Balder (Baldr, Bealdor)
The greatest secret of the North is a secret that only two know: "What did Óðinn say - before he climbed on bale-fire - into the ear of his son?" With that question as the last one of the riddle-game, Óðinn showed himself forth to both the etin Vafþrúðnir and the human hero Heiðrekr, winning the games and setting the dooms of his opponents. Wodan and Balder: they know the rune that is hidden from all others, the eighteenth song of Hávamál which Wodan will not tell.
Snorri tells us that Balder is the fairest and most beloved of the gods. He is the heir to the Ases' Garth, the son of Wodan and Frija - but was doomed to an early death. Snorri's version of Balder's death is one of the best-known tales of the North: how, after Frija had gotten everything in the worlds except the little mistletoe to swear not to harm him, the gods played a game in which they tossed weapons at Balder. Meanwhile, Loki, in the shape of an old woman, had gotten the secret out of Frija and cut an arrow of mistletoe, putting it in the hand of the blind god Höðr and aiming it at Balder. After Balder's death, Hella said that she would let him go if everything in the worlds would weep - and this happened, except for one giantess named Thokk, who, Snorri tells us, was Loki in disguise. However, according to Völuspá, Baldr and Höðr (who was slain in revenge by Váli, the son that Óðinn had gotten for that one deed) shall come back when the world is reborn after Ragnarök and rule in Óðinn's place.
Saxo Grammaticus has a different version of the story. As he tells it, Balder was an aggressive, highly sexed warrior who competed with Höðr (not blind in this version) for a woman. One day, Höðr came on the house of some "forest-maids" (generally thought to be walkurjas) who told him that they decided the outcome of war by their invisible deeds in battle, and warned him not to attack Baldr. Höðr then learned that there was but one sword that would kill Balder, which could be found together with an armring that would give wealth to its owner. After several adventures and struggle between the two heroes, the "forest-maids" found Höðr again and told him he would have to eat the magical food from which Baldr got his strength. Höðr followed the three maidens who made the food and convinced them to give him some of it, after which he was able to mortally wound Balder.
The story of Balder, especially as Snorri tells it, has often been thought to have been influenced by christianity. This is almost certain in Snorri's portrayal of the god: "He is the wisest of the Ases and most beautifully spoken and most gentle, but it is one of his characteristics that none of his decisions can be fulfilled". Snorri, in fact, gives us the image of a beautiful, suffering, and rather passive god - very suspiciously like the "White Christ". This is hardly consistent with the rest of what we know about him. Like Freyr and Freyja, Balder is known to us only by a title meaning "ruler" - a title which continued in ordinary Anglo-Saxon usage and, less often, in Old Norse. The root of the word is probably "strength"; it may also be identical with the Old Norse adjective baldr - "daring, courageous". His wife's name, Nanna, probably means, "the courageous" or "the battle-joyful" (de Vries, Religionsgeschichte, p. 223). Although Saxo is infamous for garbling his stories, as well as euhemerizing them, his description of Balder as a warrior is likely to be closer to our forebears' beliefs than is Snorri's pre-Christ. The tale of the Finnish legendary hero Lemminkäinen was also probably influenced by or based on Balder's story (Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion, pp. 117-18). Like Balder, Lemminkäinen was slain with a weak reed or herb (cowbane) by a blind man. His mother, too, sorrows after him and undergoes a great journey for his sake, but she is more successful than Frija: she is able to put her son's body together and bring him back to life. Lemminkäinen's chief characteristics are his love for battle and his love for women, concerning both of which he is notably successful: he is the very paradigm of the manly young hero, and it is likely that Balder also shared this character.
Likewise in the heroic mode, Balder's dreams foretell his own doom. In this, he closely resembles many (indeed, most) of the heroes of the North, who typically dream their own deaths before the event comes about. The description of these dreams in Saxo, where the goddess of the underworld promises Balder her embraces, are particularly similar to Gísli's death-foreboding dreams in which a dark dís claims him as her husband (Gísla saga Súrssonar) and Glaumvor's dream of dead women beckoning to Gunnarr, which foretells the doom of the Burgundian king ("Atlamál hin groenlenzku"). In fact, Balder is particularly (one might even say fatally) attractive to these dark and deathly goddesses. It is Balder whom Skaði desires above all others, though it is not his wyrd to be claimed by her: it is Hella who decks her hall and brews the beer for his welcome feast.
