A handout for our April 2013 meeting:
Theories, Speculation, UPG, and Modern Worship
Alternate Versions of Baldr’s Death:
Though Snorri’s account with blind Hoðr being tricked by Loki into hurling the fatal mistletoe at Baldr is the most widely-known version of the death of Baldr, Saxo Grammaticus tells a different story in Book 3 of the Gesta Danorum. In Saxo’s version, Balderus and Hotherus fight each other for Nanna and kingship. Though Balderus is a demigod, the son of Oðin, Hotherus is a normal mortal human; the two clash in a number of battles before Hotherus is finally able to fatally wound Balderus with the aid of a magical sword (owned by a satyr named Miming), an enchanted belt of victory, and special food prepared by mysterious forest maidens. Balderus lingers for three days before dying, and during this time dreams he is visited by Prosperine, who promises him her love. After his death, thieves attempt to break into his mound but are stopped by a wall of water. Since there is no mention of Loki in this version, Lokeans often prefer it to the story told in the Prose Edda.
Building off Saxo’s account and the fact that Hoðr’s name is often used in kennings for “warrior,” Rydberg suggested another alternate version of the story. Rydberg believed Baldr and Hoðr were a version of Castor and Pollux or the Alcis, adventuring warrior brothers. Hoðr was not literally blind but was deceived by Loki into killing Baldr; Snorri’s depiction of Hoðr as blind was a misunderstanding of a pictorial representation of Hoðr with closed eyes, Loki guiding his arm. While Rydberg’s interpretations are often not well-regarded by modern scholars of Norse mythology, his work is often presented on various websites about the gods.
In Beowulf, as Beowulf prepares to fight the dragon and reflects on his life near the end of the poem, he recalls the death of Herebeald, one of the sons of Hreðel, Beowulf’s grandfather and foster-father; this incident may be influenced by the Baldr story. Hæthcyn accidentally slew his older brother, Herebeald, with an stray arrow while hunting. The tragedy of the event is compounded by the code of vengeance requiring Hreðel to seek vengeance against his own son. The poet compares Hreðel’s grief to that of a man whose son is on the gallows, a grief so great that it ultimately kills Hreðel before he takes action against Hæthcyn. Detter even went so far as to suggest that line 2439, “miste mercelses ond his mæg ofscet” (he missed his mark and shot his sibling) is a corruption of “*misteltane his mæg ofscet” (he shot his sibling with the mistletoe). Even if the story is not somehow related to Baldr’s death, the difficulties presented by the need for blood vengeance that lead to Oðin’s quest to produce a son with Rindr specifically to avenge Baldr are displayed in Beowulf as well.
Karl Hauck identified a number of bracteates (flat pieces of metal, like very thin coins, often worn as jewelry) he believes represented myths involving Baldr. These were primarily B-bracteates, meaning that they display one or more human figures, and C-bracteates, meaning that they display a male’s head (often believed to be Oðin’s) above a quadruped, usually a horse. The B-bracteates show three figures, often in a sort of enclosure. The central figure, whom Hauck believes to be Baldr, holds a ring, perhaps Draupnir. Behind this figure is a man with a spear, whom Hauck identifies as Oðin, while facing him is a winged
man in a skirt and wielding a twig; according to Hauck, the winged man is Loki. Some of these bracteates have one or more birds overhead and fish beneath; Hauck interprets the birds as either Oðin’s ravens or valkyries, while the fish are representative of the Underworld.
The C-type bracteates that Hauck identified appear to show a horse with a bent foreleg and a male head floating above the horse; he believes they illustrate the story told in the Second Merseburg Charm.
Etymology of the Name:
The name Baldr may come from OE bealdor, “lord,” possibly related to ON baldr or OHG bald, “bold, brave.” Schroder (cited in Simek) argues for a reconstructed Indo-European *bal-ora-m, “power,” while Grimm thinks a reconstructed Proto-Germanic
*bhel, “white, good” possible.
