TEUTONIC MYTH AND LEGEND
by DONALD A. MACKENZIE
An Introduction to the Eddas & Sagas, Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc.
London, Gresham Publications 1912
Balder the Beautiful
The Summer Sun-god--Blind Hodur--Nanna the Brave--The Light Battles--A Dread Omen--Balder's Dreams--Frigg's Alarm--World Vows taken--Odin descends to Hela--The Vala invoked--Her Prophecies--Loke's Evil Design--The Mistletoe Arrow of Pain--Balder is killed--Hermod's Mission--The Funeral of the God--Odin whispers--Hermod in Hela--Urd's Decree--World Tears--Hag seals Balder's Fate.
BALDER THE BEAUTIFUL was the most noble and pious of the gods in Asgard. The whitest flower upon earth is called Balder's brow, because the countenance of the god was snow-white and shining. Like fine gold was his hair, and his eyes were radiant and blue. He was well loved by all the gods, save evil Loke, who cunningly devised his death.
Balder, the summer sun-god, was Odin's fairest son; his mother was Frigg, goddess of fruitful earth and sister of Njord. His brother was blind Hodur. On Balder's tongue were runes graven, so that he had great eloquence. He rode a brightly shining horse, and his ships, which men called "billow falcons", were the sunbeams that sailed through the drifting cloudways. For wife he was given Nanna, the moon maid, the brave one who fought with him the light battles. On a bright horse she rode also, and tender was she and very fair.
There came a time when Odin and Balder went forth to journey through a wood. A dread omen forewarned them of disaster, because the leg was sprained of Balder's horse, the horse from whose hoofmarks bubbled forth clear wells. Charms were sung over the sun-god by Nanna and by her fair sister Sunna, the sun maid. Frigg also sang, and then Fulla her sister. Odin uttered magic runes to protect him from evil.
But soon after Balder began to languish. The light went from his eyes, care sat on his forehead, and melancholy were his lips. To him came the gods beseeching to know what ailed him, and he told that nightly he dreamed fearsome dreams which boded ill, and revealed to him, alas! that his life was in dire peril.
Now Frigg, who had fore-knowledge of all things save Balder's fate, sent forth her maid-servants to take oaths from all creatures living, from plants and metals, and from stones, not to do any hurt unto the god Balder. To her, in due time, the maidens returned, and she received from them the compacts and vows that were given. All things promised to spare him, save the mistletoe, slender and harmless, from which no vow was asked, for it clung, as was its need, to a strong tree for protection. Then was Frigg's heart filled with comfort, and no longer did she fear the fate of her noble son.
But the heart of Odin was filled with foreboding. He mounted his horse Sleipner, and went over Bif-rost towards the north, and descended unto darksome Nifelhel, where dwelt the spirits of the great giants who were crushed in the World-mill. On the borders of Hela, as he rode speedily, a great and fierce hel-dog came after him. There was blood on its breast, and in the darkness it barked loudly. When it could go no farther, it howled long with gaping jaws.
Over a long green plain went Odin, while the hoofs of Sleipner rang fast and cleat-, until he came to a high dwelling, the name of which is Heljar-ran, of which the keeper is Delling, the Red Elf of Dawn. Therein have their Hela-home the fair Asmegir--Lif and Lifthraser and their descendants who shall come at Time's new dawn that shall follow Ragnarok to regenerate the world of men.
To the eastern gate went Odin, where he knew there was the grave of a Vala (prophetess). Dismounting from Sleipner, he chanted over her death chamber strange magic songs. He looked towards the north; he uttered runes; he pronounced a spell, and demanded sure response. Then rose the Vala, and from the grave chamber her ghostly voice spake forth and said:
"What unknown man cometh to disturb my rest? Snow has covered me in its deeps; by cold rains have I been beaten and by many dews made wet. . . . Long indeed have I lain dead."
Odin answered: "My name is Vegtam and my sire was Valtam. Tell me, O Vala," he cried, "for whom are the benches of Delling's hall strewn with rings, and for whom are the rooms decked with fine gold?"