The earliest literary work we have which probably holds references to the Balder story is the Anglo-Saxon "Dream of the Rood" (ca. 650-750), which inverts the process demonstrated by Snorri. Although this poem was ostensibly about Christ, many of its elements do not correspond to the christian myth of the crucifixion. The poem's "Christ" is presented as a strong young Germanic warrior undergoing a swift and violent heroic ordeal, and Wyrd is in fact invoked to describe his doom: "that was a dreadful Wyrd" (line 73). He is wounded, not with spear or nails, but "with arrows"; after his death, the whole of the world weeps, a detail which is elsewhere only found in the Balder tale. It seems likely that the christian poet used the story of Balder to transform his god from a meek figure undergoing a shameful criminal's punishment to an heroic sacrifice of the sort for which the Anglo-Saxons already had a model.
The image of Balder as a sacrifice is almost certainly native Germanic. In Húsdrápa, which was written by the Heathen Úlfr Uggason in the tenth century and shows no taint of christian influence, Balder is called the "heilagr tafn" - the "holy sacrifice". The very word "tafn" was used only for Heathen gifts to the god/esses; it could not be given a christian interpretation after the conversion. It was most often used in skaldic poetry as an internal rhyme for "hrafn" (raven), referring to the battle-dead; the skaldic poet Helgi trausti Óláfsson specifically called his slain foeman "Gaut's tafn" (Óðinn's sacrifice). The interpretation of Balder's death as a holy, and probably Wodanic, sacrifice is also borne out by the way in which it seems to appear on a number of bracteates of the Migration Age, as spoken of later.
Balder's home is called "Breiðablik" (Broad-Gleaming), and it is said that no feiknstafir (staves of harm) can come there, which de Vries reads as speaking of Balder's invulnerability (Religionsgeschichte, p. 214). The god Forseti (Fosite) is supposed to be his son. Balder was worshipped during the Viking Age; several place-names in Sweden and Denmark are compounded with his, including a "Balder's Mountain" and a "Balder's Cornfield". Turville-Petre comments, however, that these names tell us little - only that his cult does not seem to have been practised widely, that it might have been connected with rocks and hills, and perhaps that there was an element of fruitfulness to it (Myth and Religion, pp. 117-18). There is a place-name Baldersbrønd (Balder's Spring) in Denmark, which Saxo mentions. According to the Gesta Danorum, when Balder returned to shore after defeating Höðr in a sea-battle, he pierced the earth to loose this spring so that his tired soldiers could drink. This, as Stephan P. Schwartz has pointed out (Poetry and Law in Germanic Myth, pp. 20-21), bears a close resemblance to the Frisian legend of Fosite, and may well hint at a belief in Balder, as well as Fosite, as a law-god (see the discussion under Fosite in "Wuldor and Other Gods").
The "Zweite Merseburger Zauberspruch" also mentions Balder:
Phol and Wodan went to the wood.
Then Balder's horse sprained its foot.
Then chanted Sinthgunt, Sunna her sister;
then chanted Frija, Folla her sister,
then chanted Wodan, as well he knew how to.
Thus be the bone-sprain, thus be the blood-sprain,
thus be the limb-sprain,
bone to bone,
blood to blood,
limb to limb:
thus be the binding.
There has been much academic argument about this charm, including the question of whether "Balder" is meant as a personal name, or whether it is a title for the god "Phol". If this charm has any meaning besides being the common Indo-European healing charm with Germanic names plugged in, then the interpretation which seems the most spiritually valid (though Turville-Petre dismisses it as over-imaginative) is the idea that 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. The belief that the stumbling of a horse was an ill sign was, indeed, very well known to our forebears; and in his studies of bracteate-iconography (see below), Karl Hauck has come to the conclusion that there is Migration Age pictoral evidence for this reading of the charm.
The bracteate from Fakse (Denmark) has a central figure with a ring in his left hand and a half-broken twig jutting downward from his solar plexus. He stands in a half-marked enclosure. Behind him is a man with a spear; before him is a man with wings who wears a feminine skirt and also holds a ring. A bird of prey hovers above his head; there are two fish at the bottom of the bracteate. On the bracteate from Beresina-Raum, the same grouping appears, with the difference that the figure in feminine garb stands within the semi-enclosure and holds the twig up; the shot has not yet been fired. The one from Gummerup has the foremost figure holding a sword as well as a ring; the twig is shooting overhead.
