The Death of Balder
Balder was having terrible dreams and the other Guardians knew that his life was in danger. They sought to protect him and considered all the different ways in which one can die, naming them the earth-thing, the sea-thing and the sky-thing. Then Balder’s mother, Frigg, travelled through the worlds to get each and every substance to swear an oath that it would not harm Balder.
Fire swore an oath. Water swore an oath. Iron and every other kind of metal swore an oath. The stones swore oaths. The trees swore oaths. Each kind of illness swore an oath. All the animals swore an oath. Balder’s mother was untiring and persuading.
When they were satisfied that nothing in creation would harm Balder, the Guardians put it to the test. One of them picked up a pebble and through it at Balder’s head. Although it hit him squarely, he felt nothing. The Guardians laughed. Later they decided to put it to the test again. One tossed a pebble at him and it struck him on the cheekbone; another aimed a stick at him and hit him on the chest. “I could not feel them at all,” said Balder. The Guardians laughed again and tried other tests. One thing led to another and soon they became very bold. They made Balder stand against a wall as a target. Some threw darts with wicked points at him and the darts bounced off him and fell at his feet. Some brought in stones and hurled them at him. The rest struck at him with axes and slashed at him with swords and the tempered metal would not scathe Balder, it would not even graze him. Everyone present enjoyed this new game hugely and they all rejoiced that it was impossible to hurt him.
All except Loki, who watched with distaste and impatience. He revelled in trouble and suffering and was disheartened that Balder was immune from every kind of attack. One afternoon, Loki was watching the assembly, when an idea occurred to him. He half closed his eyes, licked his twisted lips and smiled. Unnoticed, he stepped out of the hubbub and quickly walked away turning himself into an old woman.
As Loki hoped, Frigg was in her hall and alone. The old woman hobbled across the floor; sniffed, wiped her dripping nose with the back of her hand and rubbed it against her grubby dark dress. “Where am I?” she demanded. Frigg rose, greeted the old woman, and named herself. “It’s a long way from home,” said the old woman. “And I’m not sure it’s been worth coming.”
Frigg listened patiently. “I passed a place some way back. What a noise! I couldn’t get anyone to listen. And the people there were all stoning one man. Poor man! He had a white face, so white … shining hair. One against all, yes; I didn’t know that sort of thing went on in Asgard.”
Frigg smiled faintly and waited for the old woman to finish. “I didn’t stay long. I never did like stonings. Who would have thought it? So far to have come, and then it’s much the same. He hadn’t got long., poor man. He’ll be dead by now, yes.” As the old woman rambled on, it seemed she had quite forgotten she was in company. But then she stared fiercely and glared at Frigg. “What was going on then? Do you know why they were stoning him?”
Frigg told the old woman that what she had seen was not a stoning but a host of gods and goddesses sporting with her own son. She explained that Balder had not been hurt by a single stone and was just as ready take part as anyone else. “Nothing will hurt Balder. No metal will harm him, no wood will wound him. I’ve taken an oath from everything.”
“Everything?” said the old woman. “Even a pinch of salt, I suppose?” Frigg began to feel irritated with this wearisome crone. She shrugged as if she were trying to get rid of her. “Everything?” The old woman sniffed. “You really mean that everything has sworn you an oath that it will not injure Balder?” “Everything,” said Frigg dismissively, “except the little bush that grows west of Valhalla, the mistletoe. That’s so young I didn’t bother with it.”
The old woman grunted. “Well you’ve given me the time of day,” she said. “You’ve given me the time of day, yes; now I’ll be getting along.
Frigg inclined her head. The old woman turned and painfully made her way. And Frigg was not in the least sorry to see her go.
As soon as he was quite certain he was alone, Loki resumed his old form. He knew what he wanted to do and made his way to the small grove where he found the mistletoe. Its berries gleamed like clusters of pale eyes. Its leaves were green and yellow-green, its stem and small branches and twigs were green. Loki grabbed at the little bush and wrenched at it until it came away from the oak. Then he made his way back to the Halls of Gladsham, picking out the straightest branch of the mistletoe and sharpened one end of it.
The gathering in Gladsham was so engrossed in the game they playing that no one noticed Loki leave. He smiled when he that Frigg had joined the company and that blind Hod, Balder’s brother, was standing a little aside. He sidled up to Hod and poked him in the ribs. “That can only be Loki,” said Hod. “None other,” said a voice in his ear. “Well?” said Hod. “Why don’t you join in? Why aren’t you throwing darts at your brother?” “Because I can’t see where he is,” said Hod. “And I have no weapon.”
