Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Myth of Baldr

What Odin whispered In Baldr's ear,
Not god nor man Was nigh to hear.
What Odin whispered, Bending low,
No one knowth Or e're shall know.

Baldr Dead

The myth of Baldr is perhaps the best known story from Old Norse mythology. It is also beyond a doubt the most important. Baldr was the son of Odin, known as The Beautiful. He was the deity who reigned over sunshine and summer, and his chief festival was Midsummer. Briefly the story goes as follows:1

Odin had foreseen that Baldr's life was in grave jeopardy, but did not know the exact details.2 Therefore, Frigga, his wife and the mother of Baldr, went forth and bade every living thing on earth swear not to hurt him. She extracted her promise from everything except the mistletoe, which she deemed too young and tender to make a binding vow. When Loki discovered that the mistletoe had been excluded, he made an arrow out of it's boughs. As the gods were making merry with Baldr, tossing all manner of things at him that they knew could not harm him, old blind Hoðr stood alone. Loki approached and asked why he did not honor his brother by attempting to harm him. Hoðr replied that he had neither a weapon to cast nor the sight to cast it. Loki furnished him both, and Baldr fell dead when struck with the mistletoe arrow. Hoðr, realizing too late what he had done, fled. This proved his undoing, as it made the act a murder rather than an accident, and a murder demands justice. Needless to say, Loki took off as well.

Baldr's soul immediately departed for Hel, and the gods dispatched Hermóð, the messenger of the gods and a son of Odin to visit the goddess Hel, Queen of the Underworld, and demand to make ransom for Baldr. As Hermóð headed for Hel, Vali, a son of Odin by the giantess Rinda from the Western Mountains avenged Baldr by hunting down and killing Hoðr. Vali was but one day old, and had neither washed nor cut his hair when he accomplished this deed. Baldr's funeral was held in Asgard with much reverence. When Nanna saw her beloved husband's body lying in his ship, ready to be burned, she died of a broken heart, and so joined him in death. Before putting the torch to the pyre, Odin leaned over the body and whispered something in Baldr's ear. No one knows what Odin said to his dead son in that hour, nor shall anyone save Odin ever know for sure. This had become, by the Viking Age, a common expression for the unknowable.

Hermóð reached Hel and the ransom that was demanded was that every living thing should weep for Baldr, and that if a single thing did not, then he would remain in her keeping until Ragnarok (the "End of the World"), when he will return to live in Valhalla once more.

Hermóð returned to Asgard with the ransom demand, and the gods scattered across Midgard asking every living thing to weep for Baldr. Soon was the Earth awash in the tears of living beings for the passing of Baldr. But deep in a cave the gods came upon the Hag of Ironwood, who, unbeknownst to them, was Loki in disguise. She refused to weep, thus was Baldr condemned to remain in Hel until Ragnarok.

After Loki had the utter gall to return to Asgard for a feast and brag of his misdeed, the gods hunted him down. They bound him to a rock, using the entrails of his son as the binding. A snake was placed over his head, which drips venom. His (remarkably) faithful wife Sigyn stayed with her husband, holding a bowl to catch the dropping poison and relieve some of his torment. But when the bowl fills, and Sigyn must leave to empty it, some of the venom falls on Loki's face. His writhing in agony at such times is said to be the source of earthquakes.3

The Heart of the Northern Mythos

The myth of Baldr and the events surrounding his death and rebirth form the core of Norse heathen belief. Far more than a Christian interpolation, as has been claimed by some, the death of Baldr, the vengeance taken and his rebirth paint a consistent picture of the beliefs of our ancestors concerning the afterlife, the cyclical nature of reality and indeed the nature of deity itself.

The unique nature of deity in the Norse pantheon is often overlooked, perhaps because it is so obvious, especially in the myth of Baldr. Gods die. Like humans in Midgard, the Shining Ones have a lifespan, and can be killed prematurely. This is a crucial difference between Norse Heathen belief and most other religions. Christians, for example, have had to expostulate a dual nature for Christ in order for him to die and yet retain his godhood. The Norse had no such problem, and in fact presaged Paraclesus with a reversal of his famous dictum - as below, so above.

The nature of the afterlife has been a topic much speculated upon in the revival of Asatru. Our ancestors left us precious little lore concerning such things, and what they did leave is a confusing mish-mash of ideas expressed in folklore, poetry and burial practice. However, it is possible to reconstruct a coherent picture of the individual's relationship to the Nine Worlds through a careful sorting and sifting of this material. 4

At it's simplest level the Norse lore concerning the afterlife consisted of a "journey of the soul", whether to Hel, Valhalla or into the grave. Every soul went on a trip shortly after death. It can be speculated at this point that those which were unsuccessful in finding their correct road became the draugar, or "walking dead", of Scandinavian folklore.