The Vala answered and said: "Here stands for Balder mead prepared, pure drink indeed. Over the cup shields are laid. Impatiently do the Asmegir await him and to make merry . . . . Alas! by compulsion hast thou made me to speak . . . . Now must I be silent."
Odin said: "Silent thou must not be until I know who shall slay Balder--who shall bereave Odin's son of life."
The Vala answered: "Hodur shall send his brother hither, for Balder shall he slay, and Odin's son bereave of life. . . . Alas! by compulsion hast thou made me speak. . . . Now must I be silent."
Odin said: "Silent thou must not be until I know who shall avenge the deed on Hodur, who shall raise Balder's slayer on the funeral pyre."
The Vala answered: "A son, Vale, shall Rhind bear in the halls of Winter. He shall not wash his hands nor comb his hair until to the funeral pyre he beareth Balder's foe. Alas! by compulsion hast thou made me to speak. Now must I be silent."
Odin said: "Silent thou shalt not be until I know who are the maidens that sorrow and throw high their veils with grief. Sleep not until thou dost answer."
The Vala spake and said: "Thou art not Vegtam, as I deemed, but Odin, ruler of all."
Odin said: "No Vala art thou, but the mother of three giants."
Then cried the Vala: "Return, O Odin, unto Asgard. Never again shall I be called upon until Loke escapes from bonds and the world-devastating Dusk of the Gods is at hand."
To Asgard did Odin return; but there was no sorrow there nor foreboding, because of the vows which Frigg had taken from all creatures and all things that are, so that no harm might be done unto her fair son. And of this had the gods full proof. Balder they made to stand amidst a rain of javelins that harmed him not. Some flung at him stones, others smote him with their swords; yet was he not injured. Of Balder were they all proud because he was charmed against wounds. To honour him did they make fruitless attack on his fair body.
Evil there war, in the heart of Loke, and in woman's guise he went unto Frigg, who spake and said: "Why do the gods thus assail my fair son Balder?"
Loke answered: "It is in sport they fling at him javelins and stones and strike him with swords, because they know full well that they can do him no hurt."
Frigg said: "By neither metal, nor wood, nor stone, can he be injured because of the world-vows which I have received."
"Have all things indeed sworn to protect Balder?" Loke asked with downcast eyes.
"All things save the mistletoe," answered Frigg, "and so slender and weak is the mistletoe that from it no vow was demanded."
Then Loke went from Frigg and plucked a mistletoe sprig, which he carried to a cunning elf-smith named Hlebard, whom he robbed of his understanding. With the mistletoe twig the smith shaped a magic arrow--a deadly arrow of pain. . . . Loke made haste with it to Asgard, and he went to the green place where the gods assailed Balder and made merry. He saw blind Hodur standing apart, and to him he went and spake thus:
"Why, O Hodur, dost thou not join the game and cast a missile at Balder also?"
"Alas!" cried Hodur; "am I not blind? I can see not my fair brother, nor have I aught which I can throw."
"Come and do honour unto Balder like the others '
Loke urged him. "I shall give thee an arrow for thy bow, and hold thine arm so that thou mayest know where he stands."
Hodur then took from Loke the magic arrow which the elf-smith had made and placed it in his bow. Then raised he his left arm, while evil Loke took certain aim.
"Thou canst now share in the sport," said the Evil One unto the blind god, and went to a place apart.
The gods beheld Hodur standing with bent bow, and paused in their game. . . . Then did the arrow dart forth. . . . It struck Balder; it pierced his fair body, and he fell dead upon the sward.
In horror, and frozen with silence, the gods stood around. . . . Where there had been joy and merrymaking, dumb grief prevailed. . . . Alone stood Hodur wondering and in mute amaze.
But ere long angry cries broke forth, and the gods sought to slay Death's blind archer; but the sward on which they stood was consecrated to peace, and unwillingly were their hands withheld.
Then a loud voice cried through Asgard: "Balder is dead! . . . . Balder the Beautiful is dead! . . . ."
Every voice was hushed and every face turned pale because of the disaster which had befallen the gods in that black hour.
