The gods and goddesses gathered in the shadow of Balder’s terrible dreams, dreams that threatened to pitch him into the darkness for ever. Not one of them doubted his life was in danger and for a long time they discussed how to protect him.
The gods and goddesses thought of all the ways in which one can die; they named each earth-thing, sea-thing and sky-thing that can cause sudden death. Then Balder’s mother, Frigg, began to travel through the nine worlds and get each and every substance to swear an oath that it would not harm Balder.
Fire swore an oath. Water swore an oath. Iron and every other kind of metal swore an oath. The stones swore oaths. Nothing could stay Frigg from her mission or resist her sweet troubled persuasion. Earth swore an oath. The trees swore oaths. Each kind of illness swore an oath. Balder’s mother was untiring and painstaking. All the animals swore an oath and so did every sidling snake.
Then the gods and goddesses met again and Frigg satisfied them that she had done as they asked, and that nothing in creation would harm Balder.
“We should put it to the test,” they said. And one picked up a pebble and lobbed it so that it landed right on Balder’s head.
Whatever power that small stone had, it withheld it. Balder did not even know that the pebble had struck him. “I could not feel it at all,” he said.
Then all the gods and goddesses laughed. They left Gladsheim and streamed out into the sunlight. The hall’s gold roof and gold walls were glowing and the green plain of Idavoll teemed with activity — the gods’ servants coming and going, troops of light elves hurrying about their business, visitors to Asgard staring in wonder about them, and animals of many kinds grazing or dozing, all of them glad to be alive.
– – – – – – –
The foremost gods met in Gladsheim and the goddesses in Vingolf. They ruled over Asgard; they discussed the feats and the fates of heroic men in Midgard. And after their councils, they often met together and were joined by a jostling throng — gossiping, sociable, eager for amusement. Sometimes they drank, sometimes they sang, they made trials of their strength and played games of all kinds.
It was not long before the gods thought they should check Balder’s safety again; they could not resist the sport. One tossed a pebble at him and it struck him on the cheekbone; another aimed a stick at him and hit him on the chest.
“I could not feel them at all,” said Balder.
Then the gods laughed and tried other tests. One thing led to another and soon they became very bold. They made Balder stand against a wall as a target. Some threw darts with wicked points at him, and the darts bounced off him and fell at his feet. Some brought in stones and hurled them at him. The rest struck at him with axes and slashed at him with swords and the tempered metal would not scathe Balder, it would not even graze him. The fairest and most gentle of the gods became the butt of the most violent assaults and they did not harm him. Everyone present enjoyed this new game hugely and they all rejoiced that it was impossible to hurt him.
All except Loki: the Sly One watched with distaste and impatience. Trouble and suffering were meat and drink to him, and it sickened him to see that Balder was immune from every kind of attack. This grudge grew in him day by day and began to consume him. He refused to take part in the games and yet he was unable to keep away.
One afternoon Loki was loafing as usual against the door of Gladsheim, watching the assembly, when an idea occurred to him. He half closed his eyes; he licked his twisted lips and smiled. Unnoticed, he stepped out of the hubbub and quickly walked off in the direction of Fensalir.
Loki paused. He had a careful look round; there was nobody about. Then he whispered the charm; the Shape Changer turned himself into an old woman.
As Loki hoped, Frigg was in her hall and alone. Loki hobbled across the floor; she sniffed, wiped her dripping nose with the back of her hand and rubbed it against her grubby dark dress. “Where am I?” she demanded.
Frigg rose, greeted the old woman, and named herself.
“It’s a long way from home,” observed the old woman. “And I’m not sure it’s been worth coming.”
Frigg listened patiently.
“I passed a place some way back. What a noise! I couldn’t get anyone to listen. And the people there were all stoning one man. Poor man! He had a white face, so white … shining hair. One against all, yes; I didn’t know that sort of thing went on in Asgard.”
Frigg smiled faintly and thought it wise to wait until the old woman had had her say.
“I didn’t stay long; I never did like stonings. Who would have thought it? So far to have come, and then it’s much the same. He hadn’t got long., poor man. He’ll be dead by now, yes.” As the old woman rambled on, it seemed she had quite forgotten she was in company. But now she her head fiercely and glared at Frigg. “What was going on then? Do you know why they were stoning him?”
Frigg told the old woman that what she had seen was not a stoning but a host of gods and goddesses sporting with her own son. She explained that Balder had not been hurt by a single stone and was just as ready take part as anyone else.
“What kind of magic is that then?” asked the old woman. She had the makings of a moustache and it was twitching in rather a disturbing way.