It seems likely that these journeys were often construed as involving a seafaring. The prevalence of ship graves and ship grave shapes and markers is truly astonishing, especially in Denmark and southern Norway. In addition, we have a picture of Odin, one of whose other names is God of the Dead, as a ferryman,5 and we have the common Indo-European lore of a river crossing via ferry to reach the land of the dead, as in the Greek myth of Pluto and Charon.

We also have lore concerning a walking or riding trip, a land journey. The number of the wealthy buried or burned with horses is substantial. Presumably these were to be used as mounts in the afterlife, although in fairness to opposing views it must be noted here that blót often involved animal, and especially horse, sacrifice.

So, the question becomes, to where are the dead journeying? And the answers are multiple. Basically there are two destinations, and one fate that seems to eventually meet all the dead.

First off, you could be "chosen" by one of the gods or goddesses to reside in their halls in Asgard. This choosing takes place in some unspecified way, on the part of Odin by assistants called Valkryies. Being chosen by Odin one resides in Valhalla, if chosen by Freyja, one lives with her in Folkvang. There are numerous references to Ægir and Ran receiving the spirits of the sea-dead to their hall below the waves. The halls of the other gods and goddesses seem to be equally receptive to having inhabitants come from Midgard.6

If one is not chosen the reside in Asgard, one apparently either goes to Hel or simply hangs about the grave. Hel in Norse mythology is not at all a bad place or a place of punishment. Hel is most like the Elysian Fields of Greek myth: a scaled back version of Paradise. Simply put, Hel is presented in the lore as being very much like Midgard, or the Earth. There are even a few scattered references to "dying out of Hel"!7 Now, there is a place of punishment, Nifelhel, and it is presented as fairly awful, and to get there you have to be really evil. Nifelhel is more or less the lowest "rung" of Hel, not exactly being a separate world unto itself.

I think we would be on safe ground speculating on the grave as just another "rung" in Hel. It is definitely presented as otherworldly, and not such a bad existence, although one rather amusing anecdote in a saga has a mound-dweller complaining because the slave his relatives killed to accompany him to the otherworld was taking up too much room in the mound, and insisted that the interlopers remains be removed!

The interesting thing is that neither Valhalla nor Hel is referenced as being eternal, a concept with which our forebearers apparently had some problems. Understandable, with nothing in their experience having proved eternal.

There and Back Again

What seems to wait beyond Hel (and Valhalla) is rebirth. Most Indo-European mythologies have this element present, although it is strongest in the Rig Veda and the religion it spawned, Hinduism. The belief in reincarnation is presented several times in the sagas and the Eddas, especially in the myth of Baldr, where Hel promises to hold what she has (Baldr and Hoðr) until the Ragnarok. The Helgi Lays in the Poetic Edda also present this belief rather clearly.8

The Norse sense of rebirth is less that of the direct reincarnation of the complete person (as in Hinduism) than it is the "sense" of person and his or her accumulated might and main coming back through the Well into the Tree. It is better described as the transmigration of one's deeds and luck than it is reincarnation, although there are certainly recorded instances of the latter. One noted incident involved Starkardr, of whom it was said one could note on his body where the extra arms of his namesake had been before Thor had ripped them off. 9

From a Norse perspective it seems that your soul is intimately connected with your parent's souls. Likewise the souls of your children are connected to yours. It makes sense therefore that one cannot be "reborn" while one's immediate ancestors are still alive, as the usual way for a soul to be invited back to Midgard is by giving a newborn child it's name. This explains the near taboo among our ancestors against naming a child after a living ancestor.10 It is also the reason I have heard given on more than one occasion for modern Asa folks taking a Norse "religious" name. They seek to imbue themselves with the might and main of the departed.

So we are left with this picture: after death the soul makes a journey. If chosen by the gods one's destination is Asgard, where one lives at least until the Ragnarok, and possibly after. If not, one travels to Hel (inclusive here of the grave and Nifelhel as well). After a period of time passes, and one's immediate ancestors make their own journeys, one is "presented" for rebirth in Midgard, often but not always down family lines. This also accounts for "dying out of Hel".

The "presentation" may be made in several ways. Often during pregnancy a woman dreams of a name for her child. Perhaps runes or other divination tools were employed to find a fitting name. Although it is nowhere documented it seems logical that a spákóna could have been consulted about naming choices.

The naming ceremony itself is significant. The child is presented to the father on the ninth night after birth. He takes the child, and while sprinkling it with water, claims the child into his line and gives the name. By giving the name it is said that the father gives the newborn a soul. And if an ancestors name has been claimed, then this is the point at which might and main is transferred back into that realm for which we as humans are best suited: Midgard.