“Then take this twig,” said Loki, and he put the sharpened mistletoe between Hod’s hands. “I’ll show you where he’s standing. I’ll stand behind you and guide your hand.” Hod grasped the mistletoe and lifted his right arm. Guided by Loki, he aimed the dart at his brother Balder. The mistletoe flew through the hall and it struck Balder. It pierced him and passed right through him. Balder fell on his face. He was dead.
There was no sound in Gladsham, only the roaring silence. The Guardians could not speak. They looked at the fairest and most wise of them all, shining and lifeless, and they could not even move from where they stood to lift him. They stared at each other and then they turned to stare at Hod and Loki. They had no doubt. They were all of one mind about who had caused Balder’s death and yet none of them were able to take vengeance. The ground of Gladsham was hallowed and no one was ready to shed blood in the sanctuary.
Hod could not see the fearsome gaze of that gathering. Loki slunk away into the darkness. Then the terrible silence was broken. A Guardian began to weep, seized by wild grief. And the weeping of one unlocked the floodgates of them all. When they tried to speak, their words were choked with tears. Woden himself was there and, of all the Guardians, he was the most deeply affected. He best understood that this was the greatest evil ever sustained and foresaw what loss and sorrow would follow in the wake of his son’s death.
Frigg was the first to speak. Is there anyone here who will ride the long road to Hel and try to find Balder?” The Guardians sobbed. “Is there anyone here,” said Frigg, her voice rising, “who will offer Hel a ransom, to let my son come home to Esegeard again?”
Hermod stepped forward, Woden’s son whom everyone admired for his boldness. “I will,” he said. “I am ready to go.” Odin gave servants orders. They hurried out of the hall and soon returned with Sleipnir, Woden’s own horse. Woden took the reins and handed them to Hermod. Then, Hermod mounted Sleipnir. He looked down at the upturned faces of the Guardians and at the fair fallen body of Balder. He raised his hand and spurred the steed; Sleipnir’s hooves clattered against the marble floor. Hermod galloped out into the darkness and on towards the endless night.
The Guardians stood watch in a silent vigil over Balder’s body, so white that it was gleaming. Each was thinking what chance Hermod had of bringing Balder back from the dead, how to avenge Balder’s death on his own unhappy brother Hod and what kind of punishment would be meted out on Loki. Day began to dawn, a lightening in the east at first mysterious, then quickly gathering speed and spreading in every direction. Then with aching hearts, four of the Guardians lifted Balder’s body on to their shoulders and they carried him down to the sea and laid his corpse near Ringhorn, his own great boat with its curved prow.
The Guardians wanted to build Balder’s pyre in the boat, up against the mast. They took hold of the stern and tried to launch the boat, but their grief had so exhausted them that they could not summon up the strength to shift it. So they sent a messenger speeding to Jotunheim to ask for the help of the giantess Hyrrokin. A great crowd out of Esegeard sat near the water, watching the waves. They were pensive and subdued, none of them so strong that he could comfort the others.
In a while Hyrrokin came. She was huge and grim, riding a wolf with vipers for reins. As soon as she leaped off her steed, Woden summoned four Beserker warriors and told them to watch over the wolf and the vipers and ensure they caused no harm. The very sight of the four men in their animal skins angered the wolf; its eyes flickered and it snarled. The Berserks seized the viper-reins, but they were unable to hold the wolf fast. First it dragged them one way, then another, slithering helplessly through the sand, as it tried to break free. Then the Berserks became as mad as wolves themselves and in fury they rained blows on the wolf with their club-like fists. They struck it down and left it for dead in the sand.
Hyrrokin, meanwhile, stalked up to Ringhorn. She looked at the boat, so large and yet so sweeping and graceful, and gripped the prow. Then she dug in her heels and with a horrible grunt she pulled, pulled so hard that Ringhorn raced screaming down the rollers and crashed into the water. The pine rollers burst into flames and the worlds trembled.
“Enough!” shouted Thor. His fingers closed round his hammer and he felt his old strength surging back into him. Hyrrokin looked at Thor scornfully. “Enough!” repeated Thor. “I’ll teach you respect.” But Woden and several others hurried to Thor’s side and restrained him. They took his arm and reminded him, “she is here at our bidding,”
“I’ll crack her skull,” muttered Thor. “It would be wrong to injure her,” said the Guardians. “Leave her. Ignore her.” And slowly Thor’s volcanic anger subsided. He kicked at the sand, causing a sandstorm, and walked up and down.