Thereafter arose the sound of loud lamentations, and a tempest of grief swept over the Celestial City. Frigg wept in silence and alone. Odin grieved inwardly, and more than the rest he realized the great disaster which Balder's death would bring unto the Asa-gods.
The spirit of Balder descended to the Lower World and crossed the golden bridge over the River Gjoll.
The Asmegir in their gold-decked hall awaited him, for they desired that he should be their ruler until the dawn of the world's new age.
But Frigg would not suffer that Balder should remain in Hela. She went forth when the gods ceased to cry aloud in their sorrow and said:
"Who among thee hath longing to win my gratitude and my love? For such shall be given unto him who rideth to Hela to find Balder. It is my heart's desire, in this my hour of grief, that a great ransom be offered unto Urd, Queen of Death, so that she may permit my fair son to return unto me again."
Forth stepped Heimdal the Young. He was a messenger of the gods and a son of Odin. He spake forth and said: "Unto Hela shall I go, O Queen of Asgard, as thou desirest, to find Balder and to offer great ransom unto Urd, so that she may permit him to return unto thee once again."
Then was Sleipner taken forth for Hermod, who leapt nimbly into the saddle. Swift as the wind he went over the gate bridge, and through the air and across the seas he sped and descended unto Nifel-hel towards the north to search for Balder.
The gods bore Balder's body unto the bleak shore of Ocean, where lay his great ship, Hringhorn. On its deck they built a pyre covered with much treasure, and then they sought to launch it.
But that they were unable to do, because the keel stuck fast in the sand and would not be moved seaward. So they sent unto Jotun-heim for the storm-giantess, Hyrrokin, who was Angerboda, that ancient-cold Vala of the east, who sweeps wind-tossed ships into the very jaws of Æger. On a great wolf she came and the bridle was a writhing snake. She leapt on the beach and with disdain regarded the gods. To four giants were given the keeping of the wolf. Then went she to the ship and thrust it speedily into the sea. Fire blazed from the rollers and the earth shook.
Angry was Thor when he beheld the Hag, and he swung his hammer to strike her down; but him did the gods restrain, for they sought not bloodshed in that hour.
Then was Balder's body carried to the ship and laid upon the pyre, and his steed beside him. Beautiful was he in death. In white robes was Balder clad, and round his head lay a wreath of radiant flowers.
On the shore were gathered the gods and goddesses of Asgard. Odin was there, and he went first.
Click to enlarge
LOKE AND HODUR
From the sculpture by C. G. Qvarnström
His ravens hovered over the ship, and his wolf-dogs wailed. Beside him was wise Frigg, who was wont to spin golden cloud-threads from her jewelled wheel. Queen of Asgard was she and goddess of Maternal Love. She was robed in black who was erstwhile attired in cloudy whiteness; on her golden head were the heron plumes of silence; a golden girdle clasped her waist and on her feet were golden shoes. Tall was she and stately and surpassing fair.
Dark-browed Thor was nigh to Odin, and Brage and Tyr also. Njord, black-bearded, and clad in green, strode his stately way. With his golden-bristled boar came Frey, and Heimdal, horsed on Gulltop, shone fair as sunshine. Beauteous Freyja, veiled in tears, rode her chariot drawn by great cats, and fair Idun was there also, and Sith with harvest hair. Loke stood apart with tearless eyes.
The valkyries leaned on their spears. Frigg's maids were nigh the Queen of Asgard, and these were Fulla, her sister, Hlin, who carries to Frigg the prayers of mortals; Gna, the speedy messenger who passes to and fro over the earth, beholding and remembering: Lofn, guardian of lovers, in whose name vows are made; Vjofr, the peacemaker, who unites lovers, and husbands and wives who have quarrelled; Syn, the wise doorkeeper; and Gefjon, guardian of maids who shall never wed.
White elves were assembled on that sad shore to sorrow, and even black elves were there. Many Frost-giants and Mountain-giants gathered around, for there was sadness everywhere because Balder was dead.
