All religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher. — Lucretius

Book of Myths - Jeanie Lang




The Death of Baldur

"I heard a voice, that cried,

'Baldur the Beautiful

Is dead, is dead!'

And through the misty air

Passed like the mournful cry

Of sunward sailing cranes."

—Longfellow.

Among the gods of Greece we find gods and goddesses who do unworthy deeds, but none to act the permanent part of villain of the play. In the mythology of the Norsemen we have a god who is wholly treacherous and evil, ever the villain of the piece, cunning, malicious, vindictive, and cruel—the god Loki. And as his foil, and his victim, we have Baldur, best of all gods, most beautiful, most greatly beloved. Baldur was the Galahad of the court of Odin the king, his father.

"My strength is of the strength of ten,

Because my heart is pure."

No impure thing was to be found in his dwelling; none could impugn his courage, yet ever he counselled peace, ever was gentle and infinitely wise, and his beauty was as the beauty of the whitest of all the flowers of the Northland, called after him Baldrsbrá. The god of the Norsemen was essentially a god of battles, and we are told by great authorities that Baldur was originally a hero who fought on the earth, and who, in time, came to be deified. Even if it be so, it is good to think that a race of warriors could worship one whose chief qualities were wisdom, purity, and love.

In perfect happiness, loving and beloved, Baldur lived in Asgard with his wife Nanna, until a night when his sleep was assailed by horrible dreams of evil omen. In the morning he told the gods that he had dreamed that Death, a thing till then unknown in Asgard, had come and cruelly taken his life away. Solemnly the gods debated how this ill happening might be averted, and Freya, his mother, fear for her best beloved hanging heavy over her heart, took upon herself the task of laying under oath fire and water, iron and all other metals, trees and shrubs, birds, beasts and creeping things, to do no harm to Baldur. With eager haste she went from place to place, nor did she fail to exact the oath from anything in all nature, animate or inanimate, save one only.

"A twig of mistletoe, tender and fair, grew high above the field," and such a little thing it was, with its dainty green leaves and waxen white berries, nestling for protection under the strong arm of a great oak, that the goddess passed it by. Assuredly no scathe could come to Baldur the Beautiful from a creature so insignificant, and Freya returned to Asgard well pleased with her quest.

Then indeed was there joy and laughter amongst the gods, for each one tried how he might slay Baldur, but neither sword nor stone, hammer nor battle-axe could work him any ill.

Odin alone remained unsatisfied. Mounted on his eight-footed grey steed, Sleipnir, he galloped off in haste to consult the giant prophetess Angrbotha, who was dead and had to be followed to Niflheim, the chilly underworld that lies far north from the world of men, and where the sun never comes. Hel, the daughter of Loki and of Angrbotha, was queen of this dark domain.

"There, in a bitterly cold place, she received the souls of all who died of sickness or old age; care was her bed, hunger her dish, starvation her knife. Her walls were high and strong, and her bolts and bars huge; 'Half blue was her skin, and half the colour of human flesh. A goddess easy to know, and in all things very stern and grim.'"

—Dasent.

In her kingdom no soul that passed away in glorious battle was received, nor any that fought out the last of life in a fierce combat with the angry waves of the sea. Only those who died ingloriously were her guests.

When he had reached the realm of Hel, Odin found that a feast was being prepared, and the couches were spread, as for an honoured guest, with rich tapestry and with gold. For many a year had Angrbotha rested there in peace, and it was only by chanting a magic spell and tracing those runes which have power to raise the dead that Odin awoke her. When she raised herself, terrible and angry from her tomb, he did not tell her that he was the mighty father of gods and men. He only asked her for whom the great feast was prepared, and why Hel was spreading her couches so gorgeously. And to the father of Baldur she revealed the secret of the future, that Baldur was the expected guest, and that by his blind brother Hodur his soul was to be hastened to the Shades.