“Nothing will hurt Balder,” replied Frigg. “No metal will harm him, no wood will wound him. I’ve taken an oath from everything.”
“Everything?” said the old woman. “Even a pinch of salt, I suppose?”
Frigg began to feel irritated with this wearisome crone; she shrugged as if she were trying to get rid of her.
“Everything?” The old woman sniffed. “You really mean that everything has sworn you an oath that it will not injure Balder?”
“Everything,” said Frigg dismissively, “except the little bush that grows west of Valhalla, the mistletoe. That’s so young I didn’t bother with it.”
The old woman grunted. “Well you’ve given me the time of day,” she said. “You’ve given me the time of day, yes; now I’ll be getting along.
Frigg inclined her head.
The old woman turned and painfully made her way to the doors of Fensalir. And Frigg was not in the least sorry to see her go.
As soon as he was quite certain he was alone, the Shape Changer muttered the magic words. Then, crowing, he resumed his old form – Loki again.
Jauntily the Trickster walked across the plain of Idavoll – deserted now except for the animals that stood in motionless groups, as if they were waiting, or had never moved. The air was thickening, the distance and middle distance were blurred and bluish; it was almost night.
Loki hurried past Gladsheim. He hurried towards Valhalla and smiled to himself as he heard the Einherjar shouting. He hurried on west in the fading light, whistling and looking sharply to left and right and under his feet. Then he entered a small grove. And there, rooted neither in earth nor water, but growing out of the trunk of an oak, the Sly One found what he had come for — the spray of mistletoe.
Its berries gleamed like clusters of pale eyes. Its leaves were green and yellow-green, its stem and small branches and twigs were green. Unmoving and otherworldly it seemed in broad daylight, and even more strange now in the half light.
Loki grabbed at the little bush and wrenched at it until it came away from the oak. Then he left the grove and took the path to Gladsheim, picking at the spray as he hurried along. He chose the straightest branch, almost as long as his forearm, and stripped it down, leaving a small trail of droppings behind him. Loki sharpened one end of it; he stropped it against his belt, and stepped into the warm light of the hall.
The gathering in Gladsheim was so caught up in the game they playing that no one was aware Loki had gone and no one noticed he had come back again. The Sly One looked around. He smiled when he that Frigg had joined the company; his lips tightened and his eyes narrowed as he watched blind Hod, Balder’s brother, standing a little aside as usual — pathetic in his slow fumbling movements; and when Loki saw that many of the gods were once again hurling darts at long-suffering Balder, he doubled up. For a moment his whole I was convulsed, as if in laughter or terrible pain.
A servant hurried up and offered Loki wine. Loki drained the cup in one draught and then sauntered across the spacious hall, behind the semicircle of the gods and their followers. He sidled up to Hod and poked him in the ribs.
“That can only be Loki,” said Hod.
“None other,” said a voice in his ear.
“Well?” said Hod.
“Why don’t you join in? Why aren’t you throwing darts at your brother?”
“Because I can’t see where he is,” said Hod.
Loki sucked his cheeks.
“Another thing,” said Hod. “I have no weapon.”
“This is not as it should be,” said Loki with measured indignation “They do wrong to ignore you — and you his brother.”
Hod’s expression did not alter. He had long since learned to accept his fate. “Nothing comes,” he said, “of rankling resentment.”
Hod’s words were drowned in a roar of laughter.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Only more of the same,” said Loki. “A dart well aimed. But now it’s your turn, Hod. You should pay your respects to Balder like everybody else.”
“I have no weapon,” Hod repeated.
“take this twig then,” said Loki, and he put the sharpened mistletoe between Hod’s hands. “I’ll show you where he’s standing. I’ll stand behind you and guide your hand.”
Loki’s eyes were on fire now. His whole body was on fire. His face was ravaged by wolfish evil and hunger.
Hod grasped the mistletoe and lifted his right arm. Guided by Loki, he aimed the dart at his brother Balder.
The mistletoe flew through the hall and it struck Balder. It pierced him and passed right through him. The god fell on his face. He was dead.
There was no sound in Gladsheim, no sound, only the roaring of silence. The gods could not speak. They looked at the fairest and most wise of them all, shining and lifeless, and they could not even move from where they stood to lift him.
The gods stared at each other and then they turned to stare at Hod and Loki. They had no doubt. They were all of one mind about who had caused Balder’s death and yet none of them were able to take vengeance. The ground of Gladsheim was hallowed and no one was ready to shed blood in the sanctuary.