The Finnish god Lemminkäinen may be connected to Baldr. Though in Lonnrot’s Kalevala, Lemminkäinen is a sort of swashbuckling, romantic character ultimately killed by drowning, the figure of the god who appears in the different versions of the Lemminkäisen Virsi (Lemminkäinen’s song) is a little different. Lemminkäinen is a sort of warrior fertility god not unlike Freyr, associated with agriculture and growth. At a feast for the gods, he sings boons for the guests, but he accidentally neglects to sing for a blind man; the blind man hurls a hemlock dart at Lemminkäinen, killing him. Afterwards, Lemminkäinen’s body is placed in a river, from which it is later recovered, piece by piece, by Lemminkäinen’s mother. She sews the pieces back together and persuades a bee to travel to the halls of Ukko to recover a drop of divine honey; with this honey, she is able to finally restore Lemminkäinen to life.
One of the oldest interpretations of Baldr and Hoðr is that they are gods of light/summer and darkness/winter, respectively. A related interpretation is that Baldr is a solar sky god, while Hoðr is an Underworld power; from a fertility perspective, Baldr provides light and rain, while Hoðr is the soil, and their rivalry for Nanna reflects this overlap in their functions. Baldr’s ship, Hringhorni (“Ship with a ring on its stem”), is read in this interpretation as a solar symbol. Grimm and Frazer speculate that Midsummer bonfires may have originally been intended to represent Baldr’s funeral; the summer solstice marks the beginning of the end of the sun’s reign and the gradual darkening of the sky.
For many modern Heathens, likely working off such theories, Midsummer is Baldr’s chief festival. They celebrate the death/sacrifice of Baldr and anticipate his rebirth out of Hel at Yule (when for some, the hanging of mistletoe represents remembrance of Baldr). Baldr’s death demonstrates for Heathens the mortality of the gods, his funeral and reception in Hel show one of the aspects of the afterlife, and his final return symbolizes the possibility of some sort of rebirth or living on for humans. One of the most frequent requests I get regarding my poetry is permission to use “Mistletoe,” a piece of terza rima I composed with a person on Beliefnet going by the name Patricia, in people’s Midsummer celebrations.
Because mistletoe is a rather flimsy plant, unsuitable for use as a weapon, and because it is found only in isolated areas in Scandinavia (and not normally in Iceland at all), the instrument of Baldr’s death in Snorri’s version has caused quite a bit of controversy and discussion. While some have simply assumed that Snorri and the poet of Voluspa had a poor understanding of what mistletoe actually was, perhaps believing it a tree or similar plant, others have come up with more elaborate theories. Krohn (cited in Liberman 27) believed the myth originated in England. Liberman argues that Baldr was originally killed with a different plant, such as a reed or thistle. The mistletoe may have come into the story as a result of its similarity with the word mist, as in a curtain of mist separating the human world from the Otherworld, or as in the valkyrie Mistr; alternately, it may have replaced the reed or thistle because it was foreign and sounded like a sword kenning, making it an appealing name for a lethally used plant.
Many, such as Rydberg, have sought to replace the plant with a sword called Mistlteinn. Others, like Kabell, suggested that the mistilteinn in Voluspa represents Hoðr, and Snorri misunderstood the heiti.
Baldr appears to have a few places named after him, mostly in Scandinavia. Most of his place names seem to be in Norway, where his name is usually attached to natural features like -berg (rock, mountain), -fjorðr (fjord), and -vik (bay). In Iceland, there are two identically named places, Baldursheimur (Baldr’s home), and there is a boulder named “Baldr,” as well. In Sweden, he seems to be mainly associated with hills and mountains, as in Baldersberg. Saxo says there is a port and a spring named for him; Davidson suggests these may be Balsness (which in 1342 was recorded as Baldersnes, “Baldr’s Island”) in Norway and Baldersbronde (Baldr’s spring) in Denmark, respectively. Also, Danish places such as Bollesager (Baldr’s field), Bolleshowe (Baldr’s howe), and Bolderstoft (Baldr’s enclosure) in Denmark may be named for him.
