By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
Odin had a son named Balder, a god so beloved that his shocking death is one of the principal stories of the Eddas. Snorri rhapsodizes about Balder’s physical beauty in his Prose Edda. But the story of his death is the only known story in which Balder figures, and there without Balder even having so much as a speaking part.
The Old Norse name Balder is probably related to ancient words for ‘brightness’ and ‘light’. If so, the god is certainly appropriately named, as in life he’s chiefly famous for being so beautiful and bright that Snorri says the brightest kind of flower is named ‘Balder’s eyelash’.
Even before his death, Balder was seized with terrible dreams about losing his life. Odin was so disturbed that when he heard Balder tell of these dreams, he rose straight out of his hall, saddled his horse Sleipnir, and rode down to Hel, the realm of the dead.
The poem in which this is told is called simply Baldrs draumar, or Balder’s Dreams, though it concerns Odin’s reaction to those dreams rather than Balder as the dreamer.
Odin rode the long, dark way, till he saw the high hall of Hel before him. But instead of riding right up to the gate, he steered east of the hall, where he knew that a particular volva, or seeress, was buried.
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Volva Gives Answers
Speaking his spells for raising the dead, he animated volva’s corpse, and she lurched up and spoke with him.
Odin asked her why the hall of Hel was prepared for a grand banquet. Whose arrival would be celebrated with the mead that had been freshly brewed? Why were the benches inside draped with straw for the comfort of the banqueters?
It is for Balder’s imminent arrival in the realm of the dead, she tells him.
Odin enquires who will kill him. Volva replies that his other son, Hoth, will kill Balder with a spear.
Avenging Balder’s Death
When asked who will avenge Balder, she replied that it would be his other son, Vali, along with a woman named Rind.
Furthermore, she added, Vali would avenge Balder when he is only one night old. He will neither comb his hair nor wash his hands till he puts Balder’s killer on the funeral pyre.
She ends by saying that, “I was forced to speak, now I return to silence”.
This wasn’t the volva’s only attempt to end the conversation before Odin had heard everything he had come for, and he retorted, “Don’t go silent, volva!” But she refused to answer further questions.
And, as Odin rode away back to the living in his home realm, she taunted him:
Ride home, Odin! Feel triumphant, for now.
But you will come
for a second visit
when Loki breaks free
from his chains,
comes to end everything.
In other words, Odin would come back, on the maybe not-so-soon, but nonetheless foreseeable, occasion of his own inevitable demise.
Frigg’s Travels to Protect Balder
In response to Balder’s dreams, his father Odin traveled to the underworld. But Balder’s mother Frigg traveled everywhere else, in a memorable story related in most detail in Snorri’s Prose Edda.
Because Balder was so beloved, Frigg went through all the realms and made every single thing swear never to harm Balder. She got willing oaths to that effect from fire, water, iron, every kind of stone, the earth itself, every tree, every sickness, every poison, and every animal, bird, and serpent.
And after she had assured herself that every possible means of death that might occur to a Norse imagination had promised not to cause Balder’s death, Frigg returned home.
The Aesir gods were joyful that Balder had become impervious to all these attacks. Naturally, they expressed this joy by throwing things at him, or shooting him with arrows, or striking him with axes and swords, since nothing hurt him.
An Unhappy Loki
Loki disliked this, though not for any stated reason. He used his shape-changing powers to take on himself the appearance of one of Frigg’s serving women, and went to Frigg.
Loki asked Frigg whether every single thing really had sworn an oath not to harm Balder. All things but one, replied Frigg—she had not asked the mistletoe, because she thought it was too young to ask to swear an oath.
Loki went straight to where Frigg told him the mistletoe grew—west of Valhalla—and plucked some up and brought it to Balder’s blind brother Hoth, who didn’t get to play in any of the Aesir games—such as ‘Throw things at Balder’—on account of being blind.
Loki Tricks an Unassuming Hoth
Loki asked his mark, Hoth, why he wasn’t playing ‘Throw Things at Balder’. Hoth replied:
“Because I’m blind and I can’t see where he is, and more than that, I have no weapon to throw.”
“Do like the others do, Hoth, and give Balder some honor. Here, I’ll put this stick in your hand, and I’ll guide your arm so you know where to throw it.”
Hoth took up the stick and, with Loki guiding his hand, threw it at Balder, who fell down dead.
Common Questions about Hoth and the Death of Balder
The old Norse name Balder is probably related to ancient words for ‘brightness’ and ‘light’.
According to volva, Odin’s other son, Vali, along with a woman named Rind, would avenge Balder‘s death.
Loki went to Frigg to confirm if every single thing really had sworn an oath not to harm Balder.