When the Aesir gods came to their senses after Balder’s death, Frigg asked whether anyone in Asgard would be willing to receive all her love and favor in return for riding to Hel—and asking whether Hel would release Balder back to them. Hermoth, a warrior from Valhalla, volunteered. Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir was brought forward and saddled for Hermoth, and he rode off on the road to Hel.
Balder’s Funeral and Help from an Anti-goddess
Since, Hermoth’s journey would take a long time, the gods prepared Balder’s funeral. They decided to cremate his body at sea on his great ship. Unfortunately, it was so massive that none of the Aesir gods could move or unmoor it.
Hence, they sent messengers into the homes of the anti-gods. And one did come: an anti-goddess riding a wolf and using snakes for reins.
She used her superior strength to launch the ship. It is important to note that the anti-gods are often represented as stronger than the gods.
When this anti-goddess arrived, Odin assigned four of his berserkers to watch her riding-wolf, but the animal escaped their control and they had to kill it.
Sadly, all the gods present did not welcome this help from one of their enemies. Balder’s half-brother, Thor, nearly broke her head with his hammer, but all the other gods persuaded him to hold back.
Balder’s Wife’s Death
Once the ship was launched, with fire and earthquakes to mark its passage to the water, Balder’s body was placed upon it. When Balder’s wife, Nanna, saw his body, she fell dead from her grief, and her body was placed next to his.
Some view Nanna’s death as an echo of an ancient rite wherein women might have been expected to sacrifice themselves at their husband’s funerals (similar to the rite of sati in India).
There is no direct confirmation for this, but a Norse funeral witnessed by an Arab traveler has echoes of such a practice.
Odin’s Whisper to Balder
Odin himself now mounted up onto the ship and whispered something into Balder’s ear. Whatever the dead Balder heard his father whisper, no one would ever know.
Odin will later use the question “What did Odin whisper in Balder’s ear on the funeral pyre?” on two occasions to win contests of wisdom—once against an anti-god, and once against a human king in The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek.
Next, the ship was set on fire, and Thor stood by with his hammer to bless the blaze. The verb used for ‘bless’ is the same used on rune stones that call on Thor to bless the dead, so it may be that Thor had an established role as a guardian of the dead in their passage to the afterlife.
Unfortunately, Thor’s temper was still up, and as he blessed the fire, a dwarf ran in front of his feet. Thor was so vexed that he kicked the dwarf into the flames, thereby adding a third body to the ship-borne funeral pyre. It was a hot one. A fourth body was added when Balder’s horse was saddled up and led into the conflagration.
And Odin laid his dwarf-forged ring Draupnir, which makes eight copies of itself every ninth night, into the flames as well.
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Meanwhile, the hopes of getting Balder back rested on Hermoth, who was riding to Hel. Did he need to complete this mission before Balder’s body was burned? Apparently not.
Given the physicality of the Norse afterlife, it’s possible that the funeral pyre would, in fact, need to precede Hermoth meeting Balder in Hel. That is, only after Balder’s body is burned to ash by the Aesir in Asgard would Balder travel to the afterlife realm of Hel.
Hermoth rode for nine nights through deep, dark valleys on his way from Asgard to Hel, before he saw the golden bridge over the river Gjoll into Hel.
The woman who guarded the bridge told him that the day before, five armies of dead warriors had ridden over the bridge into Hel—but that the bridge resounded no less under Hermoth riding alone.
And yet, she said, Hermoth didn’t have the color of a dead man. Why would he be riding alone into Hel? He told her he had come to look for Balder, and asked the woman if she had seen him. Yes, she said, and the road to Hel lay northwards and downwards from there.
Interestingly, this expression ‘go north and down’ remains in today’s Scandinavian languages as a not-so-indirect equivalent of saying ‘go to Hell’.
The Realm of the Dead
When Hermoth reached the gates of Hel, he dismounted Sleipnir briefly, fastened down all his tack as tight as he could, and then mounted back up and spurred the eight-legged horse over the gate.
In Hel, Hermoth found Balder sitting in Queen Hel’s own hall, in the seat of honor. Hermoth now stayed in the realm of the dead for a night’s rest, before getting up in the morning to make his plea that Hel release the most beloved of all gods.
Queen Hel’s Condition
But Hel responded that she needed proof of how beloved Balder really was. If not only all the Aesir but everyone else living, and everyone dead, and every thing would weep for Balder—then, she would let him go home.
In other words, if Balder leaving the living was such a crying shame—let everyone prove it by crying.
Thus, with her stipulation agreed to, Hermoth stood up from Hel’s table to make the long ride back to Asgard.
Common Questions about Balder’s Funeral and Journey to Hel
The gods decided to cremate Balder’s body at sea on his great ship.
As Thor blessed Balder’s pyre, a dwarf ran in front of his feet. Thor was so vexed that he kicked the dwarf into the flames, thereby adding a third body to the ship-borne funeral pyre.
Hel responded that not only all the Aesir, but everyone else living, and everyone dead, and every thing must weep for Balder and only then she would let him go home.