Baldr (or Baldur), a Norse god of light and beauty, was loved by almost all of creation, from the divine Æsir all the way to the plants and stones of the earth. As such, when Baldr began to have dreams and premonitions of his own death, the Æsir held a council and decided to make everything in the world swear an oath to never harm Baldr, an oath that most living beings and elements would be more than willing to make.
According to The Prose Edda, a collection of Norse myths compiled by the powerful Icelandic leader, Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), Baldr’s mother, Frigg, obtained promises from fire, water, metals, stones, plant life, animal wildlife, poisons and even diseases and viruses, all swearing that they would not harm her son. When all of the oaths were collected, Baldr was so invulnerable that the mighty gods, themselves, amused themselves by punching, throwing stones, shooting arrows, even striking or stabbing at Baldr, all to no effect. Baldr’s newfound defensive prowess was lauded and praised by the gods—well, all except one. Loki, the usual delinquent deity of Norse mythology, loathed Baldr’s invulnerability. Therefore, Loki began to investigate, hoping that, like Achilles, a vulnerable chink could be found in Baldr’s supernatural armor.
(“Each arrow overshot his [Baldr’s] head” by Elmer Boyd Smith, c. 1902, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
During his investigation, Loki relied on his expertise in shape shifting. He transformed himself into a woman and then struck up a conversation with Frigg. He began his questions with deceptive restraint, asking about why the gods were taking turns attacking Baldr. Proudly, Frigg proclaimed that the gods were amusing themselves with futile attacks against her son—all the weapons that the gods could muster, she explained, had given oaths not to harm Baldr. Surely, replied Loki while fanning Frigg’s pride, she could not have possibly obtained oaths of protection from every possible piece of the universe. To this, Frigg responded that she, indeed, collected promises from everything in existence except one small plant—mistletoe. She explained that the mistletoe plant had been too young and for her to rightfully demand an oath. In another version, Frigg simply believed mistletoe was too small and weak to cause any harm. With this information obtained, Loki slipped away from Frigg and scoured the land for the one plant that could harm Baldr.
When Loki returned with a twig of mistletoe, the gods were still light-heartedly taking shots at Baldr, watching with awe as each blow came to naught. Loki found the only god who was not participating in the fun—Hod (or Hodr), a blind god of great strength. Hod explained that he had no weapon with him, and even if he did, because of his poor eyesight, he could not know where to aim. Placing the mistletoe in Hod’s hands, Loki suggested that he would guide the blind god’s aim. Hod agreed to the idea, and, after being lined up by Loki, he either threw the mistletoe like a javelin or shot it with a bow. The aim was true and the mistletoe pierced straight through Baldr—to the astonishment and horror of the gods, Baldr fell to the ground dead.
(A Norse mythology image from the 18th century Icelandic manuscript “NKS 1867 4to”, now in the care of the Danish Royal Library. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
In another telling of the tale, Hod played a much more active role in the killing, even to the extent of personally acquiring and fashioning the weapon that would kill Baldr. Either way, in all the known versions of the myth, Hod struck the final blow that led to Baldr’s death. Yet, in the version of Snorri Sturluson, Loki was given the most blame. As punishment, he would be captured, bound and left underneath a snake that continuously dripped venom down toward his face. Loki’s wife, Sigyn, would allegedly be there to catch most of the poison in a bowl, but every time she moved to dump the bowl of the accumulated poison, a few painful drops would always land on Loki before she can return with the emptied bowl.
(“The Punishment of Loki”, by Louis Huard, c. 1900 or earlier, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Baldr’s spirit may have gone to the domain of Hel, but his body lay lifeless with the gods. The Æsir held a proper funeral for Baldr’s body, but the body-count continued to pile up during the ceremony. They made a funeral pyre for their beloved comrade in a ship that they would push out to sea. Tragically, when Baldr’s wife, Nanna, saw the dead body of her husband being placed in the ship, a fresh wave of grief caused her heart to fail, and she, too, joined her husband in the land of the dead. After Baldr and Nanna were placed together in the ship and the fire was lit, an unfortunate dwarf who was in the wrong place at the wrong time made the mistake of cutting in front of an emotionally disturbed Thor. According to Sturluson, Thor punted the poor dwarf straight into the fire, resulting in a third death.
(Odin’s last words to Baldr, by W.G. Collingwood (1854 – 1932), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
As stated before, Baldr’s body was dead, but his spirit resided in the domain of the goddess, Hel, Loki’s daughter who was granted control of the underworld by the All-Father, Odin. Once the gods had recovered from their initial shock, Baldr’s mother, Frigg, asked them to venture to the land of the dead in order to negotiate with Hel and ask her to release Baldr back to the living. Hermod the Bold, a brother of Baldr, agreed to embark on this quest.
When Hermod arrived at Hel’s hall, he found Baldr and Nanna had been given seats of honor. Hel listened to Hermod’s plea and voiced her willingness to let Baldr go—yet, she would only let Baldr go free if everything in the world wept sincere tears of grief for Baldr. Hermod returned to the rest of the gods with Hel’s demands, and they immediately sent out messages instructing all creation to weep for Baldr.
Just as with Frigg’s earlier oaths, it seemed as if the task would be accomplished. People, plants, animals, elements—everything under the sun—began to weep for Baldr. Yet, one single being refused to weep anything but insincere tears. Because of the refusal, Hel refused to let Baldr return to the living. The one person who refused to grieve for Baldr was identified as either a giantess named Thokk or the infamous Loki, but the two may have been one in the same.
Ironically, according to Norse prophecy, Baldr (as well as his killer, Hod) was predicted to leave the domain of Hel and continue living after the permanent deaths of the major gods at Ragnarok. So, even though he was the first important god to die, he would return as probably the strongest god of the next divine generation after the apocalypse of Ragnarok.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Baldr and Nanna (by Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845-1921) over mistletoe, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and pixabay.com)
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.