But none mourned more than Nanna, Balder's wife. Silent was she; her heart wept, and fire burned in her eyes.
Then Odin mounted the pyre. On Balder's breast
he laid the gold ring Draupner, and bending low he whispered in Balder's ear. . . .
From that hour have gods and men wondered what said Odin in his son's ear.
When Odin whispered
In Balder's ear,
Nor god nor man
Was nigh to hear.
What Odin whispered,
No man knoweth
Or e'er shall know.
In silence Odin returned to the shore, and then Thor consecrated the pyre with his hammer. A dwarf named Littur, who ran past him, he kicked into the boat, where he was burned with Balder.
So ended the ceremony of grief, and the torch was placed to the pyre. High as heaven leapt the flames, and the faces of the gods were made ruddy in the glow. . . . Nanna cried aloud in grief, and her heart burst within her, and she fell dead upon the cold sea strand.
Seaward swept the burning ship. . . . The whole world sorrowed for Balder. . . .
Meanwhile Hermod made his darksome way through Nifel-hel towards Hela's glittering plains. Nine days and nine nights he rode on Sleipner through misty blackness and in bitter cold over high mountains and along ridges where chasms yawn vast and bottomless. On Hela's borders the terrible wolf dog of the giant Offotes followed him, barking in the black mist. . . . Then Hermod reached the rivers. Over Slid, full of daggers, he went, and over Kormet and Ormet, and the two rivers Kerlogar, through which Thor wades when he goes to the Lower Thingstead of the gods. He crossed shining Leipter, by whose holy waters men swear oaths that bind. At length he came to the River Gjoll and its golden bridge.
Modgud, the elf maid who watches the bridge, cried aloud: "Whence cometh thou who hath not yet died?"
Of her did Hermod ask who had crossed before him. Impatient was he to brook delay.
"But five days since," she said, "there passed five troops of warriors who rode over with valkyries, yet made they less noise than thee alone. . . . Whom seekest thou?"
Hermod answered and said: "Balder, my brother, son of Odin and Frigg, do I seek. If thou hast seen him, speak forth and tell me whither he hath gone."
In silence did Modgud point towards the north, whereat Hermod spurred Sleipner and went on. . . . Soon he came to Hela's great stone gate. Strongly barred it was and very high, and guarded by a great armed sentinel. To none was given entry save the dead who are brought to judgment.
Hermod leapt to the ground. He tightened the girths of Sleipner. He remounted again. Then he spurred Odin's horse towards the gate, and with a great bound it leapt over, nor ceased to go onward when it came down. . . . Swiftly rode Hermod until he came to the palace in which Balder dwelt with the Asmegir.
From the saddle he leapt and went within. . . . There in a golden hall he saw Balder seated on a throne of gold. Wan was his face and careworn, for the gloom of death had not yet passed from him. On his brow was a wreath of faded flowers, and on his breast the ring Draupner. He sat listening, as if he still heard the voice of Odin whispering in his ear. Before him stood a goblet of mead, which he had touched not. Nanna sat by his side, and her cheeks were pale.
Hermod beheld nigh unto them Urd, the queen of Hela. In cold grandeur she stood, silent and alone. Deathly white was her face, and hard and stern, and she looked downward. On her dark robe gleamed great diamonds and ornaments of fine gold. . . .
To Balder spoke Hermod, and said: "For thee have I been sent hither, O my brother. In Asgard there is deep mourning for thee, and thy queen mother beseecheth thy speedy return."
Sadly did Balder shake his head, and to Nanna he pointed. But she leaned towards him and whispered: "Love is stronger than death, nor can the grave destroy it. . . . With thee, O Balder, shall I ever remain . . . ...
They would have wept, but in Hela there are no tears.
Throughout the night did Hermod hold converse with the twain, and when morning came he besought Urd to release Balder from death's bonds.
With eyes still looking downwards she heard him speak.
"In Asgard," Hermod said, "the gods sorrow for Balder, and on earth is he also mourned. All who have being and all things with life weep for Balder, and beseech thee that he may return again."
