This painting, by the Danish artist Peter Cramer (c. 1726 – 1782), re-creates the dramatic death-scene of the Norse god, Balder (also spelled Baldur or Baldr). Ironically, it was Balder’s near-invincible nature that put him in peril. As the story goes, 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 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. 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. Unfortunately for Balder, Frigg was too trusting during her conversation with the disguised stranger, resulting in Loki learning that there was still one plant that could cause harm to Balder—mistletoe.
After discovering the secret, Loki set off in search of the deadly plant. He successfully found a twig of mistletoe that could pass off for a projectile, and with this in hand, he returned to the homeland of the gods, where the deities were still amusing themselves by launching blows against Balder. Mischievous (or in this case, murderous) Loki now sauntered over to a blind god named Hod and encouraged him to join the fun of attacking Balder’s near-invulnerable skin. Hod unfortunately agreed, and Loki eagerly put the stick of mistletoe in the blind god’s hands. The Icelandic writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), described the dramatic scene:
“Hod took the mistletoe and, following Loki’s directions, shot at Baldr. The shot went right through Baldr, who fell to the ground dead. This misfortune was the worst that had been worked against the gods and men. Baldr’s death left the gods speechless and so weak that they were unable to muster the strength to lift him up in their arms” (Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. Gylfaginning, section 49).
After Balder’s death, the gods sought out Hel, the goddess of the dead, and tried to negotiate for Balder’s return. She conceded that if everything in creation wept over Balder’s death, she would agree to let him go free. As the story goes, the gods nearly met Hel’s conditions, but, once again, Loki was there to interfere. Loki’s involvement in Balder’s death and imprisonment in the underworld enraged the rest of the Norse gods. In revenge, the deities captured, bound and left the nefarious trickster underneath a snake that continuously dripped venom down toward his face.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.