Hod could not see the fearsome gaze of that gathering, Loki could not withstand it. He loped towards the doors of Gladsheim and slunk away into the darkness.
Then the terrible silence was broken. One goddess began to weep, seized by wild grief. And the weeping of one unlocked the floodgates of them all. When they tried to speak, they found they could not tell their grief and their words were choked with tears.
Odin himself was there and, of all the gods and goddesses, he was the most deeply afflicted. He best understood that this was the greatest evil ever sustained by gods and men, and foresaw what loss and sorrow would follow in the wake of his son’s death.
Frigg was the first to speak. “Does anyone …” she asked. “Does anyone here want to win all my love and favor?”
The mourning company turned to face her.
“Is there anyone here who will ride the long road to Hel and try to find Balder?”
Then the goddesses buried their faces in their hands and sobbed again.
“Is there anyone here,” said Frigg, her voice rising, “who will offer Hel a ransom, offer her a ransom if she’ll allow my son Balder to come home to Asgard again?”
Then Hermod stepped forward, Odin’s son whom everyone admired for his boldness. “I will,” he said. “I am ready to go.”
Gladsheim began to breathe and sound again. Odin gave servants orders. They hurried out of the hall and soon returned with Sleipnir, Odin’s own horse.
Allfather took the reins and handed them to Hermod. Then, in Gladsheim, Hermod mounted Sleipnir. He looked down at the upturned faces of the gods and goddesses and at the fair fallen body of Balder. He raised his hand and spurred the steed; Sleipnir’s hooves clattered against the marble floor. Hermod galloped out into the darkness and on towards the endless night.
– – – – – – – – – –
The gods and goddesses did not sleep; they kept a silent vigil in Gladsheim. Ranged around Balder’s body, so white that it was gleaming, each of them was prey to his own thoughts and hopes and fears — what chance Hermod had of bringing Balder back from the dead, how to avenge Balder’s death on his own unhappy brother Hod, what kind of punishment would begin to suffice for Loki, and what meaning the death of one must have for them all.
Day began to dawn: a lightening in the east at first mysterious, then quickly gathering speed and spreading in every direction.
Then with aching hearts, four of the gods lifted Balder’s body on to their shoulders, and all the others formed a long cortège. They carried him down to the sea and laid his corpse near Ringhorn, his own great boat with its curved prow.
The gods wanted to build Balder’s pyre in the waist of the boat, up against the mast. They took hold of the stern and tried to launch the boat, but their grief had so exhausted them that they could not summon up the strength to shift it on its rollers.
Then the gods sent a messenger speeding to Jotunheim to ask for the help of the giantess Hyrrokin. A great crowd out of Asgard sat near the water, watching the pulse of the waves. They were pensive and subdued, none of them so strong that he could escape the flux of his own feelings and comfort the others.
In a while Hyrrokin came. She was huge and grim, riding a wolf with vipers for reins. As soon as she leaped off her steed, Odin summoned four Berserks and told them to watch over the wolf (and the vipers) and ensure they caused no harm.
The very sight of the four men in their animal skins angered the wolf; its eyes flickered and it snarled.
The Berserks seised the viper-reins but they were unable to hold the wolf fast. First it dragged them one way, then another, slithering helplessly through the sand, as it tried to break free. Then the Berserks became as mad as wolves themselves and in fury they rained blows on the wolf with their club-like fists. They struck it down and left it for dead in the sand.
Hyrrokin, meanwhile, stalked up to Ringhorn. She looked at the boat, so large and yet so sweeping and graceful, and gripped the prow. Then she dug in her heels and with a horrible grunt she pulled — pulled so hard that Ringhorn raced screaming down the rollers and crashed into the water. The pine rollers burst into flames and the nine worlds trembled.
“Enough!” shouted Thor. His fingers closed round his hammer and he felt his old strength surging back into him.
Hyrrokin looked at Thor scornfully.
“Enough!” repeated Thor. “I’ll teach you respect.”
But Odin and several other gods hurried to Thor’s side and restrained him. They took his arm and reminded him, “she is here at our bidding,”
“I’ll crack her skull,” muttered Thor.
“It would be wrong to injure her,” said the gods. “Leave her. Ignore her.”
And slowly Thor’s volcanic anger subsided inside him. He kicked at the sand, causing a sandstorm, and walked up and down.
Then the four gods who had carried Balder’s body down to the sea gently raised it again and waded out to Ringhorn, rocking on the water. They set down his spotless body on a high bench, covered in crimson cloth.
