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THE DEATH OF BALDER
HERE was one shadow which always fell over Asgard.
Sometimes in the long years the gods almost forgot it, it
lay so far off, like a dim cloud in a clear sky; but Odin
saw it deepen and widen as he looked out into the universe,
and he knew that the last great battle would surely come,
when the gods themselves would be destroyed and a long
twilight would rest on all the worlds; and now the day was
close at hand. Misfortunes never come singly to men, and
they did not to the gods. Idun, the beautiful goddess of
youth, whose apples were the joy of all
 Asgard, made a
resting place for herself among the massive branches of
Ygdrasil, and there every evening came Brage, and sang so
sweetly that the birds stopped to listen, and even the
Norns, those implacable sisters at the foot of the tree,
were softened by the melody. But poetry cannot change the
purpose of fate, and one evening no song was heard of Brage
or the birds, the leaves of the world-tree hung withered and
lifeless on the branches, and the fountain from which they
had daily been sprinkled was dry at last. Idun had fallen
into the dark valley of death, and when Brage, Heimdal, and
Loke went to question her about the future she could answer
them only with tears. Brage would not leave his beautiful
wife alone amid the dim shades that crowded the dreary
valley, and so
 youth and genius vanished out of Asgard
Balder was the most god-like of all the gods, because he was
the purest and the best. Wherever he went his coming was
like the coming of sunshine, and all the beauty of summer
was but the shining of his face. When men's hearts were
white like the light, and their lives clear as the day, it
was because Balder was looking down upon them with those
soft, clear eyes that were open windows to the soul of God.
He had always lived in such a glow of brightness that no
darkness had ever touched him; but one morning, after Idun
and Brage had gone, Balder's face was sad and troubled. He
walked slowly from room to room in his palace Breidablik,
stainless as the sky when April showers have swept
 across it
because no impure thing had ever crossed the threshold, and
his eyes were heavy with sorrow. In the night terrible
dreams had broken his sleep, and made it a long torture. The
air seemed to be full of awful changes for him, and for all
the gods. He knew in his soul that the shadow of the last
great day was sweeping on; as he looked out and saw the
worlds lying in light and beauty, the fields yellow with
waving grain, the deep fiords flashing back the sunbeams
from their clear depths, the verdure clothing the loftiest
mountains, and knew that over all this darkness and
desolation would come, with silence of reapers and birds,
with fading of leaf and flower, a great sorrow fell on his
Balder could bear the burden no longer. He went out, called
 gods together, and told them the terrible dreams of
the night. Every face was heavy with care. The death of
Balder would be like the going out of the sun, and after a
long, sad council the gods resolved to protect him from harm
by pledging all things to stand between him and any hurt. So
Frigg, his mother, went forth and made everything promise,
on a solemn oath, not to injure her son. Fire, iron, all
kinds of metal, every sort of stone, trees, earth, diseases,
birds, beasts, snakes, as the anxious mother went to them,
solemnly pledged themselves that no harm should come near
Balder. Everything promised, and Frigg thought she had
driven away the cloud; but fate was stronger than her love,
and one little shrub had not sworn.
 Odin was not satisfied even with these precautions, for
whichever way he looked the shadow of a great sorrow spread
over the worlds. He began to feel as if he were no longer
the greatest of the gods, and he could almost hear the rough
shouts of the frost-giants crowding the rainbow bridge on
their way into Asgard. When trouble comes to men it is hard
to bear, but to a god who had so many worlds to guide and
rule it was a new and terrible thing. Odin thought and
thought until he was weary, but no gleam of light could he
find anywhere; it was thick darkness everywhere.
At last he could bear the suspense no longer, and saddling
his horse he rode sadly out of Asgard to Niflheim, the home
of Hel, whose face was as the face of death itself. As
 he drew near the gates, a monstrous dog came out and barked
furiously, but Odin rode a little eastward of the shadowy
gates to the grave of a wonderful prophetess. It was a cold,
gloomy place, and the soul of the great god was pierced with
a feeling of hopeless sorrow as he dismounted from Sleipner,
and bending over the grave began to chant weird songs, and
weave magical charms over it. When he had spoken those
wonderful words which could waken the dead from their sleep,
there was an awful silence for a moment, and then a faint
ghost-like voice came from the grave.
"Who art thou?" it said. "Who breaketh the silence of death,
and calleth the sleeper out of her long slumbers? Ages ago I
was laid at rest here, snow and rain have fallen
 upon me
through myriad years; why dost thou disturb me?"
"I am Vegtam," answered Odin, "and I come to ask why the
couches of Hel are hung with gold and the benches strewn
with shining rings?"
"It is done for Balder," answered the awful voice; "ask me
Odin's heart sank when he heard these words; but he was
determined to know the worst.
"I will ask thee until I know all. Who shall strike the
"If I must, I must," moaned the prophetess. "Hoder shall
smite his brother Balder and send him down to the dark home
of Hel. The mead is already brewed for Balder, and the
despair draweth near."
Then Odin, looking into the
 future across the open grave,
saw all the days to come.
"Who is this," he said, seeing that which no mortal could
have seen,—"who is this that will not weep for Balder?"
Then the prophetess knew that it was none other than the
greatest of the gods who had called her up.
"Thou art not Vegtam," she exclaimed, "thou art Odin
himself, the king of men."
"And thou," answered Odin angrily, "art no prophetess, but
the mother of three giants."
"Ride home, then, and exult in what thou hast discovered,"
said the dead woman. "Never shall my slumbers be broken
again until Loke shall burst his chains and the great battle
And Odin rode sadly homeward
 knowing that already Niflheim
was making itself beautiful against the coming of Balder.
The other gods meanwhile had become merry again; for had not
everything promised to protect their beloved Balder? They
even made sport of that which troubled them, for when they
found that nothing could hurt Balder, and that all things
glanced aside from his shining form, they persuaded him to
stand as a target for their weapons; hurling darts, spears,
swords, and battle-axes at him, all of which went singing
through the air and fell harmless at his feet. But Loke,
when he saw these sports, was jealous of Balder, and went
about thinking how he could destroy him.
It happened that as Frigg sat spinning in her house Fensal,
 soft wind blowing in at the windows and bringing the
merry shouts of the gods at play, an old woman entered and
"Do you know," asked the newcomer, "what they are doing in
Asgard? They are throwing all manner of dangerous weapons at
Balder. He stands there like the sun for brightness, and
against his glory, spears and battle-axes fall powerless to
the ground. Nothing can harm him."
"No," answered Frigg joyfully; "nothing can bring him any
hurt, for I have made everything in heaven and earth swear
to protect him."
"What!" said the old woman, "has everything sworn to guard
"Yes," said Frigg, "everything has sworn except one little
shrub which is called Mistletoe, and grows
 on the eastern
side of Valhal. I did not take an oath from that because I
thought it too young and weak."
When the old woman heard this a strange light came into her
eyes; she walked off much faster than she had come in, and
no sooner had she passed beyond Frigg's sight than this same
feeble old woman grew suddenly erect, shook off her woman's
garments, and there stood Loke himself. In a moment he had
reached the slope east of Valhal, had plucked a twig of the
unsworn Mistletoe, and was back in the circle of the gods,
who were still at their favourite pastime with Balder. Hoder
was standing silent and alone outside the noisy throng, for
he was blind. Loke touched him.
"Why do you not throw something at Balder?"
"Because I cannot see where
Bal-  der stands, and have nothing
to throw if I could," replied Hoder.
"If that is all," said Loke, "come with me. I will give you
something to throw, and direct your aim."
Hoder, thinking no evil, went with Loke and did as he was
The little sprig of Mistletoe shot through the air, pierced
the heart of Balder, and in a moment the beautiful god lay
dead upon the field. A shadow rose out of the deep beyond
the worlds and spread itself over heaven and earth, for the
light of the universe had gone out.
The little spring of Mistletoe pierced the heart of Balder
The gods could not speak for horror. They stood like statues
for a moment, and then a hopeless wail burst from their
lips. Tears fell like rain from eyes that had never wept
before, for Balder, the joy of Asgard, had gone to Niflheim
and left them
 desolate. But Odin was saddest of all, because
he knew the future, and he knew that peace and light had
fled from Asgard forever, and that the last day and the long
night were hurrying on.
Frigg could not give up her beautiful son, and when her
grief had spent itself a little, she asked who would go to
Hel and offer her a rich ransom if she would permit Balder
to return to Asgard.
"I will go," said Hermod; swift at the word of Odin Sleipner
was led forth, and in an instant Hermod was galloping
Then the gods began with sorrowful hearts to make ready for
Balder 's funeral. When the once beautiful form had been
arrayed in grave-clothes they carried it reverently down to
the deep sea, which lay, calm as a summer
 afternoon, waiting
for its precious burden. Close to the water's edge lay
Balder's Ringhorn, the greatest of all the ships that sailed
the seas, but when the gods tried to launch it they could
not move it an inch. The great vessel creaked and groaned,
but no one could push it down to the water. Odin walked
about it with a sad face, and the gentle ripple of the
little waves chasing each other over the rocks seemed a
mocking laugh to him.
"Send to Jotunheim for Hyrroken," he said at last; and a
messenger was soon flying for that mighty giantess.
In a little time, Hyrroken came riding swiftly on a wolf so
large and fierce that he made the gods think of Fenrer. When
the giantess had alighted, Odin ordered four Berserkers
mighty strength to hold the wolf, but he struggled so
angrily that they had to throw him on the ground before they
could control him. Then Hyrroken went to the prow of the
ship and with one mighty effort sent it far into the sea,
the rollers underneath bursting into flame, and the whole
earth trembling with the shock. Thor was so angry at the
uproar that he would have killed the giantess on the spot if
he had not been held back by the other gods. The great ship
floated on the sea as she had often done before, when
Balder, full of life and beauty, set all her sails and was
borne joyfully across the tossing seas. Slowly and solemnly
the dead god was carried on board, and as Nanna, his
faithful wife, saw her husband borne for the last time from
the earth which he had made dear to her and
 beautiful to all
men, her heart broke with sorrow, and they laid her beside
Balder on the funeral pyre.
Since the world began no one had seen such a funeral. No
bells tolled, no long procession of mourners moved across
the hills, but all the worlds lay under a deep shadow, and
from every quarter came those who had loved or feared
Balder. There at the very water's edge stood Odin himself,
the ravens flying about his head, and on his majestic face a
gloom that no sun would ever lighten again; and there was
Frigg, the desolate mother, whose son had already gone so
far that he would never come back to her; there was Frey
standing sad and stern in his chariot; there was Freyja, the
goddess of love, from whose eyes fell a shining rain of
tears; there, too, was Heimdal on his horse Goldtop;
around all these glorious ones from Asgard crowded the
children of Jotunheim, grim mountain-giants seamed with
scars from Thor's hammer, and frost-giants who saw in the
death of Balder the coming of that long winter in which they
should reign through all the worlds.
A deep hush fell on all created things, and every eye was
fixed on the great ship riding near the shore, and on the
funeral pyre rising from the deck crowned with the forms of
Balder and Nanna. Suddenly a gleam of light flashed over the
water; the pile had been kindled, and the flames, creeping
slowly at first, climbed faster and faster until they met
over the dead and rose skyward. A lurid light filled the
heavens and shone on the sea, and in the brightness of it
the gods looked pale and sad, and
 the circle of giants grew
darker and more portentous. Thor struck the fast burning
pyre with his consecrating hammer, and Odin cast into it the
wonderful ring Draupner. Higher and higher leaped the
flames, more and more desolate grew the scene; at last they
began to sink, the funeral pyre was consumed. Balder had
vanished forever, the summer was ended, and winter waited at
Meanwhile Hermod was riding hard and fast on his gloomy
errand. Nine days and nights he rode through valleys so deep
and dark that he could not see his horse. Stillness and
blackness and solitude were his only companions until he
came to the golden bridge which crosses the river Gjol. The
good horse Sleipner, who had carried Odin on so many strange
journeys, had never travelled such a
 road before, and his
hoofs rang drearily as he stopped short at the bridge, for
in front of him stood its porter, the gigantic Modgud.