Karl Hauck, a German scholar who has specialized in bracteate iconography for over forty years, has written extensively on these bracteates: his conclusions can be summarized as follows. The spear-holding man is clearly Wodan, the winged and cross-dressed figure Loki, and the man in the middle Balder. Hauck interprets the ring which Balder holds as Draupnir, which Wodan put on the funeral pyre, and suggests that here, it appears as the symbol of Balder's sacrifice. As discussed in greater detail below, it is possible that Höðr's part in the slaying was a later addition and that Wodan originally had a more direct part in it; Hauck's interpretation is that in the oldest version, which we see on the bracteates, Wodan gave his son the ring while Balder was still alive, to mark him out for doom. The enclosure, which appears in several variant forms, is especially interesting: it seems to show a fence of some sort, and in the area from which these bracteates stem, a number of place-names go back to an original "Óðinn's enclosure", in which the particular term for "enclosure" seems to describe a construction of wood ("Frühmittelalterliche Bildüberlieferung und die organisierte Kult", p. 487). In Snorri's version of the story, vengeance cannot be taken on Höðr at once because the slaying occured in a holy place (griðastaðr, or "peace-stead"); this may also refer to a specific holy enclosure. The bird of prey may represent, as Hauck has often suggested, a baleful battle-wight whose appearance is a sign of Balder's doom, or it may be one of Wodan's birds ready to claim its share of the sacrifice; the fish which appear at the bottom of a couple of these bracteates probably show the might of the Underworld where Balder, according to the Norse sources, shall soon fare on his burning ship.
The variant forms of the Siegfried-story also offer a suspiciously close correspondence to the tale of Balder's death. According to the German Nibelungenlied, Siegfried had bathed in a dragon's blood and was therefore invulnerable except for one spot on his back where a linden leaf had fallen. Hagen found out from Siegfried's wife Kriemhild where that place was, and speared Siegfried in the back as he bent to drink from a stream. Both the invulnerability motif and the spearing are missing from the Norse version - it might be suggested, because Balder was still known as a god in the North at that time, but had long been suppressed in the south. In both versions, however, the figure of Siegfried was very like that of Balder: handsome and loved by all, the bravest of men and the best of warriors, but doomed to die young in spite of all his strength and magical warding. According to Continental tradition (the epic poem "Waltharius" and the German source for Þiðreks saga), Hagen was also said to be one-eyed; and his name means "hedge-thorn" (hawthorn), which is a wholly unlikely name for a Germanic warrior (the popularity of the Old Norse name Högni was based on this character's heroic role in the lays about the fall of the Rhenish Burgundian kingdom). "Hagen", like "Helgi" and a few other names which became common in the Viking Age, may well have originally been a cultic title, referring to an enclosure like that in which the Balder of the bracteates was sacrificed. The place-names Hauck cites also hint at the possibility of a strong Wodan-identification for both the name and the character. The spearing, of course, is typical for a Wodan-sacrifice; the more so given the streamside location, since running streams were often thought to be holy, and there is a particular connection between streams and both Balder and his son Fosite.
The interpretation of Wodan as the chief mover in Balder's death rests on several strong points. Firstly, the seemingly harmless missile weapon which suddenly becomes deadly is characteristic for Wodan-sacrifices. In Gautreks saga, Wodan gives Starkaðr a reed to thrust into King Víkarr at the mock sacrifice which has been arranged. When Starkaðr does this, the reed suddenly becomes a spear and the calf-gut around Víkarr's neck becomes a strong rope. In Styrbjarnar þáttr, after King Eiríkr has sacrificed to Wodan, the god gives him a reed to cast over Styrbjörn's army with the words "Óðinn has you all!" He does this, and his foes are straightaway struck blind. Wodan is also well-known for deeming the deaths of his chosen heroes and his children. The list of heroes whom he blessed, only to have them slain in the end, is long and enfolds both legendary and historical warriors: Sigmundr the Völsung and Hrólfr kraki, Haraldr Hilditönn, Heiðrekr, Eiríkr Blood-Axe and Hákon the Good, among others. Unlike the rest, however, Balder does not take his place in Valhöll - it is not for the last battle that Wodan wants him.