If one can in fact "die out of Hel", then I submit that it is logical to assume that what holds for Hel holds for Asgard, and that after Ragnarok those of humans that die in the final conflagration will be "available" for rebirth into Midgard, by way of traveling to Hel. Those Shining Ones that fall will likewise await rebirth into Asgard.

Questions and Answers

I contend that this hypothesis solves one of the thorny issues of Asatru lore, and perhaps answers it's greatest question, "What did Odin whisper into Baldr's ear when his son lay on the pyre?"

Why did not Baldr remain in Asgard after death? He was slain with a weapon and burned according to Odinist practice. Why did he not enter Valhalla as one of the Einherjar ("Heroes of Odin")? It has been noted by many others that Baldr was seemingly "stored" in Hel by Odin specifically so he would survive Ragnarok and return to rule in Asgard. I submit that this was exactly the case, but "stored" awaiting rebirth into Asgard as the descendant of Odin. Further I submit that the lore supports the claim that ultimately Vali will be Baldr's father, as well as half-brother and avenger.

It is also mentioned in Vafðrúðnismál in the Poetic Edda that Vali and Vidhar, both sons of Odin, will live in Valhalla after Ragnarok. Magni and Modi will inherit Mjollnir. Does it not make sense to suppose that following Ragnarok the souls lost in the battle will be reborn into the world they left, be it Asgard or Midgard?

What Odin whispered into Baldr's ear on the pyre may have been "I cannot choose you!", perhaps in the form of Eihwaz, the rune of rebirth. Odin kept Baldr (and Hoðr), safe in the confines of Hel until after Ragnarok. The Ragnarok proceeds according to Odin's plan, even to his own death. This represents Odin's second self-sacrifice, the gift of himself for his son.

Being an Ase, Baldr will probably be able to force a more direct reincarnation rather than the usual case of a partial passing of might and main. Likewise with Hoðr. This would account for the lore of their return from Hel following Ragnarok - being reborn into the family of the gods as descendants once again, of their fathers.

Further, it stands to reason that Baldr would most likely be reborn as a son of Vali, his avenger, simply because of this intimate tie. If Baldr is to be reborn into Odin's line, who better to be his father than Vali? Perhaps Hoðr will return as the son of Vidhar!

Think about who is mentioned as surviving the Ragnarok. Njord lives to return to Vanaheim. Freyja continues her life in Folkvang. Frey dies fighting Surt. Heimdall is killed. Thor is killed, but his children inherit his Hammer. Vali and Vidhar of Odin's line survive. And Baldr and Hoðr will be reborn.11 Ragnarok is thus not about the "End of the World", but rather about the cycle of the world, of death and rebirth. And of course, Hel will not hold Odin, Thor or the other casualties of Ragnarok forever, either.But that is a topic for another day.

The myth of Baldr stands at the very center of Norse beliefs about the afterlife and, along with Voluspá and Vafðrúðnismál in the Poetic Edda, gives us our deepest knowledge of Norse eschatology and cosmogony. It represents the cosmic change that reflects the change we see around us everyday. In this myth we gain key insights: what is lost will return, what is left will survive.


In this work I have used three major sources. First is the Edda, or the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson. For reference purposes here I used only the first section of this work, called the Glyfaginning. The exact translation used was the Everyman Library Edition, which was translated by Anthony Faulkes and published in 1987. Any translation will, however, contain the relevant information. This is referred to below as Snorri.

Secondly I have used the Elder or Poetic Edda. Specifically I used Poems of the Elder Edda, translated by Patricia Terry and published in 1990 by the University of Pennsylvania Press. I refer to this work below as simply Edda, and follow it with the specific poem, named as in the original. As above, any translation (including Hollander) will contain these poems.

Thirdly I have used extensively The Road to Hel, by Hilda R. Ellis, first published in 1941 by Cambridge University Press. Anyone interested in Norse views of the afterlife must read this volume. Unfortunately it is out of print, but it is very much worth the time and effort needed to hunt down a used copy. This will be referred to below as The Road to Hel, followed by page number as in standard citations.

[1] Snorri, p. 48-52
[2] Edda, Baldr's Draumar
[3] ibid., Lokasenna
[4] The Road to Hel, p. 170-198
[5] Edda, Hárbarðsljóð
[6] The Road to Hel, p. 74-78
[7] ibid., p. 83
[8] Edda, prose notes following the Helgi Lays
[9] The Road to Hel, p. 141
[10] ibid., p. 138-147
[11] Edda, Vafðrúðnismál

By Daithi M.Haxton


No comments: