By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
The oldest tradition that survives about the gods taking vengeance for Balder’s death has nothing to do with Loki. None of the Icelandic sources elaborate on this part of the story. Yet, there’s a medieval Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus who gives some detail as part of his 2,000-year history of mythical and historical Denmark, giving an account differing from Snorri’s version.
Saxo and Snorri
Saxo Grammaticus and Snorri were working at nearly the same time, with Saxo completing his History of the Danes by about 1208 and Snorri writing the Prose Edda in the 1220s. There is no indication that they knew each other or of each other, though Snorri certainly had many contacts in Norway, and so did Saxo.
The two medieval writers ultimately drew on some of the same older traditions, although with enough differences to suggest that even very important myths took on different features in the more than a thousand miles that separate Denmark from Iceland.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Vali’s Vow to Avenge Balder’s Death
Snorri’s Prose Edda, and allusions in a few poems of the Poetic Edda, say only that Odin slept with Rind sometime soon after Balder’s death.
They indicate that she soon gave birth to a son named Vali. And the ‘dream logic’ reaches a fever pitch as Vali, when only one night old, swears that he would never wash his hands nor comb his hair until he has killed the murderer of Balder.
But the murderer of Balder that Vali targeted was not Loki—it was Balder’s blind brother Hoth.
Now this offends many modern sensibilities, who see Loki as clearly the culpable actor in Balder’s death as he tricked Hoth into committing the fratricide. And it’s possible that, in spite of a somewhat differently skewed values system, the Norse audience themselves saw it that way, too.
But Saxo might remember some old details in his version of the story that Snorri had forgotten.
The story of Odin’s courtship of Rind is elaborated only in the work of Saxo. In Saxo’s telling, many of the details in the death of Balder are also different. Most fundamentally, Saxo does not tell the story as the story of gods. Instead, Saxo presents it as a story of ancient human beings.
In Saxo’s pseudo-historical telling, Balder and Hoth are not brothers, and Hoth is not blind. And while Balder is the son of Odin, and Odin’s family has certain great powers that Saxo can’t quite help but call divine, Saxo insists that at root they are really just humans who persuaded other, more gullible humans to worship them.
Saxo’s Balder and Hoth
So, according to Saxo, Balder and Hoth were rivals who had both fallen in love with the unmarried and quite human woman Nanna (unlike in the Icelandic version in the Eddas, where she is a goddess and already the wife of the god Balder).
In Saxo’s telling, on one occasion, Hoth went hunting in the forest nearby and encountered Valkyries who knew who he was. Their message to him was somewhat anticlimactic, as they simply warned him not to fight with Balder.
Hoth then went on to propose to Nanna’s father who told him that he was unwilling to incur the wrath of the powerful Balder and his mighty family. Nanna’s father even spoke in shuddering tones of Balder’s immunity to all kinds of weapons.
Saxo never gives an explanation of why Balder is invulnerable to all weapons, never mentioning that crucial aspect of Snorri’s Icelandic story.
Nanna’s father does add, however, that there is one single thing that Balder is vulnerable to, but it is not mistletoe as according to Snorri’s version. Instead, his one single vulnerability in the Danish version is one particular sword.
This sword is kept in the cave of what Saxo in his Latin text calls a ‘satyr’, so in the original language perhaps a dwarf or an anti-god.
Hoth went out and found the ‘satyr’, and speared him, non-fatally, then chained him up and demanded the sword. He then returned home with the sword in his hand and Balder’s blood on his mind.
Hoth now launched a war against Balder and his people (who Saxo refers to as ‘so-called’ gods, since he is a pious medieval Christian). Thor was the great fighter of the gods and terrorized Hoth’s army with great swings of his weapon (which Saxo says is a club rather than a hammer).
However, Hoth managed to use his special new sword to cut the club in half, and after that the Aesir retreated and Hoth declared a tentative victory. Curiously, Saxo takes care to mention that Hoth threw a magnificent funeral on a pyre of burning ships for a comrade who fell in this battle, somewhat similar to Snorri’s version.
Hoth meets Balder again in another battle, but the details are not that clear in Saxo’s text, thanks to the vagaries of preservation. When we pick it back up again at a later point, Hoth had already met Balder face to face and stabbed him to death with the sword.
Common Questions about the Differing Accounts of Balder’s Death
Saxo Grammaticus and Snorri were working at nearly the same time, with Saxo completing his History of the Danes by about 1208 and Snorri writing the Prose Edda in the 1220s.
When Hoth then went to propose to Nanna’s father, he told him that he was unwilling to incur the wrath of the powerful Balder and his mighty family.
The one thing that Balder was vulnerable to was a particular sword.