The name Höðr simply means "warrior"; and Wodan himself, as well as Bileygr ("weak-eyed") is also called Tvíblindi ("blind in both eyes"), and Helblindi ("Hel-blind"). The figure of the blind warrior, then, is not hard to read as Wodan himself, and this is how many scholars, including Turville-Petre, de Vries, and Polomé, see him. However, the Beowulf poet knew a version of the story in which Hathcyn slays his brother Herebeald; if Beowulf is indeed to be dated to the late seventh/early eighth century, this would show that Höðr was a part of the tale quite early. It is also to be noted that Wodan seldom actually slays his own victims: he is the one who deems their death, but leaves other hands to carry out his sacrifice.
De Vries (Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte) and Polomé (Essays on Germanic Religion) both interpret Balder's death as an initiation ritual: and surely a youth's passage through death to come back as man and ruler, as Balder does, is one of the basic models of initiation. This can also be compared to Wodan's initiation on the World-Tree: he dies, sinks down, and returns more mighty than before. Balder's initiation, however, is far longer-lasting, and may even have greater meaning for the worlds. Because he does not join the warriors in Walhall, despite the fact that he has been slain with a shooting-weapon and burned according to the usual practise of Wodan's followers, he does not die at Ragnarök. Instead, he is in Hella's safe keeping throughout the last battle, so that when the world is born again, he can come back and take his father's place to make the might of the gods great again. Balder's rebirth is also Wodan's rebirth, and Wodan's great victory: but without death, as the Death-God himself knows, there can be no rebirth. Balder's death has sometimes been read as a myth of fruitfulness, but he has nothing to do with the fruitfulness of the fields. Instead, his passage shows this process on the largest of all scales: the falling and rising again of the cosmos. The worlds weep at Balder's death, because they know that to be the sign of their doom as well, but we know that this shall not last forever. Kveldulf Gundarsson suggests that this lore is truly the secret which Wodan whispered in Balder's ear: the rune eihwaz ("yew"), "the rune of the will which survives death and rebirth...life hidden within death as the fire is hidden within the rough, cold bark of the yew...By this rune Baldr, hidden for a time in Hel's protecting kingdom, is able to bring himself and Hodhr forth alive again after Ragnarok" (Teutonic Magic, p. 103).
To Ásatrú, Balder is the seed of hope. Living, he is, like Siegfried, the brave young hero who embodies all that is brightest within us. His sacrifice ends the old age and brings the new to birth; as he waits in Hella's halls for his rebirth, he reminds us that even Ragnarök cannot destroy the might of the god/esses nor the best of what they, and we, have wrought. In this new time, we may also think on the fact that it was Siegfried's story which has saved more of the old lore, in poetry and prose, than the legend of any other hero, and the same story that has kindled the widest-reaching works of Teutonic art in this age: Siegfried's deeds and early death have wrought much the same work for Heathendom among the folk that Balder's early death will wreak for the god/esses, so that the hero may well be seen as a reflection of the god.
Balder is less a god to be called on for help than one to be loved, remembered, and toasted at symbel. There are no hints in the lore of our forebears of him doing anything for humans: his might is not in what he does, but in the promise of what he is and shall become. It is particularly fitting to remember him at the four great feasts of the year: at Midsummer's, when the Sun stands at her height and our thoughts turn to the deeds of the bright young heroes and heroines; at Winternights, when the world turns towards darkness and cold; at Yule, when the dead are closest to the land of the living and only the evergreens show that life shall spring forth again; and at Ostara, when we may most hope that the brightness of the land's rebirth shall be echoed again in the bright rebirth of the worlds after Ragnarök.
The plants holy to Balder are the ox-eye daisy and white flowers of the same family, which are called "Balder's Brow"; the name is also given to the chammomile. The linden and the mistletoe bear the obvious association with the god, especially the latter: the "mist-twig" is the plant that opens the way into the underworld, as it did for Balder, but it may also be seen as the plant that will open his way back out again.
Balder's colour is white; gold may also be fitting to him.
"Siegfried's Funeral March" from Götterdämmerung is fitting music for remembering Balder's death, the more so since Wagner quite deliberately subsituted Siegfried for Balder in his version of the fall of the old world and the dawning of the new.