"Who, then, would avenge him?" asked the father, great wrath in his heart. And the prophetess replied that his death should be avenged by Vali, his youngest brother, who should not wash his hands nor comb his hair until he had brought the slayer of Baldur to the funeral pyre. But yet another question Odin would fain have answered.

"Who," he asked, "would refuse to weep at Baldur's death?"

Thereat the prophetess, knowing that her questioner could be none other than Odin, for to no mortal man could be known so much of the future, refused for evermore to speak, and returned to the silence of her tomb. And Odin was forced to mount his steed and to return to his own land of warmth and pleasure.

On his return he found that all was well with Baldur. Thus he tried to still his anxious heart and to forget the feast in the chill regions of Niflheim, spread for the son who was to him the dearest, and to laugh with those who tried in vain to bring scathe to Baldur.

Only one among those who looked at those sports and grew merry, as he whom they loved stood like a great cliff against which the devouring waves of the fierce North Sea beat and foam and crash in vain, had malice in his heart as he beheld the wonder. In the evil heart of Loki there came a desire to overthrow the god who was beloved by all gods and by all men. He hated him because he was pure, and the mind of Loki was as a stream into which all the filth of the world is discharged. He hated him because Baldur was truth and loyalty, and he, Loki, was treachery and dishonour. He hated him because to Loki there came never a thought that was not full of meanness and greed and cruelty and vice, and Baldur was indeed one sans peur et sans reproche.

Thus Loki, taking upon himself the form of a woman, went to Fensalir, the palace, all silver and gold, where dwelt Freya, the mother of Baldur.

The goddess sat, in happy majesty, spinning the clouds, and when Loki, apparently a gentle old woman, passed by where she sat, and then paused and asked, as if amazed, what were the shouts of merriment that she heard, the smiling goddess replied:

"All things on earth have sworn to me never to injure Baldur, and all the gods use their weapons against him in vain. Baldur is safe for evermore."

"All things?" queried Loki.

And Freya answered, "All things but the mistletoe. No harm can come to him from a thing so weak that it only lives by the lives of others."

Then the vicious heart of Loki grew joyous. Quickly he went to where the mistletoe grew, cut a slender green branch, shaped it into a point, and sought the blind god Hodur.

Hodur stood aside, while the other gods merrily pursued their sport.

"Why dost thou not take aim at Baldur with a weapon that fails and so join in the laughter?" asked Loki.

And Hodur sadly made answer:

"Well dost thou know that darkness is my lot, nor have I ought to cast at my brother."

Then Loki placed in his hand the shaft of mistletoe and guided his aim, and well and surely Hodur cast the dart. He waited, then, for the merry laughter that followed ever on the onslaught of those against him whom none could do harm. But a great and terrible cry smote his ears. "Baldur the Beautiful is dead! is dead!"

On the ground lay Baldur, a white flower cut down by the scythe of the mower. And all through the realm of the gods, and all through the land of the Northmen there arose a cry of bitter lamentation.

"That was the greatest woe that ever befell gods and men," says the story.

The sound of terrible mourning in place of laughter brought Freya to where

"on the floor lay Baldur dead; and round lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts, and spears, which all the gods in sport had lightly thrown at Baldur, whom no weapon pierced or clove; but in his breast stood fixed the fatal bough of mistletoe."

—Matthew Arnold.

When she saw what had befallen him, Freya's grief was a grief that refused to be comforted, but when the gods, overwhelmed with sorrow, knew not what course to take, she quickly commanded that one should ride to Niflheim and offer Hel a ransom if she would permit Baldur to return to Asgard.

Hermoder the Nimble, another of the sons of Odin, undertook the mission, and, mounted on his father's eight-footed steed, he speedily reached the ice-cold domain of Hel.

There he found Baldur, sitting on the noblest seat of those who feasted, ruling among the people of the Underworld. With burning words Hermoder pled with Hel that she would permit Baldur to return to the world of gods and the world of men, by both of whom he was so dearly beloved. Said Hel:

"Come then! if Baldur was so dear beloved,

And this is true, and such a loss is Heaven's—

Hear, how to Heaven may Baldur be restored.

