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Norse Mythology: The Death of Baldur

Updated on November 26, 2020

Often referred to as the most beautiful and beloved of all of the Norse gods, Baldur was believed to be the god of purity, light, and the summer sun. He was also the most favoured of the children of Odin and Frigg. Despite this apparent importance, though, there is not much that is actually known about him. In fact, the only story from Norse myth and legend in which Baldur plays a significant role (at least, among those that survived to be recorded) is the one that concerned his death. It is a story told by Snorri Sturluson, in The Prose Edda—though fragments of, and references to, the tale can also be found in poems in The Poetic Edda.

The story begins when Baldur finds himself plagued by a series of terrible nightmares. Baldur is so troubled by these dreams, which all seem to involve his own death, that he turns to his fellow gods for advice. Upon hearing of his son's dreams, Odin immediately begins to fear that they may prove to be prophetic in nature. Setting out on his eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, Odin travels to the distant realm of Niflheim, where he uses his magic to call forth the spirit of a long-dead seer. From this ancient spirit, Odin learns that, not only is Baldur destined to die, but that he will be denied access to Valhalla—an afterlife reserved only for those who die in glorious battle. Instead, Baldur will be left to languish in Niflheim, under the care of the goddess, Hel. Beyond that, Odin also learns that it will be Baldur's own brother, Hod, who will be the cause of his death.

Returning to Asgard, Odin reveals what he has learned to the other gods. Upon hearing this, Baldur's mother, Frigg, begins to formulate a plan. Determined to protect her son, Frigg sets out on a journey of her own, seeking to extract an object from every living thing that they will never harm Baldur. Frigg does not stop there, though, as she ultimately goes on to extract the same promise even from inanimate objects, such as wood, metal, and stone. While this might seem like an impossible task, Baldur is so loved and revered that each and every one of Frigg's requests on her son's behalf is met with a sincere and solemn promise.

Reassured, Frigg returns to Asgard. The other gods are so impressed by Baldur's newfound invulnerability, that they immediately begin to test it—amusing themselves with a simple game that involves hurling all manner of weapons, and common objects, at Baldur and watching as they harmlessly bounce off of him. Not everyone is amused by this new development, though. Despite being most famous for his role as a cunning trickster, Loki is also a figure prone to resentment and spiteful malice. When Loki took notice of Baldur's invulnerability, his immediate reaction was a profound jealousy.

Quickly concocting a plan of his own, Loki took on the form of a harmless old woman, Loki went to visit Frigg in her home. Guiding the conversation toward Baldur, and the game being played by the other gods, Loki asks if Baldur truly invulnerable to any source of harm. Not suspecting that any harm could possibly come from the admission, Frigg reveals that she had considered mistletoe to be too small, and harmless, to pose any threat to her so. So, she had not extracted a promise from the plant.

"Baldr's Death", Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1817
"Baldr's Death", Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1817 | Source

Overjoyed by what he had just learned, Loki immediately set out to find some mistletoe—shaping the seemingly harmless plant into a spear, which he then took back to Asgard. Loki knew that harming Baldur directly would make him a target for the anger of the other gods, though. So, with the mistletoe spear in hand, he set about finding some way he could enact his plan indirectly. Observing from a distance, Loki soon noticed that Hod, the blind god of winter and Baldur's brother, was not taking part in the game being played by the other gods. Approaching with the mistletoe spear, Loki offered to guide the blind gods hand, allowing him to take part. As the mistletoe spear struck Baldur, though, it immediately pierced his flesh, where every other weapon and object had harmlessly bounced off of him, and Baldur fell to the ground, dead.

Naturally, the gathered gods where stunned. Some among them immediately suspected that Loki must have been behind this tragedy, but there was no clear proof. So, they were unable to act on their suspicions. Instead, in the aftermath, Loki flees, while Hod is ultimately cut down by the god, Vali, in an act of revenge.

Though she is as devastated by her son's death as any other, Frigg is unwilling to accept this tragic turn of events—promptly sending another of her sons, Hermod, to Nifleheim on Odin's eight-legged horse. Upon arriving, Hermod is confronted by Hel, the half-dead ruler of Nifleheim who also happens to be Loki's own daughter. While it might be fair to suspect that she might have some part to play in her father's plans, Hel seemed somewhat moved by Hermod's pleas on his brother's behalf. Hel ultimately agreed to release Baldur—but, only on the condition that all living things should weep for him.

Learning of this, Frigg set out on another journey, to extract another promise from everyone and everything that she meets—this time, that they would weep for the tragic loss of her beloved son, so that he could be set free from Nifleheim. As before, Baldur is so widely loved and revered that everyone and everything that Frigg speaks to is willing to shed tears on his behalf. All, except for one. As her journey reaches its end, Frigg encounters a female giant named Thok. Angrily declaring that Baldur had never done anything for her, and so was not worthy of her grief, the giant refused to shed any tears. This giant, who may have been Loki in yet another disguise, is the sole reason why Baldur was doomed to remain in Nifleheim.

Baldur's tragic death, along with Loki's eventual punishment, were believed to be the primary catalysts for Ragnaork—the end of the world, according to Norse myth.

© 2020 Dallas Matier

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