"Who are you?" she asked, fixing her piercing eyes on
Hermod. "What is your name and parentage? Yesterday five
bands of dead men rode across the bridge, and beneath them
all it did not shake as under your single tread. There is no
colour of death in your face. Why ride you hither, the
living among the dead?"
"I come," said Hermod, "to seek for Balder. Have you seen
him pass this way?"
"He has already crossed the bridge and taken his journey
northward to Hel."
Then Hermod rode slowly across the bridge that spans the
be-  tween life and death, and found his way at last to
the barred gates of Hel's dreadful home. There he sprang to
the ground, tightened the girths, remounted, drove the spurs
deep into the horse, and Sleipner, with a mighty leap,
cleared the wall. Hermod rode straight to the gloomy palace,
dismounted, entered, and in a moment was face to face with
the terrible queen of the kingdom of the dead. Beside her,
on a beautiful throne, sat Balder, pale and wan, crowned
with a withered wreath of flowers, and close at hand was
Nanna, pallid as her husband, for whom she had died. And all
night long, while ghostly forms wandered restless and
sleepless through Helheim, Hermod talked with Balder and
Nanna. There is no record of what they said, but the talk
was sad enough, doubtless,
 and ran like a still stream among
the happy days in Asgard when Balder's smile was morning
over the earth and the sight of his face the summer of the
When the morning came, faint and dim, through the dusky
palace, Hermod sought Hel, who received him as cold and
stern as fate.
"Your kingdom is full, O Hel!" he said, "and without Balder,
Asgard is empty. Send him back to us once more, for there is
sadness in every heart and tears are in every eye. Through
heaven and earth all things weep for him."
"If that is true," was the slow, icy answer, "if every
created thing weeps for Balder, he shall return to Asgard;
but if one eye is dry he remains henceforth in Helheim."
Then Hermod rode swiftly away,
 and the decree of Hel was
soon told in Asgard. Through all the worlds the gods sent
messengers to say that all who loved Balder should weep for
his return, and everywhere tears fell like rain. There was
weeping in Asgard, and in all the earth there was nothing
that did not weep. Men and women and little children,
missing the light that had once fallen into their hearts and
homes, sobbed with bitter grief; the birds of the air, who
had sung carols of joy at the gates of the morning since
time began, were full of sorrow; the beasts of the fields
crouched and moaned in their desolation; the great trees,
that had put on their robes of green at Balder's command,
sighed as the wind wailed through them; and the sweet
flowers, that waited for Balder's footstep and sprang up in
all the fields to greet
 him, hung their frail blossoms and
wept bitterly for the love and the warmth and the light that
had gone out. Throughout the whole earth there was nothing
but weeping, and the sound of it was like the wailing of
those storms in autumn that weep for the dead summer as its
withered leaves drop one by one from the trees.
The messengers of the gods went gladly back to Asgard, for
everything had wept for Balder; but as they journeyed they
came upon a giantess, called Thok, and her eyes were dry.
"Weep for Balder," they said.
"With dry eyes only will I weep for Balder," she answered.
"Dead or alive, he never gave me gladness. Let him stay in
When she had spoken these words
 a terrible laugh broke from
her lips, and the messengers looked at each other with
pallid faces, for they knew it was the voice of Loke.
Balder never came back to Asgard, and the shadows deepened
over all things, for the night of death was fast coming on.