From the Prose Edda

Seated on a cliff before his fight with the dragon, Beowulf, "sad at heart / unsettled yet ready, sensing his death" (NAEL 8, 1.85, lines 2419–20), addresses his men and remembers his life. The first memory is of a tragic event when he was growing up at the court of his great-uncle King Hrethel. Missing his target, Hrethel's second son, Haethcyn, kills his elder brother Herebeald. Beowulf focuses on the misery of the old king, who "Gazes sorrowfully at his son's dwelling, / the banquet hall bereft of all delight, / . . . . what was is no more" (NAEL 8, 1.85, lines 2455–58). Scholars have surmised that this incident refers to a myth in Norse mythology in which Balder, the son of the king and queen of the gods Odin and Frigg, is killed with an arrow shot by his blind brother Hod.

Very little is known of Germanic mythology from the time of the Beowulf poet because the Church was anxious to eradicate the pagan mythology of its Germanic converts. Most of our knowledge of that mythology comes from Icelandic sources, and especially from the Edda of Snorri Sturluson. The conversion of Iceland did not take place until the year 1000, and Snorri, who also wrote sagas, was concerned to preserve the history, poetry, myths, and legends of his people. His version of the ancient myths is certainly affected by the influence of Christianity and familiarity with classical mythology in addition to his superb literary craftsmanship. If the Beowulf poet did know the myth of Balder, it would have been in a form very different from that of the Edda. Nevertheless, if only in mood and tone, these widely separated works have something in common, which is captured in Seamus Heaney's translation by the phrase "what was is no more."

In the Edda Balder's death is not accidental. It is caused, on the one hand, by the efforts of the Æsir (the gods) to circumvent the fate foretold in Balder's prophetic dreams and, on the other hand, through the malice of the fire god Loki, the offspring of giants who dwells with the Æsir in Asgard, the Nordic Olympus. Unlike the Greek gods, the Norse gods are mortal; they and their enemies the giants are doomed to annihilate one another in a final battle. At times, Loki helps the Æsir with his cunning, but he also secretly plots against them. He is a shape-shifter and Snorri refers to him as the father of lies — one of the epithets for Satan.

The translation is by Anthony Faulkes from Edda Snorra Sturlusonar [i.e., the Edda of Snorri Sturluson] (London: Dent, 1987).

The Death of Balder

[Click on image to enlarge] [T]he beginning of this story is that Balder the Good dreamed great dreams boding peril to his life. And when he told the Æsir the dreams they took counsel together and it was decided to request immunity for Balder from all kinds of danger, and Frigg received solemn promises so that Balder should not be banned by fire and water, iron and all kinds of metal, stones, the earth, trees, diseases, the animals, the birds, poison, snakes. And when this was done and confirmed, then it became an entertainment for Balder and the Æsir that he should stand up at assemblies and all the others should either shoot at him or strike at him or throw stones at him. But whatever they did he was unharmed, and they all thought this a great glory. But when Loki Laufeyiarson saw this he was not pleased that Balder was unharmed. He went to Fensalir to Frigg and changed his appearance to that of a woman. Then Frigg asked this woman if she knew what the Æsir were doing at the assembly. She said that everyone was shooting at Balder, and moreover that he was unharmed. Then said Frigg: "Weapons and wood will not hurt Balder. I have received oaths from them all."

Then the woman asked: "Have all things sworn oaths not to harm Balder?"

Then Frigg replied: "There grows a shoot of a tree to the west of Valhalla. It is called mistletoe. It seemed young to me to demand the oath from."

Straight away the woman disappeared. And Loki took mistletoe and plucked it and went to the assembly. Hod was standing at the edge of the circle of people, for he was blind. Then Loki said to him: "Why are you not shooting at Balder?"

He replied: "Because I cannot see where Balder is, and secondly because I have no weapon."

Then said Loki: "Follow other people's example and do Balder honor like other people. I will direct you to where he is standing. Shoot at him this stick."

Hod took the mistletoe and shot at Balder at Loki's direction. The missile flew through him and he fell dead to the ground, and this was the unluckiest deed ever done among gods and men. When Balder had fallen, then all the Æsir's tongues failed them, as did their hands for lifting him up, and they all looked at each other and were all of one mind towards the one who had done the deed. But no one could take vengeance, it was a place of such sanctuary.

When the Æsir tried to speak then what happened first was that weeping came out, so that none could tell another in words of his grief. But it was Odin who took this injury the hardest in that he had the best idea what great deprivation and loss the death of Balder would cause the Æsir. And when the gods came to themselves then Frigg spoke, and asked who there was among the Æsir who wished to earn all her love and favor and was willing to ride the road to Hel and try if he could find Balder, and offer Hel >> note 1 a ransom if she would let Balder go back to Asgard. Hermod the Bold, Odin's boy, is the name of the one who undertook this journey. Then Odin's horse Sleipnir was fetched and led forward and Hermod mounted this horse and galloped away. So the Æsir took Balder's body and carried it to the sea. Hringhorni was the name of Balder's ship. It was the biggest of all ships. This the Æsir planned to launch and perform on it Balder's funeral. . . . Then Balder's body was carried out on to the ship, and when his wife Nanna Nep's daughter saw this she collapsed with grief and died. She was carried on to the pyre and it was set on fire. . . .

Balder's horse was led onto the pyre with all its harness. But there is this to tell of Hermod that he rode for nine nights through valleys dark and deep so that he saw nothing until he came to the river Gioll and rode on to Gioll bridge. It is covered with glowing gold. There is a maiden guarding the bridge called Modgud. She asked him his name and lineage and said that the other day there had ridden over the bridge five battalions of dead men:

"But the bridge resounds no less under just you, and you do not have the color of dead men. Why are you riding here on the road to Hel?"

He replied: "I am to ride to Hel to seek Balder. But have you seen anything of Balder on the road to Hel?"

And she said that Balder had ridden there over Gioll bridge, "but downwards and northwards lies the road to Hel."

Then Hermod rode on until he came to Hel's gates. Then he dismounted from the horse and tightened its girth, mounted and spurred it on. The horse jumped so hard and over the gate that it came nowhere near. Then Hermod rode up to the hall and dismounted from his horse, went into the hall, saw sitting there in the seat of honor his brother Balder; and Hermod stayed there the night. In the morning Hermod begged from Hel that Balder might ride home with him and said what great weeping there was among the Æsir. But Hel said that it must be tested whether Balder was as beloved as people said in the following way, "And if all things in the world, alive and dead, weep for him, then he shall go back to the Æsir, but be kept with Hel if any objects or refuses to weep."

Then Hermod got up and Balder went with him out of the hall. . . . Then Hermod rode back on his way and came to Asgard and told all the tidings he had seen and heard.

After this the Æsir sent over all the world messengers to request that Balder be wept out of Hel. And all did this, the people and animals and the earth and the stones and trees and every metal, just as you will have seen that these things weep when they come out of frost and into heat. When the envoys were traveling back having well fulfilled their errand, they found in a certain cave a giantess sitting. She said her name was Thanks. They bade her weep Balder out of Hel. She said, "Thanks will weep dry tears for Balder's burial. No good got I from the old one's son either dead or alive. Let Hel hold what she has." It is presumed that this was Loki Laufeyiarson, who has done most evil among the Æsir.

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