Show me through all the world the signs of grief!

Fails but one thing to grieve, here Baldur stops!

Let all that lives and moves upon the earth

Weep him, and all that is without life weep;

Let Gods, men, brutes, beweep him; plants and stones,

So shall I know the loss was dear indeed,

And bend my heart, and give him back to Heaven."

—Matthew Arnold.

Gladly Hermoder made answer:

"All things shall weep for Baldur!"

Swiftly he made his perilous return journey, and at once, when the gods heard what Hel had said, messengers were despatched all over the earth to beg all things, living and dead, to weep for Baldur, and so dear to all nature was the beautiful god, that the messengers everywhere left behind them a track of the tears that they caused to be shed.

Baldur
BALDUR THE BEAUTIFUL IS DEAD.


Meantime, in Asgard, preparations were made for Baldur's pyre. The longest of the pines in the forest were cut down by the gods, and piled up in a mighty pyre on the deck of his great ship Ringhorn, the largest in the world.

"Seventy ells and four extended

On the grass the vessel's keel;

High above it, gilt and splendid,

Rose the figure-head ferocious

With its crest of steel."

—Longfellow.

Down to the seashore they bore the body, and laid it on the pyre with rich gifts all round it, and the pine trunks of the Northern forests that formed the pyre, they covered with gorgeous tapestries and fragrant flowers. And when they had laid him there, with all love and gentleness, and his fair young wife, Nanna, looked on his beautiful still face, sorrow smote her heart so that it was broken, and she fell down dead. Tenderly they laid her beside him, and by him, too, they laid the bodies of his horse and his hounds, which they slew to bear their master company in the land whither his soul had fled; and around the pyre they twined thorns, the emblem of sleep.

Yet even then they looked for his speedy return, radiant and glad to come home to a sunlit land of happiness. And when the messengers who were to have brought tidings of his freedom were seen drawing near, eagerly they crowded to hear the glad words, "All creatures weep, and Baldur shall return!"

But with them they brought not hope, but despair. All things, living and dead, had wept, save one only. A giantess who sat in a dark cave had laughed them to scorn. With devilish merriment she mocked:

"Neither in life, nor yet in death,

Gave he me gladness.

Let Hel keep her prey."

Then all knew that yet a second time had Baldur been betrayed, and that the giantess was none other than Loki, and Loki, realising the fierce wrath of Odin and of the other gods, fled before them, yet could not escape his doom. And grief unspeakable was that of gods and of men when they knew that in the chill realm of the inglorious dead Baldur must remain until the twilight of the gods had come, until old things had passed away, and all things had become new.

Not only the gods, but the giants of the storm and frost, and the frost elves came to behold the last of him whom they loved. Then the pyre was set alight, and the great vessel was launched, and glided out to sea with its sails of flame.

"They launched the burning ship!

It floated far away

Over the misty sea,

Till like the sun it seemed,

Sinking beneath the waves,

Baldur returned no more!"

Yet, ere he parted from his dead son, Odin stooped over him and whispered a word in his ear. And there are those who say that as the gods in infinite sorrow stood on the beach staring out to sea, darkness fell, and only a fiery track on the waves showed whither he had gone whose passing had robbed Asgard and the Earth of their most beautiful thing, heavy as the weight of chill Death's remorseless hand would have been their hearts, but for the knowledge of that word. They knew that with the death of Baldur the twilight of the gods had begun, and that by much strife and infinite suffering down through the ages the work of their purification and hallowing must be wrought. But when all were fit to receive him, and peace and happiness reigned again on earth and in heaven, Baldur would come back. For the word was Resurrection.

"So perish the old Gods!

But out of the sea of time

Rises a new land of song,

Fairer than the old."

—Longfellow.


"Heartily know,

When half-gods go,

The gods arrive."

—Emerson.