The last myth in this series is the Death of Baldur. It is Snorri’s “greatest achievement as a storyteller,” according to some scholars. They compare it to Shakespeare’s plays, with its balance of comic and tragic. Of course, others fault it for the same thing. A 19th-century scholar slammed it as a “burlesque.” One in the early 20th century chastized Snorri for his “irresponsible treatment” of tradition. Snorri, he sniffed, made myths into “novellas.”
That’s why we remember them, it seems to me.
There’s a version of Baldur’s death in Saxo Grammaticus’s Latin History of the Danes, but since Jacob Grimm (of the famous fairy tale brothers) wrote his German Mythology in 1835, no one has consider it the “real” myth. In his book Grimm cites Snorri’s Edda, but he gives Snorri no credit as an author. He quotes him. He allows that Snorri makes “conjectures.” But when comparing Snorri’s Edda to Saxo’s History of the Danes, Grimm finds the Icelandic text “a purer authority for the Norse religion”—no matter that Snorri and Saxo were writing at roughly the same time. “As for demanding proofs of the genuineness of Norse mythology, we have really got past that now,” Grimm asserts. He finds the myth of Baldur “one of the most ingenious and beautiful in the Edda,” noting it has been “handed down in a later form with variations: and there is no better example of fluctuations in a god-myth.” By the “later form” he means Saxo’s, written between 1185 and 1223. The pure version is Snorri’s, written between 1220 and 1241. Grimm does not find his conclusion illogical; he sees no teller behind Snorri’s tale.
The god Baldur, Odin’s second son, is fair and white as a daisy, Snorri writes, “and so bright that light shines from him.” His palace is called Breidablik, “Broad Gleaming”: “This is in heaven,” Snorri says. Baldur is like the sun in the sky. He is the wisest of the gods, the most eloquent, and the most merciful—but “none of his decisions can be fulfilled,” Snorri writes. He’s beautiful, but totally useless.
In Norse mythology as we know it, Baldur the Beautiful does nothing but die.
Here’s the story as I tell it in my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths:
One night, Baldur began to have bad dreams. Hearing of this, his mother Frigg exacted a promise from everything on earth not to hurt him. Fire and water, iron and stone, soil, trees, animals, birds, snakes, illnesses, and even poisons agreed to leave Baldur alone.
After that, the gods entertained themselves with Baldur-target practice. They shot arrows at him, hit him with spears, pelted him with stones. Nothing hurt him. The gods thought this was glorious, Snorri writes. Except Loki the Trickster. He was jealous. He put on a disguise and wormed up to Frigg. “Have all things sworn oaths not to harm Baldur?”
“There grows a shoot of a tree to the west of Valhalla,” Frigg replied. “It is called mistletoe. It seemed young to me to demand the oath from.”
Loki made a dart of mistletoe and sought out the blind god Hod. “Why are you not shooting at Baldur?”
“Because I cannot see where Baldur is,” Hod replied testily.
“I will direct you,” Loki offered. He gave Hod the dart. Hod tossed it, and Baldur died. Says Snorri, “This was the unluckiest deed ever done among gods and men.”
Reading this story you probably wondered how a dart made of mistletoe could kill anyone.
Snorri had no idea what mistletoe was. It doesn’t grow in Iceland, and is rare in Norway. It is not a tree, but a parasitic vine found in the tops of oaks. The “golden bough” of folklore, it was gathered in some cultures at the summer solstice; picking it caused the days to shorten. Originally, it seems, the death of Baldur was a drama of the agricultural year.
Snorri did not see it that way. In his mythology, time is not cyclical. Baldur does not die off and come back each year like summer. Instead, Baldur’s death causes Ragnarok, in which the old gods are killed and the old earth destroyed in a fiery cataclysm.
Baldur’s death at his brother Hod’s hand is mentioned in the “Song of the Sibyl,” an older poem that Snorri knew and often quotes, though he doesn’t say who wrote it, as he does for most of the poems he quotes in the Edda. In the “Song of the Sibyl,” mistletoe is also Baldur’s bane. Snorri didn’t make that part up. But the plant’s attraction for him (and the “Sibyl” poet) was not any special mythic meaning. What Snorri liked was its name: mistilsteinn. Other Icelandic words ending in “-teinn” referred to swords. And Mist? It’s the name of a valkyrie. A plant named “valkyrie’s sword” must be deadly.
