The Prose Edda, the Poetic Edda
Son of Odin and Frigg
In Norse mythology , Balder (pronounced BAWL-der) was the son of Odin (pronounced OH-din), the supreme Norse deity, and of Frigg (pronounced FRIG), goddess of marriage and motherhood. Balder was the most beautiful of the gods and the one most beloved by Odin.
As a youth, Balder led a happy life and eventually married Nanna. Soon, however, Balder began to suffer from terrible dreams that threatened death. Fearing for his safety, Frigg asked everything in creation, including animals, birds, stones, wood, and metal, to promise not to hurt Balder. There was only one thing she did not ask to make such a promise: the mistletoe plant. Frigg thought that the mistletoe was too young to take an oath.
After everyone and everything had taken Frigg's oath, the gods amused themselves by throwing things at Balder because they knew nothing could harm him. However, the evil god Loki (pronounced LOH-kee) decided to find a way to hurt Balder. Loki transformed himself into an old woman and went to visit Frigg. The old woman asked if it was true that all things had taken an oath not to hurt Balder. Frigg admitted that she had not asked the mistletoe to take the oath. Loki then went to the place where the mistletoe grew and took a twig from it.
Next, Loki approached Balder's blind brother Hod (pronounced HAWTH) and asked why he was not throwing things at Balder like everyone else. Hod replied that he could not see Balder, and besides, he had nothing to throw. Loki then handed Höd a dart he had made from the mistletoe and offered to guide Hod's hand as he threw it. The dart struck Balder, killing him instantly. The gods were shocked and confused. Frigg begged someone to go to the underworld , or land of the dead, and pay a ransom to bring back her son.
Hermodr, another of Odin's sons, volunteered to recover Balder. Hermodr journeyed to the underworld where he found Hel , the goddess of death. She told Hermodr that if everything under heaven shed a tear for Balder, she would allow him to return; however, if even one thing, living or dead, spoke against Balder or refused to weep for him, he would have to remain in the underworld. The gods sent messengers to every part of world to ask everything to weep for Balder. They thought they had succeeded until they found an old hag named Thökk sitting in a cave. They asked her to weep for Balder, but she refused. Most accounts suggest that Thökk was none other than Loki, the trickster god, in disguise. Frigg eventually recovered Balder.
Balder in Context
The Poetic Edda, also called the Elder Edda, is a collection of ancient poems known mostly from the discovery of a single manuscript, the Codex Regius. Although the manuscript is believed to have been written in the thirteenth century CE, many of the poems may have existed for centuries before that.
The Prose Edda, also called the Younger Edda, was written in the thirteenth century CE by an Icelandic academic named Snorri Sturluson. The author based much of his work on the poems of the Elder Edda. The stories and poems of the two Eddas relate the most popular and important tales of Norse mythology, including stories featuring Balder. They remain the best sources of information regarding Norse myths.
The myth of Balder and the deadly mistletoe may be seen as a way of communicating the poisonous nature of mistletoe among the Norse people. Unlike the berries of many other plants, the raw berries from mistletoe are highly toxic, and can cause vomiting, seizures, and cardiac arrest.
Key Themes and Symbols
In Norse mythology, Balder is seen as a symbol of innocence, purity, and beauty. According to legend, the tears Frigg shed after Balder's death became the berries on the mistletoe plant. The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe commemorates Frigg's joy upon recovering Balder from the dead, and the plant has become a symbol of love. The link between mistletoe and love gave rise to the tradition of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe during the winter holiday season.
Balder in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
In early mythological texts, Balder was often shown at or just before his moment of death by mistletoe. In more recent times, Balder is not as popular in art or literature as other Norse gods such as Odin and Thor. Balder has appeared as a superhero in several Marvel Comics series since 1964. The comic book character shares many traits with the Norse deity, including his vulnerability to mistletoe. The Baldur's Gate video game series, created by BioWare in 1998, is set in a fantasy world that references Norse mythology. In northern Europe, one species of mayweed, a flowering plant in the sunflower family, is known as Balder's brow. It is so called because its bright white flowers are said to match Balder's light complexion.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
In some ways, the story of Balder is similar to the story of Achilles from Greek myth. Compare the two. How did each become almost invincible? How did the other gods play a part in the downfall of Balder and Achilles? Are their personalities similar or different? How is this reflected in each myth?