The Sacrificed God:
Individuals such as Detter and Gundarsson believe that Baldr’s death was originally an Oðinic sacrifice, with the mistletoe’s deadly qualities mirroring events such as Starkaðr’s accidental sacrifice of King Vikarr; Kauffmann (cited in Lieberman 37) suggests that Baldr was sacrificed to Loki, but that Oðin’s spear was originally used. Gundarsson supports Hauck’s bracteate interpretations, seeing in them evidence for Oðin as the primary motivator in Baldr’s death, and suggests that the enclosure on some of the bracteates, which may be the griðastaðr that prevents the gods from taking vengeance for the killing in Snorri’s version, is a sort of ve or hof in which the sacrifice takes place. Though the Dream of the Rood is usually read as a Germanic interpretation of the death of Jesus, a sort of reconciliation between the Germanic heroic ideal and the story of a meek god willingly going to his death combined with an examination of Jesus’s dual nature as god and man, Gundarsson sees it as borrowing heavily from the story of Baldr’s sacrifice at his father’s instigation. He points to the wounding with arrows, the weeping of the entire world, and the invocation of Wyrd to talk about Jesus’s doom as elements taken from Baldr’s death. He further argues that in Husdrapa, the phrase “heilgar tafn,” “holy offering,” refers not to Baldr’s funeral feast but to Baldr himself, and that since elsewhere in skaldic poetry, tafn is used to speak of sacrifices made to Oðin, Baldr’s death is ultimately by Oðin, to Oðin.
Dronke makes a similar argument in her commentary to her translation of Voluspa. In Stanza 31 he begins as “bloðgom tivur,” the bloodstained sacrifice, and becomes identified with the mistletoe that slays him, full-grown, slender, and fair. In the next stanza, the mistletoe is transformed from something seemingly insignificant into “a shaft of anguish, perilous,” not unlike Starkaðr’s ultimately fatal reed (32). The evergreen mistletoe and Baldr become one, capable of surviving in some fashion the winter of the world, and just as men may sacrifice during the winter for renewal of growth, so is Baldr sacrificed for the renewal of the world after Ragnarok.
Lokeans, when not eagerly embracing the Gesta Danorum version of Baldr’s death, will often argue that Loki needed to bring about Baldr’s death so Baldr could go to Hel and thus survive the Ragnarok. Thus, Loki heroically sacrifices not only Baldr but also his own honor and freedom (and, during the Ragnarok, his life) to help insure that life will return to the world after the battle.
Conversely, modern Heathen musician Hauk suggests in his song “Lamentation” that, rather than Baldr’s death being necessary for him to survive the Ragnarok, the Ragnarok is necessary for Baldr to return. He presents Oðin as being willing to see the worlds destroyed in order to create a new, better world, one in which his son has risen again.
The Second Merseburg Charm:
|Old High German
|Phol ende Uuodan
uuoron zi holza,
du uuart demo Balderes volon
sin vuoz birenkit;
thu biguolen Sinthgunt,
Sunna era suister;
thu biguol en Friia,
Volla era suister,
thu biguolen Uuodan,
so he uuola conda:
|Phol and Wodan
rode into the woods,
There Balder’s foal
sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt,
her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija,
her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan,
as he well knew how:
ben zi bena,
bluot zi bluoda,
lid zi geliden,
sose gelimida sin.
Bone to bone;
blood to blood;
Limb to limb –
like they were glued.
The Merseburg Charms were written ca. 900 AD and stored in the library of the cathedral in Merseburg, Germany. While scholars since the Grimms have interpreted Phol as another name for Baldr, Simek instead argues that Phol should be seen as connected to Volla (perhaps Fulla, handmaiden of Frigg), and the two are divine siblings like Frey and Freyja, perhaps even identical to the children of Njord (256). Other possibilities include that Baldr’s name in this poem simply means “lord” and should be read as referring to Wodan or a human lord, or that Phol refers to the horse that is lamed (Stellar, cited in Simek). Gundarsson suggests “the stumbling of Balder’s horse on the way to the wood (presumably, to the holy stead within a grove) was a sign of his coming death” (243). Blottner and Pfennig, on the other hand, see the story presented in the charm as being one in which the masculine power of a fertility god (represented by the horse) is weakened, requiring combined male and female powers to return balance to nature.