Balder’s wife, Nanna, was watching. And when she saw Balder lying there lifeless, her body shook; she could not control it. She was tearless, in too much pain for tears now. Then Nanna’s heart broke. The daughter of Nep died there, and she was carried out to Ringhorn and laid beside her dead husband.
The cortège had swollen to a vast gathering. Odin was there; his ravens, Thought and Memory, perched on his shoulders. Frigg accompanied him, and so did the Valkyries: Shaker and Mist, Axe Time and Raging, Warrior and Might, Shrieking, Host Fetter and Screaming, Spear Bearer, Shield Bearer, Wrecker of Plans — all those beautiful maidens, choosers of the slain, stood grouped around the Father of Battle.
Freyr had come to the cremation in his chariot drawn by Guilinbursti, the gold-bristled boar fashioned for him by the dwarfs Brokk and Eitri. Heimdall had ridden out of Asgard on his mount Gold Tuft. And Freyja sat in her chariot drawn by cats.
The elves were there. The dwarfs were there. And hundreds of frost giants and rock giants stood there too, a great gang who had followed Hyrrokin out of Jotunheim. That was a vast concourse, a mingling of mourners and the merely curious on the foreshore, scuffing the strip of sand that never wholly belongs to earth or to sea. The seabirds rose and wheeled and dipped, screaming, the sea sobbed, and everyone there watched the ritual on Ringhorn.
A pyre was built round the body of Balder and his wife Nanna, dry faggots that needed nothing more than a spark to leap into their own life and consume the lifeless bodies that lay upon them, releasing their spirits to travel on.
Then many treasures were laid within Ringhorn — buckles and brooches and rings, clasps and pins — and not only treasures but knives and buckets and scissors and spindles and spades and all the fabric of life.
Balder’s horse, meanwhile, was galloped along the foreshore and worked into a steaming sweat. Then a servant plunged a short dagger into its throat. It gave a violent jerk and, without a sound, crumpled amongst the wrack. No sooner was it dead than its body was hacked up, and the pieces were thrown into Ringhorn.
Now Odin strode through the shallows and gripped the gunwale. He climbed into the boat and stood over the body of his dead son. For some time he gazed at him. Slowly he took off his arm-ring Draupnir, the gold ring that dropped eight rings of equal value on every ninth night, and slipped it on to Balder’s arm. Then Odin bent down and put his mouth to Balder’s ear. Again he gazed at his son; then he left Ringhorn.
At a sign from Odin a servant stepped forward with a lighted brand. He set fire to the pyre and at once a steady plume of smoke, twisting and spiralling, rose into the calm air.
Thor raised his hammer. Slowly and solemnly he intoned the magic words to hallow the cremation.
Then a dwarf called Lit, who had lost all interest in the proceedings, came running along the water’s edge. He passed right in front of Thor and Thor was so enraged that he put out a foot and tripped him. Before Lit had time to pick himself up, Thor gave him a terrible kick. The dwarf flew through the air and landed right on the licking and curdling pyre. In this way, he was burned to death beside Balder.
The painter was released and with it the pent emotions of the mourners. They wept as the boat began to drift out, rocking, across the water. They wept and they talked about Balder—the most beautiful, the most gentle, the most wise of them all.
Ringhorn rode across the water. Sea winds caught at her and tugged her away. First she was more boat than flame, but soon more flame than boat. She was a quivering shape, a farewell on the horizon, moving on under a great cloud of her own making.
– – – – – – – – – – – –
For nine nights Hermod rode through a valley so deep and dark that he was unable to see anything. The ground fell away from him and the cold fingers of the underworld began to reach up towards him and search him. The god crossed many rivers, all of which spring from the seething cauldron of Hvergelmir: cool Svol and defiant Gunnthra. Fjorm and bubbling Fimbulthul, fearsome Slid and storming Hrid, Sylg, Ylg, broad Vid and Leipt which streaked past like lightning. At last Hermod came to the icy river Gjoll, a swirling torrent of water. Sleipnir needed no spurring. He galloped across the bridge there; it was thatched with strips of gold.
On the far side, Hermod was stopped by the maiden Modgud, warden of the bridge. She raised one pale arm and it gleamed with an unearthly pallor. “Before you go further,” she said, “tell me your name and your lineage.”
Hermod kept quiet.
“Five troops of dead men came this way yesterday,” said Modgud. “they rode over this bridge. But you make as much noise as they all made together.”
Still Hermod said nothing.
“I can’t say you look like a man who has died,” said Modgud. “Who are you?”
“I am Hermod,” said the god, “and I am Odin’s son. I must ride to Hel in search of my brother, dead Balder. Have you seen him yourself on his way there?