Then the four Guardians who had carried Balder’s body down to the sea gently raised it again and waded out to Ringhorn, rocking on the water. They set down his spotless body on a high bench, covered in crimson cloth. Balder’s wife, Nanna, was watching. And when she saw Balder lying there lifeless, her body shook; she could not control it. She was tearless, in too much pain for tears now. Then Nanna’s heart broke. The daughter of Nep died there and she was carried out to Ringhorn and laid beside her dead husband.
The cortège had swollen to a vast gathering. Woden was there his ravens, Mind and Memory, perched on his shoulders. Frigg accompanied him and so did the Walkyries, all those beautiful maidens, choosers of the slain, stood grouped around the Father of Battle.
Freyr had come to the cremation in his chariot drawn by Guilinbursti, the gold-bristled boar fashioned for him by the dwarfs Brokk and Eitri. Heimdall had ridden out of Asgard on his mount Gold Tuft. And Freyja sat in her chariot drawn by cats.
The Elfs were there. The Dwarfs were there. And hundreds of frost giants and rock giants stood there too, a great gang who had followed Hyrrokin out of Jotunheim. That was a vast concourse, a mingling of mourners and the merely curious on the foreshore, scuffing the strip of sand that never wholly belongs to earth or to sea. The seabirds rose and wheeled and dipped, screaming, the sea sobbed, and everyone there watched the ritual on Ringhorn.
A pyre was built round the body of Balder and his wife Nanna, dry faggots that needed nothing more than a spark to leap into their own life and consume the lifeless bodies that lay upon them, releasing their spirits to travel on. Many treasures were laid within Ringhorn, buckles, brooches and rings, clasps and pins as well as knives, buckets, scissors, spindles, spades and all the fabric of life.
Balder’s horse, meanwhile, was galloped along the foreshore and worked into a steaming sweat. Then a servant plunged a short dagger into its throat. It gave a violent jerk and, without a sound, crumpled to the ground. No sooner was it dead than its body was hacked up, and the pieces were thrown into Ringhorn.
Now Woden strode through the shallows, climbed into the boat and stood over the body of his dead son. For some time he gazed at him. Slowly he took off his arm-ring Draupnir, the gold ring that dropped eight rings of equal value on every ninth night, and slipped it on to Balder’s arm. Then he bent down and put his mouth to Balder’s ear. Again he gazed at his son; then he left Ringhorn.
At a sign from Woden, a servant stepped forward with a lighted brand. He set fire to the pyre and at once a steady plume of smoke, twisting and spiralling, rose into the calm air. Thor raised his hammer. Slowly and solemnly he intoned the magic words to hallow the cremation.
Then a dwarf called Lit, who had lost all interest in the proceedings, came running along the water’s edge. He passed right in front of Thor and Thor was so enraged that he put out a foot and tripped him. Before Lit had time to pick himself up, Thor gave him a terrible kick. The dwarf flew through the air and landed right on the licking and curdling pyre. In this way, he was burned to death beside Balder.
The Guardians wept as the boat began to drift out, rocking, across the water. They wept and they talked about Balder; the most beautiful, the most gentle, the most wise of them all. Ringhorn rode across the water. Sea winds caught at her and tugged her away. First she was more boat than flame, but soon more flame than boat. She was a quivering shape, a farewell on the horizon, moving on under a great cloud of her own making.
For nine nights Hermod rode through a valley so deep and dark that he was unable to see anything. The ground fell away from him and the cold fingers of the underworld began to reach up towards him and search him. He crossed many rivers, all of which spring from the seething cauldron of Hvergelmir. Cool Svol and defiant Gunnthra. Fjorm and bubbling Fimbulthul, fearsome Slid and storming Hrid, Sylg, Ylg, broad Vid and Leipt which streaked past like lightning. At last Hermod came to the icy river Gjoll, a swirling torrent of water. Sleipnir needed no spurring. He galloped across the bridge there; it was thatched with strips of gold.
On the far side, Hermod was stopped by the maiden Modgud, warden of the bridge. She raised one pale arm and it gleamed with an unearthly pallor. “Before you go further,” she said, “tell me your name and your lineage.” Hermod kept quiet. “Five troops of dead men came this way yesterday,” said Modgud. “they rode over this bridge. But you make as much noise as they all made together.”