The “Song of the Sibyl” doesn’t say Frigg forced an oath out of everything else on earth to keep Baldur safe. The poem doesn’t say Loki wheedled the secret from her or guided blind Hod’s hand—it doesn’t mention Loki in this context at all.
No one but Snorri says what happened next: Weeping, Frigg begged someone to ride to Hel and offer the goddess of death a ransom to give Baldur back. Hermod—a god in no other story—volunteered. He took Odin’s horse, eight-legged Sleipnir, and set off.
Meanwhile, the gods held Baldur’s funeral. It’s strangely comic—with many details exclusive to Snorri. They carried his body in procession to the sea, Freyr in his chariot drawn by the golden boar; Freyja in hers, drawn by giant cats.
They built Baldur’s pyre on his warship, but when they tried to launch it, they could not: Their grief had sapped their strength, and they had to send to Giantland for help. “A great company of frost-giants and mountain-giants” arrived, including a giantess “riding a wolf and using vipers as reins.” Odin called four of his berserks to see to her mount, but “they were unable to hold it without knocking it down,” Snorri says. The giantess launched the ship “with the first touch, so that flame flew from the rollers and all lands quaked,” performing with a fingertip what all the gods were powerless to accomplish.
That made Thor angry. He never liked a giant to one-up him. “He grasped his hammer and was about to smash her head until all the gods begged for grace for her.”
Nanna, Baldur’s loving wife, then collapsed and died of grief; she was placed on the funeral pyre on the ship beside her husband. (No other source mentions Nanna’s death.) The gods led Baldur’s horse to the pyre and slaughtered it. Odin placed his magic ring, Draupnir, on Baldur’s breast.
Then Thor consecrated the pyre with his hammer and it was set alight. Returning to his place, he stumbled on a dwarf: “Thor kicked at him with his foot,” Snorri writes, “and thrust him into the fire and he was burned.”
The scene shifts back to Hermod’s Hel-ride. Snorri was inspired here by the apocryphal story of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, as told in the Gospel of Nicodemus, which was popular in 13th-century Iceland. Christ, in the Icelandic translation, rode a great white horse into Hell. Hermod rode the eight-legged Sleipnir, also white. He rode for nine nights, through valleys dark and deep, until he reached the river dividing the world from the underworld. He rode onto a bridge covered with glowing gold. The maiden guarding the bridge stopped him. Five battalions of dead warriors had just crossed, she said, but Hermod made more noise. “Why are you riding here on the road to Hel?” she asked. (For Snorri, Hel is both a person and the place she inhabits.)
He was chasing Baldur, Hermod replied. “Have you seen him?”
“Yes, he crossed the bridge. Downwards and northwards lies the road to Hel.”
Hermod rode on until he reached Hel’s gates. “Then he dismounted from the horse and tightened its girth”—a nice detail showing Snorri really did know horses—“mounted and spurred it on.” Sleipnir leaped the gate. Hermod rode up to Hel’s great hall, where he found Baldur sitting in the seat of honor. Hermod stayed the night.
In the morning, he described the great weeping in Asgard and asked Hel if Baldur could ride home with him. (Baldur’s horse, burned on the pyre, was safe in Hel’s stables.)
Hel is not a monster, in Snorri’s tale, but a queen. She gave it some thought. Was Baldur really so beloved? she wondered. She would put it to the test. “If all things in the world, alive or dead, weep for him,” she decreed, “then he shall go back.” If anything refuses to weep, he stays in Hel.
The gods “sent all over the world messengers to request that Baldur 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,” Snorri writes. (He liked to include these little just-so stories.)
Everything wept, that is, except a certain ugly giantess. “It is presumed,” Snorri added, “that this was Loki” in disguise.
No other source makes Loki the Trickster so clearly responsible for taking Baldur the Beautiful from the world. With Baldur’s death, chaos is unleashed. The gods have lost their luck, the end of the world is nigh: Ragnarok, when Loki and his horrible children, the wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent, will join forces with the giants to destroy the gods.
This is the last of the seven Norse myths we wouldn’t have without Snorri. Now that you know how much of Norse mythology he made up, I hope you agree with me that Snorri Sturluson is not only an amazingly creative writer, but the most influential writer of the Middle Ages.
This essay was adapted from my biography of Snorri Sturluson, Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths, published by Palgrave Macmillan. It originally appeared on the science fiction and fantasy lovers website Tor.com.
You can read the complete series here: http://www.tor.com/Nancy%20Marie%20Brown#filter
Join me again next Wednesday at nancymariebrown.blogspot.com for another writing adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.