“He has crossed this river,” Modgud replied. “He rode over this bridge. But the way to Hel is no short way; far as you have come, it is still a little further northwards and downwards.”
Hermod thanked Modgud and she stepped aside. Then Sleipnir saw the way before him: horse and rider galloped onward. So at last Hermod came to the massive gates and towering walls that Hel had set up in front of her hall Eljudnir.
Sleipnir stopped in his tracks and whinnied.
Hermod dismounted and looked around in the dismal light. The gates were locked; impassable, it seemed, for all those not fated to pass beyond on their way to dreadful Nastrond, the shore of corpses. Hermod tightened his stirrups. He swung himself into the saddle and spurred Sleipnir fiercely.
Odin’s steed galloped at the gates. For a moment he seemed to pause, then he gave a great thrust with his back legs and leaped clear of the iron gates.
Hermod boldly took Sleipnir right up to Eljudnir’s doors. There he dismounted once more and walked straight into the cavernous hall. Faces without number turned towards him — the faces of the newly dead, faces green and rotting, faces less flesh than bone; faces pitiful, unanswered, resigned, many scowling or leering or treacherous or murderous and in agony, all of them with eyes only for Hermod.
But Hermod saw only the fair figure sitting in the high seat: his brother Balder.
For Balder’s sake and the sake of the gods, resolute Hermod stayed all night in the hall. He sat by the door and kept his own counsel, silent in that company of the dead who could not speak unless he spoke to them; he waited for Hel to rise from Sick Bed and draw back its hangings, Glimmering Misfortune.
Hel’s face and body were those of a living woman; but her thighs and legs were those of a corpse, mottled and mouldering. She crept towards the god, looking gloomy and grim.
Hermod greeted Hel and told her of the grief of the gods. He said all Asgard was caught in a tearfall and a storm of sorrow. He wove his words with care and love and asked Hel if she would agree to let Balder ride home with him.
Hel thought for a while and her expression did not change. “I’m not so sure,” she said at last, “that Balder is as much loved as people say.”
She waited for Hermod to reply and Hermod said nothing.
“However,” said Hel, it can be put to the test.” She spoke as slowly as Ganglati and Ganglot, her aged servants, moved — so slowly that her words were only like punctuations between her silences. “If everything in the nine worlds, dead and alive, weeps for Balder,” Hel declared, “let him return to Asgard. But if anything demurs, if even one thing will not weep, Balder must remain in Niflheim.” And with these words Hel slowly turned away from Hermod.
Then Balder stood up and Nanna rose from the shades and stood beside him. They walked the length of the hall; they passed between the benches of corpses and Balder’s face was white and shining. Balder and Nanna came up to Hermod and greeted him and led him out of Eljudnir. Then Balder took off the arm-ring Draupnir that Odin had fixed on him when he was lying lifeless on Ringhorn, and he put It into Hermod’s hands. He said, “Give this to my father in remembrance of me.” And Nanna offered Hermod linen for a head-dress and other gifts. “these are for Frigg,” she said. “And this is for Fulla.” She handed Hermod a gold ring.
Hermod took leave of Balder and Nanna. He mounted Sleipnir and rode without rest until he reached Asgard. And there, in Gladsheim, he told the gods and goddesses all he had seen and all that had been said to him.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The Aesir sent out messengers to every corner of the nine worlds. And all that they asked was that dead Balder should be wept out of Hel. As each substance had sworn an oath before that it would not harm Balder, each substance now wept. Fire wept, iron and every other metal wept, the stones wept, earth wept, the trees wept, every kind of illness wept, all the animals wept, all the birds wept, every kind of poisonous plant wept and so did every sidling snake — just as these things weep when they are covered with rime and begin to thaw again.
The gods’ messengers were making their way back to Asgard and they all felt they had overlooked nothing. Then they came across a giantess sitting in a cave.
“What is your name?” asked one.
“Thokk,” said the giantess.
Then the messengers explained their mission and asked Thokk to weep as all things had wept, weep and weep Balder out of Hel.
The giantess glowered at the messengers and then she answered sourly, “Thokk will weep dry tears over Balder’s funeral. I never cared for the Old Man’s son — alive or dead, I have no use for him. Let Hel hold what she has.”
Despite the messengers” prayers and entreaties, Thokk refused to say another word. She would not recant, she would not weep.
Then the messengers left her; they mournfully crossed Bifrost. And they had to say was clear from the manner of their coming.
The gods and goddesses ached; they felt old and confused and unable and weary. And not one of them doubted that Thokk, the giantess in the cave, was also Loki.