Still Hermod said nothing. “I can’t say you look like a man who has died,” said Modgud. “Who are you?” “I am Hermod and I am Woden’s son. I must ride to Hel in search of my dead brother, Balder. Have you seen him yourself on his way there?”
“He has crossed this river,” Modgud replied. “He rode over this bridge. But the way to Hel is no short way; far as you have come, it is still a little further northwards and downwards.” Hermod thanked Modgud and she stepped aside. Then Sleipnir saw the way before him: horse and rider galloped onward. So at last Hermod came to the massive gates and towering walls that Hel had set up in front of her hall Eljudnir.
Sleipnir stopped in his tracks and whinnied.
Hermod dismounted and looked around in the dismal light. The gates were locked; impassable, it seemed, for all those not fated to pass on to dreadful Nastrond, the shore of corpses. Hermod tightened his stirrups. He swung himself into the saddle and spurred Sleipnir fiercely.
Woden’s steed galloped at the gates. For a moment he seemed to pause, then he gave a great thrust with his back legs and leaped clear of the iron gates.
Hermod dismounted and walked straight into the cavernous hall. Faces without number turned towards him; the faces of the newly dead, faces green and rotting, faces less flesh than bone; faces pitiful, unanswered, resigned, many scowling or leering or treacherous or murderous and in agony. All of them with eyes only for Hermod. But Hermod saw only the fair figure sitting in the high seat: his brother Balder. For Balder’s sake, Hermod stayed all night in the hall. He sat by the door and kept his own counsel, silent in that company of the dead who could not speak unless he spoke to them; he waited for Hel.
Hel’s face and body were those of a living woman; but her thighs and legs were those of a corpse, mottled and mouldering. She crept towards Hermod, looking gloomy and grim. Hermod greeted Hel and told her of the grief of the Guadians. He said all Esegeard was caught in a storm of sorrow. He wove his words with care and love and asked Hel if she would agree to let Balder ride home with him. Hel thought for a while and her expression did not change. “I’m not so sure,” she said at last, “that Balder is as much loved as people say.”
She waited for Hermod to reply, but he said nothing. “However,” said Hel, it can be put to the test.” She spoke slowly. “If everything in the nine worlds, dead and alive, weeps for Balder,” Hel declared, “let him return to Esegeard. But if anything demurs, if even one thing will not weep, Balder must remain in Niflheim.” And with these words Hel slowly turned away from Hermod.
Then Balder stood up and Nanna rose from the shades and stood beside him. They walked the length of the hall, passing between the benches of corpses and Balder’s face was white and shining. Balder and Nanna came up to Hermod and greeted him and led him out of Hel’s halls. Then Balder took off the arm-ring Draupnir that Woden had fixed on him when he was lying lifeless on Ringhorn and he put It into Hermod’s hands. He said, “Give this to my father in remembrance of me.” And Nanna offered Hermod linen for a head-dress and other gifts. “These are for Frigg,” she said. “And this is for Fulla.” She handed Hermod a gold ring. Hermod took leave of Balder and Nanna. He mounted Sleipnir and rode without rest until he reached Esegeard. And there, in Gladsheim, he told the Guardians all he had seen and all that had been said to him.
The Ese sent messengers to every corner of the nine worlds. And all that they asked was that dead Balder should be wept out of Hel. As each substance had sworn an oath before that it would not harm Balder, each substance now wept. Fire wept, iron and every other metal wept, the stones wept, earth wept, the trees wept, every kind of illness wept, all the animals wept, all the birds wept, every kind of poisonous plant wept and so did every sidling snake.
The messengers were making their way back to Esegeard and felt they had overlooked nothing. Then they came across a giantess sitting in a cave. “What is your name?” asked one. “Thokk,” said the giantess. Then the messengers explained their mission and asked Thokk to weep as all things had wept, weep Balder out of Hel. The giantess glowered at the messengers and then she answered sourly, “Thokk will weep dry tears over Balder’s funeral. I never cared for the Old Man’s son, alive or dead. I have no use for him. Let Hel hold what she has.”
Despite the messengers’ prayers and entreaties, Thokk refused to say another word. She would not recant, she would not weep. Then the messengers left her and mournfully crossed Bifrost. What they had to say was clear from the manner of their coming. The Guardians ached; they felt old and confused and weary. And not one of them doubted that Thokk, the giantess in the cave, was also Loki.