Urd made answer coldly: "If all who have being and all things with life weep for Balder and beseech his return, then must he be restored again. . . . But if one eye is without tears, then must he remain in Hela forever."
Hermod bowed himself before Urd in silence, and turned again to Balder and to Nanna, who went with him to the door. . . . Ere their sad farewells were spoken, Balder gave Hermod the ring Draupner to carry back unto Odin, for in Hela the ring was without fertility. Her veil Nanna did send unto Frigg, and a bride's gold ring she gave for Fulla.
To Asgard did Hermod make speedy return, bearing the gifts of Balder and of Nanna, and unto gods and goddesses assembled together he made known the stern decree of Hela's queen.
Over all the world did Frigg then send messengers to beseech all who have being and all things with life to weep for Balder, so that he might be restored again. Then did sorrow indeed prevail. The frost of grief was broken, and the sound of weeping was heard like to falling streams. Men wept, as did also every animal, peaceful and wild. Stones had tears, and metals were made wet. On trees and plants and on every grass blade were dewdrops of mourning for Balder.
But as the messengers of Frigg were returning to Asgard, they came to a deep dark cavern in which sat Gulveig-Hoder, the Hag of Ironwood, in the guise of Thok (darkness). Her they besought to weep, so that Balder might return. She spake coldly and said:
"Thok shall weep tears of fire only because Balder is dead. No joy hath he ever given unto me living or dead. . . . Let Hela's queen hold what is her own."
Great was the sorrow in Asgard because that the Hag would weep not and free Balder from death's bonds. Upon Loke was laid the blame, because he never ceased to work evil among the gods. But not afar off was the day of his doom.
The Passing of Balder
I heard a voice, that cried,
"Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!"
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward-sailing cranes.
I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Nifel-heim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.
And the voice for ever cried,
"Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!"
And died away
Through the dreary night,
In accents of despair.
Balder the Beautiful,
God of the summer sun,
Fairest of all the Gods!
Light from his forehead beamed,
Runes were upon his tongue,
As on the warrior's sword.
All things in earth and air
Bound were by magic spell
Never to do him harm,
Even the plants and stones:
All save the mistletoe,
The sacred mistletoe!
Hoder, the blind old god,
Whose feet are shod with silence,
Pierced through that gentle breast
With his sharp spear, by fraud
Made of the mistletoe,
The accursed mistletoe!
They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.
They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves.
Balder returned no more!
The Descent of Odin
Uprose the King of men with speed,
And saddled strait his coal-black steed;
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to Hela's drear abode.
Him the Dog of Darkness spied,
His shaggy throat he opened wide,
While from his jaws, with carnage filled,
Foam and human gore distilled;
Hoarse he bays with hideous din,
Eyes that glow, and fangs that grin;
And long pursues, with fruitless yell,
The father of the powerful spell.
Onward still his way he takes,
(The groaning earth beneath him shakes,)
Till full before his fearless eyes
The portals nine of hell arise.
Right against the eastern gate,
By the moss-grown pile he sate;
Where long of yore to sleep was laid
The dust of the prophetic Maid.
Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he traced the runic rhyme;
Thrice pronounced, in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the dead;
Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breathed a sullen sound.
What call unknown, what charms presume,
To break the quiet of the tomb?
Who thus afflicts my troubled sprite
And drags me from the realms of night?
Long on these mould'ring bones have beat
The winter's snow, the summer's heat,
The drenching dews, and driving rain!
Let me, let me sleep again.
Who is he, with voice unblest,
That calls me from the bed of rest?
A Traveller, to the unknown,
Is he that calls, a Warrior's son.
Thou the deeds of light shalt know;
Tell me what is done below,
For whom yon glitt'ring board is spread,
Drest for whom yon golden bed.
Mantling in the goblet see
The pure beverage of the bee,
O'er it hangs the shield of gold;
'T is the drink of Balder bold;
Balder's head to death is given.
Pain can reach the sons of Heaven!
Unwilling I my lips unclose;
Leave me, leave me to repose.
Once again my call obey.
