Monday, January 25, 2016

Balder the Beautiful

         I heard a voice that cried,
       Balder the beautiful
       Is dead, dead.  

One day in childhood, C. S. Lewis was searching through his father's extensive library, and he stumbled across these words in a poem by Longfellow.

Although young Jack had no idea who this Balder might be, the words stirred something in him--"an extraordinary feeling, a notion of great cold expanses of northern sky"--according to The Inklings, by Humphrey Carpenter.

Balder (or Baldr), in Norse mythology, is the second son of Odin and brother of Thor and Vali. He had a twin brother named Hoor, who was blind. 

Balder is always described in "glowing" terms:

The second son of Odin is Baldur, and good things are to be said of him. He is best, and all praise him; he is so fair of feature, and so bright, that light shines from him.    
                     -- from the Prose Edda

Balder had a dream of his own death, and the dream frightened him. To make matters worse, his mother Frigg had the same dream. In an effort to protect her son, Frigg made every object in the realm swear never to harm Balder. Every object save one made this promise.

Stones promised. Trees promised. Daggers and weapons of every sort promised. Everything promised except for just one thing--the mistletoe. Did Frigg overlook this humble branch with pointed leaves, thinking it too small? Or was the mistletoe too young to swear an oath?

When the gods heard that everything had promised never to harm Balder, they made a new sport. They would toss things at Balder--both harmless and dangerous things--just to watch them all miss or fall away without hurting him.

But Loki, the mischief maker, heard about the dream and the promise Frigg had asked every object to make. He also heard about the mistletoe.

Loki was tired of everyone always singing the praises of Balder, and so he devised an evil plan. He fashioned a spear out of mistletoe and handed it to Balder's blind twin Hoor to toss at Balder. Some say that when the spear left Hoor's hand, Loki guided its path.

Alas, the enchanted arrow found its mark, and Balder the Beautiful fell dead. The sound of weeping was heard throughout Asgard.

Balder's body was ceremonially burned on his ship, Hringhorni--largest of all ships. As he was carried to the ship, Odin whispered something in his ear, but no-one knows what he said. Then Hyrrokin, a giantess, set the ship sailing on the open sea.

To punish Hoor for slaying Balder, Odin and Frigg conceived another son--a son who grew up in a single day and slayed Hoor.

Hel, keeper of the underworld, promised to release Balder back to earth if everyone dead and alive would weep for him. Everyone did--everyone except one giantess, believed to be Loki in disguise. Thus, Balder was forced to remain in the underworld until the day of Ragnarok, an apocalyptic time foretold when Balder and Hoor would be reunited and would rule the new world together.

As for Loki, after many more malicious, arrogant deeds, he comes to no good end, bound to a rock, beneath a poisonous snake that drips venom down on the prisoner. Loki writhes with such violence that the earth first experiences what we now call earthquakes.

Many comparisons have been made between Balder and Christ. Jesus, the bright and shining Son of God, was betrayed by the fallen angel Lucifer and put to death. And prophets tell of a time when Jesus will rule a new Heaven and a new earth, and Lucifer will be bound for a thousand years. Balder was "a dying god."

But there comparisons must end. For Jesus, unlike Balder, walked out of his tomb, very much alive--"that through death he might destroy him who had the power, that is, the devil."

I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.      Rev. 1:18  KJV

The myth-makers told some great stories, and the story of Balder is one of them. But only one story can rightly claim to be "The Greatest Story Ever Told"--the true story of the Christ, the Risen Redeemer.

Photo Credits:
    "Odin's last words to Baldr," by W. G. Collingwood
     Iceland, by Roger McLassus
    "Each arrow overshot his head," by Elmer Boyd Smith
    Mistletoe berries, by Alexbrn
    Balder killed by Hoor and Loki, from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript
    "Odin's last words to Baldr," detail
    "The Punishment of Loki," by Louis Huard 
    The Empty Tomb, by Mary Kasting

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating story, Patty! I've never read this myth. Thanks for sharing it! I always look forward to your posts (: