THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE
How Balder, the good and beautiful god, was done to death by a stroke of the mistletoe
A deity whose life might in a sense be said to be neither in heaven nor on earth but between the two, was the Norse Balder, the good and beautiful god, the son of the great god Odin, and himself the wisest, mildest, best beloved of all the immortals. The story of his death, as it is told in the younger or prose “Edda”, runs thus. Once on a time Balder dreamed heavy dreams which seemed to forebode his death.
Thereupon the gods held a council and resolved to make him secure against every danger. So the goddess Frigg took an oath from fire and water, iron and all metals, stones and earth, from trees, sicknesses and poisons, and from all four-footed beasts, birds, and creeping things, that they would not hurt Balder. When this was done Balder was deemed invulnerable; so the gods amused themselves by setting him in their midst, while some shot at him, others hewed at him, and others threw stones at him. But whatever they did, nothing could hurt him; and at this they were all glad. Only Loki, the mischief-maker, was displeased, and he went in the guise of an old woman to Frigg, who told him that the weapons of the gods could not wound Balder, since she had made them all swear not to hurt him. Then Loki asked, “Have all things sworn to spare Balder?” She answered, “East of Walhalla grows a plant called mistletoe; it seemed to me too young to swear.” So Loki went and pulled the mistletoe and took it to the assembly of the gods. There he found the blind god Hother standing at the outside of the circle. Loki asked him, “Why do you not shoot at Balder?” Hother answered, “Because I do not see where he stands; besides I have no weapon.” Then said Loki, “Do like the rest and shew Balder honour, as they all do. I will shew you where he stands, and do you shoot at him with this twig.” Hother took the mistletoe and threw it at Balder, as Loki directed him. The mistletoe struck Balder and pierced him through and through, and he fell down dead. And that was the greatest misfortune that ever befell gods and men. For a while the gods stood speechless, then they lifted up their voices and wept bitterly. They took Balder’s body and brought it to the sea-shore. There stood Balder’s ship; it was called Ringhorn, and was the hugest of all ships. The gods wished to launch the ship and to burn Balder’s body on it, but the ship would not stir. So they sent for a giantess called Hyrrockin. She came riding on a wolf and gave the ship such a push that fire flashed from the rollers and all the earth shook.
Then Balder’s body was taken and placed on the funeral pile upon his ship. When his wife Nanna saw that, her heart burst for sorrow and she died. So she was laid on the funeral pile with her husband, and fire was put to it. Balder’s horse, too, with all its trappings, was burned on the pile.
Tale of Balder in the older “Edda”
In the older or poetic “Edda” the tragic tale of Balder is hinted at rather than told at length. Among the visions which the Norse Sibyl sees and describes in the weird prophecy known as the “Voluspa” is one of the fatal mistletoe. “I behold,” says she, “Fate looming for Balder, Woden’s son, the bloody victim. There stands the Mistletoe slender and delicate, blooming high above the ground. Out of this shoot, so slender to look on, there shall grow a harmful fateful shaft. Hod shall shoot it, but Frigga in Fen-hall shall weep over the woe of Wal-hall.” Yet looking far into the future the Sibyl sees a brighter vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where the fields unsown shall yield their increase and all sorrows shall be healed; then Balder will come back to dwell in Odin’s mansions of bliss, in a hall brighter than the sun, shingled with gold, where the righteous shall live in joy for ever more
The story of Balder as related by Saxo Grammaticus
Writing about the end of the twelfth century, the old Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of Balder in a form which professes to be historical. According to him, Balder and Hother were rival suitors for the hand of Nanna, daughter of Gewar, King of Norway. Now Balder was a demigod and common steel could not wound his sacred body. The two rivals encountered each other in a terrific battle, and though Odin and Thor and the rest of the gods fought for Balder, yet was he defeated and fled away, and Hother married the princess. Nevertheless Balder took heart of grace and again met Hother in a stricken field. But he fared even worse than before; for Hother dealt him a deadly wound with a magic sword, which he had received from Miming, the Satyr of the woods; and after lingering three days in pain Balder died of his hurt and was buried with royal honours in a barrow.
Balder worshipped in Norway
Whether he was a real or merely a mythical personage, Balder was worshipped in Norway. On one of the bays of the beautiful Sogne Fiord, which penetrates far into the depths of the solemn Norwegian mountains, with their sombre pine-forests and their lofty cascades dissolving into spray before they reach the dark water of the fiord far below, Balder had a great sanctuary. It was called Balder’s Grove. A palisade enclosed the hallowed ground, and within it stood a spacious temple with the images of many gods, but none of them was worshipped with such devotion as Balder. So great was the awe with which the heathen regarded the place that no man might harm another there, nor steal his cattle, nor defile himself with women. But women cared for the images of the gods in the temple; they warmed them at the fire, anointed them with oil, and dried them with cloths.
TITLE: BALDER THE BEAUTIFUL
BY: SIR James George (J.G.) FRAZER, D.C.L., LL.D., Litt.D.