variously blind in one eye (because he gave us his sun-eye in pledge to Mimir for a drink at the sea-well) or actually called Tviblindi, “Blind in Both Eyes”. The mistletoe is a lightning-weapon, a spear (or, in Saxo, a sword) version of Thor’s hammer Mjollnir.
The funeral ship is subjected to a triple lighting ritual. First to set fire to it is the giantess Hyrokkin, whose wolf steed with snakes as reins proves her to be the lunar valkyrie. There is then a general lighting, followed by Thor’s “blessing” of the ship with his hammer. The dwarf Lit has confused students of Norse myth, as his name literally means ‘the hued or colored one’. However, the word litr has another meaning in Old Norse, as evinced in the entry from the Cleasby-Vigfusson Dictionary:
Litr 2. special usage, of day-break, the first dawn when the light changes; en er þeir kómu upp á heiðina kenndu þeir at lit brá, they saw the day-break, Sturl. iii. 217; vísaði hann þeim leið, tók þá at kenna annars litar (viz. in the morning), 171; ok í annan lit (the second colour, viz. the changing from dark to light in the early morning, the ‘blush of morn’) fór hann at sjá veiðiskap þeirra, Þorf. Karl. 396; en at öðrum lit dags, Orkn. 196; litu er lýsti (when the light brightened, impers.) létusk þeir fúsir allir upp risa, Am. 28; cp. 63, where the true reading may be, — dó þá dýrir, dags var heldr snemma | ‘litu er lysti’ … (MS. letu þeir alesti).
So if Lit the dwarf (found as a giant name in a skaldic poem) represents the color/light of dawn, what does his burning and dying signify? Our first assumption would be that Balder’s ship Hringhorni (“Ring-horn” or Ring-prow; compare the beautiful spiral prow of the Gokstad ship) was itself a solar vessel and the ‘fire’ of the funeral had the color or litr of dawn. If so, this would be in direct contradistinction to the theory I’ve proposed elsewhere in this book, i.e. that the Viking dragon ship of the cremation funeral was a lunar vessel.
Rudolf Simek (in his entry for Hringhorni in DICTIONARY OF NORTHERN MYTHOLOGY) associates Balder’s ship with so-called sun ships found as Bronze Age rock carvings in Scandinavia. In THE SUN GODS OF ANCIENT EUROPE, Miranda Green says
“One of the most repeated composite motifs on north European rock-art consists of the ship and the sun-disc, and the association between these two images on Bronze Age metalwork springs immediately to mind. Wheel-like suns appear above or beneath ships, or they are attached to vessels in some manner… The sun-disc may be beneath the ship, as if reversing the image on bronze vessels, where the ship carries the sun. Often the solar motif ois actually attached to the boat in some manner: the disc may be on a stand or stalk which rises from the hull of the ship, or attached to the gunwale of the vessel. At Bjornstad in southern Norway are three ship-carvings, the largest boat being over 4 m long; this ship has a sun-disc attached to the prow [emphasis mine], as if being pulled along by the sun’s power… The ship is the commonest associate of the sun-disc in Scandinavia.”
However, we must be careful here. I have maintained that it is the dead sun god who is taken to the underworld on the lunar boat. This makes sense of the activities of dragons haunting barrows (e.g. the Beowulf monster or Nidhogg). If the sun is killed seasonally and also represents its own solar funeral ship, then it is conceivable that Balder’s Hringhorni could have been launched at dawn (= Lit) and carried him across the sky to set into the earth at dusk, where Hel was localized. But this is at odds with the natural notion that the sun dies as it sets into the earth – NOT when it rises at dawn. Dawn is the time of rebirth, not funerals. Thus the death of Lit may represent instead the ‘death of dawn’, quite literally, in that because Balder the sun god was now dead there would be no dawn. We can point to the presence of the moon goddess at the ship in the person of Hyrokkin. I do not believe it is a coincidence that she is the one who launches the vessel.
Loki’s role in this myth, as usual, is complex. In another chapter I’ve shown him to be a sky god and a hypostasis of Odin. Here he not only acts as the facilitator of Hod’s (= Odin’s) slaying of Balder, but also prevents the god from being wept out of Hel. Of course, we cannot be at all certain that in the original myth Thokk (‘pleasure, liking’) the giantess really was Loki. Snorri’s claim to this effect is ambiguous. The fact that she is represented as being in a cave – where the sun’s rays would presumably not penetrate, and so could not cause her to “thaw” tears – points instead to Hel herself, Loki’s daughter.
As punishment for his role in the death and underworld imprisonment of Balder, Loki is taken to a cave and bound on three lunar stones. This alone may have led to the belief that Thokk was the shape-shifter/sex-changer Loki. But it would be more in keeping with the tone of the story if Hel herself – the one who offered to release the bright god on the condition that everything on earth weep for him – were the only thing/person who refused to do so. Indeed, it would be most ironic if Thokk were Hel, as the latter’s statement about obtaining no joy from Balder alive OR dead would then make perfect sense.
As a final note, I would remark that the burning of Balder’s wife Nanna with him on the boat points to the practice of suttee. This practice is known historically from the Rus ship cremation recorded by the Arab writer Ibn Fadlan, where a slave girl was chosen to accompany her master to Valholl.
So in conclusion, what did All-father whisper in his son’s ear? I imagine it was something like this:
“Sorry for killing you son, but it was necessary. Someday you will understand. And don’t worry… you only have to stay dead for half a year. After that, you’ll be your usual sunny self again. Of course, we do have to worry about Ragnarok sooner or later. But I’ll leave that for another time. I know this is difficult and there’s no sense making it more unpleasant than it has to be. Fare voyage and see you in six months!”