BALDR is an important god in Scandinavian mythology. Evidence for the worship of Baldr is limited to a few place-names; the name was not used as a personal name during the Middle Ages. Baldr's story has several parts: his death; an attempt to reverse his death; his funeral; vengeance for his death; and his return after Ragnarǫk (the final battle between the gods and the giants). Of these, only the funeral is recounted in skaldic poetry, although a detail of the vengeance occurs there. In Eddic poetry, Snorri Sturluson's Edda, and the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus the full story emerges, often with quite varying forms.
From the Húsdrápa of Úlfr Uggason, a skaldic ekphrasis of carvings inside a building in western Iceland from circa 985, five stanzas survive dealing with Baldr's funeral. A stanza of Kormákr Ǫgmundarson (Icelandic, tenth century) says that Óðinn used magic on Rindr, a reference to his siring of the avenger Váli.
In Eddic poetry, Baldrs draumar (Baldr's dreams) is wholly about the Baldr story, and the story is important in the Codex Regius version of the poem Vǫluspá, although it is lacking in the Hauksbók version of the poem. Two stanzas of Lokasenna (Loki's quarrel) also refer to the story: Loki, a giant who often helped the gods, takes credit for Baldr's absence.
Baldrs draumar is set in motion by Baldr's bad dreams. Óðinn rides Sleipnir to the realm of Hel and poses four questions to a dead seeress: Who is to die? Answer: Baldr. Who will kill him? Answer: Hǫðr. Who will avenge him? Answer: Óðinn will sire an avenger. The name is missing in the manuscript, but the alliteration requires one in initial V-, presumably Váli. The fourth question is obscure. The seeress does not answer it but states that she now knows her interlocutor to be Óðinn. He in turn says that she is the mother of seven monsters.
The Codex Regius version of Vǫluspá tells of Baldr's "hidden fate," and of the deadly weapon, mistletoe (a motif that has never been satisfactorily explained). Hǫðr kills Baldr and an avenger is soon born. Further stanzas discuss vengeance taken on a figure much like Loki. Much later in the poem, in the description of the aftermath of Ragnarǫk, Baldr and Hǫðr return.
Snorri Sturluson knew Vǫluspá, and his version of the story, though much fuller, also agrees with the bare outline as set forth in Baldrs draumar. Baldr's bad dreams lead Frigg, his mother and Óðinn's consort, to extract oaths from all creatures and matter not to harm him. Thereafter, the gods honor Baldr by casting weapons at his invulnerable body. Loki cannot bearthis, and disguised as a woman he learns from Frigg that mistletoe has not sworn the oath. Loki makes a dart out of mistletoe and helps Hǫðr, here presented as Baldr's blind brother, to throw it at Baldr. Baldr falls dead, and the gods are struck silent. Frigg thereafter dispatches Hermóðr, another son of Óðinn, to Hel to try to get Baldr back. The funeral is held. Hermóðr returns from Hel without Baldr, but with gifts and with a deal: if everything will weep for Baldr, Hel will release him. Everything does weep, except an old giantess in a cave, thought to be Loki. Baldr stays dead until after Ragnarǫk. Loki flees to a mountaintop fastness, where he invents the fishing net. This he burns when he sees the gods approaching, for his plan is to change himself into a salmon. Kvasir recognizes the form of the net in the ashes, and the gods make one and capture Loki. They bind him in a cave, where he will remain bound until Ragnarǫk.
Saxo's version is set in Danish prehistory. Høtherus and Balderus, son of Odin and a demigod, vie to rule Denmark and to marry Nanna, the foster-sister of Høtherus. In the last of a series of battles, Høtherus finally kills Balderus with an ordinary weapon. Othinus learns through prophecy that he can sire an avenger with Rinda, a Rostaphian princess. After failing to win the girl in various guises, he returns dressed as a woman, and when she falls ill he is to treat her. He binds her to her bed and rapes her. The avenger, Bous, kills Høtherus and himself dies a day later. For his shameful acts the gods exile Othinus from Byzantium for almost ten years.
All the sources stress that Baldr is Óðinn's son, that he dies, and that he is avenged. Baldr's return is found only in Vǫluspá and Snorri's Edda. These facts subvert the older interpretations, such as those of James Frazer or Gustav Neckel, of Baldr as a dying god like Baal or Tammuz, one whose regular resurrection is associated with annual cycles of fertility. The emphasis on vengeance makes it clear that Baldr is far more than a Nordic adaptation of Christ (Bugge), and it also weakens Georges Dumézil's proposed parallel from the Mahābhārata, the circumstances surrounding the war between the Paṇḍava and Duryodhana. Jan de Vries argued that the story has to do with initiation into the cult of Óðinn, and he was certainly correct in locating the myth in the realm of Óðinn, although his reading does not take into account all the aspects of the myth. Nor does Margaret Clunies Ross do so in her emphasis on the issue of dynastic succession.
In Vǫluspá and Snorri's Edda, the death of Baldr leads directly to Ragnarǫk, and even in Saxo there is a sea battle in which Høtherus defeats all the gods, although it occurs before Baldr's death. Given the emphasis in Vǫluspá' s description of Ragnarǫk as a time when brother kills brother, murderers are about, and oaths are broken, Baldr's death can easily be read in that poem as the beginning of Ragnarǫk. Baldr's is the first death of a god, and since the cosmos was created with the body of a murdered giant, this killing upsets the usual order of the mythology. The hierarchical superiority of the gods over the giants ends, and the two groups destroy each other. The ensuing world order brings peace, and Baldr and Hǫðr are reunited.
In the Scandinavian context, the accounts that make Baldr and Hǫðr brothers indicate a flaw in the system of blood feud (Lindow, 1997), for when Óðinn sires an avenger, the vengeance he takes still leaves Óðinn with an unavenged son, now Hǫðr. A killing within a family poses an insurmountable problem in such a system, and since the gods created the cosmos by killing a maternal relative, this problem was present from the beginning. The gods' solution was to deny maternal kinship relations, but that denial ultimately fails. So too does Óðinn's attempt to counter Loki's giant patrimony by swearing blood brotherhood with him. Only myth can resolve this problem, and it does so by reuniting Baldr and Hǫðr in a new world order after Ragnarǫk.
Bugge, Sophus. Studien über die Entstehung der nordischen Götter- und Heldensagen. Translated by Oscar Brenner. Munich, 1889. Argues influence of the Christ story.
Clunies Ross, Margaret. Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Icelandic Society, vol. 1, The Myths. Odense, Denmark, 1994. Discusses the problem of the slaying within a family; the dynastic implications.
Dumézil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Berkeley, Calif.,1973. Adduces Indo-European analogues.
Frazer, James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, part 7, Balder the Beautiful. 2 vols. 3d ed. New York, 1990. Famous study seeking association with annual rituals of invigoration.
Lindow, John. Murder and Vengeance among the Gods: Baldr in Scandinavian Mythology. Helsinki, 1997. Analyzes the problem of slaying within a family in the context of a society that uses blood feud to resolve disputes.
Neckel, Gustav. Die Überlieferungen vom Gotte Balder. Dortmund, Germany, 1920. Argues connection with the Middle Eastern dying gods.
Vries, Jan de. "Der Mythos von Balders Tod." Arkiv för nordisk filologi 70 (1955): 41–60. Argues a ritual association with the cult of Óðinn and a mythological association with the introduction of death.
John Lindow (2005)