Much of The Golden Bough is devoted to Baldr and his death. Frazer argues that Baldr is a sort of incarnation of the oak tree, which Frazer says was widely worshiped by pre-conversion Europeans. According to him, mistletoe growing on the oak, green even in winter, was thought to be the life of the oak, and the mistletoe had to be removed before the oak could be made fully vulnerable, chopped down, and fed to sacred fires; this ritual was either poorly remembered in the myth of Baldr’s death, or the myth was recited as a justification for the actions taken. Frazer believes that Midsummer bonfires are echoes of Baldr’s funeral pyre, and that originally humans or effigies representing Baldr were burned on the bonfires. Frazer’s ideas remain influential for those who prefer to see the myths as reflecting seasonal changes and the cycle of life; Baldr, the dying god who returns after the Ragnarok, is interpreted as a representative of the seeming death of plants in autumn and their later blooming again in spring.
Personal Worship and UPG:
Baldr is a power I worship infrequently. However, I often use the phrase “Baldr’s Blood!” as a curse when I’m unhappy about something. The spilling of Baldr’s blood is indeed a tragedy. After the death of Baldr, the gods are severely weakened and often fail at their tasks; order breaks down. Hermoðr fails to return from Hel with Baldr, Thokk confounds the attempt to get the entire world to weep, the Æsir are unable to launch Baldr’s ship without the help of the giantess Hyrrokkin (whom I see as probably Baldr’s fylgja), Oðin’s men cannot hold Hyrrokkin’s steed, and the Ragnarok becomes inevitable. The death of Baldr isn’t the gods’ first loss, but it is their first irreversible loss. Thor’s not going to come crashing in, defying rules of hospitality to restore order; there isn’t going to be a journey to the homes of dwarves or giants to get treasures to replace what was lost. Loki, who so often helps fix the problems he creates, cannot undo what has been done this time. Baldr’s death is the beginning of the unstoppable slide into the end of things, and all truly should weep.
Bursche, A. “Germanic Gold Bracteates from the Hoard in Zagorzyn near Kalisz” http://www.archeo.uw.edu.pl/zalaczniki/upload801.pdf Accessed March 2013.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. (1964) Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.
Detter, F. (1894) Der Baldrmythus.
Frazer, J. (1922) The Golden Bough.
“Germanic Mantra” http://www.germanischesmantra.de/40057.html Accessed March 2013.
Grimm, J. (2004) Teutonic Mythology Volume 1. Translated by James Stallybrass.
Gundarsson, K. et al. (2006) Our Troth 2nd Edition Volume 1: History and Lore.
“Have you Accepted Lemminkäinen as Your Lord and Savior?” http://www.forgingthesampo.com/2013/03/31/have-you-accepted-lemminkainen/ Accessed April 2013.
Kabel, A. (1965) Balder und die Mistel.
“Lamentation” http://haukmusic.com/trumpets.htm#Lamentation Accessed March 2013.
Liberman, A. “Some Controversial Aspects of the Myth of Baldr” http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/alvismal/11baldr.pdf Accessed April 2013
“Merseburg Incantations.” http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/merseburg.html Accessed April 2013.
“The Myth of Baldr” http://www.haxton.org/Baldr.htm Accessed April 2013.
“Pagan and Supranormal Elements in Scandinavian Place-Names” http://germanic.zxq.net/heathenplace1.html Accessed April 2013.
Rydberg, V. (2003) Our Fathers’ Godsaga Retold for the Young. Translated by William Reaves.
—. (2004) Investigations into Germanic Mythology Volume 2 Part 2: Germanic Mythology. Translated and annotated by William Reaves.
—. (2007) Investigations into Germanic Mythology Volume 2 Part 1: Indo-European Mythology. Translated and annotated by William Reaves.
Simek, R. (1993) Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall.
“Taivaannaula – Finnish Paganism” http://www.taivaannaula.org/finnish_paganism.php Accessed April 2013.