This artwork, illustrated by the American artist George Hand Wright (c. 1872-1951), re-creates the dramatic death-scene of the Norse god, Balder (also spelled Baldur or Baldr). Before his demise, Balder was thought have been invincible and invulnerable to virtually all dangers, but this mighty power ironically made him a recipient of violent curiosity from his fellow gods, as well as intense jealousy from more dark-minded individuals, such as Loki. Balder was so invulnerable that the mighty gods amused themselves by punching, throwing stones, shooting arrows, even striking or stabbing at Balder, all to no effect. After watching displays such as these, the mischievous god, Loki, eventually committed himself to discovering Balder’s weakness. Hoping that, like Achilles, there would be a chink in Balder’s supernatural armor, Loki began his investigation. The trickster god relied on his expertise in shape shifting and targeted the one goddess that would know Balder’s weakness—Frigg, Balder’s mother.
As the story goes, Loki transformed himself into an old woman and struck up a conversation with unsuspecting Frigg, eventually managing to get the goddess to talk about the origin story of Balder’s invulnerability. As the story goes, influential Frigg had toured the world for the sake of her son, obtaining promises from personified entities of fire, water, metals, stones, plant life, animal wildlife, poisons and even diseases and viruses, all swearing that they would not harm Balder. Loki, with well phrased questions, was able to trick Frigg into revealing that there was one plant that she was not able to extract a promise from. Unfortunately for Balder, Frigg disclosed to Loki that mistletoe could still harm her son.
After discovering the secret, Loki quickly went out and found a twig of mistletoe that could pass off for a projectile. With this in hand, he returned to the homeland of the gods, where the deities were still amusing themselves by launching blows against Balder. Loki now blended back into the crowd and sauntered over to a blind god named Hod, encouraging 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 of what happened next:
“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).
This is the scene that George Hand Wright re-creates in his illustration, displaying the image as if we are members of the surprised audience, watching from amid the crowd as Baldr clutches his chest in pain. 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.