Prophetess, arise and say,
What dangers Odin's child await,
Who the Author of his fate.
In Hoder's hand the Hero's doom;
His brother sends him to the tomb.
Now my weary lips I close;
Leave me, leave me to repose.
Prophetess, my spell obey,
Once again arise, and say,
Who th' Avenger of his guilt.
By whom shall Hoder's blood be spilt.
In the caverns of the west,
By Odin's fierce embrace comprest,
A wondrous Boy shall Rinda bear,
Who ne'er shall comb his raven hair,
Nor wash his visage in the stream,
Nor see the sun's departing beam,
Till he on Hoder's corpse shall smile
Flaming on the fun'ral pile.
Now my weary lips I close;
Leave me, leave me to repose.
Yet a while my call obey.
Prophetess, awake, and say,
What Virgins these in speechless woe,
That bend to earth their solemn brow,
That their flaxen tresses tear,
And snowy veils, that float in air.
Tell me whence their sorrows rose;
Then I leave thee to repose.
Ha! no Traveller art thou,
King of Men, I know thee now
Mightiest of a mighty line
No boding Maid of skill divine
Art thou, nor Prophetess of good;
But mother of the giant brood!
Hie thee hence, and boast at home,
That never shall enquirer come
To break my iron sleep again;
Till Lok has burst his tenfold chain.
Never, till substantial Night
Has reassumed her ancient right;
Till wrapped in flames, in ruin hurled,
Sinks the fabric of the world.
The World's Tears
Odin . . . thus addressed the Gods:
"Go quickly forth through all the world, and pray
All living and unliving things to weep
Balder, if haply he may thus be won."
When the Gods heard, they straight arose, and took
Their horses, and rode forth through all the world;
North, south, east, west, they struck, and roam'd the world,
Entreating all things to weep Balder's death.
And all that lived, and all without life, wept.
And as in winter, when the frost breaks up,
At winter's end, before the spring begins,
And a warm west-wind blows, and thaw sets in
After an hour a dripping sound is heard
In all the forests, and the soft-strewn snow
Under the trees is dibbled thick with holes,
And from the boughs the snowloads shuffle down;
And, in fields sloping to the south, dark plots
Of grass peep out amid surrounding snow,
And widen, and the peasant's heart is glad--
So through the world was heard a dripping noise
Of all things weeping to bring Balder back;
And there fell joy upon the Gods to hear.
But Hermod rode with Niord, whom he took
To show him spits and beaches of the sea
Far off, where some unwarri'd might fail to weep
Niord, the God of storms, whom fishers know;
Not born in Heaven; he was in Vanheim rear'd,
With men, but lives a hostage with the Gods;
He knows each frith, and every rocky creek
Fringed with dark pines, and sands where seafowl scream
They two scour'd every coast, and all things wept.
And they rode home together, through the wood
Of Jarnvid, which to east of Midgard lies
Bordering the giants, where the trees are iron
There in the wood before a cave they came,
Where sate, in the cave's mouth, a skinny hag,
Toothless and old; she gibes the passers by.
Thok is she called, but now Loke wore her shape;
She greeted them the first, and laugh'd, and said
"Ye Gods, good lack, is it so dull in Heaven,
That ye come pleasuring to Thok's iron wood?
Lovers of change ye are, fastidious sprites.
Look, as in some boor's yard a sweet-breath'd cow,
Whose manger is stuffed full of good fresh hay,
Snuffs at it daintily, and stoops her head
To chew the straw, her litter, at her feet--
So ye grow squeamish, Gods, and sniff at Heaven!"
She spake; but Hermod answer'd her and said
Thok, not for gibes we come, we come for tears.
Balder is dead, and Hela holds her prey,
But will restore, if all things give him tears.
Begrudge not thine! to all was Balder dear."
Then, with a louder laugh, the hag replied
"Is Balder dead? and do ye come for tears?
Thok with dry eyes will weep o'er Balder's pyre.
Weep him all other things, if weep they will
I weep him not! let Hela keep her prey."
From "Balder Dead", by Matthew Arnold.